Articles in Baking w/recipe

Slices of Povitica, a Croatian coffeecake, feature beautiful swirls of the chocolate walnut filling. Credit: Copyright 2015 Barbara Haber

I used to think that I already knew about every fattening confection known to man or woman until I watched “The Great British Baking Show,” a television baking contest that recently concluded its current season. This is where I first heard about Povitica (pronounced po-va-teets-sa), a Croatian coffeecake that I was eager to try.

But before I go on about this cake, let me hasten to add that I take pride in not watching television cooking contests because I get angry at the sight of haughty judges taking little nibbles of a dish while anxious and browbeaten young cooks wait for a verdict on their efforts. I dislike watching the power relationship between the mighty judges and the humiliated contestants. Furthermore, since I can’t taste the food being judged, who’s to say that I would agree with the praise or condemnation bestowed upon a dish? Everyone knows that tastes vary, that ingredients and flavors appealing to one person will leave another cold. For instance, were I to judge a contest, any dish containing cilantro or beets would automatically fail with me, but I at least recognize that this isn’t fair.

So, if I dislike cooking contests, then why did I watch and enjoy “The Great British Baking Show”? And why did I find myself eager to bake Povitica, the complicated and gorgeous sweet bread I’d never heard of that was one of the challenges facing the British contestants?

Learning experience

To start with, I find the setup of this British show interesting in that a diverse group of 12 talented amateur bakers are brought in from around Britain to compete for the crown. And I should add that there is no big prize money involved — just the honor of winning. One of the men was a construction worker, and one of the women was a 17-year-old schoolgirl, so the makeup of the group defied stereotypes. I was struck by the sweet natures of the contestants, who routinely helped one another so that if someone finished a bake early, then he or she would pitch in to help another complete a dish.

What I especially liked was that one of the judges, Paul Hollywood, an artisan baker, was terrific at explaining the qualities expected of any of the three baking challenges that occur during each show. Contestants placed their dishes on a table and Hollywood cut them in half before pointing out their successes or shortcomings. He brings important standards to the contest, examining the overall appearance of the product, whether or not fillings and frostings are even and of good consistency and not lopsided or runny, or if a batch of cookies is uniform and not mismatched. Underbaked dough is usually the worst offense and is guaranteed to put a contestant at the bottom of the heap.

As a viewer, I can see for myself the points Hollywood makes, and when a dish hits the mark, his explanation brings new understanding to what successful baking is all about. Of course the flavor of a dish also counts and is discussed, but as I have already mentioned, taste is a matter of opinion and the judges on the show sometimes disagree.

The emphasis in this program on the visual gave me an insight as to why I sometimes watch another reality show, “Project Runway,” where young clothing designers compete for a large cash prize and the chance to show their work at a New York fashion week. Top designers serve as judges and point out the flaws and glories of a given garment, and I learn from their sophisticated sense of design, for I can see what they are talking about.

While I would never attempt to stitch up a garment  — sewing machines have always terrified me — I couldn’t wait to whip up Povitica, which turned out to be a challenging yeast product with a tricky shape.

Perfecting Povitica

It is similar to cinnamon bread in that the dough is rolled flat, covered with a filling, then rolled and placed into a standard bread pan.

Povitica dough, rich with butter and eggs, is rolled out thin and filled with a mixture of chocolate and walnuts. Credit: Copyright 2015 Barbara Haber

Povitica dough, rich with butter and eggs, is rolled out thin and filled with a mixture of chocolate and walnuts. Credit: Copyright 2015 Barbara Haber

But with Povitica the dough, rich with butter and eggs, is rolled out extremely thin and then filled with a heavy mixture of chocolate and walnuts, all of which inhibit the rising of the dough. Then, the rolled dough goes into the pan and is intricately shaped so that the finished product, when sliced, exhibits beautiful swirls. My first attempt at Povitica, using an online recipe, was a flop. The dough didn’t rise properly and the finished cake was inedible except for the filling of chocolate and walnuts, which I forbade myself from scraping off and eating.

With my next attempt I added more yeast to the dough and bravely carried on. I made another important adjustment to the traditional recipe by not spreading the rolled dough with butter before putting on the filling, for the slippery butter made it difficult to evenly apply the filling. Instead, I put the butter into the filling so that distributing it over the dough became a cinch.

If I do say so myself, my second Povitica turned out to be a demystified triumph, rising beautifully during the bake and when cut in half exposing the signature swirls of the dish. I will make one again without trepidation, and I now find myself looking forward to next season’s British Baking Show when I hope to learn about even more new fattening treats.

Povitica

Prep time: 1 hour

Rising time: 3 hours

Baking time: 1 hour

Total time: 5 hours

Ingredients

For the dough:

1 package rapid-rise yeast

1/3 cup sugar

3/4 cup milk, heated to 115 F

1 teaspoon salt

5 tablespoon unsalted butter, melted

1 large egg

2 1/2 cups flour

For the filling:

2 cups walnuts

3/4 cup sugar

3 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder

1/4 cup milk

6 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 large egg yolk

1/2 teaspoon vanilla

Glaze:

1 egg white

1 teaspoon sugar

Instructions

Make the dough:

1. In the stand of a mixer fitted with a paddle, add yeast, 1 tablespoon sugar and half of the warm milk.

2. Let rest until foamy, about 10 minutes.

3. Add remaining sugar and milk, salt, butter and egg, and mix for 30 seconds.

4. With motor running, slowly add flour and beat until smooth and dough is not stuck to the sides of the bowl.

5. Cover dough with plastic wrap and let rise for about 90 minutes.

Make the filling:

1. In a food processor, chop walnuts together with sugar and cocoa until walnuts are finely chopped. Do not grind them to a paste.

