Dates and date syrup. Credit: Copyright 2016 Tami Weiser

Many ancient sweeteners are long forgotten, overtaken by the simple, clean taste of granulated sugar. Take for instance, date syrup. Also called date molasses, melasse de datte, rub, dibs or silvan, date syrup has a long, storied history for many millennia in the Levant, Ancient Persia and throughout the Middle East.

I make sure my pantry is stocked with date syrup before the fall Jewish holidays. Its history alone isn’t enough to earn it a place in my top shelf, but its taste and new meaning give it high status.

How to use date syrup

Date syrup can be used, spoon-for-spoon, like molasses, although it’s not as sulphury or bitter. It is easy to bake with and even easier to drizzle on foods. Last of the watermelon and feta salads? Drizzle date syrup over them. Having avocado toast? Drizzle date syrup on top. Want a new sweetener in your yogurt bowl? Drizzle date syrup all over it. Want something new on your peanut butter sandwich? Drizzle date syrup across the spread.

It’s easy to find — look for date syrup online or at Middle Eastern grocery stores.

The unique taste of date syrup

Date syrup is a bit sweeter than agave nectar, yet less sweet and powerful than the strongest honey. The flavor has a dark, complex edge. It’s rich, handsome and oh-so-sexy on your taste buds. When paired with a lighter sweetener like granulated sugar, it’s an undertone, like blackstrap molasses, but without as much earthiness — and no traces of bitterness.

Why use date syrup at the New Year? What about honey?

I hear the honey rumblings coming, so listen up. I love honey. I write about it, I eat it and I cook with it. One of my teenage daughters even interned at a local honey maker and apiary this summer. A wide variety of honeys will be on my table with apples this year, and every year. But at the Jewish New Year table, I often look for a new food as a tasty way to embrace the new. Year after year, date syrup is always, and I mean always, new to someone at the table.

Dates are a ritual Jewish New Year’s food

Dates are also one of the ritual foods in a Sephardic and Mizrachi Rosh Hashanah feast, a seder with culinary symbols, so it feels natural on the table. Ripe dates, wrinkled and nonperishable, are called tamar. (Yes, like my name’s root). The word is related to the Hebrew verb to consume or finish. The hope is that our enemies will be “finished.”

But given the domestic climate in this election year, I will not be offering this prayer at my table. I want to broaden the sense of hopefulness at Rosh Hashanah. We have plenty of other days to worry about harshness. So, instead of the Sephardic or Mizrachi prayer, when I serve and eat dates and date syrup, I will hope for a world without any reason to have enemies, where tolerance reigns.

Two new, symbolic reasons to add date syrup to the table

The food is deserving of its place. Its natural complexity is held together with a deep sweetness, without harshness on the tongue. That’s one heck of a real life wish on that spoon. Sweet and hopeful, complex and real, date syrup is more than delicious. It mirrors the best reality of an actual life, not a purified dream.

Date syrup is also a tangible evidence of human ingenuity. I think it’s awesome to share something so simple and yet so clever at the New Year’s table. Ingenuity is fascinating and part of its definition is newness. Ideas and inspiration can come from anywhere. The genius of the human mind is coming up with something unique out of those ideas and inspirations. It’s not simple. It’s not the white sugar of thinking. It’s the date syrup.

Here are a few recipes for using date syrup.

Date Syrup and Carrot Muffins

Date Syrup and Carrot Muffins are tender and rich tasty treats. Credit: Copyright 2016 TheWeiserKitchen

Date Syrup and Carrot Muffins are tender and rich tasty treats. Credit: Copyright 2016 TheWeiserKitchen

The magic of date syrup transforms these muffins from simple to complex with a single abracadabra! Tender and rich in both flavor and texture, they are studded with the earthy sweetness of carrots and a few chunks of dates that together up the “healthy” ante. Great with coffee or tea, these are tasty treats from am to pm, weekday or weekend, holiday or everyday.

Prep time: 20 minutes

Cook time: 22 minutes

Total time: 42 minutes
Yield:  18 muffins

Ingredients

2 cups (260 grams) unbleached, all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons (10 grams) baking powder
1 teaspoon (5 grams) baking soda
1 teaspoon (2 grams) ground cinnamon
1/2  teaspoon ground cardamom
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon (2 grams) kosher salt
4 large eggs
1 cup (210 grams) granulated sugar
1/2 cup date syrup (date molasses or silan)
1/2 cup mild olive oil
2 teaspoons vanilla bean paste
3 medium carrots, peeled and grated (about 1½ cups)
6 pitted Mejdool dates, finely chopped (about ¾ cup)

Directions

  1. Preheat the oven to 375 F. Spray an 18-cup muffin tin with nonstick vegetable oil or canola oil spray (see Kitchen Tips).
  2. In a large mixing bowl, sift the flour, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, cardamom, ginger and salt.
  3. In separate bowl, combine the eggs, sugar, date syrup, olive oil, and vanilla bean paste and mix with a spoon until fully combined and bubbly.
  4. Add the flour mixture and mix just to combine. Stir in the carrots and chopped dates.
  5. Scoop the mixture into the muffin cups, filling each cup almost to the top (a little more than 1/4 cup of batter each). Bake for 12 to 13 minutes, and rotate the muffin tin back to front. Bake for 8 to 9 minutes longer, or until springy when touched lightly, and a cake tester or toothpick inserted into a muffin comes out clean with perhaps a few moist crumbs. Cool in the pan for 3 to 5 minutes. Then carefully transfer them to a baking rack to finish cooling.

Kitchen Tips

  • If you don’t have an 18-cup muffin tin, use a 12-cup tin and a 6-cup tin, or two partially filled 12-cup tins.
  • Swap the tins between the bottom and top oven racks about halfway through baking, rotating them from back to front as described in step 5 above.

