Articles in Baking
Close your eyes. Take a deep breath of this golden elixir and you’re transported to the raucous spice bazaars of Marrakech. A classic Italian liqueur, popular in cocktails and as an after-dinner digestivo, Strega liqueur can be a cook’s secret weapon. It’s like having a well-stocked spice rack and fragrant herb garden in one bottle.
I’ve long loved Strega’s beguiling flavor in cocktails and as an after-dinner digestive. It appears in my book, “Dolci — Italy’s Sweets,” in several classic Italian desserts. But here’s a surprise: Strega is spectacular in savory dishes!
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Made with more than 70 aromatic spices and herbs infused into a base distillate, this 100% natural mixture — with no artificial colors or flavors — is aged in ash barrels to meld and mellow the flavors. The mix of exotic spices and herbs include the world’s three most expensive spices: saffron, which gives Strega its distinctive glistening yellow tint; vanilla; and cardamom.
Some of the ingredients come right from Italy: lavender, irises, orange and lemon peel, as well as amazingly aromatic juniper from the Italian Alps and rare wild mint from the south. The rest are gathered from around the world: myrrh from Ethiopia, star anise from China, cinnamon from Ceylon, bitter orange peel from the Caribbean island of Curaçao.
This aromatic mix of herbs and spices is masterfully combined in perfect proportion, creating an explosion of flavors and lending a gourmet touch to appetizers, pasta, chicken and fish, as well as countless desserts. Use it in recipes calling for wine or as a marinade for chicken or fish. It’s great on almost anything on the grill.
And, of course, Strega adds a refined touch to so many desserts: splash on fruit salad, add into pudding, cake mixes, pie crust and pie fillings. You probably have a bottle of Strega languishing in your liquor cabinet already — so move it into the pantry! Here are just a few of the many wonderful ways to enjoy it out of the glass.
Pasta Shish Kebob With Peaches and Scallops
Prep time: 5 minutes
Cooking time: 10 minutes
Total time: 15 minutes
Yield: 4 servings
From “Pasta Modern –New & Inspired Recipes from Italy” by Francine Segan (Stewart, Tabori & Chang)
Pasta, scallops, sweet peaches and red onion grilled on a stick — this is Italy’s delightful answer to shish kebob. A wonderfully new way to serve pasta.
8 short rosemary branches or wooden skewers
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons Strega liqueur
1 garlic clove, finely minced
8 large scallops
1 peach, cut into 8 slices
1/2 small red onion, cut into bite-sized pieces
Fresh or dried chili pepper, to taste
16 wheel–shaped “route” pasta
1. Soak the branches or skewers in water for 1 hour to prevent charring.
2. Preheat the broiler or grill. (If using the broiler, coat a baking sheet with a little olive oil.)
3. In a bowl, combine the oil, Strega liqueur, garlic, scallops, peach, onion and chili pepper.
4. Meanwhile, cook the pasta in boiling salted water until al dente. Drain and toss into the bowl with the other ingredients. Thread a pasta wheel, peach slice, scallop, onion piece, and a second pasta wheel onto each branch or skewer. Season the skewers with salt and grill or broil, turning 1/2 turn every minute or so, until the scallops are done, about 3 minutes.
Chicken With Artichokes
From “Shakespeare’s Kitchen” by Francine Segan (Random House)
Prep time: 5 minutes
Cooking time: 45 minutes
Total time: 50 minutes
Yield: 6 servings
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 chicken, cut into 8 pieces (about 4 pounds)
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup chicken stock
1/4 cup Strega liqueur
1 lemon, unpeeled, diced
6 dates, chopped
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1 teaspoon salt
5 to 6 artichoke bottoms, cleaned, par-boiled
1. Heat the oil in a large sauté pan over medium-high heat.
2. Dredge the chicken pieces in the flour and brown the chicken on all sides.
3. Remove the chicken from the pan and add the stock, Strega liqueur, lemon, dates, brown sugar and salt. Bring to a boil and then add the chicken and artichokes.
