May 20, 2006

Anniversary Toast

Img_4092Cheers! Today is the first anniversary of my blog, Toast.

Few projects in my life have been as entirely entertaining and rewarding. Thanks to those of you who read Toast, and those who take time to comment; you make me grateful and happy, and frankly, surprised. I truly never imagined that anyone would notice.

I'm particularly grateful to my delightful daughter, redfox of the hungry tiger, who showed me how. It was her excellent food blog that first filled me with envy (and still does). She and S., were very patient with me, explaining basic html, and many other things, while I learned just enough to carry on.

To celebrate, I have opened a bottle of dessert wine I've been hoarding, and I bought "a gift for my blog." (I approve of the practice which has developed in some quarters, where presents are purchased by the blogger, for the blog. I do not care one whit if it is excessively cute. )

First, the gift: I bought several baby rose geranium plants, which, as you can see, I am in the process of adding to my little porch-and-steps garden, among the herb plants. This purchase was inspired by Shuna's praise of these lovelies for their subtle, sweet enchancing flavors and my increasing curiosity about cooking with flowers. I am growing some other unusual (entirely legal) items in this tiny "garden", about which, more later.

And for you, my friends, a selection of 12 Toast Posts from Year I, one from each month:


May 28, 2005: Tea and Toast Part III: Toast


June 4, 2005: Potage St. Germaine with Pea Greens and Chives


July 7, 2005: The Hunt for Chinese Chews 1957


August 13, 2005: The Other Egg Salad


September 28, 2005:Green tomato finale


October 30, 2005:The Other Muffins


Novenber 25,2005: Cookie Swap:Perfectly Plain


December 19, 2005: Meyer Lemon Tea Cake.


January 24, 2006: Baby Bokchoy Braise


February 16, 2006: Praising Muhjaddarah


March 25, 2006: On Eating flowers: Walnut Cake With Roses


Aprril 10, 2006: Preserved Pears, Rabbit, and the Best Sauce


May 12, 2006

It's not Iams: The Buckwheat Digressions

Img_3997_1Reader/friend Lynn D. told me about some lovely Italian buckwheat cookies, and linked me to the recipe, which I had been planning to try ever since. She served them with a rhubarb dish, cleverly noting that buckwheat and rhubarb are botanic relatives. I did try them, and they are wonderful. Yes, I know they look like catfood, only bigger. But they are great.

The story, which can be found, with the recipe, at Melissa Clark's website is interesting, too. I am a huge fan of buckwheat, in all formats, and I'm just going to have to go on about that a little bit. Kasha-or buckwheat groats (varniskas-with bowtie noodles-or otherwise), buckwheat noodles (soba), and buckwheat pancakes are particular favorites. I'm sure you understand that I cannot help but digress. I promise to return to the cookies shortly.

Re buckwheat pancakes (in memorium): Pamela's, a Pittsburgh breakfast institution, used to serve the world's best buckwheat pancakes. This diner-like restaurant now has a number of locations, include a retro-hipsterish one in the Strip District. (That's the one in the photo.) The original is the smallest, and is located in my Squirrel Hill neighborhood. There is a line on the street every weekend and holiday morning for breakfast at one of the crowded formica tables. Pamela's is famous for their pancakes, which are dinnerplate size, thin and crepe-like, and sport a delightful crisp lacy border. These were once available in "regular" or buckwheat.

I was devoted to the buckwheat ones; they were heavenly- thin, delicate and lacy, with the dark, slightly caramel nuttiness of buckwheat. One day several years ago, I ordered them, and was told that they were no longer offered. The reason? "Not enough people liked them." I told the cook on duty that I personally liked them enough for 10 normal people, but she was unmoved.

I suppose that I could have figured out an approximation to make at home, but I don't really want to make them at home. I love to eat breakfast out, so I'm eating the "regular" ones at Pamela's now, when I go there. Eating an elaborate breakfast out is a huge treat in so many ways. All the best breakfast goodies are rare events in our lives these days. Few of us now work physically, dawn to dusk, burning calories like racehorses. If we ate this kind of thing all the time, we would be leaden. So when we do indulge, it is a special occasion.

Then too, when we eat breakfast out, once replete, we can head straight home for the couch and newspaper, or (if virtuous) for a long walk to work it all off, either one without paying the price in soapsuds and pot scrubbing. Big greasy breakfasts are hell to clean up, and look depressing soaking in the sink, if you leave them for later. Finally, the best of breakfasts out are generally much, much cheaper than mediocre restaurant dinners. You see my point.


Having wandered far from the cookies, I might as well go on about my personal Vegetarian Kasha Varnishkas (hereinafter "K.V.").This classic combo of buckwheat groats, bowtie noodles and gravy, is incredibly simple to make when it it prepared as a side with a brisket in gravy. You simple mix the cooked kasha and pasta, stir in some gravy, sprinkle with parsley, and there you are.

But what if you have vegetarian family members? You wouldn't have made a brisket if you weren't feeding a group-often a large family gathering. Almost any such gathering these days will include a few vegetarians. It is patently unfair at a festve meal to offer side dishes which are boring without the addition of puddles of meat gravy. I have thus devised the following version, which is good with and without meat gravy. (Those of us who love gravy on our KV need not suffer a version incompatible with gravy.)

The key is a combination of mushrooms-dried and fresh, onions, and asian-style dark sesame oil. You soak some dried mushrooms overnight in dry sherry, if you have some, or otherwise, water. The strained soaking liquid is used as part of the liquid when making your kasha according to the package directions, including also a snippet of thyme. The kasha is combined with a hefty helping of slowly carmelized onions, the sauteed fresh and dried mushrooms, and a glop of the sesame oil, as well as salt and pepper. Mix with cooked bowties, sprinkle with some fresh herbs, and you have KVs good with, or without, some nice gravy.

Now then, the cookies:

This is an easy recipe, though once you see the dough, I don't think you will be inclined to try piping it through a pastry bag- it is quite stiff. The ball and fork option is fine, and I think the more rustic cookie is cuter, anyhow. Personally, if I make homemade cookies, I like the recipients to be able to tell they are homemade, without having to say so. This is sheer vanity, of course. But you see, if you must say so, it sounds as if 1) you think you are a big deal because you made cookies, and 2) you think you are so clever that your cookies look like the work of a pro, so you need to explain. Obviously, I spend too much time thinking about the trivial.

In any event-I love these homely cookies, which are subtle and addictive. The distinctive buckwheat caramel is there, but they are hardly sweet at all. They are sandy, yet crisp.I can see that they would go beautifully with that rhubarb, and/or something creamy and sweet. There is a yummy after taste, rich and dark. I am wondering if my elderly mother will like them . She generally enjoys cookies which are plain and rich, to have with her tea, and has been a bit disappointed that I haven't baked her any recently. I'm not sure how she feels about buckwheat, though. I will take her some of these to the Mother's Day festivities at my brother's place, along with her present (BBC Mystery dvds), and see what she thinks.

And just one more final disconnected buckwheat rambling: It is apparently very important to get buckwheat flour fresh, and keep it refrigerated, or in the freezer. Melissa Clark and Shuna both say so, and I believe them. If I had access to Anson Mills buckwheat, I would have used that, but this wonderful company does not offer their buckwheat flour in small quanties by mail-order (You can get their other stuff, though, like excellent cornmeal, in household-sized quantities, and it is beyond great.). I got Bob's Red Mill buckwheat flour at the Iggle.,and popped it in the freezer-but it was not chilled at the Iggle, and I don't know if it was sitting out awhile-or not. Probably not, as the cookies were delicious.

March 30, 2006


Img_3467According to Joyce Goldstein, author of Cucina Ebraica, a book of traditional Italian-Jewish recipes, the name of these cookies comes from the sticks used by villainous landlords of yore to beat off their indigent tenants, when they could not pay their rent. Sfratti means "evicted." It is a bit of a dark joke, it would seem, since this symbol of bitter,hard times is both sweet, and rich. Mine don't look much like sticks; they are supposed to be fingerlength, but that seemed too long to me, based on cookie considerations. So I made them a bit shorter, and they look more like fireplace logs.

Sfratti are, for no particular reason I can see, usually considered a Rosh Hashanah cookie, and hence not seasonal at the moment. Nowadays, though, when you can buy the Hammentachen of Purim and hot cross buns of Good Friday all year round-why not indulge? These cookies are tasty and festive, without being gooey, a relative, perhaps, of the Eastern European rugelach? In any event, I think they will suit my elderly mother, and plan to take her some to have with her tea.

Ms. Goldstein attributes this recipe to La cucina maremamma by Aldo Santini, which introduced her to the pastry/cookie dough wrap, made with sweet wine, instead of water. Butter or margarine can be used, she says, depending upon whether a meat or dairy meal is planned. Personally, if I kept a kosher home, I would serve them only with dairy-for margarine would spoil the taste, for me. I fooled around with the recipe slightly, adding some orange flower water, because I thought it would be good, and in keeping with the other flavors. I still think so, having tasted them.

These cookies are a bit tricky, and although Ms. Goldstein did not mention it, I would advise rolling the dough between waxed paper sheets. I would also advise chilling it in the fridge a bit whenever it gets sticky, and again just before baking. Otherwise it may be melty and hard to manoever. The filling is really a sort of candy, made separately and then assembled with the dough-so once it is baked and cooled it has a little more presence than the usual nut filling. Sfratti are darkly sweet, and nice to chew. They taste sort of figgy, though they don't have figs in them. I used a dark, buckwheat honey, which may have something to do with this flavor.

To make them you need:
all purpose flour 3 cups
sugar 1 cup
pinch salt
butter 5 1/2 oz
sweet wine 2/3 cup, plus possibly a bit more- I used madeira

honey 2/3 cup
ground cinnamon 1 tsp
ground cloves 1/4 tsp
orange flower water 1 tbsp
nuts, chopped 2 cups walnuts are traditional- I used a combo, mostly walnuts
grated citrus zest 2 tsp
freshly ground black pepper

egg glaze
1 egg yolk beaten with a tbsp water

First make the dough.Put the dry ingredients in a food processor with the butter, cubed. Pulse until an oatmeal like texture is reached. Pour in the wine while the processor is running, and stop as soon as the dough comes together. You may need a bit more wine.

Divide the dough in half, and put each half on a large piece of plastic wrap. Use the plastic wrap to form each into a flat approximate rectangle. Wrap well and chill 2 hours. Roll each rectangle between two sheets of waxed paper into an approximate 12" square, and than cut each into 3 long strips 4"X12". Wrap and refrigerate.

Then make the filling. Put the honey and the rest of the ingredients, except the nuts, into a small heavy pot. Bring to a boil, turn down to simmer, and simmer until it thickens to form a ribbon. This takes 10-15 minutes. The original recipe suggests a much longer time. Mine would have been tar, however. Turn off the heat, stir in the nuts, and dust a cool surface (marble if you have one) lightly with flour. As soon as you can touch the nuts without burning yourself, pour the mix onto the floured surface. Using your hands and squeezing and pressing bits together, form six 12" snakes of nut candy. Work quickly, as it will harden as it cools.

Preheat oven to 375F. Remove dough from fridge. Set a strand of nut filling in the center of each length of dough, and roll the dough round it, sealing it as best you can. Wrap and chill the filled rolls. Line baking sheets with parchment. Slice the rolls into cookies of the desired length and set them on the baking sheets. Brush with egg glaze. Bake 20 minutes, or until golden, turning pan around once during baking, for even browning. Move to a rack to cool.

These are very nice, and a bit unusual-with good and slightly exotic flavors. I'm not sure that I'll make them again soon, though. There are so many cooky recipes that are delicious and much less of a project. There were lots of dishes to do and surfaces to wipe with these, and there is some struggle involved in rolling the sticky dough. Still, they are particularly good with tea- a key cookie test for me.

February 27, 2006

Two a Penny

Img_3153_2Well really, most of the hot cross buns I've had have not been all that wonderful. I don't suppose I've ever really had any from a particularly good bakery, and I associate them with a sort of supermarket cottony kind of sweetroll. Nonetheless, I have a strange fondness for them, toasted, possibly also buttered, with a cup of tea.

I wonder why I know they are supposed to be eaten on Good Friday, when this was not a holiday we observed in my childhood. My mother was always one for very restrained sweet treats- a plain cookie, at the most a "garibaldi"-a flat raisiny biscuit- was as far as she would go towards dessert, or sweet snack, in the absence of a special occasion. The presence of raisins, candied peel, and a tiny bit of icing, sketched on top, took the hot cross bun just out of the realm of the ordinary, and into the category of a small thrill.

Sooo, since I'm stuck on the topic of small breads anyway, I thought I'd have a shot at making some really nice hot cross buns. I wound up making them twice. My first effort, seen in the second picture here, was not what I had in mind, being a heavier, more scone-like item. Apparently, although I'd never had a really good hot cross bun in my life, and although the first set was tasty, there was lurking in my brain a hypothetical, idealized hot cross bun. And the first , from Nick Malgieri's Baker's Tour , was not that bun.

It is quite probable that the first lot would have been fine, if I hadn't deviated from the recipe. I used a bit of white whole wheat flour in place of a small part of the allpurpose flour. There is a picture in the book in which the buns look far smoother than these, and more like the HCB of my imagination. Everything else I've made from this book has turned out well, tasted fine, and looked the way it was supposed to. And, as I said, these were quite tasty and they have all been eaten for breakfasts, despite being slightly heartier than one might wish. If I were a sensible person, I might have tried the recipe a second time, and followed it closely. Instead, I decided, quite unscientifically, to try a different recipe. The second recipe, which you see on top, was from Bernard Clayton's Small Breads.

I had already used up my small supply of nice, soft, european candied peels in my first batch of buns. I picked up some more candied orange peel at the Iggle*, but when opened, it proved pellet-like and dire. So, I substituted some Sunmaid mixed dried fruit, chopped-it was much nicer, though the taste was slightly different. (Not so's you'd really notice, the dough being so spicy.)

To make my slightly adapted version you need:

eggs, separated 2
butter melted 2 tbsp
sugar 1/4 cup
instant yeast 2 tsps
salt 1 tsp
flour 2 1/2 cups
milk 1/2 cup
ground cloves 1/4 tsp
nutmeg-pref freshly ground 1 tsp
diced candied peel or dried fruit 1/4 cup
dried zante currants 1/2 cup

Glaze: 1 egg yolk, beaten with water
Icing- a bit of confections sugar, mixed with lemon juice or water (or lime juice-which I used, to notable effect, I thought-very nice), and put in a little plastic ziploc bag.

