Articles in Baking w/recipe

Balsamic cherry pie

Driving along shoulderless highways in northern Michigan, it’s hard to miss row after row of Montmorency cherry trees loaded with fruit waiting to be baked into pies or squeezed into a liquid elixir that scientists and doctors assign superfruit status.

With more than 2 million cherry trees, Michigan produces over 70% of the country’s tart cherry crop, and July is the start of the season for a fruit that has been credited with controlling cholesterol, lowering weight and boosting heart health. Not to mention being at the heart of a mean cherry pie.

The tart cherry’s superfruit status is due to its high levels of an antioxidant called anthocyanin, which is also responsible for the cherry’s intensely sour flavor and bright red color.

Tart cherries might well deserve a medal for their healthy attributes, but I’d much rather test their ability to satisfy my craving for the yin-yang balance of sweet and tart enveloped in one glorious double-crusted pie. That’s because tart cherries, not sweet, have always been the basis for the best cherry pie. Bakers can control the amount of sweetness with sugar and the tangy essence of tart cherries keeps the pie from becoming cloyingly sweet.

In a part of the country where any proper pie judge will tell you that cherry pies are not to be trifled with, I decided to go out on a limb and conducted a loosely structured pie contest of my own. In traditional measure, blue ribbons become a battle between best crust and most cherry-packed (but least gooey) filling, and awards only go to those that deliver both.

Ferreting out the best the region had to offer, I sampled options from The Cherry Hut, a 92-year old pie-making institution in the little town of Beulah (8 points for cherry-packed filling), to local behemoth Cherry Republic (9 points for crunchy, tender crust). Naturally, I couldn’t avoid including a few farm stand options in between. In the end, a roadside pie spiced with a bit of balsamic vinegar took the prize for my personal favorite. Cask-aged balsamic, which delivers its own magic blend of sweet and tart, was the perfect complement to the fruit and provided a deep base of flavor to the freshly harvested cherries.

But after all that pie, I was feeling a bit sleepy, and no wonder. Did I mention that tart cherries contain melatonin, a natural hormone that helps you sleep at night?

Cherry Balsamic Pie

Prep Time: 20 minutes

Cook Time: 1 hour, 20 minutes

Total Time: 1 hour, 40 minutes

Yield: 12 servings

The winning farm stand pie inspired my interpretation of the classic Michigan cherry pie. I’ve blended a rich, cask-aged balsamic vinegar into the filling and added a bit of Fiori di Sicilia, a blend of floral, citrus and vanilla essences, to keep the flavors bright.

Ingredients

  • Pie dough, enough for two crusts, chilled
  • 3 pounds, pitted fresh or frozen (do not thaw) tart cherries
  • ⅓ cup Pie Enhancer (or 6 tablespoons flour)
  • ½ cup sugar
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 3 tablespoons cask-aged balsamic vinegar
  • ½ teaspoon Fiori de Sicilia extract (or vanilla extract)
  • Egg
  • Sparkling sugar

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 350 F. Roll out enough dough for one crust and place in 9- to 10-inch deep dish pie plate, leaving a 2-inch overhang. Return to refrigerator while assembling filling to keep dough cold.
  2. In a large mixing bowl, toss to combine cherries, Pie Enhancer or flour, sugar, salt, balsamic vinegar and Fiori di Sicilia. Fill pie dish and return to refrigerator again while preparing top crust.
  3. Roll out remaining pie dough and trim into 1-inch slices. Weave for latticework and gently transfer over filling. Turn lower crust up and over edges of lattice and crimp with fingers or fork.
  4. Whisk egg with 2 tablespoons water and gently brush over top crust. Sprinkle with sparkling sugar.
  5. Place the pie on a baking sheet and bake for 1 hour to 1 hour 20 minutes, crust will be golden brown and fruit will be gently bubbling when done. Remove to rack to cool.

Notes

Not one to cling to tradition, when I find a new ingredient that is a big improvement over my old ways, I embrace it. Such is the case with King Arthur Flour’s Pie Enhancer, which I use to thicken fruit pies. A blend of superfine sugar, modified corn starch (aka Instant Clear Gel) and ascorbic acid, it sets the pie juices but avoids that gluey texture that flour sometimes imparts. But follow your own tradition and if flour works best for you, then substitute 5 tablespoons of flour for the Pie Enhancer and increase the amount of sugar in the filling for a total of ⅓ cup sugar.

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Walnuts. Credit: iStockphoto

Sun, Sea & Olives: The feast of St. John the Baptist, is a date laden with folklore and myth, like all those associated with equinoxes and solstices. It’s June 24, and throughout Europe it’s referred to as midsummer, even though summer officially begins only three days earlier. In many cultures it’s a tradition to celebrate with bonfires, almost always an indication of some ritual connection to the sun.

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This year, I got up very early, just at dawn on the 24th, and went to check on the great walnut tree. This sturdy specimen planted 40 years ago now lords over the front lawn and spreads over the surrounding grapevines, which annoys the grapevine master to no end, for reasons I’ll get to later. The boughs are low and heavy, so it was easy to reach the round, green fruits, still quite firm to the touch.

Within a few minutes I had 32 of them in my basket, harvested well before the dew had time to dry. That is the beginning of the prescription for nocino – the nuts must be harvested on the 24th of June before the dew is dry. Nocino is a fabled Italian digestif, pride of farmhouse kitchens in Tuscany and many other parts of the country too. Some nocino is available commercially (Padre Peppe is a famous brand from Puglia), but what most people seek out is the straight-from-the-farm, homemade, handmade miracle of bittersweet flavors — the kind, most people will swear, their grandmothers were noted for and no one has been able to duplicate since.

Actually, making nocino isn’t all that difficult, apart from the requisite early rising. Once the nuts are brought into the kitchen, they are split or cut with a knife or partially crushed in a mortar, my preferred method. The insides are pure white, but you can clearly see the milky embryo of what will become, by October, a full-fledged walnut.