2. Heat milk and butter to boiling and pour over the nut mixture.

3. Add egg yolk and vanilla to nut mixture and stir thoroughly.

4. Keep mixture at room temperature until ready to spread on dough.

Constructing the cake:

1. Grease a 9-by-5-inch loaf pan with butter.

2. On a lightly floured surface, roll out risen dough as thin as you can until dough is at least 15 inches long and 10 inches wide. (I use a tabletop for this.)

3. Spread dough with nut mixture.

4. Starting from the long end, roll dough into a tight cylinder.

5. Place in pan in a U shape and circle the ends of the cylinder over the top of the dough already in the pan.

6. Cover and let rise for about 90 minutes.

7. Beat egg white with a fork until foamy and spread over surface of the cake.

8. Sprinkle top with pearl sugar or with regular granulated sugar.

9. Heat oven to 350 F and bake about 1 hour or until a toothpick inserted into the middle comes out clean. Let cool in the pan.

Note: Make sure filling is spreadable. If too thick, add a small amount of milk before spreading on the dough. Before the last 15 minutes of baking, if cake is brown enough, cover with foil to prevent burning. When ready to slice the cake, it is easier to cut from the bottom or sides.

Main photo: Slices of Povitica, a Croatian coffeecake, feature beautiful swirls of the chocolate walnut filling. Credit: Copyright 2015 Barbara Haber

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Polenta cake makes a healthy breakfast option. Credit: Copyright 2015 Terra Brockman

Cake. It’s what’s for breakfast.

And why not? Some studies show that a high carbohydrate and high protein breakfast actually helps people shed pounds. So it turns out your Marie Antoinette breakfast need not be a guilty pleasure. You can actually have your cake and lose weight, too.

In fact, this easy one-bowl take on the classic Italian Amor Polenta cake of Lombardy is far healthier than most processed breakfast cereals — full of the wholesome goodness of corn, butter, eggs and almonds. Flavored with citrus zest and apple eau-de-vie, and served with berries, it’s a satisfying breakfast that will keep you going all day long.

While cornmeal can be made from just about any variety of dent corn, the older heirloom varieties such as Mandan Bride, Floriani Red and Painted Mountain are superior in taste. Now that locally grown and locally milled grains are enjoying a renaissance across the U.S., you can probably find delicious and nutritious corn grown by someone near you. And if you want the freshest and most nutritious cornmeal possible, you can even invest in a countertop grain mill.

If you don’t have a source of freshly ground corn, just about any store-bought cornmeal will be fine in this cake, whether it says polenta on the package or not. But if you want to make the traditional Amor Polenta or Dolce Varese, look for the finely ground farina di mais fioretto or the even more refined farina di mais fumetto.

Although this cake has butter, eggs and sugar, as any good cake must, it is not a butter bomb or a sugar rush. Rather it’s a not-too-rich, not-too-sweet slice of perfection — just right as an accompaniment to your morning tea or coffee. So say goodbye to processed cereals and hello to healthy polenta cake for breakfast.

Healthy Breakfast Polenta Cake

Prep time: 20 minutes

Cook time: 45 minutes

Total time: 1 hour, 5 minutes

Yield: One (8- or 9-inch) loaf cake, about 10 servings

Ingredients

2 sticks (8 ounces) butter

3/4 cup sugar

Zest of one lemon

Zest of one orange

3 eggs

3 tablespoons apple brandy, amaretto, or other liqueur

1/2 teaspoon Fiori di Sicilia (or vanilla or almond extract)

1 cup cornmeal

1 3/4 cup almond flour

1/3 cup unbleached wheat flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

Directions

1. Preheat oven to 350 F. Butter a loaf pan and dust with cornmeal.

2. Put the butter, sugar, and lemon and orange zest in a mixing bowl and beat until light and fluffy. Then add eggs one at a time, beating after each addition, and scraping down the sides of the mixing bowl.

3. Beat in the liqueur and Fiori di Sicilia or other flavoring.

4. In a separate bowl, stir together the dry ingredients: the polenta, almond flour, wheat flour, baking powder and salt.

5. While the mixer is running at low speed, slowly add the dry ingredients to the butter mixture until just combined.

6. Pour the batter into the prepared loaf pan and bake until a lovely aroma comes from the oven, and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean, about 45 minutes

7. Let cool in the pan for about 1/2 hour, and then loosen the cake from the sides of the pan with a knife and tip it out onto a rack to cool completely.

8. Slice and serve with fresh fruit, or frozen fruit or fruit jam you may have from last summer.

Main photo: Breakfast polenta cake. Credit: Copyright 2015 Terra Brockman

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P is for Passover Cake can be adapted for use at other times of the year, too. Change the P to E, and you have a lovely Easter treat! Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

When it comes to the science of baking as opposed to the art of cooking, it doesn’t do to have clumsy, chubby fingers. Chemistry needs cool palms and a sweat-free brow.

