Articles in Family
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.
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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.
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
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.”
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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.
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.
1 head cabbage with large tender leaves
2 medium potatoes, coarsely chopped
1 large onion, coarsely
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
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
Early February in France means it is time to get your pans ready. The winter days are finally getting a little longer and sunnier and la chandeleur (derived from chandelle, “candle” in French) is at hand, which means crêpes are in the air.
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The French tradition, combining pagan and Christian origins, has been going on for centuries, but it seems to be losing momentum. Everyone still knows about it, but fewer and fewer seem to indulge in the annual crêpes orgy.
As in other parts of the world, home cooking is on the decline while TV food shows are getting more popular. Bakeries now sell ready-made crêpes for a quick fix at nearly $2 a pop. “Ridicule,” said my mother over the phone the other day. And Maman, as often, is probably right. Crêpes are a fun, easy to do homemade affair.
The church, crêpes and a sweet tradition
What are we celebrating, besides a humble form of sweet gluttony? In the Catholic Church, chandeleur marks the presentation of the child Jesus, his first entry into the temple, as well as the day of the Virgin Mary’s purification. I fail to see how thin pancakes came in the picture, except for the resemblance one could see between them and the halo depicted over the heads of holy figures in religious paintings since the 4th century or so.
The pagan origin of the chandeleur links more directly to the round disks of cooked dough the form and shape of the sun which, come February, becomes more and more present as days get longer at a faster pace. It’s not spring yet, but you can see light at the end of the tunnel, and it is still cold enough in most parts of the Northern Hemisphere to stand in front a stove flipping pancakes without having to turn the air conditioning on.
This is also the period of the year when winter wheat was being sowed. Crêpes were a way to celebrate the flour to come by using the one at hand. Interestingly enough, a Comité de la Chandeleur was founded and funded by a major French flour producer in 1997, reminding the population of the godly tradition with ads and billboards. The committee no longer exists. It is now in our hands to make the tradition survive.
A simple crêpes recipe for indulgence
Like every person brought up in France in the last century, I have my good share of childhood crêpe memories: pleasure and pain mixed in a batter of family recollections. While my father and brother were expert at eating the end result, my mother and I were excited by the making process.
We didn’t bother with a recipe and that in itself shows the tradition was still vivid, culturally ingrained. We just knew what to put in the dough: flour, eggs, milk, as well as water, cider or beer, a little fat (oil or melted butter), a little sugar, a touch of booze, traditionally dark rum, and a dash of salt. The trick was to avoid any lumps by using first a wooden spoon and then a whisk.
After letting the batter rest for an hour or so, came the time to show more developed skills. For years, we didn’t have a non-stick pan. We dipped a halved potato in oil to grease the thin metallic pan we used for about everything. With time, I’ve favored using a piece of paper towel folded in fourths and dunked in oil rather than a spud, leaving me to wonder how common paper towels were in Paris in the 1960s. The first crêpe always stuck, no matter what.
At age 7, there was my culinary confirmation that you can’t always get things right the first time in life. The ugly torn crêpe was eaten nonetheless, giving the chance to adjust the recipe-free batter with a little more liquid, salt or sugar if necessary.
If the crêpe didn’t have enough elasticity an egg was added and then, we were good to go. A super-hot pan is essential to achieve one of the essential criteria of a noble French crêpe, thinness, or finesse. Held as a rising sun, the crêpe was supposed to let light go through it, if not the image of my smiling mother behind the lump-free delicacy. A ladle was poured in the super-hot greased pan and then, with a swift movement of the wrist, the batter was to cover the whole pan in a thin coating.
Mastering crêpe-making technique
Chandeleur folklore says that if you manage to flip the crêpe in the air while holding a gold coin in your left hand, good fortune will come your way. I’ve personally never seen this done, perhaps because our entourage didn’t carry gold around so often. We just weren’t keen on the tossing-in-the-air show, partially because our crêpes needed some help with our bare fingers to be lifted off the pan.
When the edge started to get brown, we lifted one side with a small knife, then pinched the crêpe with both hands and flip it as fast as possible to avoid blisters in the process. I was always fascinated by the fact that the A-side of our edible records had a beautiful, uniform golden hue, whereas the B-side looked so different with its erratic brown spots.
