Articles in Baking

Willy Wonka might not agree, but not all chocolate is created equal. To find out what makes the difference between a $1 candy bar and an artisanal, single-origin chocolate, I went to Tuscany, Italy, to tour the headquarters of Amedei, a four-time winner of the Oscars of chocolate — the coveted Golden Bean award. There I went on a guided tasting of chocolate that Food & Wine Magazine calls “the world’s best.”

My visit began with a tasting of the various Amedei products, including tiny bars called Napolitains, assorted handmade pralines, and finally the best hot chocolate I’ve ever tasted, dense and rich with a hint of toasted almonds.

Amedei is the only Italian chocolate company that supervises chocolate production at every stage, from growing the cocoa bean to the finished product. During the visit, Cecilia Tessieri, owner of the Amedei chocolate company, explained chocolate’s complexity and gave an insider’s peek at how the pros taste chocolate.

Chocolate tasting tips

Tessieri says that to truly appreciate fine chocolate, you must use all five of your senses.

See. Start with your eyes. Great chocolate should have a nice sheen, but not be too glossy. Too glossy means that instead of using only expensive cocoa butter, less costly vegetable oils were added.

Hear. Break off a piece. Do you hear a snap? That’s a sign that the cocoa butter was properly crystalized.

Smell. Fine chocolate offers lovely complex aromas, and depending on where it’s from, may show off hints of toasted almonds, honey or dried fruit. Defective or lesser chocolate smells burnt or metallic.

Touch and taste. Put a small piece of chocolate onto the center of your tongue, but don’t chew! Fine chocolate has multiple flavor levels and chewing doesn’t allow time for them to reveal themselves. Cocoa butter is solid at room temperature, but soft at body temperature, giving us the chance to experience the silky feel of the chocolate as it melts in the mouth.

How chocolate is made

The visit continued with a video on harvesting chocolate and then a tour through Amedei’s facility for converting cacao beans into award-winning chocolate. “It all starts with the cocoa beans,” said Cecilia, holding a handful of aromatic toasted cocoa beans. A single cacao tree bears about 30 usable pods each year, yielding roughly 1,000 cacao beans, enough for about 2 pounds of chocolate.

The mature pods are handpicked and then carefully cut open so as not to damage the beans, which must remain intact to maintain a full chocolate flavor.  When a cacao pod is first opened, it has no hint of chocolate fragrance. Instead, the white fruit pulp has a lovely peach and tropical flower aroma and a fruity tart-sweet flavor.

The pulp and the beans are pulled out of the pod and placed in a container, often a simple wooden box lined with banana leaves, where it is left for seven to nine days. The beans ferment in the pulp’s juices, infusing them with additional flavor. They are then spread out to dry in the sun for about a week where they are gently turned, often by women on tiptoe, in what Cecilia calls the “the cacao dance.”

When the beans arrive at Amedei, Cecilia begins the process of converting these precious cacao beans into chocolate.

1. Cecilia does a “cut test,” slicing a sample of the beans in half to confirm their quality. Cacao beans must be perfect to be included in Amedei chocolate—uniform and smooth.

2. Then they are roasted in special proprietary indirect fire equipment.

3. After that, the concasseur, or nibbing machine, separates the husks from the beans to obtain tiny bits of cacao beans, the “nibs.”

4. Next, the nibs are ground into a thick paste called cocoa mass. I tasted the warm, fragrant mass and found it perfect, but Cecilia explained that it was still too acidic and dense. The missing crucial step is called “conching.” a slow, gentle grinding process lasting 72 hours that results in a silky smooth chocolate with perfect flavor. Finally comes tempering, melting the chocolate to just the right temperature to crystallize the cocoa butter. At this stage, the chocolate is ready to be made into the various Amedei products.

 

Cacao pod

Cacao pod
Picture 1 of 6

Mature cacao pods are hand-picked and then carefully cut open so as not to damage the beans. Credit: Amedei.

From around the world

Cru, a French term meaning “growth,” refers to wines from a particular area. Since the ’80s the term is also used with other products that change flavor depending on where they’re made, including beer, whisky and chocolate.

“Chocolate can taste very different depending on where it comes from,” explains Cecelia during our tour. She scours the globe in search of the very best tasting beans. She illustrated those differences in a guided tasting of Amedei’s Cru line, which includes chocolates made exclusively from cocoa beans from various countries, explaining the special aroma and taste of each:

Grenada

Delicate, creamy taste with a lovely long-lasting finish.

Madagascar

Smells like hot chocolate with hints of lavender and herbs.

Rich with lovely hints of citrus and mint that almost tingles on the tongue.

Ecuador

Delicate roasted cacao aroma and the intriguing scent of a forest in the fall. The taste is just as complex, with a sequence of flavors revealing themselves, from green tea to pistachio and almonds to tropical fruit.

Jamaica

Fabulously complex aroma of dates, figs, apricot jam and ginger with a touch of carob, olives and freshly cut wood. The taste delivers all that the aroma promises, with the tang of candied orange peel and jam and richness of butter. Deep dark chocolate taste, yet not at all bitter.

Trinidad

Gourmet aromas of cocoa powder, Cuban cigars and a summer garden filled with fresh tomatoes with a taste of walnuts, vanilla and sweet persimmons.

Venezuela

Delicate aroma of sugar, warm melted butter, dried fruit and sandlewood. Naturally nutty taste of hazelnut, walnut, almond and cashew with slightly spicy hints. Intense flavor that is long lingering and rich.

Groups of at least four, and up to ten guests, can schedule a tour of Amedei in Italy. For information and reservations, go to their website, call 011-39-0587-48-4849 or e-mail office@amedei.it

There is one Amedei store in the United States, so if you can’t get to Italy, you can visit their shop at 15 East 18th St. in New York City, which features daily free samplings.

Torta Tenerina is a five-ingredient flourless chocolate cake. Credit: Francine Segan.

Torta Tenerina is a five-ingredient flourless chocolate cake. Credit: Francine Segan.

