Articles in Book Reviews

Cookbooks that make good gifts. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

Shopping for a great Christmas gift once meant hours of driving and parking, but with today’s Internet shopping, it’s easier. Internet shopping can be great for those of us who like to give cookbooks. With so many available titles, there are a few things gift-givers need to know to sort out the well-written quality books from the lesser potential gifts.

Cookbooks are terrific gifts because they can be used every day and often attain heirloom status that leads you to better cooking.

My specialty as a cookbook author is writing cookbooks for home cooks interested in culturally driven cooking that reveals a history or story. My favorites are Italian and Mediterranean cuisines in general. So when I look for cookbooks as gifts, I like to give not the latest trendy cookbook but often older books that I value and that my younger friends might not know. These are books from which I learned. I lament the fact that for all the cookbooks published every year and the popularity of food television and celebrity chefs, I don’t believe people are cooking at home more.

Food television has stimulated people’s interest and tried to turn cooking into entertainment and competition, but I doubt it has gotten them into the kitchen. What will make you a better cook? Buy a good cookbook, not necessarily the one everyone is talking about, and get into the kitchen and follow a recipe, and through trial and error you will learn to be a better cook.

Along with the handful of quality new cookbooks published each year, there are plenty of older, out-of-print ones that are almost bibles. You can find them on the Internet and they’re sometimes cheap. If there is someone who’s cooking you admire, ask them what their favorite cookbook is.

Good cookbooks have several criteria, and having recipes that work flawlessly isn’t one of them. More than meticulously tested recipes, I look for quirkiness, personality, a history, or a story told, perhaps about the cook, the author, the cook’s mother, the culture, or a broad sweep of it all.

When I see the crêpes suzette recipe written in that particular style of the ’60s in Julia Child’s cookbook Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” it’s not merely a delicious recipe. It is also laden with pregnant memories evocative of a whole era, of an entire culture, and a particularly wonderful day when I made it for the first time as a 15-year-old.

Here is a very small collection of older cookbooks from my library that I am fond of even if I don’t cook from them regularly nor would I say you must have them in your library, nor are they the best in my collection. They are simply good books I’ll never get rid of. (The first book is shameless self-promotion, but I actually use my book, too.)

» “A Mediterranean Feast” by Clifford A. Wright (William Morrow, 1999)

» “The Thousand Recipe Chinese Cookbook,” by Gloria Bley Miller (New York: Grosset & Dunlop, 1975)

» “Foods of Long Island,” by Peggy Katalinich, A Newsday Cookbook (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1985)

» “Pasta & Pizza,” by Massimo Alberini, with recipes compiled by Anna Martini; Elisabeth Evans, trans. (New York: St. Martin’s, 1977)

» “French Provincial Cooking,” by Elizabeth David (New York: Harper & Row, 1962)

 Main photo: Cookbooks that make good gifts. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

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Fesenjan, a walnut and pomegranate stew, is one of the more traditional recipes in

Because I’m a chef and food writer, I’m often asked, “What’s your favorite food?” The answer is visceral, born of my childhood instead of my professional training or the international food experiences I’ve been lucky to have.

My favorite food is the cuisine of my mother’s native Iran — an overlooked area of the culinary world because of Iran’s 35 years of tense relations with the United States.

Persian food has typically been at the end of anyone’s list of favorites, but that’s starting to change. Driven by the recent foodie interest in the region at large — the Middle East and Indian — Persian food is having its day, and nothing could thrill me more.


 “Persiana: Recipes from the Middle East & Beyond”

By Sabrina Ghayour, Interlink Books, 2014, 240 pages

» Click here to buy the book


Those who know about this cuisine already know it is one of delicately nuanced flavors, rich varieties of meats and, in particular, produce, and deft technique that melds sweet and sour in an elegant way. Like Indian cuisine, basmati rice is a staple ingredient, but where much Indian food makes use of pepper, Persian cuisine prodigiously uses warm spices such as cinnamon, cardamom and turmeric. Saffron and rose petals add flavor that is actually more based in delicate aroma than pure taste.persiana2

Lamb and, traditionally, game birds are used in stews and grilled meat dishes and baked into rice dishes, but in Western adaptations, beef and chicken have become standard substitutes. As in Arab-Middle Eastern cuisine, a variety of salads and dipping sauces — most often made with yogurt and herbs — is the norm. Two hallmarks that make Iranian food particularly different are the vast array of pickles made from vegetables, spices, herbs and even fruit as well as the habit of consuming fresh herbs, onions and radishes as a condiment eaten out of hand or with bread. You’ll see this on most dinner tables.

I often describe Persian food as “north Indian cuisine without the heat,” and there’s a good reason for that description. The Mughal emperors of Northern India brought the food of the Iran they admired into their own region in the 16th century and mastered the layered rice dishes, fragrant stews and delicate fruit-based desserts. Today, that cooking sensibility remains the hallmark of most Indian restaurant cuisine and is still in evidence in many of the dishes’ Persian names. (Persian was the official language of the Mughal Empire.)

One of the best new entrees into the world of Persian cooking is Sabrina Ghayour’s cookbook “Persiana: Recipes from the Middle East & Beyond” (Interlink Books, 2014). In it, Ghayour, a London-based chef of Iranian descent, features both classic Persian dishes such as jujeh kebab, grilled boneless game hen marinated in a saffron yogurt sauce; morassa pollow, or “jeweled rice,” which is made with barberries, mixed nuts and orange peel; and fesenjan, a stew made of ground walnuts and pomegranate syrup that is often served on holidays and special occasions.

Perhaps more compelling, for me at least, is the manner in which Ghayour melds Middle Eastern flavors that are not strictly Persian but are familiar to Western readers into a more Iranian food sensibility. She uses these flavors to add intricacy to the cuisine’s elegant techniques and presentations, such as with her Fig & Green Bean Salad with Date Molasses & Toasted Almonds or Baked Eggs with Feta, Harissa, Tomato Sauce and Cilantro.

In the past few years, we’ve seen a growing number of blogs and cookbooks about Persian cooking, including the blogs My Persian Kitchen and Turmeric & Saffron as well as Louisa Shaifa’s “The New Persian Cooking” (Ten Speed Press, 2013), all adding diverse voices to the multi-decade stand-alone canon “Food of Life” (Mage Publishers) by Persian cooking doyenne Najmieh Batmanglij. Ghayour’s “Persiana,” however, stands out for its creativity and clean design and the sheer delectability of the dishes.

Newcomers to Persian cooking as well as those already in love with the cuisine will find many reasons to return to the pages of “Persiana” over and over again, as you will see when you give her recipe for fesenjan a try.

Chicken, Walnut & Pomegranate Stew (Khoresh-e-Fesenjan)

Yield: Makes 6 to 8 servings

This recipe appears in “Persiana: Recipes from the Middle East & Beyond” by Sabrina Ghayour.

