Articles in Baking

Pancakes are a breakfast (or lunch or dinner) food that never gets old. Credit: Copyright 2013 Ellie Markovitch

Pancakes are everyday magic. There is something about a puff of flour rising to the occasion of an otherwise dull morning that makes me want to eat pancakes all day long.

My dad invited me into this dedication more than 40 years ago, letting me tend the griddle. Each time I hold the spatula in my hand, waiting for bubbles to break and tell me it’s time to flip, I am in that second when he surrendered the tool and the task.

An early love of pancakes

The author, Amy Halloran, makes corn crepes with her son, Felix. Credit: Copyright 2013 Ellie Markovitch

The author, Amy Halloran, makes corn crepes with her son, Felix. Credit: Copyright 2013 Ellie Markovitch

This was never about the syrup. We had the fake stuff growing up, and I didn’t develop a taste for the real. My love is for the cake. For the way something comes from almost nothing, and carries so much — butter, maybe some berries, and always a delicious, soft bite.

“My name is Amy Halloran. I am 7 years old. I have a new baby brother and I like pancakes.”

So I declared in my second-grade autobiography. My interest bloomed into a curiosity about baking, and throughout my childhood I made sure our cookie tins were full. In my 20s a blue cornmeal pancake at a restaurant, served with salsa and crème fraîche, directed my attention back to the griddle. I studied old cookbooks and baking powder pamphlets, scouting the perfect formula for corn cakes, savory and sweet.

Using locally grown grains

Cornmeal and buckwheat flour elevate the regular pancake. Credit: Copyright 2013 Ellie Markovitch

Cornmeal and buckwheat flour elevate the regular pancake. Credit: Copyright 2013 Ellie Markovitch

When I met the man I would marry, the first meal I made him was pancakes. There were ears of cooked corn in the fridge and nice cornmeal in his pantry. I debated about whether I should make them sweet, savory or both? Should I add flour? I wanted them to be perfect because I really liked him. I wanted him to know the self I made toying with recipes for oatmeal cookies and making my father’s favorite chocolate cake over and over again. The pancakes would be a tour of me.

We’ve been together 20 years, and most mornings, we have pancakes. Once I discovered freshly milled, locally grown grains, my devotion stretched over every corner of my mind. I started following these tasty flours back to the field and meeting the pioneers who are growing and using grains outside of the wheat belts. Farmers, millers and bakers let me watch them work and answered a gazillion questions. When I met the people who started the first malt house in New England in 100 years, I also met malt. Adding this sweet grain to my pancakes took them to another level.

Room for change

Cornmeal cakes made with fermented vegetables and yogurt. Credit: Copyright 2013 Ellie Markovitch

Cornmeal cakes made with fermented vegetables and yogurt. Credit: Copyright 2013 Ellie Markovitch

Pancakes are my sun rising each morning, and I want to make a constellation of them for family, friends and crowds. Occasionally, people suggest I should try theirs, and the idea makes me cringe. I know the offer is generous, and that my rejection is not, but other people’s pancakes are just that: not mine. I might as well live in someone else’s house and try to have her dreams.Yet within my reluctance, there is room for change, as baker and cookbook author Peter Reinhart showed me a couple of weeks ago in Maine, at the Kneading Conference.

“Bread has a story to tell, and we wouldn’t be here if bread didn’t touch us in some special way,” Reinhart said in his keynote speech. Part of that captivation is the transformation of grain that was once living into living dough. Another part is the oven turning that dough into a currency that feeds more than our bellies.

His words were really hitting home for me. The translation of grains from ground to loaf requires the cooperation of farmers, millers and bakers. I love being the pancake chef and delivering a piece of me through food. That stitchery of baking fascinates Reinhart as well.

While researching his book about pizza, “American Pie,” he interviewed Chris Bianco, the poster boy of the artisanal pizza movement. The man, Reinhart said, was shy as he tried to get him to discuss what made his pizza so special. The unique ingredient, he eventually admitted, was him. Although he had been approached to make products or franchises, he couldn’t bottle himself to make any replicas represent what he did. When the author asked what connection Bianco wanted to make with people, he said, “I want them to experience my soul.”

Trying others’ recipes

Peter Reinhart makes Red Fife pancakes with Brenna MacNeil and Sophrinia Smith at the Kneading Conference. Credit: Copyright 2015 Jesse Cottingham

Peter Reinhart makes Red Fife pancakes with Brenna MacNeil and Sophrinia Smith at the Kneading Conference. Credit: Copyright 2015 Jesse Cottingham

This is what made pancakes my beloved. I have been staring at the griddle forever. I’ve given little else in life the same energy. I have arrived at an expression of my ideal pancake, a fluffy whole-grain loft, and I’m reluctant to taste anyone else’s estimation of the food.

However, I so admired Peter Reinhart and his ideas that when he announced he would be making pancakes from his latest book, “Bread Revolution,” I wanted to help.

The next morning, I was excited for a pancake date, but I had to fight the urge to bring my own pancake mix as an offering. I knew such an offering would prevent me from experiencing his recipe and method, so I left my mixes in the car and had a great time working with him and a few work-study students at the griddle. Plus, I actually liked the cakes!

Mixing it up

Amy Halloran prepares to cook pancakes. Credit: Copyright 2013 Ellie Markovitch

Amy Halloran prepares to cook pancakes. Credit: Copyright 2013 Ellie Markovitch

The next day, I had another person’s pancakes, and loved them also. Father Paul Dumais spoke last year at the Kneading Conference about his family’s Acadian flatbread, and now he’s making a mix. I was still reluctant to receive pancakes I didn’t make, but I’ll never forget the wonderful feeling of biting into the soft, yellow buckwheat cake he’d curled into a roll.

This was him. His family had grown and milled the grain, and he had worked and worked to find a formula to re-create his mother and aunt’s ployes. He gave me mix to take home, and I’m serving it to my family and friends. They love these cakes, and I can’t wait for them to try the ones in their true form, made by Father Paul. He is missing from his food, but at least I get a reminder.

