Articles in Desserts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Classic buttercream frosting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Karen’s Buttercream Frosting

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

Ingredients

1 cup milk

4½ tablespoons flour

2 sticks (1 cup) butter, room temperature

¾ cup sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla

Directions

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

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

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

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

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Blood Orange Chocolate Cake. Credit: Caroline J. Beck

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

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

Blood Orange Chocolate Cake

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

Serves 8

Ingredients

1¾ cups pastry or cake flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

¼ teaspoon baking soda

½ teaspoon kosher salt

3 tablespoons orange zest

½ cup dark cocoa powder

½ cup boiling water

1 cup sugar

⅓ cup extra virgin olive oil

1 cup crème fraîche

3 large eggs

½ cup orange juice

1 teaspoon Fiori de Sicilia extract (or vanilla extract)

2 tablespoons Grand Marnier or Triple Sec liquor (optional)

Confectioners’ sugar for dusting

Directions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Gulab jamun. Credit:R.V. Ramachandran

The plethora of colors, shapes and sizes of Indian sweets are bewildering. Taste, color and shape often vary from region to region, but gulab jamun, the spongy milky balls soaked in rose-scented syrup, are an exception. These are popular all over India, and just like naan and tandoori chicken, almost all Indian restaurants in the West include gulab jamun in their menu.

Gulab jamun is a delicious dessert consisting of dumplings, traditionally made of milk boiled down to a solid mass, mixed with flour and deep-fried in ghee to golden brown color and then soaked in rose and cardamom-scented sugar syrup. This sweet derives its name from two words — gulab, meaning rose, and jamun, the purple-colored jamun berry (Syzygium cumini) fruit of an evergreen tropical tree.

Muslim impact on Indian sweets

India has a national obsession with sweets and desserts. Traditionally, sweets have been made mostly with milk, ghee and honey.

Drawn by the fertile plains of the Punjab and the fabulous wealth of Hindu temples, invaders from central Asia began attacking India around 1000 A.D., with the aim of establishing Muslim kingdoms in India. The Mugahl emperor Babur conquered India in 1526 A.D. and this Muslim dynasty ruled in an unbroken succession for nearly 200 years.

Desserts of central Asian origin, often flour based, reached India during this time. North Indian food went through a profound transformation during this period. Palace cooks came from all over India and many other parts of the world, each specializing in a particular delicacy. Ingredients were imported from Afghanistan and Persia. When Persian food first arrived in India, the local cooks at the palace kitchens adapted their cuisine by combining the newly arrived ingredients with familiar tastes of local Hindu culinary traditions. Soon this food, including gulab jamun, was introduced in the Mughal courts.

Gulab Jamun’s origins are in Persia and the Mediterranean, where its equivalent, luqmat al qadi, consists of deep-fried dough balls dipped in honey syrup and sprinkled with sugar.

Frying gulab jamun. Credit:Shiyam Sundar

Frying gulab jamun. Credit: Shiyam Sundar

Milk-based sweets were already popular in India at that time. Morendka was a sweet made with khoa (made by simmering full-fat milk several hours, over a medium fire until the gradual vaporization of its water content leaves coagulated solids in milk) formed into the shape of eggs and deep-fried in ghee and coated with sugar. The Indian cooks adapted the recipe for this Persian sweet to include khoa.

Tricks for perfect gulab jamun

Cooks who are new to gulab jamun commonly make the mistake of frying the sweet at a very high temperature. This will result in the outside appearing too dark and the center becoming a lump of uncooked, solid dough. The temperature of the oil for frying has to be on low-to-medium heat.

Over the years gulab jamun has incorporated many subtle variations. A relatively easy version uses milk powder instead of khoa. Kala-jamuns are coated with sugar before frying, which gives them a dark brown color. Some cooks stuff the gulab jamun with slivered nuts and others make the dish with sweet potatoes.

Following is a recipe for gulab jamun using milk powder.