A dear friend of mine, the late Zena Swerling, was a naturally gifted cook, but it was in the realm of baking that she truly shone. “Here’s another can’t-go-wrong recipe,” she’d offer breezily, and although they always worked, they were never quite the same as when served by Zena herself.

Zena started baking when she was “just tall enough to get my chin over my Russian mummy’s kitchen table.” She was a good, old-fashioned cook with a generous hand and heart, but it was not always easy to interpret and annotate her recipes unless you were by her side in the kitchen. Even then, it was difficult because she’d always insist you sit down instead for a light five-course snack with a good helping of juicy gossip.

With Passover here, I’m pleased to share her recipe for ingber, also known as ingberlach (also sometimes called pletzlach), an old-fashioned Ashkenazi carrot-and-ginger festive candy that too few have the patience to make anymore.

Zena, I hope you’re kvelling with pride.

Zena’s Ingber

Add more or less ginger as preferred, but this sweet confection of carrots and ginger should smolder in the mouth.

Prep time: 10 minutes

Cook time: 50 minutes

Total time: 1 hour

Yield: About 18 pieces

Ingredients

5 large carrots, peeled

2 cups superfine sugar

1 cup chopped almonds

3 teaspoons ground ginger

Directions

1. Finely grate the carrots in the processor and put them in a large pan.

2. Add the sugar; stir over low heat until it dissolves. Cook very slowly, stirring frequently, until the mixture is thick (test by dropping a little onto a plate to see if it sets, like jam). This will take 45 to 50 minutes. For chewy, syrupy candy cook until the soft-crack stage or 270 F on a thermometer; for a more brittle candy, cook until it reaches the hard-crack stage or 300 F.

3. Add the almonds and ginger and remove immediately from the heat. Pour the mixture into a baking tray lined with silicone paper.

4. As it cools, score the top into squares or diamonds, then cut into pieces when cold.

P is for Passover Cake

This is a good recipe either to make before Passover, when the cupboard is crammed with ingredients bought in a frenzy of last-minute panic buying, or when you’re on the homeward stretch and your stocks are running low. Bags of nuts, in particular, seem to get into the spirit of the thing and go forth and multiply under their own volition.

The cake can be made with almonds, walnuts or hazelnuts. Ground hazelnuts are widely available in Jewish stores at this time of the year and are much appreciated by the home baker as they save the tedious business of toasting the nuts, and rubbing their skins off with a tea towel before you pulverize them in a grinder … who needs it? Isn’t this the festival of freedom?

Note to self: Next year must buy nut futures.

And, I’d just like to share with you my favorite Passover joke:

Q: What do you call someone who derives pleasure from the bread of affliction?

A: A matzochist.

OK, let’s get to the cake.

Passover Cake

Prep time: 25 minutes

Cook time: 40 minutes

Total time: 65 minutes

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

Ingredients

1/2 cup ground nuts, plus a little extra for dusting

4 large eggs

1/4 cup superfine sugar

2/3 cup, plus 1 cup dark chocolate

Salt

2/3 cup sour cream

1 tablespoon sugar (optional)

3 tablespoons apricot jam

Whole nuts, for decoration (optional)

Directions

1. Preheat the oven to 355 F (180 C).

2. Grease two 6-inch sandwich tins and line the base of each with a disc of oiled paper. Dust with some ground nuts.

3. Whisk the eggs and sugar until thick.

4. Melt 2/3 cup chocolate with a teaspoon of water.

5. Beat a little into the egg mixture along with a pinch of salt. Fold in the rest of the melted chocolate along with the 1/2 cup of ground nuts.

6. Pour into the tins and bake for 40 minutes or until springy to the touch.

7. Leave to cool on a wire rack, then turn out of the tin.

8. To make the frosting, melt the cup of chocolate and stir in the sour cream. Add a little sugar, if you wish, and allow to cool a little.

9. For the filling, spread the apricot jam and about half of the chocolate mixture over the top of one of the cakes. Place the other cake on top, and smear the remainder of the chocolate sauce over the top. Decorate, if preferred, with whole nuts in shape of a “P.”

Main photo: P is for Passover Cake can be adapted for use at other times of the year, too. Change the P to E, and you have a lovely Easter treat! Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

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Great for a midweek Passover meal for a big family -- this lasagna is a truly satisfying one-pan wonder. Credit: Copyright 2015 TheWeiserKitchen

The differences between Ashkenazic and Sephardic Jewry’s foodways are clearest at Passover. Sephardim traditionally ate rice, legumes and other foods verboten to those from Northern and Eastern Europe and Russia, which makes borrowing traditions for an all-inclusive modern Passover table a bit challenging.

But an Ottoman lasagna, called mina, also known as miginas, meginas or mehinas, is easily suited to Jews of every ethnicity and historical identity. By any name, these savory layered matzo lasagnas are found in Jewish cuisine from Egypt to Turkey to the Isle of Rhodes. And they are anything but new.

