Articles in Baking w/recipe

Forced rhubarb is bright pink in color. Credit: Sue Style

Rhubarb excites mixed emotions. Ambrose Bierce, dyspeptic satirist and author of “The Devil’s Dictionary,” described it as “the vegetable essence of stomach ache.” John Thorne, the pen behind the cult culinary newsletter Simple Cooking, is clearly a fan, fantasizing about those two ideal mates, rhubarb and strawberries, “whose tastes and textures meld into a sort of subtle transcendental oneness.”

You may — like Bierce — despise this curious vegetable (into which botanical category it more accurately falls). Or perhaps you share Thorne’s fondness for it and are currently celebrating its reappearance in markets, shops and gardens after the seemingly endless winter. Either way, you can hardly miss it if you live in the Northern Hemisphere, for its moment is now.

Rhubarb’s color comes from light, or lack thereof

Broadly speaking, rhubarb falls into two categories. Firstly, there is the so-called “forced” kind, which appears in late winter and early spring. It is cultivated in warm sheds in total darkness and in some places is still traditionally picked by candlelight.

Because the plant is never exposed to light, photosynthesis does not occur. The stalks take on a brilliant, lipstick-pink color while the (inedible) leaves are a rather anemic yellow. Rhubarb treated in this way is also the tenderest and most flavorsome. Some of the most celebrated is grown in the Rhubarb Triangle in west Yorkshire, England, which in 2010 received Protected Designation of Origin, or PDO, status under the name Yorkshire Forced Rhubarb.

The second type is field rhubarb, which appears from late spring through summer, depending on the local climate. Because this kind is grown outdoors in full daylight, the stalks are pale green in color and tinged with only a suspicion of pink, and the texture is noticeably coarser and the foliage deep green.

You can use either sort for this delicious, meringue-topped tart, which has its roots in Alsace, France, but it’s undeniably prettier if you use forced rhubarb. If using field rhubarb, you may need to peel away the outer, fibrous layer before chopping it in pieces.

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Field rhubarb. Credit: Sue Style

To avoid the risk of a soggy bottom to your tart (ever-present with rhubarb because of its high water content), dredge the fruit with sugar and leave it in a bowl for several hours, or better still overnight. This way it will render much of its juice.

The baking then falls into three steps. First, bake the sugared fruit “dry” in its pastry case, then mix some of the juice with cornstarch, egg and cream, pour it over the fruit and bake again. Finally, daub it with the meringue and return the tart to the oven for its final baking. The ground nuts act as extra waterproofing between fruit and pastry, as well as adding an agreeably nutty crunch.

Rhubarb Tart with Meringue Topping

Serves 4 to 6

Ingredients

1¾ pounds (800 grams) rhubarb

10 ounces (300 grams) sugar, divided

8 ounces (250 grams) piecrust or puff pastry

2 to 3 tablespoons ground almonds or hazelnuts

2 teaspoons cornstarch

1 egg

½ cup (150 milliliters) crème fraîche or light cream

3 egg whites, plus a pinch of salt

Directions

1. Trim the rhubarb, cut in 1-inch (2-centimeter) chunks and put them in a bowl.

2. Sprinkle with 5 ounces (150 grams) of the sugar, mix up well and leave to macerate for several hours or overnight until the rhubarb releases most of its juice. Stir occasionally to make sure the sugar is well distributed.

3. Tip the rhubarb into a colander set over a bowl. Reserve the juice.

4. Heat the oven to 400 F (200 C).

5. Roll out the pastry and settle it into a 12-inch (30-centimeter) quiche pan with a removable base. Prick the pastry with a fork and scatter a thin layer of ground nuts in the bottom.

6. Arrange the rhubarb on top of the nuts.

7. Bake for 20 minutes or until the pastry is beginning to color and the rhubarb is lightly cooked.

8. Measure out half a cup of the reserved juice and mix in the cornstarch, stirring till smooth. Add this to the egg and crème fraîche, whisking well together till smooth.

9. Remove the tart from oven and pour the mixture over the fruit.

10. Return the tart to the oven and bake for another 15 to 20 minutes or until the custard is lightly set.

11. Beat the egg whites with a pinch of salt until stiff, add the remaining 5 ounces (150 grams) of the sugar and continue beating till stiff and glossy and you could turn the bowl upside down without the whites falling out.

12. Remove the tart from oven and reduce the temperature to 325 F (170 C).

13. Spoon the meringue mixture over the top, fluff it up with a fork and return the tart to the oven for another 15 to 20 minutes or until the meringue is firm and very lightly colored.

14. Cool the tart on a rack. Serve at room temperature for maximum flavor.

Main photo: Forced rhubarb is bright pink in color. Credit: Sue Style

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Hot cross buns. Credit: Kathy Hunt

While the days of bakers standing on street corners, shouting out the familiar “hot cross buns; hot cross buns. One a penny, two a penny … ” rhyme, died long ago, bakeries still fill their display cases with these small, spiced yeast buns. Seeing them glistening in a storefront window is a sure sign that the Lenten and spring seasons have arrived.

Although most of us associate hot cross buns with Easter, these pastries have been around since pre-Christian times. Archeological evidence indicates that ancient Egyptians made little yeast rolls to give as an offering to the goddess of the moon. For ancient Greeks and Romans, these cakes served as tribute to the goddess of light. The Saxons created tiny, round breads for the goddess of spring. They also receive credit for adding the cross to the design. To them, the cross signified the four seasons.

By the Middle Ages, much of Europe had adopted the custom of baking spiced, raisin- or currant-filled buns for spring festivals and other special events. However, in England, an unusual 16th-century law reduced their prevalence by decreeing that bakeries could only sell “cross buns” for funerals and on Good Friday and Christmas.

Hot cross buns on Good Friday

Over the years, Good Friday became the official day for procuring them. Because they usually went directly from the oven to the customer, historians presume that is why they became known as “hot cross buns.”

Since 1935, La Delice Pastry Shop in New York City has produced and sold hot cross buns for the Lenten season. “We make and put them on display one day before Ash Wednesday so that people can see and get excited about them,” says the in-house baker who goes only by George and who has worked at La Delice since 1976.

