Articles in Baking w/recipe

Hungarian Cherry Pie, cseresznyès lepèny, served with whipped cream. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

You open an old cookbook and out flutters a fragile, stained piece of notepaper. On it there is some spidery handwriting in fading blue ink for a long-forgotten cookie from a long-forgotten aunt in a long-forgotten language. Or perhaps, like Budapest-born Tomi Komoly, you have a carefully bound journal filled with exquisitely rhythmic italic notations. Hastily scribbled or meticulously inscribed, old family recipes are a gift from the past. But bringing them back to life in modern kitchens can present today’s cook with some unexpected problems.

Unforeseen problems: handwriting, culinary shorthand

Tomi Komoly’s grandmother’s recipes were handwritten in old-fashioned German  and Hungarian. Credit: Copyright Tomi Komoly

Tomi Komoly’s grandmother’s recipes were handwritten in old-fashioned German and Hungarian. Credit: Copyright Tomi Komoly

When Komoly, who now lives in the United Kingdom, took the task of painstakingly transcribing, testing and updating many of his Austro-Hungarian grandmother’s recipes, he encountered a number of unforeseen problems. Not least, the recipes were written in a narrow, cursive script in old-fashioned German and Hungarian often using the shorthand style of a culinary expert for whom the manuscript was more aide-memoire than intended manual. It took him more than six years to translate and edit — and enter the mindset of his late grandmother to identify the many details and techniques she would have assumed needed no explanation. Sometimes, with heirloom recipes, it is what is left out that is as important as what is included.

Concessions to modernity

Modern labor-saving devices such as food mixers or electric grinders -- unheard of in prewar Budapest -- can also have an effect on a recipe. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

Modern labor-saving devices such as food mixers or electric grinders — unheard of in prewar Budapest — can also have an effect on a recipe. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

The aim of recipe rescuers is always to be as authentic as possible but, as Komoly found out, there have to be concessions to modernity. Today’s cooks may not have the stamina of their ancestors, but few would want to turn back every clock. As Komoly says, “Granny used to laboriously beat the egg whites with a little whisk or large fork, but I use a machine except for rising dough, which I prefer to feel by hand.” Ready-made noodles, dried yeast and strudel dough are also innovations that prove that progress can mean just that.

Advances in cooking equipment

Gugelhupf, or "Kuglof," made in a traditional mold with tapered sides and a funneled center. Credit: Copyright Tomi Komoly

Gugelhupf, or “Kuglof,” made in a traditional mold with tapered sides and a funneled center. Credit: Copyright Tomi Komoly

Technical advances can also affect the success of updating recipes: Even the material out of which cooking tins and utensils are made may alter cooking times, and when all the cooking and baking was done on a wood-fired, cast-iron stove with hot plates, as with Komoly’s family, oven temperatures and timings can be another source of error. As he says, “How do you interpret instructions such as ‘Do it on a high flame’ or ‘Bake until it is ready’?” In addition, in quite a few recipes I had to work out the sequence of adding ingredients by patient trial and error. Luckily, on the whole, Granny was very reliable, so I didn’t have too many disasters.”

Our kitchens today also boast luxuries unheard of in prewar Europe, or available to only a few, such as refrigeration. As Komoly recalled, “We would get great blocks of ice delivered, we never had a fridge. Or we would keep food in winter on the floor of the freezing, unheated bathroom.” Restoring old recipes in light of the “new” technology means you may have to expect new timings, new procedures, new methodology.

Account for changing ingredients, tastes

In baking, varying egg sizes can often make a difference in the end result. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

In baking, varying egg sizes can often make a difference in the end result. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

Family recipes often are short on details, especially when orally transmitted, but even when written, many instructions can be vague to the uninitiated. Often, cooks would vary the way they cooked and baked according to whim, the weather and whether or not certain items were available.

“Although many recipes had quantities, in those days they didn’t specify things they would take for granted, such as the size of eggs. I came to the conclusion, for example, that over-egging a cake really doesn’t hurt too much,” Komoly said. “I’ve also had to play around with sugar quantities; there’s a massive difference in our tastes these days. I found I only needed about two-thirds of the original amount.”

