Articles in Desserts
If there is a heaven, I know there is a fat slice of cheesecake waiting for me. A New York-style cheesecake.
Made with cream cheese, sugar and eggs. It can have a crust of cookies or a thin sliver of cake at the base or be nakedly uncrusted. It can be baked in a water bath or cooked straight up, slow and easy. It’s a decadence worthy of the ire of a hundred cardiologists.
And even though I have made literally hundreds of cheesecakes, I am more than happy to order a commercially made New York-style cheesecake. The good ones are so damn good, that I order cheesecakes aplenty without even a twinge of I-could-do-this-myself-I-am-a-trained-chef-for-goodness’-sake guilt. And they deliver.
In the hearts and tummies of native New Yorkers, Junior’s may just be the first choice when it comes to New York-style cheesecake. The original shop in Brooklyn showcases its mid-century classic cheesecake alongside egg creams. The cake is creamy and well-ripened; even a small wedge is deliciously satisfying. It’s one of my absolute favorites, and I bet it will be yours, too.
My fixation with cheesecake may be genetic, but maybe it’s just because I’m a New Yorker. Cheesecakes aren’t exactly novel in the culinary world. You would be hard-pressed not to find a cheesy sweet pie or cake in Western-based cuisines. But the New York-style cheesecake is unique to the 20th century and for Jews of Ashkenazi descent it is linked to the holiday of Shavuot. The harvest festival in May includes reading an uncanonized biblical tale of a woman, Judith, who saves her community by killing an evil soldier after fattening him up on dairy.
A fourth-generation, New York bakery, Veniero’s bursts with fresh handmade pastries, cakes and cookies so delicious it’s worthy of a food pilgrimage. One taste of their New York-style cheesecake and you’ll be enchanted enough to pick up the phone or order online. (They know their way around cheese; the cannoli and Italian cheesecakes are to die for.)
Think New York-style cheesecakes are always from New York? How about Los Angeles’ Greenblatt’s Deli? Creamy as all get out and not too sweet, this cheesecake is worthy of attention. Orders are handled by direct email.
Individual cheesecakes are an elegant addition to any party. Pure Cheesecakes by Patricia DeGasperi are as lovely as they are delicious. You can order them online, but they’ll only deliver in the Greater Los Angeles area.
Sweet T’s Bakeshop in Haddonfield, New Jersey, may be a bit off the radar. Sisters Toni and Chrissy Walton offer artistic, creative cakes. Toni worked with Buddy Valastro and was on the first two seasons of the TV show “Cake Boss.” Her talents at baking up one delicious cheesecake are evident at every bite. Make sure you’re ready to put down the deposit when you place the order. And, yes, the decorated cakes are fun and beautiful.
Eileen’s Special Cheesecakes
Eileen Avezzano of Eileen’s Special Cheesecake is the Queen of Cheesecake. Her enthusiasm, love and yes — I’ll say it — complete obsession with perfection are transformed into memorable cheesecakes. Using the classic ingredients with a twist in technique (shhh: She whips the egg whites and folds them in), a new, lighter-textured and incredibly creamy cheesecake was born. Thank you, Eileen.
The Midwest rocks New York-style cheesecakes at Zingerman’s Bakehouse in Ann Arbor, Michigan. To get the cake may be a bit challenging (they ship them seasonally), but well worth it.
Just add toppings
I devote my time and energy to toppings. When I cater, I often suggest that we order cheesecakes and offer toppings, set out like a bar. I have found that it’s great setup for any party, especially a backyard grill after a day of watching kids play ball or after a parade or any day when I am not at the stove all day to babysit the cake.
Instead, I make a dulce de leche, a cajeta or a salty butterscotch. I make a dark chocolate ganache that can be swirled on a plate. I set out balsamic vinegars and freshly ground peppercorns. I add pickled peaches or a red pepper jelly from a farmers market. I crush candies and serve ridiculous amounts of cut, juicy fresh fruit. Works every time.
A must: good cream cheese
Cheesecake made with the newly invented cream cheese was an immigrant dream. And immediately the cake became part of Jewish-American repertoire, appearing at diners and delis, hence my genetic disposition. Cheesecake hit mainstream adoration quickly and is even the headliner of a large restaurant chain.
My fantasy cake slice is New York style. This is the city where cream cheese was actually born and made. Like me. Not Philly — sorry guys, you get the cheesesteak. Philadelphia was chosen to add to Kraft’s labeling because of its reputation in the 1920s for having the finest and purest dairy products, thereby christened the Cadillac of cream cheese. Every recipe I have uses Kraft’s classic Philadelphia-style cream cheese, and almost always by name, but if you are going to make it at home, why not try some newbies like Vermont Creamery or Zingerman’s cream cheese?