In my kitchen, the lightly crushed fruits go into a glass jug along with pieces of cinnamon stick, whole cloves, crushed nutmegs and a half dozen star anise. Some cooks might add a whole vanilla bean, split down the middle to release its flavor, but I keep it pure. I add 2 liters of alcohol and 3 cups of sugar dissolved in a cup of boiling water and let it cool before adding to the mix. Plus the zest of a lemon and three or four thin slices of the same lemon. The jar gets sealed, set on a sunny shelf and left, according to my instructions, for a philosophical month, during which it is stirred or shaken daily.

What on earth is a philosophical month? After a lot of searching, I figured out a philosophical month is 40 days. The term comes from medieval alchemists, though why it’s called that and why it differs from a normal lunar or solar month I cannot say.

But now the jug sits on my kitchen window ledge, growing steadily darker, to be siphoned off and bottled Aug. 5.

And why is the master of the grapevines annoyed with the walnut tree? Part of the walnut’s mythology has to do with its potent effect on growing things, doubtless owing to the fact that the tree, roots, leaves and fruits are all laden with tannins; the branches that extend over the vines inhibit them from further growth. “The tree of idleness” is what they called the big, old walnut at the kafeneion – the local cafe — in the Cyprus village where we once lived, and the old gents of the village idled their time away under its branches, loath to disturb themselves for another coffee or ouzo, with just enough energy to throw the dice for another game of trictrac.

Years ago, when our walnut tree was much younger, Bruno, the neighboring contadino, warned me never to fall asleep beneath it. “You might never wake up,” he said with a dark look. The tree of witches, I’ve also heard said. The legendary witches’ tree of Benevento in southern Italy, under which they held their Sabbaths, was a walnut.

Walnuts show up in variety of Mediterranean dishes

A week after making nocino, I finally got the last traces of walnut juice out of my fingernails, which were stained first yellow and then dark brown with that tannic juice. The whole process led me to think more about how valuable walnuts are and what an important but all too often unacknowledged ingredient they are in traditional Mediterranean cuisines, from Greece, Turkey and Lebanon, where crushed walnuts add flavor and crunch to sweet, honey-drenched pastries, all the way to the Perigord region of southwest France, where walnut oil is often used in cooking, and sweet vin de noix, an aperitif rather than a digestif, is made from walnuts — also harvested on the morning of St. Jean Baptiste.

It’s not surprising they should be so prevalent. First off, their healthfulness: Walnuts are one of the few plant sources for valuable omega-3 fatty acids, so necessary for human metabolism. Vegetarians and vegans especially are well advised to add walnuts to their diets because the only other good, readily available source of this essential fat is oily fish. Moreover, walnuts, like extra virgin olive oil, have a high percentage of antioxidants, anti-inflammatories and monounsaturated fat — all things that can make us live longer and more healthfully.

 

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Nocino on a sunny window ledge, Day 1. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

But real happiness comes from the good things walnuts do in just about anything they’re added to. Pounded walnut sauces exist in every Mediterranean cuisine: Turkish cooks make tarator, a walnut-based sauce, to go with fried seafood — a great summertime combination for al fresco dining — and in Italian Liguria, the original pesto genovese, that quintessential basil sauce so characteristic of the season, seems to have been made as often with walnuts as with pine nuts. Here are some hints to spur your imagination:

  • Add a little walnut oil to a salad dressing for extra richness.
  • Toast a handful of chopped walnuts with some breadcrumbs to make a great topping for any sort of baked cheese pasta.
  • Add a handful of chopped walnuts to bread or biscuit dough.
  • Add walnuts and little knobs of feta or soft goat cheese to a plain green salad, or combine walnuts and goat cheese to make an elegant topping for pre-dinner crostini, served with a glass of chilled rosé.
  • Make a simple, seasonal dessert: a handful of walnuts and a bowl of fresh-sliced, tree-ripened peaches.

Or do as cooks in the eastern Mediterranean do and serve a very plain cake, not too sweet, made from olive oil and yogurt, enriched with toasted chopped walnuts; it makes a fine accompaniment to seasonal berries or those same sliced peaches. And here’s a secret: It’s just as good for Sunday breakfast as it is for Saturday night’s dessert.

Walnut Cake with Yogurt and Olive Oil

Prep Time: 20 minutes

Cook Time: 2 hours, 20 minutes

Total Time: 1 hour, 40 minutes

Yield: Makes 1 (8-inch) cake

This is from “The New Mediterranean Diet Cookbook”; the original was made with mastic-flavored olive oil, but because that is not easy to find, I’ve adapted it using vanilla instead.

Ingredients

  • Butter and flour for an 8-inch springform pan
  • ¾ cup walnut meats
  • ¾ cup unbleached all-purpose flour
  • ½ teaspoon baking soda
  • ½ teaspoon baking powder
  • Pinch of fine sea salt
  • 4 medium eggs, separated
  • ¾ cup sugar
  • 2 tablespoons plain yogurt (full fat is best)
  • ⅓ cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla essence

Directions

  1. Preheat the oven to 300 F. Butter and flour the cake pan.
  2. When the oven is hot, spread the walnuts on a sheet pan and set in the oven for 15 to 20 minutes, until they are lightly toasted. Let cool, then chop finely or grind to a fine texture in a food processor, but do not let them process into a paste. The walnuts should still be a little gritty.
  3. Combine the flour, baking soda, baking powder and salt and toss with a fork to mix well. Add the ground nuts and mix again.
  4. Beat the egg yolks in a separate bowl, gradually beating in about half the sugar. Beat until the yolks are thick and pale. A little at a time, beat in the yogurt, olive oil and vanilla essence, beating well after each addition. Fold the flour mixture into the yolks.
  5. With clean beaters, beat the egg whites to soft peaks, then sprinkle with the remaining sugar and beat to stiff peaks. Stir about a quarter of the beaten whites into the yolk-flour mixture, then, using a spatula to bring up the batter at the base of the bowl, continue folding the remainder, about a third at a time. When everything is well combined, turn it into the prepared cake pan.
  6. Transfer to the oven and bake for 50 to 60 minutes, or until the top is golden, the center is firm and the cake pulls away a little from the sides of the pan. Remove and transfer to a cake rack. When cool, remove the cake from the pan.
  7. Serve the cake plain, or top it with a sprinkling of powdered sugar or serve with a dollop of whipped cream or ice cream (maple walnut perhaps?). You could ice the cake if you wish, but that’s not in the Mediterranean tradition.

