Articles in Baking

Apple Pumpkin Pie. Credit: Michael Krondl

Was there pumpkin pie at that first legendary Thanksgiving? My bet is there was.

You will recall from grade school that the first grand feed was held in Plymouth, Mass., in 1621 by the Pilgrims to mark their first harvest — and the fact they were alive. This was something to celebrate, given that 50% of their compatriots didn’t make it through the first year. We know they the feast lasted more than three days, but exactly what was on the menu remains a bit of a mystery.

The English being English, the reports of the event mention only the meat. We know they invited about 90 Wampanoag who brought plenty of venison, and the Englishmen managed to bag a week’s worth of unnamed game birds, so there’s a pretty good chance wild turkeys were among them. As far as cranberry sauce and mashed potatoes, marshmallow-topped yams and Campbell’s green bean casserole, or even pie, the record is silent. We know they had no potatoes, marshmallows or Campbell’s soup.

But there’s a semi-decent chance they might have sent the kids into the cranberry bogs to pick the autumn fruit and stewed some sort of condiment out it. After all, this sort of thing was popular enough in England at the time. And they probably did have pie, an English staple if ever there were one, though apple pie would have been out of the question — not because they wouldn’t have been familiar with it. Apple pie is mentioned as early as the 14th century, and the cookbooks familiar to the Puritans included plenty of apple pie recipes. The trouble was, any apple trees in Massachusetts would have been no more than seedlings.

What were the other options? Back across the Atlantic, pie shells — or “coffins,” as they were known — could be filled with just about anything: pigeons, mutton haunches, minced meat, baby pigs, rabbits. For a lark, four and twenty live blackbirds might be tucked away in a pie crust and released at the dinner table. Fruit and vegetables were popular fillings as well, often sweetened, but not always. Pumpkins, or pompions, as they were called, had taken up root in England long before the Mayflower sailed and consequently pumpkin pie recipes showed up early, though not in a form the test kitchens at Libby’s would recognize. John Gerard recommended baking them sliced with apples in the 1590s. Hannah Woolley’s popular 17th-century culinary guide, “A Gentlewoman’s Companion,” described a “pompion pye” made by sautéing pumpkin pieces with thyme, rosemary, marjoram, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and pepper. These are mixed with eggs and sugar and layered in the pie shell with apples and currants. To serve the pie, you lift off the lid, stir the pumpkin to a purée and replace the lid.

Apparently, there were parts of England where pumpkins were cultivated specifically for a custardy apple pumpkin pie. It’s reasonable to surmise that early New England settlers made something similar but with just pumpkins. Maybe pompion pye, made of familiar native squash, was one of the exotic European preparations the Wampanoag guests got to taste in 1621.

Inside the pumpkins. Credit: Michael Krondl

Inside the pumpkins. Credit: Michael Krondl

Certainly the kind of smooth pumpkin custard-filled pie we’re familiar with became commonplace in New England. Amelia Simmons’ “American Cookery” from 1796 has a couple of recipes for it as well as a variant made with apples mixed with squash. All these are based on old-world models, on pies filled with a sweet purée of potatoes, chestnuts, quinces or even African yams. The main difference: In the king’s English, these were called “baked puddings”; in America they eventually came to be “pies.”

No Libby’s for this apple pumpkin pie

Compared to 100 or more years ago, today’s cook is presented with both advantages and impediments to making a decent pumpkin pie. Canned pumpkin is ubiquitous, almost all of it made by Libby’s, from a pumpkin variety called Dickinson that resembles a giant, tan football. Finding your own cooking pumpkin, however, isn’t always easy.

Pumpkins for pie. Michael Krondl

Pumpkins for pie. Michael Krondl

There are plenty of those big, happy, orange pumpkins, but they are intended for carving jack-o’-lanterns, not eating. Their flesh is scrawny, insipid and altogether useless for pie, or any other culinary effect. Like the Libby’s variety, cooking pumpkins tend to be the color of butternut squash, with a thick layer of orange flesh. The so-called cheese pumpkin is one kind that can be found at farmers markets this time of year. But even these, you can’t just roast and use. To get the desired density for a custard-type pumpkin pie, the roasted pumpkin flesh needs to be lightly puréed (a food processor or food mill will do the job) and then drained. The easiest way to do this is to line a large sieve or colander with a coffee filter. After two or three hours, the consistency will approximate what comes from a Libby’s can.

Is it worth the effort? That’s not the sort of question a Puritan would ask.

Apple Pumpkin Pie slice. Credit: Michael Krondl

Apple Pumpkin Pie slice. Credit: Michael Krondl

Apple Pumpkin Pie

Adapted from “The Great Little Pumpkin Cookbook”

Prep time: about 1/2 hour

Cook time: about 1 hour

Total time: 1 1/2 hours plus time needed to make pastry

Yield: 8 to 10 servings

While this doesn’t exactly reproduce the consistency of the old British custardy pumpkin apple pies, it is a tasty departure from the usual autumn staples. If a cooking pumpkin isn’t available, a butternut squash will serve the same purpose.

1 recipe double crust pie pastry (recipe follows)

1 1/2 pounds cooking pumpkin or butternut squash

1 pound firm cooking apples such as Northern Spy, Baldwin or golden delicious

2 tablespoons cider vinegar

3 tablespoons flour

3/4 cup dark brown sugar

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

Large pinch nutmeg

Large pinch cloves

1 egg, lightly beaten

Directions

1. Roll out half of the pastry for a bottom crust and place in a 9-inch pie pan. Refrigerate.

2. Preheat oven to 425 F.

3. Scoop out the pumpkin seeds, cut the pumpkin into 1-inch strips, cut away the peel and slice the strips into 1/8-inch thick pieces. (You should have 4 cups.)

4. Peel, quarter and core the apples. Cut into 1/4-inch slices.

5. In a large bowl, toss the pumpkin with the apples, vinegar, flour, brown sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves. Arrange in the pastry-lined pie pan.

6. Brush the edge of the dough with the beaten egg.

7. Roll out the remaining dough and place on top of the filling. Crimp the edges. Cut vent holes in the top crust and brush the top with the egg.

8. Set on the bottom shelf of the oven. Bake 20 minutes. Lower temperature to 350 F. Continue baking until golden brown and the pumpkin offers no resistance to a knife or skewer, about 1 more hour.

9. Cool at least 2 hours before serving. Serve at room temperature or slightly warm.

Double Crust Pie Pastry

Prep time: 10 minutes

Total time: 10 minutes plus 2 or more hours of chilling

Yield: Makes enough dough for 1 double crust or 2 single crust pies.

Ingredients

2 1/3 cups all-purpose flour

1/2 teaspoon salt

8 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into small pieces

6 tablespoons lard or vegetable shortening

about 1/3 cup ice water

Directions

1. Sift together the flour, and salt. Add the butter and shortening. Using your hands or a pastry cutter, break up the two fats in the flour until the mixture is about as fine as rolled oats.

2. Add just enough water to moisten the flour. Toss to form a rather dry dough. Do not overmix. Gather the dough together and wrap in plastic film. Refrigerate at least 2 hours.

Note: The dough may be made ahead and refrigerated for up to 3 days or frozen for several months.

Main photo: Apple Pumpkin Pie. Credit: Michael Krondl

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Pecan pie with gluten-free crust. Credit: Martha Rose Shulman

For years my sister, who cannot tolerate gluten, has foregone stuffing at Thanksgiving, and carefully scraped her pumpkin pie filling away from the crust. But I’ve been working on gluten-free pie crusts, and now I can accommodate her.