Making pancakes, making connections

Cornmeal pancakes get a different flavor with bits of sweet potatoes. Credit: Copyright 2013 Ellie Markovitch

Cornmeal pancakes get a different flavor with bits of sweet potatoes. Credit: Copyright 2013 Ellie Markovitch

The dish that escorted me into a five-year, book-long exploration of flour is bringing me into a new appreciation of people and food. While this is a surprise, it is also in keeping with the main thing I learned about grains. Other foods can go from ground to mouth without as much handling. Farmers, millers and bakers are collaborating with the seasons, soil and tools to feed us. I have been stunned by their work, and very appreciative of it. Now that my walls against other people’s pancakes are crumbling, I can feel connected to flour in another, equally enchanting way.

(Full disclosure: Peter Reinhart wrote a beautiful blurb for my book after he read it, but otherwise we have no connection.)

Main photo: Pancakes are a breakfast (or lunch or dinner) food that never gets old. Credit: Copyright 2013 Ellie Markovitch

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Jam tarts are a staple on English tea tables and need only pastry and fruit jam, both preferably homemade. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nicole Litvack

I’ve just come across an old friend I have not seen for half a century, “The Olio Cookery Book.” The book itself must date back a century or more, but there is nothing rare or antiquarian about it. The Olio is a classic manual for housewives that explains how to bake scones and cakes, how to choose produce and run a kitchen, and how to treat burns, with optimistic cures for a bronchitis cough and lumbago. Under “Recipe for a Long Life,” British Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone cautions, “Chew each mouthful 30 times.” He cannot have been a gourmet eater.

Lessons from the Olio

As my mother indicated on the title page of her cookery book, ammonia relieves bee stings; vinegar is best for wasps. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nicole Litvack

As my mother indicated on the title page of her cookery book, ammonia relieves bee stings; vinegar is best for wasps. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nicole Litvack

As a young child, my favorite place was the kitchen, the warm, perfumed domain ruled by Emily, who was too old to be drafted during World War II. Despite food shortages, Emily somehow eked out a ginger biscuit or jam tart for us each day for “elevenses,” when we sat down with a large mug of milky tea.

There were only three of us, but action in the kitchen seemed almost constant, far more fun than the garden, where my mother spent most of her time. She must have been stung by insects often, as she notes the kitchen remedies on the title page of the Olio “Ammonia bee; wasp vinegar.”

Learning at Emily’s feet

Ribbon cake was a favorite of Emily the cook. Credit: Copyright Nicole Quessenberry

Ribbon cake was a favorite of Emily the cook. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nicole Litvack

As soon as I had learned to read, in the down moments of the kitchen while a cake baked, I would huddle in a corner to avoid Emily’s feet and pick up the Olio. The limp, brownish cover enclosed surprising information among its 1,400 recipes. How to test for an old egg for instance (float it in a bowl of water; if stale, the rounded end will rise), and the renown of parsley for curing what are described as nervous troubles. I recognized Emily’s specialty, Queen of Puddings, and her luscious Steamed Ginger Pudding with a golden syrup sauce — sometimes by mistake it scorched on the bottom, even better!

A mainstay of cooks

Golden syrup, a staple in English baking, was drizzled in the letter A on my porridge every morning. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nicole Litvack

Golden syrup, a staple in English baking, was drizzled in the letter A on my porridge every morning. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nicole Litvack

I later learned that the Olio cookbook was the mainstay of cooks in the north of England. The curious title is nothing to do with the Italian olio or oil, but dates back to the 1600s and olla podrida or “rotten pot,” the Spanish name given to huge cauldrons of meat, birds and vegetables that were the fashion of the times. I can find no record of the first printing of “The Olio Cookery Book.” My mother’s copy, the 15th edition, is dated 1928 and ran to 25,000 copies, surely a huge printing for the time. In the preface, editor L. Sykes (a good northern name) mentions that 200,000 had already been sold.

By the time I went to boarding school, at age 10, I had absorbed the meaning of technical terms such as stock and roux, and I could imagine what a bisque, a risotto, a ragout and a salmi were like. A decade later when I actually went to cooking school and tasted the dishes themselves, I was prepared for what I would find. I was asked to stay on and teach the next influx of students, and the kitchen became once again my natural home. I’ve never left it.

Jam Tarts

Bright red jam made from berries is best for jam tarts. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nicole Litvack

Bright red jam made from berries is best for jam tarts. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nicole Litvack

I’m amazed that jam tarts haven’t migrated to America. During World War II, cooks who had fruit could take it to the nearby community hall and free sugar would be provided to make preserves. My mother’s raspberry canes gave bumper crops year after year so she would send Emily off to a jam-making session where she could gossip with her friends. The resulting raspberry jam, tangy and brilliant red, was perfect for Jam Tarts. For the pastry, you can either make your favorite dough, or try this deliciously crumbly English recipe that uses butter and lard.

Prep time: 25 minutes

Baking time: 30 minutes

Total time: 55 minutes

Yield: 12 tarts

Ingredients

6 tablespoons (about 3 ounces) raspberry or other red jam

For the pie pastry

1 1/2 cups flour

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

4 tablespoons butter, more for the pans

4 tablespoons lard

2 tablespoons water, more if needed

12 medium shallow muffin pans; 3-inch cookie cutter

Directions

1. For the pie pastry: Sift the flour with the baking powder and salt into a bowl. Cut the butter and lard in small cubes and add to the flour. Rub the fats into the flour with your fingertips to form crumbs. Stir in the water with a fork to make sticky crumbs, adding more water if necessary. Press the dough together with your fist to make a ball, wrap in plastic wrap and set aside.

2. Heat the oven to 375 F and set a shelf low down; butter the muffin pans. Sprinkle the work surface with flour and roll the dough to 1/4-inch thickness. Stamp out 12 rounds with the cookie cutter. Roll the trimmings of dough a second time to make the count. Press the rounds gently down into the buttered muffin pans. Drop 1 1/2 teaspoons of jam into each mold.

