Articles

Celery Root’s Beauty Lies In Its Delicate Flavor Image

Celeriac looks like Hannibal Lecter’s lunch. A pale and ghostly cerebellum with tangled dreadlocks, it is never going to win any beauty prizes. Prepossessing, it is not. Little wonder many shoppers give it a wide berth as it singularly fails to bear any resemblance to its slender green cousin and has the sort of looks only a mother vegetable could love.

Yet celery and celeriac are essentially the same plant, both descendants of wild celery. Plant breeding and cultivation from the 17th century onward, however, took them in different directions. Celery was destined to be sought after for its crisp, sweet stalks; celeriac for the large swollen base half-buried in the ground like a forgotten cannonball.

Over the centuries, horticulturalists succeeded in turning a tiny root into a gnarled ball of intense but delicate celery flavor and fragrance. Despite these excellent qualities, celeriac has never really hit the big time. Still overlooked by many shoppers, it is an omission to our vegetable repertoire that is gradually being rectified.

 The French, however, have long known better. Celeriac remoulade is one of the great classic salad dishes across La Manche. The crunchy, mustardy slaw strikes the right balance between creaminess and acidity, and is a distinguished partner to cold meats and sausages. You would never know this elegant hors d’oeuvre derives from such an ungainly start in life.

The many ways to use celeriac

Never ones to shirk a kitchen challenge, however, the French became skilled at hacking their way through the knotted roots and convoluted rhino-thick exterior in order not to waste large chunks of good flesh. However, user-friendly varieties have come onto the market in recent years that are larger and smoother and much easier to peel.

If eating it part-cooked or blanched in a salad (raw celeriac is underwhelming), try adding celery salt to the vinaigrette or give the basic dressing of mayonnaise, cream and mustard a bit more zip with capers and/or gherkins.

A touch of orange zest can add some warmth to a velvety soup of celeriac and leek or fennel. Or, you could scatter with toasted hazelnuts or add a dollop of parsley-walnut pesto for interesting contrast. Think of celeriac as you would potatoes: serve deep-fried celeriac chips with mustard or garlic mayonnaise; roast chunks along with a joint of beef, pork or lamb; or boil or steam and mash them with plenty of butter for a purée.

Modern vegetarian cooks have welcomed the ability of celeriac to soak up flavors, which makes it excellent to roast in the oven; use in gratins or as a filling for pies and tarts; and mix with mushrooms (especially ceps), nuts, tomatoes or cheese. Dauphinoise made with celeriac and potato makes a wonderful combination, or try celeriac rosti for a change. It also carries well the pungency of fresh spices such as ginger, chili, coriander and black pepper.

The paler it is the fresher celeriac will be, but the thick knobbly skin will keep the interior smelling pleasingly of aniseed for quite a long time until used. At its best between September and April, celeriac should be saved from the compost heap. It may be a knob-head, but it deserves better.

Kitchen Notes:

  • If you can’t use the celeriac once cut, drop the pieces into acidulated water to stop discoloration. Browning doesn’t affect the taste, but the color can look rather unappetizing.
  • To store, refrigerate in an unsealed plastic bag. It will keep for several weeks.
  • To cut celeriac safely, slice about a half-inch (1 centimeter) off the top and bottom with a sharp knife. Roll onto a flat edge and either cut off the skin (as you would a pineapple) or use a potato peeler. Expect to discard about a quarter of the celeriac by the time you have done this.

cut celeriac

cut celeriac
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The simple makings for celeriac and celery soup. Credit: Clarissa Hyman

Celeriac and Celery Soup

Add a little orange zest or a handful of toasted hazelnuts for extra interest, if desired.

Prep time: 20 minutes

Cook time: 40 minutes

Total time: 60 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

4 tablespoon butter

1 onion, thinly sliced

1 leek, thinly sliced (don’t include the dark green part or it will spoil the look of the marble-white soup)

About 1 pound peeled and chopped celeriac

Salt

About 1 pound sliced celery (reserve a few leaves)

4 cups chicken or vegetable stock

1 dollop of heavy cream

White pepper

Chopped parsley (optional)

Directions

1. Heat the butter in a saucepan and add the onion and leek. Cook gently for 10 minutes, then add the celeriac, celery and a little salt.

2. Cover and cook for another 10 minutes but don’t let the mixture brown. Add the stock, bring to a boil and simmer until the vegetables are tender (about 15 minutes).

3. Purée the soup, then reheat gently. Add the cream and season with salt and white pepper to taste. Adorn with a few reserved celery leaves and/or parsley.

Celeriac Remoulade (French Slaw)

Adjust the proportions of the dressing to your own taste; some like a piquant taste, others prefer just a hint of mustard.

Prep time: 20 minutes

Cook time: 10 minutes

Total time: 30 minutes

Yield: 6 servings

Ingredients

1 medium celeriac

Juice of 1 lemon

3 to 4 tablespoons Dijon mustard

2/3 cup mayonnaise

1 tablespoon heavy cream or crème frâiche

Chopped parsley

1 to 2 tablespoons capers (optional)

Salt and black pepper

Directions

1. Peel the celeriac; either grate to a medium size or cut into matchsticks. Plunge into a pan of boiling water, then drain and cool.

2. Mix the rest of the ingredients in a serving bowls. Season to taste and mix in the celeriac.

Celeriac and Potato Gratin

Prep time: 30 minutes

Cook time: 1 hour, 30 minutes

Total time: 2 hours

Yield: 6 servings

Ingredients

1 cup heavy cream

1/3 cup whole milk

2 garlic cloves, crushed

Salt and black pepper

About 15 ounces peeled potatoes, cut into thin slices

About 15 ounces peeled celeriac, cut into thin slices about the same size as the potatoes

2 to 3 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese

 

Directions

1. Put the cream, milk and garlic in a saucepan and bring to the boil. Season with salt and pepper and set aside.

2. Arrange the potatoes and celeriac in overlapping layers in a gratin dish. Cover it with the cream mixture, tipping the dish to get an even distribution.

