Articles in Baking
The new year of 2016 is fast approaching. I am now trying to complete the tasks planned for this year but left unfinished, both business and personal. By doing so, I can welcome a new year as a fresh start.
This is what we do in Japan at the end of each year. But something has bothered me for long time, and I have let the years pass without fixing it in my kitchen. It is the croissant. In Japan, croissants are deeply rooted in our culinary culture and have been a part of my life, long before coming to America. So, this October I attended a class at the International Culinary Center in New York City on making authentic croissants. I can now start the new year with the proper croissant that I have dreamed of.
Falling in love with croissants
It was 30-some years ago when I first visited Paris and instantly fell in love with croissants. Flaky, crumbling, buttery croissants at small cafés in the city became my breakfast. I can still picture myself in the mornings, standing at a long counter bar in these cafés, staring at bottles of liquor and wine on the shelves behind the counter, and then biting into shattering layers of a crispy croissant. With small sips of strong coffee, I always reached for a second croissant in the always-full basket on the counter.
The richness of the butter stayed long in my stomach, but never enough to spoil my lunch. The real croissants back then were rather small (about 6 inches long), narrow, extremely brittle on the outside and airy inside. But today, this gem seems to have disappeared from the streets of Paris.
A bit of Paris in Tokyo
Now, let me take you to a very special place in Japan. There is a little patisserie called Aux Bon Vieux Temps near Oyamadai station southeast of central Tokyo. I lived near this station for about three years with my husband, Buzz. On one of our weekend walks, we happened to pass by a small, very French-looking pastry store. We entered and found that it was full of the highest quality authentic French breads, pastries and chocolates. The store became our Sunday breakfast pilgrimage destination — especially for very crisp, buttery, authentic croissants and a cup of very good coffee. Because of Aux Bon Vieux Temps, I no longer had to dream about the old croissants of Paris.
No shortcuts allowed
Chef Katsuhiko Kawata, the owner and pastry chef of Aux Bon Vieux Temps, has been making authentic croissants for years in Tokyo, while the super-sized, bread-like croissants have invaded France and America. Chef Kawata apprenticed and learned the art of baking croissants in his 20s in Paris. He is 70 years old today and still working in his kitchen. His approach to producing quality, artisan croissants and pastries is the same as that of classical music player. During every available minute, he practices his art and polishes his skills. Laziness and shortcuts are out.
On our most recent trip back to Paris, I was saddened by my encounters with ugly, fatty, dense and bread-like croissants at local cafés — the Americanization of the croissant in every aspect of quality had come to France. The use of industrial dough and shortcut baking processes may be among the reasons for this demise. However, last year in March, a very welcoming article appeared in the Wall Street Journal, “Welcome Back to Authentic Croissants in Paris,” by Alexander Lobrano. That article inspired me. I should stop complaining about fake, fat croissants in the city and learn how much labor, time and care is necessary to bake a good croissant by myself.
The croissant class taught by chef Mark Gerlach at the International Culinary Center was only a scant five hours in duration. The correct way to make croissants requires at least a full 48 hours, the chef said. In order for the students to engage in all processes of the preparation, we used dough that had been kneaded and rested in advance.
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Real croissants: It’s in the dough
Here, from the class, are seven tips on how to make real croissants:
- Use quality ingredients.
- Dehydrate flour properly.
- Use butter with 83% fat.
- Proof the dough at a temperature of 68 F and humidity of 65-70%.
- Apply proper lamination technique (folding butter into dough multiple times to create very thin alternating layers of butter and dough).
- Roll out the dough into correct thickness and into the proper size and shape.
- And finally, bake it just to the state where crumbling and fluffiness meet.
Now I am committed to baking fabulous croissants in my kitchen to celebrate the start of an exciting new year. I shall start the project two days before I enjoy the end of this year properly with a bowl of traditional soba noodles on New Year’s Eve. Maybe you will, too.
Instructions on creating the croissant can be found in many places, but here is how to make the dough.
Yield: About 1700g (18-21 croissants)
Prep and resting time: 3 1/2 hours
This recipe uses international measurements, because they are more precise — and precision is very important in this recipe. (Equivalents are 1 ounce = 28 grams and 1 pound = 453 grams.)
750 grams bread flour
15 grams salt
100 grams sugar
30 grams softened butter
38 grams fresh yeast
150 grams milk
285 grams water
345 grams butter
1. Mix the flour, salt, sugar, softened butter, yeast, milk and water in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment. Mix them on low speed just to combine. Increase the speed to medium and mix for 5 minutes or until a smooth sticky dough comes together.
