Driving along shoulderless highways in northern Michigan, it’s hard to miss row after row of Montmorency cherry trees loaded with fruit waiting to be baked into pies or squeezed into a liquid elixir that scientists and doctors assign superfruit status.
With more than 2 million cherry trees, Michigan produces over 70% of the country’s tart cherry crop, and July is the start of the season for a fruit that has been credited with controlling cholesterol, lowering weight and boosting heart health. Not to mention being at the heart of a mean cherry pie.
The tart cherry’s superfruit status is due to its high levels of an antioxidant called anthocyanin, which is also responsible for the cherry’s intensely sour flavor and bright red color.
Tart cherries might well deserve a medal for their healthy attributes, but I’d much rather test their ability to satisfy my craving for the yin-yang balance of sweet and tart enveloped in one glorious double-crusted pie. That’s because tart cherries, not sweet, have always been the basis for the best cherry pie. Bakers can control the amount of sweetness with sugar and the tangy essence of tart cherries keeps the pie from becoming cloyingly sweet.
In a part of the country where any proper pie judge will tell you that cherry pies are not to be trifled with, I decided to go out on a limb and conducted a loosely structured pie contest of my own. In traditional measure, blue ribbons become a battle between best crustand most cherry-packed (but least gooey) filling, and awards only go to those that deliver both.
Ferreting out the best the region had to offer, I sampled options from The Cherry Hut, a 92-year old pie-making institution in the little town of Beulah (8 points for cherry-packed filling), to local behemoth Cherry Republic (9 points for crunchy, tender crust). Naturally, I couldn’t avoid including a few farm stand options in between. In the end, a roadside pie spiced with a bit of balsamic vinegar took the prize for my personal favorite. Cask-aged balsamic, which delivers its own magic blend of sweet and tart, was the perfect complement to the fruit and provided a deep base of flavor to the freshly harvested cherries.
But after all that pie, I was feeling a bit sleepy, and no wonder. Did I mention that tart cherries contain melatonin, a natural hormone that helps you sleep at night?
Cherry Balsamic Pie
Prep Time: 20 minutes
Cook Time: 1 hour, 20 minutes
Total Time: 1 hour, 40 minutes
Yield: 12 servings
The winning farm stand pie inspired my interpretation of the classic Michigan cherry pie. I’ve blended a rich, cask-aged balsamic vinegar into the filling and added a bit of Fiori di Sicilia, a blend of floral, citrus and vanilla essences, to keep the flavors bright.
Pie dough, enough for two crusts, chilled
3 pounds, pitted fresh or frozen (do not thaw) tart cherries
⅓ cup Pie Enhancer (or 6 tablespoons flour)
½ cup sugar
1 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons cask-aged balsamic vinegar
½ teaspoon Fiori de Sicilia extract (or vanilla extract)
Preheat oven to 350 F. Roll out enough dough for one crust and place in 9- to 10-inch deep dish pie plate, leaving a 2-inch overhang. Return to refrigerator while assembling filling to keep dough cold.
In a large mixing bowl, toss to combine cherries, Pie Enhancer or flour, sugar, salt, balsamic vinegar and Fiori di Sicilia. Fill pie dish and return to refrigerator again while preparing top crust.
Roll out remaining pie dough and trim into 1-inch slices. Weave for latticework and gently transfer over filling. Turn lower crust up and over edges of lattice and crimp with fingers or fork.
Whisk egg with 2 tablespoons water and gently brush over top crust. Sprinkle with sparkling sugar.
Place the pie on a baking sheet and bake for 1 hour to 1 hour 20 minutes, crust will be golden brown and fruit will be gently bubbling when done. Remove to rack to cool.
Not one to cling to tradition, when I find a new ingredient that is a big improvement over my old ways, I embrace it. Such is the case with King Arthur Flour’s Pie Enhancer, which I use to thicken fruit pies. A blend of superfine sugar, modified corn starch (aka Instant Clear Gel) and ascorbic acid, it sets the pie juices but avoids that gluey texture that flour sometimes imparts. But follow your own tradition and if flour works best for you, then substitute 5 tablespoons of flour for the Pie Enhancer and increase the amount of sugar in the filling for a total of ⅓ cup sugar.
I’m sipping a local rosé at a corner table in Nonna Italia ristorante, not far from the ferry stop in the charming old town of Stresa, on Lago Maggiore, Italy. Stresa is north of Milan in lake country, the beautiful region known for mountain vistas, ancient villas and George Clooney’s pad, even though George is at Como, one lake over.
