With popiah skin, the trick is to control the dough, says Michael Ker, a third-generation popiah maker in Singapore. He has a grapefruit-sized ball of the soft, sticky dough in his left hand, and he’s “flipping” it, bouncing it in his palm so that it wobbles and stretches but always stays stuck to his fingers.
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In front of him is a round, flat, electric skillet — the kind you see crepe vendors using at street fairs — and when the skillet is nice and hot, Ker uses the flipping motion to smear a thin, perfectly round circle of dough onto the surface, then he bounces the dough, still in his hand, like a yo-yo, so that it hits the skillet in just a few places, filling in any holes and thin spots. After just a couple of seconds the circle has cooked through.
Across the table, a handful of Ker’s family members — cousins, aunts, and uncles — top the wrappers with lettuce, slices of hard-boiled egg, a sweet and savory mix of cooked carrot and jicama and boiled shrimp, then roll it all up together. “It’s like a Singaporean burrito,” he jokes.
Adapting across Asia
Popiah was born in Fujian Province in China and spread across Asia as Fujianese merchants emigrated to places like Taiwan, Malaysia, Thailand, and, of course, Singapore. In each place, the wrap became a kind of fusion dish that incorporated flavors and ingredients popular in its new home. Some are served fresh, as traditional Singaporean popiah are, while other are made thin and deep-fried, like spring rolls — in Singapore, these are known as popiah goreng.
Ker’s family business, Kway Guan Huat Original Joo Chiat Popiah, was started in the 1930s when Ker’s grandfather, Quek Tren Wen, immigrated to Singapore. At first, Quek just made the wrappers to sell to home cooks, but when he married Tan Ah Poh, a local woman from the Peranakan community (a group made up of the descendants of immigrants who have married locals), she began to make a traditional local filling to put in the wrappers. The couple taught their children to help them, and their popiah business is now the oldest and most respected in the country.
The founder’s children still run their business out of the original location, a large storefront in the Joo Chiat neighborhood on Singapore’s east coast. Every morning, teams of relatives gather in the large kitchen in the back of the building to make the fermented, wheat-based dough for the skins and shred the vegetables for the fillings. They also make the small, deep-fried pastry shells that are the base for the traditional Singaporean dish kueh pie tee — a treat filled with the same cooked vegetable mixture as popiah.
Ready for the next generation
In the front of the store, Ker Cheng Lye, Ker’s father, weighs out stacks of popiah skins and wraps them up for shoppers who stop by to pick up all of the components of the popiah so that they can assemble them at home. Many families buy enough ingredients to make fresh popiah one day and also make popiah goreng with the leftovers the following day.
The shop is particularly busy around Tomb Sweeping Holiday, when people like to make popiah as an offering for their ancestors, and during Chinese New Year, when wrapping popiah symbolizes wrapping up wealth. “When you wrap a popiah and you put the fillings in, you must not be greedy,” explains Ker. “If you are greedy, and the skin tears, it’s not a good sign.”
Ker, 40, has been making popiah since his parents taught him to work with the dough when he was 10, and in the next few years he will begin to take over the business from his parents, aunts, and uncles.
“We are planning to pass the business to Michael,” says Vicky Quek, one of his aunts. “You see, we’re all getting old, and he knows the situation of the family: If no one from the third generation takes over, we have to close the door. So he expressed the desire to carry on. He is trying to organize a team — a young, third-generation team — to run the show.” She and his father are mentoring Ker, teaching him all the skills that he will need to carry on the family’s recipes and traditions. Quek anticipates handing the reins over in two to three years. But that won’t mean that the older generation will retire completely. “We will continue to support them and lend a hand,” she says, reassuringly.
Main photo: Popiah was born in China but has spread across Asia, each country adding its own flavors and ingredients. Credit: Courtesy of StrEat.
I am a farmers market fiend.
The ability to “eat local” is glorious for a gastronome, and late summer abounds with gifts of heirloom tomatoes, juicy melons and colorful squashes. Farmers markets boast the most succulent produce, hands down, and I discover some newfangled specimen each season. Giving your food dollars to local farmers nourishes businesses, and supporting regional agriculture preserves land and protects biodiversity. And it just feels good to commune with similar spirits in the commons about something as fundamental as food.