In a small bowl, mix together the sugar, egg yolks, milk (room temp), and melted butter (cooled). In the bowl of a stand mixer,with the whisk, beat the egg whites to soft peaks. Transfer to a small bowl. Put the mixer bowl back on the mixer, with the paddle on, and combine 2 cups of the flour, the spices, the yeast, and the salt. Add liquids, and mix on medium, until combined. Add egg whites, and combine. Mix in the fruit and currants, until evenly distributed. Add the 1/2 cup reserved flour, and put the dough hook on the mixer. Knead on medium, with hook for about 6-8 minutes. The dough is slightly sticky.

Generously butter a medium bowl, transfer the dough to it, cover and let rise til doubled. This takes about an hour and a half. Cut the dough into 15 pieces. Line a baking sheet with parchment. Form each piece of dough into a round, by pulling the sides down to the bottom of the round, and pinching the dough together. You are trying to pull a thin skin of dough around the slightly swollen center. Try to deflate it as little as possible.

Before setting each roll on the parchment, swipe it gently over the buttery surface of the rising bowl. Cover with parchment, and let it rise until doubled, about 1 hour, meanwhile preheating the oven to 375F. Brush each roll with the yolk glaze, and press the back of a knife blade into each roll twice, forming an indented cross. Bake til nicely browned- about 20 minutes. Cool on a rack. Cut a tiny corner off the baggie with the icing, and pipe a cross into the indentation on each bun. Let it set up- it won't take long.

These are really charming little buns-not very sweet, spicy, light but chewy-in short, just what I had in mind. Fresh, they are great with some tea in a china cup...when they get stale, I'll split, toast and butter them, and have them for breakfast.

*note: "Iggle" is Pittsburghese for "Giant Eagle", a phrase meaning "pretty much the only supermarket in town."

February 12, 2006

Wonky Raivas

Img_2948I was looking for something a little different to take to the Aged Parent, who likes a plain, not too sweet cookie with her tea. Browsing the cookbooks, I came up with these. Raivas are Portuguese cookies from the Beira Litoral region of that country. Not that I have the foggiest idea where that is. I'd be delighted to go there and find out, should a patron appear to sponsor my research.

These cookies are fun, even silly, in the making, and absolutely and entirely plain. I think they are a fine example of their genre, the traditional non-fancy everyday treat, with class. They make an excellent after school/work snack and a perfect accompanyment to hot chocolate, coffee or tea- especially hot chocolate. They are a somewhat less indulgent substitute for those who might wish they could have chocolate and churros on a regular basis. (That would be me.) Because there are no distractions, the cinnamon taste shines through- so be sure to use good, fresh stuff.

As you will see, this would be an amusing recipe for cooking with children. Also, you can decorate with your cookies, and toss them in games of table-horseshoes, should your household norms permit. The recipe is adapted from Maria deLourdes Modesto's Cozinha Tradicional Portuguesa via Nick Malgieri"s Baker's Tour.

The very simple ingredients are:

flour 2 cups
cinnamon 1 tsp+ to taste
sugar 1/4 cup
unsalted butter 5 tbsps
eggs 3 large

Preheat oven to 350F. Cream the flour and sugar til light and fluffy. Whisk the flour and cinnamon together. Beat the eggs into the butter sugar mixture. (The eggs, butter and sugar are easiest with an electric mixer.) By hand, preferably with a large rubber spoon or spatula, mix the flour mixture into the wet ingredients. Turn dough onto a floured surface, and knead once or twice, til smoothish. Do not over handle this dough, or it will be tough. Form dough into a cylinder, and cut into 6 equal pieces- then cut each of these into 4- for 24 cookies.

Line your cookie sheets with parchment or silpats. Roll each piece of cookie dough into a long thin snake on the floured surface. Join it into a circle, and set it on the covered cookie sheet. Then push the sides of the circle into the middle, making squiggly shapes. Bake six to a sheet, for 12 to 15 minutes. Remove to a cooling rack.

Hint: Especially if working with kids, when rolling the snakes, and otherwise, don't handle the dough more than necessary. If you start rolling from the middle, moving your hands slowly out to the ends, it seems to work best. Just pinch any breaks together; they're supposed to be funny-looking. In the end, these were not a huge hit as cookies with their intended recipicent, who found them a bit difficult to maneover with a cup of tea. She was, nonetheless, amused.

February 05, 2006

From Herbslab to Bruschetta (and The Biscotti Effect)

Img_2884Bruschetta is, after all, toast, a topic close to my heart. It is pretty common knowledge that many things from the simplest scraping- ripe tomato or garlic rubbed across the toasted bread, smashed chickpeas,etc., to all sort of sophisticated combinations, make lovely bruschetta. I intend to pass along a favorite wonderful, weird synergystic bruschetta recipe (not original to me). You need not, of course, bake your own ciabatta to make this, it will be fine on any good toasted bread. And it is very quick, and easy.

I do have a favorite ciabotta type bread which is excellent freshly baked, and turns into splendid, satisfying bruschetta when the first blush of its youth has passed. Recently , I made these Acme Herb Slabs for a superbowl party/lunch at work. (Yes, here in the 'burgh this was a citywide occasion to celebrate, pregame. In my office, serious homemade food of all sorts appears for every major festive event. This lunch party even had pork with sauerkraut and dumplings. Jealous?) My hope was that there would be a bit of the bread left over to take home and make bruscetta. There was.

The ciabatta-like recipe is from a favorite breadbaking source, the Maggie Glezer book, oft-cited here and appearing in the recipe link above. Ms. Glezer learned it from Steve Sullivan, of Acme Bread in Berkeley (and SF). The original contains rosemary, and is just dandy for most bruscetta pairings. If you want a whole lot of bruscetta, of different sorts, for a crowd, it would be a good idea to flavor some of your bread differently, depending on the topping intended. Toasted walnuts are great in this bread.

Slicing the slabs to make bruschetta, I was struck by how like the biscotti making process it is. You bake a big flat rectangle, slice it, and lay out and cook the slices some more, drying them out. A cross section of the flat bread, especially studded with walnuts, certainly resembles the italian cookie. It now occurs to me that this resemblance may well be of interest to absolutely no one but myself. At the time I first noticed it, however, I found it inexplicably delightful. What can I say? Digression is my middle name, and my brain must be wired for it.

In any event, this bruschetta is another nice find from Slow Mediterranean, a favorite Paula Wolfert book. I know it sounds odd, but it is especially delicious. PW says it is a traditional dish from the Canary Islands, as tweaked by Ferran Adria, the Catalonian chef famous for his really experimental stuff-like foams and what have you. You will definitely need some kind of mandoline or extra sharp slicer, as the avocado must be very thin. I use my el cheapo japanese mandoline to good effect. (n.b. I am driven to apologize for including so many names in this post-all of well known people who I know not at all. I live in fear of accidentally claiming as my own the endeavors of another. This sort of anxiety sometimes comes over otherwise normal individuals who have attended law school-the fear of failing to attribute, that is...the drive to apologize is my own from birth.)

For 4 to 6 as a starter-fewer for a lunch:

good olive oil 4 tbsps
chopped flat leaf parsley 2 tbsps
sherry vinegar 1 tbsp
S and P
4 1/2 oz cans of whole portuguese sardines in olive oil 2 cans
large avocago-ripe but not squishy
thin slices day old bread 6
scallions, white part only, chopped 4

Make a vinagrette with the oil, vinegar parsley, s and p. Slice the sardines and marinate in the vinagrette for at least an hour. Chill the avocado in the fridge while it marinates. Slice the avocado paper thin, removing skin and pit while slicing. Grill or broil the bread. Brush bread with vinagrette, and top ,each with 3-4 slices of the avocado. Drain sardines and put some on top. Scatter with chopped scallion, and eat right away. Did I mention that I love this?

P.S. GO STILLERS! , an'at.

January 21, 2006

Prize Tea

Img_2774When I couldn't come up with a clever gift to donate for the Menu for Hope, I decided to donate by,well, donating. I was delighted when I found that I had won the Mariage Frere tea, from by Michele of Oswego Tea. I was once given a gift of Mariage Freres' Marco Polo, which was delicious, but have not been able to find any locally. Michele asked me if I had a preference, and I asked her to pick a tea for me.

On Thursday I stopped by the Post Office to pick up my parcel from Paris. (This was by far the most glamourous parcel anyone was picking up when I was there. I noticed that the gentleman ahead of me in line had a package from Beaver Falls, PA, for example.) My package had 2 elegant black tins (the packaging is so charming, don't you think?) of 2 different teas, because Michele "couldn't bear" to pick just one! So I am the happy recipient of tea and kindness, both. These are black teas. One is Esprit d'Noel, which has "seasonal spices", the other is Bolero, a fruity tea with flavors of the "French riviera." They are both vacuum sealed. So far, I've opened and tried the Bolero. In fact, I'm drinking a cup right now.

I knew I was going to love it when I popped the seal, and smelled the smells. It is fruity, and also a bit floral, and out of this world. Lovely stuff- when you sip it, you can almost feel it going out to your finger tips and toes, and, as good tea does...energizing and relaxing you at the same time. A real treat. I'm looking forward to trying the other one soon. Many thanks, Michele.

January 16, 2006

Creole Tea Cakes

Img_2678_1I have heard these simple, classic, luxurious cookies called both Mexican Tea Cakes and Russian Tea Cakes, but never by anyone Mexican or Russian. My scribbled unattributed version and the nearly identical Gourmet Cook Book version both contain pecans, which don't, as far as I know, appear prominantly in Russian or Mexican food. They are, however, a staple in the cooking of the American South, and of the distinctive cajun and creole cuisines in particular.

Of course, I have never heard anyone else call these cookies Creole Tea Cakes. I do, nonetheless, feel that I am following an established custom by attributing the cookies to a more exotic-sounding culinary tradition than my own. Perhaps this conjures an imagine of little cookies with iced tea on a sweltering day, complete with trumpet vines climbing on the porch? I, at any rate, will be taking some to the aged parent, to have with her hot English style tea, on a chilly Pennsylvania day. We don't grow pecans in Pennsylvania, either.

These are very easy to make, but do need a lengthly chilling period, so you must plan ahead a bit.

You will need:
Unsalted butter (room temperature) 1/2 lb (2 sticks)
confectioner's sugar 2 1/4 cups
all purpose flour 2 1/4 cups
vanilla 1 tsp
cinnamon 1/2 tsp
salt 3/4 tsp
pecans,finely chopped 3 oz.

In the bowl of a stand mixer, combined the butter and 1/2 cup of sugar, and beat until fluffy- about 5 minutes. Add the other ingredients, except for the rest of the sugar, in order, beating until combined. The dough will be crumbly and pastry like, and not fully amalgamated. Chill in the fridge overnight- or for 12 hours, if preferred.

In the morning, preheat the oven to 375F, and remove the dough from the fridge. Let the dough stand at room temperature for 20 minutes or so. Meanwhile line 2 cookie sheets with parchment.

Cook these one sheet at a time. Roll the dough into 1" balls, and place them on the parchment lined sheets with at least 2" between them. Bake each sheet of cookies for 8-10 minutes, until they have just stiffened at bit, and the bottoms have only begun to turn color. While the first group bakes, prepare the next sheet. Sift the remaining confectioner's sugar into a pie pan. Set up a cooling rack with a sheet of waxed paper or parchment beneath to catch the confectioner's sugar.

As each sheet of cookies is done, put in the next sheet. Then immediately transfer the hot cookies to the pie plate. Roll them gently in the sugar. (Watch your fingers, they are hot..and be careful not to break or mar the soft cookies!) Transfer to the rack to cool. Once all the cookies are on the rack, sift a bit more of the confectioner's sugar over them. When they have cooled completely, sift some more of the remaining sugar over them, turning them over once.

This recipe makes 5 dozen one inch tea cakes, which keep for weeks in an airtight tin. I must watch them carefully when I put them out, because, oddly, my cats adore them, and will make off with them, or lick them bald, given half a chance.

December 19, 2005

Meyer Lemon Tea Cake

Img_2454 Each home cook develops a repetoire of dishes which can be made more or less with eyes shut. These recipes don't let us down. We make them every so often; our friends and family ask for them, and they look pleased when we serve them. We cycle around to them repeatedly, so they conjure up the relative who showed us how, the old klunker stove we had to watch like a hawk, or the baby smacking her spoon on the highchair tray, squealing in anticipation. I feel, sentimentally, that cooking in this frame of mind connects us to cooks we have never met, cooking their own particular favorites, perhaps wildly different from what we are making. This is a variant of the first cake ever to find a place in my long term cooking cycle.

The earliest version I made appeared in a paperback book I no longer have. This cookbook was called something like The Farm Journal Bread Cookbook, and I bought it used, in Madison, Wisconsin in the seventies. The recipe was called "Lemon Tea Bread", though it was clearly a cake.

It is a common enough cake- common because it is so good and so universally liked. My original version was made with ordinary lemons; I still make it with ordinary lemons when Meyer Lemons are not available. But I think it is especially good made with Meyer Lemons, and with some changes copped from Fran Gage's memoir/cookbook, Bread and Chocolate.

You may be thinking by now that everything I cook takes 2 days. Not so, really. This one, for example, can easily be done in one, but it does actually taste even better if you take 2 days, so that the peel can really soak up the syrup. This is what you need:

butter, melted 1 1/2 sticks (12 tbsps, 6 oz)
sugar 2 1/2 cups
eggs 4
vanilla 1/2 tsp
flour, all purpose unbleached 3 cups
baking powder 1 1/2 tsps
salt 1 1/2 tsp
milk 1 cup
grated zest of Meyer lemons 1 (small)
peel of Meyer lemons 2 lemons
juice of 3 lemons

Up to one day, or as little as one hour before preparing the cake, in a pyrex measure, mix 1/2 cup of the sugar with the lemon juice and water to make a total of 1 cup. Bring mixture to a boil in a small pot, stir to dissolve the sugar. Remove from the heat. Place the grated zest and peel in a small bowl, pour the syrup over, and cover.

When you are ready to make the cake, spray a (preferably nonstick) bundt type pan or 2 loaf pans with plain cooking spray, or else butter it, thoroughly, but not thickly. Preheat the oven to 350F. Remove the peel from the syrup, leaving the grated zest in the syrup. Reserve syrup. Chop the peel as finely as you can. Chop like crazy. A mezzaluna is great for this task.

In a medium bowl, mix the butter, remaining sugar, eggs and vanilla and chopped peel. In a larger bowl, or the bowl of a stand mixer, combine the dry ingredients. Add the egg mixture and milk alternately to the larger bowl, beating until thoroughly mixed. Pour the batter into the pan(s) and bake for approximately 70 minutes, or until a broomstraw poked in the middle comes out clean.

While the cake is baking, put a cooling rack over a cookie sheet lined in foil.
Cool cake 10 minutes in the pan(s), and carefully remove from pans. Place cake right side up on rack and pour syrup over the cake. Cool thoroughly and wrap in cling wrap.

