Articles in Baking
Proust had his madeleine; I have Jamaican black cake. Biting into a piece whisks me back to my grandmother Una Rust’s Harlem kitchen where, along with her sisters Doris and Petrona, she performed the annual black cake-making ritual before the holidays.
More from Zester Daily:
I recall the glass jars of dried fruit, soaking in spirits, looking like a delicious science project; the beautiful mess of cinnamon and nutmeg dust that covered the countertops; baking tins lined in parchment paper, and the intoxicating scent of rum that filled the apartment. Practically elbow-deep in batter, they blended the concoction in giant Bon Ton potato chip tins because no bowl was big enough to contain batter for all the cakes they made for friends and family. Although of Jamaican descent, my grandmother and her sisters were born and raised in Panama, and their cake was surely a loving blend of the two heritages.
Caribbean Christmas tradition
For the uninitiated, black cake, made throughout the Caribbean, has a history as rich and flavorful as its sock-it-to-me rum taste. Some may refer to it as fruit cake, but this has nothing to do with the often dry, hockey puck of a dessert that so many have come to know and loathe.
Black cake, served at Christmas and special occasions, is like British plum pudding’s sassier sister gone island-style, and it’s a sexy hodgepodge of ground rum-soaked raisins, dates, prunes, citrus peel, cinnamon, nutmeg and brown sugar. Some versions have frosting on them (they are often used as wedding cakes) but my grandmother never used it, and for my palate, it’s like gilding the lily. Rich, dense and gorgeous are the common denominators for black cake; however, each culture, from Jamaica to Trinidad, puts a unique spin on it.
Black cake is a special occasion dessert. You don’t just whip it up. It’s time-consuming, and making it can be pricey: pounds of dried fruit, rum and other spirits can add up. But it is a good bang for your buck because it lasts. I remember how my mother would hide a few pieces in aluminum foil in the back of the fridge, behind something undesirable, and I would see her nibbling at it secretly, even in early spring.
I have been fantasizing about making this cake for years, but I really wanted Una’s recipe. Of course no one had the good sense to write it down. I contacted a few family members, but to no avail. I had to accept that the original Rust recipe died when my grandmother did. My little half-West Indian heart was crushed. (This is a cautionary tale: If grandma is in the kitchen cooking up some goodness, get the dang recipe.)
In search of the perfect fruit cake recipe
In my quest for an authentic recipe, I got in touch with Jessica Harris, culinary historian and cookbook author, who put me in touch with Sharifa Burnett, a lovely Jamaican woman who was kind enough to share her recipe with me. I decided to take the plunge.
I consulted my friend, Chef Arlene Stewart, a Trinidadian girl, on the best places to buy the dried fruit, because prices at my local Manhattan supermarkets would have emptied my wallet. We made a pilgrimage to Flatbush, Brooklyn, where we found shops that catered perfectly to my needs — bags and bags of dried fruit and citrus peel, special browning sauce used to color the cake, etc., all priced to move.
Once at home, I began the laborious task of grinding up the dried fruit. When my poor mini Cuisinart Chop and Prep died, I switched over to my blender. Once that was done, I put the mix in a large glass jar, added the rum and port, and let it marinate for almost a week.
A note about equipment
Should you decide to make this cake, be sure you have a powerful mixer and big bowl because the batter, with the addition of the dried fruit, is thick and abundant. I had to transfer everything midway to a bigger bowl, and then when my hand mixer wasn’t quite doing the trick (clearly, I need better appliances), I did what my grandmother did; I used my hands to blend the batter, and that worked quite nicely. The batter generously filled two 9-inch parchment-lined baking pans, and I found that it took longer than I expected — about 2½ hours — to bake. I just kept checking with a thin knife down the middle until it came out clean.
However, once my cake had finally baked and cooled, and I had brushed it with a little rum, it looked like the cake I had come to love. And when I finally took a nibble, I actually shed a tear. With the luscious blend of fruit, the dense texture, the aromatic rum flavor, it tasted almost as good as my grandmother’s, and the memories spent with family, long since passed, flooded back. Making that cake felt like a rite of passage, and I think Una Rust is smiling somewhere.
Sharifa Burnett’s Jamaican Christmas Black Cake
Makes two 9-inch cakes
For the fruit mixture:
1 pound prunes
1 pound dried currants
1 pound raisins
1 pound maraschino cherries
¼ pound of mixed peel (available at Caribbean specialty stores)
4 cups Port wine
1 cup white Jamaican rum
For the cake:
1 pound of dark brown sugar
1 pound butter
1 pound of flour
2 teaspoons of baking powder
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 teaspoon nutmeg
Pinch of salt
1 teaspoon almond extract
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
Browning sauce or burnt sugar to color (available in Caribbean specialty shops.)
¼ to ½ cup of rum or port wine for brushing
1. Combine the prunes, currants, raisins, maraschino cherries, mixed peel, wine and rum in a glass jar and let stand for at least 3 days.
As an alternative, you can steam the fruit on a low flame in red wine until it’s very soft, then grind the mixture in a food processor.
