Articles in Desserts
Ripe dates are pretty lush as they are, but leave it to medieval Middle Eastern cooks to take that quality practically beyond imagining. They made a sweet called tamr mu’assal (honeyed dates) or tamr mulawwaz (almond-stuffed dates) by poaching dates in honey with saffron and perfume, perhaps stuffing them with almonds first.
It’s easy to make, except for the task of removing the pits if you’re stuffing the dates, but you can sometimes find dates that are already pitted or even ready-stuffed with almonds. And you do have to obtain these perfumes: saffron, rosewater and musk. But the effect on diners is worth it, sweet, plush and staggeringly aromatic. And when I say sweet, I mean you’re in danger of sugar shock.
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You’ll probably have to shop on the Internet to find musk, though. It is highly unlikely that you’ll find natural musk, because the traditional sources of musk — the musk deer and the civet cat — are endangered species. No matter, artificial musk will be plenty aromatic enough. In fact, musk is so strong that when you flavor the dates with it, do not think of putting it in by the drop because one drop is far too much and will make the dates inedible. You’ll use your fingertip to infuse less than a drop in this recipe.
Supple dates and slivered almonds
Dates are consumed at several degrees of ripeness, each of which has its own name in Arabic. Tamr is the variety we’re most familiar with. Tamr dates are sweet and dry, perhaps a little gaunt or even shriveled. If you are fortunate you may find dates at the rutab stage, which are soft, moist and very, very sweet.
They tend not to stay this way because they dry out. Medieval Arab cookbooks often give recipes for plumping up tamr dates with moisture so that they can pass for rutab. If you do have soft-ripe dates (the Medjool variety is sometimes sold this way), don’t bother to remove the pits and stuff them with almonds because they’re too soft. Just poach them in the flavored honey.
Once upon a time you could easily find blanched almonds in markets, but these days the almond choices are often limited to whole, slivered and sliced. You can blanch whole almonds yourself but it’s a little tiresome. You bring water to the boil, take it from the fire and let the almonds sit in it until the peels loosen, then transfer them to cold water and strip the skins off by hand. Sliced almonds are not quite suitable for this dish, but slivered almonds are just fine, in my book. In fact, it’s easier to get two or three slivers into a date than one blanched almond.
These dates are so sweet and rich that two or three are enough of a serving for many diners. You might want to make sure that diners have a glass of water at hand, particularly if you’re using rutab dates, because these can be really, really sweet.
Makes about 30 dates, serves 8 to 10 people
7 or 8 ounces of dates
About 30 blanched almonds or 1½ to 2 ounces slivered almonds
1 pound honey, about 1⅔ cups
¾ to 1 teaspoon rosewater
5 to 8 threads saffron
½ cup sugar, preferably finely granulated in a food processor
1. Remove the pits from the dates. A small skewer or something similar should do the trick. Stuff dates with the almonds.
2. Thin the honey with rosewater. Crush the saffron and stir it into the honey. Put the dates in a small saucepan, cover with the honey and simmer over lowest heat for about 1 hour. The dates should become plumper and the honey should thicken but not boil.
3. Remove a spoonful of the honey and allow it to cool on the spoon. Unscrew the lid of the musk vial, cover mouth of the vial with your fingertip, shake it, then remove your fingertip and close the vial again. Dip your fingertip in the spoon of cooled honey and stir a little of it into the saucepan. If you want it more aromatic, stir in more.
Allow the dates to cool in the honey.
4. Whenever it is convenient, set a rack over a plate, remove the dates from the honey and transfer them to the rack to drain.
5. When the dates have drained, put them on a plate. Mix the sugar with the spices and toss the dates with this mixture to cover. Transfer them to a serving plate or storage bowl. Keep the honey in a closed container and use it like ordinary honey.
Top photo: Perfumed dates. Credit: Charles Perry
Rosquillas are an explosion of Mesoamerica in your mouth that starts in a remote mountain village in Nicaragua. I am visiting my daughter, Gabriella, in the campo, studying Spanish while decompressing from life in America; leaving behind computer, cellphone and running water, and breathing sweet mountain air.
El Lagartillo is a sparse farming settlement on a steep hilltop with a view all the way to Honduras from its rocky summit. Here, in my bed in a house at the edge of the forest, I am awakened at daybreak by the din of a thousand birds. My host, Amparo, says they are singing from happiness.
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A century of struggle
For five centuries, many foreigners have been lured by this sizzling land of volcanoes and cloud forests. From the conquistadores to William Walker, the American adventurer who installed himself as president in 1856, to the U.S. Marines in the early 20th century, Nicaragua has endured conquest, occupation, oppression and brutality.
After the Marines, people endured the Somoza regime until the Sandinista revolution, when campesinos were awarded the land for which they had fought. Twenty-six families banded together to form a farming cooperative in El Lagartillo until CIA-sponsored contras decimated the village in Ronald Reagan’s secret war. The survivors were determined to rebuild, and the village has been reborn.
“Little by little, we began to find our way again,” writes Tina Pérez, whose husband and young polio-stricken daughter were among those killed. “One day…I saw [my daughter] Maria Zunilda … I said … ‘You look so beautiful. How can you be here, you are dead?’… She said …’I am fine except that we work so hard … We work for the revolution, Mommy.” At this village’s heart is a shrine. A plaque under the tree where Maria Zunilda died is inscribed: “1985/For peace against all aggression/ The heroes of Lagartillo live at the plough, which works the earth to the song of the birds and the sound of the militia men’s guns.”
