Articles in Baking

Slices of Povitica, a Croatian coffeecake, feature beautiful swirls of the chocolate walnut filling. Credit: Copyright 2015 Barbara Haber

I used to think that I already knew about every fattening confection known to man or woman until I watched “The Great British Baking Show,” a television baking contest that recently concluded its current season. This is where I first heard about Povitica (pronounced po-va-teets-sa), a Croatian coffeecake that I was eager to try.

But before I go on about this cake, let me hasten to add that I take pride in not watching television cooking contests because I get angry at the sight of haughty judges taking little nibbles of a dish while anxious and browbeaten young cooks wait for a verdict on their efforts. I dislike watching the power relationship between the mighty judges and the humiliated contestants. Furthermore, since I can’t taste the food being judged, who’s to say that I would agree with the praise or condemnation bestowed upon a dish? Everyone knows that tastes vary, that ingredients and flavors appealing to one person will leave another cold. For instance, were I to judge a contest, any dish containing cilantro or beets would automatically fail with me, but I at least recognize that this isn’t fair.

So, if I dislike cooking contests, then why did I watch and enjoy “The Great British Baking Show”? And why did I find myself eager to bake Povitica, the complicated and gorgeous sweet bread I’d never heard of that was one of the challenges facing the British contestants?

Learning experience

To start with, I find the setup of this British show interesting in that a diverse group of 12 talented amateur bakers are brought in from around Britain to compete for the crown. And I should add that there is no big prize money involved — just the honor of winning. One of the men was a construction worker, and one of the women was a 17-year-old schoolgirl, so the makeup of the group defied stereotypes. I was struck by the sweet natures of the contestants, who routinely helped one another so that if someone finished a bake early, then he or she would pitch in to help another complete a dish.

What I especially liked was that one of the judges, Paul Hollywood, an artisan baker, was terrific at explaining the qualities expected of any of the three baking challenges that occur during each show. Contestants placed their dishes on a table and Hollywood cut them in half before pointing out their successes or shortcomings. He brings important standards to the contest, examining the overall appearance of the product, whether or not fillings and frostings are even and of good consistency and not lopsided or runny, or if a batch of cookies is uniform and not mismatched. Underbaked dough is usually the worst offense and is guaranteed to put a contestant at the bottom of the heap.

As a viewer, I can see for myself the points Hollywood makes, and when a dish hits the mark, his explanation brings new understanding to what successful baking is all about. Of course the flavor of a dish also counts and is discussed, but as I have already mentioned, taste is a matter of opinion and the judges on the show sometimes disagree.

The emphasis in this program on the visual gave me an insight as to why I sometimes watch another reality show, “Project Runway,” where young clothing designers compete for a large cash prize and the chance to show their work at a New York fashion week. Top designers serve as judges and point out the flaws and glories of a given garment, and I learn from their sophisticated sense of design, for I can see what they are talking about.

While I would never attempt to stitch up a garment  — sewing machines have always terrified me — I couldn’t wait to whip up Povitica, which turned out to be a challenging yeast product with a tricky shape.

Perfecting Povitica

It is similar to cinnamon bread in that the dough is rolled flat, covered with a filling, then rolled and placed into a standard bread pan.

Povitica dough, rich with butter and eggs, is rolled out thin and filled with a mixture of chocolate and walnuts. Credit: Copyright 2015 Barbara Haber

Povitica dough, rich with butter and eggs, is rolled out thin and filled with a mixture of chocolate and walnuts. Credit: Copyright 2015 Barbara Haber

But with Povitica the dough, rich with butter and eggs, is rolled out extremely thin and then filled with a heavy mixture of chocolate and walnuts, all of which inhibit the rising of the dough. Then, the rolled dough goes into the pan and is intricately shaped so that the finished product, when sliced, exhibits beautiful swirls. My first attempt at Povitica, using an online recipe, was a flop. The dough didn’t rise properly and the finished cake was inedible except for the filling of chocolate and walnuts, which I forbade myself from scraping off and eating.

With my next attempt I added more yeast to the dough and bravely carried on. I made another important adjustment to the traditional recipe by not spreading the rolled dough with butter before putting on the filling, for the slippery butter made it difficult to evenly apply the filling. Instead, I put the butter into the filling so that distributing it over the dough became a cinch.

If I do say so myself, my second Povitica turned out to be a demystified triumph, rising beautifully during the bake and when cut in half exposing the signature swirls of the dish. I will make one again without trepidation, and I now find myself looking forward to next season’s British Baking Show when I hope to learn about even more new fattening treats.