In the meantime, I dream about cheesecakes — not cheesesteaks (sorry, Aerosmith), and not even beefcakes (sorry again, boys) — in my future. I fantasize about cakes that rise like a stairway to heaven (sorry, Zep).
And most often, I order them online.
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Main photo: This original-style mini cheesecake is one of many that may be ordered from PureCheeseCakes.com, a family-owned company. Credit: Copyright 2015 Patricia DeGasperi
There’s a dessert that’s scarcely known in America but all too familiar in England, where it is today considered the epitome of blandness, no small feat given English standards. But in the 19th century, its wilder possibilities were explored, some of which were smashingly good and deserve a new life.
The dish is blancmange (that’s French lingo there: “blahn-MAHNJ”), and the modern standard is basically a gelatin dessert of almond milk, or dairy milk with almond flavoring, or just milk and vanilla, molded into a characteristic shape that sometimes showed up in Monty Python skits as a silly, giant blancmange monster.
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The almond-milk version, at least, has an ancient history. Blancmange descends from blancmanger, the most esteemed dish of the European Middle Ages, which basically consisted of the whitest ingredients available to the cook: milk, almonds, chicken breasts, sugar, rice, even breadcrumbs in a pinch. It was a special attraction at a time when cuisine tended to be either brown or green or brownish green, and it appealed to the medieval nobility for another reason: As the middle class kept rising and rising, pure white food such as blancmanger symbolized the stainless aristocratic ancestry that those irritating bourgeois upstarts could never claim. The idea was that you can add colorings to turn a white food whatever color you like, but you can’t turn a colored food white. In the 1820s, Antonin Carême, the founder of French grande cuisine, wrote, “These delicious sweets are greatly esteemed by gastronomes, but to be enjoyed they must be extremely smooth and very white. Given these two qualities (so rarely found together), they will always be preferred to other creams, even to transparent jellies.”
It’s not surprising that democratic-minded Americans paid little attention to the historical significance of whiteness. They made chocolate versions (every edition of the Fannie Farmer cookbook since 1896 has presented the chocolate pudding as a variety of blancmange), and they made versions flavored with fruit; when they used berries or cherries, the result was very far from aristocratic white. They also played with different thickening agents, using cornstarch, farina or tapioca as well as gelatin. For my money, the star version is the cream fruit blancmange. It’s reminiscent of a packaged gelatin dessert but with the genuine flavor of fresh fruit (I’m particularly partial to blackberry), enriched by cream. The texture is unique, soft and elastic, like a cross between pudding and fruit jelly but richer. Old recipes say to serve cream fruit blancmange with whipped cream or boiled custard sauce (which we now know as crème anglaise), but I don’t think it really needs a topping.
Some advice: Do not add the fruit purée to the cream until the gelatin is thoroughly dissolved or the acidity will cause curdling. The result will still taste good, but you won’t get that plush texture. For a more conventional pudding effect, you can cut the amount of gelatin to 1 1/2 tablespoons; if you want less richness, you can use half-and-half instead of cream.
Cream Fruit Blancmange
Prep time: 7 to 8 minutes
Cooking time: 9 to 10 minutes
Total time: 2 1/2 to 2 3/4 hours
Yield: 6 to 8 servings
1/2 cup water
1 ounce (2 tablespoons or 2 packets) unflavored gelatin
1 quart berries or cherries
1 pint cream
1 cup sugar
1. Add the water to a small bowl and sprinkle the gelatin on top. Let dissolve and swell, 5 minutes or more. Meanwhile, purée the berries in a food processor or food mill 2 to 3 minutes and strain. You will have about 1 cup of thick juice.
2. Put the cream in a saucepan and cook over medium-high heat until scalded, 7 to 8 minutes (tiny bubbles will form and the aroma of the cream will change). Stir often to prevent scorching.
3. Reduce heat to low. Stir 1/2 cup of the hot cream into the dissolved gelatin and whisk until thoroughly mixed; then add the gelatin mixture into the cream remaining in the saucepan and whisk until it is thoroughly dispersed, 1 minute or so. Add the sugar and stir until well dissolved, 1 to 2 minutes. Remove the saucepan from the heat.
4. Add the fruit purée to the cream and stir until the color is uniform. Pour into serving bowls, bring to room temperature and refrigerate until set, 2 to 2 1/2 hours.
