Articles in Baking
I pause, unsure how my question will be received. “Have you had kale chips?”
That was the first time I posed the question to a patient in a medical exam room. With more than a decade of practicing internal medicine under my belt, I had never felt particularly inspired or successful in counseling my patients about their weight. Then I attended Healthy Kitchens, Healthy Lives (HKHL), an annual medical conference at the Culinary Institute of America in St. Helena, Calif., a gathering aimed at training doctors in nutrition and cooking. Within weeks upon my return, I was “prescribing” my first recipe.
Like many of my patients in the San Francisco Bay Area, John, who is in his late 40s, is overweight. He has never been successfully motivated to slim down because no “diet” has ever worked for him. When I bring up his chart and show him his body mass index (BMI), he says, ”I’m fat, but nothing I try ever works.”
Chipping away at the weight issue
“What do you eat on an average day?” I ask. “Do you eat fruits and vegetables?” John says he loves vegetables and loves to cook. He even volunteers at a local farmers market. But he has a weakness: “Chips,” he says. “I can’t stop eating chips.” John’s idea of chips is the potato variety, soaked in fat, fried and overly salted. I suggest he try kale chips and give him a simple recipe (see below). I tell him he can eat as many as he likes.
A month later, John has lost 5 pounds and is perceptibly happier and more confident. “Doc,” he says, “No doctor has ever given me a recipe before. Those kale chips are so good! Thank you.”
Granted, obese patients need more than a recipe for kale chips to find their way to a healthy weight, but a simple nutritious and non-fattening recipe is a first step and a great incentivizer. By giving John a fantastic-tasting substitute for his beloved chips rather than forbidding him to eat one of his favorite treats, I was able to convey that a different way of eating would allow him to enjoy snacks while feeling healthier and losing weight along the way.
Healthy recipe Rx
When doctors discuss food, it’s usually in the context of nutrition rather than flavor, as in: “You’ve really got to cut back on the junk food.” Well, patients know that, they just may not know what to replace their junk food with. What if doctors began giving out simple recipes for healthful, whole-food alternatives before they handed out prescriptions for cholesterol-lowering medication? Or gave a prescription for exercise and a decadent tasting fruit-based dessert to help control blood pressure?
Traditionally, medical schools do not include coursework in nutrition or, certainly, in cooking, and insurance companies are unlikely to reimburse for nutritional counseling. It’s much faster and easier to write a prescription for a drug, and because it may require no change in lifestyle or self-discipline on the part of patients, they may prefer a pill as well. And if the doctors themselves aren’t the best role models, due to long work hours and the same poor dietary and exercise habits she is asking her patients to rectify, they may not have credibility behind their message.
How do we change this? First, doctors must learn about nutrition and healthy cooking. Showing patients how to shop and cook, and giving them actual recipes should be the next step doctors take. This would instigate a cultural shift and require advocating for insurance coverage, but the change would improve the nation’s health and save health-care dollars in the long run.
Cooking for the cure
Dr. David Eisenberg, a professor at Harvard Medical School, is devoted to this idea. He founded Healthy Kitchens, Healthy Lives with the goal of turning physicians into foot soldiers in the war against obesity and other nutrition-related diseases. Over a four-day course each March, doctors swap scalpels for chef’s knives, and white coats for aprons, as they attend cooking demonstrations and get hands-on in the kitchen. They leave the conference with a changed perspective and a renewed zeal to talk prevention.
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An HKHL alumnus, Dr. John Principe, completely restructured his Chicago-area practice and now has a teaching kitchen. Principe, who says that he had been “burnt to a crisp by the methods of conventional medicine,” credits Eisenberg and HKHL for saving his career. “The ability to empower people to take control of their health through the simple tools of a knife, fire and water is amazing,” he says. “It’s primitive but essential!”
A sprinkling of other programs around the country are also taking the initiative in teaching doctors how to cook. Dr. Robert Graham, associate program director for the Internal Medicine Residency at New York City’s Lenox Hill Hospital, runs a six-week program to instruct medical residents in nutrition, weight management and exercise. Students take cooking classes at the Institute of Culinary Education. The University of Massachusetts Medical School offers cooking classes tailored to physicians’ medical specialties, and Tulane University’s Medical School and Johnson and Wales University recently established the first Culinary Medicine collaboration, with the goal of pairing physicians and chefs.
So picture this: At your next checkup, you’ll be weighed in, get your blood pressure checked, and your latest cholesterol and blood sugar numbers. Then your doctor will hand you her favorite kale chip recipe or one that turns frozen bananas into ice cream. It seems far-fetched now, but it would make medical and fiscal sense to make such a scenario a reality in the immediate future.
Dr. Shiue’s Kale Chips
1 head kale, washed and completely dried
a few pinches of salt, to taste
1 to 2 tablespoons olive oil
1. Wash whole kale leaves, shake out or dry in a salad spinner, then place on a rack to dry thoroughly. Depending on your temperature and humidity conditions, this can take an hour or several hours. Alternatively, dry thoroughly with towels.
2. Preheat oven to 275 F.
3. Once kale leaves are completely dried, tear leaves off the fibrous central stem into bite-size (potato chip sized) pieces and place onto two baking sheets in a single layer with some space around each leaf.
4. Sprinkle on salt and drizzle with a small amount of olive oil, about 1 tablespoon per baking sheet. Toss with tongs to evenly distribute salt and oil.
5. Place prepared kale leaves into the preheated oven, and bake for 20 minutes, turning over leaves halfway through baking.
Variations: Experiment with tasty seasonings, including cayenne pepper with a squeeze of lime juice, Bragg Nutritional Yeast and nori furikake.