Torta Tenerina (5-Ingredient Italian Chocolate Cake)

Prep Time: 5 minutes

Cook Time: 20 minutes

Total Time: 55 minutes

Yield: 8

This flourless cake has a crisp, macaroon-like top layer and a dense, incredibly moist center. As the cake cools, it collapses just a little, creating a pretty webbing on the delicious crust. It’s made with only five ingredients, so be sure to use only quality chocolate like Amedei. A must-try classic! Recipe is in "DOLCI: Italy’s Sweets" by Francine Segan (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2011)

Note: The cake's total time includes 20 to 30 minutes of rest time.

Ingredients

  • 7 tablespoons, 3 ½ ounces, unsalted butter, plus more for the pan
  • 7 ounces dark chocolate, 70% cacao or higher, preferrably Amedei
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 4 eggs, separated
  • 2 tablespoons potato or cornstarch

Directions

  1. Preheat the oven to 350 F. Butter the bottom and sides of a 9-inch spring form cake pan .
  2. Melt the butter and chocolate in a small bowl, either in the microwave or over a saucepan of gently boiling water.
  3. In a large bowl beat the sugar and egg yolks with an electric hand held mixer until creamy and pale yellow. Add the chocolate-butter mixture and beat until creamy. Add the potato starch and mix until well combined.
  4. In a separate bowl, beat the egg whites until stiff. Slowly, using a spatula, fold the egg whites, a little at a time, into the chocolate mixture until combined.
  5. Spread the batter evenly into the prepared pan. Bake for about 20 minutes, until just set in the center. Don’t over-bake.
  6. The cake will continue to set as it cools. Allow it to rest for about 30 minutes before cutting it until it collapses and the top crust cracks a bit.
  7. Serve warm or at room temperature.

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Balsamic cherry pie

Driving along shoulderless highways in northern Michigan, it’s hard to miss row after row of Montmorency cherry trees loaded with fruit waiting to be baked into pies or squeezed into a liquid elixir that scientists and doctors assign superfruit status.

With more than 2 million cherry trees, Michigan produces over 70% of the country’s tart cherry crop, and July is the start of the season for a fruit that has been credited with controlling cholesterol, lowering weight and boosting heart health. Not to mention being at the heart of a mean cherry pie.

The tart cherry’s superfruit status is due to its high levels of an antioxidant called anthocyanin, which is also responsible for the cherry’s intensely sour flavor and bright red color.

Tart cherries might well deserve a medal for their healthy attributes, but I’d much rather test their ability to satisfy my craving for the yin-yang balance of sweet and tart enveloped in one glorious double-crusted pie. That’s because tart cherries, not sweet, have always been the basis for the best cherry pie. Bakers can control the amount of sweetness with sugar and the tangy essence of tart cherries keeps the pie from becoming cloyingly sweet.

In a part of the country where any proper pie judge will tell you that cherry pies are not to be trifled with, I decided to go out on a limb and conducted a loosely structured pie contest of my own. In traditional measure, blue ribbons become a battle between best crust and most cherry-packed (but least gooey) filling, and awards only go to those that deliver both.

Ferreting out the best the region had to offer, I sampled options from The Cherry Hut, a 92-year old pie-making institution in the little town of Beulah (8 points for cherry-packed filling), to local behemoth Cherry Republic (9 points for crunchy, tender crust). Naturally, I couldn’t avoid including a few farm stand options in between. In the end, a roadside pie spiced with a bit of balsamic vinegar took the prize for my personal favorite. Cask-aged balsamic, which delivers its own magic blend of sweet and tart, was the perfect complement to the fruit and provided a deep base of flavor to the freshly harvested cherries.

But after all that pie, I was feeling a bit sleepy, and no wonder. Did I mention that tart cherries contain melatonin, a natural hormone that helps you sleep at night?

Cherry Balsamic Pie

Prep Time: 20 minutes

Cook Time: 1 hour, 20 minutes

Total Time: 1 hour, 40 minutes

Yield: 12 servings

The winning farm stand pie inspired my interpretation of the classic Michigan cherry pie. I’ve blended a rich, cask-aged balsamic vinegar into the filling and added a bit of Fiori di Sicilia, a blend of floral, citrus and vanilla essences, to keep the flavors bright.

Ingredients

  • Pie dough, enough for two crusts, chilled
  • 3 pounds, pitted fresh or frozen (do not thaw) tart cherries
  • ⅓ cup Pie Enhancer (or 6 tablespoons flour)
  • ½ cup sugar
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 3 tablespoons cask-aged balsamic vinegar
  • ½ teaspoon Fiori de Sicilia extract (or vanilla extract)
  • Egg
  • Sparkling sugar

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 350 F. Roll out enough dough for one crust and place in 9- to 10-inch deep dish pie plate, leaving a 2-inch overhang. Return to refrigerator while assembling filling to keep dough cold.
  2. In a large mixing bowl, toss to combine cherries, Pie Enhancer or flour, sugar, salt, balsamic vinegar and Fiori di Sicilia. Fill pie dish and return to refrigerator again while preparing top crust.
  3. Roll out remaining pie dough and trim into 1-inch slices. Weave for latticework and gently transfer over filling. Turn lower crust up and over edges of lattice and crimp with fingers or fork.
  4. Whisk egg with 2 tablespoons water and gently brush over top crust. Sprinkle with sparkling sugar.
  5. Place the pie on a baking sheet and bake for 1 hour to 1 hour 20 minutes, crust will be golden brown and fruit will be gently bubbling when done. Remove to rack to cool.

Notes

Not one to cling to tradition, when I find a new ingredient that is a big improvement over my old ways, I embrace it. Such is the case with King Arthur Flour’s Pie Enhancer, which I use to thicken fruit pies. A blend of superfine sugar, modified corn starch (aka Instant Clear Gel) and ascorbic acid, it sets the pie juices but avoids that gluey texture that flour sometimes imparts. But follow your own tradition and if flour works best for you, then substitute 5 tablespoons of flour for the Pie Enhancer and increase the amount of sugar in the filling for a total of ⅓ cup sugar.