The stone is surrounded by six bamboo cabañas that comprise Hijos del Maiz Spanish School. Its mission is to “support dreams in the community … exchanging with other … cultures in a dynamic transformation toward social justice.” During the day, it is a village of women. They sweep, scrub, cook, make cheese, soak and hull maiz. Their children play in the road, skittering away when an occasional horse and rider passes by or a pickup rumbles through, scaring up billows of dust. Chickens peck and scratch everywhere. Scarlet bougainvillea are lit with electric blue hummingbirds.
The families have a school and a library administered by a survivor in a wheelchair. A miller grinds hominy into masa, and Lisbet, my teacher, runs a cafe, offering freshly squeezed juice from the fruits of her trees.
Corn masa cookies
At dawn, Amparo fires up an adobe oven upon which to cook tortillas. I follow her to the mill with a pail of lime-slaked maiz that was boiled the day before, to be ground into masa, the dough that is made into staple breadstuffs.
“Si no hay tortillas, no hay comida,” she says. “If there are no tortillas, there’s no food.”
Juan Cerros, a campesino from nearby Las Lajas, pulls up on his mule with a sack of the maiz slung over the saddle. Electricity reached El Lagartillo a year ago and the powered machine here grinds corn much faster than he can do it by hand. Amparo explains that he makes rosquillas, the magical cookies, to sell.
It is not until my last evening in El Lagartillo that I finally taste them. When the relentless sun begins to wane, I wander into Francisca’s house. She is in the courtyard, flanked by other women who mix fresh masa with sugar, leavening, and shortening.
They pinch off pieces of the dough and shape them into flowers. Francisca piles shaved loaf sugar in their centers before baking them in a concrete oven in the back yard. The women work in silence.
The next morning, we set out on the dusty road for the long journey back to Managua. As we bump along in the back seat of a truck, Gabriella pulls out a bag filled with rosquillas that Francisca has sent along for the trip.
I take a bite and close my eyes. It hits me with a taste like no other that makes you think of the sacred food of the ancients, the life blood of empires. It is sweet and pleasantly sour like only masa can be. Far away now from the tiny village, I bake these cookies in communion with the wise and gentle people of El Largartillo who treasure the fields and the forests.
Rosquillas (Nicaraguan Corn Masa Cookies)
Makes about 20 cookies
In my own kitchen, I make the rosquillas even if I cannot get fresh ground masa. Instead, I use masa harina, masa flour which is available in Hispanic markets. Unlike an American sugar cookie, the use of masa harina rather than wheat flour results in a crispy but tender cookie with a pleasantly gritty texture not unlike that of Scottish shortbread.
Note that Bob’s Red Mill brand masa harina, while organic, doesn’t taste like the original or have the same fine texture, so you won’t be able to make authentic-tasting rosquillas with it.
The simple cookie has two characteristic shapes. The first, like those of Francisca’s in the photo, is circular and fairly flat, pressed with fingers to resemble a flower. Francisca heaped a bit of loaf sugar, which has a rich, molasses-like flavor, in the center to resemble the disc of a daisy.
The alternative shape is a loop, formed by rolling out little balls of the dough into thin ropes and pinching the two ends together, like an oval-shaped pretzel. Because rosquilla dough is crumbly in nature, the loops can be a bit more challenging to form, but persevere, it’s doable. Historic recipes for rosquillas prescribe lard. Francisca used a butter-like shortening. I use butter.
The water that is called for in this recipe replaces the natural moisture in fresh masa dough.
As for the topping, there is no substitute for the artisanal brown loaf sugar described that is sold in Hispanic markets. If you cannot find it, leave off decorating with sugar. The cookies are delicious with or without it.
For the cookies:
1 stick (8 tablespoons or ¼ pound) unsalted butter at room temperature
¾ cup granulated sugar
2 cups instant corn masa, also called masa harina
½ teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon salt
½ cup water at room temperature
For the topping:
1 cup brown loaf sugar, shaved or coarsely grated
1. Preheat an oven to 350 F.
2. In the vessel of an electric food mixer or in a large mixing bowl, cream the butter until it is light and fluffy. Add the granulated sugar in a slow, steady stream, continuing to beat until the mixture is well blended and creamy.
3. Whisk together the masa harina, baking powder, and salt.
4. To the creamed butter, add the water, alternating with blended dry ingredients. Beat the mixture with the paddle attachment of the electric food mixer, or by hand with a wooden spoon until a uniform dough is formed.
5. Line two baking sheets with bakers parchment. Scoop up a rounded tablespoon of dough and form it into a ball. Repeat this process and arrange 12 balls of dough on each of the parchment-lined pan, leaving at least an inch between each.
For the flower shape, press the bottom of a glass onto each ball to flatten to about ¼-inch, or flatten each by hand. The edges will appear to crack, but the cookie will stay intact and the rustic texture will just decorate the edges.
Use your fingers to make indentations first in the center, and then around the perimeter, sculpting a daisy shape. The idea is not only to give the cookie a decorative shape, but to thin out the disks for even baking from their perimeter through to their centers, making the cookies lighter and crunchier than if they were simply flattened.
6. If decorating with loaf sugar, after forming the flower shape, spoon about a small mound onto the center of each round.
For the loop shape, roll a similar-sized ball of dough into as thin a rope as you can manage, wetting your fingers lightly as you work to prevent the dough sticking to your fingers, if necessary. Pinch the two ends together to form an oval. The easiest method is to roll out each rope directly on the parchment-lined baking sheet, then pinch the ends together. This avoids the unnecessary step of lifting the loop from board to baking sheet and breaking it in the process.