Donato and Roberta Tagliente are the owners of this friendly spot that gets more crowded than a jar of Italian anchovies. During the week, come early or late and dine comfortably; weekends are a madhouse, especially in August, when Nonna Italia is open daily and outside tables spill into the narrow cobblestone walk street.
Summer hours (June through September): Open seven days, but closed for lunch Mondays and Tuesdays except for August, when it is open for lunch and dinner seven days a week.
Winter hours: Closed Tuesdays and for two weeks during Christmas and the New Year holidays.
Pizza Baby for kids and kids at heart
Friendly servers Maya and Alice (fluent in several languages) effortlessly take care of everyone, even though the place is packed with people downing pizzas, risotto and their famous “mixto” plate of three local cheeses, jams and honey, prosciutto, coppa and pancetta with gnocco fritto, fried and lightly salted pizza dough squares, instead of bread.
About 15 years ago, when Puglia-born Chef Donato had a tiny takeout pizza stand, he came up with the idea of a child-friendly pie that invited grumpy kids to dig in with a grin. Pizza Baby was born. He’s now a local celebrity (watch out, George) at 2-year-old Nonna Italia, where children clamor for a sun-shaped pizza with a smiley face.
Don’t get me wrong, this pizza is definitely not just for kids. Donato starts with Italy’s best 00 flour and lovingly forms each ball of yeasty raised dough by hand. Pizza Baby is the same size as a regular pizza, but Donato clips the 14-inch circle of dough with a pizza wheel in 1-inch cuts around the edge in eight evenly spaced spots.
He then brings the dough between two cuts together and pinches it tight to form a triangle; he does this eight times around the pie, finally gently pulling at the points to nudge the dough into a neat circle. The same intensely delicious tomato sauce that’s used for all the restaurant’s pizzas is ladled on top and spread around. Donato then generously covers the sauce with local mozzarella like a heavy winter snow on nearby ski slopes; a paddle slides underneath, and in a flash it’s into the hot oven. A few minutes later, a golden crust with slightly charred edges and bubbly, melted cheese lets you know that the pie is done.
Again using the paddle, Donato slides the pizza onto a serving plate. Now for the fun part: He affectionately arranges two black-olive half eyes, a cherry tomato nose and a curved slice of cucumber for the sun’s bright smile.
As I bite into one of the super-crispy, slightly thick and oven-charred raised triangles, I notice how the yeasty dough’s air pockets add to the sublime texture. This is definitely a flavorful pizza for grownups who love a great crust. Happy faces all around.
View the videos below to see how easy the process is to make the sun shape, and then try your hand at making a Pizza Baby at home. Preheat your oven to the highest setting, and then place the rack and a cookie sheet (or, better yet, a pizza stone) at the lowest level. Use homemade or purchased dough and sauce, and have the few toppings at hand.
Main photo: Nonna Italia’s Pizza Baby. Credit: Nancy Zaslavsky
Crickets, love ‘em or leave ‘em, are the soundtrack to our summer nights. Megan Miller, co-founder of Bitty Foods, sees them a bit differently.
“When I think of crickets, I think of the future of food,” she says. “Insects are in fact the most efficient form of protein on planet earth.” Miller spoke about the benefits of eating insects at TEDxManhattan, a one-day conference featuring leading innovators in the food movement. (See video of her talk below).
Insects are eaten in many cultures, but Miller is well aware that many people find the idea less than appetizing. Bitty Foods has taken steps to reduce the barriers its products might face by turning crickets into something more palatable.
Pam Weisz is deputy director of Change Food, a nonprofit that works to raise public awareness and educate consumers about problems with the U.S. food system. Learn more at www.changefood.org.
“It might be difficult for a lot people to consider eating whole insects, but they become a lot more manageable when they’re in the format of cricket flour,” she said.
The flour is made from whole insects dried and milled into a fine powder. Bitty Foods sells the flour, which has been mixed with other ingredients that enable it to be substituted for baking flour, as well as cookies made from cricket flour. These are available in three flavors: chocolate chip, chocolate cardamom and orange ginger.
These products represent the beginning of what is envisioned as a complete line of goods, beyond just snacks. As Miller explains, the vision is to take foods “that are normally completely carb-based and boost them with protein so you end up getting a much more nutritious meal.”