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Chocolate Chip-Pecan Biscotti. Credit: Barbara Haber

I am planning to compile a personal cookbook — not for publication, but rather as a private collection of favorite recipes to give to family and friends. The idea has been brewing ever since I got a phone call from a son at college who wanted to know how to make “skinny fries,” a potato recipe he’d grown up with. At other times I get requests from friends for how to make a particular dish they had at my house. Although some of the recipes I will be compiling are for family dishes that were passed down to me, many come from cookbooks or magazines, recipes I probably tweaked before deciding they were perfect. What makes my cookbook personal, of course, is that it will reflect my particular tastes in food, leaving out ingredients I do not like, and going heavy on the types of dishes I love.

We all know that the world has become flooded with recipes so that selecting the best of them is challenging and time consuming. I have spent years accumulating thick files of favorites I culled after having tried so many other recipes that were similar but not as good. So I see my collection as a worthwhile service to loved ones by offering them what I consider to be the best of the best. It took years, for instance, to find the perfect chocolate cake, a dessert I now bring to potluck gatherings where I am always besieged for the recipe. I also have a biscotti recipe that experienced biscotti eaters tell me is the best they have tasted. I have recipes that were handed down by the women in my family, and passing these along gives me a sense of continuity and order. These include recipes for a winter soup made with beans and meat, and a meatloaf made light and fluffy because of its secret ingredient — a grated raw potato.

I routinely hear tales from friends who regret not getting their grandmother’s recipe for a dish they continually think about, but don’t know how to make because no one in the family thought to jot it down. It would have required trailing after grandma in her kitchen, and managing to measure and write down what she instinctively threw into a pot. I have even heard stories about grandmothers who will not give out their recipes, or if they do, will deliberately leave out key ingredients. Their motivation seems to be the hope that family members will continue to visit and eat what they cook. My expectation for myself is to have it both ways — to continue to please my visiting family members with the dishes they love and then to hand them all copies of the recipes.

It’s ‘CSI: The Kitchen’

I have seen compilations of family recipes assembled by other people, and they tell me a lot about the person who put the collection together. They add up to what I think of as a food profile. Just as FBI profilers can speculate about perpetrators of crimes by analyzing clues left behind, I feel I can gain insights into a person by examining the foods they choose to eat. But the work of a food profiler is far more pleasant — investigating noodle puddings and fruit pies rather than bullet holes and blood spatters. I have noticed, for instance, that books filled with dishes for grilled meats strike me as man pleasers or may even have been created by men. Ethnic backgrounds are also easy to spot — loads of pasta recipes with tomato sauce suggest Southern Italy, while yeast breads and coffeecakes using cardamom say Scandinavia.

Regional recipes are striking when, for instance, books recommending sweet tea and directions for such desserts as triple-layer coconut cake and sweet potato pie announce old-time Southern cooking. Recipes using such stylish grains as farro and quinoa and a wide variety of herbs and spices suggest an adventurous eater, while those relying mainly on salt and pepper for seasoning strongly hint that the eater has conservative tastes. And there are subtle clues. If many of the recipes yield eight or more servings, I deduce that the person either has a large family or entertained frequently, and the reverse is true. Recipes serving just two indicate a more private lifestyle.

My personal food profile

If I were to be food-profiled, the absence of cilantro, the herb people seem to either love or hate, would herald my aversion to the thing. Also noticeable would be my preference for cooking with olive oil rather than butter, and that an indifference to butter and cream carries over to desserts that omit whipped cream. Recipes for candy and cookies will lord it over puddings and tarts. My book will contain anecdotes, tributes to my sources for recipes, and nostalgic comments about the people whose recipes I am reproducing. I would hope to be seen as someone with a generous spirit, but most of all I would like to be seen as someone with a respect for history. I long ago learned that history is not just about the actions of presidents and kings but about the aspirations of regular people, and personal cookbooks can be a key to understanding how these people really lived.

Chocolate Chip-Pecan Biscotti

(Adapted from “Cooking With Les Dames D’Escoffier” cookbook)

Prep time: 30 minutes (this includes the slicing before the second baking)
Chilling time for dough: 3 hours
First baking: 45 minutes
Resting time between bakings: 1 hour
Second baking: 25 minutes
Total time: 5 hours 40 minutes

Yield: 48 biscotti

Ingredients

3 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon baking soda
10 tablespoons (1¼ sticks) unsalted butter at room temperature
1⅓ cups granulated sugar
3 large eggs divided
1 teaspoon vanilla
3 tablespoons milk
1½ cups miniature chocolate chips
1½ cups chopped pecans

Directions

  1. Whisk together the flour, salt, baking powder and baking soda in a medium bowl. Using an electric mixer, beat the butter and granulated sugar in a large bowl until blended. Add two of the eggs, one at a time, beating just to blend after each addition. Beat in the vanilla and milk, then the flour mixture. Stir in the chocolate chips and pecans.
  2. On a lightly floured surface, divide the dough into 3 equal portions. With lightly floured hands, form each portion into an 8-inch long log and flatten it to 2½ inches wide; place each log on a piece of plastic wrap large enough to cover the dough. Wrap in the plastic and chill for at least 3 hours or up to 3 days.
  3. Position oven rack in the upper third of the oven. Preheat oven to 325 F. Line a heavy, rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper. Unwrap the logs of dough, leaving them sitting on the plastic. Beat the remaining egg well to make a glaze. Brush the tops of the logs with the glaze and place them on the parchment-lined sheet. Space them 2 to 3 inches apart since they will spread. Bake 45 to 50 minutes until golden brown and just firm to the touch. Let logs cool completely for at least an hour.
  4. For the second baking, heat oven to 300 F. Line one or two sheets with parchment paper. With a long serrated knife, cut the logs crosswise into ½ to ¾ inch slices. Arrange biscotti on the sheets, putting the ends cut side down. Bake for 15 minutes and then turn them over and bake for another 10 minutes. Cool and store.