Povitica

Prep time: 1 hour

Rising time: 3 hours

Baking time: 1 hour

Total time: 5 hours

Ingredients

For the dough:

1 package rapid-rise yeast

1/3 cup sugar

3/4 cup milk, heated to 115 F

1 teaspoon salt

5 tablespoon unsalted butter, melted

1 large egg

2 1/2 cups flour

For the filling:

2 cups walnuts

3/4 cup sugar

3 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder

1/4 cup milk

6 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 large egg yolk

1/2 teaspoon vanilla

Glaze:

1 egg white

1 teaspoon sugar

Instructions

Make the dough:

1. In the stand of a mixer fitted with a paddle, add yeast, 1 tablespoon sugar and half of the warm milk.

2. Let rest until foamy, about 10 minutes.

3. Add remaining sugar and milk, salt, butter and egg, and mix for 30 seconds.

4. With motor running, slowly add flour and beat until smooth and dough is not stuck to the sides of the bowl.

5. Cover dough with plastic wrap and let rise for about 90 minutes.

Make the filling:

1. In a food processor, chop walnuts together with sugar and cocoa until walnuts are finely chopped. Do not grind them to a paste.

2. Heat milk and butter to boiling and pour over the nut mixture.

3. Add egg yolk and vanilla to nut mixture and stir thoroughly.

4. Keep mixture at room temperature until ready to spread on dough.

Constructing the cake:

1. Grease a 9-by-5-inch loaf pan with butter.

2. On a lightly floured surface, roll out risen dough as thin as you can until dough is at least 15 inches long and 10 inches wide. (I use a tabletop for this.)

3. Spread dough with nut mixture.

4. Starting from the long end, roll dough into a tight cylinder.

5. Place in pan in a U shape and circle the ends of the cylinder over the top of the dough already in the pan.

6. Cover and let rise for about 90 minutes.

7. Beat egg white with a fork until foamy and spread over surface of the cake.

8. Sprinkle top with pearl sugar or with regular granulated sugar.

9. Heat oven to 350 F and bake about 1 hour or until a toothpick inserted into the middle comes out clean. Let cool in the pan.

Note: Make sure filling is spreadable. If too thick, add a small amount of milk before spreading on the dough. Before the last 15 minutes of baking, if cake is brown enough, cover with foil to prevent burning. When ready to slice the cake, it is easier to cut from the bottom or sides.

Main photo: Slices of Povitica, a Croatian coffeecake, feature beautiful swirls of the chocolate walnut filling. Credit: Copyright 2015 Barbara Haber

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Polenta cake makes a healthy breakfast option. Credit: Copyright 2015 Terra Brockman

Cake. It’s what’s for breakfast.

And why not? Some studies show that a high carbohydrate and high protein breakfast actually helps people shed pounds. So it turns out your Marie Antoinette breakfast need not be a guilty pleasure. You can actually have your cake and lose weight, too.

In fact, this easy one-bowl take on the classic Italian Amor Polenta cake of Lombardy is far healthier than most processed breakfast cereals — full of the wholesome goodness of corn, butter, eggs and almonds. Flavored with citrus zest and apple eau-de-vie, and served with berries, it’s a satisfying breakfast that will keep you going all day long.

While cornmeal can be made from just about any variety of dent corn, the older heirloom varieties such as Mandan Bride, Floriani Red and Painted Mountain are superior in taste. Now that locally grown and locally milled grains are enjoying a renaissance across the U.S., you can probably find delicious and nutritious corn grown by someone near you. And if you want the freshest and most nutritious cornmeal possible, you can even invest in a countertop grain mill.

If you don’t have a source of freshly ground corn, just about any store-bought cornmeal will be fine in this cake, whether it says polenta on the package or not. But if you want to make the traditional Amor Polenta or Dolce Varese, look for the finely ground farina di mais fioretto or the even more refined farina di mais fumetto.

Although this cake has butter, eggs and sugar, as any good cake must, it is not a butter bomb or a sugar rush. Rather it’s a not-too-rich, not-too-sweet slice of perfection — just right as an accompaniment to your morning tea or coffee. So say goodbye to processed cereals and hello to healthy polenta cake for breakfast.

Healthy Breakfast Polenta Cake

Prep time: 20 minutes

Cook time: 45 minutes

Total time: 1 hour, 5 minutes

Yield: One (8- or 9-inch) loaf cake, about 10 servings

Ingredients

2 sticks (8 ounces) butter

3/4 cup sugar

Zest of one lemon

Zest of one orange

3 eggs

3 tablespoons apple brandy, amaretto, or other liqueur

1/2 teaspoon Fiori di Sicilia (or vanilla or almond extract)

1 cup cornmeal

1 3/4 cup almond flour

1/3 cup unbleached wheat flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

Directions

1. Preheat oven to 350 F. Butter a loaf pan and dust with cornmeal.

2. Put the butter, sugar, and lemon and orange zest in a mixing bowl and beat until light and fluffy. Then add eggs one at a time, beating after each addition, and scraping down the sides of the mixing bowl.

3. Beat in the liqueur and Fiori di Sicilia or other flavoring.

4. In a separate bowl, stir together the dry ingredients: the polenta, almond flour, wheat flour, baking powder and salt.

5. While the mixer is running at low speed, slowly add the dry ingredients to the butter mixture until just combined.

6. Pour the batter into the prepared loaf pan and bake until a lovely aroma comes from the oven, and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean, about 45 minutes

7. Let cool in the pan for about 1/2 hour, and then loosen the cake from the sides of the pan with a knife and tip it out onto a rack to cool completely.

