Articles in Baking

Rhubarb pie. Credit: Sharon Hunt

As children, my sister and I spent Saturdays in the spring as knights-errant, challenging each other to duels with rhubarb stalks. We thrust them at each other, but our swords connected gently, so as not to damage what would later become delicious treats. A neighborhood bully once intruded, threatening to kill us with a touch of his rhubarb leaves. Just one touch would mean instant death, that’s how poisonous the leaves were, he said. I pushed him into a ditch, and when he didn’t die instantly, as the leaves touched his shoulder, I took my sister home for a dish of rhubarb Mom had cooked that morning.

We were rhubarb lovers. Mom and my sister loved it cooked with sugar, slathered on fresh bread and topped with heavy cream. They also loved it as Rhubarb Fool, the pink strands of rhubarb swirling through the whipped cream. Occasionally, rhubarb showed up in a cobbler, which they spooned into their mouths with abandon. Although Dad and I loved rhubarb these ways too, we loved it most in pies, his pies, since he made the best in the world.

“There’s no better pie than rhubarb,” he’d say wherever he got ready to make one.

Rhubarb’s long history started with medicinal uses

Nineteenth-century cooks would have agreed with him in that regard. They dubbed rhubarb the “pie plant” because of its popularity as a filling, but it had been popular for medicinal purposes much longer.

Rhubarb originated in Russia, Siberia and China, and was written about more than 2,700 years ago in “The Divine Farmer’s Herb-Root Classic,” an early Chinese text. Its roots were prized near and far as a cure for dysentery, diarrhea and constipation.

In Tudor England (from the 1400s to 1600s), rhubarb was grown in herb gardens. A century later, in the 1770s, the Duke of Athol grew Turkey rhubarb in Scotland, selling the roots to an Edinburgh druggist.

The rhubarb variety now eaten came to 17th-century England from Italy. Its cultivation spread throughout the 18th century, but it took awhile for rhubarb recipes to appear in English cookbooks — in part because the sugar needed for sweetening was not widely available or affordable. When sugar became more common, recipes for pies, tarts and other desserts followed, in the 19th century.

In 1771, Benjamin Franklin sent Chinese rhubarb seeds to John Bartram, an American botanist, thus introducing the plant to America. Soon, rhubarb was cultivated in Maine and flourished after that in Massachusetts as well. By 1822, rhubarb was sold in New England markets, and later that century, Luther Burbank, a pioneer in agricultural science, developed a variety better suited to California’s climate.

Rhubarb stalks, the parts we eat, are really leaf bases called petioles. They vary in color, from pink to red, green or white, depending on the variety.

The rhubarb that Dad grew was pink. It spread between the fences separating our back garden from our neighbors’, with Dad doing the harvesting and all of us, including our neighbors the Leckies, sharing in his baking.

Dad was a born baker, although six decades of practice certainly helped fine-tune his innate skills. Although he could make anything, his genius was pastry, which demands a gentle touch. He was a gentle man, so the two were made for each other.

He was an orderly baker as well, first laying out all the ingredients: flour, salt, lard, water, vinegar, sugar, cornstarch and rhubarb (without those “murderous” leaves, which, in fact, contain toxic oxalic acid that can be lethal if ingested). Then, measuring cups and spoons, a pastry knife and fork, mixing bowls, a rolling pin, pie pans and cooling racks were assembled. He always made three pies: one for our neighbors and two for us (the second pie was for lingering over a little more because the first barely left the oven before it was devoured).

The worst thing about his pie making was waiting for the pies to bake and then cool. I was not patient when it came to waiting for rhubarb pie, but if you didn’t wait, the slice of pie collapsed into soup on your plate and burned your mouth too. When the pie was cool enough, the sight of that first slice of rosy rhubarb between layers of flaky pastry made me drool.

If that bully hadn’t been a bully, he might have been invited to drool over that sight too, before tasting Dad’s rhubarb pie. Then he would have understood the truly deadly aspect of rhubarb. It wasn’t in the leaves touching you but, rather, in that first perfect bite, when the sweet rhubarb melded with pastry that melted on your tongue. That bite was deadly because you knew how terrible it would be when you could no longer eat such a perfect thing. If he hadn’t been a bully, I might have pitied him for never having had that experience, but, instead, I was just grateful that we did so often.

Dad’s Rhubarb Pie

Makes one 9-inch pie

Ingredients

For the pastry:

2¼ cups all-purpose flour

¼ teaspoon salt

1 cup cold lard (unsalted butter, if you prefer, or half lard and half butter)

¼ cup cold water

1 tablespoon white vinegar

For the filling:

3½ cups rhubarb, leaves removed; stalks trimmed, washed and dried thoroughly and cut into 1-inch pieces

1 to 1½ cups granulated sugar

¼ cup cornstarch

Directions

For the pastry:

1. Sift the flour and salt into a large bowl. Using a pastry knife, cut the lard into the flour until it is in pea-sized pieces.

2. In a measuring cup, stir together the water and vinegar. Using a fork, stir only enough liquid into the flour mixture to bind the ingredients. (Note: You might need more or less water, depending on how the dough comes together. In humid weather, it might require less water because flour, if not stored properly, can absorb water from the air.)

3. Form the dough into a ball, wrap in plastic and refrigerate for 30 minutes.

4. While the dough chills, prepare the rhubarb filling.

For the filling:

1. Combine rhubarb with sugar in a bowl and set aside. (For a more tart pie, use just 1 cup of sugar.)

Assembling the pie:

1. Cut the chilled dough into two equal pieces. On a lightly floured surface, roll one piece into a ⅛-inch thick circle. Gently wrap the circle onto the rolling pin (or lift it) and press into a 9-inch pie pan, trimming any excess from the edges.