2. Heat the oven to 300 F.
3. Beat the sugar and butter together until mixture creamy and fluffy.
4. Mix flour, baking powder, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg.
5. Add eggs to the creamed butter mixture one at a time. Continue mixing and fold the flour mixture into batter.
6. Add fruit and alcohol mixture, almond extract and vanilla and continue mixing.
7. Your mixture should have a brown color. If the mixture is too light, then add browning or burnt sugar a small amount at a time, until mixture has a dark brown color.
8. Line two 9-inch baking pans with parchment paper. Pour mixture in pans, filling each. Bake for 1½ hours, then reduce temperature to 250 F. Check cake after 2 hours with a tester (center of cake).
9. To preserve the cake you may brush the cake with wine and white rum. Wrap with wax paper then foil and place in a cool place. If you put it in the fridge, be sure to bring to room temperature for a few hours before serving.
Top photo composite: Una Rust (pictured) was the inspiration for a search for a Jamaican black cake recipe. Credit: Suzanne Rust
Sitting in the kitchen next to a bowl of gorgeously orange Fuyu persimmons is an elephant. I’m ignoring this uninvited guest as I dream up ways to use this flavorful fruit at holiday dinner parties, from a composed salad to a delectable port-infused pie. But before I extol the virtues, it’s probably best to address that elephant in the room. In marketing terms, Fuyu persimmons have an image problem in the United States.
More from Zester Daily:
It may be the national fruit of Japan, with a flavor that is a mélange of apples, apricots, pears and vanilla; terribly photogenic; and a perfect partner for all sorts of other seasonal ingredients, but the Fuyu persimmon is often viewed in the U.S. as an oddly exotic curiosity. I blame much of this misunderstanding on its gooey, cloyingly sweet cousin, the American persimmon. But there are big differences between them.
While there are hundreds of varieties of persimmons (botanical genus: diospyros, meaning fruit of the gods), the species can be broken down into two basic types: astringent and non-astringent. The astringent type, familiar as either the American or Hachiya persimmon, is only edible when fully ripe, soft and practically dripping with syrupy pulp. It has been cultivated in Midwestern and Southern parts of the U.S. for centuries, most popular when baked into cakes, quick breads and classic persimmon pudding.
Distinguishing Fuyu persimmons
The non-astringent Fuyu persimmons have a glossy, smooth skin and a fine-grained flesh. They’re as crisp as the best fall apples — and with no hard core and often no seeds, they’re excellent for eating out of hand. Also unlike apples, they won’t turn brown and oxidize when cut, so they are perfect for infusing color into salads. While they are not always widely available across the country and are a bit pricey compared with a typical Granny Smith or Pink Lady, it’s still a wonder to me that they have never caught on during their height of ripeness — late November and the peak of the Thanksgiving season. After all, Fuyus adapt well to a vast range of holiday dishes and seasonal ingredients.
I started tracking fruits, vegetables, cheeses, nuts, spices, wines and spirits that go well with Fuyu persimmons, but finally gave up when the list outgrew my cupboards. In alphabetical order I’d recommend: apricots, arugula, bacon, balsamic vinegar, basil, blood oranges, brown sugar, cherries, cinnamon, citrus, cream, dates, fennel, feta cheese, figs, ginger, gorgonzola cheese, hazelnuts, honey, maple syrup, mascarpone cheese, mint, mozzarella, nut oils, nutmeg, olive oil, pecans, pistachios, pomegranates, prosciutto, red onion, vanilla, watercress.
So far, I’d put pomegranates and tart cherries at the top of the list because their pucker brings out the persimmon’s rich blend of sweetness; chile powders and peppers provide a fun, spicy contrast; and bacon proves that opposites attract with edgy saltiness. In short, you won’t need a recipe for a composed salad. Just open your pantry and refrigerator for inspiration and finish with a drizzle of balsamic vinegar, date molasses and extra virgin olive oil.
But my hands-down favorite? The rich complexity of a well-aged port truly does magical justice to a baked persimmon tart.
Rustic Persimmon Port Tart
I tapped some extraordinary tawny portos to create this pie. Affordably, a Fonseca 10-year old aged tawny porto was used as the primary flavor infusion for the cherries, the persimmons and the sauce. But I went out on a really decadent limb and uncorked a 30-year old tawny porto from Taylor Fladgate for the table presentation. If you serve this porto with a Fuyu-infused dessert like the featured rustic tart, you will never outlive its reputation.
1 cup dried tart cherries
½ cup aged tawny port, plus 1 ounce
1½ pounds Fuyu persimmons
¼ cup sugar
⅛ teaspoon cinnamon
Pinch of salt
1 sheet ready pie dough
All-purpose flour for dusting
2 tablespoons butter
½ cup chopped pecans, mixed with 2 tablespoons dark brown sugar
1 egg yolk, beaten with 1 tablespoon water
2 tablespoons apricot jam
Whipped cream, unsweetened
1. Preheat oven to 350 F.
2. Place dried cherries and ½ cup of the tawny port in a glass dish and microwave for 1½ minutes on high. While prepping the persimmons, let the cherries rest, allowing them to plump and absorb some of the liquid.
3. Peel the persimmons and and roughly cut into ½-inch pieces.
4. In medium mixing bowl, toss the persimmons with sugar, cinnamon, salt. Add the cherries and any remaining liquid. Macerate for 30 minutes.