Bake the tarts in the oven until the pastry is lightly browned, 25 to 30 minutes. They might collapse slightly around the edges; this is normal. Let the tarts cool slightly in the pans before unmolding them. They are best eaten the day of baking but can be kept a day or two in an airtight container.

Curd tarts

Once or twice a year, our nearby farmer’s wife would make curd cheese from fresh whole milk. My mother would stir in a handful of currants, or chopped prunes when currants were not available, and bake curd tarts. I thought they were even better than the jam version, but perhaps that’s because they appeared so rarely.

Follow the recipe for Jam Tarts, lining the pans with pastry dough. Stir 1 1/4 cups ricotta cheese, 1/3 cup sugar, 2 teaspoons flour and 1/2 teaspoon vanilla. Whisk an egg until frothy and stir into the cheese mixture with 1/3 cup raisins. Fill and bake like Jam Tarts, allowing 30 to 35 minutes.

Maids of honor

Legend has it that these tartlets were made by Anne Boleyn for King Henry VIII of England when she was maid of honor to Queen Catherine of Aragon. I like to decorate the tarts with a strawberry, raspberry or whatever fruit reflects the jam inside.

Assemble Jam Tarts using 1 tablespoon jam per tart. For the cheese topping: Put 1 cup ricotta cheese in a food processor with 1 egg, 2 tablespoons melted butter, 1/4 cup sugar and the grated zest and juice of 1 lemon and purée until smooth, about 1 minute. Alternatively work the ricotta cheese through a sieve and stir in the remaining ingredients. Spoon the cheese filling on top of the jam and bake Maids of Honor as for Jam Tarts, allowing 30 to 35 minutes. When serving, top with an appropriate piece of fruit.

Main photo: Jam tarts are a staple on English tea tables and need only pastry and fruit jam, both preferably homemade. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nicole Litvack

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Individual cheesecakes are an elegant addition to any party. Pure Cheesecakes by Patricia DeGasperi are as lovely as they are delicious. Order online but they’ll only deliver in Greater Los Angeles. Credit: Copyright Patricia DeGasperi

If there is a heaven, I know there is a fat slice of cheesecake waiting for me. A New York-style cheesecake.

Made with cream cheese, sugar and eggs. It can have a crust of cookies or a thin sliver of cake at the base or be nakedly uncrusted. It can be baked in a water bath or cooked straight up, slow and easy. It’s a decadence worthy of the ire of a hundred cardiologists.

And even though I have made literally hundreds of cheesecakes, I am more than happy to order a commercially made New York-style cheesecake. The good ones are so damn good, that I order cheesecakes aplenty without even a twinge of I-could-do-this-myself-I-am-a-trained-chef-for-goodness’-sake guilt. And they deliver.

Junior’s

 Junior's makes the classic, New York-style cheesecake. Credit: Copyright Junior's

Junior’s makes the classic, New York-style cheesecake. Credit: Copyright Junior’s

In the hearts and tummies of native New Yorkers, Junior’s may just be the first choice when it comes to New York-style cheesecake. The original shop in Brooklyn showcases its mid-century classic cheesecake alongside egg creams. The cake is creamy and well-ripened; even a small wedge is deliciously satisfying. It’s one of my absolute favorites, and I bet it will be yours, too.

My fixation with cheesecake may be genetic, but maybe it’s just because I’m a New Yorker. Cheesecakes aren’t exactly novel in the culinary world. You would be hard-pressed not to find a cheesy sweet pie or cake in Western-based cuisines. But the New York-style cheesecake is unique to the 20th century and for Jews of Ashkenazi descent it is linked to the holiday of Shavuot. The harvest festival in May includes reading an uncanonized biblical tale of a woman, Judith, who saves her community by killing an evil soldier after fattening him up on dairy.

Veniero’s

New York-style cheesecake from Veniero's. Credit: Copyright Robert Zarelli

New York-style cheesecake from Veniero’s is worth a pilgrimage, but it can also be ordered online. Credit: Copyright Robert Zerilli

A fourth-generation, New York bakery, Veniero’s bursts with fresh handmade pastries, cakes and cookies so delicious it’s worthy of a food pilgrimage. One taste of their New York-style cheesecake and you’ll be enchanted enough to pick up the phone or order online. (They know their way around cheese; the cannoli and Italian cheesecakes are to die for.)

Greenblatt’s Deli

Greenblatt's Deli</strong> in Los Angeles makes a creamy, not too sweet cheesecake. Credit: Copyright Greenblatt’s Deli

Greenblatt’s Deli in Los Angeles makes a creamy, not-too-sweet cheesecake. Credit: Copyright Greenblatt’s Deli

Think New York-style cheesecakes are always from New York? How about Los Angeles’ Greenblatt’s Deli? Creamy as all get out and not too sweet, this cheesecake is worthy of attention. Orders are handled by direct email.

Pure Cheesecakes

Lovely mini cheesecakes are available from Pure Cheesecakes. Credit: Copyright Patricia DeGasperi

Lovely mini cheesecakes are available from Pure Cheesecakes. Credit: Copyright Patricia DeGasperi

Individual cheesecakes are an elegant addition to any party. Pure Cheesecakes by Patricia DeGasperi are as lovely as they are delicious. You can order them online, but they’ll only deliver in the Greater Los Angeles area.

Sweet T’s

http://www.zingermansbakehouse.com

Sweet T’s Bakeshop in Haddonfield, New Jersey, offers cakes that are fun and beautiful. Credit Copyright Sweet T’s Bakeshop

Sweet T’s Bakeshop in Haddonfield, New Jersey, may be a bit off the radar. Sisters Toni and Chrissy Walton offer artistic, creative cakes. Toni worked with Buddy Valastro and was on the first two seasons of the TV show “Cake Boss.” Her talents at baking up one delicious cheesecake are evident at every bite. Make sure you’re ready to put down the deposit when you place the order. And, yes, the decorated cakes are fun and beautiful.

