Articles in Desserts w/recipe
When it comes to Carnival, overindulgence is the whole point: too many parties, too much booze and, in just about every Catholic country, great platters of fried sweet dough.
Carnival doughnuts are omnipresent across Catholic Europe and parts of the Americas. In Lyon and Strasbourg, France, square yeast-raised beignets are made for the holiday; in Spain you will find rosquillas de carnaval (a dense, doughnut-shaped treat) and all sorts of other buñuelos; in Italy each region has its own fritelle di carnevale. The one-word explanation? Lard.
Christians were supposed to abstain from meat products for the 40 days of Lent, and doughnuts were traditionally fried in hog fat. As every good Catholic knows, you need to sin before you can repent. So, if you’re going to spend six weeks restraining your urges, you might as well make a good reason for it.
European doughnuts: happy excess
For ordinary people, doughnuts became associated with happy excess during a time when all the rules of their miserable existence could be inverted, when a measly diet of stale bread was replaced by mountains of fresh-fried doughnuts.
But few are as obsessed with Carnival or fried dough as the Venetians. Year round, you can find delicious krapfen (jelly doughnuts) there, but in the lead-up to Lent, the fried dough repertoire increases exponentially. Bakery windows are full of frittelle di carnevale, which depending on the pastry shop, take two very different forms: airy yeast-raised fritters chock-full of raisins, pine nuts, citron and, occasionally anisette or grappa (see recipe); or fried cream puffs that enclose a variety of creamy fillings.
I can’t believe that it’s a coincidence that Europe’s doughnut orgies take place in the depths of winter. The sugar and the fat are better than any high-tech undergarment.
I had a chance to test this out during a ski trip to Innsbruck even as Fasching (Carnival) was reaching its delirious peak. Here, in the alpine Tyrol, locals celebrate by parading through the streets in masks worthy of a Brothers Grimm nightmare and by eating mountains of Faschingskrapfen, or Carnival doughnuts. Even as I got off the train, I was greeted with stands loaded down with plump raised doughnuts, some filled with preserves, others with custard, chocolate cream or even eiercognac, a boozy eggnog custard.
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According to my friend, Austrian food historian Ingrid Haslinger, they’ve been frying up these yeast-raised pastries here for centuries. In the days when sugar was a luxury reserved for princes, the mountain folk would dip their krapfen into bowls of prune and apple butter. Now everybody can indulge in the sweet-filled variety.
I was pleased to find piles of Carnival doughnuts even at the mountaintop ski lodge. In these harsh conditions, they are not merely a snack but rather lunch itself. Following the lead of local skiers, I sat down to a spicy goulash soup as appetizer and continued with doughnuts for my main course (one filled with apricot and the other with chocolate, if you must know). Winter never felt so right.
The perfect pre-Lent indulgence
The doughnut as Carnival food, something that you gorge on before the gray days of Lent, isn’t entirely an alien concept in the United States. The Pennsylvania Dutch keep a firm grip on the centuries-old tradition of frying up enormous batches of Fastnachts in anticipation of Ash Wednesday just like their ancestors did in southwest Germany and parts of Switzerland. The Fastnacht is typically a yeast-raised doughnut (sometimes with potato added) cut in the form of a diamond, often slashed and opened in the center to allow it to cook faster and a larger surface area to get crisp.
You find similar recipes in Alsace and neighboring regions today. Fastnacht (literally “fast night”) is a German word for Shrove Tuesday and in the parts of the old country, these Carnival pastries were (and are) called Fastnachstküchle. The plain folk there shortened the name but kept the recipe and at least the doughnut part of the pre-Lenten tradition; Carnival is certainly not the festival of folly that it can be in Catholic Germany.
One rule that is universal, though, no matter where you find the doughy treats and regardless of name: Too much is never enough. You’ll have plenty of time to repent.
