Articles in Cooking

Celeriac, a knobby and bulbous root vegetable, is a variety of celery. Credit: Clarissa Hyman

Celeriac looks like Hannibal Lecter’s lunch. A pale and ghostly cerebellum with tangled dreadlocks, it is never going to win any beauty prizes. Prepossessing, it is not. Little wonder many shoppers give it a wide berth as it singularly fails to bear any resemblance to its slender green cousin and has the sort of looks only a mother vegetable could love.

Yet celery and celeriac are essentially the same plant, both descendants of wild celery. Plant breeding and cultivation from the 17th century onward, however, took them in different directions. Celery was destined to be sought after for its crisp, sweet stalks; celeriac for the large swollen base half-buried in the ground like a forgotten cannonball.

Over the centuries, horticulturalists succeeded in turning a tiny root into a gnarled ball of intense but delicate celery flavor and fragrance. Despite these excellent qualities, celeriac has never really hit the big time. Still overlooked by many shoppers, it is an omission to our vegetable repertoire that is gradually being rectified.

 The French, however, have long known better. Celeriac remoulade is one of the great classic salad dishes across La Manche. The crunchy, mustardy slaw strikes the right balance between creaminess and acidity, and is a distinguished partner to cold meats and sausages. You would never know this elegant hors d’oeuvre derives from such an ungainly start in life.

The many ways to use celeriac

Never ones to shirk a kitchen challenge, however, the French became skilled at hacking their way through the knotted roots and convoluted rhino-thick exterior in order not to waste large chunks of good flesh. However, user-friendly varieties have come onto the market in recent years that are larger and smoother and much easier to peel.

If eating it part-cooked or blanched in a salad (raw celeriac is underwhelming), try adding celery salt to the vinaigrette or give the basic dressing of mayonnaise, cream and mustard a bit more zip with capers and/or gherkins.

A touch of orange zest can add some warmth to a velvety soup of celeriac and leek or fennel. Or, you could scatter with toasted hazelnuts or add a dollop of parsley-walnut pesto for interesting contrast. Think of celeriac as you would potatoes: serve deep-fried celeriac chips with mustard or garlic mayonnaise; roast chunks along with a joint of beef, pork or lamb; or boil or steam and mash them with plenty of butter for a purée.

Modern vegetarian cooks have welcomed the ability of celeriac to soak up flavors, which makes it excellent to roast in the oven; use in gratins or as a filling for pies and tarts; and mix with mushrooms (especially ceps), nuts, tomatoes or cheese. Dauphinoise made with celeriac and potato makes a wonderful combination, or try celeriac rosti for a change. It also carries well the pungency of fresh spices such as ginger, chili, coriander and black pepper.

The paler it is the fresher celeriac will be, but the thick knobbly skin will keep the interior smelling pleasingly of aniseed for quite a long time until used. At its best between September and April, celeriac should be saved from the compost heap. It may be a knob-head, but it deserves better.

Kitchen Notes:

  • If you can’t use the celeriac once cut, drop the pieces into acidulated water to stop discoloration. Browning doesn’t affect the taste, but the color can look rather unappetizing.
  • To store, refrigerate in an unsealed plastic bag. It will keep for several weeks.
  • To cut celeriac safely, slice about a half-inch (1 centimeter) off the top and bottom with a sharp knife. Roll onto a flat edge and either cut off the skin (as you would a pineapple) or use a potato peeler. Expect to discard about a quarter of the celeriac by the time you have done this.

cut celeriac

cut celeriac
Picture 1 of 6

The simple makings for celeriac and celery soup. Credit: Clarissa Hyman

Celeriac and Celery Soup

Add a little orange zest or a handful of toasted hazelnuts for extra interest, if desired.

Prep time: 20 minutes

Cook time: 40 minutes

Total time: 60 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

4 tablespoon butter

1 onion, thinly sliced

1 leek, thinly sliced (don’t include the dark green part or it will spoil the look of the marble-white soup)

About 1 pound peeled and chopped celeriac

Salt

About 1 pound sliced celery (reserve a few leaves)

4 cups chicken or vegetable stock

1 dollop of heavy cream

White pepper

Chopped parsley (optional)

Directions

1. Heat the butter in a saucepan and add the onion and leek. Cook gently for 10 minutes, then add the celeriac, celery and a little salt.

2. Cover and cook for another 10 minutes but don’t let the mixture brown. Add the stock, bring to a boil and simmer until the vegetables are tender (about 15 minutes).

3. Purée the soup, then reheat gently. Add the cream and season with salt and white pepper to taste. Adorn with a few reserved celery leaves and/or parsley.

Celeriac Remoulade (French Slaw)

Adjust the proportions of the dressing to your own taste; some like a piquant taste, others prefer just a hint of mustard.