Mina originated from medieval pasteles, according to John Cooper in his book, “Eat and Be Satisfied: A Social History of Jewish Food.” “Small meat pies, or migina, the equivalent of strudel … [were themselves] a variant of migas, and [were] filled with empanada-style fillings,” Cooper writes. Those Old World migas were filled with chopped meats or seasonal vegetable purées such as calabaza, aka pumpkin or eggplant, or a creamy, cheesy spinach version.

Traditionally, minas are cut into small mini-appetizer-sized bites and become a part of the Mediterranean mezze table — the selection of small dishes served at cocktail hour or as a long, lingering supper that is common everywhere from Greece through the Levant.

I love serving mina in the mezze style, filled with mint-infused roasted eggplant and lamb for a meat-based Seder alongside caponata, garlicky fried olives, bay-leaf-brined carrots and braised burnished leeks. But for a midweek meal, I go all cheesy and ooey-gooey.

Many recipes soak the all-but-hardtack matzo in water to soften. I rinse it lightly. I like the textural difference in the mina. I also go crazy with cheese sauce. During Passover, when that feeling of deprivation for “regular” foods has become more than a little bit wearing by midweek, a cheese-and-vegetable pie is a respite, one that offers a mac-and-cheese-like familiarity.

I lean toward Alsace, France and northern Italy for the flavors that have the heft to give this lasagna serious substance.

Spinach, Butternut Squash, Sweet Onion and Fontina Mina

Sephardic Passover lasagna, mina, can be — no, it should be — on every table at some point during Passover. This version, influenced by the cuisine of Ferrara, Italy, eats like a great mac and cheese packed with vegetables, but since it can prepared in stages over a few days, it’s as easy to make as lasagna. Great for a midweek Passover meal for a big family — a truly satisfying one-pan wonder. In fact, it’s a tasty change of pace at any time; feel free to add a few minced sage leaves if it’s cold outside for an autumnal feel.

Prep time: About 40 minutes

Cook time: About 1 1/4 hours

Total time: 1 hour, 55 minutes

Yield: About 12 pieces

Ingredients

½ cup (8 tablespoons/227 grams/1 stick) unsalted butter, divided

3 pounds fresh baby spinach

3 teaspoons kosher salt, divided

2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper

1 large red onion, peeled and cut into into 1/2-inch dice (about 2 cups)

3 cloves garlic, peeled, halved and grated, any green centers discarded

1 cup Gewürztraminer or dry Riesling wine

2 large butternut squash (about 2 1/2 pounds), peeled and cut into rough 1/4- to 1/2-inch dice

Leaves of 8 fresh thyme sprigs, minced

Leaves of 3 small sprigs fresh marjoram, minced

1 quart milk

7 tablespoons potato starch

1 cup crème fraîche or sour cream

1 pound shredded Gruyère cheese, divided

1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

5 sheets matzo

2 cups (about 9 ounces) diced Fontina cheese

Directions

1. In a deep saucepan set over high heat, heat 2 tablespoons butter and swirl until it is just foaming. Add half the spinach, 1 teaspoon of the salt, 1/4 teaspoon of the pepper, and with tongs, toss gently in the butter. Cover, reduce the heat to medium-low and cook for 4 to 5 minutes, until just wilted.

2. Add the remaining spinach, tossing to coat. Cover and cook, stirring occasionally, for 4 to 5 minutes, until all of the spinach is fully wilted. Transfer to a colander and drain. When the spinach is cool enough to handle, squeeze out excess liquid. The spinach will have shrunk quite a bit. Set aside. This can be done up to 2 days in advance, and the spinach stored in a covered container in the refrigerator.

3. In the same (now cleaned) saucepan, set over medium-high heat, heat 2 tablespoons butter and swirl until it is just foaming. Add the onions, garlic, 1 teaspoon of the salt, and 1/4 teaspoon of the black pepper and cook, stirring occasionally, for 15 minutes, until the onions are soft and the edges browned.

3. Add the wine, butternut squash, thyme and marjoram and cook for about 20 minutes, until the liquid is reduced in volume by at least half. Set aside. This can be done up to 2 days in advance, and the mixture stored in a covered container in the refrigerator.

4. When you are ready to make the mina, preheat the oven to 350 F. Spray a deep 9-by-14-inch lasagna pan or glass Pyrex pan with nonstick vegetable oil spray.

5. Heat the milk in a medium-sized saucepan over medium heat until hot but not scalded.

6. In the same (again, cleaned) deep saucepan, heat the remaining 4 tablespoons butter over medium heat until it begins to foam. Immediately whisk in the potato starch and quickly add the warm milk, still whisking over medium heat, making sure there are no lumps. Cook for 3 to 5 minutes, until the mixture thickens slightly and comes to a gentle but active boil, adjusting the heat as necessary.

7. Reduce the heat to a simmer, add the crème fraîche and cook, whisking gently, until blended into the sauce.

8. Add about three-fourths of the shredded Gruyère cheese, reserving the rest for topping, and with a spoon, stir until the cheese melts. Add the nutmeg and stir to blend.

