Articles in Family

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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Susie Middleton and the cover of “Fresh from the Farm.

In 2008, Susie Middleton was looking for a quiet place to chill out from her intense 11-year position as editor at Fine Cooking magazine. She visited Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., in the dead of winter, and there discovered her inner pioneer woman, New England-style. She promptly gave up her job in Connecticut, started raising vegetables on the Vineyard and opened a farm stand at the end of a quiet road. She said, “It’s really rewarding to see the food you grow go directly into people’s hands.”

The author of two previous cookbooks, “Fast, Fresh & Green” and “The Fresh & Green Table,” Middleton chronicled her island experiences on her blog sixburnersue.com.

It blossomed into her newest book, “Fresh From the Farm: A Year of Recipes and Stories,” which includes stories and photos of farm life and 121 recipes. Middleton added diagrams for building raised beds, a farm stand and chicken coop. You might call it a complete recipe book for the good life.

What was the major draw for you to leave a top glossy magazine for life on a small island?

I’d been editor at Fine Cooking for all those years, but I gradually had come to realize that I felt disconnected from the source of my food. I liked the idea of helping people get access to local food and learn to cook farm fresh food. Also, the minute I got my first little vegetable garden out here, I realized that it made me very happy. I am totally charmed by vegetables.

What elements of this lifestyle influenced your decision to start a commercial farm?

I was very fortunate to meet a man who became my life partner, Roy, and he had a little girl who is now just like my daughter. Her name is Libby. Together we lucked into renting an old rustic farmhouse that came with a couple acres of land. We liked it so much that we not only increased the size of our garden, we also built a hoop house and started raising more and more chickens. We’re very small but we raise 500 chickens and have another quarter acre of vegetables planted and a farm stand, which is very popular.

Access to land is one of the biggest barriers for small farmers. It sounds like that was your entry point.

It’s huge. I wrote about this on Huffington Post. We did start very, very small. We were able to be profitable without going into debt. So, if you don’t think you have to get a lot of acreage, you may be able to get started. Considering as a farmer you’re probably going to have to be doing something else anyway, it’s not a bad idea to start small so you can see if you like it.

You’ve been immersed in food for a long time, so how does owning a farm influence your cooking life?

If anything, it’s solidified my approach to cooking: Start with really fresh ingredients, learn some techniques and keep a well-stocked pantry. This book really reflects the kind of food we like to eat and what we like to cook. I want people to have fun in the kitchen and then get it out on the picnic table or the farm table — or the tiny oak table we have in our kitchen — and eat it and enjoy it.

From “Fresh from the Farm” by Susie Middleton (Taunton Press, 2014). Credit: Alexandra Grablewski

I’m crazy about vegetables. Everybody wants to cook more of them, not just vegetarians. So I feel like opening up the world of vegetables to everybody is a good thing.

I’ve always loved high-heat cooking. To me, caramelizing vegetables is a huge way to make them really tasty. I tell people to keep some good olive oil, some good vinegars, plenty of lemons and limes, good Parmigiano-Reggiano, fresh herbs, aromatics — onions, garlic and ginger — and a few condiments from your favorite cuisines, and with that you can make delicious meals.

With 500-plus laying hens, you have to have a good egg recipe or two. So, what’s your favorite?

Gosh, we do a lot of frittatas. We use the eggs in a lot of custards. We make a lot of French toast around here [laughs]. I like to make my Green Island Farm open-faced egg sandwich with some of the early Asian greens, like tatsoi. Greens and eggs are an amazing combination.

How did your first two books lead toward this one?

I started out life as a writer. When I first started doing cookbooks I thought it best to maximize my expertise at the time, which was cooking techniques. I started my blog sixburnersue.com six years ago and it has transformed itself into the story of the farm.

Readers do respond to stories. So, will you do more of this?

I have mixed feelings about food memoirs that have a dozen recipes. I think what I’d like to do is something that does have a lot of writing in it, but also has a fair amount of recipes.

Top photo: Susie Middleton and the cover of “Fresh From the Farm.” Credit: Courtesy of Taunton Press

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Pumpkin and walnut borek from Turkey. Credit: David Hagerman

Most cooks acquainted with Turkish food know of borek, a dish of phyllo-like pastry leaves called yufka brushed with butter or oil, layered with meat or cheese, and baked. In Istanbul and other parts of Turkey yufka, when not made at home, is usually purchased fresh and pliable at weekly markets and from specialists called yufkaci.