I’ve played around with several of my own gluten-free combinations and have a couple that I like a lot, but they are tricky to roll out. So I looked around this year for commercial gluten-free flour mixes and found a couple that worked for me. My goal was to find a flour that I could substitute for wheat flour in the pie crust formulas that I use regularly for my pies and tarts.

You have to be very careful about the gluten-free flour mix you choose; if it has bean flour in it, your pie crust will taste more like socca, the Niçoise chickpea flour pancake/pizza, than pie crust. Some mixes leave a funny aftertaste and others are chalky. The best way to figure out which you like best is to mix up the pastry dough following the recipes here, roll out a small amount and make cookies. The sweet dough can double as a sugar cookie recipe, and the pâte brisée will be slightly sweet and buttery. Nobody will mind tasting the results.

I made both pâte sucrée (sweet dough) and flakier pâte brisée using two different gluten-free flour mixes, Bob’s Red Mill Gluten Free Pie Crust and King Arthur Gluten Free Multipurpose Flour. I liked the results, for both crusts and flours (although I did not use the formula on the Bob’s package for the crust so can’t vouch for that). Note that the Bob’s Red Mill Gluten Free Pie Crust is not their gluten-free flour product; that product contains fava bean flour and definitely won’t taste right in pie crust (I’ve tried). I have adapted Jacquy Pfeiffer’s pâte sucrée and pâte brisée recipes for these gluten-free versions.

For Thanksgiving pies like pumpkin and pecan, I use the pâte brisée most often because it is less sweet and goes better with these traditional fillings. But for fruit tarts — say if you are making an apple pie — the pâte sucrée is a great choice.

I can’t overemphasize the importance of weighing (in grams) rather than measuring for pastry. I consistently found that the gluten-free flour mixes had a much smaller volume to weight ratio than regular flour, which on average (depending on weather, how long it has been stored, how much it has been aerated) measures about 1 cup per 120 to 125 grams. But the gluten-free weighed more per cup, about 150 grams. The recipes will work best if you weigh.

Gluten-Free Pâte Brisée

Prep time: Ideally, 2 to 3 days total, but only 20 minutes active work

Cook time: 30 to 35 minutes

Total time: 55 minutes – 3 days

Yield: Two 9-inch crusts

This is a flaky pastry with just a small amount of sugar. You can also use it for savory tarts; just leave out the sugar. You will have a more accurate and consistent outcome if you use a scale and the gram weights rather than a measuring cup.

Ingredients

222 grams (8 ounces) unsalted French style butter, such as Plugrà (82% fat), at room temperature, plus a very small amount for the pans

6 grams (approximately 3/4 teaspoon) salt

30 grams (approximately 2 tablespoons) sugar

375 grams (approximately 2 1/2 cups) gluten-free flour mix or pie crust mix, preferably Bob’s Red Mill Gluten Free Pie Crust mix or King Arthur Gluten Free Multipurpose flour, sifted

80 to 92 grams (6 to 7 tablespoons) water, as needed

Directions

1. Place soft butter, salt and sugar in the bowl of a standing mixer and mix on low speed for 1 minute. Add flour and mix on low speed just until ingredients come together. Add 6 tablespoons of the water and mix only the dough comes together. If it does not come together right away, add remaining water. Do not over mix.

2. Scrape mixture out on a sheet of plastic wrap and flatten it into a square. Wrap well and refrigerate overnight.

3. The following day, remove dough from refrigerator, weigh and divide into two equal pieces. Refrigerate one piece while you roll out the other.

4. Very lightly, butter a 9-inch pie dish or tart pan. You should not be able to see any butter on the dish. Roll out the dough – it is easiest to do this on a Silpat — and line the pie dish or tart pan. Ease the dough into the bottom edges of the pan and crimp the top edge. Pierce the bottom in several places with a fork and refrigerate uncovered for several hours or overnight. If freezing, refrigerate for 1 hour, then double wrap in plastic wrap, then in foil. Label, date, and freeze. (Roll out and freeze the other half of the dough if not using).

5. To pre-bake pie crust, heat oven to 325 F. Line crust with parchment and fill with pie weights. Place on a baking sheet and place in the oven for 15 minutes.

6. Remove from oven and carefully remove parchment and pie weights. Return to oven and bake 15 to 20 minutes, until lightly browned and dry.

7. Remove from oven and allow to cool completely.

Gluten-Free Sweet Tart Dough

Prep time: Ideally, 2 to 3 days total, but only 20 minutes active work

Cook time: 30 to 35 minutes

Total time: 55 minutes – 3 days 

Yield: Two 9-inch crusts

Essentially a pâte sucrée, this dough should remain cold when you roll it out. Ideally, you should give it another overnight rest once rolled out, uncovered in the refrigerator, so that the pastry dries out even more. If you don’t have the extra day, give it at least an hour.

Ingredients 

168 grams (6 ounces) unsalted French style butter, such as Plugrà (82 percent fat) at room temperature, plus a very small amount for the pans

1 gram (approximately 1/4 teaspoon) fine sea salt

112 grams / approximately 1 cup confectioners’ sugar, sifted

39 grams / approximately 1/3 rounded cup skinless almond flour, sifted

7 grams / 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract

63 grams / approximately 1 extra-large egg plus 1 to 2 teaspoons beaten egg

315 grams / approximately 2 cups plus 1 1/2 tablespoons gluten free flour mix or pie crust mix, preferably Bob’s Red Mill Gluten Free Pie Crust mix or King Arthur Gluten Free Multipurpose flour, sifted

Directions

1. In a standing mixer fitted with paddle attachment, or in a bowl with a rubber spatula, cream butter and sea salt on medium speed for about 1 minute. Scrape down sides of bowl and paddle with rubber spatula and add confectioners’ sugar. Combine with butter at low speed. Once incorporated, scrape down bowl and paddle. Add almond flour and vanilla extract and combine at low speed.

2. Gradually add egg and 1/4 of cake flour. Beat at low speed until just incorporated. Stop machine and scrape down bowl and paddle. Gradually add remaining flour and mix just until dough comes together. Stop machine from time to time and scrape crumbly mixture that separates from dough on sides and bottom of bowl, then restart machine to incorporate into dough. Do not overbeat. Dough will be soft to the touch.

3. Cut a large piece of plastic and scrape dough out of bowl onto plastic. Gently press into a 1/2-inch thick rectangle. Double-wrap airtight in plastic and refrigerate overnight or for at least 3 hours.

4. The following day, remove dough from refrigerator, weigh and divide into 2 equal pieces. Refrigerate one piece while you roll out the other.

5. Very lightly butter a 9-inch pie dish or tart pan. You should not be able to see any butter on the dish. Roll out the dough — it is easiest to do this on a Silpat — and line the pie dish or tart pan. Ease the dough into the bottom edges of the pan and crimp the top edge. Pierce the bottom in several places with a fork and refrigerate uncovered for several hours or overnight. If freezing, refrigerate for 1 hour, then double wrap in plastic wrap, then in foil. Label, date, and freeze. (Roll out and freeze the other half of the dough if not using).

6. To pre-bake pie crust, heat oven to 325 F. Line crust with parchment and fill with pie weights. Place on a baking sheet and place in the oven for 15 minutes. Remove from oven and carefully remove parchment and pie weights. Return to oven and bake 15 to 20 minutes, until lightly browned and dry. Remove from oven and allow to cool completely.

