Articles in Baking

Survey of wheat sensitivity research suggests there may be multiple suspects. Credit: iStock

“The world doesn’t want to know the truth about gluten,” graduate student Lisa Kissing Kucek joked last July under a tent at Cornell University’s research farm in Freeville, N.Y. Lightning cut the sky, and we, a group of farmers and bakers, dashed for our cars before she could tell us what she’d discovered.

Now we know. Her research, “A Grounded Guide to Gluten” was published recently in the journal Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety. Kissing Kucek and her colleagues reviewed more than 200 scientific research papers to see what is known about how different wheat varieties and our processing methods affect people’s sensitivity to wheat.

The conclusions of her literature review are cautious, far more so than the declarations made in such books as “Wheat Belly,” which considers modern wheat a chronic poison. Kissing Kucek was curious what wheat actually does in the human body and began by looking at gluten and the pathologies associated with it.

“We are missing a lot just by focusing on gluten,” she said. “So to see what actually is going on, I extended that to wheat.”

Her inquiry grew to cover a broad territory, including the problems caused by wheat, how those problems vary by wheat species and variety, and the role of processing methods. It considered everything from celiac disease, wheat allergy and nonceliac wheat sensitivity (NCWS), to fructose malabsorption and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).

The review pairs well with other Cornell research. The university and its research partners received a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant in 2011 to look at heritage wheat varieties. Field trials, lab analysis and baking trials are all part of this grant project, which ends in 2016.

Vintage wheat varieties have captured the imagination of a gluten-shy public, and the paper includes thorough descriptions of wheat kernels and wheat genetics. The material is dense, but Kissing Kucek explains it in an easy to follow video presentation.

Many people have trouble digesting fructose and certain carbohydrates, collectively known as FODMAPS. “These individuals experience bloating and gas when consuming large amounts dairy, high fructose corn syrup, stone fruits and wheat,” she said. “As many foods contain FODMAPS, if these individuals only remove wheat gluten from their diet, their symptoms will likely persist.”

Lynn Veenstra, also of Cornell, surveyed fructan research for the paper. Some of the findings she reviewed were featured in a recent Washington Post article about FODMAPS.

Illnesses like nonceliac wheat sensitivity, IBS and fructose malabsorption can be hard to diagnose. But most of the research points to multiple triggers beyond gluten proteins or other parts of wheat.

Little about gluten is straightforward

Contrary to popular or wishful thinking, old wheats don’t wear halos.

“There is no perfect wheat species that reduces all types of wheat sensitivity,” said Kissing Kucek. However, einkorn is promising because it contains fewer celiac reactive compounds than heritage and modern wheat varieties. Einkorn dates from the very early domestication of staple crops; emmer and spelt are also classified as ancient. Heritage or heirloom grains refer to older seed varieties developed before 1950. Modern grain varieties generally have shorter stalks, which allow the plants to receive heavy doses of fertilizer without falling down in the field.

Different wheat varieties vary widely in their reactivity for celiac and wheat allergy. But we don’t know the effect on wheat sensitivity for many of the old or new wheat varieties used in the United States. Europe is screening more varieties. Yet nothing is straightforward when interpreting natural systems.

Figuring out how gluten works in our bodies is tough. Figuring out how growing conditions or plant variety might affect a crop’s potential to harm us is also tough. Understanding the role processing methods play also needs more research, but there’s enough information to cause concern over a few things.

One item —vital wheat gluten — is common in the food supply, and has the potential to cause reactions. It’s used to bind multigrain breads. A cheap protein and a great emulsifier and binder, it’s also widely used in industrial food processing. Irradiated flour and other baking additives also are cited as worrisome.

However, the paper’s section on processing offers some hope, too. Grain sprouting for instance, could help some people digest the complex proteins that give some eaters grief. Longer fermentation also breaks down proteins that can cause some forms of wheat sensitivity.

Other research questions about wheat and gluten are still being charted. A recent Mother Jones story about research at The Bread Lab of Washington State University suggests that modern baking is a bigger culprit than modern wheat. The publication Eating Well also has a new story on gluten by Sam Fromartz called “Unraveling the Gluten-Free Trend.” Like his recent book, “In Search of the Perfect Loaf,” the article nicely navigates the maze of fears about eating wheat and gluten.

Kissing Kucek’s “A Grounded Guide to Gluten” maps the research already done. Like any realistic map, the guide offers facts, not commandments of the “Here Be Dragons” sort. Answers might be found, the paper suggests, in turning to traditions.

This confirms what I’ve long suspected: That we need to unravel some of the processing developed over the last 150 years. In that time, we’ve adopted roller milling, which leaves behind most of the bran and germ. While I never fell out of love with wheat or gluten, I’ve grown enamored of the taste of fresh stone ground flour, and the concept of using all parts of the grain. Perhaps there is something that each lends the other, and to us, as we turn this plant into food. I think that the unity of stone milling is essential to healthy utilization of grains. Some professional bakers believe this too, and are working exclusively with fresh milled whole grain flours.

As people negotiate a friendly relationship with bread, I am hoping that my personal truth about gluten might gain scientific ground.