We kept piling the crêpes on top of each other on a plate set atop a pot of simmering water so that we could enjoy our crêpes warm en famille. Brother and father were called to come and the filling game began with a variety of jams and spreads. For me, butter and sugar were the only fixings I needed to make me forget my reddened fingers, as crêpes were washed down with Normand cider, mindless of the few degrees of alcohol that helped make the pain go away and the party feel special.
Makes about 12 crêpes
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon sugar
¼ tsp salt
2 large eggs
1 cup milk
6 tablespoons water (or beer or cider)
1 tablespoon melted butter (or neutral oil)
1 tablespoon dark rum or cognac (optional)
Oil and paper towel to oil pan
1. Sift the flour with sugar and salt in a mixing bowl. Whisk in eggs, milk, water, melted butter and rum or cognac.
2. Let rest for 1 hour or more.
3. Heat pan greased with oiled paper towel. Add ¼ cup of batter or so and tilt the pan in a circular manner to spread the batter as fast as possible. When edges begin to brown, flip over with your hands or in the air and cook the other side 30 seconds.
4. Place cooked crêpe on a plate and repeat, repeat, repeat!
Tips and variations:
- To avoid any lumps and go faster, mix batter in a blender adding dry ingredients into the wet ones.
- For savory crêpes, eliminate sugar and alcohol from batter and add a dash more salt.
- To keep crêpes warm, place them on a plate sitting atop a saucepan with simmering water.
- Typically, French crêpes are rolled or folded in four.
- You can also layer the crêpes one on top of each other smeared with one or several toppings until you obtain a form of cake that you can then slice in wedges.
- Crepes can be kept wrapped in plastic and refrigerated up to 3 days or frozen up to 3 months.
Top photo: Crêpes to celebrate chandeleur. Credit: Philip Sinsheimer
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.
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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.
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)
- Magnifying glass
- 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)
- 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
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.
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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.
Apple, Walnut and Maple Crisp
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
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
You have successfully made it past Thanksgiving, but there are 20-something dinners between now and the glass of champagne on New Year’s Eve that marks the end of the holiday rush, as well as the year. Some might be quick grab-’n-go affairs; others might be major family feasts like Hanukkah, Kwanzaa and Christmas. Either way, it’s probably safe to say you are overbooked. You need a foolproof recipe that takes less than 30 minutes to create and is loved by even the pickiest eaters. In short, you need an intensely flavorful and fast macaroni and cheese dish that can be dressed up or dressed down, depending on the occasion.
I explored two paths to preparation: old school and new school. Both techniques began with the foundation of any good mac and cheese: the sauce.
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The old school approach to making cheese sauce starts with the classic 19th century French technique of cooking a roux of flour and butter, then slowly and laboriously whisking in milk and cheese. It is a tried-and-true method, but can leave the sauce tasting a bit pasty unless you thoroughly cook the flour and butter before adding the wet ingredients. Even when done to perfection, the base ingredients soften the flavor profile, masking the taste of pure cheese.
The new school approach made popular by the brilliant folks at Nathan Myhrvold’s Modernist Cuisine Cooking Lab involves using an all-natural ingredient known as sour salt (sodium citrate) to emulsify the cheese into a smooth sauce, but it too can be a tiresome task over a hot stove. On the other hand, a big bonus to this approach was that the sauce tasted like a liquid chunk of cheese. And for those with certain dietary concerns, it also meant that the sauce was entirely gluten free.
At this point, I gave a nod to the new school approach for the flavor test and moved on. I was still facing an uphill challenge to make this classic dish easier and less time consuming. Out of habit, I reached for my speedy sous-chef, the Vitamix blender. True to form, it turned three simple ingredients into one stellar, silky sauce in less than seven minutes — coincidentally, the same amount of time it took to boil the pasta. I had successfully reached base camp.
At this point, the pragmatist in me whispered, “Stop while you’re ahead,” and “Don’t mess with a good thing,” but I wasn’t quite done. Could I turn this mac and cheese into a dish that was equally at home at a potluck or a fancy dinner? Could I vary the seasonings, the toppings, even the very heart of the sauce? The simple answer to all the questions was yes.
I opened the refrigerator, pulled out my spice rack and tapped into the liquor cabinet (for ingredients, naturally). I experimented with a wide range of ground chili peppers from Marash and Aleppo to citrus-scented Urfa chili and fresh jalapenos. I added crunchy toppings that would turn into a glorious crust while the casserole baked and fresh herbs that were simply sprinkled on. I blended in different aromatics like brandy, white wine and my latest favorite flavoring for just about everything, aged tawny port.