Frittelle veneziane (Venetian Carnival Fritters)
Prep time: 15 minutes
Cook time: 4 to 6 minutes per batch
Yield: About 2 dozen
2 ounces (about 1/2 cup) golden raisins
1/2 cup anisette liqueur
1/4 ounce (1 packet) active dry yeast
3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons tepid water
1 large egg
9 ounces (about 2 cups) all-purpose flour
3 tablespoons granulated sugar
Large ping (1/8 teaspoon) salt
1 ounce (about 3 tablespoons) pine nuts
1 ounce (about 3 tablespoons) chopped candied citron
Grated zest of 1 lemon
Oil or lard for frying
1. In a bowl, combine the raisins and anisette. Cover with plastic wrap and soak at least 4 hours or overnight.
2. In the bowl of a stand mixer, stir together the water and yeast. Let stand 5 minutes. Stir in the egg. In a separate bowl, mix together the flour, granulated sugar and salt.
3. Using a paddle attachment, beat the flour mixture into the water-yeast mixture on low speed. Beat 5 minutes on medium to make the batter very smooth — it should be somewhat thicker than pancake batter.
4. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and place in a warm location. Let stand until the batter has doubled in volume, 45 to 60 minutes. Stir in the raisins, pine nuts, citron and lemon zest.
5. Using a deep fryer or a heavy pan, heat at least 3 inches of the oil to 350 F. If you’re not using a deep fryer and are without a built-in thermostat, check the oil temperature using a candy or deep-fry thermometer.
6. Lightly oil 2 tablespoons, then scoop about 2 tablespoons of batter in one spoon and slide it off with the second. A small oiled ice cream scoop works well, too. Fry about a half-dozen at a time, turning occasionally until cooked through, 4 to 6 minutes. Drain on paper towels and allow to cool — enough so you can pick them up. Sprinkle generously with confectioner’s sugar. The frittelle are best served warm. Leftovers can be frozen and reheated in a 350 F oven.
For more on doughnut history, check out Michael Krondl’s most recent book: “The Donut: History, Recipes and Lore from Boston to Berlin.”
Main photo: Fritetelle veneziane, or Venetian fritters, are best served warm with a dusting of confectioner’s sugar. Credit: Michael Krondl
Nine years ago my husband was diagnosed with celiac disease. The diagnosis was a godsend as his symptoms displayed evidence of something much worse. When the test results were in, we celebrated. We were also quite giddy that he would become well again with the elimination of gluten. What a fabulous prognosis — no drugs, just elimination.
In an interesting twist of fate, our Icelandic mare, Valkyrie, had birthed a foal on the same day as Jim’s diagnosis. We named her Gaefa, which means good luck and good fortune, both of which we felt were in ample supply.
Nine years ago gluten intolerance and celiac disease were not yet mainstream. As you might imagine, stripping my pantry of wheat was both a joyous and sad day for me. Afterall, my one-half Italian being craved homemade pasta, breads and treats. But my sweetheart’s disease was not a death sentence. It was a mere inconvenience. And, I, by golly, would master gluten-free cooking. And I have.
Myriad gluten-free foods
There are myriad foods that are naturally gluten free. Take risotto for one. Steak for another. Greens. Fruits. Chocolate. The list goes on and on.
Here is a perfect gluten-free Valentine’s Day Dinner. My sweetie is happy, and so am I!
Arugula Salad With Balsamic Vinaigrette
Flourless Chocolate Cake
I like to create menus that reflect both my culinary acumen, and the love I have for the recipients. There truly is nothing, and I mean nothing, better than watching someone relish what you have cooked for them. This menu is tailored to Jim. He loves risotto, he loves lobster and he loves steak. These recipes provide a great twist on surf and turf as the lobster risotto makes a lovely side to the filet mignon. The arugula salad complements the meal by adding a peppery green, dressed with a sweetish balsamic vinaigrette.