8. Slice and serve with fresh fruit, or frozen fruit or fruit jam you may have from last summer.

Main photo: Breakfast polenta cake. Credit: Copyright 2015 Terra Brockman

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P is for Passover Cake can be adapted for use at other times of the year, too. Change the P to E, and you have a lovely Easter treat! Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

When it comes to the science of baking as opposed to the art of cooking, it doesn’t do to have clumsy, chubby fingers. Chemistry needs cool palms and a sweat-free brow.

A dear friend of mine, the late Zena Swerling, was a naturally gifted cook, but it was in the realm of baking that she truly shone. “Here’s another can’t-go-wrong recipe,” she’d offer breezily, and although they always worked, they were never quite the same as when served by Zena herself.

Zena started baking when she was “just tall enough to get my chin over my Russian mummy’s kitchen table.” She was a good, old-fashioned cook with a generous hand and heart, but it was not always easy to interpret and annotate her recipes unless you were by her side in the kitchen. Even then, it was difficult because she’d always insist you sit down instead for a light five-course snack with a good helping of juicy gossip.

With Passover here, I’m pleased to share her recipe for ingber, also known as ingberlach (also sometimes called pletzlach), an old-fashioned Ashkenazi carrot-and-ginger festive candy that too few have the patience to make anymore.

Zena, I hope you’re kvelling with pride.

Zena’s Ingber

Add more or less ginger as preferred, but this sweet confection of carrots and ginger should smolder in the mouth.

Prep time: 10 minutes

Cook time: 50 minutes

Total time: 1 hour

Yield: About 18 pieces

Ingredients

5 large carrots, peeled

2 cups superfine sugar

1 cup chopped almonds

3 teaspoons ground ginger

Directions

1. Finely grate the carrots in the processor and put them in a large pan.

2. Add the sugar; stir over low heat until it dissolves. Cook very slowly, stirring frequently, until the mixture is thick (test by dropping a little onto a plate to see if it sets, like jam). This will take 45 to 50 minutes. For chewy, syrupy candy cook until the soft-crack stage or 270 F on a thermometer; for a more brittle candy, cook until it reaches the hard-crack stage or 300 F.

3. Add the almonds and ginger and remove immediately from the heat. Pour the mixture into a baking tray lined with silicone paper.

4. As it cools, score the top into squares or diamonds, then cut into pieces when cold.

P is for Passover Cake

This is a good recipe either to make before Passover, when the cupboard is crammed with ingredients bought in a frenzy of last-minute panic buying, or when you’re on the homeward stretch and your stocks are running low. Bags of nuts, in particular, seem to get into the spirit of the thing and go forth and multiply under their own volition.

The cake can be made with almonds, walnuts or hazelnuts. Ground hazelnuts are widely available in Jewish stores at this time of the year and are much appreciated by the home baker as they save the tedious business of toasting the nuts, and rubbing their skins off with a tea towel before you pulverize them in a grinder … who needs it? Isn’t this the festival of freedom?

Note to self: Next year must buy nut futures.

And, I’d just like to share with you my favorite Passover joke:

Q: What do you call someone who derives pleasure from the bread of affliction?

A: A matzochist.

OK, let’s get to the cake.

Passover Cake

Prep time: 25 minutes

Cook time: 40 minutes

Total time: 65 minutes

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

Ingredients

1/2 cup ground nuts, plus a little extra for dusting

4 large eggs

1/4 cup superfine sugar

2/3 cup, plus 1 cup dark chocolate

Salt

2/3 cup sour cream

1 tablespoon sugar (optional)

3 tablespoons apricot jam

Whole nuts, for decoration (optional)

Directions

1. Preheat the oven to 355 F (180 C).

2. Grease two 6-inch sandwich tins and line the base of each with a disc of oiled paper. Dust with some ground nuts.

3. Whisk the eggs and sugar until thick.

4. Melt 2/3 cup chocolate with a teaspoon of water.

5. Beat a little into the egg mixture along with a pinch of salt. Fold in the rest of the melted chocolate along with the 1/2 cup of ground nuts.

6. Pour into the tins and bake for 40 minutes or until springy to the touch.

7. Leave to cool on a wire rack, then turn out of the tin.

8. To make the frosting, melt the cup of chocolate and stir in the sour cream. Add a little sugar, if you wish, and allow to cool a little.

9. For the filling, spread the apricot jam and about half of the chocolate mixture over the top of one of the cakes. Place the other cake on top, and smear the remainder of the chocolate sauce over the top. Decorate, if preferred, with whole nuts in shape of a “P.”

Main photo: P is for Passover Cake can be adapted for use at other times of the year, too. Change the P to E, and you have a lovely Easter treat! Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

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Hot cross buns can be eaten as soon as they're out of the oven, or toasted and buttered later. Share one with a friend or two: Tradition says that doing so will ensure long-lasting friendship. Credit: Copyright 2015 Michael Krondl

In Victorian London there was no sleeping in on Good Friday. Brothel keepers and late rising gentry alike were awakened by a cry repeated by vendors across the foggy metropolis: “Hot cross buns!” Some would sing the centuries-old ditty:

Hot cross buns! Hot cross buns!

