Articles in Tradition

The whole family can get in on the tamale-making traditions, with children spreading the masa dough onto tamales such as these sweet raspberry tamales. Credit: Cheryl Lee

For many families of Mexican descent, Christmas is the time to gather around the kitchen table to teach the next generation to spread masa dough onto corn husks. That’s the first step before filling, folding and steaming tamales.

For more than 90 years, this tradition has held strong in the family of my friends, sisters Victoria Delgado Woods and Rebecca Delgado.

I have known them for more than 30 years, having met while studying at the University of the Pacific. Victoria is also my daughter’s godmother, and every Christmas Eve we join her family making and eating tamales.

A conversation with the Delgado sisters

Curious about this tradition and how long their family had followed it, I asked them to answer a few questions about the Christmas Tamales:

Virginia Cruz Delgado, the Delgado sisters' late mother, taught her children how to make tamales -- a family tradition handed down from her parents. Credit: Delgado family photo

Virginia Cruz Delgado, the Delgado sisters’ mother, taught her children how to make tamales — a family tradition handed down from her parents. Credit: Delgado family photo

Who taught you to make tamales?

Our mother, Virginia Delgado.

How long has this been a tradition in your family?

Rebecca: As far as I know, we have always had tamales for Christmas Eve. But I do know when we started making them at our family home. I was 10 when my Nana passed away, and the next Christmas Eve we started making them at our home. Before, we would all go to our Nana’s house in Exeter, Calif. When my Nana became ill, we went to my Tía Binnie’s house to celebrate because my Nana stayed with her. I was a kid, so I assume my Mom and her four sisters would make them. The kids did not help. But that all changed when we started making them at our home. The rule was, you eat tamales, you help make tamales. Which mostly included spreading the masa on the leaves. Even if you were a guest and came over Christmas Eve, you helped make tamales. It is a good rule and stands to this day.

The same rule applied to other generations of the family, according to Victoria’s maternal aunts, Tía Luisa and Tía Carmelita, who were visiting when I interviewed her.

Tamale-making involved the entire family for prior generations

Luisa, 74, and Carmelita, 70, said the tradition goes back at least 90 years in the family. They recalled that they and all of their siblings — a total of five girls and two boys — always were required to pitch in.

Their production goal: 100 tamales.

Their job: washing the corn husk in two big portable bathtubs, spreading the masa on the corn husk, and adding two olives per tamale.

Their parents did the rest. In true farm-to-table fashion, their father slaughtered the pig. (The parts of the pig that weren’t used for the tamale meat was saved to make menudo for the New Year’s feast.) Their mother prepared the masa and the chiles.

Then came the Christmas Eve feast. Their father was the oldest of seven brothers — and all of them would arrive. They were all musicians, making for quite the party.

The Delgado sisters carry on the tradition

What flavors are traditionally made in your household?

Rebecca: Pork tamales with black olives are the tradition, but we added veggie tamales when Victoria became a vegetarian. We continue to make both kinds, but the veggie tamales seem to go faster than the pork. Most families do not use black olives in their tamales, but our family does. I remember my Mom’s friend, Mrs. Rodrigues, would add three or four black olives in one tamale and say whoever got that tamale, she would kiss them. I do not recall anyone collecting on the kiss, but it was fun to hear her say it.

Are you teaching the next generation how to make tamales?

Rebecca: YES. I hope they continue making them. My son Vicente could use more experience on making the chile and flavoring the masa, but I think he could do it without me. He will have some hiccups, just like we did when my Mom passed away and we started making them without her. I recall a few earlier tamales that needed or had too much salt in the masa, but we still ate them! Making tamales is a family event. I have good memories of all of us around the table spreading masa, talking, laughing, joking and, of course, making fun of each other’s spreading technique. To this day, my brother Ken thinks he is the best, but, then again, he thinks he is the best in everything. Brothers!

Victoria: My daughter Callie learned from me. But my boys, Jermaine and Antonio, are only allowed to spread the masa, whereas Callie knows the whole process.

Now, my daughter Ruby and I have joined the mix. Learning from the sisters gave me enough confidence to attempt making tamales in my home. I did diverge from the traditional pork tamale and made sweet tamales with raspberries. I had to get the approval of the Delgado sisters before I could call them a success, though.

And I did.

 

Raspberry tamales are a sweet holiday tradition to start in your family. Credit: Cheryl D. Lee

Raspberry tamales are a sweet holiday tradition to start in your family. Credit: Cheryl Lee

Raspberry Dessert Tamales

Prep time: 45 minutes

Cook time: 1 hour

Total time: 1 hour, 45 minutes

Yield: 14 to 17 tamales

Ingredients

3 to 4 pints fresh raspberries

1 tablespoon sugar

2 cups instant masa harina

1 stick plus 2 tablespoons butter, softened

3/4 cup orange juice

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/2 cup turbinado or raw cane sugar

Dried corn husks, soaked in hot water for one hour, drained and patted dry

Directions

1. Place the raspberries into a medium bowl.

2. Sprinkle the raspberries with the sugar. Stir to mix.

3. Place the raspberries into the refrigerator until ready to use.

4. In a mixer on medium speed, combine the masa harina and butter, until combined and crumbly.

5. Add the orange juice and vanilla, mix until combined.

6. Slowly pour in the turbinado sugar, mix for about one minute, until the masa dough is well combined.

7. Spread about 2 tablespoons of masa dough onto a corn husk, leaving about 1/2-inch border on the side.

8. Place about 4 or 5 raspberries into the center of the masa.

9. Fold the sides together, then tie with a strip of corn husk.

10. Place a steamer basket or overturned plate into a large stock pot, add a few inches of water, just to the bottom of the basket.

