Articles in Family
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
I have never been a “decorate for the holiday” kind of gal. As I was looking for a pan to bake this pie, I found my mom’s pumpkin pie pan, which I had not seen in years. I was reminded of what a fantastic hostess she was.
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Every holiday meant some kind of décor change signifying the importance of said holiday. Acorn door hangings for Thanksgiving, Easter baskets with colorful eggs and Christmas joy everywhere! Christmas hand towels for the guests, Christmas wreaths, Christmas candies placed into crystal candy dishes. Crystal candy dishes shaped like Christmas trees, naturally.
If there is such a thing as an anti-hostess, that would be me. As a chef I can fill a table with amazing foods, but that’s as far as it goes. I put out plates, napkins and cutlery. Then I turn to my guests and say, “Bon Appetit and help yourself!” And I am often barefoot, because I like to be.
In my mother’s day, if someone stopped by, they were immediately asked whether they were hungry. Then she went in the kitchen and emerged a few moments later in a frilly apron with a fully loaded hors d’oeuvre tray and cocktails. How did she do that?
Being an anti-hostess, if you are a good friend, I will generally wave dismissively toward the kitchen and say, “You know where everything is.” My attire tends to run toward yoga pants and a T-shirt. And no shoes.
Finding the pumpkin pie pan, I knew it was time to turn over a new leaf, or new squash, if you must. I knew that this pan was the one to make my pumpkin pie in this year. It’s a baby step toward embracing the holidays and learning to be a good hostess, but it is still a step. I may even find that acorn door hanger and proudly display it on my front door. Maybe.
Spiced Pumpkin Pie With Coconut Milk
1¼ cups flour
½ teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon cold butter
2 tablespoons cold shortening
4 to 5 tablespoons ice water
½ cup turbinado or raw sugar
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1 tablespoon pumpkin pie spice
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
½ teaspoon ground ginger
¼ teaspoon ground allspice
1 can (15 ounce) pumpkin
1 cup light coconut milk
1. Heat oven to 375 F.
2. Mix the flour and salt in medium bowl.
3. Using a pastry cutter or fork, cut butter and shortening into flour mixture, until mixture forms small crumbs.
4. Slowly add water 1 tablespoon at a time until dough forms.
5. Wrap dough in plastic wrap; refrigerate for 1 hour.
6. Roll chilled dough out large enough to fit a 9-inch pie pan. Line pan with dough, fold excess under and crimp edges.
7. Line crust with foil, then add enough dried beans or rice to act as a weight.
8. Bake for 10 minutes, remove from the oven and remove pie weights. Let the crust cool.
9. Turn oven temperature down to 350 F.
10. In a large bowl, combine the sugar, eggs, pumpkin pie spice, vanilla, ginger and allspice. Whisk together the mixture, until well incorporated.
11. Add the pumpkin, whisk until incorporated then stir in the coconut milk.
12. Pour the pumpkin mixture into the cooled pie shell, then bake for 40 to 45 minutes until the filling is set and a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean.
13. Cool the pie on a rack.
Top photo: Pumpkin pie in a family heirloom holiday dish. Credit: Cheryl Lee
Long before the turkey comes out of the oven golden and glistening, our family has gathered, preparing all the myriad dishes, drinking, laughing and nibbling on Thanksgiving appetizers since the morning.
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We start about 10 a.m. and have Thanksgiving dinner around 4 p.m., so it’s important to have appetizers that are traditional, tasty and do not require us to sit down since we want to be hungry but not starving for the main meal.
We prepare a number of Thanksgiving appetizers but one favorite that needs to be guarded for any late-arriving guests (countering the family motto, you snooze you lose) are Vermont cheddar cheese twists. This is a dish that made it up to the majors from the minor leagues in our family about 10 years ago, and it’s a perennial hit.
Cheddar Cheese Twists
You can use frozen puff pastry but make sure your cheddar cheese is the best and not aged; it should be less than a year old. We double this recipe if there are more than nine people.