One a penny, two a penny,

Hot cross buns!

If you have no daughters, give them to your sons.

One a penny two a penny, hot cross buns!

The freshly made buns were essential for Good Friday breakfast, as they were for Good Friday tea. The vendors got a brief respite while their customers were at church, but then they were back at it: “Hot cross buns! Hot cross buns!”

The hot yeasty buns were peddled by boys carrying large baskets and by young women carrying wicker containers the size of clothes hampers. Even old men got into the act, pushing wheelbarrows full of the sweet treats, all covered with blankets and linen cloths to keep them piping hot in the spring morning’s chill.

Just how far back does this English tradition go? The buns were certainly around in the early 1700s when, according to tradition, they were kept from one year to the next. Supposedly they never molded and could serve as medicine, especially as a cure for diarrhea. The prescription was to grate a little of the preserved bun into water.

Sharing a fresh bun with another person was a sign of friendship and insurance against future disagreement. They were certainly eaten at tea time, often toasted and buttered since they were no longer hot from the oven. Incidentally, in an age when a laborer was paid 10 pennies a day, the buns were a special occasion treat.

Festive holiday breads are not unique to England, of course. You find them across Europe, whether in the braided rings studded with eggs of Greece and southern Italy or the paska or babka of eastern Europe. After all, Easter celebrates rebirth, which is why eggs and chicks and prolific bunnies are symbols of the season.

Bread is too, especially when enriched with lots of eggs, butter and sugar, and yeast-leavened dough has long been associated with fecundity — rising and expanding like a pregnant belly. Many of the season’s breads are hardly subtle in their reference to the female form, circular and often braided like a woman’s hair. Traditionally, hot cross buns are made by slitting the risen dough into a cross pattern that opens as the bun rises in the oven. The result may not be explicit, but it is suggestive.

In the United States, immigrants of all ethnic backgrounds imported their holiday traditions and the English were no exception. We know that New York had its own hawkers selling buns for the holiday and there’s no reason to think that other American cities didn’t have them as well. Mostly, though the buns were made at home, closely following the English model.

Divide the dough into a dozen even pieces and roll into smooth rounds. Credit: Copyright 2015 Michael Krondl

Divide the dough into a dozen even pieces and roll into smooth rounds. Credit: Copyright 2015 Michael Krondl

But the relatively plain bun wasn’t good enough for the creative spirits behind the Boston Cooking School. The doyenne of that famed institution, Fannie Farmer, may have started messing with the age-old recipe. In her famed 1896 “Boston Cooking School Cookbook,” Farmer not only did away with the suggestive split open bun, she replaced it with a sweet cross of virginal white. Like so many of her innovations, it stuck, so it’s her version, rather than the original, that you inevitably see in fancy pastry shops and supermarkets.

Slit each bun in the pan with a cross. Credit: Copyright 2015 Michael Krondl

Slit each bun in the pan with a cross. Credit: Copyright 2015 Michael Krondl

Yet a fundamental problem remains with these iced crossed buns: How do you serve them hot? You can’t toast them and if heated in the oven, the frosting melts. Give me the original Victorian hot cross buns. I know just the friend to split them with.

Hot Cross Buns

Approximate prep time: 1/2 hour

Approximate rising time: 1 1/4 hours

The recipe is adapted from a Victorian-era British cookbook, “A Year’s Cookery.” Author Phillis Browne notes that hot cross buns “may be ordered of the baker, or they may be made at home.” Like the purchased variety, the homemade buns are best served hot, however Browne also notes: “The buns can be toasted and buttered, or made hot in the oven, like teacakes, before serving.” Recipes of the time usually suggest using dried currants or raisins, or occasionally both, so feel free to improvise. Allspice is also often substituted for nutmeg.

Ingredients

1 cup whole milk, lukewarm

3 ounces (6 tablespoons) granulated sugar

1 packet (1/4 ounce) active dry yeast

1 large egg, separated

13 ounces (a scant 3 cups) all-purpose flour, or more as needed

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon grated nutmeg

2 ounces (4 tablespoons) unsalted butter, diced into 1/2-inch pieces

2 ounces (about 6 tablespoons) dry currants or raisins

Directions

1. In a measuring cup, stir together the milk with 1/2 ounce (1 tablespoon) sugar. Stir in the yeast and let stand 5 minutes. Stir in the egg yolk.

2. Sift together the flour, 2 ounces (4 tablespoons sugar), salt and nutmeg. In a small bowl whisk together the remaining ½ ounce (1 tablespoon sugar) with the egg white.  Set aside to glaze the buns once they are baked.

3. Using a large food processor or a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, combine the flour mixture with the butter in the bowl of the device. Process until the butter is finely chopped. If using a food processor, add the milk mixture and process until the dough forms into a smooth ball, about 2 minutes. If the dough is too sticky, add more flour, one tablespoon at a time — it should be very soft but smooth and elastic. If using a stand mixer, switch to a dough hook and knead on medium for about 5 minutes until the dough is smooth and shiny.