Short on details

Fresh cherries are particularly popular in Austro-Hungarian baking. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

Fresh cherries are particularly popular in Austro-Hungarian baking. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

A rose is a rose is a rose, but the saying does not always hold true. Take a cherry, for example. There are sweet ones, sour ones, red ones, black ones and unique regional varieties that add different dimensions to a dish. Fresh produce was usually a given: In Hungary, Komoly’s grandmother would assume the fruit and nuts were there for the taking from the family’s own trees, but a stale supermarket walnut or hazelnut can turn yesterday’s delight into today’s disaster.

Cooking vs. baking

Many heirloom recipes are imprecise in their instructions, dealing mostly in "handfuls" and "pinches." Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

Many heirloom recipes are imprecise in their instructions, dealing mostly in “handfuls” and “pinches.” Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

There’s many a recipe handed down from generation to generation that involves good old-fashioned instructions such as “Take a pinch of this” or “Add some of that.” In many Italian-language cookbooks, recipes often include qv (quanto vale — how much you want) or qb (quanto basta — as much as it needs) in the instructions. The size of a “handful” may not matter too much in general cooking, but baking is more of an exact science than a free-form art.

A century of changes

Even basic ingredients, such as this widely used variety of Italian flour, can vary from era to era, country to country. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

Even basic ingredients, such as this widely used variety of Italian flour, can vary from era to era, country to country. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

Another problem, common to all who undertake the rescue and restoration of heritage recipes, are ingredients. Soft cheese, butter, flour, chocolate and so on may not always be the same as those used a century ago. Take flour, for example. Italian heritage recipes use different types of flour to those we are accustomed in the United States and United Kingdom. Komoly encountered the same difficulty, “The flour we used in Hungary was quite different, but most UK flour is highly refined. Eventually, I found that if I made a cake with a large percentage of flour, it was best to use a ‘strong’ Canadian flour.”

Komoly is also fortunate in that he can still recall helping his grandmother in the kitchen — always rewarded with a lick of the spoon or bowl — as well as being able to hold in his memory the taste of the end products.

Having survived the Holocaust, his grandmother, Vamos Kathe, relocated to Nairobi. Her recipe book was a precious reminder of a lost world, inscribed with the words, “With God’s Help.” He must have been listening.

Hungarian Cherry Pie (cseresznyès lepèny)

Recipe taken from “My Granny’s Gift: 55 Delicious Austro-Hungarian Dessert Recipes” by Tomi Komoly, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2014, 124 pages.

Prep time: 30 to 40 minutes

Baking time: 50 minutes

Total time: 1 hour 20 minutes to 1 hour 30 minutes

Yield: 8 servings

Ingredients

2 tablespoons (15 grams) plain flour

9 tablespoons (125 grams) butter or margarine

1 whole egg

6 tablespoons (80 grams) superfine sugar

About 4 cups (500 grams) cherries, unpitted

4 egg whites

2 tablespoons (15 grams) powdered sugar

1 cup (70 to 80 grams) bread crumbs

Directions

1. Mix the flour, butter and egg with 4 tablespoons (60 grams) of the superfine sugar and roll out to about 1/4-inch (7 to 8 mm) thick and transfer into a 12-by-8-inch (30-by-20-cm) baking tray. Alternatively, just place in the middle of the tray and “pat” until it is spread evenly over the whole area.

2. Bake in a moderate oven 350 F (175 C) for 35 minutes. (It may take less time, so if it smells like it is burning, it may well be!)

3. Pit the cherries and drain the fruit of all excess juice and spread evenly after scattering the bread crumbs over the pastry. Sprinkle the remaining superfine sugar on top. (If the cherries are very sweet, then you may not need the extra sugar. CH)

4. Beat the 4 egg whites with the powdered sugar until very firm, spread over the cake, and bake for another 15 minutes or until lightly browned and semi-hardened. Allow to cool, cut into squares and serve with whipped cream.

5. Instead of the bread crumbs, ground walnuts or hazelnuts could also be used.

Main photo: Hungarian Cherry Pie, cseresznyès lepèny, served with whipped cream. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman 

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A bowl of fresh cherries. Credit: Copyright 2015 Brooke Jackson

American life is full of references to cherries, from George Washington chopping down a tree of them (Why did he do that?) to the popular song “Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries” sung by Ethel Merman in 1931. But the actual fruit itself, beloved by most, is a sweet, juicy reminder that spring is almost over and summer is just around the corner.

Here in California, our local cherry season lasts just a bit longer, while the Pacific Northwest and Midwestern harvests are still weeks away, guaranteeing that the cherished cherry will be in good supply until the end of July.