Eileen’s Special Cheesecakes

Eileen's Special Cheesecakes are lightly textured and incredibly creamy. Credit: Copyright Eileen’s Special Cheesecake

Eileen’s Special Cheesecakes are lightly textured and incredibly creamy. Credit: Copyright Eileen’s Special Cheesecake

Eileen Avezzano of Eileen’s Special Cheesecake is the Queen of Cheesecake. Her enthusiasm, love and yes — I’ll say it — complete obsession with perfection are transformed into memorable cheesecakes. Using the classic ingredients with a twist in technique (shhh: She whips the egg whites and folds them in), a new, lighter-textured and incredibly creamy cheesecake was born. Thank you, Eileen.

Zingerman’s Bakehouse

Zingerman’s Bakehouse, in Ann Arbor, Mich. makes fine cheesecakes like this one. Credit: Copyright Zingerman’s Bakehouse

Zingerman’s Bakehouse in Ann Arbor, Michigan, makes fine cheesecakes like this one. Credit: Copyright Zingerman’s Bakehouse

The Midwest rocks New York-style cheesecakes at Zingerman’s Bakehouse in Ann Arbor, Michigan. To get the cake may be a bit challenging (they ship them seasonally), but well worth it.

Just add toppings

Cheesecake toppings can include fresh fruit, chocolate ganache, or even crushed candies. Credit: Copyright Shutterstock

Cheesecake toppings can include fresh fruit, chocolate ganache or even crushed candies. Credit: Copyright Shutterstock

I devote my time and energy to toppings. When I cater, I often suggest that we order cheesecakes and offer toppings, set out like a bar. I have found that it’s great setup for any party, especially a backyard grill after a day of watching kids play ball or after a parade or any day when I am not at the stove all day to babysit the cake.

Instead, I make a dulce de leche, a cajeta or a salty butterscotch. I make a dark chocolate ganache that can be swirled on a plate. I set out balsamic vinegars and freshly ground peppercorns. I add pickled peaches or a red pepper jelly from a farmers market. I crush candies and serve ridiculous amounts of cut, juicy fresh fruit. Works every time.

A must: good cream cheese

The essence of good cheesecake is in the quality of the cream cheese. Credit: Copyright Zingerman's Bakehouse

The essence of good cheesecake is in the quality of the cream cheese. Credit: Copyright Zingerman’s Bakehouse

Cheesecake made with the newly invented cream cheese was an immigrant dream. And immediately the cake became part of Jewish-American repertoire, appearing at diners and delis, hence my genetic disposition. Cheesecake hit mainstream adoration quickly and is even the headliner of a large restaurant chain.

My fantasy cake slice is New York style. This is the city where cream cheese was actually born and made. Like me. Not Philly — sorry guys, you get the cheesesteak. Philadelphia was chosen to add to Kraft’s labeling because of its reputation in the 1920s for having the finest and purest dairy products, thereby christened the Cadillac of cream cheese. Every recipe I have uses Kraft’s classic Philadelphia-style cream cheese, and almost always by name, but if you are going to make it at home, why not try some newbies like Vermont Creamery or Zingerman’s cream cheese?

In the meantime, I dream about cheesecakes — not cheesesteaks (sorry, Aerosmith), and not even beefcakes (sorry again, boys) — in my future. I fantasize about cakes that rise like a stairway to heaven (sorry, Zep).

And most often, I order them online.

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Main photo: This original-style mini cheesecake is one of many that may be ordered from PureCheeseCakes.com, a family-owned company. Credit: Copyright 2015 Patricia DeGasperi

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The Red Hen Baking Co. has been baking organic bread in central Vermont for 15 years. Credit: Copyright Courtesy Red Hen Baking Co.

Regionally sourcing flour for 15,000 pounds of bread a week is the equivalent of a lunar landing, but in Vermont one bakery has found the way to do so. Red Hen Baking Co. has been baking organic bread in central Vermont for 15 years. By the end of this year, all of the flour that the bakery uses will come from within a 150-mile radius.

“As a baker, it’s a real luxury to have the same wheat all the time,” said Randy George, of Red Hen Baking Co. The Vermont baker spoke about local flour with Quebec farmer Loic Dewavrin at the Northern Grain Growers Association conference in March, in Essex, Vermont. The two have an uncommon partnership.

Such leaps forward don’t register as significant to consumers because growing grains and making flour are almost invisible processes. However, the farmers, bakers and food advocates at the conference appreciated this achievement, and listened hard for details of the challenges en route to this success story.

The importance of local flour

pizza crusts

Pizza crusts are baked in a hearth oven at Red Hen, using organic flour. Credit: Courtesy Red Hen Baking Co.

“Normally, you will see some variation from flour lot to flour lot. You can never count on complete consistency,” George said. The typical roller mill draws wheat from a variety of sources, but the flour from Le Moulin des Cedres all comes from wheat grown by Dewavrin and his family at their organic farm, Les Fermes Longpres.

“Roller mills are incredibly expensive infrastructure. I never heard of one that was on a farm,” he said.

Stone mills located on farms are not uncommon. This type of mill is relatively simple to run and inexpensive to purchase. Roller mills, however, are industrial-scale equipment. Les Fermes Longpres, located just west of Montreal, recently finished assembling a small roller mill. The family took four years to complete the project, using parts from a defunct French roller mill and doing much of the work themselves to minimize the investment.

A family mill makes uniform flour

Sacks of bran

Sacks of bran outside the Le Moulin des Cedres mill. Credit: Copyright 2014 Loic Dewavrin

At Le Moulin des Cedres, the Dewavrin family mills wheat grown on the farm. With an eye toward evening out seasonal irregularities, the flour is made from a combination of two years’ crops. This is why baker George was marveling at having access to uniform flour.