Wait at least 24 hours before eating this; the flavor is noticeably superior when you do. Wrapped, this cake keeps a long time, and is splendid plain, but it is also good with fruit. It is nice toasted as it gets on in age. I used always to make this in loaf pans, but nowadays I'm smitten with the bundt form for plain cakes.

December 17, 2005

Baking for Britain's Banbury Cakes

Img_2436I have been enjoying the survey of traditional u.k. goodies taking place in Baking for Britain, which I have only recently discovered. I've been trying to pre-make some sweet and savory treats , to serve at my Boxing Day party. These Banbury Cakes seemed in the spirit of the thing, and also gave me an idea. I had been contemplating the mincemeat I made this fall, assuming that I would make mince tarts. But I have nearly two quarts of this stuff; mince tarts take so little, they won't get me far.

The filling for Banbury Cakes seemed quite mincemeat-like; the cakes were said to smell like mince tarts. A rum and mincemeat-like filling also appeared in my other source on the topic- Jane Pettigrew's National Trust Book of Tea-Time Recipes. There is a hefty dose of rum in my mincemeat already- and rum is rumored to be a component of a "secret" local Banbury recipe. I still had nearly a pound of homemade
rough puff pastry. So, I decided to take it easy and use my already made pastry and mincemeat, and make some Banbury Cakes.

Quite simply, I rolled out my sheet of puff pastry to 1/4" thickness, and cut 4" circles. In the centre of each, I put a hefty spoonful of mincemeat. I very carefully brushed all edges with water and pinched them well closed, mindful of the dangers of ruptured pastry warned of in BFB. I then turned them over, seam on bottom, and gently coaxed them into the characteristic torpedo shape. Three diagonal slits, then off to the freezer to bake when the time comes. Except for this one, which I baked for you (well,okay, for me) so that we can see what they will look like. I plan to bake them directly from the frozen state on Boxing Day.

This particular Banbury cake is no more. I ate it immediately after I took the picture, and it was good. I think probably the homemade all butter puff pastry (last of my first ever batch) is the main reason it was so nice. The mincemeat is tasty, too, though the difference from storebought is less obvious there. Nonetheless, you could easily make these from purchased puff pastry-if you can find some you like, and a good brand of bottled mincemeat, spiked with some rum. Or, you could follow the link to anapestic's excellent rough puff pastry lesson, if you are in the mood. It was so much less difficult than I thought it would be, and I'm going to be making more soon.

December 14, 2005

The Fancy Pantry Mushroom Thing

Rees0102I love everything about mushrooms. I think they are beautiful in their variety, in appearance and in flavor. If you slice them thinly with a sharp knife, the design in cross section is complex and fascinating. They are exotic, but rustic; they taste woodsy, smoky, and earthy, but also sophisticated, delicate, and elusive. Dried or fresh, I never met a mushroom I didn't like.

I thought about calling this post "Mushroom Sandwiches." But it is only incidentally about mushroom sandwiches- though fine sandwiches they are. More truthfully, it is about the mushroom concoction inside the sandwiches . This stuff is good for more than sandwiches. It has, however, an unfortunate name, or rather two alternate , equally clunky names. It is called either "Mushroom Paste" or "Potted Mushrooms", and I think both sound stodgy.

I never would have tried making it myself, except that it is a Helen Witty recipe (from her Fancy Pantry.) Ms. Witty, whose better known Better Than Store Bought is an old favorite of mine, does not often disappoint. And I really do adore mushrooms. I've become very fond of this pantry staple. I did not take its photo, since it looks boring, just a little crock with a topping of clarified butter. But its looks are deceiving.

It is the cooked down essence of nicely seasoned mushroom, almost like a mushroom version of jellied meat juices. It makes fabulous thin tea sandwiches and excellent toasted panini, and also is an aid to pasta sauces and stews. It is lovely melted on hot cooked kasha or barley, especially with carmelized onions. It can be kept in the fridge for three weeks, under its seal of clarified butter, but should be used within a couple of days after the seal is broken. So I put it up in 3 small crocks, rather than one larger one.

I admit it is a bit of a fuss to make, but it is not a tricky fuss, and you wind up with little jars of instant goodness in your larder. (Fridge, really.) You will need to make some clarified butter first. You can make a pound of clarified butter at a time, because it keeps very well. It is nice for sauteeing , because it doesn't burn so fast as ordinary butter. Have I convinced you?

If so, this is what you need:

dried mushrooms 2/3cup
fresh mushrooms 1/2 lb
madiera 2 tbsps
bay leaf 1/4 leaf
shallots 2 sliced
cloves,ground tiny pinch
thyme pinch
allspice pinch
butter, unsalted 1 stick
butter, clarified about 3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks)
red pepper flakes (pref aleppo) pinch

This is what you do:

Soak dried mushrooms in water to cover overnight.

Preheat oven to 300F.

Chop fresh mushrooms coarsely. Put them in food processor and pulse until finely chopped. Remove to a bowl. Lift dried mushrooms out of liquid and put in food processor with everything but the butters. Carefully pour in soaking liquid, stopping before you get to the powdery dregs. Puree. Add finely chopped fresh mushrooms, and puree thoroughly.

Scrape puree into an oven proof bowl or souffle dish- about 3 cup size. Cover with foil, and top foil with some sort of oven proof lid to keep it in place. Set in a larger baking pan. Pull out oven rack, and place pan on rack. Fill bottom pan with boiling water.

Keep an eye on the water level- don't let it go dry. At 1 1/2 hours, remove lid, stir, replace lid. An hour later, remove lid. cook 1/2 hour more. Remove from oven and place, uncovered on a rack to cool. After 5 minutes, slice your remaining stick of butter into very thin slices, and whisk or stir them into the mix. When all your butter has dissoved into the mix, taste for seasoning and adjust. It should be quite strongly flavoured, so that a little bit makes itself known. Spoon into individual crocks, or leave in larger bowl if preferred.

Cool completely-it will look sort of marbled. Melt clarified butter and pour over the top of mixture, making about a 1/4" layer on top, making sure it is completely covered- all the way to the sides of the crock(s). Cover, and store in fridge. Take out of fridge a little before using, for best spreading consistency. If you need to know how to make clarified butter, don't worry. It's really easy.

clarified butter

Use a small heavy pan, and place it over a very low heat with 4 sticks of butter. Keep an eye on it. In about 25 minutes, the white foam on top will begin to look a bit crusty. You want no browning whatsoever. Carefully skim the white top part off, and save.
Pour clarified butter into a clean dry container, stopping before you get to the dregs on the bottom. Once it begins to congeal, cover and refrigerate.

If you are a frugal sort (I believe it is possible to be both frugal and extravagant), you can use the white top bits and dregs to season mashed potatoes, or veg- it tastes very good, just stir into hot veg before serving.

I hope you will try this mushroom business; I definitely think it's worth the fiddling around. I generally make it from pretty generic fresh and dried mushrooms- if you've got fresh wild mushrooms, you want to have them fresh, for maximum value.

If you think of a worthy name for it- please let me know.

December 08, 2005

Embossed Almond Shortbreads

Img_2385There is absolutely nothing better than plain shortbread, it can't be beat. You don't need a special pan to make it, any old round or square cakepan will do. I sometimes make lavender shortbread, which I like very much, and I have occasionally added a tiny bit of lemon peel, very finely grated, or nutmeg to the recipe. But I think the plain sort is still my very favorite. I have been playing around a bit with my new shortbread pan, which is divided into squares with embossed designs..

The pan came with a recipe not too different from my own. I examined it and decided that I should increase my quantities by half again, thereby making the recipe the same size as theirs, to fit and come out nicely. I tried this, and while the embossing was successful, I felt the cookies were a tad too thick. I did think that the thicker squares would be good for little individual dessert servings of berry shortcake-topped with fruit and whipped cream. They just were not crispy enough for the cookies I like best. Plus, they seemed too hearty to have casually, with a cup of tea. So today, I decided to try my original recipe, with the original quantities, to see if I could still unmold the fancy designs, only thinner. Along the way, I decided to throw in a few tablespoons of almond meal, left from another venture.

As recommended by the manufacturer, I sprayed the nonstick surface with canola oil. I preheated the oven to 350F, and mixed the following ingredients in my stand mixer- creaming the butter and sugar first:

cool, unsalted butter, cut in pieces 8 oz (1 stick)
superfine sugar 1/4 cup
unbleached all purpose flour 1 cup
rice flour (cornstarch may be substituted) 1/4 cup
salt 1/4 tsp
almond meal 2 tbsps

I dumped the sandy mixture into the pan, covered it with a sheet of plastic wrap, and using a pastry scraper, smoothed it out evenly , pressing down slightly. (This is a procedure I got from a Gale Gand book. Very nice- no fingerprints.) I then removed the plastic, and put the pan in the oven for 15 minutes. If you are not using a special pan with embossed demarcations, you should divide your shortbread into squares before baking, by poking it with a fork, making dotted lines. After 15 minutes I took the pan out, tapped it lightly on the counter, turned it and cooked it 15 more minutes, until golden.(Check at 10 minutes)

I let the pan rest for 10 minutes, cooling. Then, I used a plastic knife (to save the nonstick surface) to separate the outside edges, and inverted the pan on a breadboard. While the shortbread was still warm, I used a sharp knife to divide the squares, and then transferred them, with spatula, to a rack, to finish cooling.

I'm tickled with these, and think they are sweet.

November 27, 2005

Panned Out


It all started when I began to think about making a birthday cake for my mother that she might actually enjoy. My mother lives in an assisted living apartment in a building in my neighborhood. She eats her meals (except breakfast, which she prefers to have on her own in her apartment), in the dining room there. It is a pleasant room with tablecloths and tables set for 6, really sweet waitstaff, and 2 fireplaces. The food is okay, but seldom fabulous. We take her out to eat regularly, as do a couple of her longtime younger friends.

For breakfast, she prefers to make herself a cup of tea, with 2 plain cookies, and takes her time eating it in her robe before getting dressed. She doesn't even want to operate her toaster, and she has made it pretty clear that she would appreciate being supplied with her preferred type of homemade cookie. This is not too difficult, as I enjoy making the sort of plain but rich cookies she likes. She usually has a pretty good supply of them.

Tube974201Recently, she let us know that the practice of combining her birthday celebration with Thanksgiving has always seemed to her to be horribly unjust. We have been doing this for years, who knew? She always gave a pretty good imitation of enjoying her status as the only guest at Thanksgiving dinner to receive presents. Simmering under the surface cheer was a unfulfilled wish for her own birthday party.

We decided to have a birthday lunch for her on Sunday, at her place. They have a "Private Dining Room" there which can be reserved in advance for special occasions, Images2_1with a long table which will seat all of us, and a few family friends. I am to bring the birthday cake. I don't think this will seem like a birthday party without a cake, but my mother doesn't really care for the kind of sweet, special occasion cakes usually associated with birthdays. She does not like any sort of icing, frosting or ganache on her cake. She prefers something not too sweet, and not too slick looking, that she can see is homemade.

This got me thinking about coffee cakes, pound cake, kugelhopf, bundts and babkas, and a resulted in a (hopefully temporary) obsession with specialty baking pans.I am really more a cook than a baker. Thus, my collection of cake pans has been generally limited to the unadorned circular layer cake type. I turned my cupboards inside out, and, as I thought, I had only one dubious possibility for a bundt pan, picked up long ago at a yard sale. In fact, I had some concern that it might actually be a jello mold.

An experimental kugelhof made in this shallow non-stick tube pan turned out a delicious brioche-like treat, very nice even several days later, toasted. (1st photo). It did not look right to me, though, and I thought it would be a lot more attractive with a smaller circumference, and more height, in the traditional "turk's hat" spiral shape(2nd photo). I wound up shopping for one of these kugelhopf pans, and ordering it, though it will not arrive in time for the birthday. Still, a kugelhopf is something I plan on making often.

For the birthday cake, though, I decided on a sour cream coffee cake with a vein of preserves, as looking better in the low-slung pan format and being more birthdayish. I figured this would be simple enough to have a leftover slice for Img_2283_1
breakfast, and dressy enough to carry off a few candles. Between deciding on the cake and actually baking it, I succumbed to a sale at our new local Sur La Table on the southside. There it was, reduced, one of those architectural Nordicware Bundt pans. I seem to have gone totally berserk for specialty bakeware. (3rd photo) Normally, I have to convince myself that a new kitchen item has multiple purposes, and these guys are not only uni-purpose, but bulky to store. Ack.

Well, back to the cake. Sadly, I cannot tell you the origin of this recipe. I know I did not make it up, because I do not make up cake recipes from thin air. It is scribbled in my notebook, without attribution, but with coffee-like stains. Nonetheless, I don't really remember baking it before, ever. The stains may well be due to some adjacent recipe.

This is what you need to make it:2 cups all purpose flour
1 tbsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
2 sticks butter, softened
1 1/2 cups sugar2 large eggs, lightly beaten
1 cup sour cream
3/4 cup preserves
Preheat oven to 350F. Butter and flour a ten inch bundt pan. In a bowl, whisk dry ingredients to blend. In the bowl of your stand mixer, with the paddle,beat the butter and sugar until lightened. Add eggs, sour cream, and vanilla, beating until smooth. Add dry ingredients, and mix just until blended. Take out 1/2 cup of batter and combine with the preserves, in a bowl. Pour the rest of the batter in the bundt pan. Smooth top with a wooden spoon. Then, with the back of the spoon, make a trough in the center of the batter, going all round the cake..Spoon reserved batter/preserve mixture into the trough. Bake at 350 for 1 hour. Remove from oven. Cool 15 minutes, then invert cake onto cooling rack. Pour sugar syrup over if desired. Cool thoroughly.

I used a homemade cinnamon, wine and pear preserve, and strained out some of the jelly to make a syrup. I poured that over the cake right after unmolding it, for a little extra shine and taste. I was tickled to see that it came out with a clear-edged design, though the cake didn't use the entire depth of the pan. A fuller pan would look more sculpted, since I've missed out on the bottom part of the design. I do think it's kind of cute. (4th one) I hope it will taste good and please the birthday girl.

While I am at it, I might as well admit that I also bought a special shortbread pan (#5), which purportedly makes these small designs on a nice, simple, 9" square of buttery shortbread. But I make shortbread all the time. So it's really sort of practical, isn't it?

Am I going to stop this pan thing soon? Jewish Cooking in America, by Joan Nathan, has a chocolate babka recipe that's calling my name, but I am determined to use a pan I already have to bake it .