Main photo: Classic blancmange, pictured, is even better when you blend the fruit right in. Credit: Copyright 2015 Lesyy
If you celebrate Passover, you’re familiar with this scene: The closing prayers are sung, the last bite of seder brisket is a distant memory, and here you are facing the holiday’s inevitable final ritual:
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But whether you detest the stuff or eat it straight out of the box, by the time Passover ends, you’re probably less than thrilled at the idea of force-feeding yourself bland iterations of the same matzo sandwiches you’ve eaten for a week. Don’t let the “bread of affliction” bring you down! With a little creativity, matzo can be as refreshingly versatile in the kitchen as it is divisive at the dinner table. Here are five easy and delicious ways you can enjoy (or dispense with) your matzo leftovers.
1. Matzo is technically already a “cracker,” but let’s be honest, it could get much more adventurous with the term. Coat small matzo pieces in olive oil and sprinkle with any spice combination you prefer: za’atar and cumin; coriander, turmeric and paprika; dried parsley and garlic powder; or rosemary and salt are all good options. Bake in the oven until browned, then serve the newly transformed (read: yummy) chips with your favorite spreads, dips and toppings for an easy snack or hors d’oeuvre. Alternatively, skip the herbs and just add cheese for Passover-friendly “matchos” (I had to).
2. Sneak leftover matzo into your dinner and get the added bonus of releasing stress by crushing the crackers with a food processor, mortar and pestle, or your bare hands. With that you have a ready-made bread crumbs substitute. Or take it one step further and combine the crumbs with flour and egg to provide a crispy matzo crust for proteins and veggies. That cardboard-esque matzo crunchiness really comes in handy here.
3. You know what they say … when not in Rome but wishing you could be, make matzo pizza! Place matzo on a foil-lined baking sheet, using full crackers for a “pie” or small bite-sized portions for snacking. Spread a thin layer of sauce, sprinkle with your choice of cheese and toppings, and bake at 400 F until the cheese melts and the toppings are cooked. If you’re willing to go the extra mile to avoid “crust” sogginess — remember, matzo is more permeable to sauce than normal pizza dough — melt a thin layer of cheese onto the matzo before adding the other ingredients on top.
4. Want to avoid being the empty-handed seder guest or need a quick treat to serve last-minute visitors? Chocolate toffee matzo bark is a quick and scrumptious solution. Line a rimmed baking sheet with foil and matzo, mix butter or margarine with brown sugar until boiling, spread the toffee over the matzo and bake at 350 F until the coating bubbles. Take it out, dump chocolate chips on top, spread the melting chocolate evenly and sprinkle with your favorite toppings (mine are sea salt and chopped pecans). Refrigerate, and voila! Your extra matzo is now the perfectly flaky, crunchy base for an addictive bite-sized dessert.
5. Brunch is a beloved meal all year round, so why neglect it at Passover just because you can’t eat the leavened stuff? Matzo brei is a simple, crowd-pleasing comfort food that’s perfect for any brunch table. Break the matzo into small pieces and run under hot water until it begins to soften (avoid mushiness). Beat some eggs in a bowl, season with salt and pepper and stir the matzo into the eggs. Heat oil or butter in a skillet, pour in the mixture and fry over high heat until golden. Serve with jam, cinnamon-sugar or whatever other sides you fancy and prepare yourself for that warm fuzzy feeling.
Main photo: Matzo pizzas are a great quick snack to eat warm out of the oven. Credit: Copyright 2015 Rose Winer
I used to think that I already knew about every fattening confection known to man or woman until I watched “The Great British Baking Show,” a television baking contest that recently concluded its current season. This is where I first heard about Povitica (pronounced po-va-teets-sa), a Croatian coffeecake that I was eager to try.
But before I go on about this cake, let me hasten to add that I take pride in not watching television cooking contests because I get angry at the sight of haughty judges taking little nibbles of a dish while anxious and browbeaten young cooks wait for a verdict on their efforts. I dislike watching the power relationship between the mighty judges and the humiliated contestants. Furthermore, since I can’t taste the food being judged, who’s to say that I would agree with the praise or condemnation bestowed upon a dish? Everyone knows that tastes vary, that ingredients and flavors appealing to one person will leave another cold. For instance, were I to judge a contest, any dish containing cilantro or beets would automatically fail with me, but I at least recognize that this isn’t fair.
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So, if I dislike cooking contests, then why did I watch and enjoy “The Great British Baking Show”? And why did I find myself eager to bake Povitica, the complicated and gorgeous sweet bread I’d never heard of that was one of the challenges facing the British contestants?
To start with, I find the setup of this British show interesting in that a diverse group of 12 talented amateur bakers are brought in from around Britain to compete for the crown. And I should add that there is no big prize money involved — just the honor of winning. One of the men was a construction worker, and one of the women was a 17-year-old schoolgirl, so the makeup of the group defied stereotypes. I was struck by the sweet natures of the contestants, who routinely helped one another so that if someone finished a bake early, then he or she would pitch in to help another complete a dish.
