Articles in Baking w/recipe

Savoy cabbage, a winter vegetable, is a milder and sweeter alternative to green and red cabbage varieties. Credit: Clarissa Hyman

For years, I thought Savoy cabbage was a specialty of the great London hotel of that name, a way of cooking the vegetable that transformed it into a dish fit for kings. Even today, frilly Savoy cabbage remains, in my eyes at least, the classiest brassica on the block, a glamorous, swanky sibling to pale, pointy spring or hard white winter cabbages. Less aggressive than kale, more versatile than red, a good Savoy bursting with squeaky-clean health and goodness, is a far cry from the flabby cabbage-swamp clichés of British school dinners that linger long in collective memory.

The evolution of the great family of brassica cabbage cultivars, which also includes broccoli, cauliflower and Brussels sprouts, originated in spindly, “headless” plants that were known throughout the ancient world. The Greeks cultivated such headless cabbages, believing they originally came from the sweat of Zeus, chief of the Gods (it must have been something to do with their, er, pungent smell when over-cooked).

However, generations of children who have been told to eat their greens to a refrain of cabbage-is-good-for-you (an unpopular, as opposed to a popular saying) can really blame the Romans. Cato, in the 2nd century BC, devoted a long passage to the plant in “De Re Rustica.” And Pliny the Elder, in “Historia Naturalis,” described a swollen-stemmed plant (perhaps another brassica, kohlrabi) and an exaggerated reference to “headed” cabbages 30 centimeters (about 12 inches) across, as well as 87 cabbage-related medicines.

The lore about cabbage

Over the centuries, cabbage has been credited with many medicinal properties, from curing snake bites, to growing hair on bald spots and preventing drunkenness (wrong!).

Savoy, as a newly developed variety with a loose “head,” came to prominence in medieval Germany, the great center of cabbage culture, although the name suggests an earlier French or northern Italian origin, with a possible link to Catherine de’ Medici.

Slow-growing Savoys are particularly good after the first frosts. They are hardy enough to stay in the ground through the winter, and bring a swathe of colorful, ruffled cheer to the stews, casseroles and thick soups of the winter months. Cabbage soup is a rustic favorite still in France and Germany, cooked with pickled pork or confit goose and duck.

The flavor of Savoy is nutty, and the texture crisp and firm (when not, of course, boiled lifeless), although a slow braise with rich flavorings, such as beef stock, Marsala wine and thyme, can also work well. Its natural color ranges from acid yellow to Day-Glo lime and from vivid emerald to deep forest green. The wrinkled leaves are supple and strong enough to be stuffed with meat and rice and rolled, before being bathed and baked in rich tomato and sour cream sauces spiked with caraway seeds or paprika. One of the greatest spectacles of the East European repertoire is a stuffed whole cabbage winched like a missionary’s head from a cannibal’s pot.

Simplicity of cabbage

But you don’t have to attempt this culinary equivalent of climbing Mont Blanc to enjoy a Savoy. If you wish, and have time, soak the leaves in cold water for a few hours before cooking to crisp them up further, then simply remove the tough central stalk and chop roughly. Steam or cook in plenty of water at a rolling boil with the lid off to retain the bright green color for a few minutes before tossing in butter, sea salt and black pepper. Or, just slice and cook briefly in butter. Leftovers can make a splendid bubble and squeak (see recipe below).

Savoy is also excellent and surprisingly sophisticated when shredded and stir-fried with seasonings such as red chile, sesame, garlic, ginger and soy sauce. It also goes well with aniseed flavors such as tarragon, fennel and Chinese five-spice powder.

The Savoy is the cabbage that even cabbage-haters can learn to love. If all else fails, try calling it an adorable petit choux, because everything sounds better in French, of course. Even cabbage.

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The leaves of Savoy cabbage are very distinctive, a combination of green hues combined with a distinctive crinkled texture. Credit: Clarissa Hyman

Stir-Fried Savoy Cabbage

A quick and vibrant dish that perks up the taste buds. Add garlic and/or 5-spice powder if you like, but the key thing is not to overcook it.

Prep Time: 10 minutes

Cooking Time: 5 minutes

Total Time: 15 minutes

Yield: 2 servings, as a side dish

Ingredients

Half a small Savoy cabbage

1 tablespoon sesame oil

4 green onions, sliced

1 tablespoon fresh ginger, finely chopped

1 small fresh red chile, de-seeded and finely chopped

Soy sauce to taste

Directions

1. Shred the cabbage leaves, wash and drain well. Set aside.

2. Heat the oil in a wok until sizzling, then add the green onions, ginger and chile. Stir-fry briefly, then add the cabbage.

3. Stir-fry over medium heat for about 5 minutes until the cabbage is tender but still has a little crunch.

4. Season with soy sauce and serve immediately.

Buttery Braised Savoy Cabbage

An excellent dish to serve with meatballs or chops.

Prep Time: 20 minutes

Cooking Time: 15 minutes

Total Time: 35 minutes

Yield: 4 servings, as a side dish

Ingredients

1 Savoy cabbage

3 tablespoons butter

1 onion, chopped

2 large tomatoes, skinned, de-seeded and chopped

1 tablespoon paprika

2 tablespoons freshly chopped fennel leaves or dill leaves

Juice of half a lemon

Salt and black pepper

2 tablespoons toasted almonds

Directions

1. Discard the very coarse, outer leaves of the cabbage, then cut into quarters and then into thin strips.

2. Melt the butter in a large saucepan and stir in the onion, tomatoes and paprika.

3. Add the cabbage, fennel and lemon juice and mix well together. Season with salt and pepper.

4. Cover the pan and simmer for about 10 minutes or until the cabbage is tender. Add a splash of water or a little more butter if the cabbage mixture seems to be drying out.

5. Sprinkle with the toasted almonds just before serving.

White Fish, Green Cabbage

A surprisingly delicate dish that gives an interesting edge to simply baked white fish.

Prep Time: 10 minutes

Cooking Time: 25 minutes

Total Time: 35 minutes

Yield: 6 servings

Ingredients

6 thick fillets of white fish

1 large Savoy cabbage cut into wedges

1/3 cup butter

Juice of half a lemon

2 two-ounce tins of anchovies in olive oil

14 fluid ounces sour cream

Black pepper

1 bunch of parsley, chopped

Directions

1. Preheat the oven to 392 F (200 C).

2. Arrange the fish in a well-buttered oven dish. Sprinkle with the lemon juice and dot with flakes of butter. Cover with foil and bake for 20 minutes.