5. Drain the persimmon mixture and reserve liquid.
6. On a lightly floured surface, roll out pie dough. Transfer to a pie pan, leaving a 2-inch overhanging edge.
7. Mound the persimmons and cherries into a pie pan and gently fold edges back over pie, leaving an open area in the center. Dot with butter and sprinkle with the pecan/sugar mixture.
8. Brush edge of the crust with egg wash.
9. Place in the oven and bake for 45 minutes.
10. While pie is baking, place reserved liquid from macerated fruit with apricot jam and 2 tablespoons of water over medium heat and reduce until thick and syrupy. Stir in 1 ounce of port and set aside.
11. Serve pie with dollop of whipped cream and drizzle with port sauce.
Top photo: Fuyu persimmon. Credit: Caroline J. Beck
Have you ever reflected on who you really are? Not from a psychological perspective, but from an ethnic and ancestral one. I believe that food is among the first elements that connects us to our past and defines us.
More from Zester Daily:
Thanksgiving is a perfect time to truly ponder our connection to our ancestral foods. We are a nation of immigrants. While we embrace and give thanks as a nation, many of us also give a nod to our roots with our family Thanksgiving recipes.
I can relate to this firsthand. I grew up in a three-generation household with my Italian grandparents and my parents. Food was the centerpiece of our existence. My Nana and Baba were always referring to their parents and grandparents.
The discussion often centered on food and recipes. Or, what it was like back “then,” when the family had come over “on the boat” and settled in the Bronx. They described the hardships they faced. But somehow I know they also romanticized it a bit. It seemed that “back then” always was better than “here, now.” What they were really saying was they cherished those memories. Their stories of food and meals were how they defined themselves.
Italian specialties to appreciate a new life in America
As a child, I heard stories of how the relatives all pitched in to make the Thanksgiving feast, which was really an Italian-American feast. I’ll never forget my grandmother’s mantra, “Many hands make for light work.” Turkey, by the way, was an optional. All the foods came from recipes and techniques handed down through generations.
A typical menu consisted of an antipasto, a soup course, some pasta with meatballs and gravy or my favorite, manicotti, a roast of some sort with vegetables, nuts and fruit for dessert along with Italian pastries from a nearby bakery.
My mom, to this day eschews the turkey. It just isn’t her idea of Thanksgiving. For my ancestors, Thanksgiving was a time to reflect on how grateful they were to be here in the United States. However, they clung to their ancestral roots like a worn, cozy baby blanket by serving their time-tested heritage foods.
Family Thanksgiving recipes that connect to our roots
My story is not unique. I’ve interviewed scores of people who bring their ethnic foods to their Thanksgiving table to honor their ancestral traditions. A family recipe brings a wonderful sense of nostalgia, love, belonging, connection and roots that cannot be denied.
Take Brazilian-born Ellie Markovitch, for instance who now lives in Troy, N.Y. She makes her Brazilian cheese bread, pão de queijo, on Thanksgiving to keep her food roots alive.
“We celebrate the Thanksgiving meal with recipes and stories from around the world,” she said. “That is because all the members in our family were born in a different country. I was born in Brazil; Dmitri in Estonia; Lina, who is 5, was born in France; and Lara, 2, was born in the U.S.”
There’s also Loring Barnes, a 10th direct descendent of William Bradford, the Plymouth Colony governor at the first Thanksgiving, makes her family’s acorn squash recipe and the Barnes family’s baked chocolate pudding — both recipes can be linked to her pilgrim ancestors.
So, in preparation for Thanksgiving, I beckon you to walk down food memory lane with your relatives and discover, if you haven’t already, those foods that connect you to your past. Perhaps adding an ethnic dish to the menu and the story behind it will become the bridge to your past and future. These foods will help define who you are.
Barnes Family Baked Chocolate Pudding and ‘Ice Cream’ Sauce Topping
This cake was elicited from Loring Barnes, “I am having a food memory.” This is the essence of Heirloom Meals — making and eating food that transports us to a great memory! I confess, this may be my favorite recipe and it’s a keeper. This dessert will please chocolate lovers and then some. It is the perfect combination of textures and is worth the indulgence.
For the chocolate pudding:
3 squares melted baking chocolate
½ cup sugar
1½ cups milk, divided
½ cup unsalted butter, room temperature/softened
2 eggs, beaten
2 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking soda dissolved in 1 tablespoon water
½ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla
For the ‘‘Ice Cream” sauce:
1½ cups sugar
⅔ cup melted unsalted butter (warm not blazing hot so it won’t “cook” the egg)
2 eggs, beaten
¼ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 cups fresh cream, whipped
Optional: ½ shot of Gran Marnier
For the chocolate pudding:
1. Heat oven to 325 F.
2. Grease and flour a Bundt or tube pan. (A Bundt with flutes is the prettiest and defines your slices).
3. In top of double boiler combine chocolate, sugar and ½ cup of the milk. Mix and stir until it thickens, remove top from heat, allow to cool.
4. In large mixing bowl or stand mixer combine butter, eggs, flour, baking soda and water mixture, salt, the remaining 1 cup of the milk, and vanilla.