Top photo: Baked kale chips. Credit: iStockphoto
There are, say, half a dozen main kinds of cake, but the range of frostings is theoretically unlimited. I’ve been experimenting with Asian flavor ideas. I’ve made pomegranate frosting and topped it with candied walnuts, swiping a flavor idea from the Iranian dish fesenjan, and I’ve used cardamom and saffron, a combination used in a number of Indian desserts.
And I love Thai food, so violà: ginger-lemongrass-coconut frosting. (Because the Thais use coconut as raw coconut milk, I ignore about my otherwise iron-clad rule of toasting coconut before using it in this recipe.) It’s an eye-opener, fresh and elegant.
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The whole point of this frosting is to emphasize the flavors of the fresh ingredients. Ginger poses no particular problem because you can get ginger root in many supermarkets these days, and all you have to do is grate it. Then you strain out the juice and you’re in business.
Lemongrass is more of a chore, even when you can get it fresh. It’s nicely fragrant (in fact, one variety of lemongrass is used as a mosquito repellent under the name citronella) but the stalks are extremely fibrous, almost woody. It’s a fool’s errand to use a grater or even a mortar on it. For this, we have food processors. It goes without saying that when shopping for lemongrass, you should choose the freshest, least dry stalks, but you’ll have to make do with whatever the market carries.
Some shoppers may find another option, because recently some supermarkets have started carrying puréed ginger and puréed lemongrass in plastic squeeze tubes. One brand name to look for is Gourmet Garden. This is typically sold in a cold case alongside the packaged salads and refrigerated sauerkraut. To use these in this recipe all you have to do is press the purées in a fine sieve until you have enough juice.
If you don’t have access to lemongrass of any description, you can make an excellent frosting by substituting ¼ teaspoon lime zest and maybe some lime juice to taste.
There is obviously a world of exotic flavors out there. Still, though I try to keep an open mind, I don’t think I’ll try curry frosting anytime soon, basically because of the cumin, and scratch chili off my to-do list. I’ve experimented with making this frosting with fresh galangal (called kha in Thai) in place of the ginger, and I didn’t like it. Galangal is a cousin of ginger with a more pungent and distinctive flavor, but it proved way too pungent, almost mustardy. With that in mind, I’m tentatively scratching honey-mustard off my to-do list as well.
But ranch dressing flavor? I don’t know, maybe. I’ll get back to you on that.
Thai Coconut Cake
Serves 8 to 12
For the cake:
½ pound (2 sticks) unsalted butter plus about ¼ cup, softened
3 cups all-purpose flour, plus 2 tablespoons for dusting
2 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
1 cup milk
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 cups sugar
1. Generously rub the insides of 2 (9-inch) cake pans with the ¼ cup of softened butter, then dust with 2 tablespoons of flour and shake out the excess.
2. Mix the flour, baking powder and salt. Add the vanilla to the milk.
3. Beat the butter until light, about 3 minutes, then gradually beat in the sugar until the mixture is smooth and fluffy. Add the eggs one at a time, beating 20 seconds after every addition.
4. Add 1 cup of the dry mixture and beat at medium speed just until the flour is incorporated, coaxing the flour into the mixture with a flexible scraper. Add ½ of the milk and do the same. Repeat with the remaining flour and milk. Stir up from the bottom with a scraper to make sure the mixture is uniform and beat at medium speed for a couple of seconds.
5. Divide the batter between the two prepared cake pans. The total weight of the batter is 50 ounces, so each layer should weigh 1 pound 9 ounces (if you include the weight of the cake pans, that will be 2 pounds 5 ounces). Bake at 350 F until the tops are golden brown all over and spring back if lightly touched, and the layers are starting to pull away from the sides.
6. Remove the pans from the oven and set them on racks to cool for 10 minutes. Overturn the pans and remove from the layers, then set the layers right side up again and leave until cool, about ½ hour, before frosting.
For the frosting:
1½- to 2-inch length of fresh ginger
5-6 stalks of lemongrass
1 tablespoon vodka
1 cup sugar
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon cream of tartar
¼ cup water
¼ cup light corn syrup
2 egg whites
2½ to 3 cups shredded or flaked coconut
Optional: 1-2 drops green food coloring, 3-4 drops yellow food coloring
1. If you can find ready-puréed ginger and lemon grass, press them through fine sieves to get ¼ to ½ teaspoon juice each. If you can’t find the ready-puréed kind, follow this procedure using the first three ingredients: Grate the ginger and strain enough to get ¼ to ½ teaspoon juice. Chop the lower, whitish part the lemongrass stalks into ¾-inch lengths and process them in the food processor (checking the blades from time to time to make sure that they haven’t gotten fouled and are still running free) until it looks like lawnmower clippings with no solid chunks, about 3-4 minutes. Add the vodka and process a few seconds longer, then sieve out as much liquid as you can. Set the juices aside.
2. Place the sugar, salt, cream of tartar, water, corn syrup and egg whites in the top of a double boiler and beat until foamy.
3. Pour 3 or 4 cups of water in the bottom of the double boiler and bring it to a boil over high heat. When it is at full boil, set the top of the double boiler over it and beat continuously with a hand-held mixer at top speed (about 12 minutes) until the beaters form deep sculptural folds in the frosting, the sheen has begun to fade, and the frosting forms firm peaks when the beaters are removed.
4. Remove the top of the double boiler and beat the frosting at high speed off heat for 1 minute. Beat in the ginger and lemongrass juices to taste. If you want to alert diners that this is not ordinary coconut cake, add food colorings to taste.