Main photo: Survey of wheat sensitivity research suggests there may be multiple suspects. Credit: iStock

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Soda bread. Credit: Copyright Ellie Markovitch

Soda bread is serious stuff. The Irish Heritage Society near me is having a contest, and people can enter in three categories: traditional white, traditional wheaten, and family bread non-specific. The first two can only contain flour, baking soda, salt, and buttermilk; ingredients that would have been available in Ireland when the bread was developed. The third, family bread non-specific, can have anything in it, and might include currants, caraway seeds, eggs and other enrichments.

The sweet quick bread common here is decidedly American and reflects the fact that the average Irish cupboard lacked or had limited quantities of sugar and butter. The traditional Irish soda bread is emblematic of other limits, like the way that flour works in bread dough, and how wheat grows.


The moist climate of Ireland is suited to growing soft or pastry wheat, which is better for making pastries and quick breads rather than yeasted or naturally leavened breads. Arid summers, like those in the American wheat belts, grow hard or bread wheats, which have enough gluten to develop the structure that builds tall loaves of bread.

All wheats have gluten, which is a type of protein. The amount and quality of gluten varies in hard and soft wheats. Gliadin and glutenin are two components of gluten, and each wheat style has different proportions of both. That’s why flours made from different grains work differently. Hard wheats have more glutenin, and soft wheats have more gliadin, which is sometimes described as having sliding properties. If you cook whole grains, hard wheats really are harder to the tooth.

Soft wheats work great for quick breads and things that climb with the aid of chemical leavening. Soda bread, especially if made with purist rules, is a great demonstration of chemical leavening at work. Buttermilk plus baking soda creates an acid-base reaction, and carbon dioxide bubbles throughout the dough; the heat of the oven traps the gases, and voila, there is bread.

In praise of baking powder

Baking powder is another type of chemical leavening; liquid activates its acid-base reaction. These products of the 19th century simplified baking. Before the birthday of baking powder — around 1865, depending on whom you salute as its inventor — people had to use natural yeasts to make baked goods rise. Old cookbooks have lots of instructions for ways to charm leavening out of thin air, or from potato peelings and even milk.

Sourdough baking is all the rage, but I am in awe of baking powder. This shelf stable stuff makes my whole wheat pancakes climb sky high. It is a little angel in my pantry, helping flour soar. I am loyal to a single brand, Rumford. It’s double-acting baking powder, which means it rises once when liquid hits the dry ingredients, and again in the heat of the oven, or on the griddle.

I am also loyal to fresh milled whole-grain flour. I love the way it tastes, sweet and hardy, and the way the food sits in my brain. Stone milling is a process that keeps all the parts of a grain kernel, the bran, germ and endosperm, together. Roller milling is how most flour is made, and the process separates all of these parts, combining parts of them at the end as the mill sees fit. The germ is generally removed because it spoils easily.

Luckily, stone milling operations are popping up all over the country as people revive small-scale grain production. The one near me, Farmer Ground Flour, mills a type of soft white wheat that makes great quick breads.

I have no family recipe for soda bread, but I’ve made a beautiful mutt loaf that highlights my kitchen affinities.

Soda Bread
Prep time: 15 minutes
Cook time: 25 minutes
Total time: 40 minutes
Yield: 6 servings

Ingredients

2 cups stoneground white whole wheat pastry flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon salt

5 tablespoons butter

1 egg

3 tablespoons yogurt

1/2 cup milk

Directions

1. Combine dry ingredients with a whisk.

2. Cut butter into 1/2-inch cubes.

3. With a pastry blender or your fingers, incorporate butter into the flour mixture. The result does not have to be smooth — some pea-sized pieces are OK, even good.

4. Whisk together egg, yogurt and milk. Using a fork, blend until everything is just barely incorporated.

5. Turn out onto a floured surface and knead very lightly, just about five times.

6. Pat into a round about 8 inches across and transfer to a buttered cookie sheet. Score into six  pieces.

7. Let dough rest 10 minutes while preheating oven to 400 F.

8. Bake for 25 minutes, until golden brown at the edges.

Main image: Soda bread. Credit: Copyright Ellie Markovitch

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Fritetelle veneziane, or Venetian fritters, are best served warm with a dusting of confectioner's sugar. Credit: Michael Krondl

When it comes to Carnival, overindulgence is the whole point: too many parties, too much booze and, in just about every Catholic country, great platters of fried sweet dough.

Carnival doughnuts are omnipresent across Catholic Europe and parts of the Americas. In Lyon and Strasbourg, France, square yeast-raised beignets are made for the holiday; in Spain you will find rosquillas de carnaval (a dense, doughnut-shaped treat) and all sorts of other buñuelos; in Italy each region has its own fritelle di carnevale. The one-word explanation? Lard.

Christians were supposed to abstain from meat products for the 40 days of Lent, and doughnuts were traditionally fried in hog fat. As every good Catholic knows, you need to sin before you can repent. So, if you’re going to spend six weeks restraining your urges, you might as well make a good reason for it.

European doughnuts: happy excess

For ordinary people, doughnuts became associated with happy excess during a time when all the rules of their miserable existence could be inverted, when a measly diet of stale bread was replaced by mountains of fresh-fried doughnuts.

But few are as obsessed with Carnival or fried dough as the Venetians. Year round, you can find delicious krapfen (jelly doughnuts) there, but in the lead-up to Lent, the fried dough repertoire increases exponentially. Bakery windows are full of frittelle di carnevale, which depending on the pastry shop, take two very different forms: airy yeast-raised fritters chock-full of raisins, pine nuts, citron and, occasionally anisette or grappa (see recipe); or fried cream puffs that enclose a variety of creamy fillings.