“The basic premise is that we are trying to introduce people in the U.S. to edible insects with delicious foods with good design,” she said. “We have gotten a really great reception faster than we expected.”
Miller lists five of the many reasons why the idea of eating insects should be taken seriously by those concerned about their health and/or the environment:
Cricket flour has 7 grams of protein per quarter-cup serving as well as healthy fats, vitamins and minerals. Bitty Foods’ cricket flour is also gluten-free.
Insects can be grown with very little land and very little water. If you feed crickets 10 pounds of feed, they will produce 9 pounds of edible cricket protein. By contrast, it takes 10 pounds of feed to get 1 pound of beef.
If eating insects becomes common, we could reclaim some of the 30% of the Earth’s land surface — one-third of the Earth — which is currently being used by the livestock industry to grow animals and the grains the animals eat.
We could reduce our greenhouse gas emissions by an estimated 18% if insects become a part of the mainstream food supply.
Having insects take the place of more resource-intensive sources of protein could lower the cost of food all around the world by about 33%. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization has published a report concluding that edible insects may be the key to stabilizing the global food supply.
Chocolate chip with cricket flour. Credit: Jonathan Snyder
Miller notes that there are 2,000 species of insects that can be, and are, eaten by people. She chose crickets because they don’t carry any diseases that are transmissible to humans and they don’t destroy crops, so people don’t have negative connotations. “I think crickets have a very nice cultural association for Westerners, with the nice chirping and the summer nights,” Miller says.
Bitty Foods now sells its products through its website, www.bittyfoods.com. The company recently began working with a food distributor and hopes to be in stores within a few months, starting in its home market of the Bay Area and then expanding to New York City.
Miller, who began her career as a trend forecaster and consumer researcher before turning to edible insects, thinks that edible insects are on the cusp of becoming trendy.
“I see a powerful shift happening in the way that people think about food,” she said. “People are more interested in sustainability than ever before and understanding where their food comes from. And thanks to the Internet we’re constantly being exposed to new trends and new ideas and even new cuisines.”
As a result, she predicts, “There’s an emerging edible insect industry in the U.S. In the next decade, insects will move from being a crazy, edgy food to being a completely mainstream food for most people.”
Main photo: Megan Miller in her Bitty Foods kitchen. Credit: Courtesy of Bitty Foods
This story was written by Pam Weisz, deputy director of Change Food, a nonprofit that works to raise public awareness and educate consumers about problems with the U.S. food system. Learn more at www.changefood.org.
Midway through summer I start craving a bit more excitement from my grill. Sure, I keep the usual burgers and kebabs on the menu. However, for a flashy, festive meal that’s a snap to create, I add bivalves to my barbecue.
Bivalves, a class of mollusk, possess two hinged shells, or valves, held together by a single muscle. Sound familiar? It should. This group consists of oysters, clams, mussels and scallops. Of these, clams, mussels and scallops all receive invitations to my cookouts.
Why aren’t oysters included on the guest list? It’s because of the “no R” rule — don’t consume oysters in a month without an “r” in its name. This is not an old wives’ tale. During the months of May through August, oysters spawn and become watery and unpalatable. Not even a smoky grill will improve their state.
Bivalves provide a chance of pace on the grill
Of the bivalve trio, the clam, specifically the East Coast littleneck clam, is a particular favorite of mine. Less than 2 inches in diameter, these are the smallest hard-shell clams. They are also the tenderest and one of the eco-friendliest.
Along with its sweet, somewhat briny taste, what I love about the littleneck clam is that it cleans itself, siphoning water into and out of its shell, pushing out debris as it goes.
Keeping this self-cleaning trait in mind, about a half hour before placing them on the grill, I lay my littlenecks in a bowl filled with cold water and pour a generous amount of salt over them. The clams immediately begin to push out the salted water and any sediment that has collected in their shells. You can watch the grains of sand and dirt float to the top of the bowl.
After 20 to 25 minutes have passed, I arrange the debris-free clams on a sheet of tin foil. Although this may seem like a mundane task, I stay on my toes, looking out for fastidious or feisty clams among the bunch. These invariably spit water at me.
Placing the foil on my preheated grill, I cover and cook the clams for five to eight minutes. They’re finished when all their shells have opened. Any that don’t open I discard.
The grilled clams, with their juices pooling in their shells, can be topped with a dollop of hot sauce, squeeze of citrus juice, drop of butter or pinch of ground black pepper. Juicy and mildly salty, they’re equally delicious without any adornments.
