Articles by Author
As children, my sister and I spent Saturdays in the spring as knights-errant, challenging each other to duels with rhubarb stalks. We thrust them at each other, but our swords connected gently, so as not to damage what would later become delicious treats. A neighborhood bully once intruded, threatening to kill us with a touch of his rhubarb leaves. Just one touch would mean instant death, that’s how poisonous the leaves were, he said. I pushed him into a ditch, and when he didn’t die instantly, as the leaves touched his shoulder, I took my sister home for a dish of rhubarb Mom had cooked that morning.
We were rhubarb lovers. Mom and my sister loved it cooked with sugar, slathered on fresh bread and topped with heavy cream. They also loved it as Rhubarb Fool, the pink strands of rhubarb swirling through the whipped cream. Occasionally, rhubarb showed up in a cobbler, which they spooned into their mouths with abandon. Although Dad and I loved rhubarb these ways too, we loved it most in pies, his pies, since he made the best in the world.
“There’s no better pie than rhubarb,” he’d say wherever he got ready to make one.
Rhubarb’s long history started with medicinal uses
Nineteenth-century cooks would have agreed with him in that regard. They dubbed rhubarb the “pie plant” because of its popularity as a filling, but it had been popular for medicinal purposes much longer.
Rhubarb originated in Russia, Siberia and China, and was written about more than 2,700 years ago in “The Divine Farmer’s Herb-Root Classic,” an early Chinese text. Its roots were prized near and far as a cure for dysentery, diarrhea and constipation.
More from Zester Daily
In Tudor England (from the 1400s to 1600s), rhubarb was grown in herb gardens. A century later, in the 1770s, the Duke of Athol grew Turkey rhubarb in Scotland, selling the roots to an Edinburgh druggist.
The rhubarb variety now eaten came to 17th-century England from Italy. Its cultivation spread throughout the 18th century, but it took awhile for rhubarb recipes to appear in English cookbooks — in part because the sugar needed for sweetening was not widely available or affordable. When sugar became more common, recipes for pies, tarts and other desserts followed, in the 19th century.
In 1771, Benjamin Franklin sent Chinese rhubarb seeds to John Bartram, an American botanist, thus introducing the plant to America. Soon, rhubarb was cultivated in Maine and flourished after that in Massachusetts as well. By 1822, rhubarb was sold in New England markets, and later that century, Luther Burbank, a pioneer in agricultural science, developed a variety better suited to California’s climate.
Rhubarb stalks, the parts we eat, are really leaf bases called petioles. They vary in color, from pink to red, green or white, depending on the variety.
The rhubarb that Dad grew was pink. It spread between the fences separating our back garden from our neighbors’, with Dad doing the harvesting and all of us, including our neighbors the Leckies, sharing in his baking.
Dad was a born baker, although six decades of practice certainly helped fine-tune his innate skills. Although he could make anything, his genius was pastry, which demands a gentle touch. He was a gentle man, so the two were made for each other.
He was an orderly baker as well, first laying out all the ingredients: flour, salt, lard, water, vinegar, sugar, cornstarch and rhubarb (without those “murderous” leaves, which, in fact, contain toxic oxalic acid that can be lethal if ingested). Then, measuring cups and spoons, a pastry knife and fork, mixing bowls, a rolling pin, pie pans and cooling racks were assembled. He always made three pies: one for our neighbors and two for us (the second pie was for lingering over a little more because the first barely left the oven before it was devoured).
The worst thing about his pie making was waiting for the pies to bake and then cool. I was not patient when it came to waiting for rhubarb pie, but if you didn’t wait, the slice of pie collapsed into soup on your plate and burned your mouth too. When the pie was cool enough, the sight of that first slice of rosy rhubarb between layers of flaky pastry made me drool.
If that bully hadn’t been a bully, he might have been invited to drool over that sight too, before tasting Dad’s rhubarb pie. Then he would have understood the truly deadly aspect of rhubarb. It wasn’t in the leaves touching you but, rather, in that first perfect bite, when the sweet rhubarb melded with pastry that melted on your tongue. That bite was deadly because you knew how terrible it would be when you could no longer eat such a perfect thing. If he hadn’t been a bully, I might have pitied him for never having had that experience, but, instead, I was just grateful that we did so often.