3. Steam or microwave the cabbage wedges until tender.

4. Put the anchovy fillets and their oil into a small pan. Gently mash with a wooden spoon over low heat until the anchovies disintegrate. Add the sour cream and black pepper and stir well. Simmer for a few minutes.

5. Arrange the fish and cabbage wedges on a warm serving platter or individual plates. Pour some of the sauce over the fish and scatter with parsley. Serve the remaining sauce separately.

Bubble and Squeak

Originally, this old-fashioned British dish of cooked potatoes and cabbage fried together, was made with leftover beef and cabbage. Potatoes appeared in 19th-century recipes and the beef was discarded. The name supposedly refers to the noise made by the vegetables as they fry in the pan.

Prep Time: 10 minutes (30 minutes if not using leftovers)

Cooking Time: 40 minutes

Total Time: 50 minutes

Yield: 8 servings, as an accompaniment

Ingredients (Amounts are variable, depending on how much leftovers you have.)

1 small Savoy cabbage, shredded, cooked and set aside

2 pounds leftover mashed potatoes

1 onion, thinly sliced

4 to 5 tablespoons butter, drippings or goose fat

Salt and pepper

Directions

1. Mix the cabbage and potatoes together.

2. In a large frying pan, heat some of the fat and fry the onion slowly until soft. Mix into the cabbage and potatoes. Season well.

3. Add the remaining fat to the pan and spoon in the cabbage, potato and onion mixture. Press down with a wooden spoon or spatula until it makes a flat cake. Fry over medium heat until the bottom crisps.

4. Stir to mix the crust into the vegetables, pack down again and then fry to make another crust. Continue until the crisp brown pieces are well mixed with the cabbage and potato. This should take about 20 minutes. Serve hot.

Main photo: Savoy cabbage, a winter vegetable, is a milder and sweeter alternative to other green and red cabbage varieties. Credit: Clarissa Hyman

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Pecan pie with gluten-free crust. Credit: Martha Rose Shulman

For years my sister, who cannot tolerate gluten, has foregone stuffing at Thanksgiving, and carefully scraped her pumpkin pie filling away from the crust. But I’ve been working on gluten-free pie crusts, and now I can accommodate her.

I’ve played around with several of my own gluten-free combinations and have a couple that I like a lot, but they are tricky to roll out. So I looked around this year for commercial gluten-free flour mixes and found a couple that worked for me. My goal was to find a flour that I could substitute for wheat flour in the pie crust formulas that I use regularly for my pies and tarts.

You have to be very careful about the gluten-free flour mix you choose; if it has bean flour in it, your pie crust will taste more like socca, the Niçoise chickpea flour pancake/pizza, than pie crust. Some mixes leave a funny aftertaste and others are chalky. The best way to figure out which you like best is to mix up the pastry dough following the recipes here, roll out a small amount and make cookies. The sweet dough can double as a sugar cookie recipe, and the pâte brisée will be slightly sweet and buttery. Nobody will mind tasting the results.

I made both pâte sucrée (sweet dough) and flakier pâte brisée using two different gluten-free flour mixes, Bob’s Red Mill Gluten Free Pie Crust and King Arthur Gluten Free Multipurpose Flour. I liked the results, for both crusts and flours (although I did not use the formula on the Bob’s package for the crust so can’t vouch for that). Note that the Bob’s Red Mill Gluten Free Pie Crust is not their gluten-free flour product; that product contains fava bean flour and definitely won’t taste right in pie crust (I’ve tried). I have adapted Jacquy Pfeiffer’s pâte sucrée and pâte brisée recipes for these gluten-free versions.

For Thanksgiving pies like pumpkin and pecan, I use the pâte brisée most often because it is less sweet and goes better with these traditional fillings. But for fruit tarts — say if you are making an apple pie — the pâte sucrée is a great choice.

I can’t overemphasize the importance of weighing (in grams) rather than measuring for pastry. I consistently found that the gluten-free flour mixes had a much smaller volume to weight ratio than regular flour, which on average (depending on weather, how long it has been stored, how much it has been aerated) measures about 1 cup per 120 to 125 grams. But the gluten-free weighed more per cup, about 150 grams. The recipes will work best if you weigh.

Gluten-Free Pâte Brisée

Prep time: Ideally, 2 to 3 days total, but only 20 minutes active work

Cook time: 30 to 35 minutes

Total time: 55 minutes – 3 days

Yield: Two 9-inch crusts

This is a flaky pastry with just a small amount of sugar. You can also use it for savory tarts; just leave out the sugar. You will have a more accurate and consistent outcome if you use a scale and the gram weights rather than a measuring cup.

Ingredients

222 grams (8 ounces) unsalted French style butter, such as Plugrà (82% fat), at room temperature, plus a very small amount for the pans

6 grams (approximately 3/4 teaspoon) salt

30 grams (approximately 2 tablespoons) sugar

375 grams (approximately 2 1/2 cups) gluten-free flour mix or pie crust mix, preferably Bob’s Red Mill Gluten Free Pie Crust mix or King Arthur Gluten Free Multipurpose flour, sifted

80 to 92 grams (6 to 7 tablespoons) water, as needed

Directions

1. Place soft butter, salt and sugar in the bowl of a standing mixer and mix on low speed for 1 minute. Add flour and mix on low speed just until ingredients come together. Add 6 tablespoons of the water and mix only the dough comes together. If it does not come together right away, add remaining water. Do not over mix.

2. Scrape mixture out on a sheet of plastic wrap and flatten it into a square. Wrap well and refrigerate overnight.

3. The following day, remove dough from refrigerator, weigh and divide into two equal pieces. Refrigerate one piece while you roll out the other.

4. Very lightly, butter a 9-inch pie dish or tart pan. You should not be able to see any butter on the dish. Roll out the dough – it is easiest to do this on a Silpat — and line the pie dish or tart pan. Ease the dough into the bottom edges of the pan and crimp the top edge. Pierce the bottom in several places with a fork and refrigerate uncovered for several hours or overnight. If freezing, refrigerate for 1 hour, then double wrap in plastic wrap, then in foil. Label, date, and freeze. (Roll out and freeze the other half of the dough if not using).