Pitting cherries

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A pitter is a handy tool for both cherries and olives. Credit: Copyright 2015 Brooke Jackson

Many varieties of cherries are on the market these days. Some of my favorites are the sweet Brooks variety, the meaty Bing, the orange-red Queen Anne and the pink and yellow Rainier. Generally, the lighter-colored varieties are more fragile and need to be used up quickly.

Virtually any recipe using cherries begins with pitting them. The easiest way is with a pitter hand tool, which also works nicely on olives.

Sweet sauces

A brownie sundae topped with cherry sauce. Credit: Copyright 2015 Brooke Jackson

A brownie sundae topped with cherry sauce. Credit: Copyright 2015 Brooke Jackson

Cherries lend themselves quite well to both savory and sweet sauces. For a dessert sauce, combine 2 cups of pitted cherries with 1 cup of water and half a cinnamon stick. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer 10 minutes. Add 1/4 cup sugar, 1 tablespoon cornstarch dissolved with 2 tablespoons of water, and 1 tablespoon each of amaretto and fresh lemon juice. Continue cooking at a low simmer until mixture thickens. Serve over ice cream with brownies or as a topping for chocolate or sponge cakes with whipped cream.

Savory sauces

Sliced pork tenderloin topped with cherry sauce. Credit: Copyright 2015 Brooke Jackson

Sliced pork tenderloin topped with cherry sauce. Credit: Copyright 2015 Brooke Jackson

For an easy pan sauce for pork tenderloin, brown a 1- to 2-pound tenderloin in 1 teaspoon of olive oil in an oven-proof skillet until golden on all sides. Put the skillet in a 350 F oven until pork is done to your liking, (165 F internal temperature), about 20 to 25 minutes, depending on thickness. Pull the skillet out, move the tenderloin to a plate and tent with foil. Over medium-high heat, brown 2 tablespoons of finely chopped onion in the pan juices then deglaze with 2 tablespoons of balsamic vinegar. Cook down until liquid is reduced by half. Add 1 1/2 cups of pitted, halved cherries and sauté until they are tender and release their juice, about 7 minutes. Finish the sauce with 1 heaping tablespoon of crème fraiche. Slice the pork and fan out on plates, then top with the sauce. The sauce is also delicious with roast or grilled duck, chicken or turkey.

Salads

Salads topped with cherries. Credit: Copyright 2015 Brooke Jackson

Salads topped with cherries. Credit: Copyright 2015 Brooke Jackson

Tender spring greens pair perfectly with cherries in salads. Use 4 packed cups of mixed baby greens or baby spinach leaves with 1 cup of pitted and halved Queen Ann or Rainier cherries, 1/2 cup of crumbled blue cheese and 1/4 cup of toasted hazelnuts. Make a dressing using 1 tablespoon sherry vinegar (I like O brand) and 3 tablespoons hazelnut oil, whisking together until an emulsified dressing forms. Season to taste with salt and pepper, then toss with the salad and serve.

You can switch out the hazelnuts for toasted walnuts and use walnut oil in the dressing, and you can also substitute goat cheese for the blue cheese.

Dessert

A cherry-blueberry tart. Credit: Copyright 2015 Brooke Jackson

A cherry-blueberry tart. Credit: Copyright 2015 Brooke Jackson

Cherries are a dessert baker’s dream and work just as well in pies and tarts as they do in crumbles and cobblers. They pair well with apricots, peaches and berries of all kinds.

For a different take on pie, mix 3 cups pitted, stemmed and halved cherries (a red variety works best) with 3 cups blueberries, 2 ounces of butter and 4 1/2 tablespoons of fresh lemon juice in a saucepan. Cook over medium heat until the blueberries release their juice and the cherries become slightly soft, about 5 minutes. Add 3 tablespoons flour, 1/4 teaspoon salt, 3/4  cup white sugar and 3/4 cup brown sugar; cook until mixture thickens, about 3 to 4 minutes. Add flour by 1/4 teaspoons if mixture doesn’t develop heavy syrup consistency. Remove from heat and cool. Fold in 3 cups of fresh blueberries and pour into a baked pie shell and chill until set. Serve with whipped cream.

To make the volume of filling for the pictured tart, reduce the quantities of all ingredients by two-thirds.