What I especially liked was that one of the judges, Paul Hollywood, an artisan baker, was terrific at explaining the qualities expected of any of the three baking challenges that occur during each show. Contestants placed their dishes on a table and Hollywood cut them in half before pointing out their successes or shortcomings. He brings important standards to the contest, examining the overall appearance of the product, whether or not fillings and frostings are even and of good consistency and not lopsided or runny, or if a batch of cookies is uniform and not mismatched. Underbaked dough is usually the worst offense and is guaranteed to put a contestant at the bottom of the heap.
As a viewer, I can see for myself the points Hollywood makes, and when a dish hits the mark, his explanation brings new understanding to what successful baking is all about. Of course the flavor of a dish also counts and is discussed, but as I have already mentioned, taste is a matter of opinion and the judges on the show sometimes disagree.
The emphasis in this program on the visual gave me an insight as to why I sometimes watch another reality show, “Project Runway,” where young clothing designers compete for a large cash prize and the chance to show their work at a New York fashion week. Top designers serve as judges and point out the flaws and glories of a given garment, and I learn from their sophisticated sense of design, for I can see what they are talking about.
While I would never attempt to stitch up a garment — sewing machines have always terrified me — I couldn’t wait to whip up Povitica, which turned out to be a challenging yeast product with a tricky shape.
It is similar to cinnamon bread in that the dough is rolled flat, covered with a filling, then rolled and placed into a standard bread pan.
But with Povitica the dough, rich with butter and eggs, is rolled out extremely thin and then filled with a heavy mixture of chocolate and walnuts, all of which inhibit the rising of the dough. Then, the rolled dough goes into the pan and is intricately shaped so that the finished product, when sliced, exhibits beautiful swirls. My first attempt at Povitica, using an online recipe, was a flop. The dough didn’t rise properly and the finished cake was inedible except for the filling of chocolate and walnuts, which I forbade myself from scraping off and eating.
With my next attempt I added more yeast to the dough and bravely carried on. I made another important adjustment to the traditional recipe by not spreading the rolled dough with butter before putting on the filling, for the slippery butter made it difficult to evenly apply the filling. Instead, I put the butter into the filling so that distributing it over the dough became a cinch.
If I do say so myself, my second Povitica turned out to be a demystified triumph, rising beautifully during the bake and when cut in half exposing the signature swirls of the dish. I will make one again without trepidation, and I now find myself looking forward to next season’s British Baking Show when I hope to learn about even more new fattening treats.
Prep time: 1 hour
Rising time: 3 hours
Baking time: 1 hour
Total time: 5 hours
For the dough:
1 package rapid-rise yeast
1/3 cup sugar
3/4 cup milk, heated to 115 F
1 teaspoon salt
5 tablespoon unsalted butter, melted
1 large egg
2 1/2 cups flour
For the filling:
2 cups walnuts
3/4 cup sugar
3 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
1/4 cup milk
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 large egg yolk
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1 egg white
1 teaspoon sugar
Make the dough:
1. In the stand of a mixer fitted with a paddle, add yeast, 1 tablespoon sugar and half of the warm milk.
2. Let rest until foamy, about 10 minutes.
3. Add remaining sugar and milk, salt, butter and egg, and mix for 30 seconds.
4. With motor running, slowly add flour and beat until smooth and dough is not stuck to the sides of the bowl.
5. Cover dough with plastic wrap and let rise for about 90 minutes.
Make the filling:
1. In a food processor, chop walnuts together with sugar and cocoa until walnuts are finely chopped. Do not grind them to a paste.
2. Heat milk and butter to boiling and pour over the nut mixture.
3. Add egg yolk and vanilla to nut mixture and stir thoroughly.
4. Keep mixture at room temperature until ready to spread on dough.
Constructing the cake:
1. Grease a 9-by-5-inch loaf pan with butter.
2. On a lightly floured surface, roll out risen dough as thin as you can until dough is at least 15 inches long and 10 inches wide. (I use a tabletop for this.)
3. Spread dough with nut mixture.
4. Starting from the long end, roll dough into a tight cylinder.
5. Place in pan in a U shape and circle the ends of the cylinder over the top of the dough already in the pan.
6. Cover and let rise for about 90 minutes.
7. Beat egg white with a fork until foamy and spread over surface of the cake.
8. Sprinkle top with pearl sugar or with regular granulated sugar.
9. Heat oven to 350 F and bake about 1 hour or until a toothpick inserted into the middle comes out clean. Let cool in the pan.
