Articles in Breakfast w/recipe
We are concerned about species of animals that might be headed for extinction, but we don’t seem to be as concerned about our endangered culinary traditions. There are recipes that need to be saved. Food is who we are. It’s what binds us together culturally in this multicultural country. One such food from New England is red flannel hash.
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Red flannel hash is hardly made anymore, probably because it’s a way of using the leftovers from a New England boiled dinner, which also is rarely cooked anymore. A boiled dinner is simply corned beef brisket, beets, parsnips, carrots, onions, cabbage and potatoes with a few spices, boiled only in water for dinner and served with a horseradish sauce.
But red flannel hash is so good that it can be made from scratch without using leftovers. How it got its name will be instantly obvious once you’ve made it. If all you’ve ever had is the heartburn-producing canned corned beef hash then what awaits you is a surprise and a delight.
In the modern age of global food distribution and processed consumer food products, regional specialties like this fall out of favor and are in danger of being lost forever. Like recipes that call for local produce grown only in a small area or ethnic delicacies from small immigrant groups, these dishes are in jeopardy of becoming unknown.
Often said to be a food eaten by the colonists, red flannel hash more likely was concocted in the early 20th century as a way of using leftovers. Its characteristic red color comes from corned beef and beets. Typically cooks would start with chopped up leftover boiled dinner and add potatoes to make the dish a hash.
Because it was such a breakfast favorite, especially in New England diners, and not everyone had made a boiled dinner the night before, recipes appeared for making the hash from scratch.
Red Flannel Hash
2 ounces salt pork, sliced and cut into ½-inch pieces
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
½ small onion, finely chopped
6 ounces cooked corned beef, finely chopped, not ground
1 pound cooked Yukon gold potatoes, peeled and finely chopped
¼ pound cooked turnips, finely chopped
1 pound cooked red beets, peeled, trimmed and finely chopped
¼ cup heavy cream
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
4 large eggs, poached
1. Preheat the oven to 400 F.
2. In a 12-inch cast iron skillet, over medium heat, cook, stirring the salt pork until crispy. Remove and leave the fat in the skillet. Add the butter to the skillet, then over medium heat, cook, stirring the onion until translucent, about 5 minutes.
3. Combine the corned beef, potatoes, turnips, beets and cream in a bowl, and toss gently with some salt and pepper.
4. Transfer the hash to the skillet and spread it out with a spatula so it covers the skillet. Reduce the heat to medium-low, cover and cook until a crust forms, about 15 minutes.
5. Place the skillet in the oven and cook until the top is crisp, about 15 minutes.
6. Meanwhile, poach the eggs. Remove the hash from the oven, cut into wedges and serve with the crispy salt pork and poached egg.
Top photo: Red flannel hash. Credit: Clifford A. Wright
One winter when I wasn’t eating sugar, the idea of not baking was really plaguing me. If I couldn’t make cookies, how could I find that holiday feeling?
After much pouting, I came up with an idea that wouldn’t get lost in a sea of homemade treats. Pancake mix would stand apart from the crowd. Plus, when the people I loved headed into the kitchen one lazy weekend morning, I could go with them to the griddle — one of my favorite places on the planet.
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Pancake mix is one of the easier mixes to make because you don’t have to add fat. You can, of course, but then you have to worry about potential spoilage, and incorporating the melted butter or oil evenly throughout the mix. If you want, you can add fat to the batter, but I don’t. I find it drags down the cakes, which pick up plenty of butter from the griddle.
Highlighting lovely flours is another advantage of this gift. Stone-ground whole-grain flours do really well in pancakes. The bran and germ layers of grains contain much more flavor than the starchy endosperm, which is the only part of the grain milled for white flours. This means that whole-grain flours can be celebrated for vibrant flavors, not just their banner fiber.
Regionally produced flours are fairly easy to find. Because they are freshly milled from interesting varieties of grains, they have great tastes. They also add ecological and community economic values to your giving.
Last but not least, when you make your very own pancake flour, you are echoing the first packaged mix. Aunt Jemima Pancake Flour was invented in 1889, and contained only wheat flour, corn flour, salt and sodium phosphate. The name came from a song in a minstrel show.
Within a year, another milling company bought the formula and the mill. R.T. Davis added powdered milk to the mix, and hired a spokesperson. Nancy Green was a former slave who worked for a Chicago judge, and she played Aunt Jemima inside a booth shaped like a flour barrel at the Chicago World’s Fair. She was so popular that extra security was hired to tame the crowd waiting for her cakes and tales.