4. Remove the dough from the bowl and set it on a floured surface. Knead briefly to turn it into a ball. Set the ball in a buttered bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and let it rise in a warm place until doubled in volume, about 45 minutes. On a lightly floured board, knead in the currants or raisins. Let it rest five minutes then divide it into 12 even pieces. Form each into a ball. Generously butter a 9-by-13-inch pan. Arrange the balls about 1 inch apart. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and set in a warm place until doubled in size, about 1/2 hour.

5. Preheat oven to 375 F.

6. Remove plastic wrap and slash each bun in a cross shape. The best tool for this is a single-edge razor blade lightly sprayed with vegetable spray. Make sure to make the slash at least 1/2-inch deep so it will be visible later. Set the pan on the center rack of the oven and bake until golden, 15 to 20 minutes. Brush with the egg white and sugar mixture, then place into the oven for about 1 minute to set the egg wash. Cool the buns on a rack until they can be comfortably handled. Serve warm.

Main photo: Hot cross buns can eaten as soon as they’re out of the oven, or toasted and buttered later. Share one with a friend or two: Tradition says that doing so will ensure long-lasting friendship. Credit: Copyright 2015 Michael Krondl 

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Abby Fisher's 1881 cookbook was long known as the first African-American cookbook until Malinda Russell’s book was discovered in 2001. Credit: Copyright Sylvia Wong Lewis

I was born in Harlem, a child of Southern migrants and Caribbean immigrants. I witnessed what the women in my family could do with food.

Rarely is our history taught through the lens of food. Yet, it was over the hearth and in kitchens large and small that they impacted our nation’s culture and created economic, political and social independence through ingenious culinary skills.

That is why I honor African-American women cooks for Women’s History Month this March.

The women in my family created and passed down masterful meals from ancient, unwritten recipes. They built communities and paved my way with proceeds from selling sweet potato pies, fried chicken dinners and roti lunches: a Trinidad flatbread cooked on a griddle and wrapped around curried vegetables or meats. My mom made these popular rotis and sold them in box lunches to employees at the hospital where she worked.

Whether they were free or formerly enslaved, the women I descended from cooked their way to freedom and wealth in America.

In their honor, I have chosen to feature two vintage recipes from two of the oldest cookbooks written by African-American women.

Cookbook pioneers

Malinda Russell wrote “A Domestic Cook Book” in 1866. Abby Fisher wrote “What Mrs. Fisher Knows about Old Southern Cooking” in 1881.

Malinda Russell's "A Domestic Cook Book: Containing a Careful Selection of Useful Receipts for the Kitchen" is believed to be the first published cookbook by an African-American author. Credit: University of Michigan/Janice Bluestein Longone Culinary Archive

Malinda Russell’s “A Domestic Cook Book: Containing a Careful Selection of Useful Receipts for the Kitchen” is believed to be the first published cookbook by an African-American author. Credit: University of Michigan/Janice Bluestein Longone Culinary Archive

Mrs. Fisher’s cookbook was long known as the first African-American cookbook until Mrs. Russell’s book was discovered in 2001. Both women wrote their books at the behest of friends, fans and patrons.

Mrs. Russell, a free woman from Tennessee and an owner of a local bakery, was known for her pastries. Most of her recipes are European-inspired. Her cookbook also includes remedies and full-course meals. It was published after she moved to Paw Paw, Michigan.

Mrs. Fisher, a formerly enslaved person, won cooking medals for a wide range of dishes, including preserves and condiments in California. She moved out West from Alabama after the Civil War.

Below are their original recipes and my interpretation.

Mrs. Russell’s Jumbles Cookies

Jumbles were cake-like cookies popular from the 1700s. Mrs. Russell’s recipe was exceedingly spare on details, like all of her recipes:

“One lb. flour, 3/4 lb. sugar, one half lb. butter, five eggs, mace, rose water, and caraway, to your taste.”

The popular vintage cookies have been adapted through the ages — even by modern food bloggers. I personally sampled a reimagined version of a Jumbles recipe at a culinary event that Anne Hampton Northup was said to have made when she cooked at the Morris-Jumel Mansion. Northrup was a chef and the wife of Solomon Northup, whose life was depicted in the Oscar-winning picture “12 Years a Slave”.

Here is a more detailed recipe so you can make Mrs. Russell’s Jumbles Cookies, using her ingredients. Since she suggested using mace, rosewater and caraway to taste, feel free to alter the suggested amounts of those ingredients:

Jumbles Cookies

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cook time: 20 minutes

Total time: 35 minutes

Yield: About 4 dozen cookies

Ingredients

3 1/3 cups all-purpose flour

3 teaspons mace

2 tablespoons caraway seeds

1 1/2 cups granulated sugar

8 ounces salted butter (2 sticks, at room temperature)

5 eggs (small- or medium-sized)

4 tablespoons rosewater

Directions

1. Preheat the oven to 375 F and line your baking sheets with parchment paper.

2. In a small bowl, combine the flour, mace and caraway seeds.

3. In a large bowl, cream the sugar and butter together.

4. With an electric mixer on low speed, beat in eggs to the butter and sugar mixture.

5. Add the flour mixture and mix until combined.

6. Add the rosewater and mix until combined.

7. Using a tablespoon measure, spoon tablespoon-full size drops of the batter on your baking sheets, about 2 inches apart.