2. Oil the inside of a large bowl and transfer the dough to the bowl. Cover the bowl with a plastic wrap and leave at room temperature for 1 hour.
3. Remove the dough from the bowl and flatten it. Using a rolling pin, roll it out into a 12-inch square. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and refrigerate until it is between 50 and 60 degrees F.
4. Place a block of butter between sheets of parchment paper and, using a rolling pin, shape it into a 6-inch by 12-inch shape.
5. Place the butter in the center of the dough. Pull the parchment paper away from the butter. Wrap the dough around the butter, making sure that the dough completely covers the butter but does not overlap at the seam. Lightly pound the dough with a rolling pin to make the butter more extendable.
6. Roll the dough into about a 30-inch by 8-inch rectangle. Perform a double turn.
7. Rotate the dough and roll it again into 30-inch by 8-inch rectangle. Perform 1 single turn. Roll the dough into a 12-inch by 8-inch rectangle.
8. Wrap the dough with plastic wrap and refrigerate it for 1 hour or overnight.
Main photo: The proper proofing of the croissant dough leads to a perfect result: fluffy and airy on the inside with brittle, crisp, butter-infused layers on the outside. Delicious! Credit: Copyright 2015 Hiroko Shimbo
Recently, master baker Uri Scheft of Breads Bakery in New York and Lehamim Bakery in Tel Aviv shared this recipe for his pistachio financiers. Baked in small pyramid-shaped silicon molds, they are delicious.
What I liked best about the little cakes were their crispy edges. This made me think the batter would make delicious tuiles, those delicate, crisp buttery cookies that are draped over a rolling pin when they come out of the oven so that when they cool they’re shaped like a roof tile.
I remembered that another great pastry chef, Sherry Yard, also uses cake batter for her tuiles; her recipe is in the pound cake chapter of her cookbook “The Secrets of Baking.”
My instincts were right! The nutty, crisp, rich-tasting tuiles are fabulous and have great staying power.
You will need pistachio paste, which is available in baking supply stores, Middle Eastern markets and online. If you can’t decide which to make, use half the batter for the financiers, refrigerate the other half overnight and the next day make tuiles.
Uri Scheft’s Pistachio Financiers or Tuiles
Prep Time: 1 hour (add overnight rest for batter for tuiles)
Baking Time: 20 to 25 minutes for financiers; 1 hour 20 minutes for tuiles
Yield: 50 tuiles or petits fours
6 ounces butter, preferably French style, such as Plugrà
5 large egg whites, at room temperature
1 cup sugar
1 cup less 1 tablespoon almond flour (without skins)
1/3 cup potato flour (or potato starch), sifted
1 teaspoon dark rum
2 scant tablespoons pistachio paste
2 tablespoons chopped pistachios (optional)
1. Place butter in a small saucepan and melt over medium heat until solids have settled and butter is golden brown with a nutty aroma (the solids on bottom of pan will be a darker brown), 5 to 10 minutes. Remove from heat and transfer to a heat-proof measuring cup. You should have 2/3 cup melted butter. Allow to cool to lukewarm, 90 to 105 degrees F. This will take more than 30 minutes, but best not to chill in the refrigerator, as butter should be liquid when you add it to the batter. Meanwhile, weigh out remaining ingredients.
2. Combine egg whites and sugar in bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the paddle and beat at medium speed for 2 minutes. Stop and scrape down sides of bowl and beaters. Add almond flour and beat for 2 minutes at medium speed. Scrape down bowl and beaters.
3. Add cooled butter, including browned bits at bottom of pan, and beat at low speed for 1 minute. Add potato flour and beat at low speed until incorporated, about 1 minute. Scrape down bowl and beaters.
4. Add rum and pistachio paste and beat at medium-low until well combined.
5. Preheat oven to 350 F, with rack in the middle. Line baking sheets with 1 1/2- x 1 1/2-inch pyramid-shaped silicon molds. Pipe or scoop batter into molds (I use a 1 1/4-inch scoop). Bake 20 to 25 minutes, switching sheets front to back halfway through, until cakes are dark brown on the edges and a tester comes out clean when inserted. Remove from oven and allow to cool completely in molds for one hour. They will detach from molds easily once cool.
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5. Cover batter tightly and refrigerate overnight for best results.
