Articles in Baking

Sam Fromartz's newest book will have you smelling and tasting the featured breads. Credit: Sam Fromartz

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
» Enter here for a chance to win a free copy
» Click here to buy the book


“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.”

Fromartz let his curiosities guide his book's odyssey. Credit: Samuel FromartzAs 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.

Samuel Fromartz, author of "In Search of the Perfect Loaf: A Home Baker's Odyssey." Credit: Susan Biddle

Samuel Fromartz, author of “In Search of the Perfect Loaf: A Home Baker’s Odyssey.” Credit: Susan Biddle

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.

“When you’re reading about the Romans and you read about all the different breads they made with barley and spelt, chick pea flour and everything else, all of those breads and grains were lost,” he said. Now, these grains are sometimes used as animal feed. But at one time they were eaten by people and prized.

“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

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Baker Andrew Heyn of Elmore Mountain Bread scoops flour he's just milled. Credit: Monica Frisell

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.


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.”

Jonathan Bethony mills wheat for flour at The Bread Lab. Photo credit: Kim Binczewski

Jonathan Bethony mills wheat for flour at The Bread Lab. Credit: Kim Binczewski

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.

Bottom stone and wooden casing at the Plimoth Grist Mill, which runs on water. Credit: Amy Halloran

Bottom stone and wooden casing at the Plimoth Grist Mill, which runs on water. Credit: Amy Halloran

“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.

United States

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

Canada

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

Wide Awake Bakery outside of Ithaca, New York, is linked to Farmer Ground Flour.

Pizzeria and Pane Bianco, Phoenix, are linked to Hayden Flour Mills.

Annie’s Bakery, Asheville, North Carolina, shares a roof with Carolina Ground, a mill associated with a slew of other bakeries in the area.

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

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Samuel Fromartz, editor of Food and Environment Reporting Network and author of

In artisanal bakeries from Brooklyn to Seattle, the bread counters are piled high with lovely loaves, from the hardiest Scandinavian ryes to French country sourdoughs, from spelt and buckwheat breads to baguettes. Yet this bounty of choice was pretty unusual in the roughly 20,000 years that humanity has been eating grains. While these breads are often associated with European traditions, the long-ago impetus to make a loaf a particular way — or make it into sustenance — has largely been forgotten. Choice — and here I’d include contemporary gluten-avoidance regimes —  didn’t determine what was eaten. Necessity did.


“In Search of the Perfect Loaf: A Home Baker’s Odyssey”
By Samuel Fromartz, Viking, 2014, 320 pages
» Enter here for a chance to win a free copy
» Click here to buy the book


If you go back to the pre-modern era, before bread became a commodity and flour was sold in supermarkets, those who depended on grain largely ate what was grown nearby. It might have been wheat. It might have been barley. It might have been rye. Or it might have been nothing at all, if the harvest failed.

Perfect: Samuel Fromartz practices what he preaches in his new book. Credit: Samuel Fromartz

To forestall such events, farmers hedged their bets by planting diverse cereal crops. Bakers — both craftsmen and homemakers — then had to figure out how to make this variety of ingredients palatable. Grains, after all, provided up to 80% of the calories in a diet.

Scots made cakes from oats and barley, since both grains were hardy in northern Europe. Rye prevailed in Eastern Europe, because the soil and climate were hospitable. During shortages, coarse bran was mixed into bread. Bakers also added walnuts, acorns and spent grains from the brewery to stretch a loaf. In southern France, ground chickpeas were made into socca flatbread. In Cyprus, bakers fermented chickpeas for wheat and barley loaves. Much later, a New World starch, potatoes, became a buffer against famine in 18th century Europe as the population exploded. Maize or corn served this purpose as well. Corn-rye proved crucial to early American settlers, where it was known as “rye-injun bread” because wheat grew poorly in the southern New England climate.

Now, of course, the impetus for such innovation is gone. Agricultural science has done much to ensure fairly steady wheat harvests, with high-yielding varieties. Industrial millers long ago came up with the means to provide standard flour to produce a steady supply of bread products. As this new wheat took over, their ancient progenitors largely vanished from the landscape — and the palate. By the late 1990s, researchers estimated, 97% of all the spring wheat grown in the developing world came from closely related modern varieties. “Landraces,” those seed populations saved and passed down by farmers, became a rarity.

Perfect: Samuel Fromartz practices what he preaches in his new book. Credit: Samuel Fromartz

Perfect: Samuel Fromartz practices what he preaches in his new book. Credit: Samuel Fromartz

As for the wheat kernel, about 30% to 40%  was siphoned off in the milling of white flour. We often hear about the fiber, minerals, lipids and vitamins in wheat bran and germ that are lost. What is less appreciated is that these nutrient-dense grain fractions also contain a lot of calories. Wheat bran, for instance, represents about 12% to 16% of the wheat kernel. With every kilo of bran removed in the milling of white flour, 2,160 calories are squandered, including 160 grams of protein. “Everyone understood that the whiter the flour, the smaller the number of people who could be fed by a given amount of grain,” historian Steven Kaplan has written of 18th century France. Wheat still provides the second-highest source of calories and is the top source of humanity’s protein, yet we’re content to waste such a significant amount of its nutrition.