Those stories, and the ones featured in ads well into the 20th century, celebrated the imaginary cook’s ability to keep Union soldiers from scalping her master. Her pancakes mollified the troops, and her colonel kept his hair, and his life.
I’m amazed that just a generation after the Civil War, appetites for antebellum fairy tales were so strong. The way the company has held onto the Mammy stereotype for more than a century is also amazing.
Packaged food started with simple breakfast items
What is most stunning to me is the fact that such small improvements as adding leaveners, salt, and powdered milk could make a product succeed. How much time does it take to blend these ingredients at home? Less than a minute.
I see this as the dawn of packaged food. Breakfast is where we began to surrender our ability to feed ourselves to an anonymous industry. Aunt Jemima put a face on food as production scaled up, removing the faces of the farmer and miller from the immediate community.
Here’s how you can put your own face on your loved one’s breakfasts. My basic formula is this.
Homemade Pancake Mix
4 cups flour
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1½ tsp salt
2 buttermilk powder, optional (if you want people to use just water and egg for their mix)
Mix all ingredients well with a whisk and put in plastic bag, or a container with a tight fitting lid. Brand new coffee bags are handy, and you can decorate them.
1 cup homemade pancake flour mix
¾ cup milk
1 tablespoon yogurt
(Or skip the milk and yogurt and add ¾ cup water for the buttermilk variation)
1. Blend well and let sit for 10 minutes before using. This helps the flour absorb the moisture thoroughly. If the batter needs a little thinning, add some more milk.
2. Cook on a hot buttered griddle, flipping when the first side has little bubbles.
This mix takes well to variations. Mostly I fiddle with the flour. Some great combinations are:
- 2 cups whole wheat pastry flour, 1 cup rye flour, 1 cup cornmeal.
- 1 cup whole wheat pastry flour, 1 cup rye flour, 1 cup cornmeal, 1 cup oats or ground oats.
- 2 cups buckwheat flour, 2 cups rye flour.
- 2 cups buckwheat flour, 2 cups whole wheat pastry flour.
- 2 cups cornmeal, 2 cups rye flour.
- 3 cups cornmeal, 1 cup rye flour.
If you are making mixes for people who are not devoted to whole grains, you can use all-purpose flour in place of some or all of the whole-wheat pastry.
I never add sugar to pancakes, because I find whole grains sweet enough on their own. If you want, add ¼ cup of brown or white sugar per batch.
Please use a baking powder you know is strong and sturdy. For me, that is Rumford Double Acting baking powder.
If you really love the recipient, buy them an old cast aluminum griddle at a thrift store. Aluminum griddles distribute heat very evenly, and nothing makes a better pancake.
Top photo: Pancakes from a homemade mix. Credit: Amy Halloran
Imagine being 7 years old and being offered an array of cookies and cakes for breakfast every morning. For my son Liam, that was one of the highlights of accompanying me on a six-week long research trip through the European Mediterranean the summer after he finished first grade. I also took my best friend’s 20-year old daughter Rachel, Liam’s beloved babysitter, so he would have somebody to play with. Nonetheless, it was sometimes not very much fun for him to be dragged from one place to another just so his mom could find and eat great food. Liam has always loved great food too, but constant traveling can be hard for a 7-year-old.
It was all worth it for him, though, when we arrived at Il Frantoio, an old olive oil farm that is also an azienda agrituristica, or farmhouse hotel, in the southern Italian region of Apulia. Il Frantoio is one of the most beautiful places on earth. Every room in the elegant house has been lovingly restored by the owners, Rosalba and Armando Ciannamea. Wherever your eye turns, it falls on something pleasing to see. Olive groves, some of them more than 500 years old, with beautiful, huge trees, stretch for miles within the whitewashed walls of the property. Armando produces several different olive oils, and the farm also produces wheat, fruit and vegetables, everything organic.
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The beauty of the place and the unforgettable dinners may or may not have been lost on Liam. What he will always remember about Il Frantoio is that they served cookies for breakfast. Every morning, when you cross the quiet courtyard and enter the dining room, you encounter a lace-covered buffet with bowls of fruit from the farm’s orchards — plums and peaches, apricots and nectarines in summer, apples and pears in the late fall — and baked goods from the kitchen — several varieties of cookies and cakes, breads and pastries made with flour ground from Il Frantoio’s own heirloom wheat; homemade jams and honeys. Pitchers of fresh orange and grapefruit juice are covered with handmade lace doilies to protect them from flies. Needless to say, Liam woke up early every day and couldn’t wait to get to breakfast. He always went straight for the cookies.