Note: Make sure filling is spreadable. If too thick, add a small amount of milk before spreading on the dough. Before the last 15 minutes of baking, if cake is brown enough, cover with foil to prevent burning. When ready to slice the cake, it is easier to cut from the bottom or sides.
Main photo: Slices of Povitica, a Croatian coffeecake, feature beautiful swirls of the chocolate walnut filling. Credit: Copyright 2015 Barbara Haber
When it comes to the science of baking as opposed to the art of cooking, it doesn’t do to have clumsy, chubby fingers. Chemistry needs cool palms and a sweat-free brow.
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A dear friend of mine, the late Zena Swerling, was a naturally gifted cook, but it was in the realm of baking that she truly shone. “Here’s another can’t-go-wrong recipe,” she’d offer breezily, and although they always worked, they were never quite the same as when served by Zena herself.
Zena started baking when she was “just tall enough to get my chin over my Russian mummy’s kitchen table.” She was a good, old-fashioned cook with a generous hand and heart, but it was not always easy to interpret and annotate her recipes unless you were by her side in the kitchen. Even then, it was difficult because she’d always insist you sit down instead for a light five-course snack with a good helping of juicy gossip.
With Passover here, I’m pleased to share her recipe for ingber, also known as ingberlach (also sometimes called pletzlach), an old-fashioned Ashkenazi carrot-and-ginger festive candy that too few have the patience to make anymore.
Zena, I hope you’re kvelling with pride.
Add more or less ginger as preferred, but this sweet confection of carrots and ginger should smolder in the mouth.
Prep time: 10 minutes
Cook time: 50 minutes
Total time: 1 hour
Yield: About 18 pieces
5 large carrots, peeled
2 cups superfine sugar
1 cup chopped almonds
3 teaspoons ground ginger
1. Finely grate the carrots in the processor and put them in a large pan.
2. Add the sugar; stir over low heat until it dissolves. Cook very slowly, stirring frequently, until the mixture is thick (test by dropping a little onto a plate to see if it sets, like jam). This will take 45 to 50 minutes. For chewy, syrupy candy cook until the soft-crack stage or 270 F on a thermometer; for a more brittle candy, cook until it reaches the hard-crack stage or 300 F.
3. Add the almonds and ginger and remove immediately from the heat. Pour the mixture into a baking tray lined with silicone paper.
4. As it cools, score the top into squares or diamonds, then cut into pieces when cold.
P is for Passover Cake
This is a good recipe either to make before Passover, when the cupboard is crammed with ingredients bought in a frenzy of last-minute panic buying, or when you’re on the homeward stretch and your stocks are running low. Bags of nuts, in particular, seem to get into the spirit of the thing and go forth and multiply under their own volition.
The cake can be made with almonds, walnuts or hazelnuts. Ground hazelnuts are widely available in Jewish stores at this time of the year and are much appreciated by the home baker as they save the tedious business of toasting the nuts, and rubbing their skins off with a tea towel before you pulverize them in a grinder … who needs it? Isn’t this the festival of freedom?
Note to self: Next year must buy nut futures.
And, I’d just like to share with you my favorite Passover joke:
Q: What do you call someone who derives pleasure from the bread of affliction?
A: A matzochist.
OK, let’s get to the cake.
Prep time: 25 minutes
Cook time: 40 minutes
Total time: 65 minutes
Yield: 4 to 6 servings
1/2 cup ground nuts, plus a little extra for dusting
4 large eggs
1/4 cup superfine sugar
2/3 cup, plus 1 cup dark chocolate
2/3 cup sour cream
1 tablespoon sugar (optional)
3 tablespoons apricot jam
Whole nuts, for decoration (optional)
1. Preheat the oven to 355 F (180 C).
2. Grease two 6-inch sandwich tins and line the base of each with a disc of oiled paper. Dust with some ground nuts.
3. Whisk the eggs and sugar until thick.
4. Melt 2/3 cup chocolate with a teaspoon of water.
5. Beat a little into the egg mixture along with a pinch of salt. Fold in the rest of the melted chocolate along with the 1/2 cup of ground nuts.
6. Pour into the tins and bake for 40 minutes or until springy to the touch.
7. Leave to cool on a wire rack, then turn out of the tin.
8. To make the frosting, melt the cup of chocolate and stir in the sour cream. Add a little sugar, if you wish, and allow to cool a little.
9. For the filling, spread the apricot jam and about half of the chocolate mixture over the top of one of the cakes. Place the other cake on top, and smear the remainder of the chocolate sauce over the top. Decorate, if preferred, with whole nuts in shape of a “P.”
Main photo: P is for Passover Cake can be adapted for use at other times of the year, too. Change the P to E, and you have a lovely Easter treat! Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman
The most recognizable symbol for the Jewish holiday of Purim is a three-cornered cookie, called a hamantaschen.