Flavored with vanilla, diced candied fruit and raisins, the tender rolls call to mind miniature panettones. Unlike the Italian holiday bread, La Delice’s buns are brushed with a light glaze and then adorned with powdered sugar icing crosses.

These are the buns I remember from my childhood. With their velvety dough and sweet, chewy fruit, these buns always came from a local bakery. When asked why we didn’t bake our own, my mother would claim we were keeping alive a family tradition; even my great-grandmother, who was born in the 1860s, purchased her hot cross buns.

It turns out that my great-grandmother had a good reason for relying upon someone else for her spring baked goods. Prior to the 20th century, scant few recipes for hot cross buns appeared in cookbooks. It seems that almost everyone dropped by a neighborhood bakery to procure a hot cross bun.

What is (or isn’t) magic about these buns?

Other folklore exists for these treats. At one time people believed that, when hung in the kitchen, the buns would bring good luck and thwart house fires. If packed by sailors for voyages, they prevented shipwrecks. When thrust into a mound of corn, they safeguarded against mice and rats.

The magical properties didn’t begin and end with protection. Take a handful of hot cross bun crumbs, mix them with water and supposedly you had a cure-all in a cup. End up with more buns than you can consume? Dry them out in a warm oven and you can keep and eat them all year.

While I can’t attest to any of these tales, I do know that hot cross buns are best consumed on the day they’re made. If you buck tradition and bake your own, you can freeze the un-frosted extras.

Should you need to make them a day in advance, hold off on icing the buns until right before serving. Before decorating, warm the buns in the oven until softened. The same rule applies for frozen buns.

If you want a little diversity with your buns, you can replace the frosting with strips of pastry dough or candied fruit peel. You can also flavor the dough with grated citrus zest, allspice, cinnamon, cloves and/or nutmeg. Some bakers leave out the candied fruit and only feature currants, raisins or other dried fruit. Others leave out the dried fruit and use only candied fruit. The choice is yours.

Hot Cross Buns

Makes 1½ dozen buns

Ingredients

1 package dry active yeast

3 tablespoons warm water

½ cup milk, warmed

½ cup warm water

1 teaspoon salt, plus extra for egg wash

¼ cup sugar

4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

2 large eggs, divided

2 cups bread flour

2 cups all-purpose flour

¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon

¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg

¼ teaspoon allspice

⅓ cup mixture of chopped dried cranberries, cherries and apricots

Grated zest of ½ orange

Canola oil or grapeseed oil

½ cup confectioner’s sugar

2 teaspoons milk

Directions

1. Combine the yeast and 3 tablespoons water in the bowl of a stand mixer or in a regular mixing bowl and allow the yeast to dissolve, about 5 minutes.

2. Add the milk, water, salt, sugar, butter, sugar and 1 egg and whisk to combine.

3. Slowly add the bread flour followed by the all-purpose flour and spices, stirring or beating on low until the flour is incorporated. The resulting dough should be moist but not sticky.

4. Using either your hands or the mixer’s dough hook, knead until the dough is smooth and pliable, about 10 minutes.

5. Add the dried fruit and zest and knead again until incorporated.

6. Grease a large bowl with canola or grapeseed oil and place the dough in the bowl. Cover it with plastic wrap, place the bowl in a warm spot and allow it to rise for 90 minutes.

7. Grease two baking sheets and set aside.

8. After the dough has risen, separate it into 18 equal-sized pieces. Roll these into small balls and place them on the greased baking sheets, keeping them 2 inches apart. Cover with plastic wrap and allow the dough balls to rise for an hour.

9. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.

10. In a small bowl, whisk the remaining egg together with 1 teaspoon water and a pinch of salt.

11. Using a sharp knife, slash a cross into the top of each ball. Brush the tops of the balls with the egg wash. Bake until the tops are golden in color and the bottoms sound hollow when tapped, 12 to 15 minutes.

12. As the buns cool slightly on the baking sheets, whisk together the confectioner’s sugar and milk. Using an icing knife or teaspoon, fill in the cross on the top of each bun with the icing. Serve warm.

Top photo: Hot cross buns. Credit: Kathy Hunt

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Poor Knights is a variation on Pain Perdu. Credit: Sharon Hunt

I have always had a soft spot for lost things. As a child I brought home lost creatures — cats that were eventually found by their owners, baby birds that were nursed until they were ready to fly and, once, a turtle I found in my garden but had to return to the nearby lake when he bit my sister’s finger.

With food, my soft spot has always been lost desserts, dishes that have fallen out of fashion but were a regular part of the dinners at my grandmother’s house. Gooseberry Fool, Bavarian Cream and the Queen of Puddings were rotated through the Sundays along with other offerings that could be depended upon to strike that perfect end note to a meal.

One lost dessert that she made in spring and summer, when she was focused more on cleaning and getting her gardens back in shape than on baking, was Pain Perdu, or Lost Bread. Like her, I make it when the weather turns warm because I spend less time baking but still like to have something sweet at the end of a Sunday dinner. Pain Perdu is also a great way to rescue stale bread that might otherwise be thrown out and transform it into a rich and delicious treat.

Pain Perdu a dessert with many variations, names

Although it is known as Pain Perdu in places such as France, New Orleans and Canada’s Newfoundland, where I was born, this dish has had many names over the centuries.

In England, it was called Gilded Sippets (small pieces of bread sprinkled with rose water that had been colored by saffron), Eggy Bread and also Poor Knights of Windsor (topped with jam and named for the military order King Edward III created in the 14th century).

As it turns out, Poor Knights was a popular name in many countries. Sweden, Denmark and Norway all called it this, while in Finland it was Poor Knights when eaten plain but Rich Knights when sprinkled with powdered sugar or garnished with whipped cream.

In Germany, the name “Poor Knights” may have come about through the tradition of the gentry always serving dessert at their tables. Although all knights were part of the gentry, not all were wealthy, and those who weren’t served a dessert of stale bread that had been dipped in eggs and fried. Sometimes it was served with jam, while other times it was made with wine instead of milk and known as a Drunken Virgin.

In the Czech Republic, Lost Bread became Bread in a Little Coat, in Switzerland it was a Rascal’s Slice and in Spain it was Torrijas, often made during the Lenten season and garnished with cinnamon or honey.