Gulab Jamun

Makes  20 to 25 pieces

For the dough:

1 cup milk powder

4 tablespoons ghee

⅓cup all- purpose flour

½teaspoon baking powder

6 to 7 tablespoons whole milk

For sugar syrup:

1¼ cups water

1¾ cups sugar

2 teaspoons cardamom powder

2 teaspoons rose water

For frying:

6 to 8 cups of sunflower oil or other oils with no fragrance

Directions

1. Place milk powder in a mixing bowl and rub in the ghee gently to form a sandy texture.

2. Combine the flour and baking powder and mix well and then add to the milk powder and ghee mixture and mix well.

3. Gradually add milk, a few spoonfuls at a time, and mix softly with clean fingers to make a soft dough. The mix should be like a soft dough but not like a thick batter. Be careful not to work the dough as it will increase the gluten. The less kneading,  the better.  You want the jamuns to be soft. Rest the mix for 10 minutes.

4. Grease your palms with ghee or oil and pinch marble-sized pieces of dough and roll them into smooth round or oval-shaped balls. Make sure that the balls are small as they double in size once they are fried and soaked in sugar syrup. The dough balls should be smooth without any cracks as they will split and crumble when deep frying. Arrange the balls on a plate and cover with a kitchen towel to prevent from drying out.

5. For the syrup, in a sauce pan bring water to boil, add the sugar and allow it to dissolve. Simmer for 5 to 6 minutes. Remove from the stove and set aside.

6. Heat oil over slow to medium flame. I cannot emphasize enough that the temperature of the frying oil for frying must be low-to-medium to cook the gulab jamuns through completely.

7. Drop one jamun into the hot oil and check for coloring. Reduce flame if the dough is coloring quickly.

8. Drop the jamuns 8 to 10 pieces at a time and gently swirl the oil for them to float. Fry them until golden brown in color, 6 to 7 minutes approximately. Once they are a golden brown, remove them from the oil and let them drain on a paper towel. Then remove from the paper towel and soak them in the warm sugar syrup.

9. With the gulab jamuns in the syrup, flavor the syrup with cardamom powder and rose water and give a gentle stir to mix. Cover the gulab jamuns and let them soak in the syrup overnight or at least for an hour or so before serving.

Top photo: Gulab jamun. Credit: R.V. Ramachandran

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chewy Ginger and Birch Syrup Lumberjack Cookies

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

Makes 24 cookies

Ingredients

2¼ cups all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons baking soda

2 teaspoons ground ginger

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

½ teaspoon mustard powder

½ teaspoon allspice

½ teaspoon salt

¼ teaspoon black pepper

¾ cup unsalted butter (1½ sticks), room temperature

¾ cup packed light brown sugar

1 large egg

½ cup birch syrup

⅓ cup finely diced candied ginger (optional)

Granulated sugar for rolling

Directions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Fudge bottom pie. Credit: Barbara Haber

We are frequently reminded that food prompts memory, a recognition that has led to the flourishing of food memoirs, a literary genre that has taken off in recent years. Many writers are inspired by Marcel Proust’s description of nibbling on a petite Madeleine only to be flooded by memories that resulted in the thousands of pages that make up “Remembrance of Things Past.”

Other good writers, M.F.K. Fisher especially, have constructed narratives around recalling a precise food moment in their lives. I am taken with Fisher’s description of the tangerines she left for hours on a radiator on a severely cold day in France. She tells us that “on the radiator the sections of tangerines have grown even plumper, hot and full. You carry them to the window, pull it open, and leave them for a few minutes on the packed snow of the sill. They are ready.” Fisher’s ability to capture sensuality in spare prose is what I like best about her writing.

Powerful childhood food memories

As for me, I have no plans to write a full-length food memoir because I am conscious of the “so what” factor when I read some of these books, a sinking feeling that what a writer finds endlessly fascinating about her own life may be tedious reading for others. But I cannot help but indulge myself just a little by describing a few of my food memories that have been lasting points of reference in my life.