Main photo: Walnuts. Credit: iStockphoto

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Fresh cherries. Credit: Sharon Hunt

My father loved to fish, his East Coast genes commanding that love. Dad loved camping too but only camping where water was nearby. After all, nothing tasted better than fresh fish frying on a camp stove, unless it was fresh fish accompanied by the wonderful cherry jam he made to go with it.

While Mom set the table and my sister trotted off with her Barbie dolls, Dad’s fishing pole arced and fell, and I caught up with Nancy Drew’s latest mystery. When Dad had enough fish, even Nancy was cast aside for lunch.

While the fish sizzled, he caramelized onions for the cherry jam. How he fell upon this combination I don’t know, but the jam, little more than fresh cherries, green pepper and onions, was tart and sweet, and we slathered it onto the hot fish. With coleslaw and bread, we had a midday feast.

After lunch, we were logy, sluggish in our movements but content in our thoughts. Even Barbie looked ready to stretch out on her lounge chair for a nap.

Fresh cherries open up new possibilities

Before moving to Ontario, Canada, we never ate fresh cherries, the ones arriving at the grocery store already covered with a fuzzy coating of mold. So we contented ourselves with maraschino cherries in canned fruit cocktail or topping an ice cream sundae or the glace cherries in a cake that had been passed down from my Great-Grandmother Hunt.

I never knew her, but in Dad’s words she was “a corker” (an excellent or astonishing person). All of 4 feet and practically as wide as she was tall, she wore a black apron that fringed her ankles and had a Newfoundland dog, looking more pony than canine, that rarely left her side.

When Dad spent summer holidays with her and his grandfather, she made boiled dinners that were often gray in the pot and roasts of beef that inevitably blackened in her care, but she also made a cherry cake that he and the dog salivated over. The cake was one of the few things that she made — along with poached eggs, fish stew and gingerbread — that was a keeper, he said.

Although really just a pound cake with glace cherries added, it was the beating of butter and sugar until silken and the addition of almond flavoring and orange juice that elevated the cake to something special. She used a wooden spoon and an English mason bowl that she sat in her lap, creaming the butter and sugar with a steady rhythm, while the other ingredients waited to be added. The last thing mixed in was the cherries, which had been sprinkled with flour so they wouldn’t fall to the bottom of the cake as it baked.

Great-Grandmother Hunt hummed while the spoon beat against the bowl, the oil stove undulating in the heat and Dad and the dog sitting close by, waiting.

Later, when she took the cakes out of the oven, they hardly had time to reach the cooling racks before boy and beast were at her elbow, begging for slices that had been tinged pink from the cherries.

Decades later, Dad made those cakes for me and my sister, but by then, we’d also become fresh cherry lovers. The Bing cherries that grew on a tree in the back garden of our new home were fat and glossy, and what a wonder it was to pick a handful whenever we wanted.

I was sometimes sent out with the step stool and a bowl to pick enough cherries for a new dessert Dad discovered in the only cookbook he ever bought, “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.” Later, he found the tall and gangly author of the book, Julia Child, on television by accident and learned to make new, French dishes, but Cherry Clafoutis remained one of his favorites.

It looked like a puffed up pancake as it baked, but it was so much more — light textured and bursting with cherries. Powdered sugar sprinkled on top added an extra touch of sweetness. Cherry Clafoutis became a weekend treat and a camping specialty. Dad even made a metal hood for the camp stove so he could bake the dessert on it.

Cherry Clafoutis. Credit:: Sharon Hunt

Cherry Clafoutis. Credit: Sharon Hunt

The aroma of the baking clafoutis lured friends and strangers to our camping spot. Soon, slices were being passed around, powdered sugar was coating lips and cherry juice dribbled down chins. It was hard to imagine life before this dessert and before fresh cherries.

Dad tweaked Child’s clafoutis over the years, adding ingredients and changing amounts, but he always credited her with opening up a whole new direction in cooking and baking for him. His clafoutis is the version I still make.

I stay true to Great-Grandmother Hunt’s cherry cake recipe, though, like he did, and although Bing cherries are still my favorites, I also like light-fleshed Rainiers, the “Princess of cherries,” while the Lapin’s deep red skin and flesh makes a cherry jam that is still perfect slathered on pan fried trout.

Cherry Clafoutis

Prep Time: 30 minutes

Cook Time: 55 minutes

Total Time: 1 hour, 25 minutes

Yield: Serves 4 to 6

Inspired by Julia Child's recipe.

Ingredients

  • Pinch of salt
  • ½ cup all-purpose flour
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 cup white sugar, divided
  • ½ cup buttermilk
  • ½ cup 10% cream
  • ¼ cup orange juice
  • 2 teaspoons almond extract
  • 2 cups cherries, pitted (fresh work best, but frozen cherries, thawed and drained, work well too)
  • Powdered sugar

Directions

  1. Preheat the oven to 350 F.
  2. Sift the salt and flour together in a small bowl.
  3. In a medium-size bowl, whisk the eggs until frothy. Add ½ cup sugar and whisk until combined, then add the buttermilk, cream, orange juice and almond extract; whisk until smooth.
  4. Add the sifted flour and salt and blend well.
  5. Pour half the batter into a greased baking dish (about an 8-cup capacity) and place in the preheated oven. When the batter has started to set around the sides of the pan (about 10 minutes), remove the pan from the oven.
  6. Sprinkle the cherries and then the additional ½ cup of sugar over the batter. Add the rest of the batter and return the dish to the oven.
  7. Bake for about 45 minutes (or until the clafoutis has puffed up, is golden and a knife inserted in the center comes out clean).
  8. Sprinkle with powdered sugar and serve warm.

Main photo: Fresh cherries. Credit: Sharon Hunt

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A picnic at St. James Park in London.

In the United States and perhaps elsewhere, most picnics are simply enjoyable outdoor meals and social occasions, where thoroughly normal groups of people decide to have a fun time and eat and drink some well-prepared goodies out of doors. In the United Kingdom, things are rather more complicated. By tradition, British picnics are of three sorts: the romantic, the grand and the disastrous.