Main photo: Pecan pie with gluten-free pâte brisée. Credit: Martha Rose Shulman

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Bagna càuda, made with garlic and anchovies, is a dip best served hot. Credit: Clarissa Hyman

Di Carroll always knew she wanted to live in Italy. Brought up in Cheshire, North West England, she felt an overwhelming affinity toward all things Italian from an early age, studied Italian at university, and worked as a translator, interpreter and wine merchant. Carroll’s particular love of Piedmont dates from a holiday trip to Turkey she took with her brother while still in her teens: The siblings made friends with a Piedmontese family, who invited them to visit during their journey back to the U.K.

From the start, Carroll says she was captivated with the Piedmont region in northern Italy. “I saw the hills and vines, castles and little villages, and immediately fell in love. We sat under the fig tree in our friend’s garden and they pointed out the ripe, black figs they would pick next morning for breakfast. It’s a memory I’ve always kept — and now I can do the same,” she says.

Carroll and her husband, Pete, moved to Italy 13 years ago. Their old farmhouse in the Basso Monferrato is remote, peaceful and off the “expat” track. It is not a tourist area, but it is within the official Barbera growing area and Pete cultivates a small vineyard for their own consumption.

Regional Piedmont cookbook

Carroll has slowly been compiling a cookbook of regional and local recipes that have been refined through the prism of her own expert cooking skills. As we talked in her farmhouse kitchen in front of a wood-burning stove (“fabulous for roast chicken”), she was excited to show off a bottle of Gambadpernis (Partridge Leg), a lovely new DOC wine made by neighbor Bussi Piero.

“The production is tiny, there are only a few producers. Of course, they’ve been making wine ’round here for generations, although often they would just keep a lot of the grapes, dry them and eat them for Christmas,” she says.

[To earn DOC status (Denomination of Controlled Origin), a wine has to be made from grapes from a particular defined area and pass strict tests for standards in alcohol content, flavor, aroma, color and more. It ensures that the consumer is drinking an authentic wine, not a counterfeit or adulterated one.]

dicarrol

dicarrol
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Di Carroll, who moved to Italy with her husband 13 years ago, fell in love with the Piedmont region as a teen. She has been compiling a cookbook of regional and local recipes that have been refined through the prism of her own expert cookery skills. Credit: Clarissa Hyman

Carroll explained the concept of the congenial merenda sinoira, a gathering of a half-dozen people or more, where everyone gathers to talk and nibble around a farmhouse table laden with salami, ham and cheese, and a pezzo forte, a pasta piece de resistance — usually pasta with butter, sage and Parmesan.

“It’s a lovely ritual, which is why I decided to get a really large table, so when visitors come, that’s where we sit, not in armchairs and sofas,” she says.

Traditional Piedmont dishes

For Carroll, Piedmont is the perfect Italian region. “The continuity of food and life is important here. The Piedmontese have a unique style and outlook on life. They are courteous and respect your boundaries, welcoming and attentive, and they have a way of making you feel you matter.

“They are still very die-hard about eating their traditional dishes and particular about the quality of their ingredients. People still keep rabbits and hens for food,” she says. “In every family vineyard you will still find two or three mixed vines for the table. My butcher’s beef comes from two miles down the road, and he goes to see the animals before they are slaughtered to choose which one he wants. My main problem at first was that they don’t hang the meat here for any length of time. The butcher now matures it for three weeks for me, but I still can’t convince any of my Italian friends to do the same.

“Every house has a copy of The Silver Spoon, but there is still a great oral tradition of handing recipes down. As well as personal variations, many villages also have their own collective recipes, recipes that belong to the village. At the annual fiera (fair), when they open up the wine cellars, each one offers a traditional dish to go with the wine samples,” Carroll says.

Nonetheless, Carroll says she has brought a little bit of Britain to her corner of a foreign field. She is known locally for her occasional afternoon teas for female friends, complete with teapot (unheard of!) and fine bone china. As for her husband, he’s down at the local bar with the lads in the circulo, discussing everyone’s favorite subjects — politics. And football. And what’s for dinner that night.

La Bagna Càuda or Bagna Caoda (Hot dip)*

Prep time: 30 minutes

Total time: 1 hour

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

Ingredients

12 large cloves of garlic in their skins

12 salted anchovies

3 1/2 fluid ounces best-quality, fruity, aromatic olive oil

1 stick of unsalted butter

Black pepper, to taste

Chopped basil, to taste

Directions

1. Set the garlic to cook on a very low heat — between 175 F and 212 F, at the most — in the oven.

2. Meanwhile, melt the salted anchovies in the oil and butter, again on a very low heat, until they become a paste. If you do it on the stove, this part will take no more than 10 minutes.

3. When the garlic is soft and creamy, remove the skins, and mash them into the anchovy mixture. Season with black pepper and a little chopped basil, stir well.

* So called because it should always be served hot. This is usually served as a vegetable dip, with celery sticks, red bell pepper batons, roasted pumpkin pieces, endives, baked onions or raw fennel. Guests are given their bagna càuda in terra-cotta dishes over a tealight, which keeps it warm. It can also be served as a cold dressing on cooked bell peppers that have been cooked over a flame, skinned and arranged on a plate with the bagna càuda as a dressing.

Salsa Rossa

Prep time: 20 minutes

Total time: 40 minutes

Yield: 6 servings

Ingredients

1/2 stick of celery, diced

1/2 onion, chopped finely

2 to 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil (Ligurian preferred because of the fragrance and balance it gives to the sauce)

3 anchovy fillets in olive oil, crushed in a mortar

2 ounces fresh red peppers, chopped fine

1/2  fresh chili pepper

7 ounces tomato passata

1 teaspoon sugar

Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Red wine, to taste

Red wine vinegar, to taste

Directions

1. Gently fry the celery and onion in the oil.

2. When they start to turn light golden brown, stir in the anchovies, peppers, passata, sugar and black pepper. Add the wine and vinegar in small amounts and taste as you go; stirring spoon in one hand, tasting spoon in the other, until it you find a good sweet-sour-spicy balance of flavors that suit your palate.

3. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer for a few minutes.

4. Serve as a condiment, rather than a covering sauce, with cold veal tongue.

Boiled veal tongue: Boil and simmer a fresh tongue in water with a bay leaf, large sprig of rosemary and an onion studded with a couple of cloves. The tongue is best made a day in advance.

Brasato al Barolo (Beef in Barolo)*

Prep time:  1 hour

Total time: 3 to 4 hours, plus overnight

Yield: 6 to 8 servings

Ingredients

4 ounces very thinly sliced lardo (or streaky bacon — not pancetta or lardons)

35 ounces pot roast beef, tied neatly with string

1 ounce unsalted butter

2 to 3 ounces of extra virgin olive oil

1 tablespoon chopped parsley

2 to 3 sage leaves

Sprig of rosemary

Bay leaf

2 large cloves of garlic

Salt and pepper, to taste

1 or 2 cloves (the spice, not clove of garlic)

A “whiff” of cinnamon (the spicing has to be delicate)

1 bottle of Barolo or Barbera

Hot beef stock (homemade, preferably)

For the soffritto:

2 onions, chopped

1 carrot, chopped

1 celery stick, chopped

A pinch of ground nutmeg

Directions

1. Cut the lardo into slivers.

2. Make small incisions into the meat and insert a piece of lardo into each one.

3. Fry the beef in butter and oil in a large casserole so it browns evenly on all sides.

4. Add the herbs and garlic to the pan and season with salt and pepper.

5. Add the spices (clove and cinnamon), heat gently for about 20 minutes with the lid halfway on.

6. Remove the meat, and replace any juices that drain from it back in the casserole. Set the meat aside.

7. Add the soffritto to the casserole dish, stir well, taste and add a little more salt. Replace the meat.

8. Add the wine and bring gently to a boil in order to evaporate the alcohol (otherwise it will be bitter).

9. Lower the heat to a simmer and cook for at least 3 hours. Test periodically for “doneness” — when the meat feels very tender, almost falling apart. (You can cook it in the oven, but in Italy it is mostly done on top of the stove).