Khoresh is the Persian word for stew. Fesenjan is a rich, glossy stew of ground walnuts and pomegranate syrup, usually made with chicken, duck or delicate little lamb meatballs. The flavor is deep and rich, with a nutty texture and a wonderfully gentle acidity that cuts right through the richness of the dish. Fesenjan is a popular dish in Iran, and its sweet yet tart character has made it one of the most revered stews in Iranian cooks’ repertoires. Like most stews, it is best made the day before you need to serve it.

Ingredients

3 tablespoons vegetable oil

2 large onions, diced

1 tablespoon all-purpose flour

1 pound, 5 ounces (600 grams) walnuts, finely ground in a food processor

8 bone-in chicken thighs, skin removed

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

5 cups (scant 1¼ liters) cold water

3 tablespoons superfine sugar [38 grams]

3 tablespoons (45 milliliters) pomegranate molasses

Seeds from 1 pomegranate, for serving

Directions

1. Preheat two large saucepans over medium heat and pour 3 tablespoons vegetable oil into one. Fry the onions in the oil until translucent and lightly browned.

2. In the other pan, toast the flour until it turns pale beige. Add the ground walnuts and cook the mixture through.

3. Once the onions are browned, season the chicken on both sides with salt and pepper and add them to the pan containing the onions. Increase the temperature and stir well to ensure you seal the thighs on both sides. Once they are gently browned, turn off the heat and set aside.

4. Add the water to the walnut pan, stir well, and bring the mixture to a slow boil, then cover with a lid and allow to cook for 1 hour over low-medium heat. This will cook the walnuts and soften their texture; once you see the natural oils of the walnuts rise to the surface, the mixture is cooked.

5. Add the sugar and pomegranate molasses to the walnuts and stir well for about 1 minute. Take your time to stir the pomegranate molasses well — it takes awhile to fully dissolve into the stew because of its thick consistency.

6. Add the chicken and onions to the walnut-pomegranate mixture, cover and cook for about 2 hours, stirring thoroughly every 30 minutes to ensure you lift the walnuts from the bottom of the pan so they don’t burn. Once cooked, what initially looked beige will have turned into a rich, dark almost chocolaty-looking color.

7. Serve sprinkled with pomegranate seeds and enjoy with a generous mound of basmati rice.

Note: Fesenjan is served with chelo (Persian steamed rice).

Main photo: Fesenjan, a walnut and pomegranate stew, is one of the more traditional recipes in “Persiana.” It melds traditional Iranian technique with a diverse ingredient sensibility. Credit: Liz and Max Haarala Hamilton

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Fresh Herb Meatballs are among the recipes featured in Michele Anna Jordan's book. Credit: Liza Gershman

Yes, meatballs are here again, those eternally returning spheres of gastronomic delight. Not high on anyone’s culinary sophistication list, meatballs have an earthy attraction that seems to come and go through the years. Now they are back big time with Michele Anna Jordan’s collection of meatball marvels, “More Than Meatballs” (Skyhorse, 2014).


“More Than Meatballs”
“From Arancini to Zucchini Fritters and Everything in Between”
By Michele Anna Jordan, Skyhorse, 2014, 176 pages
» Click here to buy this book


The more-than-ness of the book puts the traditional meatball in a broad culinary context, as the subtitle —”From Arancini to Zucchini Fritters and Everything in Between” — suggests. There are more than 75 recipes, plus variations, so you can imagine just how far Jordan has ventured.

"More Than Meatballs" by Michele Anna Jordan

Yet the soul of the book remains the traditional meatball – named thus for good reason: Try making a meatcube, meatpyramid or meatcone. Even those words look horribly wrong! No, the meatball is a culinary merger of form and function no less perfect than its mechanical relative, the wheel.

The only other cooked product of man’s hungry genius that rivals the meatball for salutary simplicity and earthy economy is, I believe, the omelet. Curiously though, the omelet works inversely to the meatball: Omelets begin life round (the egg) and leave it flat. The meatball starts life flat (chopped meat, poultry, fish, etc.) and ends round.

Of course there are flat-sided meatballs: sausage and hamburger patties and the monolithic American classic — meatloaf. These more-than-meatball entities are what one observant aficionado of this class of foods, the eminent European artist, writer and restaurateur, Daniel Spoerri, has labeled “the premasticated” — chopped animal-based foods. The ancient Persian word for meatball — kufteh — means, according to my sources, “chopped” or “ground.”

Michele Anna Jordan. Credit: Courtesy of Michele Anna Jordan

Michele Anna Jordan. Credit: Courtesy of Michele Anna Jordan

Context is everything

It was actually Spoerri who introduced me to meatball-ogy. After absorbing his postmodern deconstruction of the meatball in “A Dissertation on Keftedes” (keftedes, a Greek variation on the Persian kufteh) in the 1970s, I reprinted the work in a collection of Spoerri’s food-related texts, published as “Mythology and Meatballs: A Greek Island Diary Cookbook” (Aris Books, 1982). The dissertation is full of learned and charmingly funky discourse on the social history and symbolism of the meatball in the context of world gastronomy.

But Spoerri’s material (Newsweek called it “a Dadaist sampler of culinary oddments”) seems a bit beside the point when we are truly hungry and a well-made bowl of sauced or souped meatballs, steaming hot and redolent with spice, is placed in front of us. For example, there’s Jordan’s meatball and pasta dish of Spanish descent, Sopa de Albondigas y Fideo, from the chapter titled with meatball-in-cheek irony, “Context Is Everything.” It’s a perfect dish to warm the soul on a cold winter’s night.

Michele Anna Jordan uses caul fat to wrap meatballs. Credit: Liza Gershman

Michele Anna Jordan uses caul fat to wrap meatballs. Credit: Liza Gershman

Out of context, served “neat” as Jordan puts it, the book’s mother of all meatballs is, logically enough, The Meatball (see recipe below), an “Americanized Italian immigrant,” writes Jordan. It is made from ground pork and beef and mixed with grated cheese, egg, onion, red pepper flakes, nutmeg and clove. Jordan adds that this meatball, as good as it is on its own, lends itself to almost any context: in classic spaghetti and meatballs with marinara sauce; in lasagna; in soups; or as part of sandwiches and sliders.

Optionally, these balls can be wrapped in caul fat — readily available now at trendy butcher shops — for added richness and succulence. Jordan’s introduction of caul fat — the stomach lining of pigs used as a casing for the traditional flat sausage patty in France known as the crépinette— makes for a perfect “coverup” for The Meatball and many other versions in the book. The very good step-by-step photographs of caul-wrapping technique are helpful to the novice caul wrapper.

Using caul connects Jordan’s creations to the ancient “minces” wrapped in pork omentum (caul) one finds in meatball compilations dating to ancient Rome, including the classic cookbook attributed to the gourmet, Apicius — De Re Coquinaria (“on the subject of cooking”).