7. Slide the rosquillas onto the middle rack of the oven and bake until cooked through and lightly browned on the bottom and around the edges, 20-25 minutes.
8. Transfer them at once to wire racks to cool completely. Store over night or for up to two weeks in air-tight containers, chilled.
Top photo: Corn masa cookies (rosquillas). Credit: Nathan Hoyt
Lime ought to show up more often in cakes; that’s my philosophy. Lemon is great, sure. But there are already plenty of lemon cakes and lemon frostings. No doubt lemon is a cheery and optimistic flavor. But lime is rich and exotic.
Following this line of thought, I ended up with a cake with a lime butterscotch cream cheese frosting and a filling of fried bananas. The palate just wants what it wants.
The evolution of cake experiments
My first step down the lime path was obvious — coconut cake with lime zest and a bit of lime juice in the frosting (because I believe fruit-flavored frostings should be sweet-sour). Lime in the coconut, get it? I’m referring to “Coconut,” that 1970s hit song about a woman who mixed lime and coconut juice, got a stomachache and called her doctor, who surprisingly prescribed drinking more lime and coconut.
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The doctor in the song sounded a little peevish because she’d called him in the middle of the night. Still, everybody in the song seemed fine with this prescription, and so did everybody who tasted my lime in the coconut cake.
Next I made a lemon poppy seed pound cake substituting lime juice and zest for the lemon. It was a big hit, because people who love pound cake love it passionately, and because I’d topped it with a cream cheese frosting. I’d noticed that people who love pound cake passionately also have a thing for cream cheese.
When I frosted a cake with lime butter cream and filled it with lime curd, it struck me that I might be binging on limes. Meanwhile, I’d gotten interested in ways to use bananas in cake, but not as banana bread, of which I’m not a big fan. However, I am a big fan of butterscotch, an unjustly neglected flavor in my book.
Finding flavors that complement each other
So I decided to make a lime butterscotch cream cheese frosting, just to check off all the possibilities. It was pretty good because this butterscotch cream cheese frosting takes other flavors, such as ground instant coffee, beautifully.
Cream cheese frosting is mostly used on dense cakes like carrot cake, rather than on butter cake, and the recipes tend to make just barely enough to frost a cake. Here was where my banana experimentation paid off, apart from the fact that banana and butterscotch go together beautifully.
Fry some bananas soft with butter and brown sugar, and they make a terrific filling, suavely giving you more cream cheese frosting to cover the outside of the cake.
In retrospect, this was all obvious, so obvious. I’m almost embarrassed to mention it. But just almost.
Lime Butterscotch Cream Cheese Banana Cake
Makes 1 two-layer cake
For the cake:
3 cups flour plus about 2 tablespoons for flouring the pans
½ teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup milk
2 sticks butter, softened, plus more for greasing cake pans
2 cups sugar
For the banana filling:
3 ripe bananas
About ½ stick butter
2 tablespoons brown sugar
The juice of ½ a lime
For the lime butterscotch cream cheese frosting:
½ stick butter
1 (8-ounce) package cream cheese
¼ cup brown sugar
1 pound confectioner’s sugar
Juice and zest from ½ a lime
For the cake:
1. Turn on the oven to 350 F.
2. Mix 3 cups of flour, salt and baking powder and set aside.
3. Add the vanilla to the milk and set aside.
4. Grease two 9-inch cake pans. Put the remaining 2 tablespoons of flour into one pan and shake around until the interior is floured, then pour the remainder into the other pan and repeat.
5. Beat the butter until light and fluffy, then pour in the sugar in a thin stream while beating until the mixture is light and the mixer’s motor has reached its highest speed.
6. Add the eggs one at a time, beating 20 seconds after each addition.
7. Add 1 cup of the flour mixture and beat at medium slow speed, encouraging the absorption with a spatula, just until the flour is absorbed.
8. Add half of the milk and repeat, then another cup of flour, the rest of the milk and the rest of the flour.
9. Divide the mixture equally between the two cake pans and bake until the layers are lightly browned and pulling away from the sides of the pan, about 35 to 40 minutes. The tip should spring back if touched and a toothpick inserted in the cake should come back without any damp crumbs on it.
10. Set the cake pans on a cooling rack for 10 minutes, then remove from the pans and return to the rack until cool.
For the banana filling:
1. Peel the bananas and slice each in half lengthwise.
2. Melt the butter in a large frying pan and arrange the slices on it. Cook over medium low heat until the bananas soften, about 15 minutes. Turn them over with a spatula, sprinkle with the brown sugar and fry another 5 to 10 minutes.
3. Sprinkle with lime juice and leave to cool.
For the lime butterscotch cream cheese frosting:
1. Melt the butter in a small pan over high heat. Reduce the heat to medium and cook until most of the foam has settled and the butter has a cooked, but not browned, flavor. Pour the butter off into a bowl and return to the refrigerator until solid, about 10 minutes.
2. Whip the cream cheese in a mixer until quite fluffy.
3. If you have a mortar, grind the brown sugar as fine as possible. Add the brown sugar to the cream cheese and whip until the mixture looks smooth. Add the butter and beat until smooth. Add the confectioner’s sugar and beat at the lowest speed until the sugar is incorporated. Add the zest and juice of the lime and beat until smooth; you may add more zest or juice to taste.