Dream setting

The romantic picnic encapsulates simplicity in beautiful surroundings with a wonderful view, a stream, a wood or flower-filled meadow. The tradition started a couple of hundred years ago, when people began to see nature and the countryside as picturesque rather than dangerous. The food, drink and company are all planned to add to the picnickers’ awareness of nature and its beauties and seem particularly associated with happy and impressionable youth. Such a picnic involves little display or showing off, and not even a great deal of organisation. Sandwiches, fruit and some chilled wine or lemonade would be enough to make the right company happy in this setting — if it can be found. Somehow, this is the sort of picnic people dream of, but don’t very often end up having.

Over the top

The grand picnic is often and sometimes deservedly mocked. At its worst, it is based on the assumption that conspicuous expenditure will win the envy and admiration of spectators and guests. Victorian writers such as Anthony Trollope describe picnics with attendant servants, Champagne and dancing. Nowadays, grand English social occasions such as horse racing’s Royal Ascot, rowing’s Henley, opera’s Glyndebourne and the end-of-term speech days of the most expensive private schools all provide opportunities for showing off. Too much expensive food and drink such as lobsters, oysters and the very best Burgundy and Bordeaux, overdone table decorations, gilt wood chairs, striped awnings and tents, and even uniformed staff to wait on the picnickers are all to be seen. The hosts are often reduced to a state of nervous anxiety by the knowledge that highly competitive picnics are taking place all around them, and so only the richest, most confident and best prepared can expect to win.

When all goes wrong

The disastrous picnic is generally a product of nature winning the war with man. Although it can start out as one of the previous types, is somehow felt to be very traditional in itself. A romantic picnic in a field can be quickly spoilt by a herd of inquisitive farm animals, or worse, a loose bull. The British climate is far from reliable and can ruin the best-laid plans. Insects such as bees, wasps and biting flies can rout a group of potential picnickers. Rain, gusting wind, cold and driven sand at the seaside are some of the other hazards that British picnickers may have to face. In addition, picnics taken by a river provide the opportunity for at least one guest to fall in, and for others to feel duty-bound to follow as rescuers.

Then there’s the grand combination

When the grand merge, as they sometimes do for some reason with the disastrous, the situation is regarded as particularly amusing by spectators. Not only bad weather but the influence of gravity on expensively prepared cold collations can cause havoc. One of the smartest horse racing meetings in England takes place annually at Goodwood in West Sussex towards the end of July. Most people, of course, just come to enjoy themselves, but every year some overdo it. The most elaborate picnics are held on a steep slope and each year at least one of these is bowled downhill, with elegantly clad members of the (presumed) aristocracy in hot pursuit. Shellfish, the finest vintages of the best wine, cold beef and salmon, along with the occasional windblown table, glass, cutlery and awnings, have all been known to end up crushed against a boundary fence at the bottom of the hill. It is not, of course, considered polite to laugh too openly.

Since International Picnic Day is on June 18, this seems the right moment to celebrate with a delicious cold dessert. The recipe that follows is taken from our book “For the Love of an Orchard,” and would enhance any picnic. Pretty enough to pass for grand, delicious enough to increase a sense of romance and consoling enough to mitigate a disaster, it is based on a dessert dish that a visiting French friend prepared for Chris and his family a few years ago. Alice Soubranne, who is an excellent cook, was kind enough to give us this family recipe.

Alice Soubranne's Tarte aux Pommes à l'Alsacienne

Prep Time: 30 minutes

Cook Time: 40 minutes

Total Time: 1 hour, 10 minutes

Yield: 1 tart serving 6 to 8 people

Ingredients

  • Sweet pastry (use pâte sucré or a half-pound block of good-quality chilled supermarket pastry)
  • 3 to 4 apples, peeled, cored and sliced, approximately 2 cups
  • 4 to 5 tablespoons caster or superfine sugar
  • 6 egg yolks
  • 20 U.S. fluid ounces tub of crème fraîche
  • 2 ounces butter

Directions

  1. Blind bake the pastry in a buttered 10-inch tart pan or flan case with removable base at 350 F. The shell should be firm and dry but not browned or biscuit-like.
  2. Arrange the sliced apples prettily in concentric circles and again bake at 350 F until softened but holding their shape (say, 10 minutes).
  3. In a big bowl, beat the egg yolks with enough sugar to make the mixture neither too sweet nor solid. Then fold in the gently melted butter and crème fraîche and pour this custard mixture over the apples in the baking case.
  4. Turn the heat up to 375 F and cook the tart for about 30 minutes so it is, in Alice's words, "goldy and has a tan," but does not burn. It must not even turn dark brown or the custard will curdle at the edges, making a break line where it meets the pastry.
  5. Eat cold, served with crème fraîche or cream. Other fruits can in principle be used for this tart, including plums and probably cherries, but the right liquid content and height in relation to the finished custard is important.

Notes

Presentation is important, with evenly cut apple rings and golden custard. Good apples for this recipe should have a slightly spicy taste with good acid, and hold their texture when cooked in the custard. Norfolk Pippin, Ashmead's Kernel and most Russets are really good. Of the generally available supermarket apples Braeburn is reliable and tastes good, holding enough texture. Bramleys are too tart.

Main photo: Picnickers gather at St. James Park in London. Credit: iStock

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Bread made from a mixture of einkorn flour and all-purpose flour. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Sun, Sea & Olives: There’s a lot of talk these days about ancient grains, but frankly, as far as wheat is concerned, it would be hard to get more ancient than einkorn (Triticum monococcum). Einkorn, archeologists agree, is the oldest cultivated grain in the Mediterranean, and the Mediterranean is the great cradle of wheat in all its forms — whether as porridge (probably the oldest wheat “dish”), bread, pasta or even tabbouleh or couscous, it all begins in and around the Mediterranean.

zester newEinkorn is, then, the ancestor, the wheat that precedes all others, including modern T. aestivum, aka bread wheat, from which we get our all-purpose flour. T. aestivum is “only” 10,000 years young; einkorn is much older. Botanists call it a relict crop, meaning its cultivation has died away except in a few remote places.

That’s too bad, because it has a number of virtues modern wheats lack, principally a gluten structure tolerated by gluten-sensitive people (although not by those diagnosed with celiac disease). Some types of Italian farro, called farro piccolo or small farro, are in fact T. monococcum, though most farro is emmer, T. dicoccum, or spelt, T. speltum.