Notes

Variation for cranberry-pecan biscotti: Omit chocolate chips, vanilla and milk. Add 1½ cups dried cranberries, 3 tablespoons lemon juice and 1½ tablespoons lemon zest. The rest of the directions are the same.

Main photo: Chocolate Chip-Pecan Biscotti. Credit: Barbara Haber

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Sour cherry pie. Credit: Susan Lutz

In our house, asking for cherry pie means one thing: sour cherry pie. Just as there are “eating apples” and “cooking apples” that differ in acid level and sugar content, these same differences exist between cherries. Sweet cherries — like eating apples — are delicious raw. Sour cherries, with their higher acid level and lower sugar content, will make you pucker if you pop them into your mouth straight off the tree. While a pie made with sweet cherry varieties (such as Bing or Rainier) can be cloying, a pie made with Montmorency or North Star cherries has the perfect balance of sweet and sour.

It’s been my experience that people who say they don’t like cherry pie have never tasted a sour cherry pie. Surprisingly few folks know that sour cherries exist, partly because it’s hard to find sour cherries (Prunus cerasus) in many parts of the country. Sour cherries, also called tart cherries, are thought to have originated in the region between the Caspian and Black seas. Cherry trees still grow wild in that area, which includes part of Russia, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. The Greeks were cultivating sour cherries by 300 B.C. and the popularity of these tart cherries spread quickly to Italy and throughout Europe.

French colonists brought sour cherries to North America and by the mid-1600s cherries were plentiful in Virginia, my home state. Today most sour cherries commercially grown in the U.S. are produced along the Great Lakes in western Michigan, as well as in parts of Wisconsin, New York and Pennsylvania.

My love of cherry pies came early courtesy of my mother. She truly is famous for her pie baking skills — at least in her Virginia town where the local paper has profiled her and her homemade pies. She has forged some deep relationships with local sour cherry growers, who reserve gallons of cherries for her each summer. Even in a bad winter –  like this last one, which killed off much of the cherry crop — my mother somehow leaves a supposedly “sold out” orchard with brimming boxes of cherries unavailable to the typical customer.

The harvest season for sour cherries is short — just a few weeks at the end of June and early July. This delicate fruit doesn’t ship or store well, so the first step in making pies for the rest of the year is preserving the fruit. Sour cherries may be canned in the traditional way, but it’s even easier to freeze them.

Although my mother often gets gallons of cherries at once, she freezes them in small batches. Seeding cherries is no small effort and it’s nice to spread the work out over a longer period of time. But the biggest advantage to this method is that you can freeze the precise amount of seeded and sugared cherries you need to make one pie. My mom actually prefers making pies from frozen cherries because it’s easier to control the amount of juice that goes into the pie filling if you separate the liquid from the cherries during the thawing process.

How to preserve sour cherries

To freeze, wash and seed four cups of cherries and place them into a large bowl. Sprinkle cherries with ½ cup of sugar, stir to combine, and let rest for 30 minutes. Freeze sugared cherries in 1.5-pint freezer containers or quart-sized freezer bags. Be sure to label your containers with contents and dates. Frozen cherries can be stored for up to one year. When taking frozen cherries out to thaw, put them in a colander with a bowl underneath to collect the juice.

If dealing with fresh sour cherries seems like too much work or sourcing them is an impossibility, you can often find jarred or canned sour cherries at Trader Joe’s or Middle Eastern markets. These canned sour cherries are usually Montmorency cherries and they’ll work fine. Just be sure that you’re not buying cherry pie filling, which is usually more sugary goop than cherries.

The hardest part of making a sour cherry pie is finding the cherries, but making cherry pie does require a certain amount of practice. The following recipe comes straight from my mother. I cannot guarantee that it will make you the focus of local newspaper profiles or will make your kitchen a place where neighbors drop in simply on the off-chance they can get some pie. But it will make you a convert to sour cherries.

Mom's Sour Cherry Pie

Prep Time: 2 hours

Cook Time: 1 hour

Total Time: 3 hours

Yield: 1 (9-inch) cherry pie, plus an extra round of pie dough

Recipe courtesy Linda Lutz.

Ingredients

  • 2 quarts sour cherries (fresh or frozen)
  • 1 cup and 1 teaspoon granulated sugar
  • 3 cups plus an additional 4 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon plus a pinch of salt
  • 1 cup vegetable shortening
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • ⅓ cup plus 1 tablespoon cold water
  • 1 tablespoon white vinegar
  • ¼ teaspoon almond extract
  • 1½ tablespoons butter

Directions

  1. Wash and seed cherries.
  2. Place about 4 cups fresh sour cherries into a medium bowl and add ½ cup of the sugar.
  3. Let sit for at least an hour to allow cherries to draw juice, stirring occasionally.
  4. To make pie dough, place 3 cups of the flour and 1 teaspoon salt into a large bowl.
  5. Measure 1 cup vegetable shortening and add in small pieces to flour mixture. Using the tips of your fingers, pinch the shortening into the flour mixture until the flour-covered fat balls are the size of slightly flattened peas.
  6. Beat one egg in a small bowl. Add water and vinegar to beaten egg and stir to combine.
  7. Slowly pour liquid into flour mixture, stirring gently with two fingers until all liquid is added. Have a light touch with dough to keep it flaky. Stir no more than is necessary to work dough into a ball.
  8. Divide dough into three parts and shape into flat rounds. Wrap dough in plastic wrap and refrigerate while you making pie filling.
  9. Drain cherries into a colander, reserving juice.
  10. In a saucepan, combine ½ cup sugar, 4 tablespoons of flour and a pinch of salt. Slowly stir in reserved juice.
  11. Cook mixture until it begins to thicken, then add cherries, almond extract, and 1½ tablespoons of butter. Cook over medium heat for 5 minutes.
  12. Remove cherry filling from the heat and let cool while preparing pie dough.
  13. Take two rounds of pie dough out of refrigerator and unwrap them.
  14. Working with one round at a time, roll pie dough out on flour covered pastry cloth or countertop.
  15. When the round of dough is about half its needed size, use fingers to pinch any cracked edges back together. Continue rolling dough until it’s large enough to cover your pie pan. Dough should be no more than ¼ inch thick, but a generous 1/8-inch thick is even better.
  16. Place first round of dough into bottom of pie pan and roll out the top crust using the same method.
  17. Pour cherry filling into pastry lined 9-inch pie pan. (My mother prefers a glass pie dish so she can see how the bottom of her crust is browning.) If filling appears too thick at this point, add a bit of water before pouring filling into pie crust.
  18. Cover with top crust and cut approximate10 half-inch long slits in the top crust.
  19. Sprinkle the top of the pie with 1 teaspoon of granulated sugar.
  20. Cover the outer edges of the pie crust with aluminum foil or a metal pie edge protector to keep the edges of the crust from burning.
  21. Bake at 425 F for 35 to 45 minutes or until golden brown. If top crust seems to be browning too quickly, lay a piece of aluminum foil over the top of the crust for the last 10 minutes. Let pie cool before serving.