Yet amid baskets of blueberries lie mountains of misinformation: Farmers market fiction is as copious as the produce, folklore fueled by junk science. Below are five myths you’re better off ignoring so you can make the best choices for your health and our planet.
Eating local is the best thing you can do for the environment
Local goodies have fewer food miles, as they travel a shorter distance to your plate than food crossing the globe. But you can’t conclude automatically that your local apple has a smaller carbon footprint than the imported one at the store. Economies of scale matter, as does mode of transport; millions of apples arriving by ship often have fewer emissions per unit than thousands traversing by truck. Paramount is how food is produced: A seminal study estimates that production contributes 83% of greenhouse gas emissions compared to only 11 percent for transportation. In other words, what you eat is the biggest contributor to climate change, not where you shop. Since raising animals requires intensive inputs (like water, food, fuel and land) and many produce methane, a potent greenhouse gas, the best thing you can do to protect the planet is eat less meat.
Local vegetables and fruits are more nutritious
Although soil can impact nutritional composition (like selenium), and species genotype also plays a role, any given plant is what it is. All apples, for example, provide vitamin C, fiber, water and phytochemicals: How produce is picked, transported, stored and prepared impacts nutrient content more significantly than where it’s grown. For instance, a carrot picked at its peak, flash frozen on site, stored in your freezer, then steamed briefly for supper can have more beta-carotene than one plucked days later, transported by truck, and which has sat at the local market in the heat, brought home, and resided in your fridge until you ate it who knows when.
Local seafood is more sustainable
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Most people don’t consume enough seafood for optimum health, but choosing fish is complex. Many local species have been overfished to the point of extinction, and those from nearby waterways may even be more contaminated with mercury or other toxins. How seafood is caught also makes a difference, as some methods lead to copious food waste discarded as bycatch.
For these reasons and others, farmed fish (aquaculture) can be the most environmentally sound option. There are myriad issues to consider when determining what seafood is most sustainable and nutritious; downloading a science-based app can help you make an informed choice.
Local food is safer
The life cycle chain from farm to fork is often shorter and more transparent within regional systems, which can aid in identifying sources of outbreaks. Yet there are no conclusive data that farmers markets are safer, and local systems can lack the quality control of larger outfits with tighter regulations. Wares sitting in hot temperatures are a bacterial breeding ground if improperly stored, too. Moreover, farmers markets are replete with raw products sold under the pretense of health — though the Food and Drug Administration reflects scientific consensus showing that unpasteurized foods carry a far greater risk of food-borne illness.
Farmers markets are cheaper
Although you can find terrific bargains, farmers market prices are generally comparable to or higher than other shopping spots — and the exorbitant price of organic local foods even makes me gasp. Meals made with high-quality ingredients are magnificent, and carry a matching price tag. Yet I and others who scour farmers markets like a kid in a candy shop are fortunate, as we have the time, money and opportunity to do so. Studies show that supermarkets and big box stores, in contrast, feed people with less expense and effort, critically important for those struggling to get supper on the table.
Local foods are increasingly available, making it easier than ever to support all the good things they represent. While not a panacea, local markets will doubtless play a delicious role in solving today’s complex food problems — and they already do in the developing world. If you’re not yet wandering through your vibrant farmers market, there’s no better time to titillate your senses with the season’s best. Grab your bag, ditch the myths, and take pleasure in food that tastes better than any other.
Main photo: Fresh mushrooms and herbs at Borough Market in London. Credit: Copyright 2016 P.K. Newby
At long last, cherry tomatoes are here, pay dirt for every ghastly love apple we’ve had to eat out of season. Whether Italian heirlooms or American hybrids, Ciliegini or Principe Borghese, Sun Golds or Black Pearls, Sugar Snacks or Honeydrops, these babies are tomato candy. What the best of them have that the Beefsteaks and other big boys of backyard gardens and farmers markets often fail to deliver is the sharp acid sweetness that nature intended for their breed.
I like to eat them out of hand immediately after plucking from their umbilical vine, still warm and with the faint taste of dirt clinging to their skin. But as any gardener knows, they grow fast and furiously. When August rolls around and they are ripening on their trusses at the rate of Romans taking to the autostrada for their summer holiday, it’s time for one of Italy’s most endearing, and speediest, little sauces: pomodori scoppiati (pummidori scattarisciati in the vernacular of southern Puglia) or “exploded tomatoes.”