The Global Meatball. Illustration credit: L. John Harris, 1990

The Global Meatball. Illustration credit: L. John Harris, 1990

Karma goes around, too

After decades in and around the food world, it’s starting to dawn on me that I have a karmic relationship with the meatball. First with Spoerri’s Dissertation, which inspired one of my first Foodoodle cartoons, “The Global Meatball” (see illustration). And now with Jordan’s “More Than Meatballs.”

I first met and worked with Michele Anna Jordan when she approached me in 1988 with her groundbreaking manuscript for “A Cook’s Tour of Sonoma” (Aris, 1990), the first of her many fine cookbooks, many of which are coming back into print. Spiraling forward through the decades, I was delighted by the opportunity to connect with her again, this time providing the foreword (without compensation, I should add) to “More Than Meatballs.” How could I resist my meatball karma?

Although I didn’t know it when I took on the task, it appears the humble, global, historical meatball is, as Jordan explains in the book’s introduction, back in fashion, and apparently for some time. And not just on restaurant menus and kitchen tables. There are now meatball-themed food shops and food trucks popping up across urban America and a new Guinness World Record for a meatball at more than 1,100 pounds.

“More Than Meatballs” is just the latest, and surely one of the best, examples of the meatball’s enduring power to please and sustain. Jordan puts it better than I could: “Yes, meatballs are on a roll, a rock ‘n’ roll. Let’s dance! Let’s have a ball!”

The Meatball

Prep time: 25 minutes (45 minutes if you are grinding your own meat)

Cook time: 10 to 20 minutes, depending on size

Total time: 35 to 65 minutes

Yield: About 32 small or 16 large meatballs

Ingredients

1 cup torn white bread, from sturdy hearth bread, preferably sourdough
3/4 cup milk or white wine
1 pound grass-fed beef, ground twice
1 pound pastured pork, ground twice
1 small yellow onion, grated
3 garlic cloves, minced
3 tablespoons chopped fresh Italian parsley
3/4 cup (3 ounces) grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, Dry Jack, or similar cheese
Kosher salt
Black pepper in a mill
1/2 to 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes, to taste
Whole nutmeg
2 large pastured eggs, beaten
1 cup fresh bread crumbs, or 6 ounces caul fat
Olive oil

Directions

1. Put the bread and milk or wine into a mixing bowl and use a fork to crush the bread and blend it into the liquid. Set aside for about 15 minutes.

2. Add the beef, pork, onion, garlic, Italian parsley and cheese to the bowl and mix well. Season generously with salt, several turns of black pepper, red pepper flakes, and several gratings of nutmeg and mix again. Add the eggs, mix well, and then knead for a minute or two until very well blended.

3. Cover and refrigerate for at least an hour or as long as overnight.

4. To finish, cover a sheet pan with wax paper.

5. Use a 1-ounce ice cream scoop to form small meatballs or a 2-ounce scoop to make larger meatballs; set each ball on the wax paper.

— If using bread crumbs, put them into a mixing bowl, add a meatball, and agitate the bowl to coat the meatball well. Set it on a baking sheet and continue until all are coated.

— If using caul fat, spread the fat on a clean work surface and wrap each ball.

6. To cook, pour a thin film of olive oil on a heavy skillet set over medium-high heat. When the pan is hot add several meatballs, being certain not to crowd them. Cook for about
45 seconds and then agitate the pan so the balls roll. Continue cooking until the balls are evenly browned and have begun to firm up, about 5 to 7 minutes, depending on their size. Set the cooked balls on absorbent paper and continue until all have been cooked.

7. To serve neat, return the meatballs to the pan, reduce the heat to very low, cover, and cook for 4 to 5 minutes for small meatballs and about 12 minutes for large ones, until the meatballs are just cooked through. Transfer to a platter and serve hot.

Main photo: Fresh Herb Meatballs are among the recipes featured in Michele Anna Jordan’s book. Credit: Liza Gershman

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Sopa de lima. Credit: University of Texas Press

My first trip to Mexico began in  the Yucatán. I landed in Mérida, which as David Sterling describes in his brilliant new tome, “Yucatán,” is “a cosmopolitan grande dame standing at the crossroads, graciously welcoming home her global family.” I eventually became part of that family, moving to Mexico and becoming a citizen.


“Yucatán: Recipes From A Culinary Expedition”
By David Sterling. University of Texas Press, 2014, 576 pages
» Click here to buy the book


My initial encounter with the country, however, was on that trip back in 1973. My mother and I went for lunch shortly after arriving from New York. My first taste in this new world was of sopa de lima, a quintessential Yucatecan dish. The soup is a rich chicken soup perfumed by toasted strips of tortilla and slices of lima, a heady aromatic citrus native to the region. Its exotic scent became an indelible part of my psyche at that moment. A sip today conjures magical worlds for me like Proust’s madeleines.

"Yucatan: Recipes From a Culinary Expedition"

The Yucatán peninsula, historically isolated from much of the rest of Mexico, comprises the states of Yucatán, Campeche and Quintana Roo. It was populated by the descendants of the Maya, and later, by a mix of immigrants. Like all Mexican regional cooking, Yucatecan cuisine is a fusion of traditions, in this case primarily Mayan, Spanish, Lebanese and French. Nowhere else in the republic are these influences so obvious. And the celebration of its brilliant complexity is experiencing a revival. From market stands to restaurants with culinary institute-trained chefs, the eating-out scene here has grown by leaps and bounds. But the range of what is known and available has always been limited. The region’s cooking is well represented in the rest of the country, but usually by a narrow list of “greatest hit” dishes.

The great investigator, chronicler and chef Diana Kennedy laid the groundwork for unearthing, recording and promulgating Mexican regional food outside the country. She is to Mexico what Julia Child was to France, and she was similarly undervalued within its borders. Kennedy, who is now over 90, recently put together an acclaimed volume on Oaxaca. But she never did get around to celebrating the Yucatán. So with her blessing, Sterling has taken the reins. Kennedy’s blurb, which graces the back of the book, says it best: “I know of no other book in print today, or in the past for that matter, that explains so meticulously the ingredients and history of the foods of Yucatán.”

I don’t either. Sterling has done a magnificent job in every way.

Scholarly and readable

The subtitle of “Yucatán” is “Recipes From a Culinary Expedition.” But this is no mere cookbook. It is a work both scholarly but readable, informative and entertaining. It is beautifully designed and features the colorful photos and drawings from a team of photographers and illustrators, as well as archival material.

