Articles in Baking
When it comes to Carnival, overindulgence is the whole point: too many parties, too much booze and, in just about every Catholic country, great platters of fried sweet dough.
Carnival doughnuts are omnipresent across Catholic Europe and parts of the Americas. In Lyon and Strasbourg, France, square yeast-raised beignets are made for the holiday; in Spain you will find rosquillas de carnaval (a dense, doughnut-shaped treat) and all sorts of other buñuelos; in Italy each region has its own fritelle di carnevale. The one-word explanation? Lard.
Christians were supposed to abstain from meat products for the 40 days of Lent, and doughnuts were traditionally fried in hog fat. As every good Catholic knows, you need to sin before you can repent. So, if you’re going to spend six weeks restraining your urges, you might as well make a good reason for it.
European doughnuts: happy excess
For ordinary people, doughnuts became associated with happy excess during a time when all the rules of their miserable existence could be inverted, when a measly diet of stale bread was replaced by mountains of fresh-fried doughnuts.
But few are as obsessed with Carnival or fried dough as the Venetians. Year round, you can find delicious krapfen (jelly doughnuts) there, but in the lead-up to Lent, the fried dough repertoire increases exponentially. Bakery windows are full of frittelle di carnevale, which depending on the pastry shop, take two very different forms: airy yeast-raised fritters chock-full of raisins, pine nuts, citron and, occasionally anisette or grappa (see recipe); or fried cream puffs that enclose a variety of creamy fillings.
I can’t believe that it’s a coincidence that Europe’s doughnut orgies take place in the depths of winter. The sugar and the fat are better than any high-tech undergarment.
I had a chance to test this out during a ski trip to Innsbruck even as Fasching (Carnival) was reaching its delirious peak. Here, in the alpine Tyrol, locals celebrate by parading through the streets in masks worthy of a Brothers Grimm nightmare and by eating mountains of Faschingskrapfen, or Carnival doughnuts. Even as I got off the train, I was greeted with stands loaded down with plump raised doughnuts, some filled with preserves, others with custard, chocolate cream or even eiercognac, a boozy eggnog custard.
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According to my friend, Austrian food historian Ingrid Haslinger, they’ve been frying up these yeast-raised pastries here for centuries. In the days when sugar was a luxury reserved for princes, the mountain folk would dip their krapfen into bowls of prune and apple butter. Now everybody can indulge in the sweet-filled variety.
I was pleased to find piles of Carnival doughnuts even at the mountaintop ski lodge. In these harsh conditions, they are not merely a snack but rather lunch itself. Following the lead of local skiers, I sat down to a spicy goulash soup as appetizer and continued with doughnuts for my main course (one filled with apricot and the other with chocolate, if you must know). Winter never felt so right.
The perfect pre-Lent indulgence
The doughnut as Carnival food, something that you gorge on before the gray days of Lent, isn’t entirely an alien concept in the United States. The Pennsylvania Dutch keep a firm grip on the centuries-old tradition of frying up enormous batches of Fastnachts in anticipation of Ash Wednesday just like their ancestors did in southwest Germany and parts of Switzerland. The Fastnacht is typically a yeast-raised doughnut (sometimes with potato added) cut in the form of a diamond, often slashed and opened in the center to allow it to cook faster and a larger surface area to get crisp.
You find similar recipes in Alsace and neighboring regions today. Fastnacht (literally “fast night”) is a German word for Shrove Tuesday and in the parts of the old country, these Carnival pastries were (and are) called Fastnachstküchle. The plain folk there shortened the name but kept the recipe and at least the doughnut part of the pre-Lenten tradition; Carnival is certainly not the festival of folly that it can be in Catholic Germany.
One rule that is universal, though, no matter where you find the doughy treats and regardless of name: Too much is never enough. You’ll have plenty of time to repent.
Frittelle veneziane (Venetian Carnival Fritters)
Prep time: 15 minutes
Cook time: 4 to 6 minutes per batch
Yield: About 2 dozen
2 ounces (about 1/2 cup) golden raisins
1/2 cup anisette liqueur
1/4 ounce (1 packet) active dry yeast
3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons tepid water
1 large egg
9 ounces (about 2 cups) all-purpose flour
3 tablespoons granulated sugar
Large ping (1/8 teaspoon) salt
1 ounce (about 3 tablespoons) pine nuts
1 ounce (about 3 tablespoons) chopped candied citron
Grated zest of 1 lemon
Oil or lard for frying
1. In a bowl, combine the raisins and anisette. Cover with plastic wrap and soak at least 4 hours or overnight.
2. In the bowl of a stand mixer, stir together the water and yeast. Let stand 5 minutes. Stir in the egg. In a separate bowl, mix together the flour, granulated sugar and salt.
3. Using a paddle attachment, beat the flour mixture into the water-yeast mixture on low speed. Beat 5 minutes on medium to make the batter very smooth — it should be somewhat thicker than pancake batter.
4. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and place in a warm location. Let stand until the batter has doubled in volume, 45 to 60 minutes. Stir in the raisins, pine nuts, citron and lemon zest.
5. Using a deep fryer or a heavy pan, heat at least 3 inches of the oil to 350 F. If you’re not using a deep fryer and are without a built-in thermostat, check the oil temperature using a candy or deep-fry thermometer.