1. Set one cooled cake layer upside down on a serving plate. Using no more than ¼ of the frosting, frost the top of the layer and sprinkle with 1 cup of the coconut.
2. Set the other layer over this, right side up (flat side down), and cover the cake with the rest of the frosting. Sprinkle the rest of the coconut over the top of the cake and pat it onto the sides.
Thai coconut cake with lemongrass and ginger. Credit: Charles Perry
St. Patrick’s Day used to mean corned beef and cabbage, but with Ireland’s culinary renaissance, cooks are exploring other traditional Irish foods. I’m thinking not only of Irish lamb stew and crubeens, golden-crusted pigs’ feet turned meltingly tender inside a crisp breaded crust. I’m also thinking of the Irish blaas. On a recent visit to Ireland I discovered a bakery that honors this delicious relic of the past.
Barron’s Bakery, in the small town of Cappoquin, County Waterford, is one of Ireland’s last traditional bakeries, with brick ovens dating to 1887. Because these ovens have never been modernized, they still operate without thermostats. Each firing yields a slightly different batch of bread, a variability prized by the townsfolk who flock to Barron’s.
The bakery is most famous for their “blaas” — light, plump yeast rolls with a subtle malty taste and a heavy dusting of flour. The rolls’ origins lie with the thrifty French Huguenots who immigrated to Waterford in the 17th century — blaa is likely a corruption of the French blanc (white) or blé (wheat) — and who are said to have introduced rolls made from leftover pieces of dough.
In 1802, blaas entered the Irish mainstream thanks to Brother Edmund Ignatius Rice, the founder of the Christian Brothers, who began baking them at Mount Sion Monastery in Waterford City. Made only of flour, water, yeast and salt, these rolls were inexpensive to prepare and thus affordable to the city’s poor.
Ireland recently submitted an application to the European Union to grant the rolls Protected Geographical Indication, PGI, status as a distinctive regional food. This move is significant, as Ireland has generally been slow to request special status for its food products. Only four are currently registered: Connemara Hill lamb; Timoleague Brown Pudding; Clare Island Salmon; and Imokilly Regato, a cow’s milk cheese from County Cork that has Protected Designation of Origin, PDO, status.
The application detailing blaas’ place of origin makes County Waterford sound like a magical realm: “The river Blackwater runs through the area and includes the town-lands of Dangan, Narabawn, Moolum, Newtown, Skeard, Greenville and Ullid.” The actual production of blaas looks a bit more prosaic. The 3-inch rolls are shaped by hand into rounds or squares, with the dough hand-floured at least three times in the process. This heavy dusting of flour both protects the dough from the oven’s intense heat and gives the blaas a distinctive top. Like American pan rolls, the pieces of unbaked dough are set side by side to merge as they rise. When the rolls are ready to eat, they are pulled apart, yielding a crusty top and soft interior and sides.
Irish blaas through the generations
Today, blaas are eaten either for breakfast (the local radio station’s morning program is called “The Big Blaa Breakfast Show”) or for lunch, when they’re often filled with fried potatoes or dilisk, a local seaweed. I was lucky enough to arrive in Cappoquin just as a tray of blaas was emerging from the oven, and the bakery owners, Esther Barron and Joe Prendergast, insisted that I have a taste. A first crisp bite immediately gave way to a tender and aromatic crumb. I was hooked.
Established in 1887, Barron’s remains at the heart of Cappoquin — so much so that last year a book commemorating its 125th anniversary was published with tributes from the bakery’s customers and staff. Esther is the fourth-generation Barron to run the bakery. She’s a remarkable woman, the youngest of five daughters who took over the business on her father’s death in 1980. Even though baking was very much a man’s profession, she made a success of it.
Through her work she tries to honor the memory of her grandfather John, who spent time in New York in the 1880s and dreamed of emigrating to the United States. But his wife and new baby called him back to Cappoquin, where he eventually took over his father’s bakery and sired 11 more kids!
Adding new traditions
Esther and Joe are reviving other traditional Irish baked goods like spotted dog, which is a white soda bread with fruit, and Chester cake, a spice cake originally devised to use up stale bread. And they’re experimenting with the use of locally grown organic wheat to improve their bread and support local farmers. Barron’s is so devoted to the Cappoquin community that they fire their ovens on Christmas Day so that the villagers can roast their turkeys communally.
For St. Patrick’s Day, Barron’s bakes a special cake in the shape of a shamrock, though it’s far from the kind of plain sheet cake you might expect. Theirs is an extravagant madeira cake with lemon curd and buttercream, covered in white fondant and decorated with piped green roses and the Gaelic greeting “La Fheile Padraig.”
For the past three years Barron’s has also organized a big St. Patrick’s Day parade, another aspect of their community involvement. In April, Waterford will be host to its sixth annual Festival of Food, and Barron’s is one of the sponsors. Esther Barron stands ready to welcome guests from near and afar with a taste of her special blaas.
Darra Goldstein. Credit: Courtesy of Darra Goldstein
I love chomping into a chunk of crusty, crunchy bread. There is nothing like a freshly baked loaf that is soft and springy in the middle with a crust so hard it cracks when you bite into it. I often think of this kind of bread as San Francisco-style bread because that’s where I first ate it, although it can be found across the globe. I even bought a Le Creuset cast-iron pot expressly for the purpose of making it at home.
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As much as I love eating this kind of bread, I’d always found an excuse to avoid baking it myself. About the time I decided that this beautiful little pot would never, ever see a loaf of bread baking inside it, I discovered the Los Angeles Bread Bakers and attended a workshop that has radically changed my attitude toward bread baking.