9. Spoon 1 cup of the cheese sauce over the bottom of the lasagna pan. Break the matzo into 3-inch wide slats, rinse them under cold water for about 5 seconds, and arrange them over the sauce in a single layer, breaking the sheets at the perforations as necessary. Add the spinach, arranging it in an even layer, and top with another cup of cheese sauce. Arrange another layer of matzo on top and spoon another cup of cheese sauce over it. Cover with the Fontina cheese and the remaining salt and pepper. Add another layer of matzo and top with the onions and butternut squash. Spoon the remaining cheese sauce over the top and scatter the reserved Gruyère over it.

10. Prepare a sheet of foil big enough to cover the lasagna pan and spray it with nonstick vegetable oil spray. Cover the mina loosely with the foil, greased side down. Bake for 1 to 1 1/4 hours, or until bubbling hot. Remove the foil, increase the heat to broil and broil for 2 to 3 minutes, until the top is lightly browned. Serve immediately.

Note: You may use frozen spinach, if you wish. Thaw it, rinse well, drain, squeeze out any excess liquid and proceed with the recipe.

Main photo: Great for a midweek Passover meal for a big family — this lasagna is a truly satisfying one-pan wonder. Credit: Copyright 2015 TheWeiserKitchen

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Coffee and chocolate are an especially delicious combination found in hundreds of classic Italian desserts such as Italian Torta Nera, a dense coffee chocolate cake that is a specialty of the Emilia-Romagna region. Credit: Copyright

Coffee actually started out as a food, not a drink. A thousand years ago in Africa, the birthplace of coffee, locals would mash the ripe “cherries” from wild coffee trees to create a dried traveling food packed with protein and nutrients; sort of an early version of the breakfast bar.

While it is the outer “cherry” fruit of the coffee bean that has protein, it’s the inner roasted coffee bean that has the flavor. “All great chefs value the quality of their ingredients and the same applies to coffee,” says Lynda Calimano, editor in chief of the popular monthly Coffee and Tea Newsletter. “So when using them in recipes, we at the Coffee and Tea Newsletter, can’t emphasize enough the importance of organic Fair Trade, shade-grown coffee, seasonally harvested if you want the best flavor and to retain the nutritional elements.”

When asked why, she added, “Because organic coffee is grown without pesticides and harvested in season, which maintains quality, nutrients and protects your health and the environment. Fair Trade, which guarantees a fair wage and other benefits, makes farmers happy and happy farmers produce great harvests.”

I’ll drink — and eat — to that!

Italian Mocha Cake (Torta Nera)

From “Dolci: Italy’s Sweets” by Francine Segan (Stewart, Tabori & Chang)

Prep time: 5 minutes

Baking time: 30 minutes

Total time: 35 minutes

Yield: 8 servings

This flourless cake has a crisp, macaroon-like top layer and a dense, incredibly moist center. As the cake cools, it collapses just a little, creating a pretty webbing on the delicious crust.

Ingredients

7 tablespoons (3 1/2 ounces) unsalted butter, plus more for the pan

7 ounces dark chocolate, 70% cacao or higher

1 ounce freshly brewed espresso or 1 teaspoon granulated instant espresso

1 cup granulated sugar

4 eggs, separated

2 tablespoons potato or cornstarch

Directions

1. Preheat the oven to 350 F. Butter the bottom and sides of a 9-inch springform cake pan.

2. Melt the butter and chocolate in a small bowl, either in the microwave or over a saucepan of gently boiling water. Stir in the espresso.

3. In a large bowl beat the sugar and egg yolks with an electric hand-held mixer until creamy and pale yellow. Add the chocolate-butter mixture and beat until creamy. Add the potato or cornstarch and mix until well combined.

4. In a separate bowl, beat the egg whites until stiff. Slowly, using a spatula, fold the egg whites, a little at a time, into the chocolate mixture until combined.

5. Spread the batter evenly into the prepared pan. Bake for about 30 minutes, until just set in the center.

Serve warm or at room temperature.

Main photo: Coffee and chocolate are an especially delicious combination found in hundreds of classic Italian desserts such as Italian Torta Nera, a dense coffee chocolate cake that is a specialty of the Emilia-Romagna region. Credit: Copyright “Dolci: Italy’s Sweets” by Francine Segan (Stewart, Tabori & Chang)

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Soda bread. Credit: Copyright Ellie Markovitch

Soda bread is serious stuff. The Irish Heritage Society near me is having a contest, and people can enter in three categories: traditional white, traditional wheaten, and family bread non-specific. The first two can only contain flour, baking soda, salt, and buttermilk; ingredients that would have been available in Ireland when the bread was developed. The third, family bread non-specific, can have anything in it, and might include currants, caraway seeds, eggs and other enrichments.

The sweet quick bread common here is decidedly American and reflects the fact that the average Irish cupboard lacked or had limited quantities of sugar and butter. The traditional Irish soda bread is emblematic of other limits, like the way that flour works in bread dough, and how wheat grows.


The moist climate of Ireland is suited to growing soft or pastry wheat, which is better for making pastries and quick breads rather than yeasted or naturally leavened breads. Arid summers, like those in the American wheat belts, grow hard or bread wheats, which have enough gluten to develop the structure that builds tall loaves of bread.