Not Your Classic Sauce Tomato
The beauty of this homey sauce is that you can cook the tomatoes whole without bothering to peel or cut them first, a custom that originated with poor agricultural workers in the Salento who had little time for preparing food after a long day toiling in the fields. What they did have were their own patches of land where they planted tiny, intensely sweet pomodorini, typically the type called pachino or the dwarf pomodorini appesi al filo (“tomatoes hanging in row”) that grow in compact clusters like grapes. No other cherry tomatoes I know of come close to the startling sweetness of those two Italian varieties, but in season, our North American varieties can be awfully good. My favorite is the Sun Gold, which is rapidly becoming the most popular cherry tomato of all time, according to the Burpee seed people, and has become ubiquitous at local farmstands.
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Restaurant chefs will love the following recipe for its sexy name, and home cooks will appreciate that there is barely anything to do save toss the little tomatoes in a pan with onion and good olive oil and an herb or two. The sauce, which the Italians would call a condimento, is made for multiple purposes: to accompany friselle, the hardtack biscuit that the Pugliesi eat dampened and rehydrated; for topping pasta or serving alongside meat or fish; or as a foundation for other dishes. Like the Italians, you ought not worry about the skins and seeds. When I asked the locals if they sieved the sauce to remove them, they laughed. “Only Americans think tomatoes grow without seeds,” a vegetable seller told me. “In Puglia they leave the skins on because the tomatoes are cooked when they’re very ripe and the skin is thin,” said a friend. “And besides, the skins contains the color and the goodness of the ripe tomato and give lovely body to the sauce.” Here is the recipe, adapted for the American kitchen.
Pomodori Scoppiati (‘Exploded’ Cherry Tomato Sauce)
Prep time: 1 minute
Cooking time: Approximately 15 minutes
Total time: About 16 minutes
Yield: About 2 1/2 cups
2 1/2 pounds good and ripe cherry tomatoes
1/4 cup genuine extra virgin olive oil
1 fresh onion, 1 small red onion or 2 large shallots, finely sliced and chopped
1 handful whole fresh basil leaves
Large pinch of dried oregano
Fresh hot pepper to taste (optional)
Sea salt to taste
1. Remove stems from the tomatoes and wash and dry them.
2. Select an ample, heavy-bottomed skillet with a tight-fitting lid. Warm the olive oil in the pan over medium-low heat (do not overheat so as to preserve the flavor and nutrients). Stir in the onion or shallot and sauté until transparent, 2-3 minutes.
3. Add the tomatoes, basil and oregano, as well as the hot pepper if you are using it. Increase the heat to medium. Simmer until all the tomatoes have burst, about 10 minutes. Remove the cover and simmer over medium-low heat until the tomatoes are completely collapsed, pressing down on them with a potato masher or the back of a wooden spoon to release their juices. Continue to cook to evaporate the juices and thicken the sauce, about 5 minutes. Season with salt.
Note: The tomatoes should be a suitable fresh cherry variety of the season (I have yet to taste a grape tomato than can compare), whether red, orange or yellow, and they should be good and ripe. Two and a half cups is enough to sauce 1 pound of fresh or dried pasta that has been timed to cook just after the sauce is done. As important for good results as using the right tomato is starting out with genuine extra virgin olive oil. Keep in mind that true extra virgin is not a mere cooking oil but a flavor-packed and nutrient-filled fruit juice.
Main photo: Fresh tagliatelle with pomodori scoppiati at Le Comari di Farfa, Castelnuovo di Farfa, Rieti. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales
You love summer but not when it is uncomfortably hot. For relief, you could jump into the pool. Or, you could cut a thick slice of watermelon and let the sweet juices cool you down. Even better, you could fill a tall glass with a watermelon cocktail made with watermelon ice cubes and straight-from-the-freezer vodka and settle into the chaise lounge. You stir the ice cubes. Bits of watermelon juice break free. The crystal clear vodka turns pink. You sip, stir and eat a watermelon ice cube and suddenly you are not overheated any longer. Now, you are cool and happy.
Summertime and the livin’ is easy
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August is a good month for watermelon. They grow quickly in the heat of the sun, producing fat, heavy fruit loaded with sweetness.