11. Place the tamales onto the basket, cover with a damp towel and a tight fitting lid.

12. Steam the tamales for 1 hour.

13. Remove the tamales from the steamer and let cool slightly before serving.

Main photo: The whole family can get in on the tamale-making traditions, with children spreading the masa dough onto the corn husks for these sweet raspberry tamales. Credit: Cheryl D. Lee

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Black cake. Credit: Ramin Ganeshram

It would arrive each year by the first week of December: a brown paper parcel from Tobago, where my father’s favorite niece lived. Inside was a used butter cookie tin, and inside that was a foil-wrapped cake that revealed itself to be dark as night.

The alcohol fumes that wafted off the cake as it was unwrapped were enough to make our young heads spin — and to preserve it for what was, in those days, a three-week journey by ship from Trinidad & Tobago to New York City. For weeks after the cake arrived, my brother Ramesh and I would scurry into the kitchen and pick at it when my father wasn’t looking.

This Caribbean holiday specialty, which is called Black Cake because of its signature color, Christmas Cake or simply “fruit cake,” is a fruit cake that will actually leave you hankering for more. Plummy, boozy and sweet but not sugary, Black Cake is best described as plum pudding that has gone to heaven.

This cake is so addictive that once you’ve tried it, seeking it come December is an obsession for some. I’ve been bribed with everything from hand-knit scarves, theater tickets, offers of baby-sitting, and even house-cleaning for one.

Black Cake inspired by an Irish Christmas recipe

Most common in English-Caribbean islands like Trinidad, Barbados and Grenada, its origins are in the Irish Christmas Cake, an equally worthy fruitcake cousin. Primarily consisting of raisins, prunes and currants, Black Cake contains only a small amount of the multi-hued candied peel that makes most fruit cakes less than appetizing. To add flavor and moisture, the fruits are soaked in a rum and cherry wine mixture for weeks.

For those of us who have a black-cake-making heritage, this fruit cake is serious business. Those who are really old school start soaking the fruits a full year ahead of time, although I have developed a “fast-soak” method, which means you can have your cake and eat it, too, all in time for the holiday season.

Every family has its own recipe with either a unique mixture of fruits, ratio of liquors or even combination of liquors. Lately, I’ve been using Manischewitz Cherry Wine because I find it has the same sweetness as Caribbean versions of cherry wine but with a lot more color and body.

If you hate fruitcake but love cakes that are densely rich, complex in flavor without being too sweet and ideal with a cup of tea, give Black Cake a try. You might find yourself breaking it out not just at Christmastime, but as we do — for weddings and special occasions of all sorts — because any excuse to eat this fruitcake will do.

This video gives a demonstration for making this cake, with the recipe below.

Black Cake

This recipe is adapted from “Sweet Hands: Island Cooking from Trinidad & Tobago” by Ramin Ganeshram. It features a “fast-soak” method that uses heat to start the maceration process for the dried fruits that make up the cake.

Ingredients

For the fruit mixture:

1 pound raisins

1 pound currants

1 pound prunes

1/2 pound candied cherries

1/4 pound mixed fruit peel

4 cups cherry brandy or cherry wine, divided

4 cups dark rum

1 cinnamon stick

2 star anise pods

1/2 vanilla bean

For the cake:

2 cups all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon grated nutmeg

1/8 teaspoon ground allspice

1 cup dark brown sugar

2 sticks (1 cup) butter, softened

6 eggs

1/2 teaspoon mixed essence (available in Caribbean markets)

1 tablespoon burnt sugar syrup (see note)

For the basting:

1/4 cup dark rum

1/4 cup cherry brandy

2 tablespoons sherry

1 dash Angostura bitters

Directions

For the fruit mixture:

1. For the fruit mixture, mix together all the dried fruits then place half the mixture in a food processor along with 1/2 cup of the cherry brandy. Pulse until the mixture is a rough paste, then place it in a large, deep saucepan or stockpot. Pulse the remaining fruits with another 1/2 cup of cherry brandy to form a rough paste, then add that to the pot as well.

2. Pour the remaining cherry brandy and rum into the pot with the pureed fruit. Add the cinnamon stick and star anise pods. Split the vanilla bean, scrape out the seeds and add both the seeds and the bean to the pan.

3. Place the pan over medium-low heat and mix well until just under a boil. Stir often so it does not scorch on the bottom.

4. Remove the pan from heat, cover it and allow the mixture to sit for one or two hours or as long as overnight. Alternatively, place fruit and spices in an airtight gallon jar and store unrefrigerated in a cool, dark place for at least three weeks or as long as a year.

For the cake:

1. Preheat the oven to 250 F and grease two 8-by-3-inch cake pans, then set them aside.

2. Sift together the flour, baking powder, cinnamon, nutmeg and allspice.

3. Place the sugar and butter in a bowl and cream with an electric mixer until fluffy (about 4 minutes).

4. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition.

5. Add the mixed essence.

6. Using a slotted spoon, remove 3 cups of the fruit from its storage jar and beat well into the butter mixture.

7. Add the flour mixture 1/2 cup at a time, beating well after each addition, then add the burnt sugar syrup and mix well.

8. Divide the batter evenly between the prepared pans and bake for 90 minutes or until a cake tester inserted into the middle of the cake comes out clean. Remove cakes from the oven and cool in their pans for 20 minutes.