For instance, when I look at a tall glass of newly poured milk I am brought back to my childhood and my older brother who tormented me with constant teasing. When we sat around the dinner table, he would quietly mutter taunts that he knew only I could hear.

One day, when he leaned toward me to whisper something insulting, I reached for the tall glass of milk our mother had just poured and threw all of it into his face. I hung around long enough to see his expression change from an evil glint to horrified shock, and then ran for my life into the bathroom where I locked the door and waited for everyone to calm down.

Another recollection from my youth has to do with being present at a post-funeral gathering. The departed was an elderly distant relative I had never met and I didn’t know most of the people who came to pay their respects. Many arrived with boxes of candy, and I positioned myself at the door to take their coats, graciously accept the candy and then head for the bedroom where I dumped the coats and opened each candy box to select and devour my favorite pieces.

Happily, not all of my food memories involve childish bad behavior. I am touched by remembering how my mother, who hated the smell of cooking fish, figured out a comfortable way to cook and serve one of my father’s favorite fish dishes. She would go to our backyard patio with her ingredients and an electric pot, then assemble the dish, set it to cook, and flee back inside, entirely escaping all cooking smells. The only drawback was that the dish appeared only in the warmer months because my mother was not inclined to brave Wisconsin winters to cook for the man she loved.

College love and fudge bottom pie

Another memory that has me in its grasp is about a pie I used to eat during my college years. I attended the University of Wisconsin at Madison and regularly took my meals at the student union cafeteria. This being a dairy state and a campus with a large agricultural component, the food was fresh, cheap and good. Best of all, the union was and still is a central meeting place where students from its disparate colleges would gather to rendezvous and meet new people.

Every now and then the cafeteria would serve fudge bottom pie, an iconic dish with a huge fan base, and I was undoubtedly its biggest admirer. The bottom of the pie is a graham cracker crumb crust that is covered with a thick coating of chocolate — not too hard and not too soft — and over this a custard filling that is the largest component of the pie. This custard is neither stiff and solid nor runny and gloppy. It must be just right. And the top of the pie is spread with a thin layer of sweetened whipped cream and flourished with a sprinkling of chocolate shavings.

Years after college, I tried to create this pie at home, but could never get any of my attempts to taste as good as I had remembered. I finally stopped trying when I realized that the meaning of this pie is as much about my blissful undergraduate years as it is about something good to eat. I came to realize that fudge bottom pie was a symbol of carefree youth, the excitement of meeting new people, and falling in love for the first time when a slice of that pie was shared with someone special.

I now realize that fudge bottom pie is my Proustian moment, my petite Madeleine, but with a twist. I have to only think about it, not eat it, and I am flooded with memories of my college years when life was uncomplicated, carefree and full of adventure.

Top photo Fudge bottom pie. Credit: Barbara Haber

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then I stumbled upon a simple answer: a kit.

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

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

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

Making bitters at home

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

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

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

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

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

Microscopic view of Grains of Paradise. Credit: Susan Lutz

Microscopic view of Grains of Paradise. Credit: Susan Lutz

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

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

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

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

Chocolate Cookie Sandwiches With Cherry Walnut Bitters Frosting

(Recipe courtesy of Dash Bitters)

Makes approximately 12 small, sandwich cookies

Ingredients

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

Directions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Perfumed dates. Credit: Charles Perry

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.

Rosewater and saffron are relatively easy to find at gourmet shops or Middle Eastern markets. The clove, nutmeg and cinnamon in this dish are more familiar.

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.

Richly indulgent

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.

Perfumed Dates

Makes about 30 dates, serves 8 to 10 people

Ingredients

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

Musk

½ cup sugar, preferably finely granulated in a food processor

Dash cinnamon

Dash clove

Dash nutmeg

Directions

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

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Corn masa cookies (rosquillas). Credit: Nathan Hoyt

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.

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.

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San Cristobal, the highest of Nicaragua's many volcanoes, some active, some not. Credit: Gabriella della Croce

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

Directions

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

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