6. Remove batter from refrigerator and allow to come to room temperature. Preheat oven to 350 F with rack positioned in middle. Line sheet pans with silicone mats or with parchment. (Silicone mats are easiest to work with).
7. Using a 1 1/4-inch scoop or by tablespoons, scoop batter onto baking sheets leaving a good 2 1/2 inches between each one and staggering rows. If desired, sprinkle chopped pistachios on top. You will only be able to get about 8 to a sheet. For super thin tuiles, use a small offset spatula to spread batter. (It will spread anyway when you bake, but spreading it before results in very thin, lacy tuiles). Place in the oven and bake 10 minutes, or until golden brown on edges and beginning to color on top. Cookies will spread on baking sheets.
8. Meanwhile, place a rolling pin on your work surface propped against something so that it won’t roll, or on a sheet pan, propped against edges. When cookies are ready, remove from oven and let sit on pan for 30 seconds to a minute, then slide an offset spatula under and drape each cookie while still pliable over rolling pin. They will curve and cool quickly. Transfer to a rack to cool completely. If cookies cool too much and are not pliable by the time you get the last ones off the baking sheet, place back in oven for 1 minute and they will soften up again. Repeat with remaining batter until all of it is used up.
Main photo: Uri Scheft’s pistachio financiers are baked in small pyramid-shaped molds. Credit: Copyright 2015 Martha Rose Shulman
Long before there were Christmas lights, cards, trees or even Santa Claus, and before there were Christmas cookies, richly frosted Yule logs or candy canes … there was gingerbread.
At least since the Middle Ages, what we loosely call gingerbread — richly spiced cookies, wafers and honey breads — has been part of the winter holiday season. There’s a street in the medieval heart of Prague named after spiced honey cake makers. And we know that the Bavarian city of Nürnberg (Nuremberg) was a gingerbread exporter in the 14th century, as was the Dutch city of Deventer not much later. Ever since, the scent of Christmas has been that of gingerbread.
In much of central and northern Europe, the holiday season stretches for several weeks, beginning on St. Nicholas Day (Dec. 6) and ending a month later on Epiphany (around Jan. 6). St. Nicholas was a semi-mythical 4th century Middle Eastern bishop, the sometime patron saint to merchants, sailors and thieves. In his modern incarnation, he is mostly known for rewarding good children and punishing the bad.
The Netherlands Santa: An old bishop and his servant
In the Netherlands, the white-bearded bishop (known there as Sinterklaas) arrives each year (supposedly) from Spain, accompanied by a black-faced companion named Black Pete. The tradition of an African servant seems to derive from Holland’s not altogether savory colonial history. That it endures is baffling to most outsiders even if the Dutch insist that it is all just good fun.
America’s Santa Claus is largely derived from Sinterklaas, though he has no sidekick, is much jollier (perhaps because of the remittances from starring in Coca Cola ads?) and hails not from sunny Spain but from the North Pole.
Dutch bakers and their aromatic dough
Whereas edible Santas are usually made out of chocolate, Saint Nicks come in the form of gingerbread; these may be the original gingerbread men. Dutch bakers follow medieval tradition by continuing to press richly aromatic dough into elaborately wooden molds carved in the shape of angels, animals and hearts, but most especially Sinterklaas. Since the large cookies are the mirror image of the mold, the Dutch named them speculaas — derived from the Latin word for a mirror — a term that they now use for any kind of gingerbread.
This shape, along with the distinctive spicy scent, announces the season. The winter treats are richly flavored with exotic, Eastern spices. In the Middle Ages, it was widely believed that spices such as cloves, nutmeg and cinnamon originated in the Garden of Eden, which was supposedly located somewhere east of the Holy Land. Accordingly, martyred saints, or their remains, were believed to emanate sweet and fragrant spice — and, naturally, so did their gingerbread images.
Moreover, some of these original edibles were literally precious because of the high cost of the Eastern aromatics. Imported from half the world away by ship, camel and ox cart, the spices were both expensive and rare. Accordingly, how much and which of these costly seasonings ended up in the cakes depended on the time and place. The British were fond of ginger, so we call our spice cakes “gingerbread.” In Germany and other parts of central Europe, the local “gingerbread,” or Lebkuchen, often contained no ginger whatsoever. The famous Nürnberg interpretation was made with cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon and cardamom. And the cheap versions, sold at country fairs, were concocted of rye flour and honey and were barely spiced at all.