A version of Lost Bread is contained in a collection of fourth century Latin recipes attributed to Roman gourmand Marcus Gavius Apicius, who lived in the first century. This recipe, known simply as Another Sweet Dish, uses milk instead of eggs to revive the bread before cooking.

Whatever its name, reclaiming stale bread was important in medieval Europe because cooks were not always sure of their food supply and couldn’t afford to waste anything. After being soaked in milk and eggs, the bread was cooked on a griddle, as it still is today.

This was not just a food for the poor, though, as recipes of the time called for expensive ingredients — white bread (with the crusts removed), spices and almond milk, hardly items found in the pantries of the poor. Also, medieval cookbooks, in which such recipes were found, were of no use to the poor, as only the noble, wealthy and religious classes could read. For the upper classes, those golden slices were served with game meats or exotic birds, such as peacocks.

Today, most of us would forgo such accompaniments and serve this dish as an inexpensive dessert or eat it at breakfast (as French toast), often using white bread, which we have reclaimed from the rich.

My grandmother, who made her own bread, soaked thick slices in egg yolks and cream (leaving aside the egg whites to create a richer coating). When the bread was fried, she served it with heavy cream and preserves from her cold cellar. Sometimes, she substituted pound cake for the bread, but whatever the choice, it was always delicious.

Although this dish has a number of variations, it does not require a lot of ingredients beyond bread, eggs and milk or cream. The garnishes allow you to have fun; whipped cream and strawberry preserves or fresh peaches and powdered sugar are great spring and summertime dessert choices; maple syrup or a brown butter sauce elevate French toast for breakfast; for lunch, you can’t go wrong with a Monte Cristo sandwich (ham and cheese between two slices of bread that are then soaked in the egg and milk mixture and fried).

However and whenever you eat Lost Bread, you are in for a treat that would make the Poor Knights feel like kings.

Pain Perdu (My Grandmother’s Recipe)

Serves 4

Ingredients

4 egg yolks

2 tablespoons white granulated sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 teaspoon orange zest

½ cup whole milk (or substitute 10% table cream for more richness)

4 slices stale white bread, thickly sliced

Butter for frying

Strawberry or raspberry preserves

Heavy or whipped cream (optional)

Directions

1. Beat egg yolks in a shallow dish.

2. Add sugar, vanilla, orange zest and milk (or cream); beat well.

3. Soak each slice of bread well in the egg mixture.

4. Melt butter in a large frying pan and fry the bread until golden on each side, about 2 to 3 minutes.

5. Cut bread into triangles; place two triangles on each plate.

6. Top with a spoonful of preserves and, if you wish, heavy or whipped cream.

Top photo: Poor Knights is a variation on Pain Perdu. Credit: Sharon Hunt

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The author's favorite birthday cake since childhood: chocolate, topped with her mom's buttercream frosting and chocolate chips. Credit: Tina Caputo

My birthday falls just after the first day of spring, and along with warm sunny weather there’s one thing I always look forward to when the season changes and I clock in another year on the green side of the grass: cake. Not just any cake, but a rich chocolate one slathered with my mom’s famous vanilla buttercream frosting.

I don’t normally get excited about frosting — it’s usually too sweet or too gritty for my taste — but this one has a light and silky texture, with the perfect amount of sweetness and vanilla flavor. I could eat it with a spoon (and sometimes do).

I can’t think of anything more perfect for topping a springtime cake, whether it’s devil’s food, yellow or red velvet.

Mom’s magical frosting is based on a recipe she found in an Eastern Star cookbook, a post-wedding gift from her grandmother in the mid-1960s. Mom fiddled around with the recipe, tweaking the amount of sugar and flour, and eliminating the use of shortening until she made it her own. “After that I don’t think I ever made another frosting,” she told me.

Mom’s process involves boiling milk and flour in a saucepan until it’s thick and lump free. While the mixture cools, butter, margarine and sugar are creamed together in a stand mixer until fluffy and creamy. The cooled flour mixture is gradually added to the mixing bowl, along with vanilla, until all the ingredients are incorporated and the frosting looks like whipped cream.

When I asked my mom why she uses equal parts margarine and butter in her recipe, she wasn’t exactly sure. “The original recipe called for half shortening,” she said, “but I couldn’t stand the idea of eating raw Crisco.” She thought margarine was a more palatable option.

Although the Eastern Star recipe was simply titled “Frosting,” mom has always called her frosting “buttercream.” I recently learned that technically, that’s not quite correct.

Classic buttercream frosting

According to John Difilippo, who teaches baking and pastry arts at the Culinary Institute of America in the Napa Valley, there are many versions of buttercream frosting. But the one most commonly used by American pastry chefs, he said, is Italian buttercream. It’s made by boiling sugar and water into a syrup and combining the mixture with whipped egg whites. Finally, butter and vanilla are beaten into the mixture until smooth. French and Swiss versions are slightly different, but all include egg whites or whole eggs, and some form of cooking to pasteurize the eggs and ensure a more stable frosting.

Difilippo had never heard of a buttercream recipe quite like my mom’s, but he was able to solve the shortening mystery.

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Butter and sugar are creamed together in a stand mixer until light and fluffy. Credit: Tina Caputo

“It’s a very common process, just for saving cost,” he said. “Crisco is much cheaper than butter.”

The person who contributed the Eastern Star recipe may have learned it from a relative who grew up during the Depression, when many people couldn’t afford the luxury of an all-butter frosting or one using eggs.

“A lot of people simply make recipes the way their mother or grandmother taught them,” Difilippo said.

True enough. For all the years I’ve been making my mom’s frosting, I’ve always used equal parts butter and margarine. Now that I know the reason behind the margarine, it’s going to be all butter from here on out.

I don’t think my mom will mind my tinkering with her recipe. After all, she’s the one who started it.

Karen’s Buttercream Frosting

Makes enough for one 9-inch layer cake (if you like a lot of frosting on your cakes, increase recipe by one half)

Ingredients

1 cup milk

4½ tablespoons flour

2 sticks (1 cup) butter, room temperature

¾ cup sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla

Directions

1. Cook milk and flour in a saucepan until mixture is thick and starts to bubble, starting at medium heat, then turning down to low. Stir constantly to make sure there are no lumps. Remove from heat, cover pan and let cool completely.