At the farmers market I was always told to use a hand to thump on the melon. When the sound was deep and resonant, the melon was ripe, ready to eat. If there is a farmer you frequent at your neighborhood market, ask for advice about a good melon that’s ready to eat.
Prices for watermelon vary greatly. At Asian and Latin markets, watermelon can sell for as little as 10 cents a pound. At upscale supermarkets and farmers markets, the prices can be significantly higher.
A melon is delicious at room temperature or ice cold. I like to chill the melon overnight in the refrigerator. Of course, the easiest way to eat watermelon is to use a sharp knife to cut out a thick slice.
But when I was in Zurich recently I met Olivier Rais, a talented chef who runs the bistro Rive Gauche in the iconic hotel Baur au Lac across the street from Lake Geneva. He had just returned from working with Tal Ronnen, the celebrated chef who created Crossroads Kitchen, an upscale Los Angeles restaurant devoted to vegan cuisine.
Rais made several vegan dishes for me to taste, one of which was a watermelon-gazpacho served in a glass.
I love watermelon but had never thought of extracting the juice. When I replicated his gazpacho at home, I had watermelon juice left over. Deciding to experiment, I reduced the juice in a sauce pan over a low flame. Once the juice cooled, I poured it into a mini-ice cube tray.
That night I added the ice cubes to vodka that we keep in the freezer. I dropped in an espresso spoon, settled into a chair and stirred my drink. After a few sips, I realized that I had stumbled onto an easy-to-make, deliciously refreshing cocktail. Summer’s perfect drink.
Serve the cocktail with an espresso or small spoon. One of the pleasures of the drink is stirring the ice cubes. As the ice cubes melt, the watermelon juice infuses the vodka. The mellow sweetness takes the edge off the vodka.
As you stir, the ice cubes crater and reduce by half. Use the spoon to scoop up the icy bits. In an effervescent moment, the softened ice cubes dissolve like pop rocks in your mouth.
Use any size plastic ice cube tray. The mini-trays that make 1” square ice cubes work well because the ice cubes melt easily. Use only unflavored premium vodka, and for non-alcoholic drinks, add the ice cubes to glasses of carbonated water or lemonade.
Prep time: 30 minutes
Freezer time: 1 hour or overnight depending on the temperature of the freezer
Total time: 1 hour 30 minutes or overnight and 30 minutes
Yield: 4 servings
1 (3-pound) watermelon, washed
8 ounces unflavored premium vodka
1. Place the vodka bottle in the freezer the night before serving.
2. Using a sharp knife, remove the rind from the watermelon. Discard.
3. Cut the melon into chunks, removing any seeds.
4. Place a food mill or a fine mesh strainer over a non-reactive bowl.
5. Press the watermelon chunks through the food mill or strainer, capturing all the juice in the bowl. Discard any pulp and seeds.
6. Pour the juice into a sauce pan over low heat. Reduce volume by 30%. Remove from stove. Allow to cool.
7. Pour the reduced juice into the ice cube tray.
8. Place into freezer.
9. Just before serving, pour 1½ ounces ice cold vodka into each glass. Place 5 to 6 ice cubes into each glass.
10. Serve with an espresso or small spoon.
Main photo: Watermelon Surprise, watermelon ice cubes in a vodka cocktail. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Latt
Many ancient sweeteners are long forgotten, overtaken by the simple, clean taste of granulated sugar. Take for instance, date syrup. Also called date molasses, melasse de datte, rub, dibs or silvan, date syrup has a long, storied history for many millennia in the Levant, Ancient Persia and throughout the Middle East.
I make sure my pantry is stocked with date syrup before the fall Jewish holidays. Its history alone isn’t enough to earn it a place in my top shelf, but its taste and new meaning give it high status.
How to use date syrup
Date syrup can be used, spoon-for-spoon, like molasses, although it’s not as sulphury or bitter. It is easy to bake with and even easier to drizzle on foods. Last of the watermelon and feta salads? Drizzle date syrup over them. Having avocado toast? Drizzle date syrup on top. Want a new sweetener in your yogurt bowl? Drizzle date syrup all over it. Want something new on your peanut butter sandwich? Drizzle date syrup across the spread.