I can’t believe that it’s a coincidence that Europe’s doughnut orgies take place in the depths of winter. The sugar and the fat are better than any high-tech undergarment.

I had a chance to test this out during a ski trip to Innsbruck even as Fasching (Carnival) was reaching its delirious peak. Here, in the alpine Tyrol, locals celebrate by parading through the streets in masks worthy of a Brothers Grimm nightmare and by eating mountains of Faschingskrapfen, or Carnival doughnuts. Even as I got off the train, I was greeted with stands loaded down with plump raised doughnuts, some filled with preserves, others with custard, chocolate cream or even eiercognac, a boozy eggnog custard.

According to my friend, Austrian food historian Ingrid Haslinger, they’ve been frying up these yeast-raised pastries here for centuries. In the days when sugar was a luxury reserved for princes, the mountain folk would dip their krapfen into bowls of prune and apple butter. Now everybody can indulge in the sweet-filled variety.

I was pleased to find piles of Carnival doughnuts even at the mountaintop ski lodge. In these harsh conditions, they are not merely a snack but rather lunch itself. Following the lead of local skiers, I sat down to a spicy goulash soup as appetizer and continued with doughnuts for my main course (one filled with apricot and the other with chocolate, if you must know). Winter never felt so right.

The perfect pre-Lent indulgence

The doughnut as Carnival food, something that you gorge on before the gray days of Lent, isn’t entirely an alien concept in the United States. The Pennsylvania Dutch keep a firm grip on the centuries-old tradition of frying up enormous batches of Fastnachts in anticipation of Ash Wednesday just like their ancestors did in southwest Germany and parts of Switzerland. The Fastnacht is typically a yeast-raised doughnut (sometimes with potato added) cut in the form of a diamond, often slashed and opened in the center to allow it to cook faster and a larger surface area to get crisp.

You find similar recipes in Alsace and neighboring regions today. Fastnacht (literally “fast night”) is a German word for Shrove Tuesday and in the parts of the old country, these Carnival pastries were (and are) called Fastnachstküchle. The plain folk there shortened the name but kept the recipe and at least the doughnut part of the pre-Lenten tradition; Carnival is certainly not the festival of folly that it can be in Catholic Germany.

One rule that is universal, though, no matter where you find the doughy treats and regardless of name: Too much is never enough. You’ll have plenty of time to repent.

Frittelle veneziane (Venetian Carnival Fritters)

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cook time: 4 to 6 minutes per batch

Yield: About 2 dozen

Ingredients

2 ounces (about 1/2 cup) golden raisins

1/2 cup anisette liqueur

1/4 ounce (1 packet) active dry yeast

3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons tepid water

1 large egg

9 ounces (about 2 cups) all-purpose flour

3 tablespoons granulated sugar

Large ping (1/8 teaspoon) salt

1 ounce (about 3 tablespoons) pine nuts

1 ounce (about 3 tablespoons) chopped candied citron

Grated zest of 1 lemon

Oil or lard for frying

Confectioner’s sugar

Directions

1. In a bowl, combine the raisins and anisette. Cover with plastic wrap and soak at least 4 hours or overnight.

2. In the bowl of a stand mixer, stir together the water and yeast. Let stand 5 minutes. Stir in the egg. In a separate bowl, mix together the flour, granulated sugar and salt.

3. Using a paddle attachment, beat the flour mixture into the water-yeast mixture on low speed. Beat 5 minutes on medium to make the batter very smooth — it should be somewhat thicker than pancake batter.

4. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and place in a warm location. Let stand until the batter has doubled in volume,  45 to 60 minutes. Stir in the raisins, pine nuts, citron and lemon zest.

5. Using a deep fryer or a heavy pan, heat at least 3 inches of the oil to 350 F. If you’re not using a deep fryer and are without a built-in thermostat, check the oil temperature using a candy or deep-fry thermometer.

6. Lightly oil 2 tablespoons, then scoop about 2 tablespoons of batter in one spoon and slide it off with the second. A small oiled ice cream scoop works well, too. Fry about a half-dozen at a time, turning occasionally until cooked through, 4 to 6 minutes. Drain on paper towels and allow to cool — enough so you can pick them up. Sprinkle generously with confectioner’s sugar. The frittelle are best served warm. Leftovers can be frozen and reheated in a 350 F oven.

 

For more on doughnut history, check out Michael Krondl’s most recent book: “The Donut: History, Recipes and Lore from Boston to Berlin.”

Main photo: Fritetelle veneziane, or Venetian fritters, are best served warm with a dusting of confectioner’s sugar. Credit: Michael Krondl 

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When your husband loves risotto, lobster and steak, Lobster Risotto and filet mignon offer a great twist on surf and turf. Credit: Carole Murko

Nine years ago my husband was diagnosed with celiac disease. The diagnosis was a godsend as his symptoms displayed evidence of something much worse. When the test results were in, we celebrated. We were also quite giddy that he would become well again with the elimination of gluten. What a fabulous prognosis — no drugs, just elimination.

In an interesting twist of fate, our Icelandic mare, Valkyrie, had birthed a foal on the same day as Jim’s diagnosis. We named her Gaefa, which means good luck and good fortune, both of which we felt were in ample supply.