5. To pre-bake pie crust, heat oven to 325 F. Line crust with parchment and fill with pie weights. Place on a baking sheet and place in the oven for 15 minutes.

6. Remove from oven and carefully remove parchment and pie weights. Return to oven and bake 15 to 20 minutes, until lightly browned and dry.

7. Remove from oven and allow to cool completely.

Gluten-Free Sweet Tart Dough

Prep time: Ideally, 2 to 3 days total, but only 20 minutes active work

Cook time: 30 to 35 minutes

Total time: 55 minutes – 3 days 

Yield: Two 9-inch crusts

Essentially a pâte sucrée, this dough should remain cold when you roll it out. Ideally, you should give it another overnight rest once rolled out, uncovered in the refrigerator, so that the pastry dries out even more. If you don’t have the extra day, give it at least an hour.

Ingredients 

168 grams (6 ounces) unsalted French style butter, such as Plugrà (82 percent fat) at room temperature, plus a very small amount for the pans

1 gram (approximately 1/4 teaspoon) fine sea salt

112 grams / approximately 1 cup confectioners’ sugar, sifted

39 grams / approximately 1/3 rounded cup skinless almond flour, sifted

7 grams / 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract

63 grams / approximately 1 extra-large egg plus 1 to 2 teaspoons beaten egg

315 grams / approximately 2 cups plus 1 1/2 tablespoons gluten free flour mix or pie crust mix, preferably Bob’s Red Mill Gluten Free Pie Crust mix or King Arthur Gluten Free Multipurpose flour, sifted

Directions

1. In a standing mixer fitted with paddle attachment, or in a bowl with a rubber spatula, cream butter and sea salt on medium speed for about 1 minute. Scrape down sides of bowl and paddle with rubber spatula and add confectioners’ sugar. Combine with butter at low speed. Once incorporated, scrape down bowl and paddle. Add almond flour and vanilla extract and combine at low speed.

2. Gradually add egg and 1/4 of cake flour. Beat at low speed until just incorporated. Stop machine and scrape down bowl and paddle. Gradually add remaining flour and mix just until dough comes together. Stop machine from time to time and scrape crumbly mixture that separates from dough on sides and bottom of bowl, then restart machine to incorporate into dough. Do not overbeat. Dough will be soft to the touch.

3. Cut a large piece of plastic and scrape dough out of bowl onto plastic. Gently press into a 1/2-inch thick rectangle. Double-wrap airtight in plastic and refrigerate overnight or for at least 3 hours.

4. The following day, remove dough from refrigerator, weigh and divide into 2 equal pieces. Refrigerate one piece while you roll out the other.

5. Very lightly butter a 9-inch pie dish or tart pan. You should not be able to see any butter on the dish. Roll out the dough — it is easiest to do this on a Silpat — and line the pie dish or tart pan. Ease the dough into the bottom edges of the pan and crimp the top edge. Pierce the bottom in several places with a fork and refrigerate uncovered for several hours or overnight. If freezing, refrigerate for 1 hour, then double wrap in plastic wrap, then in foil. Label, date, and freeze. (Roll out and freeze the other half of the dough if not using).

6. To pre-bake pie crust, heat oven to 325 F. Line crust with parchment and fill with pie weights. Place on a baking sheet and place in the oven for 15 minutes. Remove from oven and carefully remove parchment and pie weights. Return to oven and bake 15 to 20 minutes, until lightly browned and dry. Remove from oven and allow to cool completely.

Main photo: Pecan pie with gluten-free pâte brisée. Credit: Martha Rose Shulman

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Pineapple-butterscotch cake. Credit: Charles Perry

In the beginning, there was the pineapple, and it was good — very, very good, about as good as anything ever gets. But if you didn’t live in pineapple country, it was hard to obtain ones perfectly ripe and in good condition. Then there was canned pineapple, and though it might not have been quite as good as fresh pineapple, it was still pretty darned good. In fact, it begat one of the great creations of the 20th-century American kitchen: the pineapple upside-down cake. Its informing flavor came from the caramelization of the slices that lay on the bottom of the cast-iron frying pan while the cake baked on top.

But then fresh, ripe pineapple became more readily available, and people got tired of dealing with cast-iron pans, and anyway, new pineapple dishes had come along (hello, tiki cuisine). In the 1960s, the pineapple upside-down cake faded away.

Finally, in our own time, chefs discovered the idea of roasting pineapple and started roasting pineapple all over the place, and it was good. It was good for the same reason that pineapple upside-down cake had been good: Pineapple goes wonderfully well with caramelized flavors.

You don’t have to roast the fruit to get the same effect. You can even combine fresh or canned pineapple and butterscotch to get that old-fashioned caramelized flavor. This recipe is based on a pineapple-coconut cake in Nancie McDermott’s “Southern Cakes” (Chronicle Books, 2007). It’s kind of frivolous, but it is good.

Butterscotch-Pineapple Cake

Prep time: About 30 minutes

Cooking time: 30-35 minutes

Total time: About 1 hour

Yield: 1 two-layer cake, 6 to 8 servings

Ingredients

For the cake:

About 1/4 cup butter and 3 tablespoons flour for coating pans

3 cups cake flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 cup milk

1 teaspoon vanilla

1/2 pound (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened

2 cups sugar

4 eggs

For the butterscotch-pineapple filling:

3 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon flour

3 tablespoons sugar

1 20-ounce can crushed pineapple or 1 1/2 cups crushed fresh pineapple with liquid

3 tablespoons butter

1/3 cup butterscotch bits

For the frosting:

2 egg whites

1 cup sugar

1 tablespoon light corn syrup

2/3 cup pineapple juice, reserved from filling

Optional: 2 or 3 drops of yellow food coloring

For the assembly:

1/3 cup butterscotch bits

Directions

For the cake: 

1. Preheat the oven to 350 F.

2. Smear the interior of two 9-inch cake pans generously with butter. Line the bottom of the pans with 9-inch rounds of parchment paper or waxed paper and butter them (this step is optional, but it will help you to remove the cake layers intact). Sprinkle the interior of the pans with about 1 1/2 tablespoons flour each and shake around to coat; overturn the pans above your sink and tap to remove excess flour.