All this may be confusing to most people, but not to Eli Rogosa, a wheat farmer and grain investigator of exemplary determination, who, after identifying and researching einkorn in the Palestinian territories and Israel, set herself to growing einkorn, as well as emmer, on fields in central Maine and western Massachusetts. Growing the grain and milling the berries into flour that is uniquely gratifying to turn into bread — as I’ve been discovering in recent weeks.

Einkorn is a whole grain in the truest form

Einkorn flour is sweetly nutty and flavorful. Unlike most whole-wheat flour, in which various parts of the grains are milled separately then recombined, this is a genuine, whole-meal, whole-grain flour with nothing separated or recombined — just pure whole grains of wheat milled to a soft, tan flour. You can find out more and order flour (or whole-wheat kernels if you wish) at growseed.org, the website of The Heritage Grain Conservancy. Meanwhile, here’s how to turn it into a delicious bread, made with approximately half einkorn flour and half unbleached all-purpose flour.

Bread made from a mixture of einkorn flour and all-purpose flour. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Bread made from a mixture of einkorn flour and all-purpose flour. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Making Bread from an Ancient Grain

Yield: Makes two 1½ pound loaves.

The process takes two to three days, although you will only be working a small amount of time each day. The tastiest bread I can make begins with a pre-ferment, also called a sponge; in France, this is a poolish, while in Italy it’s a biga. Handling the dough like this -- letting it rise, gradually adding more liquid and flour -- helps to develop fermentation and the complex flavors that result. Note: I prefer King Arthur unbleached all-purpose flour for this. I also set a pitcher of water on the counter the night before so the purifying chemicals added to most tap water will evaporate.

Ingredients

  • ½ teaspoon instant yeast, divided
  • ½ cup room-temperature water
  • 3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour, divided, plus more for dusting
  • 2½ to 3 cups einkorn flour (or use whole-wheat or whole-rye flour)
  • 1½ cups water, at room temperature
  • 1 tablespoon fine sea salt
  • Cornmeal or semolina flour, for dusting

Directions

    To make the dough:
  1. Combine ¼ teaspoon of the yeast, ½ cup of water and ½ cup all-purpose flour in a bowl and beat gently for about 30 strokes with a wooden spoon to activate the gluten. This is the starter sponge. It will be a thick slurry, more like a batter than a bread dough.
  2. Cover with plastic wrap and set aside to rise overnight in a cool place (not the refrigerator).
  3. The next day, combine the sponge with about 2 cups of all-purpose flour and 2½ cups of einkorn flour. Dissolve the remaining ¼ teaspoon of yeast in 1¼ cups of tepid water and add to the bowl. Stir to mix well; it will still be quite shaggy. Cover again with plastic wrap and set aside to rest for at least 20 to 30 minutes; it can also rest for a couple of hours. This is what bakers call the autolyse.
  4. Use the remaining flours to lightly dust the bread board. Add the salt to the dough and knead it briefly by pushing it onto the board, then folding it over itself, turning it a quarter turn and then pushing it out and folding it over again. Keep doing this until the consistency of the dough is springy and no longer sticky. Add more flour to the board if the dough starts to stick. It should be neither so wet that it doesn’t hang together nor so dry that it looks and feels powdery. You may add a touch more water or flour from time to time, depending on how the dough feels to you.
  5. Return the dough to a rinsed-out bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Set aside to rise once more -- several hours at room temperature or overnight in the refrigerator. Once or twice during this period, punch the dough down and fold it over itself, then let it rise again.
  6. To shape and bake the bread:
  7. When the rising time is up, turn the dough onto a lightly floured board and divide it in two, each piece weighing about 1½ pounds.
  8. Press the dough out on the board as if you were shaping pizza, and fold it over onto itself several times, like a letter you’re folding to go into an envelope, very firmly to get rid of excess air holes. Give the dough a quarter turn each time you fold it. Finally, shape the dough into a round boule or a longer, more slender piece, like a thick baguette or what French bakers call a bâtarde.
  9. Scatter cornmeal or semolina over oven trays or sheet pans and set the unbaked breads on the pans. (Some home bakers use terracotta baking tiles set on a rack in the oven. If you do that, instead of sheet pans, scatter cornmeal or semolina thickly on a bread peel -- a wooden shingle with a handle that will allow you to transfer the breads directly onto the tiles.)
  10. Cover the breads with a damp cloth and leave to rise for 2 to 2½ hours.
  11. Preheat the oven to 450 F. (If using baking tiles, preheat for at least 30 minutes; even if the temperature control light goes off, the tiles will need more time to heat to baking temperature.) Have ready a deep skillet on a rack just above the oven floor. When you’re ready to transfer the bread to the oven, have ready a teakettle of boiling water.
  12. Just before transferring to the oven, use a sharp knife or razor to slash the tops of the loaves in whatever pattern pleases you.
  13. Slide the breads on their trays into the oven, or set the peels directly on the oven tiles and give a jerk to shift the breads onto the tiles. Immediately pour an inch or more of boiling water into the skillet and close the oven door.
  14. Bake for 30 minutes, then reduce heat to 350 F and bake another 15 to 20 minutes. Remove the breads from the oven when done and transfer to a wire rack to cool.

For no-knead bread: Another foolproof method, developed by New York master baker Jim Leahy of Sullivan Street Bakery and made popular by New York Times writer Mark Bittman, is “no-knead bread.” (But as you can see, there’s not a lot of kneading with the previous method.)

In this case, prepare the dough as above, but after folding each loaf and shaping it, set it on a heavily floured kitchen towel and cover with a dampened towel to rise for about 2 hours. Toward the end of that time, heat the oven to 450 F and insert a heavy covered pot, like a cast-iron Dutch oven. (Le Creuset pots are perfect for this.) Let the oven and the pot heat for at least 30 minutes, then, working rapidly and carefully, pull the pot out of the oven, uncover it and turn the floured cloth over to drop the bread dough into it. Give the pot a shake to let the dough settle. (There is no need to slash the loaf.) Clamp the lid on again and return to the oven. Let the bread bake for 30 minutes or so, then remove the cover, lower the heat to 350 F and continue baking for another 15 minutes before turning the bread out on a rack to cool.