A few years ago while traveling along Turkey’s central Black Sea coast I discovered yufka’s other incarnation, as a thin cracker-crisp round meant to be rehydrated — or not — before being incorporated into borek.  On the Black Sea, yufka is also rolled, sliced and dried for islama, a dish of yufka spirals topped with chicken or turkey and crushed walnuts and doused with melted butter and broth. And I found that when it comes to filling their borek, central Black Sea cooks go with the season.

Late one February, at a family-owned restaurant 25 miles inland, I feasted on zilbert boregi, a short stack of yufka sheets encasing sautéed borage. Light and crispy, its filling tasting of artichoke and asparagus with a hint of mushroom, that borek hinted at the spring that was beginning to show itself in the region’s budding fruit trees. Six months later in a town a few hours east, I feasted on borek spilling mushrooms foraged from nearby hills, their meatiness foretelling the coming winter.

A sweet deviation

But my favorite Black Sea borek is one that was made for me by Esen, a rare woman in a male-dominated trade who owns a yufka shop not far from the central Black Sea fishing town of Sinop. A short sturdy woman in her late 30s, Esen toils over her big round gas-fired griddle from the wee hours of the morning until late in the afternoon, turning out katlama (stacked yufka rounds with a slick of butter in between) and layered and rolled sweet and savory borek.

Layers of traditional borek. Credit: David Hagerman

Layers of traditional borek. Credit: David Hagerman

One morning I asked Esen what she intended to do with a big pumpkin sitting on a table near her griddle. She smiled and grabbed the pumpkin by its stem, raised it over her head and threw it on the concrete floor where it split neatly in two. After peeling and grating the vegetable she roughly chopped two handfuls of walnuts and measured out a bit of sugar. Then she laid a leaf of dried yufka on her griddle, brushed it with oil and built a borek.

Sparely sugared, it was a delightful departure from the syrup-soaked Turkish pastries I’d eaten up till then, with crunchy walnuts and crispy pastry contrasting beautifully with softened pumpkin.

Pumpkin and Walnut Borek (Kabak ve Cevizli Boregi)

Dried yufka and a hot griddle make for a crispier, lighter borek. Baking sheets and an oven work just as well and fresh phyllo sheets, fused and left to dry, are a fine substitute for dried yufka. Don’t worry if the dough tears or wrinkles as you’re making the borek; imperfections add to the charm of this rustic dish.

Plan to lay out your yufka or phyllo to dry at least six hours before assembly. Once that’s done the dish comes together quickly because the borek is baked flat, in one big piece.

Serve this dish for breakfast or as an afternoon snack. It also makes a wonderful dessert, served (untraditionally) hot from the oven with a scoop of ice cream.

Serves 6 to 8

Ingredients

10 sheets of phyllo

3 cups grated pumpkin or sweet squash

1½ cups chopped walnuts

4 tablespoons sugar

¼ teaspoon salt

Canola or other light cooking oil

4 tablespoons butter, melted

Directions

1. Lay a single sheet of phyllo flat on a work surface. Using a pastry brush, wet it lightly with water. Lay another sheet of phyllo on top of the wet sheet and then use a rolling pin to fuse the two together. Repeat with the remaining eight sheets of phyllo, fusing them 2-by-2 to make five thick sheets in total. Transfer all to cookie sheets or paper towels and leave uncovered in an airy room to dry for at least six hours or as long as overnight.

2. Once the pastry is dry, place the pumpkin, walnut, sugar and salt in a medium bowl and mix with a fork or your fingers.

3. To assemble the borek, lightly oil a cookie sheet large enough to accommodate the yufka or phyllo (at least 15 by 10 inches). Place one sheet of pastry on the cookie sheet (if the pastry hangs over the sides of the cookie sheet just fold the excess inward) and lightly brush it with butter.

4. Sprinkle one quarter of the filling over the buttered pastry — it will not cover the phyllo completely. Place another pastry sheet on top of the pumpkin-walnut filling, pressing it lightly onto the filling with your palms (don’t worry if it cracks a bit). Butter that pastry sheet too. Top with one quarter of the filling, and repeat until all of the filling and pastry is used up. Brush the top piece of pastry with butter.

5. Bake the borek in a 350 F oven for 10 to 12 minutes, or until the top is showing splotches of golden brown (if your oven is small reverse the position of the cookie sheet halfway through).