Loss of craft baking knowledge

Also jettisoned along the path to modernity was the baker, who came up with the methods to make such whole grains palatable. In the age of industrial bakeries, we may cheer that freedom from drudgery. But I realized, in baking my own loaves for more than a decade, that we lost something else as well. It wasn’t simply the old world loaves that were largely left behind, or the grains that went into them, or the farms that grew diverse cereal crops. We also lost the craft knowledge that came from turning grains into food. This kind of knowledge could only be learned with practice, attention and tactile sensation.

To make really great bread, I found I had to put away my cognitive mind and learn the essential lessons of touch itself. I had to forget about following routine steps, since different grains — and different batches of them — often required adjustments. My sense of touch told me what tweaks to make, turning passable loaves into desirable ones. My hands were learning. At that moment I realized, if we really want to understand what sustained our species for millennium, spurred numerous innovations, and ultimately increased the supply of food in scarce times, our hands and craftwork are going to be at the center of that process. Our thinking minds will follow.

Main photo: Samuel Fromartz, editor of Food and Environment Reporting Network and author of “In Search of the Perfect Loaf: A Home Baker’s Odyssey.” Credit: Susan Biddle

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Elephant Christmas tree. Credit: Eti Swinford-Dreamstime

All around the world trees are adorned with lights, candles and lamps are displayed in windows, strings of paper lanterns are cut into intricate patterns. Christmas is one of the many holidays that celebrate the return of light to the world at the time of the winter solstice.

Along the Silk Road, the largest number of Christians in any country is in predominantly Hindu India. There are around 35 million Christians in India, with those of Catholic faith comprising slightly less than half of that total number. That’s  a few million less than the population of California; and five times as many Christians live in India than in Christian Georgia and Armenia combined.

In a country of almost 1 billion Hindus and 140 million Muslims, Christians are still a minority in India. In some urban areas such as Chennai and Kerala, though, there are large Christian communities who have beautiful and distinct ways of celebrating the holiday that blend Christian religious practice and iconography with Indian material culture.

Celebrations often begin on Christmas Eve and continue through the New Year. Families gather on Christmas Eve for processions through the streets to churches decorated with the bold crimson foliage of poinsettias in bloom for a midnight Mass to begin the holiday season. People worship as choirs sing traditional religious and secular songs. In some parishes, fireworks are lit after services and people dance, feast and exchange presents well into one of the longest nights of the year.

Decorated trees

Other familiar traditions get a uniquely Indian twist on the subcontinent and Nativity scenes are displayed in Christian homes. Banana and mango trees are decorated with lights and oil lamps are placed on roofs and walls to declare the return of the light, as is also done for Hindu India’s Diwali festival.

Most startling and magical are the strings of star-shaped paper lanterns that are hung from rooftop to rooftop and in front of Christian-owned shops and restaurants, symbolically to light the way of all people. Caroling takes place in Christian communities and in most urban melting pots, as crowds of people gather to walk through the streets and make a joyous noise to celebrate their faith.

Christianity’s roots run deep in India. According to Indian Christian traditions, the apostle Thomas arrived in Kerala in the mid-first century A.D., and began preaching across the region and into Tamil Nadu. From this humble beginning, Christianity spread steadily across India, and by the time of the Sassanid Empire in A.D. 226, there were bishops of the Church of the East in northwest India, Afghanistan and Baluchistan. The first Catholic bishop of India was ordained in the early 14th century, and in the 15th century, as the Portuguese colonists along the Malabar Coast continued the spread of the faith.

Indian garland

Garland of stars. Credit: Nikhil Gangavane – Dreamstime

Christmas Day is a national holiday in India, and the day off from work and official duties often prompts people of other faiths to have large family dinners at this time as well. So, even if they make up a small portion of India’s population, Christians have freedom to worship and celebrate this season that is both known and in some secular ways shared by their brothers and sisters of other creeds.

Families prepare for weeks or sometimes months for the coming of Christmas and homes are cleaned, repaired and whitewashed. That ever-earlier harbinger of the Christmas season in the West — shopping — also takes place in India as people shop for new clothes to wear to festivities and buy presents for loved ones. For women and girls the holiday also includes preparing special foods — particularly desserts and cakes to share with  visitors and cooking can begin long in advance of the holiday.