All mills use raw materials that are products of nature and have a wide range of potential expression. Since roller mills pool wheat from multiple sources, the result can vary. Even with careful testing of grains to try to keep the range within limited parameters, mills are blending wheat from many different climates and micro climates, from many different farms with various cultivation, harvest and storage habits, and the flour and its performance changes accordingly.

Le Moulin des Cedres is unique, but exemplary of the farm’s approach. When Dewavrin returned to the family farm after a career as an industrial engineer, he and his brothers began to convert a conventional corn-soy crop farm into a more diversified organic operation. This was in pursuit of a system that could support the brothers financially, and support the farm’s health and long-term viability.

To make the most of what they grew, the brothers sought methods to capture crop value on the farm and avoid selling crops into the commodity market as much as possible. Making sunflower oil was the first value-added process they tackled. Next, they considered whether to do something with the soy they grew, or the wheat. After investigating the markets, they saw that what they could do with soy didn’t hold as much promise. Flour seemed the best route. There was enough whole-grain, stone-milled flour, however, and bakers had expressed interest in locally grown and produced white flour.

Keeping the integrity of the crop

Wheat fields

Wheat fields at Les Fermes Longpres farm. Credit: Copyright 2014 Loic Dewavrin

The idea of having full command of the crop from seed to selling had great appeal to the Dewavrin family. Without running a mill themselves, their production was mixed with grains from other farms.

“Our goal was to keep the integrity of the crop,” Dewavrin explained. Selling wheat to a mill meant their crops were mixed with many others. “We lost the purity of the product and the controlled efforts we put into it.”

Les Fermes Longpres is a very careful farm. The family puts a lot of thought into crop rotations, tillage, and other ways of building good soil, the basic tenet of organic farming.

For the mill, they also worked hard on wheat quality issues, from selecting plant varieties to combating diseases and pests that challenge wheat in the field, and in storage. They began milling slowly last year, determined to understand the process and create a good flour for bakers.

A bakery-mill collaboration

local flour

The bread at Red Hen Baking Co. carries a sign touting the locally sourced flour. Credit: Copyright Randy George

Feedback from bakeries like Red Hen, one of the few bakeries using the mill’s limited supply, helped in this area. In response to what George observed when baking with Les Cedres’ early mill runs, Dewavrin increased the level of starch damage slightly to improve the baking quality of the flour.

“Damaged starch” is an odd term. While it sounds like a bad thing, it’s just milling terminology for opening up the starch granules.

“Getting just the right amount of ‘damage’ is critical so that the flour is in the right state for the baker to continue the ‘damage’ in the baking process,” George said. All mills have to get this right, so the adjustment made is not unique. But the way that the correction came about, through the baker communicating with the farmer/miller was entirely different than the norm.

Leaps forward in decentralizing the production of staple crops don’t register as significant, not yet. But the more that bakers seek local flour, and the more that farmers seek noncommodity marketing options, the more consumers will learn to understand and appreciate the small food mountains people are moving.

Main photo: The Red Hen Baking Co. has been baking organic bread in central Vermont for 15 years. Credit: Copyright Courtesy Red Hen Baking Co.

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Slices of Povitica, a Croatian coffeecake, feature beautiful swirls of the chocolate walnut filling. Credit: Copyright 2015 Barbara Haber

I used to think that I already knew about every fattening confection known to man or woman until I watched “The Great British Baking Show,” a television baking contest that recently concluded its current season. This is where I first heard about Povitica (pronounced po-va-teets-sa), a Croatian coffeecake that I was eager to try.

But before I go on about this cake, let me hasten to add that I take pride in not watching television cooking contests because I get angry at the sight of haughty judges taking little nibbles of a dish while anxious and browbeaten young cooks wait for a verdict on their efforts. I dislike watching the power relationship between the mighty judges and the humiliated contestants. Furthermore, since I can’t taste the food being judged, who’s to say that I would agree with the praise or condemnation bestowed upon a dish? Everyone knows that tastes vary, that ingredients and flavors appealing to one person will leave another cold. For instance, were I to judge a contest, any dish containing cilantro or beets would automatically fail with me, but I at least recognize that this isn’t fair.

So, if I dislike cooking contests, then why did I watch and enjoy “The Great British Baking Show”? And why did I find myself eager to bake Povitica, the complicated and gorgeous sweet bread I’d never heard of that was one of the challenges facing the British contestants?

Learning experience

To start with, I find the setup of this British show interesting in that a diverse group of 12 talented amateur bakers are brought in from around Britain to compete for the crown. And I should add that there is no big prize money involved — just the honor of winning. One of the men was a construction worker, and one of the women was a 17-year-old schoolgirl, so the makeup of the group defied stereotypes. I was struck by the sweet natures of the contestants, who routinely helped one another so that if someone finished a bake early, then he or she would pitch in to help another complete a dish.

What I especially liked was that one of the judges, Paul Hollywood, an artisan baker, was terrific at explaining the qualities expected of any of the three baking challenges that occur during each show. Contestants placed their dishes on a table and Hollywood cut them in half before pointing out their successes or shortcomings. He brings important standards to the contest, examining the overall appearance of the product, whether or not fillings and frostings are even and of good consistency and not lopsided or runny, or if a batch of cookies is uniform and not mismatched. Underbaked dough is usually the worst offense and is guaranteed to put a contestant at the bottom of the heap.

As a viewer, I can see for myself the points Hollywood makes, and when a dish hits the mark, his explanation brings new understanding to what successful baking is all about. Of course the flavor of a dish also counts and is discussed, but as I have already mentioned, taste is a matter of opinion and the judges on the show sometimes disagree.

The emphasis in this program on the visual gave me an insight as to why I sometimes watch another reality show, “Project Runway,” where young clothing designers compete for a large cash prize and the chance to show their work at a New York fashion week. Top designers serve as judges and point out the flaws and glories of a given garment, and I learn from their sophisticated sense of design, for I can see what they are talking about.