6. While the borek is baking, lightly oil another cookie sheet. Remove the borek from the oven and place the second oiled cookie sheet upside down over its top. Squeezing the two cookie sheets together, flip the borek, carefully remove the first cookie sheet, and return it to the oven to bake another 12 to 15 minutes, or until nicely browned.

7. Cut the borek into 6 or 8 squares and serve hot or at room temperature.

Top photo: Pumpkin and walnut borek from Turkey. Credit: David Hagerman

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Rinku Bhattacharya. Credit: Aadi Bhattacharya

Festivals and celebrations offer a time-tested mechanism of sharing and preserving family culinary traditions and memories. As spring approaches, the vernal calendar brings its share of festivals, all designed to welcome the fresh colors of the seasons and the spirit of renewal. There are simple backyard traditions such as foraging and starting a new garden and then the myriad holidays that fill the calendar with a call to the kitchen.

In my home, I think of the Indian festival of colors, Holi, and the Bengali New Year, two holidays that come around in March and April. I look forward to a new season, and time in the kitchen with my children sharing and talking about food memories and working with them to re-create foods of my childhood.

I have to confess, it has not always been this way! I have spent many years confused about why people would feature unchanging dishes every year at their holiday table, the same variations of festive items, at the same time of the year. I marveled at people raving over something as basic as their grandmother’s tempering for lentils and simple food memories without which their table felt incomplete. It all seemed monotonous to me. I did not have the context or need for re-creating tradition, until my children came along.

Grandmother’s gnocchi

As my children have grown, my view has changed. I have wanted them to feel grounded, to have a sense of food beyond that it is something cooked in my now-12-year-old kitchen. It’s more clear than ever why my kitchen helper, Martha, preserves the mole recipe from her husband’s mother and prepares it for many a special occasion. I now understand why my friend Patricia has taken over making gnocchi for Sunday suppers. She began this tradition after her grandmother’s recent passing because this was something her Nonna always made, until she was too fragile.

It is less about mole or gnocchi than it is about the memories and historical context the dishes carry. That context is especially important for newly transplanted expats to give their children and families a way to bring gaps and connect their newly adopted land to their homeland. It is also about the value of home-cooked food rather than something you might find in a commercial kitchen or restaurant.

Yet I remained unsure about succumbing to peer pressure, unsure how sustainable such food traditions would be. The ambience in my home seemed so different from my grandmother’s kitchen, where all my food memories were made. Suddenly I was unsure about my much-loved food processor and whether it really would work to re-create the real deal. It seemed so sterile and incapable of replicating and translating the ethos of food created on my grandmother’s time-tested grinding stone.

Bringing little hands into family culinary traditions

Then last year, around springtime, possibly to cheer myself up and break the winter doldrums, I decided to make gujiyas, a traditional sweet empanada that is typical of my mother-in-law’s north Indian kitchen. It is a traditional spring dessert, and it carries with it memories of my first time learning and working with my mother-in-law.

A dessert with multiple layers of shaping and cooking, the gujiya works beautifully as something that can be made in a group. I had often thought of making it at home, but resisted the challenge because it seemed so daunting, almost too complex, but I decided to give it a try.

As I went through the ingredients, sorting out the grated nuts, Indian cheese and flour, my kids came by. As we chatted, I began involving them in rolling the dough and stuffing the empanadas. Some of the guiiya were uneven, as the children’s little hands lacked the precision for uniform shaping. But they were excited and began asking countless questions about the dessert, about spring, about their grandmother and, most important, about the festivals. Through the shared act of cooking, I realized I was transferring traditions and some level of culture.

While I noted the irony that this was a dish few of my friends in India still made from the scratch, it was important for me to do so, in the same way it was important for my grandmother to have me around the kitchen, sharing stories about family, cooking and history.

Working with my children suddenly made it all click. It was less about the elaborate meal, the new clothes or a date on a calendar. It was the need for a reference point easily found in the context of a festival. We need traditions and memories to keep us grounded. They do not always have to be in the kitchen or centered on a holiday. I wait for the daffodils and forsythia in our back yard every year to tell me that spring has arrived. It is cheerful and uplifting for me.

The magic of connecting over a holiday and food is its predictability, and the fact that it allows us to plan. It offers our children a connection point, and the shared act of cooking offers them this context, probably the same way Pat’s Nonna was able to share stories about her childhood in a village in Italy as she rolled and shaped the gnocchi with Pat. Food is about comfort, and it is also one aspect of culture and tradition that can be easily transported from one land to another, from one generation to another, as we talk, share, cook and eat together.