Clams on ice. Credit: Kathy Hunt
Mussels require a smidgen more effort. Look at a mussel and the first thing you’ll notice is a cluster of scruffy threads attached to it. Known as a beard, these fibers allow the mussel to cling to and grow on rocks and other substrate. Although useful to the mussel, they’re of no value to me and must be scraped off with a knife.
Beards removed, I scrub the mussels under running water with a stiff brush. If they seem heavy or dirty, I soak them in a bowl of cold water for an hour before draining and washing them off again.
Cleaning finally completed, I follow the same cooking steps used for clams. As for dressing the grilled mussels, I consider what complements their sweet, moist meat and adorn them with such ingredients as chives, shallots, mustard, lemon juice, tarragon vinegar or garlic-laced butter.
Scallops differ from the other two in that they’re shucked at sea immediately after being harvested. As a result, I don’t have much cleaning to do. I just rinse the meat under water and move on to cooking.
Unfortunately, the lack of shells means I have an increased risk of the scallops drying out on the grill. To combat this possibility, I generously coat the scallops with olive oil before laying them on a hot grill. After seasoning each with salt and pepper, I cook them for two to three minutes per side or until the translucent flesh has turned a beautiful pearl color. I immediately remove the scallops to prevent overcooking.
Similar to clams and mussels, scallops require few, if any, extra ingredients. A dusting of cayenne, scallions, shallots, and vinegar or lemon or lime juice will balance out their sweetness, while a splash of cream or white wine will enhance it. Chervil, parsley or thyme likewise pair well with these plump and flavorful bivalves.
The next time that you fire up your grill, add some bivalves to your barbecue. Simple, quick and flavorful, they’re a welcome addition to any summer feast.
Grilled Clams With Lemon-Basil Butter
Prep Time: 30 minutes
Cook Time: 10 minutes
Total Time: 40 minutes
Yield: Makes 6 servings.
From “Fish Market” (Running Press, 2013).
If you don’t have an outdoor grill, you can make these on a grill pan.
8 tablespoons unsalted butter
Juice of 1 lemon
Grated zest of 2 lemons
3 tablespoons fresh basil, minced
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
5 dozen medium-sized hard-shelled clams such as top neck or cherrystone, scrubbed
Preheat the grill on high.
In a glass bowl in the microwave or in a small pan on the stovetop, melt the butter. Allow the butter to cool slightly, about 10 minutes, and then add the lemon juice, zest, basil and pepper. Stir together and set aside.
Place a layer of tin foil on the grill and then place the clams on top of the foil. Cover the grill and allow the clams to cook for 8 to 10 minutes.
After tossing out any unopened clams, place the grilled clams in a bowl or on a platter and drizzle the lemon-basil butter over the top of them. Serve immediately.
Main photo: Clams on a grill pan. Credit: Kathy Hunt
Little, landlocked Umbria is not the obvious choice for those looking to vacation in Italy. For many people, all roads lead to Rome. For others it’s the Amalfi Coast, or Tuscany, the Cinque Terre or even Puglia. But Umbria has many trump cards and plenty to recommend it, especially in summer. Here are five reasons to place the region high on your bucket list.
Because it’s not Tuscany, though it’s right next door
If you’re the kind to prefer the challenge of crab to the sweet simplicity of lobster, then you may be one to favor Umbria over its better-known neighbor. Umbria is Tuscany’s country cousin, gently rustic with a clutch of unshowy, medieval hilltop villages — think Montefalco, Spello and Bevagna — set in rolling green countryside and framed by swathes of silvery olive groves and holm oak forests. It has fewer busloads of tourists and more mindful travelers (like you and me).
Known locally as scorzoni – the name evokes their rough, almost warty peel (avere la scorza dura means “to be thick-skinned” — these fragrant tartufi are harvested by faithful truffle hounds between May and August. Summer truffles are not so crazily scented (nor as crazily priced) as their winter or white counterparts, but they still pack a seductive punch. Buy them fresh or put up in jars from any of the tiny Aladdin’s-cave delicatessens that are such a tempting feature of Umbria’s towns, packed with strings of sausages, red onions, peppers, hunks of local cheese, bags of pasta and other delights.
At La Vecchia Farmacia just through the Porta Vecchia leading into beautiful, earthquake-ravaged Nocera Umbra, la mamma does a mean antipastone (jumbo-sized antipasto) of local cured meats, melon, sharp sheep’s-milk cheese with crunchy honey and a succulent truffle omelet thrown in as a wild card, followed by strangozzi, robust ropes of typically Umbrian pasta showered with tartufi.