 Almond, Banana and Date Syrup Smoothie

This nutrient-packed smoothie makes a great breakfast or snack. Credit: Copyright 2016 TheWeiserKitchen

This nutrient-packed smoothie makes a great breakfast or snack. Credit: Copyright 2016 TheWeiserKitchen

Dairy-free, vegan and packed with flavor and nutrients, this smoothie make a great breakfast, post-workout pick-me-up or after-school snack. You can even freeze it, and scoop it out for a almost-ice-cream treat.
Freezing time: 2 hours
Prep time: 5 minutes
Total time: 2 hours, 5 minutes
Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

2 very ripe small or 1 large banana, peeled, cut into 1-inch pieces and frozen

2 1/2 cups almond milk

1/4 cup smooth almond butter

1 tablespoon date syrup (silan)

1/2 teaspoon vanilla bean paste or pure vanilla extract

4 large ice cubes

Directions
  1. Combine the frozen bananas, almond milk, almond butter, date syrup, vanilla and ice cubes  in a blender and process until completely smooth. Pour into glasses and serve immediately.

Main photo: Dates and date syrup. Credit: Copyright 2016 Tami Weiser

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While on the move, executive chef Max Beyer of the Viking river boat Heimdal takes regular visits to local markets. Credit: Copyright 2016 Miguel Altamirano

Cooks have long been travelers, moving from royal court to papal conclave, and Austrian-born Max Beyer is a great example of this restless spirit. Although still in his 20s, he has been executive chef of the Viking River Cruises ship Heimdal for two years now: a seven-day-a week, 12-hour-a-day job. He heads the kitchen of a boat that sails the Rhône River from Lyon, the gastronomic capital of France, down to Avignon, capital of medieval popes.

Max began in the family restaurant in Linz in the valley of the river Danube. “It was simple cooking, schnitzel, roast pork, that kind of thing. Grandma baked plum cake and strudel at the weekend, and I always helped. In Austria, we all know the basic pastries; they form part of so many of our dishes.”

After leaving school, Max followed an apprenticeship of both school and practical work, ending in the kitchen of a 50-year-old star chef. “He had 35 years more experience than me,” says Max. “It was amazing what he knew.”

The secret to shopping

A "rosette" de Lyon is not a showcase prize but a firm, pink pork salami that is quite simply delicious. A dozen stands in the covered Marché Paul Bocuse display rosettes beside the football-sized Jésus de morteau, packed in a pig's bladder. Credit: Copyright 2016 Miguel Altamirano

A “rosette” de Lyon is not a showcase prize but a firm, pink pork salami that is quite simply delicious. A dozen stands in the covered Marché Paul Bocuse display rosettes beside the football-sized Jésus de morteau, packed in a pig’s bladder. Credit: Copyright 2016 Miguel Altamirano

On the Heimdal, Max guides an 11-member kitchen staff in providing three meals a day and constant snacks for 180 guests. A more gastronomic route could hardly be imagined, but how do you transfer such specialties as the pink pralines and the “rosette” dried sausages of Lyon, or the candied apricots and oranges of Provence, or the goat cheeses of the nearby Loire valley to the tiny galley kitchen of a large river boat? “You must know how to shop,” says Max, and his round face beams.

“We’ll go to the market, we’ll see some good things,” he declares, and thus ensues a deeply gastronomic afternoon. This proves to be no ordinary expedition. Les Halles de Lyon de Paul Bocuse is a covered market renowned throughout France for its more than 50 retailers clustered in aisles beneath a soaring roof. Chef Bocuse, who is often known as “l’Empereur,” had much to do with its development in the heart of Lyon city. “These are all artisan producers,” explains Max. “Restaurateurs shop here, but local residents drop by to collect their supper too. Everyone enjoys the market.”

From pork to cheese stands

Bread dough can be the basis of much, much more than just a plain baguette. Credit: Copyright 2016 Miguel Altamirano

Bread dough can be the basis of much, much more than just a plain baguette. Credit: Copyright 2016 Miguel Altamirano

Nearly half of the merchants specialize in pork — Lyon is one of the sausage capitals of France, and it features dozens, hundreds probably, of versions of air-dried “saucissons” of raw, ground pork. Max goes into conference with the seller, who is clearly a friend. Half a dozen varied firm, dry sausages are plucked from the overhanging racks. Max pinches them: “We want them firm, but not too dried out, either” he says. He takes a sniff: “These seem just right.” In the chilled case below are ranged pigs’ ears, sweetbreads, tripe, pigs’ tails. Max casts a wistful glance but this is not ship’s fare.

On to the cheese stand and another huddled discussion. No question about it, cheese is my favorite food, and this display of 50 or more different cheeses makes me sigh. I used to live in Burgundy, not far north of Lyon, and the cheese display makes me sigh nostalgic. “Let’s have some goat cheeses,” says Max. “Valençay is shaped like a pyramid, and the St. Maur has been rolled in vegetable ashes; they both taste different. Then there’s the blue Roquefort that everyone wants, though I personally would go for Fourme d’Ambert or perhaps Bleu d’Auvergne at half the price.” I nod in agreement.

Challenges and chocolate cake

Chef Max Beyer also gives onboard lessons in making a chocolate lava cake. Credit: Copyright 2016 Miguel Altamirano

Chef Max Beyer also gives onboard lessons in making a chocolate lava cake. Credit: Copyright 2016 Miguel Altamirano

Back on the ship, Max lugs his purchases to his miniscule galley. The restricted space is used day and night, organized following the classic guidelines established by Escoffier more than a century ago: saucier (who is also sous-chef), entremettier (vegetables and smaller side dishes such as soufflés and crêpes), garde-manger (salads and cold kitchen) and dishwashers — “they have my admiration,” comments Max. “We all help each other. Last week I was peeling asparagus with the rest of them.”

Cooking on a ship

Cooking on a ship has its challenges, from tight spaces to the occasional loss of water. Credit: Courtesy of Viking River Cruises

Cooking on a ship has its challenges, from tight spaces to the occasional loss of cooking water. Credit: Courtesy of Viking River Cruises

I ask about the problems of cooking on the move. “Let’s call them challenges,” says Max. “Just this morning the water was cut off, so we cooked with bottled water.”