9. Combine the rum, brand, sherry and bitters for basting and brush evenly over the cakes. Allow the cakes to cool completely, then remove them from the pans and wrap tightly in plastic wrap or in a zip-top bag.

10. Store in a cool, dry place for at least three days before eating. The recipe makes two cakes, which can be refrigerated for up to three months. If doing so, re-baste with the rum mixture once a week.

Note: Burnt sugar syrup or “browning” is found in Caribbean markets or online. You can also make it by combining 2 tablespoons of dark brown sugar and 1 tablespoon of water in a dry frying pan over medium-low heat. Heat slowly, stirring the sugar until it starts to caramelize. Continue stirring until the sugar syrup turns very dark brown or almost black. Add to batter as called for in a recipe.

Main photo: Black Cake is often simply called “fruit cake” or Christmas Cake in the English-speaking Caribbean. Credit: Ramin Ganeshram

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In Kolkata, formerly known as Calcutta, families of all religious backgrounds embrace Christmas traditions, including a far more moist and softer version of fruitcake than the traditional kind found in the United States. Credit: Rinku Bhattacharya

In India, December comes with the spirit of Christmas throughout the country, and, in Kolkata in eastern India, the city finds ways to regale in its deep-rooted colonial past.

Streets are decorated with rows of illuminated garlands and stars as the malls begin to make commercial hay. As a young girl — one raised Hindu while attending Catholic school — December festivals meant year-end concerts, carols and Christmas cards. And, my father’s own childhood tradition of a winter fruitcake.

I loved the simplicity of our small Christmas tree.While in most cases, the Christmas trees were faux, festivities were warm and very real.

There is something magical about walking through historic old churches, most notably the Basilica of the Holy Rosary in Bandel or St. Paul’s Cathedral to see worshipers — both Christian and otherwise — gathering to celebrate.

My first Christmas in the United States was two decades ago on a lonely college campus. When I declined my aunt’s generous invitation to join them for Christmas, I had no idea that the entire small college campus would be emptied out with little sign of life.

A query that made me question myself

Finally, I did encounter someone, who asked me if I celebrated the holiday. This came to me as a very curious question. I nodded and then pondered my answer, unsure whether it was correct. Our household did not observe the holiday religiously, although my parochial schooling had made me quite familiar with the religious aspects of the festivities.

Christmas, to me, was about the spirit of giving and cheer. It was about cookies and tinsel. So, how could I not celebrate the holiday?

I had grown up in the colonially influenced, secular and fairly cosmopolitan city of Kolkata, where most holidays are celebrated. But, until asked, it had not occurred to me that there were strings attached to celebrating Christmas. A visit to Park Street in the heart of Kolkata would prove otherwise.

Christmas season décor outside of St. Paul's Cathedral in Kolkata en Eastern India. Credit: Rinku Bhattacharya

Christmas season décor outside of St. Paul’s Cathedral in Kolkata en Eastern India. Credit: Rinku Bhattacharya

Last year, I visited the historical St Paul’s Cathedral and in the spirit of Christmases that I remembered, there were worshipers of all kinds offering homage to Baby Jesus. And there is always room for celebration in this food-obsessed city.

This is probably why it is easier for us to make our annual visit to India during Christmas. I find it so much easier to celebrate and be a part of a holiday where there are not religious obligations on our part. Mostly, it is about being a part of the festive atmosphere, which is still not completely commercialized, and where people still feel comfortable actually wishing each other Merry Christmas without anyone feeling offended.

Christmas also brings to mind the lines of a Bengali Christmas carol, something my grandmother taught me as a child, without any fuss or fanfare. In today’s politically correct world, I realize how simply my family had instilled the spirit of equality and religious acceptance in me.

Helping to carry on my father’s fruitcake tradition

We had our Christmas traditions. Nothing formal or locked in stone, except for our traditional family fruitcake that I first created for my father years ago, mostly because I wanted to ensure there was a homemade version of his family winter cake – a tradition for him.

All around the city, bakery shelves were filled with moist and dark brown fruitcakes, something my grandmother liked to call Plum Cake, possibly a throwback to the English plum puddings. These fruitcakes did not have any of the negative connotations commonly associated with fruitcakes in the United States. They were moist, soft and delightfully balanced – not even remotely related to their hardened cousins.

My father’s fruitcake tradition harked back to his childhood. As a boy growing up in a fairly conventional Brahman family, the other Christmas traditions eluded him. However, he remembered his father always coming home on Christmas Eve with a handful of goodies and three or four of those delight golden-brown plum cakes.

For my father, it was never Christmas without them.

Over the years, I finally settled for a fruitcake recipe that is featured in the Bengali Five Spice chronicles. It is a close cousin of the varieties that Dad spoke of, obtained from a friend’s Anglo-Indian family. The fruitcake has become my Christmas traditions.

A recipe that is now being savored by the second generation of fruitcake lovers might be just what your Christmas table desires. With notes of rum and dense molasses, it is rich and moist and perfect for any occasion. If you are persuaded to give this cake a try, start by soaking your fruit right now, so that you have them plump and flavorful in time for Christmas baking.

My personal tradition is to savor pieces of this fruitcake with tea, especially on the last remaining weeks of the year as I send out my holiday cards and pack for our annual visit to India.