2. Beat butter in a stand mixer at medium speed, adding sugar a little at a time, until mixture is very creamy and fluffy. Be patient — this will take about five minutes.

3. While mixing at low/medium speed, gradually add the cooled flour/milk mixture, then the vanilla, until all ingredients are incorporated. The finished frosting should be light and fluffy, similar to whipped cream.

Top photo: The author’s favorite birthday cake since childhood — chocolate, topped with her mom’s buttercream frosting and chocolate chips. Credit: Tina Caputo

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Cheese quiche. Credit: Paul Cowan / iStock

In the heyday of 1970s vegetarianism, quiche was the go-to dish. Everybody was making them. When I taught vegetarian cooking classes then, quiche (not the classic quiche lorraine with lardons, of course) would be one of the first recipes I’d teach. I made them by the sheet pan for catering jobs; they were extremely popular, even though I now know that the crusts I made in those days weren’t very good, and the formula I used for the custard wasn’t nearly as satisfying as the formula I use now.

Then quiche went out of fashion. This happened gradually, as Italian food stepped into vogue and Julia Child gave way to Marcella Hazan. I was living in France during this period of time, and since the classics of French cuisine are not fashion-driven, I could always get a good quiche. They were and are standard savory fare at just about every French bakery. I found entire boutiques devoted to savory tarts, and learned a lot about fillings.

I let quiche slide for a number of years myself, as I focused more on Mediterranean pies and chose olive oil over butter. But after working with Jacquy Pfeiffer on his prize-winning book, “The Art of French Pastry,” I became enamored again with the quiche. I learned Jacquy’s formula for a rich, savory pie crust that is easy to roll out, and my adaptation, made with half whole wheat flour, rolls out as easily as his. It is luscious, nutty and flaky, quite irresistible. I also learned from Jacquy to let my vegetable filling air out so its moisture would evaporate and not dilute the custard, and to make the custard with a combination of egg yolks and whole eggs. “The yolk’s lecithin is a great emulsifier that brings the water and fat together,” says Jacquy, “while the white is a great binder. Using only egg yolks … would give the tart an eggy aftertaste. Using only whole eggs would … make the custard too firm.” Who knew?

My quiches are as much about the vegetables that go into them as they are about the custard, the cheese (I like to combine Gruyère and Parmesan), and the crust. My favorites, the ones I make at the drop of a hat, are filled with spinach or other greens and onion, or with savory pan-cooked mushrooms. Then again I love a cabbage and onion quiche, with a little caraway thrown in; and in spring I’ll use steamed or roasted asparagus, spring onions and lots of fresh herbs. There may be nothing new about these pies, but a good quiche never gets old.

Classic Cheese Quiche

Serves 6

Ingredients

2 egg yolks

2 whole eggs

1 (9-inch) whole wheat pâte brisée pie crust, fully baked (recipe below) and cooled

½ teaspoon salt

Freshly ground pepper

⅔ cup milk

1 to 2 cups vegetable filling of your choice

3 ounces Gruyère, grated, or 1 ounce Parmesan and 2 ounces Gruyère, grated (¾ cup grated cheese)

Directions

1. Heat the oven to 350 F.

2. Beat together the egg yolks and eggs in a medium bowl. Set the tart pan on a baking sheet to allow for easy handling. Using a pastry brush, lightly brush the bottom of the crust with some of the beaten egg and place in the oven for 5 minutes. The egg seals the crust so that it won’t become soggy when it comes into contact with the custard.

3. Add the salt, pepper, and milk to the remaining eggs and whisk together.

4. Spread the vegetable filling (recipes below) in an even layer on the crust. Sprinkle the cheese in an even layer on top of the filling. (If you are making a simple cheese quiche with no vegetables, just sprinkle the cheese over the bottom of the crust in an even layer.) Very slowly, pour in the egg custard. If your tart pan has low edges, you may not need all of it to fill the quiche, and you want to avoid overflowing the edges. So pour in gradually and watch the custard spread out in the shell. Bake the quiche for 30 minutes, or until set and just beginning to color on the top. Allow to sit for at least 15 minutes before serving.

Note: Alternatively, toss the vegetable filling with the cheese and spread in the bottom of the crust rather than layering the cheese over the vegetable filling.

Whole Wheat Pâte Brisée

Ingredients

222 grams French style butter such as Plugrà (8 ounces, 1 cup), at room temperature

175 grams whole wheat flour or whole wheat pastry flour (approximately 1½ cups less 1 tablespoon)

175 grams unbleached all-purpose flour (approximately 1½ cups less 1 tablespoon)

7 grams fine sea salt (1 teaspoon)

92 grams water (6 tablespoons)

Directions

1. Make sure that your butter is at room temperature. Place it in the bowl of a standing mixer. Sift together the flours and salt and add to the mixer. Mix at low speed just until the mixture is well combined. Do not over beat. Add the water and beat at low speed just until the mixture comes together. Do not over mix or you will activate the gluten in the flour too much and you pastry will be tough.

2. Using a pastry scraper or a rubber spatula, scrape the dough onto a large sheet of plastic wrap. Weigh it and divide into 2 equal pieces. Place each piece onto a large sheet of plastic, fold the plastic over and and flatten into ½-inch thick squares. Double wrap and refrigerate for at least 2 hours and preferably overnight.

3. Very lightly butter two 9-inch tart pans. If you can see the butter you’ve used too much. Roll out the dough and line the tart pans. Using a fork, pierce rows of holes in the bottom, about an inch apart. This will allow steam to escape and aid in even baking. Refrigerate uncovered for several hours or preferably overnight.

4. To pre-bake, heat the oven to 325 F. Remove a tart shell from the refrigerator, unwrap and line it with a sheet of parchment. Fill all the way with pie weights, which can be beans or rice used exclusively for pre-baking pastry, or special pie weights. Place in the middle of the oven for 15 minutes. Remove the “faux filling” and return to the oven. Bake for another 15 to 20 minutes, or until light golden brown and evenly colored. There should be no evidence of moisture in the dough. Remove from the oven and allow to cool.