In the days when sugar was an elite treat, the peasantry often grated this inexpensive Lebkuchen on their porridge in lieu of sugar. Meanwhile, the French have their own spice bread, or pain d’épice, and add anise to the usual sweet spice masala.
Many varieties of spicy treats
Yet no one is quite as obsessed with gingerbread as the Dutch. Food historian Peter Rose has documented some 47 varieties of speculaas, and that doesn’t even include the pepernoten (spice cookies) handed out by black-faced Netherlanders on St. Nicholas Day.
Nobody can touch the Dutch when it comes to the quantity of spice in their gingerbread. This too is part of a colonial legacy, when the little country controlled the world supply of nutmeg and cloves. Today, the Dutch make cheese studded with whole cloves and often include nutmeg along with salt and pepper when setting the table. Not surprisingly, some speculaas has the kick of a cinnamon red hot. Most Netherlanders wouldn’t be able to tell you what goes into speculaas spice, since they buy the mixture already mixed, but cloves and nutmeg are typical, as is white pepper.
No matter the recipe, it seems purposely made to ward off Holland’s damp winter chill. A bite of sweet, intensely spicy speculaas sends a warm glow throughout your body. It’s not hard to understand why this was once thought an edible morsel of paradise.
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Speculaas With Almond Filling
This recipe is loosely adapted from the Dutch culinary historian Christianne Muusers. She suggests putting a little rose water into the almond filling, which adds yet another layer of aroma to this profoundly spiced treat. Though just about everyone in Holland will just reach for a package of prepared speculaas spice, it’s worth grinding your own spices — they’ll be much more intense. I like to use muscovado, a natural brown sugar, in the dough, although another brown sugar will certainly work.
Prep time: About 45 minutes
Baking time: About 30 minutes
Total time: 1 hour and 15 minutes
Yield: 2 dozen pieces of speculaas
2 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cup natural demerara sugar (or substitute light brown sugar)
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon grated nutmeg
1 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon ground white pepper
3/4 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom seed
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons (1 1/4 stick) cold, unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
3 1/2 ounces (about 1 cup) sliced almonds
Grated zest of 1 lemon
1 large egg
2 tablespoons heavy cream
10 ounces almond paste
1 tablespoon rose water
1 lightly beaten egg for brushing
2 dozen to 3 dozen whole blanched almonds for decorating
1. To make the dough, combine the flour, demerara sugar, spices, salt, baking powder and baking soda in a food processor. Pulse to combine. Add the butter and pulse until the butter pieces are about as big as flakes of oatmeal. Transfer mixture to a bowl. Stir in the sliced almonds and lemon rind. Stir together the 1 egg and the cream. Sprinkle this over the flour mixture, then gently toss this mixture with your hands until you have a rather dry dough. If it doesn’t hold together, add another tablespoon or two of cream. It should be about the consistency of pie dough. Cover and refrigerate overnight; this allows the flavor of the spices to infuse the dough.
2. Make the filling by putting the almond paste into a food processor and gradually adding the egg and then the rose water, teaspoon by teaspoon. You need the filling to be spreadable but not runny. This may be made a day ahead and refrigerated.
3. When you’re ready to bake the speculaas, set your oven to 350 F. Take half the dough and roll it out on a floured board to about a 1/4-inch thick round or rectangle. (If it feels too hard, let it sit out for half an hour before rolling.) Transfer this to a parchment-lined baking sheet. Use plenty of flour when you’re rolling out the dough, and don’t worry if it breaks as you are transferring it — you’ll most likely need to cut it and patch it anyway to form an even round or rectangle.
Almond paste filling
4. Spread the almond paste over the dough, leaving a border of about 1/4 inch naked. Roll out the rest of the dough, drape it over the filling, and even out the dough to make a smooth edge. Brush generously with lightly beaten egg, using the brush to smooth out any cracks and crevices. Using a knife, trace diamonds over the surface. Decorate the top with whole, blanched almonds.
5. Bake for 20 to 30 minutes in the preheated oven until firm and a rich brown. Make sure to cut it into pieces before it cools completely. I usually cut it into squares or diamonds of about 2 inches.
Main photo: Speculaas With Almond Filling are best when made with freshly ground spices. Credit: Copyright 2015 Michael Krondl
Every summer I go to a farmhouse in Provence with friends. We do one major supermarket shop on the first day to stock up on all the staples we will need for the week. We know we’ll eat well with just fun trips to the farmers market for produce and fish. The best news: This quick and easy trick works just as well when I’m home.