6. Lightly oil 2 tablespoons, then scoop about 2 tablespoons of batter in one spoon and slide it off with the second. A small oiled ice cream scoop works well, too. Fry about a half-dozen at a time, turning occasionally until cooked through, 4 to 6 minutes. Drain on paper towels and allow to cool — enough so you can pick them up. Sprinkle generously with confectioner’s sugar. The frittelle are best served warm. Leftovers can be frozen and reheated in a 350 F oven.
For more on doughnut history, check out Michael Krondl’s most recent book: “The Donut: History, Recipes and Lore from Boston to Berlin.”
Main photo: Fritetelle veneziane, or Venetian fritters, are best served warm with a dusting of confectioner’s sugar. Credit: Michael Krondl
Nine years ago my husband was diagnosed with celiac disease. The diagnosis was a godsend as his symptoms displayed evidence of something much worse. When the test results were in, we celebrated. We were also quite giddy that he would become well again with the elimination of gluten. What a fabulous prognosis — no drugs, just elimination.
In an interesting twist of fate, our Icelandic mare, Valkyrie, had birthed a foal on the same day as Jim’s diagnosis. We named her Gaefa, which means good luck and good fortune, both of which we felt were in ample supply.
Nine years ago gluten intolerance and celiac disease were not yet mainstream. As you might imagine, stripping my pantry of wheat was both a joyous and sad day for me. Afterall, my one-half Italian being craved homemade pasta, breads and treats. But my sweetheart’s disease was not a death sentence. It was a mere inconvenience. And, I, by golly, would master gluten-free cooking. And I have.
Myriad gluten-free foods
There are myriad foods that are naturally gluten free. Take risotto for one. Steak for another. Greens. Fruits. Chocolate. The list goes on and on.
Here is a perfect gluten-free Valentine’s Day Dinner. My sweetie is happy, and so am I!
Arugula Salad With Balsamic Vinaigrette
Flourless Chocolate Cake
I like to create menus that reflect both my culinary acumen, and the love I have for the recipients. There truly is nothing, and I mean nothing, better than watching someone relish what you have cooked for them. This menu is tailored to Jim. He loves risotto, he loves lobster and he loves steak. These recipes provide a great twist on surf and turf as the lobster risotto makes a lovely side to the filet mignon. The arugula salad complements the meal by adding a peppery green, dressed with a sweetish balsamic vinaigrette.
Risotto is one of the simplest and most versatile of dishes. And while I provide this recipe as a guide, keep in mind you can make risotto without the white wine, with onions if you don’t have shallots, or with just butter, just olive oil and with many different “add-ins.” To celebrate Valentine’s, however, nothing beats lobster.
Prep time: 20 minutes
Cook time: 20 to 30 minutes
Total time: 40 to 50 minutes
Yield: 3 to 4 servings
1 (1 1/2-pound) lobster (have it steamed at the fish counter to save you a step)
1/2 stick butter
1/2 cup of shallots or onions
1 cup Arborio rice
1/2 cup white wine
4 cups chicken broth, heated
1/2 cup Parmesan cheese, grated
1 to 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1/8 teaspoon fresh pepper
2 teaspoons freshly chopped thyme
1. Remove meat from lobster, cut into bite-size pieces.
2. Heat butter in a large saucepan over medium heat, add shallots and cook until tender.
3. Stir in rice and stir until coated with oil about 2 minutes.
4. Add the wine and stir until the wine is cooked off and absorbed.
5. Add the broth one ladle at time, stirring constantly until the broth is absorbed. Continue adding broth until rice is fluffy, tender and creamy.
6. Add the Parmesan, lemon juice, pepper and thyme.
7. Fold in the lobster, serve when lobster is warm.
Stove Top Filet Mignon
Prep time: 2 to 3 minutes
Cook time: 8 to 10 minutes
Total time: 10 to 13 minutes
Yield: 4 servings
Four 1/2-pound filets
Salt and pepper
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons butter
Cast iron pan
1. Bring meat to room temperature.
2. Season with salt and pepper.
3. Heat olive oil and butter on high in cast iron pan.
4. Add filets.
5. Cook 4 to 5 minutes per side for medium-rare filets.
Heirloom Flourless Chocolate Cake
I love homemade gifts from the heart. My sweetheart, Jim, has celiac disease, which is an autoimmune disease triggered by eating wheat or foods with gluten. So in keeping with all the buzz about the aphrodisiac effect of chocolate, I decided a flourless (hence, no gluten) chocolate cake would be my gift.
This recipe is from the family archives of my amazing friend Deb Mackey, with her note: “Here’s an absolutely FAB recipe for a flourless chocolate cake that is to die for, and can be très elegant, depending on how you gussy it up. I frequently plate it on a swirl of raspberry coulis for especially discerning friends. Everyone I’ve ever made it for has raved, and it became the birthday cake of choice for every man in my life. And for some of their subsequent wives, too, I might add.”
