Articles by Kathy Hunt
While the days of bakers standing on street corners, shouting out the familiar “hot cross buns; hot cross buns. One a penny, two a penny … ” rhyme, died long ago, bakeries still fill their display cases with these small, spiced yeast buns. Seeing them glistening in a storefront window is a sure sign that the Lenten and spring seasons have arrived.
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Although most of us associate hot cross buns with Easter, these pastries have been around since pre-Christian times. Archeological evidence indicates that ancient Egyptians made little yeast rolls to give as an offering to the goddess of the moon. For ancient Greeks and Romans, these cakes served as tribute to the goddess of light. The Saxons created tiny, round breads for the goddess of spring. They also receive credit for adding the cross to the design. To them, the cross signified the four seasons.
By the Middle Ages, much of Europe had adopted the custom of baking spiced, raisin- or currant-filled buns for spring festivals and other special events. However, in England, an unusual 16th-century law reduced their prevalence by decreeing that bakeries could only sell “cross buns” for funerals and on Good Friday and Christmas.
Hot cross buns on Good Friday
Over the years, Good Friday became the official day for procuring them. Because they usually went directly from the oven to the customer, historians presume that is why they became known as “hot cross buns.”
Since 1935, La Delice Pastry Shop in New York City has produced and sold hot cross buns for the Lenten season. “We make and put them on display one day before Ash Wednesday so that people can see and get excited about them,” says the in-house baker who goes only by George and who has worked at La Delice since 1976.
Flavored with vanilla, diced candied fruit and raisins, the tender rolls call to mind miniature panettones. Unlike the Italian holiday bread, La Delice’s buns are brushed with a light glaze and then adorned with powdered sugar icing crosses.
These are the buns I remember from my childhood. With their velvety dough and sweet, chewy fruit, these buns always came from a local bakery. When asked why we didn’t bake our own, my mother would claim we were keeping alive a family tradition; even my great-grandmother, who was born in the 1860s, purchased her hot cross buns.
It turns out that my great-grandmother had a good reason for relying upon someone else for her spring baked goods. Prior to the 20th century, scant few recipes for hot cross buns appeared in cookbooks. It seems that almost everyone dropped by a neighborhood bakery to procure a hot cross bun.
What is (or isn’t) magic about these buns?
Other folklore exists for these treats. At one time people believed that, when hung in the kitchen, the buns would bring good luck and thwart house fires. If packed by sailors for voyages, they prevented shipwrecks. When thrust into a mound of corn, they safeguarded against mice and rats.
The magical properties didn’t begin and end with protection. Take a handful of hot cross bun crumbs, mix them with water and supposedly you had a cure-all in a cup. End up with more buns than you can consume? Dry them out in a warm oven and you can keep and eat them all year.
While I can’t attest to any of these tales, I do know that hot cross buns are best consumed on the day they’re made. If you buck tradition and bake your own, you can freeze the un-frosted extras.
Should you need to make them a day in advance, hold off on icing the buns until right before serving. Before decorating, warm the buns in the oven until softened. The same rule applies for frozen buns.
If you want a little diversity with your buns, you can replace the frosting with strips of pastry dough or candied fruit peel. You can also flavor the dough with grated citrus zest, allspice, cinnamon, cloves and/or nutmeg. Some bakers leave out the candied fruit and only feature currants, raisins or other dried fruit. Others leave out the dried fruit and use only candied fruit. The choice is yours.
Hot Cross Buns
Makes 1½ dozen buns
1 package dry active yeast
3 tablespoons warm water
½ cup milk, warmed
½ cup warm water
1 teaspoon salt, plus extra for egg wash
¼ cup sugar
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
2 large eggs, divided
2 cups bread flour
2 cups all-purpose flour
¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
¼ teaspoon allspice
⅓ cup mixture of chopped dried cranberries, cherries and apricots
Grated zest of ½ orange
Canola oil or grapeseed oil
½ cup confectioner’s sugar
2 teaspoons milk
1. Combine the yeast and 3 tablespoons water in the bowl of a stand mixer or in a regular mixing bowl and allow the yeast to dissolve, about 5 minutes.
2. Add the milk, water, salt, sugar, butter, sugar and 1 egg and whisk to combine.
3. Slowly add the bread flour followed by the all-purpose flour and spices, stirring or beating on low until the flour is incorporated. The resulting dough should be moist but not sticky.
4. Using either your hands or the mixer’s dough hook, knead until the dough is smooth and pliable, about 10 minutes.
5. Add the dried fruit and zest and knead again until incorporated.
6. Grease a large bowl with canola or grapeseed oil and place the dough in the bowl. Cover it with plastic wrap, place the bowl in a warm spot and allow it to rise for 90 minutes.
7. Grease two baking sheets and set aside.
8. After the dough has risen, separate it into 18 equal-sized pieces. Roll these into small balls and place them on the greased baking sheets, keeping them 2 inches apart. Cover with plastic wrap and allow the dough balls to rise for an hour.
9. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.
10. In a small bowl, whisk the remaining egg together with 1 teaspoon water and a pinch of salt.
11. Using a sharp knife, slash a cross into the top of each ball. Brush the tops of the balls with the egg wash. Bake until the tops are golden in color and the bottoms sound hollow when tapped, 12 to 15 minutes.
12. As the buns cool slightly on the baking sheets, whisk together the confectioner’s sugar and milk. Using an icing knife or teaspoon, fill in the cross on the top of each bun with the icing. Serve warm.
Top photo: Hot cross buns. Credit: Kathy Hunt
With its gnarled body, fibrous, greenish-pink shoots and coarse, reddish-brown skin, galangal ranks high on my list of peculiar-looking ingredients. Thanks to its sweetly tart and peppery flavor, its piney aroma and the unique tang that it adds to foods, it also snags a top spot on my lineup of favored spices.
Galangal hails from southern China. Its name, though, originates from an Arabic word adapted from the Chinese phrase “ginger of Kau-liang”; this reputedly was an ancient part of Guangdong, near the South China Sea, where the plant grew. By the ninth century, galangal was a popular spice in the Middle East, which is how it garnered its Arabic moniker. Obviously, it had hit its stride even earlier in China.
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A member of the ginger family, galangal possesses hard, moist, yellowish flesh that’s reminiscent of ginger in texture. Like its fellow rhizome, it’s used in fresh, dried and powdered forms. Unlike ginger, dried galangal is employed only as a last resort, when fresh isn’t available. Fortunately, if you can’t track down a fresh chunk in the produce aisle, you can find jars of sliced or minced galangal in the Asian section of many supermarkets.
I first came across fresh galangal at the Ben Thành market in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. There, baskets of the crooked, mauve-tinged stems were on offer at virtually every produce stand.
Had I been traveling solo, I might have written off these odd-looking nubs as plant cuttings or compostable vegetable scraps and thought nothing further of them. Thankfully, my Vietnamese stepfather-in-law, who had accompanied me to the bustling market, filled me in on the exotic edibles.
Galangal a staple in many Asian cuisines
Galangal, he explained, was not just the start of a flowering plant but also a spicy, citrusy seasoning utilized by Vietnamese cooks. After peeling and thinly slicing it, they add it to stir fries and soups.
In addition to its use in Vietnamese cooking, galangal appears in Cambodian, Thai, Indonesian, Malaysian, Southern Chinese and South Indian cuisines. In Cambodia it plays a major role in the herb paste known as kroeung. A distinctly Cambodian condiment, kroeung consists of fresh lemongrass, galangal, turmeric, kaffir lime leaves and garlic. After pounding the ingredients together with a mortar and pestle, cooks spice up curries, soups, stews and the steamed fish dish known as amok tre with this chunky, fragrant paste.
In Indonesia, cooks include it in nasi goreng, or fried rice with meat and vegetables, the fiery meat dish rendang and Javanese curries. Thai cooks feature it in tom kha gai, a velvety soup of chicken, galangal, chilies and coconut milk.
This piquant spice goes well with a variety of foods, including beef, chicken, pork, seafood, chili peppers, cilantro, coconut milk, garlic, lemongrass, lime, Chinese long beans and rice. It adds zing to salads and baked goods as well as to the aforementioned soups, stir fries and curries.
In Southeast Asia galangal goes by many different names. Blue, Laos, Thai and Siamese ginger as well as the Malay term lengkuas all refer to galangal. Keep this in mind the next time that you read over the ingredient list for a Southeast Asian recipe.
Likewise, when shopping at your local Asian market or specialty grocery store, you should take a few things into consideration. When selecting fresh galangal, look for plump flesh and smooth, firm skin. Avoid shriveled, damaged or moldy skin. Choose a young, pinkish root; it will be more tender and manageable. Galangal is, by nature, tough and requires a sharp knife for cutting.
Once you’ve picked your produce, take it home and place it in a plastic bag before refrigerating. The plastic will ensure that it doesn’t dry out. Galangal will keep in the refrigerator for up to one week. It can also be slipped into a plastic, resealable bag and stored in the freezer.
Tart ‘n’ Spicy Shrimp Skewers
1-inch piece galangal, peeled and minced (about 2 tablespoons)
2 red chili peppers, de-seeded and chopped
2 shallots, chopped
5 garlic cloves, chopped
½ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground turmeric
2 teaspoons firmly packed brown sugar
1 tablespoon fish sauce
1 tablespoon lime juice
½ cup coconut milk
2 pounds (16 to 20 count) shrimp, defrosted and peeled
2 limes, quartered, for serving
1. Using a mortar and pestle, mash the galangal, chilies, shallots, garlic, salt, turmeric and brown sugar until a thick paste forms. Spoon the paste into a large bowl.