Dad’s Rhubarb Pie
Makes one 9-inch pie
For the pastry:
2¼ cups all-purpose flour
¼ teaspoon salt
1 cup cold lard (unsalted butter, if you prefer, or half lard and half butter)
¼ cup cold water
1 tablespoon white vinegar
For the filling:
3½ cups rhubarb, leaves removed; stalks trimmed, washed and dried thoroughly and cut into 1-inch pieces
1 to 1½ cups granulated sugar
¼ cup cornstarch
For the pastry:
1. Sift the flour and salt into a large bowl. Using a pastry knife, cut the lard into the flour until it is in pea-sized pieces.
2. In a measuring cup, stir together the water and vinegar. Using a fork, stir only enough liquid into the flour mixture to bind the ingredients. (Note: You might need more or less water, depending on how the dough comes together. In humid weather, it might require less water because flour, if not stored properly, can absorb water from the air.)
3. Form the dough into a ball, wrap in plastic and refrigerate for 30 minutes.
4. While the dough chills, prepare the rhubarb filling.
For the filling:
1. Combine rhubarb with sugar in a bowl and set aside. (For a more tart pie, use just 1 cup of sugar.)
Assembling the pie:
1. Cut the chilled dough into two equal pieces. On a lightly floured surface, roll one piece into a ⅛-inch thick circle. Gently wrap the circle onto the rolling pin (or lift it) and press into a 9-inch pie pan, trimming any excess from the edges.
2. Spoon the rhubarb mixture into the pastry-lined pie pan. Sprinkle cornstarch evenly over the fruit.
3. Cover the rhubarb with the rolled-out top crust. Seal the pastry edges with your thumb and finger (or press a fork against the edges to seal). Cut slits into the pastry. (Alternatively, cut the top crust into strips and make a latticework design on top of the pie, as show in the accompanying photograph.)
4. Press a thin strip (about 1 inch) of aluminum foil around the edges to keep from burning.
5. Bake the pie in a preheated 450 F oven for 12 to 15 minutes (or until the pastry is golden). Remove the aluminum foil, and reduce heat to 350 F. Bake the pie for an additional 40 to 50 minutes (or until the rhubarb is soft).
6. Cool well before cutting.
Note: You can also add ¼ cup of strawberries (washed, dried and cut into equal-sized pieces) for additional sweetness and flavor. If you choose to use strawberries too, reduce the amount of rhubarb accordingly.
Top photo: Rhubarb pie. Credit: Sharon Hunt
Watercress is one of those greens that goes in and out of popularity with my friends, although I have been devoted to it for 20 years, after discovering a hummus, tomato and watercress sandwich in a cafe close to where I worked at the time.
The peppery taste of the watercress added a final, perfect note to the tanginess of the hummus and the freshness of the tomatoes. That sandwich became my workday treat, eaten religiously, Monday to Friday, for a couple of years.
Later, when I left the corporate world and returned to cooking for myself, I nibbled watercress while tossing it into salads, learned to make Potage Cressionniere (a soup of potatoes and watercress) in winter and a lighter soup (without the potatoes) in spring and summer, and used it in my own version of that long-gone sandwich.
Historically, watercress thought to fortify mind and body
Nasturtium officinale is the botanical name for watercress. The word Nasturtium comes from the Latin nasus tortus, meaning “twisted nose,” a warning about the effect watercress can have on your nasal passages.
More from Zester Daily
It may be a nose twister, but it is also one of the oldest green vegetables known to man. The ancient Greeks, Romans and Persians loved it. Persian children ate watercress to grow strong, while Persian and Greek soldiers ate it to remain so. Both the Greek general Xenophon and the Persian king Xerxes decreed their troops should eat it for the same reason, with Xenophon once recalling, “How pleasant it is to eat barley cake and some cress when one is hungry by a stream.”
A Greek proverb — “Eat cress and learn more wit” — gave an indication of the vegetable’s contribution to the brain, something Irish monks also understood. They spent months living on watercress and bread to stimulate their brains.
Watercress provides essential vitamins — in particular A and C — as well as calcium, magnesium, folic acid, iodine, sulfur and iron. It is believed to have wonderful cleansing powers and help in curing a variety of ills. (Romans and Anglo-Saxons used it as a treatment for baldness.) It was also eaten to provide courage and character, and as an aphrodisiac.