4. Reduce to medium heat, cover, and simmer for 30 minutes.
5. Turn over the chicken, and cook for 15 minutes, or until the chicken is fork tender.
Main photo: A mix of exotic spices and herbs gives Strega its distinctive tint and flavor. Credit: Copyright 2016 Francine Segan
Italian celebrations always involve food, and Easter is no different. The yeast bread cake, Colomba di Pasqua, shaped like a dove (colomba), is often at the table, but these days it is getting a modern twist.
Soft and fragrant, colomba is a generous cake with butter and eggs, filled with raisins and candied orange peel. Topping it off is an almond icing that is applied before baking, creating a sweet, crisp crust. Traditional colombas are baked in dove-shaped paper molds. The bread dough starts as a sponge that must rest overnight.
An offer of peace
The birth of the colomba dates back to 572, when King Alboin, after three years of siege, captured the town of Pavia in northern Italy on Easter Eve. Evading the guards, an old baker was able to reach the king and offer a dove-shaped bread. “Alboin,” he said, “I offer this symbol, as a tribute to peace, on Easter day.” The sweet scent and the convincing message persuaded the king to give a promise of peace. That’s the legend.
The dove we know today has a more recent origin and, I should say, a more prosaic version of the history. In the early 1930s the Milanese company Motta specialized in panettone, a cake produced only for Christmas. Unhappy to have their machinery unused for many months, Motta decided to package a similar product for the Easter holidays. The shape of the sweet dove, which represents peace, was a choice dictated not only by the symbolism but also to welcome the arrival of the spring.
New flavors, traditions
The new cake was (and still is) a huge success. It is typically soft, fragrant outside and moist inside, naturally leavened for a whole night, then filled with a mixture of flour, sugar, eggs and candied orange.
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Since its birth, the colomba was enriched by many variations and a variety of icings and fillings. I personally love the decadent Colomba al Cioccolato (coated and filled with dark chocolate) created by Loison, a bakery established in 1938 that adopted a process that lasts over three days in an effort to preserve the quality of the ingredients. The result is spongy, porous bread often combined with unexpected fillings, such as a delicious lemon cream, or a mix of nuts and peaches or small cubes of candied Ciaculli mandarin, protected by Slow Food.
Beyond the basic cake
Fraccaro Spumadoro makes other favorites of mine, including Colomba alle Bollicine Trevigiane, a treat stuffed with a cream made with Treviso sparkling white wine and elegantly topped with granulated sugar. Then there is Colomba al Pistacchio — the scent of its top-quality pistachios combined with a tasty white chocolate decorating glaze.
The colomba not only brings a message of peace but also a political statement at times, as in the case of the artisanal Colomba Arcobaleno (Rainbow Dove) made with Sicilian Avola almonds, Calabria cedro (a type of lemon), and kneaded with Vernaccia Mormoraia, a traditional white wine from San Gimignano, Tuscany. It has been created by the Italian sommelier Diana Zerilli, who supports gay rights in Italy.
Main photo: The classic Colomba di Pasqua by Loison. This dove-shaped cake is a wonderful addition to an Easter brunch or dinner. Credit: Copyright 2016 Cesare Zucca
Perhaps one of the most bizarre Easter traditions in Italy is a cheese-tossing contest called ruzzolone, which is popular in central Italy. A fun place to witness this sort of edible discus event is in the Umbrian hill town of Panicale, near Perugia.
A huge 10-pound wheel of hard aged pecorino cheese is hurled along a course in the center of town. Two teams, with four players each, compete to get the cheese around the course using the fewest number of throws. The players wrap a long cloth sling with a wooden handle around the cheese to help hurl it down the curving streets, across moats, and around spectators and vehicles. The winning team gets to keep the cheese. If the cheese breaks during the race, everyone shares it.
An ancient Italian tradition
The origins of this unusual contest are uncertain, but frescos have been found dating to Etruscan times that depict smiling shepherds rolling rounds of cheese down slopes, seemingly just for the fun of it.
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The game was well established by the Middle Ages, and over the years various laws were set in place: In 1598 a mayor from an Emilia-Romagna town placed betting limits to the current restriction of wagering no more than the value of the cheese being tossed, and in 1761, in response to complaints of the rowdiness of the game, a governor of that region limited the game to the period between Carnival and Easter.