3. Cover with foil and bake for about an hour or until the vegetables are tender. Tip: While the dish is baking, use a spatula to press the vegetables into the cream once or twice so they don’t dry out.

4. Remove the foil, sprinkle with the Parmesan and bake for another 10 minutes until the top is nicely browned.

Main photo: Celeriac is a knobby, bulbous root vegetable. Credit: Clarissa Hyman

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Turmeric Candy: Give A Gift of Health & Drink to It Too Image

By now, you’ve probably heard about turmeric: the yellow-orange rhizome native to South Asia recognized for its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.

The ingredient in Indian and southeast Asian cuisines that colors curries and other dishes gold, turmeric (Curcuma longa) is a staple in Ayurvedic and traditional Chinese medicines. Studies suggest that the rhizome may be helpful in treating osteoarthritis, viral and bacterial infections, stomach ulcers, cancer and other conditions.

I’ve known of turmeric’s usefulness in treating the common cold since 2008, when I stumbled upon sugar-coated slices of the rhizome at the central market in Hoi An, Vietnam. I’d been nursing a scratchy throat and runny nose for three chilly, drizzly days. When a vendor heard me cough, she pushed a bag of candied turmeric in my direction and motioned toward my throat and red eyes. I ate several slices then and there and intermittently snacked on the turmeric for the rest of the day. By morning, my sore throat was gone. By day two, I felt good as new.

A Not-So-Common Cure for the Common Cold

Over the last few years I’ve incorporated turmeric into my daily diet, usually combined with green tea, ginger and lemongrass in the form of a powerhouse infusion. I drink the refreshing, slightly spicy and astringent elixir iced, as a preventive. I haven’t suffered a cold since late 2011.

So this Christmas, I’m giving friends the gift of good health in the form of jars of candied turmeric slices (and making extra for myself to carry with me on travels). The lovely orange flesh of the rhizome has a slight bitterness that proves a wonderful foil for a coating of white sugar. To increase the snack’s healthfulness, I add black pepper – believed to increase the body’s ability to absorb turmeric’s beneficial ingredient, curcumin to the simple syrup in which I poach thin slices of turmeric.

An Unexpected Extra That You Can Tip Your Glass To

At the end, I’m left with a bonus: a beautiful, astringent-bitter simple syrup that makes a great flavoring for cocktails.

Like ginger, turmeric peels most easily with the edge of a spoon. The rhizome stains anything it touches (wear an apron) and will leave a dark orange, tacky goo on your spoon and knife. To remove it and the color that’s left on your hands, cutting board and other kitchen surfaces, wash with a kitchen cream cleanser.

Look for fresh turmeric at Whole Foods and other specialty grocery stores, gourmet markets and southeast Asian and Indian groceries.

Candied Turmeric

Prep time: 15 to 20 minutes to peel and slice the turmeric plus up to 6 hours to dry the turmeric slices.

Cook time: 20 to 25 minutes

Yield: 3/4 to 1 cup candied turmeric slices

Thin slices are paramount here, as is allowing ample time for your turmeric to dry after poaching. Rush this step and you’ll end up with unattractive clumps of sugar and rhizome.

Ingredients

3/4 pound fresh turmeric

1 cup water

3/4 cup sugar, plus 1/3 cup for tossing the poached turmeric

Directions

Prepping the turmeric:

1. Break any small knobs off of the main turmeric root and use the edge of a spoon to peel the skin off of all of the rhizome pieces. Use a paring knife to peel away any stubborn bits of skin.

2. Rinse the peeled turmeric and slice it as thinly as possible into coins and strips.

To candy the turmeric: 

1. In a medium saucepan, heat the water. Add 3/4 cup sugar and stir to dissolve.

2. Add the turmeric, stir to submerge all of the pieces and bring the syrup to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer briskly until the turmeric slices are tender but not limp, about 25 minutes.

3. Drain the turmeric in a colander or sieve placed over a bowl, then transfer the turmeric slices to a cooling rack set over a baking sheet or piece of foil or parchment paper. (Set the turmeric syrup aside to cool and use to flavor sparkling water and cocktails.) Arrange the turmeric slices on the rack so that they do not overlap and place in a well-ventilated spot (underneath a ceiling fan is ideal). Allow the turmeric to dry until the slices are slightly tacky but no longer wet, at least 3 hours and as many as 6 hours, depending on the temperature and ventilation in the room.

4. Toss the turmeric slices in 1/3 cup of sugar until coated. (Don’t throw away leftover sugar; it’s delicious in tea.) Store the turmeric in a clean, dry jar or other container. If you live in a hot, humid climate you may need to refrigerate it to keep the sugar from dissolving.

The Orangutang

Yield: 1 cocktail

Syrup and orange juice make this pretty and potent bourbon cocktail a little bit sweet. Campari and turmeric add a nice astringent-bitter edge; lemon juice adds a hint of tartness.

Ingredients

2 ounces bourbon

1 ounce Campari

1 ounce orange juice

1 tablespoon (1/2 ounce) turmeric simply syrup (see Candied Turmeric recipe, above)

2 teaspoons lemon juice

Orange slice, for serving

Directions

Pour all of the ingredients except for the orange slice into a cocktail shaker. Add a handful of ice. Shake and pour the cocktail and ice into a short glass. Garnish the rim of the glass with the orange slice.