Anglo-Indian Fruitcake

(adapted from “The Bengali Five Spice Chronicles”)

Prep time: 20 minutes (plus a week to a month for soaking the fruit)

Cook time: 45 minutes

Yield: 10 servings

I shy away from calling this recipe “plum cake.” That dark moist fruit cake is a Christmas regular in the multiple cake shops that dot Kolkata. This recipe is close, but something about it falls just a little short of the taste I remember, possibly because nostalgia cannot be bottled and infused in a cake batter to complete the flavors as the mind recalls them.

Ingredients

1 cup of large mixed raisins

1/2 cup chopped, candied citrus peel

1/4 cup chopped cherries or cranberries

1/2 cups of rum

2 cups all-purpose white flour

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 1/2 cups (3 sticks) unsalted butter, softened

3/4 cup loosely packed light brown sugar

1/4 cup granulated sugar

1/4 cup robust molasses

4 eggs, well-beaten

1 teaspoon baking powder

3/4 cup milk

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/2 cup shredded coconut

Directions

1. Place all the fruits in a non-reactive bowl. Add the rum and cover and set aside for at least a week, or, for best flavor, for a month.

2. Grease an 8-inch to 10-inch loaf pan and pre-heat the oven to 350 F.

3. Drain the fruit when you are ready to use and reserve the soaking liquor, if any.

4. Sift together the flour and salt. Sprinkle about a ¼ cup of the flour mixture over the drained fruit and toss to coat.

5. Cream together the butter, brown sugar, and granulated sugar. Stir in the molasses. Add the beaten eggs to the mixture and beat to combine.

6. Add the baking powder to the remaining flour mixture and add to the batter in batches, alternating with the milk, and beat until well combined.

7. Beat in the vanilla and almond extracts. Stir in the shredded coconut. Stir in the floured fruit. Pour batter into prepared pan.

8. Bake the cake for 40 to 45 minutes until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Cool slightly.

9. Invert the cake onto a plate and pour the reserved soaking liquor over it. Allow it to sit to absorb the liquor. This cake can be served warm or alternately wrapped and stored and served when needed.

Main photo: In Kolkata, formerly known as Calcutta, families of all religious backgrounds embrace Christmas traditions, including a far more moist and softer version of fruitcake than the traditional kind found in the United States. Credit: Rinku Bhattacharya

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Strings of dried peppers, eggplant, okra and other vegetables for sale in a market in Gaziantep, Turkey. Credit: Jennifer Hattam

Travel throughout southeastern Turkey in the height of summer and you’re likely to see rooftops, courtyards and gardens blanketed with color — row after row of peppers, eggplant and other vegetables drying in the sun.

Later rehydrated to be stuffed or stewed, dried vegetables are an essential ingredient in the traditional Turkish kitchen, but one that can be difficult to replicate for urban dwellers without a balcony or even a sunny window to call their own.

How to reconnect residents of Turkey’s large cities with the rich culinary culture of their rural roots is just one of the questions being posed by a new Istanbul-based group seeking to re-envision and rebrand Turkish cuisine, in much the same way as the New Nordic culinary movement has both celebrated and changed Scandinavian cooking.

“There are great raw materials in Anatolia and we’re eager to bring them to Istanbul and use them,” says Engin Önder, a cofounder of Gastronomika. (“Anatolia” refers to the westernmost part of Asia that comprises the majority of the land within Turkey’s borders.) This loose collective of young chefs, designers, historians and other interested parties has come together over the past year to operate an experimental kitchen and carry out various culinary research and design projects.

Gastronomika’s “Hacking the Modern Kitchen” exhibit at the Istanbul Design Biennial. Credit: İKSV/Ali Guler

Gastronomika’s “Hacking the Modern Kitchen” exhibit at the Istanbul Design Biennial. Credit: İKSV/Ali Guler

Önder describes one of these projects, “Hacking the Modern Kitchen,” as an effort to “find solutions for applying traditional techniques in small urban kitchens.” Its first “hack,” currently being exhibited as part of the 2nd Istanbul Design Biennial, is an ingeniously simple, space-saving system for drying herbs: paper cones hung with string from an ordinary household curtain or radiator. The cones shield the herbs from direct sunlight to best preserve their color and scent while they soak up the heat needed to dry them, explains a broadsheet printed with instructions and lines for folding the pamphlet itself into one of these paper “herbsacks.”

Confronting an urban revolution

The challenge of reacquainting young, urban people with skills like drying, canning, pickling and even growing their own food is not unique to Istanbul, of course. But it is perhaps particularly difficult, and important, in a country that has seen its urban population swell from 25% of the total in 1950 to 75% today. During that time, Istanbul alone has grown from 1 million residents to about 15 million, squeezing out urban gardens and other green space.

Gastronomika’s team faces the additional hurdle of getting people to rethink a food culture that, although rich with centuries of history and intermingled influences, has often been taken for granted by young Turks and misperceived internationally as amounting to little more than kebabs and baklava.

Istanbul is experiencing something of a renaissance of interest in Anatolian culinary heritage, with chefs like Musa Dağdeviren of the popular Çiya and Mehmet Gürs of the top-ranked Mikla scouring the countryside for local ingredients and traditional tastes to be incorporated into their menus. Though Gastronomika is in many ways part of this trend, it stands apart as a noncommercial, collaborative endeavor.

“Our kitchen is an experimental one and a community one,” Önder says. “It’s not about opening restaurants or creating menus, and no money changes hands.”