November 25, 2005

Cookie Swap: Perfectly Plain

Img_2223_1I love cookies which appear plain, but taste special . I considered making some very interesting cookies I recently read about, for my entry in the
cookie swap.
These "spoon cookies" were the subject of an article by Celia Barbour in the most recent Gourmet Magazine. A tradition in Ms. Barbour's Norweigan family, they are a jam sandwich cookie, made with browned butter, and shaped with a spoon. They are a model of elegant, painstaking deceptive simplicity, and the article made me wish I was a member of the Barbour family. I did make those cookies, they are delicious, and well worth the work. But they seemed to be so much her story that it would have felt peculiar to write about them. I highly recommend reading about them, though.

Not that I invented these chocolate cookies either-they are the furthest thing from original. They are, however, my all time favorite chocolate cookies, and this a "family" recipe in the peculiar sense that I learned of it through my daughter, a/k/a redfox. She made them for Christmas presents last year, after spotting the recipe in a New York Times Entertaining Supplement. They are from Pierre Herme, via Dorie Greenspan's wonderful Paris Sweets. I have gone on about this collection before, it is really, really good, and useful.Img_2249_1

These goodies taste quite sophisticated, but not in a way which would offend the smallest, fussiest toddler, and they are as easy to make as any old american refrigerator cookie recipe. They are a tiny bit salty, and addictive as can be. This is the only chocolate cookie my elderly mother really likes. I can claim no credit whatever- I just follow the recipe,linked here. If you have trouble with the NYTimes linkage, email me, and I will send you the instructions. They look very, very ordinary, but taste truly special.

The only thing I do a bit differently is that I shape my rolls into long, thin oblongs, rather than cylinders, because I like the plain tiny wedge shaped cookies which result. Today, I was lazy and substituted callebaut bittersweet chips for the chopped chocolate. It's fine this way, but actually, I think chopping the chocolate a bit smaller than a chip makes an even nicer cookie. I cannot stress too much the importance of good chocolate, good cocoa, and absolutely use sea salt-preferably fleur de sel, if you can. You will notice the difference if you don't, no kidding.

You can see my first try spoon cookie here as well. Even my klutzy efforts have an endearing clam-like appearance. Obviously, I need way more practice with the spoon shaping part, but I must have done the toasted butter part properly, because they taste really good. A similar recipe can be found here, but it does not have the detailed browned butter instructions found in the Gourmet article. I don't know about you, but I hadn't been all that clear about the methods and stages of butter browning, and found these instructions helpful.

November 20, 2005

A Savory Indulgence Not Universally Adored

Img_2191In the 4th day of a nasty cold/virus, I am feeling pretty uninterested in eating, cooking, or writing about either. Oddly, I'm still interested in reading about these things, so here I sit, clutching toddy, wrapped in a ratty afghan, reading other people's blogs. I found this bit I wrote the other day, and thought I'd post it. Right now, anything not containing tea, lemon or honey is of no interest, but when normal(or my version thereof), I'm pretty fond of this odd snack.

I think of little savory snacks of this kind as sort of English-along the lines of potted meats and shrimps, anchovy toasts and that sort of thing. I nonetheless discovered this particular treat first in Simca's Cuisine, the work of the entirely French Simone Beck, who serves it on thin toasts as a starter or cocktail party nibble.

I can see where it would be very good in this role, too. It is one of those pantry goodies you can make without going shopping, if you keep a tin or two of good sardines on hand. As I always keep some butter in one of those "butterbells" for spreading, I do not even need to wait for the butter to come to room temperature. It is best, though to give the whole thing a bit of fridge time to set up, and for the flavors to blend. However, if you are desperate, you can sneak a little to spread first.

I like it very much on toast with hot tea, especially after coming in from awful weather. I must also confess, though some might find it disgusting, that I quite like it on a toasted muffin, topped with sliced hardboiled egg, and accompanied by very hot coffee, for breakfast. But then, I have always liked peculiar things, like smoked fishes, for breakfast. I do realize that it may not be everyone's idea of a good time.

My version of Sardine Butter is made from:

a drained can of good sardines, mashed with a fork
half a stick (4 oz) of unsalted butter, softened
1 tbsp white wine vinegar
1 tsp gray poupon yellow mustard
freshly ground black pepper
tiny drop tabasco

Mash this all up quite thoroughly, and pack it in a 1 cup sized little crock or dish. Refrigerate until firm. Keeps several days in the fridge, well wrapped. This actually looks pretty fancy spread carefully on thin little toasts, topped with a strand each of fresh chive. Ms. Beck suggested using a wet spreader to keep the toasts looking neat. The silvery bits in the sardines are sort of sparkly, and pretty.

If you don't like tinned sardines, however, you will not like this, as it tastes quite satisfyingly and definitely of its ingredients. These component parts are in no way transformed, but only heightened by the combination.

November 06, 2005

Cross Creek Cornbread

Img_2132_1I am very fond of my elderly copy of Cross Creek Cookery, by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. Ms. Rawlings was the novelist who wrote The Yearling and the memoir Cross Creek. Just south of Gainesville, Cross Creek was nonetheless an isolated rural community, where Rawlings lived and farmed in a citrus grove, and wrote her books.

This cookbook is a collection of family, personal and regional recipes that Ms. Rawlings liked to cook, and she was apparently a very good cook indeed. It's no end of fun to read. The book, which was published in 1942, has a charming bookcloth pictoral cover, as well as nifty endpapers, and is just a nice object altogether. I don't have the dustwrapper, and my copy is a little shabby around the edges, but it is a reading and cooking copy, and I am attached to it. I found it many years ago in a used book store, and snapped it up. It is the sort of cookbook you can read for entertainment, but there are also a number of very good recipes I use often. It seems to be available in paperback, as does Cross Creek which I am embarassed to admit I have not read (yet).

I have been using Ms. Rawling's very nice recipe for cornbread slightly adapted) for some time. It is entirely and perfectly plain, though you can jazz it up with additions if you want. But I like it just as it is, for breakfast, with coffee or tea, warm, cold, toasted, with or without butter and/or homemade jam. It is especially delicious made with Anson Mills coarse yellow cornmeal, which I learned about reading Eggbeater, and ordered. It was definitely worth the trouble, and I'm getting some more.Img_2141_1
This is all you need:

1 cup all purpose flour
1 cup coarse yellow cornmeal (nicest stone ground available, or order from Anson Mills)
1/2 tsp sea salt
1/2 tsp baking soda
1 cup buttermilk or soured milk
1 egg
1/4 cup melted butter, bacon fat, or drippings

Put a well greased heavy 8 or 9 inch pan, preferably your well seasoned 8 or 9 inch cast iron skillet, in a cold oven and preheat oven and pan to 350F. Meanwhile, combine flour, cornmeal, baking soda. and salt in a bowl. Add buttermilk, mixing thoroughly. Depending on the age of your AP flour, it may absorb more liquid. You can add a bit more buttermilk when the batter seems too dry, which you will be able to assess with a little experience making this. (Sorry, not terribly helpful, I know...but true. It is really a matter of feel, I'm afraid....but not complex.) Add egg, mix. Stir in melted butter. Open the oven, pull out the rack with the pan, and pour the batter into the pan. Pop it back in the oven and cook 30-40 minutes, until golden.Img_2142_1

While looking for the site citations for this post, I began reading about Cross Creek, and decided I have been missing something. I understand from reading some reviews, that the book while "of it's time" (hmm, hope that doesn't mean it's racist, as is sometimes the case) shows an unusual sensitivity to environmental issues and is a well done evocation of the rural community. So I'll be looking for the book to find out about that.

Meanwhile, it turns out there is a movie of "Cross Creek", with Mary Steenbergen playing M. R., and her Cross Creek home is a Florida state tourist site! Who knew? I guess I should have realized that nothing about a Pulizer Prize winner would be obscure.

October 30, 2005

The Other Muffins: Blog Roll Prequel

Img_2043I had intended to try my hand at some "rough" puff pastry this week, armed with the advice of experts and some excellent pictures of the process. But then I snagged a modest pastry marble on ebay (for less, with postage, than one $42 pound of puff pastry from Williams-Sonoma) and decided to wait for its arrival.

I was nonetheless in the mood for baking. I was feeling the need for something toasted and buttered to have with my tea, after hurrying home from the bus stop in the chill and rain. My thoughts turned to crumpets, pikelets and English muffins. Each of these, in my mind, is a different sort of cross between a yeast pancake and unsweet tea bun. They are all especially well suited to the toast and butter treatment, and equally appealling for breakfast or with a cup of tea. Plus, each is a great vehicle for the delivery of homemade jam. and I do have a bit of that around the place. I am not opposed to the sweet American muffin, it just is different sort of thing entirely.

I turned to Elizabeth David's English Bread and Yeast Cookery for some thoughts and recipes. Crumpets and (English type) muffins had a chapter on their own, featuring a lot of interesting historical chat about these things, and recipes from various places and times. The nuances and differences among these traditional breads is apparently a matter of a heated debate, which Ms. David did not settle. I did discover that the store-bought pikelets, muffins, and crumpets which I had previously admired were universally considered "travesties" of the genuine article.

This made me a little nervous. Assuming that I picked a choice recipe, how would I know I'd done it properly, if the result was unlike anything I knew? Never fear. Not only did E.D. say which recipe for muffins was likely to be the most successful for the home baker, she included a description of how it ought to look when done, and how to toast it. I was all set.

I based my muffins on Ms.David's version of one given by Walter Banfield, in Manna, circa 1937.In common with a number of other period recipes, this one points to warming the flour, as the key to proper texture, as well as a clever dusting with rice flour, which helps somehow, as well. To make 8 extremely substantial muffins, you need:

1 lb of all purpose flour (I used King Arthur, and it was a bit over 3 cups)
a very scant tsp instant yeast (notquick rising, instant)
1 tbsp coarse salt
2 tbsps light olive oil
1 3/4 cups of mixed milk and water
1/2 tsp sugar
potato starch or rice flour or cornstarch

This is what you do. Put the flour in an oven proof bowl and heat it in a 285F oven for 5-10 minutes. Meanwhile, mix the milk, water and oil. Heat it in it's pyrex pitcher in the microwave to blood temperature. Take the bowl out of the oven, and with a wooden spoon, stir in the yeast, salt and sugar. Add the liquid and mix, starting with the spoon, and finishing with your hands to combine. Knead a few times, cover with a cloth, and let it rise for 50 minutes in a 70F temp area.

Divide the dough into 8 pieces. Dust your hands with the rice flour, and form each into a flattish round. Set on a surface dusted with rice flour, cover, and let rise a half hour more. Don't let it rise much longer than this. We are told that the texture will be off, if we do.

Prepare a griddle, heating it over a medium low flame. I used my cast iron one, which covers 2 of my gas burners, and will cook 8 muffins at once. Transfer the muffins carefully, with a spatula, and cook slowly for 15 minutes per side. I did this, and they looked right, but felt undercooked to me, even allowing for additional cooking while cooling off. As I had already increased the cooking time, and the outsides were quite biscuity looking enough, I popped them in the oven, at 350F, for 10 minutes more. This appears to have done the trick, without marring the characteristic muffin look.

Muffins should be a "good biscuit color on the top and bottom" with a "broad white band round the waist", 1 1/2" to 2" thick, lightly crusted on the outside, and "honeyImg_2033
combed" with holes inside. And so they were. According to one of Ms. David's sources, they should not be split before toasting. Rather, they should be "opened slightly at their joint all the way round", toasted, and then split and buttered. I will try this method, since our modern thick-slice toasters, designed for bagels and what have you, will permit it. But I may go back to fork splitting first, if I find I prefer it to this recommended toasting routine.

As I said, this makes a substantial muffin. This is not a light snack. I may be hunting up a crumpet recipe to try next, for something a little less likely to leave me unable to eat for the rest of the day. ...and I have a hearty appetite.

We are warned that muffins can dry out fast, so I will freeze some. I fear have a hankering for an old fashioned
"covered muffin dish,"

I am off to the grocery store, where I am going to get some cranberries and walnuts for my other baking project, shuna's cranberry bread. Then I will surely have everything I need for breakfast and tea, for some time.

October 17, 2005

Shammi's Curried Onion Egg Puffs

Img_1952_3Well, I have been wanting some of these guys since I saw their picture on Shammi's blog. They are simple, they are yummy, and they are a snack or a starter or your supper. Savory, and rather smart, they are also somehow a satisfying nursery food kind of treat.

I followed her excellent recipe (including also just a very small amount of shredded lime leaf from my little tree on the porch) baked them up, and have been dipping them in cilantro chutney and (yes really) tomato ketchup. A keeper. For some reason, I particularly like them with a cup of hot tea. YUM. Thank you, Shammi.

I am afraid that I may have to learn to make puff pastry. The grocery store freezer stuff is less nice than the other, simpler ingredients in this dish. Recently, I saw that all-butter, ready made puff pastry costs some forty dollars a pound(!) at Williams-Sonoma. The market for this item does not include yrs. truly. I'm mulling this over, not being much of a pastry hand. Does anyone experienced in this brand of magic have advice for the puff pastry novice? If I do this, which recipe should I try?

September 30, 2005

A Short Recipe for Little Cookies

Img_1824_1Although I have cooked my way through a good portion of Mireille Johnston's wonderful Cuisine of the Sun over the years, I hadn't tried these delicious crumbly walnut cookies until this week. I checked out the recipe because shuna mentioned she liked them. They seemed to be just the kind of cookies my elderly mother prefers with her tea, simple, but rich and interesting. When I go to visit her, she generally peeks in my bag to see if there are any cookies. I think she will be pleased with these when I stop in after work to see her.

These cookies could not be easier to make, and have few ingredients. It makes sense to use the best butter and freshest walnuts you can get. That being said, although I did have some really nice amish butter, the walnuts had been in the freezer forever, and the cookies are delicious anyhow. If you have a food processor, you can make them in a flash.

Otherwise, it might be hard to get the nuts chopped up finely enough, though you could probably do it carefully in a blender, a bit at a time. What you want is to get the walnuts to about the texture of steelcut oatmeal, and to be sure to stop before they turn into nut butter. If you are using a food processor, chop the nuts first, in bursts, and dump them out. No need to wash the container in between.

This is what you need:
1 cup finely chopped walnuts
1/4 lb butter, softened
1/4 cup sugar
2 tsp vanilla extract
1 cup unbleached AP flour
2 tbsps granulated sugar
2 tbsps confectioner's sugar

Preheat oven to 300 F .Chop walnuts and remove from food processor. Add butter and sugar to processor and whirr to cream. Add vanilla and flour and walnuts. Pulse until mixture clumps. Butter 2 baking sheets. Form the dough into very small balls-the recipe makes about 40- and set them about 2" apart. Bake 20-30 minutes, just until pale brown. Sprinkle cookies with granulated sugar, while warm. With a spatula, remove to a wire rack, over a piece of wax paper or parchment. When they are completely cool, sieve the confectioners sugar over all.