10. Top with hot stock from time to time, if necessary.

11. When done, remove from the heat and allow the meat to cool in its juices.

12. Several hours before serving, take the meat out and carve into medium-thick slices.

13. Strain the cooking juices and thicken slightly with cornstarch if desired.

14. Reheat the meat, arrange on a silver platter (if you wish to make a fine impression) and pour the sauce over the meat.

Tips for this recipe

  • This recipe needs Piedmont wine as it is most appropriate for the character of the dish, which is traditionally made in a deep, lidded casserole.
  • One of the secrets of success is to add a pinch of salt now and then, rather than in one go. Keep tasting as you go, it’s important to get the right balance of flavors.
  • The traditional accompaniment is potatoes mashed with olive oil and Parmesan, and carrot batons braised in oil and water, and sprinkled with fresh herbs such as sage, parsley and rosemary.

Il Bunet (or Bonet)

A chocolate and amaretti pudding favored throughout Piedmont.

Prep time: 30 minutes

Total time: 90 minutes

Yield: 8 to 10 servings

Ingredients

10 ounces amaretti biscuits

2 rounded tablespoons of unsweetened cocoa powder

17 fluid ounces whole milk

6 eggs, separated

The point of a knife blade of salt

2/3 cup white sugar

2 fluid ounces rum (optional, it was not used in days of yore)

1 cup sugar moistened with 2 tablespoons water for the caramel

One 2-pound rectangular loaf pan

Directions

1. Pulse the amaretti into a fine crumb in the food processor, mix in the cocoa powder, then add the milk.

2. Whip the egg whites into firm peaks with baking soda, taking care not to overbeat. Then whip the egg yolks and sugar into a velvety cream like zabaglione. Fold everything together carefully.

3. Make a caramel mixture by gently heating the sugar and 2 to 3 tablespoons water until the sugar dissolves; coat the bottom and sides of the loaf pan with the caramel mixture.

4. Pour the pudding mixture into the loaf pan and cook in a Bain Marie, or double-boiler bath, for 30 to 45 minutes at 350 F. When the pudding is firm to the touch and has pulled away from the sides of the pan, take it out of the oven, let it cool to room temperature before flipping over onto a serving platter and unmolding.

Hazelnut Cake

Often called La Langarola from the Piedmontese region of Le Langhe, which stretches south between Alba and Cuneo, and is where the renowned sweet round hazelnuts are cultivated.

Prep time: 1 hour

Total time: 2 hours

Yield: 6 to 8 servings

Ingredients

For the cake:

5 eggs, separated

The point of a knife blade of baking soda

3/4 cup light brown or granulated sugar

2 tablespoons rice or hazelnut oil (or a light sunflower oil)

2 1/2 cups finely chopped, skinned hazelnuts* or hazelnut flour if you can find it. (Processing the nuts in a food processor is acceptable, provided the result is a fairly fine crumble.)

Cinnamon or vanilla, if you prefer

The point of a knife blade of salt

Lined cake pan

Unsweetened cocoa powder, to dust baked cake

For the hazelnuts:

2 cups boiling water

3 cups baking soda

1 cup of hazelnuts

Bowl of very cold water

Directions

For the cake:

1. Whip the egg whites into peaks with baking soda; put to rest in the refrigerator.

2. Whip the eggs yolks and sugar into a firm mousse that resembles zabaglione, add the rice oil gently; fold in the finely chopped hazelnuts and a pinch of salt. (Many prefer the natural flavors of quality hazelnuts, but you can add a pinch of cinnamon or a little vanilla if you wish.)

3. Carefully fold the whipped egg whites and the egg and nut mixture together.

4. Pour the mix into a lined 9- to 9.5-inch-diameter cake pan, bake at 350 F for at least 45 minutes.

5. Halfway through cooking time, cover cake mix with grease-proof paper to avoid burning.

6. When cooked — a toothpick inserted into the cake comes out clean — remove from oven and allow to cool in the pan.

7. To serve, dust with a little unsweetened cocoa powder, and offer to your guests with a glass of Moscato Naturale.

For the hazelnuts:

1. Bring the water to a boil in a saucepan.

2. Let water continue to boil, add the baking soda to the water, which will foam.

3. Add the nuts to the boiling mixture and allow to boil for about 3 minutes. The water will turn black.

4. Have a bowl of very cold water handy. Place a nut in the cold water and try to rub off the skin. If it doesn’t come off easily, let the nuts continue to boil for a few minutes longer.

5. Continue to test one nut at a time. When the skin comes off easily, add the rest of the nuts to the cold water and start to peel.

6. Dry the nuts in a warm, but not hot, oven so as not to toast them or dry out the oils.

Main photo: Bagna càuda, made with garlic and anchovies, is a dip best served hot. Credit: Clarissa Hyman

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Golden Crown Panaderia in Albuquerque, N.M., makes a golden turkey -- out of bread. Credit: Golden Crown Panaderia

The orders for bread shaped like a turkey roll in year-round at Golden Crown Panaderia in Albuquerque, N.M., but they start coming in fast and earnest at the beginning of November.

In Thanksgiving parlance, the turkey is the showstopper. It comes out glistening and golden, a centerpiece of magnificence and meaning, its scent of browned skin and moist meat and herbs so powerful it fills the room with its presence. The almost-national bird. Even in a time of mixed message food culture, no other American holiday is suffused with the image of a single, shared dish.

These were the images and connotations Pratt Morales was trafficking in when he decided, 30 years ago, to try to make a full roasted turkey out of bread.

“We started making it for vegetarians who wanted a centerpiece for Thanksgiving — and we still do — but now it’s become a great gift for local customers,” Morales said.

It wasn’t the first time Morales had tried to make something un-breadlike with yeasted dough. He’s done turreted castles, saguaro cactuses, horses with wagons trailed behind them. He’s sculpted dragons, roadrunners, doves in a nest, and once, bread-shaped cockroaches and mice for a pest control company. Cute parlor tricks, yes, but nothing like this. Turkey bread is a marriage of images: the staff of life and a sign of seasonal thankfulness all in one.

And so, after weeks of experimentation, turkey bread was born in a tiny family bakery in New Mexico.

Albuquerque’s oldest family-run bakery

It’s just before the lunch rush on a side street outside of Old Town in Albuquerque. The scent of yeast, sleeping loaves tinged with green chile peppers and warm cinnamon from just-baked wedding cookies seeps out of the constantly open door of a 1950s adobe ranch, home to Golden Crown Panaderia, the state’s oldest family-run bakery. Morales pulls chairs for customers while his son, Chris, kneads dough on a long table in the kitchen.

Forty years ago, Morales was a trained accountant just out of the National Guard when he decided to open a bake shop. He was raising his son by himself and needed an environment in which he could be a father and make a living at the same time.

“I can’t think of any better place to raise a son as a single dad than at a bakery,” Morales said. “There’s lots to do.”