To assemble the cake:
Set one cake layer upside down on a plate. Spread a very thin layer of frosting onto the exposed side. With a spatula, transfer the fried bananas onto the cake layer, then top it with the other cake layer, right side up. Scoop all the frosting onto the top of the cake and work down over the sides with a spatula.
Top photo: Lime Butterscotch Cream Cheese Banana Cake. Credit: Charles Perry
Around our house, Valentine’s Day is about family and love. And when it comes to dessert my family loves chocolate, peppermint and marshmallows, though not necessarily in that order. I wanted to make a treat that would satisfy everyone’s dessert fantasies. After much contemplation, I came up with the idea for Chocolate-Covered Peppermint Marshmallow Pops.
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I had another requirement for our Valentine’s Day treat — it had to be a no-bake recipe. Anyone who knows me knows that I hate to bake anything except bread, and I’ll come up with any excuse possible to make sweet treats that don’t involve actual baking.
While thumbing through the dessert section of my personal “favorite recipes” notebook, I stumbled across my recipe for seven-minute frosting. I suddenly realized this could be the starting point for Valentine treats. I love seven-minute frosting. In our family, we eat coconut cake with seven-minute frosting for Christmas, Easter and birthdays. It’s a special occasion cake, but I figured it would be even better if I could get rid of the cake entirely and focus on the frosting. If you’ve ever made seven-minute frosting, you know it’s just a step away from marshmallow. I decided to take that step.
The joy of homemade marshmallows
For most people, marshmallows are unnaturally rounded cubes found in plastic bags in supermarkets. Yet there are an infinite number of ways to make marshmallows. Most call for some combination of sugar, gelatin and corn syrup.
I began my experiment with my traditional recipe for seven-minute frosting, but replaced my usual vanilla with peppermint. I added unflavored gelatin to the mix to give the final product its marshmallow-y sponginess. Once I had made the marshmallow, then let it cool overnight, I used cookie cutters to cut the marshmallow into Valentine shapes. The final steps: Shove it onto a popsicle stick, dip it in chocolate and decorate with candy sprinkles.
This recipe does contain egg, which is important to tell people who might have egg allergies. However, unlike most marshmallow recipes, this one has no corn syrup. I also did a double-check on the food safety situation of the egg whites. According to foodsafety.gov, the egg whites used in seven-minute frosting are cooked with a sugar syrup long enough to kill any salmonella bacterium that might be present.
But because I was planning to share these treats with the all the kids in the neighborhood, I decided to play it safe and make this recipe with pasteurized powdered egg whites. They’re handy to have when you run out of eggs, and I happened to have them in my pantry already.
Get messy and feel the love
Fair warning: this can be a messy affair, as powdered sugar tends to fly, especially if your kids are getting into the act. I experimented with several versions of the recipe, varying the level of sweetness, marshmallow thickness and pepperminty-ness.
This final version appealed to children and adults alike, assuming, of course, that the eater had a love of chocolate and a serious sweet tooth. The dessert is as pretty as it is delicious, and the finished chocolate pops can be used as Valentine Party table decorations or given as gifts.
They would never last that long at our house. I presented my first batch of chocolate peppermint marshmallow pops to my two daughters, which caused their outdoor play to screech to a halt as they snatched the heart-shaped suckers out of my hand. They were such a hit that when my youngest daughter dropped her half-eaten pop in the dirt of our front yard, a river of tears began to flow. The flood stopped when I sighed and told my daughter she could pick it up and eat it anyway. She dusted off the biggest specks of dirt and happily shoved it back in her mouth.
Love can be messy. Happy Valentine’s Day.
Chocolate-Covered Peppermint Marshmallow Pops
Makes approximately 12 to 15 pops
1 tablespoon butter
½ cup cornstarch
½ cup powdered sugar
3 tablespoons (three packets) unflavored gelatin
⅔ cups water to mix with gelatin, plus ½ cup water to mix with egg whites
Pasteurized powdered egg whites equal to two egg whites (I used Deb El’s Just Whites. If you use another brand, change the amount of water to whatever is required by the egg-white instructions plus five tablespoons of water.)
¼ teaspoon cream of tartar
2 cups refined white sugar
¼ to ½ teaspoon peppermint extract
Pinch of salt
24 ounces (two bags) good quality semi-sweet or dark chocolate chips
1 to 2 tablespoons canola oil
Assorted sprinkles, coconut, or finely chopped nuts for decoration
1. Butter a 9-by-13 inch sheet pan with at least a ½-inch edge and line with parchment paper.
2. Sift together ½ cup cornstarch and ½ cup powdered sugar. Use about half this mixture to completely cover sides and bottom of pan. Reserve the remainder.
3. Mix 3 tablespoons gelatin with ⅔ cup hot water in a small bowl. Stir until gelatin dissolves and set aside.
4. Heat about 1 inch of water in the bottom half of a double boiler. In top half of double boiler add egg white, cream of tartar, peppermint extract, sugar and ½ cup cold water (do this with top pan off the heat).
5. Place top pan into bottom pan of double boiler, which contains about 1 inch of hot water, still over heat. Use an electric hand mixer to combine ingredients, starting on low speed until combined, then increasing speed to high. Continue to beat ingredients over medium heat for seven minutes.
6. Remove double boiler from heat. Be sure that pan is on a stable, heat-proof surface, like a cool burner. Slowly add gelatin mixture to egg white mixture, beating with hand mixer starting on low speed, then increasing to high speed. Continue to beat for five minute. Do not worry if mixture gets watery and starts to deflate slightly.