2. Add the fish sauce, lime juice and coconut milk and whisk together until well-combined.
3. Add the shrimp to the marinade and toss until coated completely. Cover the bowl and refrigerate for a minimum of two hours and maximum of six hours.
4. When you’re ready to cook the shrimp, preheat a charcoal or gas grill on medium-high.
5. Shake the excess marinade off the shrimp and thread them onto metal or bamboo skewers. (Note: If using bamboo skewers, you will need to soak them in water for 30 minutes before skewering the shrimp.)
6. Place a lightly oiled sheet of foil on the grill and lay the shrimp skewers on top of it. Grill the shrimp on one side for 2 minutes. Flip over the skewers and grill on the other side for an additional 2 to 3 minutes, until the shrimp have turned coral in color.
7. Serve hot with wedges of lime.
Top photo: Galangal. Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Piano non troppo
On a cold, dark night on an isolated back road, a writer encounters four strangers in the kitchen of an old, drafty farmhouse. Knives flash. Hot oil splashes. Mayhem ensues.
For days I played out this scenario in my mind: The stress! The terror! The bandages required!
You might guess I was hard at work on a piece of crime fiction. Sadly, you’d be mistaken. This is simply what you do if you have a wildly overactive imagination and a Zester Daily contest winner and her three friends coming to your 1801 farmhouse for a seafood cooking class.
In-home seafood cooking class invites jitters
The contest and class were held in support of my first cookbook, “Fish Market” (Running Press, 2013). Named one of the top 10 cookbooks of 2013 by Weight Watchers, the book had propelled me into lecturing, hosting tastings and teaching classes all around the East Coast. Although I’d become fairly adept at these events, I had no experience with inviting strangers into my home to cook and chat about seafood.
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While my imagination switched into overdrive, grand-prize winner Erica Cheslock, a trained pastry chef from Philadelphia, approached the upcoming class with far more aplomb. “I never win anything, so it was a nice surprise to win a copy of ‘Fish Market,’ then the grand prize! It was quite a treat to be invited to Kathy’s home for a class, and I thought it was brave of her to have four people to her home that she never met,” Cheslock says.
Along with Erica and her mom, Lynn Cheslock, and Erica’s friends, Kelli Bowers and Rachael Sutliff, I invited sustainable lifestyle and food blogger Brande Plotnick, who reviewed “Fish Market” on her Tomato Envy site, and her foodie husband, Rob, to attend the class. If the conversation lagged or participation was lean, I could rely on this engaging duo to jump in and keep the evening moving.
Because I don’t own enough chef’s knives or cutting boards for six or even four, I opted to hold a demonstration class. If desired, the students could pitch in and grind spices, sauté shrimp and sear scallops. What they wouldn’t do was fillet, chop or dice a single ingredient. This greatly cut down the risk of bloodshed.
If the group craved a more relaxing evening, I had a backup plan. They could sit around the kitchen island and enjoy a glass of wine and amuse of homemade smoked trout paté while I talked and my husband, Sean, and I cooked.
With conversation and format covered and potential catastrophes averted, the last item on my list of worries was what to discuss. Because Zester readers tend to be quite food savvy, I had to go beyond the usual how-to-cook-fish class. Eventually I decided upon flavor affinities, looking at what ingredients pair especially well with fish and shellfish.
With a topic finally established, I compiled and printed out the flavor affinities for shrimp, scallops and monkfish. These three would be the featured seafood for the night.
Once I’d picked a theme, choosing the recipes was easy. We would make Spice-Peppercorn Shrimp, Vietnamese Scallop Boat Salads, Saffron and Cinnamon-Scented Monkfish Kebabs and raisin- and pine-nut-studded Moroccan Carrots. All came from “Fish Market” and included an array of tastes and textures.
On class night, I set six places at my kitchen island and draped six flavor affinity handouts over each appetizer plate. I then tied on a fish-adorned apron and paced the kitchen floor, waiting for Erica and the others to arrive.
Here’s the thing about an overactive imagination: Nothing ever turns out as horribly as you envision. In my case, hosting four strangers was not only disaster-free but also a delight.
As a graduate of The Restaurant School at Walnut Hill College, Erica already possessed a wealth of culinary knowledge, but she was attentive and gracious. “Cooking fish takes me a bit out of my comfort zone, just as this trip to an unknown location was out of my comfort zone. The class showed me that there are fish types that I had never heard of and ways to prepare them that are flavorful and creative. I left feeling grateful for the experience and for being able to meet Kathy, Sean, Rob and Brande,” Erica said.
The feeling was mutual. Congenial, inquisitive and insightful, Erica, Lynn, Kelli and Rachael were the ideal students and guests. They helped out when asked and noshed and chatted when assistance wasn’t needed.