8. Bake for about 10 minutes, just until the edges turn golden.

9. Cool the cookies for two minutes on wire racks. Serve, and store the remainder quickly in a sealed container or bag.

Mrs. Abby Fisher’s Blackberry Brandy

This old recipe holds up very well today. Many of Mrs. Fisher’s recipes called for huge amounts of each ingredient:

“To five gallons of berries add one gallon of the best brandy; put on the fire in a porcelain kettle and let it just come to a boil, then take it off the fire and make a syrup of granulated sugar; ten pounds of sugar to one quart of water. Let the syrup cook till thick as honey, skimming off the foam while boiling; then pour it upon the brandy and berries and let it stand for eight weeks; then put in a bottle or demijohn. This blackberry brandy took a diploma at the state Fair of 1879. Let the berries, brandy and syrup stand in a stone jar or brandy keg for eight weeks when you take it off the fire.”

The basic ingredients for Mrs. Fisher's Blackberry Brandy: blackberries, sugar and cognac. Credit: Sylvia Wong Lewis

The basic ingredients for Mrs. Fisher’s Blackberry Brandy: blackberries, sugar and cognac. Credit: Copyright Sylvia Wong Lewis

I was so inspired by Mrs. Fisher’s recipe that I made my own version — which is now in the middle of the eight-week fermentation process. I used the same ingredients, but reduced the amounts, and poured them into a glass jug instead of a brandy keg. And I used cognac, because Mrs. Fisher’s recipe called for the “best brandy.”

We’ll have our own taste test — at my next family reunion.

Main photo: Abby Fisher’s 1881 cookbook was long believed to be the first African-American cookbook until Malinda Russell’s 1866 book was discovered in 2001. Credit: Copyright Sylvia Wong Lewis

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Soda bread. Credit: Copyright Ellie Markovitch

Soda bread is serious stuff. The Irish Heritage Society near me is having a contest, and people can enter in three categories: traditional white, traditional wheaten, and family bread non-specific. The first two can only contain flour, baking soda, salt, and buttermilk; ingredients that would have been available in Ireland when the bread was developed. The third, family bread non-specific, can have anything in it, and might include currants, caraway seeds, eggs and other enrichments.

The sweet quick bread common here is decidedly American and reflects the fact that the average Irish cupboard lacked or had limited quantities of sugar and butter. The traditional Irish soda bread is emblematic of other limits, like the way that flour works in bread dough, and how wheat grows.


The moist climate of Ireland is suited to growing soft or pastry wheat, which is better for making pastries and quick breads rather than yeasted or naturally leavened breads. Arid summers, like those in the American wheat belts, grow hard or bread wheats, which have enough gluten to develop the structure that builds tall loaves of bread.

All wheats have gluten, which is a type of protein. The amount and quality of gluten varies in hard and soft wheats. Gliadin and glutenin are two components of gluten, and each wheat style has different proportions of both. That’s why flours made from different grains work differently. Hard wheats have more glutenin, and soft wheats have more gliadin, which is sometimes described as having sliding properties. If you cook whole grains, hard wheats really are harder to the tooth.

Soft wheats work great for quick breads and things that climb with the aid of chemical leavening. Soda bread, especially if made with purist rules, is a great demonstration of chemical leavening at work. Buttermilk plus baking soda creates an acid-base reaction, and carbon dioxide bubbles throughout the dough; the heat of the oven traps the gases, and voila, there is bread.

In praise of baking powder

Baking powder is another type of chemical leavening; liquid activates its acid-base reaction. These products of the 19th century simplified baking. Before the birthday of baking powder — around 1865, depending on whom you salute as its inventor — people had to use natural yeasts to make baked goods rise. Old cookbooks have lots of instructions for ways to charm leavening out of thin air, or from potato peelings and even milk.

Sourdough baking is all the rage, but I am in awe of baking powder. This shelf stable stuff makes my whole wheat pancakes climb sky high. It is a little angel in my pantry, helping flour soar. I am loyal to a single brand, Rumford. It’s double-acting baking powder, which means it rises once when liquid hits the dry ingredients, and again in the heat of the oven, or on the griddle.

I am also loyal to fresh milled whole-grain flour. I love the way it tastes, sweet and hardy, and the way the food sits in my brain. Stone milling is a process that keeps all the parts of a grain kernel, the bran, germ and endosperm, together. Roller milling is how most flour is made, and the process separates all of these parts, combining parts of them at the end as the mill sees fit. The germ is generally removed because it spoils easily.