Main photo: Candied turmeric provides a gift for friends — and for yourself. The simple syrup left over from the candied turmeric recipe makes a wonderful flavoring for cocktails. Credit: David Hagerman

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Making the Most of Yolks and Egg Whites in Cookies Image

Just in time for holiday gatherings and good any time for parties and special occasions, here are two easy-to-make recipes that yield enough delicious cookies to delight a hungry crowd. Used in tandem, the pound cake and financier cookie recipes also solve the classic baker’s dilemma: When recipes call only for egg yolks, what to do with the whites? And vice versa.

When they were young, our sons loved pound cake. The recipe I developed called for egg yolks, which meant the whites went to waste. That always bothered me. Recently, I needed to make a large number of cookies for a party. I decided adapting the pound cake recipe would make a unique cookie.

But that left me with my old problem. What to do with the egg whites? No one in our house eats egg white omelets so I looked through a notebook where I keep recipe ideas. In my notes about a Parisian bakery (I neglected to write down the name) was a description of a scrumptious financier. Like a cartoon character, the light blub turned on over my head. Financiers are made with egg whites. The pound cake needs yolks. Viola! A marriage made in the oven.

Making the cookies in silicone molds adds to the ease of preparation. No need to brush on melted butter and dust with flour because the molds are nonstick. They require a minimum amount of washing before being used again to make another round of delicious cookies.

Silicone molds are available online and in specialty cook stores such as Sur La Table and Williams-Sonoma as well as in the cookware sections of major department stores.

Best served at room temperature, the cookies will stay fresh for a week if refrigerated in airtight containers.

Lemon Zest Pound Cake Cookies

Pound cakes get their name because the classic recipe calls for a pound each of butter, flour, eggs and sugar. Adapting the recipe for use in a small mold transforms the cake into a light-as-air crisp cookie, with many of the qualities of an Italian dipping biscotti. The lemon zest contrasts nicely with the buttery richness of the cookies.

If you want to use larger molds, the yield will be lower and the cookies will need to be baked longer. Because ovens vary, I would suggest starting with a test batch of three or four cookies to determine the baking time.

The dough has a thickened consistency not unlike Play-Doh. Use your fingers to spread the dough into the corners of the individual molds.

Yield: 126 cookies made in molds 1-inch by 1 3/4 inch

Preparation Time: 30 minutes

Baking Time: 20-25 minutes

Ingredients

1 1/2 cups sweet butter

6 egg yolks

2 whole eggs

2 cups white sugar

1 teaspoon finely chopped lemon zest

1 1/2  teaspoons baking powder

4 cups all-purpose white flour

2 tablespoons powdered sugar

Directions

1. Heat oven to 350 F.

2. In a saucepan melt butter over a low flame. Set aside to cool.

3. In a large bowl, whisk together the egg yolks, whole eggs and sugar to a custardy consistency.

4. Add lemon zest to the egg mixture.

5. Slowly whisk in the melted, room temperature sweet butter.

6. Add baking powder and mix well.

7. Sprinkle 1/4 cup flour into the bowl. Whisk to mix well. Continue adding 1/4 cup at a time and blending until all the flour is incorporated into the egg-butter-sugar dough.

8. Into each 1-inch by 1 3/4-inch mold, place 1 1/2 teaspoons of dough. Using your fingers press down to shape the dough into each mold.

9. Put the molds onto a cookie sheet and place in the preheated oven.

10. Rotate the molds every 10 minutes for even browning.

11. The cookies will bake in 20-25 minutes. But because ovens vary, begin checking after 10 minutes. If the tops are lightly browned, they are probably done.

12. Remove the molds from the oven and place on a wire rack for 10 minutes. Remove each cookie and place on the wire rack.

13. When cooled to room temperature place the cookies in an airtight container and refrigerate for later use.

14. Just before serving, dust the tops with powdered sugar. Serve by themselves with coffee or tea, or with fresh berries, whipped cream or ice cream.

Variations

  • Add 1/4 cup finely ground roasted almonds into the batter.
  • Add 1/4 cup finely ground chopped dark chocolate or chocolate chips into the batter.
  • Blend together 1/4 cup finely ground roasted almonds with 1 teaspoon white sugar. Halfway through baking, dust the tops of the cookies with the almond-sugar mixture.

latt-christmascookies2

latt-christmascookies2
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Egg yolks and whites. Credit: David Latt

Orange Glazed Hazelnut Financiers

Financiers are often prepared with ground almonds. Any nut can be used. I prefer roasted hazelnuts.

Using larger sized molds will result in fewer cookies that need to be baked longer.

Unlike the thick pound cake dough, the financiers batter is thin and is best placed into the individual molds using a spouted container like a measuring cup. Because ovens are different, I would suggest making a test batch of three or four cookies to determine the baking time.

Yield: 90 cookies made in molds 1-inch by 1 3/4-inch

Preparation Time: 30 minutes

Baking Time: 30 minutes

Ingredients

3/4 cup sweet butter

1 cup, plus 2 tablespoons whole raw hazelnuts

1/2 cup all-purpose white flour

1 3/4 cups confectioners or powdered sugar

Pinch sea salt

Pinch black pepper

6 egg whites

1/4 cup orange simple syrup (see recipe below)

Directions

1. Heat oven to 450 F.

2. Melt butter and set aside to cool.

3. Place hazelnuts on a baking sheet and roast in the oven 2-3 minutes. Remove. Wrap the hot hazelnuts in a damp, cloth kitchen towel. Rub the towel against the hazelnuts to remove the skins. Measure out 2 tablespoons of the roasted hazelnuts. Cut each hazelnut into quarters and reserve.

4. Using a food processor, grind the remaining 1 cup of roasted hazelnuts into a fine meal. Keep an eye on the grind so the hazelnuts don’t over process and become a nut butter.