Cocktails and drinks

Cherries can add a taste of summer to your favorite cocktails. Credit: Copyright 2015 Brooke Jackson

Cherries can add a taste of summer to your favorite cocktails. Credit: Copyright 2015 Brooke Jackson

Whether you’re muddling, blending or slushing, cherries add a burst of flavor to warm-weather cocktails. Purée pitted cherries in a blender with lime juice, agave syrup and ice and then add tequila and triple sec for a spin on the traditional margarita. Or try a cherry julep: Muddle fresh cherries and mint with superfine sugar in a little water in the bottom of a highball glass, then fill the glass with crushed ice and pour in bourbon. Give it a stir, garnish with a mint sprig and gallop away.

For a sweet cherry take on the mojito, combine ¼ cup fresh mint leaves, 3 ounces rum, 1 1/2 ounces agave syrup, 1/2 ounce lime juice, 6 pitted cherries and 2 ice cubes in a blender jar. Blend on high speed until the mixture is slushy. Pour into glasses and garnish with 1 fresh cherry and a mint sprig.

How to buy and store cherries

When buying cherries, look for plump, firm fruit free of wrinkles and mold. Credit: Copyright 2015 Brooke Jackson

When buying cherries, look for plump, firm fruit free of wrinkles and mold. Credit: Copyright 2015 Brooke Jackson

If you can get cherries at your local farmers market, then taste your way through the vendors to find your favorite varieties. At grocery stores, try to taste before buying, if possible, to make sure cherries are sweet and ripe. Look for ones that are plump without wrinkles or mold and are firm to the touch.

Store cherries in the refrigerator for longer shelf life and wash just before using.

Given the fleeting nature of cherry season and the fruit’s amazing versatility, life can just be a bowl of cherries, at least until the end of July.

Main photo: A bowl of fresh cherries. Credit: Copyright 2015 Brooke Jackson

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Jam tarts are a staple on English tea tables and need only pastry and fruit jam, both preferably homemade. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nicole Litvack

I’ve just come across an old friend I have not seen for half a century, “The Olio Cookery Book.” The book itself must date back a century or more, but there is nothing rare or antiquarian about it. The Olio is a classic manual for housewives that explains how to bake scones and cakes, how to choose produce and run a kitchen, and how to treat burns, with optimistic cures for a bronchitis cough and lumbago. Under “Recipe for a Long Life,” British Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone cautions, “Chew each mouthful 30 times.” He cannot have been a gourmet eater.

Lessons from the Olio

As my mother indicated on the title page of her cookery book, ammonia relieves bee stings; vinegar is best for wasps. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nicole Litvack

As my mother indicated on the title page of her cookery book, ammonia relieves bee stings; vinegar is best for wasps. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nicole Litvack

As a young child, my favorite place was the kitchen, the warm, perfumed domain ruled by Emily, who was too old to be drafted during World War II. Despite food shortages, Emily somehow eked out a ginger biscuit or jam tart for us each day for “elevenses,” when we sat down with a large mug of milky tea.

There were only three of us, but action in the kitchen seemed almost constant, far more fun than the garden, where my mother spent most of her time. She must have been stung by insects often, as she notes the kitchen remedies on the title page of the Olio “Ammonia bee; wasp vinegar.”

Learning at Emily’s feet

Ribbon cake was a favorite of Emily the cook. Credit: Copyright Nicole Quessenberry

Ribbon cake was a favorite of Emily the cook. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nicole Litvack

As soon as I had learned to read, in the down moments of the kitchen while a cake baked, I would huddle in a corner to avoid Emily’s feet and pick up the Olio. The limp, brownish cover enclosed surprising information among its 1,400 recipes. How to test for an old egg for instance (float it in a bowl of water; if stale, the rounded end will rise), and the renown of parsley for curing what are described as nervous troubles. I recognized Emily’s specialty, Queen of Puddings, and her luscious Steamed Ginger Pudding with a golden syrup sauce — sometimes by mistake it scorched on the bottom, even better!

A mainstay of cooks

Golden syrup, a staple in English baking, was drizzled in the letter A on my porridge every morning. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nicole Litvack

Golden syrup, a staple in English baking, was drizzled in the letter A on my porridge every morning. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nicole Litvack

I later learned that the Olio cookbook was the mainstay of cooks in the north of England. The curious title is nothing to do with the Italian olio or oil, but dates back to the 1600s and olla podrida or “rotten pot,” the Spanish name given to huge cauldrons of meat, birds and vegetables that were the fashion of the times. I can find no record of the first printing of “The Olio Cookery Book.” My mother’s copy, the 15th edition, is dated 1928 and ran to 25,000 copies, surely a huge printing for the time. In the preface, editor L. Sykes (a good northern name) mentions that 200,000 had already been sold.