Mushroom Filling

Ingredients

½-  to ¾-pound white or cremini mushrooms, wiped if gritty

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

Salt and freshly ground pepper

2 shallots, minced

2 garlic cloves, minced

2 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme, rosemary, or sage (or a combination), or ½ teaspoon dried, OR 1 to 2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley

¼ cup dry white wine, such as Sauvignon Blanc

Directions

1. Trim off the ends of the mushrooms and cut in thick slices. Heat a large, heavy frying pan over medium-high heat and add 1 tablespoon of the olive oil. When the oil is hot (you can feel the heat when you hold your hand above the pan), add the mushrooms. Don’t stir for 30 seconds to a minute, then cook, stirring or tossing in the pan, for a few minutes, until they begin to soften and sweat. Add the remaining oil, turn the heat to medium, and add the shallots, garlic, and thyme, rosemary or sage. Stir together, add salt (about ½ teaspoon) and freshly ground pepper to taste, and cook, stirring often, for another 1 to 2 minutes, until the shallots and garlic have softened and the mixture is fragrant. Add the parsley and wine and cook, stirring often and scraping the bottom of the pan, until the wine has evaporated. Taste and adjust seasonings. Remove from the heat.

Spinach and Scallion Filling

Ingredients

1 to 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil (to taste)

2 bunches scallions (about 6 ounces), trimmed and sliced

1 to 2 garlic cloves, to taste, minced (optional)

1½ cups chopped blanched or steamed spinach (12 ounces baby spinach or 2 bunches, stemmed and washed well in two changes of water)

1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves

Salt and freshly ground pepper

Directions

1. Heat the oil in a medium skillet over medium heat and add the scallions. Cook, stirring, until tender, 3 to 5 minutes. Add the garlic if using and cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Stir in the spinach, thyme, salt and pepper and stir over medium heat for about a minute, until the spinach is nicely coated with olive oil. Remove from the heat.

Top photo: Cheese quiche.  Credit: Paul Cowan /iStock

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The Crooked Chimney sugarhouse where Lee, N.H., resident David Moore boils down paper birch sap to make birch syrup. Credit: Christine Burns Rudalevige

As New England’s maple sap started to drip in March, David Moore of The Crooked Chimney sugarhouse in Lee, N.H., counted the days until it would stop flowing. Right about the time the maples are tapped out, Moore collects a less sugary sap from slender, white paper birch trees.

Moore, one of the only known commercial birch syrup producers in New England, says his reddish-brown syrup tastes like a mild, slightly acidic molasses with a hint of raspberry. The viscosity at room temperature is slow, albeit a bit quicker than molasses. Its unique taste makes it well suited as an ice cream topping (Moore’s favorite); a glaze, salad dressing or braising liquid ingredient; and an intriguing baked goods sweetener.

In addition to its uses in the kitchen, birch syrup has high market values that could help maple syrup producers supplement future revenue streams in a sustainable fashion, according to researchers at Cornell and the University of Vermont. Its production relies on many of the techniques currently employed in making maple syrup, and birch trees are in rather good supply in the Northeast.

Birch syrup is not entirely a novelty in North America. Native Americans for centuries used it as an anti-rheumatic. Twentieth-century Alaskans also tapped it to fill gaps in wartime sugar supplies, and birch syrup production has become a cottage industry there. Still, last year’s 5,000 gallons of domestically produced birch syrup were just a drop in the bucket compared with the 3.25 million gallons of maple syrup produced.

Chef Evan Mallett of Black Trumpet bistro in Portsmouth, N.H., says Moore’s syrup has a rich, deep and slightly resinous quality that makes it suitable as a finishing syrup and a glaze for grilled chicken or pork. Mallett’s seasonal menu features brioche Texas toast, a thick slice of house-made bread stuffed with roasted mushrooms and cheese and served with huitlacoche (fungus that grows on ears of corn) butter, candy cap mushroom oil and a few drops of birch syrup.

“I like it on pancakes too, but it’s pretty expensive to slather on,” Mallett said.

The going rate for a quart of birch syrup is $78, compared with $10 for Grade A maple syrup. The selling price is very attractive, said Moore, who last year charged $25 for 8-ounce jars and sold out by the end of May. Moore sells his product at a half dozen locations in New Hampshire and will be taking some mail orders this year if supplies last.

“Making birch syrup takes more energy than making maple syrup,” explained Moore, who collects 100 to 120 gallons of sap (he typically gets about 5 gallons a day from each of his 170 taps) to make one gallon of birch syrup. Maple syrup requires only 40 gallons of sap per gallon of syrup.

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Birch syrup tastes like a mild, slightly acidic molasses with a hint of raspberry. Credit: Christine Burns Rudalevige

Abby van den Berg of the University of Vermont’s Proctor Maple Research Center said the profitability of birch syrup production in the Northern Forest — the region that stretches from Maine through northern New Hampshire and Vermont into northern New York — in the past has been limited due to the fact that the low sugar content of birch sap (about 1% compared with 2% in maple) means producers need lots of evaporator fuel to concentrate the sap to syrup density.

But she argues that reverse osmosis, a process used in Alaskan birch syrup production that concentrates sugar densities (to 8% or greater) in the sap before it goes into the evaporator mitigates that hurdle. Modern sap collection techniques such as using a vacuum also help to increase the sap collection during the short three- to four-week birch sap season.

Moore has considered using reverse osmosis, but he currently processes sap in a 3- by 12-foot double-panned evaporator inside the wooden sugar shack he built himself. He uses a team of draft horses to help haul the firewood (ash, hickory, maple and oak) needed to fuel the evaporator. The new reverse osmosis machine would require him to run power to the sugarhouse. He estimates adding reverse osmosis would cost $7,000. “It could be a tough sell for me,” Moore said.

Neither van den Berg nor Michael Farrell, director of Cornell Sugar Maple Research & Extension Program’s Uihlein field station in Lake Placid, N.Y., could provide more than anecdotal evidence that maple syrup producers are clamoring to make birch syrup.