5. In a large bowl, use a whisk to blend together the hazelnuts, flour, sugar, sea salt and black pepper.

6. Add the egg whites and mix well.

7. Whisk in the cooled, melted butter.

8. Transfer the batter to a spouted measuring cup and fill each mold with batter.

9. In the middle of each financier place a quarter piece of roasted hazelnut on top, cut side up.

10. Clean off any batter that may have spilled onto the outside of the mold.

11. Drizzle 2-3 drops of orange simple syrup on top of each financier.

12. Put the mold onto a cookie sheet and place in the preheated oven for 5 minutes. Rotate the cookie sheet for even browning. Reduce the temperature to 400 F and continue baking another 5 minutes.

13. Turn off the oven.

14. Rotate the cookie sheet and leave the financiers in the oven 10 minutes or until they are lightly browned on top and firm to the touch. Making a test batch to determine how long they should remain in the oven at this juncture is helpful. Leaving the financiers in the cooling oven longer will create a crisper cookie.

15. Remove from the oven and place the mold on a wire rack. Do not remove the financiers from their molds until the mold has cooled to the touch. Then carefully remove each cookie and allow them to continue cooling on the wire rack.

The financiers can be stored in the refrigerator in an airtight container for up to a week.

Serve at room temperature with coffee or tea, with fresh berries, whipped cream or ice cream.

Orange Simple Syrup

Before making the syrup, the peel is boiled three times to remove the orange’s astringent oils.

Yield: ¼ cup

Time: 30 minutes

Ingredients

1/2 cup orange peel with rind, finely chopped

6 1/4 cups water

1/4 cup white sugar

Directions

1. Place the chopped orange peel and two cups of water into a saucepan.

2. Bring to a boil. Remove the pan from the stove top and strain the orange peel pieces in a fine metal strainer. Repeat the process two additional times.

3. Place the orange peel, sugar and 1/4 cup water into the saucepan. Do not stir the mixture. On a low flame, bring the mixture to a low simmer.

4. After the water dissolves the sugar, continue simmering the syrup 10 minutes. To test for doneness, dip a small spoon into the liquid. If the back of the spoon comes out coated, the syrup is done.

5. Use a fine metal strainer to separate the syrup from the candied orange peel. The orange peel can be saved for later use in a refrigerated airtight container.

6. Transfer the syrup into a spouted bottle or use a small espresso-sized spoon to drizzle the orange flavoring onto the financiers.

Main photo: Lemon Zest Pound Cake Cookies. Credit:David Latt

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A Fruitcake Everyone Will Love (Really!) Image

I never understood the aversion to fruitcake until someone sent me one of those clunkers that the humorist Russell Baker said he deplored, dating from a Christmas dinner when a small piece he dropped shattered his right foot. The offending object “had been in my grandmother’s possession since 1880,” he joked in his 1983 essay “Fruitcakes Are Forever.” “Fruitcake is the only food durable enough to become a family heirloom.”

What gives it a bad rap is the reliance, especially by commercial bakeries, on glacéed fruits, those sugar-embalmed specimens that no longer have a whiff of fruit in them. They’re fine if you want your holiday dessert to glow like a Christmas tree, but they’re all wrong if it’s flavor you are after. Good fruitcake is another story, one that evokes Christmas probably more than any other sweet. Imagine capturing the essence of the Sicilian wine grape Zibibbo, Montagnoli figs and Montmorency cherries in one bite: The results can be intoxicating. If the fruit tastes good, well, then, the cake will taste good, too. As the Italians say, “Good with good makes good.”

A taste of tradition

As it happens, I cut my teeth on English fruitcake. Properly made, it is a lovely affair — ambrosial, aromatic and dense like its cousin plum pudding, sans suet. Those who have the patience for cutting up all the fruits and lining the pans properly to prevent the batter from sticking will find it well worth doing once a year — not least because it has a certain romance to it, like English leather, a vintage Rolls or aged Port. It has a patina. I adore its rich and spicy flavors, moist crumb and liquorous cheer. I love the cool glaze that frosts the surface and melts the moment it greets my warm tongue.

There is simply nothing more evocative of the winter holidays, especially those I spent living in Scotland when we left our doors open and neighbors stopped by with gifts of homemade baked goods or marmalades and stayed for a tipple and a chat. My landlord, who produced really good British fare by faithfully following the recipes in “Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management,” made an especially grand version that was covered with a layer of almond paste and, over that, royal icing. The cake was baked in August and left to cure under rum-soaked wraps until the time came to decorate it for Christmas. It recalled for me the flavors of my mother’s gâteau d’uva, described in Ada Boni’s Italian classic “Il Talismano della Felicità,” the only cookbook in our house, as “a famous English fruitcake.”

The key ingredients

I was compelled to make my mother’s cake to see how it would compare to the British original. The recipe she sent me listed dried fruit. But what kind? Living as I did then on paltry wages, I couldn’t make a long-distance call to New York for more details — I didn’t even have a phone — but I was sure she avoided the embalmed sort. I went to a pricey greengrocer on Edinburgh’s Princes Street where the Queen’s steward was reputed to order fruits when the royals were in residence. There, I spent a week’s wages on the best dried fruits I could find. The result? My fruitcake exceeded even my mother’s.

Fruitcakes fall into three basic categories: dark, light and white, depending upon the proportion of dark sugar or molasses used to sweeten the cake. This version is dark. Old English recipes call for brandy, but I use a combination of vermouth, sherry and brandy. Any of them will do — as will the Scots’ preference, whiskey, or Gran Marnier, as Carole Walter, author of the classic “Great Cakes” (Ballantine Books), suggests.