Nine years ago gluten intolerance and celiac disease were not yet mainstream. As you might imagine, stripping my pantry of wheat was both a joyous and sad day for me. Afterall, my one-half Italian being craved homemade pasta, breads and treats. But my sweetheart’s disease was not a death sentence. It was a mere inconvenience. And, I, by golly, would master gluten-free cooking. And I have.

Myriad gluten-free foods

There are myriad foods that are naturally gluten free. Take risotto for one. Steak for another. Greens. Fruits. Chocolate. The list goes on and on.

Here is a perfect gluten-free Valentine’s Day Dinner. My sweetie is happy, and so am I!

Lobster Risotto

Filet Mignon

Arugula Salad With Balsamic Vinaigrette

Flourless Chocolate Cake

I like to create menus that reflect both my culinary acumen, and the love I have for the recipients. There truly is nothing, and I mean nothing, better than watching someone relish what you have cooked for them. This menu is tailored to Jim. He loves risotto, he loves lobster and he loves steak. These recipes provide a great twist on surf and turf as the lobster risotto makes a lovely side to the filet mignon. The arugula salad complements the meal by adding a peppery green, dressed with a sweetish balsamic vinaigrette.

Make sure you leave room, because this flourless chocolate cake will knock your socks off. Happy Valentine’s Day! With love, Carole

Lobster Risotto

Risotto is one of the simplest and most versatile of dishes. And while I provide this recipe as a guide, keep in mind you can make risotto without the white wine, with onions if you don’t have shallots, or with just butter, just olive oil and with many different “add-ins.” To celebrate Valentine’s, however, nothing beats lobster.

Prep time: 20 minutes

Cook time: 20 to 30 minutes

Total time: 40 to 50 minutes

Yield: 3 to 4 servings

Ingredients

1 (1 1/2-pound) lobster (have it steamed at the fish counter to save you a step)

1/2 stick butter

1/2 cup of shallots or onions

1 cup Arborio rice

1/2 cup white wine

4 cups chicken broth, heated

1/2 cup Parmesan cheese, grated

1 to 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

1/8 teaspoon fresh pepper

2 teaspoons freshly chopped thyme

Directions

1. Remove meat from lobster, cut into bite-size pieces.

2. Heat butter in a large saucepan over medium heat, add shallots and cook until tender.

3. Stir in rice and stir until coated with oil about 2 minutes.

4. Add the wine and stir until the wine is cooked off and absorbed.

5. Add the broth one ladle at time, stirring constantly until the broth is absorbed. Continue adding broth until rice is fluffy, tender and creamy.

6. Add the Parmesan, lemon juice, pepper and thyme.

7. Fold in the lobster, serve when lobster is warm.

Lobster and filet mignon are the beginnings of a delicious Valentine's Day dinner. Credit: Carole Murko

Lobster and filet mignon are the beginnings of a delicious Valentine’s Day dinner. Credit: Carole Murko

Stove Top Filet Mignon

Prep time: 2 to 3 minutes

Cook time: 8 to 10 minutes

Total time: 10 to 13 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

Four 1/2-pound filets

Salt and pepper

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 tablespoons butter

Cast iron pan

Directions

1. Bring meat to room temperature.

2. Season with salt and pepper.

3. Heat olive oil and butter on high in cast iron pan.

4. Add filets.

5. Cook 4 to 5 minutes per side for medium-rare filets.

In keeping with all the buzz about the aphrodisiac effect of chocolate, a flourless (hence, no gluten) chocolate cake is the perfect ending to a Valentine's Day dinner. Credit: Carole Murko

In keeping with all the buzz about the aphrodisiac effect of chocolate, a flourless (hence, no gluten) chocolate cake is the perfect ending to a Valentine’s Day dinner. Credit: Carole Murko

Heirloom Flourless Chocolate Cake

I love homemade gifts from the heart. My sweetheart, Jim, has celiac disease, which is an autoimmune disease triggered by eating wheat or foods with gluten. So in keeping with all the buzz about the aphrodisiac effect of chocolate, I decided a flourless (hence, no gluten) chocolate cake would be my gift.

This recipe is from the family archives of my amazing friend Deb Mackey, with her note: “Here’s an absolutely FAB recipe for a flourless chocolate cake that is to die for, and can be très elegant, depending on how you gussy it up. I frequently plate it on a swirl of raspberry coulis for especially discerning friends. Everyone I’ve ever made it for has raved, and it became the birthday cake of choice for every man in my life. And for some of their subsequent wives, too, I might add.”