Cookies and sweets

There are no dishes that are unique to the Christmas season in India, but the most elaborate and expensive dishes are usually prepared. Savory dishes include layered biryanis, especially Mughlai biryani, with its large complement of meat, nuts and spices. Other savory dishes include mutton or lamb curries and roasted and stuffed duck or other fowl.

Trays of cookies and sweets are present in every home and some sweets, such as naan khatai, kulkuls and various burfis are usually served. Traditional dishes vary a great deal by region; for example, the pork curry, sorpatel and the layered sweet with coconut milk, egg and sugar called bebinca are sure to be served in Goa, whereas in West Bengal, a prawn and coconut curry such as Bhapa Chingri is a likely savory dish. As for sweets in Kolkata and surrounding areas, one is likely to be served cheese balls in sweetened rosewater or rasgulla, or a rice pudding called a kheer.

 To partake in these sometimes week-long feasts, students return home for the holidays and adults living away from their place of birth often return to visit their parents to celebrate. Above all, it is a time for peace and well-being within families and communities. Christian or not, the solstice season is about the return of the sun and victory of light over darkness for us all.

Indian sweets

Indian sweets. Credit: Sunil Lal – Dreamstime

Cardamom and Pistachio Cookies (Naan Khatai)

Prep time: 15 minutes
Baking time: 15 to 20 minutes
Total time: 35 minutes

Ingredients

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 cup semolina
1 cup butter or ghee (softened)
1/2 to 3/4 cup caster sugar
1 teaspoon salt
Seeds from 10 cardamom pods, ground
Shelled, pistachios or almonds (halved or slivered for decoration)
2 to 4 tablespoons mixed ground pistachios mixed with a pinch or two more of ground cardamom.

Directions

Preheat oven to 325 F. Sift the flour and semolina together. Then whisk the butter or ghee in bowl large enough to hold all the ingredients until creamy. Add the sugar, salt and ground cardamom to the ghee and mix well till all the sugar is dissolved. Then add flour and semolina a bit at a time until the dough is smooth.

If it is hot and humid in your area, you may wish to let the dough rest in the refrigerator for 10 to 15 minutes before shaping and decorating the cookies. Roll the dough into balls about 1-inch across. Flatten the balls, and place on a greased or sprayed cookie sheet, leaving space between the cookies for them to expand when they cook.

Place some pistachios or almonds on the center of each cookie and press lightly. Now take a pinch or two of ground nuts and cardamom and sprinkle over the cookies. (Don’t overdo this step, the flavor is supposed to be light.) Bake the cookies for 15 to 20 minutes, or until they just start to color. Remove from oven and let cool slightly before serving.

Note: There are many variations in recipes for naan khatai throughout the subcontinent and into western Asia. Some use a bit of nutmeg, others a dash of cinnamon. Some recipes substitute corn oil in the place of clarified butter or ghee. Also, if you don’t like or don’t have pistachios on hand, the recipe works well with almonds or hazelnuts or really any nut of your choice.

Main photo: Elephant Christmas tree. Credit: Eti Swinford-Dreamstime

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Torciglione (Holiday Almond Meringue Snake). Credit: Clifford A. Wright

Perugia is the more important of the two provinces of Umbria and in culinary terms is most famous for its chocolates. Perugina, the chocolate firm founded in 1907, makes chocolate kisses (baci) famous throughout Italy and even in the United States. It’s also the historic home of a novel Christmas cake.

A variety of sweets are made around Christmas such as pinoccate, little diamond-shaped sweets made of sugar and pine nuts, hence their name. They usually are made “black” with chocolate or “white” with vanilla. Locals say that the small cakes were made by Benedictine monks as early as the 14th century and are served to end lavish Christmas feasts.

A simple syrup is made until rather dense and then the same weight of pine nuts as the sugar is added and poured onto a marble slab to be shaped as one makes peanut brittle. The diamonds are cut and cooled, with half of each piece being chocolate and half vanilla. They are then wrapped in black and white pairs in festive and colorful Christmas paper.

Another Christmas delight from Perugia that is a bit easier to make is the symbolic eel or snake-shaped torciglione (twisted spiral) Christmas cake. The Perugina say it is shaped like an eel to represent the eels of nearby Lake Trasimeno, while others attribute a more symbolic meaning rooted in pagan times. The Greeks saw snakes as sacred and used them in healing rituals; the snake’s skin shedding was a symbol of rebirth and renewal, an appropriate symbol at the time of the birth of Christ.

Torciglione (Holiday Almond Meringue Snake)

In most of Umbria, but in particular around Lake Trasimeno in the province of Perugia, torciglione is a Christmas and New Year’s Eve sweet. It is also sometimes called a serpentone or biscione and it’s made as a symbol of luck. It is claimed that this sweet was developed in the 19th century by a master pastry cook, Romualdo Nazzani, who opened a cake shop in Reggio Emilia and created some magnificent sweets, such as biscione, which means “snake.”