All wheats have gluten, which is a type of protein. The amount and quality of gluten varies in hard and soft wheats. Gliadin and glutenin are two components of gluten, and each wheat style has different proportions of both. That’s why flours made from different grains work differently. Hard wheats have more glutenin, and soft wheats have more gliadin, which is sometimes described as having sliding properties. If you cook whole grains, hard wheats really are harder to the tooth.

Soft wheats work great for quick breads and things that climb with the aid of chemical leavening. Soda bread, especially if made with purist rules, is a great demonstration of chemical leavening at work. Buttermilk plus baking soda creates an acid-base reaction, and carbon dioxide bubbles throughout the dough; the heat of the oven traps the gases, and voila, there is bread.

In praise of baking powder

Baking powder is another type of chemical leavening; liquid activates its acid-base reaction. These products of the 19th century simplified baking. Before the birthday of baking powder — around 1865, depending on whom you salute as its inventor — people had to use natural yeasts to make baked goods rise. Old cookbooks have lots of instructions for ways to charm leavening out of thin air, or from potato peelings and even milk.

Sourdough baking is all the rage, but I am in awe of baking powder. This shelf stable stuff makes my whole wheat pancakes climb sky high. It is a little angel in my pantry, helping flour soar. I am loyal to a single brand, Rumford. It’s double-acting baking powder, which means it rises once when liquid hits the dry ingredients, and again in the heat of the oven, or on the griddle.

I am also loyal to fresh milled whole-grain flour. I love the way it tastes, sweet and hardy, and the way the food sits in my brain. Stone milling is a process that keeps all the parts of a grain kernel, the bran, germ and endosperm, together. Roller milling is how most flour is made, and the process separates all of these parts, combining parts of them at the end as the mill sees fit. The germ is generally removed because it spoils easily.

Luckily, stone milling operations are popping up all over the country as people revive small-scale grain production. The one near me, Farmer Ground Flour, mills a type of soft white wheat that makes great quick breads.

I have no family recipe for soda bread, but I’ve made a beautiful mutt loaf that highlights my kitchen affinities.

Soda Bread
Prep time: 15 minutes
Cook time: 25 minutes
Total time: 40 minutes
Yield: 6 servings

Ingredients

2 cups stoneground white whole wheat pastry flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon salt

5 tablespoons butter

1 egg

3 tablespoons yogurt

1/2 cup milk

Directions

1. Combine dry ingredients with a whisk.

2. Cut butter into 1/2-inch cubes.

3. With a pastry blender or your fingers, incorporate butter into the flour mixture. The result does not have to be smooth — some pea-sized pieces are OK, even good.

4. Whisk together egg, yogurt and milk. Using a fork, blend until everything is just barely incorporated.

5. Turn out onto a floured surface and knead very lightly, just about five times.

6. Pat into a round about 8 inches across and transfer to a buttered cookie sheet. Score into six  pieces.

7. Let dough rest 10 minutes while preheating oven to 400 F.

8. Bake for 25 minutes, until golden brown at the edges.

Main image: Soda bread. Credit: Copyright Ellie Markovitch

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Meyer Lemon Pizzelles From Bon Appétempt. Credit: Copyright 2015 Matthew Bookman

Photos of perfect-looking prepared food in glossy magazines used to make Amelia Morris mad — really mad. So in 2009 she decided to start a blog called Bon Appétempt to help beginners like her feel good about their cooking attempts, no matter how badly they turned out.

“I want to show what life is like for the rest of us: messy, poorly lit and falling well short of our aspirations,” she wrote in one of her first blog entries.


“Bon Appétempt: A Coming-of-Age Story (With Recipes!)”
By Amelia Morris, Grand Central Publishing, 2015, 320 pages
» Click here to buy the book


Bon Appétempt is a now an award-winning blog that features recipes Morris adapted from magazines, along with fun cooking videos shot by her husband, bits of food memories and photos of herself and her family — because, after all, food is all tied up with relationships: who you’re cooking with, and for, even if it’s just yourself on a lonely night.

This is abundantly clear in Morris’ new memoir — “Bon Appétempt: A Coming-of-Age Story (With Recipes!)” — where she traces her journey as a novice cook while navigating difficult relationships with her parents (her father hoped she’d become a wrestler), and trying to find herself as a writer.

Cooking to heal and celebrate

Through financial hardships, deaths of family members, a long-distance relationship, and then marriage and parenthood, Morris consistently turned to cooking to soothe hurts, celebrate happy gatherings and give herself a feeling of pride and success.

Amelia Morris, author of “Bon Appétempt: A Coming-of-Age Story (With Recipes!)”   Credit: Copyright 2015 Matthew Bookman

Amelia Morris, author of “Bon Appétempt: A Coming-of-Age Story (With Recipes!).” Credit: Copyright 2015 Matthew Bookman

Recipes that have given her comfort and joy, such as “My Mom’s Chicken Cordon Bleu” and “Simple Vanilla Cake With Dulce De Leche,” which she learned from a woman in Argentina, fill the pages.

Cooking as a creative activity is something Morris understands well, which is why she’s honest and even proud of her flops — each one made her a better cook.

“… [A]ll of these so-called failures taught me that though writers would like readers as much as chefs would like eaters, at the end of the day, if there are none of either to be found, we can continue creating anyway just to feed ourselves,” she writes.