Purim, which begins March 4, is a particularly joyful festival, nicknamed the Id-al-Sukkar, or the sugar holiday, by Muslims because sweet treats are plentiful. It is a sweet spirited holiday, notwithstanding the ancient Persian tale associated with it featuring complex plot twists of deceit, prejudice, politics, sexual intrigue and revenge.
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Purim is a time for celebratory imbibing of alcohol, vibrant costumes and joyful, raucous parties with comedians cracking jokes all night, called a Purim schpeil.
Now, all that is fun, but honestly, for Jews of Ashkenazi descent — especially those who aren’t particularly religious or observant — it’s all about that triangular cookie — that gloriously crisp sweetness embracing an unctuous, fruit filling.
Or maybe it’s about a plush, thick-rimmed yeast pastry version that is punctuated by the intriguingly textured sweet poppy seed filling. Or maybe it’s a savory three-cornered pastry, perfect as an amuse-bouche.
Hamantaschen, you see, are anything but boring. And they are nothing new. The first version was likely the poppy seed or mohn filling, even giving the cookie its name — ha-mohn-taschen, or haman’s hat (Haman was the villain in the ancient tale). Classic versions are wonderful and worthy of your time, every time, every year.
But like any cookie, the classic recipes inspire tremendous creativity among cooks. A survey of some of the web’s cooks, writers, bloggers, recipe developers and chefs reveals a wide swath of variations so numerous and enticing that it will seduce your palate and leave you eagerly awaiting next year’s treats.
Check out these websites for creative variations of the classic hamantaschen recipe:
Main photo: Walnuts, oranges and orange blossom water make these hamantaschen burst with flavor. Credit: Copyright MayIHaveThatRecipe.com
When it comes to Carnival, overindulgence is the whole point: too many parties, too much booze and, in just about every Catholic country, great platters of fried sweet dough.
Carnival doughnuts are omnipresent across Catholic Europe and parts of the Americas. In Lyon and Strasbourg, France, square yeast-raised beignets are made for the holiday; in Spain you will find rosquillas de carnaval (a dense, doughnut-shaped treat) and all sorts of other buñuelos; in Italy each region has its own fritelle di carnevale. The one-word explanation? Lard.
Christians were supposed to abstain from meat products for the 40 days of Lent, and doughnuts were traditionally fried in hog fat. As every good Catholic knows, you need to sin before you can repent. So, if you’re going to spend six weeks restraining your urges, you might as well make a good reason for it.
European doughnuts: happy excess
For ordinary people, doughnuts became associated with happy excess during a time when all the rules of their miserable existence could be inverted, when a measly diet of stale bread was replaced by mountains of fresh-fried doughnuts.
But few are as obsessed with Carnival or fried dough as the Venetians. Year round, you can find delicious krapfen (jelly doughnuts) there, but in the lead-up to Lent, the fried dough repertoire increases exponentially. Bakery windows are full of frittelle di carnevale, which depending on the pastry shop, take two very different forms: airy yeast-raised fritters chock-full of raisins, pine nuts, citron and, occasionally anisette or grappa (see recipe); or fried cream puffs that enclose a variety of creamy fillings.
I can’t believe that it’s a coincidence that Europe’s doughnut orgies take place in the depths of winter. The sugar and the fat are better than any high-tech undergarment.
I had a chance to test this out during a ski trip to Innsbruck even as Fasching (Carnival) was reaching its delirious peak. Here, in the alpine Tyrol, locals celebrate by parading through the streets in masks worthy of a Brothers Grimm nightmare and by eating mountains of Faschingskrapfen, or Carnival doughnuts. Even as I got off the train, I was greeted with stands loaded down with plump raised doughnuts, some filled with preserves, others with custard, chocolate cream or even eiercognac, a boozy eggnog custard.
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According to my friend, Austrian food historian Ingrid Haslinger, they’ve been frying up these yeast-raised pastries here for centuries. In the days when sugar was a luxury reserved for princes, the mountain folk would dip their krapfen into bowls of prune and apple butter. Now everybody can indulge in the sweet-filled variety.
I was pleased to find piles of Carnival doughnuts even at the mountaintop ski lodge. In these harsh conditions, they are not merely a snack but rather lunch itself. Following the lead of local skiers, I sat down to a spicy goulash soup as appetizer and continued with doughnuts for my main course (one filled with apricot and the other with chocolate, if you must know). Winter never felt so right.