Italian Butter Cookies with Anise and Lemon Zest
Makes about 4 dozen cookies
180 grams (6 ounces) unsalted butter, preferably French style such as Plugrà, at room temperature
125 grams (⅔ cup) sugar
55 grams (1 large) egg
1 teaspoon finely chopped lemon zest
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 teaspoons aniseeds, crushed in a mortar and pestle
275 grams (2¼ cups) unbleached all-purpose flour
5 grams (1 rounded teaspoon) baking powder
1 gram (¼ teaspoon) salt
1. In a standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the butter with the sugar until fluffy and pale, about 4 minutes. Scrape down the bowl and beaters. Add the egg, lemon zest, vanilla and aniseeds, and beat together.
2. Sift together the flour, baking powder and salt. On low speed, beat into the butter mixture, just until combined. Gather the dough into a ball, then press down to a 1-inch thickness. Wrap tightly in plastic and refrigerate overnight or for up to 3 days, or place in the freezer for 1 to 2 hours. Alternatively (if you don’t want to roll out the dough), remove spoonfuls of half of the dough and plop them down the middle of a piece of parchment paper to create a log about 2 inches in diameter. Fold the parchment up around the log to and refrigerate for 2 hours or longer. Repeat with the remaining dough.
3. Preheat the oven to 350 F with the rack adjusted to the lowest setting. Line baking sheets with parchment.
4. Cut the dough into 2 or 4 pieces, and roll out one piece at a time on a lightly dusted work surface, or preferably on a Silpat, to about ¼-inch thick. Cut into circles or shapes, dipping the cutter into flour between each cut, and place 1 inch apart on the baking sheet. Keep the remaining pieces of dough in the refrigerator or freezer.
5. Bake for 10 to 12 minutes, turning the baking sheets front to back halfway through. Remove from the oven and cool on a rack.
Note: You can brush the cookies before baking with a little egg wash if you want them to look shiny.
Chocolate Walnut Biscotti
Makes about 4 dozen biscotti
125 grams (1 cup, approximately) unbleached all purpose flour
120 grams (approximately 1 cup, tightly packed) almond flour
60 grams (approximately ½ cup) unsweetened cocoa
10 grams (2 teaspoons) instant espresso powder or coffee extract
10 grams (2 teaspoons) baking powder
4 grams (1/2 teaspoon) salt
55 grams (2 ounces) unsalted butter
150 grams (approximately ¾ cup, tightly packed) brown sugar, preferably organic
110 grams (2 large) eggs
10 grams (2 teaspoons) vanilla extract
100 grams (1 cup) walnuts, chopped
1. Preheat the oven to 300 F. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment. In a medium bowl, mix together the flour, almond flour, cocoa, instant espresso powder if using, baking powder and salt.
2. In the bowl of an electric mixer, cream the butter and sugar for 2 minutes on medium speed. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and the beater with a rubber spatula and add the eggs, coffee extract if using and vanilla extract. Beat together for 1 to 2 minutes, until well blended. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and the beater. Add the flour mixture and beat at low speed until well blended. Add the walnuts and beat at low speed until mixed evenly through the dough. The dough will be moist and sticky.
3. Divide the dough in two and shape 2 wide, flat logs, about 10 to 12 inches long by 2 ½ inches wide. The logs may spread while you bake, so it’s best to place them on two parchment-covered sheets. Place in the oven on the middle rack and bake 40 to 45 minutes, until dry, beginning to crack in the middle, and firm. Remove from the oven and allow to cool for 20 minutes or longer.
4. Place the logs on a baking sheet and carefully cut into ½-inch thick slices. Place on two parchment-covered baking sheets and bake one sheet at a time in the middle of the oven until the slices are dry, 30 to 35 minutes, flipping the biscotti over after 15 minutes. Remove from the oven and allow to cool.
Top photo: The breakfast table at Il Frantoio. Credit: Martha Rose Shulman
Scrapple is one of those regional American favorites that remain a mystery to outsiders. You’ll find it in the mid-Atlantic states. Scrapple is a hog-parts mush formed into solid blocks, or logs, sliced, floured lightly and fried in fat. I first had it in Maryland in the early 1970s and have been wild about it since.