You, too, can shop once and then forget those dreary checkout lines. I’ve organized my staples into eight categories and suggest a dish or two for each. There is a lot of room to hack the formula.
With summer’s produce bounty at its peak, the farmers market is the only place you want to shop.
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Main photo: Stir-fried Tofu and Beans. Credit: 2015 Martha Rose Shulman
You open an old cookbook and out flutters a fragile, stained piece of notepaper. On it there is some spidery handwriting in fading blue ink for a long-forgotten cookie from a long-forgotten aunt in a long-forgotten language. Or perhaps, like Budapest-born Tomi Komoly, you have a carefully bound journal filled with exquisitely rhythmic italic notations. Hastily scribbled or meticulously inscribed, old family recipes are a gift from the past. But bringing them back to life in modern kitchens can present today’s cook with some unexpected problems.
Unforeseen problems: handwriting, culinary shorthand
When Komoly, who now lives in the United Kingdom, took the task of painstakingly transcribing, testing and updating many of his Austro-Hungarian grandmother’s recipes, he encountered a number of unforeseen problems. Not least, the recipes were written in a narrow, cursive script in old-fashioned German and Hungarian often using the shorthand style of a culinary expert for whom the manuscript was more aide-memoire than intended manual. It took him more than six years to translate and edit — and enter the mindset of his late grandmother to identify the many details and techniques she would have assumed needed no explanation. Sometimes, with heirloom recipes, it is what is left out that is as important as what is included.
Concessions to modernity
The aim of recipe rescuers is always to be as authentic as possible but, as Komoly found out, there have to be concessions to modernity. Today’s cooks may not have the stamina of their ancestors, but few would want to turn back every clock. As Komoly says, “Granny used to laboriously beat the egg whites with a little whisk or large fork, but I use a machine except for rising dough, which I prefer to feel by hand.” Ready-made noodles, dried yeast and strudel dough are also innovations that prove that progress can mean just that.
Advances in cooking equipment
Technical advances can also affect the success of updating recipes: Even the material out of which cooking tins and utensils are made may alter cooking times, and when all the cooking and baking was done on a wood-fired, cast-iron stove with hot plates, as with Komoly’s family, oven temperatures and timings can be another source of error. As he says, “How do you interpret instructions such as ‘Do it on a high flame’ or ‘Bake until it is ready’?” In addition, in quite a few recipes I had to work out the sequence of adding ingredients by patient trial and error. Luckily, on the whole, Granny was very reliable, so I didn’t have too many disasters.”
Our kitchens today also boast luxuries unheard of in prewar Europe, or available to only a few, such as refrigeration. As Komoly recalled, “We would get great blocks of ice delivered, we never had a fridge. Or we would keep food in winter on the floor of the freezing, unheated bathroom.” Restoring old recipes in light of the “new” technology means you may have to expect new timings, new procedures, new methodology.
Account for changing ingredients, tastes
Family recipes often are short on details, especially when orally transmitted, but even when written, many instructions can be vague to the uninitiated. Often, cooks would vary the way they cooked and baked according to whim, the weather and whether or not certain items were available.
“Although many recipes had quantities, in those days they didn’t specify things they would take for granted, such as the size of eggs. I came to the conclusion, for example, that over-egging a cake really doesn’t hurt too much,” Komoly said. “I’ve also had to play around with sugar quantities; there’s a massive difference in our tastes these days. I found I only needed about two-thirds of the original amount.”
Short on details
A rose is a rose is a rose, but the saying does not always hold true. Take a cherry, for example. There are sweet ones, sour ones, red ones, black ones and unique regional varieties that add different dimensions to a dish. Fresh produce was usually a given: In Hungary, Komoly’s grandmother would assume the fruit and nuts were there for the taking from the family’s own trees, but a stale supermarket walnut or hazelnut can turn yesterday’s delight into today’s disaster.
Cooking vs. baking
There’s many a recipe handed down from generation to generation that involves good old-fashioned instructions such as “Take a pinch of this” or “Add some of that.” In many Italian-language cookbooks, recipes often include qv (quanto vale — how much you want) or qb (quanto basta — as much as it needs) in the instructions. The size of a “handful” may not matter too much in general cooking, but baking is more of an exact science than a free-form art.