Nowadays it’s back to a year-round game, as gradually over time, many towns replaced the cheese with a solid wooden wheel, allowing play even in summer, when the heat would have made the cheese too soft to toss.
If you visit Panicale on Easter Monday to witness this lively sport, be sure to stay until a winner is declared. You can then enjoy a free picnic lunch of local cheese and bread sandwiches offered in the town square. For dessert, enjoy pieces of chocolate from the gigantic 4-foot Easter egg that decorates the piazza.
Easter Pasta Pie
To create your own Easter Monday cheesy celebration, make pasta pie (crostata di tagliolini), a lovely make-ahead picnic dish traditionally eaten in Italy on Pasquetta, “Little Easter,” the day after Easter. Thin egg noodles are layered with cheese, ham and mushrooms with tiny peas scattered between the layers to add a green burst of flavor. It’s baked in the oven until beautifully golden, sliced like pie, and eaten at room temperature.
From: “Pasta Modern: New & Inspired Recipes of Italy” (Stewart, Tabori & Chang), by Francine Segan
Prep time: 30 minutes
Bake time: 25 minutes
Total time: 55 minutes
Yield: 8 servings
1 small onion, minced
2 ounces pancetta or prosciutto, minced
8 ounces baby peas
Salt and black pepper
3/4 pound mushrooms, thinly sliced
1 clove garlic, minced
7 tablespoons butter, plus more for the pan
About 1/4 cup toasted bread crumbs
1 cup chicken or beef stock
1 pound tagliolini, thin egg noodles, preferably Felicetti brand
4 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 cups milk, warmed
About 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
3/4 pound burrata or mozzarella cheese, diced
8 ounces thinly sliced ham, cut into strips
1. Heat 1 tablespoon of oil in a small frying pan over medium high heat. Cook the onion and pancetta until softened, about 5 minutes. Add the peas and a few tablespoons of water, and cook until the peas are tender, about 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper, set aside in a bowl.
2. In the same pan, heat 2 tablespoons of oil over high heat. Cook the mushrooms and garlic a minute or two, until tender. Season with salt and pepper, set aside.
3. Preheat the oven to 350 F. Butter an 8- to 9-inch nonstick spring-form pan and dust with bread crumbs.
4. In a small pot, simmer the stock until reduced by half.
5. In another small pot, make the béchamel. Melt 4 tablespoons of butter over medium heat, stir in the flour and cook, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, until smooth. Add the warm milk, and bring to a boil, stirring until thick, about 2 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Set aside.
6. Cook the pasta in salted, boiling water 3 minutes less than package directions. Drain and toss with the reduced stock.
7. Layer the bottom of the prepared baking pan with 1/3 of the pasta, pressed into a level layer. Dot with 1/3 of the béchamel, sprinkle with 2 to 3 heaping tablespoons of grated Parmesan, scatter on all the pea mixture, then scatter over 1/3 of the diced cheese. Spread out a second level layer of pasta, dot with 1/3 of the béchamel, sprinkle with 2 to 3 heaping tablespoons of Parmesan, and scatter on all the mushrooms and ham and remaining 2/3 of the diced cheese. Top with the remaining pasta and any unabsorbed remaining stock, pressing down to compact the layers. Dot with the remaining béchamel, sprinkle with 2 to 3 tablespoons of Parmesan and 2 to 3 tablespoons of bread crumbs, and dot with 2 to 3 tablespoons of very thinly sliced butter.
8. Bake for about 25 minutes until set and golden. Let rest to room temperature before slicing.
Main photo: A contestant prepares a cheese wheel for Panicale’s Easter Monday competition. Credit: Copyright 2016 Francine Segan
Recently, master baker Uri Scheft of Breads Bakery in New York and Lehamim Bakery in Tel Aviv shared this recipe for his pistachio financiers. Baked in small pyramid-shaped silicon molds, they are delicious.
What I liked best about the little cakes were their crispy edges. This made me think the batter would make delicious tuiles, those delicate, crisp buttery cookies that are draped over a rolling pin when they come out of the oven so that when they cool they’re shaped like a roof tile.
