Articles in Baking w/recipe

Chocolate icebox cake with Valrhona, Scharffen Berger and Ghirardelli chocolate. Credit: Caroline J. Beck

Sometimes hand-me down family recipes need a little nudge to make them suit today’s tastes. In the case of my grandma’s icebox cake, she traditionally labored over creating homemade pound cake and then paired it with homemade chocolate mousse-like pudding. My mom updated it for her day by using Jell-O pudding instead. It was tasty enough to be my favorite dessert as a 6-year-old, but as an adult, I want something more. More chocolate, to be specific.

So I followed a big sister’s suggestion and combined the best of these family ideas. I added all the extra-dark chocolate I could find to the pudding as it cooked. Valrhona, Scharffen Berger, Callebaut, Guittard, Ghirardelli — pick your poison. And it didn’t seem to matter how much I threw in, so I took advice from my 8-year-old grandnephew, who is fond of promoting “add as much chocolate as you want” to almost any dessert recipe, and included three full bars of Valhrona, 1½ boxes of Scharffen Berger and a partial bag of Ghirardelli dark chocolate chips. And always on the lookout for simple and fast, I found that a three-loaf package of store-bought pound cake works just as well as homemade when chocolate is the star of the dessert.

With all that input — and all that chocolate — this cake might just live on to be a five-generation heirloom. I think Grandma would be proud.

Extra Chocolatey Icebox Cake

Prep Time: 10 minutes

Cook Time: 15 minutes

Total Time: 25 minutes

Yield: 12-16 servings

Ingredients

  • 3 store-bought pound cakes
  • 18 ounces or more of dark chocolate (bars, bits or chips)
  • 2 large (5-ounce) boxes of Jell-O Cook and Serve Chocolate Pudding
  • 6 cups whole milk
  • 2 cups whipped cream

Directions

  1. Cut pound cakes into ½ inch slices. Each cake should supply enough slices to fit in a single layer in a 9 x 13 baking pan.
  2. Break up chunks of dark chocolate bars. Combine two boxes of pudding mix and 6 cups of whole milk in a large saucepan set over medium high heat. When it starts to warm up, add chocolate pieces and continue to stir until the mixture boils. Remove from heat and set aside.
  3. Line a 9 x 13 baking pan with one layer of ½ inch slices of pound cake. Spread one-third of the pudding over the layer of cake. Repeat layering process two more times, alternating cake and pudding.
  4. Insert a few toothpicks in the top of the cake to keep plastic wrap from resting directly on pudding and cover. Refrigerate for 12 hours to allow the cake to chill and the pudding to settle.
  5. Prior to serving, spread a layer of freshly whipped cream over top of cake.

Notes

If you have a stash of good-quality baking chocolate, I encourage you to simply empty it into the pudding. It seems to be able to absorb quite a bit without consequence. You can serve this cake with as little as 3 hours’ chilling time, but it is best if left to settle and chill overnight or at least 12 hours.

Main photo: Chocolate icebox cake with Valrhona, Scharffen Berger and Ghirardelli chocolate. Credit: Caroline J. Beck

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Vegetable bread and vegetables to be used in bread

Growing your own vegetables and making bread are two of life’s great pleasures. How wonderful it is that they can be combined, so that much of the produce from your garden can be made into delicious and unusual breads — including often overlooked, but wonderful, vegetable breads.

Root vegetables make excellent bread and can be used grated (raw or cooked), or cooked and mashed. Beets, carrots, parsnips and potatoes can all be used like this. Spinach and all members of the squash family can be used to make lovely and unusual loaves. As a rough guide, equal weights of flour and puréed vegetables work well; if using grated vegetables, use half the weight of vegetables to flour or equal weights, depending on the concentration of flavor that you want.

Be aware that the vegetables will alter the structure of the loaf. The texture of the dough may become heavier and it may not rise as much as a basic wheat loaf, but don’t worry; the finished loaf will be fine. Some vegetables have a high water content, which can make the dough unmanageably sticky, so add water slowly and be prepared to use less than you might expect. If you have cooked the vegetables, use the cooking liquid instead of plain water for added flavor. The moistness in these breads means that they keep well, usually staying fresh longer than wheat loaves (keep them in a bread bin). They can also be frozen.