Prep time: 20 minutes

Cook time: 10 minutes

Total time: 30 minutes

Yield: 6 servings

Ingredients

1 medium celeriac

Juice of 1 lemon

3 to 4 tablespoons Dijon mustard

2/3 cup mayonnaise

1 tablespoon heavy cream or crème frâiche

Chopped parsley

1 to 2 tablespoons capers (optional)

Salt and black pepper

Directions

1. Peel the celeriac; either grate to a medium size or cut into matchsticks. Plunge into a pan of boiling water, then drain and cool.

2. Mix the rest of the ingredients in a serving bowls. Season to taste and mix in the celeriac.

Celeriac and Potato Gratin

Prep time: 30 minutes

Cook time: 1 hour, 30 minutes

Total time: 2 hours

Yield: 6 servings

Ingredients

1 cup heavy cream

1/3 cup whole milk

2 garlic cloves, crushed

Salt and black pepper

About 15 ounces peeled potatoes, cut into thin slices

About 15 ounces peeled celeriac, cut into thin slices about the same size as the potatoes

2 to 3 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese

 

Directions

1. Put the cream, milk and garlic in a saucepan and bring to the boil. Season with salt and pepper and set aside.

2. Arrange the potatoes and celeriac in overlapping layers in a gratin dish. Cover it with the cream mixture, tipping the dish to get an even distribution.

3. Cover with foil and bake for about an hour or until the vegetables are tender. Tip: While the dish is baking, use a spatula to press the vegetables into the cream once or twice so they don’t dry out.

4. Remove the foil, sprinkle with the Parmesan and bake for another 10 minutes until the top is nicely browned.

Main photo: Celeriac is a knobby, bulbous root vegetable. Credit: Clarissa Hyman

Read More
Candied turmeric provides a gift for friends -- and for yourself. The simple syrup left over from the candied turmeric recipe makes a wonderful flavoring for cocktails. Credit: David Hagerman

By now, you’ve probably heard about turmeric: the yellow-orange rhizome native to South Asia recognized for its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.

The ingredient in Indian and southeast Asian cuisines that colors curries and other dishes gold, turmeric (Curcuma longa) is a staple in Ayurvedic and traditional Chinese medicines. Studies suggest that the rhizome may be helpful in treating osteoarthritis, viral and bacterial infections, stomach ulcers, cancer and other conditions.

I’ve known of turmeric’s usefulness in treating the common cold since 2008, when I stumbled upon sugar-coated slices of the rhizome at the central market in Hoi An, Vietnam. I’d been nursing a scratchy throat and runny nose for three chilly, drizzly days. When a vendor heard me cough, she pushed a bag of candied turmeric in my direction and motioned toward my throat and red eyes. I ate several slices then and there and intermittently snacked on the turmeric for the rest of the day. By morning, my sore throat was gone. By day two, I felt good as new.

A Not-So-Common Cure for the Common Cold

Over the last few years I’ve incorporated turmeric into my daily diet, usually combined with green tea, ginger and lemongrass in the form of a powerhouse infusion. I drink the refreshing, slightly spicy and astringent elixir iced, as a preventive. I haven’t suffered a cold since late 2011.

So this Christmas, I’m giving friends the gift of good health in the form of jars of candied turmeric slices (and making extra for myself to carry with me on travels). The lovely orange flesh of the rhizome has a slight bitterness that proves a wonderful foil for a coating of white sugar. To increase the snack’s healthfulness, I add black pepper – believed to increase the body’s ability to absorb turmeric’s beneficial ingredient, curcumin to the simple syrup in which I poach thin slices of turmeric.

An Unexpected Extra That You Can Tip Your Glass To

At the end, I’m left with a bonus: a beautiful, astringent-bitter simple syrup that makes a great flavoring for cocktails.

Like ginger, turmeric peels most easily with the edge of a spoon. The rhizome stains anything it touches (wear an apron) and will leave a dark orange, tacky goo on your spoon and knife. To remove it and the color that’s left on your hands, cutting board and other kitchen surfaces, wash with a kitchen cream cleanser.

Look for fresh turmeric at Whole Foods and other specialty grocery stores, gourmet markets and southeast Asian and Indian groceries.

Candied Turmeric

Prep time: 15 to 20 minutes to peel and slice the turmeric plus up to 6 hours to dry the turmeric slices.

Cook time: 20 to 25 minutes

Yield: 3/4 to 1 cup candied turmeric slices

Thin slices are paramount here, as is allowing ample time for your turmeric to dry after poaching. Rush this step and you’ll end up with unattractive clumps of sugar and rhizome.

Ingredients

3/4 pound fresh turmeric

1 cup water

3/4 cup sugar, plus 1/3 cup for tossing the poached turmeric

Directions

Prepping the turmeric:

1. Break any small knobs off of the main turmeric root and use the edge of a spoon to peel the skin off of all of the rhizome pieces. Use a paring knife to peel away any stubborn bits of skin.

2. Rinse the peeled turmeric and slice it as thinly as possible into coins and strips.

To candy the turmeric: 

1. In a medium saucepan, heat the water. Add 3/4 cup sugar and stir to dissolve.

2. Add the turmeric, stir to submerge all of the pieces and bring the syrup to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer briskly until the turmeric slices are tender but not limp, about 25 minutes.