While I would never attempt to stitch up a garment  — sewing machines have always terrified me — I couldn’t wait to whip up Povitica, which turned out to be a challenging yeast product with a tricky shape.

Perfecting Povitica

It is similar to cinnamon bread in that the dough is rolled flat, covered with a filling, then rolled and placed into a standard bread pan.

Povitica dough, rich with butter and eggs, is rolled out thin and filled with a mixture of chocolate and walnuts. Credit: Copyright 2015 Barbara Haber

Povitica dough, rich with butter and eggs, is rolled out thin and filled with a mixture of chocolate and walnuts. Credit: Copyright 2015 Barbara Haber

But with Povitica the dough, rich with butter and eggs, is rolled out extremely thin and then filled with a heavy mixture of chocolate and walnuts, all of which inhibit the rising of the dough. Then, the rolled dough goes into the pan and is intricately shaped so that the finished product, when sliced, exhibits beautiful swirls. My first attempt at Povitica, using an online recipe, was a flop. The dough didn’t rise properly and the finished cake was inedible except for the filling of chocolate and walnuts, which I forbade myself from scraping off and eating.

With my next attempt I added more yeast to the dough and bravely carried on. I made another important adjustment to the traditional recipe by not spreading the rolled dough with butter before putting on the filling, for the slippery butter made it difficult to evenly apply the filling. Instead, I put the butter into the filling so that distributing it over the dough became a cinch.

If I do say so myself, my second Povitica turned out to be a demystified triumph, rising beautifully during the bake and when cut in half exposing the signature swirls of the dish. I will make one again without trepidation, and I now find myself looking forward to next season’s British Baking Show when I hope to learn about even more new fattening treats.

Povitica

Prep time: 1 hour

Rising time: 3 hours

Baking time: 1 hour

Total time: 5 hours

Ingredients

For the dough:

1 package rapid-rise yeast

1/3 cup sugar

3/4 cup milk, heated to 115 F

1 teaspoon salt

5 tablespoon unsalted butter, melted

1 large egg

2 1/2 cups flour

For the filling:

2 cups walnuts

3/4 cup sugar

3 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder

1/4 cup milk

6 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 large egg yolk

1/2 teaspoon vanilla

Glaze:

1 egg white

1 teaspoon sugar

Instructions

Make the dough:

1. In the stand of a mixer fitted with a paddle, add yeast, 1 tablespoon sugar and half of the warm milk.

2. Let rest until foamy, about 10 minutes.

3. Add remaining sugar and milk, salt, butter and egg, and mix for 30 seconds.

4. With motor running, slowly add flour and beat until smooth and dough is not stuck to the sides of the bowl.

5. Cover dough with plastic wrap and let rise for about 90 minutes.

Make the filling:

1. In a food processor, chop walnuts together with sugar and cocoa until walnuts are finely chopped. Do not grind them to a paste.

2. Heat milk and butter to boiling and pour over the nut mixture.

3. Add egg yolk and vanilla to nut mixture and stir thoroughly.

4. Keep mixture at room temperature until ready to spread on dough.

Constructing the cake:

1. Grease a 9-by-5-inch loaf pan with butter.

2. On a lightly floured surface, roll out risen dough as thin as you can until dough is at least 15 inches long and 10 inches wide. (I use a tabletop for this.)

3. Spread dough with nut mixture.

4. Starting from the long end, roll dough into a tight cylinder.

5. Place in pan in a U shape and circle the ends of the cylinder over the top of the dough already in the pan.

6. Cover and let rise for about 90 minutes.

7. Beat egg white with a fork until foamy and spread over surface of the cake.

8. Sprinkle top with pearl sugar or with regular granulated sugar.

9. Heat oven to 350 F and bake about 1 hour or until a toothpick inserted into the middle comes out clean. Let cool in the pan.

Note: Make sure filling is spreadable. If too thick, add a small amount of milk before spreading on the dough. Before the last 15 minutes of baking, if cake is brown enough, cover with foil to prevent burning. When ready to slice the cake, it is easier to cut from the bottom or sides.

Main photo: Slices of Povitica, a Croatian coffeecake, feature beautiful swirls of the chocolate walnut filling. Credit: Copyright 2015 Barbara Haber

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Polenta cake makes a healthy breakfast option. Credit: Copyright 2015 Terra Brockman

Cake. It’s what’s for breakfast.

And why not? Some studies show that a high carbohydrate and high protein breakfast actually helps people shed pounds. So it turns out your Marie Antoinette breakfast need not be a guilty pleasure. You can actually have your cake and lose weight, too.

In fact, this easy one-bowl take on the classic Italian Amor Polenta cake of Lombardy is far healthier than most processed breakfast cereals — full of the wholesome goodness of corn, butter, eggs and almonds. Flavored with citrus zest and apple eau-de-vie, and served with berries, it’s a satisfying breakfast that will keep you going all day long.

While cornmeal can be made from just about any variety of dent corn, the older heirloom varieties such as Mandan Bride, Floriani Red and Painted Mountain are superior in taste. Now that locally grown and locally milled grains are enjoying a renaissance across the U.S., you can probably find delicious and nutritious corn grown by someone near you. And if you want the freshest and most nutritious cornmeal possible, you can even invest in a countertop grain mill.

If you don’t have a source of freshly ground corn, just about any store-bought cornmeal will be fine in this cake, whether it says polenta on the package or not. But if you want to make the traditional Amor Polenta or Dolce Varese, look for the finely ground farina di mais fioretto or the even more refined farina di mais fumetto.

Although this cake has butter, eggs and sugar, as any good cake must, it is not a butter bomb or a sugar rush. Rather it’s a not-too-rich, not-too-sweet slice of perfection — just right as an accompaniment to your morning tea or coffee. So say goodbye to processed cereals and hello to healthy polenta cake for breakfast.