Prep time: 30 to 45 minutes
Cook time: 1 1/2 hours
Total time: 2 to 2 1/4 hours
Yield: 8 to 10 servings
12 ounces semisweet chocolate chips
1/2 cup unsalted butter
6 eggs, separated, at room temperature
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup chopped pecans
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1 tablespoon Bailey’s Irish Cream
1 pinch cream of tartar
2 cups whipping cream
1/4 cup powdered sugar
2 tablespoons Bailey’s Irish Cream
2 ounces chocolate curls
10-inch springform pan, greased (or wax/parchment paper will do)
1. Preheat oven to 350 F.
2. Melt chips and butter in a bowl over hot water.
3. Beat egg yolks in large bowl (5 minutes, or until thick).
4. Beat in 1/2 cup sugar, 1 tablespoon at a time.
5. To the melted chocolate, stir in pecans, vanilla and 1 tablespoon of Bailey’s
6. Beat egg whites with cream of tartar, to soft peak
7. Gradually add remaining 1/2 cup sugar. Beat stiff, but not dry.
8. Fold 1/4 of whites mixture into the chocolate cake mix.
9. Fold the chocolate mix into the remaining whites mixture.
10. Pour into lined pan and bake 30 minutes at 350 F.
11. Reduce oven to 275 F. Bake another 30 minutes.
12. Turn off oven. Let cake stand in oven with door slightly ajar for about 30 minutes.
13. Remove from oven. Dampen towel and place on top of cake for 5 minutes. Remove the towel.
14. Top of cake will crack and fall. Cool cake in pan.
15. Remove springform when cool. Transfer cake to platter.
Whip cream to soft peak. Beat in powdered sugar and 2 tablespoons of Bailey’s.
1. Spoon whipped cream mixture over top of cake and smooth. Sprinkle with chocolate curls.
2. Refrigerate 6 hours. Let stand at room temperature for 30 minutes before serving.
Main photo: When your husband loves risotto, lobster and steak, Lobster Risotto and filet mignon offer a great twist on surf and turf. Credit: Carole Murko
This Valentine’s Day, as you look for foods besides oysters and chocolate to woo the object of your affection, consider exploring your spice cabinet.
You’ll be surprised at the flavors’ powers — as natural aphrodisiacs — to be found there.
To heighten the senses and set the mood, we need fragrance and beauty in our foods.
In fact, Ayurveda — the holistic method of medical treatment in India rooted in Hinduism — traditionally placed a fair amount of emphasis on aphrodisiac terminology. The intent was to ensure that people led healthy conjugal lives and the ruler appropriately produced the requisite heir. There is similar wisdom found in other ancient texts.
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So, cull through this list of common spices for your Valentine’s Day menu that also may help you spice things up — in other ways — with your Valentine.
First up is cinnamon, whose lustrous and sweet aroma can make you both happy and calm. (And, it’s certainly good for your blood pressure.)
Right alongside, you might have cloves, whose essential quality is to uplift your mood and spirits. And then there is nutmeg, also known for its antioxidant and astringent qualities.
An aphrodisiac spice, says ‘The Arabian Nights’
To complete the fragrant collection, we also have cardamom, which “The Arabian Nights” extols for its passion-inducing properties.
All of these will find its place in a good garam masala blend. And when meshed with saffron — the exotic spice of the gods — your Valentine’s Day collection of aromas will be complete.
When planning your menu, consider a good one-pot dish such as a biryani that will bring to your table all of these spices and more. If that’s too complex, try rubbing a chicken with butter and garam masala and serving it roasted to perfection, with saffron mashed potatoes on the side.
But don’t forget the dessert. Fortunately, many Indian desserts bring together cardamom, saffron and rose. From the universe of puddings, halwas and burfees, I have dug up a Bengali specialty called the sandesh, which, when done right, can win over the most fastidious of hearts and palates.
A sandesh is a cheesecake of sorts, with the emphasis on a specific cheese: channa, or homemade white cheese. The art of the traditional sandesh rests in the right texture and handling of this channa. Although it is prolific in Indian confectionary shops, we’re often hard-pressed to find good sandesh in commercial Indian sweet shops — mainly because of the relatively short shelf life of this delicate sweet.
Spicing up cheesecake the sandesh way
Ricotta cheese, if treated right, can be a substitute for channa. This recipe features a cheater sandesh, using ricotta cheese streaked with saffron and subtly scented with freshly crushed cardamom.
I have created this recipe for days when time does not allow for the making and draining of channa. It’s a fairly good facsimile for the steamed sandesh known as bhapa sandesh that my grandmother used to make. In this sandesh, instead of cooking the channa over the stove top, it is steamed with gentle and continuous heat.
In my recipe, I bake it on low heat in the oven and then cool and shape it. If you wish, you can garnish these delicate morsels with pistachios, snipped rose petals and anything else that catches your fancy.
Serve them with some chilled saffron almond milk.
That’s bound to warm the cockles of your heart and soothe your senses, all at once.
Baked Orange-Flavored Cheesecake — Bhapa Sandesh
Adapted from “The Bengali Five Spice Chronicles,” by Rinku Bhattacharya
Prep time: 45 minutes
Cook time: 30 minutes
Total time: 1 hour, 15 minutes, plus time for cooling
Yield: 12 servings
For the cheesecake:
Clarified butter or ghee for greasing the casserole dish
1 1/2 cups low-fat ricotta cheese (about 30 ounces)
3/4 cup condensed milk (about 12 ounces)
1/2 teaspoon saffron strands
1/4 teaspoon freshly crushed cardamom (about 2 pods)
6 tablespoons fresh orange juice or tangerine juice (about one medium tangerine)
For optional garnishes:
1. Preheat the oven to 325 F.
2. Grease an 8-by-12-inch cake or casserole dish and set aside.
3. In a mixing bowl, beat together the ricotta cheese and condensed milk.
4. Stir in the saffron strands and cardamom, pour the mixture into the greased casserole dish. The objective is to achieve a streaked effect rather than uniform coloring.
5. Pour the mixture into the prepared pan and bake for 30 minutes.
6. Drizzle with the orange juice and cool for one hour.
7. Carefully invert the prepared cheesecake onto a flat surface. This can be cut into shapes using a cooking cutter, or formed into round balls.