David Sterling

David Sterling. Credit: University of Texas Press

Chapters divide the book by geography — the market, the urban matrix, the fertile shores, the pueblos, as well as sections devoted to “pantry staples” and “kitchen technique.” There’s an astute mix of personal anecdotes, historical background and culinary analysis, in addition to the histories of individual dishes. The author is honest when he confesses, in a section entitled “La Cantina” that “I spent a few years in Yucatán before venturing inside a cantina. After all, aren’t these rugged, all-male enclaves dangerous dens of smoke, prostitutes and raucous drunks? … Eventually, though, my curiosity to see what was behind those seductive doors got the better of me and led me to try several cantinas.” He became a fan. Sterling is founder of Los Dos Cooking School in Mérida, the first and only culinary institute in Mexico devoted exclusively to Yucatecan cuisine. He resides and works there in a restored turn-of-the-century mansion.

To anyone venturing to the area, the book is an invaluable resource. A detailed history of the various migrations explains the complex recipes within. Rustic country dishes are elaborated upon. Pre-Hispanic cooking techniques — for example the “pib” method of marinating and pit roasting meats — are explained in detail. There are indeed recipes the home cook will never make — which is fine with me. This is not for the Rachael Ray “made easy” crowd.

Traditional dishes

Occasionally, substitutes for rare ingredients are suggested, but tradition is never compromised. For example, for the serious chef who wants to recreate the classic marinated suckling pig dish, cochinita pibil, a stove-top variation is suggested. Recipes for street foods include a variety of tamales, such as simple to prepare creamy colados. The recipe for Mucbilpollo, a large, baked festival tamal, offers a fascinating account of a cultural phenomenon, but it’s unlikely to inspire the average homemaker to reproduce it. No matter. There are also straightforward, elegant Spanish and Mayan influenced dishes: jurel en escabeche, a tuna-like fish cooked with tangy pickled onions, or hearty charcoal-grilled pork with achiote sauce. These are relatively easy to prepare, as is the classic, aforementioned sopa de lima or the iconic papadzules (egg-stuffed tortillas bathed in pumpkin seed and tomato sauces).

Many of these recipes have been culled from local chefs, from country cooks who use wood for fuel, and even from women of social standing who harbor their grandmother’s secrets. Some see the light for the first time here. Sterling should and will be lauded, as Kennedy has been, for his service to Mexican cooking and to gastronomy in general.

“Yucatán: Recipes From a Culinary Expedition” is a must for anyone with an interest in Mexican food, and in Mexico itself; bravo to the author and to the many cooks who have made it possible for him to share this wealth with us.

 Main photo: Sopa de lima. Credit: University of Texas Press

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Blueberry cornmeal pancakes. Credit:

A new cookbook serves up breakfast inspiration. Eight innkeepers who have served more than 184,200 breakfasts in their collective 150 years of feeding happy guests joined together to write “Eight Broads in the Kitchen” (Winters Publishing, 2014).

The book includes advice on stocking your pantry and a wide range of sweet and savory dishes and many muffins, scones, waffles and breads. Recipes include unusual breakfast fare like refreshing chilled peach soup, Maryland blue crab quiche and birchermuesli, a classic Swiss dish of rolled oats, fruit and nuts created by Dr. Maximilian Bircher-Benner in the early 1900s as a health food.

Below are six recipes that range from those simple enough for a workday to others perfect for a leisurely weekend, and all sure to brighten any morning.

Pineapple Napoleon

This pineapple napoleon is quick and easy to make. Credit: “Eight Broads in the Kitchen.”

Pineapple Napoleon

The William Henry Miller Inn

Prep time: 15 minutes

No cooking time

Yield: 8 servings

Ingredients

1 ripe pineapple

8 ounces cream cheese, softened

1/2 cup sour cream

4 tablespoons pineapple ice cream topping, such as Smuckers

3/4 cup sifted confectioners sugar, plus more for dusting

Dash of salt

Fresh berries, for garnish

Directions

1. Remove top of pineapple and cut rind off so that you are forming a “square.” Slice pineapple into thin square slices. Use an apple or pineapple corer to remove the tough center.

2. Using a sharp knife, carve out the good pineapple inside the rind of the pineapple to use as “center slices.”

3. Mix cream cheese, sour cream, ice cream topping, confectioners sugar and salt, and stir until creamy.

4. Layer slices of pineapple with cream. Each serving uses 3 or 4 slices of pineapple. Top with fresh raspberries, strawberries, or your choice of berries, and a generous sprinkling of confectioners sugar.

scones

These scones are made with white chocolate and cranberries. Credit: “Eight Broads in the Kitchen”

White Chocolate and Cranberry Scones

The White Oak Inn

Prep time: 10 minutes

Baking time: 12 minutes

Yield: 12 to 14 scones

The secret to good scones is to keep all the ingredients cold and handle the dough as little as possible.

Ingredients

2 cups flour

2 tablespoons sugar

4 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/3 cup butter

2 eggs

1/2 cup half-and-half or heavy cream

1/2 cup white chocolate chips

1/2 cup dried cranberries

Directions

1. Preheat the oven to 425 F.

2. Mix together flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt. Cut in butter, using either the pulse setting on a food processor or by hand with a pastry blender. Mixture should resemble coarse crumbs, with no visible chunks of butter.

3. Separate one of the eggs, setting the white aside. Beat the yolk with the other whole egg and the half-and-half. Add this to the dry mixture, along with the white chocolate chips and cranberries. Stir with a fork until barely mixed.

4. Turn dough onto a floured board and knead gently, about 6 to 8 times. Roll or pat dough out to 1/2-inch thickness. Cut into rounds with a biscuit cutter.

5. Place on an ungreased baking sheet about an inch apart and brush the tops with the reserved egg white.

6. Bake for 10 to 12 minutes or until top is golden brown.

ZESTER BOOK LINKS


Eight Broads in the Kitchen

"Eight Broads in the Kitchen"

Winter Publishing, 192 pages, 2014

» Click here to buy the book

Blueberry Cornmeal Pancakes

The Beechmont Inn Bed and Breakfast

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cooking time: 20 minutes

Yield: Sixteen 4-inch pancakes

Cornmeal adds a delightful crunch and bit of sweetness.

Ingredients

2 cups flour, plus 1 tablespoon for blueberries

1 cup ground cornmeal

1/3 cup sugar

2 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

3/4 teaspoon cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 cup plain yogurt

1 1/2 cups milk

4 large eggs

6 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

1 teaspoon vanilla

2 tablespoons grated orange zest

2 cups blueberries

Directions

1. In large bowl, combine the 2 cups of flour, cornmeal, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon and salt. Use a whisk to blend.

2. In a separate smaller bowl, blend the yogurt, milk, eggs, melted butter, vanilla and orange zest.

3. Pour the liquid ingredients into the flour mixture and blend, being careful not to overmix. Lightly coat the blueberries with a tablespoon of flour and add blueberries to mixture.