By the time I went to boarding school, at age 10, I had absorbed the meaning of technical terms such as stock and roux, and I could imagine what a bisque, a risotto, a ragout and a salmi were like. A decade later when I actually went to cooking school and tasted the dishes themselves, I was prepared for what I would find. I was asked to stay on and teach the next influx of students, and the kitchen became once again my natural home. I’ve never left it.

Jam Tarts

Bright red jam made from berries is best for jam tarts. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nicole Litvack

Bright red jam made from berries is best for jam tarts. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nicole Litvack

I’m amazed that jam tarts haven’t migrated to America. During World War II, cooks who had fruit could take it to the nearby community hall and free sugar would be provided to make preserves. My mother’s raspberry canes gave bumper crops year after year so she would send Emily off to a jam-making session where she could gossip with her friends. The resulting raspberry jam, tangy and brilliant red, was perfect for Jam Tarts. For the pastry, you can either make your favorite dough, or try this deliciously crumbly English recipe that uses butter and lard.

Prep time: 25 minutes

Baking time: 30 minutes

Total time: 55 minutes

Yield: 12 tarts

Ingredients

6 tablespoons (about 3 ounces) raspberry or other red jam

For the pie pastry

1 1/2 cups flour

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

4 tablespoons butter, more for the pans

4 tablespoons lard

2 tablespoons water, more if needed

12 medium shallow muffin pans; 3-inch cookie cutter

Directions

1. For the pie pastry: Sift the flour with the baking powder and salt into a bowl. Cut the butter and lard in small cubes and add to the flour. Rub the fats into the flour with your fingertips to form crumbs. Stir in the water with a fork to make sticky crumbs, adding more water if necessary. Press the dough together with your fist to make a ball, wrap in plastic wrap and set aside.

2. Heat the oven to 375 F and set a shelf low down; butter the muffin pans. Sprinkle the work surface with flour and roll the dough to 1/4-inch thickness. Stamp out 12 rounds with the cookie cutter. Roll the trimmings of dough a second time to make the count. Press the rounds gently down into the buttered muffin pans. Drop 1 1/2 teaspoons of jam into each mold.

Bake the tarts in the oven until the pastry is lightly browned, 25 to 30 minutes. They might collapse slightly around the edges; this is normal. Let the tarts cool slightly in the pans before unmolding them. They are best eaten the day of baking but can be kept a day or two in an airtight container.

Curd tarts

Once or twice a year, our nearby farmer’s wife would make curd cheese from fresh whole milk. My mother would stir in a handful of currants, or chopped prunes when currants were not available, and bake curd tarts. I thought they were even better than the jam version, but perhaps that’s because they appeared so rarely.

Follow the recipe for Jam Tarts, lining the pans with pastry dough. Stir 1 1/4 cups ricotta cheese, 1/3 cup sugar, 2 teaspoons flour and 1/2 teaspoon vanilla. Whisk an egg until frothy and stir into the cheese mixture with 1/3 cup raisins. Fill and bake like Jam Tarts, allowing 30 to 35 minutes.

Maids of honor

Legend has it that these tartlets were made by Anne Boleyn for King Henry VIII of England when she was maid of honor to Queen Catherine of Aragon. I like to decorate the tarts with a strawberry, raspberry or whatever fruit reflects the jam inside.

Assemble Jam Tarts using 1 tablespoon jam per tart. For the cheese topping: Put 1 cup ricotta cheese in a food processor with 1 egg, 2 tablespoons melted butter, 1/4 cup sugar and the grated zest and juice of 1 lemon and purée until smooth, about 1 minute. Alternatively work the ricotta cheese through a sieve and stir in the remaining ingredients. Spoon the cheese filling on top of the jam and bake Maids of Honor as for Jam Tarts, allowing 30 to 35 minutes. When serving, top with an appropriate piece of fruit.

Main photo: Jam tarts are a staple on English tea tables and need only pastry and fruit jam, both preferably homemade. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nicole Litvack

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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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