Healthy Breakfast Polenta Cake

Prep time: 20 minutes

Cook time: 45 minutes

Total time: 1 hour, 5 minutes

Yield: One (8- or 9-inch) loaf cake, about 10 servings

Ingredients

2 sticks (8 ounces) butter

3/4 cup sugar

Zest of one lemon

Zest of one orange

3 eggs

3 tablespoons apple brandy, amaretto, or other liqueur

1/2 teaspoon Fiori di Sicilia (or vanilla or almond extract)

1 cup cornmeal

1 3/4 cup almond flour

1/3 cup unbleached wheat flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

Directions

1. Preheat oven to 350 F. Butter a loaf pan and dust with cornmeal.

2. Put the butter, sugar, and lemon and orange zest in a mixing bowl and beat until light and fluffy. Then add eggs one at a time, beating after each addition, and scraping down the sides of the mixing bowl.

3. Beat in the liqueur and Fiori di Sicilia or other flavoring.

4. In a separate bowl, stir together the dry ingredients: the polenta, almond flour, wheat flour, baking powder and salt.

5. While the mixer is running at low speed, slowly add the dry ingredients to the butter mixture until just combined.

6. Pour the batter into the prepared loaf pan and bake until a lovely aroma comes from the oven, and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean, about 45 minutes

7. Let cool in the pan for about 1/2 hour, and then loosen the cake from the sides of the pan with a knife and tip it out onto a rack to cool completely.

8. Slice and serve with fresh fruit, or frozen fruit or fruit jam you may have from last summer.

Main photo: Breakfast polenta cake. Credit: Copyright 2015 Terra Brockman

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P is for Passover Cake can be adapted for use at other times of the year, too. Change the P to E, and you have a lovely Easter treat! Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

When it comes to the science of baking as opposed to the art of cooking, it doesn’t do to have clumsy, chubby fingers. Chemistry needs cool palms and a sweat-free brow.

A dear friend of mine, the late Zena Swerling, was a naturally gifted cook, but it was in the realm of baking that she truly shone. “Here’s another can’t-go-wrong recipe,” she’d offer breezily, and although they always worked, they were never quite the same as when served by Zena herself.

Zena started baking when she was “just tall enough to get my chin over my Russian mummy’s kitchen table.” She was a good, old-fashioned cook with a generous hand and heart, but it was not always easy to interpret and annotate her recipes unless you were by her side in the kitchen. Even then, it was difficult because she’d always insist you sit down instead for a light five-course snack with a good helping of juicy gossip.

With Passover here, I’m pleased to share her recipe for ingber, also known as ingberlach (also sometimes called pletzlach), an old-fashioned Ashkenazi carrot-and-ginger festive candy that too few have the patience to make anymore.

Zena, I hope you’re kvelling with pride.

Zena’s Ingber

Add more or less ginger as preferred, but this sweet confection of carrots and ginger should smolder in the mouth.

Prep time: 10 minutes

Cook time: 50 minutes

Total time: 1 hour

Yield: About 18 pieces

Ingredients

5 large carrots, peeled

2 cups superfine sugar

1 cup chopped almonds

3 teaspoons ground ginger

Directions

1. Finely grate the carrots in the processor and put them in a large pan.

2. Add the sugar; stir over low heat until it dissolves. Cook very slowly, stirring frequently, until the mixture is thick (test by dropping a little onto a plate to see if it sets, like jam). This will take 45 to 50 minutes. For chewy, syrupy candy cook until the soft-crack stage or 270 F on a thermometer; for a more brittle candy, cook until it reaches the hard-crack stage or 300 F.

3. Add the almonds and ginger and remove immediately from the heat. Pour the mixture into a baking tray lined with silicone paper.

4. As it cools, score the top into squares or diamonds, then cut into pieces when cold.

P is for Passover Cake

This is a good recipe either to make before Passover, when the cupboard is crammed with ingredients bought in a frenzy of last-minute panic buying, or when you’re on the homeward stretch and your stocks are running low. Bags of nuts, in particular, seem to get into the spirit of the thing and go forth and multiply under their own volition.

The cake can be made with almonds, walnuts or hazelnuts. Ground hazelnuts are widely available in Jewish stores at this time of the year and are much appreciated by the home baker as they save the tedious business of toasting the nuts, and rubbing their skins off with a tea towel before you pulverize them in a grinder … who needs it? Isn’t this the festival of freedom?

Note to self: Next year must buy nut futures.

And, I’d just like to share with you my favorite Passover joke:

Q: What do you call someone who derives pleasure from the bread of affliction?

A: A matzochist.

OK, let’s get to the cake.

Passover Cake

Prep time: 25 minutes

Cook time: 40 minutes

Total time: 65 minutes

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

Ingredients

1/2 cup ground nuts, plus a little extra for dusting

4 large eggs

1/4 cup superfine sugar

2/3 cup, plus 1 cup dark chocolate

Salt

2/3 cup sour cream

1 tablespoon sugar (optional)

3 tablespoons apricot jam

Whole nuts, for decoration (optional)

Directions

1. Preheat the oven to 355 F (180 C).

2. Grease two 6-inch sandwich tins and line the base of each with a disc of oiled paper. Dust with some ground nuts.

3. Whisk the eggs and sugar until thick.

4. Melt 2/3 cup chocolate with a teaspoon of water.

5. Beat a little into the egg mixture along with a pinch of salt. Fold in the rest of the melted chocolate along with the 1/2 cup of ground nuts.

6. Pour into the tins and bake for 40 minutes or until springy to the touch.

7. Leave to cool on a wire rack, then turn out of the tin.

8. To make the frosting, melt the cup of chocolate and stir in the sour cream. Add a little sugar, if you wish, and allow to cool a little.

9. For the filling, spread the apricot jam and about half of the chocolate mixture over the top of one of the cakes. Place the other cake on top, and smear the remainder of the chocolate sauce over the top. Decorate, if preferred, with whole nuts in shape of a “P.”