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One of the great regional foods of America, you’ll find it also in northern Virginia, eastern Pennsylvania, Delaware and southern New Jersey. Scrapple is made from leftover parts of hog processing, including offal such as the head, heart, liver and other innards that are boiled, bones and all, for the extraction of any gelatin. The edible matter is separated from the inedible and the meat is mixed with cornmeal and made into a mush with seasonings such as sage, thyme, savory, black pepper and salt. It is then solidified and stored.
It’s often described as Pennsylvania Dutch, but this is a misnomer. In fact, the expression is incorrect as the Dutch never settled in Pennsylvania but rather in New York. It began as a misunderstanding of the original German settlers who were the Pennsylvania Deutsch (Pennsylvania Germans). The earliest record of German settlement in Pennsylvania is in 1683 when a group of Quakers and Mennonites from the Rhineland founded the hamlet of Germantown.
These were mostly poor farmers seeking refuge from the Thirty Years’ War in America and afforded passage as indentured servants for the most part.
Their hardscrabble lives in 17th-century Pennsylvania meant everything had to be used including the scraps of the pig slaughter, probably giving scrapple its name.
Scrapple is related to its German precursor, panhas, a kind of pudding-wurst, but probably got its English name, scrapple, in the mid-19th century from the word scraps. It’s usually dredged in flour so it will hold together when frying and develop a crispy brown crust. Scrapple is fried in butter or pork lard and eaten for breakfast with eggs. All kinds of things can accompany it, such as applesauce, grape jelly, ketchup, horseradish or mustard. Scrapple is hard to find outside of the mid-Atlantic, but both the Rapa Scrapple company and Habbersett scrapple company provide store locators, and it can be bought on Amazon too, although in amounts that might last you years.
¼ cup unsalted butter or pork lard
½ pound scrapple, cut into slices about ½-inch thick
All-purpose flour for dredging
1. In a skillet, melt the butter over medium heat.
2. Dredge the scrapple slices in flour, tapping off any excess.
3. Lay the scrapple in the skillet and cook, turning once, until both sides are crispy brown in about 5 minutes. Serve hot.
Top photo: Scrapple and an egg. Credit: Clifford A. Wright
Summer in Scandinavia is a season of berries, and they are enjoyed in many different ways, both sweet and savory. The abundance of daylight hours combined with the not-too-warm weather make the berries thrive. They do not grow big but instead stay small and very tasty.
Strawberries can be in season all summer if the weather allows it, or they can be available for only three weeks. Therefore, as soon as the season starts, you become greedy and eat them every day for breakfast, lunch and dinner: in the mornings on yogurt, for lunch on rye bread and in the evening with cream or boiled with sugar as fruit porridge.
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Raspberries are in season in Scandinavia in July. Pick them when they are warm, dark and ruby red and eat them straight away or save some for a morning treat on raw grain flakes with cold milk. I also like to make jam and save some for Christmas, serving them in December with small doughnuts known as æbleskiver. Both raspberries and strawberries are also often accompanied by cold custard in the traditional Danish summer layer cake.
Other summer favorites are red currants shaken in sugar — a classic recipe in Scandinavia. Take 2 pounds of red currants, rinse and take off the sprigs, then mix gently with 1 pound of sugar; leave for three days at room temperature and shake now and then until the sugar has dissolved. It will keep for weeks in the refrigerator. Serve in the mornings on porridge or yogurt and also for dinner with roast chicken or lamb as well as with butter pan-fried fish or on vanilla ice cream.
Black currants are ideal for sorbet, cordial and jam. Jam is eaten in Scandinavia in the morning with cheese, butter and bread. Therefore, it really makes sense to stock up with jam so you have enough to last through the winter.
In addition to strawberries and raspberries, Scandinavians also enjoy their famous blueberries. They are picked in late July and all through August. Blueberries are best plucked wild, when they are smaller and tastier. The wild berries are also the really healthy superberries. If traveling to Sweden, where the blueberries grow, I definitely recommend packing a lunch box and spending a day in the calm, shadowy pine woods picking blueberries, then finding a spot at a small freshwater lake to take a lovely lunch break. Blueberries should be eaten soon after picking; blueberry tarts and pancakes are excellent ways to use them.
Growing up in Scandinavia, berry season was a treat as a child, primarily because the grown-ups would take us to pick them and while we were doing so, we were allowed to eat as many as our stomachs could handle. This was before candy and sodas became part of the 24/7 offerings.