Luckily, stone milling operations are popping up all over the country as people revive small-scale grain production. The one near me, Farmer Ground Flour, mills a type of soft white wheat that makes great quick breads.

I have no family recipe for soda bread, but I’ve made a beautiful mutt loaf that highlights my kitchen affinities.

Soda Bread
Prep time: 15 minutes
Cook time: 25 minutes
Total time: 40 minutes
Yield: 6 servings

Ingredients

2 cups stoneground white whole wheat pastry flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon salt

5 tablespoons butter

1 egg

3 tablespoons yogurt

1/2 cup milk

Directions

1. Combine dry ingredients with a whisk.

2. Cut butter into 1/2-inch cubes.

3. With a pastry blender or your fingers, incorporate butter into the flour mixture. The result does not have to be smooth — some pea-sized pieces are OK, even good.

4. Whisk together egg, yogurt and milk. Using a fork, blend until everything is just barely incorporated.

5. Turn out onto a floured surface and knead very lightly, just about five times.

6. Pat into a round about 8 inches across and transfer to a buttered cookie sheet. Score into six  pieces.

7. Let dough rest 10 minutes while preheating oven to 400 F.

8. Bake for 25 minutes, until golden brown at the edges.

Main image: Soda bread. Credit: Copyright Ellie Markovitch

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Meyer Lemon Pizzelles From Bon Appétempt. Credit: Copyright 2015 Matthew Bookman

Photos of perfect-looking prepared food in glossy magazines used to make Amelia Morris mad — really mad. So in 2009 she decided to start a blog called Bon Appétempt to help beginners like her feel good about their cooking attempts, no matter how badly they turned out.

“I want to show what life is like for the rest of us: messy, poorly lit and falling well short of our aspirations,” she wrote in one of her first blog entries.


“Bon Appétempt: A Coming-of-Age Story (With Recipes!)”
By Amelia Morris, Grand Central Publishing, 2015, 320 pages
» Click here to buy the book


Bon Appétempt is a now an award-winning blog that features recipes Morris adapted from magazines, along with fun cooking videos shot by her husband, bits of food memories and photos of herself and her family — because, after all, food is all tied up with relationships: who you’re cooking with, and for, even if it’s just yourself on a lonely night.

This is abundantly clear in Morris’ new memoir — “Bon Appétempt: A Coming-of-Age Story (With Recipes!)” — where she traces her journey as a novice cook while navigating difficult relationships with her parents (her father hoped she’d become a wrestler), and trying to find herself as a writer.

Cooking to heal and celebrate

Through financial hardships, deaths of family members, a long-distance relationship, and then marriage and parenthood, Morris consistently turned to cooking to soothe hurts, celebrate happy gatherings and give herself a feeling of pride and success.

Amelia Morris, author of “Bon Appétempt: A Coming-of-Age Story (With Recipes!)”   Credit: Copyright 2015 Matthew Bookman

Amelia Morris, author of “Bon Appétempt: A Coming-of-Age Story (With Recipes!).” Credit: Copyright 2015 Matthew Bookman

Recipes that have given her comfort and joy, such as “My Mom’s Chicken Cordon Bleu” and “Simple Vanilla Cake With Dulce De Leche,” which she learned from a woman in Argentina, fill the pages.

Cooking as a creative activity is something Morris understands well, which is why she’s honest and even proud of her flops — each one made her a better cook.

“… [A]ll of these so-called failures taught me that though writers would like readers as much as chefs would like eaters, at the end of the day, if there are none of either to be found, we can continue creating anyway just to feed ourselves,” she writes.

I caught up with Morris to ask her to tell us more about her story. She happily shared a recipe for an Italian cookie called pizzelle that she adapted from the version her grandmother used to make (see below).

Q&A With Bon Appétempt’s Amelia Morris

It seemed that cooking sustained you through the trials of becoming a writer, is that correct?

It did — it helped me in a lot of ways. Working on a novel took a long time and was lonely work. It was nice to get away from computer and go make dinner. Cooking is a tangible thing; it feeds your family, it feeds yourself. It’s way to take care of yourself.

Can you describe one of your cooking failures?

There was one with fried chicken — I used a cookie sheet for the oil, so it dripped off the sides. People were coming over for dinner, so I jumped into the shower and my husband came in and said, “There’s black smoke coming out of the oven, I don’t know what to do!” All I could think of was the blog, so I said, “Can you get a picture of the black smoke?” It was comical! I did serve the chicken to our dinner guests, but it wasn’t great.

You tell the story of a fabulously ruined cake that you had planned to serve for Christmas.

Yes, the chocolate peppermint cake. It’s one of those things with baking — you think if you follow the rules and have the tools, you can do it! I set myself up for success. I started three days ahead and made all the components. I was so impressed with what I’d done — Matt took pictures of me putting it together. The cake was layers of ganache-cream-cake, ganache-cream-cake. But as I began to ice it, all the icing started to slide — and there was no stopping it! We started taking pictures of it — you can see the whole thing on the blog.

When did you cross the line as a cook and begin to really feel confident?