Rhubarb pie. Credit: Sharon Hunt

Rhubarb pie. Credit: Sharon Hunt

2. Spoon the rhubarb mixture into the pastry-lined pie pan. Sprinkle cornstarch evenly over the fruit.

3. Cover the rhubarb with the rolled-out top crust. Seal the pastry edges with your thumb and finger (or press a fork against the edges to seal). Cut slits into the pastry. (Alternatively, cut the top crust into strips and make a latticework design on top of the pie, as show in the accompanying photograph.)

4. Press a thin strip (about 1 inch) of aluminum foil around the edges to keep from burning.

5. Bake the pie in a preheated 450 F oven for 12 to 15 minutes (or until the pastry is golden). Remove the aluminum foil, and reduce heat to 350 F. Bake the pie for an additional 40 to 50 minutes (or until the rhubarb is soft).

6. Cool well before cutting.

Note:  You can also add ¼ cup of strawberries (washed, dried and cut into equal-sized pieces) for additional sweetness and flavor. If you choose to use strawberries too, reduce the amount of rhubarb accordingly.

Top photo: Rhubarb pie. Credit: Sharon Hunt

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Whole wheat pancakes. Credit: Jacob VanHouten/iStock

The soup kitchen where I work has a beautiful griddle, perfect for pancakes — the food that spins my world. Yet I’ve been hesitant to make them because I like to serve them fresh, and serving 100 people necessitates making them ahead of time and keeping them warm. I’m also dedicated to whole grains, but people who eat here are the same as many Americans, dubious about whether they’ll like whole-grain foods. I often hear people ask for white bread for breakfast and reject whole-wheat rolls for lunch.

These breads are soft stuff that comes from plastic sleeves, the easy-to-catch remnants from supermarkets. Stale bread travels more freely to food pantries and soup kitchens than other foods, such as produce. That’s because bread looks better longer than fruit and vegetables, which show smelly and off-putting signs of age sooner. Produce is just more perishable than bread.

Plus, produce is more susceptible to food-safety problems. When’s the last time you heard of a sliced bread recall? You can probably remember salmonella in spinach, tomatoes and jalapeño peppers, not to mention more shelf-stable foods, such as peanuts.

How we got hooked on white bread

The preference for white bread goes beyond its mere shelf-stability. Long a hallmark of the rich, white flour only became inexpensive in the late 1800s, when roller milling became common.

White flour is made from just the endosperm, the center part of a grain kernel, minus the bran and germ. These subtractions were pricey when stone milling was the main route to flour. Bran and germ also offer problems.

Roller milling was a boon to flour because it separates the component parts of the grain, making it easier to divide them. Germ contains oils that make flour spoil more easily. These oils can also gum up the mill process. In Michael Pollan’s latest book “Cooked,” anonymous millers told him that germ is such a trouble to milling that it is generally removed from national brands of whole-wheat flour.

Bran is less bothersome at the mill, but bakers don’t love how it acts like knives in rising dough. This makes whole-wheat breads more dense than their puffy, fluffy, white cousins.

This is because wheat’s main goal is reproduction. Wheat germ is the part of a kernel meant to start another plant. Bran is several layers of armor that protect the next generation of wheat — the germ and its food, the endosperm. Any function or flavor we get is secondary to the plant’s intention.

While bran’s benefits used to be dismissed, the current thinking is that the indigestible fiber slows down metabolism of the starches in flour. Because starches convert to sugars in digestion, eating whole grains translates to lower blood-sugar levels. However, habits make whole-grain baked goods a hard sell.

Bran and germ contain most of the flavor you can find in a wheat berry. That starchy endosperm doesn’t have a lot of flavor on its own. White flour takes its flavors from its processing. White flour gets flavors from fermentation (by yeast or sourdough), from salt and sweeteners added during processing, and from the chemical reactions of baking, which both colors and creates crust.

Embracing whole wheat

Whole-grain flours have more taste, and that is troubling. Luckily, there are some methods to help the dedicated white-flour eater take the leap.

Just as some fish are more fishy tasting than others, some whole wheats are wheatier. As with fish, freshness counts a lot, too.

Wheats are red or white. This classification refers to the color of the bran. Red wheats have more tannins than whites. Tannins in whole wheat can be perceived as bitter. However, even dedicated whole wheatsters like me can taste the sweetness of white wheats. I am a huge fan.

More reds are grown than whites because white wheats tend to sprout easily in the field. This is another example of the plant’s first function taking precedence over its edibility again.

Brands to consider

If you can get locally grown and milled flour, find out about the color of the kernels. I have a pretty steady affection for the white whole-wheat pastry flour from Farmer Ground Flour. The pancakes I make from it ride little magic carpets in my mind. They’re oh so sweet and fluffy.

White whole-wheat flours are manufactured by many national brands. My favorite are King Arthur, Arrowhead and Bob’s Red Mill. If you are trying to persuade people to use whole grains, these types of flour are good suggestions for first-time users.

Of course, there is still the hurdle of texture, especially in leavened breads. Whether the wheat is white or red, the knife-like action of bran can keep your loaf from fluffing. If you’re baking for eaters who demand softness, use half white whole-wheat flour and half unbleached flour. You could ease people into your program with foods that are supposed to be denser, like banana breads, where you could easily get away with 100% white whole-wheat flour.

Don’t cater too much to those preferences, though. When I made pancakes at work, I used a combination of King Arthur white whole-wheat flour and that heavenly pastry flour from Farmer Ground. The cakes were light, fluffy and well-loved. We served scrambled eggs, sausages and pancakes topped with blueberries.

The only complaints we got were from people who didn’t like pancakes for lunch.