Risotto is one of the simplest and most versatile of dishes. And while I provide this recipe as a guide, keep in mind you can make risotto without the white wine, with onions if you don’t have shallots, or with just butter, just olive oil and with many different “add-ins.” To celebrate Valentine’s, however, nothing beats lobster.
Prep time: 20 minutes
Cook time: 20 to 30 minutes
Total time: 40 to 50 minutes
Yield: 3 to 4 servings
1 (1 1/2-pound) lobster (have it steamed at the fish counter to save you a step)
1/2 stick butter
1/2 cup of shallots or onions
1 cup Arborio rice
1/2 cup white wine
4 cups chicken broth, heated
1/2 cup Parmesan cheese, grated
1 to 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1/8 teaspoon fresh pepper
2 teaspoons freshly chopped thyme
1. Remove meat from lobster, cut into bite-size pieces.
2. Heat butter in a large saucepan over medium heat, add shallots and cook until tender.
3. Stir in rice and stir until coated with oil about 2 minutes.
4. Add the wine and stir until the wine is cooked off and absorbed.
5. Add the broth one ladle at time, stirring constantly until the broth is absorbed. Continue adding broth until rice is fluffy, tender and creamy.
6. Add the Parmesan, lemon juice, pepper and thyme.
7. Fold in the lobster, serve when lobster is warm.
Stove Top Filet Mignon
Prep time: 2 to 3 minutes
Cook time: 8 to 10 minutes
Total time: 10 to 13 minutes
Yield: 4 servings
Four 1/2-pound filets
Salt and pepper
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons butter
Cast iron pan
1. Bring meat to room temperature.
2. Season with salt and pepper.
3. Heat olive oil and butter on high in cast iron pan.
4. Add filets.
5. Cook 4 to 5 minutes per side for medium-rare filets.
Heirloom Flourless Chocolate Cake
I love homemade gifts from the heart. My sweetheart, Jim, has celiac disease, which is an autoimmune disease triggered by eating wheat or foods with gluten. So in keeping with all the buzz about the aphrodisiac effect of chocolate, I decided a flourless (hence, no gluten) chocolate cake would be my gift.
This recipe is from the family archives of my amazing friend Deb Mackey, with her note: “Here’s an absolutely FAB recipe for a flourless chocolate cake that is to die for, and can be très elegant, depending on how you gussy it up. I frequently plate it on a swirl of raspberry coulis for especially discerning friends. Everyone I’ve ever made it for has raved, and it became the birthday cake of choice for every man in my life. And for some of their subsequent wives, too, I might add.”
Prep time: 30 to 45 minutes
Cook time: 1 1/2 hours
Total time: 2 to 2 1/4 hours
Yield: 8 to 10 servings
12 ounces semisweet chocolate chips
1/2 cup unsalted butter
6 eggs, separated, at room temperature
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup chopped pecans
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1 tablespoon Bailey’s Irish Cream
1 pinch cream of tartar
2 cups whipping cream
1/4 cup powdered sugar
2 tablespoons Bailey’s Irish Cream
2 ounces chocolate curls
10-inch springform pan, greased (or wax/parchment paper will do)
1. Preheat oven to 350 F.
2. Melt chips and butter in a bowl over hot water.
3. Beat egg yolks in large bowl (5 minutes, or until thick).
4. Beat in 1/2 cup sugar, 1 tablespoon at a time.
5. To the melted chocolate, stir in pecans, vanilla and 1 tablespoon of Bailey’s
6. Beat egg whites with cream of tartar, to soft peak
7. Gradually add remaining 1/2 cup sugar. Beat stiff, but not dry.
8. Fold 1/4 of whites mixture into the chocolate cake mix.
9. Fold the chocolate mix into the remaining whites mixture.
10. Pour into lined pan and bake 30 minutes at 350 F.
11. Reduce oven to 275 F. Bake another 30 minutes.
12. Turn off oven. Let cake stand in oven with door slightly ajar for about 30 minutes.
13. Remove from oven. Dampen towel and place on top of cake for 5 minutes. Remove the towel.
14. Top of cake will crack and fall. Cool cake in pan.
15. Remove springform when cool. Transfer cake to platter.
Whip cream to soft peak. Beat in powdered sugar and 2 tablespoons of Bailey’s.