This Christmas cake is made with an almond base and meringue topping decorated with candied peel to represent the eyes of the snake. In Christian iconography, the snake can represent temptation as it was in the Garden of Eden. Eating the snake is thought to bring luck.

Torciglione

Prep time: 15 to 20 minutes

Baking time: 40 minutes

Yield: 8 servings

Ingredients

1 pound whole blanched almonds, toasted and chopped

3/4 pound (about 1 1/2 cups) sugar

2 tablespoons rum

Zest from 1 lemon

3 large egg whites, beaten until stiff

3 tablespoons pine nuts

2 coffee beans

1 candied cherry

Directions

1. Heat the oven to 325 F.

2. In a bowl, mix the almonds, sugar, rum, lemon zest and egg whites until a dense consistency.

3. On a buttered parchment paper-lined baking tray form the mixture into the shape of a snake. Place the pine nuts over its surface. Put the coffee beans in as eyes and the cherry as a tongue. Bake until golden brown, about 40 minutes.

 Main photo: Torciglione (Holiday Almond Meringue Snake). Credit: Clifford A. Wright

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Jacquy Pfeiffer's coconut macarons. Credit: Paul Strabbing

At this time of year we’re always looking for recipes for gluten-free sweets, especially cookies, as more and more of our friends have forsaken flour. I always turn to my French pastry guru, Jacquy Pfeiffer, with all of my baking questions, even though I know that the Chicago-based, Alsatian-born pastry chef is not a gluten-free kinda guy. But he doesn’t need to be to offer an array of Christmas cookies that everyone can enjoy, whether they tolerate gluten or not. His moist, chewy almond-meal cinnamon stars (zimsterne), are among the most iconic of Alsatian Christmas cookies and date back to the 14th century, long before people even knew what gluten was, let alone gluten free.

There are several other gluten-free cookies in Pfeiffer’s Alsatian repertoire. He did not have to invent these recipes, or make traditional cookies gluten free by working with special flours or ingredients and changing formulas. They just don’t happen to contain flour. Among my favorites are his coconut macarons, or rochers, incredibly addictive morsels made with lots of unsweetened coconut, egg whites and sugar. They are the easiest cookies in the world to make: You mix together the egg whites, sugar and coconut with a very small amount of applesauce or apricot compote (whose fruit pectin absorbs and retains moisture), and stir the mixture over a double boiler until it thickens a little and reaches 167 degrees F (75 degrees C). Then you refrigerate the batter overnight. The next day you scoop out the cookies and bake them until golden brown. They keep well for weeks, so you can begin your Christmas baking way ahead of time.

lemon mirror cookies

Lemon mirror cookies. Credit: Paul Strabbing

Lemon mirrors, macarons and more

Other cookies that I find irresistible and always make at this time of year so that all of my friends can enjoy them are called lemon mirrors. They are delicate, nutty cookies with a meringue base enriched with almond flour, an almond cream filling (the original recipe for the almond cream called for 1 teaspoon of flour, but that small quantity was easy to swap out for cornstarch), and a lemon icing. They’re called mirrors because the final glaze makes them shiny and reflective.

The coconut macarons and lemon mirrors are not the only gluten-free cookies in Pfeiffer’s repertoire. Think macarons. Those iconic French cookies are made with almond flour, egg whites and sugar, without a jot of wheat. But they require a little more time and practice to make than the two Alsatian cookies here, and by now you are probably ready to get those cookie plates going. So get out your baking sheets and your whisks, and leave your flour in the cupboard.

Jacquy Pfeiffer’s Coconut Macarons

It’s best to mix up the batter for these cookies the day before you bake and let it rest overnight in the refrigerator. They are naturally gluten free, with no flour in the batter.

Yield: 3 dozen cookies

Prep time: About 15 minutes

Resting time: Overnight

Baking time: 15 to 20 minutes

 Ingredients

100 grams (about 3) egg whites, at room temperature

160 grams (3/4 cup) granulated sugar

100 grams (about 1 1/3 cups) unsweetened fine coconut flakes

10 grams (2 teaspoons) apricot compote or applesauce

1.5 grams (scant 1/4 teaspoon) fine sea salt

Directions

Day 1:

1. Create a double boiler by pouring 3/4 inch of water into a saucepan and placing it on the stove over medium heat.

2. Place all the ingredients in a stainless steel mixing bowl that is larger than the saucepan, and mix them together with a whisk. Reduce the heat under the saucepan to low and place the bowl on top. It should not be touching the water. Stir continuously with a whisk — not like a maniac, but stirring all areas of the bowl so that the egg whites don’t coagulate throughout the mix into small white pieces. Stir until the mixture thickens and reaches 167 F/75 C. Remove from the heat, take the bowl off the pot and wipe the bottom dry. Scrape down the sides of bowl.