The perfect pre-Lent indulgence
The doughnut as Carnival food, something that you gorge on before the gray days of Lent, isn’t entirely an alien concept in the United States. The Pennsylvania Dutch keep a firm grip on the centuries-old tradition of frying up enormous batches of Fastnachts in anticipation of Ash Wednesday just like their ancestors did in southwest Germany and parts of Switzerland. The Fastnacht is typically a yeast-raised doughnut (sometimes with potato added) cut in the form of a diamond, often slashed and opened in the center to allow it to cook faster and a larger surface area to get crisp.
You find similar recipes in Alsace and neighboring regions today. Fastnacht (literally “fast night”) is a German word for Shrove Tuesday and in the parts of the old country, these Carnival pastries were (and are) called Fastnachstküchle. The plain folk there shortened the name but kept the recipe and at least the doughnut part of the pre-Lenten tradition; Carnival is certainly not the festival of folly that it can be in Catholic Germany.
One rule that is universal, though, no matter where you find the doughy treats and regardless of name: Too much is never enough. You’ll have plenty of time to repent.
Frittelle veneziane (Venetian Carnival Fritters)
Prep time: 15 minutes
Cook time: 4 to 6 minutes per batch
Yield: About 2 dozen
2 ounces (about 1/2 cup) golden raisins
1/2 cup anisette liqueur
1/4 ounce (1 packet) active dry yeast
3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons tepid water
1 large egg
9 ounces (about 2 cups) all-purpose flour
3 tablespoons granulated sugar
Large ping (1/8 teaspoon) salt
1 ounce (about 3 tablespoons) pine nuts
1 ounce (about 3 tablespoons) chopped candied citron
Grated zest of 1 lemon
Oil or lard for frying
1. In a bowl, combine the raisins and anisette. Cover with plastic wrap and soak at least 4 hours or overnight.
2. In the bowl of a stand mixer, stir together the water and yeast. Let stand 5 minutes. Stir in the egg. In a separate bowl, mix together the flour, granulated sugar and salt.
3. Using a paddle attachment, beat the flour mixture into the water-yeast mixture on low speed. Beat 5 minutes on medium to make the batter very smooth — it should be somewhat thicker than pancake batter.
4. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and place in a warm location. Let stand until the batter has doubled in volume, 45 to 60 minutes. Stir in the raisins, pine nuts, citron and lemon zest.
5. Using a deep fryer or a heavy pan, heat at least 3 inches of the oil to 350 F. If you’re not using a deep fryer and are without a built-in thermostat, check the oil temperature using a candy or deep-fry thermometer.
6. Lightly oil 2 tablespoons, then scoop about 2 tablespoons of batter in one spoon and slide it off with the second. A small oiled ice cream scoop works well, too. Fry about a half-dozen at a time, turning occasionally until cooked through, 4 to 6 minutes. Drain on paper towels and allow to cool — enough so you can pick them up. Sprinkle generously with confectioner’s sugar. The frittelle are best served warm. Leftovers can be frozen and reheated in a 350 F oven.
For more on doughnut history, check out Michael Krondl’s most recent book: “The Donut: History, Recipes and Lore from Boston to Berlin.”
Main photo: Fritetelle veneziane, or Venetian fritters, are best served warm with a dusting of confectioner’s sugar. Credit: Michael Krondl
Nine years ago my husband was diagnosed with celiac disease. The diagnosis was a godsend as his symptoms displayed evidence of something much worse. When the test results were in, we celebrated. We were also quite giddy that he would become well again with the elimination of gluten. What a fabulous prognosis — no drugs, just elimination.
In an interesting twist of fate, our Icelandic mare, Valkyrie, had birthed a foal on the same day as Jim’s diagnosis. We named her Gaefa, which means good luck and good fortune, both of which we felt were in ample supply.
Nine years ago gluten intolerance and celiac disease were not yet mainstream. As you might imagine, stripping my pantry of wheat was both a joyous and sad day for me. Afterall, my one-half Italian being craved homemade pasta, breads and treats. But my sweetheart’s disease was not a death sentence. It was a mere inconvenience. And, I, by golly, would master gluten-free cooking. And I have.
Myriad gluten-free foods
There are myriad foods that are naturally gluten free. Take risotto for one. Steak for another. Greens. Fruits. Chocolate. The list goes on and on.
Here is a perfect gluten-free Valentine’s Day Dinner. My sweetie is happy, and so am I!
Arugula Salad With Balsamic Vinaigrette
Flourless Chocolate Cake
I like to create menus that reflect both my culinary acumen, and the love I have for the recipients. There truly is nothing, and I mean nothing, better than watching someone relish what you have cooked for them. This menu is tailored to Jim. He loves risotto, he loves lobster and he loves steak. These recipes provide a great twist on surf and turf as the lobster risotto makes a lovely side to the filet mignon. The arugula salad complements the meal by adding a peppery green, dressed with a sweetish balsamic vinaigrette.