8. If desired, garnish with orange sections and almonds, or roll or sprinkle with chocolate shavings.
9. Chill for 45 minutes or longer, and serve.
Main photo: Sandesh, an Indian version of cheesecake, can be shaped with cookie cutters or formed into round balls. Credit: Rinku Bhattacharya
For Valentine’s Day, what could be more romantic than a homemade dinner? If you are looking for that dish that says love, look to these five foods, which have been considered aphrodisiacs for centuries.
Aphrodisiacs were named for Aphrodite, the goddess of love. According to ancient Greek myth, Aphrodite was born from the sea and arrived ashore transported by either an oyster or scallop shell. Because of her sea connection all seafood, but especially shellfish, was considered an aphrodisiac since those times.
Cacao beans, essential to making chocolate, first made their way to Europe from the New World in the 1500s. Once chocolate arrived, physicians and health writers began to study it and decided it was not only an aphrodisiac but also a cure-all for many ills, including indigestion. Casanova, famed writer of the 1700s, devoted several pages in his memoir to how effective chocolate was in getting women into the mood.
Chili peppers and cayenne
For hundreds of years spices that tingle the tongue — such as red pepper flakes, cinnamon and ginger — were thought to be aphrodisiacs. The idea was that if they make the tongue tingle they would make other body parts tingle, too. Chili peppers and these spices quicken the pulse and induce perspiration, which mimics the state of sexual arousal and also stimulates the release of endorphins.
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Strawberries and raspberries
Because of their seductive color, strawberries were called “fruit nipples” and considered powerful aphrodisiacs during the Renaissance.
The ancient Greeks and Romans worshiped and held yearly festivals for the wine god Bacchus, also called Dionysus, who was born from an affair between the god Zeus and a mortal woman. Wine, for the ancients, was not just a nice drink to have with dinner, but thought to be absolutely essential to good health. At that time, water was often filled with dangerous germs, whereas wine was safe. More than just essential to good health, wine was believed to be essential to life, making it one of the first and most popular aphrodisiacs.
Here are some recipes that feature these foods. While I can’t guarantee they will be aphrodisiacs, I can promise they’re delicious.
This dish is best eaten sizzling hot when the aroma of the garlic and saffron are most potent. For a dramatic presentation, cook and serve it in a small iron skillet.
From: “Opera Lover’s Cookbook” (Stewart, Tabori & Chang) by Francine Segan
Prep time: 5 minutes
Cooking time: 5 minutes
Total time: 10 minutes
Yield: 4 servings
12 medium shrimp, peeled and deveined
4 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
3 tablespoons olive oil
7 to 8 strands saffron
1 jalapeño pepper, sliced
Salt and black pepper
1. Combine the shrimp, garlic, oil, saffron and jalapeño in a small bowl.
2. Heat a small skillet over high heat and sauté the shrimp with the marinade until the shrimp are golden, about 3 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Melty Manchego With Spicy-Sweet Tomato Jam
So many aphrodisiacs in one dish! Lovely Manchego is melted in a pan with a hint of garlic and then spiked with a splash of sweet sherry. The aromas will drive all the guests straight into the kitchen.
The tomato jam, a spicy-sweet mix of tomatoes, sugar, jalapeño and lemon, is simple to make yet adds just the right zing to the warm melty cheese.
From “Opera Lover’s Cookbook” (Stewart, Tabori & Chang) by Francine Segan
Prep time: 10 minutes
Cooking time: 35 minutes
Total time: 45 minutes
Yield: 4 servings
For the tomato jam:
1 (14.5-ounce) can diced tomatoes
3/4 cup sugar
1 jalapeño pepper, sliced
Zest and juice of 1 lemon
1/4 teaspoon salt
Cayenne pepper, optional
For the cheese:
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
1 pound Manchego cheese, cut into 1-inch sections
1 tablespoon sweet sherry
Crusty bread, sliced
For the tomato jam:
Combine the tomatoes, sugar, jalapeño pepper, lemon zest and juice, salt, and cayenne pepper, if using, in a medium saucepan and simmer over medium-low heat for about 30 minutes, until thick. Allow to cool, and then transfer to a small serving bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and reserve.
For the cheese:
1. Heat the oil and garlic in a small nonstick skillet over low heat until the garlic begins to turn golden, about 2 minutes. With a slotted spoon remove the garlic; set aside. Add the cheese in one layer and fry until warm and soft, about 1 minute. Remove the skillet from the heat and add the sherry. Cover the skillet and return it to the heat for 2 to 3 minutes.
2. Serve right in the skillet or slide the warm cheese onto a serving platter and top with the garlic. Serve with the tomato jam and bread on the side.
Flourless Italian Chocolate Cake
This flourless cake, has a crisp, macaroon-like outer layer and a dense, incredibly moist center. As the cake cools, it collapses a little, creating a pretty webbing on the delicious crust.
From: “Dolci: Italy’s Sweets” (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2011) by Francine Segan
Prep time: 10 minutes
Baking time: 30 minutes
Total time: 40 minutes
Yield: 8 servings
7 tablespoons (3 1/2 ounces) unsalted butter, plus more for the pan
7 ounces dark chocolate
1 cup granulated sugar
4 eggs, separated
2 tablespoons potato starch
1 tablespoon vanilla
1. Preheat the oven to 350 F. Butter the bottom and sides of a 9-inch springform cake pan.
2. Melt the butter and chocolate in a bowl in the microwave.
3. In a large bowl, beat the sugar and egg yolks with an electric hand-held mixer until creamy and pale yellow. Beat in the chocolate-butter mixture until creamy. Add the potato starch and vanilla and mix until well combined.