I think these little cookies are terrific. They would be nice with a fruit salad or a simple ice cream, and are very good with a cup of tea. I plan to serve them with some honey/thyme/saffron ice cream I'm working on, about which, more later.

September 24, 2005

Funny Honey

Img_1748On a 2 day work trip to Hershey, I fell victim to the farmstand at the Silding Hill rest stop on the PA turnpike. You see the results above. There were many other choices. I was especially interested in the honeys, which were unusual varieties. I picked tulip poplar honey as against basswood honey (neither of which I'd had before, both were dark) on the recommendation of the elderly woman who was selling them.

There is also some homemade elderberry jam, and more gorgeous local prune plums. I did not buy a pie, as I was on my way to a hotel, but I did actually purchase potato chips made with "pure lard", which you see here on the hotel desk, with my other stuff. Alone among these purchases the potato chips did not make it home. It is probably a good thing that this oh so healthy snack is not sold with the rest of the chips at the Giant Eagle, as they would be much harder to resist. I note that I virtuously purchased only the 1 1/2 oz bag, and not the extra large bag, which was also available. I am sorry to report that they were fabulous.

I have sampled the honey, and discovered that unlike most other dark honeys I've tried (buckwheat, chestnut), it is quite mild tasting. The flavor is neither odd nor exactly like any other honey I recall. I think the tulip poplar is actually a type of magnolia tree. It was very good baked on a halved acorn squash from the farmbox; I think it will be a nice honey to cook with.

Further re honey: My friend E. works as an accountant for several small interesting businesses, one of which is an apiary.Her client has told her a couple of things which I find startling. One is that he packs up his bees and goes south to somewhere in Florida for the winter with them. The other is that bees worldwide are threatened by some sort of virus which is very serious and either is new or more virulent than ever before.

If both of these things are true, it would seem that the first is a bad idea- why have large populations of bees moving around and spreading such a thing? Does anyone know if there really is such a virus? It seems odd that it would not have been in the newspapers-but maybe I just missed it. Wouldn't such a virus threaten the pollination of all sorts of crops?

I have looked around the internet a bit, and there seems to be information about more than one virus, carried by mites and affecting honeybees. I don't know how to tell if these are unusually virulent and threatening, or a common and manageable problem that always a part of beekeeping. I would appreciate an explanation,or reference to one. I certainly wouldn't like to think that there is a major threat to the continued existence of honeybees!

On (lighter, ha) honey topic: I am a fan of the flavor of lavender in foods, and I have enjoyed, well-enough, honey flavored with dried lavender. I would really like to try the real thing- honey made by bees raised in lavender growing areas. When I was in northern California a couple of years ago, I stumbled upon a shop run by people who grew lavender, and sold all sorts of fresh and dried lavender items, some very nice, others a bit fussy. I asked if they sold such honey, and was told (with unconcealed scorn) that it was all spoken for by their regular customers, who reserved it before it was harvested each year. I guess their location amid boutique wineries was an influence on this procedure. I was pretty thoroughly daunted.

I have seen a couple of places offering it by mail order, and may eventually succumb to the lure of paying as much for postage as for the item desired. It's awfully expensive, and heavy too, so I can't solve the problem the way I did with Malden's sea salt- by ordering 3 boxes or more at a time for the same total postage.Once I have dealt with my giant box of green tomatoes, I am contemplating some honey ice cream with thyme.

September 13, 2005

Dinner for R's Birthday Part I I: Prune-Plum Tart

Img_1589Once again, I am mixing up the order of a series of 3 posts about a dinner party with the dessert, this time, in the middle. This is not because of any wish to be contrary, but because the dessert is generally complete before anyone arrives. So it's easy to photograph ahead. Just so you know.

This dessert is not a birthday cake, per se. But I think it is charming, and it is easy and of the season. It looks dark and sticky, because it is. The Gourmet Cookbook,where I found it, notes that this would be a satisfying project for a beginning baker, because of its simplicity. I would qualify that , saying that for pastry, it is very easy indeed. But if you want to talk really easy, and good, there are any number of excellent cakes that are even simpler. This would include the one I'm making next. (Link at the end, read on.) I added the glaze, because I thought the homemade preserve would make a nice one. (Also, I was on a roll with this concept, after success with an orange almond cake glaze.)

This tart is made with italian-style prune plums. I was inspired by the raptures of my child, the redfox, with respect to the neglected, oft-ridiculed and entirely fabulous dried plum, a/k/a the prune. The prune type fresh plums have been especially good of late, even the supermarket ones. It may be that like grapes for wine, plums intensify in flavor in a dry growing season. Don Kretschmann, the farmer behind my CSA Farmbox, opined that this may be the reason that the tomatoes here in western PA have been so particularly good this year. (Last summer, which was rainy, the tomatoes were less stupendous.) Perhaps, if dried, these plums would make exceptional prunes. In any event, I got these tasty prune plums right at the old Giant Eagle. I had a hard time not eating them all up fresh. This is what I did with them:

A day ahead I made the tart shell and macerated the plums. I put the tart shell, covered, in the freezer, and refrigerated the plums in a ceramic bowl.

For the tart shell you need:

1 stick plus one tbsp good unsalted butter, chilled, and cut into cubes
1 1/2 cups flour
1/4 cup sugar
pinch salt
pinch grated lemon zest
3 egg yolks (my eggs are small, 2 extra larges would work)

Put everything but the yolks in a food processor and process in short spurts until it is about like oatmeal in texture. Add eggs and process just until it starts to clump. Remove pastry/dough in handfulls (handsfull?). Smear each handful across a clean surface (I used my big cutting board) with the heel of your hand, and then gather the lot up into a flat disc. Place the disc inside a 9" loose bottom tart pan, and spread the dough out evenly across the bottom, and up the sides. Bring it up a little bit higher than the pan sides. Chill, wrapped, until ready to bake. (I froze mine.)

For the filling you need:

about 26 little italian prune plums- halved and pitted
1/2 cup sugar
2 tbsps of cornstarch
squeeze of 1/2 lemon

Mix this up gently in a ceramic bowl. Crumple up some parchment paper, dampen and cover bowl with the paper, resting gently on the fruit. Refrigerate overnight.

Preheat oven to 425F. Arrange plums in pastry shell, skin side down, slightly overlapping, in concentric circles. (If you overlap them, when they shrink, they will still cover the whole tart bottom.)Pou all their juices and sugar over them. Put in oven for 25 minutes. Turn down to 375, cover loosely with foil, and cook for another 40 minutes or so. Remove from oven, to a rack.

Optional but very nice: Heat a jar of plum jam. If it is homemade plum jam with gewurtz and vanilla, that can be a plus. I think it would be pretty hard to find a plum jam that was unacceptable, though. In general, my plum jam consuming experiences have been very good indeed.

Pour about 3 tbsps of the liquified jam over the warm tart, and brush it over the plums with a pastry brush. This tart will look very wet when it first starts to cool ,even if you don't add jam, but it thickens and shines up nicely in the 2 hrs it takes to cool completely. After that you can take the sides off the pan to serve. Some creme fraiche is a good gilding for this lily. Very nice with coffee. Some port would not have been amiss. It is very prune-y tasting stuff, and I'm all for that.

Soon to follow (though in life it went before): Wild Mushroom Lasagna.

Next week when it's my turn to make Friday night dinner, I'm going to look for some more of these fine prune-plums, and make my daughter's plum cake for my friends. I will, however, beware of contact with the "Heat Bombs of Death." Let the plums continue....

September 08, 2005

Orange-flower Almond Cake: Oranges 5 Ways

Img_1566My friend who is coming to dinner gets sick if she eats chocolate, which is obviously pretty rotten for her. I wanted to make a simple, summery non-chocolate dessert; I did not want to just hand her a nice piece of fruit. I do that sometimes, and it's more than okay, what with the beautiful stone fruits and berries that are everywhere this summer. But I just felt like doing something a little more, that I could make ahead, rather than after work.

I have been messing around with chocolate quite a bit lately, and I was really taken with the flavors (and longevity) of the Mario Batali chocolate/coffee/almond cake I made. Not only was it delicious and soft like a cloud; the leftovers were wonderful with tea when I had the last piece several days later. I thought it would be great to find something very similar, only not chocolate. I found this cake in Elizabeth David's Mediterranean Cooking, and it looked like it might be just that thing.

E.D. didn't use the heating-the-egg-yolks-and-sugar technique that worked so nicely in the chocolate recipe,and there is no butter, but the cake is very similar in some other respects. It is flourless, has an almond meal and yolk combo, and egg whites are folded in at the last. Plain, but rich-which is my favorite sort of thing. Plus, I liked the idea of the fresh orange juice, orangeflower water and peel- all of the possible orange flavor elements. So I gave it a try.

This is what you need to make it:

4 eggs, separated
4 oz. almonds, ground
4 oz sugar
juice of two large or 3 smaller oranges
peel of orange
1 tbsp orange flower water
grated peel of the orange
1 tsp salt

Preheat oven to 350. Butter and flour a nine inch cake pan. Beat egg yolks, sugar and salt until pale.
Img_1569 Add peel, almonds, juice and orange flower water and mix until thoroughly combined. Beat egg whites until stiff. Fold into batter gently, but thoroughly. Pour batter into prepared pan, and bake about 40 minutes, or until cake begins to pull away from pan sides. Cool about 40 minutes, then turn out onto serving plate.

This cake makes your house smell wonderful while it bakes, in quite an exotic hot sugar/perfumey/casbah way. It is a bit plain looking, and E.D. suggests serving it with whipped cream. Which I would have done, had I not remembered my first preserves of the season, way back in the spring, ready to open now. These were Blood Oranges in Clementine Ratafia, which I made from a June Taylor Recipe in the NYTimes. Actually, I would not have thought of this but for Heath, who inquired, after them, and put them in my brain. This recipe may well be available through the NYTimes archives, but I'm sure there is a copy of the article on the June Taylor website, for which you will find the link here under (as you might expect) "Links."

So, I arranged some of these guys on the top of my cake, and poured a little ratafia syrup over all. Then I chilled it a bit to gloss up the syrup. Thus I have stumbled into Oranges 5 Ways: fresh juiced, preserved, peel, orange flower water and clementine ratafia. I like this cake and all its flavors very much; in addition to the various orange tastes, the almond really comes through. It is more dense than the mocha torte, but rich, rather than heavy. The syrup is a nice touch. We are going to have it with a blob of cream on top, too.

I do think it would be good quite plain with tea, and/or some fresh juicy fruit, sliced on top.

September 06, 2005

Meme: No Port in Chocolate Storm

Img_1543_2I am an enthusiastic and uneducated drinker of lots of wine. I think that I probably do not naturally have much of a palate in this area, however. I can seldom detect the leather, smoke, green pepper and other unusual flavors mentioned in tasting notes, unless someone tells me to look for them first. Thus far, the only idea of this sort which has ever leapt right out at me on my own is that New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs taste a whole lot like grapefruit juice(in a nice way.) All of them, though- not one particular one. Which is, perhaps, suspect?

So although I have been tempted to take part in a Wine Blogging Wednesday, the thought of producing some tasting notes on my own is pretty daunting. I picked Like Wine for Chocolate to have a go, because of the cooking opportunities, basically. And also, I was curious, having heard that various expert types have said that wine does not go with chocolate at all.

I cheated in several ways. First, I scooted around the search engines to see what people tell you to drink with chocolate, pretty sure that dessert wines would be mentioned. My miniscule collection of wine I'm keeping for a special occasion includes a couple of nice ones-a tokaji and a beerenaulese (sp?). I figured I could open one for my brother's birthday and we could all have it with a good chocolate dessert. But whoops- the dessert wine proponents were saying to go for a red dessert wine. Who knew? (Probably everyone but me)

Port seemed to be a good choice, but I didn't have any, and it's pretty expensive. So I got some of this Mavrodaphne of Patras, from Achala Clauss, which someone (I forget who) had specifically recommended- for $6.99, on sale! It was even the sort this pundit said was getting hard to find. Is it cool? I'm not so sure. I find it troubling that I cannot find the year on it anywhere.

My second cheat is that I did not make the dense chocolate cake recommended. I was simply not in the mood. I think my choice is really right in the same area though. I made a very plain, intense bittersweet chocolate ice, with sugar, water, and callebaut chocolate and I served it with a flourless italian mocha almond torte. The cake recipe is basically a Mario Batali one, but I added some of my M of P, instead of the rum or Marsala called for, in the hope of aiding the wine match. These desserts were pretty well received. No one was terribly interested in the wine, except me. A lot of people pretty much ignore dessert wines, it seems.

The recipe for the chocolate ice has already been revealed in the first part of this story. And in a minute, I am going to tell you how to make the torte, which is soft like a cloud and tastes very sophisticated, with or without the bittersweet sorbet. But I am sort of excited, because, to my surprise I actually have something to say about the wine, and the pairing. This is it: This wine tastes a lot like chocolate and coffee, as does the dessert (less surprisingly, I suppose.) Also, the dessert and the wine taste better together than they do apart, which is a very nice discovery indeed.

In fact, before tasting it with the chocolate desserts, the wine was pushing my boundaries of decent. I was afraid I might be mentioning a likeness to cough syrup. With the desserts, it tastes quite a lot nicer and more complicated. Strange and interesting.Img_1460_1

I do realize that this matchup is not clever of me, since the wine was recommended to go with chocolate by someone who presumably knows their stuff. But I didn't actually expect them to taste alike. Also, the coffee was not mentioned, but I'm entirely certain that the taste is there, in the wine, and not just in the cake. So this was all fun for me in the end.

On to the torte. The preparation is a little unusual, but not at all hard. I have a big pyrex bowl, which I set atop a 5 qt dutch oven of simmering water. I was able to remove the bowl when the cooked part of the batter prep was over, and fold the egg whites directly into that. So there wasn't even all that much cleanup.

You will need:
6 tbsps unsalted butter
1 1/4 cups sugar
6 eggs, separated
5 tbsps instant espresso
6 tbsps dutched cocoa
6 tbsps mavrodaphne of patras- or sweet red wine of choice
1 1/2 cups finely ground, blanched toasted almonds

Preheat oven to 375 F. Butter and flour a 9 inch cake pan.
Place a large (preferably pyrex) bowl over a large saucepan of simmering water. Melt the butter in the bowl. Add the sugar and yolks, whisking away so you don't scramble the eggs, for about 5 minutes. The color will lighten. Whisk in the rest of the ingredients,except the egg whites, sifting the cocoa as you add it. Keep whisking until smooth. Remove bowl from pan and turn off heat.