Notes

You can use up to 1½ cups sugar, but we like cherries pies tart. Extra round of pie dough can be frozen for future use. Keep dough round in plastic wrap and place in a freezer-safe plastic bag. Pie dough will keep in the freezer for several months.

Main photo: Mom’s Sour Cherry Pie is always a crowd-pleaser. Credit: Susan Lutz

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A picnic at St. James Park in London.

In the United States and perhaps elsewhere, most picnics are simply enjoyable outdoor meals and social occasions, where thoroughly normal groups of people decide to have a fun time and eat and drink some well-prepared goodies out of doors. In the United Kingdom, things are rather more complicated. By tradition, British picnics are of three sorts: the romantic, the grand and the disastrous.

Dream setting

The romantic picnic encapsulates simplicity in beautiful surroundings with a wonderful view, a stream, a wood or flower-filled meadow. The tradition started a couple of hundred years ago, when people began to see nature and the countryside as picturesque rather than dangerous. The food, drink and company are all planned to add to the picnickers’ awareness of nature and its beauties and seem particularly associated with happy and impressionable youth. Such a picnic involves little display or showing off, and not even a great deal of organisation. Sandwiches, fruit and some chilled wine or lemonade would be enough to make the right company happy in this setting — if it can be found. Somehow, this is the sort of picnic people dream of, but don’t very often end up having.

Over the top

The grand picnic is often and sometimes deservedly mocked. At its worst, it is based on the assumption that conspicuous expenditure will win the envy and admiration of spectators and guests. Victorian writers such as Anthony Trollope describe picnics with attendant servants, Champagne and dancing. Nowadays, grand English social occasions such as horse racing’s Royal Ascot, rowing’s Henley, opera’s Glyndebourne and the end-of-term speech days of the most expensive private schools all provide opportunities for showing off. Too much expensive food and drink such as lobsters, oysters and the very best Burgundy and Bordeaux, overdone table decorations, gilt wood chairs, striped awnings and tents, and even uniformed staff to wait on the picnickers are all to be seen. The hosts are often reduced to a state of nervous anxiety by the knowledge that highly competitive picnics are taking place all around them, and so only the richest, most confident and best prepared can expect to win.

When all goes wrong

The disastrous picnic is generally a product of nature winning the war with man. Although it can start out as one of the previous types, is somehow felt to be very traditional in itself. A romantic picnic in a field can be quickly spoilt by a herd of inquisitive farm animals, or worse, a loose bull. The British climate is far from reliable and can ruin the best-laid plans. Insects such as bees, wasps and biting flies can rout a group of potential picnickers. Rain, gusting wind, cold and driven sand at the seaside are some of the other hazards that British picnickers may have to face. In addition, picnics taken by a river provide the opportunity for at least one guest to fall in, and for others to feel duty-bound to follow as rescuers.

Then there’s the grand combination

When the grand merge, as they sometimes do for some reason with the disastrous, the situation is regarded as particularly amusing by spectators. Not only bad weather but the influence of gravity on expensively prepared cold collations can cause havoc. One of the smartest horse racing meetings in England takes place annually at Goodwood in West Sussex towards the end of July. Most people, of course, just come to enjoy themselves, but every year some overdo it. The most elaborate picnics are held on a steep slope and each year at least one of these is bowled downhill, with elegantly clad members of the (presumed) aristocracy in hot pursuit. Shellfish, the finest vintages of the best wine, cold beef and salmon, along with the occasional windblown table, glass, cutlery and awnings, have all been known to end up crushed against a boundary fence at the bottom of the hill. It is not, of course, considered polite to laugh too openly.

Since International Picnic Day is on June 18, this seems the right moment to celebrate with a delicious cold dessert. The recipe that follows is taken from our book “For the Love of an Orchard,” and would enhance any picnic. Pretty enough to pass for grand, delicious enough to increase a sense of romance and consoling enough to mitigate a disaster, it is based on a dessert dish that a visiting French friend prepared for Chris and his family a few years ago. Alice Soubranne, who is an excellent cook, was kind enough to give us this family recipe.