Makes about 36 twists
3½ cups (about ½ pound) finely grated sharp white Vermont cheddar cheese
1½ teaspoons dried thyme
1½ teaspoons dried sage
1 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper
1 pound frozen puff pastry, defrosted according to package instructions
1. In a bowl, mix together the cheese, thyme, sage and pepper.
2. Lightly flour a work surface and roll out the puff pastry until it is 18 by 10 inches. Sprinkle one-third of the cheese mixture over half of the pastry. Fold the plain half over the cheese half and press with a rolling pin so it adheres. Roll out again to 18 by 10 inches and sprinkle the next third of the cheese and repeat the process a third time with the remaining cheese, rolling it out to a final shape of 18 by 10 inches. Place in the refrigerator for 30 minutes.
3. Preheat the oven to 425 F.
4. Line two large 10-by-14-inch baking sheets with parchment paper. Cut the pastry in half crosswise to form two 10-by-9-inch rectangles. Trim off the uneven pieces of pastry. Cut each rectangle crosswise into ½-inch wide strips. Twist each strip a few times and place on the baking sheet about ¾-inch apart, dampening the ends with water and pressing them to adhere to the parchment.
5. Bake until golden brown, reversing the position of the sheets halfway through baking, about 10 minutes in all. Remove from the oven and let cool on the baking sheet. Serve warm or room temperature.
Top photo: Cheese twists for a Thanksgiving appetizer. Credit: Clifford A. Wright
One winter when I wasn’t eating sugar, the idea of not baking was really plaguing me. If I couldn’t make cookies, how could I find that holiday feeling?
After much pouting, I came up with an idea that wouldn’t get lost in a sea of homemade treats. Pancake mix would stand apart from the crowd. Plus, when the people I loved headed into the kitchen one lazy weekend morning, I could go with them to the griddle — one of my favorite places on the planet.
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Pancake mix is one of the easier mixes to make because you don’t have to add fat. You can, of course, but then you have to worry about potential spoilage, and incorporating the melted butter or oil evenly throughout the mix. If you want, you can add fat to the batter, but I don’t. I find it drags down the cakes, which pick up plenty of butter from the griddle.
Highlighting lovely flours is another advantage of this gift. Stone-ground whole-grain flours do really well in pancakes. The bran and germ layers of grains contain much more flavor than the starchy endosperm, which is the only part of the grain milled for white flours. This means that whole-grain flours can be celebrated for vibrant flavors, not just their banner fiber.
Regionally produced flours are fairly easy to find. Because they are freshly milled from interesting varieties of grains, they have great tastes. They also add ecological and community economic values to your giving.
Last but not least, when you make your very own pancake flour, you are echoing the first packaged mix. Aunt Jemima Pancake Flour was invented in 1889, and contained only wheat flour, corn flour, salt and sodium phosphate. The name came from a song in a minstrel show.
Within a year, another milling company bought the formula and the mill. R.T. Davis added powdered milk to the mix, and hired a spokesperson. Nancy Green was a former slave who worked for a Chicago judge, and she played Aunt Jemima inside a booth shaped like a flour barrel at the Chicago World’s Fair. She was so popular that extra security was hired to tame the crowd waiting for her cakes and tales.
Those stories, and the ones featured in ads well into the 20th century, celebrated the imaginary cook’s ability to keep Union soldiers from scalping her master. Her pancakes mollified the troops, and her colonel kept his hair, and his life.
I’m amazed that just a generation after the Civil War, appetites for antebellum fairy tales were so strong. The way the company has held onto the Mammy stereotype for more than a century is also amazing.
Packaged food started with simple breakfast items
What is most stunning to me is the fact that such small improvements as adding leaveners, salt, and powdered milk could make a product succeed. How much time does it take to blend these ingredients at home? Less than a minute.
I see this as the dawn of packaged food. Breakfast is where we began to surrender our ability to feed ourselves to an anonymous industry. Aunt Jemima put a face on food as production scaled up, removing the faces of the farmer and miller from the immediate community.