3. Place a piece of plastic wrap directly over the mixture, taking care to lay the plastic right on the surface of the batter so that it is not exposed to air. Cover the bowl as well and refrigerate for at least two hours or preferably overnight.

Day 2

1. Preheat the oven to 375 F and arrange the rack in the middle. Line sheet pans with parchment or Silpats and, using a 1 1/2-inch ice cream scoop, scoop the coconut mixture onto the sheet pan leaving one inch in between each cookie and staggering the rows. Each scoop should be leveled so that all the cookies are the same size and bake the same way. Bake the cookies for 15 to 20 minutes, one sheet pan at a time, until golden brown. Allow to cool on the parchment before removing.

Note: Another way to make these cookies is to pipe them onto a sheet pan with a 3/4-inch star tip. A smaller tip will not work, as the coconut likes to clump up. Pfeiffer also likes to pipe them into small 1 1/2 by 1 1/2-inch pyramid shaped silicone Flexipan molds, then bake them right in the molds. To unmold, let them cool for a full hour. They will come out easily when they are completely cool.

Jacquy Pfeiffer’s Lemon Mirror Cookies

Here’s another naturally gluten-free cookie. The only flour required is almond flour.

Yield: 40 cookies

Prep time: 1 hour (assuming ingredients are at room temperature)

Baking time: 15 minutes, plus 15 minutes for glazing the cookies

Ingredients 

For the almond cream:

100 grams (approximately 1 cup plus 1 tablespoon) skinless almond flour

100 grams (approximately 1 cup) confectioners (powdered) sugar

6 grams (2 teaspoons) cornstarch

100 grams (7 tablespoons) French style butter, such as Plugrà

Pinch of sea salt

3 grams (3/4 teaspoon) vanilla extract

60 grams (1 large plus 1 to 2 tablespoons) beaten egg

20 grams (1 tablespoon plus 2 1/4 teaspoons) dark rum

For the icing:

50 grams (approximately 1/2 cup) confectioners (powdered) sugar, sifted

12 grams (2 teaspoons) fresh lemon juice

For the meringue cookie base:

50 grams (approximately 1/2 cup) confectioners (powdered) sugar

50 grams (approximately 1/2 cup) almond flour with skin

100 grams (about 3) egg whites

Pinch of sea salt

Pinch of cream of tartar

10 grams (2 teaspoons) granulated sugar

For the topping:

50 to 100 grams (scant 1/2 to 1 cup) sliced almonds with skin

100 grams (scant 1/4 cup) apricot jelly

Directions

Before you begin: Bring all ingredients to room temperature.

1. Make the almond cream. Sift together the almond flour, confectioners sugar and cornstarch. Tap any almond flour that remains in the sifter into the bowl.

2. Make sure that your butter is at room temperature. Place the soft butter, sea salt and the vanilla in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle and mix at medium speed for 1 minute.

3. Turn off the machine, scrape down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula and add the almond flour mixture to the machine. Mix at medium speed for 1 minute. Gradually add the egg and mix at medium speed until it is incorporated, which should take no more than 2 minutes. Add the rum and mix until incorporated. The cream should look shiny and creamy. Transfer to a pastry bag fitted with a 1/4-inch tip and set aside.

4. Make the sugar icing by mixing together the confectioners sugar with the lemon juice. Set aside.

5. Preheat the oven to 325 F. Line one or two sheet pans with parchment.

6. Make the meringue cookie base. Sift together the confectioners sugar and almond flour onto a sheet of parchment paper.

7. Place the egg whites, sea salt and cream of tartar in the bowl of your standing mixer and whisk together for 10 seconds on medium. Add the sugar and whip on high for 1 to 2 minutes, until you have a meringue with soft peaks. Using a rubber spatula, gently and carefully fold in the sifted confectioners sugar and almond powder until the mixture is homogenous. Make sure that you do not over-mix. Over-mixing the meringue mixture will make it soupy and the baked cookies will be gummy.

8. Using a bowl scraper, carefully transfer the mixture to a pastry bag fitted with a 3/8-inch round tip. Do this gently so that you don’t deflate the mixture. Pipe 1 1/2-inch rings onto the parchment-lined sheet pans, leaving 1/2 inch of space between each cookie and making sure to stagger the rows. Sprinkle the edge of each ring with sliced almonds.

9. Pipe the almond cream into the center of each ring.

10. Place in the preheated oven and bake for 15 minutes, until golden brown.

11. While the cookies are baking, warm the apricot jelly in a small saucepan just until it becomes liquid. Keep the apricot jelly warm over the lowest heat possible so that it won’t seize up. If this happens just warm it up a little more and it will become liquid again.