1. Spoon whipped cream mixture over top of cake and smooth. Sprinkle with chocolate curls.
2. Refrigerate 6 hours. Let stand at room temperature for 30 minutes before serving.
Main photo: When your husband loves risotto, lobster and steak, Lobster Risotto and filet mignon offer a great twist on surf and turf. Credit: Carole Murko
This Valentine’s Day, as you look for foods besides oysters and chocolate to woo the object of your affection, consider exploring your spice cabinet.
You’ll be surprised at the flavors’ powers — as natural aphrodisiacs — to be found there.
To heighten the senses and set the mood, we need fragrance and beauty in our foods.
In fact, Ayurveda — the holistic method of medical treatment in India rooted in Hinduism — traditionally placed a fair amount of emphasis on aphrodisiac terminology. The intent was to ensure that people led healthy conjugal lives and the ruler appropriately produced the requisite heir. There is similar wisdom found in other ancient texts.
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So, cull through this list of common spices for your Valentine’s Day menu that also may help you spice things up — in other ways — with your Valentine.
First up is cinnamon, whose lustrous and sweet aroma can make you both happy and calm. (And, it’s certainly good for your blood pressure.)
Right alongside, you might have cloves, whose essential quality is to uplift your mood and spirits. And then there is nutmeg, also known for its antioxidant and astringent qualities.
An aphrodisiac spice, says ‘The Arabian Nights’
To complete the fragrant collection, we also have cardamom, which “The Arabian Nights” extols for its passion-inducing properties.
All of these will find its place in a good garam masala blend. And when meshed with saffron — the exotic spice of the gods — your Valentine’s Day collection of aromas will be complete.
When planning your menu, consider a good one-pot dish such as a biryani that will bring to your table all of these spices and more. If that’s too complex, try rubbing a chicken with butter and garam masala and serving it roasted to perfection, with saffron mashed potatoes on the side.
But don’t forget the dessert. Fortunately, many Indian desserts bring together cardamom, saffron and rose. From the universe of puddings, halwas and burfees, I have dug up a Bengali specialty called the sandesh, which, when done right, can win over the most fastidious of hearts and palates.
A sandesh is a cheesecake of sorts, with the emphasis on a specific cheese: channa, or homemade white cheese. The art of the traditional sandesh rests in the right texture and handling of this channa. Although it is prolific in Indian confectionary shops, we’re often hard-pressed to find good sandesh in commercial Indian sweet shops — mainly because of the relatively short shelf life of this delicate sweet.
Spicing up cheesecake the sandesh way
Ricotta cheese, if treated right, can be a substitute for channa. This recipe features a cheater sandesh, using ricotta cheese streaked with saffron and subtly scented with freshly crushed cardamom.
I have created this recipe for days when time does not allow for the making and draining of channa. It’s a fairly good facsimile for the steamed sandesh known as bhapa sandesh that my grandmother used to make. In this sandesh, instead of cooking the channa over the stove top, it is steamed with gentle and continuous heat.
In my recipe, I bake it on low heat in the oven and then cool and shape it. If you wish, you can garnish these delicate morsels with pistachios, snipped rose petals and anything else that catches your fancy.
Serve them with some chilled saffron almond milk.
That’s bound to warm the cockles of your heart and soothe your senses, all at once.