Thanks to them and the Zester Daily contest, I am confident I could host other cooking classes, with strangers, in my kitchen again. Who knows? Next time I might even keep my imagination off the guest list.
Top photo: Zester Daily contributor Kathy Hunt, right, talks with cooking class participants, from left, Rachael Sutliff, Erica Cheslock, Lynn Cheslock and Brande Plotnick. Credit: Sean Dippold
A new year invariably means new food-trend predictions. In the past, the culinary prognosticators have called for the year of the pie, doughnut, diminutive portions and fennel pollen.
Some hunches, such as a rising interest in fermented goods and ancient grains, have come true. Others, including a wave of food trucks for dogs, seem to have fallen through.
One 2014 food forecast that I hope hits the mark is the craze for tart flavors. Specifically, I’m rooting for the piquant condiment white balsamic vinegar. Neither a misnomer nor a gimmick, white balsamic vinegar is what its name implies: balsamic vinegar that’s light in flavor and color.
White balsamic vinegar begins in the same manner as dark or black balsamic, with fruity, white Trebbiano grapes from the Emilia-Romagna region of Northern Italy. These grapes are pressed, and the resulting juice or must is then cooked.
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For white balsamic, the juice is pressure cooked; this prohibits caramelization. Aging takes place either in uncharred oak or stainless steel barrels. Unlike dark balsamic, this vinegar ages for no longer than a year. These steps guarantee a fresh, mildly sour fruitiness and amber hue unique to white balsamic vinegar.
To me, white balsamic has all the benefits and none of the drawbacks of its darker relation. Although similar in taste to dark balsamic, it doesn’t overwhelm the flavors of other, more understated ingredients, as dark tends to do. It also doesn’t possess a heavy aftertaste. Instead, it leaves the palate feeling clean and refreshed.
Its light color means it partners well with pale, delicate foods. Chicken, cheese, seafood and fruit are all enhanced but not discolored by white balsamic. As someone who has served countless balsamic vinegar chicken dinners and cringed each time over the drab, dusky meat resting on guests’ plates, white balsamic is an aesthetic dream.
Not only food but also dinnerware benefits from this vinegar’s subtlety. If you want to keep your white platters and bowls looking tidy and elegant even after plating the night’s meal, dress your meats, vegetables and salads with white balsamic.
White balsamic vinegar won’t overpower other ingredients
In Napa, Calif., chef Sam Badolato uses white balsamic for deglazing and in dressings, including a radish one for spinach salad. “Red balsamic would have been too strong for this dressing. I wanted the radish flavor to come through but needed a soft vinegar taste,” says Badolato, who is chef de cuisine at soon-to-open Velo in downtown Napa.
He also features it in desserts. “Over the summer I used it on a strawberry bread pudding. It was a big seller. I’ve added it to the Velo menu as a drizzle with olive oil over ice cream,” he says.
As Badolato indicates, white balsamic vinegar marries well with many of the same foods that dark balsamic does. Apricots, strawberries, tomatoes, green beans, leafy greens, white-fleshed fish, brown butter, honey, mustard, onions and truffle oil make outstanding partners for white balsamic vinegar. Along with salads and desserts, dishes such as grilled halloumi, pan-seared scallops and tomato soup are likewise enhanced by a splash of the sweetly tart condiment.
If 2014 is to be the year of sour, I’m cheering for white balsamic vinegar to reign over this tart taste trend. Delicate yet versatile and packed with flavor, it is a delectable addition to innumerable savory or sweet foods.
Yountville Radish Vinaigrette
Recipe courtesy of Sam Badolato
Makes about 15 ounces
8 ounces radishes
1 ounce fresh garlic
2 ounces white balsamic vinegar
4 ounces extra virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
Place the ingredients in the bowl of a food processor and purée until smooth. Drizzle over a bed of spinach and serve immediately.
Top photo: White balsamic vinegar. Credit: Kathy Hunt
In a season filled with rich, heavy foods and cloying sweets, I like to take a page from European cookbooks and bake a few dozen spiced cookies. Fragrant and peppery treats such as Dutch speculaas, Swedish pepparkakor and Spanish biscochitos provide a welcome break from the usual honeyed confections.
Many spiced cookie recipes date to the Middle Ages, when ingredients such as pepper, cinnamon and cloves were rare and expensive commodities. As a result, the seasonings were used sparingly and for special occasions. That is why you’d encounter them at Christmas and hardly ever else.
Among these confections, the most familiar to me is pfeffernüsse. German for “peppernuts,” the bite-sized, ball-shaped cookies are an age-old Christmas favorite in Germany and German-settled parts of the U.S.
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On Philadelphia’s Germantown Avenue, Bredenbeck’s Bakery makes pfeffernüsse just as Lauren Boyd’s great-grandmother used to bake. Rolled in confectioner’s sugar, the aromatic, half-dollar-sized balls are a holiday standard at the 124-year-old bakery. Over the decades, Bredenbeck’s ambrosial cookies have become such a draw that they are ordered and shipped in festive tins around the country, Boyd says.