Top photo: Rinku Bhattacharya. Credit: Aadi Bhattacharya

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Stuffed cabbage rolls. Credit: Barbara Haber

After my stove, my freezers are the most important kitchen gear I own. I have a large standup one in my kitchen, a chest freezer in the basement, and the freezer that is part of my old refrigerator, also stored in the basement, and all of them are full.

I think of them as essential parts of my pantry, and their contents always enter into my plans for my next meal. As someone who likes bread for breakfast, but not the same kind every day, I store an array that can satisfy any of my moods. Sometimes I want a hearty whole grain loaf, so I pull out a slice from the loaf I baked using Joanne Chang’s recipe from “Flour.”

If I go for something a little sweet, I have home-baked coffee cakes that are not too rich or frosted, yet have that slight sweetness, yeastiness and pull I find so satisfying. I always keep store-bought rolls, and am especially fond of ciabattas, which go from the freezer to the convection setting on my toaster oven, ready to eat by the time the coffee is brewed.

I would add that these rolls are improved by this process, for they come out with a crunchy crust after having been subjected to thick plastic bags that make their crusts flaccid. Sourdoughs, sandwich loaves, and bagels are also in my kitchen freezer awaiting their turn at the toaster oven.

Freezing meals, not just foods on sale

Of course I have cooked dishes in my freezers, and this is the most important reason to have so much freezer space. Instead of filling the spaces with foods on sale in the super market — a pile of chickens, for instance — I use my freezers as a convenience, making sure that appealing cooked dishes are available all year round and get used up in a timely way. For instance, when I am in a cooking mood I prepare thick soups to serve on those winter nights when I may not feel like cooking.

Other dishes are great candidates for the freezer, such as cabbage rolls, because the dish has so much sauce that it freezes and preserves well. And, clearly, one does not have to come from Eastern Europe to love this dish. An Irish friend dropped by recently, joined us for a cabbage roll dinner, and wouldn’t leave until he got the recipe. And I have friends I already know love this dish, so I can always come up with a last-minute meal I know will please them. I just have to mash some potatoes and dinner is set.

Staples from the freezer. Credit: Barbara Haber

Staples from the freezer. Credit: Barbara Haber

The other good use I make of my freezer is to preserve foods that can otherwise go bad. Whole wheat flour is a prime example. And I keep many of my other grains in the freezer to keep away those kitchen moths that are known to invade.

My interest in convenience means that I will keep on hand cuts of meat my family enjoys. Because we all like chicken thighs, I buy them in bulk and clean and skin them before packaging and freezing so that when they thaw they are ready to go into any dish I choose. But I don’t stuff my freezers with bulky items, especially large cuts of meat or turkeys. This may be because I came across a story some years ago that I have since thought of as a cautionary tale.

A man was given a 30-pound turkey one summer, which he decided to freeze until Thanksgiving. He managed to stuff it into his old chest freezer, pushing it around the internal coils.  When he went to get it, he found the turkey hopelessly stuck and impossible to retrieve because, of course, it was no longer malleable and capable of bending around the coils. He had no choice but to unplug the freezer and wait for the turkey to thaw.

Be careful about what goes in the freezer

I sometimes store foods that are available only at stores far from home, but such long-distance shopping can backfire. I have a friend who likes fresh beef tongue, something you don’t find in neighborhood groceries, so she had to travel some distance to get one. When she got home and unwrapped it, she found that it was smelly and had gone bad. In a rage, she called up the butcher who sold it and gave him a piece of her mind, emphasizing that she lived far away from his shop so that returning it wasn’t going to be easy. He told her to put it in her freezer until the next time she was in the area to which she replied, “What do you think I’m running here? A morgue?”

So I am cautious and selective about what goes into my freezers. I remind myself that I don’t think of freezing food necessarily as a way to save money, but rather as a convenience and a way to eat well. When I have a good crop of tomatoes from my garden, many go into a marinara sauce. And I have a favorite corn chowder recipe I prepare in August and pull out in February. Being so enamored of freezing food has led to some teasing by family members. Recently, I went to my basement to put away muffins I had just made when I found taped to the top of the freezer a cartoon showing a husband, wife, and their own chest freezer. The caption has the wife saying, “Do you still want this?” Tucked under her arm is an object shaped like a man and wrapped like a mummy, which she fails to recognize as a leftover corpse.