7. Pour marshmallow mixture into 9-by-13-inch pan, dust with reserved powdered sugar-cornstarch mixture until marshmallow mixture is completely covered.
8. Let cool overnight.
9. The next day, cut into shapes using cookie cutters that are approximately 2 inches in diameter.
10. Brush off any excess powdered sugar-corn starch mixture.
11. Place marshmallow shapes on lollipop sticks and set aside.
12. Heat chocolate and canola oil in a double boiler over low heat and stir to combine until chocolate is completely melted.
13. Dip marshmallow pops in chocolate until the top and all sides are covered. Add sprinkles or other topping and let harden on parchment paper-lined sheet pan in refrigerator for approximately 10 minutes. (You can dip the whole pop at once, but it may leave a bit of extra chocolate pooling at the back side of the marshmallow unless you’re really careful to scrape off any excess before placing on tray to dry.)
14. When the chocolate has hardened on the front and sides of the marshmallow pop, coat the back side of the marshmallow with melted chocolate. (It is easiest to spoon about a teaspoon of melted chocolate onto back side of marshmallow pop and spread with the back of the spoon.) Place on parchment paper-lined sheet pan with back side up and return to refrigerator until marshmallow pops are completely cool.
15. Pack marshmallow pops in airtight container for up to one week. They also freeze well.
Top photo: Chocolate-covered peppermint marshmallow pops cool on parchment paper. Credit: Susan Lutz
Up on a tall peak of the Western Ghats mountain range in India called Sabarimala, a Hindu shrine lures hundreds of thousands of pilgrims from mid- November through the first half of January. The devotees undertake an arduous journey, the final few miles of it barefoot, over a rough and rocky terrain through low-lying fog accompanying a cold season’s chill, to worship at Sabarimala. The temples provide food offerings called neyyappam, made with rice, jaggery (Indian unrefined brown sugar) and cooked in ghee.
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With close to 70 million people making the pilgrimage annually, this is one of the largest in the world. To help make their important offerings, about 4 million neyyappams were sold to pilgrims as Hindu offerings by the end of the first 10 days of the pilgrimage season in 2013.
Sabarimala is one of hundreds of temples all over South India that prepare this sweet dish and several others as offerings. The enshrined deities of the Hindu temples are faithfully fed with formal offerings of food every day. The offerings at temples are always the most excellent food.
The favorite food of the gods
The priests and their helpers prepare them in the temple kitchen. The traditional cooks who prepare them do not follow any written recipes, nor are they trained at any culinary schools. They perfect their art through practice under the watchful eyes of senior priests. But the proof of their culinary skills is in the most delicious prasadam (food that has been offered to God), which devotees receive from the temples.
Those little morsels of prasadam have a very special taste, maybe because visitors receive only a small serving, or maybe because it is the gods’ favorite food. Biting through the dark brown crust, crisped by rice flour and savoring the soft and chewy middle of the neyyappam is sheer delight.
There are no written records of their origin, but sweetened cakes made of grains as Hindu offerings were prevalent since very ancient times in India. Apupa, a prototype of neyyappam, was believed to be a favorite food of the gods and it was offered in various sacrificial ceremonies. In “Food and Drink in Ancient India” Om Prakash writes that apupa possibly was the earliest sweet known in India. Apupa was believed to be a favorite food of the gods and it was offered in various sacrificial ceremonies.
It was made with barley or rice flour cooked in ghee on a low fire and sweetened with honey, and later with sugar cane juice. The cook made apupa assume the shape of a tortoise by cooking it on clay pot with a curved bottom. Even centuries later, the recipe and the method of cooking this ancient dish have remained practically unchanged.
A world of cooking vessels
Neyyappam is traditionally cooked in a bronze pan called appakara, about 8 inches in diameter, with three or more large cavities, giving the dish a tortoise-like shape. Recipes are varied, but sometimes the batter includes a softening agent such as ripe bananas. Sometimes the batter is flavored with coconut, cardamom, sesame seeds, dried ginger or poppy seeds.
Many cuisines use variations on this pan for similar dishes. An ideal substitute for an appakara is the utensil used for making the Danish pancake balls called aebleskiver, the tasty Danish dessert that looks like round puffy pancakes.
The Vikings also originally used damaged shields to cook a similar dish called ebelskivers.
Kevin Crafts, in his cookbook “Ebelskivers,” described: “The invention of ebelskivers is much debated, but one story tells of the Vikings returning very hungry from a fierce battle. With no frying pans on which to cook, they placed their damaged shields over a hot fire and cooked pancakes in the indentations.”
In the absence of these special skillets, neyyappam may be cooked on a griddle or a small skillet.
Makes 12 to 15
1 cup long-grain rice
1 cup jaggery
1 medium-sized ripe banana, peeled and sliced
1 teaspoon cardamom powder (optional)
1 tablespoon thinly sliced coconut pieces (optional)
½ cup ghee, divided
1. Soak the rice in water for two to three hours, and then rinse it in several changes of water until the water runs clear, and drain.
2. In a sauce pan melt the jaggery with ¼ cup of water. Strain through a fine sieve and cool.
3. In a blender, combine the rice, banana, and jaggery with just enough water to grind it into a fine, smooth, thick batter.
4. Stir in the cardamom powder and coconut slices if using. This batter should have the consistency of a thick pancake batter.