Here’s how you can put your own face on your loved one’s breakfasts. My basic formula is this.
Homemade Pancake Mix
4 cups flour
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1½ tsp salt
2 buttermilk powder, optional (if you want people to use just water and egg for their mix)
Mix all ingredients well with a whisk and put in plastic bag, or a container with a tight fitting lid. Brand new coffee bags are handy, and you can decorate them.
1 cup homemade pancake flour mix
¾ cup milk
1 tablespoon yogurt
(Or skip the milk and yogurt and add ¾ cup water for the buttermilk variation)
1. Blend well and let sit for 10 minutes before using. This helps the flour absorb the moisture thoroughly. If the batter needs a little thinning, add some more milk.
2. Cook on a hot buttered griddle, flipping when the first side has little bubbles.
This mix takes well to variations. Mostly I fiddle with the flour. Some great combinations are:
- 2 cups whole wheat pastry flour, 1 cup rye flour, 1 cup cornmeal.
- 1 cup whole wheat pastry flour, 1 cup rye flour, 1 cup cornmeal, 1 cup oats or ground oats.
- 2 cups buckwheat flour, 2 cups rye flour.
- 2 cups buckwheat flour, 2 cups whole wheat pastry flour.
- 2 cups cornmeal, 2 cups rye flour.
- 3 cups cornmeal, 1 cup rye flour.
If you are making mixes for people who are not devoted to whole grains, you can use all-purpose flour in place of some or all of the whole-wheat pastry.
I never add sugar to pancakes, because I find whole grains sweet enough on their own. If you want, add ¼ cup of brown or white sugar per batch.
Please use a baking powder you know is strong and sturdy. For me, that is Rumford Double Acting baking powder.
If you really love the recipient, buy them an old cast aluminum griddle at a thrift store. Aluminum griddles distribute heat very evenly, and nothing makes a better pancake.
Top photo: Pancakes from a homemade mix. Credit: Amy Halloran
I am a home cook from a food-obsessed family. Everything that happened centered on food. After all, I grew up in a three-generation household with my Italian-American grandparents as well as my parents. My household wasn’t unique in a food culture sense. But while many of the foods and recipes are similar to those from other families, the stories are what bring the food to life. The best way to delve into Italian-American cuisine and stories is through a typical family meal. And that starts with shopping for the ingredients.
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My mom, Josephine Lanzetta Murko, was born on an apple farm in Claverack, N.Y., during the Great Depression and only lived there for a few years. She recounts that my grandfather could not sell an apple for a nickel and had to move the family back to the Bronx. At that time, the Bronx was still quite rural and people lived in a tight-knit neighborhood with everything within walking distance.
Saturdays in my mother’s young life were spent shopping for food with her mom, my nana. The journey, as my mom recalls, was a stroll down the “avenue.” Mom and Nana first visited Mrs. Green’s coffee shop. Mrs. Green would make custom blends for all her customers. My grandmother liked a light blend for her stove-top percolator. The aromas were so keen, and my mom recounts that whenever confronted with the smell of fresh coffee today it still triggers the memory of Mrs. Green’s coffee shop and the Saturday market treks with her mom.
The next stop was the butcher shop where customers stood two-deep and where my mom watched in fascination the knife work and dexterity of the butchers. This was what she wanted to be, a butcher, she thought, and as a little girl she wrote a paper about it. My mom has amazing knife skills, and it’s probably in her blood as my grandfather owned a butcher shop in the Bronx before his foray as an apple farmer.
A butcher shop back then was a different place. Sawdust was on the floor to absorb the meat and blood drippings while the butchers worked their magic. Once up to the counter, my mom would watch the butcher cube and then grind the beef, veal and pork they would then use to make meatballs. Nothing was prepackaged in those days, and the meats were from local animals.
Then on to the produce store where only local, in-season fruits and vegetables were sold. My mom said it was like a photo; she was in awe of the abundance of all the brightly colored fruits and vegetables. She notes that she had never had a strawberry out-of-season and that the fruit was not shiny. Their next stop was the cheese shop where they bought fresh ricotta and mozzarella and other cheeses. Imagine next stepping into a shop entirely dedicated to butter. Butter of all kinds was sold from large barrels by the pound, which sounds heavenly to me.