For the exciting wines from Umbria
Italy has a dizzying number of grape varieties, few of them household names and many barely known outside their immediate vicinity. Umbria has its fair share of these strictly local varieties, which are well worth seeking out.
Grechetto was used traditionally in white blends, but is increasingly made as a varietal. The resulting wine can be anything from pale straw colored to a deeper gold with citrus-like, peachy aromas and a good backbone because of its naturally high acidity.
With Trebbiano Spoletino, things get even more interesting. Not to be confused with boring old Trebbiano (aka Ugni Blanc) from anywhere else, the Spoletino variety gives honeyed, golden wines of distinctive character and a mind of their own. Traditionally in Umbria (and still today in some wineries), Spoletino vines were planted at the foot of mature trees, up which they clambered — they were known as vigne maritate, vines that are “married with” the trees.
The Umbrian red to look for is Sagrantino, distinguished and meaty with deep color, pronounced cherry and blackberry flavors and good tannins: a wine to have and to hold.
Taste a selection with a simple meal at Il Pinturicchio in Spello, whose owner, Mirko Trippa Buono, is a member of the Italian Sommeliers Association. Or for a lesson in what’s on the move in the Umbrian wine world, book a tasting at Arnaldo Caprai, a large (336 acre, 136 hectare) winery with a slick, state-of-the-art tasting parlor and wine shop outside Montefalco, where Marco Caprai has made it his business to explore and experiment with these age-old Umbrian varieties, especially Sagrantino, and bring them to their fullest expressive potential.
For a drop of Umbrian DOP olive oil
The region’s gorgeous, herbaceous extra virgin oil is pressed from Moraiolo, Frantoio and Leccino olives. The area between Assisi and Spoleto is regarded as one of the best sub-regions in the Umbria DOP (protected designation of origin), and you’ll find countless places dotted along the Strada dell’Olio (olive oil route) where you can taste and buy EVOO, ready for drizzling over your next batch of bruschetta.
Le Case Gialle above Bevagna and Marfuga in Campello di Clitunno are two of the top, prize-winning producers, both of them with an agriturismo (farmhouse bed and breakfast) attached. Also worth a visit is the Fondazione Lungarotti belonging to the eminent Lungarotti winemaking family in Torgiano, which includes both a Museum of Olives and Oil (MOO) and a Wine Museum (MUVIT).
For the spirituality
Most people flock to Assisi, but it can be quite a challenge to keep hold of the spiritual dimension there, surrounded as you inevitably are by the nervous chatter of umbrella-chasing tour groups. An early morning visit will spare you the worst of the crowds and give you a few quiet moments to enjoy the superb scenes from the life of St. Francis frescoed onto the walls of the Upper Church.
For an altogether different experience, seek out some of the smaller, out-of-the-way abbeys such as the 12th-century Abbazia di Sassovivo outside Foligno, famous for its Romanesque cloister of double columns decorated with marble and mosaic motifs, still a working monastery of the Piccoli Fratelli di Gesú and a haven of peace and tranquility. In the corner of the tiny garden stands a statue of the Virgin. Beside it a sign reads, in Italian, “This space set aside for private prayer,” and then — in English — “No picnic please!”
Main photo: Bruschetta with Umbrian olive oil. Credit: Sue Style
New potatoes are the summer cook’s best friend. Firm and waxy with a wonderful sweet flavor and gossamer-thin skins, there’s no need to peel them — in fact it would be criminal to do so, for loads of flavor and much of the goodness lurks just under the skin.
All they need is a good scrub and — voilà — they’re good to go. Drop them into a pan of judiciously salted water, bring to a boil, cook till tender and serve with fresh butter and snipped mint leaves.
Boiling is not the only way to go with new potatoes. Because they keep their figure when cooked, they respond well to roasting or baking. For real drama and a winning dish that never fails to draw gasps from guests, try a “tatin” of new potatoes baked under a salty, herby crust. The whole thing is inverted for serving, like a tarte tatin, to reveal the spuds in all their golden glory. Or cut them almost in half, slide a bay leaf into the cut, drizzle with olive oil and roast till golden.
And remember that new potatoes come in many colors; any potato that is harvested early, be it white, gold, russet, red or purple, qualifies as new. A dish of purple potatoes mixed with brilliant green sugar snap peas and anointed with a little melted butter makes an arresting summer statement.