5. Heat an aebleskiver pan over medium heat.
6. Pour ½ teaspoon ghee in each cavity of the pan.
7. Pour in the batter, ¾ of the way in each cavity. Pour a ½ teaspoon of ghee on top of each neyyappam and cook over medium heat.
8. When the bottom of the neyyappam is cooked (in a minute or so), turn it over, and cook the other side.
9. When neyyappam turns brown in color, remove from the griddle, and drain on paper towels. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Top photo: Neyyappam prepared in appakara as an offering for the gods in Indian Hindu temples. Credit: R.V. Ramachandran
Early February in France means it is time to get your pans ready. The winter days are finally getting a little longer and sunnier and la chandeleur (derived from chandelle, “candle” in French) is at hand, which means crêpes are in the air.
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The French tradition, combining pagan and Christian origins, has been going on for centuries, but it seems to be losing momentum. Everyone still knows about it, but fewer and fewer seem to indulge in the annual crêpes orgy.
As in other parts of the world, home cooking is on the decline while TV food shows are getting more popular. Bakeries now sell ready-made crêpes for a quick fix at nearly $2 a pop. “Ridicule,” said my mother over the phone the other day. And Maman, as often, is probably right. Crêpes are a fun, easy to do homemade affair.
The church, crêpes and a sweet tradition
What are we celebrating, besides a humble form of sweet gluttony? In the Catholic Church, chandeleur marks the presentation of the child Jesus, his first entry into the temple, as well as the day of the Virgin Mary’s purification. I fail to see how thin pancakes came in the picture, except for the resemblance one could see between them and the halo depicted over the heads of holy figures in religious paintings since the 4th century or so.
The pagan origin of the chandeleur links more directly to the round disks of cooked dough the form and shape of the sun which, come February, becomes more and more present as days get longer at a faster pace. It’s not spring yet, but you can see light at the end of the tunnel, and it is still cold enough in most parts of the Northern Hemisphere to stand in front a stove flipping pancakes without having to turn the air conditioning on.
This is also the period of the year when winter wheat was being sowed. Crêpes were a way to celebrate the flour to come by using the one at hand. Interestingly enough, a Comité de la Chandeleur was founded and funded by a major French flour producer in 1997, reminding the population of the godly tradition with ads and billboards. The committee no longer exists. It is now in our hands to make the tradition survive.
A simple crêpes recipe for indulgence
Like every person brought up in France in the last century, I have my good share of childhood crêpe memories: pleasure and pain mixed in a batter of family recollections. While my father and brother were expert at eating the end result, my mother and I were excited by the making process.
We didn’t bother with a recipe and that in itself shows the tradition was still vivid, culturally ingrained. We just knew what to put in the dough: flour, eggs, milk, as well as water, cider or beer, a little fat (oil or melted butter), a little sugar, a touch of booze, traditionally dark rum, and a dash of salt. The trick was to avoid any lumps by using first a wooden spoon and then a whisk.
After letting the batter rest for an hour or so, came the time to show more developed skills. For years, we didn’t have a non-stick pan. We dipped a halved potato in oil to grease the thin metallic pan we used for about everything. With time, I’ve favored using a piece of paper towel folded in fourths and dunked in oil rather than a spud, leaving me to wonder how common paper towels were in Paris in the 1960s. The first crêpe always stuck, no matter what.
At age 7, there was my culinary confirmation that you can’t always get things right the first time in life. The ugly torn crêpe was eaten nonetheless, giving the chance to adjust the recipe-free batter with a little more liquid, salt or sugar if necessary.
If the crêpe didn’t have enough elasticity an egg was added and then, we were good to go. A super-hot pan is essential to achieve one of the essential criteria of a noble French crêpe, thinness, or finesse. Held as a rising sun, the crêpe was supposed to let light go through it, if not the image of my smiling mother behind the lump-free delicacy. A ladle was poured in the super-hot greased pan and then, with a swift movement of the wrist, the batter was to cover the whole pan in a thin coating.
Mastering crêpe-making technique
Chandeleur folklore says that if you manage to flip the crêpe in the air while holding a gold coin in your left hand, good fortune will come your way. I’ve personally never seen this done, perhaps because our entourage didn’t carry gold around so often. We just weren’t keen on the tossing-in-the-air show, partially because our crêpes needed some help with our bare fingers to be lifted off the pan.
When the edge started to get brown, we lifted one side with a small knife, then pinched the crêpe with both hands and flip it as fast as possible to avoid blisters in the process. I was always fascinated by the fact that the A-side of our edible records had a beautiful, uniform golden hue, whereas the B-side looked so different with its erratic brown spots.
We kept piling the crêpes on top of each other on a plate set atop a pot of simmering water so that we could enjoy our crêpes warm en famille. Brother and father were called to come and the filling game began with a variety of jams and spreads. For me, butter and sugar were the only fixings I needed to make me forget my reddened fingers, as crêpes were washed down with Normand cider, mindless of the few degrees of alcohol that helped make the pain go away and the party feel special.
Makes about 12 crêpes
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon sugar
¼ tsp salt
2 large eggs
1 cup milk
6 tablespoons water (or beer or cider)
1 tablespoon melted butter (or neutral oil)
1 tablespoon dark rum or cognac (optional)
Oil and paper towel to oil pan
1. Sift the flour with sugar and salt in a mixing bowl. Whisk in eggs, milk, water, melted butter and rum or cognac.
2. Let rest for 1 hour or more.
3. Heat pan greased with oiled paper towel. Add ¼ cup of batter or so and tilt the pan in a circular manner to spread the batter as fast as possible. When edges begin to brown, flip over with your hands or in the air and cook the other side 30 seconds.