The Romans put watercress in salads, dressing it with oil and vinegar, much like we do today. When Hippocrates — the Greek physician known as the father of Western medicine — founded the first hospital on the island of Kos, Greece, about 400 B.C., he used watercress to treat blood disorders. Twelve centuries later, English herbalist John Gerard championed it as a cure for scurvy in the 1600s. Watercress may also have been eaten at the Pilgrims’ first Thanksgiving dinner.
A twist from Dickens
In more modern times, the English raised it to something of an institution in watercress sandwiches served at afternoon and high teas. No less than Charles Dickens wrote of it in “Great Expectations,” with Mr. Pumblechook, a corn merchant with a mouth “like a fish,” ordering watercress sandwiches for Pip, the book’s hero, as a supposed kindness although, in truth, Pip didn’t like them.
Others of that time did, though. Watercress was breakfast for the working classes in Victorian Britain, eaten with bread or alone.
“The first coster cry heard of a morning in the London streets is of ‘Fresh wo-orter-creases,’ ” English social researcher Henry Mayhew wrote in his 1851 survey “London Labour and the London Poor.” Surely one of those coster cries must have come from Eliza James. Nicknamed “The Watercress Queen,” James was a watercress seller in the late 1800s and early 1900s, hawking her wares in her Covent Garden stall for more than half a century. She started selling watercress when she was 5, first at factories in Birmingham, then eventually becoming the sole watercress supplier of most hotels and restaurants in London as well as, reputedly, the biggest owner of watercress farms in the world.
Wild watercress grows in shallow rivers and streams, fading in the dog days of summer and the coldest months of winter. Picking it wild, however, requires great care to ensure the water it grows in is pollution free and the watercress is uncontaminated. Commercially, watercress is cultivated in carefully controlled tanks or water beds.
Although peppery in taste, watercress actually has a cooling effect on the mouth. This is something Taillevent, a 14th-century cook to the Court of France, understood. He included a course of “watercress, served alone, to refresh the mouth” in one of his famous banquet menus.
In North America, watercress is an ingredient in salads, soups and sandwiches. It is a lovely complement to oranges, apples and pears, and also works well with eggs.
When using watercress, leave the stems on because they have the strongest flavor. Try not to overcook it. The leaves are delicate, and long cooking robs them of their flavor. Watercress is best eaten soon after purchasing and should be kept immersed in cold water until it is used. So go ahead, let your nose twist as you enjoy this wonderful green.
A Light Watercress Soup
For the soup:
2½ tablespoons unsalted butter
2 shallots, finely chopped
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
1 cup whole milk
1 cup low-sodium vegetable stock
¼ teaspoon salt
3 bunches (about 3 cups) watercress, washed, dried and chopped
¼ cup table cream (10%)
Thinly sliced pear
1. Melt the butter in a large pot over medium heat. Add the shallots and cook until soft. Stir in the flour and cook for 1 minute.
2. Gradually stir in the milk and vegetable stock, then add the salt. When the soup is near boiling, reduce heat, cover and simmer for 5 minutes.
3. While the soup cooks, bring a large pot of water to boil. Add the watercress to blanch until wilted, but still retaining its bright color. Remove it from the water and place in a bowl of ice water.
4. Squeeze the water out of the cooled watercress and add the watercress to the soup.
5. Carefully purée with a hand blender or in a food processor, adding the cream.
6. Reheat if necessary.
7. Garnish with a dollop of crème fraîche and a few slices of pear if you wish. This soup is delicious hot or cold.
Main photo: Watercress soup with bread and pear slices. Credit: Sharon Hunt
I have always had a soft spot for lost things. As a child I brought home lost creatures — cats that were eventually found by their owners, baby birds that were nursed until they were ready to fly and, once, a turtle I found in my garden but had to return to the nearby lake when he bit my sister’s finger.
With food, my soft spot has always been lost desserts, dishes that have fallen out of fashion but were a regular part of the dinners at my grandmother’s house. Gooseberry Fool, Bavarian Cream and the Queen of Puddings were rotated through the Sundays along with other offerings that could be depended upon to strike that perfect end note to a meal.