Top photo: Whole-wheat pancakes. Credit: Jacob VanHouten/iStock

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The author's favorite birthday cake since childhood: chocolate, topped with her mom's buttercream frosting and chocolate chips. Credit: Tina Caputo

My birthday falls just after the first day of spring, and along with warm sunny weather there’s one thing I always look forward to when the season changes and I clock in another year on the green side of the grass: cake. Not just any cake, but a rich chocolate one slathered with my mom’s famous vanilla buttercream frosting.

I don’t normally get excited about frosting — it’s usually too sweet or too gritty for my taste — but this one has a light and silky texture, with the perfect amount of sweetness and vanilla flavor. I could eat it with a spoon (and sometimes do).

I can’t think of anything more perfect for topping a springtime cake, whether it’s devil’s food, yellow or red velvet.

Mom’s magical frosting is based on a recipe she found in an Eastern Star cookbook, a post-wedding gift from her grandmother in the mid-1960s. Mom fiddled around with the recipe, tweaking the amount of sugar and flour, and eliminating the use of shortening until she made it her own. “After that I don’t think I ever made another frosting,” she told me.

Mom’s process involves boiling milk and flour in a saucepan until it’s thick and lump free. While the mixture cools, butter, margarine and sugar are creamed together in a stand mixer until fluffy and creamy. The cooled flour mixture is gradually added to the mixing bowl, along with vanilla, until all the ingredients are incorporated and the frosting looks like whipped cream.

When I asked my mom why she uses equal parts margarine and butter in her recipe, she wasn’t exactly sure. “The original recipe called for half shortening,” she said, “but I couldn’t stand the idea of eating raw Crisco.” She thought margarine was a more palatable option.

Although the Eastern Star recipe was simply titled “Frosting,” mom has always called her frosting “buttercream.” I recently learned that technically, that’s not quite correct.

Classic buttercream frosting

According to John Difilippo, who teaches baking and pastry arts at the Culinary Institute of America in the Napa Valley, there are many versions of buttercream frosting. But the one most commonly used by American pastry chefs, he said, is Italian buttercream. It’s made by boiling sugar and water into a syrup and combining the mixture with whipped egg whites. Finally, butter and vanilla are beaten into the mixture until smooth. French and Swiss versions are slightly different, but all include egg whites or whole eggs, and some form of cooking to pasteurize the eggs and ensure a more stable frosting.

Difilippo had never heard of a buttercream recipe quite like my mom’s, but he was able to solve the shortening mystery.

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Butter and sugar are creamed together in a stand mixer until light and fluffy. Credit: Tina Caputo

“It’s a very common process, just for saving cost,” he said. “Crisco is much cheaper than butter.”

The person who contributed the Eastern Star recipe may have learned it from a relative who grew up during the Depression, when many people couldn’t afford the luxury of an all-butter frosting or one using eggs.

“A lot of people simply make recipes the way their mother or grandmother taught them,” Difilippo said.

True enough. For all the years I’ve been making my mom’s frosting, I’ve always used equal parts butter and margarine. Now that I know the reason behind the margarine, it’s going to be all butter from here on out.

I don’t think my mom will mind my tinkering with her recipe. After all, she’s the one who started it.

Karen’s Buttercream Frosting

Makes enough for one 9-inch layer cake (if you like a lot of frosting on your cakes, increase recipe by one half)

Ingredients

1 cup milk

4½ tablespoons flour

2 sticks (1 cup) butter, room temperature

¾ cup sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla

Directions

1. Cook milk and flour in a saucepan until mixture is thick and starts to bubble, starting at medium heat, then turning down to low. Stir constantly to make sure there are no lumps. Remove from heat, cover pan and let cool completely.

2. Beat butter in a stand mixer at medium speed, adding sugar a little at a time, until mixture is very creamy and fluffy. Be patient — this will take about five minutes.

3. While mixing at low/medium speed, gradually add the cooled flour/milk mixture, then the vanilla, until all ingredients are incorporated. The finished frosting should be light and fluffy, similar to whipped cream.

Top photo: The author’s favorite birthday cake since childhood — chocolate, topped with her mom’s buttercream frosting and chocolate chips. Credit: Tina Caputo

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Cheese quiche. Credit: Paul Cowan / iStock

In the heyday of 1970s vegetarianism, quiche was the go-to dish. Everybody was making them. When I taught vegetarian cooking classes then, quiche (not the classic quiche lorraine with lardons, of course) would be one of the first recipes I’d teach. I made them by the sheet pan for catering jobs; they were extremely popular, even though I now know that the crusts I made in those days weren’t very good, and the formula I used for the custard wasn’t nearly as satisfying as the formula I use now.

Then quiche went out of fashion. This happened gradually, as Italian food stepped into vogue and Julia Child gave way to Marcella Hazan. I was living in France during this period of time, and since the classics of French cuisine are not fashion-driven, I could always get a good quiche. They were and are standard savory fare at just about every French bakery. I found entire boutiques devoted to savory tarts, and learned a lot about fillings.

I let quiche slide for a number of years myself, as I focused more on Mediterranean pies and chose olive oil over butter. But after working with Jacquy Pfeiffer on his prize-winning book, “The Art of French Pastry,” I became enamored again with the quiche. I learned Jacquy’s formula for a rich, savory pie crust that is easy to roll out, and my adaptation, made with half whole wheat flour, rolls out as easily as his. It is luscious, nutty and flaky, quite irresistible. I also learned from Jacquy to let my vegetable filling air out so its moisture would evaporate and not dilute the custard, and to make the custard with a combination of egg yolks and whole eggs. “The yolk’s lecithin is a great emulsifier that brings the water and fat together,” says Jacquy, “while the white is a great binder. Using only egg yolks … would give the tart an eggy aftertaste. Using only whole eggs would … make the custard too firm.” Who knew?