12. Right out of the oven, brush each cookie with the apricot jelly, then right away with the sugar icing. Allow to cool completely before removing from the parchment paper.

Main photo: Jacquy Pfeiffer’s coconut macarons. Credit: Paul Strabbing, recipe and photo courtesy of Pfeiffer’s “The Art of French Pastry.”

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Lemon Zest Pound Cake Cookies. Credit: David Latt

Just in time for holiday gatherings and good any time for parties and special occasions, here are two easy-to-make recipes that yield enough delicious cookies to delight a hungry crowd. Used in tandem, the pound cake and financier cookie recipes also solve the classic baker’s dilemma: When recipes call only for egg yolks, what to do with the whites? And vice versa.

When they were young, our sons loved pound cake. The recipe I developed called for egg yolks, which meant the whites went to waste. That always bothered me. Recently, I needed to make a large number of cookies for a party. I decided adapting the pound cake recipe would make a unique cookie.

But that left me with my old problem. What to do with the egg whites? No one in our house eats egg white omelets so I looked through a notebook where I keep recipe ideas. In my notes about a Parisian bakery (I neglected to write down the name) was a description of a scrumptious financier. Like a cartoon character, the light blub turned on over my head. Financiers are made with egg whites. The pound cake needs yolks. Voilà! A marriage made in the oven.

Making the cookies in silicone molds adds to the ease of preparation. No need to brush on melted butter and dust with flour because the molds are nonstick. They require a minimum amount of washing before being used again to make another round of delicious cookies.

Silicone molds are available online and in specialty cook stores such as Sur La Table and Williams-Sonoma as well as in the cookware sections of major department stores.

Best served at room temperature, the cookies will stay fresh for a week if refrigerated in airtight containers.

Lemon Zest Pound Cake Cookies

Pound cakes get their name because the classic recipe calls for a pound each of butter, flour, eggs and sugar. Adapting the recipe for use in a small mold transforms the cake into a light-as-air crisp cookie, with many of the qualities of an Italian dipping biscotti. The lemon zest contrasts nicely with the buttery richness of the cookies.

If you want to use larger molds, the yield will be lower and the cookies will need to be baked longer. Because ovens vary, I would suggest starting with a test batch of three or four cookies to determine the baking time.

The dough has a thickened consistency not unlike Play-Doh. Use your fingers to spread the dough into the corners of the individual molds.

Yield: 126 cookies made in molds 1-inch by 1 3/4 inch

Preparation Time: 30 minutes

Baking Time: 20-25 minutes

Ingredients

1 1/2 cups sweet butter

6 egg yolks

2 whole eggs

2 cups white sugar

1 teaspoon finely chopped lemon zest

1 1/2  teaspoons baking powder

4 cups all-purpose white flour

2 tablespoons powdered sugar

Directions

1. Heat oven to 350 F.

2. In a saucepan melt butter over a low flame. Set aside to cool.

3. In a large bowl, whisk together the egg yolks, whole eggs and sugar to a custardy consistency.

4. Add lemon zest to the egg mixture.

5. Slowly whisk in the melted, room temperature sweet butter.

6. Add baking powder and mix well.

7. Sprinkle 1/4 cup flour into the bowl. Whisk to mix well. Continue adding 1/4 cup at a time and blending until all the flour is incorporated into the egg-butter-sugar dough.

8. Into each 1-inch by 1 3/4-inch mold, place 1 1/2 teaspoons of dough. Using your fingers press down to shape the dough into each mold.

9. Put the molds onto a cookie sheet and place in the preheated oven.

10. Rotate the molds every 10 minutes for even browning.

11. The cookies will bake in 20 to 25 minutes. But because ovens vary, begin checking after 10 minutes. If the tops are lightly browned, they are probably done.

12. Remove the molds from the oven and place on a wire rack for 10 minutes. Remove each cookie and place on the wire rack.

13. When cooled to room temperature place the cookies in an airtight container and refrigerate for later use.

14. Just before serving, dust the tops with powdered sugar. Serve by themselves with coffee or tea, or with fresh berries, whipped cream or ice cream.

Variations

  • Add 1/4 cup finely ground roasted almonds into the batter.
  • Add 1/4 cup finely ground chopped dark chocolate or chocolate chips into the batter.
  • Blend together 1/4 cup finely ground roasted almonds with 1 teaspoon white sugar. Halfway through baking, dust the tops of the cookies with the almond-sugar mixture.

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Egg yolks and whites. Credit: David Latt

Orange Glazed Hazelnut Financiers

Financiers are often prepared with ground almonds. Any nut can be used. I prefer roasted hazelnuts.

Using larger sized molds will result in fewer cookies that need to be baked longer.