I remembered that another great pastry chef, Sherry Yard, also uses cake batter for her tuiles; her recipe is in the pound cake chapter of her cookbook “The Secrets of Baking.”
My instincts were right! The nutty, crisp, rich-tasting tuiles are fabulous and have great staying power.
You will need pistachio paste, which is available in baking supply stores, Middle Eastern markets and online. If you can’t decide which to make, use half the batter for the financiers, refrigerate the other half overnight and the next day make tuiles.
Uri Scheft’s Pistachio Financiers or Tuiles
Prep Time: 1 hour (add overnight rest for batter for tuiles)
Baking Time: 20 to 25 minutes for financiers; 1 hour 20 minutes for tuiles
Yield: 50 tuiles or petits fours
6 ounces butter, preferably French style, such as Plugrà
5 large egg whites, at room temperature
1 cup sugar
1 cup less 1 tablespoon almond flour (without skins)
1/3 cup potato flour (or potato starch), sifted
1 teaspoon dark rum
2 scant tablespoons pistachio paste
2 tablespoons chopped pistachios (optional)
1. Place butter in a small saucepan and melt over medium heat until solids have settled and butter is golden brown with a nutty aroma (the solids on bottom of pan will be a darker brown), 5 to 10 minutes. Remove from heat and transfer to a heat-proof measuring cup. You should have 2/3 cup melted butter. Allow to cool to lukewarm, 90 to 105 degrees F. This will take more than 30 minutes, but best not to chill in the refrigerator, as butter should be liquid when you add it to the batter. Meanwhile, weigh out remaining ingredients.
2. Combine egg whites and sugar in bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the paddle and beat at medium speed for 2 minutes. Stop and scrape down sides of bowl and beaters. Add almond flour and beat for 2 minutes at medium speed. Scrape down bowl and beaters.
3. Add cooled butter, including browned bits at bottom of pan, and beat at low speed for 1 minute. Add potato flour and beat at low speed until incorporated, about 1 minute. Scrape down bowl and beaters.
4. Add rum and pistachio paste and beat at medium-low until well combined.
5. Preheat oven to 350 F, with rack in the middle. Line baking sheets with 1 1/2- x 1 1/2-inch pyramid-shaped silicon molds. Pipe or scoop batter into molds (I use a 1 1/4-inch scoop). Bake 20 to 25 minutes, switching sheets front to back halfway through, until cakes are dark brown on the edges and a tester comes out clean when inserted. Remove from oven and allow to cool completely in molds for one hour. They will detach from molds easily once cool.
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5. Cover batter tightly and refrigerate overnight for best results.
6. Remove batter from refrigerator and allow to come to room temperature. Preheat oven to 350 F with rack positioned in middle. Line sheet pans with silicone mats or with parchment. (Silicone mats are easiest to work with).
7. Using a 1 1/4-inch scoop or by tablespoons, scoop batter onto baking sheets leaving a good 2 1/2 inches between each one and staggering rows. If desired, sprinkle chopped pistachios on top. You will only be able to get about 8 to a sheet. For super thin tuiles, use a small offset spatula to spread batter. (It will spread anyway when you bake, but spreading it before results in very thin, lacy tuiles). Place in the oven and bake 10 minutes, or until golden brown on edges and beginning to color on top. Cookies will spread on baking sheets.
8. Meanwhile, place a rolling pin on your work surface propped against something so that it won’t roll, or on a sheet pan, propped against edges. When cookies are ready, remove from oven and let sit on pan for 30 seconds to a minute, then slide an offset spatula under and drape each cookie while still pliable over rolling pin. They will curve and cool quickly. Transfer to a rack to cool completely. If cookies cool too much and are not pliable by the time you get the last ones off the baking sheet, place back in oven for 1 minute and they will soften up again. Repeat with remaining batter until all of it is used up.
Main photo: Uri Scheft’s pistachio financiers are baked in small pyramid-shaped molds. Credit: Copyright 2015 Martha Rose Shulman
For simple holiday entertaining, take a cue from Italy and select a few quality ingredients that are wonderful alone, but that can dress up for any party. Three Italian classics — Grana Padano aged cheese, Prosciutto di San Daniele and Mortadella Bologna — can create dozens of delectable nibbles.