Summer berries bring back sweet memories
All through the summer my grandmother would use berries in cooking and baking. A lot of preserving would be going on in her kitchen. Later on, my mother kept the tradition alive, and over the years I have together with my mother developed a range of recipes for jam, jellies, vinegars and cordials.
We did not pick most of the berries wild but rather in fruit orchards or private gardens, where people grow more berries than they can eat themselves. In my childhood we were always invited to Mrs. Carlsen’s garden to pick red currants, black currants and gooseberries. In exchange, my grandmother would give Mrs. Carlsen jars of jam from our summer production.
There are still plenty of fruit bushes around in private gardens. They were planted many years ago to guarantee supplies. But times have changed, and homemade jams and cordials are not part of people’s busy, everyday lives. Birds probably eat the majority of the berries instead. Denmark’s land is highly cultivated and, therefore, does not have vast forests with a lot of wild blueberries. To find that, you’ll have to go to Sweden, Norway and Finland.
Gooseberry time is late July and August. There are green and red varieties; the green one — the more tart of the two — is perfect for gooseberry compote.
Scandinavia’s seasons can vary month to month. Awareness about the region’s turbulent weather patterns is growing, and preserving is becoming popular even in the urban environment. You do not need to preserve 10 pounds of berries to make a cordial or a jam. Just 1 pound and a cup of sugar will do, and you can make one jar at a time. It’s actually easy and can be done while cooking dinner.
Crêpes With Gooseberry Compote
Serves 4 to 6
For the compote:
1 vanilla bean
1 pound unripe gooseberries, trimmed
1 cup superfine sugar
For the crêpes:
1 cup buttermilk
½ cup light beer
1¾ cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon caster sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 vanilla bean
1¼ cups whole milk
Butter for cooking
1. Make the compote by halving the vanilla bean lengthwise and placing it in a pan with the gooseberries and sugar. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for 30 minutes. Pour the hot compote into sterilized preserving jars and seal tightly. When cool, store in the refrigerator.
2. Start making the crêpe batter by beating the eggs together in a large mixing bowl. Add the buttermilk and the beer and beat again.
3. Sift the flour, sugar and salt together, then add to the egg mixture and beat until smooth.
4. Slit the vanilla bean in half lengthwise and scrape out the seeds with the tip of a knife. Stir in the milk and vanilla seeds.
5. Let the batter rest for 30 minutes before cooking the crêpes.
6. Melt a little butter in a skillet. When hot, add 5 tablespoons of batter to the skillet, twisting the handle gently to make a large, thin crêpe. Cook until golden on each side — it takes about 2 minutes. Set aside and repeat with the remaining batter. Stack the crêpes on a plate; they will stay warm like this for some time but if you prefer, you can put them in an oven set on low heat.
7. When the crêpes are all done, serve with the gooseberry compote.
Top photo: Crêpes with gooseberry compote. Credit: Columbus Leth
Strawberries! How do I love ye? Let me count the ways: strawberry shortcake, strawberry jam, strawberry pie, strawberry ice cream, strawberries and cream, strawberries and prosecco, strawberries and genuine aceto balsamico tradizionale di Modena, or just a little handful of fresh-from-the-garden strawberries sliced over the morning granola
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There are so many reasons to love a strawberry, do you really need more? If so, turn to nutritionist Rosie Schwartz, who points out the health impact of strawberries on her Enlightened Eater blog:
- They have a powerful anti-inflammatory impact
- They improve insulin sensitivity
- They offer a whole range of heart healthy benefits
- They guard against cancer
- They protect against cognitive decline.
Swartz offers state-of-the-art scientific evidence for these advantages.
Aside from their evident nutritional benefits, who could deny the sheer pleasure of this most remarkable fruit? When experts talk about fruity flavors in olive oil or in wine, the fruit that comes to mind, at least for me, is almost always strawberries. To me, the intense, pervasive flavor and aroma of ripe strawberries is the very definition of fruitiness, and it is irresistible.
We have strawberries in the supermarket produce section almost all year round, but they come from industrial farms in California and they are often raised with an eye to their visual impact rather than flavor. For taste, however, nothing beats strawberries grown in a cool northern climate, where the intensity of sunlight around the solstice ripens them quickly and the cool temperatures give them an intensity southern-grown berries lack. Best of all, of course, are the wild strawberries found on the forest floor, but they are so few and so difficult to transport that they are best consumed sitting right down by a woodland path and eating them by the handful.