Cooking is just the beginning of Max’s responsibilities. He keeps in close touch with guests, touring the dining rooms at each meal and keeping an eye on service. He gives a cooking class too, whipping up a popular recipe for chocolate lava cake one afternoon. Some brisk work is involved, and Max proves to have the gift of the gab. “You know, my grandma used to use a hand whisk, but faster!”

Anne Willan’s trip on the Viking Heimdal was a gift from Viking River Cruises to celebrate the 50th anniversary of her marriage to Mark Cherniavsky.

Main photo: While on the move, executive chef Max Beyer of the Viking river boat Heimdal takes regular visits to local markets. Credit: Copyright 2016 Miguel Altamirano

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My 17-year-old daughter created a vegan cookie that is crispy on the outside and chewy on the inside. Credit: Copyright 2016 TheWeiserKitchen

I was crowned queen of my family’s kitchen before I was 13. I loved to cook and bake, and I always left a mess in the kitchen. Lila, my red-haired, 17-year-old daughter — an endless well of wit and sarcasm — bakes every day. She particularly loves to leave the mess for me.

When I was a teenager, I did a demonstration of baking bread for my public speaking class — in straight-up TV cooking-show style. I brought in a selection of doughs at various stages of development. As I slapped and kneaded, my classmates oohed. As I sliced through the crisp crust of the finished loaf, they aahed. I had no cribnotes, no recipe by my side. After class, I shoved the leftover doughs onto the top shelf of my locker and raced off to class. By 4 p.m. the smell of yeast was wafting down the hall. Dough was oozing out the vents of my locker and, inside, had poured onto my books and gym clothes. I wore those clothes with pride, knowing I’d shared my love of baking.

My home kitchen sometimes reminds me of that locker: fragrant, messy and amusing. Even before I went to culinary school and started cooking seriously, I cooked every day. Lila learned to cook by living with me. I give her free rein in the kitchen whenever she wants it, and I offer advice (she sometimes listens). We get to do some quality obsessing together about baking, like binge watching “The Great British Baking Show.

Then one day she blew me away.

Lila wanted to make a cookie that was crisp on the outside and soft on the inside, which may not sound difficult but Lila is a vegan. Baking delicious vegan food — so that the end product tastes good, and has wonderful texture — is no mean feat. She went right at it while I was out catering. No advice, no book, no nothing.

By the time I got home, there was a pile of dishes and I was none too happy. I grimaced and sighed and did her dishes still in my stained whites. She knew I was displeased, and was reduced to tears. I saw the cookies she had made. I sat down, listened to her explain what she had done, and tasted her cookies.

Lila had reverse engineered one hell of a cookie. Really, it’s a terrific cookie, not an aw-I-am-your-mom-isn’t-that-cute-terrific cookie.

She explained how she made it. She wanted the crumb to be tight but not dense. So she used a blend of all-purpose flour with the lightening power of cornstarch. She wanted coconut to play a supporting role that could stand up to the strong, vivid citrus flavor of lemons, yet not overpower them. So she added coconut water — not coconut milk — as the liquid. It gave the cookie a little body. Then she chose baking powder — and plenty of it — to give it pouf without much spread. The result is a bakery-worthy treat, easy to make and truly delicious.

I couldn’t be prouder — and I hope she’s as proud of herself as I was that day in high school and I told her I would do her dishes as long as she kept innovating and learning. I smiled, complimented her again, and ate another cookie. Ah, the power of baking rises again.

Lila’s Vegan Lemon Coconut Cookies

These cookies are phenomenal: They are crunchy on the outside and chewy on the inside; sweet but not overly sweet; coconut-y but not overly so. It’s a deeply balanced cookie and I am one proud chef mom kvelling.
 
Prep time: 10 minutes
Cook time: 10 minutes
Total time: 20 minutes

Ingredients

2 cups all purpose flour
1 cup granulated sugar plus 1/2 cup for rolling
3 teaspoons cornstarch
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
Zest and juice of one large lemon
1/4 cup fresh coconut water, from young coconuts preferred
1 teaspoon vanilla bean paste
1/4 cup melted coconut oil
After shaping the dough for each cookie, dip it in sugar and roll it to coat before placing it on the baking sheet lined with parchment. Credit: Copyright 2016 TheWeiserKitchen

After shaping the dough for each cookie, dip it in sugar and roll it to coat before placing it on the baking sheet lined with parchment. Credit: Copyright 2016 TheWeiserKitchen

 Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 350 F. Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper and set aside.
  2. In a mixing bowl, sift together the flour, sugar, cornstarch, baking powder and salt.
  3. Add the lemon juice and zest, coconut water and vanilla bean paste, and stir just to combine. Add melted coconut oil and stir to combine.
  4. Using a 2-tablespoon scoop or a spoon, scoop out the dough and shape into balls. Drop the cookie balls in the sugar and gently roll to coat. Place on the prepared baking sheet about 1 1/2 inches apart. Place in the oven and bake for 10 minutes or until the cookies are crispy on the outside and not raw on the inside, but still soft, and not brown beyond the edges.

Main photo: My 17-year-old daughter created a vegan cookie that is lemony with a hint of coconut; crisp on the outside and chewy on the inside. Credit: Copyright 2016 TheWeiserKitchen

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Cinnamon chouquettes. Credit: Copyright 2016 Kathy Hunt

At one time, if I wanted a handful of airy, pearl-sugar-encrusted chouquettes, I’d have to either scrimp and save for a trip to France or break down and make these sweets myself.

For centuries these petite, round pastries have been a mainstay of French bakeries and patisseries. Like clockwork, each day bakers tumble a dozen or so soft chouquettes into small paper bags and, handing over the baked goods, send hungry but happy customers on their way. Simple yet satisfying, chouquettes have long served as an afternoon snack or a means of tiding over famished French diners until dinnertime.