Members of the all-volunteer team keep busy with research trips around Anatolia (to “meet producers, learn techniques, talk to grandmothers,” Önder says). Talks and cooking events focus on the distinctive cuisines of Turkey’s Black Sea, southeast and other regions, and include in-depth, weeks-long explorations of single topics such as the vast array of ways to cook pilav (rice). They visit farmers markets in Istanbul and track what’s in season, and tend a gardening plot and organize mushroom-hunting expeditions on the edges of the city, where bits of open space can still be found amid the concrete.

Serving up a dish of stuffed vegetables over lamb ribs to an eager crowd at the Gastronomika kitchen.

Serving up a dish of stuffed vegetables over lamb ribs to an eager crowd at the Gastronomika kitchen hosted by SALT Beyoğlu. Credit: Gastronomika

Though the initiative is deeply rooted in Turkish terroir, its founders take a global approach to their mission. Turkish food needs ambassadors like those in Spain, says chef Semi Hakim, another Gastronomika cofounder, describing a program in which “Spanish chefs are sent abroad by their government to promote Spanish food, so tapas bars can become as ubiquitous as pizza places.”

Other international influences on the team members’ work include the investigative approach of the Nordic Food Lab, to which they’ve reached out for mentorship and advice; and star chef Ferran Adrià’s ambitious Bullipedia project, a Wikipedia-style culinary encyclopedia. Gastronomika’s own take on this concept is its online “karatahta” (blackboard), a digital archive of recipes gathered, techniques tried and ingredients sourced.

Like everything else Gastronomika does, the archive is participatory and open source, Önder explains.

“We share our notes, our presentations, our photos, our sources — all the knowledge we have,” he says. “The main thing is for everything to be public, even our failures. Experimentation always involves failures.”

The project’s members are “shamelessly energetic and fast learners,” says Vasıf Kortun, director of research and programs at SALT, a cultural institution in central Istanbul that hosts Gastronomika’s experimental kitchen in lieu of a traditional, profit-making museum cafe.

“The needs of Turkey’s research and food culture can’t be solved by one group, but if Gastronomika can tie into the bigger picture, they can be a big part of the conversation that’s beginning now,” Kortun says.

Main photo: Strings of dried peppers, eggplant, okra and other vegetables for sale in a market in Gaziantep, Turkey. Credit: Jennifer Hattam

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Sabatino Tartufi’s Tuber magnatum pico, weighing in at 4.16 pounds. Credit: Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

What do you call a truffle that is the size of a football? “The million-dollar mushroom,” said my daughter, Celina, when I phoned her en route to Sotheby’s for a media preview of the largest ever found. It was rumored that a Chinese prospect had already offered precisely that much. But the hulking fungus, weighing in at 4.16 pounds, came up short the following day when it went for a mere $61,250 on the auction block — less than $15,000 a pound.

If even the humblest truffle is too rich for your blood, you might find comfort in knowing that the seller, Sabatino Tartufi, will donate the proceeds to two charities that represent causes close to the owners’ hearts: The Children’s Glaucoma Foundation and Citymeals-on-Wheels. “We’ve been doing business in New York since 1999, and we want to give back,” family representative Gabriel Balestra said. His grandparents founded the company in 1911 in a small storefront in the tiny Umbrian village of Montecastrilli; it has since mushroomed into a premier source for fresh truffles around the globe.

The ultimate delicacy

Sotheby’s, the storied auction house for art, jewels, antiques and real estate, has sold everything from Jackie O’s pearls to the Soviet space capsule Vostok 3KA-2. Asked if it had ever handled truffles, Sotheby’s Wine CEO and president Jamie Ritchie, who officiated as auctioneer, said, “The only perishable we’ve sold before is wine.” If some of that wine is going for $10,000 a bottle, at least the buyer knows he has time to drink it.

Buying a truffle is a dicier proposition. Perishability is a big concern once it is exposed to air. “Each day it ages and the perfume diminishes,” English food writer and truffle expert Gareth Jones said when he read the news about the truffle on the auction block. “[It’s] all too sad. One in London rotted in a chef’s safe when he went on holiday without leaving the key!” The average walnut-sized white truffle will stay fresh for up to 10 days if stored properly; the four pounder, unearthed on Dec. 2, has two more weeks of “shelf life,” according to Balestra.

A professional truffle hunter hoping for the big find in Tuscany. Credit: Paolo Destefanis, www.paolodestefanis.com

A professional truffle hunter hoping for the big find in Tuscany. Credit: Paolo Destefanis, www.paolodestefanis.com

The story of its discovery is inauspicious enough: A boy named Matteo went for a walk with his 9-month-old puppy, who sniffed out the treasure. Such specimens are usually discovered by professional hunters with years of experience and dogs trained in stalking the elusive fungus. Asked where, precisely, the boy found it, Balestra would only say that it was somewhere in northern Umbria. According to Jones, hunters in central Italy are doing better this year than their competitors in the white-truffle paradise of Piedmont. This is unusual, because Umbria is better known for the more-common black truffle. However, the white species, Tuber magnatum pico, does grow in the upper Tiber Valley in addition to Orvieto and the mountainous area around Gubbio and Gualdo Tadino, where it burrows in with the roots of the poplar, the linden, the willow and the horn beam.

As for what could have led to such a monster size, Balestra admitted, “I don’t know why it’s so big.” He explained that, like all other truffles harvested this season, it started as a spore colony in the damp undergrowth about six months ago. Perhaps the rain that did such damage to Italy’s olive groves was a godsend for its truffles.