Competition from the critters
I have strawberries in my garden in Maine, but it’s an annual contest with the local chipmunks as to who gets there first. Most mornings I find a few discards lying on the garden path, a bite taken out and then the berry tossed aside. Why? I hate to think the chipmunk is more discriminating than I am. Perhaps he was disturbed by the neighbor’s cat.
So I rely on a farmstand nearby. Mrs. Beveridge’s strawberries are dark red, big, luscious, full of flavor. And aroma — just passing the stand in the car, with the windows down, I am drawn into their seductive web.
Strawberry shortcake is an all-time American favorite, of course. Who doesn’t love it? Here in New England, the shortcake comes as a baking powder biscuit, with more than the usual sugar added, that is split in half, buttered, piled with strawberries, dolloped with sweetened whipped cream, and topped with a final garnish of the most perfect strawberry from the bunch. That’s all well and good, but I’ve also discovered that ricotta pancakes, perhaps sweetened slightly more than you would want at breakfast, make an equally grand dessert when mounded with deep red strawberries and a fluff of white whipped cream with just a drop or two of vanilla added.
Here’s the recipe, and I’m guessing it’s going to be handy in a few weeks when blueberry season rolls around again:
Makes about 12 pancakes, 6 servings
¾ cup whole wheat flour
¼ cup unbleached all-purpose flour
3 to 4 tablespoons sugar
1¼ teaspoons baking powder
Pinch of fine sea salt
1 cup well-drained ricotta
3 large eggs, separated
¾ cup whole milk
Grated zest of 1 lemon
¾ teaspoon vanilla extract
Vegetable oil or unsalted butter for the griddle
2 cups partially crushed strawberries, plus whole berries for garnish
Whipped cream flavored with a little sugar and ¼ teaspoon vanilla
1. Toss together with a fork the flours, 2 to 3 of the tablespoons of sugar, the baking powder and the salt.
2. In a separate bowl, combine the ricotta, egg yolks, milk, lemon zest and vanilla, and beat to mix thoroughly. Fold into the flour mixture.
3. In a separate bowl, using clean beaters, beat the egg whites until stiff, adding 1 tablespoon of sugar about halfway through. Using a rubber spatula, fold the egg whites into the batter.
4. Heat the griddle or skillet and smear with about a teaspoon of oil or butter. Drop the pancake batter by ⅓-cup measures onto the hot griddle. Cook until done and golden brown on each side, turning once.
5. Serve each pancake topped with crushed berries and a dollop of whipped cream plus a couple of whole berries on top.
Top photo: Fresh strawberries. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins
“You must have the courage to be rough or the eggs will not loosen themselves from the bottom of the pan.” – Julia Child, “Mastering the Art of French Cooking”
One August weekend, when I was still teaching myself to cook but was accomplished enough to have a vegetarian catering service, I got a call while I was in Los Angeles, visiting my parents and escaping the summer heat of my home in Austin. There was a big rock concert coming up at Willie Nelson’s ranch on the Blanco River in the Texas Hill Country, and did I want to cater breakfast on a houseboat for all of the talent and the press, who would be whisked up to the houseboat by motorboat, fed breakfast, then whisked on to the ranch? It would be about 200 covers.
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The only challenge was that I hadn’t quite perfected my omelet yet. So I went to the store, bought 10 dozen eggs, and didn’t stop practicing making two-egg omelets on my mother’s stove until I’d used them all.
If you were serious about cooking in the 1970s, mastering the French omelet was a rite of passage. Julia Child was my mentor, and I also read every other French cookbook I could find for tips on how to manipulate the pan and the eggs. Of course everybody I read had a slightly different technique, but they were all clear about a few things: The pan had to be hot when you added the butter, the butter had to be hot when you added the eggs, and the eggs shouldn’t be in the pan, which was in constant motion, for much longer than a minute. We didn’t have heavy nonstick omelet pans at that time, so if you didn’t get the temperature right you could count on your omelet sticking to your pan. Today, learning to make an omelet isn’t as challenging because we have those pans, though it still takes a tour de main to get it fluffy and right. You could flip the omelet with a quick jerk of the pan or take a gentler approach, folding the eggs over with a spatula. That weekend I lost a lot of eggs to the stove and the floor, but by Monday morning I was pretty confident about feeding the crowd.