You may not think of them as vegetables, but dried onion flakes, garlic, chopped olives or chilies will also give your bread excellent flavor without really altering the structure. Be careful using fresh garlic, as it can inhibit the action of the yeast. Add only small amounts of garlic and slightly increase the quantity of yeast.

Use our Endlessly Adaptable Bread recipe as a jumping-off point for variations. Here are some of our favorite combinations, and a recipe for tomato bread that is perfect for this time of year.

Potato bread

This bread has a lovely chewy quality and doesn’t taste of potato! It is delicious with a handful of sage, rosemary or thyme mixed into the dough. If there is any left over, it makes very good toast the following day. It was often known as “poor man’s bread” and became popular in areas where wheat was hard to grow. The poor Irish farmers famously survived on little other than potatoes for many years and there are many Irish recipes for potato bread. Potatoes are too starchy to use alone to make bread, but they can be substituted for some of the flour. When making mash to use for bread don’t add milk or butter, as it will make the mash too soft. Remember this when you are preparing mash for the table and set aside some potatoes first. There is a recipe for potato bread on the Hafton & Kelly website.

Pumpkin and squash bread

Tomato bread with cheese and salad.

Tomato bread with cheese and pickle spread. Credit: Jane McMorland Hunter

Bread made with pumpkin or squash is slightly sweet and has a soft crust. To emphasize the sweetness, nuts, chocolate chips and dried fruit are delicious additions. Spices such as cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger or cloves also work well. Boil or roast the squash and then mash the flesh or purée it in a food processor. You can make this bread all year, using canned pumpkin. In season, butternut squash makes particularly good bread. Just before you put the loaf into the oven, brush it with an egg glaze and sprinkle with pumpkin seeds.

Spinach bread

Spinach makes a wonderful bread with an attractive mottled appearance. This is the bread to eat with cheese and pickles or with a hearty winter soup. It also makes excellent sandwiches; as well as its look and flavor, it holds together well. Garlic, rosemary and thyme are all good additions. You can use fresh or frozen spinach; fresh spinach should be wilted and finely chopped, either should be  well drained. Roll the dough in grated Parmesan just before leaving it for its second rise for a cheesy crust.

Beet bread

The addition of beet produces a soft loaf with a delicate flavor that is a brilliant raspberry pink. The crust is usually more subtly colored, but, depending on the beet, the inside can be quite a startling color. You can grate raw beet or cook and purée it. This bread is particularly good with cream cheese and makes great sandwiches.

Zucchini or courgette bread

Grate the vegetables and add 1/2 cup of soft brown sugar for a deliciously moist, sweet loaf. Nutmeg, cinnamon, chopped walnuts and dried fruit are great additions. Onions, garlic and mushrooms will produce equally delicious savory bread, which can be sharpened with paprika or red chili.

Tomato Bread

Prep Time: 3 hours

Cook Time: 30 minutes

Total Time: 3 hours, 30 minutes

Yield: 1 loaf

This bread is a perfect partner to cheese and pickle or soup and, of course, tomato salad. The recipe comes from “The Kitchen Garden Cookbook: Tomatoes,” by Jane McMorland Hunter.

Ingredients

  • 3 ½ (500 grams) cups strong white flour
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 teaspoons (7 grams) easy-blend yeast
  • 1 tablespoon tomato purée
  • 6 sun-dried tomatoes, chopped or whizzed briefly in a food processor (If you are using dry tomatoes, soak them in olive oil first so they soften up. When you add the tomatoes to the bread mixture they should be in about 2 tablespoons of oil.)
  • 12 black olives, pitted and chopped (optional)
  • 1 ¼ (300 milliliters) cups tepid water
  • Handful of rosemary
  • 3 to 4 cherry or baby plum tomatoes