The advantage to this method is that the pot with its lid on acts like a miniature oven and creates a crisp toasted crust without either slashing the loaf or adding steam to the oven. The disadvantage is that unless you have a very large oven or double ovens, you must bake one loaf after another, but the results are so spectacular that it’s worth it.

Main photo: Bread made from a mixture of einkorn flour and all-purpose flour. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

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National Doughnut Day, June 6: The Battle of the Sinker, as I like to call it, may not come close to the sinking of the Lusitania as the turning point of World War I, but, in the 100th anniversary year of the beginning of that dreadful conflict, it’s worth recalling how the doughnut stepped up to help defeat the pitiless Hun.  Admittedly, there were casualties along the way.

This World War I battle began as an old rusty truck filled with about 100 apple pies and 7,000 Salvation Army doughnuts broke down a mile in back of American lines in full view of the German lines. As the New York Times reported under the headline “Foe Bombards Stalled Truckload of Pastry,” what ensued was a furious barrage of German shells. It was now 1918 and the Germans were desperate.  Seventy projectiles fell in the first half hour and continued for the rest of the afternoon. That night the driver tried to rescue the truck but was driven back by bombardment, which rained down for seven hours more.

The next morning, fearing for the doughy cargo, a soldier on a motorbike raced past the stranded truck at 75 mph and returned to breathlessly report that the doughnuts were still safe. When the soldiers learned of the pastries’ plight, a hundred of them volunteered to rescue the quickly staling dough rings, but alas they too were driven back by shells and poisonous gas. Eventually after four days of furious shelling, the Kaiser’s gunners sent up eight balloons to better gauge the range. And that was it. The doughnuts were smashed to oblivion. And the guns fell silent.

An American officer at the scene swore to “make the Boches pay dearly for their unforgivable vandalism.”  The incident became famous across the Western Front.  The doughnuts may have lost the battle but the war made them into winners, an edible symbol what the boys were fighting for.

Doughnuts and the Sallies

Needless to say, it wasn’t just trucks full of fried dough that were at risk of being blown to kingdom come on a daily basis. It was the women who made the doughnuts: Salvation Army volunteers such as Gladys and Irene McIntyre, sisters from Mount Vernon, N.Y., who handed out coffee and doughnuts under a rain of shells until the Army brass ordered them to retreat. Or Cora Van Norden, outfitted with a revolver, a helmet and gas mask, who barely escaped an enemy barrage as she was returning from an allied graveyard. The Salvation Army had entered the war right along the American Expeditionary Force (as the U.S. contingent was named) in 1917.

Back home, the Salvation Army had a bit of crackpot reputation, but this quickly changed once their members arrived in the trenches. To the mud-stained, blood-soaked soldiers, the primarily female volunteers came to represent the women they’d left behind, a physical incarnation of the idea of mom and apple pie. Indeed the volunteers tried to make apple pies and even fudge in the early days, but the reality of the field kitchens made this well-nigh impossible.

 

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Mace comes from the outside shell of a nutmeg. Credit: Michael Krondl

Helen Purviance’s vision

Then Helen Purviance came up with the idea of doughnuts. The ingredients were easier to obtain than for apple pies, and you didn’t need a stove. In the coming months the doughnuts became inextricably linked with the Sallies, as the volunteers were called.

Purviance’s companion-in-arms Margaret Sheldon estimated that she cooked more than a million doughnuts before the war was out. All mixed, cut and fried by hand. (See recipe.)

The war was a turning point for doughnuts, as much as it was for the Salvation Army. Before the war, doughnuts were widely associated with New England, but afterward they became the all-American treat. Doughnut bakeries large and small were established to piggyback on the sinker’s celebrity. The Salvation Army used them in most of its fundraising efforts. National Doughnut Day (the first Friday in June) was eventually established in 1938 as a consequence of the organization’s fund drive for a Chicago home for unmarried women. If you gave a donation, you got a doughnut, but the trouble was it was just printed on a piece of paper. Oddly, it proved effective nevertheless.

Margaret Sheldon’s recipe

Four decades after the Kaiser had been served his just desserts, Margaret Sheldon revealed her recipe for the doughnuts that had helped win the Great War. It made 400 large doughnuts or 500 small ones:

18 pounds of flour

7 pounds sugar

12 ounces of good baking powder

3 ounces salt

3 ounces of good mace

6 big cans of evaporated milk

8 cans water

1 pound lard

It works, even if the results are most definitely worthy of the name “sinkers.” Adding some eggs would lighten the doughnuts considerably, but eggs would have been a fragile luxury on the Western Front. If you’re interested in reliving history, the following recipe is somewhat more manageable. Eat them while they’re still warm — no gas mask, helmet or revolver necessary. 

Salvation Army Doughnuts

Prep Time: 30 minutes

Cook Time: 15 minutes

Total Time: 1 hour, 45 minutes

Yield: 2 dozen

Ingredients

  • 1½ pounds all-purpose flour
  • 2 tablespoons baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 teaspoons ground mace
  • 9 ounces sugar
  • 1½ ounces lard (or shortening)
  • 1 (5-ounce) can evaporated milk
  • ¾ cup water
  • lard for frying (or use vegetable shortening)
  • powdered or granulated sugar for coating

Directions

  1. Sift the flour, baking powder, salt and mace together in a medium bowl and set aside.
  2. In a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, mix the 9 ounces sugar and lard at low speed, until homogenous, about 1 minute. Stir together the evaporated milk and water.
  3. Add the flour mixture to sugar mixture in three additions, each time alternating with the milk mix. After each addition, mix on low speed until just combined and scrape the sides of the bowl. The dough will be very sticky, like wet cookie dough.
  4. Transfer the dough to a clean bowl, press plastic wrap directly onto the dough’s surface to cover, and refrigerate at least 1 hour (or up to 24 hours).
  5. Using a deep fryer or a heavy pan, heat at least 2 inches of the lard or shortening to 370 F. If you’re not using a deep fryer with a built-in thermostat, check the temperature using a candy or deep-fry thermometer.
  6. The dough is on the sticky side, so don’t be afraid to use enough flour to avoid it sticking to the generously floured work surface or the cutter. Using floured hands, gently press the dough into a round about 1-inch thick. Dust the top of the dough with flour, then use a floured rolling pin to roll the dough to about ½-inch thick. Dip a 3-inch doughnut cutter into flour and then cut out as many rounds as you can, dipping the cutter into the flour before each cut. Fold and re-roll the dough to make extra doughnuts and cut again. You may want to refrigerate it for a few minutes to make it easier to roll. Do not re-roll a third time as this will result in tough doughnuts.
  7. Shake any excess flour off the doughnuts before carefully adding them to the hot fat a few at a time, taking care not to crowd them. Once the doughnuts float, fry for about 60 seconds per side or until deep golden brown on both sides. Drain on paper towels. Cool on a rack. Toss with granulated or powdered sugar while still warm.