It’s easy to find — look for date syrup online or at Middle Eastern grocery stores.
The unique taste of date syrup
Date syrup is a bit sweeter than agave nectar, yet less sweet and powerful than the strongest honey. The flavor has a dark, complex edge. It’s rich, handsome and oh-so-sexy on your taste buds. When paired with a lighter sweetener like granulated sugar, it’s an undertone, like blackstrap molasses, but without as much earthiness — and no traces of bitterness.
Why use date syrup at the New Year? What about honey?
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I hear the honey rumblings coming, so listen up. I love honey. I write about it, I eat it and I cook with it. One of my teenage daughters even interned at a local honey maker and apiary this summer. A wide variety of honeys will be on my table with apples this year, and every year. But at the Jewish New Year table, I often look for a new food as a tasty way to embrace the new. Year after year, date syrup is always, and I mean always, new to someone at the table.
Dates are a ritual Jewish New Year’s food
Dates are also one of the ritual foods in a Sephardic and Mizrachi Rosh Hashanah feast, a seder with culinary symbols, so it feels natural on the table. Ripe dates, wrinkled and nonperishable, are called tamar. (Yes, like my name’s root). The word is related to the Hebrew verb to consume or finish. The hope is that our enemies will be “finished.”
But given the domestic climate in this election year, I will not be offering this prayer at my table. I want to broaden the sense of hopefulness at Rosh Hashanah. We have plenty of other days to worry about harshness. So, instead of the Sephardic or Mizrachi prayer, when I serve and eat dates and date syrup, I will hope for a world without any reason to have enemies, where tolerance reigns.
Two new, symbolic reasons to add date syrup to the table
The food is deserving of its place. Its natural complexity is held together with a deep sweetness, without harshness on the tongue. That’s one heck of a real life wish on that spoon. Sweet and hopeful, complex and real, date syrup is more than delicious. It mirrors the best reality of an actual life, not a purified dream.
Date syrup is also a tangible evidence of human ingenuity. I think it’s awesome to share something so simple and yet so clever at the New Year’s table. Ingenuity is fascinating and part of its definition is newness. Ideas and inspiration can come from anywhere. The genius of the human mind is coming up with something unique out of those ideas and inspirations. It’s not simple. It’s not the white sugar of thinking. It’s the date syrup.
Here are a few recipes for using date syrup.
Date Syrup and Carrot Muffins
The magic of date syrup transforms these muffins from simple to complex with a single abracadabra! Tender and rich in both flavor and texture, they are studded with the earthy sweetness of carrots and a few chunks of dates that together up the “healthy” ante. Great with coffee or tea, these are tasty treats from am to pm, weekday or weekend, holiday or everyday.
Prep time: 20 minutes
Cook time: 22 minutes
Preheat the oven to 375 F. Spray an 18-cup muffin tin with nonstick vegetable oil or canola oil spray (see Kitchen Tips).
In a large mixing bowl, sift the flour, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, cardamom, ginger and salt.
In separate bowl, combine the eggs, sugar, date syrup, olive oil, and vanilla bean paste and mix with a spoon until fully combined and bubbly.
Add the flour mixture and mix just to combine. Stir in the carrots and chopped dates.
Scoop the mixture into the muffin cups, filling each cup almost to the top (a little more than 1/4 cup of batter each). Bake for 12 to 13 minutes, and rotate the muffin tin back to front. Bake for 8 to 9 minutes longer, or until springy when touched lightly, and a cake tester or toothpick inserted into a muffin comes out clean with perhaps a few moist crumbs. Cool in the pan for 3 to 5 minutes. Then carefully transfer them to a baking rack to finish cooling.
- If you don’t have an 18-cup muffin tin, use a 12-cup tin and a 6-cup tin, or two partially filled 12-cup tins.
- Swap the tins between the bottom and top oven racks about halfway through baking, rotating them from back to front as described in step 5 above.
Almond, Banana and Date Syrup Smoothie
2 very ripe small or 1 large banana, peeled, cut into 1-inch pieces and frozen
2 1/2 cups almond milk
1/4 cup smooth almond butter
1 tablespoon date syrup (silan)
1/2 teaspoon vanilla bean paste or pure vanilla extract
4 large ice cubes
Combine the frozen bananas, almond milk, almond butter, date syrup, vanilla and ice cubes in a blender and process until completely smooth. Pour into glasses and serve immediately.