Perhaps the most important ingredient, however, is time. When I asked Walter how long fruitcake should age, she said, “Making fruitcake well before Christmas makes it easier to slice because, as the cake matures, the ingredients hold together better.” But don’t worry: Susan Purdy, author of the definitive “A Piece of Cake” (Atheneum), offered tips, which you will find in the recipe, for accelerating the process, so you can make the cake in time to shatter your holiday crowd’s expectations (rather than their feet).

Fruit for fruitcake

Fruit for fruitcake
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Dried fruit assortment. Credit: Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Christmas Fruitcake

You will need two or three days to make this cake. I’ve listed my favorite combination of dried fruits, but you can substitute others if you like. The important thing is to use high-quality fruit that is still moist and naturally colorful as well as good liquor. Also important are sturdy aluminum pans, never dark metal or glass pans, which absorb too much heat and cause the cake bottom to burn easily. The classic shape is round, but my preference is to use two loaf pans along with muffin tins for extra batter, ensuring that I will have one cake to serve immediately, another under moist wraps when that one runs out, and some muffin-sized mini-cakes, which make lovely gifts. (For a single, round cake, use an angel-food cake form.)

Prep time: 2 hours plus 3 days to 2 weeks for curing

Cooking time: 2 hours

Total time: 4 hours plus at least 3 days curing time

Yield: Two large loaves (12 to 15 servings per loaf) plus several muffins, or one tube cake (24 to 30 servings total) plus two baby loaves or several muffins, as directed.

Ingredients

For the cake:

1 pound mixed, moist dried fruits, such as pear, peach, apricot and banana

1 pound moist dried figs

7/8 pound golden raisins

1/8 pound dried cherries

1/8 pound candied ginger, chopped

1/2 cup good sweet vermouth, such as Vermouth di Torino, plus more as needed

1/2 cup good medium-dry sherry, such as Oloroso, plus more as needed

1 cup unsalted butter at room temperature, plus extra for greasing pan

2 cups packed dark brown sugar

6 eggs

1/2 cup currant jelly

1/2 cup molasses

Zest and juice of 1 navel orange

Zest and juice of 1 medium lemon

3 cups sifted unbleached all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1/2 teaspoon ground mace

1/2 teaspoon ground cloves

1/4 cup Cognac or good brandy, plus extra for soaking cheesecloth

1/2 pound skinned hazelnuts, lightly toasted and coarsely chopped

For the icing:

2/3 cup sifted confectioner’s sugar (plus more if needed for consistency)

2 teaspoons cold water

Zest of 1 orange or lemon plus 1 teaspoon of its juice

Special equipment: Two 9-by-5-by-3-inch loaf pans plus several muffin cups, or one 10-by-4-inch tube pan plus two baby loaf pans or several muffin cups; wax paper or baking parchment; paper muffin liners; enough cheesecloth for three layers of wrapping; heavy aluminum foil; airtight cake tins the same dimensions as your cakes.

Directions

For the cake:

1. A day or two before baking the cakes, use scissors to cut the mixed dried fruits and figs into very small pieces. In a large ceramic mixing bowl, combine the pieces with the raisins, cherries, ginger, vermouth and sherry. Cover securely with plastic wrap and set out to macerate until the fruits are well softened, using a rubber spatula to mix the ingredients now and then. To accelerate the process, you can cover the bowl and heat it in a microwave, 30 seconds at a time for 2 to 3 minutes total, until the fruit has softened. Add a few tablespoons more vermouth and sherry to moisten if it still seems dry.

2. Place a large baking pan filled with water on the floor of your oven and preheat to 300 F.

3. Grease your baking pans with butter. Cut wax paper or parchment to line the inside walls of the loaf pans or tube pan completely.

4. In a large mixing bowl, cream the butter and sugar together until fluffy. Beat in the eggs one at a time. Blend in the jelly, molasses and orange and lemon zest and juices.

5. Sift the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt and spices into the creamed butter mixture alternately with 1/4 cup Cognac or brandy. Blend in the soaked, marinated fruits and their liquor, followed by the hazelnuts.

6. Turn the batter into the baking pans, filling them 2/3 full. Tap pans on the counter firmly to close up any air pockets. Mound the batter somewhat in the center. Bake on the middle oven rack until a tester comes out clean and the cakes begin to come away from the sides of the pan, about 2 hours. (The small loaf pans or cupcakes will cook more quickly, so check them well in advance.) If necessary, cover cakes with foil for the last half hour to prevent the surface from burning.

7. Set the pans on cake racks and let them settle for 30 minutes, then ease them out of the pans onto a work surface. Carefully remove the paper. Invert and cool completely, right side up.

8. Cut cheesecloth in pieces large enough to wrap each cake in three layers, then soak the pieces thoroughly in brandy or Cognac. To accelerate the curing, poke holes throughout the cakes with thin metal skewers to enable them to soak up the spirits quickly. Wrap the cakes in the cheesecloth well, then wrap them again in several layers of heavy foil and seal tightly. Place each in a heavy-duty plastic bag with a secure seal. Store the loaves in an airtight tin for at least three days or, ideally, up to two weeks or more; they’ll keep for as long as six months. Check them periodically and brush with more spirits if they seem dry. Store the cakes in a cool, dry place or, in warmer temperatures, place into a refrigerator.

For the icing:

1. Whisk together the confectioner’s sugar, water and orange or lemon zest plus juice in a small bowl to make a smooth and thick but pourable glaze.

2. Lace the glaze over the cake, letting it drip down the sides, and serve. Use a long, serrated bread knife for slicing.

Main photo: Christmas fruitcake, © Julia della Croce 2014. Credit: Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

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Pantry Antipasto To Please A Holiday Crowd Image

“Fresh is best” is usually a good rule to live by. But if you know how to find quality preserved items, a few well-chosen canned foods in your pantry can save the day, especially during the busy holidays.