Beat eggwhites to soft peaks. Fold into batter carefully, but thoroughly. Pour the batter into your cake pan. Bake about 30 minutes, until the cake begins to pull away from the sides of the pan. Remove from oven, and cool, on rack, in pan for another half hour.It will continue to pull further from the sides of the pan, and be very easy to turn out. Do that, and dust with confectioner's sugar if desired. This is just very good indeed. Enhancements all around. Yum.

August 28, 2005

Lunch : Cafe at the Frick

Cafeinteriorsm_1When I was a little girl and we drove past the Frick Mansion in the family car, I announced that I was going to live in that house when I grew up. I was more than a little daunted when my usually encouraging parents said, "No you won't." They were right.

This Fifth Avenue victorian dinosaur of a house was then owned by Helen Clay Frick, the devoted spinster daughter of the late Henry Clay Frick. (you know-the guy who called out the Pinkertons to beat the workers to death during the Homestead Strike, while Andrew Carnegie was out of the country avoiding blame) When she died, Ms. Frick left the house and grounds and wonderful out buildings for a museum in honor of Dad. The museum includes the house and all its contents.

Thanks to her obsessive preservation of everything to do with her family, the house is a fascinating and detailed permanent life size exhibit of exactly how an upper class victorian/edwardian family lived in Pittsburgh. The grounds are beautiful, and there is a wonderful art museum. The art museum has shows of just the right size, so that you can see the whole thing, without getting exhausted and glazed over.

My friend D. and I went for a second look at the super exhibit of Margaret Bourke White photos scheduled to close next weekend, and had lunch at the Cafe at the Frick. This pretty place is in a separate out building with lots of windows, a patio with tables and an arts and crafts era look. They do lunches and teas. The food is very nice, but also quite expensive for what it is. Lucky for me, D. had a coupon for a substantial discount, part of his bonus for being a member of the museum. Needless to say, I neglected to bring my camera, so could not take pictures of my food, which was very pretty, as well as tasty. Virtually all of the tables are window tables, so you sit looking at the patio and garden.

Our server brought some really nice breads, which they make on the premises, with an olive oil and vinegar thingy to eat while contemplating our choices. One bread had sunflower seeds on the top, and was especially tasty. I picked a barbequed Duck Sandwich, and D. had the Veal Saltimbocca Burger, but we agreed from the start that we'd have half of each, since we had both been undecided as to which of the two we wanted.

They were both really good. In the Saltimbocca burger, the proscuitto was apparently ground in with the veal, since you couldn't see it, but the taste was there. It had cherry-sage cheese, tomato and frisee topping, and was served on an onion bun, with a very nominal amount of excellent green-bean/ potato salad. The sandwich itself was huge and delicious.

Also huge and delicious was the Duck sandwich, served on a "panna bella" roll. This crisp crusted round roll was so good that I inquired after it, and learned that unlike the other breads, it was made at a place called "Meditteraineo" or something to that effect, not in house. Hence, I am determined to find it and get me some. The nicely sauced barbequed duck was topped with a jicama-chipotle slaw, and served with "plainain chips." I am not real familiar with plantains, but I know this wasn't a chip; it looked like half a carmelized banana. Because of my lack of familiarity with this fruit, I don't know what the texture is supposed to be like. If it was a banana, I would have thought that it was pretty, uhm, firm. I wasn't really crazy about that touch. Small matter, though. the sandwich itself was yummy and substantial too.

I had some truly delicious Russian Caravan tea, served in a pretty china cup, with a teapot, loose tea, strainer and sugar lumps. They blend their own and it is well worth drinking several cups. You can get more hot water, and go to town.

Someone of note once said that if you order roast chicken or creme brulee, and a restaurant does it well, chances are that it is a reliable place to eat. I am always quoting this chestnut to justify ordering these items, both of which are favorites of mine. The Cafe at the Frick passed this test with flying colors. D and I shared a Green Tea Creme Brulee. I consider myself something of an expert (having sampled so many), and this was absolutely one of the very best. It was served in a shallow white porcelain mini tart pan, which allowed for a good bit of carmelized surface. It was creamy, it was fragrant, and the caramel crust was thin and shattery and perfect.

I have never experienced their afternoon tea service, but I'd love to, as their tea and pastry and sandwiches are terrific, and that's basically what there is, or you can get artisanal cheese platters, which sound pretty good, too. Anyway, the whole afternoon was a treat. The Margaret Bourke White exhibit is amazing.

August 24, 2005

Friands to the End


These little cakes or cookies called "financiers" or "friands" are almost unbearably cute, and are so delicious. They do have a bit of a teddy bears' picnic look, but they are very richly flavored and entirely grown up. I can't think of anything I'd rather have with my tea or coffee. I have not made these cookies before, but I've always admired them. I recently found a little silicon baking mold that will do 20 at a time, so I was ready to go. I had a Dorie Greenspan model in Paris Sweets and a Bugat model inThe French Cookie Book..

Both of these books have produced reliable results for me. Nonetheless, I meddled and mixed things up a bit, attempting to retain the elements the two recipes had in common, and hoping that the end product could still be considered a financier or friand. This is what I did to make 40 of these little tablets-each 1"X2"X3/4". Of course you can make them in different sizes- Dorie Greenspan says she sometimes makes them in mini muffin tins. You would, of course, adjust your baking time. I think the classic ones are done in tiny, individual molds, on a baking sheet.

First, I skinned some almonds, and saved 40 halves for toppings. Naturally, it is not necessary to blanch your almonds, you can buy them this way. I just didn't have any blanched ones when my silicon mold came in the mail, and I couldn't wait. I also discovered (by accident) that if you leave the almonds in the boiling water a little too long while blanching them, the halves practically separate themselves. (It is also not necessary to put almonds on them at all. You could have them plain. Or, as Ms. Greenspan does, you could top them with a sliver of fruit.)

I then put 1/3 cup of the almonds and 1/3 cup of confectioners sugar in the food processor, and ran it until it looked evenly grainy, added 4 tbsps more confectioners sugar, and pulsed it until it looked floury. I was careful to stop before itturned to nut butter. This went in the bowl of my electric mixer through a sifter, with 1/4 cup of all purpose flour and 1/4 cup of granulated sugar. I added 3 egg whites, and 1/2 tsp of vanilla. I mixed this all up with the balloon whisk, until it was smooth.

Then I put 6oz of really nice unsalted butter in a small pan, melted it, and boiled it up just until it began to get brown and smell like nuts, and poured it through a fine sieve into a bowl. I turned the mixer back on slow, added the browned butter in a thin stream, and kept the mixer going until the batter was cooled. It smelled really good.

After I made the batter, I had to let it sit in the fridge for a couple of hours at least, or up to a week. The longer option could actually, in some circumstances prove very handy, no? I went with the shorter choice this time. I then preheated the oven to 450F, put the silicon tray on a baking sheet, and brushed the pockets with butter. I filled each pocket almost to the top with batter (which had become quite thick) and topped each with an almond half. You could pipe these in with a pastry bag, but I found that a well aimed, heaping iced tea spoon was just fine.

After 12 minutes in the oven, they were golden and a little brown around the edges, and ready to come out . I gave them 4 or 5 minutes on a rack in the mold, and then they were no trouble to pop out of the mold with the tip of a short ,sharp knife, and put face up on the rack to finish cooling.

They are very rich and are very very perfect with steaming hot tea or espresso. I absolutely love them to bits. Did I mention that they smell wonderful?

August 19, 2005

From Normandy, Without Apples

Img_1319I am pleased with my latest used cookbook purchase. It is called The French Cookie Book,and is by the French pastry chef Paul Bugat of the Patisserie a la Bastille in Paris and a co-author, Bruce Healy. This tome (a word which apparently just means "big book"-I thought it might imply that it was a compendium or authority-seems not) has zillions of recipes for what look to be the kinds of cookies I love best. As it turns out, these are often french cookies. (Nothing against the great American Oatmeal Cookie, straight off the Quaker Oats box, which I adore, the rugulah, the hamentaschen, the tablet of shortbread......)

It's just that so many of the cookies in my new/old book seem to be the sort that are simple, but rich. That also happen to be the kind of homemade cookie my mother likes to have with her tea. She politely requests that I bring her some, on a fairly regular basis. This gives me both a reason to make some cookies, and a fairly good chance of not eating them up all by myself.

I found this book noodling around Townsend Booksellers, a very nice bookshop for used cookbooks, and other used books, in the Oakland Section of Pittsburgh, near Craig Street. Whoever picks the cookbooks for this drowsy little store, has pretty good judgment. The selection is not huge, but it is right on. The shop is in an old townhouse, and it is near my favorite Indian grocery (which has a nice side business in Bollywood movies.) It is also not far from one of the few brick and mortar art supply shops left in town. When I have made a small purchase at each one of these shops, I get on the 61C bus home feeling indulged and satisfied.

The directions in my cookie book are very clear and well done, and the cookies are organized by the techniques involved, so that it is possible to learn a lot of useful stuff in a coherent fashion. There are many here I want to try. I decided that the first would be the sables "in the style of Caen", Caen being in Normandy. Unlike nearly everything else from Normandy, these cookies contain no Calvados, and no apples.

They use what I believe is a french style pastry making type of technique, which I have not tried before, and which makes things interesting. There is a bit of chilling involved, so you might want to mix the dough the night before you bake. The recipe has been minimally altered to suit defects in my equipment. You, of course, may make your own adjustments. I do think the cookies would have been noticeably prettier if my square cookie cutter had scallops, like the one in the book.

This is what you do:
You can work on your counter, or a board. I worked on my big heavy cutting board. If I had a marble pastry area or board, that would be really slick, because it could be chilled. You set out 1 1/2 sticks of softened unsalted butter. The butter shouldn't be too mushy. Over this, you sift 3 oz (2/3 cup plus 2 tsps) of confectioners sugar. You mix these together in the following fashion: Schmooch the butter away from you on the board or counter with the heel of one hand, and scrape it back toward you with a dough scraper held in the other hand. Do this until it is mixed smooth.

If you feel the butter is melting, stick everything in the fridge for a bit. (Throughout this recipe, when things get sticky, take a moment for this remedial action. ) Over the mixture, sprinkle 2 sieved hardboiled egg yolks, 2 tbps milk, and 1 1/2 tsps vanillla. With your fingertips, mix this all together. Then, over the whole thing, sift 8 oz. (1 1/2 cups) all purpose flour. Do the schmeering thing again, incorporating the flour. Gather it all up, and form it into a square about 1 1/2 inches thick, on some wax paper or parchment, and wrap it. Refrigerate this for at least 2 hours, or up to 3 days.

The dough is then rolled out to about 1/8" thick, on a floured surface, and cut with a 3" square cutter. I got 16 cookies, though they had suggested 20. Each is laid on a cookie sheet, and brushed with an egg wash. The egg wash is allowed to dry for about 20 minutes in the fridge, and 4 almonds are then pressed into each cookie, in the pattern you see here. While the cookies are chilling, you preheat the oven to 350F.

As these cookies are quite thin and flaky, I think the whole almond is a bit too thick. Doing it again, I'd use some nicely shaped slivered almonds in the same pattern instead. (If I were capable of halving an almond without shattering it, that would be ideal. I was not, however, put on this earth to carve almonds.) You bake these for 18-20 minutes.

These cookies have a nice flavor,are pleasantly flaky, tender and not too sweet. I'm not blown away by their wonderfulness, however. They have a decent chance of pleasing the recipient tomorrow, and I believe they will be good with her tea. I'll be trying another sort from the book pretty soon, I think.

August 13, 2005

The Other Egg Salad

Img_1274 It may look ordinary, dull even, but this egg salad is special and richly flavored. You can serve it as a starter at a party, with flatbreads, as well as smeared generously on toasted bagels, for a fine brunch item. Or, spread it carefully on thinly sliced white or wheat bread, and make savory crustless sandwiches to have with a pot of hot tea.

This eastern european hybrid is my favorite egg salad. A closely related egg salad was laboriously chopped by multiple old bubies. It has been made infinitely easier to prepare by the food processor. I've fixed it with the traditional bowl and rocking mezzaluna method, and it is not my intention to repeat the experience, ever, though you are welcome to try it. I would strongly suggest the food processor if you have one. I think the texture is even better, if you are careful, and you are far less likely to sweat and moan. Possibly, you could sieve the eggs instead. This is what you do:

First, you hardboil 8 eggs, and cool and shell them. You probably already knew that very fresh eggs are hard to shell, but if you didn't, you do now. I saw someone on television demonstrate a technique which, I find, produces the least shell-clinging waste. (She was famous, and she was french, but I missed the intro.) This small dark lady tapped the egg all around its circumference on the sink edge, and carefully picked off the resulting cracked strip across the middle. The two sides came off easily thereafter, as if by magic. It works for me.

Heat a generous 2 tbsps of a light olive oil in a frying or saute pan over a medium heat and add a medium onion, sliced thinly. Cook it slowly, and when it just begins to color, add 4 or 5 ounces of sliced crimini mushrooms (or other mushrooms, preferably dark.) Cook this all very slowly, until its liquid is mostly absorbed, then set aside to cool.

When everything is cool, put the eggs, broken up a bit in your hand, into the food processor. Drain any remaining liquid from the onions and mushrooms, and add them, with sea salt and plenty of pepper, and a generous amount of fresh dill or a lesser amount of fresh tarragon. Now, pulse the processor, keeping a careful eye on the bowl. You want this evenly chopped into very tiny pieces, but you want it to stay fluffy, and not go creamy. (This creaminess should not happen until later, at the very moment you spread it on something nice, with a knife.)

Now, carefully, with a light hand, fold in 3 tbsps of mayo, and gently spoon the salad out of the bowl and into little crocks or baby souffle dishes, cover with plastic wrap, and chill for several hours to allow the flavors blend.

You should let your guests spread this on their toasted bagels or flatbreads, but if you are going to have tea sandwiches, you can make them a bit ahead, and cover them with a barely damp, clean dish towel to keep the thin bread from drying out. This spread is surprisingly full flavored and lavish. If I could, I'd sprinkle some tiny black caviar over my egg salad on a toasted bagel. Smoked Spanish paprika is nice too, and quite pretty.

Someday I am going to make this with just the yolks and stuff it into the hardboiled egg whites. That way we could have our egg salad as finger food- no need for plates, knives, or even bread. I haven't tried this yet.

I considered submitting this as my entry for the most recent eomeote , after having been mildly scolded for failing to observe the occasion. I was sure it would work until I discovered that there was a Harry Potter topic. Aside from declaring this to be a "magic" egg salad, which didn't seem like a very clever idea, or saying it would soon "disappear" (ditto), I was unable to hook up with the theme. I do like Harry, I just couldn't find any common ground with my egg salad. Maybe next month.