One lost dessert that she made in spring and summer, when she was focused more on cleaning and getting her gardens back in shape than on baking, was Pain Perdu, or Lost Bread. Like her, I make it when the weather turns warm because I spend less time baking but still like to have something sweet at the end of a Sunday dinner. Pain Perdu is also a great way to rescue stale bread that might otherwise be thrown out and transform it into a rich and delicious treat.
Pain Perdu a dessert with many variations, names
Although it is known as Pain Perdu in places such as France, New Orleans and Canada’s Newfoundland, where I was born, this dish has had many names over the centuries.
In England, it was called Gilded Sippets (small pieces of bread sprinkled with rose water that had been colored by saffron), Eggy Bread and also Poor Knights of Windsor (topped with jam and named for the military order King Edward III created in the 14th century).
More from Zester Daily
As it turns out, Poor Knights was a popular name in many countries. Sweden, Denmark and Norway all called it this, while in Finland it was Poor Knights when eaten plain but Rich Knights when sprinkled with powdered sugar or garnished with whipped cream.
In Germany, the name “Poor Knights” may have come about through the tradition of the gentry always serving dessert at their tables. Although all knights were part of the gentry, not all were wealthy, and those who weren’t served a dessert of stale bread that had been dipped in eggs and fried. Sometimes it was served with jam, while other times it was made with wine instead of milk and known as a Drunken Virgin.
In the Czech Republic, Lost Bread became Bread in a Little Coat, in Switzerland it was a Rascal’s Slice and in Spain it was Torrijas, often made during the Lenten season and garnished with cinnamon or honey.
A version of Lost Bread is contained in a collection of fourth century Latin recipes attributed to Roman gourmand Marcus Gavius Apicius, who lived in the first century. This recipe, known simply as Another Sweet Dish, uses milk instead of eggs to revive the bread before cooking.
Whatever its name, reclaiming stale bread was important in medieval Europe because cooks were not always sure of their food supply and couldn’t afford to waste anything. After being soaked in milk and eggs, the bread was cooked on a griddle, as it still is today.
This was not just a food for the poor, though, as recipes of the time called for expensive ingredients — white bread (with the crusts removed), spices and almond milk, hardly items found in the pantries of the poor. Also, medieval cookbooks, in which such recipes were found, were of no use to the poor, as only the noble, wealthy and religious classes could read. For the upper classes, those golden slices were served with game meats or exotic birds, such as peacocks.
Today, most of us would forgo such accompaniments and serve this dish as an inexpensive dessert or eat it at breakfast (as French toast), often using white bread, which we have reclaimed from the rich.
My grandmother, who made her own bread, soaked thick slices in egg yolks and cream (leaving aside the egg whites to create a richer coating). When the bread was fried, she served it with heavy cream and preserves from her cold cellar. Sometimes, she substituted pound cake for the bread, but whatever the choice, it was always delicious.
Although this dish has a number of variations, it does not require a lot of ingredients beyond bread, eggs and milk or cream. The garnishes allow you to have fun; whipped cream and strawberry preserves or fresh peaches and powdered sugar are great spring and summertime dessert choices; maple syrup or a brown butter sauce elevate French toast for breakfast; for lunch, you can’t go wrong with a Monte Cristo sandwich (ham and cheese between two slices of bread that are then soaked in the egg and milk mixture and fried).
However and whenever you eat Lost Bread, you are in for a treat that would make the Poor Knights feel like kings.
Pain Perdu (My Grandmother’s Recipe)
4 egg yolks
2 tablespoons white granulated sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon orange zest
½ cup whole milk (or substitute 10% table cream for more richness)
4 slices stale white bread, thickly sliced
Butter for frying
Strawberry or raspberry preserves
Heavy or whipped cream (optional)
1. Beat egg yolks in a shallow dish.
2. Add sugar, vanilla, orange zest and milk (or cream); beat well.
3. Soak each slice of bread well in the egg mixture.
4. Melt butter in a large frying pan and fry the bread until golden on each side, about 2 to 3 minutes.
5. Cut bread into triangles; place two triangles on each plate.
6. Top with a spoonful of preserves and, if you wish, heavy or whipped cream.
Top photo: Poor Knights is a variation on Pain Perdu. Credit: Sharon Hunt
Mom Hunt, my dad’s mother, stood almost 5 feet high in heels. A staunch member of the “English Catholic” (Anglican) Church, she ascribed literal truth to everything in the Bible. Angels were as real as devils (in her faith and in her cakes) and neither would have dared cross her in fear of the purgatory only she could create.