Main photo: Dates and date syrup. Credit: Copyright 2016 Tami Weiser
Cooks have long been travelers, moving from royal court to papal conclave, and Austrian-born Max Beyer is a great example of this restless spirit. Although still in his 20s, he has been executive chef of the Viking River Cruises ship Heimdal for two years now: a seven-day-a week, 12-hour-a-day job. He heads the kitchen of a boat that sails the Rhône River from Lyon, the gastronomic capital of France, down to Avignon, capital of medieval popes.
Max began in the family restaurant in Linz in the valley of the river Danube. “It was simple cooking, schnitzel, roast pork, that kind of thing. Grandma baked plum cake and strudel at the weekend, and I always helped. In Austria, we all know the basic pastries; they form part of so many of our dishes.”
After leaving school, Max followed an apprenticeship of both school and practical work, ending in the kitchen of a 50-year-old star chef. “He had 35 years more experience than me,” says Max. “It was amazing what he knew.”
The secret to shopping
On the Heimdal, Max guides an 11-member kitchen staff in providing three meals a day and constant snacks for 180 guests. A more gastronomic route could hardly be imagined, but how do you transfer such specialties as the pink pralines and the “rosette” dried sausages of Lyon, or the candied apricots and oranges of Provence, or the goat cheeses of the nearby Loire valley to the tiny galley kitchen of a large river boat? “You must know how to shop,” says Max, and his round face beams.
“We’ll go to the market, we’ll see some good things,” he declares, and thus ensues a deeply gastronomic afternoon. This proves to be no ordinary expedition. Les Halles de Lyon de Paul Bocuse is a covered market renowned throughout France for its more than 50 retailers clustered in aisles beneath a soaring roof. Chef Bocuse, who is often known as “l’Empereur,” had much to do with its development in the heart of Lyon city. “These are all artisan producers,” explains Max. “Restaurateurs shop here, but local residents drop by to collect their supper too. Everyone enjoys the market.”
From pork to cheese stands
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Nearly half of the merchants specialize in pork — Lyon is one of the sausage capitals of France, and it features dozens, hundreds probably, of versions of air-dried “saucissons” of raw, ground pork. Max goes into conference with the seller, who is clearly a friend. Half a dozen varied firm, dry sausages are plucked from the overhanging racks. Max pinches them: “We want them firm, but not too dried out, either” he says. He takes a sniff: “These seem just right.” In the chilled case below are ranged pigs’ ears, sweetbreads, tripe, pigs’ tails. Max casts a wistful glance but this is not ship’s fare.
On to the cheese stand and another huddled discussion. No question about it, cheese is my favorite food, and this display of 50 or more different cheeses makes me sigh. I used to live in Burgundy, not far north of Lyon, and the cheese display makes me sigh nostalgic. “Let’s have some goat cheeses,” says Max. “Valençay is shaped like a pyramid, and the St. Maur has been rolled in vegetable ashes; they both taste different. Then there’s the blue Roquefort that everyone wants, though I personally would go for Fourme d’Ambert or perhaps Bleu d’Auvergne at half the price.” I nod in agreement.
Challenges and chocolate cake
Back on the ship, Max lugs his purchases to his miniscule galley. The restricted space is used day and night, organized following the classic guidelines established by Escoffier more than a century ago: saucier (who is also sous-chef), entremettier (vegetables and smaller side dishes such as soufflés and crêpes), garde-manger (salads and cold kitchen) and dishwashers — “they have my admiration,” comments Max. “We all help each other. Last week I was peeling asparagus with the rest of them.”
Cooking on a ship
I ask about the problems of cooking on the move. “Let’s call them challenges,” says Max. “Just this morning the water was cut off, so we cooked with bottled water.”
Cooking is just the beginning of Max’s responsibilities. He keeps in close touch with guests, touring the dining rooms at each meal and keeping an eye on service. He gives a cooking class too, whipping up a popular recipe for chocolate lava cake one afternoon. Some brisk work is involved, and Max proves to have the gift of the gab. “You know, my grandma used to use a hand whisk, but faster!”
Anne Willan’s trip on the Viking Heimdal was a gift from Viking River Cruises to celebrate the 50th anniversary of her marriage to Mark Cherniavsky.