My quiches are as much about the vegetables that go into them as they are about the custard, the cheese (I like to combine Gruyère and Parmesan), and the crust. My favorites, the ones I make at the drop of a hat, are filled with spinach or other greens and onion, or with savory pan-cooked mushrooms. Then again I love a cabbage and onion quiche, with a little caraway thrown in; and in spring I’ll use steamed or roasted asparagus, spring onions and lots of fresh herbs. There may be nothing new about these pies, but a good quiche never gets old.

Classic Cheese Quiche

Serves 6

Ingredients

2 egg yolks

2 whole eggs

1 (9-inch) whole wheat pâte brisée pie crust, fully baked (recipe below) and cooled

½ teaspoon salt

Freshly ground pepper

⅔ cup milk

1 to 2 cups vegetable filling of your choice

3 ounces Gruyère, grated, or 1 ounce Parmesan and 2 ounces Gruyère, grated (¾ cup grated cheese)

Directions

1. Heat the oven to 350 F.

2. Beat together the egg yolks and eggs in a medium bowl. Set the tart pan on a baking sheet to allow for easy handling. Using a pastry brush, lightly brush the bottom of the crust with some of the beaten egg and place in the oven for 5 minutes. The egg seals the crust so that it won’t become soggy when it comes into contact with the custard.

3. Add the salt, pepper, and milk to the remaining eggs and whisk together.

4. Spread the vegetable filling (recipes below) in an even layer on the crust. Sprinkle the cheese in an even layer on top of the filling. (If you are making a simple cheese quiche with no vegetables, just sprinkle the cheese over the bottom of the crust in an even layer.) Very slowly, pour in the egg custard. If your tart pan has low edges, you may not need all of it to fill the quiche, and you want to avoid overflowing the edges. So pour in gradually and watch the custard spread out in the shell. Bake the quiche for 30 minutes, or until set and just beginning to color on the top. Allow to sit for at least 15 minutes before serving.

Note: Alternatively, toss the vegetable filling with the cheese and spread in the bottom of the crust rather than layering the cheese over the vegetable filling.

Whole Wheat Pâte Brisée

Ingredients

222 grams French style butter such as Plugrà (8 ounces, 1 cup), at room temperature

175 grams whole wheat flour or whole wheat pastry flour (approximately 1½ cups less 1 tablespoon)

175 grams unbleached all-purpose flour (approximately 1½ cups less 1 tablespoon)

7 grams fine sea salt (1 teaspoon)

92 grams water (6 tablespoons)

Directions

1. Make sure that your butter is at room temperature. Place it in the bowl of a standing mixer. Sift together the flours and salt and add to the mixer. Mix at low speed just until the mixture is well combined. Do not over beat. Add the water and beat at low speed just until the mixture comes together. Do not over mix or you will activate the gluten in the flour too much and you pastry will be tough.

2. Using a pastry scraper or a rubber spatula, scrape the dough onto a large sheet of plastic wrap. Weigh it and divide into 2 equal pieces. Place each piece onto a large sheet of plastic, fold the plastic over and and flatten into ½-inch thick squares. Double wrap and refrigerate for at least 2 hours and preferably overnight.

3. Very lightly butter two 9-inch tart pans. If you can see the butter you’ve used too much. Roll out the dough and line the tart pans. Using a fork, pierce rows of holes in the bottom, about an inch apart. This will allow steam to escape and aid in even baking. Refrigerate uncovered for several hours or preferably overnight.

4. To pre-bake, heat the oven to 325 F. Remove a tart shell from the refrigerator, unwrap and line it with a sheet of parchment. Fill all the way with pie weights, which can be beans or rice used exclusively for pre-baking pastry, or special pie weights. Place in the middle of the oven for 15 minutes. Remove the “faux filling” and return to the oven. Bake for another 15 to 20 minutes, or until light golden brown and evenly colored. There should be no evidence of moisture in the dough. Remove from the oven and allow to cool.

Mushroom Filling

Ingredients

½-  to ¾-pound white or cremini mushrooms, wiped if gritty

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

Salt and freshly ground pepper

2 shallots, minced

2 garlic cloves, minced

2 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme, rosemary, or sage (or a combination), or ½ teaspoon dried, OR 1 to 2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley

¼ cup dry white wine, such as Sauvignon Blanc

Directions

1. Trim off the ends of the mushrooms and cut in thick slices. Heat a large, heavy frying pan over medium-high heat and add 1 tablespoon of the olive oil. When the oil is hot (you can feel the heat when you hold your hand above the pan), add the mushrooms. Don’t stir for 30 seconds to a minute, then cook, stirring or tossing in the pan, for a few minutes, until they begin to soften and sweat. Add the remaining oil, turn the heat to medium, and add the shallots, garlic, and thyme, rosemary or sage. Stir together, add salt (about ½ teaspoon) and freshly ground pepper to taste, and cook, stirring often, for another 1 to 2 minutes, until the shallots and garlic have softened and the mixture is fragrant. Add the parsley and wine and cook, stirring often and scraping the bottom of the pan, until the wine has evaporated. Taste and adjust seasonings. Remove from the heat.

Spinach and Scallion Filling

Ingredients

1 to 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil (to taste)

2 bunches scallions (about 6 ounces), trimmed and sliced

1 to 2 garlic cloves, to taste, minced (optional)

1½ cups chopped blanched or steamed spinach (12 ounces baby spinach or 2 bunches, stemmed and washed well in two changes of water)

1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves

Salt and freshly ground pepper

Directions

1. Heat the oil in a medium skillet over medium heat and add the scallions. Cook, stirring, until tender, 3 to 5 minutes. Add the garlic if using and cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Stir in the spinach, thyme, salt and pepper and stir over medium heat for about a minute, until the spinach is nicely coated with olive oil. Remove from the heat.