Risotto is one of the simplest and most versatile of dishes. And while I provide this recipe as a guide, keep in mind you can make risotto without the white wine, with onions if you don’t have shallots, or with just butter, just olive oil and with many different “add-ins.” To celebrate Valentine’s, however, nothing beats lobster.
Prep time: 20 minutes
Cook time: 20 to 30 minutes
Total time: 40 to 50 minutes
Yield: 3 to 4 servings
1 (1 1/2-pound) lobster (have it steamed at the fish counter to save you a step)
1/2 stick butter
1/2 cup of shallots or onions
1 cup Arborio rice
1/2 cup white wine
4 cups chicken broth, heated
1/2 cup Parmesan cheese, grated
1 to 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1/8 teaspoon fresh pepper
2 teaspoons freshly chopped thyme
1. Remove meat from lobster, cut into bite-size pieces.
2. Heat butter in a large saucepan over medium heat, add shallots and cook until tender.
3. Stir in rice and stir until coated with oil about 2 minutes.
4. Add the wine and stir until the wine is cooked off and absorbed.
5. Add the broth one ladle at time, stirring constantly until the broth is absorbed. Continue adding broth until rice is fluffy, tender and creamy.
6. Add the Parmesan, lemon juice, pepper and thyme.
7. Fold in the lobster, serve when lobster is warm.
Stove Top Filet Mignon
Prep time: 2 to 3 minutes
Cook time: 8 to 10 minutes
Total time: 10 to 13 minutes
Yield: 4 servings
Four 1/2-pound filets
Salt and pepper
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons butter
Cast iron pan
1. Bring meat to room temperature.
2. Season with salt and pepper.
3. Heat olive oil and butter on high in cast iron pan.
4. Add filets.
5. Cook 4 to 5 minutes per side for medium-rare filets.
Heirloom Flourless Chocolate Cake
I love homemade gifts from the heart. My sweetheart, Jim, has celiac disease, which is an autoimmune disease triggered by eating wheat or foods with gluten. So in keeping with all the buzz about the aphrodisiac effect of chocolate, I decided a flourless (hence, no gluten) chocolate cake would be my gift.
This recipe is from the family archives of my amazing friend Deb Mackey, with her note: “Here’s an absolutely FAB recipe for a flourless chocolate cake that is to die for, and can be très elegant, depending on how you gussy it up. I frequently plate it on a swirl of raspberry coulis for especially discerning friends. Everyone I’ve ever made it for has raved, and it became the birthday cake of choice for every man in my life. And for some of their subsequent wives, too, I might add.”
Prep time: 30 to 45 minutes
Cook time: 1 1/2 hours
Total time: 2 to 2 1/4 hours
Yield: 8 to 10 servings
12 ounces semisweet chocolate chips
1/2 cup unsalted butter
6 eggs, separated, at room temperature
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup chopped pecans
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1 tablespoon Bailey’s Irish Cream
1 pinch cream of tartar
2 cups whipping cream
1/4 cup powdered sugar
2 tablespoons Bailey’s Irish Cream
2 ounces chocolate curls
10-inch springform pan, greased (or wax/parchment paper will do)
1. Preheat oven to 350 F.
2. Melt chips and butter in a bowl over hot water.
3. Beat egg yolks in large bowl (5 minutes, or until thick).
4. Beat in 1/2 cup sugar, 1 tablespoon at a time.
5. To the melted chocolate, stir in pecans, vanilla and 1 tablespoon of Bailey’s
6. Beat egg whites with cream of tartar, to soft peak
7. Gradually add remaining 1/2 cup sugar. Beat stiff, but not dry.
8. Fold 1/4 of whites mixture into the chocolate cake mix.
9. Fold the chocolate mix into the remaining whites mixture.
10. Pour into lined pan and bake 30 minutes at 350 F.
11. Reduce oven to 275 F. Bake another 30 minutes.
12. Turn off oven. Let cake stand in oven with door slightly ajar for about 30 minutes.
13. Remove from oven. Dampen towel and place on top of cake for 5 minutes. Remove the towel.
14. Top of cake will crack and fall. Cool cake in pan.
15. Remove springform when cool. Transfer cake to platter.
Whip cream to soft peak. Beat in powdered sugar and 2 tablespoons of Bailey’s.
1. Spoon whipped cream mixture over top of cake and smooth. Sprinkle with chocolate curls.
2. Refrigerate 6 hours. Let stand at room temperature for 30 minutes before serving.
Main photo: When your husband loves risotto, lobster and steak, Lobster Risotto and filet mignon offer a great twist on surf and turf. Credit: Carole Murko