Morales raised his son while he raised his business, and now he and Chris work side by side with a team of dedicated bakers. Together, the father-son team has weathered competition from industrial competitors by doing everything better. The bakery has made a name for itself with its authentic biscochito (a dry wedding cookie), hand-thrown pizza crusts and a wide variety of specialty breads.

“What we do is time consuming and difficult to do,” Morales said. “Nobody else knows how to do it.”

At Golden Crown, bread has never left its central role as the staff of life. But the Turkey Bread — oh, there is nothing like the turkey bread. The bakery will make around 500 turkey breads in the run-up to Thanksgiving, in three varieties costing between $35 and $50 — green chile, peasant dough and even a dark-legged and white breasted version combining whole wheat and Italian white bread.

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Golden Crown Panaderia's storefront sells traditional New Mexican bakery items such as its biscochito wedding cookies. Credit: Emily Grosvenor

The making of a Thanksgiving centerpiece

There are no YouTube videos of anyone at Golden Crown making the turkey bread, no morning talk shows in which Morales brings his firecracker wit and energy to a New York stage and audiences of millions (though he is often visited by the Food Network). And with good reason. Like all of the bakery’s recipes, the method and ingredients have been honed and shaped over many decades. It’s all secret — the thing that has helped the family enterprise to thrive in a climate in which the family bakery as an institution has waxed and waned. So to see it made, in person, is to marvel at the power of muscle memory. It is as if you are watching a gymnast perform a routine of magnetic precision, one practiced so often he could do it blindfolded.

At a long, waist-high wooden table, Morales gathers his ingredients and prepares his surface. This dough — an egg-based mixture dotted with slices of jalapenos — is already made. First, he pats the dough into an oblong shape the size of a loaf of bread. With a dough slicer, he cuts off two pieces that will become the legs. Then he cuts the breast, forming a backbone by making a small ridge. He slices two slots for the wings and scores the legs so they will look like feathers when baked. The dough will rise twice. He scoops it with his hands from all sides, tucks it in, like you might tuck in a child or, perhaps, yes, a turkey you are preparing for an oven roast.

Morales knows exactly how this dough will rise, exactly how it will brown, exactly the right temperature to get it to bake through without become too overdone in any one spot. A sprinkle of parsley on top, and the bird is ready for the oven, where it is baked at 400 degrees. When it comes out, it will be browned in all the right places, rendered in deep crusty browns.

“We always get the same response from people who buy it as a gift for Thanksgiving,” Morales said. “The host opens the door and they say: ‘You didn’t have to bring the turkey!’ ”

Main photo: Golden Crown Panaderia in Albuquerque, N.M., makes a golden turkey — out of bread. Credit: Golden Crown Panaderia

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Maple-hazelnut fudge. Credit: Charles Perry

As we slide into the holiday season, my mind turns toward maple: maple syrup, maple frosting — and maple fudge.

The world has quite enough chocolate fudge, in my heretical opinion. Chocolate is certainly majestic, but maple has something wonderful and poetical to say for itself. Nobody who has had a bite of maple fudge will ever turn another down. It’s the ideal Thanksgiving sweet, the boss of all stocking stuffers.

These days, a lot of people seem to think that fudge making is so difficult it has to be left to professionals. Oh, fudge, I say. Homemade fudge is an American tradition. Nineteenth-century college girls are said to have invented chocolate fudge — apparently without spoiling their grade-point average.

The anatomy of a beloved candy

Culinarily speaking, fudge is related to caramel because it involves cooking a dairy product (milk, half-and-half or cream) to the point that it undergoes the Maillard reaction, which produces appetizing browned flavors. Specifically, fudge is related to the 19th-century Mexican candy called panocha, which included the decisive step of stirring in chopped nuts.

Fudge has a luxurious texture because it is whipped as it cools to prevent the formation of large crystals. Small crystals melt easily and appealingly, and a fat-based ingredient — butter or chocolate (or both) — adds its own lusciousness. The faint bitterness of the nuts takes the curse off the overwhelming sweetness of the candy, which is why nuts have become all but universal in fudge recipes.

For maple fudge, the most common nuts are walnuts or pecans, which are both excellent. On general principle, I would first toast them at 350 F until they can easily be pierced by a needle, about 7 minutes. I have also tried toasted coconut as a substitute, which is pretty good, though I was surprised to find that the coconut flavor dominated the maple more than I liked. Ultimately, I decided I favored the version made with toasted hazelnuts. Because, face it, hazelnuts are awesome.

It’s not as hard as you think

Many fudge recipes call for a pastry marble to cool the syrup on, which can make those who don’t own one uneasy. So just use a baking pan instead. (I wouldn’t recommend a cookie sheet without a raised edge, however, because if it isn’t perfectly level, the hot syrup can drip right off.) You do need a good thermometer, but these days any serious cook has one.

In short, the following recipe is somewhat flexible. You can cook the syrup to 240 F or so; you can let it cool to 105 F before beating it; you can beat it longer than the specified time. The crucial thing is that the syrup must reach the soft-ball stage, 238 F at sea level. (If you live at an elevation above 3,500 feet, you are probably familiar with the degree to which you must adjust your temperatures.)

Maple-Nut Fudge

Prep time: 5 to 10 minutes

Cooking time: 30 to 35 minutes

Total time: About 2¾ hours (includes cooling time)

Yield: 25 to 36 pieces

Ingredients

4 tablespoons (½ stick) butter, divided, softened

3 cups sugar

¾ cup maple syrup

1½ cups half-and-half

3 tablespoons corn syrup

Pinch salt

2 teaspoons vanilla

1½ cups roughly chopped nuts — pecans, walnuts or toasted hazelnuts — toasted for 5 to 7 minutes at 350 F

Directions
1. Line an 8-inch baking dish with aluminum foil (make sure that the edges extend past the rim) and grease with 1 tablespoon softened butter.

2. In a 3-quart pot over low heat, stir together the sugar, maple syrup, half-and-half, corn syrup and salt until smooth. Continue to stir until the sugar is dissolved, 5 minutes.

3. Insert the sensor of a candy thermometer into the mixture. Increase the heat to bring to a boil and cook without stirring until the syrup reaches the soft-ball state (238 F), about 15 minutes. The syrup will foam up alarmingly but settle down by 225 F. Warning: The heated syrup can cause severe burnsWear an apron and use oven mitts.

4. Remove the thermometer probe from the pan and pour the fudge onto a pastry marble (if you don’t have one, use a 12-by-18-inch baking pan sprayed with nonstick spray). Divide the remaining 3 tablespoons of softened butter into several pieces and dot them here and there on top.

5. Clean the thermometer sensor and stick it anywhere in the fudge. When the temperature measures 110 F (about 5 minutes on a marble, 10 or 12 minutes on a baking pan), scrape the fudge into a mixer bowl with the mixer paddle attached, add the vanilla and beat until the fudge is thick and losing its shine, 5 to 10 minutes.

6. Mix in the nuts. Turn the fudge into the prepared baking dish and let it cool to room temperature, 2 hours.

7. Remove the fudge from the dish by lifting the edges of the aluminum foil and transfer it to a work surface. Rub a chef’s knife with a piece of paper towel wetted with vegetable oil and make 4 cuts in one direction and then 4 cuts in the other, or 5 cuts in each direction, re-oiling the knife as necessary. Wrap the pieces in waxed paper.

If it is not to be eaten immediately, store the fudge in an air-tight container (it can otherwise absorb moisture and soften, particularly in damp weather). It will keep several weeks in a refrigerator, but generally speaking, it’s a gift best given fresh.