Alice Soubranne's Tarte aux Pommes à l'Alsacienne

Prep Time: 30 minutes

Cook Time: 40 minutes

Total Time: 1 hour, 10 minutes

Yield: 1 tart serving 6 to 8 people

Ingredients

  • Sweet pastry (use pâte sucré or a half-pound block of good-quality chilled supermarket pastry)
  • 3 to 4 apples, peeled, cored and sliced, approximately 2 cups
  • 4 to 5 tablespoons caster or superfine sugar
  • 6 egg yolks
  • 20 U.S. fluid ounces tub of crème fraîche
  • 2 ounces butter

Directions

  1. Blind bake the pastry in a buttered 10-inch tart pan or flan case with removable base at 350 F. The shell should be firm and dry but not browned or biscuit-like.
  2. Arrange the sliced apples prettily in concentric circles and again bake at 350 F until softened but holding their shape (say, 10 minutes).
  3. In a big bowl, beat the egg yolks with enough sugar to make the mixture neither too sweet nor solid. Then fold in the gently melted butter and crème fraîche and pour this custard mixture over the apples in the baking case.
  4. Turn the heat up to 375 F and cook the tart for about 30 minutes so it is, in Alice's words, "goldy and has a tan," but does not burn. It must not even turn dark brown or the custard will curdle at the edges, making a break line where it meets the pastry.
  5. Eat cold, served with crème fraîche or cream. Other fruits can in principle be used for this tart, including plums and probably cherries, but the right liquid content and height in relation to the finished custard is important.

Notes

Presentation is important, with evenly cut apple rings and golden custard. Good apples for this recipe should have a slightly spicy taste with good acid, and hold their texture when cooked in the custard. Norfolk Pippin, Ashmead's Kernel and most Russets are really good. Of the generally available supermarket apples Braeburn is reliable and tastes good, holding enough texture. Bramleys are too tart.

Main photo: Picnickers gather at St. James Park in London. Credit: iStock

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The red, white and blue hues of Summer Berry Tart. Credit: Terra Brockman

There’s only one thing better than eating berries straight from the bush, and that’s putting them into a buttery pâte sucrée crust. Here are just a few of the blissful berries that can go into your summer berry tart.

Aronia berries: Aronia is in the apple family, and the clusters of dark fruits have an intense tannic flavor that dissipates when they are cooked. Native to North America, aronia is popular in Poland and Russia, where it is used to make juices, jam, syrups and flavored spirits. It is high in vitamin C and has many times the amount of antioxidants found in blueberries and pomegranate.

Blackberries: New varieties of blackberries are larger and sweeter than older varieties, but all are high in vitamins and antioxidants.

Raspberries: In addition to red raspberries, there are golden ones that are also high in vitamins C and K.

Blueberries: Great in pancakes and muffins, blueberries contain high levels of antioxidants.

Red, white or black currants: Very high in vitamin C, currants are used in jams, pies, ice creams and tarts. Black currants have more intense flavors than the red or white currants, and are packed with iron, potassium, phosphorous, iron and vitamin B5.

Gooseberries: These small berries can be red, green and purple and are good in tarts, pies, puddings and fruit salads. Gooseberries are high in vitamins C and A, potassium and manganese.

Strawberries: Go for whichever strawberries have the strongest aroma and you won’t be disappointed. They contain high vitamin C, manganese and folic acid levels.

Mulberries: These soft fruits have zero shelf life, but you can often find them growing wild at the edges of woods or parking lots. If you do, eat them right away or put them in a pie or tart.

All these berries are nutritional powerhouses, offering many phytonutrients, such as anthocyanins, ellagic acid, quercetin and catechins, that provide deep colors, rich flavors and disease-fighting attributes.

You can double, triple or quadruple the tart crust recipe below, portion it into one-tart amounts, then freeze it for up to two months. As each new berry comes into season, thaw and roll out the dough for that week’s tart. By the end of the season, you will be a pro at making berry tarts, and you will most likely have a lot of new friends!

Summer Berry Tart is a perfect choice for summer. Credit: Terra Brockman

Berry Tart is a popular choice for summer. Credit: Terra Brockman

The following recipe is adapted from Alice Waters’ Santa Rosa Plum Tart in “Chez Panisse Fruit.”

Summer Berry Tart

Prep Time: 25 minutes

Cook Time: 35 minutes

Total Time: 1 hour

Yield: 8 servings

Ingredients

  • Summer berries of your choice, about one quart (I use a mix of blueberries, raspberries, aronia berries and red currants)
  • 1 pre-baked 10-inch pâte sucrée tart shell (recipe below)
  • ¼ pound (1 stick) unsalted butter
  • Juice of 1 lemon
  • 2 eggs
  • ¾ cup sugar
  • 1½ teaspoons of plum brandy, grappa or kirsch
  • ¼ teaspoon vanilla extract
  • ⅛ teaspoon salt
  • 3 tablespoons flour
  • 2 tablespoons heavy cream

Directions

  1. Preheat the oven to 375 F.
  2. Put the berries in a single layer in the tart shell, or arrange them in concentric circles.
  3. Melt the butter in a small saucepan over low heat. Let it bubble gently and cook until the milk solids turn light brown. Remove the butter from the heat and add the lemon juice. Set aside.
  4. Beat the eggs and sugar together with an electric mixer until the mixture is thick and forms a ribbon when dropped from the beaters, about five minutes. Add the butter, brandy, vanilla, salt, flour and cream. Stir just until mixed. Gently pour the mixture over the berries, filling the shell, and just barely covering the berries.
  5. Bake in the top third of the oven until the top is golden brown, about 35 minutes. Let cool on a rack for 15 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature

The baked Summer Berry Tart. Credit: Terra Brockman

The baked Summer Berry Tart. Credit: Terra Brockman

 

The following recipe is adapted from Alice Waters’ “The Art of Simple Food.” If you’ve never made a tart before, read her section on tarts, where she walks you through the process step by step.

Pâte Sucrée Tart Crust

Prep Time: 20 minutes, plus 4 hours chill time

Cooking Time: 15 minutes

Total Time: 35 minutes (4 hours 35 minutes including chill time)

Yield: 1 (10-inch) tart crust

Ingredients

8 tablespoons (1 stick) butter, at room temperature

⅓ cup sugar

¼ teaspoon salt

¼ teaspoon vanilla extract

1 egg yolk, at room temperature

1¼ cups flour

Directions

1. Beat the butter and sugar together until creamy. Mix in the salt, vanilla and egg yolk. Add the flour, stir and fold in gently until there are no dry patches. The dough will be soft and sticky. Gather it up into a ball and wrap in plastic. Flatten into a disk, and chill for at least 4 hours.