3. In a bowl, mix the 3 cups flour, baking powder and salt and set aside. In a separate bowl, mix the milk and vanilla and set aside.

4. Using an electric mixer, beat the softened butter at high speed in a mixing bowl until light and lemon-colored. Continue beating the butter and slowly add the 2 cups sugar. When the mixture is smooth, about 2 minutes, add the eggs one at a time, beating for 20 seconds after each addition and then scraping down the sides of the bowl with a spatula or wooden spoon.

5. Scoop in 1 cup of the flour mixture and beat at medium speed until the flour is just incorporated. Add half of the milk-vanilla mixture and beat at high speed until incorporated, gently urging all the ingredients together with a spatula. Repeat, alternating flour and milk, until the batter is just incorporated.

6. Scrape the batter into the prepared baking pans, smooth the tops and place in the oven. When the surface has just started to brown, 30 to 35 minutes, give the center a gingerly touch to see whether it has set — it should spring back. (The layers are definitely done when they start to pull away from the sides of the pan, but by that time they may be a little dry.)

7. Remove the pans from the oven and let them rest on racks or folded dish towels for 10 minutes. Set a plate or another rack on top of each pan and overturn it; the layer should pull away at a tap. Overturn the layers again so they’re right side up and let them cool for 20 or 30 minutes.

For the filling:

1. Stir the flour into the sugar.

2. Drain and squeeze the pineapple, reserving 2/3 cup of pineapple juice for use in the frosting.

3. In a small saucepan over medium heat, melt the butter and butterscotch bits. Add the sugar-flour mixture and stir until incorporated. Add the crushed pineapple and stir until thickened, about 5 minutes.

For the frosting:

1. Put the egg whites, sugar, corn syrup and pineapple juice in the top of a double boiler. Put about 1½ inches of water in the bottom of the double boiler and, over high heat, bring it to a boil. Meanwhile beat the frosting ingredients with an electric beater for 1 minute.

2. When the water has reached a full boil, set the top of the double boiler over the bottom, reduce the heat to medium-high and start beating again. After about 7 minutes, the frosting will start to lose its sheen and to form stiff peaks when the beaters are lifted from it.

3. Remove from the heat, add food coloring if desired and beat for 1 minute longer.

To assemble the cake:

1. Place one cake layer on your serving dish with the flat side up. Spread half of the butterscotch-pineapple filling over it, almost to the edge.

2. Set the other layer on top of the first and spread the rest of the filling over the top and sides of the cake. Sprinkle the butterscotch bits as evenly as possible across the top.

Main photo: Pineapple-Butterscotch Cake. Credit: Charles Perry

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Torta al testo, a thin dough, cooks quickly on a heated stone. Credit: Francine Segan

Torta al Testo, a sort of pita bread from Umbria in Italy, is baked on a wood-fire-heated stone, in a dying art that dates back to the ancient Etruscans.

In Umbria, the simple pizza-like dough is rolled out to the thickness of what the Umbrians describe as a “pretty woman’s earlobe.” Then it is slapped onto a stone that’s been heated in a wood-burning fireplace and pricked all over to keep it from puffing up like Indian naan. Because the dough is thin and therefore cooks fast, there’s no need to return the stone to the oven — the residual heat in the stone is all the dough needs to cook through. Before the advent of mechanical timers, Umbrians used recitations of “Hail Mary” to measure how long it took to bake the flatbread on each side, which doesn’t amount to many; it’s the equivalent of a couple of minutes per side at most.

While the bread is still warm, it’s cut in half, then carefully split horizontally with a knife and stuffed with regional Umbrian prosciutto, porchetta or salume, especially Norcia’s specialties — capocollo and lombetto. For a meat-free version, Umbrians fill the torta al testo with cheese and veggies, like stracchino cheese and arugula. Served in wedges, torta al testo would make a unique snack or pre-dinner nibble. It’s also great for lunch with a salad.

Even though the Umbrians use a huge round stone as their testo, a pizza stone is a fine substitute.

Torta al Testo

This recipe comes from the nonprofit Italian group Home Food Italy.

Prep Time: 10 minutes

Cooking Time: 15 minutes

Total Time: 25 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

2 cups all purpose flour

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/4 teaspoon salt

Directions

1. Heat a testo or pizza stone in a wood-burning stove or oven set at 500 F while you prepare the dough.

2. Put the flour into a bowl with the baking soda, salt and ½ cup water. Stir with a fork, adding a few drops of water at a time until it comes together enough so you can knead it. Knead the dough on a lightly floured work surface for about 10 minutes, until the dough is smooth.

3. Form a ball and roll out with a rolling pin until you get a disk about 1 inch thick.

4. Once the testo or pizza stone is very hot, put the dough onto it and pierce with a fork so it doesn’t rise. Allow it to cook on the testo or stone for about 6 minutes and once browned, turn over. Cook on the other side until done.

5. Cut the torta in half and then cut into it horizontally. Fill with cheese, salami, greens or your favorite sandwich fillings.

Main photo: Torta al testo, a thin dough, cooks quickly on a heated stone. Credit: Francine Segan

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Maple-hazelnut fudge. Credit: Charles Perry

As we slide into the holiday season, my mind turns toward maple: maple syrup, maple frosting — and maple fudge.

The world has quite enough chocolate fudge, in my heretical opinion. Chocolate is certainly majestic, but maple has something wonderful and poetical to say for itself. Nobody who has had a bite of maple fudge will ever turn another down. It’s the ideal Thanksgiving sweet, the boss of all stocking stuffers.

These days, a lot of people seem to think that fudge making is so difficult it has to be left to professionals. Oh, fudge, I say. Homemade fudge is an American tradition. Nineteenth-century college girls are said to have invented chocolate fudge — apparently without spoiling their grade-point average.

The anatomy of a beloved candy

Culinarily speaking, fudge is related to caramel because it involves cooking a dairy product (milk, half-and-half or cream) to the point that it undergoes the Maillard reaction, which produces appetizing browned flavors. Specifically, fudge is related to the 19th-century Mexican candy called panocha, which included the decisive step of stirring in chopped nuts.

Fudge has a luxurious texture because it is whipped as it cools to prevent the formation of large crystals. Small crystals melt easily and appealingly, and a fat-based ingredient — butter or chocolate (or both) — adds its own lusciousness. The faint bitterness of the nuts takes the curse off the overwhelming sweetness of the candy, which is why nuts have become all but universal in fudge recipes.