Healthy food is food that is minimally processed. All the foods’ transformation should happen when you turn it from the raw to the cooked and not at some factory.

When I am unable to pronounce the ingredients listed on the side of a food’s packaging I shiver. When I see the word “natural” on a food package I read “Sh&u8#%g” because it has the same meaning. However, I am not a fanatic or obsessive about food: I can eat crap too. I do so minimally. I don’t always seek out organic, or local, or seasonal, or any other of the environmentally correct buzzwords.

Now and then canned food is just plain convenient. And luckily there are some canned products that are not loaded with chemicals such as taste enhancers or preservatives of one kind or another. If you keep these in your pantry you will always have a delicious, convenient and quick preparation on hand. This is particularly handy during the holidays. On their label you should see only one ingredient list, namely the same one as on the front of the packaging, the food itself. Some might have some citric acid, but that’s OK.

There are four foods that I use in their canned form for a variety of reasons: the food is out of season, I forgot to buy the food, I’m too tired to cook, or it’s a last-minute idea. My five canned go-to foods are chickpeas, tuna, artichoke hearts, tomatoes and pimentos.

In this recipe you’ll use four of those. The idea here is that this is party-quality food, the kind of dish that you could serve to guests and they will comment on its deliciousness. After they do then you can spill the beans, so to speak, and tell them how simple it all is.

Four-Can Antipasto

Yield: 4 servings

Prep time: 15 minutes

Ingredients

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1 large garlic clove, finely chopped

1 15-ounce can organic chickpeas (garbanzo beans), drained and rinsed

4 canned organic artichoke hearts (foundations), drained and quartered

2 tablespoons sliced pimentos

2 1/2 ounces canned yellowfin tuna in olive oil

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Pinch of cayenne pepper

Directions

1. In a sauté pan, heat the olive oil with the garlic over medium heat.

2. When the garlic begins to sizzle add the chickpeas, artichokes and pimentos and cook, stirring, for 5 minutes.

3. Add the tuna, salt, pepper and cayenne, toss a few times and remove from the heat. Serve hot, warm or at room temperature.

Main photo: Four-can antipasto. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

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Seed Swap Revives Organic Tradition For Gardeners Image

When I lived in New York City, I could not keep a single plant alive in my overheated apartment. So imagine my surprise when my husband and I moved to the warm Los Angeles climate and I discovered how easy it is to grow plants — including luscious vegetables — year-round.

Just put them into the ground, water them regularly and watch them grow.

But even as my expertise as backyard gardener grew over the years, I continued to depend on seedlings purchased from my local nursery. Growing vegetables from seeds, I’d heard, could yield good results. But, really, why bother?

Then I got the chance to find out at a seed swap that was taking place in Orange County.

“The idea is to grow vegetables and fruit that are perfectly suited to the local environment,” Sharael Kolberg told me. She is the community liaison for SEEDS Arts and Education, the nonprofit that organized the seed swap in Laguna Beach under the tall shady trees at the Anneliese School.

A new seed library is born

The group of about 100 gardening enthusiasts was also there to celebrate the inauguration of a seed library at the school, with food and Champagne, and a few words from local experts.

Small white boxes that looked like traditional library card drawers were set out on tables and visitors avidly perused the donated seed packets of squash, peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers and more — all organic and non-GMO.

Seed swap in Orange County

Sharael Kolberg, community liaison for SEEDS Arts and Education. Credit: Nicole Gregory

The primary reason to grow food from seeds? “It tastes good!” was Linda Elbert’s answer. A member of Slow Food Orange County, Elbert added that the food is local, fresh and picked when it’s ripe.

“Having seeds could be the difference between living and dying,” said Chris Prelitz of Transition Laguna Beach.

Prelitz, a local environmentalist, said that seed swapping is one way to create sustainable food habits and strengthen community bonds.

In the past, he said, immigrant farmers who had to flee their village for any reason would sew seeds into the lining of their clothing for safe keeping. It was that vital to keep their food supply going.

But as I soon learned, this live-or-die urgency about saving seeds is felt by many people today — though for a different reason.

Protect and save non-GMO seeds

Big agricultural businesses have been promoting and patenting — and forcing farmers to buy — their genetically modified seeds, and this has galvanized environmental activists around the world to protect and save heirloom, organic, non-GMO seeds.

Seed Savers Exchange for example, which began in 1975, offers an online seed swap that “saves and shares the heirloom seeds of our garden heritage, forming a living legacy that can be passed down through generations.”

The San Francisco Seed Library, opened in 2011, allows visitors to check out and donate seeds.

Seed swap in Orange County

Urban gardeners come to celebrate the opening of  a seed swap in Laguna Beach, Calif. Credit: Nicole Gregory

Though most preserve vegetable and fruit seeds, Kew Royal Botanical Gardens near London is dedicated to saving seeds from plants around the world that are under threat of extinction. And the Chicago Botanic Garden has a tall grass prairie seed bank to preserve native species.

The Indian group called Navdana, begun by feminist and activist Dr. Vandana Shiva, has organized more than 100 community seed banks across India to protect biodiversity and to support small farmers.

Concern about the spread of genetically modified seeds caused the Council for Responsible Genetics to create the Safe Seed Pledge. Seed sellers who sign it declare they do not buy or sell genetically engineered seeds.

Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds has signed this pledge, as have more than 100 commercial seed sellers. This is important because in 2005 Monsanto, the primary developer of genetically modified crops, bought the vegetable seed company Seminis, which sells seeds under many brand names.

So it is gardeners and cooks in communities around the country who are actively preserving the health and diversity of organic, non-GMO seeds — and thus our good food.