Cabbage Rolls

Serves 12

Ingredients

1 head cabbage with large tender leaves

2 medium potatoes, coarsely chopped

1 large onion, coarsely

2 eggs

1 (28 ounce) can of tomatoes

1 can sauerkraut

1 (15 ounce) can tomato soup

Juice of one lemon

1½ cups brown sugar (or less, according to taste)

2 pounds chopped beef, uncooked

2 carrots sliced

Salt and pepper to taste

Directions

1. With paring knife, make cuts around stem of cabbage, then steam for five to 10 minutes, allowing leaves to soften so they can be rolled without splitting.

2. Using a food processor, process potatoes, onion and eggs, until all lumps of potato and onion are gone.

3. In large 8-quart Dutch oven pour in the tomatoes, sauerkraut, tomato soup, lemon juice and brown sugar. Add the vegetable mixture from the food processor and the raw, sliced carrots. Salt and pepper to taste.

4. When cabbage leaves are cool and pliable, fill each one with a heaping tablespoon of meat, roll loosely and place in Dutch oven on top of ingredients. If cabbage leaves are stiff, put remaining cabbage back into the steamer until leaves are pliable.

5. Simmer the dish for 1½ hours. It tastes best the day after it is cooked.

Note: I found at a Chinese market a cabbage that is wide and flat. It has very large leaves that are easy to roll. Standard cabbages can be more difficult to handle.

Top photo: Stuffed cabbage rolls. Credit: Barbara Haber

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Crêpes to celebrate chandeleur. Credit: Phillip Sinsheimer

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.

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.

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Crepes celebrate the sun as the winter days finally begin to get a little longer. Credit: Phillip Sinsheimer

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.

Crêpes

Makes about 12 crêpes

Ingredients

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

Directions

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

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The culinary science lab takes over our kitchen table. Credit: Susan Lutz

My adventures in the world of micro-gardening started innocently enough when I picked up a stray forsythia branch from our neighbor’s yard waste bin while walking my daughters home from school on a cold winter afternoon. I shocked my girls, ages 7 and 4, when I told them that I could magically transform this dead branch into a flower bouquet within a week. My daughters thought I was crazy, which only encouraged me. It was time for some kitchen science.

We set about our kitchen garden experiments with a sound hypothesis: Mom cannot turn a dead stick and vegetables from the fridge into a living garden. I placed the forsythia in a vase, then busied my daughters with the task of stabbing toothpicks into various vegetables and placing them in water-filled mason jars. Over the next few days we waited and watched. By the week’s end we not only had a beautiful vase of blooming forsythia, we also had a windowsill full of edible plants rooting in water and a science lab taking up most of the kitchen table.

Once I’d disproven the Mom-is-insane hypothesis, we moved forward with more gardening, more science and more curiosity. It felt important to show my daughters that the food they took for granted was grown somewhere  and could grow again. Hence, the micro-garden experiment.

My eldest daughter believed that good science always requires goggles, so she started wearing eye protection for each experiment. Santa had been generous this year and we used our new digital microscope (which we hear cost the jolly old guy about $70) to examine our kitchen window garden from root to blossom.

We talked about how plants that bloom in the spring, such as forsythia and apple trees, develop flower buds at the end of their fall growing season and keep them throughout the winter, assuming they’re not killed off by freezing temperatures or a heavy coating of ice that snaps off the buds. I was able to “magically” grow forsythia flowers from what seemed to be a dead twig because the tiny buds had been there all along. We examined the few remaining buds under the microscope and discussed the fact that even the smallest parts of plants can do important jobs.

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Potatoes and watercress rooting in jars on the kitchen windowsill. Credit: Susan Lutz

The scientific method of micro-gardening

Next we moved on to vegetables. I pulled an old potato out of a dark kitchen bin and we talked about potatoes growing from “eyes.” Looking at potatoes under the microscope was especially fun because the sprouting roots looked “pretty gross,” according to my eldest daughter.

While cutting a green onion with scissors, my youngest daughter asked, “Is this actually real science?” My eldest quickly replied, “Of course it is!” Still suspicious, the younger one warned us, “Well, try not to explode anything.” Her sister’s reply was to the point, “Why not? Scientists take chances to see what they can do.” I couldn’t argue the point, nor did I want to. My daughters were hooked and we spent the next hour happily chopping, pouring and examining various plant parts.

Here are a few tips that may come in handy for your own micro-garden experiments. As a parent, you may also need to add a sense of humor and a large supply of patience.