Saturday markets full of ingredients for soup
The bread store was perhaps my mom’s favorite. The smell alone made her feel warm and cozy and hungry. When she became old enough to shop without my grandmother, Nana would give my mom an extra four cents to buy the fresh-out-of-the-oven warm loaf, which she would then nibble on or devour all the way home. My grandmother knew this was a special treat for my mom, and to this day, warm bread and butter is one of her absolute favorite things. It’s one of mine.
Last but not least, on the shopping extravaganza was the poultry shop. Saturday was soup day. One Saturday when my grandmother wasn’t feeling well, she sent my mom and her sister, my aunt Margie, to get the chicken. They were still little girls. They selected the live chicken and waited patiently for it to be killed and packaged to bring home. While walking home, the bag started to jump.
They so wanted to drop the bag but being the obedient kids that they were, ran as fast as their little legs could go all the way home, imagining as only little girls could, what kind of spooks were in that bag. When they delivered the jumping chicken bag to Nana in a whirlwind of excitement, panic and fear, Nana giggled and told them, “Sweet girls there are no spirits in the bag it’s rigor mortis setting in.”
While my mom clearly describes the rich palette of textures and smells of the Saturday markets of her youth, she also revels about the joys of being connected to her neighbors and friends. She said they were having a great time because all the neighbors, relatives and friends were out on Saturday. This ritual was not a chore, it was an exciting day. It was the social fabric of creating the family meal. I have even heard stories of recipes being shared at the butcher counter. One Jewish lady I know learned how to make killer Italian meatballs from the Italian ladies at the butcher shop.
So, while we seem far removed from the 1940s Saturday shopping trek, I implore you to think about this question: Is not the farmers market in your neighborhood or community a social hub of sorts?
Modern society has changed the way we shop for food and interact at the grocery store, often with blinders on as we roll our carts down the aisles. But at the farmers market you make eye contact, chat with the farmers and purveyors and smile and chat with your fellow shoppers. I think we have found the “avenue” of my mom’s youth.
Italian Chicken Soup
I have learned that just about every cuisine has a version of chicken soup and even within a cuisine, there are many variations. It’s what I call similar but different.
One chicken cut up into parts and cleaned (this would include chicken feet in the old days)
Enough water to amply cover the chicken
2 to 3 onions, chopped
Bunch of carrots, chopped
4 to 5 parsnips, chopped
Salt and pepper to taste
2 to 3 garlic cloves, minced
Optional: Noodles, escarole, eggs. Sometimes, we added a little tomato paste, or tomatoes, the butt of the Pecorino Romano cheese
1. Boil the chicken for about 20 to 30 minutes. Skim off the scum.
2. Add the vegetables, including the parsley and garlic. Add salt and pepper. Simmer for about 3 hours.
3. Remove chicken from broth. You can either remove chicken from bones and put back into soup or eat separately.
4. At this point, you can use the optional ingredients.
If using, add noodles that were boiled separately (thin or medium; your preference.)
Add escarole (cut, steam separately and drain). Mix 2 eggs, ¼ cup of Parmesan cheese, salt and pepper then add to broth.
Top photo: Carole Murko’s grandmother and Bronx shopkeepers on a Saturday morning in the 1940s. Credit: Courtesy of the Murko family
Marcella Hazan, the great Italian cooking teacher and cookbook author, passed away Sept. 29. That evening, as I prepared a simple tomato sauce for dinner, I realized I routinely hear her husky voice in my head whenever I stir a pot of risotto or sauce a pasta (“careful, not too much!”).
Known simply as Marcella, she was the acknowledged game-changer on how Americans think about Italian food, the first to give us careful recipes for such classical dishes as tortelloni di biete (Swiss chard) and artichokes Roman-style. Long after her fame settled about her like a mantle, journalists began to focus instead on her prickly, brusque, curmudgeonly personality — choose your adjective, they’ve all been applied — her smoking, and her preference for Gentleman Jack whiskey.