3. Drain the turmeric in a colander or sieve placed over a bowl, then transfer the turmeric slices to a cooling rack set over a baking sheet or piece of foil or parchment paper. (Set the turmeric syrup aside to cool and use to flavor sparkling water and cocktails.) Arrange the turmeric slices on the rack so that they do not overlap and place in a well-ventilated spot (underneath a ceiling fan is ideal). Allow the turmeric to dry until the slices are slightly tacky but no longer wet, at least 3 hours and as many as 6 hours, depending on the temperature and ventilation in the room.

4. Toss the turmeric slices in 1/3 cup of sugar until coated. (Don’t throw away leftover sugar; it’s delicious in tea.) Store the turmeric in a clean, dry jar or other container. If you live in a hot, humid climate you may need to refrigerate it to keep the sugar from dissolving.

The Orangutang

Yield: 1 cocktail

Syrup and orange juice make this pretty and potent bourbon cocktail a little bit sweet. Campari and turmeric add a nice astringent-bitter edge; lemon juice adds a hint of tartness.

Ingredients

2 ounces bourbon

1 ounce Campari

1 ounce orange juice

1 tablespoon (1/2 ounce) turmeric simply syrup (see Candied Turmeric recipe, above)

2 teaspoons lemon juice

Orange slice, for serving

Directions

Pour all of the ingredients except for the orange slice into a cocktail shaker. Add a handful of ice. Shake and pour the cocktail and ice into a short glass. Garnish the rim of the glass with the orange slice.

Main photo: Candied turmeric provides a gift for friends — and for yourself. The simple syrup left over from the candied turmeric recipe makes a wonderful flavoring for cocktails. Credit: David Hagerman

Read More
Lemon Zest Pound Cake Cookies. Credit: David Latt

Just in time for holiday gatherings and good any time for parties and special occasions, here are two easy-to-make recipes that yield enough delicious cookies to delight a hungry crowd. Used in tandem, the pound cake and financier cookie recipes also solve the classic baker’s dilemma: When recipes call only for egg yolks, what to do with the whites? And vice versa.

When they were young, our sons loved pound cake. The recipe I developed called for egg yolks, which meant the whites went to waste. That always bothered me. Recently, I needed to make a large number of cookies for a party. I decided adapting the pound cake recipe would make a unique cookie.

But that left me with my old problem. What to do with the egg whites? No one in our house eats egg white omelets so I looked through a notebook where I keep recipe ideas. In my notes about a Parisian bakery (I neglected to write down the name) was a description of a scrumptious financier. Like a cartoon character, the light blub turned on over my head. Financiers are made with egg whites. The pound cake needs yolks. Viola! A marriage made in the oven.

Making the cookies in silicone molds adds to the ease of preparation. No need to brush on melted butter and dust with flour because the molds are nonstick. They require a minimum amount of washing before being used again to make another round of delicious cookies.

Silicone molds are available online and in specialty cook stores such as Sur La Table and Williams-Sonoma as well as in the cookware sections of major department stores.

Best served at room temperature, the cookies will stay fresh for a week if refrigerated in airtight containers.

Lemon Zest Pound Cake Cookies

Pound cakes get their name because the classic recipe calls for a pound each of butter, flour, eggs and sugar. Adapting the recipe for use in a small mold transforms the cake into a light-as-air crisp cookie, with many of the qualities of an Italian dipping biscotti. The lemon zest contrasts nicely with the buttery richness of the cookies.

If you want to use larger molds, the yield will be lower and the cookies will need to be baked longer. Because ovens vary, I would suggest starting with a test batch of three or four cookies to determine the baking time.

The dough has a thickened consistency not unlike Play-Doh. Use your fingers to spread the dough into the corners of the individual molds.

Yield: 126 cookies made in molds 1-inch by 1 3/4 inch

Preparation Time: 30 minutes

Baking Time: 20-25 minutes

Ingredients

1 1/2 cups sweet butter

6 egg yolks

2 whole eggs

2 cups white sugar

1 teaspoon finely chopped lemon zest

1 1/2  teaspoons baking powder

4 cups all-purpose white flour

2 tablespoons powdered sugar

Directions

1. Heat oven to 350 F.

2. In a saucepan melt butter over a low flame. Set aside to cool.

3. In a large bowl, whisk together the egg yolks, whole eggs and sugar to a custardy consistency.

4. Add lemon zest to the egg mixture.

5. Slowly whisk in the melted, room temperature sweet butter.

6. Add baking powder and mix well.

7. Sprinkle 1/4 cup flour into the bowl. Whisk to mix well. Continue adding 1/4 cup at a time and blending until all the flour is incorporated into the egg-butter-sugar dough.

8. Into each 1-inch by 1 3/4-inch mold, place 1 1/2 teaspoons of dough. Using your fingers press down to shape the dough into each mold.