5. Add the chocolate mixture to above, combine until completely mixed but don’t over beat.
6. Pour batter into prepared Bundt pan, bake 1 hour on the middle rack. Cool and remove from pan.
7. The pudding should be kept moist, so keep the pudding covered with foil or plastic wrap so it doesn’t dry out. Be careful not wrap so tight so that you the baked pudding sticks to your wrap. A Tupperware cake container is fine, but I still wrap it a bit within that storage.
Tip: I like wraparound soaked baking strips for even baking. This is also a way to create moisture without a water bath.
For the “Ice Cream” sauce:
In large mixing bowl or standing mixer blend ingredients together, pouring in sugar and butter so that the warm (not hot) butter will somewhat dissolve the sugar during the blending. Refrigerate until serving. Add the Gran Marnier, if you’re using it.
Serve baked pudding gently warmed in low-temperature oven. I dust with confectioners’ sugar on the plate, but this is optional. Slice, generously dollop with the hard sauce.
“Pão de Queijo” (Cheese Bread), courtesy of Ellie Markovitch
Known as the national treasure of Brazil, this cheese bread recipe is amazingly simple. Ellie adapted it from her mother’s recipe because in the U.S. we don’t have the same ingredients that are available in Brazil. It has just three ingredients. Made with yucca flour, aka tapioca flour, they are gluten-free. Ellie shared three tips with me: Once they are in the oven, you cannot peek for 30 minutes, or the rolls will collapse, so no peeking. Also, they are best eaten hot out of the oven. And last, double or triple the recipe because one batch will get eaten before it reaches the table.
1 cup of sour cream
1 cup of finely grated Parmesan cheese
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons of yucca flour
1. Heat the oven to 350 F.
2. Combine the sour cream, cheese and 1 cup of yucca flour.
3. Roll the dough into small balls in the palm of your hand, using about 1 heaping tablespoon of dough for each. Use the extra 2 tablespoons of yucca flour to prevent the dough from sticking to your hands.
4. Place the dough balls on a parchment-lined cookie sheet and bake in the middle of the oven for 25 to 30 minutes Remove from oven and serve immediately piping hot.
Top photo: Pão de Queijo Brazilian cheese bread. Credit: Carole Murko
I have never been a “decorate for the holiday” kind of gal. As I was looking for a pan to bake this pie, I found my mom’s pumpkin pie pan, which I had not seen in years. I was reminded of what a fantastic hostess she was.
More from Zester Daily:
Every holiday meant some kind of décor change signifying the importance of said holiday. Acorn door hangings for Thanksgiving, Easter baskets with colorful eggs and Christmas joy everywhere! Christmas hand towels for the guests, Christmas wreaths, Christmas candies placed into crystal candy dishes. Crystal candy dishes shaped like Christmas trees, naturally.
If there is such a thing as an anti-hostess, that would be me. As a chef I can fill a table with amazing foods, but that’s as far as it goes. I put out plates, napkins and cutlery. Then I turn to my guests and say, “Bon Appetit and help yourself!” And I am often barefoot, because I like to be.
In my mother’s day, if someone stopped by, they were immediately asked whether they were hungry. Then she went in the kitchen and emerged a few moments later in a frilly apron with a fully loaded hors d’oeuvre tray and cocktails. How did she do that?
Being an anti-hostess, if you are a good friend, I will generally wave dismissively toward the kitchen and say, “You know where everything is.” My attire tends to run toward yoga pants and a T-shirt. And no shoes.
Finding the pumpkin pie pan, I knew it was time to turn over a new leaf, or new squash, if you must. I knew that this pan was the one to make my pumpkin pie in this year. It’s a baby step toward embracing the holidays and learning to be a good hostess, but it is still a step. I may even find that acorn door hanger and proudly display it on my front door. Maybe.
Spiced Pumpkin Pie With Coconut Milk
1¼ cups flour
½ teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon cold butter
2 tablespoons cold shortening
4 to 5 tablespoons ice water
½ cup turbinado or raw sugar
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1 tablespoon pumpkin pie spice
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
½ teaspoon ground ginger
¼ teaspoon ground allspice
1 can (15 ounce) pumpkin
1 cup light coconut milk
1. Heat oven to 375 F.
2. Mix the flour and salt in medium bowl.
3. Using a pastry cutter or fork, cut butter and shortening into flour mixture, until mixture forms small crumbs.
4. Slowly add water 1 tablespoon at a time until dough forms.
5. Wrap dough in plastic wrap; refrigerate for 1 hour.
6. Roll chilled dough out large enough to fit a 9-inch pie pan. Line pan with dough, fold excess under and crimp edges.
7. Line crust with foil, then add enough dried beans or rice to act as a weight.
8. Bake for 10 minutes, remove from the oven and remove pie weights. Let the crust cool.
9. Turn oven temperature down to 350 F.
10. In a large bowl, combine the sugar, eggs, pumpkin pie spice, vanilla, ginger and allspice. Whisk together the mixture, until well incorporated.
11. Add the pumpkin, whisk until incorporated then stir in the coconut milk.
12. Pour the pumpkin mixture into the cooled pie shell, then bake for 40 to 45 minutes until the filling is set and a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean.