4. In a separate bowl, beat the egg whites until stiff. Slowly, using a spatula, fold the egg whites, a little at a time, into the chocolate mixture until combined.
5. Spread the batter evenly into the prepared pan. Bake for about 30 minutes, until just set in the center. Allow it to rest for about 30 minutes before cutting it until it collapses and the top crust cracks a bit. Serve with strawberries on the side, if you like.
Main photo: Garlic shrimp and melty Manchego with spicy-sweet tomato jam are tasty aphrodisiacs. Credit: “Opera Lover’s Cookbook” by Francine Segan
Sweet breakfast buns o’ mine! Babka is a well-loved and indulgent breakfast bread, but this version — studded with dried fruits such as strawberries, tart cherries and apricots — gives it a fresh spin.
Perfect with a morning cup of joe, pomegranate or mint tea, these babka buns are a lovely addition to a brunch anytime. The cardamom and anise keep it spicy and invigorating, and the individual size (made in a muffin tin) makes it perfect for an on-the-go breakfast. Be sure to leave enough time for rising — this is a rich dough and really needs the time.
Babka Buns with Dried Fruit and Cardamom
Prep time: 1 hour, plus 3 hours for rising
Cook time: 35 minutes
Total time: 4 hours, 35 minutes
For the dough:
2 tablespoons (19 grams) dry active yeast
1 cup water, divided (1/4 cup around 90 F to 95 F; room temperature for the rest)
1 teaspoon sugar
1 cup (220 grams) light brown sugar
2 1/2 cups (340 grams) bread flour
3 1/2 cups (455 grams) all purpose flour plus more for dusting
1 teaspoon salt
3 large eggs
2/3 cup olive oil
1 tablespoon vanilla bean paste
Filling No. 1:
1/2 cup sugar
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon, roasted preferred
3 teaspoons ground cardamom, roasted preferred
1/2 teaspoon ground anise
3/4 cup fig jam
zest and juice of one lemon
Filling No. 2:
1/3 cup ( 50 grams) dried strawberries, cut into rough 1/4-inch dice
1/3 cup ( 50 grams) dried pitted tart cherries, cut into rough 1/4-inch dice
1/2 cup (110 grams) dried apricots or peaches, pitted and cut into rough 1/4-inch dice
1/3 cup (65 grams) dried raspberries (optional)
1 tablespoon water
1/4 cup turbinado sugar
2 teaspoons sea salt
For the dough:
1. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook, combine the yeast, 1/4 cup warm water and 1 teaspoon sugar; mix at low speed until just blended. Let stand for about 5 to 7 minutes, until foamy.
2. Sift the flours and salt into a mixing bowl or onto a sheet of parchment paper and set aside.
3. Add the remaining water, the light brown sugar and the flour mixture; mix until just combined. Add the eggs, one at a time, mixing until each is fully incorporated. It will not be a dough yet. Add the oil and vanilla bean paste; mix on low to medium-low to fully combine. Increase the mixer speed to medium and knead for 5 minutes to form a moist, dense dough.
4. Transfer the dough to a clean bowl, cover with a kitchen towel, place in a warm spot and let rise at room temperature for about 3 to 3 1/2 hours, until the dough has doubled in size.
5. When the dough has risen, divide it into 12 portions.
For the fillings:
1. In a large mixing bowl, stir the sugar, cinnamon, cardamom and anise together; set aside.
2. Place the fig jam, lemon juice and lemon zest in another small mixing bowl; stir to combine. Set aside.
3. Combine dried fruits in a bowl. Set aside.
Finishing the babka buns:
1. Lightly flour a work surface.
2. Spray two muffin tins with with nonstick vegetable oil spray.
3. Place divided dough portions, one at a time, on the floured surface and pat into a large rectangle, about 1/4-inch thick (roughly 5 inches by 10 inches).
4. Spread each piece with 2 tablespoons of the fig jam mixture, 2 teaspoons of the sugar and spice mixture, and about 3 tablespoons of the dried fruit.
5. Roll up, jelly-roll style; it will look like a small filled snake. Twist at the center and fit into the prepared muffin tins, tucking it in, or smooshing it down, as necessary to make it fit.
6. Cover with a kitchen towel; repeat with the remaining dough pieces, allowing them to rest for 45 minutes (some will rest more than others because it takes time to prep them all, and that’s fine).
7. Preheat the oven to 375 F.
8. For the finish, make an egg wash by beating the egg lightly with the water in a small bowl.
9. With a pastry brush, brush the buns with the egg wash and sprinkle with turbinado sugar and a pinch of the salt.
10. Bake for 20 to 22 minutes or until dark golden brown. Cool in the pan for 15 minutes, then transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.
Main photo: Just out of the oven, these sweet bread bites are truly delicious. Credit: @TheWeiserKitchen
Tu B’Shvat, Jewish Arbor Day, is a patch of green in the chilly winter ennui. This year, the holiday falls on Feb. 3, and is a celebration of the gifts of trees — and if you consider Kabbalistic interpretations, ever-renewing life.