After an afternoon of playing with my food, I discovered that the best mac and cheese is a very personal thing. Once you have the basic sauce in hand, almost anything goes. When all was said and done, my favorite combination was spiced with smoky Aleppo pepper, infused with Croft 10-year old tawny port and doused with another strikingly simple topping: bacon and toasted panko crumble.
The Ultimate Macaroni and Cheese
The primary sauce ingredients include a liquid, some sodium citrate and cheese. After that, you can craft a mac and cheese that suits your taste — mild or sharp, nutty or spicy. My holiday season favorite is to add some Croft aged tawny port for a taste of that classic winter combination: cheese and dried fruit.
3 strips bacon
1 cup panko bread crumbs
1 cup whole milk
5 teaspoons sodium citrate (12 grams)
8 ounces white cheddar cheese (or any semisoft cheese of your choice such as Gouda, Morbier, Swiss or Gruyère), broken up into medium-sized chunks
½ cup aged tawny port (or another liquid of your choice, including water, milk or white wine)
1 teaspoon dark brown mustard
1 teaspoon Aleppo pepper
1 teaspoon sea salt
12 ounces macaroni (or any sauce-gripping pasta of your choice)
For bacon-panko topping:
1. In a medium skillet, fry the bacon to a crisp; reserve 2 tablespoons of bacon fat in the skillet and add the panko, tossing until it is brown and toasted. Crumble bacon and toasted bread crumbs together.
This versatile, incredibly crunchy crumble can be made days in advance and does not require refrigeration.
For the cheese sauce:
1. Place the milk and sodium citrate in a high-speed blender (must be capable of generating frictional heat above 160 F).
2. Turn the blender on to its highest setting and process for 4 minutes.
3. While the blender is processing, chop or break up the cheese into medium-sized chunks.
4. After 4 minutes, turn the blender off to avoid splashing, and add the cheese. Turn the blender back on at high speed for an additional 2 minutes.
5. Reduce the blender to the lowest speed and pour in ½ cup of port (or white wine, milk or water) and any other flavoring ingredients of your choice (mustard, chili pepper, salt). Depending on thickness, you may need to add a bit more liquid to get to the consistency of your choice.
At this point, the cheese sauce can be refrigerated for up to one week and reheated to return it to its liquid state before using with pasta.
For the pasta:
1. While the cheese sauce is being processed, cook pasta al dente according to the package directions. Drain and dress with sauce and topping.
This recipe was created using the Vitamix Professional Series 750, but can be prepared using the “old school” stovetop approach with similar, albeit more time-consuming results by replacing the sodium citrate with a roux made by heating butter over medium heat and adding flour until golden browned. In a separate pan, heat milk until just below boil. Slowly whisk the hot milk into the roux, followed by grated cheese and seasonings until completed melted. Remove from heat and whisk in the port.
Sodium citrate, also known as sour salt, can be found in some specialty food stores and online at Modernist Pantry.
Top photo: Macaroni and cheese with bacon-panko topping. Credit: Caroline J. Beck
Proust had his madeleine; I have Jamaican black cake. Biting into a piece whisks me back to my grandmother Una Rust’s Harlem kitchen where, along with her sisters Doris and Petrona, she performed the annual black cake-making ritual before the holidays.
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I recall the glass jars of dried fruit, soaking in spirits, looking like a delicious science project; the beautiful mess of cinnamon and nutmeg dust that covered the countertops; baking tins lined in parchment paper, and the intoxicating scent of rum that filled the apartment. Practically elbow-deep in batter, they blended the concoction in giant Bon Ton potato chip tins because no bowl was big enough to contain batter for all the cakes they made for friends and family. Although of Jamaican descent, my grandmother and her sisters were born and raised in Panama, and their cake was surely a loving blend of the two heritages.
Caribbean Christmas tradition
For the uninitiated, black cake, made throughout the Caribbean, has a history as rich and flavorful as its sock-it-to-me rum taste. Some may refer to it as fruit cake, but this has nothing to do with the often dry, hockey puck of a dessert that so many have come to know and loathe.