13. Cool the pie on a rack.
Top photo: Pumpkin pie in a family heirloom holiday dish. Credit: Cheryl Lee
When I was a kid I naturally loved the holiday dishes, all except for the obligatory cranberry relish and pumpkin pie. I finally got over my cranberry problem, but I still require every pumpkin pie to stand trial before I eat it. To my mind, most are stodgy and boring and taste like a vegetable trying way too hard to be liked.
More from Zester Daily:
But recently I looked into Maureen Simpson’s “Australian Cuisine,” which was published in the late 1980s, and one recipe caught my eye: gramma pie. Gramma is the name of a sort of Australian pumpkin, which looks like a particularly skinny and elongated butternut squash.
It’s a winter squash belonging to the same species as butternut, kabocha and acorn squashes. You might never have heard of gramma squash, but you have probably eaten pumpkins similar to it.
The Dickinson field pumpkin, which is canned as Libby’s Select brand, is the usual squash variety used in canned pumpkin filling. You didn’t think pumpkin pie was made out of used jack-o’-lanterns, did you? Now that I think of it, maybe my problem with pumpkin pie goes back to some ill-advised youthful attempt to cook one of those coarse, stringy Halloween-type pumpkins.
Anyway, when Simpson remarked that gramma pie bears little resemblance to the American pumpkin pie, I had to try it. The recipe doesn’t look hugely different. This pie has a coarser, less creamy texture because you crush the pumpkin rather than puréeing it. It uses the same spices, and I wouldn’t have thought the additions of the zest and peel of a lemon, a little orange zest and a tablespoon of raisins would change the effect much. They do, though.
Add lemon juice to pumpkin pie? Yes you can.
The resulting pie is quite sweet-sour. Simpson even tells her readers they can add more lemon juice if they want. In short, it’s a dramatic, brightly flavored pie filling, worlds removed from the sort of pumpkin pie I still balk at.
Thanksgiving is all about tradition, and replacing the usual pumpkin filling with something as exotic as this one may leave a lot of diners feeling disappointed. But if there’s a chance you’ll have an Aussie at your table, this would be just the thing to serve. We all have our own nostalgia.
I made this recipe with Simpson’s suggested crust, which is more like a European tart crust than the American flaky crust. Use any crust you want, though. Her recipe calls for Lyle’s Golden Syrup instead of corn syrup, but in such a small quantity that the difference in flavor is negligible. It says to mix the egg with caster sugar, which is finer than American granulated sugar. Some stores sell this as “baker’s sugar,” but you can simply grind regular sugar fine in a mortar or small food processor.
Australian Gramma Pie
Makes one 8-inch pie
For the filling:
2 pounds winter squash such as butternut, acorn or kabocha (about 2½ pounds before peeling and trimming)
½ cup granulated sugar
Juice and zest of 1 lemon
Zest of 1 orange
1 tablespoon raisins, preferably yellow raisins (sultanas)
1 tablespoon corn syrup
1 teaspoon pumpkin pie spice (mixed cinnamon, nutmeg and clove)
For the crust:
2 cups flour
¼ teaspoon baking powder
Pinch of salt
5 ounces (1¼ sticks) butter, softened
2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons finely ground sugar
Water or milk
1. Having removed the peel, seeds and strings from the squash, cut into golf ball-sized chunks. Put in a saucepan and add water to barely cover, bring to a boil over high heat, reduce the heat to medium low, cover the pan and cook until the pumpkin is soft, around 40 minutes. Leave the squash pieces in a colander to drain, pressing out liquid several times until cool.
2. Mash the squash thoroughly with a ½ cup of the granulated sugar, lemon juice and zest, orange zest, raisins, corn syrup and spices and set the filling aside.
3. Begin the crust by sifting the flour with the baking powder and salt, and rub with the butter until evenly dispersed. Beat the egg with 2 tablespoons of the finely ground sugar and knead into the flour. Knead in more flour as needed to give a soft but manageable dough.
4. Divide the dough into two unequal parts, setting aside something between ¼ and ⅓ of the total for the top crust. On a well-floured work surface, roll out the bottom crust into a circle a little more than 11 inches in diameter. Transfer to an 8-inch pie pan and make sure that the crust reaches slightly over the edges of the pan. Scoop in the filling and smooth the surface. Wet the part of the crust the reaches over the edges of the pan.
5. Roll out the rest of the dough into a circle 10 inches in diameter and transfer into the pie. Crimp the edges with the tines of a fork. Brush the top crust with a little water or milk and sprinkle with 2 teaspoons of the finely ground sugar.
6. Bake at 350 F for 1 hour, protecting the edges of the crust from over-browning with aluminum foil or pie protector during the last 20 minutes. Serve cool.
Top photo: Pumpkin pie made with gramma variety pumpkins. Credit: Charles Perry
I have long been a devotee of cranberries as much for their history and lore as for their happy association with Thanksgiving, my favorite holiday. And they deserve to be an essential part of this totally American feast day because they are one of three fruits, along with blueberries and Concord grapes, that are native to North America.