Directions

  1. Put the flour, salt, yeast, tomatoes, tomato purée, and olives (if using) into a large bowl and mix well. Pour in the water gradually, mixing in well, until you have a dough that is soft and workable but not sticky. Turn onto a floured work surface and knead for about 10 minutes.
  2. Shape the dough into a round and put it in a greased bowl, turning so it is well coated. Cover with a damp tea towel and leave in a warm place. After 1 ½ to 2 hours it should have doubled in size.
  3. Punch the dough down, remove it from the bowl and knead gently for a minute.
  4. Grease a large baking tray and shape the dough into a loaf (long or round, whichever you prefer) straight onto it. Cut the cherry or baby plum tomatoes in half lengthwise. Push them and small sprigs of rosemary into the surface of the dough. This is easiest if you make a cut in the dough with a pair of kitchen scissors and insert the tomato or rosemary into the resulting gap, otherwise they tend to spring out of the dough. Cover with a tea towel and leave for another 30 minutes to rise again.
  5. Preheat the oven to 455 F (230C/Gas 8).
  6. Cook the bread for 10 minutes and then reduce the temperature to 400F (200C/400F) for another 15 to 20 minutes. The loaf should be nicely risen and golden and sound hollow when tapped.
  7. Remove from the oven and cool on a wire rack.

Main photo: Bread and the vegetables that can be used in it.  Credit: Jane McMorland Hunter

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Willy Wonka might not agree, but not all chocolate is created equal. To find out what makes the difference between a $1 candy bar and an artisanal, single-origin chocolate, I went to Tuscany, Italy, to tour the headquarters of Amedei, a four-time winner of the Oscars of chocolate — the coveted Golden Bean award. There I went on a guided tasting of chocolate that Food & Wine Magazine calls “the world’s best.”

My visit began with a tasting of the various Amedei products, including tiny bars called Napolitains, assorted handmade pralines, and finally the best hot chocolate I’ve ever tasted, dense and rich with a hint of toasted almonds.

Amedei is the only Italian chocolate company that supervises chocolate production at every stage, from growing the cocoa bean to the finished product. During the visit, Cecilia Tessieri, owner of the Amedei chocolate company, explained chocolate’s complexity and gave an insider’s peek at how the pros taste chocolate.

Chocolate tasting tips

Tessieri says that to truly appreciate fine chocolate, you must use all five of your senses.

See. Start with your eyes. Great chocolate should have a nice sheen, but not be too glossy. Too glossy means that instead of using only expensive cocoa butter, less costly vegetable oils were added.

Hear. Break off a piece. Do you hear a snap? That’s a sign that the cocoa butter was properly crystalized.

Smell. Fine chocolate offers lovely complex aromas, and depending on where it’s from, may show off hints of toasted almonds, honey or dried fruit. Defective or lesser chocolate smells burnt or metallic.

Touch and taste. Put a small piece of chocolate onto the center of your tongue, but don’t chew! Fine chocolate has multiple flavor levels and chewing doesn’t allow time for them to reveal themselves. Cocoa butter is solid at room temperature, but soft at body temperature, giving us the chance to experience the silky feel of the chocolate as it melts in the mouth.

How chocolate is made

The visit continued with a video on harvesting chocolate and then a tour through Amedei’s facility for converting cacao beans into award-winning chocolate. “It all starts with the cocoa beans,” said Cecilia, holding a handful of aromatic toasted cocoa beans. A single cacao tree bears about 30 usable pods each year, yielding roughly 1,000 cacao beans, enough for about 2 pounds of chocolate.

The mature pods are handpicked and then carefully cut open so as not to damage the beans, which must remain intact to maintain a full chocolate flavor.  When a cacao pod is first opened, it has no hint of chocolate fragrance. Instead, the white fruit pulp has a lovely peach and tropical flower aroma and a fruity tart-sweet flavor.

The pulp and the beans are pulled out of the pod and placed in a container, often a simple wooden box lined with banana leaves, where it is left for seven to nine days. The beans ferment in the pulp’s juices, infusing them with additional flavor. They are then spread out to dry in the sun for about a week where they are gently turned, often by women on tiptoe, in what Cecilia calls the “the cacao dance.”

When the beans arrive at Amedei, Cecilia begins the process of converting these precious cacao beans into chocolate.