One of the four renewal or “new years” of the Jewish tradition, Tu B’Shvat (literally “the 15th day of the month of Shvat”) marks the date from which biblical agricultural tithing, both for the priestly classes as well as to the needy, was traditionally tallied. Giving is still integral to the holiday and in 20th-century America that took on new meaning. Families added money to their pushke, the pale blue metal charity box, earmarked for planting trees in Israel.
But the holiday’s roots run deeper than collecting money to plant trees. For centuries, Tu B’Shvat’s renewal is personal as well as environmental: The fruits are symbolic for reaching higher levels on the tree of knowledge.
The traditional food is fruit
When I taught Hebrew school, I told my youngest charges that the holiday is the birthday for trees and taught them “Oh, Beautiful” instead of liturgical songs. I brought in dried fruits, the most traditional Ashkenazi treat.
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A few tentatively tasted the dried tart apricots, peaches, and apples. They couldn’t have been less happy looking at a prune, no matter how many times I explained that it was a just plum. My own children were a bit more open to the fruits, but then again, they’ve always eaten from my kitchen.
Later, after a tour in culinary school, I taught adults and teens, and I upped the ante, handing out chocolate-dipped glaceed fruits, fruit gel treats — and baby babka bites studded with modern dried fruits like strawberries and tart cherries, and bursting with cardamom, cinnamon and anise.
It was an unmitigated success, and I now make baby babka bites for the holiday every year.
Deeper meanings of fruits
Many Jewish holidays foods have distinct symbolic value. The Kabbalists imbued fruit with deeper meanings on Tu B’shvat that remain today.
The expulsions of Jews from the Iberian Peninsula in the end of the 15th century disbursed a large, vibrant, intellectual community. This was long before the orthodox, conservative or reform movements and even Hassidism with its mystical elements, had taken root. The expelled Iberian Jews carried their Middle Age mysticism with them as they settled around the globe, but particularly in Sefad (Tsaft) in Ottoman Palestine/Israel, which became the seat of the movement.
That mysticism, or Kabbalistic thought, is the study of the infinite and the finite (or mortal). It delves beyond apparent meanings, past simple allegories and rules and searches for secret hidden connections, and is often diagrammed as the tree of knowledge, with branches to climb to reach spiritual higher orders.
The tree and its fruits are the overarching metaphor used to elucidate the nexus of the spiritual and physical worlds. It is not surprising then that the 16th century’s leading Kabbalistic sage, teacher and mystic, Rabbi Isaac Luria, sought greater meaning than simply enjoying fruits for Tu B’Shvat. To celebrate the holiday, a Seder service was created that focuses on renewal and personal growth, and assigned symbolic value to fruits.
Tu B’shvat Seders and other modern celebrations
Today, it is common to see Kabbala-inspired Tu B’Shvat seders held as a women’s Seder, often vegan or vegetarian – where notions of fertility, renewal and life cycles are discussed in depth. For those who do not participate in a formal seder, this holiday is an opportunity to focus on the environmental component of the day and renew their pledge for composting and planting. Jewish Food scholar Joan Nathan takes the opportunity to teach children about sustainability and food traditions on Tu B’Shvat.
Judaism, in practice and theology, has always been affected by the world around it. What I do has evolved too. Although highly specific cooked food traditions for Tu B’Shvat are rare — there is no matzo ball or cheese blintzes — fruit is always on the table, Seder or not.
I do what I do every day on Tu B’shvat — I cook, write and teach. But I also donate to shelters and food banks as my green-tinged celebration. The benefit of the celebrations is spiritual nourishment. That is the gift I receive. And I give back, just like the song I taught, from “tree to shining tree.”
Main photo: Baby babka bites are a new twist on fruit-filled babka — perfect for brunch, breakfast or lunch. Credit: @TheWeiserKitchen
Sam Fromartz’s new book, “In Search of the Perfect Loaf, A Home Baker’s Odyssey,” is a departure. The journalist and editor began his career as a reporter at Reuters, and his previous book, “Organic, Inc.,” was a standard work of nonfiction about the evolution of the organic food industry. But as his hobby became his subject, the writer leaped into the picture of this book.
“In Search of the Perfect Loaf: A Home Baker’s Odyssey”
By Samuel Fromartz, Viking, 2014, 320 pages
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“Baking for me was relief from my daily grind of journalism,” Fromartz said in a phone interview. “I really enjoyed the moment in the day when I would leave my keyboard and just bake, shape loaves, bake them. I really didn’t want to lose that sense of specialness, of what bread meant in my life. I thought if I mixed it up in my work too much, it would just become part of my job. I really didn’t want to do that.”
As the recession downsized his income, however, everything became a potential topic. In a single afternoon, he lost most of his steady freelancing gigs. Querying a contact at the travel magazine “Afar,” he proposed a story about going to Paris to study baguette baking.
The editor said yes, and the adventure began. Consider yourself lucky that his escape became his work, because the result is a really nice journey through baking led by a skilled reporter.
“This book was a lot more personal,” said Fromartz. “It wasn’t a journalistic investigation. But I am a reporter, so all of those tools I use in my work became tools I used in the book.”
Tools like reading, asking questions and framing the answers in good stories. There are some beautiful descriptions, like the one at Della Fattoria, a bakery in Petaluma, California.
“Everyone seemed to be working at a pace just short of a jog,” he writes, setting the stage for each reader to witness, as he did, the bread baking one morning. The baker-writer joins the action, helping shape loaves of bread. But once the actual baking begins, he stands on the sidelines and tells us plainly what he sees. We readers fall into the rhythm of the observed work.