“Our pfeffernüsse is made with allspice and a mix of cloves and cinnamon and diced candied fruit. If you’re making the cookies at home, you want to be sure to finely dice the fruit so that it blends in with the dough,” Boyd says.
Although chocked full of luscious ingredients, what Bredenbeck’s pfeffernüsse doesn’t include is its namesake, pepper. The same holds true for many pepper cookie recipes. At one time costly and hard to find, black pepper was often replaced with ginger, cloves and other more commonplace flavorings.
Some, such as the round, stamped, Russian spice cookies pryaniky, evolved into lavishly seasoned goodies. In the ninth century, pryaniky contained rye flour, fruit juice and honey. After the arrival of spices from India, Southeast Asia and the Middle East, the cookie dough was enriched with cloves, anise, black pepper, nutmeg and ginger. What began as a mild biscuit became a scrumptious, well-spiced treat.
St. Nicholas cookies a tribute to the Dutch trade route
Like pryaniky, Dutch speculaas, or St. Nicholas cookies, benefited greatly from the medieval spice trade. Redolent with the rich scents of cardamom, cloves, nutmeg, ginger, mace, white pepper and cinnamon, speculaas served as a testament to just how successful the 17th-century Dutch trade route was.
Speculaas are baked in decorative, wooden molds or shaped into windmills. Usually consumed Dec. 5 — St. Nicholas Eve — and alongside mulled wine and hot cocoa, these crisp, wheat biscuits cap off the traditional Dutch St. Nicholas Eve feast.
The Dutch cookie purportedly gets its name from the Latin word for mirror, speculum. It is thought to refer to the cookie’s mirror image of the embossed baking mold. A beauty to behold, it is even more delightful to bake and eat.
Don’t have a collection of carved molds for pryaniky or speculaas? Then consider creating a batch of crunchy, cut-out pepparkakor. Featured in Astrid Lindgren’s “Pippi Longstocking” tales, this zesty, Swedish cookie dough gets rolled and cut into the shapes of pigs, horned goats, reindeer, bells, stars, hearts and a bearded, gnome-like man known as “Tomte”; think of Tomte as the Swedish version of Santa Claus. Of pepparkakor, “Very Swedish” cookbook author and journalist Annica Triberg says, “Christmas isn’t Christmas in Sweden without ginger biscuits!”
Reminiscent of pfeffernüsse, pepparkakor contain ginger, cinnamon, cardamom, ginger and occasionally cocoa. Often they are decorated with a thin layer of royal icing, which provides a nice balance to the dough’s piquant taste. When rolled into hazelnut-sized balls, these gingery gems are called Swedish peppernuts.
New Mexico’s favorite is biscochito
From Spain comes a small, anise-flavored, cinnamon-dusted, cut-out cookie known as biscochito, or “little biscuit.” Thought to have descended from eighth-century Moorish sugar cakes, biscochitos remain a beloved Spanish Christmas treat.
Buttery yet light, these fleur de lis-shaped cookies have become exceedingly popular in New Mexico. In fact, in 1989, the state made the biscochito its state cookie. Historians believe 16th-century Spanish explorers brought the confection to the new world, where it won fans in Mexico and later enamored the residents of New Mexico.
With a wealth of spiced cookies from which to choose, why not take a break from all those sugary sweets this holiday season and try a palate-pleasing, European-spiced treat?
Swedish Spiced Cookies
Makes about 3 dozen cookies
½ cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
¾ cup firmly packed light brown sugar
3 tablespoons light corn syrup
3 tablespoons water
1½ cups plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour, plus more for rolling the dough
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon cardamom
½ teaspoon ground cloves
¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
Pinch of fine ground black pepper
Confectioner’s sugar for dusting over the cookies (optional)
1. In a large bowl, beat the butter until soft and creamy. Add the sugar, syrup and water and beat until well combined.
2. Whisk together the flour, baking soda, ginger, cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, nutmeg and pepper. Add the flour mixture to the creamed butter and beat until a soft, sticky dough forms.
3. Shape the dough into a ball, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for a minimum of three hours or up to two days.
4. When you’re ready to make the cookies, preheat the oven to 425 F. Line several baking sheets with parchment paper and set aside.
5. Place the dough on a clean, floured work surface. Using a floured rolling pin, roll out the dough to ¼-inch thick.
6. Using cookie cutters, cut out the cookies and place them 1 inch apart on the baking sheets. Bake the cookies for four to six minutes or until golden brown. Allow the cookies to cool slightly before moving them to wire racks.