The Los Angeles Bread Bakers is the kind of organization I admire because it is full of community spirit and knowledgeable members, and it doesn’t take itself too seriously. The hosts of the workshop were Erik Knutzen and his wife Kelly Coyne. Together they run rootsimple.com and have written a number of great how-to books including “The Urban Homestead: Your Guide to Self-Sufficient Living in the Heart of the City.” So I figured why not dedicate an afternoon to hanging out with Knutzen and Coyne and making some bread.
I already knew how to make bread, just not this particular kind of bread. I grew up in the South where bread is wonderful, but something entirely different. Where I come from, bread is soft throughout, slightly sweet, and topped with melted butter. It may be brown or white, but it never has the crunchy, crackly crust that I admired.
Many of the workshop participants were also experienced bakers who shared my motivation for attending the workshop. We all wanted to learn how to bake this crusty bread, but perhaps even more important we wanted to hang out with other people who really like to make bread and really like to talk about it.
As it turns out, this is pretty much how The Los Angeles Bread Bakers got started. Knutzen, Mark Stambler and Teresa Sitz founded the group in 2011. I knew of Stambler because of his tireless campaign to persuade state lawmakers to pass the new California Homemade Food Act. Often known as the Cottage Food Law, it will open up a new world for home bakers looking to get into the food business.
When I asked Knutzen about the origins of LABB, he laughed and said, “I knew Teresa because she stalked me. Teresa and I were stalking Mark because we wanted to meet him and see his bread-making operation.”
The idea for LABB was born at Mark’s kitchen table. Its mission is to bring bread culture to Los Angeles and to introduce Angelenos to the many forms bread can take. To that end, the group has been host to workshops on a wide variety of topics including beginning bread baking, sourdough breads, soba noodles, pie crust and pizza making. They’ve even had a workshop on how to build your own adobe oven.
Membership in LABB also has privileges beyond learning great bread-making techniques. LABB’s almost 600 members are able to participate in bulk orders from high-end mills that grind flours using heritage wheat and other hard-to-find, but amazingly delicious grains.
Getting down to business in class
Our class began with an introduction to this type of bread, which is based on Jim Lahey’s now-famous recipe for “No-Knead Bread.” I always thought that bread was made or destroyed in the kneading process, but as we started to measure ingredients, Erik told us, “You have one chance to get it right — when you mix the dough.”
Knutzen showed us how to mix the proper proportion of flour to water, known as the hydration ratio. Just at the point when I started to worry (once again) that I’m not meticulous enough to be a great baker, Coyne chimed in and told us a hilarious story about doing everything wrong and still coming out with a good (or at least perfectly edible) loaf of bread.
Once mixed, the dough is left to rise for 18 hours, which is much longer than a traditional bread recipe. We all left the workshop with a bowl full of dough ready to rise in our own homes. The next day my family and I enjoyed a loaf of fresh-baked bread. It was not particularly gorgeous, but as crunchy and crackly as any I’d ever tasted in San Francisco.
The LABB is exactly what I’m looking for in a group because it encourages experimentation and breeds enthusiasm. Now LABB is taking its project to the next level. They’re growing their own wheat on a few acres in Agoura Hills, Calif. If all goes well, the wheat will be ready in early summer and milled into flour for the use and enjoyment of LABB members. As a new member, I can’t wait for the harvest.
Top photo: Boule made with all-purpose flour from Los Angeles Bread Bakers. Credit: Susan Lutz
During my eight years in Taiwan, I learned to adore Chinese food in all its permutations. One sweet snack I loved in particular would start showing up in the local pastry shops as Chinese New Year rolled around. This was the only time when squares of sachima could be eaten in a perfectly fresh state, the strips of fried dough collapsing at each bite, the syrup still gooey and luscious, the raisins sweet and tender.
I had been told that these were traditional Beijing treats, and I took that as gospel for a long time. But the name always confused me, as it made no sense in Chinese. Most stores displayed signs that said 沙其馬 shāqímǎ, which literally means “sand his horse” — hardly a mouthwatering image. So I started looking into this, and the more I looked, the weirder things got.
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The chef went on to relate a shaggy-dog story about a General Sa who had a penchant for yummy desserts and riding horses, and who was stationed in Guangdong province during the Qing dynasty. The general commanded his cook to prepare a different sweet for him whenever he returned from hunting on horseback. One day the cook fell behind, and by the time his boss had gotten back, he still hadn’t prepared the requisite confection, so he poured some honey over deep-fried noodles, cut them into squares and served the dessert to the general. The officer was delighted. But the cook, grumbling in the back of the kitchen, was heard to mutter, 殺那騎馬的 “Shā nà qímāde.” Loosely translated, it means “[I'd like to] kill that guy on the horse,” but fortunately this was misheard and then interpreted as the name of his new creation, 薩其馬Sà qí mǎ, or “Sa [and] his horse.”
Chinese New Year sweet’s imperial origins
The truth, as it often does, fell straight through the cracks of these tall tales.1 (There at least four more accounts on the origin of sachima, making this a sort of Rashomon of the dessert world.) This sweet actually originated in the Chinese Northeast, in what was once called Manchuria. As the Qing imperial household hailed from this cold area, they brought the treats they loved to Beijing when they arrive to rule over what became China’s last imperial dynasty. However, this didn’t explain the name. I kept digging, but soon wished I hadn’t.
You see, what I found out from some old Chinese books is that sachima is a Manchurian word whose literal definition is “dog nipples dipped in syrup,” or 狗奶子糖蘸 gǒunǎizi tángzhàn. Not an appealing image by any stretch of the imagination.