2. Preheat the oven to 425 F.

3. Take the dough out of the refrigerator. If it is very hard, let it sit 10 to 20 minutes to soften. Roll it out between two sheets of wax paper or parchment paper until it is about ⅛-inch thick and about 12 inches in diameter.

4. Put the dough into the tart pan and press gently into the sides. Trim any excess dough, and lightly prick all over with a fork. Bake for 5 minutes at 425 F, and then reduce temperature to 350 F and continue baking for 10 to 15 minutes or until light gold.

Main photo: The red, white and blue hues of Summer Berry Tart before baking. Credit: Terra Brockman

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National Doughnut Day, June 6: The Battle of the Sinker, as I like to call it, may not come close to the sinking of the Lusitania as the turning point of World War I, but, in the 100th anniversary year of the beginning of that dreadful conflict, it’s worth recalling how the doughnut stepped up to help defeat the pitiless Hun.  Admittedly, there were casualties along the way.

This World War I battle began as an old rusty truck filled with about 100 apple pies and 7,000 Salvation Army doughnuts broke down a mile in back of American lines in full view of the German lines. As the New York Times reported under the headline “Foe Bombards Stalled Truckload of Pastry,” what ensued was a furious barrage of German shells. It was now 1918 and the Germans were desperate.  Seventy projectiles fell in the first half hour and continued for the rest of the afternoon. That night the driver tried to rescue the truck but was driven back by bombardment, which rained down for seven hours more.

The next morning, fearing for the doughy cargo, a soldier on a motorbike raced past the stranded truck at 75 mph and returned to breathlessly report that the doughnuts were still safe. When the soldiers learned of the pastries’ plight, a hundred of them volunteered to rescue the quickly staling dough rings, but alas they too were driven back by shells and poisonous gas. Eventually after four days of furious shelling, the Kaiser’s gunners sent up eight balloons to better gauge the range. And that was it. The doughnuts were smashed to oblivion. And the guns fell silent.

An American officer at the scene swore to “make the Boches pay dearly for their unforgivable vandalism.”  The incident became famous across the Western Front.  The doughnuts may have lost the battle but the war made them into winners, an edible symbol what the boys were fighting for.

Doughnuts and the Sallies

Needless to say, it wasn’t just trucks full of fried dough that were at risk of being blown to kingdom come on a daily basis. It was the women who made the doughnuts: Salvation Army volunteers such as Gladys and Irene McIntyre, sisters from Mount Vernon, N.Y., who handed out coffee and doughnuts under a rain of shells until the Army brass ordered them to retreat. Or Cora Van Norden, outfitted with a revolver, a helmet and gas mask, who barely escaped an enemy barrage as she was returning from an allied graveyard. The Salvation Army had entered the war right along the American Expeditionary Force (as the U.S. contingent was named) in 1917.

Back home, the Salvation Army had a bit of crackpot reputation, but this quickly changed once their members arrived in the trenches. To the mud-stained, blood-soaked soldiers, the primarily female volunteers came to represent the women they’d left behind, a physical incarnation of the idea of mom and apple pie. Indeed the volunteers tried to make apple pies and even fudge in the early days, but the reality of the field kitchens made this well-nigh impossible.

 

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Mace comes from the outside shell of a nutmeg. Credit: Michael Krondl

Helen Purviance’s vision

Then Helen Purviance came up with the idea of doughnuts. The ingredients were easier to obtain than for apple pies, and you didn’t need a stove. In the coming months the doughnuts became inextricably linked with the Sallies, as the volunteers were called.

Purviance’s companion-in-arms Margaret Sheldon estimated that she cooked more than a million doughnuts before the war was out. All mixed, cut and fried by hand. (See recipe.)

The war was a turning point for doughnuts, as much as it was for the Salvation Army. Before the war, doughnuts were widely associated with New England, but afterward they became the all-American treat. Doughnut bakeries large and small were established to piggyback on the sinker’s celebrity. The Salvation Army used them in most of its fundraising efforts. National Doughnut Day (the first Friday in June) was eventually established in 1938 as a consequence of the organization’s fund drive for a Chicago home for unmarried women. If you gave a donation, you got a doughnut, but the trouble was it was just printed on a piece of paper. Oddly, it proved effective nevertheless.

Margaret Sheldon’s recipe

Four decades after the Kaiser had been served his just desserts, Margaret Sheldon revealed her recipe for the doughnuts that had helped win the Great War. It made 400 large doughnuts or 500 small ones:

18 pounds of flour

7 pounds sugar

12 ounces of good baking powder

3 ounces salt

3 ounces of good mace

6 big cans of evaporated milk

8 cans water

1 pound lard

It works, even if the results are most definitely worthy of the name “sinkers.” Adding some eggs would lighten the doughnuts considerably, but eggs would have been a fragile luxury on the Western Front. If you’re interested in reliving history, the following recipe is somewhat more manageable. Eat them while they’re still warm — no gas mask, helmet or revolver necessary. 

Salvation Army Doughnuts

Prep Time: 30 minutes

Cook Time: 15 minutes

Total Time: 1 hour, 45 minutes

Yield: 2 dozen

Ingredients

  • 1½ pounds all-purpose flour
  • 2 tablespoons baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 teaspoons ground mace
  • 9 ounces sugar
  • 1½ ounces lard (or shortening)
  • 1 (5-ounce) can evaporated milk
  • ¾ cup water
  • lard for frying (or use vegetable shortening)
  • powdered or granulated sugar for coating

