Articles in Baking

Hungarian Cherry Pie, cseresznyès lepèny, served with whipped cream. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

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

Tomi Komoly’s grandmother’s recipes were handwritten in old-fashioned German  and Hungarian. Credit: Copyright Tomi Komoly

Tomi Komoly’s grandmother’s recipes were handwritten in old-fashioned German and Hungarian. Credit: Copyright Tomi Komoly

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

Modern labor-saving devices such as food mixers or electric grinders -- unheard of in prewar Budapest -- can also have an effect on a recipe. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

Modern labor-saving devices such as food mixers or electric grinders — unheard of in prewar Budapest — can also have an effect on a recipe. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

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

Gugelhupf, or "Kuglof," made in a traditional mold with tapered sides and a funneled center. Credit: Copyright Tomi Komoly

Gugelhupf, or “Kuglof,” made in a traditional mold with tapered sides and a funneled center. Credit: Copyright Tomi Komoly

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

In baking, varying egg sizes can often make a difference in the end result. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

In baking, varying egg sizes can often make a difference in the end result. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

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

Fresh cherries are particularly popular in Austro-Hungarian baking. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

Fresh cherries are particularly popular in Austro-Hungarian baking. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

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

Many heirloom recipes are imprecise in their instructions, dealing mostly in "handfuls" and "pinches." Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

Many heirloom recipes are imprecise in their instructions, dealing mostly in “handfuls” and “pinches.” Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

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

Even basic ingredients, such as this widely used variety of Italian flour, can vary from era to era, country to country. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

Even basic ingredients, such as this widely used variety of Italian flour, can vary from era to era, country to country. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

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

Ingredients

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

Directions

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 

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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’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 my mother indicated on the title page of her cookery book, ammonia relieves bee stings; vinegar is best for wasps. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nicole Litvack

As my mother indicated on the title page of her cookery book, ammonia relieves bee stings; vinegar is best for wasps. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nicole Litvack

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

Ribbon cake was a favorite of Emily the cook. Credit: Copyright Nicole Quessenberry

Ribbon cake was a favorite of Emily the cook. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nicole Litvack

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

Golden syrup, a staple in English baking, was drizzled in the letter A on my porridge every morning. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nicole Litvack

Golden syrup, a staple in English baking, was drizzled in the letter A on my porridge every morning. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nicole Litvack

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.

Jam Tarts

Bright red jam made from berries is best for jam tarts. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nicole Litvack

Bright red jam made from berries is best for jam tarts. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nicole Litvack

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

Ingredients

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

Directions

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.

Curd tarts

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

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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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