7. Sprinkle the cookies with confectioner’s sugar if desired and cool completely. Store in an airtight container.
Top photo: Swedish spiced cookies. Credit: Kathy Hunt
Everyone knows the holidays are steeped in culinary traditions, but who says you can’t steal from others? Pickled herring from Denmark, for example, defies the usual U.S. holiday fare that goes something like this: Roast a plump turkey for Thanksgiving. Simmer a pot of cranberries for Christmas. Chill magnums of champagne for New Year’s Eve. What happens, though, when you cannot bear the thought of doling out another spoonful of moist cornbread stuffing or pouring another round of cinnamon-dusted eggnog?
When I reach my limit with tried-and-true seasonal dishes, I look to what people in other countries make and eat during this festive period. Considering that my friends’ and family’s backgrounds are an amalgamation of different cultures, I don’t find it a stretch to include a taste of Scandinavia, Great Britain, the Mediterranean or Southeast Asia on my holiday menus.
Over the years, I’ve incorporated English mince pies and plum puddings; meringue-based Norwegian garland cakes; and the anise-flavored Greek bread Christopsomo. I’ve also introduced the Portuguese Christmas Eve staple buddim do bacalhao, or baked salt cod, and the Czech custom of eating baked carp on Christmas. This year, thanks to Danish friends and a recent stay in Denmark, I’ll add pickled herring to the holiday buffet table.
Pickled herring long a part of Danish culture
A staple of Danish cuisine, pickled herring dates to the Middle Ages, when fishermen caught and preserved massive quantities of small, oily-fleshed, saltwater fish known as herring. The fish became a valuable commodity for Denmark, one so important that it garnered the nickname “the silver of the sea.”
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Herring, particularly pickled herring, remains popular in Denmark. You will come across it in markets; at sidewalk food stalls; on koldt bords, the equivalent of the Swedish smorgasbord; and in tony restaurants. Dinners frequently begin with a herring course, and no smørrebrød platter would be complete without pickled herring.
If you’ve not tried this seafood specialty, you’re missing quite a treat. Velvety soft and delicately sweet, it almost melts on your tongue. Rich in omega-3 fatty acids, low in contaminants and garnering an environmental “eco-OK” rating from the Environmental Defense Fund, it’s tasty, wholesome and relatively guilt-free. Even the most diehard herring skeptics must concede that this is one delectable fish dish.
Pickled herring begins with salted herring fillets. The fillets are soaked in cold water for six to 12 hours to remove the saltiness. They are then placed in a marinade, where they usually steep for at least 24 hours.
The basic marinade consists of vinegar, sugar and spices. However, Danish cooks have crafted countless recipes featuring such ingredients as sour cream, chives, mustard, dill, sherry and tomatoes.
For ardent home cook and culinary hobbyist Gilad Langer, no dish tops karrysild, or curried herring. Here curry paste is combined with mayonnaise, sour cream, sliced apple and spices such as crushed coriander and mustard seeds. The herring macerate in this mixture for at least an hour. The mildly spiced fillets are then served atop a piece of lard-slathered dark rye bread with optional slices of hard-boiled egg.
“For the holiday meals, people typically spend some time on making special marinades, while the everyday meals are kept to the common recipes, red [vinegar and sherry], white [plain vinegar] and curry herring. In any case, Christmas lunch and parties always have pickled herring,” says Langer, a former longtime resident of Hillerød, which is 30 minutes north of Copenhagen.
It’s said that a shot of Danish aquavit should be drunk alongside pickled herring and that it aids in digestion, washing the herring down into the stomach. “The aquavit, which means ‘water of life,’ really brings out the fishy taste and is an important part of the social etiquette of the traditional Danish lunch,” Langer says.
Along with aquavit, the fish marries well with a variety of ingredients. Cold, boiled potatoes, sliced onion, egg, tomato, apple, chopped pickle, chives, crème fraiche and a good, cold beer all complement its smooth taste.
Pickled herring is a common filling for open-faced sandwiches, or smørrebrød. For these sandwiches, cooks typically use rye bread as the base. However, rye crackers and flat or whole-grain breads are delicious alternatives. While some Danes swear by lard, others employ the less-controversial butter as their smørrebrød spread.
I encountered the following pickled herring recipe at a heritage festival in the eastern Danish city of Helsingør. Famed for its 15th-century castle Kronborg, which served as the setting for Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” Helsingør will also be remembered, at least by me, for its extraordinary herring offerings.
For the first marinade:
1 pound skinless, salt-cured herring fillets
8 ounces white vinegar
3 ounces water
1 tablespoon salt
For the second marinade:
8 ounces granulated sugar
20 white peppercorns, crushed
20 whole allspice, crushed
1 large white onion, chopped
1 large red onion, chopped
1 tablespoon grated lemon zest
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 bay leaf, crushed
1 small bundle of fresh dill, chopped
1. Soak the herring fillets in cold water for six hours, changing the water once or twice during this time. When finished, pat the fillets dry with a clean cloth.