The treasure was unveiled for no more than five minutes — the dirt left clinging to its surface to prolong its freshness — before Balestra rescued it from the spotlight. “Light and heat dry it out, and its firmness could be compromised,” he said, swaddling it with linen and returning it to a secure cooler.

1 Auctioneer Jamie Ritche introduces the celebrity truffle

1 Auctioneer Jamie Ritche introduces the celebrity truffle
Picture 1 of 4

Auctioneer Jamie Ritchie introduces the celebrity truffle at Sotheby’s. Credit: Nathan Hoyt

How to handle truffles — carefully

The big question is, what will the winning bidder do with the delicacy? That’s a lot of tagliatelle to cover. Here are some tips for working with white truffles, adapted from my book “Umbria: Regional Recipes from the Heartland of Italy” (Chronicle Books, 2003). They should be dipped quickly in cool water to remove any clinging earth and blotted with a soft cotton cloth. They are never grated or chopped but rather shaved into paper-thin flakes with a special handheld wooden device into which a razor is secured. Nor should they ever be cooked; instead, the raw flakes are gently warmed when scattered onto the surface of hot food upon serving. Umbrian cooks like to use them on eggs lightly scrambled in butter; fresh egg pasta with an uncomplicated butter-based sauce; risotto cooked in butter and fresh veal broth, with aged Parmigiano-Reggiano folded in at the end; trout cooked in butter (its flesh is naturally delicate and a perfect canvas for the light strokes of the truffle); and butter-sautéed veal scallopini deglazed with dry white wine. They would be spoiled if used in dishes that contain garlic, vinegar, rustic tomato sauces, sheep’s cheese or other assertive ingredients.

A final note: Beware of truffle essence that is artificially produced and/or mixed with olive oil and passed off as genuine. To prevent such fraud in restaurants, Remo Rossi of the Umbrian Gastronomical Association suggests insisting that the truffle be sliced directly onto the plate at the table.

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Sopa de lima. Credit: University of Texas Press

My first trip to Mexico began in  the Yucatán. I landed in Mérida, which as David Sterling describes in his brilliant new tome, “Yucatán,” is “a cosmopolitan grande dame standing at the crossroads, graciously welcoming home her global family.” I eventually became part of that family, moving to Mexico and becoming a citizen.


“Yucatán: Recipes From A Culinary Expedition”
By David Sterling. University of Texas Press, 2014, 576 pages
» Click here to buy the book


My initial encounter with the country, however, was on that trip back in 1973. My mother and I went for lunch shortly after arriving from New York. My first taste in this new world was of sopa de lima, a quintessential Yucatecan dish. The soup is a rich chicken soup perfumed by toasted strips of tortilla and slices of lima, a heady aromatic citrus native to the region. Its exotic scent became an indelible part of my psyche at that moment. A sip today conjures magical worlds for me like Proust’s madeleines.

"Yucatan: Recipes From a Culinary Expedition"

The Yucatán peninsula, historically isolated from much of the rest of Mexico, comprises the states of Yucatán, Campeche and Quintana Roo. It was populated by the descendants of the Maya, and later, by a mix of immigrants. Like all Mexican regional cooking, Yucatecan cuisine is a fusion of traditions, in this case primarily Mayan, Spanish, Lebanese and French. Nowhere else in the republic are these influences so obvious. And the celebration of its brilliant complexity is experiencing a revival. From market stands to restaurants with culinary institute-trained chefs, the eating-out scene here has grown by leaps and bounds. But the range of what is known and available has always been limited. The region’s cooking is well represented in the rest of the country, but usually by a narrow list of “greatest hit” dishes.

The great investigator, chronicler and chef Diana Kennedy laid the groundwork for unearthing, recording and promulgating Mexican regional food outside the country. She is to Mexico what Julia Child was to France, and she was similarly undervalued within its borders. Kennedy, who is now over 90, recently put together an acclaimed volume on Oaxaca. But she never did get around to celebrating the Yucatán. So with her blessing, Sterling has taken the reins. Kennedy’s blurb, which graces the back of the book, says it best: “I know of no other book in print today, or in the past for that matter, that explains so meticulously the ingredients and history of the foods of Yucatán.”

I don’t either. Sterling has done a magnificent job in every way.

Scholarly and readable

The subtitle of “Yucatán” is “Recipes From a Culinary Expedition.” But this is no mere cookbook. It is a work both scholarly but readable, informative and entertaining. It is beautifully designed and features the colorful photos and drawings from a team of photographers and illustrators, as well as archival material.

David Sterling

David Sterling. Credit: University of Texas Press

Chapters divide the book by geography — the market, the urban matrix, the fertile shores, the pueblos, as well as sections devoted to “pantry staples” and “kitchen technique.” There’s an astute mix of personal anecdotes, historical background and culinary analysis, in addition to the histories of individual dishes. The author is honest when he confesses, in a section entitled “La Cantina” that “I spent a few years in Yucatán before venturing inside a cantina. After all, aren’t these rugged, all-male enclaves dangerous dens of smoke, prostitutes and raucous drunks? … Eventually, though, my curiosity to see what was behind those seductive doors got the better of me and led me to try several cantinas.” He became a fan. Sterling is founder of Los Dos Cooking School in Mérida, the first and only culinary institute in Mexico devoted exclusively to Yucatecan cuisine. He resides and works there in a restored turn-of-the-century mansion.