Unlike the thick pound cake dough, the financiers batter is thin and is best placed into the individual molds using a spouted container like a measuring cup. Because ovens are different, I would suggest making a test batch of three or four cookies to determine the baking time.

Yield: 90 cookies made in molds 1-inch by 1 3/4-inch

Prep time: 30 minutes

Baking time: 30 minutes

Ingredients

3/4 cup sweet butter

1 cup, plus 2 tablespoons whole raw hazelnuts

1/2 cup all-purpose white flour

1 3/4 cups confectioners or powdered sugar

Pinch sea salt

Pinch black pepper

6 egg whites

1/4 cup orange simple syrup (see recipe below)

Directions

1. Heat oven to 450 F.

2. Melt butter and set aside to cool.

3. Place hazelnuts on a baking sheet and roast in the oven 2-3 minutes. Remove. Wrap the hot hazelnuts in a damp, cloth kitchen towel. Rub the towel against the hazelnuts to remove the skins. Measure out 2 tablespoons of the roasted hazelnuts. Cut each hazelnut into quarters and reserve.

4. Using a food processor, grind the remaining 1 cup of roasted hazelnuts into a fine meal. Keep an eye on the grind so the hazelnuts don’t over process and become a nut butter.

5. In a large bowl, use a whisk to blend together the hazelnuts, flour, sugar, sea salt and black pepper.

6. Add the egg whites and mix well.

7. Whisk in the cooled, melted butter.

8. Transfer the batter to a spouted measuring cup and fill each mold with batter.

9. In the middle of each financier place a quarter piece of roasted hazelnut on top, cut side up.

10. Clean off any batter that may have spilled onto the outside of the mold.

11. Drizzle 2 to 3 drops of orange simple syrup on top of each financier.

12. Put the mold onto a cookie sheet and place in the preheated oven for 5 minutes. Rotate the cookie sheet for even browning. Reduce the temperature to 400 F and continue baking another 5 minutes.

13. Turn off the oven.

14. Rotate the cookie sheet and leave the financiers in the oven 10 minutes or until they are lightly browned on top and firm to the touch. Making a test batch to determine how long they should remain in the oven at this juncture is helpful. Leaving the financiers in the cooling oven longer will create a crisper cookie.

15. Remove from the oven and place the mold on a wire rack. Do not remove the financiers from their molds until the mold has cooled to the touch. Then carefully remove each cookie and allow them to continue cooling on the wire rack.

The financiers can be stored in the refrigerator in an airtight container for up to a week.

Serve at room temperature with coffee or tea, with fresh berries, whipped cream or ice cream.

Orange Simple Syrup

Before making the syrup, the peel is boiled three times to remove the orange’s astringent oils.

Yield: ¼ cup

Time: 30 minutes

Ingredients

1/2 cup orange peel with rind, finely chopped

6 1/4 cups water

1/4 cup white sugar

Directions

1. Place the chopped orange peel and two cups of water into a saucepan.

2. Bring to a boil. Remove the pan from the stove top and strain the orange peel pieces in a fine metal strainer. Repeat the process two additional times.

3. Place the orange peel, sugar and 1/4 cup water into the saucepan. Do not stir the mixture. On a low flame, bring the mixture to a low simmer.

4. After the water dissolves the sugar, continue simmering the syrup 10 minutes. To test for doneness, dip a small spoon into the liquid. If the back of the spoon comes out coated, the syrup is done.

5. Use a fine metal strainer to separate the syrup from the candied orange peel. The orange peel can be saved for later use in a refrigerated airtight container.

6. Transfer the syrup into a spouted bottle or use a small espresso-sized spoon to drizzle the orange flavoring onto the financiers.

Main photo: Lemon Zest Pound Cake Cookies. Credit:David Latt

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Black cake. Credit: Ramin Ganeshram

It would arrive each year by the first week of December: a brown paper parcel from Tobago, where my father’s favorite niece lived. Inside was a used butter cookie tin, and inside that was a foil-wrapped cake that revealed itself to be dark as night.

The alcohol fumes that wafted off the cake as it was unwrapped were enough to make our young heads spin — and to preserve it for what was, in those days, a three-week journey by ship from Trinidad & Tobago to New York City. For weeks after the cake arrived, my brother Ramesh and I would scurry into the kitchen and pick at it when my father wasn’t looking.

This Caribbean holiday specialty, which is called Black Cake because of its signature color, Christmas Cake or simply “fruit cake,” is a fruit cake that will actually leave you hankering for more. Plummy, boozy and sweet but not sugary, Black Cake is best described as plum pudding that has gone to heaven.

This cake is so addictive that once you’ve tried it, seeking it come December is an obsession for some. I’ve been bribed with everything from hand-knit scarves, theater tickets, offers of baby-sitting, and even house-cleaning for one.