Mom Hunt hoped every day to hear the angel Gabriel blow his horn, signaling the Lord’s return to Earth, but her favorite angel was Michael, the archangel who vanquished Satan and his horde from heaven.
“Michael will lead the righteous against evil again at the end of days,” she insisted, crossing herself.
More from Zester Daily:
Years later, I marveled at how she could maintain such childlike faith all her life, but as a child I simply accepted what she told me: Angels helped light our path to God, while devils, skulking in darkness, waited to lead us to ruin.
At Christmas, darkness and light merged, and devils sat alongside angels at our table, literally and figuratively. In literal terms, the devils — my boy cousins, relentless in their trouble making — sat next to angels like my mother, who never surrendered her belief that there was good in everyone. Most of us, though, were somewhere between the two, rarely angelic but not often a devil, either.
In the figurative sense, angels and devils appeared as Angel Food and Devil’s Food cakes when the turkey and stuffing, dishes of vegetables and boats of gravy were cleared away. The white frosting on the Angel Food Cakes billowed like clouds, while the rich chocolate on the Devil’s Food Cakes made me drool.
The cakes had been in the refrigerator in Mom Hunt’s summer kitchen for a day and a half before being brought to the table. The nearby back door was locked, and we were forced to use the front like visitors because one particularly devilish boy cousin ran off with a cake a few Christmases earlier. Although Mom Hunt ran after him, her apron flapping like wings, he managed to escape. Still, I doubt having his fill of chocolate was worth the tongue lashing he later received. After that, as soon as the cakes went into the refrigerator, the back door was locked, and my grandfather was posted as a sentinel to stop all of us grandchildren plotting a way around him. We never tried very hard at this because he was so mild and sweet we couldn’t torment him.
Angel Food Cake
Angel Food is a sponge cake that originated in the United States in the 1800s. Its light, ethereal nature most likely gave rise to its name.
In “American Food: The Gastronomic Story,” Evan Jones writes that the cake may have “evolved as the result of numerous egg whites left over after the making of noodles, [and] may or may not be the brainchild of thrifty Pennsylvania cooks who considered it sinful to waste anything.”
Traditionally, Angel Food Cakes have been offered to mourners at African-American funerals, although sometimes they have been called by other names. “Mrs. Porter’s New Southern Cookery Book, and Companion for Frugal and Economical Housekeepers,” published in 1871, has a recipe for a Snow-Drift Cake. A decade later, Abby Fisher, a former slave from Alabama, includes a similar recipe in “What Mrs. Fisher Knows about Old Southern Cooking, Soups, Pickles, Preserves, Etc.,” calling hers a “Silver Cake.”
Snow-Drift, Silver or Angel Food, this cake can be frosted, served with a sauce or eaten plain. Mom Hunt made a boiled icing for her Christmas ones, but served them with fruit and custard in the summer.
When I make Angel Food Cake for Christmas — a tradition I continue now — I frost it with a white chocolate ganache, then add a few strawberries dipped in dark chocolate.
Devil’s Food Cake
While Angel Food Cakes were the product of the 19th century, Devil’s Food Cakes appeared in the 20th century.
The biggest difference between a regular chocolate cake, and a Devil’s Food Cake is the amount of chocolate used. Devil’s Food usually contains more chocolate (often twice as much), which gives it a darker color and richer flavor.
The first Devil’s Food Cake recipe appeared in 1900, and by 1913 this cake was so popular that the “Modern Women of America Cookbook,” (published that same year) had more than 20 recipes for it.
Red Devil’s Cake recipes began appearing during the 1930s. The Red Devil achieved its distinctive color by a chemical reaction. In Harold McGee’s “On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen,” McGee writes that such a chemical reaction takes place when an alkaline (like baking soda) combines with an acid (such as cocoa or vinegar), resulting in chocolate turning “reddish.”
For my childhood Christmases, regular Devil’s Food went along with Angel Food and by the end of a long day of eating, not a crumb of either remained. All of us, even Mom Hunt, felt equally blessed and sinful.