I went back to Austin, 100 wicker paper plate liners in my suitcase, and got to work. I had five days to pull this together. I arrived at the dock at Lake Austin at 5:30 a.m. on the day of the concert to load my food and equipment: a 5-gallon container for beaten eggs that we would ladle into the hot pans, gallons of ratatouille and salsa ranchera, pounds of grated cheese, vats of fruit salad, coolers filled with ice, a dozen loaves of homemade bread.
We also loaded a couple of kegs of beer and 5 gallons of bloody Mary fixings — the mix not from a bottle but my father’s delicious recipe (V8, Worcestershire, Tabasco, garlic salt and pepper is what I’m remembering now); and therein lay my downfall. Not exactly downfall, for I had no trouble with the omelets, but drink a bloody Mary (or two, just to make sure they’re good) not too long after sunrise on an August morning in Central Texas and work outside for the next seven hours straight as the temperature climbs into the triple digits, and you will feel hung over before you even experience the pleasure of being inebriated. Our houseboat chugged along from the Lake Austin dock toward Willie Nelson’s ranch; I so wanted to take a nap, but my co-workers and I persevered despite my crushing headache, turning out one omelet after another. I hardly had time to look up, but I do remember when The Band arrived. They came, they ate, they left.
As I (sort of) remember, we got backstage passes to the concert, and it took us quite a while to get back to the Lake Austin dock. When I got home at around 7 that evening I picked up a message on my machine from a friend, inviting me to come over for a potluck. Great, I thought, I can bring some of these leftovers. I’ll just lie down and have a little rest before I go over. I lay down on my bed, closed my eyes, and woke up the next morning.
How to make an omelet
This is how I do it. I’m sure, readers, that many of you will have your own way that works and it may be different from mine. In the days before nonstick you had to use about twice as much butter. Olive oil was strictly a Mediterranean thing, but I like it and often use it; it depends on the filling. I always use two eggs for my single-serving omelets. Restaurants often use 3, but I never sit down and eat three eggs at one sitting.
Break 2 eggs into a bowl and beat with a fork or a whisk until frothy. Whisk in salt and pepper to taste and 2 to 3 teaspoons milk.
Heat a heavy 8-inch nonstick omelet pan over medium-high heat. Add 2 teaspoons butter or olive oil. When the butter stops foaming or the oil feels hot when you hold your hand above it, pour the eggs right into the middle of the pan, scraping every last bit into the pan with a rubber spatula. Swirl the pan to distribute the eggs evenly over the surface. Shake the pan gently, tilting it slightly with one hand while lifting up the edges of the omelet with the spatula in your other hand, to let the eggs run underneath during the first few seconds of cooking.
As soon as the eggs are set on the bottom, sprinkle the filling over the middle of the egg “pancake,” then move the pan away from you and quickly jerk it back toward you so that the omelet folds over on itself. If you don’t like your omelet runny in the middle (I do), jerk the pan again so that the omelet folds over once more. Cook until set, shaking the pan the entire time. Tilt the pan and roll out onto a plate.
Another way to make a 2-egg omelet is to flip it over before adding the filling. Do this with the same motion, moving the pan away then quickly jerking it back toward you, but lift your hand slightly as you begin to jerk the pan back toward you. The omelet will flip over onto the other side, like a pancake. Place the filling in the middle, then use your spatula to fold one side over, then the other side, and roll the omelet out of the pan. Serve at once.
Top photo: Making an omelet. Credit: Wikimedia / cyclonebill
Easter is a moveable feast in both Eastern and Western church traditions — quite literally, since the date can vary by several weeks whether celebrated according to the Western (Roman Catholic) or Eastern (Orthodox Catholic) calendar: This year’s Roman Catholic Easter is March 31, and the Orthodox date is May 5. This can make for some confusion where the two groups intersect, as they often do in central Europe. Traditions in both camps, however, feature eggs as the universal symbol of rebirth.
A Russian Orthodox Easter as celebrated in the early 1990s by a self-sufficient farming family of Ruthenes living in Slovakia’s Tatras mountains on the borders of the Ukraine provided me with a lesson in maintaining national identity through festive traditions in a situation where church festivals were not officially celebrated at all.