4. Preheat an electric griddle to 350 F. Cook pancakes on hot griddle until done.

5. Serve with warm syrup and your favorite bacon or sausage.

Crustless Veggie Quiche

This veggie quiche can be made with seasonal vegetables. Credit: “Eight Broads in the Kitchen”

Crustless Veggie Quiche

The White Oak Inn

Prep time: 10 minutes

Cook time: 40 minutes

Yield: 6 servings

Vary the vegetables based on what’s in season. Change the seasonings with the ingredients: For an Italian twist combine tomatoes, onions and artichokes and Parmesan with traditional Italian herbs such as oregano, basil and parsley. For a Mexican flair, use chorizo, green chilies, tomatoes and onions, topped with Monterey jack cheese.

Ingredients

2 tablespoons butter

1 cup diced onion

1 large yellow or green zucchini, sliced into 1/4-inch slices

1 teaspoon dried basil

1 teaspoon dried oregano

5 eggs

3/4 cup milk

1/4 cup flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

1 cup fresh diced tomatoes

1/2 cup cheddar cheese, shredded

1 cup feta cheese, crumbled

Directions

1. Preheat the oven to 350 F. Spray a 9-inch pie plate with cooking spray.

2. Melt butter in a skillet and sauté the onion until translucent. Add the zucchini. Sprinkle with basil and oregano. Sauté for about 3 or 4 minutes.

3. Combine the eggs, milk, flour and baking powder in a blender or food processor.

4. Spread the onion/zucchini mixture in the bottom of the pie plate. Spread the diced tomatoes, cheddar and feta cheeses evenly over top. Gently pour the egg batter over all.

5.  Bake for about 40 minutes or until set in the middle. Let sit for 10 minutes before slicing into 6 wedges.

Raised Waffle

Brampton Bed and Breakfast Inn

Prep time: 10 minutes, plus refrigerate overnight

Cook time: 20 minutes

Yield: 8 waffles

These waffles are light and crispy on the outside and soft on the inside. The batter is best made in advance and will keep refrigerated for up to three days.

Ingredients

2 1/4 cups whole milk, divided

1 tablespoon dry yeast

2 cups unbleached flour

2 tablespoons ground cornmeal

1 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon granulated sugar

1 stick, 4 ounces, unsalted butter, melted

2 large eggs, lightly beaten

Directions

1. Put the 1/4 cup milk into a large mixing bowl and sprinkle yeast on top. Let stand for 5 minutes. Yeast will dissolve and start to bubble.

2. In a separate large bowl, mix flour, cornmeal, salt and sugar. Set aside.

3. To another large bowl, add the 2 cups warmed milk (make sure milk is less than 110 F or it will kill the yeast), melted butter, eggs and bubbly yeast mixture, and whisk until everything is well incorporated. Add flour mixture 1/2 cup at a time, whisking vigorously after each addition. The batter should be smooth.

4. Cover with plastic wrap and set bowl on a large rimmed cookie tray to catch the overflow if necessary, as the batter will double in volume. Refrigerate overnight.

5. In the morning, preheat the waffle iron to high.

6. Whisk batter and then it will deflate. Let batter rest for 15 minutes at room temperature.

7. Pour about 3/4 cup of batter per waffle onto hot waffle iron. Bake until waffles are golden and edges are crisp.

8. Serve topped with warm maple syrup, any berries of your choice, or lightly sweetened fresh pineapple.

garden baked eggs

The secret to these garden baked eggs is the thyme. Credit: “Eight Broads in the Kitchen”

Garden Baked Eggs

Chambered Nautilus Bed and Breakfast Inn

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cook time: 20 to 30 minutes

Yield: 6

The real secret to this recipe is the thyme. It enhances the flavor of both the eggs and veggies. Serve with your favorite muffins, breads or potatoes.

Ingredients

12 eggs, 2 per person

1/2 cup half-and-half

Salt and pepper

1 teaspoon thyme (dried or fresh)

2 cups of your favorite chopped vegetables such as green and red peppers, asparagus, broccoli, zucchini, yellow squash, mushrooms, green onions

1/2 cup cheddar cheese, shredded (to sprinkle on top)

Chives, chopped

Directions

1. Preheat the oven to 350 F. Spray six (6-ounce) ramekins with cooking spray.

2. Blend eggs, half-and-half, salt, pepper and thyme (a 4-cup measuring cup with pouring spout is useful).

3. Fill ramekins with 1/3 cup chopped vegetables.

4. Put egg mixture in ramekins over the vegetables. Top with cheddar cheese and chives.

5. Bake for 20 to 30 minutes or until set.

Main caption: Cornmeal is added to these blueberry pancakes for a delightful crunch and bit of sweetness. Credit: “Eight Broads in the Kitchen”

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Chef Jeremy Sewall and his new cookbook,

As far as I am concerned, we New Englanders own the winter kitchen, from the cranberries and pumpkin pies of Thanksgiving all the way to the corned beef and cabbage of St. Patrick’s Day. Our regional cooking is reliable and time tested, but possibly also a bit dated — in need of a pick-me-up, a refresher that catches us up with the way the rest of the country eats. Chef Jeremy Sewall is offering that refresher course in his new cookbook, “The New England Kitchen: Fresh Takes on Seasonal Recipes” (Rizzoli, 2014).

Sewall is one of the best chefs in Boston. A true New Englander (he descends from a family of seafarers and lobstermen), he is the chef and partner at four top Boston restaurants (Lineage, Eastern Standard, Island Creek Oyster Bar and Row 34). Following in the great tradition of Fannie Farmer, Jasper White and Lydia Shire, Sewall is widely seen as the new face of classic New England cuisine: heavy on the seafood, aware of the seasons, conversant with the flavors of the globe. This is his first cookbook, and it’s a modern classic — and a keeper.

New England fare for all seasons

Here’s my test for a new cookbook: If I’d instantly start prepping the first three entrees I come across, I know I’ve got my nose in a new classic. I hadn’t even finished the introduction before I started rummaging in my fridge, freezer and pantry to see if I could make the Steamed Mussels With Pilsner, Garlic and Fresno Peppers. I moved on to the Mushroom Ragout and the English Pea Soup before I acknowledged that I was getting very excited about ingredients that wouldn’t truly be available until early spring. So I thumbed deeper into the book and made Sewall’s recipe for Seared Sea Scallops With Creamy Turnip Puree and Crisp Shiitake Mushrooms. That held me for a while.

Sewall is a prodigiously talented, hardworking and remarkably humble chef. Not a TV commodity, he picked time in the kitchen over time in front of the camera, so you may not know him. But if you begin to work through his recipes, you’ll appreciate the skills honed over decades on the line.

For this book, he smartly teamed up with food writer Erin Byers Murray, the author of “Shucked.” The two share a connection to Island Creek Oysters, where Murray worked for a year as an oyster farmer, taking a sabbatical from her day job as a food writer and editor, and Sewall is the executive chef at two Island Creek Boston restaurants. The two seamlessly present a voice that is warm, confident and so infused with New England roots that you can hear the broad vowels as you read.