August 01, 2005

Farmbox VII: (Another) Apple Cake for Harry 1953

Img_1102When I was little, there was a period when I spent all my Saturday mornings visiting Bubie Bella and Zeide Max, my paternal grandparents, at their little row house in Squirrel Hill, near where we lived at the time. Bubie and I had a schedule of Saturday morning tv viewing which was sacrosanct and unvaried. I'm not sure how we arrived at it, but we both enjoyed certain programs in particular: Sky King, Rin Tin Tin, Fury ("the story of a horse and the boy who loved him"), and most of all, The Lone Ranger. Annually, there was a repeat of the one hour special explaining how the Lone Ranger acquired his strange identity, his horse Silver, and his taciturn companion, Tonto. This was a special occasion, which Bubie and I anticipated with particular relish, and discussed ahead of time, for weeks.

Zeide was usually at work when I arrived in the morning, and Bubie, wearing a full-body apron with frills on the side , was waiting on the sofa, tv tuned in. Around noon, Zeide, who was a cabinet maker, and went to the shop in the morning on saturdays, arrived with a deli lunch of smoked whitefish, cream cheese, and bagels and onion rolls. We had this little feast with salad every Saturday when I was there. Generally, for dessert I had a cupcake, which Zeide brought back from the Waldorf Bakery, along with more sophisticated pastries the grownups preferred. On a few occasions, though, we had an apple cake I really liked, which Bubie made herself.

Bubie was a traditional eastern european Jewish cook, though not a kosher one; hers was not an orthodox or observant household. Years later, I read a book called Miriam's Kitchen , about a woman getting to know her mother-in-law while they cooked traditional food together. A recipe for an apple cake which strongly resembled the one Bubie made appeared in this book, and I was moved to try it. I served it for dessert, without comment, when my parents came to dinner. My father said, "This is almost exactly like a cake Bubie made, only better-her's was a little bit dry." Never one to tell a little white lie about food, my late father, Harry, was a huge fusspot on the topic. And he ate a large piece of this cake. Thus, I think we can be sure that this is pretty much the cake my Bubie made, and that it's not too bad. I thought I'd make one of these to finish off the last of the huge box of green windfall apples I got with my farmbox last week.

When I first made this cake, I made the whole huge recipe, just as in the book. This was just too much cake for any situation, except maybe a soup kitchen or shelter. So I cut the recipe in half most of the time.. I also use butter, instead of margarine. Kosher ladies would have used the margarine, so as not to limit the cake to milk meals. But Bubie was not a kosher lady, and I believe she would have preferred to use butter, rather than margarine, in those situations where her first choice fat, schmaltz, was clearly unsuitable. It tastes more like Bubie's cake, and I think better, with the butter. I was a little nervous about making this cake with the green apples, since I had always used ripe apples before, but it turned out fine. This is what you do:

Preheat oven to 350F.
On a piece of parchment or wax paper, put, in a little pile:
1 1/2 tsps baking powder
3 cups all purpose flower
dash salt

Make a hollow in the middle, and put in
2/3 cup sugar, 2 eggs, and 2/3 stick softened unsalted butter

With a fork at first, and later switching to fingers, begin blending the outer edges in. Use a light touch. As it begins to come together a bit, add two oz. of canola oil and the juice of a small orange. Keep mixing until it is uniform and resembles a light pastry dough. Sprinkle some more flour on your base paper, and form the dough into 2 balls, kneading it lightly. One ball should be 1/3 of the dough, the other 2/3. Wrap them in the paper they've been sitting on, and tuck in the fridge while you make the filling.

Grate 3 pounds of apples using a food processor, if you have one. If you don't, this is very tedious work. I include the skins, removing only the stems and cores. This recipe is thus suited very well to tiny windfall apples, which are horrible to peel. This filling will get very brown. You are not to fuss, or feel you must add lemon. Mix with 8 oz golden raisins, 2/3 cup white sugar, 2 tbsps matzoh meal. 1/4 tsp ground cloves and 1/2 tsp cinnamon.

Butter an 8" square pan. I have used my favorite earthenware one. Pyrex is good also. It is best not to use metal; there is a very long cooking time, and your cake could get too dark.

Now, discard all feelings of pride you have concerning your dexterity with the creation of pastry dough.
You are going to be rolling out this cakey dough, big one first, into approximate rectangles, which you will patch together to line the bottom and sides of your pan, coming about 1" over the top on the sides. This is the intended method of construction. There is enough dough to do this without overhandling, if you don't have an overwhelming need for a tidy process or result. If you are too clever, you will run out of dough.

Put your filling in the pan. Roll out the other ball of dough to cover the top. You can patch this too. If you are making my small recipe, you may well do this part in one piece. In the original giant double recipe, it cannot be done. Set the dough lid on top, and roll the outside edges of the underneath part around the edges of the top.

Rub or brush the top very generously with canola oil. With a sharp knife, cut through the entire top layer of dough into squares of serving size. This will make the servings pretty later, and prevent unsightly shattering. Sprinkle the top generously with sugar and cinnamon, hiding your joins and patches, if you have them.Bake 90 minutes. Cool a long time, on a rack. It is nice to serve this slightly warm, and it can be gently reheated if you want. It can be a coffee cake, or a dessert. Like the Dorset Apple Cake, it is yummy and decadent topped with english-style runny custard.

I took this along as my dessert/ contribution to Friday Night Dinner, which this week included toasts to a recent wedding, and to the first fulltime job for a fine first grade teacher. Thus ends the saga of the apple windfall. Those few apples unaccounted for here were used in a pork chops and apples dish, which also included my farmbox cabbage, made into an Italian-style sauerkraut. We had it for dinner Thursday night, with thin skinned new potatoes and dill, also from the farmbox.

July 31, 2005

Provencal Pine Nut Crescents

Img_1032I understand from my mother that her cookie jar is empty, and that she would like something home made, please, to have with her tea. She does not much care for cake, so the Dorset Apple Cake I just made is not really a contender. And though I am committed to using up all my windfall apples, I don't think an apple cookie (should there be such a thing) sounds like her sort of treat at all. So I've put the apples aside for the moment, to fix something more suitable to take her after work tomorrow. I haven't made this recipe before, but I though she might like it, since it is not too sweet or too damp.

As it turns out, these cookies are very nice. The orange flower water, pine nuts and glaze of chestnut honey, give them a mildly exotic, resiny flavor. The recipe I used comes from an old and out of print paperback Sunset Cookbook, called Country French Cooking , from 1981. My copy has an entirely detached front cover, due to having been much used. The recipes in this little number have proved surprisingly reliable over time. I picked these cookies because I had a few pine nuts and a little bit of chestnut honey I wanted to use up. It doesn't call for chestnut honey specifically; you can use any kind of honey you happen to have. I did think the bitter quality of the small amount of chestnut honey worked well. I certainly wouldn't buy it just for the little bit here, though; it cost the earth.

You need: 1/2 lb butter
2/3 cup brown sugar, packed
3 egg yolks
1 tsp grated orange peel
1 tsp orange flour water (they say this is optional, but I'd get some. It's lovely and summery and makes your fruit salads taste Persian)
1/2 tsp vanilla
2 1/3 cups all purpose flour
1/2 cup pine nuts
2 tbsp honey, chestnut if you have it


Preheat oven to 325F, and prepare 2 baking sheets with parchment paper or silpats.
Beat the butter and sugar until creamy. Add egg yolks, one at a time, beating after each. Slip in peel, orangeflower water, and vanilla. Mix in flour until well blended.

For each cookie, roll about a tablespoon of the dough in to a ball. Then roll it into a 5" rope, bend it into a crescent shape, and set it on the sheet. Leave about 2" between the cookies. Press the pine nuts in randomly.

Warm the honey in a microwave, or in a small pan on a low heat. Brush the cookies carefully with the honey. Try not to get any on the pan, as it will burn. You may have to replace a few jostled pine nuts.

Bake 22 minutes, or until golden brown. Remove to a rack to cool.

I will take some of these in a package to my mother, and feed some to my friend Ilene with some fruit salad after she's had her dinner . It is also entirely possible that I will eat some myself. I've already had one, just to make sure they were alright. They are.

July 26, 2005

Lady Moon's Dorset Apple Cake

The two branches of my personal family tree have some striking similarities, particularly considering their surface differences. One side, my father's family, were jews from Lodz, in Poland who emigrated to the US in the late 1800's. My mother's family were originally londoners from the East End. My mother was a WWII war bride, who came to Pittsburgh on the QE I, with a boatload of other war brides, at the ripe old age of 21. It always made us laugh to hear my parents referred to as a "mixed" marriage. Of course there were lots of cultural differences, but so many of their basic standards and attitudes, and those of their families, were so very alike.

What has always amused me, though, are the weird little coincidental oddities which were inexplicably similar, or even identical in the two families. One great grandfather on each side was a shoemaker, for example. Then there was the sad fact that everyone was always fleeing. My mother's family included french hugenots, who fled to protestant England to escape persecution. My father's family purportedly fled Spain or Portugal to eastern europe during the Inquistion..not to mention the polish pogroms my grandparents fled.

An especially nonsensical similarity which I find amusing is this: Both of my grandmothers, when they felt their daughters were being la-di-da and pretentious, would say, "Oh, look at you, Lady Moon." Lady Moon. Where on earth (sorry, sorry), did that come from? As you can imagine, my mother has passed this gentle put-down along to me.

And what, you may well ask, does all of this have to do with the topic at hand? Not, perhaps , alot. But when I was mulling (har) over the possibilities for the green windfall apples left over from part one of my "pectin broth" plan, memories of two apple cakes emerged simultaneously from the muddle which is my subconscious. Each is a standard from one side of my family. They are both "plain", but rich, not very sweet, keep well, and are meant to be enjoyed with tea or coffee, more than as a dessert. They are also quite different.

I can see that if I'm going to make both cakes, I am going to have to present them, in a friendly manner, to other folks who can be counted on to consume the lion's share of each. Naturally, I will attempt to pick recipients who will offer me a taste of their cake gift. This will save me from the awkwardness involved in offering them cakes with missing slices.

I am going to make my Uncle Ted's Dorset Apple Cake first, because it is less elaborate, and easier to fix than Bubie's Apple Cake. My Uncle Ted lived with my Auntie Louie , her husband ( "Uncle Charles") and my grandmother ("Nanny" or "Big Nanny".) This was not a situation where the elderly parent moved in with her adult children. Rather, Louise and Ted, two of Nanny and Grandad's eight children, had simply never left home. By the time I knew them well, they were all retired, and had moved to a large pretty house with a beautiful big garden, in Eastbourne, on the south coast.

Uncle Ted, who retired rather young because he was having periodic "blackouts" or "spells", had been the head of all the catering for the Port of London Authority, responsible for both the ordinary meals, and galas for dignitaries and fancy types. Not a chef himself, he had always worked with professional cooks and chefs of many sorts, and paid close attention to their doings. On retirement, he became the chief cook of the household, specializing in very good "plain" cooking, often including the homegrown vegetables which Uncle Charles produced in the garden. Several times when we visited, Uncle Ted made a "Dorset Apple Cake", using the Bramley apples from the semi-dwarf apple trees in the garden. I thought it was particularly nice.

The internet and my English cookbooks are replete with recipes having the same name. Many of them are similar to this one, which I chose to try,after adapting it for american measurements and ordinary flour, because it seemed most like what I remembered. This version apparently comes, in its original form, from an odd (to me) magazine called Country Life, which seems to be aimed at people who like to imagine that they are rural gentry, and that WWII has not yet occured. This is how you make the cake:

2 cups flour
1 stick unsalted butter
4 oz sugar(use more, at your discretion, if using truly green, unripe apples)
1 tbsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
grated rind of one lemon or lime
1/2 pound apples, skinned, cored and diced
1 egg, beaten

Preheat oven to 375 F. Thoroughly butter an 8" cake pan. Put flour, salt, and baking soda in a bowl and whisk to mix. Using your fingers or a pastry blender, work the butter into the flour, until it has the texture of dry breadcrumbs. Work in the sugar. Add the apples and peel, mixing well, preferably with a light hand. Finally, add the egg and mix in until the dough clumps. Spoon into your pan, and smooth surface in an approximate way. Bake for about 40 minutes, until golden.

This is a moist, puddingy cake, and hence more forgiving than the sponge/genoise sort. You can adjust the amount of sugar, depending on the sugar in your apples. I actually like mine pretty tart. This cake is good with tea or coffee, or for breakfast if you are a bit decadent.Uncle Ted used to serve it with runny custard, which ups the richness ante. Bubie's apple cake, which I plan to do next, should use up the remaining green apples. That one, while also coffee cake-ish, is a bit fancier and slightly sweeter. Maybe I will offer to bring it for dessert for Friday night dinner. The Dorset Apple Cake may be coming to work with me.

July 07, 2005

The Hunt For "Chinese" Chews 1957

Img_0757My mother, formerly a really terrific and imaginative cook, has given up cooking for reasons I don't entirely understand. She has not, however, given up food , although she no longer reads cookbooks in bed, like novels, a trait she has passed on to me, and to my daughter. My mother has retained a strong interest in the food category of cookies and other things to have with your tea.

Never much of a baker herself, and not liking things too sweet, she nonetheless craves a certain sort of adult-type homemade cookie or biscuit. I try to bring her some when I come to visit and to take her out walking. She is politely grateful for my madeleines and shortbreads, and adores the gorgeously arranged, delicious cookies her grandaughter sends. But she waxes especially nostalgic about a very nice bar cookie, called "Chinese Chews" (there is nothing chinese about them, I guess they just seemed exotic in the fifties in England). She used to make them sometimes herself, from a recipe she got from her older sister, my Auntie Louie. They were always scarfed up when she served them.

These cannot have been a childhood treat, her WWII child-of-rationing past wouldn't square with the quantities of butter. My best guess is that she probably got the recipe from her sister during our 1957 visit, when my parents took out a loan so that she could take my brother and me to see the family for the summer. Such a trip was a much bigger deal then- it took 12 hours each way on a TWA 4 engine prop plane. Later, she and my father were able to go every summer- for awhile, they even had their own cottage there.

Anyhow, the recipe was typewritten (both my mother and my aunt had been secretaries,and had their own Underwoods, the kind with keys on stilts that I couldn't depress with one finger to save my life. My mother could type like lightening on this sort of thing, when she worked for George Weidenfeld at the BBC in the forties.) The recipe was filed, along with certain other loose recipes, in my mother's copy of the New York Times Cookbook. To my dismay, this copy got lost in the shuffle several years back, when we helped my parents move to their assisted living apartment, while my father was very sick, shortly before he died.