Mom Hunt’s Angel Food Cake
Makes one 9-inch cake
1 cup all-purpose white flour
1⅓ cups granulated sugar, divided
10 egg whites (room temperature)
1¼ teaspoons cream of tartar
¼ teaspoon salt
1½ teaspoons vanilla extract
1. Preheat oven to 350 F.
2. In a small bowl, blend together flour and ⅓ cup sugar and set aside.
3. In a large bowl, beat egg whites for 1 minute until frothy.
4. Add cream of tartar, salt and vanilla extract to egg whites and beat on medium speed until egg whites form soft peaks.
5. Gradually beat 1 cup sugar into egg whites, beating until stiff and glossy.
6. Sift flour and sugar mixture over the egg whites in three portions, folding gently until incorporated into the egg whites.
7. Pour the batter into an ungreased 9-inch tube pan.
8. Bake 40 to 45 minutes or until a cake tester comes out clean.
9. Invert and cool the cake in the pan before removing (to ensure the cake does not fall in on itself).
White Chocolate Ganache Frosting
2 cups good-quality white chocolate, chopped finely
1 cup 18% table cream
1. Combine chocolate and cream in a heatproof bowl over simmering water.
2. Stir occasionally until chocolate is melted and blended smoothly with cream.
3. Refrigerate until firm.
4. Frost Angel Food Cake.
Mom Hunt’s Devil’s Food Cake
Makes one 8-inch double-layer cake
1½ cups all-purpose white flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
¾ cup good-quality cocoa
½ cup unsalted butter, softened
1½ cups granulated sugar
3 large eggs at room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1¼ cups whole milk
1. Preheat oven to 350 F.
2. Grease and lightly flour two 8-inch round cake pans.
3. In a medium bowl, sift together flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt and cocoa and set aside.
4. In a large bowl cream butter and add sugar gradually, beating until mixture is light and fluffy (about five minutes).
5. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition.
6. Add vanilla extract and beat well.
7. Add sifted dry ingredients to butter mixture alternately with milk (two dry and two wet additions), beating until well blended.
8. Pour into cake pans and smooth the batter.
9. Bake for 30 to 35 minutes or until a cake tester inserted in the middle of each cake comes out clean.
10. Cool the cakes 10 minutes and then remove from pan to cool completely.
4 cups icing sugar
6 tablespoons good-quality cocoa
½ cup unsalted butter, softened
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Pinch of salt
5 tablespoons whipping cream
1. In a medium bowl, sift icing sugar and cocoa together and set aside.
2. In a large bowl, cream butter; add vanilla and salt and beat well.
3. Gradually beat sugar mixture into butter mixture, alternately with cream.
4. Beat until well combined and easy to spread. If frosting is too stiff, add more cream (½ teaspoon at a time).
5. Fill and frost the Devil’s Food Cake.
Top photo: An Angel Food Cake with White Chocolate Ganache Frosting. Credit: Sharon Hunt
As with everything in life, there are truths with cooking. Andrew Schloss, the author of “Cooking Slow: Recipes for Slowing Down and Cooking More,” hits upon one when he writes in his introduction that “cooking is a balance between time and temperature. Raise the heat and everything speeds up; flames jump, pots sizzle, grease spits. Lower the heat, however, and the turmoil subsides.”
Lowering the heat is what “Cooking Slow” is all about, and while doing this is particularly enticing with Christmas fast approaching, it is a great idea to lower a little of the cooking heat any time you can. What a welcome change to have something cooking slowly in the oven or on top of the stove instead of frantically whipping up another quick meal to satiate our hungry, hectic lives.
Schloss also is the author of the “Art of the Slow Cooker,” a cooking teacher and former president of the International Association of Culinary Professionals.
Like many people, I grew up with slow meals, especially in winter. Arriving home from school, pink-cheeked and famished, the aroma of a hearty soup or stew that had been simmering for hours or a roasting chicken was a comfort unlike many others. It is this sense of comfort, above all, that permeates “Cooking Slow.”