For maple fudge, the most common nuts are walnuts or pecans, which are both excellent. On general principle, I would first toast them at 350 F until they can easily be pierced by a needle, about 7 minutes. I have also tried toasted coconut as a substitute, which is pretty good, though I was surprised to find that the coconut flavor dominated the maple more than I liked. Ultimately, I decided I favored the version made with toasted hazelnuts. Because, face it, hazelnuts are awesome.

It’s not as hard as you think

Many fudge recipes call for a pastry marble to cool the syrup on, which can make those who don’t own one uneasy. So just use a baking pan instead. (I wouldn’t recommend a cookie sheet without a raised edge, however, because if it isn’t perfectly level, the hot syrup can drip right off.) You do need a good thermometer, but these days any serious cook has one.

In short, the following recipe is somewhat flexible. You can cook the syrup to 240 F or so; you can let it cool to 105 F before beating it; you can beat it longer than the specified time. The crucial thing is that the syrup must reach the soft-ball stage, 238 F at sea level. (If you live at an elevation above 3,500 feet, you are probably familiar with the degree to which you must adjust your temperatures.)

Maple-Nut Fudge

Prep time: 5 to 10 minutes

Cooking time: 30 to 35 minutes

Total time: About 2¾ hours (includes cooling time)

Yield: 25 to 36 pieces

Ingredients

4 tablespoons (½ stick) butter, divided, softened

3 cups sugar

¾ cup maple syrup

1½ cups half-and-half

3 tablespoons corn syrup

Pinch salt

2 teaspoons vanilla

1½ cups roughly chopped nuts — pecans, walnuts or toasted hazelnuts — toasted for 5 to 7 minutes at 350 F

Directions
1. Line an 8-inch baking dish with aluminum foil (make sure that the edges extend past the rim) and grease with 1 tablespoon softened butter.

2. In a 3-quart pot over low heat, stir together the sugar, maple syrup, half-and-half, corn syrup and salt until smooth. Continue to stir until the sugar is dissolved, 5 minutes.

3. Insert the sensor of a candy thermometer into the mixture. Increase the heat to bring to a boil and cook without stirring until the syrup reaches the soft-ball state (238 F), about 15 minutes. The syrup will foam up alarmingly but settle down by 225 F. Warning: The heated syrup can cause severe burnsWear an apron and use oven mitts.

4. Remove the thermometer probe from the pan and pour the fudge onto a pastry marble (if you don’t have one, use a 12-by-18-inch baking pan sprayed with nonstick spray). Divide the remaining 3 tablespoons of softened butter into several pieces and dot them here and there on top.

5. Clean the thermometer sensor and stick it anywhere in the fudge. When the temperature measures 110 F (about 5 minutes on a marble, 10 or 12 minutes on a baking pan), scrape the fudge into a mixer bowl with the mixer paddle attached, add the vanilla and beat until the fudge is thick and losing its shine, 5 to 10 minutes.

6. Mix in the nuts. Turn the fudge into the prepared baking dish and let it cool to room temperature, 2 hours.

7. Remove the fudge from the dish by lifting the edges of the aluminum foil and transfer it to a work surface. Rub a chef’s knife with a piece of paper towel wetted with vegetable oil and make 4 cuts in one direction and then 4 cuts in the other, or 5 cuts in each direction, re-oiling the knife as necessary. Wrap the pieces in waxed paper.

If it is not to be eaten immediately, store the fudge in an air-tight container (it can otherwise absorb moisture and soften, particularly in damp weather). It will keep several weeks in a refrigerator, but generally speaking, it’s a gift best given fresh.

Main photo: Maple-hazelnut fudge. Credit: Charles Perry

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Grilled Polenta With Fontina and diced tomatoes can be made in about 30 minutes, if you use instant polenta. Credit: Clarissa Hyman

When the young teen superstar Mozart arrived in the Trentino region to play his first Italian gig, they had to call out the guards to protect him from being mobbed by fans. The Justin Bieber of his day, Mozart stayed in Rovereto, a small town that straddled the then-Italian-Austrian border. We don’t know what he played in the beautiful Baroque church, (a bratty show-off, he often improvised as he went along), but it’s a good bet that afterward he dined on polenta, polenta and more polenta.

Polenta vs. pasta

Polenta is to the far north of Italy what pasta is to the rest, and it is widely eaten throughout Trentino-Alto Aldige, Lombardy, Piedmont, Veneto, as well as in Tuscany. At one time smart Italian restaurants would not have been caught dead serving polenta, il cibo della miseria, the food of poverty. Basically it is a sort of thick porridge made from maize (corn) and water, and for centuries was a staple, belly filling food for impoverished rural people. Put that way, it sounds less than glamorous. Tell the folks today they’re getting gruel or grits — not buying into a slice of dolce vita lifestyle along with the Balsamic and sun-dried tomatoes — and you’re not going to sell a lot of packets. For many consumers, it’s still a case of overpriced and over-hyped.

Nonetheless, the wheel of polenta fortune has turned, and it has morphed into a fashionable food accessory, presented as elegant crispy triangles, diamonds and squares, as well as a smooth, buttery puree.

At its best, polenta can have a slightly nutty, sweet-corn-like taste, but essentially it is a carrier of other flavors and textures, a backdrop for sauces and a foil for meats, vegetables, fungi or cheese. It is remarkably versatile, served hot, cold, firm, supple or sloppy, thin or thick, or two fingers wide. Leftovers can be baked, fried or grilled. It can also be sweetened with sugar and cinnamon or used in cakes and pastries.

There are hundreds of regional recipes, but at its simplest, all that’s needed is butter and grated Parmesan or Grana Padano to transform a dull dish into something altogether more special. It is a country food made good.

Polenta, the old-fashioned way

There is something magical about the way polenta turns from a dull grain into a golden slice.

Making polenta the old-fashioned way is as good as a workout at the gym. Polenta is traditionally cooked in an unlined copper pan called a paiolo. The salted water must boil furiously in a vortex created by swirling the water clockwise (the reverse may well be the case in the southern hemisphere, if plugholes are anything to go by).