Prep time: 30 to 45 minutes

Cook time: 1 1/2 hours

Total time: 2 to 2 1/4 hours

Yield: 8 to 10 servings

Ingredients

For cake:

12 ounces semisweet chocolate chips

1/2 cup unsalted butter

6 eggs, separated, at room temperature

1 cup sugar

1/2 cup chopped pecans

1/2 teaspoon vanilla

1 tablespoon Bailey’s Irish Cream

1 pinch cream of tartar

For topping:

2 cups whipping cream

1/4 cup powdered sugar

2 tablespoons Bailey’s Irish Cream

2 ounces chocolate curls

10-inch springform pan, greased (or wax/parchment paper will do)

Directions

For cake:

1. Preheat oven to 350 F.

2. Melt chips and butter in a bowl over hot water.

3. Beat egg yolks in large bowl (5 minutes, or until thick).

4. Beat in 1/2 cup sugar, 1 tablespoon at a time.

5. To the melted chocolate, stir in pecans, vanilla and 1 tablespoon of Bailey’s

6. Beat egg whites with cream of tartar, to soft peak

7. Gradually add remaining 1/2 cup sugar. Beat stiff, but not dry.

8. Fold 1/4 of whites mixture into the chocolate cake mix.

9. Fold the chocolate mix into the remaining whites mixture.

10. Pour into lined pan and bake 30 minutes at 350 F.

11. Reduce oven to 275 F. Bake another 30 minutes.

12. Turn off oven. Let cake stand in oven with door slightly ajar for about 30 minutes.

13. Remove from oven. Dampen towel and place on top of cake for 5 minutes. Remove the towel.

14. Top of cake will crack and fall. Cool cake in pan.

15. Remove springform when cool. Transfer cake to platter.

For topping:

Whip cream to soft peak. Beat in powdered sugar and 2 tablespoons of Bailey’s.

Finish cake:

1. Spoon whipped cream mixture over top of cake and smooth. Sprinkle with chocolate curls.

2. Refrigerate 6 hours. Let stand at room temperature for 30 minutes before serving.

Main photo: When your husband loves risotto, lobster and steak, Lobster Risotto and filet mignon offer a great twist on surf and turf. Credit: Carole Murko

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Sandesh is an Indian version of cheesecake, can be cut into shapes with cookie cutters or formed into balls. Credit: Rinku Bhattacharya

This Valentine’s Day, as you look for foods besides oysters and chocolate to woo the object of your affection, consider exploring your spice cabinet.

You’ll be surprised at the flavors’ powers — as natural aphrodisiacs — to be found there.

To heighten the senses and set the mood, we need fragrance and beauty in our foods.

In fact, Ayurveda — the holistic method of medical treatment in India rooted in Hinduism — traditionally placed a fair amount of emphasis on aphrodisiac terminology. The intent was to ensure that people led healthy conjugal lives and the ruler appropriately produced the requisite heir. There is similar wisdom found in other ancient texts.

So, cull through this list of common spices for your Valentine’s Day menu that also may help you spice things up — in other ways — with your Valentine.

First up is cinnamon, whose lustrous and sweet aroma can make you both happy and calm. (And, it’s certainly good for your blood pressure.)

Right alongside, you might have cloves, whose essential quality is to uplift your mood and spirits. And then there is nutmeg, also known for its antioxidant and astringent qualities.

An aphrodisiac spice, says ‘The Arabian Nights’

To complete the fragrant collection, we also have cardamom, which “The Arabian Nights” extols for its passion-inducing properties.

All of these will find its place in a good garam masala blend. And when meshed with saffron — the exotic spice of the gods — your Valentine’s Day collection of aromas will be complete.

When planning your menu, consider a good one-pot dish such as a biryani that will bring to your table all of these spices and more. If that’s too complex, try rubbing a chicken with butter and garam masala and serving it roasted to perfection, with saffron mashed potatoes on the side.

But don’t forget the dessert. Fortunately, many Indian desserts bring together cardamom, saffron and rose. From the universe of puddings, halwas and burfees, I have dug up a Bengali specialty called the sandesh, which, when done right, can win over the most fastidious of hearts and palates.

A sandesh is a cheesecake of sorts, with the emphasis on a specific cheese: channa, or homemade white cheese. The art of the traditional sandesh rests in the right texture and handling of this channa. Although it is prolific in Indian confectionary shops, we’re often hard-pressed to find good sandesh in commercial Indian sweet shops — mainly because of the relatively short shelf life of this delicate sweet.

Spicing up cheesecake the sandesh way

Ricotta cheese, if treated right, can be a substitute for channa. This recipe features a cheater sandesh, using ricotta cheese streaked with saffron and subtly scented with freshly crushed cardamom.

I have created this recipe for days when time does not allow for the making and draining of channa. It’s a fairly good facsimile for the steamed sandesh known as bhapa sandesh that my grandmother used to make. In this sandesh, instead of cooking the channa over the stove top, it is steamed with gentle and continuous heat.

In my recipe, I bake it on low heat in the oven and then cool and shape it. If you wish, you can garnish these delicate morsels with pistachios, snipped rose petals and anything else that catches your fancy.

Serve them with some chilled saffron almond milk.

That’s bound to warm the cockles of your heart and soothe your senses, all at once.

Baked Orange-Flavored Cheesecake — Bhapa Sandesh

Adapted from “The Bengali Five Spice Chronicles,” by Rinku Bhattacharya

Prep time: 45 minutes

Cook time: 30 minutes

Total time: 1 hour, 15 minutes, plus time for cooling

Yield: 12 servings

Ingredients

For the cheesecake:

Clarified butter or ghee for greasing the casserole dish

1 1/2 cups low-fat ricotta cheese (about 30 ounces)

3/4 cup condensed milk (about 12 ounces)

1/2 teaspoon saffron strands

1/4 teaspoon freshly crushed cardamom (about 2 pods)

6 tablespoons fresh orange juice or tangerine juice (about one medium tangerine)

For optional garnishes:

Orange sections

Slivered almonds

Chocolate shavings

The sandesh can be formed into round balls and rolled in chocolate shavings. Credit: Rinku Bhattacharya

The sandesh can be formed into round balls and rolled in chocolate shavings. Credit: Rinku Bhattacharya

Directions

1. Preheat the oven to 325 F.

2. Grease an 8-by-12-inch cake or casserole dish and set aside.

3. In a mixing bowl, beat together the ricotta cheese and condensed milk.

4. Stir in the saffron strands and cardamom, pour the mixture into the greased casserole dish. The objective is to achieve a streaked effect rather than uniform coloring.