9. Put the molds onto a cookie sheet and place in the preheated oven.

10. Rotate the molds every 10 minutes for even browning.

11. The cookies will bake in 20-25 minutes. But because ovens vary, begin checking after 10 minutes. If the tops are lightly browned, they are probably done.

12. Remove the molds from the oven and place on a wire rack for 10 minutes. Remove each cookie and place on the wire rack.

13. When cooled to room temperature place the cookies in an airtight container and refrigerate for later use.

14. Just before serving, dust the tops with powdered sugar. Serve by themselves with coffee or tea, or with fresh berries, whipped cream or ice cream.

Variations

  • Add 1/4 cup finely ground roasted almonds into the batter.
  • Add 1/4 cup finely ground chopped dark chocolate or chocolate chips into the batter.
  • Blend together 1/4 cup finely ground roasted almonds with 1 teaspoon white sugar. Halfway through baking, dust the tops of the cookies with the almond-sugar mixture.

latt-christmascookies2

latt-christmascookies2
Picture 1 of 5

Egg yolks and whites. Credit: David Latt

Orange Glazed Hazelnut Financiers

Financiers are often prepared with ground almonds. Any nut can be used. I prefer roasted hazelnuts.

Using larger sized molds will result in fewer cookies that need to be baked longer.

Unlike the thick pound cake dough, the financiers batter is thin and is best placed into the individual molds using a spouted container like a measuring cup. Because ovens are different, I would suggest making a test batch of three or four cookies to determine the baking time.

Yield: 90 cookies made in molds 1-inch by 1 3/4-inch

Preparation Time: 30 minutes

Baking Time: 30 minutes

Ingredients

3/4 cup sweet butter

1 cup, plus 2 tablespoons whole raw hazelnuts

1/2 cup all-purpose white flour

1 3/4 cups confectioners or powdered sugar

Pinch sea salt

Pinch black pepper

6 egg whites

1/4 cup orange simple syrup (see recipe below)

Directions

1. Heat oven to 450 F.

2. Melt butter and set aside to cool.

3. Place hazelnuts on a baking sheet and roast in the oven 2-3 minutes. Remove. Wrap the hot hazelnuts in a damp, cloth kitchen towel. Rub the towel against the hazelnuts to remove the skins. Measure out 2 tablespoons of the roasted hazelnuts. Cut each hazelnut into quarters and reserve.

4. Using a food processor, grind the remaining 1 cup of roasted hazelnuts into a fine meal. Keep an eye on the grind so the hazelnuts don’t over process and become a nut butter.

5. In a large bowl, use a whisk to blend together the hazelnuts, flour, sugar, sea salt and black pepper.

6. Add the egg whites and mix well.

7. Whisk in the cooled, melted butter.

8. Transfer the batter to a spouted measuring cup and fill each mold with batter.

9. In the middle of each financier place a quarter piece of roasted hazelnut on top, cut side up.

10. Clean off any batter that may have spilled onto the outside of the mold.

11. Drizzle 2-3 drops of orange simple syrup on top of each financier.

12. Put the mold onto a cookie sheet and place in the preheated oven for 5 minutes. Rotate the cookie sheet for even browning. Reduce the temperature to 400 F and continue baking another 5 minutes.

13. Turn off the oven.

14. Rotate the cookie sheet and leave the financiers in the oven 10 minutes or until they are lightly browned on top and firm to the touch. Making a test batch to determine how long they should remain in the oven at this juncture is helpful. Leaving the financiers in the cooling oven longer will create a crisper cookie.

15. Remove from the oven and place the mold on a wire rack. Do not remove the financiers from their molds until the mold has cooled to the touch. Then carefully remove each cookie and allow them to continue cooling on the wire rack.

The financiers can be stored in the refrigerator in an airtight container for up to a week.

Serve at room temperature with coffee or tea, with fresh berries, whipped cream or ice cream.

Orange Simple Syrup

Before making the syrup, the peel is boiled three times to remove the orange’s astringent oils.

Yield: ¼ cup

Time: 30 minutes

Ingredients

1/2 cup orange peel with rind, finely chopped

6 1/4 cups water

1/4 cup white sugar

Directions

1. Place the chopped orange peel and two cups of water into a saucepan.

2. Bring to a boil. Remove the pan from the stove top and strain the orange peel pieces in a fine metal strainer. Repeat the process two additional times.

3. Place the orange peel, sugar and 1/4 cup water into the saucepan. Do not stir the mixture. On a low flame, bring the mixture to a low simmer.

4. After the water dissolves the sugar, continue simmering the syrup 10 minutes. To test for doneness, dip a small spoon into the liquid. If the back of the spoon comes out coated, the syrup is done.

5. Use a fine metal strainer to separate the syrup from the candied orange peel. The orange peel can be saved for later use in a refrigerated airtight container.

6. Transfer the syrup into a spouted bottle or use a small espresso-sized spoon to drizzle the orange flavoring onto the financiers.