Baked Orange-Flavored Cheesecake — Bhapa Sandesh
Adapted from “The Bengali Five Spice Chronicles,” by Rinku Bhattacharya
Prep time: 45 minutes
Cook time: 30 minutes
Total time: 1 hour, 15 minutes, plus time for cooling
Yield: 12 servings
For the cheesecake:
Clarified butter or ghee for greasing the casserole dish
1 1/2 cups low-fat ricotta cheese (about 30 ounces)
3/4 cup condensed milk (about 12 ounces)
1/2 teaspoon saffron strands
1/4 teaspoon freshly crushed cardamom (about 2 pods)
6 tablespoons fresh orange juice or tangerine juice (about one medium tangerine)
For optional garnishes:
1. Preheat the oven to 325 F.
2. Grease an 8-by-12-inch cake or casserole dish and set aside.
3. In a mixing bowl, beat together the ricotta cheese and condensed milk.
4. Stir in the saffron strands and cardamom, pour the mixture into the greased casserole dish. The objective is to achieve a streaked effect rather than uniform coloring.
5. Pour the mixture into the prepared pan and bake for 30 minutes.
6. Drizzle with the orange juice and cool for one hour.
7. Carefully invert the prepared cheesecake onto a flat surface. This can be cut into shapes using a cooking cutter, or formed into round balls.
8. If desired, garnish with orange sections and almonds, or roll or sprinkle with chocolate shavings.
9. Chill for 45 minutes or longer, and serve.
Main photo: Sandesh, an Indian version of cheesecake, can be shaped with cookie cutters or formed into round balls. Credit: Rinku Bhattacharya
For Valentine’s Day, what could be more romantic than a homemade dinner? If you are looking for that dish that says love, look to these five foods, which have been considered aphrodisiacs for centuries.
Aphrodisiacs were named for Aphrodite, the goddess of love. According to ancient Greek myth, Aphrodite was born from the sea and arrived ashore transported by either an oyster or scallop shell. Because of her sea connection all seafood, but especially shellfish, was considered an aphrodisiac since those times.
Cacao beans, essential to making chocolate, first made their way to Europe from the New World in the 1500s. Once chocolate arrived, physicians and health writers began to study it and decided it was not only an aphrodisiac but also a cure-all for many ills, including indigestion. Casanova, famed writer of the 1700s, devoted several pages in his memoir to how effective chocolate was in getting women into the mood.
Chili peppers and cayenne
For hundreds of years spices that tingle the tongue — such as red pepper flakes, cinnamon and ginger — were thought to be aphrodisiacs. The idea was that if they make the tongue tingle they would make other body parts tingle, too. Chili peppers and these spices quicken the pulse and induce perspiration, which mimics the state of sexual arousal and also stimulates the release of endorphins.
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Strawberries and raspberries
Because of their seductive color, strawberries were called “fruit nipples” and considered powerful aphrodisiacs during the Renaissance.
The ancient Greeks and Romans worshiped and held yearly festivals for the wine god Bacchus, also called Dionysus, who was born from an affair between the god Zeus and a mortal woman. Wine, for the ancients, was not just a nice drink to have with dinner, but thought to be absolutely essential to good health. At that time, water was often filled with dangerous germs, whereas wine was safe. More than just essential to good health, wine was believed to be essential to life, making it one of the first and most popular aphrodisiacs.
Here are some recipes that feature these foods. While I can’t guarantee they will be aphrodisiacs, I can promise they’re delicious.
This dish is best eaten sizzling hot when the aroma of the garlic and saffron are most potent. For a dramatic presentation, cook and serve it in a small iron skillet.
From: “Opera Lover’s Cookbook” (Stewart, Tabori & Chang) by Francine Segan
Prep time: 5 minutes
Cooking time: 5 minutes
Total time: 10 minutes
Yield: 4 servings
12 medium shrimp, peeled and deveined
4 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
3 tablespoons olive oil
7 to 8 strands saffron
1 jalapeño pepper, sliced
Salt and black pepper
1. Combine the shrimp, garlic, oil, saffron and jalapeño in a small bowl.
2. Heat a small skillet over high heat and sauté the shrimp with the marinade until the shrimp are golden, about 3 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Melty Manchego With Spicy-Sweet Tomato Jam
So many aphrodisiacs in one dish! Lovely Manchego is melted in a pan with a hint of garlic and then spiked with a splash of sweet sherry. The aromas will drive all the guests straight into the kitchen.