I caught up with Morris to ask her to tell us more about her story. She happily shared a recipe for an Italian cookie called pizzelle that she adapted from the version her grandmother used to make (see below).

Q&A With Bon Appétempt’s Amelia Morris

It seemed that cooking sustained you through the trials of becoming a writer, is that correct?

It did — it helped me in a lot of ways. Working on a novel took a long time and was lonely work. It was nice to get away from computer and go make dinner. Cooking is a tangible thing; it feeds your family, it feeds yourself. It’s way to take care of yourself.

Can you describe one of your cooking failures?

There was one with fried chicken — I used a cookie sheet for the oil, so it dripped off the sides. People were coming over for dinner, so I jumped into the shower and my husband came in and said, “There’s black smoke coming out of the oven, I don’t know what to do!” All I could think of was the blog, so I said, “Can you get a picture of the black smoke?” It was comical! I did serve the chicken to our dinner guests, but it wasn’t great.

You tell the story of a fabulously ruined cake that you had planned to serve for Christmas.

Yes, the chocolate peppermint cake. It’s one of those things with baking — you think if you follow the rules and have the tools, you can do it! I set myself up for success. I started three days ahead and made all the components. I was so impressed with what I’d done — Matt took pictures of me putting it together. The cake was layers of ganache-cream-cake, ganache-cream-cake. But as I began to ice it, all the icing started to slide — and there was no stopping it! We started taking pictures of it — you can see the whole thing on the blog.

When did you cross the line as a cook and begin to really feel confident?

It took a really long time. Through the blog, people started coming to me with cooking questions and recipe tips, as if I was this knowledgeable cook, and I resisted it. But recently I realized — I am a decent cook. I don’t have formal training, I learned by just doing it. Seeing my grandma cook, I am sure I absorbed some basic knowledge.

Who are some of your favorite food-memoir writers?

Ruth Reichl was my introduction to food memoirs — I really love her writing. Also, M.F.K. Fisher‘s “How to Cook a Wolf” — I loved it from the minute I opened it up. I also love Molly Wizenberg’s books, and am inspired by “Eat Me: The Food and Philosophy of Kenny Shopsin.” He had a diner in Manhattan for a long time; he’s an interesting guy and his cookbook is really great.

Is there anything that still scares you, cooking-wise?

Yes! I’ve always wanted to grill a whole fish. That seems hard and scary, as well as cooking any big cuts of meat.

Meyer Lemon Pizzelle (Adapted From Food 52)

Prep time: About 25 minutes
Cook time: About 45 minutes
Total time: About 1 hour, 10 minutes
Yield: About 40 to 50 cookies*, depending on iron size
(*If you want to make a ton like Grandma did, you should double this recipe.)

Ingredients

1 2/3 cups granulated sugar

6 large eggs, room temperature

2 sticks of butter, melted and cooled plus more for brushing on the pizzelle iron

3 teaspoons vanilla extract

Zest of 2 to 3 Meyer lemons (If you can’t find Meyer lemons, substitute with regular lemons or oranges.)

4 cups all-purpose flour, spooned into measuring cup

4 teaspoons baking powder

Directions

1. Combine the sugar and eggs in the bowl of a stand mixer. Beat on medium speed for 1 to 2 minutes until well incorporated. The eggs must be at least room temperature.

2. Slowly drizzle the melted butter into the mixture, while mixing on medium speed. Add the extract then the zest.

3. On low speed, add the flour, 1/2 cup at a time, and the baking powder, one teaspoon at a time.

4. The batter should have a satin sheen to it, but should be light and stiff. If your batter is too liquid, add more flour, a tablespoon at a time until the batter is stiff.

5. I can’t speak for other pizzelle irons, but I have this one, and here is my advice for using it: Make sure the iron is super hot before beginning! Also, to avoid getting the batter stuck in the iron, I quickly brush all four sides of it with melted butter. Using a tablespoon scoop, place dollops of batter onto the iron. Close the iron tight and wait about 30 seconds before opening. Repeat 20 to 25 more times depending on iron size. Fresh, hot cookies can be rolled or shaped into cups, although I haven’t experimented with that yet. Next year!

Main photo: Meyer Lemon Pizzelles, hot off the press. Credit: Copyright 2015 Matthew Bookman

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Fritetelle veneziane, or Venetian fritters, are best served warm with a dusting of confectioner's sugar. Credit: Michael Krondl

When it comes to Carnival, overindulgence is the whole point: too many parties, too much booze and, in just about every Catholic country, great platters of fried sweet dough.

Carnival doughnuts are omnipresent across Catholic Europe and parts of the Americas. In Lyon and Strasbourg, France, square yeast-raised beignets are made for the holiday; in Spain you will find rosquillas de carnaval (a dense, doughnut-shaped treat) and all sorts of other buñuelos; in Italy each region has its own fritelle di carnevale. The one-word explanation? Lard.

Christians were supposed to abstain from meat products for the 40 days of Lent, and doughnuts were traditionally fried in hog fat. As every good Catholic knows, you need to sin before you can repent. So, if you’re going to spend six weeks restraining your urges, you might as well make a good reason for it.