Top photo: Cheese quiche.  Credit: Paul Cowan /iStock

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Blood Orange Chocolate Cake. Credit: Caroline J. Beck

Using extra virgin olive oil in cake baking is not new. I’ve been doing it for years along with other health-minded folks. It imparts a rich, slightly herbal flavor to cookies, cakes and muffins that balances the inherent sweetness of my favorite recipes. And who’s kidding whom? It also makes me feel slightly more righteous and slightly less guilty. But when I opened the refrigerator and found the last of my favorite winter citrus and a container of crème fraîche ready for attention, it seemed only logical that these things belonged in a chocolate cake as well.

There is another ingredient in this cake that is far less known but deserves to be in everyone’s pantry. It’s an extract originating from Italy called Fiori di Sicilia (translated to “flowers of Sicily”). When I want to add a bit of mystery to my baking, I grab this little vial and add a few precious drops to the batter. It is a powerful combination of vanilla, citrus and less-defined floral scents. If you’ve ever tasted a traditional panettone from Italy during the Christmas holidays, you will recognize the flavor in an instant. While vanilla extract is always useful to round out a mix of flavors, this heavenly tincture can do all that and more.

Blood Orange Chocolate Cake

You can use any type of orange to impart the tangy flavor that complements a good dark chocolate, but the flavor complexity of a blood orange, with its raspberry undertones, makes this cake particularly yummy.

Serves 8

Ingredients

1¾ cups pastry or cake flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

¼ teaspoon baking soda

½ teaspoon kosher salt

3 tablespoons orange zest

½ cup dark cocoa powder

½ cup boiling water

1 cup sugar

⅓ cup extra virgin olive oil

1 cup crème fraîche

3 large eggs

½ cup orange juice

1 teaspoon Fiori de Sicilia extract (or vanilla extract)

2 tablespoons Grand Marnier or Triple Sec liquor (optional)

Confectioners’ sugar for dusting

Directions

1. Preheat the oven to 350 F and grease a 9-by-5-inch baking pan. In a small bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt and zest, and set aside.

2. Sift the cocoa powder into a separate bowl and add boiling water until it is the consistency of a thick, smooth and glossy paste. Let cool while preparing wet ingredients.

3. By machine or by hand, whisk together sugar, olive oil, crème fraiche and eggs until blended and smooth. Slowly incorporate orange juice, extract, liquor and cocoa. Finally, add dry ingredients until evenly mixed.

4. Pour batter into pan and bake for 50 to 60 minutes. The cake is done when an inserted toothpick comes out with no wet batter clinging to it.

5. Dust with powdered sugar or drizzle with glaze created by mixing ¼ cup blood orange juice with powdered sugar until desired consistency. Garnish with fresh raspberries.

Top photo: Blood Orange Chocolate Cake. Credit: Caroline J. Beck

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The Crooked Chimney sugarhouse where Lee, N.H., resident David Moore boils down paper birch sap to make birch syrup. Credit: Christine Burns Rudalevige

As New England’s maple sap started to drip in March, David Moore of The Crooked Chimney sugarhouse in Lee, N.H., counted the days until it would stop flowing. Right about the time the maples are tapped out, Moore collects a less sugary sap from slender, white paper birch trees.

Moore, one of the only known commercial birch syrup producers in New England, says his reddish-brown syrup tastes like a mild, slightly acidic molasses with a hint of raspberry. The viscosity at room temperature is slow, albeit a bit quicker than molasses. Its unique taste makes it well suited as an ice cream topping (Moore’s favorite); a glaze, salad dressing or braising liquid ingredient; and an intriguing baked goods sweetener.

In addition to its uses in the kitchen, birch syrup has high market values that could help maple syrup producers supplement future revenue streams in a sustainable fashion, according to researchers at Cornell and the University of Vermont. Its production relies on many of the techniques currently employed in making maple syrup, and birch trees are in rather good supply in the Northeast.

Birch syrup is not entirely a novelty in North America. Native Americans for centuries used it as an anti-rheumatic. Twentieth-century Alaskans also tapped it to fill gaps in wartime sugar supplies, and birch syrup production has become a cottage industry there. Still, last year’s 5,000 gallons of domestically produced birch syrup were just a drop in the bucket compared with the 3.25 million gallons of maple syrup produced.

Chef Evan Mallett of Black Trumpet bistro in Portsmouth, N.H., says Moore’s syrup has a rich, deep and slightly resinous quality that makes it suitable as a finishing syrup and a glaze for grilled chicken or pork. Mallett’s seasonal menu features brioche Texas toast, a thick slice of house-made bread stuffed with roasted mushrooms and cheese and served with huitlacoche (fungus that grows on ears of corn) butter, candy cap mushroom oil and a few drops of birch syrup.

“I like it on pancakes too, but it’s pretty expensive to slather on,” Mallett said.

The going rate for a quart of birch syrup is $78, compared with $10 for Grade A maple syrup. The selling price is very attractive, said Moore, who last year charged $25 for 8-ounce jars and sold out by the end of May. Moore sells his product at a half dozen locations in New Hampshire and will be taking some mail orders this year if supplies last.

“Making birch syrup takes more energy than making maple syrup,” explained Moore, who collects 100 to 120 gallons of sap (he typically gets about 5 gallons a day from each of his 170 taps) to make one gallon of birch syrup. Maple syrup requires only 40 gallons of sap per gallon of syrup.

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Birch syrup tastes like a mild, slightly acidic molasses with a hint of raspberry. Credit: Christine Burns Rudalevige

Abby van den Berg of the University of Vermont’s Proctor Maple Research Center said the profitability of birch syrup production in the Northern Forest — the region that stretches from Maine through northern New Hampshire and Vermont into northern New York — in the past has been limited due to the fact that the low sugar content of birch sap (about 1% compared with 2% in maple) means producers need lots of evaporator fuel to concentrate the sap to syrup density.