A century of changes
Another problem, common to all who undertake the rescue and restoration of heritage recipes, are ingredients. Soft cheese, butter, flour, chocolate and so on may not always be the same as those used a century ago. Take flour, for example. Italian heritage recipes use different types of flour to those we are accustomed in the United States and United Kingdom. Komoly encountered the same difficulty, “The flour we used in Hungary was quite different, but most UK flour is highly refined. Eventually, I found that if I made a cake with a large percentage of flour, it was best to use a ‘strong’ Canadian flour.”
Komoly is also fortunate in that he can still recall helping his grandmother in the kitchen — always rewarded with a lick of the spoon or bowl — as well as being able to hold in his memory the taste of the end products.
Having survived the Holocaust, his grandmother, Vamos Kathe, relocated to Nairobi. Her recipe book was a precious reminder of a lost world, inscribed with the words, “With God’s Help.” He must have been listening.
Hungarian Cherry Pie (cseresznyès lepèny)
Recipe taken from “My Granny’s Gift: 55 Delicious Austro-Hungarian Dessert Recipes” by Tomi Komoly, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2014, 124 pages.
Prep time: 30 to 40 minutes
Baking time: 50 minutes
Total time: 1 hour 20 minutes to 1 hour 30 minutes
Yield: 8 servings
2 tablespoons (15 grams) plain flour
9 tablespoons (125 grams) butter or margarine
1 whole egg
6 tablespoons (80 grams) superfine sugar
About 4 cups (500 grams) cherries, unpitted
4 egg whites
2 tablespoons (15 grams) powdered sugar
1 cup (70 to 80 grams) bread crumbs
1. Mix the flour, butter and egg with 4 tablespoons (60 grams) of the superfine sugar and roll out to about 1/4-inch (7 to 8 mm) thick and transfer into a 12-by-8-inch (30-by-20-cm) baking tray. Alternatively, just place in the middle of the tray and “pat” until it is spread evenly over the whole area.
2. Bake in a moderate oven 350 F (175 C) for 35 minutes. (It may take less time, so if it smells like it is burning, it may well be!)
3. Pit the cherries and drain the fruit of all excess juice and spread evenly after scattering the bread crumbs over the pastry. Sprinkle the remaining superfine sugar on top. (If the cherries are very sweet, then you may not need the extra sugar. CH)
4. Beat the 4 egg whites with the powdered sugar until very firm, spread over the cake, and bake for another 15 minutes or until lightly browned and semi-hardened. Allow to cool, cut into squares and serve with whipped cream.
5. Instead of the bread crumbs, ground walnuts or hazelnuts could also be used.
Main photo: Hungarian Cherry Pie, cseresznyès lepèny, served with whipped cream. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman
I’ve just come across an old friend I have not seen for half a century, “The Olio Cookery Book.” The book itself must date back a century or more, but there is nothing rare or antiquarian about it. The Olio is a classic manual for housewives that explains how to bake scones and cakes, how to choose produce and run a kitchen, and how to treat burns, with optimistic cures for a bronchitis cough and lumbago. Under “Recipe for a Long Life,” British Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone cautions, “Chew each mouthful 30 times.” He cannot have been a gourmet eater.
Lessons from the Olio
As a young child, my favorite place was the kitchen, the warm, perfumed domain ruled by Emily, who was too old to be drafted during World War II. Despite food shortages, Emily somehow eked out a ginger biscuit or jam tart for us each day for “elevenses,” when we sat down with a large mug of milky tea.
There were only three of us, but action in the kitchen seemed almost constant, far more fun than the garden, where my mother spent most of her time. She must have been stung by insects often, as she notes the kitchen remedies on the title page of the Olio “Ammonia bee; wasp vinegar.”
Learning at Emily’s feet
As soon as I had learned to read, in the down moments of the kitchen while a cake baked, I would huddle in a corner to avoid Emily’s feet and pick up the Olio. The limp, brownish cover enclosed surprising information among its 1,400 recipes. How to test for an old egg for instance (float it in a bowl of water; if stale, the rounded end will rise), and the renown of parsley for curing what are described as nervous troubles. I recognized Emily’s specialty, Queen of Puddings, and her luscious Steamed Ginger Pudding with a golden syrup sauce — sometimes by mistake it scorched on the bottom, even better!