In recent months I started to notice this beloved treat appearing in bakeries and shops in my New York City neighborhood. Piled high on trays inside glass cases or displayed in wicker baskets, as they are in France, chouquettes have begun to insinuate their way into international markets and hearts.

Like many newcomers to the chouquette, I originally mistook it for a French take on the American doughnut hole. Because the two were comparable in size and shape, I assumed they would also have a similar taste. One bite of the chouquette’s soft, mildly sweet and eggy dough and its crunchy sugar topping, and all comparisons to that greasy, occasionally gooey confection ended.

Chouquettes born during the Renaissance

Cinnamon chouquettes. Credit: Copyright 2016 Kathy Hunt

Cinnamon chouquettes. Credit: Copyright 2016 Kathy Hunt

Unlike doughnuts, which are a relatively modern creation, chouquettes date back to Renaissance France. Historians point to the 16th century and a chef, a man known as Panterelli, whom Catherine de Medici had brought with her to France, as the inventor of the first chouquette.

Panterelli had crafted an unusual dough that consisted of flour, water, eggs and butter. Although it lacked such leavening agents as yeast, baking powder or baking soda, the dough still rose in a hot oven. This resulted from its high moisture content, which, when heated, produced steam that, in turn, caused the pastry to swell. Note that his dough, or pâte, is not to be confused with puff pastry, which contains layers of buttery dough and, as a result, has a flaky texture.

In the 18th century, French bakers began shaping this pâte into tiny buns that, after baking, resembled little cabbages. The French word for “cabbage” is choux. Pair that with Panterelli’s pâte and you have the classic dough for chouquettes and assortment of other desserts, pâte a choux.

During the 19th century, the renowned Parisian chef Marie-Antoine Carême tweaked this recipe yet again. It is his take on pâte a choux that I enjoy today in my neighborhood chouquettes.

While I appreciate the convenience of walking a few blocks to fetch a bag of fresh chouquettes, I continue to bake my own, too. Quick and simple to make, they always dazzle my friends and family. Then again, who wouldn’t be impressed by a platter of homemade, pearl-sugar-studded French pastries?

A different kind of dough

Unlike other types of pastry dough, preparing chouquette dough involved cooking. Credit: Copyright 2016 Kathy Hunt

Unlike other types of pastry dough, preparing chouquette dough involves cooking. Credit: Copyright 2016 Kathy Hunt

Pâte a choux is the rare dough that is cooked before being baked. To make a batch of chouquettes, I first melt butter in a saucepan with water, sugar and salt. To this I add flour. I then stir the ingredients together until a soft, malleable dough forms. The eggs are the final addition to the saucepan and make the dough wet and a bit sticky. This moisture is what gives chouquettes their light consistency.

After being spooned onto parchment paper and decorated with pearl sugar, the chouquettes are baked until puffy and golden brown. If, after being removed from the oven, the pint-sized treats collapse, I just put them back in the hot oven for a few more minutes.

Because chouquettes are hollow inside, they can be filled with an array of ingredients, such as custard, chocolate or jam. I, however, am a purist and prefer to leave them as they are. I love them most when they’ve been adorned with those chunky, white sugar crystals and, if I’m feeling really adventurous, a smidgen of ground cinnamon.

Cinnamon Chouquettes

Chouquettes ready for the oven. Credit: Copyright 2016 Kathy Hunt

Chouquettes ready for the oven. Credit: Copyright 2016 Kathy Hunt

Prep time: 10 minutes

Bake time: 20 to 25 minutes

Total time: 35 minutes

Yield: 3 dozen

Ingredients

For the dough:

1 cup water

1 tablespoon granulated sugar

1/8 teaspoon salt

4 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 cup all-purpose flour

4 large eggs, at room temperature

For the topping:

1 egg yolk

1 teaspoon water

2/3 cup pearl sugar

2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

Directions

Preheat the oven to 425 F. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper and set aside.

Place the water, sugar, salt and butter in a small saucepan and heat over medium. Stir the ingredients together until the butter has melted.

Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the flour. Mix until a soft, malleable dough has formed.

Add the eggs one at a time, stirring briskly with each addition until the eggs are completely incorporated. When finished, the dough will be sticky.

Using a tablespoon or a small disher that holds roughly 1 tablespoon, scoop out and place equal portions of dough on the parchment-lined baking sheets. Leave about 1 inch between each chouquette.

In a small bowl whisk together the egg yolk and water.  In another small bowl mix the pearl sugar with the ground cinnamon.

Brush the tops of the chouquettes with egg wash, then sprinkle cinnamon sugar over top of each.

Bake for 20 to 25 minutes or until the chouquettes are puffed up, golden brown and dry in appearance. Remove them from the oven and cool for 1 to 2 minutes before serving.

Note: When stored in an airtight container, chouquettes will keep for up to three days. However, they are best when consumed on the day they’re baked.

Main image: Cinnamon chouquettes. Credit: Copyright 2016 Kathy Hunt

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Shakshuka is a Tunisian dish that can be eaten at any meal of the day. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clarissa Hyman

If shakshuka is not yet on your food radar, then it soon will be. And be prepared to fall head over heels for this homely Tunisian favorite that may well be the region’s most delicious onomatopoeic egg dish.

Even though it sounds as if it ought to mean “all shook up” à la Elvis, the word shakshuka actually means “all mixed up,” a subtle distinction. Its charm is based on a trio of basic ingredients: tomatoes, fried or poached eggs and some form of chili pepper. Sounds simple, but as in all such deceptively easy recipes, the devil is in the detail.

In Israel, the cult of shakshuka has especially taken wing, becoming as ubiquitous as hummus and falafel. Introduced to the country by Jewish immigrants from North Africa, it is now found on cafe and restaurant menus throughout the country, served from dawn till dusk.