But she argues that reverse osmosis, a process used in Alaskan birch syrup production that concentrates sugar densities (to 8% or greater) in the sap before it goes into the evaporator mitigates that hurdle. Modern sap collection techniques such as using a vacuum also help to increase the sap collection during the short three- to four-week birch sap season.

Moore has considered using reverse osmosis, but he currently processes sap in a 3- by 12-foot double-panned evaporator inside the wooden sugar shack he built himself. He uses a team of draft horses to help haul the firewood (ash, hickory, maple and oak) needed to fuel the evaporator. The new reverse osmosis machine would require him to run power to the sugarhouse. He estimates adding reverse osmosis would cost $7,000. “It could be a tough sell for me,” Moore said.

Neither van den Berg nor Michael Farrell, director of Cornell Sugar Maple Research & Extension Program’s Uihlein field station in Lake Placid, N.Y., could provide more than anecdotal evidence that maple syrup producers are clamoring to make birch syrup.

At a maple syrup taste test he conducted for maple syrup producers earlier this year, Farrell threw birch syrup into the mix. When he asked for a show of hands from those who liked the taste of New England birch syrup, not one went up. The producers then were offered a taste of birch syrup made with reverse osmosis. “Nearly everyone changed their mind,” Farrell said.

“This altered process gives birch syrup a wider range of flavor that should appeal to more people. They’ve just got to be willing to taste it,” he said.

Chewy Ginger and Birch Syrup Lumberjack Cookies

Yes, birch syrup is expensive, but it adds an interesting twist to these spicy chewy cookies that people won’t place until you tell them. Think of it as money well spent for tea time conversation.

Makes 24 cookies

Ingredients

2¼ cups all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons baking soda

2 teaspoons ground ginger

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

½ teaspoon mustard powder

½ teaspoon allspice

½ teaspoon salt

¼ teaspoon black pepper

¾ cup unsalted butter (1½ sticks), room temperature

¾ cup packed light brown sugar

1 large egg

½ cup birch syrup

⅓ cup finely diced candied ginger (optional)

Granulated sugar for rolling

Directions

1. Preheat oven to 375 F. Line two large baking sheets with parchment paper.

2. Whisk together flour, baking soda, ground ginger, cinnamon, mustard powder, allspice, salt and black pepper.

3. Beat butter and sugar together in bowl of electric mixer until light and fluffy, 3 minutes. Add egg and birch syrup. Mix to combine well. Stir in dry ingredients. Stir in candied ginger, if using. Refrigerate the dough for 30 minutes.

4. Roll dough into 1½-inch balls and then roll them in the raw sugar. Arrange on the baking sheets and gently flatten them with the bottom of a flat glass. Bake until set and crinkled on top, about 12 minutes.

Let the cookies sit on the baking sheet for 2 minutes and then remove them to a rack to cool completely.

Top photo: The Crooked Chimney sugarhouse where Lee, N.H., resident David Moore boils down paper birch sap to make birch syrup. Credit: Christine Burns Rudalevige

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Making homemade bitters requires spices, alcohol, and above all, patience. Credit: Susan Lutz

Nothing gives a cocktail a kick quite like bitters. Whether it’s an Old Fashioned, a Manhattan or a Champagne Cocktail, those quick dashes from a paper-wrapped bottle turn simple alcohol into something mysterious, tangy and alluring. There are big-name bitters — Angostura and Peychauds — with secret recipes and exotic back stories. At some hipster cocktail bars, you will find mixologists with steam-punk facial hair who have whipped-up their own concoctions of bitters that are just as mysterious and secret.

But if I’m going to use bitters when sharing an Old Fashioned with my husband, I’m going to want to make my own. And that required some research.

It turns out that bitters have a long and distinguished history, a history that stretches back before the invention of distilled spirits. The angostura bitters that you find at supermarkets and liquor stores began life not as a cocktail mixer, but as a medicine.

The bitters recipe created by Dr. Johann Siegert in the town of Angostura, Venezuela, in the 1820s was meant as a digestive aid for the troops of Simon Bolivar. Folk medicine has long held that a bitter taste helps digestion. For centuries, herbalists and self-taught doctors have known that healing plants can be preserved if saved in tincture form. And a tincture is simply an herb that has been left in alcohol long enough.

I dove into online research with gusto, discovering the high-alcohol patent medicines of the 19th  century colonial era, and even some stretching back to medieval medical writers such as St. Hildegard of Bingen. But these historic recipes were extensive and required access to some bizarre herbs. Even a fairly modern recipe reverse-engineered from the Angostura original required roots and seeds that I wouldn’t find at my local grocery store.

Then I stumbled upon a simple answer: a kit.

Dash Bitters is the brainchild of Gina and Brian Hutchinson, a husband-and-wife team of DIY cocktail mavens who ran into the same problem I had.

“We found lots of old recipes online from small-town pharmacies,” Gina told me, “but when we tried to order the ingredients, we could only order in big bulk batches.” Herbs like gentian root, wormwood and burdock could only be ordered by the pound.

“You only need a teaspoon of gentian root for bitters,” Gina said, “A pound is more than any person will need in their entire lifetime. It would have been nice to have just bought a kit and not have to pay for shipping of each five times over.” That was their brainstorm. Dash Bitters was born.

Making bitters at home

I immediately went to dashbitters.com and ordered the 1889 kit, meant to reproduce the Angosturian digestive aid for Simon Bolivar’s troops. Dash’s packaging is simple and elegant, but the herbal ingredients were the real revelation: pungent, beautiful, each with their own stories that stretched back to the era when medicine and magic were nearly identical.

Gentian Root,  the star ingredient,  actually has medical value as an anti-inflammatory and antiseptic. But in 1653 British herbalist Nicholas Culpeper noted that gentian “comforts the heart and preserves it against faintings and swoonings: the powder of the dry roots helps the biting of mad dogs and venomous beasts.” That makes for a powerful Manhattan.