Main photo: Maple-hazelnut fudge. Credit: Charles Perry

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'Tis the season for pumpkins, Jack-o-Lanterns, and, of course, pumpkin pie.

What moistens the lip and what brightens the eye, What calls back the past, like the rich Pumpkin pie? — John Greenleaf Whittier, “The Pumpkin,” 1850

Scottish and Irish immigrants brought many Celtic Halloween traditions with them to the United States, including that of carving jack-o’-lanterns. But the pumpkin they embraced for the practice is a true American.

Tracing its long family tree back to at least 3000 B.C., the pumpkin and other squashes probably originated in the Tamaulipas mountains in Mexico. One of the Three Sisters — along with climbing beans and corn — pumpkins formed a major part of the diet of early Americans.  By 1000 B.C., the pumpkin arrived in what is today the United States. And by the time the English settled in Jamestown, Va., in 1607, Native Americans had developed sophisticated recipes and uses for the pumpkin.

A popular recipe was a type of pudding sweetened with maple sugar, similar in spirit to English puddings. Nowadays, pumpkins strut their stuff in pies, not unlike those baked by my English ancestors. Long a symbol of autumn in the United States, pumpkins now see the light of day primarily for ornamental reasons. Ninety percent of pumpkins end up carved into jack‑o’‑lanterns, and the rest make their way into cans as pumpkin-pie filling or puree. Every grocery store stocks pumpkins, piled in heaps at the entrance.

Seeing all those pumpkins whets my appetite. So, I just baked my first pumpkin pie of the season.

Canned pumpkin puree confession

Yes, I confess: I used to follow the recipe on the label of the Libby’s can of pumpkin puree. To show you that I don’t slavishly follow recipes, I added a ¼ teaspoon of vanilla and heaping spoonfuls of all the spices, as well as a big hit of freshly grated nutmeg. Sometimes, I used cream instead of evaporated milk, an ingredient actually not out of line because many vintage cookbooks of the 19th century mention using cream or a mixture of cream and milk.

And, yes, I know that making your own puree is far more earth-friendly. I’m all for that. But since I cannot find those nice little sugar pumpkins and other types for sale right now, I use the “traditional” method, as I know it. My mother never used anything but Libby’s. But I am sure my grandmothers struggled with the food-mill method of creating puree from boiled or roasted pumpkin.

Regardless of the method, some things don’t change when it comes to pumpkin pies. First of all, the aroma. It fills the house as the pie is baking, and that brings back all sorts of memories. School days, leaf forts, decorating the front porch for trick-or-treaters, choosing the candy to give out at Halloween.

Start with a partially baked pie crust before filling the pumpkin pie. Credit: Cynthia Bertelsen

Start with a partially baked pie crust before filling the pumpkin pie. Credit: Cynthia Bertelsen

And the smell of cinnamon. I don’t know about you, but I nearly swoon when I catch a whiff of Saigon cinnamon. I try to restrain myself and not dump too much into the custard mix. The rich aroma of freshly grated nutmeg pumps up the flavor of the pie, too, not to mention that of cloves and ginger. The medieval overlay of these spices causes me to think about the ties to my cultural past. Because of that, for me, autumn signifies the aroma of these spices.

Hearkening back to pumpkin pies past

I’m intrigued by the fact that I’m standing in my kitchen in Virginia — one of the first areas settled by English men and women from 17th-century England, some my own ancestors — and I’m baking a dish based on flavors and techniques dating back to those days. Baked puddings abound in traditional English cooking. Yes, pumpkin pie is basically a baked pudding, even though it goes by the name “custard pie” these days and wears a crust.

Take a look at Mary Randolph’s “Pumpkin Pudding,” a very English and yet very American recipe, from her 1824 cookbook, “The Virginia Housewife”:

Stew a fine sweet pumpkin till soft and dry, rub it through a sieve, mix with the pulp six eggs quite light, a quarter of a pound of butter, half a pint of new milk, some pounded ginger and nutmeg, a wine glass of brandy, and sugar to your taste. Should it be too liquid, stew it a little dryer; put a paste [crust] round the edges and the bottom of a shallow dish or plate, pour in the mixture, cut some thin bits of paste, twist them and lay them across the top and bake nicely.

Pumpkin pie  is not only for dessert any more, either. I find pumpkin pie a great breakfast food, just as many people did in the past.

I’ll probably make another pumpkin pie very soon. For some reason, I see only a small sliver left in the pie pan.  

Pumpkin Pie

 Yield: 1 (9-inch) pie  

Ingredients  

For the crust:

1 partially baked 9-inch pie crust

Dry beans (for shaping the pie crust)

For the filling:

1 (15-ounce) can pumpkin puree

1 heaping teaspoon ground cinnamon

½ heaping teaspoon ground ginger

¼ heaping teaspoon ground cloves

⅛ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

½ cup granulated sugar

¼ cup brown sugar

3 large eggs

1 (12-ounce) can evaporated milk or 1½ cups heavy cream or whole milk

For the garnish

Whipped cream

Ingredients

For the partially baked crust:

1. Preheat oven to 400 F.
2. Arrange the dough in the pie pan, crimping the edges, pressing down slightly to anchor the dough to the edges of the pie pan.
3. Place two sheets of aluminum foil, slightly overlapping, over the dough in the pan. Press down gently and make sure that the foil touches all the surfaces. Pour in enough dry beans to come to the edge of the pie pan. This allows the pie crust to retain its shape.
4. Bake 15 minutes with the beans. Then slowly remove the foil and beans by grabbing the corners of the foil and pull up and out. Bake the crust 5 more minutes.
5. Let cool almost completely on a rack.

For the filling:  

1. Preheat the oven to 350 F.
2. Place all the ingredients in a large bowl, in the order given, whisking after each addition.
3. Pour into the partially baked pie shell.
4. Bake about 45 minutes or until a sharp knife inserted into center comes out clean. Check throughout the baking. If the edges of the crust get too dark, place a ring of foil over the exposed pie crust. At that point, the surface of the pie along the edges will have puffed up and cracked slightly.
5. Allow to cool. Serve with whipped cream garnish.

Main photo: Pumpkins. Credit: Cynthia Bertelsen  

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It’s not by chance that October is National Doughnut Month. A fat circle of fresh-fried dough is a lot more appealing when the air is cool and crisp, especially when accompanied by cup of steaming cider. Moreover, you don’t have to worry about what you’ll look like in a bathing suit — until next year.

Of course national anything days, or months, don’t just happen. They exist because somebody once had an agenda. Sometimes, the days stick, like Thanksgiving, while others, like Health Literacy Month, have a hard time getting traction.

We can thank the now-defunct Doughnut Corporation of America for the monthlong celebration of sweet dough rings. The DCA once controlled virtually all the country’s automatic doughnut machines and most of the mix that went into them. One of the corporation’s brighter ideas was to dub October as National Doughnut Month in 1928.

The Halloween connection

When they did this, the connection of the ghoul fest and doughnuts wasn’t entirely spurious. Before Halloween became a kid’s holiday, people used to have Halloween parties, which often featured seasonal cider and doughnuts. One party game was to bob for apples. Typically, the apples floated in a tub; however, in one variant, the apples were hung on a string. This was also done with doughnuts. The trick was to eat the treat with your hands tied behind your back. To make it a little trickier, the air bobber could be blindfolded. And, in a version of the game that might be suitable for National Fitness Month, several doughnuts are strung horizontally along a stretched cord, laundry-line style (they can also be suspended from the line on lengths of ribbon). The competitors must “chase” the pastries down the line, eating as many as they can, without the use of their hands. These sort of Halloween doughnut acrobatics were popular long before the DCA set up its first shop in Harlem in 1921.