At a maple syrup taste test he conducted for maple syrup producers earlier this year, Farrell threw birch syrup into the mix. When he asked for a show of hands from those who liked the taste of New England birch syrup, not one went up. The producers then were offered a taste of birch syrup made with reverse osmosis. “Nearly everyone changed their mind,” Farrell said.

“This altered process gives birch syrup a wider range of flavor that should appeal to more people. They’ve just got to be willing to taste it,” he said.

Chewy Ginger and Birch Syrup Lumberjack Cookies

Yes, birch syrup is expensive, but it adds an interesting twist to these spicy chewy cookies that people won’t place until you tell them. Think of it as money well spent for tea time conversation.

Makes 24 cookies

Ingredients

2¼ cups all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons baking soda

2 teaspoons ground ginger

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

½ teaspoon mustard powder

½ teaspoon allspice

½ teaspoon salt

¼ teaspoon black pepper

¾ cup unsalted butter (1½ sticks), room temperature

¾ cup packed light brown sugar

1 large egg

½ cup birch syrup

⅓ cup finely diced candied ginger (optional)

Granulated sugar for rolling

Directions

1. Preheat oven to 375 F. Line two large baking sheets with parchment paper.

2. Whisk together flour, baking soda, ground ginger, cinnamon, mustard powder, allspice, salt and black pepper.

3. Beat butter and sugar together in bowl of electric mixer until light and fluffy, 3 minutes. Add egg and birch syrup. Mix to combine well. Stir in dry ingredients. Stir in candied ginger, if using. Refrigerate the dough for 30 minutes.

4. Roll dough into 1½-inch balls and then roll them in the raw sugar. Arrange on the baking sheets and gently flatten them with the bottom of a flat glass. Bake until set and crinkled on top, about 12 minutes.

Let the cookies sit on the baking sheet for 2 minutes and then remove them to a rack to cool completely.

Top photo: The Crooked Chimney sugarhouse where Lee, N.H., resident David Moore boils down paper birch sap to make birch syrup. Credit: Christine Burns Rudalevige

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The Persian cookies nan-e berenji (rice flour cookies) and nan-e nokhodchi (chickpea flour cookies) are traditionally included in the Persian New Year celebration Nowruz. Credit: Jean Paul Vellotti

For most of the United States it’s been a long, hard winter. And for those of us living in the Northeast, these past few months have felt like being an unwilling crew member on the Shackleton expedition, pounded by snow and locked in by ice and subzero temperatures.

The bitter winter has made it more important than ever to give spring a rousing good welcome. Through blizzard after blizzard, I’ve come to understand how ancient people shivering their way through the long dark months rejoiced with the coming of spring, celebrating its arrival with feasts, music and dance.

Certainly, all spring festivals — Easter and Passover among them — are rich with tradition, but Nowruz, the Persian New Year (on March 20 most years) with its lush tapestry of color, ceremonial table and profusion of food, can be particularly exuberant.

Among the must-have foods on the Persian New Year table are ash reshteh, a vegetarian noodle soup meant to offer longevity, and a plethora of sweets and cookies.

In traditional homes, the cookies and sweets are made by hand — think of this in the vein of holiday cookie baking in America. Today, they can be store bought and share the table with Western cakes and French delicacies, but during Nowruz in Iran, bakeries dedicate staff to making the two most notable cookies in the holiday repertoire: nan-e berenji (rice flour cookies) and nan-e nokhodchi (chickpea flour cookies).

From cookies to main courses, Persian cuisine is elegantly nuanced and seasonally based, following a principle called garme o sarde (hot and cold). The foods of the New Year are symbolic to the time of year and the ethos of the holiday, promoting ancient notions of prosperity and long life.

Sprouts with ancient roots

The Persian New Year falls each year exactly at the spring equinox and is among the longest continually celebrated spring-welcoming rituals.

Long before modern Iran and the sociopolitical climate of tension between it and the West, the ancient empire was influenced by Zoroastrianism, a monotheistic religion that invested the natural world with the powers of the deity. Zoroastrianism is tied to the seasons, the worship of fire and water as purifying symbols and a profound sense of ethics governing the way man must interact with nature.

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The crumbly flour mixture for Persian New Year cookies. Credit: Jean Paul Vellotti

Nowruz — which translates to “new day” — is the most important of the Zoroastrian holidays symbolizing the rebirth of the land after winter, which effectively started a new year. Today, Zoroastrianism is practiced in few parts of the world, least of all its founding nation of Iran, but it still remains an important national holiday there — one so beloved that the freedom to celebrate it was one of the few open acts of defiance undertaken by Iranians after the 1979 revolution.

Noelle Newell, an interior designer in Easton, Conn., remembers two very different types of Nowruz celebrations. First, celebrated as the 9-year-old daughter of a Persian father and American mother, she was asked to present a Nowruz bouquet to the Iranian ambassador to the United States at the Waldorf Astoria in New York. It was 1973. Six years later, she says, to be Iranian was to be persona non grata.

Today, Nowruz continues to be widely celebrated in Iran as a national holiday; in 2010, the United Nations formalized the International Day of Nowruz. Parades and other celebrations commemorate the holiday in New York, Los Angeles and other American cities with sizable Iranian populations.

Because Nowruz has essentially become a nonreligious observance and instead simply a joyous welcome to the warming vernal sun, everyone can enjoy the delights of this two-week-long merrymaking.

The Table of the Seven S’s for Nowruz

Those celebrating Nowruz begin the holiday by cleaning their homes thoroughly — think of it as spring cleaning on steroids. Next, a ceremonial table called Sofreh Haft Sin, or Table of Seven S’s, is set up in the home.

Seven items beginning with the letter “sin” — “s” in Farsi — that symbolize the cycle of life and wishes for the next year are placed on the table. They include sabzeh (sprouts symbolizing new life); samanu (a sweet wheat-germ pudding); sir (garlic, representing medicine); sib (apple, representing beauty); senjed (jujubes, which symbolize love); sumac (sumac berry powder, symbolizing the color of the newly risen sun); and serkeh (vinegar, which symbolizes longevity).

There can also be sekkeh, or coins for wealth; the spring flower sonbol (hyacinth); a mirror to reflect back or “double” the wishes on the table; a book of poems from Persian poets Rumi or Hafez; and a goldfish in a bowl to symbolize new life.