The tomato jam, a spicy-sweet mix of tomatoes, sugar, jalapeño and lemon, is simple to make yet adds just the right zing to the warm melty cheese.
From “Opera Lover’s Cookbook” (Stewart, Tabori & Chang) by Francine Segan
Prep time: 10 minutes
Cooking time: 35 minutes
Total time: 45 minutes
Yield: 4 servings
For the tomato jam:
1 (14.5-ounce) can diced tomatoes
3/4 cup sugar
1 jalapeño pepper, sliced
Zest and juice of 1 lemon
1/4 teaspoon salt
Cayenne pepper, optional
For the cheese:
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
1 pound Manchego cheese, cut into 1-inch sections
1 tablespoon sweet sherry
Crusty bread, sliced
For the tomato jam:
Combine the tomatoes, sugar, jalapeño pepper, lemon zest and juice, salt, and cayenne pepper, if using, in a medium saucepan and simmer over medium-low heat for about 30 minutes, until thick. Allow to cool, and then transfer to a small serving bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and reserve.
For the cheese:
1. Heat the oil and garlic in a small nonstick skillet over low heat until the garlic begins to turn golden, about 2 minutes. With a slotted spoon remove the garlic; set aside. Add the cheese in one layer and fry until warm and soft, about 1 minute. Remove the skillet from the heat and add the sherry. Cover the skillet and return it to the heat for 2 to 3 minutes.
2. Serve right in the skillet or slide the warm cheese onto a serving platter and top with the garlic. Serve with the tomato jam and bread on the side.
Flourless Italian Chocolate Cake
This flourless cake, has a crisp, macaroon-like outer layer and a dense, incredibly moist center. As the cake cools, it collapses a little, creating a pretty webbing on the delicious crust.
From: “Dolci: Italy’s Sweets” (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2011) by Francine Segan
Prep time: 10 minutes
Baking time: 30 minutes
Total time: 40 minutes
Yield: 8 servings
7 tablespoons (3 1/2 ounces) unsalted butter, plus more for the pan
7 ounces dark chocolate
1 cup granulated sugar
4 eggs, separated
2 tablespoons potato starch
1 tablespoon vanilla
1. Preheat the oven to 350 F. Butter the bottom and sides of a 9-inch springform cake pan.
2. Melt the butter and chocolate in a bowl in the microwave.
3. In a large bowl, beat the sugar and egg yolks with an electric hand-held mixer until creamy and pale yellow. Beat in the chocolate-butter mixture until creamy. Add the potato starch and vanilla and mix until well combined.
4. In a separate bowl, beat the egg whites until stiff. Slowly, using a spatula, fold the egg whites, a little at a time, into the chocolate mixture until combined.
5. Spread the batter evenly into the prepared pan. Bake for about 30 minutes, until just set in the center. Allow it to rest for about 30 minutes before cutting it until it collapses and the top crust cracks a bit. Serve with strawberries on the side, if you like.
Main photo: Garlic shrimp and melty Manchego with spicy-sweet tomato jam are tasty aphrodisiacs. Credit: “Opera Lover’s Cookbook” by Francine Segan
Sweet breakfast buns o’ mine! Babka is a well-loved and indulgent breakfast bread, but this version — studded with dried fruits such as strawberries, tart cherries and apricots — gives it a fresh spin.
Perfect with a morning cup of joe, pomegranate or mint tea, these babka buns are a lovely addition to a brunch anytime. The cardamom and anise keep it spicy and invigorating, and the individual size (made in a muffin tin) makes it perfect for an on-the-go breakfast. Be sure to leave enough time for rising — this is a rich dough and really needs the time.