The mother of all shakshuka dishes is served at the eponymous Doctor Shakshuka in Jaffa along with a range of Libyan favorites, but on Tel-Aviv’s Ben Yehuda Street you can find small, hole-in-the-wall cafes that serve nothing but shakshuka. Choose the fiery heat level, specify the degree of softness of your egg yolk and select from a range of extra toppings and ingredients such as fresh herbs, eggplant, feta, merguez sausage, tahini or tofu.

A daring “green” shakshuka — made with leeks and spinach in a creamy sauce with no tomatoes — is fast becoming popular. A shakshuka baguette I encountered, however, was to my mind an innovation too far — in looks, like something you’d find in a medical textbook; in taste, much the same.

A rose by any other name might smell as sweet, but to shakshuka mavens the dish would just not have same the exotic appeal if it was simply called baked eggs in tomato sauce.

Shakshuka: Debating recipe tips

The tomatoes in this dish need to be really ripe and packed with flavor. Peeling is preferable but optional. Canned tomatoes are acceptable, though they don’t have quite the same textural quality. On the other hand, some prefer it this way.

Red peppers are sometimes fried with the tomatoes, although a strong, vocal faction contends they should be chargrilled separately and added to the sauce once the latter is cooked. Some avoid them altogether.

Use very fresh spices, or the sauce will taste flat. Add them at the start and fry gently in olive oil before adding the tomatoes. Popular spices include cumin, caraway and black pepper. Paprika, chili pepper, cayenne, harissa or a similar fiery spice is the key. Garlic is optional but eminently desirable. Ditto onion. Or both.

The sauce on which the eggs will rest should not be too liquidy, so make sure you cook it until it largely evaporates.

Use eggs at room temperature, because a cold egg will cook unevenly. The whites take longer to cook than the yolks, so timing is tricky. Some cooks cover the pan to solve the problem, but that tends to overcook the yolk. Still, some folk run a mile from a runny one. Others separate the eggs, cooking the whites till set before adding the yolks. Personally, I feel this lacks the proper aesthetic.

If you want to add extra ingredients, do so either just before adding the eggs or at the same time.

Shakshuka can be cooked in either a large communal skillet to dish out as required or in individual dishes so you can serve them in the pan in which they were cooked.

Mop up your shakshuka with good bread. No argument.

Shakshuka: A starting point

The recipe is intended as a guide. Regard shakshuka as a free-wheeling dish dependent on personal preferences and ingredient availability.

Prep time: 10 minutes

Cook time: 50 minutes

Total time: 1 hour

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

4 tablespoons olive oil

1 onion, finely sliced

1 red pepper, diced

4 garlic cloves, finely chopped

2 teaspoons sweet paprika

1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds

1/2 to 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper

2 pounds tinned tomatoes (or ripe tomatoes in season)

2 teaspoons sugar (optional, depending on the flavor of the tomatoes)

1 tablespoon lemon juice

4 to 8 eggs, depending on size/hunger

Salt and pepper to taste

Small bunch of fresh coriander or parsley, roughly chopped

Directions

Heat the oil in a large, lidded frying pan over medium heat. Add the onion and cook until golden, then add the pepper. Fry until both are soft, then stir in the garlic, paprika, cumin seeds and cayenne pepper and cook for another couple of minutes.

Add the tomatoes and sugar, if using. Bring to a boil, then turn down the heat and simmer for 30 minutes. Taste and season, adding more cayenne if you prefer it spicier.

Make 4 to 8 shallow indentations in the sauce, and break in the eggs. Season them lightly with salt and pepper, then turn the heat down as low as possible, cover and cook for about 10 minutes until the eggs are just set.

Sprinkle with coriander or parsley and serve.

Green Shakshuka

This breaks the shakshuka rules — it has no tomato! — but makes an excellent brunch or breakfast dish.

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cook time: 15 minutes

Total time: 20 minutes

Yield: 2 to 3 servings

Ingredients

1 large leek, sliced

2 to 3 tablespoons olive oil or butter

3 garlic cloves, finely chopped

1 teaspoon sweet paprika or chili flakes

6 cups spinach or kale, chopped

1/2 cup sour cream

A little freshly grated nutmeg to taste

6 eggs

1/4 pound feta or goats’ cheese

Directions

Fry the leek in the butter or oil in a wide frying pan for about 10 minutes. Add the garlic, and when the aroma rises, add the paprika or chili flakes, then stir in the spinach until it starts to wilt.

Add the sour cream, nutmeg, salt and pepper and stir to mix well.

Make shallow dips in the sauce, and break an egg into each one. Cook for a few minutes or until the eggs are done to your liking. Cover the pan briefly if you think appropriate.

Sprinkle with the cheese and serve immediately.

Main image: Shakshuka is a Tunisian dish that can be eaten at any meal of the day. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clarissa Hyman

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Marcella and Victor Hazan. Credit: Copyright 2016 Barbara Banks

I’ve lived in Italy off and on since the 1970s, eating my way up and down the peninsula, shopping the markets, raising the vegetables in my own gardens, prepping and cooking the food, studying the history and meeting the home cooks and chefs who carry the treasures of the Italian table in their heads, hearts and hands. I’ve learned a lot, in short, about Italian cooking. But almost everything I know, everything I’ve learned, ultimately traces back to one source — Marcella Hazan.

Her first book, “The Classic Italian Cook Book,” published by Knopf in 1973 and acquired by me a few years later as a gift from an erstwhile husband when we moved to Rome, truly opened the doors of my kitchen to Italian cooking. I have been grateful ever since. I consult that book and her many others to this day, often uncovering unexpected tips, ideas and information. Now I have a new treasure in my Marcella library — “Ingredienti” — her husband, Victor’s, tribute to his wife of nearly 60 years, who died in 2013.