5. Pour the mixture into the prepared pan and bake for 30 minutes.

6. Drizzle with the orange juice and cool for one hour.

7. Carefully invert the prepared cheesecake onto a flat surface. This can be cut into shapes using a cooking cutter, or formed into round balls.

8. If desired, garnish with orange sections and almonds, or roll or sprinkle with chocolate shavings.

9. Chill for 45 minutes or longer, and serve.

Main photo: Sandesh, an Indian version of cheesecake, can be shaped with cookie cutters or formed into round balls. Credit: Rinku Bhattacharya

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Garlic shrimp is best eaten sizzling hot when the aroma of the garlic and saffron are most potent. Credit:

For Valentine’s Day, what could be more romantic than a homemade dinner? If you are looking for that dish that says love, look to these five foods, which have been considered aphrodisiacs for centuries.

Seafood

Aphrodisiacs were named for Aphrodite, the goddess of love. According to ancient Greek myth, Aphrodite was born from the sea and arrived ashore transported by either an oyster or scallop shell. Because of her sea connection all seafood, but especially shellfish, was considered an aphrodisiac since those times.

Flourless chocolate cake

This flourless cake, has a crisp, macaroon-like outer layer and a dense, incredibly moist center. Credit: “Dolci: Italy’s Sweets”

Chocolate

Cacao beans, essential to making chocolate, first made their way to Europe from the New World in the 1500s. Once chocolate arrived, physicians and health writers began to study it and decided it was not only an aphrodisiac but also a cure-all for many ills, including indigestion. Casanova, famed writer of the 1700s, devoted several pages in his memoir to how effective chocolate was in getting women into the mood.

Chili peppers and cayenne

For hundreds of years spices that tingle the tongue — such as red pepper flakes, cinnamon and ginger — were thought to be aphrodisiacs. The idea was that if they make the tongue tingle they would make other body parts tingle, too. Chili peppers and these spices quicken the pulse and induce perspiration, which mimics the state of sexual arousal and also stimulates the release of endorphins.

Strawberries and raspberries

Because of their seductive color, strawberries were called “fruit nipples” and considered powerful aphrodisiacs during the Renaissance.

Wine

The ancient Greeks and Romans worshiped and held yearly festivals for the wine god Bacchus, also called Dionysus, who was born from an affair between the god Zeus and a mortal woman. Wine, for the ancients, was not just a nice drink to have with dinner, but thought to be absolutely essential to good health. At that time, water was often filled with dangerous germs, whereas wine was safe. More than just essential to good health, wine was believed to be essential to life, making it one of the first and most popular aphrodisiacs.

Here are some recipes that feature these foods. While I can’t guarantee they will be aphrodisiacs, I can promise they’re delicious.

Garlic Shrimp

This dish is best eaten sizzling hot when the aroma of the garlic and saffron are most potent. For a dramatic presentation, cook and serve it in a small iron skillet. 

From: “Opera Lover’s Cookbook” (Stewart, Tabori & Chang) by Francine Segan

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cooking time: 5 minutes

Total time: 10 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

12 medium shrimp, peeled and deveined

4 cloves garlic, thinly sliced

3 tablespoons olive oil

7 to 8 strands saffron

1 jalapeño pepper, sliced

Salt and black pepper

Directions

1. Combine the shrimp, garlic, oil, saffron and jalapeño in a small bowl.

2. Heat a small skillet over high heat and sauté the shrimp with the marinade until the shrimp are golden, about 3 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Melty Manchego With Spicy-Sweet Tomato Jam

So many aphrodisiacs in one dish! Lovely Manchego is melted in a pan with a hint of garlic and then spiked with a splash of sweet sherry. The aromas will drive all the guests straight into the kitchen.

The tomato jam, a spicy-sweet mix of tomatoes, sugar, jalapeño and lemon, is simple to make yet adds just the right zing to the warm melty cheese. 

From “Opera Lover’s Cookbook” (Stewart, Tabori & Chang) by Francine Segan

Prep time: 10 minutes

Cooking time: 35 minutes

Total time: 45 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

For the tomato jam:

1 (14.5-ounce) can diced tomatoes

3/4 cup sugar

1 jalapeño pepper, sliced

Zest and juice of 1 lemon

1/4 teaspoon salt

Cayenne pepper, optional

For the cheese:

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced

1 pound Manchego cheese, cut into 1-inch sections

1 tablespoon sweet sherry

Crusty bread, sliced

Directions

For the tomato jam:

Combine the tomatoes, sugar, jalapeño pepper, lemon zest and juice, salt, and cayenne pepper, if using, in a medium saucepan and simmer over medium-low heat for about 30 minutes, until thick. Allow to cool, and then transfer to a small serving bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and reserve.