The table stays in place for 13 days, at which time the all-important sprouts are carried out of the house, usually as a centerpiece at an elaborate picnic. After the picnic, the sprouts are flung into running water, symbolizing carrying away your troubles as they go.

Jumping over fire, feasting the night away

After the house is clean and the table is set, there are two exciting things about Nowruz. The first occurs the Wednesday before the holiday (March 19 this year), when folks light small fires and take running leaps over them, chanting in Farsi, “Take from me my pallor, give to me your warmth.”

The second and arguably most anticipated is the food. After the initial New Year countdown to the exact time the earth tilts on its axis toward the sun, a huge dinner is served featuring ash reshteh, the vegetarian noodle soup, the long noodles of which symbolize long life; fish with herbed rice; and plate after plate of sweets. The meal is followed by the distribution of envelopes filled with brand-new dollar bills or other money to children of the house.

Of all these traditions, it’s the cookies that seem closest to the Iranian heart. Although widely available commercially today even in the United States, once upon a time they were a rare delicacy.

The complexity of these Persian cookies lies not in the ingredient list but in the texture of the dough and the resulting cookie. Because they are wheat free and more delicate in texture than Western confections, they can easily fall apart. But once mastered, they can become part of any holiday table — particularly for gluten-free eaters.

Persian Rice Cookies (nan-e berenji)

Gluten-free rice flour cookies are incredibly light, crumbly and aromatic with the scent and delicate floral notes of rosewater.

Makes 30 to 40 cookies

Ingredients

1 cup canola oil, softened vegetable shortening or melted ghee (clarified butter)*

1½ cups powdered sugar

2 eggs, separated

¼ cup rosewater

3¼ cups rice flour*

½ cup poppy seeds

Directions

1. Combine the oil, shortening or ghee with the sugar and egg yolks in the bowl of a stand mixer or in a large bowl using a hand mixer and mix on low until all the ingredients come together, about 30 seconds.

2. Add the rosewater. Increase speed to medium high and mix until the mixture is light and creamy, about 4 to 5 minutes.

3.  Add the rice flour in three batches, mixing on low after each addition until just combined. Scrape down the bowl as necessary before each addition of flour.

4. In a separate bowl of a stand mixer or in a large bowl using a hand mixer, whip the egg whites on medium high until they form stiff peaks, about 5 to 6 minutes.

5. Fold in the egg whites using a rubber spatula until totally combined. The dough should be smooth and supple like clay, but not sticky.

6. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 24 hours.

7.  Preheat the oven to 300 F.

8. Pinch off gumball sized pieces of chilled dough and roll into an even ball. Gently flatten the ball with your forefinger and place on a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper. Repeat until all the dough is used up, placing the cookies 2 inches apart on all sides.

9. Using the edge of a spoon or sharp knife, press a light design into the cookies and sprinkle with poppy seeds.

10. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes or until the cookies are firm and light colored. Do not let the cookies brown; they should remain very white.

11. Allow the cookies to cool completely before moving them to a platter or a sealed container. The cookies are extremely crumbly, so take care when moving them. Serve with hot tea. Nan-e berenji will keep up to 1 week in a sealed container.

Persian Chickpea Cookies (nan-e nokhodchi)

Like its gluten-free cousin, these wheat-free cookies are great for those with a gluten intolerance or allergies. They can be made dairy free by using oil instead of butter.  The end result is a fine, extremely soft cookie that melts in the mouth to be washed down with a cup of hot tea.

Makes 30 to 40 cookies

Ingredients

1½ cup powdered sugar

2 teaspoons cardamom

¼ teaspoon fine salt

1 cup canola oil, softened vegetable shortening or melted ghee (clarified butter)*

2 teaspoons rosewater

4 cups chickpea flour, or more as needed*

5 tablespoons ground pistachios for garnish

Directions

1. In a large bowl, combine the powdered sugar, cardamom and salt and whisk together well. Set aside.

2. Combine the oil, shortening or ghee with the rosewater in the bowl of a stand mixer or in a large bowl using a hand mixer. Mix well.

3. Add the sugar mixture to the butter and rosewater mixture and mix together on low until all the ingredients come together, about 30 seconds. Increase speed to medium high and mix until the mixture is light and creamy, about 4 to 5 minutes.

4. Add the chickpea flour in three parts, mixing on low until each addition is well combined. The final mixture should be supple but not sticky. Add more chickpea flour as needed to achieve this consistency.

5. Wrap the finished dough in plastic and refrigerate for at least 2 hours or up to 24 hours.

6. Preheat the oven to 300 F.

7.  Roll out the dough into a rectangle about a half-inch thick, and use a small cloverleaf or flower-shaped cutter to cut out the cookies. The cutter should be roughly 1 to 1½ inches wide to yield about 30 to 40 cookies.

8. Sprinkle the top of each cookie lightly with the ground pistachio.

9. Bake for 20 minutes or until the cookies are firm and light colored. Do not let the cookies brown.

10. Allow the cookies to cool completely before moving them to a platter or a container container that can be well sealed. The cookies are extremely crumbly, so take care when moving them. Serve with hot tea. Nan-e nokhodchi will keep up to 1 week in a sealed container.

*Available in Indian or Middle Eastern markets

Top photo: The Persian cookies nan-e berenji (rice flour cookies) and nan-e nokhodchi (chickpea flour cookies) are traditionally included in Nowruz, the Persian New Year celebration. Credit: Ramin Ganeshram

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Making homemade bitters requires spices, alcohol, and above all, patience. Credit: Susan Lutz

Nothing gives a cocktail a kick quite like bitters. Whether it’s an Old Fashioned, a Manhattan or a Champagne Cocktail, those quick dashes from a paper-wrapped bottle turn simple alcohol into something mysterious, tangy and alluring. There are big-name bitters — Angostura and Peychauds — with secret recipes and exotic back stories. At some hipster cocktail bars, you will find mixologists with steam-punk facial hair who have whipped-up their own concoctions of bitters that are just as mysterious and secret.

But if I’m going to use bitters when sharing an Old Fashioned with my husband, I’m going to want to make my own. And that required some research.