More on Zester Daily:
We have evidence that long before Europeans settled in what was to become the United States, indigenous people used cranberries extensively both in their diet and as medicine. Pemmican, a preserved food, was made from crushed cranberries, dried deer meat and melted fat. As well as lasting through a harsh New England winter, pemmican was portable, a benefit for people on the move. As for cranberry’s medicinal properties, the Indians were said to make cranberry poultices to draw poison from arrow wounds, but as far as I know, there has been no research done to measure the efficacy of this.
What we do know, however, is that cranberries contain a high level of vitamin C, and that in earlier times American sailors took them on voyages to avoid scurvy, just as the British took along limes for this purpose. We also know that cranberry juice is often recommended to people suffering from an urinary tract infection, so this fruit has a good reputation among the health conscious.
The healthy and the sweet
But it seems to me that the cranberry’s greatest triumph has to do with its crucial place at the table as a delectable accompaniment to the Thanksgiving turkey. Just as holiday cooks vary as to how they prepare sweet potatoes, so do they differ in their preferred cranberry sauces and relishes. The easiest version, and perhaps the one with the most dubious reputation, is the canned jellied sauce that slithers out of its container with a long scar along its side, the imprint from the inside of the can, ready to be sliced and served.
Another canned sauce is similar to what we cook at home from fresh cranberries. Berries are left whole and cooked with plenty of sugar until a jellied sauce is formed. Raw cranberries bear the distinction of being both sour and bitter and must be tempered by sweeteners to be edible. (I recently came across the sobering fact that sugar has such a huge capacity for dissolving in liquid that one pound of water can easily absorb two pounds of sugar.)
Home cooks have been adventurous in their approach to cranberry sauce with recipes that embellish the simple mode of throwing the fruit into a pot with a little water and lots of sugar. Some introduce other fruits to the mix, especially oranges that give great flavor and an inviting complexity to the dish. Other cooks cast wider nets and add raisins, currants, blueberries and pecans or other nuts.
Then we get into the realm of spices. My preference is for a sauce made with cranberries and sugar, just a touch of orange zest, maybe a stick of cinnamon and nothing else. But I have come across recipes that call not only for cinnamon, but nutmeg, ginger, cloves and even allspice. To my mind, harsh spices take away from the tangy and unique flavor of a cranberry sauce whose fruity purity strikes me as the perfect companion to turkey with a rich gravy.
Getting creative with cranberries
But canned or cooked cranberry dishes are not the end of how this Thanksgiving side dish is approached. Enter the world of relishes. What with the availability of meat grinders and food processors, home cooks have been busily grinding up fresh cranberries along with apples, oranges, even pineapple in mixtures that can include such flavored liqueurs as Grand Marnier to pep up the dish. And if such mixtures are not lively enough, white pepper, fresh ginger and even jalapeno peppers can be added, thus taking an innocent cranberry relish into the realm of south-of-the-border salsas.
National Public Radio’s Susan Stamberg has received lots of attention for a cranberry relish recipe that includes an onion, sour cream and red horseradish, resulting in a shocking pink dish she admits looks like Pepto-Bismol.
This never-ending pursuit of novelty is displayed every fall when food magazines can be counted on to scramble up traditional Thanksgiving dishes. One magazine this year is offering holiday relish recipes that omit cranberries altogether in exchange for pomegranate seeds or kumquats.
For innovation, I would rather direct my attention to the cranberry industry, which has successfully attracted us to its products all year long and not just at Thanksgiving and Christmas. Cranberry drinks now occupy vast grocery shelves and are available in mixtures that include the juices of other fruits, and of course in diet form.
And dried sweetened cranberries are pushing aside the long-held monopoly enjoyed by raisins in such baked favorites as cookies and muffins. I have made the switch in my own baking, and am happy to encounter the bright flavor of cranberries in May or June and not just at the end of the year.
Dried Cranberry Muffins
1¼ cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1¼ cups whole wheat flour
1½ teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
4 tablespoons unsalted butter at room temperature
1 cup sugar
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup sour cream
1½ cups sweetened dried cranberries
1 cup toasted walnuts, coarsely chopped
1. Preheat oven to 400 F. Grease a 12-muffin muffin tin.
2. Whisk together the flours, baking powder, baking soda and salt in a medium bowl.
3. Cream together the butter and sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer until fluffy. Scrape down the bowl to be sure the butter is thoroughly mixed. Add eggs one at a time. Add vanilla and sour cream and mix thoroughly.
4. Add dry ingredients to the wet mixture, mixing at low speed until batter is smooth. When all ingredients are mixed, add the cranberries and walnuts by gently folding them into the batter.
5. Using ¼ cup measuring cup, scoop batter into the prepared muffin tin. Bake for about 25 minutes or until a cake tester inserted in the center of a muffin comes out clean. Cool in pan for 5 minutes, then turn out onto cooling rack.
They are delicious served warm and freeze beautifully for reheating later.
Top photo: Dried cranberries for muffins. Credit: Wynne Everett
Imagine being 7 years old and being offered an array of cookies and cakes for breakfast every morning. For my son Liam, that was one of the highlights of accompanying me on a six-week long research trip through the European Mediterranean the summer after he finished first grade. I also took my best friend’s 20-year old daughter Rachel, Liam’s beloved babysitter, so he would have somebody to play with. Nonetheless, it was sometimes not very much fun for him to be dragged from one place to another just so his mom could find and eat great food. Liam has always loved great food too, but constant traveling can be hard for a 7-year-old.