The company, founded by an Eastern European immigrant named Adolph Levitt, came up with all sorts of wacky promotions in its early years. Perhaps its most successful was the creation of the National Dunking Association, an organization devoted to dipping doughnuts in coffee. In 1940s, the organization boasted three million members and counted Zero Mostel, Johnny Carson and even choreographer Martha Graham as card-carrying dunkers.

In a somewhat more serious vein, during World War II the company supplied its machines free of charge to the American Red Cross, even if they charged the charity for the batter. Just in case America didn’t get the secret-weapon role that doughnuts were playing in the conflict, Levitt’s company put out full-page ads in Life Magazine that featured servicemen on the front, rushing eagerly to get their doughnut fix. In one frame of the comic-strip formatted ad, one dough-faced soldier purrs, “M-M-M, just like home.” In another frame, servicemen on leave whoop it up at a Halloween party. “Service men (and women) look forward to being invited to Halloween parties this year,” we’re told. “And what’s Halloween without donuts and coffee or cider?”

A perfect match

While doughnuts and cider were long considered a likely match, cider doughnuts appear to have been a more recent invention, likely in the early 1950s. This is another innovation that we can attribute to the Doughnut Corporation of America. As people increasingly piled into cars for a drive to the local pick-your-own orchard, the owners of farm stands started adding cider doughnuts to their offerings, not just for Halloween but throughout the leaf-watching season.

In the postwar era, trick-or-treating became ever more popular. In part, it made more sense in the growing suburbs than it had in gritty cities, but trick-or-treating was also pushed by the candy companies. Yet, in smaller communities, homemade treats continued to outnumber Snickers bars.

Connie Fairbanks, a Chicago-based food and travel writer, recalls growing up in Wheaton, Kan., a town of about 90 people at the time. “Everybody went from house to house,”  she recalls.  And every house had its specialty. “One woman was known for her popcorn balls,” she reminisces, “and my mother was known for her glazed, raised doughnuts. They were always warm when the kids came in.” Her mom made them once, maybe twice, a year and fried them in lard rendered from the family’s own hogs. “I remember the dough feeling like a baby’s bottom.” Fairbanks added that her mother’s secret was to beat the dough, by hand, and not add too much flour. “I remember the smell, it was unbelievable.”

Can you think of a better way to celebrate Halloween? Or, for that matter, the 31 days of National Doughnut Month?

Cider doughnuts make for a tasty October treat. Credit: Michael Krondl

Cider doughnuts make for a tasty October treat. Credit: Michael Krondl

Whole Wheat Apple Cider Doughnuts

Recipe adapted from “The Donut: History, Recipes, and Lore from Boston to Berlin

Many commercially produced doughnuts are made with a batter that is too wet to roll. This results in lighter pastry but requires a doughnut extruder. One way of getting around that is to use a piping bag to “extrude” the doughnuts. This also gives you the option of making the doughnuts any diameter you like. You will need a heavy pastry bag fitted with a ½-inch plain tip, and, once formed, the doughnuts are much easier to handle if you chill them for an hour or two in the refrigerator.

Cook Time: 60 to 90 seconds per doughnut

Yield: 16 doughnuts

Ingredients

For the doughnut dough:

1½ cups apple cider

½ cup milk

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

8 ounces (about 1¾ cups) bleached all-purpose flour

4½ ounces (about 1 cup) whole wheat flour

1 tablespoon baking powder

½ teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon cinnamon

Large pinch grated nutmeg

Large pinch grated cloves

5 ounces (about ⅔ cup) raw (turbinado) sugar or substitute light brown sugar

1½ ounces (3 tablespoons) unsalted butter, softened

1 large egg, at room temperature

1 egg yolk, at room temperature

Oil or shortening for frying

For the cinnamon sugar:

4 ounces (about ½ cup) granulated sugar

1 tablespoon ground cinnamon

Directions

1. In a small saucepan, boil the cider until it is reduced to ¼ cup. Cool.

2. Line two sheet pans with parchment paper and spray lightly with vegetable spray. In a measuring cup, stir together the milk, reduced cider, and vanilla. It will look curdled. In a medium bowl, whisk together the flours, baking powder, salt, and spices.

3. In a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, beat the sugar and butter until well incorporated, about 1 minute. Add the egg and egg yolk and beat until fluffy, smooth, and pale, 2 to 3 minutes.

4. Alternately add the milk and flour mixtures into the egg mixture in 2 or 3 additions, beating on low speed until just barely combined between each addition. Stir until the mixture just comes together to make a soft, sticky dough. Do not overbeat or it will get tough.

5. Working with about half the dough at a time, fill a piping bag fitted with a ½-inch plain tip. Pipe circles of dough about 3 inches in diameter on the parchment Repeat with the remaining dough. (The dough needs to keep its shape; if too loose, add a tablespoon or two more of flour.) If you wish, you can smooth the seam with a damp finger. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 1 hour and up to 6 hours. Remove plastic wrap, lightly dust the doughnuts with flour, place another pan over each pan, and invert. Carefully peel off the parchment paper.

6. Using a deep fryer or a heavy pan, heat at least 3 inches of the oil or shortening to 360 F. If you’re not using a deep fryer with a built-in thermostat, check the temperature using a candy or deep-fry thermometer. Drop several doughnuts at a time into the heated fat, making sure there is enough room for all of them to float to the surface. Cook 30 to 45 seconds per side, using a slotted spoon or tongs to turn each doughnut. When the doughnuts are golden brown, transfer them to a cooling rack covered with paper towels. Cool to just above room temperature.

7. Whisk together the granulated sugar and 1 tablespoon cinnamon in a wide bowl. Toss the barely warm doughnuts in the cinnamon sugar mixture, and serve warm.

Main photo: A woman bobs for doughnuts at an event at The City University of New York. Credit: Michael Krondl

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Pears are the star in Rincón de Soto, Spain. Credit: Clarissa Hyman

Pears and Rioja are a marriage made in Spanish heaven, but although the region of La Rioja is synonymous with wine and bull running (one ponders the connection), it also has another claim to fame. The small town of Rincón de Soto may be little more than a main plaza, modern town hall, church and railway line, but it is on the map of European culinary produce thanks to pears.

In the Rioja Baja, a gently terraced swath of fertile fields, orchards and plane trees with ever-dancing leaves, the famous vines take second place to pears, peaches, cherries, cauliflower, onions, sprouts and cardoons. The growing area is defined by a natural margin: the Ebro River that separates it from the mountains of Navarre to the north, and the craggy, Riojan hills, where a network of dinosaur footprints remains eerily well-preserved.

Protected status for pears

Pears have been grown for centuries on the riverbanks. Over the years, many trees were abandoned, but the town’s success in gaining DOP (Protected Designation of Origin) status for the pears has been a big boost in maintaining the orchards.

At the annual Jornadas de Exaltacion or pear festival in late September, the pear cookery competition is always keenly contested. There is also a kids’ competition. As the tension mounts, everyone chomps on hot chorizo sausages on bread, and in the evening there are pears poached in Rioja. The party carries on into the wee hours. It’s a day, indeed, of exaltation.

In Spain, the preference is for large Conference pears, although connoisseurs favor the delicate flavor of the smaller Blanquilla.