Directions

  1. Sift the flour, baking powder, salt and mace together in a medium bowl and set aside.
  2. In a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, mix the 9 ounces sugar and lard at low speed, until homogenous, about 1 minute. Stir together the evaporated milk and water.
  3. Add the flour mixture to sugar mixture in three additions, each time alternating with the milk mix. After each addition, mix on low speed until just combined and scrape the sides of the bowl. The dough will be very sticky, like wet cookie dough.
  4. Transfer the dough to a clean bowl, press plastic wrap directly onto the dough’s surface to cover, and refrigerate at least 1 hour (or up to 24 hours).
  5. Using a deep fryer or a heavy pan, heat at least 2 inches of the lard or shortening to 370 F. If you’re not using a deep fryer with a built-in thermostat, check the temperature using a candy or deep-fry thermometer.
  6. The dough is on the sticky side, so don’t be afraid to use enough flour to avoid it sticking to the generously floured work surface or the cutter. Using floured hands, gently press the dough into a round about 1-inch thick. Dust the top of the dough with flour, then use a floured rolling pin to roll the dough to about ½-inch thick. Dip a 3-inch doughnut cutter into flour and then cut out as many rounds as you can, dipping the cutter into the flour before each cut. Fold and re-roll the dough to make extra doughnuts and cut again. You may want to refrigerate it for a few minutes to make it easier to roll. Do not re-roll a third time as this will result in tough doughnuts.
  7. Shake any excess flour off the doughnuts before carefully adding them to the hot fat a few at a time, taking care not to crowd them. Once the doughnuts float, fry for about 60 seconds per side or until deep golden brown on both sides. Drain on paper towels. Cool on a rack. Toss with granulated or powdered sugar while still warm.

Notes

In addition to 30 minutes prep time, allow 1 hour for the dough to rest. Cooking time is two minutes per batch and will depend on how big your pot is. For a medium-sized pot that has room for only four at a time, the cooking time will be about 15 minutes.

Main photo: One of the Salvation Army “Sallies,” as the female volunteers were called, and a soldier. Credit: Courtesy of the Salvation Army

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Date and Nut Bread baked in cans. Credit: Nancy Zaslavsky

I’m holding a well-worn and yellowed 3-by-5-inch, lined recipe card for Date and Nut Bread baked in cans as my mind wanders back to the New Jersey kitchen of my childhood.

I’m about 10, and Mom and I are tying our aprons in the yellow-print wallpapered kitchen with vertical knotty pine planks that go a little more than halfway up the walls. As the two of us gather ingredients from the pantry and put them on the speckled Formica countertop, the black, wall-mounted, rotary-dial telephone rings. I rush to answer in my most grown up voice, “Hello, this is Nancy,” and wait for a response through the LI6-2489J party line. It’s my aunt with the recipe we are about to tackle. I hand the receiver to my mom so she can write everything down clearly, in her distinct script. In my excitement, I’m hoping a neighbor doesn’t cut in wanting to use the line.

A tradition born of necessity

It’s the late 1950s, but ever since World War II, when metals were in short supply, people became used to recycling tin cans rather than buying specialty loaf pans to make quick breads. The easy breads are popular because yeast and kneading aren’t required — only baking soda or powder is necessary for them to rise — and they’re cake-like, thanks to the addition of sugar.

First, we empty out the pile of baking sheets and odd pans stored in the oven before my mom preheats it to 350 F. She tells me to get a wooden cutting board and snip three-quarters of the dates into little pieces with scissors. Back then, a box of Dromedary-brand dates held 8 ounces, so I have an arithmetic problem to conquer as well as a messy, sticky job ahead. I take a seat at the kitchen table by a window and get to work.

By the time I finish cutting dates, everything else is ready to get stirred together, spooned into tin cans and popped in the hot oven. An hour later, the cans are placed on cooling racks, the house smells like heaven, and the bread’s unbearably long cooling-down period begins. Because one of the breads doesn’t slide out of its can easily this time, Mom removes the bottom of the can using a can opener, and gently pushes the dense bread out to cool thoroughly.

To get things moving along, I take the silver brick of Philadelphia cream cheese from the refrigerator to soften. I also grab a jar of homemade blackberry jam and stab a knife into the paraffin layer, wiggling it free, trying my hardest to remove it in one clean chunk.

Finally, Mom cuts one moist loaf into round slices with a serrated knife. My mouth is salivating as the family gathers for tastes.

Because I worked so hard, I get part of the prized top that puffs up from the can like a muffin mushroom; it’s crunchy and chewy at the same time, with an unctuously sticky center. Cream cheese glides on and a dab of jam gilds the lily.

This recipe makes a darker, moister bread than the similar, defunct canned Crosse & Blackwell or Thomas’s or Chock Full ‘O Nuts coffeehouse walnut-raisin versions. Other similar recipes from the 1950s use brown sugar, and some call for molasses.

Date and Nut Bread Baked in Cans

Makes 2 loaves

Ingredients

6 ounces pitted dates

Date and nut bread. Credit: Nancy Zaslavsky

Date and nut bread. Credit: Nancy Zaslavsky

1 teaspoon baking soda

¾ cup sugar

¾ cup warm water

1 large egg

1¾ cups all-purpose, unbleached flour

¼ teaspoon salt

¾ cup chopped walnuts

3 tablespoons melted butter

2 used 14- to 15-ounce cans, cleaned and paper labels removed

Cream cheese, for serving

Directions

1. Preheat the oven to 350 F.

2. Using scissors, snip the dates into small pieces (about the size of the walnut pieces) over a medium bowl.

3. Mix in the baking soda and sugar, and then pour in the water to soak the dates.

4. Beat the egg in a small bowl. Stir the egg, flour, salt, nuts and 1 tablespoon of the melted butter into the soaking dates.

5. Being careful of any sharp edges, generously grease the cans using the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter and a pastry brush. Fill the cans a bit more than three-quarters full with thick batter. Tap the cans to rid them of air pockets.

6. Place the cans upright on a sheet pan. Bake 1 hour on the oven’s center rack.

7. Remove to a cooling rack. When the cans are cool enough to handle, give them a shake. The warm bread should slide out; if they are stubborn, remove the can bottoms with a can opener and push on the flat (bottom) end. Cool another hour. Date and Nut Bread tastes best at room temperature.

8. Slice into rounds (a serrated knife helps) and serve with cream cheese.

Main photo: Date and Nut Bread baked in cans. Credit: Nancy Zaslavsky

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