It was all worth it for him, though, when we arrived at Il Frantoio, an old olive oil farm that is also an azienda agrituristica, or farmhouse hotel, in the southern Italian region of Apulia. Il Frantoio is one of the most beautiful places on earth. Every room in the elegant house has been lovingly restored by the owners, Rosalba and Armando Ciannamea. Wherever your eye turns, it falls on something pleasing to see. Olive groves, some of them more than 500 years old, with beautiful, huge trees, stretch for miles within the whitewashed walls of the property. Armando produces several different olive oils, and the farm also produces wheat, fruit and vegetables, everything organic.
More from Zester Daily:
The beauty of the place and the unforgettable dinners may or may not have been lost on Liam. What he will always remember about Il Frantoio is that they served cookies for breakfast. Every morning, when you cross the quiet courtyard and enter the dining room, you encounter a lace-covered buffet with bowls of fruit from the farm’s orchards — plums and peaches, apricots and nectarines in summer, apples and pears in the late fall — and baked goods from the kitchen — several varieties of cookies and cakes, breads and pastries made with flour ground from Il Frantoio’s own heirloom wheat; homemade jams and honeys. Pitchers of fresh orange and grapefruit juice are covered with handmade lace doilies to protect them from flies. Needless to say, Liam woke up early every day and couldn’t wait to get to breakfast. He always went straight for the cookies.
Italian Butter Cookies with Anise and Lemon Zest
Makes about 4 dozen cookies
180 grams (6 ounces) unsalted butter, preferably French style such as Plugrà, at room temperature
125 grams (⅔ cup) sugar
55 grams (1 large) egg
1 teaspoon finely chopped lemon zest
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 teaspoons aniseeds, crushed in a mortar and pestle
275 grams (2¼ cups) unbleached all-purpose flour
5 grams (1 rounded teaspoon) baking powder
1 gram (¼ teaspoon) salt
1. In a standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the butter with the sugar until fluffy and pale, about 4 minutes. Scrape down the bowl and beaters. Add the egg, lemon zest, vanilla and aniseeds, and beat together.
2. Sift together the flour, baking powder and salt. On low speed, beat into the butter mixture, just until combined. Gather the dough into a ball, then press down to a 1-inch thickness. Wrap tightly in plastic and refrigerate overnight or for up to 3 days, or place in the freezer for 1 to 2 hours. Alternatively (if you don’t want to roll out the dough), remove spoonfuls of half of the dough and plop them down the middle of a piece of parchment paper to create a log about 2 inches in diameter. Fold the parchment up around the log to and refrigerate for 2 hours or longer. Repeat with the remaining dough.
3. Preheat the oven to 350 F with the rack adjusted to the lowest setting. Line baking sheets with parchment.
4. Cut the dough into 2 or 4 pieces, and roll out one piece at a time on a lightly dusted work surface, or preferably on a Silpat, to about ¼-inch thick. Cut into circles or shapes, dipping the cutter into flour between each cut, and place 1 inch apart on the baking sheet. Keep the remaining pieces of dough in the refrigerator or freezer.
5. Bake for 10 to 12 minutes, turning the baking sheets front to back halfway through. Remove from the oven and cool on a rack.
Note: You can brush the cookies before baking with a little egg wash if you want them to look shiny.
Chocolate Walnut Biscotti
Makes about 4 dozen biscotti
125 grams (1 cup, approximately) unbleached all purpose flour
120 grams (approximately 1 cup, tightly packed) almond flour
60 grams (approximately ½ cup) unsweetened cocoa
10 grams (2 teaspoons) instant espresso powder or coffee extract
10 grams (2 teaspoons) baking powder
4 grams (1/2 teaspoon) salt
55 grams (2 ounces) unsalted butter
150 grams (approximately ¾ cup, tightly packed) brown sugar, preferably organic
110 grams (2 large) eggs
10 grams (2 teaspoons) vanilla extract
100 grams (1 cup) walnuts, chopped
1. Preheat the oven to 300 F. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment. In a medium bowl, mix together the flour, almond flour, cocoa, instant espresso powder if using, baking powder and salt.
2. In the bowl of an electric mixer, cream the butter and sugar for 2 minutes on medium speed. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and the beater with a rubber spatula and add the eggs, coffee extract if using and vanilla extract. Beat together for 1 to 2 minutes, until well blended. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and the beater. Add the flour mixture and beat at low speed until well blended. Add the walnuts and beat at low speed until mixed evenly through the dough. The dough will be moist and sticky.
3. Divide the dough in two and shape 2 wide, flat logs, about 10 to 12 inches long by 2 ½ inches wide. The logs may spread while you bake, so it’s best to place them on two parchment-covered sheets. Place in the oven on the middle rack and bake 40 to 45 minutes, until dry, beginning to crack in the middle, and firm. Remove from the oven and allow to cool for 20 minutes or longer.