1. Cecilia does a “cut test,” slicing a sample of the beans in half to confirm their quality. Cacao beans must be perfect to be included in Amedei chocolate—uniform and smooth.

2. Then they are roasted in special proprietary indirect fire equipment.

3. After that, the concasseur, or nibbing machine, separates the husks from the beans to obtain tiny bits of cacao beans, the “nibs.”

4. Next, the nibs are ground into a thick paste called cocoa mass. I tasted the warm, fragrant mass and found it perfect, but Cecilia explained that it was still too acidic and dense. The missing crucial step is called “conching.” a slow, gentle grinding process lasting 72 hours that results in a silky smooth chocolate with perfect flavor. Finally comes tempering, melting the chocolate to just the right temperature to crystallize the cocoa butter. At this stage, the chocolate is ready to be made into the various Amedei products.

Cacao pod

Cacao pod
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Mature cacao pods are hand-picked and then carefully cut open so as not to damage the beans. Credit: Amedei.

From around the world

Cru, a French term meaning “growth,” refers to wines from a particular area. Since the ’80s the term is also used with other products that change flavor depending on where they’re made, including beer, whisky and chocolate.

“Chocolate can taste very different depending on where it comes from,” explains Cecelia during our tour. She scours the globe in search of the very best tasting beans. She illustrated those differences in a guided tasting of Amedei’s Cru line, which includes chocolates made exclusively from cocoa beans from various countries, explaining the special aroma and taste of each:

Grenada

Delicate, creamy taste with a lovely long-lasting finish.

Madagascar

Smells like hot chocolate with hints of lavender and herbs.

Rich with lovely hints of citrus and mint that almost tingles on the tongue.

Ecuador

Delicate roasted cacao aroma and the intriguing scent of a forest in the fall. The taste is just as complex, with a sequence of flavors revealing themselves, from green tea to pistachio and almonds to tropical fruit.

Jamaica

Fabulously complex aroma of dates, figs, apricot jam and ginger with a touch of carob, olives and freshly cut wood. The taste delivers all that the aroma promises, with the tang of candied orange peel and jam and richness of butter. Deep dark chocolate taste, yet not at all bitter.

Trinidad

Gourmet aromas of cocoa powder, Cuban cigars and a summer garden filled with fresh tomatoes with a taste of walnuts, vanilla and sweet persimmons.

Venezuela

Delicate aroma of sugar, warm melted butter, dried fruit and sandlewood. Naturally nutty taste of hazelnut, walnut, almond and cashew with slightly spicy hints. Intense flavor that is long lingering and rich.

Groups of at least four, and up to ten guests, can schedule a tour of Amedei in Italy. For information and reservations, go to their website, call 011-39-0587-48-4849 or e-mail office@amedei.it

There is one Amedei store in the United States, so if you can’t get to Italy, you can visit their shop at 15 East 18th St. in New York City, which features daily free samplings.

Torta Tenerina is a five-ingredient flourless chocolate cake. Credit: Francine Segan.

Torta Tenerina is a five-ingredient flourless chocolate cake. Credit: Francine Segan.

Torta Tenerina (5-Ingredient Italian Chocolate Cake)

Prep Time: 5 minutes

Cook Time: 20 minutes

Total Time: 55 minutes

Yield: 8

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. It’s made with only five ingredients, so be sure to use only quality chocolate like Amedei. A must-try classic! Recipe is in "DOLCI: Italy’s Sweets" by Francine Segan (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2011)

Note: The cake's total time includes 20 to 30 minutes of rest time.

Ingredients

  • 7 tablespoons, 3 ½ ounces, unsalted butter, plus more for the pan
  • 7 ounces dark chocolate, 70% cacao or higher, preferrably Amedei
  • 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 spring form cake pan .
  2. Melt the butter and chocolate in a small bowl, either in the microwave or over a saucepan of gently boiling water.
  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 starch 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 20 minutes, until just set in the center. Don’t over-bake.
  6. The cake will continue to set as it cools. Allow it to rest for about 30 minutes before cutting it until it collapses and the top crust cracks a bit.
  7. Serve warm or at room temperature.

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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.

zester new

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.

walnuts2

walnuts2
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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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