The cornmeal is added in a slow, steady drizzle (a pioggia, as if it were raining), then stirred vigorously (great for the biceps) with a bastone in the same direction for about 40 minutes lest it catch or congeal into hard lumps. The bastone, or wooden stirring stick, needs to be long, as polenta has a nasty habit of spitting viciously as it cooks. Once it becomes a cohesive mass, like a bubbling yellow swamp, it is poured onto a wooden board or even a scrubbed kitchen table, and cut with a wooden knife or long thread.

Modern methods

If you don’t have a paiolo, then it’s unlikely you will also have a big fireplace hearth with a cooking crane on which to hang your pot. Despair not — any large, heavy pot that gives an even heat will do, and it’s even possible to buy electric polenta makers with paddles a little like ice cream machines.

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Baked Polenta With Italian Sausages, Mushrooms and Cheese, topped with a good tomato sauce, can be a hearty, filling comfort meal. Credit: Clarissa Hyman

When looking for polenta to buy, consider the Molino Spadoni brand: Fioretto Polenta is yellow and fine-grained and becomes beautifully creamy; Bramata Polenta is thicker and more granular and produces a more rustic polenta.

Contemporary cheats, however, use instant polenta: The maize flour is steamed and pre-cooked, added to boiling water, stock or milk, and is ready within minutes. Valsugana is a popular instant brand in Italy.

Anna del Conte recommends another cooking method in “The Classic Food of Northern Italy”: cook it in a pressure cooker or the oven. Del Conte has also endorsed a revolutionary approach, at least in purist polenta circles, in which the polenta is added all at once to cold water.

Polenta: The five-minute method

Follow instructions on the instant polenta packet, adding extra hot liquid if you like your polenta on the runny side. Use stock or milk and water in place of just water if preferred for extra flavor.

Stir in a generous amount of butter and Parmesan to make a mash-cum-puree. Either serve as is or pour into a greased loaf pan and let cool until firm. Slice it thickly, brush with olive oil, and fry or grill until brown and nicely toasted.

Grilled Polenta With Fontina

Prep time: 15 minutes

Total time: 30 minutes

Yield: 4 servings, as an appetizer

Ingredients

3 to 4 plum tomatoes, diced or roughly chopped

Salt and coarsely ground black pepper

12 slices of firm, cooked polenta (about ¾ cup uncooked)

1 to 2 tablespoons olive oil

1 cup Fontina cheese, shredded or sliced

Fresh basil leaves, shredded

Directions

1. Mix the tomatoes, salt and pepper together and set aside.

2. Brush both sides of the polenta slices with olive oil. Broil under a medium heat for 5 minutes or until one side is golden. Turn the slices over and top with the cheese.

3. Cook for another 5 minutes or until the cheese melts.

4. Place on serving plates and serve, topped with the tomatoes and shredded basil leaves.

 

Baked Polenta With Italian Sausages, Mushrooms and Cheese

Prep time: 40 minutes (plus chilling for several hours or overnight)

Total time: 60 minutes

Yield: 4 servings, as a main course

Ingredients

1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

1 small onion, chopped

2 large garlic cloves, crushed

1 red pepper, cored, seeded and diced

2 Italian sausages with fennel seeds, casing removed, crumbled

2 cups mushrooms, chopped

3/4 cup of polenta (cornmeal)

1 tablespoon fresh, chopped parsley, plus extra for serving

Pinch of cayenne pepper

½ cup ricotta cheese

1 cup grated Gruyere cheese

Salt and pepper

1/4 stick butter, diced

2 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese

Tomato sauce

Directions

1. Heat olive oil in a frying pan and lightly sauté the onion, garlic and red pepper.

2. Add the crumbled sausage and cook until the meat starts to change color.

3. Add the mushrooms and cook for another five minutes, then set aside.

4. Cook the polenta according to the packet instructions. When it is ready, remove from the heat and stir in the parsley, a pinch of cayenne pepper, the ricotta and Gruyere cheese. Add the sausage and sweet pepper mixture, fold in well, season with salt and pepper.

5. Pour the mixture into a shallow, round dish that has been lined with plastic wrap. Cool, then cover and chill for a few hours or overnight.

6. When ready to serve, preheat the oven to 190 C. Use the plastic wrap to remove the polenta onto a board. Cut the polenta into wedges and place into an oiled shallow roasting dish, large enough to hold the polenta in one layer without crowding.

7. Dot with the diced butter and sprinkle with the Parmesan cheese. Bake 15 to 20 minutes, or until the polenta is golden.

8. Garnish with chopped fresh parley, serve with a good tomato sauce.

Main photo: Grilled Polenta With Fontina and diced tomatoes can be made in about 30 minutes, if you use instant polenta. Credit: Clarissa Hyman


Centuries of polenta

1. The culinary ancestor of polenta was pulmentum, a grain paste made from farro, a kind of spelt, in the form of either a hard cake or soft porridge. It was a staple for the legionnaires of ancient Rome.

2. Before maize was introduced to Italy from America in the 17th century, polenta was made using wheat, barley, oats, millet, chestnut flour or buckwheat. The last two are still used in parts of Tuscany as well as in Valtellina and other Alpine valleys.

3. When the new grain was unloaded in Venice, it would usually have come via Turkey. It is still sometimes called granoturco or Turkish corn in Italy.

4. Not all polenta flour is egg-yolk gold. In the Veneto, it is often made from special, extra-fine white maize, polentina bianca, and is so thin it is spooned rather than cut.

5. In parts of the Trento and Piedmont, black maize flour may be mixed with buckwheat to make polenta nera or polenta taragna.

6. There are also different gradings of polenta. Strictly speaking, the right degree of coarseness should be chosen for each dish. Coarse ground to go with rich meat and tomato sauces, sausages or salt cod; the finer variety for more delicate dressings of cheese, milk, butter or wild mushrooms. Either way, stone-ground polenta is worth seeking out for its more complex, extra-nutty taste.

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Father Paul Dumais. Credit: Christine B. Rudalevige

The Rev. Paul Dumais has spent much of his free time in the past year sorting truth from rumor concerning the science behind a traditional comfort food in his home state of Maine.

Dumais, a Catholic priest who lives in Lewiston, has been studying the chemical composition of ployes (rhymes with toys). He’s attempting to discern the scientific facts about the batter for these traditional French Acadian buckwheat pancakes or flatbreads from the theatrical stories passed down by generations of Acadian people living in northern Maine.