Inside a weathered storefront surrounded by hardware shops, colorful gems gleam in the dim light — large jars full of hard candies flavored with sesame, cinnamon, rose, orange, bergamot and lemon.
Proprietor Hakan Altanoğlu and his forefathers have been making and selling the Turkish candy called akideşekeri at this shop in Istanbul’s Fatih district since 1865, but the bite-size treat’s history goes back to the glory days of the Ottoman Empire in the 16th and 17th centuries.
The empire’s elite Janissary soldiers “presented the grand vizier, other dignitaries and their own officers with gifts of akide sweets as a symbol of their loyalty to sultan and state,” a tradition deriving from an alternate meaning of the candy’s name, writes Mary Işın in her book “Sherbet and Spice: The Complete Story of Turkish Sweets and Desserts.” Akide then became, as it remains today for many,”the sweet of choice” at circumcisions, weddings and theŞekerBayram (literally, “Sugar Holiday”), the three-day festival that will mark the end of Ramadan this year from July 28 to 30.
In the early Ottoman days, the candy, whose name derived from the Syrian Arabic word (akîda) for “to knot” or “to thicken,” was made from grape juice, boiled down into a thick, malleable molasses. Today, the typical sweetener is refined sugar, and much akide is machine-manufactured, but a few traditional şekerci (Turkish candy-makers) continue to make it the same laborious way it’s been done for centuries.
HüseyinAksoy and another candy-maker roll and cut the akide. Credit: Jennifer Hattam
Showing off a burn scar on his arm that he says dates back to the 1970s, longtime şekerciHüseyinAksoy stirs a wooden spoon through a copper pot of boiling water and sugar — with just a pinch of cream of tartar —in the kitchen of the Istanbul Culinary Arts Center (YESAM), occasionally sweeping the inside of the pot with a wooden brush to prevent burning. (This is also a good technique to use when making stews, notes YESAM coordinator BanuÖzden.)
When the sugar mixture has reduced to his satisfaction, Aksoy carries the copper pot over to a spotless marble slab and pours its contents out onto the smooth surface to cool, periodically poking at the sticky edges and flipping them over with a spatula. With the candy still as hot as 70 degrees Celsius, he winces slightly as he folds in a small bowlful of flavoring — some lemon salt and lemon oil, ground to paste with a mortar and pestle; or perhaps some mastic resin.
Made from the gum of the mastic (mastiha) tree, the resin’s piney flavor is an acquired taste but one important to many Turkish desserts. Another traditional flavor that has, thankfully, gone out of fashion is musk, a secretion of the musk deer imported from Nepal and Tibet. One of the most popular varieties of akide in Ottoman times, musk, Işın writes, was “appreciated as much as a mark of wealth and power as for its fragrance.”
Back at YESAM, the real show starts. Aksoy takes the multicolored lump that has resulted from his folding and kneading, drapes it over a rounded metal bar, and then begins to pull the ends like taffy, tossing them back over the bar repeatedly until the candy gets thicker and its color transforms from glistening caramel speckled with white into a glorious opaque blonde hue.
“The more you do it, the more your hands and fingers get calloused to the heat,” he explains, laughing a bit as he admits that when he was learning the trade 45 years ago, he once dropped the hot candy during the pulling process. “The master şekerci‘s wife hit me with a broomstick for ruining the batch.”
Akide ready to sell. It comes in such flavors as sesame, cinnamon, rose, orange, bergamot and lemon. Credit: Jennifer Hattam
Next, Aksoy presses out a sheet of the newly blended mix, adds a layer of unflavored candy he’s kept in reserve, and rolls the two into a thick cylinder. Tugging at one end of the tube, he pulls out thin ropes, cuts them off with scissors and passes them to an assistant to roll into smooth dowels. The whole process must be done quickly, or the candy’s consistency becomes too hard to be useable. Taking a handful of the now-firm candy sticks, Aksoy taps them level on top of a square metal bar set above a bowl, then strikes them rapid-fire with one edge of his scissors to produce tiny cylinders of the finished akide, each with a golden roll of color inside.
Though each of the four to five 10-kilogram batches of akide that Aksoy makes every day yields more than 1,000 candies, a machine can turn out 2,500 kilos daily. He insists the taste and consistency of machine-made akide just isn’t the same as handmade, but şekerci like Aksoy and the Altanoğlu family are part of a dying breed.