4. Place cooked crêpe on a plate and repeat, repeat, repeat!
Tips and variations:
- To avoid any lumps and go faster, mix batter in a blender adding dry ingredients into the wet ones.
- For savory crêpes, eliminate sugar and alcohol from batter and add a dash more salt.
- To keep crêpes warm, place them on a plate sitting atop a saucepan with simmering water.
- Typically, French crêpes are rolled or folded in four.
- You can also layer the crêpes one on top of each other smeared with one or several toppings until you obtain a form of cake that you can then slice in wedges.
- Crepes can be kept wrapped in plastic and refrigerated up to 3 days or frozen up to 3 months.
Top photo: Crêpes to celebrate chandeleur. Credit: Philip Sinsheimer
A winter stroll through Athens is a joy. The cool, breezy air is filled with an exquisitely heady perfume from the hundreds of citrus trees shading the city’s squares, gardens and boulevards. Dusty, heat-wilted summer foliage is long gone. In its place are lush, deep-green canopies of scented leaves, waxy-white flowers and beautiful oranges.
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Throughout Greece’s grim economic crisis of the past five years, these lovely trees have produced their annual bounty for the beleaguered people, with bursts of sunshine in the gloom. So why are the oranges left mostly ungathered, in a country where cooks are well known for their imaginative frugality and their ability to create feasts from foraged foods?
The bitter orange
The highly aromatic bitter orange (citrus aurantium, or Seville orange) that provides Greece’s city landscapes with such color and beauty can’t be eaten without some preparation. Native to Southeast Asia, the bitter orange (nerantzi, in Greek) is a hybrid, a cross between the pomelo (citrus maxima) and the mandarin (citrus reticula), and is thought to have arrived in Europe in the late 16th century. The tree was a favorite of the medieval Italian courts, so it’s possible that it was brought to Greece by the Venetians, who made fortunes exporting Greek fruits, honey and wine. Or perhaps later by the Ottomans, who also appreciated the bitter orange’s perfume and prettiness.
Medieval Greece was no stranger to aromatic oils, fruit-based sweetmeats and the taste of sour. In classical antiquity and later in Byzantium, the citron (citrus medica, native to Persia) provided both. But the bitter orange, with its thinner skin and greater beauty, soon replaced the incongruous-looking citron. It had the advantage too of a reputation as a folk remedy for fevers, an antiseptic and an aid to digestion, and could more successfully cope with colder temperatures than the less-hardy sweet orange.
The powerful fragrance of the tree’s leaves and flowers were, and still are, highly valued in aromatology and the fruits’ peel in confectionery. When dried or candied, it flavors sweets, pies, savories and salads. Best of all, it is turned into a delicious γλυκό του κουταλιού (literally, “spoon sweet”), and offered to guests as a way of saying “welcome, it’s good to see you.”
Tasting a crisis
Artists Persefoni Myrtsou and Ino Varvariti — spurred by their city sensibilities and personal experience with the economic crisis — decided to explore the connection between these plentiful urban citrus trees and the changing landscapes of peoples’ lives. Early in 2013, they collected oranges from trees in locations to which the Greek people feel emotionally linked.
In Athens, they chose Syntagma (the central square); Plaka (the old quarter, below the Acropolis); Mitropoleous (the old market neighborhood); a new, but now-closed shopping mall; and a neighborhood recently settled by immigrants. In Thessaloniki, they gathered the fruits from Ano Poli, or “Upper Town,” the old, Ottoman-era city. Then they prepared a glyko (sweet) from each harvest.
Myrtsou and Varvariti took the sweetmeats to an art exhibition in Berlin and to a gastronomy symposium on the island of Crete, and invited everyone to sample them. The artists found that, although the rituals and symbolism for the Greeks of glyko had to be explained in Germany, this opened a dialogue on both the economic crisis and Greek food culture. In Crete, a relatively wealthy region of Greece, the interest was in the varying flavors and the plight of the city neighborhoods.
Glyko: a sweet hello
Did the sweets taste different from one another? Yes, they did. But the differences were subtle, and reflected only the bitter orange tree’s admirable hardiness (it fruits even in poor soil, and without much care) and ability to change itself (when planted near another citrus variety).
City dwellers are, with good reason, nervous about locally foraged foods, and Athens’ car pollution is notorious. But this alone can’t be the reason the oranges are being left to rot, when so many people are hungry, and need a feeling of community more than ever. For Myrtsou and Varvariti, their work has created new relationships, as the offering of such beautiful sweet treats to others never fails to do, and has given them new avenues to explore in their quest for the taste of the crisis.
Bitter Orange Sweet
Serve nerantzi glyko in a small bowl on a tray, with glasses of water and small cups of Greek coffee. Each guest takes a spoon and a scoop of the sweet and syrup and wishes the host “happiness and good fortune.”
There are plenty of modern uses for these lovely sweets too. Serve them with a classic Greek almond or walnut cake, madeira cake, rice pudding or ice cream, or as a pick-me-up at the end of the afternoon. You can substitute other oranges, tangerines, lemons or small grapefruits for the bitter oranges.
Makes 32 single-piece servings
4 large, organic bitter (Seville) oranges, or other suitable citrus fruits
Sugar, the same weight as the peel
Strained juice of half a lemon
1. With a hand grater, gently grate the oranges. This removes some of the bitterness of their peel.
2. Cut the peel of each orange into 8 vertical segments. If there is a large amount of white pith, scrape off some of it with a small knife or spoon.