It took a really long time. Through the blog, people started coming to me with cooking questions and recipe tips, as if I was this knowledgeable cook, and I resisted it. But recently I realized — I am a decent cook. I don’t have formal training, I learned by just doing it. Seeing my grandma cook, I am sure I absorbed some basic knowledge.

Who are some of your favorite food-memoir writers?

Ruth Reichl was my introduction to food memoirs — I really love her writing. Also, M.F.K. Fisher‘s “How to Cook a Wolf” — I loved it from the minute I opened it up. I also love Molly Wizenberg’s books, and am inspired by “Eat Me: The Food and Philosophy of Kenny Shopsin.” He had a diner in Manhattan for a long time; he’s an interesting guy and his cookbook is really great.

Is there anything that still scares you, cooking-wise?

Yes! I’ve always wanted to grill a whole fish. That seems hard and scary, as well as cooking any big cuts of meat.

Meyer Lemon Pizzelle (Adapted From Food 52)

Prep time: About 25 minutes
Cook time: About 45 minutes
Total time: About 1 hour, 10 minutes
Yield: About 40 to 50 cookies*, depending on iron size
(*If you want to make a ton like Grandma did, you should double this recipe.)

Ingredients

1 2/3 cups granulated sugar

6 large eggs, room temperature

2 sticks of butter, melted and cooled plus more for brushing on the pizzelle iron

3 teaspoons vanilla extract

Zest of 2 to 3 Meyer lemons (If you can’t find Meyer lemons, substitute with regular lemons or oranges.)

4 cups all-purpose flour, spooned into measuring cup

4 teaspoons baking powder

Directions

1. Combine the sugar and eggs in the bowl of a stand mixer. Beat on medium speed for 1 to 2 minutes until well incorporated. The eggs must be at least room temperature.

2. Slowly drizzle the melted butter into the mixture, while mixing on medium speed. Add the extract then the zest.

3. On low speed, add the flour, 1/2 cup at a time, and the baking powder, one teaspoon at a time.

4. The batter should have a satin sheen to it, but should be light and stiff. If your batter is too liquid, add more flour, a tablespoon at a time until the batter is stiff.

5. I can’t speak for other pizzelle irons, but I have this one, and here is my advice for using it: Make sure the iron is super hot before beginning! Also, to avoid getting the batter stuck in the iron, I quickly brush all four sides of it with melted butter. Using a tablespoon scoop, place dollops of batter onto the iron. Close the iron tight and wait about 30 seconds before opening. Repeat 20 to 25 more times depending on iron size. Fresh, hot cookies can be rolled or shaped into cups, although I haven’t experimented with that yet. Next year!

Main photo: Meyer Lemon Pizzelles, hot off the press. Credit: Copyright 2015 Matthew Bookman

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Walnuts, oranges and orange blossom water make these hamantaschen burst with flavor. Credit: Copyright MayIHaveThatRecipe.com

The most recognizable symbol for the Jewish holiday of Purim is a three-cornered cookie, called a hamantaschen.

Purim, which begins March 4, is a particularly joyful festival, nicknamed the Id-al-Sukkar, or the sugar holiday, by Muslims because sweet treats are plentiful. It is a sweet spirited holiday, notwithstanding the ancient Persian tale associated with it featuring complex plot twists of deceit, prejudice, politics, sexual intrigue and revenge.

Purim is a time for celebratory imbibing of alcohol, vibrant costumes and joyful, raucous parties with comedians cracking jokes all night, called a Purim schpeil.

Now, all that is fun, but honestly, for Jews of Ashkenazi descent — especially those who aren’t particularly religious or observant — it’s all about that triangular cookie — that gloriously crisp sweetness embracing an unctuous, fruit filling.

Or maybe it’s about a plush, thick-rimmed yeast pastry version that is punctuated by the intriguingly textured sweet poppy seed filling. Or maybe it’s a savory three-cornered pastry, perfect as an amuse-bouche.

Hamantaschen, you see, are anything but boring. And they are nothing new. The first version was likely the poppy seed or mohn filling, even giving the cookie its name — ha-mohn-taschen, or haman’s hat (Haman was the villain in the ancient tale). Classic versions are wonderful and worthy of your time, every time, every year.

But like any cookie, the classic recipes inspire tremendous creativity among cooks. A survey of some of the web’s cooks, writers, bloggers, recipe developers and chefs reveals a wide swath of variations so numerous and enticing that it will seduce your palate and leave you eagerly awaiting next year’s treats.


Check out these websites for creative variations of the classic hamantaschen recipe:

» TheKitchn

» Tori Avey

» LilMissCakes

» The Kosher Foodies

» The Joy of Kosher

» WhatJewWannaEat

» Busy in Brooklyn

» Kitchen Tested

» CouldntBeParve

» Alibabka

» The Jewish Daily Forward

» My Jewish Learning

» May I Have That Recipe

» Ronnie Fein

» The Weiser Kitchen

Main photo: Walnuts, oranges and orange blossom water make these hamantaschen burst with flavor. Credit: Copyright MayIHaveThatRecipe.com

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