For the cheese:

1. Heat the oil and garlic in a small nonstick skillet over low heat until the garlic begins to turn golden, about 2 minutes. With a slotted spoon remove the garlic; set aside. Add the cheese in one layer and fry until warm and soft, about 1 minute. Remove the skillet from the heat and add the sherry. Cover the skillet and return it to the heat for 2 to 3 minutes.

2. Serve right in the skillet or slide the warm cheese onto a serving platter and top with the garlic. Serve with the tomato jam and bread on the side.

Flourless Italian Chocolate Cake

This flourless cake, has a crisp, macaroon-like outer layer and a dense, incredibly moist center. As the cake cools, it collapses a little, creating a pretty webbing on the delicious crust.

From: “Dolci: Italy’s Sweets” (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2011) by Francine Segan 

Prep time: 10 minutes

Baking time: 30 minutes

Total time: 40 minutes

Yield: 8 servings

Ingredients

7 tablespoons (3 1/2 ounces) unsalted butter, plus more for the pan

7 ounces dark chocolate

1 cup granulated sugar

4 eggs, separated

2 tablespoons potato starch

1 tablespoon vanilla

Strawberries, optional

Directions

1. Preheat the oven to 350 F. Butter the bottom and sides of a 9-inch springform cake pan.

2. Melt the butter and chocolate in a bowl in the microwave.

3. In a large bowl, beat the sugar and egg yolks with an electric hand-held mixer until creamy and pale yellow. Beat in the chocolate-butter mixture until creamy. Add the potato starch and vanilla and mix until well combined.

4. In a separate bowl, beat the egg whites until stiff. Slowly, using a spatula, fold the egg whites, a little at a time, into the chocolate mixture until combined.

5. Spread the batter evenly into the prepared pan. Bake for about 30 minutes, until just set in the center. Allow it to rest for about 30 minutes before cutting it until it collapses and the top crust cracks a bit. Serve with strawberries on the side, if you like.

Main photo: Garlic shrimp and melty Manchego with spicy-sweet tomato jam are tasty aphrodisiacs. Credit: “Opera Lover’s Cookbook” by Francine Segan

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Just out of the oven, these sweet bread bites are truly delicious. Credit: @TheWeiserKitchen

Sweet breakfast buns o’ mine! Babka is a well-loved and indulgent breakfast bread, but this version — studded with dried fruits such as strawberries, tart cherries and apricots — gives it a fresh spin.

Perfect with a morning cup of joe, pomegranate or mint tea, these babka buns are a lovely addition to a brunch anytime. The cardamom and anise keep it spicy and invigorating, and the individual size (made in a muffin tin) makes it perfect for an on-the-go breakfast. Be sure to leave enough time for rising — this is a rich dough and really needs the time.

Babka Buns with Dried Fruit and Cardamom

Prep time: 1 hour, plus 3 hours for rising

Cook time: 35 minutes

Total time: 4 hours, 35 minutes

Yield: 36

Ingredients

For the dough:

2 tablespoons (19 grams) dry active yeast

1 cup water, divided (1/4 cup around 90 F to 95 F; room temperature for the rest)

1 teaspoon sugar

1 cup (220 grams) light brown sugar

2 1/2 cups (340 grams) bread flour

3 1/2 cups (455 grams) all purpose flour plus more for dusting

1 teaspoon salt

3 large eggs

2/3 cup olive oil

1 tablespoon vanilla bean paste

Filling No. 1:

1/2 cup sugar

1 tablespoon ground cinnamon, roasted preferred

3 teaspoons ground cardamom, roasted preferred

1/2 teaspoon ground anise

3/4 cup fig jam

zest and juice of one lemon

Filling No. 2:

1/3 cup ( 50 grams) dried strawberries, cut into rough 1/4-inch dice

1/3 cup ( 50 grams) dried pitted tart cherries, cut into rough 1/4-inch dice

1/2 cup (110 grams) dried apricots or peaches, pitted and cut into rough 1/4-inch dice

1/3 cup (65 grams) dried raspberries (optional)

Topping:

1 egg

1 tablespoon water

1/4 cup turbinado sugar

2 teaspoons sea salt

Directions

For the dough:

1. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook, combine the yeast, 1/4 cup warm water and 1 teaspoon sugar; mix at low speed until just blended. Let stand for about 5 to 7 minutes, until foamy.

2. Sift the flours and salt into a mixing bowl or onto a sheet of parchment paper and set aside.

3. Add the remaining water, the light brown sugar and the flour mixture; mix until just combined. Add the eggs, one at a time, mixing until each is fully incorporated. It will not be a dough yet. Add the oil and vanilla bean paste; mix on low to medium-low to fully combine. Increase the mixer speed to medium and knead for 5 minutes to form a moist, dense dough.

4. Transfer the dough to a clean bowl, cover with a kitchen towel, place in a warm spot and let rise at room temperature for about 3 to 3 1/2 hours, until the dough has doubled in size.

5. When the dough has risen, divide it into 12 portions.

For the fillings:

1. In a large mixing bowl, stir the sugar, cinnamon, cardamom and anise together; set aside.

2. Place the fig jam, lemon juice and lemon zest in another small mixing bowl; stir to combine. Set aside.

3. Combine dried fruits in a bowl. Set aside.

Finishing the babka buns:

1. Lightly flour a work surface.

2. Spray two muffin tins with with nonstick vegetable oil spray.

3. Place divided dough portions, one at a time, on the floured surface and pat into a large rectangle, about 1/4-inch thick (roughly 5 inches by 10 inches).