Babka Buns with Dried Fruit and Cardamom
Prep time: 1 hour, plus 3 hours for rising
Cook time: 35 minutes
Total time: 4 hours, 35 minutes
For the dough:
2 tablespoons (19 grams) dry active yeast
1 cup water, divided (1/4 cup around 90 F to 95 F; room temperature for the rest)
1 teaspoon sugar
1 cup (220 grams) light brown sugar
2 1/2 cups (340 grams) bread flour
3 1/2 cups (455 grams) all purpose flour plus more for dusting
1 teaspoon salt
3 large eggs
2/3 cup olive oil
1 tablespoon vanilla bean paste
Filling No. 1:
1/2 cup sugar
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon, roasted preferred
3 teaspoons ground cardamom, roasted preferred
1/2 teaspoon ground anise
3/4 cup fig jam
zest and juice of one lemon
Filling No. 2:
1/3 cup ( 50 grams) dried strawberries, cut into rough 1/4-inch dice
1/3 cup ( 50 grams) dried pitted tart cherries, cut into rough 1/4-inch dice
1/2 cup (110 grams) dried apricots or peaches, pitted and cut into rough 1/4-inch dice
1/3 cup (65 grams) dried raspberries (optional)
1 tablespoon water
1/4 cup turbinado sugar
2 teaspoons sea salt
For the dough:
1. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook, combine the yeast, 1/4 cup warm water and 1 teaspoon sugar; mix at low speed until just blended. Let stand for about 5 to 7 minutes, until foamy.
2. Sift the flours and salt into a mixing bowl or onto a sheet of parchment paper and set aside.
3. Add the remaining water, the light brown sugar and the flour mixture; mix until just combined. Add the eggs, one at a time, mixing until each is fully incorporated. It will not be a dough yet. Add the oil and vanilla bean paste; mix on low to medium-low to fully combine. Increase the mixer speed to medium and knead for 5 minutes to form a moist, dense dough.
4. Transfer the dough to a clean bowl, cover with a kitchen towel, place in a warm spot and let rise at room temperature for about 3 to 3 1/2 hours, until the dough has doubled in size.
5. When the dough has risen, divide it into 12 portions.
For the fillings:
1. In a large mixing bowl, stir the sugar, cinnamon, cardamom and anise together; set aside.
2. Place the fig jam, lemon juice and lemon zest in another small mixing bowl; stir to combine. Set aside.
3. Combine dried fruits in a bowl. Set aside.
Finishing the babka buns:
1. Lightly flour a work surface.
2. Spray two muffin tins with with nonstick vegetable oil spray.
3. Place divided dough portions, one at a time, on the floured surface and pat into a large rectangle, about 1/4-inch thick (roughly 5 inches by 10 inches).
4. Spread each piece with 2 tablespoons of the fig jam mixture, 2 teaspoons of the sugar and spice mixture, and about 3 tablespoons of the dried fruit.
5. Roll up, jelly-roll style; it will look like a small filled snake. Twist at the center and fit into the prepared muffin tins, tucking it in, or smooshing it down, as necessary to make it fit.
6. Cover with a kitchen towel; repeat with the remaining dough pieces, allowing them to rest for 45 minutes (some will rest more than others because it takes time to prep them all, and that’s fine).
7. Preheat the oven to 375 F.
8. For the finish, make an egg wash by beating the egg lightly with the water in a small bowl.
9. With a pastry brush, brush the buns with the egg wash and sprinkle with turbinado sugar and a pinch of the salt.
10. Bake for 20 to 22 minutes or until dark golden brown. Cool in the pan for 15 minutes, then transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.
Main photo: Just out of the oven, these sweet bread bites are truly delicious. Credit: @TheWeiserKitchen
There are so many ways to enjoy chestnuts. A wonderful winter treat, chestnuts are delicious fresh, served either pan- or oven-roasted, or as an out-of-hand snack. They can also be dried, and when reconstituted, have a wonderful toothsome quality. The Italians in the northern region of Piedmont slow cook dried chestnuts in the oven in a mix of honey and wine. They then serve these smoky sweet delights with slices of lardo or salami.