But there’s nothing provincial or backward looking in “The New England Kitchen.” It is stocked with food you want to eat because you love the flavors of New England and you live in this century. Razor clams and pot roast. Fried clams (of course) and a mussel dish that puts the French to shame. Pan-roasted hake and roasted duck confit. A recipe for skate wing I’ve made twice so far, and it’s made me a kitchen hero both times. A gorgeous lemon tart with lavender cream.

Each recipe is illustrated with a gorgeous large-format photo by Michael Harlan Turkell, making you believe that you can deliver on the promise of a perfect meal.

Reading through the book, you will get a good sense of the local bounty of New England season by season, and how a top-tier regional chef makes the most of it.

If you need a new cookbook to get you through the New England winter, this is the one.

Spiced Skate Wing

Recipe courtesy of “The New England Kitchen: Fresh Takes on Seasonal Recipes.”

Sewall’s note: “Skate might seem like an unusual choice for the home cook, but it has a nice firm texture and a really sweet flavor. Here, I toss it with a seasoned flour and quickly sauté it for an easy weeknight dish. Buy skate from a trusted fishmonger and give it a sniff before bringing it home (it takes on an ammonia smell when beginning to go bad). If you can’t find skate, freshwater trout is a great substitute, but it might require a minute or two longer to cook, depending on the thickness.”

Yield: Serves 4

Ingredients

Spiced Skate Wing With Toasted Orzo with Spinach and Chorizo. Credit: Michael Harlan Turkell

Spiced Skate Wing and Toasted Orzo With Spinach and Chorizo. Credit: Michael Harlan Turkell

4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1 garlic clove, crushed

2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice

1 cup all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1 tablespoon dry mustard

1 tablespoon ground turmeric

1 teaspoon freshly ground white pepper

1 teaspoon ground coriander

1 teaspoon curry powder

4 tablespoons canola oil

4 (6-ounce) skate wing fillets, trimmed, skin removed

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Directions

1. In a small sauté pan, heat the olive oil and garlic over medium heat until the garlic starts to brown just a little, about 3 minutes. Remove from the heat and place in a small bowl. Let cool for 1 hour. Just before serving, whisk the lemon juice into the garlic oil.

2. In a large bowl, combine the flour with the cumin, dry mustard, turmeric, white pepper, coriander and curry powder. Set aside.

3. In a cast-iron skillet or large sauté pan, heat 2 tablespoons of the canola oil over medium-high heat. Dredge the skate in the flour mixture and shake off any excess. Season the fish with salt and black pepper. Place two pieces of fish in the pan and cook until they begin to brown lightly, 1 to 2 minutes. Flip over the fish and immediately remove the pan from the heat; let the fish rest in the pan for 30 seconds before removing it. Repeat with the remaining 2 tablespoons oil and the remaining fillets.

4. Place the fillets on individual plates. Drizzle with garlic oil just before serving. Serve with Toasted Orzo With Spinach and Chorizo (see recipe below).

Toasted Orzo With Spinach and Chorizo

Recipe courtesy of “The New England Kitchen: Fresh Takes on Seasonal Recipes.”

Sewall’s note: “I often pair this pasta dish with Spiced Skate Wing, but you can try it with other fish, chicken, or on its own. Chorizo is a spicy sausage that comes fresh or dry; for this recipe I use dry chorizo and cook it lightly. The heat from the sausage mellows when tossed with spinach and pasta.”

Yield: Serves 4

Ingredients

1 cup orzo pasta

1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

Kosher salt

1/4 cup canola oil

6 ounces dry chorizo sausage, cut into thin rounds

1 red onion, cut in half lengthwise and then into 1/4-inch-wide strips

1 teaspoon grated lemon zest

3 tablespoons vegetable stock

2 cups lightly packed baby spinach

Freshly ground black pepper

Directions

1. Preheat the oven to 350 F.

2. Toss the orzo with the olive oil in a baking pan and toast in the oven for 7 minutes, stirring halfway through. The pasta should be lightly toasted and have a nutty smell to it.

3. Bring a large saucepan of salted water to a boil and add the toasted orzo, lower the heat and simmer until tender, about 12 minutes. Drain and spread on a baking sheet to cool.

4. In a large sauté pan, heat the canola oil over medium-high heat and add the chorizo and onion. Sauté until some of the sausage fat starts to render out and the sausage begins to lightly crisp around the edges, about 6 minutes. Remove from the heat and drain off any excess fat. Add the orzo, lemon zest and stock to the pan and warm through over medium heat. Add the spinach and immediately remove the pan from the heat; the spinach should be slightly wilted. Toss together and season with salt and pepper. Serve immediately.

Main photo: Chef Jeremy Sewall and his new cookbook, “The New England Kitchen.” Credit: Michael Harlan Turkell

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After spending the summer learning some of the ins and outs of foraging, I was delighted to find a new cookbook dedicated to my all-time favorite foraged food: earthy, meaty mushrooms. Written by Becky Selengut, a Seattle chef, author, teacher, humorist and forager, “Shroom: Mind-bendingly Good Recipes for Cultivated and Wild Mushrooms” provides a detailed yet fun-filled look at 15 wild and cultivated mushrooms and how to select, store, clean, prepare and pair each.

On a recent trip to Seattle, I caught up with Selengut at Bedlam Coffee, where we chatted about food, cooking, writing and, of course, mushrooms.

A native of New Jersey, Selengut’s infatuation with fungi began in childhood, when she tinkered with cooking white button mushrooms at home and indulged in stuffed mushrooms with her family at the Basque restaurant Jai Alai in Dover, N.J.

A post-college move to Seattle and her first morel and porcini hunt, led by friend and author Langdon Cook, turned her crush into a full-blown love affair.

“It wasn’t great porcini hunting that day, but he told me how to spot them, just coming up through the duff, and, well, I had beginner’s luck and kicked at the dirt and I found the only ones we saw that day,” Selengut said.

Thrill to unearthing treasure

As Selengut can attest, there is a unique thrill to unearthing one of nature’s edible treasures. An even greater rush occurs when you slip into the kitchen to cook your wild, hand-plucked bounty. But what if you’re a newcomer to mushrooms and unsure how to properly prepare this delicacy?

Realizing that bad recipes and poor cooking techniques have thwarted many prospective mycology fans, Selengut leads “Shroom” readers through basic recipes, storage advice and cleaning tips for mushrooms. She also provides links to handy how-to videos she has filmed. Thanks to her thoroughness and approachability, even the greenest cook can step into the kitchen with confidence and create a scrumptious mushroom dish.

Selengut arranges each chapter of “Shroom” from the simplest to the most difficult recipes. Her first two offerings speak to novice or time-pressed cooks. Perfect for those craving easy dinners ready in 45 minutes or less, they include such flavorful specialties as oyster mushroom ragout and Sweet Potato Soup With Lime Leaves, Beach Mushrooms, Basil and Peanuts (see recipe below).