For example, his grandmother would use only Rumford baking powder in her ployes. “The rumor was that if you didn’t use Rumford’s, your ployes would turn green,” said Dumais, adding that he can’t scientifically support that claim.

He can, though, methodically corroborate his grandmother’s “feel” for when there is enough water in the mix because he’s calculated that a hydration rate of 170% (170 grams of water to 100 grams of flour) makes the best ployes. If the batter is too thick, they don’t cook evenly. If it’s too thin, the finished product is not hearty enough to do its job of providing a simple carbohydrate filler food for the local population. One serving of ployes has 100 calories, 21 grams of carbs and 2 grams of protein.

Dumais says “flatbread” is a more accurate term than “pancake” for ployes because they are not traditionally eaten for breakfast and traditionally not served with maple syrup. They are buttered, rolled and served at lunch or dinner with savory dishes like creton, a pork spread containing onions and spices; baked beans; and an Acadian chicken stew called fricot.

Never flip a ploye

Ployes are never, ever flipped like a flapjack. The batter, which must not be over mixed, is portioned on a dry, hot griddle; swished once into a 4- or 5-inch circle; and cooked face up so you can see the heat “fait les yeux” or “make the eyes.” Those “eyes” are the air bubbles that dot the surface of perfectly cooked ployes.

Dumais is a Mainer in the true sense of the word. He serves as Catholic chaplain to Central Maine Medical Center and Bates College and is a founding member of the Fraternity of St. Philip Neri. He was born and raised in the small town of Madawaska, which sits in the middle of a place called “the Valley” in Aroostook County. “The Valley” forms part of the international border with Canada along the St. John River. Madawaska, which now has a population of 4,000, was founded by French-speaking agrarian settlers in 1785 after they were forcefully dispersed by the English from the region of Acadie, a part of New France that included sections of what we now recognize as Eastern Quebec and the Maritime Provinces.

Ployes mixes from Bouchard Family Farms. Credit: Christine B. Rudalevige

Ployes mixes from Bouchard Family Farms. Credit: Christine B. Rudalevige

Dumais is armed with both taste memory and newfangled kitchen gadgets (like his  infrared thermometer, a highly accurate kitchen scale and his preferred Danish dough whisk) and is enthusiastically fond of mixing experimentation with deep-set culinary tradition. His end game — spurred on by his Great Aunt Prescille’s faint memory — is to produce a ploye batter much like his great-great-grandmother made from local grains and natural, ambient yeast.

Dumais recently evangelized the scientific wonders of ployes at the annual Kneading Conference in Skowhegan. The starting point in his public demonstration involves ready-made ployes mixes from two sources: his cousins’ garage in Frenchville, and the more commercially available mix sold by Bouchard Family Farms. The measurements — 1 cup of ployes mix to 1⅓ cups of cold water — are spelled out on the side of the stand-up paper sacks. So are instructions for letting the batter rest for 5 minutes, the proper amount for each ploye (3 ounces), recommended thickness (⅛ inch) and expected cooking time (60 to 90 seconds). Dumais does advise users of these mixes to play with the amount of water added as he believes the viscosity should be a bit thinner than the labels’ recipe prescribes.

The ingredients for these mixes comprise a simple list and look much like his mother’s “from scratch” recipe (below), which serves as his second data point. Here he likes to demonstrate his hydration discoveries, making dramatic pouring gestures of too-slow ploye dough that has only 100 percent hydration and requires the cook to work too hard to spread it on the hot griddle. He also shows how too-fast batter quickly seeps across the boundaries of its allotted griddle real estate.

Sharing tips for success

But Dumais gets most animated when he presents his progress on developing a recipe for the naturally leavened ployes he suspects his ancestors made, even though he has been unable to find historical documentation of this process in the University of Maine Acadian Archives. He relays the story of when he tasted a savory pancake made by a Somali immigrant named Angela at a potluck dinner celebrating an urban farming program run by St. Mary’s Nutrition Center in Lewiston last winter. They did not have a spoken language in common, but it didn’t matter. With bread as a cultural currency they both understood, Angela could convey that the secret to her bread was a yogurt-based starter that she kept in a jar and from that jar she began each new batch of pancakes.

A vertical stack. Credit: Christine B. Rudalevige

A vertical stack. Credit: Christine B. Rudalevige

It clicked for Dumais at that moment and he ran with the fermented flour starter idea, playing with flour amounts and types, feeding times, temperatures and hydration ratios. “Then one day, I made a batch. Watched and tasted. And finally thought, ‘Why, I think I’ve got it!’ ” Dumais said.

As he poured, swished once to form the right-sized circumference for the flatbread and watched for the heat to fait les yeux, Dumais said, “Now that is a ploye my mémé could be proud of.” These ployes looked much like the others, but had a bit of a sourdough finish.

In honor of the 2014 Acadian World Congress held in multiple locations along the U.S.-Canadian border over two weeks in August, Dumais hosted a continual feast near an ancestral homestead.

“My personal little quest was to reintroduce the naturally leavened ployes in honor of the event,” Dumais said. One evening he cooked alongside his mother to create some chicken stew and his new recipe for old-fashioned ployes for family.

Just as his mother had done every other time she’d eaten Acadian chicken stew, Dumais said for this meal “she buttered a ploye, rolled it up and dunked the end in her stew and remarked to another family member: ‘These are made without baking powder. They are very good.’

“Part of what might be difficult to appreciate is that people eat ployes all the time. … My mother was able to appreciate the moment largely because I had been in conversation with her all along,” he said.

People enjoyed Dumais’ ployes, but it “was an understated return of the traditional Acadian flatbread,” he said. The fact that they were made with family, for family, in an open-air kitchen on the banks of the St. John River near a cedar cabin built by his grandfather was satisfaction enough for him.

Ployes from scratch

This is Father Paul Dumais’  formula to replicate his mother’s ployes, traditional French Acadian buckwheat savory flatbreads. A scientifically enthusiastic baker, he highly recommends weighing the dry ingredients to yield the most authentic ployes.