Following is a look at some of the possibilities.
Thinly slice prosciutto or Mortadella Bologna and serve on a pretty wooden board. Set out wedges of Grana Padano with a cheese knife and clusters of grapes for simple, elegant party nibbles.
Wrap a slice of succulent prosciutto around veggies for Italian umami “sushi.” Try zucchini, carrots, enoki mushrooms, cucumber and avocado, which all pair wonderfully with prosciutto. Mortadella Bologna also makes a great roll-up. Sprinkle with chopped pistachios for color and crunch.
Fruit pair perfectly with cold cuts and cheese. Melon is a classic with prosciutto, so for a festive variation, dice cubes to create mini bites. Cantaloupe and honeydew melons make a pretty color mix.
Figs and fruits
Figs too are a classic pairing, but fresh figs aren’t readily available during the holidays, so use dried instead. Simmer a dozen dried figs in a cup of white wine to make them soft and summer sweet.
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Guests love a little skewer to nibble with a glass of bubbly Prosecco Superiore. Try Prosciutto di San Daniele and Grana Padano served with fried sage leaves and cubes of Mortadella Bologna accompanied by pistachio cream, made by blending finely ground pistachios with a little heavy cream and mascarpone or cream cheese. Fresh fruit like pears, apples and grapes pair perfectly with the naturally creamy sweetness of Grana Padano. It’s also wonderful with dried fruit. Spear chunks with olives and dried cranberries for a tangy-savory combo.
A toast to the party
Grana Padano lends itself to all sorts of bruschetta toppings. Melt onto bread to accompany Prosciutto di San Daniele or Mortadella Bologna, or for a vegetarian option top with chopped fresh or sun dried tomatoes or red bell peppers.
Mini sandwiches are always a party favorite. For an Italian riff — called “panettone gastronomico” — horizontally cut tall brioche bread into 7 equal slices to create 3 sandwich layers. Use your favorite filling, then stack and slice into triangles. The top section sits above as a decorative garnish.
Little baked pasta cups make a versatile appetizer. Just a quarter pound of pasta makes 24 bite-sized treats that can be eaten plain or topped. To make, combine cooked angel hair pasta with a beaten egg and some grated aged cheese. Twirl on a fork and bake into mini muffin tins until firm and golden at the edges. Then serve plain or topped with Prosciutto di San Daniele, Mortadella Bologna, shaved Grana Padano or pesto.
Everything Cheese Crisps
The usual bag of chips is OK for everyday, but dazzle party guests with these creative cheese crisps by cookbook author and PBS TV host Ellie Krieger who notes, “These easy, cheesy nibbles are a gigantic punch of Grana Padano flavor in a light lacy crisp. I brought in an extra touch of fun by flavoring them with all of the seasonings of my favorite “everything” bagel.”
Adapted from Comfort Food Fix, © 2011 by Ellie Krieger. Reproduced by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.
Prep time: 10 minutes
Bake time: 8 minutes
Total time: 18 minutes
Yield: 8 servings
2/3 cup finely grated Grana Padano cheese (2 ounces)
1 teaspoon all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons sesame seeds
1 teaspoon poppy seeds
1 teaspoon dried minced onion
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
Preheat the oven to 350 F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. In a small bowl, combine the cheese, flour, seeds, onion, and garlic powder. Spoon heaping teaspoons of the mixture onto the prepared baking sheet, leaving 2 inches between each mound. Using your fingers, pat the mounds down, spreading them so each is about 2 1/2 inches in diameter. Bake until they are golden brown, about 8 minutes. Allow to cool completely on the baking sheet before lifting them off carefully. Make the crisps up to 2 days ahead and store in an airtight container at room temperature.
Main photo: Try serving a “panettone gastronomico,” a sandwich tower, at your next party. Credit: Copyright Rovia Signorelli, Alessandria Italy
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
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
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
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.
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“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
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
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
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
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 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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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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
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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 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 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.
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
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
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