As a small herd of bakers usher hundreds of would-be breads into the oven, Fromartz puts you right there, watching the “dance of the peels,” as loaves go into the oven, and then come out. You are just shy of smelling the bread and tasting it.
The pacing of the stories and information are spot-on. Fromartz takes you through a long baking lesson, baker by baker, describing the process and progress. Beginning with baguettes, which were a challenge for him to bake at home, you learn as much or more about the social history of this bread and its place in French culture as you do about the practical route he found to making this loaf.
Yes, there are elaborate recipes, heavy on method, at the end of chapters in case you want to bake along. But no baking is required to enjoy the research he presents as part of his journey. This odyssey is not just for serious home bakers or professionals, but also for anyone mildly curious about wheat.
Guided by his curiosities
“I wanted to understand things for myself,” he said. “A lot of baking books dealt with some of the questions I had, but there was no sort of central resource, and no book that tied together everything from the origins of grains to sourdough microbiology to how to shape a loaf.”
Writing the book really answered his curiosities. His dives into sourdough are deep; at one point he compares cultivating sourdough cultures to farming, and nurturing microlivestock. Holding all this heady material together is the importance of craft, and what he got out of learning a craft at the hands of people who really value bread, its historic framework and its future.
One of the most surprising discoveries he found on his journey was learning about flour, specifically locally grown and milled grains. As he started using local grains, and flour that came from small mills, he realized how variable bread’s main ingredient could be.
“It made me realize what’s been lost and sacrificed along the way in that quest for uniformity,” he said. Anything that threatened that uniformity got lost, like grains with different flavors, and non-standard types of gluten or proteins.
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“My sense is those guys probably knew something about flavor,” he said. “We have this real singular expectation of what bread should be. “Even whole-wheat loaves generally estimate that puffy bread ideal. “When you have such a narrow idea of what bread should be, you lose a lot of possibilities.”
Exploring those possibilities through different grains and flours engages him as a baker. It’s useful ecologically, too. Pursuing lesser-known grains is good for agricultural diversity and dietary diversity.
When I was reading, I was worried that baking might have lost some charm for the writer. But by the end of the book, he says he’s been able to protect his special connection to baking. I wanted to know how he preserved it. His answer was reassuring, if elliptical.
“I still bake a lot and baking is really a part of me,” he said. “I want to keep that sense of discovery about it. So I think will.”
Main photo: Sam Fromartz’s newest book will have you smelling and tasting the featured breads. Credit: Sam Fromartz
Across the country, bakers are starting to mill their own flour. The idea might seem silly. Make your own flour? Might as well make your own air. But like fresh ground coffee and fresh squeezed orange juice, fresh milled flour is a galaxy away from its banal supermarket counterpoint.
Flour’s job is often structural, delivering flavors such as butter and chocolate in sweets, or fermentation in bread. Flour stands in the background and doesn’t make a peep, like the ideal child of yore. This silence comes from stripping away the most flavorful elements of grains through the milling process, which generally removes all of the germ and much of the bran.
“Fat equals flavor,” a chef friend declared in the early ’90s, when fat was a popular thing to fear. I’ve found his statement holds true, even in grains.
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Grain kernels have three parts: bran, endosperm and germ. Most of the oils are in the germ and the bran, which also hold minerals, nutrients and flavors. Flavor and fat are volatile. Once exposed to air in the milling process, the oils in grains spoil quickly. Bran has other strikes against it, and the biggest is that it interferes with making lofty, airy loaves of bread.
Roller mills, which were adopted in the late 1800s, allow for removal of bran and germ. One advantage of this is shelf stability, and another is making flour that is mostly endosperm, a powerhouse of starch and protein that’s great for baking.
Stone milling was the way to make flour for millennia. Now, millstones prop up mailboxes on suburban lawns, but the technology is having a revival. Bakers are adding stone mills to their kitchens because the process allows them to use more whole grain flours and experiment with flavors.
“Fresh milling is a new frontier in the repatriation of wheat to our regional economies,” said Steve Jones, director of The Bread Lab and Washington State University’s Mount Vernon Research Center. The place is a magnet for inquisitive bakers drawn to the science that is following flour back to the field. The lab has small mills to test grains as scientists, and resident baker Jonathan Bethony, investigate varieties, seeking types that grow well for farmers and perform well for bakers.
“The flour is flavorful and quirky. The flavor is a plus for sure, the quirkiness can be a pain,” Jones said of fresh flour.
Flour aged to improve its strength
Flour is typically aged to improve its strength and even out irregularities that newly milled flour can display. Again, I think of children, who are tamed into good behavior. Time, or in many cases, bleach tames young flour, and its potentially wild expressions.
“We are working to add some predictability back to the equation. Fresh milled is usually weaker but in our experience still makes incredible bread and again the flavor makes it all worth it,” Jones said. “Grassy, nutty, chocolate and various hints of spice? You don’t get that from old flour.”
Fresh flour is one of the primary reasons Tabor Bread exists in Portland, Oregon. Owner Tissa Stein saw a gap in the foodie city, where there was wood-fired pizza, but no place exclusively making wood-fired bread, nor house-milled flour.
The bakery opened two years ago, in a house down the street from a dormant volcano, Mount Tabor. The kitchen is tucked behind the oven and mill, which are visible from the café. The Austrian mill has its own room, but the walls are glass, so people can see the action.