The Ruthenes, Russian-speaking Ukrainians marooned in Slovakia in the aftermath of World War II, maintained their language and religion throughout the years of communism thanks, in all probability, to their minority status and the inaccessibility of their steep ravines and dense forest. Through the long winters, while the city dwellers of Eastern Europe endured shortages and bread queues, the peasant communities of the Tatras survived as they always had, through self-sufficiency and a well-stocked store cupboard. And at Easter, the most important festival of the Christian year, those who had moved to the cities to find work returned home to be with their families and enjoy the last of the stores, providing extra hands to plant the potato crop, the most important and labor-intensive task of the year.
At the time of my visit, my hostess, Anna Ludomirova — matriarch of a peasant farming family in the High Tatras — was preparing the Easter basket to be taken to the churchyard. Packed with good things — a tall round babka enriched with eggs and butter, decorated eggs, salt (a very important item in any self-sufficient household), the last of the ham from the brine pot — the basket was taken to be blessed with a sprinkling of holy water by the monks at the Russian Orthodox church on Easter Saturday. Once this ritual had been observed and the basket shown to the family ancestors buried in the churchyard, everyone returned home to unpack and share the contents.
Easter egg cheese part of traditional holiday meal
This picnic-style meal freed the ladies of the household to enjoy the company of visitors. But before the feast could begin, certain rituals had to be observed. A bowl of decorated Easter eggs painted with wax and dipped in colored dyes was set on the table and a ceremonial candle lit. Then Mama Anna sliced the top off a raw egg, mixed the contents with a little spoon and passed it round the table for everyone to take a little sip — a unifying gesture shared by all.
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These important rituals concluded, the company tucked into sliced ham and wind-cured sausage, spiced beetroot and gherkins in sweetened vinegar, grated horseradish in cream, eggs hard-boiled and saved in obedience to the prohibitions of Lent, thick slices of the buttery babka spread with more butter. Most unusual, however, was the centerpiece of the feast, egg cheese, a magnificent yellow globe as large and round as a soccer ball made by scrambling the first of the year’s eggs with the first of the year’s milk, tipping the result in a cloth and leaving it to drip overnight till firm and dry — a technique that mirrors the preparation of rennetted cheese later in the year, when the calves are weaned and the cows put out to grass. The eggshells did not go to waste, as they were emptied through pinholes to keep the shells intact and saved for the children to decorate with melted candle wax for the patterned Easter eggs sent to the churchyard in the basket.
After the collapse of the Russian empire and the splitting of Slovakia from the Czechs, the Ruthene communities returned to the Ukraine carrying with them traditions forgotten in their native land but preserved in all their ancient symbolism by a stroke of the politicians’ pencil all those years ago.
Wax-patterned Easter eggs
You need white rather than brown eggs for the patterns to be effective. You can use ready-blown eggshells from making egg cheese or cooled hard-boiled eggs. You’ll also need candle ends — plain, colored or both — food coloring and a pin with a large head.
1. Stick the pin in a cork to make a pen.
2. Melt the wax, keeping the colors separate.
3. Hold the egg firmly in one hand, big end upward. Dip the pen in the wax, and, starting half an inch below the apex of the egg, dab with the wax and drag it up toward the top to give a tadpole-shaped tick. Continue around the egg to make a sunburst pattern. If you use alternate lengths of stroke and different colored waxes, the pattern will be even prettier.
4. Repeat on the other end of the egg. (Hold it carefully or place in an egg cup so the warmth of your hand doesn’t melt the wax). Make more sunburst patterns around the sides.
5. Dip the eggs in diluted food coloring, as for batik.
6. Pile the eggs in a pretty bowl.
Easter egg cheese
This is a very unusual dish, a solid sphere of scrambled egg. It looks decorative, slices up neatly and goes very well with ham, the traditional Easter meat in northern and Eastern Europe.
1 liter of milk
12 free-range eggs
1 teaspoon salt
1. Bring the milk to a boil. Meanwhile, whisk all but one of the eggs with the salt.
2. When the milk boils, whisk in the egg. Keep whisking until the resulting custard is thoroughly scrambled.
3. Tip the mixture into a clean pudding cloth. Hang it in a warm place to drain with a bowl underneath to catch the whey, exactly as you would fresh cheese.
4. When it’s quite drained, tip it out onto a clean dish, paint it with the remaining egg, forked to blend, and place it into an oven preheated to 350 F (180 C/Gas 4) for 10 minutes to glaze. The result should look like a large, shiny, yellow Easter egg.
5. Slice thickly and serve with ham, butter and bread.
Illustration: Ruthene women. Credit: Elisabeth Luard