To my considerable relief, I later found that “dog nipples” was an old name for a wild Manchurian fruit similar to Chinese wolfberries, also known as goji berries. So, somewhere up the line, this sweet was just dried fruits bound with a syrup, which evolved into the more easily created fried strips of dough which are then dotted with dried fruits and nuts.
And so, after all that, what is the meaning of “sachima” in Chinese? It ends up that this is merely a transliteration of those, um, sugary dog nipples.
This recipe is a combination of traditional Beijing-style eggy puffs tossed with a sticky syrup and a big handful of goji berries, nuts, raisins, and sesame seeds to punctuate it with brilliant colors and a variety of flavors and textures. It is simple to make, a delight to eat, and fortunately, involves no horses being sanded or dogs being molested.
Sachima – 薩其馬 Sàqímǎ
Makes 64 pieces about 1 by 2 inches in size
For the dough:
4 cups pastry or cake flour, divided
¼ teaspoon sea salt
5 large eggs, at room temperature
Fresh oil for frying (2 cups or so)
For the fruits and nuts:
½ cup goji berries, a.k.a. Chinese wolfberries (see Tips)
½ cup plump raisins
½ cup chopped toasted or fried peanuts, or ¼ cup each chopped peanuts and pumpkin seeds
½ cup plus 1 tablespoon toasted sesame seeds
For the syrup:
2 cups maltose (see Tips)
Spray oil as needed
¼ cup filtered water
- Place 3½ cups flour and salt in a medium work bowl and toss them together. Stir in the eggs, make a soft dough and then turn the dough out on a lightly floured board. Knead the dough, adding only as much flour as needed until it is supple and smooth. Form the dough into a ball, cover and let it rest for 20 to 30 minutes.
- While the dough is resting, pour the frying oil into a wok to a depth of about 2 to 3 inches and place the wok on the stove. Measure out the fruits and nuts, reserving 1 tablespoon of the sesame seeds for a garnish.
- Measure the maltose by heating the jar of maltose for a minute or two in a pan of hot water or in the microwave until the maltose runs freely. Lightly spray a measuring cup with oil, and then pour the maltose into the cup (see Tips). Immediately pour the still-fluid maltose into a medium saucepan; add the water, as well as the goji berries and raisins so that they can plump up. Bring the syrup to a boil and then let it simmer for about 5 minutes; keep the syrup warm.
- Lightly flour a board and cut the dough into four pieces. Shape each piece into a square and then roll each piece out to a ⅛-inch thickness, dusting the dough with a bit more flour as needed. Use a wide, clean pastry scraper or cleaver to cut each piece in half (no wider than the length of your scraper or knife) and then slice the dough into strips that are also ⅛-inch wide; the length doesn’t matter.
- Heat the oil under the wok over high until a wooden chopstick dipped into it starts to bubble, and then lower the heat to medium-high. Toss a handful of the strips to lightly to shake off most of the flour, and then scatter these gently into the hot oil. Fry the strips until they are puffy and golden brown–adjusting the heat as necessary — and then remove them with a Chinese spider or slotted spoon to a large work bowl. Repeat with the rest of the dough until all of the dough is fried.
- Use the spray oil to lightly spray a 16 x 8-inch square pan and a piece of foil that is a bit larger than the pan. Add the peanuts and sesame seeds to the fried dough. Use a silicone spatula to toss the fried dough as you pour in all of the warm syrup. Keep tossing the dough, scraping up from the bottom where the syrup will like to collect to encourage the dough to absorb some of the syrup while the rest coats each of the strips. Keep tossing and scraping until it becomes difficult to move the spatula.
- Scoop the coated strips out into the waiting pan. Use the spatula to lightly press down on the strips, back and forth, slowly and gently compressing the strips together, and then sprinkle on the reserved tablespoon of sesame seeds while the syrup is still a bit warm and sticky. Lightly press the topping down onto the strips with the spatula, using the oiled foil to protect your hands. Let the sachima come to room temperature, cover and refrigerate.
- When the sachima is firm, turn it out on a cutting board and use a large, sharp knife to cut it into small (1 by 2-inch) rectangles, or even smaller, if you wish. If you are not serving them immediately, wrap each square in plastic, place these in a resealable plastic bag, and keep them refrigerated; serve cold, as this helps to rein in the inherent stickiness. They will stay fresh for weeks, I think, but I can never leave them alone for that long.
- You may cut the recipe in half and use an 8 x 8-inch pan; measure out the half egg by beating it lightly and adding half of it (about 2 tablespoons) to the flour along with the other two eggs.
- The best goji berries are found in busy health food stores or Chinese herbalist shops.
- Maltose, a.k.a. malt sugar, is sold in Chinese grocery stores next to the sugar, usually in white plastic tubs. It appears as an amber-like solid that needs to be heated before it can be measured, so either warm the jar in a pan of hot (not boiling) tap water or heat it with short bursts in the microwave.
- Measure maltose out in a greased cup so the sticky syrup will glide out easily. (This is the only thing I remember from seventh grade home ec class.)
1. According to “Yanjing suishi ji” (燕京歲時記 ), a book about contemporary miscellany by Duncong Fucha, “Sachima are Manchurian pastries made from rock sugar and butter mixed with white flour into a shape like sticky rice that are baked using wood without ash; they are cut into squares and are sweet, rich, and delicious,” which shows that the recipe at that time is a bit different from what is made today. The word he uses for “pastry” – 餑餑 bóbó – is northern Chinese dialect and refers to a variety of pastries and breads. There is also speculation that these might have traveled from Central and South Asia over the Silk Road, since so many sweets there are composed of fried dough drenched in honey syrup.