A true Italian kitchen, in Marcella’s words

This invaluable little book is based on Marcella’s notebooks, discovered by Victor after her death and assembled by him into usable form. A caution: It is not a cookbook, though any number of cooking tips are scattered throughout. It is, in fact, a series of intelligent, well-informed essays on critical ingredients for an Italian kitchen, from “Produce” (artichokes, arugula, etc. ) to “The Essential Pantry” (pasta, of course, olive oil, Parmigiano, etc.) to “Salumi” (all the cured meats — prosciutto, guanciale, pancetta, and, as they say in Italian, via dicendo).

"Ingredienti" by Marcella and Victor Hazan. Credit: Copyright 2016 book cover courtesy of Scribner

“Ingredienti” by Marcella and Victor Hazan. Credit: Copyright 2016 book cover courtesy of Scribner

It’s an open secret in the food world that Victor Hazan was the defining voice in his wife’s long and remarkable career. While the brilliant ideas, sensible advice and enormous range of recipes Marcella produced all came from her inspirations and her own kitchens, it was Victor who developed the clear, comprehensive prose that distinguished her seven cookbooks and countless magazine articles. Throughout her career, she was a pervasive influence on America’s understanding of Italian food, yet she never had a restaurant, never starred in a television show and almost never appeared in public to give a talk or do a demonstration. What a different world she lived in, but she ruled that world for 40 years and continues, for many of us, to dominate it to this day.

An inspiring force

Marcella Hazan at a cooking demonstration. Credit: Copyright 2016 Victor Hazan

Marcella Hazan at a cooking demonstration. Credit: Copyright 2016 Victor Hazan

I met Marcella in the 1970s after “The Classic Italian Cook Book” was published. In fact, the first food story I ever wrote was an interview with the Hazans at their cooking school in Bologna, Italy, in a hotel across from the train station that was also headquarters for the Bologna division of Weight Watchers International (providing a memorable lead sentence for my story). Eight or 10 students were in the class, one of whom was planning to open a “northern Italian” restaurant somewhere in the upper Midwest and had come to take a weeklong course to understand what she was getting into. Another was a man who claimed to detest olive oil. “I don’t know what he’s doing in an Italian cooking class,” Marcella murmured, barely sotto voce, in her inimitably gravelly voice.

The menu for the class was simple, though some techniques were not. Students struggled to master shaping tortellini, the devilishly difficult little hat-shaped filled pasta that is the pride of Bologna’s sfogline, or pasta-makers. But there was also a traditional arrosto di maiale al latte, pork loin braised in milk, a surprisingly simple dish, flavored with nothing but salt and pepper, rich and succulent. A dish first described by Artusi, the Fanny Farmer of 19th-century Italian cooking, it was introduced to Americans by Marcella — and it deserves to be revived.

That was not my only encounter with the Hazans. In fact, I remember almost every time I spent with them simply because from each encounter, I took away a piece of invaluable knowledge. But one, in particular, stands out: In the late 1980s, when I was working as a food journalist in New York, Marcella called to invite me to dinner. “I want to show you something about pasta,” she said. The next evening, in the Hazans’ comfortable East Side apartment, she presented her dinner guests with two plates of pasta, identically dressed very simply with butter, a grating of Parmigiano Reggiano and a light sprinkle of herbs, nothing to interfere with the flavors of the pasta. One plate of tagliatelle had been made entirely by hand, rolled out on a board “until the pasta is almost paper thin and transparent,” as she says in that first book. The tagliatelle on the second plate were what you and I might call handmade, but rolled through a hand-cranked pasta machine. In the machine, as she wrote, “something happens to its composition … that gives the dough an ever so slightly slippery texture.” The words are Victor’s, but the sentiment, precise and to the point, is Marcella’s to the core.

And you know what? She was absolutely right!

Arrosto di maiale al latte (Pork Loin Braised in Milk)

This recipe was published in Marcella Hazan’s “The Classic Italian Cook Book” (Knopf 1973)

 Yield: For 6 persons

Ingredients

2 tablespoons butter

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

2 pounds pork loin, in one piece, with some fat on it, secretly tied

1 teaspoon salt

Freshly ground pepper, 3 or 4 twists of the mill

2 1/2 cups milk

Directions

Heat the butter and oil over medium-high heat in a casserole large enough to just contain the pork. When the butter foam subsides, add the meat, fat side facing down. Brown thoroughly on all sides, lowering the heat if the butter starts to turn dark brown.

Add the salt, pepper and milk. (Add the milk slowly, otherwise it may boil over.) Shortly after the milk comes to a boil, turn the heat down to medium, cover, but not tightly, with the lid partly askew, and cook slowly for about 1 1/2 to 2 hours, until the meat is easily pierced by a fork. Turn and baste the meat from time to time, and, if necessary, add a little more milk. By the time the meat is cooked, the milk should have coagulated into small nut-brown clusters. If it is still pale in color, uncover the pot, raise the heat to high, and cook briskly until it darkens.

Remove the meat to a cutting board and allow to cool off slightly for a few minutes. Remove the trussing string, carve into slices 3/8-inch thick, and arrange them on a warm platter. Draw off most of the fat from the pot with a spoon and discard, being careful not to toss any of the coagulated milk clusters. Taste and correct for salt. (There may be as much as 1 to 1 1/2 cups of fat to be removed.) Add 2 or 3 tablespoons of warm water, turn the heat on high, and boil away the water while scraping and loosening all the cooking residue in the pot. Spoon the sauce over the sliced pork and serve immediately.

Main photo: Marcella and Victor Hazan. Credit: Copyright 2016 Barbara Banks

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Dry rub pork ribs cut apart after slow roasting and ready for serving. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Latt

The summertime debate is on. What is the easiest way to cook pork ribs? Boil, roast or grill? High heat, low heat, wet sauce or dry rub? I’ve tried them all. Now the question is settled, at least for me.  Slow roasting with a dry rub. To avoid summer’s heat, I put the ribs in a 250 F oven before I go to bed. When I wake up, the ribs are moist with a bacon-thin, sweetened crust. And these best-ever ribs cooked while I was fast asleep.