Meals requiring multiple techniques and exotic ingredients are classified as intermediate recipes. With these, readers learn how to whip up Roasted Portobello Tacos With Cacao-Chili Sauce and Cabbage and Lime Slaw; cheese and fig-stuffed morels; and pickled chanterelles. In every chapter, Selengut provides two intermediate dishes.

The remaining fare in “Shroom” speaks to adventurous and skilled home cooks as well as professional chefs. Sauces, meats and sides factor into these preparations. Savory entrees such as Hanger Steak With Porcini, Blue Cheese Butter and Truffled Sweet Potato Frites and Black Trumpet Mushroom Tarts with Camembert, Leeks and Port-Soaked Cherries are part of this advanced category. Although more challenging and time consuming than earlier recipes, these courses remain accessible and delicious.

“My favorite way to prepare mushrooms flavor-wise would be over a live fire — cast-iron skillet on the grill, lid down to capture the wood smoke — or in a wood-burning oven. My favorite way to prepare mushrooms efficiency-wise is to spread them out on a sheet pan and roast them in a hot oven, at least 400 degrees, with a little oil, salt and pepper,” Selengut said.

Countless dishes around the world

In “Shroom” Selengut points out that whether they star or play a supporting role, mushrooms appear in countless dishes around the world. This global presence flavors much of her vibrant book. Vietnamese báhn xèo, Indian tandoori, Italian acquacotta and Japanese chawanmushi all find their way into the cookbook.

So, too, do a variety of wild and farmed mushrooms. Along with the tried and true Portobello, cremini and button, the petite beech, spiky lion’s mane and reddish-orange lobster receive their due.

Among all the uncultivated mushrooms found in the Pacific Northwest and in her book, Selengut singles out the black trumpet mushroom as her favorite. “It’s naturally smoky, earthy and just a little fruity — buckets of flavor and umami. It smells like the sexiest forest imaginable. Favorite cultivated is a tie between maitake and shiitake, both extremely flavorful despite being farmed and lots of promising research about health properties, specifically in preventing and treating cancer,” she said.

Don’t despair if your local market doesn’t stock black trumpet, maitake or even shiitake. For every mushroom featured in “Shroom,” Selengut offers substitutions.

Whether you’re a neophyte or longtime mushroom consumer, you’ll want to check out “Shroom” for its informative and lively look at selecting, cooking and enjoying this fabulous food.

Sweet Potato Soup With Lime Leaves, Beech Mushrooms, Basil and Peanuts

Sweet Potato Soup With Lime Leaves, Beech Mushrooms, Basil, and Peanuts. Credit: Clare Barboza

Sweet Potato Soup With Lime Leaves, Beech Mushrooms, Basil and Peanuts. Credit: Clare Barboza

Recipe from “Shroom” provided by Becky Selengut. The beech mushrooms are less the star here and more of a textural element used as a garnish. Because of this, it’s extra important to use homemade mushroom stock to highlight the mushroom flavor. This soup started in my mind’s eye somewhere in Thailand (lime leaves, basil) and then — somewhat inexplicably — migrated to West Africa (sweet potatoes, peanuts). This is the perfect kind of soup to serve when it’s raining, you’re snuggled up on the couch with a blanket, a fire is lit, Thai music is playing and a zebra is running through your living room.

Prep Time: about 10 minutes (if not making mushroom stock from scratch)

Cook Time: 45 minutes

Total Time: 1 hour

Yield: 4 servings

Wine pairing: French Riesling

Ingredients

3 tablespoons coconut oil, divided

1 small yellow onion, small diced (about 1 cup)

¾ teaspoon fine sea salt, divided

2 pounds orange-fleshed sweet potatoes, peeled and large diced

5 lime leaves (substitute 1 teaspoon finely grated lime zest)

¼ cup white wine

5 cups mushroom stock (see recipe below)

1 tablespoon seasoned rice wine vinegar, plus more as needed

1 tablespoon fish sauce

7 ounces beech mushrooms, base trimmed and broken apart into bite-size clumps

½ cup lightly packed fresh Thai basil

⅓ cup roasted, salted peanuts, chopped

Chili oil (see recipe below) or store-bought Asian chili oil, for garnish

Directions

1. In a soup pot over medium-high heat, melt 1½ tablespoons of the coconut oil. After a moment, add the onion and ¼ teaspoon of the salt and sauté for 10 minutes, until starting to brown. Add the sweet potatoes and lime leaves. Sauté for 2 to 3 minutes, then turn the heat to high, add the wine, and deglaze the pan, scraping up any brown bits. Add the stock, bring to a boil and then lower the heat to a gentle simmer. Cook until the sweet potato cubes are tender, 20 to 25 minutes.

2. Add the rice wine vinegar. Remove the lime leaves. Puree the soup in a blender until very smooth, or puree in the pan using an immersion blender. Season with the fish sauce, another ¼ teaspoon salt and more rice wine vinegar. If you feel it needs more salt, add more fish sauce (a little at a time). Keep tasting until it’s right for you.

3. Meanwhile, prepare the beech mushroom mixture. In a large sauté pan over high heat, melt the remaining 1½ tablespoons of coconut oil. After a moment, add the mushrooms and the remaining ¼ teaspoon salt. Toss the mushrooms around in the oil, and then spread them out. The idea is to get them to release their liquid and brown quickly. When they brown, stir in the basil and peanuts and transfer to a small bowl.

4. Serve the soup in wide bowls, garnished with the mushroom mixture and drizzled with chili oil.

Mushroom Stock

From “Shroom: Mind-bendingly Good Recipes for Cultivated and Wild Mushrooms” by Becky Selengut.

You won’t be sorry you took the time to make your own. As you cook and are busy prepping vegetables and such — carrots, celery, onions, mushrooms, parsley, thyme — save the trimmings instead of tossing or composting them.  (Skip vegetables such as kale, cabbage, broccoli or anything with a dominating flavor or color that you wouldn’t want in a mushroom stock — no beets!)

To make the stock, add these vegetable scraps to a quart-size resealable plastic bag that lives in the freezer. When the bag is full, you are ready to make your stock. At the market, pick up a small onion, a handful of fresh shiitake mushrooms and some dried porcini. Preheat the oven to 400 F. Drizzle a little high-heat oil on a rimmed baking pan. Throw the shiitakes, along with the chopped-up onion, onto the pan, and toss with the oil. Roast until caramelized, about 20 minutes. Deglaze the pan with a little wine or water, scraping up any brown bits stuck to the pan. Dump the mushrooms and onions, along with the liquid, into a stockpot along with the contents of that freezer bag (no need to thaw) and a few rehydrated pieces of dried porcini (along with the strained soaking liquid). Cover with 3 quarts water, chuck in about 5 peppercorns, bring to a boil, lower to a simmer, and cook, uncovered, for 45 minutes. Pour the contents of the pot through a fine-mesh strainer set over a large bowl, pressing on the solids to extract as much liquid as possible. You should end up with about 2 quarts mushroom stock.