Top photo: Sachima. Credit: Carolyn Phillips
Super Bowl is not a meal, it’s more like agony and ecstasy with side orders of barbecue and nachos. That’s why people never think of a Super Bowl dessert as something to accompany the big game menu, unless it’s ready-made, like ice cream or maybe cheesecake.
But I’ve got a home-baked cake that no sports fan is going to turn down, I guarantee it. This is a cake with maple frosting, sprinkled with bacon. Yeah, that’s right, a cake with a pound of bacon in it.
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This is an obvious sort of flavor combination to Americans. Once upon a time, I suppose, bacon and pancakes were meant to occupy neutral corners of our breakfast plates, but in accordance with the laws of physics and children’s love of playing with their food, the bacon inevitably came into contact with maple syrup, and it proved to be true love. You can even find maple-cured bacon these days.
You don’t have to search a long way to get the same flavor combination in a cake. All you need is any old maple syrup, though the flavor will obviously be better if you use 100% maple, rather than the maple-flavored kind. If you can find it, Grade B syrup, which is less light and elegant than Grade A, is even better for cooking than Grade A, in my opinion. It’s also cheaper.
Splurge for Super Bowl dessert
The butter cake in this recipe is the best choice because it underlines the assistant flavors of the pancake-bacon-maple breakfast team with butter and eggs. This recipe uses a whole lot of sugar and fat, but don’t worry. Super Bowl Sunday is not the day to worry about sugar and fat. This can be a special occasion treat, but probably isn’t a good regular dessert. The cake recipe below is for a basic butter cake. Experienced cake bakers will know that the cake layers are much easier to remove from the cake pans if you line the pan bottoms with parchment paper after buttering them and then butter and flour the parchment paper.
You can omit the cream of tartar in the frosting, but it won’t beat as high. Imitation maple flavoring is made from a spice called fenugreek, so if you do use it, be careful not to add more than 3 drops or the fenugreek flavor may become distracting, even unpleasant.
Serves 8 to 12
½ pound (2 sticks) unsalted butter plus about ¼ cup, softened
3 cups all-purpose flour, plus 2 tablespoons for dusting
2 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
1 cup milk
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 cups sugar
1. Generously rub the insides of 2 (9-inch) cake pans with softened butter, then dust with 2 tablespoons of flour and shake out the excess.
2. Mix the flour, baking powder and salt. Add the vanilla to the milk. Beat the butter until light, then gradually beat in the sugar until the mixture is smooth and fluffy. Beat in the eggs one at a time, beating 20 seconds after every addition.
3. Add 1 cup of the dry mixture and beat at medium speed just until the flour is incorporated, coaxing the flour into the mixture with a flexible scraper. Add ½ of the milk and do the same. Repeat with the remaining flour and milk. Stir up from the bottom with a scraper to make sure the mixture is uniform.
4. Divide the batter between the two prepared cake pans. The total weight of the batter is 50 ounces, so each layer should weigh 1 pound 9 ounces (if you include the weight of the cake pans, that will be 2 pounds 5 ounces).
5. Bake at 350 F until the cake tops are golden brown all over and spring back if lightly touched, and the layers are starting to pull away from the sides.
6. Remove the pans from the oven (do not turn the oven off; see next step) and set them on racks or folded towels to cool for 10 minutes. Overturn the pans and remove the cake layers, then set the layers right side up again and leave until cool, about ½ hour.
1 pound sliced bacon
1. After you take the cake pans out of the oven, separate the bacon into strips and arrange these on a baking sheet. Bake at 350 F until the strips are brown and stiff and the fatty parts are crumbly, about 45 minutes. For even cooking, turn the slices over with tongs or a spatula 2 or 3 times while baking.
2. Remove the slices to sheets of paper towel to drain.
3. When the bacon strips are cold, break them up (in sheets of paper towel to absorb excess fat). Mince any hard pieces quite small.
1 cup sugar
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon cream of tartar
¼ cup water
¼ cup maple syrup
2 egg whites
¼ teaspoon vanilla
Optional: 2-3 drops maple flavoring
1. Put the sugar, salt, cream of tartar, water, maple syrup and egg whites in the top of a double boiler. Beat until foamy.
2. Put 3 or 4 cups of water in the bottom of the double boiler and bring it to the boil over high heat. When it is at a full boil, set the top of the double boiler over it and beat continuously with a hand-held mixer at top speed until the beaters form deep sculptural folds in the frosting, it has begun to lose its sheen and when you remove the beaters, the frosting forms firm peaks, about 7 minutes.
3. Remove the top of the double boiler and beat the frosting at high speed off heat for 1 minute. Beat in the vanilla and optional maple flavoring.
Set one layer upside down on a serving plate. Using no more than ¼ of the frosting, frost the top of the layer and sprinkle with ½ of the bacon bits. Set the layer over this, right side up (flat side down), and cover the cake with the rest of the frosting. Sprinkle the rest of the bacon as evenly as you can over the top.
Top photo: Super Bowl dessert: Butter cake with maple frosting and bacon topping. Credit: Charles Perry
No sooner does Paris finish ringing in the New Year than its bakers and grocers unveil copious displays of galette des rois or king cakes. These commemorate the visit of the three Magi to the infant Jesus on Epiphany (Jan. 6), which marks the end of the Christmas season and the start of Carnival. However, they are so popular in the City of Light that they can be found there throughout the month of January.