2. For the first marinade, whisk together the vinegar, water and salt. Place the herring fillets in a shallow baking dish and pour the liquid over them. Cover and refrigerate for 12 hours or overnight.
3. Remove the dish from the refrigerator and drain the marinade into a bowl. In another large bowl, stir together the original pickling liquid and the sugar, peppercorns, allspice, onions, lemon zest, ground pepper, bay leaf and dill.
4. Alternating between layers of herring and marinade, fill a lidded glass jar or container with the fish. Make sure the herring is neatly packed and not floating about. You may need to drain off or withhold a bit of liquid. Don’t skimp, though, on the onion, spice and herb mixture.
5. Seal and refrigerate the container for at least 24 hours or up to three days before serving.
Photo: Pickled herring. Credit: Kathy Hunt
Like most caffeine addicts, I’m a bit fussy about my first, second and third cup of coffee of the day. Bold, crisp and scorching hot, it must perk me up physically and mentally for the long hours ahead. Recently, I added one more criteria for my coffee: It must do some good not only for me but also for the surrounding community.
An afternoon spent at Generoasta Coffee and Café in Warrendale, Pa., prompted this new rule. Tucked into an upscale shopping center in the North Hills suburb of Pittsburgh, the spacious yet inviting, modern coffeehouse has a simple mission: Do good, have fun and drink coffee.
In keeping with this goal, Generoasta features eco-sourced, house-roasted beans and organic, fair-trade teas. It utilizes reclaimed building materials, such as trash cans crafted from discarded 19th-century oak and walls clad in repurposed barn wood. It recycles and uses biodegradable serve ware.
More than just a cup of coffee
Along with advocating greener living, the coffeehouse devotes a large chunk of its 2,600-square-foot space to promoting and supporting the neighborhood’s nonprofit organizations. Through information sheets, display cases and a flat-screen television displaying details about local charities, Generoasta seeks to educate and encourage generosity in the region.
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“We wanted to develop something new, get the community involved with the local charities and remove the greatest impediments to being charitable — time and money,” says Generoasta co-owner and former Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Eric Ravotti.
Ravotti points out that at Generoasta, customers don’t spend any more than what they would normally pay for coffee or lunch. Rather, for each purchase made, consumers choose between three nonprofits, dropping a plastic chip into the oversized, charity coffee cup of their choice. Based upon customer selection, the coffeehouse then distributes a portion of its proceeds to each group. It makes it very easy for folks to help out in their neighborhood.
The giving doesn’t stop here. The 7-month-old Generoasta also holds benefits for the featured organizations. It recently hosted an art gala and auction for the Mars Home for Youth in Mars, Pa., and a summer community day dubbed “Cause for Paws,” which aided a low-cost spay-and-neuter program.
Each charity receives six months in the spotlight. After six months have passed, three new organizations are showcased. This next round is based upon customers’ suggestions, and the suggested groups have different missions than the previous trio.
Pairing charity with coffee isn’t a new concept. In Great Britain, at least 150 coffee shops have begun offering “suspended coffee.” Based on a movement that originated in Naples, Italy, and quickly spread to other parts of Europe, customers are encouraged to buy a drink for themselves and one for someone who cannot afford a warming cup of joe. The extra coffee is “put in suspense” until someone comes in and requests it.
Coffee shops around the globe have been known to hold donations days. On a specified date, a percentage of the profits are passed on to local, national or international charities.
In the U.S., Housing Works Bookstore Cafe remains a forerunner in the realm of philanthropic coffeehouses. The shop based in New York City’s SoHo district has been brewing lattes; serving soups, sandwiches and sweets; and selling used books to aid New York City’s HIV/AIDS-afflicted homeless for more than a decade. The cafe is run by volunteers and donates 100% of its proceeds to its progenitor, Housing Works.
Like Housing Works’ cafe, Generoasta has more than good intentions in store for its customers. It is likewise devoted to wholesome, flavorful food and drink.
T.E.D. sandwich for Thanksgiving
At Generoasta you can have “Thanksgiving Every Day” with the T.E.D. sandwich. Here, sliced, roast turkey, cranberry chutney and moist stuffing are piled high upon toasted and buttered farmhouse bread. Paired with sliced apples and caramel for dipping, it is a whimsical and delicious repast.
In the mood for a sweeter or more fanciful treat? Try the French toast with maple mascarpone and fresh berries or “Fat Man in a Tiny Parka,” one of an assortment of “javalanches” — frozen, blended coffees.
You can also just opt for a mug of house-roasted Kenya AA, Guatemalan or Celebes Kalossi, an earthy yet zesty and bold bean from the Indonesian island of Sulawesi. Have no doubt. The roasters and baristas there know how to make a good cup.
At the end of the day, Generoasta fosters generosity through coffee. “We’d like to change lives for the better, cause other companies to take notice and inspire them to do the same,” Ravotti says.
It’s a noble mission, one that’s set to succeed at Generoasta Coffee and Cafe.