Want to make vegetable stock? Do the same thing, but just use fewer mushrooms and more vegetables (and a big flavor bonus if you roast some of the vegetables as you would the shiitake and onion). If you want to make mushroom stock but don’t have a full bag of trimmings in the freezer, just use an assortment of vegetables and mushrooms (equaling roughly 1 quart) and follow the same general procedure. See the video on making mushroom stock at www.shroomthecookbook.com.

Chili-Peanut Oil

From “Shroom: Mind-bendingly Good Recipes for Cultivated and Wild Mushrooms” by Becky Selengut.

You can find many varieties of bottled chili oil in Asian markets or online, but it’s ridiculously easy to make a batch from scratch and store it in your fridge. Plus, your homemade oil contains none of the additives and preservatives that are commonly added to the bottled versions. To make your own, in a small saucepan set over medium heat, combine 1 cup peanut or coconut oil, along with 3 to 5 tablespoons red pepper flakes (see note). (The quantity will depend on how hot you want the oil to be.) Heat the oil to 300 F on an instant-read thermometer. Remove the pan from the heat and try not to breathe in the fumes!

Let the oil cool to 250 F, and then add 1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil and 2 tablespoons minced, roasted, unsalted peanuts. Transfer to a clean glass jar with a tight-fitting lid. Add 1 teaspoon salt and 1 teaspoon sugar. Seal the jar, shake it a few times to distribute the ingredients and leave at room temperature for 2 days. Refrigerate. It will keep for at least 1 month, if not longer, in the fridge.

Note: You can purchase whole dried chiles, toast them in a dry pan until flexible and fragrant, and then pulse them in the food processor, or just use regular bottled red pepper flakes.

Main photo: “Shroom” is written by chef Becky Selengut. Credit: Book cover photo by Clare Barboza; Selengut photo by Greg Mennegar

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Smiling sugar skulls are a mainstay of Mexico's Day of the Dead celebrations on Nov. 1 and 2.

Many cultures around the world honor departed ancestors with holidays each year. Some feature altars. Some burn incense. But feasting is the common thread that runs through many of the celebrations.

The dead are part of that — with food offerings left in their honor.

In Mexico’s two-day Day of the Dead celebration — el Día de los Muertos — Nov. 1 celebrates the lives of departed infants and children. Nov. 2 honors those who died as adults. On both days, families provide the favorite food and drink of the departed.

In China, families set out plates of food during for their ancestors at the Hungry Ghost Festival. An empty place at the dinner table is sometimes left for an ancestor to join in the feast.

The Hungry Ghost Festival, which is thousands of years old, is traditionally celebrated on the 15th day of the seventh lunar month. Chinese families place ancestral artifacts on a table, burn incense and display photographs of the dead.

Remembering the dead with food, flowers and festive décor

Mexico’s tradition also features colorful altars to honor ancestors.

MexicanSugarSkull.com offers this detail on the offerings — ofrendas — that families set out on their Day of the Dead altars:

“They are decorated with candles, buckets of flowers (wild marigolds called cempasuchil and bright red cock’s combs), mounds of fruit, peanuts, plates of turkey mole, stacks of tortillas and big Day-of-the-Dead breads called pan de muerto. The altar needs to have lots of food, bottles of soda, hot cocoa and water for the weary spirits. Toys and candies are left for the angelitos, and on Nov. 2, cigarettes and shots of mezcal are offered to the adult spirits. Little folk art skeletons and sugar skulls, purchased at open-air markets, provide the final touches.

 

The Day of the Dead sugar skulls are an example of the festive way that the Mexican culture approaches death -- with an air of celebration as a way to joyfully remember departed loved ones. Credit: Cheryl D. Lee

The Day of the Dead sugar skulls are an example of the festive way that the Mexican culture approaches death — with an air of celebration as a way to joyfully remember departed loved ones. Credit: Cheryl D. Lee

Mexico’s Day of the Dead is believed to trace its origins to pre-Hispanic Aztec rituals. After the arrival of Spanish conquistadors, the celebrations were moved to coincide with the Christian holidays of All Saints’ Day (Nov. 1) and All Souls’ Day (Nov. 2).

Not just a Mexican holiday anymore

Today, Day of the Dead has grown in popularity far behind the borders of Mexico and Latin America. The traditional observance from central and southern Mexico can now be seen in Día de los Muertos imagery and art around the world.

You can purchase just about anything you need for your own Day of the Dead celebration. From sugar skull molds to authentic Mexican Día de los Muertos folk art pieces, which are sometimes used as an altar decoration by celebrants.  The happy skeletons are shown doing many different things, from cooking to selling wares at the market. There are even skeleton mariachi bands. Families will purchase the colorful skeletons that depict activities their departed family member enjoyed in life.

Creating Mexican calaveras - the sugar skulls that are omnipresent in Day of the Dead celebrations - is an easy holiday activity for families. Youngsters get as much joy out of decorating the skulls as their parents do.

Creating Mexican calaveras – the sugar skulls that are omnipresent in Day of the Dead celebrations – is an easy holiday activity for families. Youngsters enjoy decorating the skulls as much as their parents do. Credit: Cheryl D. Lee

Making sugar skull decorations is very simple, using only three ingredients and a mold. The fun part is decorating them. I recruited my 7-year-old daughter and her friend to decorate the skulls. The kit came months ago, and my daughter had been bugging me since the day it arrived to make them. Not only was it a fun activity, it gave me a chance to talk about honoring our ancestors and remembering them in a fun — not sad — way.

I encourage families to make the skulls together, even decorating the skulls to resemble the deceased in their families and extended families.

Día de los Muertos Sugar Skulls

Prep time: 10 minutes

Drying time: 8 hours

Yield: 5 medium skulls

Ingredients

For the sugar skulls:

3 cups granulated sugar

3 teaspoons meringue powder

3 teaspoons water

For the royal icing:

1 pound powdered sugar

⅓ cup water

¼ cup meringue powder

Gel paste food coloring, assorted colors

Directions

For the sugar skulls:

1. In a medium bowl, mix the sugar and meringue powder.

2. Sprinkle the water over the sugar mixture.

3. Using clean hands, knead the mixture until all the sugar is moistened and it feels like wet sand. Make sure there are no lumps.

4. Pack the mix firmly into the sugar skull mold.

5. Carefully invert the mold onto a baking sheet or piece of cardboard.

6. Gently tap the mold to release the sugar skull from the mold.

7. Let the skulls dry for at least 8 hours to overnight.

8. Decorate the skulls with royal icing.

For the royal icing:

1. In a stand mixer, beat the icing until it makes stiff peaks.

2. Divide the icing and use paste food coloring to make assorted colors.

3. Using a piping bag, decorate the skulls as desired.

Main photo: Mexican sugar skulls for Day of the Dead celebrations. Credit: Cheryl D. Lee 

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