Black cake, served at Christmas and special occasions, is like British plum pudding’s sassier sister gone island-style, and it’s a sexy hodgepodge of ground rum-soaked raisins, dates, prunes, citrus peel, cinnamon, nutmeg and brown sugar. Some versions have frosting on them (they are often used as wedding cakes) but my grandmother never used it, and for my palate, it’s like gilding the lily. Rich, dense and gorgeous are the common denominators for black cake; however, each culture, from Jamaica to Trinidad, puts a unique spin on it.
Black cake is a special occasion dessert. You don’t just whip it up. It’s time-consuming, and making it can be pricey: pounds of dried fruit, rum and other spirits can add up. But it is a good bang for your buck because it lasts. I remember how my mother would hide a few pieces in aluminum foil in the back of the fridge, behind something undesirable, and I would see her nibbling at it secretly, even in early spring.
I have been fantasizing about making this cake for years, but I really wanted Una’s recipe. Of course no one had the good sense to write it down. I contacted a few family members, but to no avail. I had to accept that the original Rust recipe died when my grandmother did. My little half-West Indian heart was crushed. (This is a cautionary tale: If grandma is in the kitchen cooking up some goodness, get the dang recipe.)
In search of the perfect fruit cake recipe
In my quest for an authentic recipe, I got in touch with Jessica Harris, culinary historian and cookbook author, who put me in touch with Sharifa Burnett, a lovely Jamaican woman who was kind enough to share her recipe with me. I decided to take the plunge.
I consulted my friend, Chef Arlene Stewart, a Trinidadian girl, on the best places to buy the dried fruit, because prices at my local Manhattan supermarkets would have emptied my wallet. We made a pilgrimage to Flatbush, Brooklyn, where we found shops that catered perfectly to my needs — bags and bags of dried fruit and citrus peel, special browning sauce used to color the cake, etc., all priced to move.
Once at home, I began the laborious task of grinding up the dried fruit. When my poor mini Cuisinart Chop and Prep died, I switched over to my blender. Once that was done, I put the mix in a large glass jar, added the rum and port, and let it marinate for almost a week.
A note about equipment
Should you decide to make this cake, be sure you have a powerful mixer and big bowl because the batter, with the addition of the dried fruit, is thick and abundant. I had to transfer everything midway to a bigger bowl, and then when my hand mixer wasn’t quite doing the trick (clearly, I need better appliances), I did what my grandmother did; I used my hands to blend the batter, and that worked quite nicely. The batter generously filled two 9-inch parchment-lined baking pans, and I found that it took longer than I expected — about 2½ hours — to bake. I just kept checking with a thin knife down the middle until it came out clean.
However, once my cake had finally baked and cooled, and I had brushed it with a little rum, it looked like the cake I had come to love. And when I finally took a nibble, I actually shed a tear. With the luscious blend of fruit, the dense texture, the aromatic rum flavor, it tasted almost as good as my grandmother’s, and the memories spent with family, long since passed, flooded back. Making that cake felt like a rite of passage, and I think Una Rust is smiling somewhere.
Sharifa Burnett’s Jamaican Christmas Black Cake
Makes two 9-inch cakes
For the fruit mixture:
1 pound prunes
1 pound dried currants
1 pound raisins
1 pound maraschino cherries
¼ pound of mixed peel (available at Caribbean specialty stores)
4 cups Port wine
1 cup white Jamaican rum
For the cake:
1 pound of dark brown sugar
1 pound butter
1 pound of flour
2 teaspoons of baking powder
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 teaspoon nutmeg
Pinch of salt
1 teaspoon almond extract
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
Browning sauce or burnt sugar to color (available in Caribbean specialty shops.)
¼ to ½ cup of rum or port wine for brushing
1. Combine the prunes, currants, raisins, maraschino cherries, mixed peel, wine and rum in a glass jar and let stand for at least 3 days.
As an alternative, you can steam the fruit on a low flame in red wine until it’s very soft, then grind the mixture in a food processor.
2. Heat the oven to 300 F.
3. Beat the sugar and butter together until mixture creamy and fluffy.
4. Mix flour, baking powder, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg.
5. Add eggs to the creamed butter mixture one at a time. Continue mixing and fold the flour mixture into batter.
6. Add fruit and alcohol mixture, almond extract and vanilla and continue mixing.
7. Your mixture should have a brown color. If the mixture is too light, then add browning or burnt sugar a small amount at a time, until mixture has a dark brown color.