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King cakes, also known as Twelfth Night cakes or Epiphany cakes, are found throughout the Christian world, with variations found through continental Europe, Great Britain, New Orleans and even Mexico, although the recipes vary widely from one place to another. The English variant, for example features preserved fruits and brandy, while the Provençal version uses a ring-shaped brioche base topped with candied fruit. The cake made in Paris and the rest of northern France since at least the early 14th century is composed of a frangipane or almond-cream filling sandwiched between two layers of puff pastry and should be served warm.
King of the bean
What all versions share is the inclusion of a fève (bean), which since the late 19th century is just as likely to be a porcelain or metal charm. Whoever finds it is crowned “king of the bean,” and all galettes des rois come with a handy cardboard crown for the “coronation.” Some cakes also had a hidden dried pea, whose discoverer became “queen” for the night.
The ritual often takes on the gender-bending hilarity of Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” but, historically, this inversion of the social order released tensions accrued during the rest of the year.
At Versailles, the queen and king of the bean received magnificent outfits in which to dazzle during their short-lived “reigns.” One especially intricate party held there in 1684 included five twelfth-night courts, seated at separate tables, who appointed “ambassadors” to negotiate with their neighbors.
When the French Revolution of 1789 put the kibosh on kings in addition to Christianity, a brief but failed attempt was made to squelch out, or at least rename, kings’ cakes. The Revolutionary Committee would have done better to take their cue from the fourth-century church fathers, who fixed the date of Christmas as Dec. 25, although most scholars agree that the historical Jesus was probably born in summer. The reason was a “if you can’t beat them, join them” acknowledgement that the ancient Roman festival of Saturnalia was too popular to stamp out. Instead, its raucous atmosphere, and, indeed the tradition of the “king of the bean” were co-opted and renamed, with a thin veneer of Christianity, Twelfth Night.
Traces of the tradition’s pagan origins survive in northern France, where it remains common for the youngest child of the household to sit under the table while an adult cuts the cake, calling out “Phoebe Domine, pour qui la part?” (“Lord Phoebus, for whom is this piece?”) The child replies by allocating the first slice to the Good Lord. This is also called the “piece of the poor,” or “the piece of the virgin,” which would be kept for the first needy person who requested it. The child then names the next person to whom each subsequent piece will be given.
King cakes a January treat
Parisians have a special attachment to the king cake that in part developed because an ancient law for centuries required the capital’s bakers to offer them free to clients as a form of étrennes, the requisite New Year’s gift, which is still popular in France. One early 20th-century baker complained that so-called “clients” appeared from the four corners of the city to claim a cake, never to be seen again.
The abolition of this onerous law in 1910 might well have killed off the galette des rois, which had already virtually disappeared in other cities. such as London. However, Parisians stood in line to pay for them and have done so ever since.
All January long bakeries sell them in dedicated, outdoor stands or stack their windows and display cases full of examples that range in size from the diameter of an English muffin to that of a truck’s wheel.
Monoprix, France’s version of an upscale Walmart, features them on the cover of their weekly bulletin, offering gift certificates as a prize to those who find a “golden bean.” Even the most pedestrian grocers offer a cheapo version.
However, according to the Jan. 5 edition of Le Parisien, the new trend in 2013 is for Parisians to bake their own. This phenomenon is evidenced by a recent spike in web searches for recipes for galette des rois, sales of frozen pâte feuilletée, and the surging popularity of cooking classes specializing in the cake.
In truth, it’s fairly easy and certainly lots of fun — just don’t forget the bean!
Parisian-Style Galette Des Rois
For this cake you need to make or buy two sheets of your favorite pâte feuilletée (puff pastry). Julia Child offers intricate, illustrated instructions, if you’ve never made this before. Roll them out and cut out two disks of equal size, whatever size you prefer. Place one disk on a baking tray.
Make your favorite filling. Frangipane (see below) or almond cream are the classics. In fact, the component parts of a galette des rois are the same as those of a Pithiviers, as described by Child. The galette, however, being a more rustic preparation, is easier to assemble.
Spread a thin layer or egg yolk or water along the border of the bottom pastry layer. Then, spread an even layer of the filling across middle, leaving a small border at the edge.
Don’t forget the bean! You can use a dried bean, or any sort of small charm(s) that won’t melt in the oven.
Quickly cover with the second layer of pastry, and pinch them together gently but firmly, pressing slightly inward so that the two sides stick together well.
For a golden sheen, glaze it with a thin layer or egg yolk diluted with a bit of water
Cut diamonds or whatever pattern you’d like along the top with a sharp knife.
Bake in a hot (425 F) oven until golden brown; for a medium or large galette this will take approximately 30 to 40 minutes.
Let it cool only slightly before serving, or, if prepared in advance, reheat it for a few minutes in a moderate oven.
True frangipane is a mixture of ⅓ crème patisserie and ⅔ almond cream.
For the crème patisserie:
½ cup milk
2 tablespoons. sugar
1 egg yolk
1 tablespoon flour
1. As you gently bring the milk to a boil, beat the sugar into the egg yolk for 2 or 3 minutes.
2. Beat in flour until it is very smooth and ribbon-like.
3. Pour the boiling milk over the mixture in a thin stream and whisk in a saucepan over low heat until smooth and thick.
For the almond cream:
½ cup melted butter (unsalted)
¾ cup sugar
1 cup ground almonds
Optional: a splash of rum or almond extract
1. Add the almond cream ingredients together.
2. Add the two creams together and refrigerate until ready to use.
Two-person galette des rois by Régis Colin, 53 rue Montmartre, Paris, who won the 2008 prize for best galette in the Île de France. Credit: Carolin Young
Mardi Gras is around the corner, and if you can’t make it to New Orleans, try to create the spirit of Fat Tuesday with a homemade king cake, the traditional cake for Epiphany, the festival commemorating the manifestation of Christ to the gentiles in the persons of the Magi, the three kings who brought gifts to the baby Jesus.