European doughnuts: happy excess

For ordinary people, doughnuts became associated with happy excess during a time when all the rules of their miserable existence could be inverted, when a measly diet of stale bread was replaced by mountains of fresh-fried doughnuts.

But few are as obsessed with Carnival or fried dough as the Venetians. Year round, you can find delicious krapfen (jelly doughnuts) there, but in the lead-up to Lent, the fried dough repertoire increases exponentially. Bakery windows are full of frittelle di carnevale, which depending on the pastry shop, take two very different forms: airy yeast-raised fritters chock-full of raisins, pine nuts, citron and, occasionally anisette or grappa (see recipe); or fried cream puffs that enclose a variety of creamy fillings.

I can’t believe that it’s a coincidence that Europe’s doughnut orgies take place in the depths of winter. The sugar and the fat are better than any high-tech undergarment.

I had a chance to test this out during a ski trip to Innsbruck even as Fasching (Carnival) was reaching its delirious peak. Here, in the alpine Tyrol, locals celebrate by parading through the streets in masks worthy of a Brothers Grimm nightmare and by eating mountains of Faschingskrapfen, or Carnival doughnuts. Even as I got off the train, I was greeted with stands loaded down with plump raised doughnuts, some filled with preserves, others with custard, chocolate cream or even eiercognac, a boozy eggnog custard.

According to my friend, Austrian food historian Ingrid Haslinger, they’ve been frying up these yeast-raised pastries here for centuries. In the days when sugar was a luxury reserved for princes, the mountain folk would dip their krapfen into bowls of prune and apple butter. Now everybody can indulge in the sweet-filled variety.

I was pleased to find piles of Carnival doughnuts even at the mountaintop ski lodge. In these harsh conditions, they are not merely a snack but rather lunch itself. Following the lead of local skiers, I sat down to a spicy goulash soup as appetizer and continued with doughnuts for my main course (one filled with apricot and the other with chocolate, if you must know). Winter never felt so right.

The perfect pre-Lent indulgence

The doughnut as Carnival food, something that you gorge on before the gray days of Lent, isn’t entirely an alien concept in the United States. The Pennsylvania Dutch keep a firm grip on the centuries-old tradition of frying up enormous batches of Fastnachts in anticipation of Ash Wednesday just like their ancestors did in southwest Germany and parts of Switzerland. The Fastnacht is typically a yeast-raised doughnut (sometimes with potato added) cut in the form of a diamond, often slashed and opened in the center to allow it to cook faster and a larger surface area to get crisp.

You find similar recipes in Alsace and neighboring regions today. Fastnacht (literally “fast night”) is a German word for Shrove Tuesday and in the parts of the old country, these Carnival pastries were (and are) called Fastnachstküchle. The plain folk there shortened the name but kept the recipe and at least the doughnut part of the pre-Lenten tradition; Carnival is certainly not the festival of folly that it can be in Catholic Germany.

One rule that is universal, though, no matter where you find the doughy treats and regardless of name: Too much is never enough. You’ll have plenty of time to repent.

Frittelle veneziane (Venetian Carnival Fritters)

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cook time: 4 to 6 minutes per batch

Yield: About 2 dozen

Ingredients

2 ounces (about 1/2 cup) golden raisins

1/2 cup anisette liqueur

1/4 ounce (1 packet) active dry yeast

3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons tepid water

1 large egg

9 ounces (about 2 cups) all-purpose flour

3 tablespoons granulated sugar

Large ping (1/8 teaspoon) salt

1 ounce (about 3 tablespoons) pine nuts

1 ounce (about 3 tablespoons) chopped candied citron

Grated zest of 1 lemon

Oil or lard for frying

Confectioner’s sugar

Directions

1. In a bowl, combine the raisins and anisette. Cover with plastic wrap and soak at least 4 hours or overnight.

2. In the bowl of a stand mixer, stir together the water and yeast. Let stand 5 minutes. Stir in the egg. In a separate bowl, mix together the flour, granulated sugar and salt.

3. Using a paddle attachment, beat the flour mixture into the water-yeast mixture on low speed. Beat 5 minutes on medium to make the batter very smooth — it should be somewhat thicker than pancake batter.

4. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and place in a warm location. Let stand until the batter has doubled in volume,  45 to 60 minutes. Stir in the raisins, pine nuts, citron and lemon zest.

5. Using a deep fryer or a heavy pan, heat at least 3 inches of the oil to 350 F. If you’re not using a deep fryer and are without a built-in thermostat, check the oil temperature using a candy or deep-fry thermometer.

6. Lightly oil 2 tablespoons, then scoop about 2 tablespoons of batter in one spoon and slide it off with the second. A small oiled ice cream scoop works well, too. Fry about a half-dozen at a time, turning occasionally until cooked through, 4 to 6 minutes. Drain on paper towels and allow to cool — enough so you can pick them up. Sprinkle generously with confectioner’s sugar. The frittelle are best served warm. Leftovers can be frozen and reheated in a 350 F oven.

 

For more on doughnut history, check out Michael Krondl’s most recent book: “The Donut: History, Recipes and Lore from Boston to Berlin.”

Main photo: Fritetelle veneziane, or Venetian fritters, are best served warm with a dusting of confectioner’s sugar. Credit: Michael Krondl 

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