8. Line two 9-inch baking pans with parchment paper. Pour mixture in pans, filling each. Bake for 1½ hours, then reduce temperature to 250 F. Check cake after 2 hours with a tester (center of cake).
9. To preserve the cake you may brush the cake with wine and white rum. Wrap with wax paper then foil and place in a cool place. If you put it in the fridge, be sure to bring to room temperature for a few hours before serving.
Top photo composite: Una Rust (pictured) was the inspiration for a search for a Jamaican black cake recipe. Credit: Suzanne Rust
Holiday baking is a great way to get kids into the kitchen. If they don’t have a natural interest in cooking, they might have an unnatural interest in sprinkles, icing and silver dragées.
However, if you blithely attempt to make sugar cookies with a 3-year-old, thinking it will be a living tableau of family harmony, you may end up with something much less pleasing. The holidays are so loaded that it is really, really easy to NOT get those cozy memories you want to create.
Here are a few tips on making a baking session that might just fit the picture books.
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1. Lower your expectations.
Whatever they are, dial them down. If you think matching aprons and carols on the stereo, and a batch of gingerbread men rolled to perfect thickness, think again. Visualize molasses-coated jeans and wildly rippled dough. Picture worst-case scenarios — broken mixing bowls and 2 cups of salt instead of sugar — and be happy when the disasters are minor.
This is crucial. If you want everything to be just-so, you are going to interfere with the experience the child will have. And you want that experience to be pleasant, not scripted to fit an ideal.
Being tender with the impulse to explore tools and materials you are introducing is more important than working toward the most tender sugar cookies. You can make those at nap time, if you must.
2. Suit your crew.
Bear in mind abilities and ages.
Before you start to bake, observe the child — yours or a favorite nephew or pseudo-niece — at a meal. How do they handle forks and spoons? Could they manage pouring the vanilla? Maybe they would do best just opening the sticks of butter and turning on the mixer. Because many cookies require refrigeration, making the dough ahead of time can skirt a lot of trouble.
Don’t set the bar too high, but don’t set it too low, either. That 10-year-old could be incredibly well skilled and training for junior chef Olympics. If that is the kind of kid you will have in the kitchen, do a lot of talking before you get there.
3. Involve everyone as much as possible.
Inclusive planning can be scaled to fit. A 4-year-old should see you take the splattered index card from the inside flap of the “Betty Crocker Cookbook” and hear how you used to bake king-sized gingersnaps every single Christmas. The 5-year-old might want the story in more detail. A 6- or 7-year-old you’ve baked with before might want to plan which kind of cookie to bake at which session.
The fancy-pants chef-to-be is fully capable of planning everything with you, from recipes to shopping, and decorating storage containers. However, be aware that kitchen dreams can overshoot the limits of time and experience. Maybe don’t make sea foam candy together unless one of you is well versed in working with sugar.
Keep the afternoon manageable, especially if you are working with a group of kids. Leave room for tasting the products with a cup of cocoa. You don’t have to make fudge and gingerbread men the same day.
4. Invite another family.
The best way to conquer your own crazy expectations and/or buffer dynamics between you and your kids might be to make a crowd. This will call for you completely surrendering to the crowd, of course, and that is a good thing.
There is a lot of pressure to make holidays all about the nuclear family. Creating a nontraditional scenario might seem sacrosanct, but it could also be the trick you need to trick yourself out of wanting to stage a Tremendously Wonderful Time Baking, which is sure to end in tears.
5. Remember your own holiday times in the kitchen. (And maybe forget them.)
Each holiday recipe is probably linked to some moment in your life. I remember the year I discovered Edith’s Sugar Cookies in a cookbook I took from the library. The year, in my 20s, I learned how to make Viennese Crescents from my boyfriend’s mom.
Stepping into those memories is a beautiful trap. I think I can time travel, or that the cookies will carry me. Repetition seems to be the magic maker. However, if I really think about what I loved about those times, it was exploration, rather than repetition, that seared them into my brain and heart.
When I bake with my kids, I try to remember that exploration is a key wonder to cultivate. Good cookies are great, but curious cooks are in short order. Make me some more of those.
Top photo: Felix, 10, shows off his Christmas cookie. Credit: Amy Halloran