Top photo: Generoasta Coffee and Cafe in Warrendale, Pa. Credit: Generoasta Coffee and Cafe
I grew up in a largely Italian-American community outside of Pittsburgh where, at least once a week, I ate pasta. When Sundays rolled around, my family would queue up in the long, snaking line outside Ladies of the Dukes, where, for more than 40 years, local, Italian women prepared and served homemade meals of spaghetti, cavatelli, ravioli and zesty red sauce. Because this feast happened only once a week, customers would bring along stockpots to fill with take-away dinners. Unquestionably, we were passionate about pasta in my hometown.
In recent years I’ve had a troubled relationship with this childhood love. Spurred by the desire to eat more healthfully, I abandoned the traditional semolina-and-water combo for whole-grain pastas. Chocked full of fiber, minerals and vitamins, these new spaghettis seemed both sensible and wholesome. Described by my husband as resembling “wet cardboard,” they have not, however, been the most appetizing to eat.
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My family is not alone in its struggle to adapt to these newcomers. In fact, our complaints seem fairly universal. We all crave the neutral flavor and al dente texture of regular pasta but with the added nutritional benefits that whole grains provide. What I don’t want is an overwhelmingly sweet or nutty taste or a limber consistency, traits that whole-grain pasta possesses and that clash with my heartier pesto, white and red sauces.
Around the time I decided to chuck whole grains altogether and return to traditional pasta, I came across an unusual organic farro fusilli from the Italian Alps. It was unique not only in its firm form and subtle, pleasing flavor but also in its mountainous origins. Dried pasta does not normally hail from northeastern Italy.
According to food historian and cookbook author Francine Segan, southern Italy produces and consumes more dried pasta than the rest of the country. “Because it was a poor man’s food and the south was poorer but also because the south grows the best grain — Puglia is called the ‘breadbasket of Italy‘ — and the air currents and water are ideal for pasta making, more than half of Italy’s pasta is produced in the lower third of the country,” says the author of “Pasta Modern” (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2013).
As a result of its proximity to Austria, Switzerland and Lichtenstein, northern Italy has far more in common with the cuisines of these regions than with the rest of Italy. Instead of pasta, people there eat dumplings, polenta and spätzle, Segan says.
Northern Italy takes pasta challenge
Although making and consuming dried pasta may not be the norm in the north, Valentino Felicetti decided in 1908 to do just that. Reputedly because of a challenge from a southern Italian friend, Felicetti started a small, eponymously named, family-operated company in the Valle di Fiemme of the Dolomites Alps, says great-grandson and current head Riccardo Felicetti. Lucky for me that he accepted this dare; Felicetti Monograno produces the whole-grain fusilli that I’d adored.
Working with fresh spring water, mountain air and locally farmed soft wheat and barley, Felicetti’s first creation was a short pasta similar to rigatoni. Today the company uses what Ricccardo refers to as ancient grains, durum wheat, kamut or Khorasan wheat and spelt, which Italians call “farro.”
Organic whole grains, pure spring water and clean air of this idyllic region are what set Felicetti apart. “Polluted air or water would release within the dough a strange taste,” Riccardo says. He adds that, along with the pristine, local water, unspoiled Dolomites air is pumped into the production site.
Could the air and water have the much affect on taste? Yes and no. “The influence of water and air should be zero. Pasta should taste like the grains. Pure spring water and clean air will not influence the taste of our pasta,” Riccardo says.
That’s where my struggle to find both healthful and palatable pasta existed. Many brands claim to offer whole-grain products, but too often they’ve added fillers to their mix. Instead of merely air, water and grains, the pastas are enriched with modified starch and a host of other ingredients. These extras taint the taste and texture, resulting in one of those dreaded “wet cardboard” meals.
With this knowledge, my culinary crisis ended. I’m now happily eating pasta — nutritious, tasty and whole-grain-only pasta — again.
Farro Pasta With Jerusalem Artichokes
Pasta ai topinambur
Recipe courtesy of Francine Segan and “Pasta Modern.”
1 large onion, thinly sliced
4 tablespoons olive oil, divided.
4 to 5 large Jerusalem artichokes
1 pound farro pasta, long or short
3 to 4 tablespoons pine nuts
Parmesan or other aged cheese, grated
1. Sauté the onion in 2 tablespoons of oil until golden. Meanwhile, scrub the Jerusalem artichokes with a brush, then thinly slice. Add to the onions and simmer over a very low flame until very soft.
2. Cook the pasta until al dente.
3. Purée the onion-artichoke mixture with 2 tablespoons olive oil so it’s smooth like pesto.
4. Return the purée to the pan and toss with the pasta for a minute or two, adding a little cooking liquid if dry.
5. Serve topped with pine nuts and grated cheese to taste.
Top photo: Various types of pasta. Credit: Kathy Hunt