General notes about sprouting plants from kitchen scraps

  • Use organic vegetables (chemicals used to prolong vegetable shelf life may prevent rooting)
  • Be sure to wash vegetables, supplies and countertops to help eliminate the possibility of food-borne illness such as salmonella and E. coli.
  • Change the water frequently (every day or two or as soon as it starts to get cloudy)
  • Keep your sprouting plants in a sunny window, preferably in a location you see at least once a day as part of your usual routine.
  • Only submerge the bottom part of the vegetable in water.
  • You may want to start several specimens of each plant variety because rooting can be a tricky business. Discard vegetables that start to rot.

Useful science supplies and materials

  • Vegetables of all sorts
  • Mason jars, vases, glasses, cups and shallow bowls in assorted sizes (clear is best for maximum viewing)
  • Notebook and pencil or crayons (for recording hypotheses and results)
  • Funnels (nothing keeps kids engaged better than a little water play)
  • Kitchen towels (for inevitable water spills)
  • Tweezers
  • Magnifying glass
  • Microscope
  • Goggles (for the cool scientist look)
  • Toothpicks (for anchoring root vegetables at top of water-filled container)
  • Knives (to be wielded only by adults and trustworthy kids of a certain age)
  • Scissors (mostly for the kids’ entertainment). Grownups want to use a sharp knife to achieve a clean cut for actual rooting purposes.

Good vegetable candidates for rooting in water

  • Green onions and leeks (will re-grow from roots, even if you’ve eaten the green part off the top)
  • Potatoes and sweet potatoes (make sure they have plenty of “eyes” in the portion you submerge in water)
  • Lettuce and celery (will grow from the discarded root-end of the plant)
  • Basil (will grow from leaf cuttings)
  • Garlic
  • Lemongrass
  • Carrot tops (will grow greens from the top half-inch of the carrot, called the “shoulder,” as well as the remaining brown stem, even if you’ve eaten most of the orange root)

We’ve found ourselves coming back to our kitchen science station every few days over the past couple of weeks. We’ve even expanded the range of our experiments to include growing lettuce, thyme and chives from seed in recycled plastic containers, the kind that usually contain berries or sprouts.

Some of our experiments have been a success and some haven’t, but they’ve all been productive in their own way. We’ve learned a lot about the life cycle of edible plants. And we have a new family song, sung to the tune of “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes” that begins, “Goggles are the latest clothes, latest clothes.” But my real triumph was when my daughter wanted to temporarily suspend the experiments by sweetly asking, “Mom, can I please eat this carrot?”

Top photo: The culinary science lab takes over our kitchen table. Credit: Susan Lutz

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Apple, Walnut and Maple Crisp. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

The craziness of the holidays often overwhelms the cook. We are worrying and wondering about so much that sometimes we just need to force ourselves to take it easy. A wonderful way to take it easy is to make a simple dessert that can last for days. In our family that go-to dessert is crisps.

This all began when I moved to New England in 1982 and we ate apple crisp, which I loved. Then I bought a house in Arlington, Mass., that had a pear tree and for years it was pear crisp.

For the holidays, though, just a few more ingredients beckoned and an apple, walnut and maple syrup crisp resulted. I think it might be worth your while to double the recipe as one takes portions bigger than one should.

For the apples, Granny Smiths work best, but really you can use any type. You could also replace the apples with pears and even persimmons. But apples are my favorite.

Apple, Walnut and Maple Crisp

Serves 6

Ingredients

6 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature, divided

4 apples, cored, unpeeled, cut into wedges

⅓ cup chopped walnuts

2 tablespoons maple syrup

2 tablespoons peach schnapps

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

½ teaspoon salt

½ cup sugar

½ cup light brown sugar

¾ cup all-purpose flour

Directions

1. Heat the oven to 350  F.

2. Lightly butter a 10-by-12-by-2-inch or similarly sized baking dish. Place the apples on the bottom, all the wedges facing the same way, then sprinkle the walnuts over the apples. Drizzle with the maple syrup and schnapps, and sprinkle the cinnamon and salt.

3. Blend the remaining butter, sugars and flour together with a pastry cutter until the mixture looks like dry oatmeal. Spoon the flour mixture over the apples, covering them entirely.

4. Bake until the top is brown and the sides bubbling, about 40 minutes. Serve once it’s very warm but not bubbling hot. It’s all excellent at room temperature and even cold.

Top photo: Apple, Walnut and Maple Crisp. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

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