In some parts of the world, swapping seeds is a tradition that has never stopped.

“When you travel through Italy, you see that each community grows its own produce, and makes its own cheeses, olive oils and meats,” Elbert said. “They all have slightly different soils and climate — there is tremendous diversity. Trading seeds is common among farmers.”

Since I had not brought any seeds to donate for the Orange County seed swap, it didn’t feel right for me to take any from the white drawers set out on the tables, but I was sorely tempted.

Luckily Meg Heisinger, from the Ecology Center in San Juan Capistrano, was on hand to demonstrate how to save seeds of  winter squash. It looked so simple that I now know that I am ready and willing to join the seed swapping movement.

How to save winter squash seeds

  1. Let the squash grow a bit past the ripened stage.
  2. Cut the squash in half and scoop out seeds.
  3. Put the seeds in a strainer and, under running water, gently rub them with a spoon to separate the pulp from the seeds.
  4. Place the seeds on a plate or cookie sheet in a dry, but not-too-sunny area.
  5. Once the seeds have dried, put them into a paper bag or envelope — they can last for about a year.
  6. That’s it. They’ll be ready to plant in the spring for a new crop.

Other seeds that are great for beginners to save include: basil, beans, beets, carrots, chard, eggplant, leeks, lettuce, onions, parsley, peas, peppers, spinach, sunflowers and tomatoes.

For more information, contact:

SEEDS Library of Laguna Beach (by appointment)
Anneliese School, Willowbrook Campus
20062 Laguna Canyon Road
Laguna Beach, CA 92651
(949) 322-9597

Main photo: Seed swap in Laguna Beach, Calif. Credit: Nicole Gregory

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Need A Thoughtful Gift Idea? Try These Cookbooks Image

Shopping for a great Christmas gift once meant hours of driving and parking, but with today’s Internet shopping, it’s easier. Internet shopping can be great for those of us who like to give cookbooks. With so many available titles, there are a few things gift-givers need to know to sort out the well-written quality books from the lesser potential gifts.

Cookbooks are terrific gifts because they can be used every day and often attain heirloom status that leads you to better cooking.

My specialty as a cookbook author is writing cookbooks for home cooks interested in culturally driven cooking that reveals a history or story. My favorites are Italian and Mediterranean cuisines in general. So when I look for cookbooks as gifts, I like to give not the latest trendy cookbook but often older books that I value and that my younger friends might not know. These are books from which I learned. I lament the fact that for all the cookbooks published every year and the popularity of food television and celebrity chefs, I don’t believe people are cooking at home more.

Food television has stimulated people’s interest and tried to turn cooking into entertainment and competition, but I doubt it has gotten them into the kitchen. What will make you a better cook? Buy a good cookbook, not necessarily the one everyone is talking about, and get into the kitchen and follow a recipe, and through trial and error you will learn to be a better cook.

Along with the handful of quality new cookbooks published each year, there are plenty of older, out-of-print ones that are almost bibles. You can find them on the Internet and they’re sometimes cheap. If there is someone who’s cooking you admire, ask them what their favorite cookbook is.

Good cookbooks have several criteria, and having recipes that work flawlessly isn’t one of them. More than meticulously tested recipes, I look for quirkiness, personality, a history, or a story told, perhaps about the cook, the author, the cook’s mother, the culture, or a broad sweep of it all.

When I see the crêpes suzette recipe written in that particular style of the ’60s in Julia Child’s cookbook Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” it’s not merely a delicious recipe. It is also laden with pregnant memories evocative of a whole era, of an entire culture, and a particularly wonderful day when I made it for the first time as a 15-year-old.

Here is a very small collection of older cookbooks from my library that I am fond of even if I don’t cook from them regularly nor would I say you must have them in your library, nor are they the best in my collection. They are simply good books I’ll never get rid of. (The first book is shameless self-promotion, but I actually use my book, too.)

» “A Mediterranean Feast” by Clifford A. Wright (William Morrow, 1999)

» “The Thousand Recipe Chinese Cookbook,” by Gloria Bley Miller (New York: Grosset & Dunlop, 1975)

» “Foods of Long Island,” by Peggy Katalinich, A Newsday Cookbook (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1985)

» “Pasta & Pizza,” by Massimo Alberini, with recipes compiled by Anna Martini; Elisabeth Evans, trans. (New York: St. Martin’s, 1977)

» “French Provincial Cooking,” by Elizabeth David (New York: Harper & Row, 1962)

 Main photo: Cookbooks that make good gifts. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

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Sugar And Spice: Italian Confetti Image

Italians sure like to sugarcoat things. They’ve got a sugarcoated something or other for almost every occasion.

Almonds are covered in a different color of sugar depending on the occasion — white for weddings, green for engagements, silver for 25th anniversaries, blue or pink for christenings and red for graduations.

Pistachios and pine nuts are traditional favorites, too, added to party favors or flower and fruit baskets. Cacao and coffee beans  have been sugarcoated since the time they were introduced into Italy in the 16th century.

Less well known, however, are Italy’s many sugarcoated spices and herbs.

Italian confetti

In Italy, these tiny treats are served after dinner, as palate cleansers, and are also used to decorate certain desserts.

Called confetti in Italy (dragées in France, comfits in England), these sweets are made by sugar panning, a technique that adds a sugar coating, layer by layer. (Panning is also the same method used by the pharmaceutical industry to coat pills. With a slight change in manufacture and sugar composition, it is also the technique for making jellybeans.)