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The origin of king cake is rooted in the French gâteau des rois and probably arrived in New Orleans with the Acadians expelled from Canada by the British in the mid-18th century. Today, Mardi Gras seems more a venue for drunken excess by college boys and Epiphany, while joyous, was never decadent. The eve of Epiphany is known as Twelfth Night (counted from Christmas Eve) and king cake season extends to Fat Tuesday (Mardi Gras), the day before the start of Lent, a period of fasting and penitence lasting six weeks until Easter.
New Orleans king cake is a round ring cake, sometimes braided. It is a cross between Danish pastry and brioche, with three-color sugar frosting: purple (representing justice), green (representing faith) and gold (representing power). It is lavished with Rococo garnishes and served either plain or with a rich filling. Hidden in the cake is a fava bean, or a plastic baby in modern versions. Whoever finds this hidden treasure is anointed the maker of the next king cake.
My New Orleans-enamored friend Michelle van Vliet, photographer by trade, culinary alchemist by avocation, believes her king cake might just be, appropriately, epiphanic. It better be. She’s been “perfecting” it for years, making king cakes until it came out of our ears.
Michelle’s joie de vivre found its expression in the avatar represented by king cake because, she explained, “it represents the spiritual, musical, and cultural gumbo that is New Orleans all in one lavish cake.” Her search for perfection rests upon the influence of her scientist father, seeded by dating a pastry chef long ago, and forged by her spirited artistic talent.
Michelle says: “Not all king cakes are created equally. Some are sophisticated and mild-mannered, favoring muted tones and elegant sugar sprinkles, but not mine. I indulge in the bright colors of Mardi Gras, and my king cake does not go unnoticed. I was given the ultimate compliment when [art consultant] Barbara Guggenheim told me that my cake reminded her of a Jackson Pollock painting!” Michelle’s advice is to “throw some color around.” Also remember, “this is not some snobby French patisserie, but just a popular cake.”
“I use sweetened condensed milk for the caramel sauce because the taste is a nostalgic warm and fuzzy for me,” she said. “It reminds me of the ’60s when it was a staple ingredient in my mother’s kitchen.”
I finally enticed her to give me the “secret” recipe. As she would say, “Laissez les bons temps rouler!”
Michelle’s King Cake
For the filling
1 (14-ounce) can sweetened condensed milk
½ cup roughly chopped raw pecans
1 fairly firm banana, diced into ¼-inch pieces
For the cake:
1 cup warm whole milk (105 to 110 F)
½ cup granulated sugar
2 tablespoons dry active yeast
3¾ cups all-purpose flour
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, melted
5 egg yolks, beaten
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon grated orange zest
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1 plastic baby or dried fava bean
For the icing:
2 cups confectioners’ sugar
½ cup sweetened condensed milk
1 tablespoon evaporated milk
1 teaspoon almond extract
1. Prepare the caramel sauce for the filling. In the top of a double boiler, pour in the condensed milk, place over the bottom portion of boiling water, cover, reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer, stirring occasionally, until thick and caramel-colored, about 2½ hours. Cool 20 minutes before using.
2. Prepare the cake. In a bowl, whisk milk with sugar, yeast and 1 heaping tablespoon flour until smooth and the yeast is dissolved. Let rest until the mixture gets bubbly, then whisk in butter, egg yolks, vanilla, and orange zest.
3. In a separate bowl, mix remaining flour, cinnamon, and nutmeg. Fold this mixture into the wet ingredients with a rubber spatula. Once combined and the dough begins to pull away from the bowl, turn it out onto a lightly floured surface and knead by hand until smooth, about 20 minutes of kneading. Form into a ball and place in a clean bowl, covered with plastic wrap, and allow it to rise until doubled in size, about 2 hours.
4. Preheat the oven to 375 F.
5. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface. Using your fingers pat it out into a rectangle about 30 inches long and 6 inches wide.
Spoon and spread some caramel sauce across the bottom lengthwise half of the dough rectangle then sprinkle the pecan bits and banana pieces on top. Flip the top half over the filling. Seal the edges, pinching the dough together. Shape the dough into a ring and pinch the ends together so there isn’t a seam.
6. Carefully transfer the ring to the prepared baking sheet and cover with plastic wrap allowing the dough to rise until doubled in size, about 45 minutes. Bake until light golden brown, about 20 minutes. (Be careful not to overcook!) Remove and allow to cool completely on a wire rack before decorating. Gently lift up the edge of the cake, and hide the plastic baby or dried fava bean somewhere through the bottom.
7. Prepare the icing. In a bowl, combine the confectioner’s sugar, condensed milk, evaporated milk and almond extract and mix well. If too thick you may add more evaporated milk ½ teaspoon at a time. Divide the icing into 3 bowls, and color them with food coloring, one green, one yellow and one purple. Keep the bowls covered with plastic wrap until ready to use because the icing will harden quickly. Use a spatula or spoon to apply the icing, depending on whether you’re smearing or doing the Jackson Pollock by throwing with the spoon with a slightly thinned icing in alternating colors. Tip: Just go crazy with the color. Don’t hold back. Transfer to a cake platter. The cake will keep for several days covered with plastic wrap.
Note: The excess caramel sauce can be refrigerated and drizzled on ice cream. Serve leftover cake by gently heating.
Photo: King cake. Credit: Michelle van Vliet