My mother taught me to make pork ribs with a thick coating of sauce sweetened with brown sugar and raisins. Eating those finger-licking ribs was one of my favorite childhood memories.

Everything changed on a busy research trip to Abilene and Fort Worth, when I ate at 25 restaurants in 36 hours. I fell in love with West Texas BBQ.

At restaurant after restaurant, I watched grill masters lay bundles of mesquite into their subcompact-car-sized smokers. With the heavy metal doors open, the wood crackled as flames enveloped the logs The grill masters seasoned their racks of pork ribs with thick, grainy coats of brown sugar and spices rubbed onto the meat.  Waves of dry heat radiated from the smokers. But the heat that would cook these ribs would come not from an open fire but from smoldering mesquite embers.

When the doors were closed, the blazing logs were starved of oxygen. The flames died and a delicate smoke filled the air. At that moment the grill masters loaded in the racks of ribs coated with sweetened dry rub. Hours later, the ribs were removed, their outer coating thickened to crispness, creating what grill masters call “bark.”

I loved those ribs even more than the ones from my childhood.

At home, without the benefit of a smoker, I experimented for years to duplicate that sweet-crispness. Nothing could ever recreate the wonderful mesquite smokiness but I did succeed in making ribs with bark as good as any I enjoyed in West Texas.

High heat versus slow cooking

Mix of kosher salt, black pepper, brown sugar, cumin, coriander and cayenne for dry rub slow roasted pork ribs. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Latt

Mix of kosher salt, black pepper, brown sugar, cumin, coriander and cayenne for dry rub slow roasted pork ribs. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Latt

Cooking with high heat is exciting. There is great pleasure in watching the pyrotechnics of an outdoor grill as sizzling fat catches fire.  Roasting at low heat in the oven lacks that excitement.

And yet, what happens in an oven set at 250 F has its own kind of magic. In the darkness of the oven, the waves of steady heat melt the fat inside the rack, tenderizing the meat and gently fusing the dry rub to the outside of the ribs.

The best magic of all is that the oven does the work. No standing over a blazingly hot grill on a hot day. Once the oven door closes, there is nothing to be done.

Walk into the kitchen and a savory-sweet aroma scents the air. Pull the baking tray out of the oven and press a finger against the outside of the rack. The soft pliancy of the meat has been replaced by a jerky-like crust as sweet as a crème brulee topping.

Slow-Roasted, Dry-Rubbed Pork Ribs

 

Rack of pork ribs, trimmed. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Latt

Rack of pork ribs, trimmed. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Latt

Cooking time depends on the size and thickness of the rack.

Buy good quality pork. Asian and Latin markets are often a reliable source of fresh pork products. Unlike the ribs sold in upscale supermarkets, the ribs in these markets will most likely be untrimmed.

Above the actual ribs, the rack will have a top portion with boneless flap meat and a section with thick bones similar to country style ribs.  Another smaller piece of flap meat will stretch across the back of the rib bones.

Requiring only a sharp filleting knife and a few minutes, removing the flap meat and the top portion is not difficult. The flap meat is excellent to use in stir fries, slow roasted in the oven or grilled on the BBQ.

A white membrane is attached to the outside of the flap meat. Use a sharp filleting knife to separate the meat from the membrane and discard.

The flap meat and country style bones can be prepared in the same manner as the ribs.  They will cook more quickly and should be removed from the 250 F oven after a total of 2 to 3 hours depending on thickness.

While the rack of ribs does not have to be turned over, the flap meat and country style bones should be turned over after one hour for even cooking. After another hour, use kitchen shears to cut off a small piece of meat to test for doneness. Return to the oven if the meat is not yet tender.

To eat the country style ribs, have a sharp paring knife handy to help cut out those hard to reach tasty bits tucked between the bones.

The ribs can be cooked ahead and reheated. In which case, do not cut apart the ribs until ready to serve. Reheat in a 300 F oven for 15 minutes.

Prep time: 30 minutes

Cooking time: 6 to 8 hours

Resting time: 5 minutes

Total time: 6 hours, 35 minutes to 8 hours, 35 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

1 rack pork ribs, 4 to 5 pounds, washed, dried

3 cups brown sugar

2 tablespoons kosher salt

2 tablespoons freshly ground black pepper

¼ cup cumin

¼ cup coriander

½ teaspoon cayenne (optional)

Directions

1. Place a wire rack in the middle of the oven. Preheat to 250 F.

2. Select a baking pan or cookie sheet that is 2 inches longer than the rack of ribs. Cover the pan with aluminum foil for easy clean up. Place a wire rack on top of the aluminum foil.

3. Lay the rack of ribs on a cutting board, bone side up. Use a sharp filleting knife to remove the tough membrane on the bone side of the rack. Let the knife help you lift the membrane. Use your fingers to pull the skin off the bones and discard.

4. Do not cut off any fat.

5. In a bowl, mix together dry ingredients.

6. For easy cleanup, lay a sheet of plastic wrap on the cutting board. Place the rack on the cutting board. Layer a thick coat of the dry spices onto both sides, covering the meat and bones.

7. Reserve left-over dry rub in an air tight container and refrigerate for later use.

8. Carefully place the rack of ribs on the wire rack meat side up.

9. Put the baking sheet into the preheated oven.

10. Roast six hours. Remove from oven. Use kitchen shears to cut off a small piece and taste.

11. The outside should have a jerky-crispness. The meat inside should be moist and tender. The tapered end of the rack where the bones are small will cook faster than the rest of the ribs. Use the kitchen shears to cut off that section before returning the rack to the oven for another one-two hours. Be careful not to dry out the meat.

12. Once the ribs are cooked, remove from oven and let the meat rest five minutes.

13. Cut between the rib bones and chop into pieces any flap meat without bones. Serve hot with a green salad, Cole slaw, baked beans or freshly steamed vegetables.

Main photo: Dry rub pork ribs cut apart after slow roasting and ready for serving. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Latt.