To anyone venturing to the area, the book is an invaluable resource. A detailed history of the various migrations explains the complex recipes within. Rustic country dishes are elaborated upon. Pre-Hispanic cooking techniques — for example the “pib” method of marinating and pit roasting meats — are explained in detail. There are indeed recipes the home cook will never make — which is fine with me. This is not for the Rachael Ray “made easy” crowd.

Traditional dishes

Occasionally, substitutes for rare ingredients are suggested, but tradition is never compromised. For example, for the serious chef who wants to recreate the classic marinated suckling pig dish, cochinita pibil, a stove-top variation is suggested. Recipes for street foods include a variety of tamales, such as simple to prepare creamy colados. The recipe for Mucbilpollo, a large, baked festival tamal, offers a fascinating account of a cultural phenomenon, but it’s unlikely to inspire the average homemaker to reproduce it. No matter. There are also straightforward, elegant Spanish and Mayan influenced dishes: jurel en escabeche, a tuna-like fish cooked with tangy pickled onions, or hearty charcoal-grilled pork with achiote sauce. These are relatively easy to prepare, as is the classic, aforementioned sopa de lima or the iconic papadzules (egg-stuffed tortillas bathed in pumpkin seed and tomato sauces).

Many of these recipes have been culled from local chefs, from country cooks who use wood for fuel, and even from women of social standing who harbor their grandmother’s secrets. Some see the light for the first time here. Sterling should and will be lauded, as Kennedy has been, for his service to Mexican cooking and to gastronomy in general.

“Yucatán: Recipes From a Culinary Expedition” is a must for anyone with an interest in Mexican food, and in Mexico itself; bravo to the author and to the many cooks who have made it possible for him to share this wealth with us.

 Main photo: Sopa de lima. Credit: University of Texas Press

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Persimmon pudding cake. Credit: Elaine Corn

If you want a moist autumn cake, put a persimmon in it. Or, in the case of this recent obsession I call persimmon pudding cake, make that four to six persimmons, depending on size.

This cake has been a project.

Many years ago while I was having dinner with friends, a dessert came to the table. It was humbly wrapped in the tin foil used by the woman who made it before she gave it to my host. He unfolded the protective flaps of crinkly tin foil away from treasure inside. It was a square the size of an uncut pan of brownies. Instead of the matte look of chocolate, this cake was dark as mahogany and glistened as if it had been dipped in honey.

Before me was persimmon cake. Of course I’d experienced persimmon fudge, persimmon pie and persimmon bread. But I was not to forget the taste reminiscent of gingerbread and a rich consistency firm enough to chew but soft and lush, like cheesecake meets mousse.

By persimmon season the next autumn, I tried to replicate the cake. The recipe was gone with the passing of the woman who had baked it. I hunted persimmon trees in my neighborhood that yielded the proper fruit, the Hachiya persimmon. This is different than the small persimmon eaten like an apple, which is the Fuyu. The Hachiya is big and heart-shaped and needs to be so fully ripe that to the touch it feels like there’s a loose gland under its thin skin.

When the fruit is ready, astringency should have yielded to sweetness. At this point, the Hachiya pulp can easily be scooped out of the skin, and the somewhat slimy neon-orange pulp can be puréed in a food processor.

I tried using the pulp in applesauce cake, but it was too runny. Then cider cake, which was too juicy. I tweaked gingerbreads. I made steamed persimmon pudding in an old pudding mold that I lowered into simmering water. With each effort, when I inverted the pan onto a serving platter, the dish drooled juices or fell apart. I added flour, cut back on liquid, increased leavening. Still, it was not right.

It wasn’t quite “CSI: Persimmon” at my house, but close. I knew that the woman who first made the cake I loved had come to California from West Virginia. Considering her age and regional traditions, I had a hunch. I went to an old “Joy of Cooking” and found the recipe for persimmon pudding that wasn’t steamed at all, but baked.

Again, results were too runny. I cut back on cream and some of the sugar. The trick was to change “Joy’s” one-bowl dump method to a technique typical of more structured cakes. For this, the butter and sugar were beaten first.

On my last try, I also had in the house a huge bag of home-dried pluots from my brother-in-law’s tree. He had dried them without citric acid, so they were dark and ugly. On impulse, he’d dusted his entire haul with chile powder. They were spicy!

I cut the pluots into small dice and added them to the persimmon batter, then baked it much longer than the “Joy” recipe and started it a higher temperature, hoping it would cook through while staying moist without being soupy.

Success is the recipe below. If you don’t have ugly dark home-dried pluots, which I’m sure you do not, use raisins, apricots, dates or dried plums (not prunes).

Persimmon Pudding Cake

Prep time: 45 minutes

Baking time: 1 hour, 15 minutes to 1 hour, 50 minutes

Ingredients

1 1/2 teaspoons chile powder (such as New Mexico or ancho chile powder)

1 cup diced dried raisins, pluots, dates, apricots or plums ½ cup sugar

1 cup light brown sugar, packed

1 stick butter, soft

3 eggs

2 cups puréed persimmon pulp (from 4 to 6 very ripe Hachiya persimmons)

1 cup all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon baking powder

2 teaspoons cinnamon

2 teaspoons powdered ginger

1/2 teaspoon grated nutmeg

1 1/2 cups cream

Directions

1. Butter a deep 9-inch square pan. To catch drips, prepare to set baking dish on a baking sheet or a large sheet of foil. Heat oven to 400 F.

2. In a bowl, toss the chopped dried fruit with chile powder; set aside.

3. Cream sugars and butter very well. Add eggs one at a time, beating only until each is absorbed. Stir in persimmon pulp.