The Dash kit also contains a redolent packet of cardamom. Its sweetness is a nice balance to the bitterness of gentian, and Bolivar’s army would have found it useful because it’s a proven aid for heartburn and gastric complaints.

The most interesting of the herbs to me were the round peppery seeds called grains of paradise. This West African spice was first discovered by Europeans during the Renaissance. My research took me away from the Internet and into the real world, where I had the pleasure of visiting the extraordinary collection of medieval texts of The Institute for the Preservation of Medical Traditions. Its scientific director, Alain Touwaide, showed me reproductions of historic texts and illustrations of Grains of Paradise, which he told me was more popular than black pepper in 14th-century France, and three times more expensive.

According to Touwaide’s copy of the “Tractatus de Herbis,” the spice’s pungent flavor was said to have the properties of “warming, drying and giving ease.” In “The Boke of Nurture,” John Russell described Grains of Paradise as provoking “hot and moist humors,” and apparently, that was medieval code for “aphrodisiac.” Oddly enough, a 2002 medical study showed that extracts of Grains of Paradise “significantly increased” the sexual activity of lab rats.

Microscopic view of Grains of Paradise. Credit: Susan Lutz

Microscopic view of Grains of Paradise. Credit: Susan Lutz

Dog bite treatment, gastric cure, aphrodisiac … you can see why bitters quickly migrated from the medicine chest to the cocktail bar.

Extracting the essence of these magical herbs is not a short process, and I felt like a medieval alchemist as I boiled, strained and transferred the herbal concoction from one tincture jar to another. Three weeks later, I had my own small jar of pungent, aromatic bitters, ready for its first introduction to some locally-made bourbon and a bit of sugar.

But I discovered one other interesting fact about making bitters that Gina had warned me about.  Even a small kit gives you a lot more bitters than you’ll use on your own. The solution: cooking with bitters!

So as you sip your Manhattan or Old Fashioned, you can use the rest of your alchemical digestive aid on a batch of chocolate cookie sandwiches with cherry walnut bitters frosting. It’s for your health, after all.

Chocolate Cookie Sandwiches With Cherry Walnut Bitters Frosting

(Recipe courtesy of Dash Bitters)

Makes approximately 12 small, sandwich cookies

Ingredients

1½ cup almond flour
¼ teaspoon salt for cookies, plus an additional pinch for frosting
½ teaspoon baking soda
¼ cup arrowroot powder
⅛ cup cocoa powder
¼ cup grapeseed oil
⅓ cup agave nectar
⅔ teaspoon vanilla extract
2 ounces cream cheese, softened
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
1 teaspoon Cherry Walnut Bitters
1½ to 1¾ cups confectioners’ sugar

Directions

1. Preheat oven to 350 F. Line two large baking sheets with parchment paper.

2. In a large bowl, mix almond flour, salt, baking soda, arrowroot powder and cocoa powder.

3. In a small bowl, whisk together the grapeseed oil, agave nectar and vanilla extract. Pour the wet ingredients into the almond flour mixture and stir until thoroughly combined.

4. With a teaspoon, scoop the dough one teaspoon at a time onto the prepared baking sheets, leaving at least two inches between each cookie. The dough will spread.

5. Bake for 8 to 10 minutes, until the tops of the cookies look dry and the color darkens.

6. Remove the cookies from the oven and allow the cookies to cool on a cooling rack for 10 minutes while you make the frosting.

7. Beat together cream cheese and butter on medium speed until mixture is fluffy, about one minute. Scrape down bowl with a spatula. Add cherry walnut bitters and salt. Mix on low for another minute.

8. With the mixer on low, slowly add 1 cup of the confectioners’ sugar; beat for 20 seconds. Scrape down bowl. If consistency is too soft to hold its shape, add additional confectioners’ sugar, one tablespoon at a time, until desired consistency is reached. Frosting can be kept refrigerated, in an airtight container with plastic wrap pressed on the surface, for several days.

Top photo: Making homemade bitters requires spices, alcohol and, above all, patience. Credit: Susan Lutz

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Bread at Brickmaiden Breads in Point Reyes Station, Calif.. Credit: Brooke Jackson

The chimney top peeks over a fence just off the main street of downtown Point Reyes Station, Calif., wisps of smoke drifting out. The smell of burning wood is accompanied by the aroma of freshly baked bread on the morning air, as the cottage housing Brickmaiden Breads churns out the day’s loaves.

Inside, the yawning mouth of the wood oven is filled with dancing flame, warming the room while owner Celine Underwood measures out ingredients for the next batch of dough.

“Bread is my passion,” she says. “I started baking it when I was a teenager.”

And her passion has become a thriving business with a dedicated following of restaurant accounts and customers throughout the Bay Area who look forward to Brickmaiden’s flavorful crumb and chewy crust. The process that creates the artisan loaves is at once old-fashioned in technique and thoroughly modern.

Wood-fired oven at work all day

All the loaves are levain leavened, meaning a starter is used instead of yeast. The starter is a living thing, sometimes called wild yeast, which needs to be fed everyday and picks up the terroir of the area in the form of bacteria, imparting a flavor and texture that is particular to Point Reyes. The starter is the very beginning of the bread and contributes to Brickmaiden’s characteristic texture and flavor.

The dough is mixed up, shaped and then left in a retarder overnight, where it slowly rises. The retarding process encourages fermentation, which helps break down the proteins in the flour. This makes the bread easier to digest and the nutrients more readily absorbed by the body.

Meanwhile, the vast oven is heating up. It is an imposing structure that is faced with brick and takes up most of the interior of the cottage. Through its wide opening, the brick-lined ceiling is visible, as is the fire that’s building the heat for that day’s bake. It takes 12 to 14 hours to get the oven fired completely, a process that starts with getting the temperature up to 900 F (measured with a thermocoupler buried in the oven as well as a “heat gun,” a type of laser thermometer).