Prep time: 1 minute

Cook time: 9 minutes

Total time: 15 minutes (including rest time of about 5 minutes for the batter)

Yield: 10 ployes

Ingredients

100 grams (½ cup plus 1 tablespoon) buckwheat flour

100 grams (a scant ¾ cup) all-purpose flour (Dumais uses King Arthur)

4 grams (½ teaspoon) salt

6 grams (2 teaspoons) baking powder (Dumais uses Rumford)

340 grams (1¾ cup) cold water (possibly more)

Directions

1. Preheat a griddle to 400 F.

2. Stir together buckwheat and all-purpose flours, salt and baking powder in a large bowl. Using a wire whisk, beat in the cold water until all the lumps are dissolved.

3. Let the batter sit for approximately 5 to 10 minutes.

4. In a circular motion, use back of spoon to spread 3 ounces of batter to ⅛ inch thick circles that are 5 inches in diameter. Cook ployes for 1½ minutes until the tops are bubbly and dry. Remove from griddle and serve warm, slathered with butter, with savory soups and stews.

Main photo: Father Paul Dumais. Credit: Christine B. Rudalevige

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Emmer and wheat bread with jam is a good choice for breakfast. Credit: Trine Hahnemann

Every time you bake a load of bread, it’s a small miracle — combining flour, water, salt and air to get the final product.

When humans found a way to store grains and make them into flour, it changed the course of history, enabling economies and populations to grow. In so many ways, bread is at the core of our history. Bread is culture, and it is about people. It’s also about love — think about how we bake for people we love, our family and friends.

I recently read Michael Pollan’s book “Cooked,” and it made me think a lot about my relationship with bread. I did not relate to his idea of the perfect bread, which he claims to have found in Chad Robertson’s Tartine sourdough bread. Robertson’s bread, I’m sure, is amazing. I have not tasted it from his cafe, but I have enjoyed Robertson’s book, and I think it is a thorough and detailed baking book with a guide on how to make sourdough bread.

Bread shouldn’t be perfect, but varied

But to Pollan’s point, is there such a thing as perfect bread? I sustain myself every day on rye bread — actually, I can’t live without it. In the Middle East, they live on flatbread and pita, and in many parts of Eastern Europe they live on different types of rye bread. Thousands of bread traditions exist around the world, and the new and trendy sourdough bread made with a dark, tasty crust and light, airy texture can’t take all them out in one go.

I bake bread according to what I am going to eat and what kind of flour I have in the house. I often like to eat dense bread with a lot of fiber, and I like to bake with varieties of flour such as rye, spelt, emmer and different heritage wheats. I use a lot of local flours, such as Ølands wheat. This summer I met a farmer at a Kneading Conference in Maine who had just started growing some Øland hvede wheat. Interest in that particular variety is growing.

The flavor of bread comes from the flour, so bread can’t be better than the flour you use to bake it. You can add to that with your skill and knowledge, which comes from practice. Baking doesn’t have to be only scientific; it can also be very intuitive.

Pollan writes in “Cooked” that he has concerns about the Tartine sourdough bread being 100 percent plain wheat and therefore not as healthy as a whole-grain bread, but it’s a challenge to get the same crust and texture with whole grains. My question is why not just enjoy a variety of breads baked using different methods?

I believe bread has to be about variety, and that comes from diversity in both craftsmanship and grains. Both have more or less disappeared in Western food culture, with the food-manufacturing industry taking over food production.

No matter what, good bread needs quality flour milled from grains treated with care and grown in an environment with crop rotation and care for the soil. The flour has to be stone ground and not separated in the process, and it can’t be older than 7 months when used. Finally, when baking bread, the dough needs time to ferment. Large-scale food manufacturers do not apply to any of these above-mentioned techniques, and many small bakeries do not either.

So, do you have to bake your own bread to have good bread? The answer is both yes and no. If we don’t bake it ourselves, we have to make conscious choices about the bread we buy.

If you are hesitant about the idea of baking your own bread and all it involves, you should know that baking is not hard or time consuming; most doughs take care of themselves.

Baking is part of my everyday life; I bake rye bread every week, and I also bake a lot of other breads, including this dense and tasty emmer wheat bread. It contains about 25 percent whole-grain flour, so it’s very filling. I eat only a slice for breakfast, and it’s perfect for a sandwich on the second day or with soup during the winter months.

Emmer and Wheat Bread

Emmer is an old wheat variety that contains a lot of protein and minerals and tastes wonderful. Eat the bread the Danish way with cheese or jam for breakfast or with a salad or soup.

Prep time: 1 hour

Cooking and proofing time: 8 to 12 hours

Total time: About 2 hours active work, spread over multiple days

Yield: Makes two loaves

Ingredients

2 cups (280 grams) stone-ground whole-grain emmer flour

4½ cups (500 grams) strong wheat flour

1½ teaspoons organic dry yeast

1 tablespoon flaky sea salt

2¼ cups (600 milliliters) cold water

Directions

1. Start by mixing the flours in a large mixing bowl, then add in the dry yeast and salt.

The bread dough. Credit: Trine Hahnemann

The bread dough. Credit: Trine Hahnemann

2. Pour in the water, mixing the dough until it is smooth and even. If you have a Kitchen Aid or similar mixer, use it to mix the dough. The dough should be quite sticky and will absorb a lot of the water while rising.

3. Place the dough in a bowl and cover it with a kitchen towel, then let it rise at room temperature for a half-hour.

4. After it rises, cover the bowl with cling film and place it in the refrigerator for 8 to 12 hours.

5. After proofing in the refrigerator, place the dough on a floured surface and let it rest for 30 minutes.

6. With spatula and a bit of flour, divide the dough into two equal pieces and shape it into two round loafs without kneading too much.

7. Place the loaves on a baking tray lined with parchment paper and cover with a kitchen towel. Leave to rise for about 30 to 45 minutes.

8. Check on the dough. It should have risen a little and bounce back easily when touched lightly. If the dough rises for too long, it will start going flat.

9. Preheat the oven to 450 F (225 C or Gas 7).

10. Sprinkle the oven with water or place a small oven-proof bowl filled with water inside. This will create some steam in the oven.

11. When the dough is ready, place it in the oven and bake for 10 minutes, then lower the heat to 400 F (200 C or Gas 6) and bake for 35 more minutes.

12. Remove the bread from the oven and leave it to cool on an open wire rack. It’s important not to cut the bread before it’s cool because the bread continues to bake during the cooling time and is not done until entirely cooled.

Main photo: Emmer and Wheat Bread with jam is a good choice for breakfast. Credit: Trine Hahnemann

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