Main photo: P is for Passover Cake can be adapted for use at other times of the year, too. Change the P to E, and you have a lovely Easter treat! Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

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Abby Fisher's 1881 cookbook was long known as the first African-American cookbook until Malinda Russell’s book was discovered in 2001. Credit: Copyright Sylvia Wong Lewis

I was born in Harlem, a child of Southern migrants and Caribbean immigrants. I witnessed what the women in my family could do with food.

Rarely is our history taught through the lens of food. Yet, it was over the hearth and in kitchens large and small that they impacted our nation’s culture and created economic, political and social independence through ingenious culinary skills.

That is why I honor African-American women cooks for Women’s History Month this March.

The women in my family created and passed down masterful meals from ancient, unwritten recipes. They built communities and paved my way with proceeds from selling sweet potato pies, fried chicken dinners and roti lunches: a Trinidad flatbread cooked on a griddle and wrapped around curried vegetables or meats. My mom made these popular rotis and sold them in box lunches to employees at the hospital where she worked.

Whether they were free or formerly enslaved, the women I descended from cooked their way to freedom and wealth in America.

In their honor, I have chosen to feature two vintage recipes from two of the oldest cookbooks written by African-American women.

Cookbook pioneers

Malinda Russell wrote “A Domestic Cook Book” in 1866. Abby Fisher wrote “What Mrs. Fisher Knows about Old Southern Cooking” in 1881.

Malinda Russell's "A Domestic Cook Book: Containing a Careful Selection of Useful Receipts for the Kitchen" is believed to be the first published cookbook by an African-American author. Credit: University of Michigan/Janice Bluestein Longone Culinary Archive

Malinda Russell’s “A Domestic Cook Book: Containing a Careful Selection of Useful Receipts for the Kitchen” is believed to be the first published cookbook by an African-American author. Credit: University of Michigan/Janice Bluestein Longone Culinary Archive

Mrs. Fisher’s cookbook was long known as the first African-American cookbook until Mrs. Russell’s book was discovered in 2001. Both women wrote their books at the behest of friends, fans and patrons.

Mrs. Russell, a free woman from Tennessee and an owner of a local bakery, was known for her pastries. Most of her recipes are European-inspired. Her cookbook also includes remedies and full-course meals. It was published after she moved to Paw Paw, Michigan.

Mrs. Fisher, a formerly enslaved person, won cooking medals for a wide range of dishes, including preserves and condiments in California. She moved out West from Alabama after the Civil War.

Below are their original recipes and my interpretation.

Mrs. Russell’s Jumbles Cookies

Jumbles were cake-like cookies popular from the 1700s. Mrs. Russell’s recipe was exceedingly spare on details, like all of her recipes:

“One lb. flour, 3/4 lb. sugar, one half lb. butter, five eggs, mace, rose water, and caraway, to your taste.”

The popular vintage cookies have been adapted through the ages — even by modern food bloggers. I personally sampled a reimagined version of a Jumbles recipe at a culinary event that Anne Hampton Northup was said to have made when she cooked at the Morris-Jumel Mansion. Northrup was a chef and the wife of Solomon Northup, whose life was depicted in the Oscar-winning picture “12 Years a Slave”.

Here is a more detailed recipe so you can make Mrs. Russell’s Jumbles Cookies, using her ingredients. Since she suggested using mace, rosewater and caraway to taste, feel free to alter the suggested amounts of those ingredients:

Jumbles Cookies

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cook time: 20 minutes

Total time: 35 minutes

Yield: About 4 dozen cookies

Ingredients

3 1/3 cups all-purpose flour

3 teaspons mace

2 tablespoons caraway seeds

1 1/2 cups granulated sugar

8 ounces salted butter (2 sticks, at room temperature)

5 eggs (small- or medium-sized)

4 tablespoons rosewater

Directions

1. Preheat the oven to 375 F and line your baking sheets with parchment paper.

2. In a small bowl, combine the flour, mace and caraway seeds.

3. In a large bowl, cream the sugar and butter together.

4. With an electric mixer on low speed, beat in eggs to the butter and sugar mixture.

5. Add the flour mixture and mix until combined.

6. Add the rosewater and mix until combined.

7. Using a tablespoon measure, spoon tablespoon-full size drops of the batter on your baking sheets, about 2 inches apart.

8. Bake for about 10 minutes, just until the edges turn golden.

9. Cool the cookies for two minutes on wire racks. Serve, and store the remainder quickly in a sealed container or bag.

Mrs. Abby Fisher’s Blackberry Brandy

This old recipe holds up very well today. Many of Mrs. Fisher’s recipes called for huge amounts of each ingredient:

“To five gallons of berries add one gallon of the best brandy; put on the fire in a porcelain kettle and let it just come to a boil, then take it off the fire and make a syrup of granulated sugar; ten pounds of sugar to one quart of water. Let the syrup cook till thick as honey, skimming off the foam while boiling; then pour it upon the brandy and berries and let it stand for eight weeks; then put in a bottle or demijohn. This blackberry brandy took a diploma at the state Fair of 1879. Let the berries, brandy and syrup stand in a stone jar or brandy keg for eight weeks when you take it off the fire.”

The basic ingredients for Mrs. Fisher's Blackberry Brandy: blackberries, sugar and cognac. Credit: Sylvia Wong Lewis

The basic ingredients for Mrs. Fisher’s Blackberry Brandy: blackberries, sugar and cognac. Credit: Copyright Sylvia Wong Lewis

I was so inspired by Mrs. Fisher’s recipe that I made my own version — which is now in the middle of the eight-week fermentation process. I used the same ingredients, but reduced the amounts, and poured them into a glass jug instead of a brandy keg. And I used cognac, because Mrs. Fisher’s recipe called for the “best brandy.”

We’ll have our own taste test — at my next family reunion.

Main photo: Abby Fisher’s 1881 cookbook was long believed to be the first African-American cookbook until Malinda Russell’s 1866 book was discovered in 2001. Credit: Copyright Sylvia Wong Lewis

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