By Andrew Schloss
More from Zester Daily:
After a corporate life with too many takeout meals eaten at my desk, I was reborn to slow cooking a decade ago, after I left the corporate world and went to work at a restaurant, surrounded by people who lived and breathed delicious food. My boss was a sophisticated and urbane Irishman who loved quality — and its accompanying price tag — above all. When he decided to invest in new cocottes — cooking pots with sloping sides that weighed a ton and cost the moon — for the restaurant kitchen, I joined him on his mad quest and bought one for myself, spending an obscene amount of money for a dull cast-iron affair that paled in prettiness next to the aubergine- , cherry- and saffron-colored pots on the market. I have never regretted the purchase, carrying my magic pot (as I quickly nicknamed it) to the east coast of Canada where I thought I belonged and then back again to my Ontario home. It was the first thing I unpacked when I settled into a new kitchen. Even the most inexpensive cuts of meat become tender and succulent when cooked slowly in it.
‘Cooking Slow’ requires patience, a few kitchen essentials
Schloss recommends such a pot, along with a cast-iron skillet, slow cooker and soufflé dish, among other things, to help transform your kitchen into a slow-cooking haven.
The transformation to slow cooking begins with Chapter 1 – “Slow Roasting” — and the French gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, who knew a thing or two about food. Here is his quote on the skill of roasting: “A man may be taught how to cook, but he must be born knowing how to roast.” Schloss then adds, “Get ready to be reborn.”
For me, two recipes in particular in the first chapter help with that rebirth, Slow-Roasted Chicken With Potatoes & Herbs, and Balsamic-Glazed Duckling. Although duck “has a fat problem; there’s a lot of it on these buoyant birds,” turning down the oven temperature allows enough time for the fat to melt, resulting in a moist and flavorful meat.
Chapter 2, “Slow Baking,” offers a welcoming dinner meal of One-Pot Mac and Cheese that has a nice tang with the addition of brown mustard. Slow-Baked Beets With Orange Gremolata (the Gremolata reimagined with hazelnuts and orange juice) is one of my favorite recipes in this chapter, but even it is eclipsed by Parsnips Baked In Spiced Yogurt.
“Neglected and maligned, parsnips have a PR problem,” he writes, and I agree. This recipe, with its wonderfully spiced yogurt (with, among others, coriander and cumin), might make a few reluctant parsnip eaters into parsnip lovers.
The recipes throughout the book are clear and easy to follow, with accompanying photographs of finished dishes that are not only mouthwatering but also inspiring.
Follow the chapters, including the ‘Slow Sweets’ favorite
Other chapters explore slow simmering, steaming, grilling, frying, using a slow cooker and dabbling in sous vide cooking — that very long and low-temperature cooking method that has taken hold in many restaurants.
The last chapter in “Cooking Slow” is my favorite. In “Slow Sweets,” a Steamed Cornmeal Pudding with Olives and Candied Orange offers a delicious melding of saltiness from the olives and sweetness from the orange. Ever the chocoholic, though, I bow in gratitude to Schloss for including a cake called Triple Chocolate Bypass, which bakes for four hours in an oven heated to 175 F. This silken and rich thing has now gone to the head of my holiday baking list, but I will have to make sure not to make it too early or it will never survive until Christmas Day, (although it’s so easy to make that I could always make another one).
Top photo: Andrew Schloss is the author of “Cooking Slow: Recipes for Slowing Down and Cooking More.”
First, a confession: I am not always a confident pastry maker. Yes, I make pastry, and sometimes it is good, occasionally very good, but I still approach each pastry-making session with some anxiety.
Because of this, I approached “Pastry” by Chef Richard Bertinet with a little trepidation. Quickly, though, I fell in love with the book, and now it’s becoming an old friend. I am not suddenly a great pastry maker because of this book, but, more important to me, I am no longer a nervous pastry maker.
“Pastry” has a lovely chattiness to it. This is not a book meant to intimidate, although the subject matter can be intimidating. Early in “Pastry,” Bertinet tells the nervous among us that, “There is an idea that some people are just naturally good pastry makers, or that you can only make great pastry if you have cold hands. I don’t believe that.”
By Richard Bertinet
Chronicle Books, 2013, 224 pages
More from Zester Daily:
That is good to learn about someone who began training as a baker in Brittany, France, when he was 14. He moved to Britain in the 1980s, and after many years as a chef, he opened the Bertinet Kitchen Cookery School in Bath, England, in 2005. The school now draws students from around the world, eager to learn the skills he has perfected and detailed in four books to date.