In 1747, the latter was enjoyed at the court of Philip V, where it was described as “an exquisite fruit,” and the royal pastry cook recommended it for drying, confits or preserving in syrup. Sometimes known as a “water pear,” the Blanquilla is crisp, juicy and aromatic. As it ripens, the Blanquilla becomes highly perfumed and meltingly soft, and the bright lime-green skin takes on a reddish tinge.

Blanquilla vs. Conference pears

The Blanquilla, however, is more difficult to grow, and it nearly disappeared in the 1960s, as agriculture became more intensive. It was largely replaced by Conference pears, which have green-yellow, naturally russeted skins and buttery flesh. However, it’s the local geography and climate that give these highly prized Rincón pears their special balance of sweetness and acidity, as well as their keeping quality and texture that allows the fruit to hold up when cooked.

Pruning and picking of these varieties is still done by hand. The pears are delicate and easily bruised, and each one is picked with  care. They must be held by the base and raised upward so the stalk snaps clean from the branch. The pears are placed into padded containers to avoid damage and transported within six hours of picking to one of the local packing stations, where teams of women pack them in perfect formation. Each one a swaddled infanta, each one a perfect taste of La Rioja.

olla

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Olla Gitana, a stew created for days when there was little meat for the pot, is probably vegetarian more by default than choice. It also is a good dish to serve before a juicy lamb chop or veal escalope, or as a vegetarian main course. Credit: Clarissa Hyman

Olla Gitana

Olla means a tall, pot-bellied cooking pot, and this vibrant, autumnal stew probably originates with Roman travelers who arrived in Spain in the 1450s, settling mostly in Andalusia. A stew created for times when there was little meat for the pot, this dish is probably vegetarian more by default than choice. The vegetarian ethos has spread these days beyond the big cities, although in many a pueblo ham is still classed as a vegetable and they would probably regard this as a good dish to serve before a juicy lamb chop or veal escalope.

Prep Time: Overnight if you soak the beans; 30 minutes if you use canned beans.

Cook Time: 1 hour

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

1 cup dried chickpeas (or 2½ cups cooked chickpeas)

1 cup dried white beans (or 2½ cups cooked beans)

2 cups chopped green beans

1 butternut squash or small pumpkin, seeded, peeled and cubed

1 medium carrot, sliced

2 firm Conference pears, peeled, cored and chopped

2 bay leaves

4 cups vegetable stock

Salt and black pepper

1 large onion, diced

¼ cup olive oil

2 cloves of garlic, diced

One small slice of stale country bread, crust cut off and fried in oil

¼ cup toasted almonds

A pinch of saffron, lightly crushed and soaked in a little hot water

3 medium tomatoes, peeled and chopped

½ tablespoon pimentón de la Vera  (smoked Spanish paprika)

Chopped, fresh mint

Directions

1. Soak the chickpeas and beans overnight. Drain and put into a pot with fresh water, bring to a boil. Simmer for about 30 minutes until soft. Drain, place in a large casserole.

2. Add the green beans, pumpkin, carrots, pears, bay leaves, stock, salt and pepper. Bring to a boil, then simmer for 15 to 20 minutes until everything is tender.

3. In a pan, fry the onion slowly in the oil for at least 15 minutes, until soft and golden.

4. Meanwhile, pound the garlic, bread, almonds, saffron and a pinch of salt in a mortar until well combined. Stir in a ladle of stock from the bean pot.

5. Add the tomatoes to the onion mixture, fry over medium heat for 5 minutes. Add the pimentón to the mixture, cook for another minute. Add the onion-and-tomato mixture to the bean pot.

6. Cook for about 5 minutes, then add the contents of the mortar to the pot. Simmer a little longer; add salt and pepper to taste. Sprinkle with mint, serve.

 

Duck Breast With Honey-Spiced Pears

The success of this dish depends on the delicate balance of sweet and savory flavors.

Prep Time: 10 minutes

Cooking Time: 30 minutes

Total Time: 40 minutes

Yield: 2 servings

Ingredients

2 duck breasts

A little olive oil

2 level tablespoons butter

¼ cup honey

3 cloves

1 tablespoon mixed peppercorns (white, green and pink)

1 cinnamon stick, snapped in half

2 ripe Conference pears, peeled, cored and halved or quartered

Juice of 1 lemon

Salt

Directions

1. Fry the duck breast in a little olive oil (15 to 20 minutes, depending on thickness and preference). Set duck breast aside to rest for 5 minutes; slice and arrange on serving plates.

2. Melt the butter in a small saucepan over medium heat, add the honey and spices. Cook gently for a few minutes, until the honey melts and starts to bubble.

3. Add the pears, turn gently in the butter mixture until the edges start to caramelize.

4. Add the lemon juice; salt to taste.

5. Remove the pears, arrange alongside the duck. Strain the sauce and drizzle over the duck.

Ham and Pear Parcels

Prep Time: 20 to 30 minutes

Yield: 4 to 6 parcels

Ingredients

½ cup plus 2 tablespoons of cream, curd or ricotta cheese

¼ cup blue cheese

1 small pear, peeled and diced

A few walnuts, chopped

Black pepper

6 to 8 slices of  jamón serrano (cured Spanish ham)

Chive strands

Directions

1. Mash the soft cheese with the blue cheese.

2. Add the pear and walnuts to the cheese mixture, season with black pepper to taste.

3. Spread on slices of cured Spanish ham and roll into tubes. Tie decoratively with chives.

4. Use any surplus filling on crackers.

 

Pears Poached in Muscatel and Spices

Prep Time: 20 minutes

Cooking Time: 30 minutes

Total Time: 50 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

4 whole large (or 8 small), firm Conference pears, peeled

3¼ cups Moscatel wine

A few black peppercorns

3 cloves

Juice of 1 lemon

1 cinnamon stick, snapped in half

Toasted, slivered almonds (optional)

Directions

1. Place pears in a pan just large enough to allow them to remain upright.

2. Pour wine over the pears, add all the other ingredients except for the almonds.

3. Bring the ingredients to a boil; cover, simmer for 30 minutes or until tender.

Optional, serve sprinkled with almonds.

 

Rioja Pear Cake

Prep Time: 40 minutes

Cooking Time: 40 to 50 minutes

Total Time: 1 hour 20 minutes to 1 hour 30 minutes

Yield: 6 servings

Ingredients

8 firm Conference pears

Red Rioja wine, plus sugar and cinnamon to taste

1¾ sticks butter, softened

1 cup caster sugar, plus 1 tablespoon

4 medium eggs, separated

1 generous teaspoon vanilla extract

1½ cups self-rising flour

2 tablespoons chopped walnuts

Salt

Whipped cream

Directions

1. Preheat the oven to 350 F.

2. Peel and slice the pears. Place into a pan, add sugar and cinnamon to taste, and pour in enough wine to cover the fruit. Bring gently to a boil, reduce heat and lightly poach until tender. Drain the pears, saving the liquid. Set pears aside.

3. Cream the butter and sugar, beat in the yolks one by one; add the vanilla extract.

4. Add the flour, mix until well-combined.

5. Whisk the egg whites with a pinch of salt until snowy. Carefully fold them into the cake mixture. Pour into a buttered, 9-inch-round cake pan with a removable base.

6. Arrange the pears in a neat pattern over the top of the cake. Sprinkle with the nuts and a tablespoon of sugar. Bake for 40 to 50 minutes, until the top is well risen (although it will shrink back down), and a toothpick comes out clean.

7. Reduce the wine until it is syrupy, serve with the cake and whipped cream.

Main photo: Pears are the star of a festival in Rincón de Soto, Spain. Credit: Clarissa Hyman

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