Main photo: Lemon Zest Pound Cake Cookies. Credit:David Latt

Read More
Four-can antipasto. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

“Fresh is best” is usually a good rule to live by. But if you know how to find quality preserved items, a few well-chosen canned foods in your pantry can save the day, especially during the busy holidays.

Healthy food is food that is minimally processed. All the foods’ transformation should happen when you turn it from the raw to the cooked and not at some factory.

When I am unable to pronounce the ingredients listed on the side of a food’s packaging I shiver. When I see the word “natural” on a food package I read “Sh&u8#%g” because it has the same meaning. However, I am not a fanatic or obsessive about food: I can eat crap too. I do so minimally. I don’t always seek out organic, or local, or seasonal, or any other of the environmentally correct buzzwords.

Now and then canned food is just plain convenient. And luckily there are some canned products that are not loaded with chemicals such as taste enhancers or preservatives of one kind or another. If you keep these in your pantry you will always have a delicious, convenient and quick preparation on hand. This is particularly handy during the holidays. On their label you should see only one ingredient list, namely the same one as on the front of the packaging, the food itself. Some might have some citric acid, but that’s OK.

There are four foods that I use in their canned form for a variety of reasons: the food is out of season, I forgot to buy the food, I’m too tired to cook, or it’s a last-minute idea. My five canned go-to foods are chickpeas, tuna, artichoke hearts, tomatoes and pimentos.

In this recipe you’ll use four of those. The idea here is that this is party-quality food, the kind of dish that you could serve to guests and they will comment on its deliciousness. After they do then you can spill the beans, so to speak, and tell them how simple it all is.

Four-Can Antipasto

Yield: 4 servings

Prep time: 15 minutes

Ingredients

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1 large garlic clove, finely chopped

1 15-ounce can organic chickpeas (garbanzo beans), drained and rinsed

4 canned organic artichoke hearts (foundations), drained and quartered

2 tablespoons sliced pimentos

2 1/2 ounces canned yellowfin tuna in olive oil

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Pinch of cayenne pepper

Directions

1. In a sauté pan, heat the olive oil with the garlic over medium heat.

2. When the garlic begins to sizzle add the chickpeas, artichokes and pimentos and cook, stirring, for 5 minutes.

3. Add the tuna, salt, pepper and cayenne, toss a few times and remove from the heat. Serve hot, warm or at room temperature.

Main photo: Four-can antipasto. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

Read More
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

Read More
Black cake. Credit: Ramin Ganeshram

It would arrive each year by the first week of December: a brown paper parcel from Tobago, where my father’s favorite niece lived. Inside was a used butter cookie tin, and inside that was a foil-wrapped cake that revealed itself to be dark as night.

The alcohol fumes that wafted off the cake as it was unwrapped were enough to make our young heads spin — and to preserve it for what was, in those days, a three-week journey by ship from Trinidad & Tobago to New York City. For weeks after the cake arrived, my brother Ramesh and I would scurry into the kitchen and pick at it when my father wasn’t looking.

This Caribbean holiday specialty, which is called Black Cake because of its signature color, Christmas Cake or simply “fruit cake,” is a fruit cake that will actually leave you hankering for more. Plummy, boozy and sweet but not sugary, Black Cake is best described as plum pudding that has gone to heaven.

This cake is so addictive that once you’ve tried it, seeking it come December is an obsession for some. I’ve been bribed with everything from hand-knit scarves, theater tickets, offers of baby-sitting, and even house-cleaning for one.

Black Cake inspired by an Irish Christmas recipe

Most common in English-Caribbean islands like Trinidad, Barbados and Grenada, its origins are in the Irish Christmas Cake, an equally worthy fruitcake cousin. Primarily consisting of raisins, prunes and currants, Black Cake contains only a small amount of the multi-hued candied peel that makes most fruit cakes less than appetizing. To add flavor and moisture, the fruits are soaked in a rum and cherry wine mixture for weeks.

For those of us who have a black-cake-making heritage, this fruit cake is serious business. Those who are really old school start soaking the fruits a full year ahead of time, although I have developed a “fast-soak” method, which means you can have your cake and eat it, too, all in time for the holiday season.

Every family has its own recipe with either a unique mixture of fruits, ratio of liquors or even combination of liquors. Lately, I’ve been using Manischewitz Cherry Wine because I find it has the same sweetness as Caribbean versions of cherry wine but with a lot more color and body.

If you hate fruitcake but love cakes that are densely rich, complex in flavor without being too sweet and ideal with a cup of tea, give Black Cake a try. You might find yourself breaking it out not just at Christmastime, but as we do — for weddings and special occasions of all sorts — because any excuse to eat this fruitcake will do.

This video gives a demonstration for making this cake, with the recipe below.

Black Cake

This recipe is adapted from “Sweet Hands: Island Cooking from Trinidad & Tobago” by Ramin Ganeshram. It features a “fast-soak” method that uses heat to start the maceration process for the dried fruits that make up the cake.