So we have made it a bit of a project, my mother and I , to reconstruct the recipe for these cookies. I tried countless recipes of the same name, various other types of date and nut bars, and I made things up. Close, but no cigar. She carefully tasted each one, always saying they were very good, but did not have quite the same flavor. She was right, there was something different. She was pretty sure there were no exotic ingredients involved. I have to say, I was getting kind of obsessed and frustrated. Then one day, I found this recipe- sized up for institutional food service, on a site about school lunches. The key was: el cheapo pressed dates! I made them, and they were the thing, absolutely. They were also tasty and satisfying. At this point, though, I can't tell you if they are actually special in any kind of disinterested way. I can tell you they are our Chinese Chews on the nose. This recipe makes about a million cookies; I almost always halve it:

1 lb butter
3 cups sugar
1 tbsp vanilla
4 cups flour
4 eggs
1 tbsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
2 cups walnuts, toasted and chopped coarsely
2 pkgs pressed dates
confectioner's sugar

Preheat oven to 350. Butter 2 sheet pans. Cream butter and sugar. Add vanilla and eggs and mix well. Add flour, baking powder and salt. Mix well again. Cut the dates up with scissors or break into smallish bits with a cool hand. Add the nuts and dates and fold in gently, trying not to totally smear in the dates. You are aiming for an even distribution, but are not creaming them in like butter. Bake about 35 minutes, until a broomstraw in the middle comes out clean. This could take longer, depending on the size of your baking sheet. Remove from oven and set on a rack to cool. While still warm, sift the confectioner's sugar over the top. When cool, cut into bars and serve.

Okay, you caught me. The nuts were not toasted in the original. But almost all baked goods with nuts in are, in my opinion, improved if you freshly toast the nuts before adding. You just put them single layered on a baking sheet, and put them in a moderate oven until they start to smell good. There is some magic effect here, which cannot be denied. My mother agrees that they are even better when I do this.

June 11, 2005

Lavender Shortbreads

Img_444My mother, who is 80 years old, and has an apartment in an assisted living building near me, likes me to bring her home made cookies to have with her tea. She used to be quite an inventive cook, but totally lost interest in cooking some time ago. Her residence serves meals in a dining room. Each apartment has a little fridge and microwave, and she has an electric tea kettle, which sees alot of use. But she never cooks. There is a fully equiped kitchen on her floor, in case the residents want to use it...but I have never seen anyone do so.

It is hard for me to understand how someone who used to read cookbooks like fiction, for entertainment, could have given up cooking so entirely. From time to time, I ask her if she'd like me to bring some things over, and do some cooking with her, but she always says, "No thanks."

She has not given up on food, however. I go there often to take her out for a walk to the library, or shopping and a restaurant lunch. Her building is right in the middle of our bustling Squirrel Hill neighborhood, but she is reluctant to cross streets herself, now that she gets confused, doesn't see so well, and walks slowly.

She always peeks in my bag to see if there are cookies. Today I took these, which I like alot with my tea. I hope she will like them; they may seem a lttle odd to her. Her favorites are called "Chinese Chews" and are made from a recipe from her older sister. They are really good, and simple. I will write about them, and about how we lost the recipe and reconstructed it, another time.

I tied these up with a bow, because that way they seem like a present, which she likes. Probably when I go there next time, she will make me a cup of tea, and offer me a cookie. Unless she decides to eat them for breakfast, which she does, from time to time.

If you are as lucky as I am, and have an actual brick and mortar Penzey's Spices right in your neighborhood (!), you can get food quality lavender there. It was not in the catalog last I checked, or on the shelf. You must ask. I don't know why, and neither did the Penzey's guy, who brought it out from behind the counter as if it was embarassing or illegal. Perhaps they will add it to the catalog in time. If you are not quite so smiled upon by Fate, your best bet is a heath food store or new-age or old hippy-type herb shop.

1 stick unsalted butter (get the nicest you can, shortbread is all about butter)
1/4 cup sugar, plus more for dusting
1 cup all purpose flour (preferably King Arthur, it just seems to produce the best results)
1/4 cup cornstarch
1/4 tsp salt (you're gonna think I'm crazy, but sea salt if possible)
1 tbsp food quality dried lavender

Preheat oven to 350. Cream the butter and sugar. Add the flour, cornstarch and salt, and mix it until it looks like a piecrust just before it comes together. Add the lavender, and mix in gently. Gather up the dough, and squish it together a bit. Put it in an 8" square pan, and smooth it until it is even. I use a dough scraper. Take a fork, and make dotted lines, dividing it into 16 squares. Sprinkle with a little sugar, and bake about 30 minutes, turning the pan around halfway through.Img_0427_1They should be only very lightly tinged with gold.

I actually bake these in an earthenware pan, which I find helps to get them thoroughly done, without browning too much. It is a much loved Emile Henry Artisan Series pan, which I got on sale. This line does not seem to sell very well for them, and is often reduced. It is made to look like their 19th century ware. It therefore resembles alot of drip glazed inexpensive pottery, and perhaps this discourages some buyers of high end stuff. It is made by a techique called "estampage", which "involves laying by hand a layer of soft clay over a plaster mold of the final shape," which "gives it it's authentic look." It has all the wonderful magical qualities of the Emile Henry Burgundian clay, which means that it takes temperature extremes like a trooper, is easy to clean, and can even be used on a gas stovetop, with a flame tamer. And personally, I think it is very pretty.

Once you have removed the shortbread from the oven, you sprinkle on a bit more sugar, and put the pan on a cooling rack. If you cut the squares before they cool, along the lines, with a very sharp knife, once they cool, you will have no trouble taking them out of the pan. As you can see, I have used some very silly purple and silver sanding sugar left over from a Mardi Gras cake debacle. Generally, I use regular sugar, which is more sedate. Some people will make fun of you for "eating flowers" even if you do not use silly sugar.

May 28, 2005

Tea and Toast Part III- Toast

I was sure that John Thorne, in his first book, Simple Cooking, had discussed the topic of Toast in pretty exhaustive detail. It must have been in another of his essay collections; I haven't been able to find it. Now that bruschetta is everywhere, it is not so unusual to read about toast in food magazines, cookbooks, and weblogs. When I read that illusive Thorne article, it was a pretty odd idea to take toast seriously. A "Peanuts" cartoon of the same period made mild fun of Linus' Science Fair Project:"Toast" -after all, nothing could have been more obvious and self-explanatory.

I recall that he (Thorne, not Linus) talked about the crisp v. hot dilemma. That is, if your breakfast toast comes right out of the toaster, and is immediately slathered with butter, it will be hot, but a bit soggy. If, as many English people do, you put it in a toast rack as it pops up, so that it can all be served at once, it will be crisp, but cool. And your butter better be soft, or it won't spread nicely.

Personally, I tend to go for the crispness, and I keep my butter spreadable in one of those ceramic butterbell things. But not always, because I like my hot food, and coffee, really hot. One way to have a breakfast toast that's really hot and crisp is to toast some Nan. A kind of nan that you can buy at an Indian grocery, and has cumin and onion in it, is particularly good with breakfast eggs. It comes out of the toaster so absolutely boiling hot that you have to watch out for the roof of your mouth, and it is really nice and crisp, especially around the edges.

Helen Gustafson, who was apparently the Chez Panisse tea guru, in her nice, quirky and seemingly out of print autobiography/tea book, passed along instructions for Pepper Toast. This may be the plainest written recipe of all time. I cannot quote it exactly, because it was a library book, and I haven't found a copy for myself yet. As I recall, she credited David Lance Goines: Recipes Suitable for Framing, a sort of portfolio of prints of nicely decorated recipes, which was a collaborative effort with Alice Waters, in the sixties, I think.

Make some nice toast, the way you like it and spread with butter.
Top with freshly ground coarse black pepper.
Have this with your tea.

I do this frequently. Some people like it, though others have rolled their eyes. Other nice, non-sweet, no prep toppings for toast to have with tea include some really fabulous, posh salty stuff called Gentleman's Relish, which a visiting relative brought me from England. I scraped every last bit from the jar. You probably wouldn't like this if you are an anchovy hater, but rest assured it is nothing like marmite (ick) .136_acme_sm_2

I do wish I had a copy of that recipe portfolio,as I am a fan of Mr. Goines posters. I have his Acme Bread poster, though, and a couple of others . I also wish I lived near Acme Bread, because if I did, my toast would be off to a much better start. As it is, there are some sorts of bread that are just not available around the Pittsburgh area. If I lived near Acme or a similarly excellent bakery, I would just buy my bread there, and be done with it. I don't think it's possible to equal that sort of thing at home, without going in for brick ovens and so on, which is not something I intend to try. Ever. But I have come up with a relatively uncomplicated way of making a baguette that I prefer to anything I've been able to buy so far locally, and I'll pass that along.

Of course, jams, conserves, jellies, etc. are also naturals with toast and tea. I'm beginning to make some, and am find the process weirdly engaging. I have just finished dealing with some very hot White Peach Conserve with Basil. I feel like a mad scientist. There are 6 cute little jars on a kitchen towel cooling.

Tea and Toast Part II- Banh Me

These cookies are a combination, with slight variations, of a recipe for sesame cookies from The Foods of Vietnam, by Nicole Routier and vietnamese peanut cookies from Home Baking by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid. I think they are especially nice with flowery and smoky teas, like jasmine pearl, and puerh, as well as with English style black teas with milk. With fruity teas, I think it is nice to have something saltier for a snack- about which, more later.

Makes about 4 dozen cookies:

3/4 cup toasted sesame seeds
2 1/4 cups sifted unbleached all purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1 1/2 cups vegetable shortening, butter, or lard
1 cup palm sugar
(regular white or light brown sugar may be substituted)
2 whole eggs
1 tsp vanilla extract
flour for dusting
1 egg yolk mixed with 1 tbsp water
approximately 25 unsalted dry roasted peanuts, halved

Preheat oven to 350. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment or silpats. Reserve 1/4 cup sesame seeds, coarsely grinding the rest in a mortar or coffee/spice grinder. In a bowl combine the ground seeds with the flour, baking powder and baking soda. (Or, you can put the toasted seeds and flour and other dry ingredients together in a food processor, and pulse it to combine and grind.)
In another bowl, mix the butter and sugar, cream until fluffy. Add the eggs, one at a time, and the vanilla, beating until smooth. Add the dry ingredients a bit at a time, and mix it up well. Put some flour on a board or the counter, and knead the dough into a smooth wodge. For each cookie, roll about 1 tsp of the dough into a ball, set in on a prepared baking sheet, and press one peanut half gently into the top of each cookie. If you have time and space, put the sheet in the freezer for 10 minutes. Brush with the egg wash and press some of the toasted sesame seeds on each. Bake about 15-20 minutes.

These are lovely with your tea, and keep beautifully in a tin for quite a while. You can make them bigger- using about a tbsp of dough each, in which case they flatten out and look more like a milk and cookies kind of cookie. I like them little with tea, though. The palm sugar is very nice, but a bit of a pain. At the asian market, it comes in sort of tablet-y shapes,in a plastic bag, and the idea is that you slice these very thinly and then chop them up. Some pieces remain a bit bigger than others, giving a nice mouth feel. It is similar in texture to maple sugar, but doesn't have such an intrusive flavor. I find that I tend to hack it into small chunks, especially if it is on the old side, and then risk the health of my food processor finishing it up.

While these are similar to the cookies we liked so much at the Imperial Tea Court in the Ferry Plaza in SF, they are lighter in flavor and less dense. I would really like to know how to make their gingered almonds. They are served in their shells, but are very easy to open with your fingers. Opening each one sets a nice pace for drinking tea and relaxing, and they are really delicious. I even went so far as to email that place in Gourmet Magazine that hassles restaurants for recipes on behalf of readers. Gourmet said they'd try, but I never heard more, so I presume it was a Closely Guarded Secret. Or maybe they were just busy that day.

May 26, 2005

Tea and Toast Part I: Home Ec

When I was in the seventh grade, before middle schools were invented, my elementary school class walked to the high school one morning each week for Special Subjects. As the Women's Movement was still embryonic, we were segregated by sex. The girls went to Home Ec , while the boys had Shop. This , of course, meant deprivation for everyone, but the poor boys really missed out. I loved cooking class, partly because I loved to cook, and partly because it was so funny.

A major goal of the home economics curriculum must have been to introduce middle class refinement to the uncouth . At least as much time was spent on manners, tidiness, and playing house as on food preparation. 0ur class was divided into all female "families", and each had it's own little area with a sink and a stove. One area had an attached "dinette", where one family each week could dine on a (properly set) table with china dishes. At the beginning of each class, the teacher distributed a menu with recipes, carefully divided into individual tasks for of each one of us and all of our temporary relatives. These were planned in a weekly ascending order of difficulty, culminating in the complex and unspeakably dire ladylike classic, "Creamed Peas in a Patty Shell."

The first week, however, we made "Tea and Toast." The instructions ran to two mimeographed pages, and included a great deal of information about hygiene, as well as admonitions concerning drying the stainless steel sinks after use, to prevent unsightly spotting. But it was the concept of codifying something we nearly all knew how to do, dividing it into miniscule subactivities, and insisting that each of these be performed correctly which delighted and amused my twelve year old self.

Sadly, following the instructions, more or less to the letter, resulted in lukewarm Salada teabag tea with chunky lemon wedges, tan Wonder Bread spread with margarine, and, of course, shiny sinks. I had suspected it would turn out that way. I had a mother who was a very good cook, and was also English; I knew a bit about making tea. But in the midst of the almost hysterically awful food, and quasi-scientific jargon, was something I secretly found endearing. That was the idea that ordinary things, including making home food, were worth notice, consideration, and special care.


Since that time, I've made alot of tea and alot of toast. I was pleasantly surprised, years ago, as a graduate student and young mother, to find that it was possible to read about both topics. Tea, though I had no inkling of this in seventh grade, turns out to be as much a topic for the experts as wine.

I am certainly no tea expert, but like most dyed in the wool tea drinkers, have favorites of the long standing and of the personal fad sort. Many people stick to black tea or green, but I like both. My current favorites are Williamson and Magor Assam for black tea, and Genmai Cha (which has toasted rice in it) for green. The W and M Assam, in addition to being delicious, is now available in my supermarket, and even comes in tea bags for when I'm lazy, which is often. I first tasted Genmai Cha at the Ferry Building branch of the Imperial Tea Court while visiting San Francisco. This tiny outpost somehow managed a quiet atmosphere, despite its location smack in the middle of the disconcerting Saturday morning foodie hubbub.

Louise, my visiting English cousin/friend and I rested there and had Genmai Cha and tea snacks, which included Gingered Almonds (in their shells) and little peanut-sesame cookies. I have had no luck trying to figure out how to make the almonds, but I have found and made a recipe for Vietnamese tea cookies which are very nice, and awfully similar.

To follow, soon I hope: Tea Cookie Recipe, Reading about Tea, Reading about Toast (really), and Special Toasts, not necessarily in that order.