Confetti are made in a panning machine, a device that looks like a cement mixer. A panning machine is a wide-mouthed copper or stainless steel vessel with a diameter that ranges from 3 to 5 feet. The panning machine is mounted at an angle on a shaft and rotates over a low open flame. Sugar syrup is then slowly added to whatever is to be coated, either with a funnel suspended over the pan, or by hand by ladlefuls. As the sweets bounce about in the pan, the sugar spreads and crystallizes in a thin, hard layer. Only a little sugar is added at a time, so the sugar clings closely to the original object’s shape and contours. Sugarcoated fennel and rosemary stay oblong and the coriander and juniper berries retain their round shape.

For a smooth candy coating, sugar syrup is added by hand in small ladlefuls every half-hour or so. When the sugar syrup is added drop by drop from a suspended funnel, a lovely jagged texture is created.

Romanengo, a Genoa confectionary icon since 1780, creates, among its many artisinal sweets, an impossibly delicate cinnamon confetti. Giovanni Battista Romanego, one of the current generation’s five Romanengo brothers, personally hand-snips Ceylon cinnamon bark into thin wisps, then slowly coats them in sugar syrup, drop by drop, over the course of two days. Unlike Romanengo’s sugarcoated fennel or anise seeds, which have a smooth, shiny coating, the cinnamon has a wonderfully magical appearance that looks like tiny storybook-perfect snowflakes.

Stratta, a Turin confectionery shop since 1836, sells traditional Italian sugarcoated fennel seeds, which are given as gifts to new mothers (thought to help with nursing) or at christenings. Stratta’s owner, Adriana Monzeglio, a spice aficionado, has added several exotic new entries, including cardamom, cumin, coriander and rye, to their list of more conventional confetti. One of Stratta’s best-selling innovations is rosemary confetti, with each tiny leaf encased in a delicate green-tinted sugar.

Confetti are used to top struffoli, a Christmas dessert.

Struffoli: Neapolitan Honey Treats (Struffoli in Cestino di Croccante)

From “Dolci: Italy’s Sweets”

Struffoli, traditional Italian Christmas treats, are marble-sized fried dough balls dipped in honey, piled into a mound and topped with colored sugar and candied fruit. They can be fried or baked and make a festive centerpiece just as they are, heaped onto a serving plate or, as ambitious home cooks in Naples do, served in an edible candy dish. Both the candy dish and the stuffoli are fun and easy to make.

Prep time: 20 minutes

Cooking time: 40 minutes

Total time: 60 minutes

Yield: 10 to 12 servings

Ingredients

2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more as needed

5 tablespoons granulated sugar, divided

1 1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/4 teaspoon salt

6 large eggs, separated

4 tablespoons butter, melted

3 tablespoons Cointreau or Limoncello

1 tablespoon vanilla

Zest of 2 lemons

Zest of 1 orange

Sunflower or other vegetable oil for frying

8 ounces honey, about 1 cup

For optional garnish: confetti — tiny, colored, sugarcoated spices — candied cherries, etc.

Directions

1. In a large bowl and using an electric mixer, combine the flour, 3 tablespoons of the sugar, baking soda, salt, 4 whole eggs, 2 yolks, butter, Cointreau, vanilla and the zests until a dough forms.

2. Refrigerate for 30 minutes.

3. Take a small handful of the dough and roll it into a breadstick shape about 3/4 inches in diameter.

4. Cut the dough into hazelnut-sized sections about 1/2 inch thick and then either bake or fry them. (See below for baking instructions.) For frying, fill in a high-sided saucepan with 3 inches of oil and heat over medium-high flame. They will puff up and turn a lovely golden color within seconds. Remove them from the skillet and place them onto a paper towel-lined plate.

5. Repeat with the remaining dough.

6. In a small saucepan combine the honey and the remaining 2 tablespoons of sugar and then heat until runny. Remove from the heat and stir in the fried balls, one small batch at a time, until they are well coated in the honey mixture. Using a slotted spoon remove the coated balls and arrange them in a circle in a shallow bowl. Repeat with the remaining dough balls, adding them to form a tall mound. Pour any remaining honey over the top and decorate with a scattering of colored sugar balls, confetti and candied fruit.

Best if served within 24 hours of making them. The dessert is placed in the center of the table and guests help themselves with their fingers.

Note: If you prefer, you can bake the dough balls. Place the hazelnut-sized dough segments about an inch apart on a well-greased baking sheet and bake at 400 F for about 7 minutes. Turn the balls and bake on the other side for another 6 to 7 minutes or until light golden. They will not be as round or as nicely golden as the fried version, but the taste will be just as stupendous. You may like to try baking half the dough and frying half, giving your struffoli color gradations.

Edible candy dish

Don’t panic, this isn’t hard to do. The candy dish is really just a big blob of almond brittle.

Ingredients

Vegetable or olive oil

1/4 cup corn syrup

2 1/4 cups sugar

2 cups, 7 ounces sliced almonds

Directions

1. Lightly oil a large nonstick cookie sheet. Lightly oil the inside of a large pie pan, shallow bowl or mold.

2. Heat the corn syrup in a heavy bottom saucepan over medium-high heat until warm, then stir in the sugar. At first the sugar just sort of sits there, but it will start to become translucent in about 3 or 4 minutes then turn ivory colored for another 3 minutes or so, and then finally darken and become liquidy.

3. Continue cooking the mixture, stirring occasionally with an oil-coated wooden spoon, until it becomes a rich golden color, about 12 minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in the almonds.

4. Carefully, as the sugar is scorching hot, pour the mixture onto the prepared cookie sheet. Using a rolling pin, gently flatten the mixture and roll it out into a large thin circle, at least 13 inches in diameter. Once it has cooled a little and seems firm, transfer it into the prepared mold.

5. Remove from the mold once it’s completely cool and hardened.

Main photo: Almonds, pine nuts, pistachios, fennel and other herb seeds are coated with sugar to make Italian confetti. Credit: Francine Segan

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