Ingredients

For the fruit mixture:

1 pound raisins

1 pound currants

1 pound prunes

1/2 pound candied cherries

1/4 pound mixed fruit peel

4 cups cherry brandy or cherry wine, divided

4 cups dark rum

1 cinnamon stick

2 star anise pods

1/2 vanilla bean

For the cake:

2 cups all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon grated nutmeg

1/8 teaspoon ground allspice

1 cup dark brown sugar

2 sticks (1 cup) butter, softened

6 eggs

1/2 teaspoon mixed essence (available in Caribbean markets)

1 tablespoon burnt sugar syrup (see note)

For the basting:

1/4 cup dark rum

1/4 cup cherry brandy

2 tablespoons sherry

1 dash Angostura bitters

Directions

For the fruit mixture:

1. For the fruit mixture, mix together all the dried fruits then place half the mixture in a food processor along with 1/2 cup of the cherry brandy. Pulse until the mixture is a rough paste, then place it in a large, deep saucepan or stockpot. Pulse the remaining fruits with another 1/2 cup of cherry brandy to form a rough paste, then add that to the pot as well.

2. Pour the remaining cherry brandy and rum into the pot with the pureed fruit. Add the cinnamon stick and star anise pods. Split the vanilla bean, scrape out the seeds and add both the seeds and the bean to the pan.

3. Place the pan over medium-low heat and mix well until just under a boil. Stir often so it does not scorch on the bottom.

4. Remove the pan from heat, cover it and allow the mixture to sit for one or two hours or as long as overnight. Alternatively, place fruit and spices in an airtight gallon jar and store unrefrigerated in a cool, dark place for at least three weeks or as long as a year.

For the cake:

1. Preheat the oven to 250 F and grease two 8-by-3-inch cake pans, then set them aside.

2. Sift together the flour, baking powder, cinnamon, nutmeg and allspice.

3. Place the sugar and butter in a bowl and cream with an electric mixer until fluffy (about 4 minutes).

4. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition.

5. Add the mixed essence.

6. Using a slotted spoon, remove 3 cups of the fruit from its storage jar and beat well into the butter mixture.

7. Add the flour mixture 1/2 cup at a time, beating well after each addition, then add the burnt sugar syrup and mix well.

8. Divide the batter evenly between the prepared pans and bake for 90 minutes or until a cake tester inserted into the middle of the cake comes out clean. Remove cakes from the oven and cool in their pans for 20 minutes.

9. Combine the rum, brand, sherry and bitters for basting and brush evenly over the cakes. Allow the cakes to cool completely, then remove them from the pans and wrap tightly in plastic wrap or in a zip-top bag.

10. Store in a cool, dry place for at least three days before eating. The recipe makes two cakes, which can be refrigerated for up to three months. If doing so, re-baste with the rum mixture once a week.

Note: Burnt sugar syrup or “browning” is found in Caribbean markets or online. You can also make it by combining 2 tablespoons of dark brown sugar and 1 tablespoon of water in a dry frying pan over medium-low heat. Heat slowly, stirring the sugar until it starts to caramelize. Continue stirring until the sugar syrup turns very dark brown or almost black. Add to batter as called for in a recipe.

Main photo: Black Cake is often simply called “fruit cake” or Christmas Cake in the English-speaking Caribbean. Credit: Ramin Ganeshram

Read More
Pozole, topped by garnishes. Credit: Karen Branch-Brioso

For nine nights leading to Christmas Eve, Mexico celebrates las posadas: singalong parties to reenact Joseph and Mary’s biblical pilgrimage to Bethlehem and their near-fruitless search for shelter before Jesus’ birth.

Then, success. After several stanzas of rejection, someone lets them in. With the joyous chorus of “Entren, santos peregrinos” — come in, holy pilgrims — it’s time to break a piñata and eat. And steaming bowls of pozole are often there to feed the crowd.

MEXICAN CHRISTMAS


 A three-part series on dishes of the season

Part 1: Pozole

Part 2: Buñuelos

Part 3: Tamales

I had my first taste of the pork-and-hominy-based soup in Mexico City. For most anyone, that first taste can never be the last, and it wasn’t mine. Aided by a stack of Mexican-government-published recipe books I’d bought at a market near my home in the Colonia Narvarte neighborhood, I’ve made the dish repeatedly, both in Mexico and after I’d returned to the States.

It’s the perfect party food. You can make it for yourself, but it’s a recipe that’s easy to make for a crowd. And, inevitably, it’s a hit.

The draw of pozole is not just in its rich, smoky broth laced with puréed guajillo chilies. It’s the buffet line of cold raw veggies that your guests add to it that make it uniquely special for them as well.

Garnishes for pozole. Credit: Karen Branch-Brioso

Garnishes for pozole. Credit: Karen Branch-Brioso

That crunch of sliced radishes, shredded lettuce and diced onions create a perfect complementary texture for the hot stew. Squeeze in some lime juice for an added zing of flavor, and there’s nothing like it.

I’ve adapted the pozole recipe over the years from the one that was published by the Mexican Government Workers’ Social Security and Services Institute in the 1980s.