Black Cake inspired by an Irish Christmas recipe

Most common in English-Caribbean islands like Trinidad, Barbados and Grenada, its origins are in the Irish Christmas Cake, an equally worthy fruitcake cousin. Primarily consisting of raisins, prunes and currants, Black Cake contains only a small amount of the multi-hued candied peel that makes most fruit cakes less than appetizing. To add flavor and moisture, the fruits are soaked in a rum and cherry wine mixture for weeks.

For those of us who have a black-cake-making heritage, this fruit cake is serious business. Those who are really old school start soaking the fruits a full year ahead of time, although I have developed a “fast-soak” method, which means you can have your cake and eat it, too, all in time for the holiday season.

Every family has its own recipe with either a unique mixture of fruits, ratio of liquors or even combination of liquors. Lately, I’ve been using Manischewitz Cherry Wine because I find it has the same sweetness as Caribbean versions of cherry wine but with a lot more color and body.

If you hate fruitcake but love cakes that are densely rich, complex in flavor without being too sweet and ideal with a cup of tea, give Black Cake a try. You might find yourself breaking it out not just at Christmastime, but as we do — for weddings and special occasions of all sorts — because any excuse to eat this fruitcake will do.

This video gives a demonstration for making this cake, with the recipe below.

Black Cake

This recipe is adapted from “Sweet Hands: Island Cooking from Trinidad & Tobago” by Ramin Ganeshram. It features a “fast-soak” method that uses heat to start the maceration process for the dried fruits that make up the cake.

Ingredients

For the fruit mixture:

1 pound raisins

1 pound currants

1 pound prunes

1/2 pound candied cherries

1/4 pound mixed fruit peel

4 cups cherry brandy or cherry wine, divided

4 cups dark rum

1 cinnamon stick

2 star anise pods

1/2 vanilla bean

For the cake:

2 cups all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon grated nutmeg

1/8 teaspoon ground allspice

1 cup dark brown sugar

2 sticks (1 cup) butter, softened

6 eggs

1/2 teaspoon mixed essence (available in Caribbean markets)

1 tablespoon burnt sugar syrup (see note)

For the basting:

1/4 cup dark rum

1/4 cup cherry brandy

2 tablespoons sherry

1 dash Angostura bitters

Directions

For the fruit mixture:

1. For the fruit mixture, mix together all the dried fruits then place half the mixture in a food processor along with 1/2 cup of the cherry brandy. Pulse until the mixture is a rough paste, then place it in a large, deep saucepan or stockpot. Pulse the remaining fruits with another 1/2 cup of cherry brandy to form a rough paste, then add that to the pot as well.

2. Pour the remaining cherry brandy and rum into the pot with the pureed fruit. Add the cinnamon stick and star anise pods. Split the vanilla bean, scrape out the seeds and add both the seeds and the bean to the pan.

3. Place the pan over medium-low heat and mix well until just under a boil. Stir often so it does not scorch on the bottom.

4. Remove the pan from heat, cover it and allow the mixture to sit for one or two hours or as long as overnight. Alternatively, place fruit and spices in an airtight gallon jar and store unrefrigerated in a cool, dark place for at least three weeks or as long as a year.

For the cake:

1. Preheat the oven to 250 F and grease two 8-by-3-inch cake pans, then set them aside.

2. Sift together the flour, baking powder, cinnamon, nutmeg and allspice.

3. Place the sugar and butter in a bowl and cream with an electric mixer until fluffy (about 4 minutes).

4. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition.

5. Add the mixed essence.

6. Using a slotted spoon, remove 3 cups of the fruit from its storage jar and beat well into the butter mixture.

7. Add the flour mixture 1/2 cup at a time, beating well after each addition, then add the burnt sugar syrup and mix well.

8. Divide the batter evenly between the prepared pans and bake for 90 minutes or until a cake tester inserted into the middle of the cake comes out clean. Remove cakes from the oven and cool in their pans for 20 minutes.

9. Combine the rum, brand, sherry and bitters for basting and brush evenly over the cakes. Allow the cakes to cool completely, then remove them from the pans and wrap tightly in plastic wrap or in a zip-top bag.

10. Store in a cool, dry place for at least three days before eating. The recipe makes two cakes, which can be refrigerated for up to three months. If doing so, re-baste with the rum mixture once a week.

Note: Burnt sugar syrup or “browning” is found in Caribbean markets or online. You can also make it by combining 2 tablespoons of dark brown sugar and 1 tablespoon of water in a dry frying pan over medium-low heat. Heat slowly, stirring the sugar until it starts to caramelize. Continue stirring until the sugar syrup turns very dark brown or almost black. Add to batter as called for in a recipe.

Main photo: Black Cake is often simply called “fruit cake” or Christmas Cake in the English-speaking Caribbean. Credit: Ramin Ganeshram

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