“Young people aren’t learning this trade anymore; they don’t like the work, and there are other options for them now,” Aksoy says. “After us, there won’t be any more şekerci.”
Main photo: HüseyinAksoy makes akide at the Istanbul Culinary Arts Center. Credit: Jennifer Hattam
Thirty years ago this month, then-President Ronald Reagan declared July National Ice Cream Month. He was the commander in chief who made it official, but executive office ice cream love was nothing new.
Thomas Jefferson is often incorrectly credited with bringing ice cream to the United States. The third president certainly served ice cream at the White House and was one of the first to record a recipe for the confection on American soil, but ice creams similar to what we now eat were recorded in earlier 17th-century cookbooks. President George Washington served molded ice creams at the President’s House in Philadelphia and his estate at Mount Vernon.
The process then, as now, required churning a cream or custard mixture in an envelope of ice. Because a crank-handle ice-cream churn was not invented until much later, the process was cumbersome and the end product not as light as we are accustomed to. A video from the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation demonstrates the 18th-century method of churning and molding ice cream.
Labor was only part of the reason only the privileged few enjoyed early ice creams. Ice was a rare commodity that came from ice houses that stored frozen blocks cut from rivers and streams in the winter. While presidents could afford such a delicacy, the common man could not until savvy African-American caterer Augustus Jackson opened what is widely considered the first public ice-cream shop in Philadelphia around 1832 after serving as a White House chef in the 1820s.
Ice cream savvy
Today ice cream is far from the simple custard- or cream-based confection it once was. Now Americans enjoy ice cream, gelato, frozen yogurt, sorbet, sherbet, milkshakes and more.
Traditional ice cream continues to be cream or egg custard based. Ice creams not thickened with egg custard are often thickened with gelatins or vegetable thickeners. Frozen yogurt is just what the name implies — churned yogurt and flavorings — and now vegan varieties made from coconut and almond milk are increasingly available.
For many consumers, sorbet, sorbetto and sherbet present some confusion. Are they or are they not the same thing? Sorbet and sorbetto are the same — a fruit puree or fruit juice that is sweetened, frozen and churned — while sherbet adds an element of dairy to the mix.
Gelato is another confusing cold confection, with its special freezer cases and serving paddles. Its distinctions are more complex, said Jim Demotses, owner of Pazzo Gelato Café in North Andover, Mass. He said gelato is made mostly from milk instead of cream, so it’s lower in fat. It also has less air whipped into it and is served at a lower temperature to maintain its creaminess.
Demotses also said authentic gelato is made in small batches, — usually daily and using natural flavors and ingredients — to maintain freshness.
Do it yourself
While cold treats like gelato are difficult to make at home because of the temperature requirements, they are not impossible if you have the right recipe and equipment, most notably a compressor-type home ice-cream maker that can freeze the base to the right consistency. However, it’s important to understand that once the churned gelato goes into a traditional freezer, the hallmark lower-temperature creaminess could be chilled out of it.
Bowls of ice cream and spoons. Credit: Ramin Ganeshram
A compressor-type machine offered by Breville is the best of the bunch for frozen desserts from sorbet to ice cream to frozen yogurt. Because it has no bowl to freeze as with other tabletop models like those offered by Cuisinart (about $60) or the freezer bowl attachment for the Kitchen Aid stand mixer (about $100), you can make ice cream without long-term planning and have it ready within an hour, depending on consistency. At nearly $400, it’s probably best reserved for hard-core ice-cream aficionados.
The freezer bowl models mentioned work fairly well but tend to produce a soft product that must be frozen for a good four to six hours before consumption. This is particularly true if you add mix-ins to the base.
A recent entry to the market, theZoku Ice Cream maker, seems like the perfect solution for single-serve homemade ice cream. Also using a freezer bowl, the “churn” function comes from good, old-fashioned elbow grease by virtue of stirring the freezing base with a small paddle. Unfortunately, while inexpensive (about $26) and certainly a fun activity for kids, the end product did not freeze well or with true ice-cream consistency.
Lora Wiley-Lennarz, a food blogger who counts ice cream recipes as among her favorites to create for her blog Diary of a Mad Hausfrau, said her first ice-cream maker was an inexpensive impulse buy. Once she wore that out with her experimentations, she graduated to the Kitchen Aid attachment, although a compressor-type model is in her sights.