Main photo: While on the move, executive chef Max Beyer of the Viking river boat Heimdal takes regular visits to local markets. Credit: Copyright 2016 Miguel Altamirano
I was crowned queen of my family’s kitchen before I was 13. I loved to cook and bake, and I always left a mess in the kitchen. Lila, my red-haired, 17-year-old daughter — an endless well of wit and sarcasm — bakes every day. She particularly loves to leave the mess for me.
When I was a teenager, I did a demonstration of baking bread for my public speaking class — in straight-up TV cooking-show style. I brought in a selection of doughs at various stages of development. As I slapped and kneaded, my classmates oohed. As I sliced through the crisp crust of the finished loaf, they aahed. I had no cribnotes, no recipe by my side. After class, I shoved the leftover doughs onto the top shelf of my locker and raced off to class. By 4 p.m. the smell of yeast was wafting down the hall. Dough was oozing out the vents of my locker and, inside, had poured onto my books and gym clothes. I wore those clothes with pride, knowing I’d shared my love of baking.
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My home kitchen sometimes reminds me of that locker: fragrant, messy and amusing. Even before I went to culinary school and started cooking seriously, I cooked every day. Lila learned to cook by living with me. I give her free rein in the kitchen whenever she wants it, and I offer advice (she sometimes listens). We get to do some quality obsessing together about baking, like binge watching “The Great British Baking Show.“
Then one day she blew me away.
Lila wanted to make a cookie that was crisp on the outside and soft on the inside, which may not sound difficult but Lila is a vegan. Baking delicious vegan food — so that the end product tastes good, and has wonderful texture — is no mean feat. She went right at it while I was out catering. No advice, no book, no nothing.
By the time I got home, there was a pile of dishes and I was none too happy. I grimaced and sighed and did her dishes still in my stained whites. She knew I was displeased, and was reduced to tears. I saw the cookies she had made. I sat down, listened to her explain what she had done, and tasted her cookies.
Lila had reverse engineered one hell of a cookie. Really, it’s a terrific cookie, not an aw-I-am-your-mom-isn’t-that-cute-terrific cookie.
She explained how she made it. She wanted the crumb to be tight but not dense. So she used a blend of all-purpose flour with the lightening power of cornstarch. She wanted coconut to play a supporting role that could stand up to the strong, vivid citrus flavor of lemons, yet not overpower them. So she added coconut water — not coconut milk — as the liquid. It gave the cookie a little body. Then she chose baking powder — and plenty of it — to give it pouf without much spread. The result is a bakery-worthy treat, easy to make and truly delicious.
I couldn’t be prouder — and I hope she’s as proud of herself as I was that day in high school and I told her I would do her dishes as long as she kept innovating and learning. I smiled, complimented her again, and ate another cookie. Ah, the power of baking rises again.
Lila’s Vegan Lemon Coconut Cookies
Preheat oven to 350 F. Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper and set aside.
In a mixing bowl, sift together the flour, sugar, cornstarch, baking powder and salt.
Add the lemon juice and zest, coconut water and vanilla bean paste, and stir just to combine. Add melted coconut oil and stir to combine.
Using a 2-tablespoon scoop or a spoon, scoop out the dough and shape into balls. Drop the cookie balls in the sugar and gently roll to coat. Place on the prepared baking sheet about 1 1/2 inches apart. Place in the oven and bake for 10 minutes or until the cookies are crispy on the outside and not raw on the inside, but still soft, and not brown beyond the edges.
Main photo: My 17-year-old daughter created a vegan cookie that is lemony with a hint of coconut; crisp on the outside and chewy on the inside. Credit: Copyright 2016 TheWeiserKitchen
At one time, if I wanted a handful of airy, pearl-sugar-encrusted chouquettes, I’d have to either scrimp and save for a trip to France or break down and make these sweets myself.
For centuries these petite, round pastries have been a mainstay of French bakeries and patisseries. Like clockwork, each day bakers tumble a dozen or so soft chouquettes into small paper bags and, handing over the baked goods, send hungry but happy customers on their way. Simple yet satisfying, chouquettes have long served as an afternoon snack or a means of tiding over famished French diners until dinnertime.