3. Weigh the peel and measure out an equal quantity of sugar; set aside.
4. Transfer the strips of peel to a large saucepan, cover with cold water, bring to a boil, and simmer for 5 minutes. Drain and repeat the process. Drain, cover with cold water and set aside 2 hours. Drain and pat dry with paper towels.
5. Roll up each strip of peel and secure with a toothpick.*
6. In a heavy saucepan or syrup pan, add the sugar and ¾ of its volume of water and slowly bring to a boil, stirring until the sugar is dissolved. Simmer 5 minutes, then add the rolls of peel.
7. Simmer uncovered for 45 of 60 minutes, or until a needle will easily pierce a roll.
8. Remove the peels from the syrup, shaking excess syrup back into the pan. Let cool and discard the toothpicks (the peels won’t unravel).
9. Add the lemon juice to the syrup and boil until it just reaches the light thread stage (220 C) on a sugar thermometer, or coats the back of a spoon.
10. Transfer the rolls of peel to a clean glass jar, or several jars, just large enough to hold them and cover with the syrup. Tightly cover the jar(s).
* If you make a larger quantity of sweets, they take up less room in the pan if threaded on a string. Thread a large needle with thin kitchen string and tie a large knot at one end. Roll up each peel segment and thread onto the string, passing the needle through the roll so it won’t unravel. Thread no more than 16 rolls onto the string, and tie the ends together to make a garland. Simmer until cooked in the syrup, then carefully pull out the string. The rolls will remain intact.
Top photo: Bitter oranges in Greece. Credit: Rosemary Barron
“A Commonplace Book of Pie” is anything but common. While some cookbooks may help you make poetry with food, this cookbook is poetry, and more. It is a collection of facts, real and imagined, about pie.
“I created these prose poems that are this imaginary zodiac,” Kate Lebo said of the writing in the book that leaps beyond the expected instructions. These are not anecdotes about your aunt’s legacy bubbling up in sunny syrup each time you make peach pie. Rather, these lyric narratives are gripping slices of dreamed lives.
The pumpkin pie fancier befriends bartenders. “People who love chocolate cream pie move through the world in a swarm of music,” Lebo writes. OK, sure. Or maybe not. Maybe you believe other things about these people, and that’s just fine, because this book makes room for discovery within accepted standards.
“We’re both really attracted to obvious things and finding things that are not obvious, shaking people out of their complacency with that object,” Lebo said of Jessica Lynn Bonin, who illustrated the book and accompanied her on tour this fall.
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By Kate Lebo
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The paintings of pie and its many component parts, Lebo said, are not just renderings of physical objects, but images that have their own stories. The poet is working in a similar fashion with her subject.
“I’m doing that in the pie book by taking something as commonplace as pie and using a form, using poetry, using language to talk about it and break it open in completely new ways,” she said. “We owe allegiance to surrealists because that’s what they do as well, but it’s not surreal.”
“This is not a pipe,” the painter René Magritte said of his painting of a pipe. This is not a cookbook like one you’ve known, but yes, it is a cookbook, and from it you can learn how to make pie.
The poetry of pie instruction
“Position your hands palms up, fingers loosely curled, the same way you relax your hand above your head while falling asleep,” reads the instructions in a recipe for crust. When a pie master suggests a shape of supplication for handling flour and fat, even those with deep attachments to pastry cutters will try to leave them in the drawer.
Like pie, the book has quite a life beyond its crust, or covers. The project started as a collaboration between Kate Lebo and artist Bryan Schoneman. In 2010, the two did a gallery show that involved a pie safe and people clamoring for the pies cooling teasingly inside it. “A Commonplace Book of Pie” appeared first as a zine and part of this show. Lebo sold 2,000 copies of the zine, and expanded the cardboard-bound booklet into a book, just published in October by Chin Music Press.
Here are some ingredients of Lebo’s life that are not inside the book. She was not interested in cooking until she was in her 20s, when she had a kitchen with a view of downtown Seattle and the Olympic Mountains. She baked her way through the “Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook,” and recalls that era as her “cool lady in the city time, singing Doris Day.”
After she got her master of fine arts from the University of Washington, she sold at a stand in her front yard to raise rent money. Her pie stand traveled to places like the Sasquatch Music Festival, and begat Pie School, which let Lebo pass along the fine qualities of pies by teaching people to make them.
Connecting with “A Commonplace Book of Pie”
“Pie is warm, inviting, a symbol everyone is connected to in this culture,” Lebo said. “I can talk to anyone about pie. It’s like football except I actually know something about it. So that kicks the door open for further discussion about something that is less approachable, something that is less familiar.”
Discussions on the book tour have covered a lot of topics. Seattle events drew a lot of literary folks. At a cooking school in the Midwest, people came who love pie. Questions ranged from what’s the secret to making the perfect pie, to how do you revise the manuscript?
People are reading the book to each other, which is something Lebo heard with the zine, too. She has a picture of a child — who attended a reading in Milwaukee, Wis. — reading the book to her family while they were making pie. Another fan is giving the book, along with a letter about what pie means in her family, to her children.
“Pie is a gift and that’s something I’m trying to evoke with the book,” Lebo said.
Top photo composite:
“A Commonplace Book of Pie” jacket cover and author Kate Lebo. Credit: Amy Halloran