The cookbook series  “… y la Comida se Hizo” (… and the Meal was Made) is a wonderful Spanish-language collection that provides hundreds of traditional recipes celebrating Mexico’s widely varying cuisine. The recipe for pozole — which most often is brought out for parties such as posadas or the Independence Day festivities in mid-September — fittingly was found in the book entitled “… and the Meal was Made for Celebrating.”

Written simply for an audience that varies as widely as its cuisine — including those who cook on stoves without temperature controls or timers — the recipes rarely provide temperature settings and sometimes omits suggested cooking times. Instead, it often relies on directions, such as “cook until the meat is tender.”

The recipe I’ve adapted below provides quite a few more guidelines, as well as adjustments on the ingredients. The one in the Mexican cookbook called for slices of “pig’s head, pig knuckles and pig’s feet.”

The adapted recipe suggests country spareribs instead — both for the ease of shredding the meat and to simplify the explanation of the dish to guests who may be wary of trying something new. Canned white hominy is also the way to go here.

For parties held on chilly winter nights like Mexico’s posadas — celebrated from Dec. 16 through Christmas Eve — it’s a colorful way to celebrate. The red, white and green garnishes will add festive color to the holiday table.

Mexican Red Pozole

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cook time: About 2 hours

Total time: About 2 hours, 5 minutes

Yield: 10 to 12 servings

Ingredients

For the soup:

1 large head of garlic

16 cups water, plus extra for soaking chilies

1 white onion, peeled

4 pounds of country-style pork ribs

8 guajillo chilies

2 bay leaves

1 teaspoon oregano

4 (15-ounce cans) of white hominy

Kosher salt to taste

For the garnish:

Shredded iceberg lettuce

12 radishes, sliced thinly

1 large white onion, diced

4 large limes, each cut into 8 wedges

Chile powder

Mexican oregano

Directions

1. Separate the head of garlic into cloves, peel and slice.

2. Add 16 cups of water, garlic, onion and pork ribs to a stockpot and bring to a boil.

3. Turn the heat down to allow the mixture to simmer, uncovered, until the meat is tender — about 1 1/2 hours.

4. While the meat is simmering, place the guajillo chilies in a bowl and pour enough boiling water over them to allow them to be fully submerged (about 1 1/2 cups). Soak the chilies for a half-hour.

5. Using disposable kitchen gloves, remove the chilies from the water. (Reserve the water.) Remove the stems and slice open to devein the chilies. Place the chilies, the reserved water and some of the seeds in a food processor and blend until smooth. For a spicier soup, include more of the seeds.

6. When the pork is tender, remove it from the stockpot and shred the meat off the bone. Discard fat and bone.

7. Return shredded meat to the stockpot, and add the guajillo purée, bay leaves, oregano, hominy and salt to taste.

8. Cook for another 30 minutes to allow the flavors to blend.

9. While the pozole is still cooking, prepare the garnish ingredients and place them in small serving bowls. Keep the raw vegetables refrigerated until time to serve to provide for maximum crunch.

10. Serve the soup hot, with plenty of room in the bowl to allow for the garnishes.

Main photo: Pozole, topped by garnishes. Credit: Karen Branch-Brioso

Read More
In Kolkata, formerly known as Calcutta, families of all religious backgrounds embrace Christmas traditions, including a far more moist and softer version of fruitcake than the traditional kind found in the United States. Credit: Rinku Bhattacharya

In India, December comes with the spirit of Christmas throughout the country, and, in Kolkata in eastern India, the city finds ways to regale in its deep-rooted colonial past.

Streets are decorated with rows of illuminated garlands and stars as the malls begin to make commercial hay. As a young girl — one raised Hindu while attending Catholic school — December festivals meant year-end concerts, carols and Christmas cards. And, my father’s own childhood tradition of a winter fruitcake.

I loved the simplicity of our small Christmas tree.While in most cases, the Christmas trees were faux, festivities were warm and very real.

There is something magical about walking through historic old churches, most notably the Basilica of the Holy Rosary in Bandel or St. Paul’s Cathedral to see worshipers — both Christian and otherwise — gathering to celebrate.

My first Christmas in the United States was two decades ago on a lonely college campus. When I declined my aunt’s generous invitation to join them for Christmas, I had no idea that the entire small college campus would be emptied out with little sign of life.

A query that made me question myself

Finally, I did encounter someone, who asked me if I celebrated the holiday. This came to me as a very curious question. I nodded and then pondered my answer, unsure whether it was correct. Our household did not observe the holiday religiously, although my parochial schooling had made me quite familiar with the religious aspects of the festivities.

Christmas, to me, was about the spirit of giving and cheer. It was about cookies and tinsel. So, how could I not celebrate the holiday?

I had grown up in the colonially influenced, secular and fairly cosmopolitan city of Kolkata, where most holidays are celebrated. But, until asked, it had not occurred to me that there were strings attached to celebrating Christmas. A visit to Park Street in the heart of Kolkata would prove otherwise.