“That might be a dangerous purchase,” she said, laughing. “With no wait time, my ice-cream-making adventures would probably get out of control.”
Wiley-Lennarz’s ice-cream experiments have afforded her a good list of do’s and don’ts when it comes to making ice cream at home. The first must-have, she said, is good time management. Ice cream takes a long time to make, especially with chilling the base as well as a freezer bowl, if necessary.
Wiley-Lennarz said it’s imperative to eat the ice cream the day you make it — after a couple of hours of post-churn freezing — otherwise it won’t stay creamy as the temperature drops.
“The most important thing is to be flavor fearless. Some of the most tasty ice creams I’ve created started with crazy combination ideas that turned out fabulous,” she said. Her Red Currant Lemon Balm Ice Cream is one such flavor-forward concoction (see recipe below).
A great option for those who don’t have an ice-cream churn, or consider the prospect of many hours of trial and error potentially daunting, is milkshakes.
They combine ice cream and other flavorings whipped into a thick smoothie, another American classic that came about during the turn of the 20th century in the ubiquitous soda fountains of the day.
Sophisticated modern versions like the unusual Salted Watermelon Milkshake from The Milk Shake Factory in Pittsburgh (see recipe below) are worth trying at home.
Red Currant Lemon Balm Ice Cream Recipe
Recipe from Diary of A Mad Hausfrau.
Prep time: 1 hour (includes chilling base)
Cook time: 45 minutes to 1 hour
Total time: 1 hour, 45 minutes to 2 hours
Yield: Makes about 2 quarts
4 egg yolks
3 cups heavy cream
1½ cups whole milk, divided
1 cup sugar
⅓ cup chopped fresh lemon balm
2 cups fresh red currants rinsed and plucked off the stem
1. Whisk the egg yolks together in a heat-proof bowl and set aside.
2. Heat the cream, milk and sugar together in a heavy-bottomed saucepan. When the mixture starts to become warm, stir in the lemon balm.
3. Remove the mixture just before boiling and slowly pour into the bowl with the egg yolks, whisking constantly. Cover and set side for at least 1 hour.
4. Pour the mixture back into a heavy bottomed sauce pan and reheat it over medium low heat until it thickens and then pour back into the bowl, cover with plastic wrap so the wrap is touching the surface of the mixture and refrigerate for three hours or overnight.
5. Remove the plastic wrap, pour the mixture into an ice-cream maker and process according to the manufacturer’s instructions.
6. When ice cream reaches soft serve consistency, gently stir in the red currants.
7. Place in a freezer-proof container, secure a cover on the container and place in the freezer for a few hours or until ready to serve.
This recipe is from “Sweet Hands Island Cooking from Trinidad and Tobago” by Ramin Ganeshram.
Soursop, or guanabana, is a tropical fruit that has naturally creamy, sweet-tart flavor. This recipe, while incredibly simple, has a complex and sophisticated flavor profile. It makes a good palate cleanser or a refreshing vegan ice-cream alternative.
Prep time: 45 minutes (includes chilling base)
Cook time: 45 minutes
Total time: 1 hour, 30 minutes
Yield: Makes 1 quart
½ cup sugar
½ cup water
Juice of ½ lime
2 cups frozen soursop puree (Goya is one brand)
1. Mix sugar and ½ cup of water together in a small saucepan and bring to a slow simmer. Simmer until reduced by half, then set aside to cool.
2. Mix the lime juice with the frozen soursop puree and cooled sugar syrup. Pour into an ice-cream maker and churn according to manufacturer’s directions, generally about 40 minutes.
3. Remove the sorbet from the ice-cream maker and pack into a quart container and freeze for at least four hours until hard. If making Popsicles, remove the mixture halfway through the churn process and pour into Popsicle trays. Freeze overnight.
Salted Watermelon Milkshake
This shake calls to mind Middle Eastern and Indian watermelon treats that often make use of salt or other culinary spices to bring out the sweetness of the fruit.
Prep time: 10 minutes
Cook time: 5 minutes
Total time: 15 minutes
½ pint watermelon sherbet
½ cup cold whole milk
½ cup soda water or seltzer
¼ cup pureed watermelon
Pinch of sea salt
Mini chocolate chips for garnish
1. Mix all the ingredients except the chocolate chips in a heavy-duty blender until thick and frothy.
2. Serve in a chilled glass garnished with chocolate chips.
Main photo: Gelato at Pazzo Gelato. Credit: Pazzo Gelato