Notes

In addition to 30 minutes prep time, allow 1 hour for the dough to rest. Cooking time is two minutes per batch and will depend on how big your pot is. For a medium-sized pot that has room for only four at a time, the cooking time will be about 15 minutes.

Main photo: One of the Salvation Army “Sallies,” as the female volunteers were called, and a soldier. Credit: Courtesy of the Salvation Army

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Date and Nut Bread baked in cans. Credit: Nancy Zaslavsky

I’m holding a well-worn and yellowed 3-by-5-inch, lined recipe card for Date and Nut Bread baked in cans as my mind wanders back to the New Jersey kitchen of my childhood.

I’m about 10, and Mom and I are tying our aprons in the yellow-print wallpapered kitchen with vertical knotty pine planks that go a little more than halfway up the walls. As the two of us gather ingredients from the pantry and put them on the speckled Formica countertop, the black, wall-mounted, rotary-dial telephone rings. I rush to answer in my most grown up voice, “Hello, this is Nancy,” and wait for a response through the LI6-2489J party line. It’s my aunt with the recipe we are about to tackle. I hand the receiver to my mom so she can write everything down clearly, in her distinct script. In my excitement, I’m hoping a neighbor doesn’t cut in wanting to use the line.

A tradition born of necessity

It’s the late 1950s, but ever since World War II, when metals were in short supply, people became used to recycling tin cans rather than buying specialty loaf pans to make quick breads. The easy breads are popular because yeast and kneading aren’t required — only baking soda or powder is necessary for them to rise — and they’re cake-like, thanks to the addition of sugar.

First, we empty out the pile of baking sheets and odd pans stored in the oven before my mom preheats it to 350 F. She tells me to get a wooden cutting board and snip three-quarters of the dates into little pieces with scissors. Back then, a box of Dromedary-brand dates held 8 ounces, so I have an arithmetic problem to conquer as well as a messy, sticky job ahead. I take a seat at the kitchen table by a window and get to work.

By the time I finish cutting dates, everything else is ready to get stirred together, spooned into tin cans and popped in the hot oven. An hour later, the cans are placed on cooling racks, the house smells like heaven, and the bread’s unbearably long cooling-down period begins. Because one of the breads doesn’t slide out of its can easily this time, Mom removes the bottom of the can using a can opener, and gently pushes the dense bread out to cool thoroughly.

To get things moving along, I take the silver brick of Philadelphia cream cheese from the refrigerator to soften. I also grab a jar of homemade blackberry jam and stab a knife into the paraffin layer, wiggling it free, trying my hardest to remove it in one clean chunk.

Finally, Mom cuts one moist loaf into round slices with a serrated knife. My mouth is salivating as the family gathers for tastes.

Because I worked so hard, I get part of the prized top that puffs up from the can like a muffin mushroom; it’s crunchy and chewy at the same time, with an unctuously sticky center. Cream cheese glides on and a dab of jam gilds the lily.

This recipe makes a darker, moister bread than the similar, defunct canned Crosse & Blackwell or Thomas’s or Chock Full ‘O Nuts coffeehouse walnut-raisin versions. Other similar recipes from the 1950s use brown sugar, and some call for molasses.

Date and Nut Bread Baked in Cans

Makes 2 loaves

Ingredients

6 ounces pitted dates

Date and nut bread. Credit: Nancy Zaslavsky

Date and nut bread. Credit: Nancy Zaslavsky

1 teaspoon baking soda

¾ cup sugar

¾ cup warm water

1 large egg

1¾ cups all-purpose, unbleached flour

¼ teaspoon salt

¾ cup chopped walnuts

3 tablespoons melted butter

2 used 14- to 15-ounce cans, cleaned and paper labels removed

Cream cheese, for serving

Directions

1. Preheat the oven to 350 F.

2. Using scissors, snip the dates into small pieces (about the size of the walnut pieces) over a medium bowl.

3. Mix in the baking soda and sugar, and then pour in the water to soak the dates.

4. Beat the egg in a small bowl. Stir the egg, flour, salt, nuts and 1 tablespoon of the melted butter into the soaking dates.

5. Being careful of any sharp edges, generously grease the cans using the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter and a pastry brush. Fill the cans a bit more than three-quarters full with thick batter. Tap the cans to rid them of air pockets.

6. Place the cans upright on a sheet pan. Bake 1 hour on the oven’s center rack.

7. Remove to a cooling rack. When the cans are cool enough to handle, give them a shake. The warm bread should slide out; if they are stubborn, remove the can bottoms with a can opener and push on the flat (bottom) end. Cool another hour. Date and Nut Bread tastes best at room temperature.

8. Slice into rounds (a serrated knife helps) and serve with cream cheese.

Main photo: Date and Nut Bread baked in cans. Credit: Nancy Zaslavsky

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Rhubarb pie. Credit: Sharon Hunt

As children, my sister and I spent Saturdays in the spring as knights-errant, challenging each other to duels with rhubarb stalks. We thrust them at each other, but our swords connected gently, so as not to damage what would later become delicious treats. A neighborhood bully once intruded, threatening to kill us with a touch of his rhubarb leaves. Just one touch would mean instant death, that’s how poisonous the leaves were, he said. I pushed him into a ditch, and when he didn’t die instantly, as the leaves touched his shoulder, I took my sister home for a dish of rhubarb Mom had cooked that morning.