4. Spread each piece with 2 tablespoons of the fig jam mixture, 2 teaspoons of the sugar and spice mixture, and about 3 tablespoons of the dried fruit.

5. Roll up, jelly-roll style; it will look like a small filled snake. Twist at the center and fit into the prepared muffin tins, tucking it in, or smooshing it down, as necessary to make it fit.

6. Cover with a kitchen towel; repeat with the remaining dough pieces, allowing them to rest for 45 minutes (some will rest more than others because it takes time to prep them all, and that’s fine).

7. Preheat the oven to 375 F.

8. For the finish, make an egg wash by beating the egg lightly with the water in a small bowl.

9. With a pastry brush, brush the buns with the egg wash and sprinkle with turbinado sugar and a pinch of the salt.

10. Bake for 20 to 22 minutes or until dark golden brown. Cool in the pan for 15 minutes, then transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.

Main photo: Just out of the oven, these sweet bread bites are truly delicious. Credit: @TheWeiserKitchen

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Baby babka bites are a new twist on fruit-filled babka -- perfect for brunch, breakfast or lunch. Credit: @TheWeiserKitchen

Tu B’Shvat, Jewish Arbor Day, is a patch of green in the chilly winter ennui. This year, the holiday falls on Feb. 3, and is a celebration of the gifts of trees — and if you consider Kabbalistic interpretations, ever-renewing life.

One of the four renewal or “new years” of the Jewish tradition, Tu B’Shvat (literally “the 15th day of the month of Shvat”) marks the date from which biblical agricultural tithing, both for the priestly classes as well as to the needy, was traditionally tallied. Giving is still integral to the holiday and in 20th-century America that took on new meaning. Families added money to their pushke, the pale blue metal charity box, earmarked for planting trees in Israel.

But the holiday’s roots run deeper than collecting money to plant trees. For centuries, Tu B’Shvat’s renewal is personal as well as environmental: The fruits are symbolic for reaching higher levels on the tree of knowledge.

The traditional food is fruit

When I taught Hebrew school, I told my youngest charges that the holiday is the birthday for trees and taught them “Oh, Beautiful” instead of liturgical songs. I brought in dried fruits, the most traditional Ashkenazi treat.

A few tentatively tasted the dried tart apricots, peaches, and apples. They couldn’t have been less happy looking at a prune, no matter how many times I explained that it was a just plum. My own children were a bit more open to the fruits, but then again, they’ve always eaten from my kitchen.

Later, after a tour in culinary school, I taught adults and teens, and I upped the ante, handing out chocolate-dipped glaceed fruits, fruit gel treats — and baby babka bites studded with modern dried fruits like strawberries and tart cherries, and bursting with cardamom, cinnamon and anise.

It was an unmitigated success, and I now make baby babka bites for the holiday every year.

Deeper meanings of fruits

Many Jewish holidays foods have distinct symbolic value. The Kabbalists imbued fruit with deeper meanings on Tu B’shvat that remain today.

The expulsions of Jews from the Iberian Peninsula in the end of the 15th century disbursed a large, vibrant, intellectual community. This was long before the orthodox, conservative or reform movements and even Hassidism with its mystical elements, had taken root. The expelled Iberian Jews carried their Middle Age mysticism with them as they settled around the globe, but particularly in Sefad (Tsaft) in Ottoman Palestine/Israel, which became the seat of the movement.

That mysticism, or Kabbalistic thought, is the study of the infinite and the finite (or mortal). It delves beyond apparent meanings, past simple allegories and rules and searches for secret hidden connections, and is often diagrammed as the tree of knowledge, with branches to climb to reach spiritual higher orders.

The tree and its fruits are the overarching metaphor used to elucidate the nexus of the spiritual and physical worlds. It is not surprising then that the 16th century’s leading Kabbalistic sage, teacher and mystic, Rabbi Isaac Luria, sought greater meaning than simply enjoying fruits for Tu B’Shvat. To celebrate the holiday, a Seder service was created that focuses on renewal and personal growth, and assigned symbolic value to fruits.

Tu B’shvat Seders and other modern celebrations

Today, it is common to see Kabbala-inspired Tu B’Shvat seders held as a women’s Seder, often vegan or vegetarian – where notions of fertility, renewal and life cycles are discussed in depth. For those who do not participate in a formal seder, this holiday is an opportunity to focus on the environmental component of the day and renew their pledge for composting and planting. Jewish Food scholar Joan Nathan takes the opportunity to teach children about sustainability and food traditions on Tu B’Shvat.

Judaism, in practice and theology, has always been affected by the world around it. What I do has evolved too. Although highly specific cooked food traditions for Tu B’Shvat are rare ­ — there is no matzo ball or cheese blintzes — fruit is always on the table, Seder or not.

I do what I do every day on Tu B’shvat — I cook, write and teach. But I also donate to shelters and food banks as my green-tinged celebration. The benefit of the celebrations is spiritual nourishment. That is the gift I receive. And I give back, just like the song I taught, from “tree to shining tree.”

Main photo: Baby babka bites are a new twist on fruit-filled babka — perfect for brunch, breakfast or lunch. Credit: @TheWeiserKitchen

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