“Pastry” is his latest. His first book, “Dough,” received many awards, including the Julia Child First Book Award and the James Beard Foundation Award for Baking and Desserts. It was followed by “Crust,” which earned a Gourmand World Cookbook award. “Cook,” his third book, focuses on dishes taught at his school.
Making pastry not just about cold hands
In “Pastry,” Bertinet hopes that “by keeping things simple and starting from just four key recipes, you can relax, enjoy yourself, bake with confidence, and perhaps even show off a little bit.” This may be a tall order for some, but, with the exception of the showing off (which I’m working on), I have relaxed and begun to enjoy myself more when making pastry.
The first chapter focuses on how to make the four basic pastries: salted, sweet, puff and choux. Dispelling a long-held belief that you need cold hands to make good pastry, he nevertheless reinforces a truth of bad pastry: that “squeezing and overworking … heats up pastry and makes it greasy and sticky.”
The step-by-step photographs throughout the book, but especially in this first chapter, are excellent, clearly illustrating his instructions and showing you how the pastry should look at each step.
Chapter 2 is devoted to salted pastry, so named not because this type of pastry contains a lot of salt but because it is the name for savory pastry he learned as an apprentice. The chapter includes a number of hearty recipes clearly laid out and easy to follow, with hot and cold variations. Bertinet includes recipes for Onion Tartlets and a rich Chicken and Tarragon Tart, but a great quick lunch is his Cornish Pasties filled with rutabaga, potato and beef (not a poor man’s food anymore).
Amandine for the holidays
Next, sweets take center stage, such as Lemon Meringue Tartlets with their wild meringue swirls resembling chimney stacks. One of my favorite recipes in Chapter 3 is for Amandine, a classic almond tart made with frangipane (almond cream). Not only is this tart delicious, it freezes well, making it a great make-ahead dessert for holiday meals. The Prune and Rum Tarts — rum-soaked prunes and almond cream — are also delicious; make plenty because they will be a great success with friends if mine were any indication.
Also in Chapter 3 is a segment called “A Boxful of Sweet Cookies,” with varieties such as Orange & Chocolate Cookies that can be made from a sweet pastry base. While the Orange & Chocolate Cookies have a winning combination of flavors, the crisp Langues de Chat have a whimsical shape — that of cats’ tongues — and make great use of leftover egg whites.
Chapter 4 made me more nervous than previous chapters because its focus is puff pastry. I usually buy mine at the grocery store and appreciated when he wrote, “I hope that you will enjoy making your own puff pastry, but if you don’t have the time or the inclination, choose a good ready-made all-butter one.” Still, following his instructions, my first attempt at puff pastry turned out well. I used it to make sausage rolls, which, with their lovely herb and spice seasoning, turned an often dry and flavorless thing into a delicious snack.
A perfect ‘how to’ on Croustillants
Another great use for puff pastry is in making Croustillants. These thin slices of puff pastry are coated in sugar, nuts or seeds and baked until crunchy, making a terrific and decidedly upscale substitute for potato chips at parties.
Chapter 5 is about choux pastry, the base for treats such as cream puffs and éclairs. In addition to these recipes, Bertinet includes a recipe for deep-fried Cheese Puffs containing either Cheddar or Gruyère. With a sprinkling of smoked paprika, these hors d’oeuvres will disappear quickly.
The last chapter is devoted to “Finishing Touches” and includes techniques such as how to finish fruit tarts so they are beautiful and delicious. This has much to do with how the fruit is cut and arranged and with the addition of warmed apricot jam as a glaze. Bertinet also offers recipes for fillings such as Chocolate Crème Patissiere and Crème Anglaise. If you can make the latter, he assures the reader, “you are halfway to making vanilla ice cream.” (And what vanilla ice cream it is.)
“Pastry” offers up many treats, but the best treat of all may be the book itself. It is great for building confidence in the pastry-shy baker and a further challenge for the pastry-secure baker. If you can’t get to Bertinet’s school in Bath, this book is the next best thing. It is indeed “A Master Class for Everyone.”
Top photo composite: The cover of “Pastry” and chef and author Richard Bertinet. Chef photo credit: Jenny Zarins