Christmas season décor outside of St. Paul's Cathedral in Kolkata en Eastern India. Credit: Rinku Bhattacharya

Christmas season décor outside of St. Paul’s Cathedral in Kolkata en Eastern India. Credit: Rinku Bhattacharya

Last year, I visited the historical St Paul’s Cathedral and in the spirit of Christmases that I remembered, there were worshipers of all kinds offering homage to Baby Jesus. And there is always room for celebration in this food-obsessed city.

This is probably why it is easier for us to make our annual visit to India during Christmas. I find it so much easier to celebrate and be a part of a holiday where there are not religious obligations on our part. Mostly, it is about being a part of the festive atmosphere, which is still not completely commercialized, and where people still feel comfortable actually wishing each other Merry Christmas without anyone feeling offended.

Christmas also brings to mind the lines of a Bengali Christmas carol, something my grandmother taught me as a child, without any fuss or fanfare. In today’s politically correct world, I realize how simply my family had instilled the spirit of equality and religious acceptance in me.

Helping to carry on my father’s fruitcake tradition

We had our Christmas traditions. Nothing formal or locked in stone, except for our traditional family fruitcake that I first created for my father years ago, mostly because I wanted to ensure there was a homemade version of his family winter cake – a tradition for him.

All around the city, bakery shelves were filled with moist and dark brown fruitcakes, something my grandmother liked to call Plum Cake, possibly a throwback to the English plum puddings. These fruitcakes did not have any of the negative connotations commonly associated with fruitcakes in the United States. They were moist, soft and delightfully balanced – not even remotely related to their hardened cousins.

My father’s fruitcake tradition harked back to his childhood. As a boy growing up in a fairly conventional Brahman family, the other Christmas traditions eluded him. However, he remembered his father always coming home on Christmas Eve with a handful of goodies and three or four of those delight golden-brown plum cakes.

For my father, it was never Christmas without them.

Over the years, I finally settled for a fruitcake recipe that is featured in the Bengali Five Spice chronicles. It is a close cousin of the varieties that Dad spoke of, obtained from a friend’s Anglo-Indian family. The fruitcake has become my Christmas traditions.

A recipe that is now being savored by the second generation of fruitcake lovers might be just what your Christmas table desires. With notes of rum and dense molasses, it is rich and moist and perfect for any occasion. If you are persuaded to give this cake a try, start by soaking your fruit right now, so that you have them plump and flavorful in time for Christmas baking.

My personal tradition is to savor pieces of this fruitcake with tea, especially on the last remaining weeks of the year as I send out my holiday cards and pack for our annual visit to India.

Anglo-Indian Fruitcake

(adapted from “The Bengali Five Spice Chronicles”)

Prep time: 20 minutes (plus a week to a month for soaking the fruit)

Cook time: 45 minutes

Yield: 10 servings

I shy away from calling this recipe “plum cake.” That dark moist fruit cake is a Christmas regular in the multiple cake shops that dot Kolkata. This recipe is close, but something about it falls just a little short of the taste I remember, possibly because nostalgia cannot be bottled and infused in a cake batter to complete the flavors as the mind recalls them.

Ingredients

1 cup of large mixed raisins

1/2 cup chopped, candied citrus peel

1/4 cup chopped cherries or cranberries

1/2 cups of rum

2 cups all-purpose white flour

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 1/2 cups (3 sticks) unsalted butter, softened

3/4 cup loosely packed light brown sugar

1/4 cup granulated sugar

1/4 cup robust molasses

4 eggs, well-beaten

1 teaspoon baking powder

3/4 cup milk

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/2 cup shredded coconut

Directions

1. Place all the fruits in a non-reactive bowl. Add the rum and cover and set aside for at least a week, or, for best flavor, for a month.

2. Grease an 8-inch to 10-inch loaf pan and pre-heat the oven to 350 F.

3. Drain the fruit when you are ready to use and reserve the soaking liquor, if any.

4. Sift together the flour and salt. Sprinkle about a ¼ cup of the flour mixture over the drained fruit and toss to coat.

5. Cream together the butter, brown sugar, and granulated sugar. Stir in the molasses. Add the beaten eggs to the mixture and beat to combine.

6. Add the baking powder to the remaining flour mixture and add to the batter in batches, alternating with the milk, and beat until well combined.

7. Beat in the vanilla and almond extracts. Stir in the shredded coconut. Stir in the floured fruit. Pour batter into prepared pan.

8. Bake the cake for 40 to 45 minutes until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Cool slightly.

9. Invert the cake onto a plate and pour the reserved soaking liquor over it. Allow it to sit to absorb the liquor. This cake can be served warm or alternately wrapped and stored and served when needed.

Main photo: In Kolkata, formerly known as Calcutta, families of all religious backgrounds embrace Christmas traditions, including a far more moist and softer version of fruitcake than the traditional kind found in the United States. Credit: Rinku Bhattacharya

Read More