A first encounter
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I came to know a different Marcella. Our friendship began with my fortuitous purchase of fresh scallops with their roe attached. I’d been hired as the food stylist/media escort for Marcella’s Los Angeles book tour for “Marcella Cucina.”
A flurry of faxes from the office of culinary publicist Lisa Ekus (full disclosure, now my agent) preceded the Hazans’ arrival: Be sure to hold her book face-out at the airport gate. Don’t even think about taking them to an Italian restaurant. They like Chinese food and American hot dogs. I was suitably unnerved.
Marcella was brusque all right. She acknowledged me with a nod and a grunt, slid into the back seat, and proceeded to speak only to her husband, Victor, and only in Italian. At our first stop, Marcella met with the food editor, and Victor hovered as I readied shrimp and scallop salad with orange sections for the shoot. In the recipe’s headnote, Marcella waxed poetic about using scallops with their roe attached but lamented their nonexistence in the United States. Enter the aforementioned scallops. First lesson: Close reading of an author’s work, especially the extra matter, garners undying gratitude. At the end of that first day, I was invited up to their suite to get better acquainted with the inseparable team.
A love of home cooking
That I was a home cook and eager student endeared me to the Hazans. Marcella’s life’s work was the Italian family meal, and she saw in me a kindred spirit she could entrust to liaise between her food and restaurant cookery. Second lesson: Home cooking is the backbone of family life, il sacro desco (the sacred table), and a career-worthy subject.
The Hazans and I kept in touch, and two years later I was hired to assist Marcella at a series of cooking demonstrations at the Mondavi Winery in the Napa Valley. My job was to keep her food from getting “cheffed up” by the pros preparing the finished meals. I can just imagine what then-resident-chefs Gary Jenanyan and Sarah Scott must have thought about the need for a “food translator.”
At “home” in the Mondavi’s luxurious three-bedroom guest house, with a fire going against the November rain, the Hazans and I became an ersatz family. Over morning coffee and cigarettes (hers), Marcella told me stories about their early years together, dished about the celebrities she taught, and talked about the dynamics of teaching. It was essentially a rehearsal for her memoir, “Amarcord.”
We scavenged ingredients from the winery larder to make home-cooked comfort food: stovetop veal tenderloin; tomato salad; and an Italian sort of Potatoes Anna, lush with olive oil, garlic and rosemary. Marcella cooked generously and fearlessly over high heat. There were splatters everywhere, but the resulting sauce for the veal was a deeply flavored rich brown, the potatoes were roasted to crisped perfection. Instead of adding notches to my culinary belt with lavish meals at the French Laundry, I had a one-on-one kitchen tutorial with one of the great teachers of our time.
At home in Florida
I saw Marcella at her most relaxed when I visited the Hazans at their condominium in Longboat Key, Fla. As though she was still a young girl in her native Cesanatico, she’d whistle to me from her first-floor balcony as I approached from the white-sand beach. She laughed easily, flirted with waiters, enjoyed living near son Giuliano and his family. Of course, leaving Venice meant having to buy shrink-wrapped food at Florida supermarkets instead of fresh, live ingredients along the Rialto. I heard a lot about that too.
The Hazans taught me to be on the lookout for the simplest site-specific gustatory pleasures when I traveled to Italy — the incomparably fresh mozzarella di bufala in Naples, the aroma of white truffles in Alba — and how those trump the air-shipped versions we get here, a sensibility I apply to my writing on seasonal, local foods. Ever the teachers, they were happy to impart their knowledge to a willing student who would pass it along.
If I could give Marcella something in return for all these lessons, it would be this: She sometimes felt discouraged that Americans’ obsession with food porn had become the new barrier to honest cooking. I’d like her to know how much she really did change our culinary landscape.
Top photo: Marcella Hazan cooking in Florida. Credit: Courtesy of the Hazan family