4. In another bowl, sift baking soda, baking powder, cinnamon, ginger and nutmeg.

5. With mixer on low speed, add flour and cream alternately to the persimmon batter in three helpings, ending with flour. Stir in chile-dried fruit.

6. Scrape batter into the buttered baking dish. To catch drips, set on a rimmed baking sheet or a sheet of foil.

7. Bake at 400 F for 15 minutes. Reduce heat to 350 degrees F and bake 60 to 70 minutes more. Insert a toothpick near the center. If batter sticks to the toothpick, bake 10 to 15 minutes more. Center will just barely jiggle.

8. Cool in pan on a cooling rack no longer than an hour. Set a timer! Loosen by running a knife around the edges. Flip cake onto a serving platter. A bit of juice may pool around the cake.

9. Let stand until the cake cools completely. Serve with dollops of whipped cream on each piece.

Main photo: Persimmon Pudding Cake. Credit: Elaine Corn

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Pumpkins for Thanksgiving. Credit: Scott Hirko/iStock

There are basically three approaches to devising a Thanksgiving menu.

In the first, the foods are typical of New England where the first thanksgiving was celebrated some 250 years before it became a national holiday with a capital “T” in the mid-19th century.

In the second, families follow local and regional traditions. Or, if they are first- and second- generation immigrant families without a familiarity of traditional American Thanksgiving foods, they add avocado salad, curry or lasagna to the menu.

In the third, which no one I know uses other than the historically re-created village denizens of Plimouth Plantation in Massachusetts, cooks attempt the authentic 1621 menu.

The hardest part of the last approach is that no actual menu exists. We are left with just some cursory description from two sources supplemented with comparative studies of what we know American Indians and Englishmen ate in the 17th century.

At the center of the 1621 table was probably roast venison and a variety of water fowl. There were no mashed potatoes, no cranberry sauce and no pumpkin pies, although there were probably dried cranberries and pumpkins in some form. There was probably maize in the form of bread, griddle cakes or porridge.

Pilgrims’ harvest celebration

We know this from the two and only surviving documents from the harvest celebration shared by the Pilgrims and Wampanoag at Plymouth Colony in 1621. The sources are the English leader Edward Winslow’s “A Letter Sent From New England,” “A Journal of the Pilgrims at Plymouth” and Gov. William Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation.”

Winslow wrote to a friend that the governor (Bradford) had sent “four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors.” The hunters brought back enough food to feed the colony for a week along with “their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others.” Bradford adds that “besides waterfowl there was great store of wild turkeys” venison and Indian corn.

As far as all the other food the colonists and Wampoanoag ate, culinary historians only have educated guesses based on a number of secondary sources including archeological remains such as pollen samples. The Wampanoag ate wildfowl, deer, eels, lobster, clams, mussels, smoked fish, and forest foods such as chestnuts, walnuts, and beechnuts, and they grew flint corn, the multicolored Indian corn suitable only for being ground into flour and never eaten off the cob. They also had pumpkin and squashes, sunchokes and water lily. We can surmise that those foods were on the table. The Indians had taught the colonists how to plant native crops, which they did in March of 1620, but the things grown are only known from a later time, namely turnips, carrots, onions, and garlic.

In 1621, the sweet potato and the white potato had not yet arrived in New England, so they were not found on the Pilgrims’ harvest table that autumn. Later Plymouth writings mention eagle and crane begin eaten.

Winslow, in his letter to a friend, describes the foods available in Plymouth in 1621. “Our bay is full of lobsters all the summer and affordeth variety of other fish; in September we can take a hogshead of eels in a night with small labor, and can dig them out of their beds all the winter. We have mussels … at our doors.”

Stewed Pompion (Stewed Pumpkin). Credit: Clifford A. Wright

Stewed Pompion (Stewed Pumpkin). Credit: Clifford A. Wright

He went on to describe plentiful strawberries, gooseberries and many varieties of plums. “These things I thought good to let you understand, being the truth of things as near as I could experimentally take knowledge of, and that you might on our behalf give God thanks who hath dealt so favorably with us,” Winslow wrote

“Our Indian corn,” wrote Winslow, “even the coarsest, maketh as pleasant a meal as rice.” In other words, traditional English dishes of porridge, pancakes and bread were adapted for native corn.

In September and October, a variety of dried and fresh vegetables were available. The produce from Pilgrim gardens is likely to have included what were then called herbs: parsnips, collards, carrots, parsley, turnips, spinach, cabbages, sage, thyme, marjoram and onions. Dried beans and dried wild blueberries may have been available as well as local cranberries, pumpkins, grapes and nuts.

One dish that very well might have been on that harvest table of the fall of 1621 is “stewed pompion,” as it was called by the 17th-century English. One of the earliest written recipes from New England is found in a book by the English traveler John Josselyn who first went to New England in 1638 and whose book “Two Voyages to New England” was published in 1674. He called it a “standing dish,” suggesting that it was an everyday dish. The adapted recipe you can make is based on his original description where he says “it will look like bak’d Apples.”

Stewed Pompions (Stewed Pumpkins)

Ingredients
4 cups cooked (boiled, steamed or baked) pumpkin flesh, roughly mashed
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 to 3 teaspoons apple cider vinegar
1 or 2 teaspoons ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon salt

Directions

In a saucepan over medium heat, stir and heat all the ingredients together. Adjust seasonings to taste, and serve hot.

Main photo: Pumpkins for Thanksgiving. Credit: Scott Hirko/iStock

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