In recent months I started to notice this beloved treat appearing in bakeries and shops in my New York City neighborhood. Piled high on trays inside glass cases or displayed in wicker baskets, as they are in France, chouquettes have begun to insinuate their way into international markets and hearts.
Like many newcomers to the chouquette, I originally mistook it for a French take on the American doughnut hole. Because the two were comparable in size and shape, I assumed they would also have a similar taste. One bite of the chouquette’s soft, mildly sweet and eggy dough and its crunchy sugar topping, and all comparisons to that greasy, occasionally gooey confection ended.
Chouquettes born during the Renaissance
Unlike doughnuts, which are a relatively modern creation, chouquettes date back to Renaissance France. Historians point to the 16th century and a chef, a man known as Panterelli, whom Catherine de Medici had brought with her to France, as the inventor of the first chouquette.
Panterelli had crafted an unusual dough that consisted of flour, water, eggs and butter. Although it lacked such leavening agents as yeast, baking powder or baking soda, the dough still rose in a hot oven. This resulted from its high moisture content, which, when heated, produced steam that, in turn, caused the pastry to swell. Note that his dough, or pâte, is not to be confused with puff pastry, which contains layers of buttery dough and, as a result, has a flaky texture.
In the 18th century, French bakers began shaping this pâte into tiny buns that, after baking, resembled little cabbages. The French word for “cabbage” is choux. Pair that with Panterelli’s pâte and you have the classic dough for chouquettes and assortment of other desserts, pâte a choux.
During the 19th century, the renowned Parisian chef Marie-Antoine Carême tweaked this recipe yet again. It is his take on pâte a choux that I enjoy today in my neighborhood chouquettes.
While I appreciate the convenience of walking a few blocks to fetch a bag of fresh chouquettes, I continue to bake my own, too. Quick and simple to make, they always dazzle my friends and family. Then again, who wouldn’t be impressed by a platter of homemade, pearl-sugar-studded French pastries?
A different kind of dough
Pâte a choux is the rare dough that is cooked before being baked. To make a batch of chouquettes, I first melt butter in a saucepan with water, sugar and salt. To this I add flour. I then stir the ingredients together until a soft, malleable dough forms. The eggs are the final addition to the saucepan and make the dough wet and a bit sticky. This moisture is what gives chouquettes their light consistency.
After being spooned onto parchment paper and decorated with pearl sugar, the chouquettes are baked until puffy and golden brown. If, after being removed from the oven, the pint-sized treats collapse, I just put them back in the hot oven for a few more minutes.
Because chouquettes are hollow inside, they can be filled with an array of ingredients, such as custard, chocolate or jam. I, however, am a purist and prefer to leave them as they are. I love them most when they’ve been adorned with those chunky, white sugar crystals and, if I’m feeling really adventurous, a smidgen of ground cinnamon.
Prep time: 10 minutes
Bake time: 20 to 25 minutes
Total time: 35 minutes
Yield: 3 dozen
For the dough:
1 cup water
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
1/8 teaspoon salt
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 cup all-purpose flour
4 large eggs, at room temperature
For the topping:
1 egg yolk
1 teaspoon water
2/3 cup pearl sugar
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
Preheat the oven to 425 F. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper and set aside.
Place the water, sugar, salt and butter in a small saucepan and heat over medium. Stir the ingredients together until the butter has melted.
Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the flour. Mix until a soft, malleable dough has formed.
Add the eggs one at a time, stirring briskly with each addition until the eggs are completely incorporated. When finished, the dough will be sticky.
Using a tablespoon or a small disher that holds roughly 1 tablespoon, scoop out and place equal portions of dough on the parchment-lined baking sheets. Leave about 1 inch between each chouquette.
In a small bowl whisk together the egg yolk and water. In another small bowl mix the pearl sugar with the ground cinnamon.
Brush the tops of the chouquettes with egg wash, then sprinkle cinnamon sugar over top of each.
Bake for 20 to 25 minutes or until the chouquettes are puffed up, golden brown and dry in appearance. Remove them from the oven and cool for 1 to 2 minutes before serving.
Note: When stored in an airtight container, chouquettes will keep for up to three days. However, they are best when consumed on the day they’re baked.
Main image: Cinnamon chouquettes. Credit: Copyright 2016 Kathy Hunt