It turns out that bitters have a long and distinguished history, a history that stretches back before the invention of distilled spirits. The angostura bitters that you find at supermarkets and liquor stores began life not as a cocktail mixer, but as a medicine.

The bitters recipe created by Dr. Johann Siegert in the town of Angostura, Venezuela, in the 1820s was meant as a digestive aid for the troops of Simon Bolivar. Folk medicine has long held that a bitter taste helps digestion. For centuries, herbalists and self-taught doctors have known that healing plants can be preserved if saved in tincture form. And a tincture is simply an herb that has been left in alcohol long enough.

I dove into online research with gusto, discovering the high-alcohol patent medicines of the 19th  century colonial era, and even some stretching back to medieval medical writers such as St. Hildegard of Bingen. But these historic recipes were extensive and required access to some bizarre herbs. Even a fairly modern recipe reverse-engineered from the Angostura original required roots and seeds that I wouldn’t find at my local grocery store.

Then I stumbled upon a simple answer: a kit.

Dash Bitters is the brainchild of Gina and Brian Hutchinson, a husband-and-wife team of DIY cocktail mavens who ran into the same problem I had.

“We found lots of old recipes online from small-town pharmacies,” Gina told me, “but when we tried to order the ingredients, we could only order in big bulk batches.” Herbs like gentian root, wormwood and burdock could only be ordered by the pound.

“You only need a teaspoon of gentian root for bitters,” Gina said, “A pound is more than any person will need in their entire lifetime. It would have been nice to have just bought a kit and not have to pay for shipping of each five times over.” That was their brainstorm. Dash Bitters was born.

Making bitters at home

I immediately went to dashbitters.com and ordered the 1889 kit, meant to reproduce the Angosturian digestive aid for Simon Bolivar’s troops. Dash’s packaging is simple and elegant, but the herbal ingredients were the real revelation: pungent, beautiful, each with their own stories that stretched back to the era when medicine and magic were nearly identical.

Gentian Root,  the star ingredient,  actually has medical value as an anti-inflammatory and antiseptic. But in 1653 British herbalist Nicholas Culpeper noted that gentian “comforts the heart and preserves it against faintings and swoonings: the powder of the dry roots helps the biting of mad dogs and venomous beasts.” That makes for a powerful Manhattan.

The Dash kit also contains a redolent packet of cardamom. Its sweetness is a nice balance to the bitterness of gentian, and Bolivar’s army would have found it useful because it’s a proven aid for heartburn and gastric complaints.

The most interesting of the herbs to me were the round peppery seeds called grains of paradise. This West African spice was first discovered by Europeans during the Renaissance. My research took me away from the Internet and into the real world, where I had the pleasure of visiting the extraordinary collection of medieval texts of The Institute for the Preservation of Medical Traditions. Its scientific director, Alain Touwaide, showed me reproductions of historic texts and illustrations of Grains of Paradise, which he told me was more popular than black pepper in 14th-century France, and three times more expensive.

According to Touwaide’s copy of the “Tractatus de Herbis,” the spice’s pungent flavor was said to have the properties of “warming, drying and giving ease.” In “The Boke of Nurture,” John Russell described Grains of Paradise as provoking “hot and moist humors,” and apparently, that was medieval code for “aphrodisiac.” Oddly enough, a 2002 medical study showed that extracts of Grains of Paradise “significantly increased” the sexual activity of lab rats.

Microscopic view of Grains of Paradise. Credit: Susan Lutz

Microscopic view of Grains of Paradise. Credit: Susan Lutz

Dog bite treatment, gastric cure, aphrodisiac … you can see why bitters quickly migrated from the medicine chest to the cocktail bar.

Extracting the essence of these magical herbs is not a short process, and I felt like a medieval alchemist as I boiled, strained and transferred the herbal concoction from one tincture jar to another. Three weeks later, I had my own small jar of pungent, aromatic bitters, ready for its first introduction to some locally-made bourbon and a bit of sugar.

But I discovered one other interesting fact about making bitters that Gina had warned me about.  Even a small kit gives you a lot more bitters than you’ll use on your own. The solution: cooking with bitters!

So as you sip your Manhattan or Old Fashioned, you can use the rest of your alchemical digestive aid on a batch of chocolate cookie sandwiches with cherry walnut bitters frosting. It’s for your health, after all.

Chocolate Cookie Sandwiches With Cherry Walnut Bitters Frosting

(Recipe courtesy of Dash Bitters)

Makes approximately 12 small, sandwich cookies

Ingredients

1½ cup almond flour
¼ teaspoon salt for cookies, plus an additional pinch for frosting
½ teaspoon baking soda
¼ cup arrowroot powder
⅛ cup cocoa powder
¼ cup grapeseed oil
⅓ cup agave nectar
⅔ teaspoon vanilla extract
2 ounces cream cheese, softened
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
1 teaspoon Cherry Walnut Bitters
1½ to 1¾ cups confectioners’ sugar

Directions

1. Preheat oven to 350 F. Line two large baking sheets with parchment paper.

2. In a large bowl, mix almond flour, salt, baking soda, arrowroot powder and cocoa powder.

3. In a small bowl, whisk together the grapeseed oil, agave nectar and vanilla extract. Pour the wet ingredients into the almond flour mixture and stir until thoroughly combined.

4. With a teaspoon, scoop the dough one teaspoon at a time onto the prepared baking sheets, leaving at least two inches between each cookie. The dough will spread.

5. Bake for 8 to 10 minutes, until the tops of the cookies look dry and the color darkens.

6. Remove the cookies from the oven and allow the cookies to cool on a cooling rack for 10 minutes while you make the frosting.

7. Beat together cream cheese and butter on medium speed until mixture is fluffy, about one minute. Scrape down bowl with a spatula. Add cherry walnut bitters and salt. Mix on low for another minute.

8. With the mixer on low, slowly add 1 cup of the confectioners’ sugar; beat for 20 seconds. Scrape down bowl. If consistency is too soft to hold its shape, add additional confectioners’ sugar, one tablespoon at a time, until desired consistency is reached. Frosting can be kept refrigerated, in an airtight container with plastic wrap pressed on the surface, for several days.

Top photo: Making homemade bitters requires spices, alcohol and, above all, patience. Credit: Susan Lutz

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