At this point no more wood is added and as the fire burns down to coals, heat saturates the bricks and the temperature begins to drop. When 600 F is reached, the oven is ready for baking. The coals are shoveled into an ash can and the surface stone is brushed and cleaned off. Now the first batch of loaves goes in.

It seems tricky to depend on such a temperamental, time-consuming device, but Underwood loves baking with fire.

“I’m attracted to the simplicity of it, working with the fire element,” she says.

It is a dance of coordination to have the dough ready at the same time the oven is and to get the temperature to hold long enough to bake the supply for each day.

The Brickmaiden crust and flavor

The oven can hold 70 loaves at a time. Brickmaiden does about six loads per day, baking more than 400 baguettes, rolls, Pullman sandwich bread, and several types of round levain. During the busy summer months, the bakers make as much bread as the oven heat will allow.

“There is a finite production capacity with this type of oven,” Underwood says, hinting that she has been looking at other wood oven systems that aren’t as limiting.

The first couple of loads of bread are more caramelized because the oven walls and dome are the hottest. This creates the signature crust that Brickmaiden fans long for, very dark with a deep flavor and rustic texture. The starter and long rise add a slightly sour flavor and impart a moist, almost fluffy interior that stays fresher longer than other breads.

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The wood-fired oven at Brickmaiden Breads, Point Reyes, Calif. Credit: Brooke Jackson

These initial loads bake in less than an hour due to the high temperature the oven still holds. Gradually that starts to decrease causing the bake time to increase so the last load takes 1½ hours to finish. After the bread is done, there is still plenty of heat left in the oven, giving the bakers a chance to cook off all their other products, which include granola, cookies, crackers, biscotti, scones and croutons.

Great bread is made from great ingredients. Brickmaiden gets most of the flour it uses from Central Milling, the well-regarded artisan flour company, including California-grown whole wheat, kamut and spelt. They have also been experimenting with some of the wheat being grown in Mendocino County and are in the process of forming a Sonoma Marin grain-growers group. With the goal of getting things as local as possible, the group hopes to grow, harvest, mill and bake with different wheat and grains in the near future.

Underwood is looking down the road and has many goals and dreams for her operation.

“I hope to have a retail shop soon, house a stone mill and gardens on the property, provide a place for growth and development of young bakers, and create a place that perpetuates building connection to our environment, sense of place, self and community,” she said.

Once you’ve had your fill of fresh bread slathered with butter or dipped in olive oil, here are a couple recipes to help use up the loaf.

Wild Mushroom Bread Pudding

Makes 7 or 8 puddings

I found an assortment of wild mushroom at the Far West Fungi booth in San Francisco’s Ferry Building. Farmers markets offer good mushroom options. You also can use whatever your local grocer has in the produce section. The puddings make a tasty side dish for pork or poultry and a satisfying brunch or lunch entrée.

Ingredients

2 eggs

1 cup half and half

½ teaspoon salt

5 grinds of fresh pepper mill

⅛ teaspoon nutmeg

2 packed cups ½-inch Brickmaiden bread, including crusts, cut into ½-inch cubes. Their levain breads are especially tasty for this recipe

1 tablespoon olive oil

2 green onions, both green and white parts, thinly sliced

2 cloves garlic, minced

¼ pound fresh, wild mushrooms, roughly chopped

1 tablespoon parsley, finely chopped

½ cup shredded cheese — blend of Italian varieties like Parmesan, Fontina, Asiago is delicious, but any sharp, hard or semi-hard cheese will work

Olive oil spray for greasing muffin cups

Directions

1. Preheat oven to 350 F. Grease 8 muffin cups well with olive oil spray.

2. In a medium bowl, whisk together the eggs, half and half, salt, pepper and nutmeg until combined. Add the bread cubes and submerge. Set aside while you get the veggies ready.

3. Heat a 10-inch skillet over medium heat. Add the olive oil and when it shimmers, add the green onions and garlic. Sauté until the garlic is aromatic, then add the mushrooms. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Stir and cook until any liquid mushrooms give off has evaporated and they are golden and tender. Stir in parsley and cook 2 minutes longer. Set aside to cool slightly.

4. Add shredded cheese to egg mixture then stir in mushrooms, mixing well until all ingredients are evenly distributed.

5. Spoon mixture into greased muffin cups, mounding bread cubes slightly and adding liquid to just under the lip of each cup.

6. Place muffin tin on a sheet tray to catch any drips. Bake until tops are golden and crusty and knife inserted in center comes out clean, about 30 minutes

7. Run a sharp knife around the edge of each cup then allow to cool in the pan for 10 minutes. Remove and serve warm.  These puddings can be reheated in the microwave for 30 seconds.

Garlic Bread

Fresh chives add a springy note and the crusty goodness of the Brickmaiden levain style breads work well in this recipe.

Serves 3 or 4

Ingredients

1 large clove garlic

2 tablespoons butter

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 tablespoon chives, finely sliced

¼ teaspoon Gray Maldon sea salt

2 (1-inch) thick slices artisan bread

Directions

1. Preheat oven to 350 F.

2. Rub garlic clove on both sides of each bread slice. Set on a small sheet tray.

3. Mince garlic clove and combine with butter, oil and chives in a flat, microwave-safe pie plate.

4. Microwave on high in 10-second bursts until butter is fully melted then stir to combine ingredients.

5. Dip one side of each slice of bread in the butter mixture, scraping garlic mince into the nooks and crannies of the bread. Sprinkle each slice evenly with the salt.

6. Bake for 5 minutes until slightly crisped. Cut each slice into three pieces and serve.

Top photo: Bread at Brickmaiden Breads in Point Reyes Station, Calif. Credit: Brooke Jackson

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