A mainstay of cooks
I later learned that the Olio cookbook was the mainstay of cooks in the north of England. The curious title is nothing to do with the Italian olio or oil, but dates back to the 1600s and olla podrida or “rotten pot,” the Spanish name given to huge cauldrons of meat, birds and vegetables that were the fashion of the times. I can find no record of the first printing of “The Olio Cookery Book.” My mother’s copy, the 15th edition, is dated 1928 and ran to 25,000 copies, surely a huge printing for the time. In the preface, editor L. Sykes (a good northern name) mentions that 200,000 had already been sold.
By the time I went to boarding school, at age 10, I had absorbed the meaning of technical terms such as stock and roux, and I could imagine what a bisque, a risotto, a ragout and a salmi were like. A decade later when I actually went to cooking school and tasted the dishes themselves, I was prepared for what I would find. I was asked to stay on and teach the next influx of students, and the kitchen became once again my natural home. I’ve never left it.
I’m amazed that jam tarts haven’t migrated to America. During World War II, cooks who had fruit could take it to the nearby community hall and free sugar would be provided to make preserves. My mother’s raspberry canes gave bumper crops year after year so she would send Emily off to a jam-making session where she could gossip with her friends. The resulting raspberry jam, tangy and brilliant red, was perfect for Jam Tarts. For the pastry, you can either make your favorite dough, or try this deliciously crumbly English recipe that uses butter and lard.
Prep time: 25 minutes
Baking time: 30 minutes
Total time: 55 minutes
Yield: 12 tarts
6 tablespoons (about 3 ounces) raspberry or other red jam
For the pie pastry
1 1/2 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
4 tablespoons butter, more for the pans
4 tablespoons lard
2 tablespoons water, more if needed
12 medium shallow muffin pans; 3-inch cookie cutter
1. For the pie pastry: Sift the flour with the baking powder and salt into a bowl. Cut the butter and lard in small cubes and add to the flour. Rub the fats into the flour with your fingertips to form crumbs. Stir in the water with a fork to make sticky crumbs, adding more water if necessary. Press the dough together with your fist to make a ball, wrap in plastic wrap and set aside.
2. Heat the oven to 375 F and set a shelf low down; butter the muffin pans. Sprinkle the work surface with flour and roll the dough to 1/4-inch thickness. Stamp out 12 rounds with the cookie cutter. Roll the trimmings of dough a second time to make the count. Press the rounds gently down into the buttered muffin pans. Drop 1 1/2 teaspoons of jam into each mold.
Bake the tarts in the oven until the pastry is lightly browned, 25 to 30 minutes. They might collapse slightly around the edges; this is normal. Let the tarts cool slightly in the pans before unmolding them. They are best eaten the day of baking but can be kept a day or two in an airtight container.
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Once or twice a year, our nearby farmer’s wife would make curd cheese from fresh whole milk. My mother would stir in a handful of currants, or chopped prunes when currants were not available, and bake curd tarts. I thought they were even better than the jam version, but perhaps that’s because they appeared so rarely.
Follow the recipe for Jam Tarts, lining the pans with pastry dough. Stir 1 1/4 cups ricotta cheese, 1/3 cup sugar, 2 teaspoons flour and 1/2 teaspoon vanilla. Whisk an egg until frothy and stir into the cheese mixture with 1/3 cup raisins. Fill and bake like Jam Tarts, allowing 30 to 35 minutes.
Maids of honor
Legend has it that these tartlets were made by Anne Boleyn for King Henry VIII of England when she was maid of honor to Queen Catherine of Aragon. I like to decorate the tarts with a strawberry, raspberry or whatever fruit reflects the jam inside.
Assemble Jam Tarts using 1 tablespoon jam per tart. For the cheese topping: Put 1 cup ricotta cheese in a food processor with 1 egg, 2 tablespoons melted butter, 1/4 cup sugar and the grated zest and juice of 1 lemon and purée until smooth, about 1 minute. Alternatively work the ricotta cheese through a sieve and stir in the remaining ingredients. Spoon the cheese filling on top of the jam and bake Maids of Honor as for Jam Tarts, allowing 30 to 35 minutes. When serving, top with an appropriate piece of fruit.
Main photo: Jam tarts are a staple on English tea tables and need only pastry and fruit jam, both preferably homemade. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nicole Litvack
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.
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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?
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.
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.
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.
Prep time: 1 hour
Rising time: 3 hours
Baking time: 1 hour
Total time: 5 hours
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
1 egg white
1 teaspoon sugar
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
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.
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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
2 sticks (8 ounces) butter
3/4 cup sugar
Zest of one lemon
Zest of one orange
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
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