4. Place the logs on a baking sheet and carefully cut into ½-inch thick slices. Place on two parchment-covered baking sheets and bake one sheet at a time in the middle of the oven until the slices are dry, 30 to 35 minutes, flipping the biscotti over after 15 minutes. Remove from the oven and allow to cool.
Top photo: The breakfast table at Il Frantoio. Credit: Martha Rose Shulman
This is a story of carobs and cocoa. At Dolceria Bonajuto in Modica, Italy, the longest-established chocolate factory in Sicily, they make chocolate bars the old way, at a low temperature and without conching, the process by which the cocoa butter is separated from the solids and reblended to make smooth-textured and solid eating chocolate as prepared commercially.
At Dolceria Bonajuto, the raw cocoa nibs are crushed by hand using a stone rolling pin on a metate, a curved stone shelf supported by two narrower base stones placed at either end, a combination favored for the same purpose by the Aztecs. None of the usual additions — butter, milk derivatives, lecithin — are permitted.
The result of the Modica way of doing things is a solid bar of very dark chocolate with a satisfactorily reddish tinge, a good bark-like break and an unusual, rather Mexican purity of flavor. The main difference is an interestingly gritty texture mostly but not entirely derived from undissolved sugar.
The first cocoa beans arrived on the island some time after the Spanish conquest of Mexico through Sicily’s association with Spain’s Levante region, particularly Alicante, home of Spain’s marzipan and turron industry, where chocolate is prepared in similar fashion. Because Sicily was under Spanish rule from the end of the 13th century to the beginning of the 18th, this is scarcely surprising.
More from Zester Daily:
Chocolate as a refreshment was first introduced to the islanders by traveling salesmen who went from household to household, preparing the drink by hand using portable equipment. However, it’s fair to assume that a taste for a cocoa-like product was present on the island long before the ships of Christopher Columbus sailed toward the sunset, returning with news, among other botanical surprises, of a miraculous bean that could be transformed into the raw material of a coffee-like drink with miraculously restorative properties.
This was scarcely news in Sicily, where the naturally sweet seeds produced by the carob tree, dried and ground to a flour, had long been an important food source for both people and cattle. The seed pods of the carob tree, a North African native long established throughout the northern shores of the Mediterranean, are highly nutritious and full of vitamins, virtues not lost on those with a close association with the land. The trees are still found everywhere on the island, though the crop is mostly now either left to lie where it falls or gathered to prepare as silage for cattle fodder.
Carob still treasured in Sicily
Nevertheless, the beans, when ripe and dried and ground to a fine powder, are still valued on the island in the preparation of caramel-based sweets and cookies. Their texture is gritty, much like that of Modica’s distinctive chocolate, with a flavor that’s nutty and a little spicy. That no doubt explains their continued popularity in Modica’s Dolceria Bonajuto, proud of its establishment as purveyor of sweet things to the affluent of the town.
Carob remains very much a part of a Sicilian childhood. You’ll see carob sweets — along with licorice-root chewing sticks that once served as toothbrushes — for sale by the piece to schoolchildren at the checkout counter in small-town supermarkets, where the old flavors are still remembered with affection. Although the beans can be eaten fresh from the pods when ripe and brown — Sicilian carobs are particularly sweet and pleasantly chewy, like dried dates — the beans are of more general use in storable form as a flour milled either from raw or roasted beans. The flavor is caramel with a touch of cinnamon, but the bean, well endowed with tannins but lacking both fat and caffeine, cannot deliver the complexity and addictive qualities of its lookalike. Nevertheless, color, texture and cooking properties are alike enough to make carob flour a worthy substitute for cocoa in baking.
Sicilian Carob Macaroons
Almonds and pistachios are important crops in Sicily, as indeed was the old trade in cane sugar. Both nuts and sugar were and continue to be used in the sophisticated confectionary prepared on the island, including the beautiful painted marzipan fruits prepared for All Souls and other important church festivals, and now exported all over the world. The best pistachios (no argument allowed) are those grown on the volcanic slopes of Mount Etna.
Makes 15 to 20 macaroons
14 ounces unskinned almonds or pistachios, powdered
6 ounces carob flour
Whites of 3 large eggs
14 ounces powdered sugar
15 to 20 whole blanched almonds or pistachios
1. Preheat oven to 350 F (180 C or Gas 4).
2. Mix the ground almonds or pistachios with the carob flour in a bowl.
3. Whisk the egg whites till light and firm and whisk in the sugar gradually, maintaining the volume.
4. Fold the flour mixture into the egg mixture till you have a soft and slightly sticky dough.
5. With damp hands, scoop out walnut-sized bits of the dough and form them into little balls.
6. Arrange the balls on a baking tray — nonstick or lined with baking parchment — and make a little dip in each little ball with a wet thumb and push in a nut.
7. Bake till brown and firm.
8. Transfer to a baking rack to cool. They’ll stay fresh in an airtight tin for a month, or freeze if you want to keep them for longer. For a simple dessert, serve with a little cup of very strong coffee, a Sicilian lemon granite or a little glass of very cold limoncello or sweet wine, vin santo, for dipping. Crumbled, they make a sophisticated biscuit base for cheesecake.
Top illustration: Carob beans on the leaves of a carob tree. Credit: Elisabeth Luard