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Chef Massimo Spigaroli and his team show off their prized culatello. Credit: Copyright 2016 Antica Corte Pallavicina

There is prosciutto and then there is culatello.

Proscuitto is ubiquitous. It’s draped over melon or paired with figs or mozzarella in restaurants everywhere. You can buy imported Proscuitto di Parma at Whole Foods at $31 a pound for a bone-in leg or on Amazon for $15.

Massimo Bottura serves culatello. At Osteria Francescana, his Michelin three-star restaurant in Modena that topped the 50 Best Restaurants for 2016, it appears as an appetizer, paired with Campanine apples, mustard and crunchy “gnocco” bread.

And not just any culatello. Chef Bottura procures his culatello exclusively from Massimo Spigaroli’s Antica Corte Pallavicina, an inn and working farm one hour’s drive from Modena. You’ll find that same culatello at Alain Ducasse’s Sporting Club in Montecarlo and Bombana in Hong Kong. But nowhere in the United States. The closest you’ll get is Zibello fiocco (culatello salami) for $40 a pound.

Prosciutto versus culatello

Vertical Tasting of Spigaroli culatello at Antica Corte Pallavicina. Credit: Copyright 2016 John Pleshette

Vertical Tasting of Spigaroli culatello at Antica Corte Pallavicina. Credit: Copyright 2016 John Pleshette

Culatello (“little backside” in Italian) is the fillet of the pig’s hind leg from which prosciutto is cured. Both are salted and left to sit for two months, which draws out the blood and kills bacteria. The process predates the Romans, and except for the introduction of nitrites, which further inhibit bacterial growth, it hasn’t changed much since. Proscuitto is then hung in a cool place for anywhere from nine months to two years, while culatello is encased in a pig’s or cow’s bladder and hung for 18 to 27 months.

All proscuitti are not created equal. Only a dozen designations are protected by the EU and stamped PDO or PGI, which guarantees they come from a particular region and, more important, are cured only with sea salt and no nitrites. All are produced in northern Italy. They vary in taste and texture depending on the terroir and the pigs. San Daniele, with its dark color and sweet flavor, is from Fruili. Parma pigs are fed whey from Parmigiano Reggiano, lending Proscuitto di Parma a nuttier flavor.

Culatello is more high-maintenance. Spigaroli’s black pigs are kissing cousins to the acorn-fed pigs that give us Jamon Ibérico. It cures throughout the cold damp winters in the Po Valley just south of Cremona. The difference between prosciutto and culatello is subtle, but profound.

A tasting

Fourteenth century charm meets 21st century gastronomy at the dining room at Antica Corte Pallavicina, the inn and working farm on the River Po. Credit: Copyright 2016 Antica Corte Pallavicina

Fourteenth-century charm meets 21st-century gastronomy in the dining room at Antica Corte Pallavicina, the inn and working farm on the River Po. Credit: Copyright 2016 Antica Corte Pallavicina

In the sun-filled dining room at Antica Corte Pallavicina, Spigaroli’s prized culatello is presented for a tasting beneath three celadon cloches. Each conceals pink-mahogany curtains of culatello. The first two, from white pigs, are aged, respectively, 18 and 27 months. The familiar salty-sweetness of prosciutto gives way to a leathery richness. The older culatello is nuttier. The black pig culatello is smokier, with black cherry notes and a velvety texture. Between pigs, we cleanse our palates with hunks of crusty country bread and glasses of Trebbiano, served with pickled vegetables and fiocco, the chewy-soft salami made from the trimmings and the fat.

Antica Corte Pallavicina commands several acres close to the Po, encompassing Spigaroli’s restaurant, the hotel, a cooking school, a farm, a parmesan factory and culatello cellars. Al Cavallito Bianco, a more casual osteria, is run by Spigaroli’s brother Luciano. If you snag one of the six rooms, you can meet the pigs and tour the Parmigiano fattoria and culatello caves, which were built in 1320 by the marquesse di Pallavicina for precisely that purpose.

The Spigarolis’ great-grandfather went from a sharecropper at a nearby pintador belonging to Guiseppe Verdi to tenant farmer at Pallavicina. Their father was born there in 1916. But by 1990, when the sons purchased the property, it had fallen into ruins. The extensive restoration combines rustic charm with modern conveniences. The original, ox-sized fireplace dominates the dining room, where a wall of glass doors opens onto a trellised patio. A massive decommissioned steel stove functions as a serving station.

Going to the source

Spigaroli culatello ages in the cellars built in 1320 by the Marquesse di Pallavicina. Credit: Copyright 2016 John Pleshette

Spigaroli culatello ages in the cellars built in 1320 by the Marquesse di Pallavicina. Credit: Copyright 2016 John Pleshette

After consuming feather-light tortelli, stuffed with ricotta from Spigaroli cows and Spigaroli spinach — glistening with Spigaroli brown butter and showered with Spigaroli Parmigiano — we tour the caves, down a dungeon’s stairs to the dank cellar. The culatelli, white with mold, hang from the ceiling, encased in pigs’ bladders like ghostly chandeliers. Misty air wafts in from the Po. Such cellars are increasingly rare. The EU frowns on such conditions as potentially unsanitary. Because of that flavor-enhancing mold, the FDA forbids importing it to the United States. You’ll have to go to the source.

You’ll find yourself in food heaven. Emilia-Romana is Italy’s Burgundy; Bologna, its Lyon. You won’t find a better spaghetti carbonara than the one at Pizzeria delle Arte in Bologna, spiked with guanciale, creamy with Parmigiano and egg yolks the color of navel oranges. Massimo Bottura celebrates that same Reggiano in his Five Ages of Parmiagiano at Osteria Francescana.

Our last dinner, in Milan, we sit next to three Italian businessmen. “What brings you to Italy?” one wants to know.

“We came for the culatello.”

“Ah.” He smiles. He understands.

Main caption: Chef Massimo Spigaroli and his team show off their prized culatello. Credit: Copyright 2016 Antica Corte Pallavicina

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