We were rhubarb lovers. Mom and my sister loved it cooked with sugar, slathered on fresh bread and topped with heavy cream. They also loved it as Rhubarb Fool, the pink strands of rhubarb swirling through the whipped cream. Occasionally, rhubarb showed up in a cobbler, which they spooned into their mouths with abandon. Although Dad and I loved rhubarb these ways too, we loved it most in pies, his pies, since he made the best in the world.

“There’s no better pie than rhubarb,” he’d say wherever he got ready to make one.

Rhubarb’s long history started with medicinal uses

Nineteenth-century cooks would have agreed with him in that regard. They dubbed rhubarb the “pie plant” because of its popularity as a filling, but it had been popular for medicinal purposes much longer.

Rhubarb originated in Russia, Siberia and China, and was written about more than 2,700 years ago in “The Divine Farmer’s Herb-Root Classic,” an early Chinese text. Its roots were prized near and far as a cure for dysentery, diarrhea and constipation.

In Tudor England (from the 1400s to 1600s), rhubarb was grown in herb gardens. A century later, in the 1770s, the Duke of Athol grew Turkey rhubarb in Scotland, selling the roots to an Edinburgh druggist.

The rhubarb variety now eaten came to 17th-century England from Italy. Its cultivation spread throughout the 18th century, but it took awhile for rhubarb recipes to appear in English cookbooks — in part because the sugar needed for sweetening was not widely available or affordable. When sugar became more common, recipes for pies, tarts and other desserts followed, in the 19th century.

In 1771, Benjamin Franklin sent Chinese rhubarb seeds to John Bartram, an American botanist, thus introducing the plant to America. Soon, rhubarb was cultivated in Maine and flourished after that in Massachusetts as well. By 1822, rhubarb was sold in New England markets, and later that century, Luther Burbank, a pioneer in agricultural science, developed a variety better suited to California’s climate.

Rhubarb stalks, the parts we eat, are really leaf bases called petioles. They vary in color, from pink to red, green or white, depending on the variety.

The rhubarb that Dad grew was pink. It spread between the fences separating our back garden from our neighbors’, with Dad doing the harvesting and all of us, including our neighbors the Leckies, sharing in his baking.

Dad was a born baker, although six decades of practice certainly helped fine-tune his innate skills. Although he could make anything, his genius was pastry, which demands a gentle touch. He was a gentle man, so the two were made for each other.

He was an orderly baker as well, first laying out all the ingredients: flour, salt, lard, water, vinegar, sugar, cornstarch and rhubarb (without those “murderous” leaves, which, in fact, contain toxic oxalic acid that can be lethal if ingested). Then, measuring cups and spoons, a pastry knife and fork, mixing bowls, a rolling pin, pie pans and cooling racks were assembled. He always made three pies: one for our neighbors and two for us (the second pie was for lingering over a little more because the first barely left the oven before it was devoured).

The worst thing about his pie making was waiting for the pies to bake and then cool. I was not patient when it came to waiting for rhubarb pie, but if you didn’t wait, the slice of pie collapsed into soup on your plate and burned your mouth too. When the pie was cool enough, the sight of that first slice of rosy rhubarb between layers of flaky pastry made me drool.

If that bully hadn’t been a bully, he might have been invited to drool over that sight too, before tasting Dad’s rhubarb pie. Then he would have understood the truly deadly aspect of rhubarb. It wasn’t in the leaves touching you but, rather, in that first perfect bite, when the sweet rhubarb melded with pastry that melted on your tongue. That bite was deadly because you knew how terrible it would be when you could no longer eat such a perfect thing. If he hadn’t been a bully, I might have pitied him for never having had that experience, but, instead, I was just grateful that we did so often.

Dad’s Rhubarb Pie

Makes one 9-inch pie

Ingredients

For the pastry:

2¼ cups all-purpose flour

¼ teaspoon salt

1 cup cold lard (unsalted butter, if you prefer, or half lard and half butter)

¼ cup cold water

1 tablespoon white vinegar

For the filling:

3½ cups rhubarb, leaves removed; stalks trimmed, washed and dried thoroughly and cut into 1-inch pieces

1 to 1½ cups granulated sugar

¼ cup cornstarch

Directions

For the pastry:

1. Sift the flour and salt into a large bowl. Using a pastry knife, cut the lard into the flour until it is in pea-sized pieces.

2. In a measuring cup, stir together the water and vinegar. Using a fork, stir only enough liquid into the flour mixture to bind the ingredients. (Note: You might need more or less water, depending on how the dough comes together. In humid weather, it might require less water because flour, if not stored properly, can absorb water from the air.)

3. Form the dough into a ball, wrap in plastic and refrigerate for 30 minutes.

4. While the dough chills, prepare the rhubarb filling.

For the filling:

1. Combine rhubarb with sugar in a bowl and set aside. (For a more tart pie, use just 1 cup of sugar.)

Assembling the pie:

1. Cut the chilled dough into two equal pieces. On a lightly floured surface, roll one piece into a ⅛-inch thick circle. Gently wrap the circle onto the rolling pin (or lift it) and press into a 9-inch pie pan, trimming any excess from the edges.

Rhubarb pie. Credit: Sharon Hunt

Rhubarb pie. Credit: Sharon Hunt

2. Spoon the rhubarb mixture into the pastry-lined pie pan. Sprinkle cornstarch evenly over the fruit.

3. Cover the rhubarb with the rolled-out top crust. Seal the pastry edges with your thumb and finger (or press a fork against the edges to seal). Cut slits into the pastry. (Alternatively, cut the top crust into strips and make a latticework design on top of the pie, as show in the accompanying photograph.)

4. Press a thin strip (about 1 inch) of aluminum foil around the edges to keep from burning.

5. Bake the pie in a preheated 450 F oven for 12 to 15 minutes (or until the pastry is golden). Remove the aluminum foil, and reduce heat to 350 F. Bake the pie for an additional 40 to 50 minutes (or until the rhubarb is soft).

6. Cool well before cutting.

Note:  You can also add ¼ cup of strawberries (washed, dried and cut into equal-sized pieces) for additional sweetness and flavor. If you choose to use strawberries too, reduce the amount of rhubarb accordingly.

Top photo: Rhubarb pie. Credit: Sharon Hunt

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