The pine-planked mill is pretty as a piece of furniture. Baker/millers pour grains in the hopper, and inside the wooden casing, two large stones grind grains into flour. Customers like to see this tool at work.
Stein likes being able to bake with whole grain flour for flavor and nutrition. She fell in love with bread of this quality when she lived in California and bought Desem bread from Alan Scott, the baker and oven maker who launched a wave of microbakeries in America. Scott built an oven in Stein’s backyard, and influenced her decision, decades later, to mill whole grains and capture their vitality.
“Going directly from grain to flour to mix with only a day or two in between,” she said, enhances the taste, and the food value of the bread. Fresh whole grain flours add complexity, building layers of flavor from the lively enzymes on the bran that feed the sourdough cultures.
Fresh flour rather gymnastic
Fresh flour can be rather gymnastic because of those enzymes and other factors, but the challenges are hardly insurmountable. In fresh milling, people are tapping into a tradition, as Dave Miller did in the late 1980s. Getting a whiff of fresh flour as an apprentice at Berkshire Mountain Bakery really made an impression on him.
“That imprinted the whole thing for me,” Miller said. “As a baker you never get to smell fresh flour, and you don’t know what you’re missing.”
The moment when grains are cracked open is when the flour has the most potential nutrition, he believes. By the time he opened his own Miller’s Bake House in Northern California, he knew how he wanted to bake, using a wood-fired oven, organic grains and a stone mill. His experience is a model for others taken with the concept, and putting it into practice.
Theoretically, milling also lends more choices in sourcing, but current production for industrial milling and industrial baking limits what’s available, and its channels of distribution. Baker Graison Gill, of Bellegarde Bakery in New Orleans, is keenly aware of the flow of grain.
“We’re at the mecca of transportation for grain barges and elevators and silos,” Gill said. The Mississippi River handles 60 percent of grain exports for the country, but access to flour and grain is slim for the bakery. The constraints are partly why he chooses to mill some of the flour he uses. Making great bread with wildly good tastes and superior nutrition factors into the decision as well.
“When you’re stone milling you’re preserving the integrity of the grain,” he said, and all its vitamins and minerals. In the case of wheat that means, “Omega 3 fatty acids, plus phosphorus, folic acid, zinc, magnesium, iron, potassium, mono- and polyunsaturated fats and vitamins C, B and E.”
Bellegarde makes 4,000 to 5,000 loaves a week, selling to a mixed wholesale clientele of wine shops, supermarkets and restaurants. All of the breads incorporate some fresh milled flour. The fall menu of specialty breads was built to feature these stone ground whole grains, including wheat, rye, blue and yellow corn, buckwheat and durum. Louisiana rice and wheat go into the Acadian Miche, and a Pecan Flax bread is also made with Louisiana wheat. The Louisiana wheat is soft, and soft wheats are better for pastries, so he can only add so much to a bread.
“I got some Texas-grown hard red winter wheat and I made a loaf of it on Saturday and that was incredible,” Gill said. Aside from a few places milling grits, Bellegarde is an anomaly, which is a catch-22. Until there are more people seeking unusual grains, farmers can’t grow crops to serve the market.
The emergence of mills in bakeries can change that. Just as farmers markets acted as bridges to build local agriculture, mills are essential infrastructure for leveraging production of staple crops in small acreages and out of the commodity system.
Fresh flour, however, is not just a moral proposition, but a quick ticket to righteously great tastes. Dig around, and you might well find your favorite baker is getting curious about their main ingredient.
Main photo: Baker Andrew Heyn of Elmore Mountain Bread scoops flour he’s just milled. Credit: Monica Frisell
It’s hard to do justice to all the miller-baker all-stars, but here’s a list of some bakeries milling some or all of their flour.
Miller’s Bake House Yankee Hill, California
Tabor Bread, Portland, Oregon
Bellegarde Bakery, New Orleans
Elmore Mountain Bread, Elmore, Vermont
Bread & Butter Farm, Shelburne, Vermont
Green Mountain Flour and Bakery, Windsor, Vermont
Zu Bakery, South Freeport, Maine
Berkshire Mountain Bakery, Housatonic, Massachusetts
Farm & Sparrow, Candler, North Carolina
Sub Rosa, Richmond, Virginia
Boulted Bread, Raleigh, North Carolina
Renards European Bakeshop, Princeton, Wisconsin
Baker Miller, Chicago
Crooked Tree Breadworks, Petoskey-Harbor Springs, Michigan
460 Bread, Driggs, Idaho
Nomad Bakery, Derry, New Hampshire
Hillside Bakery, Knoxville, Tennessee
Fol Epi, Victoria, British Columbia
600 Degrees, Tofino, British Columbia
Boulangerie Bonjour, Edmonton, Alberta
True Grain Bread, Cowenchen Bay, British Columbia
The Night Oven Bakery, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan
Some restaurants that feature fresh flour
Blue Hill at Stone Barns, Pocantico Hills, New York
All Souls Pizza, Asheville, North Carolina
Pizzeria Locale, Denver/Boulder, Colorado
Some independent mills closely tied to bakeries
Stone mills can supply your home baking
Farmer Ground Flour, Enfield, New York
Hayden Flour Mills, Phoenix
Carolina Ground, Asheville, North Carolina
Grist & Toll, Pasadena
Camas Country Mill, Eugene, Oregon
Maine Grains at the Somerset Grist Mill, Skowhegan, Maine
Greenwillow Grains, Brownsville, Oregon
Anson Mills, Columbia, South Carolina