Popular in northern Italy’s Piedmont region is a mound of chocolate-chestnut puree topped with spiked whipped cream — a melt-in-your-mouth delight. It’s called Monte Bianco, White Mountain, because the dessert looks like the snow-capped Alps. Many Italians elaborate on the theme and scatter candied violets and crushed candied chestnuts on the “mountain”to look like flowers and rocks.
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Chestnut flour, made of ground dried chestnuts, makes wonderfully flavorful breads and desserts.
Leave it to the Italians to create a dessert that is not only gluten-free, but also sugar-free. Castagnaccio, a traditional dessert from Tuscany, is made with chestnut flour, which is so naturally sweet it needs no added sweeteners. Like so many traditional Italian recipes, it makes use of locally grown ingredients — chestnuts, olive oil, rosemary and nuts. Savory-sweet, with aromatic hints of rosemary, this cake is made with olive oil, not butter, so it’s ideal for vegans.
This cake is mentioned in a 1553 book by Ortensio Landi that notes it was created in Lucca, a province of Tuscany, so I asked my favorite chef from Lucca, Aurelio Barattini, for his recipe.
Tuscany’s Chestnut Cake (Castagnaccio)
Courtesy: Chef Aurelio Barattini of Antica Locanda di Sesto in Lucca, Italy
Prep time: 5 minutes
Bake time: 40 minutes
Total time: 45 minutes
Yield: 6 to 8 servings
Note: The cake stays moist for several days, and is terrific served with a glass of Vin Santo or muscato dessert wine.
1/3 cup raisins
5 1/2 ounces chestnut flour, about 2/3 cup
Pinch of salt
1 cup cold water
6 tablespoons olive oil
2 to 3 tablespoons fresh rosemary leaves
1/3 cup walnuts and/or pine nuts
1. Preheat the oven to 390 F.
2. Put the raisins into a small bowl and moisten them with a few tablespoons of boiling water to plump them. Drain and reserve.
3. Sift the chestnut flour and salt into a large bowl. Slowly whisk in 1 cup of cold water and beat until the mixture is smooth. Stir in the reserved raisins, 2 tablespoons of oil and 1 tablespoon of rosemary leaves.
4. Grease a baking pan with 2 tablespoons of oil. Pour the batter onto the pan. The batter should be less than a 1/2-inch high. Scatter the top with the walnuts and/or pine nuts, if using, remaining rosemary, and drizzle with remaining 2 tablespoons of oil.
5. Bake for 20 minutes, then lower the oven temperature to 350 F and bake for an additional 15 to 20 minutes, until firm and golden brown.
Courtesy: “Dolci: Italy’s Sweets” by Francine Segan (Stewart, Tabori & Chang)
Prep time: 15 minutes
Cooking time: 40 minutes
Total time: 55 minutes
Yield: 6 servings
1 pound fresh chestnuts*
2 1/2 cups milk
3/4 cup sugar
2 tablespoons fennel seeds
2 ounces best-quality bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
1/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon brandy or rum
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup heavy cream
3 to 4 vanilla meringue cookies, coarsely chopped
2 to 3 candied chestnuts, marron glace, chopped, optional
Candied violets, optional
1. Pierce the skin of each chestnut with a knife. Boil them in a large pot with lots of water, until tender, about 20 minutes. Allow to cool only slightly. It’s much easier to peel them while they’re warm.
2. Combine the milk, 1/2 cup of sugar and fennel seeds in a medium saucepan and heat over a low flame to release the fennel’s flavor, about 5 minutes. Strain and return the liquid to the saucepan. Add the chestnuts and simmer for 20 minutes.
3. Put the warm chestnut mixture into a food processor along with the chocolate, 1/4 cup of the brandy and vanilla extract. Pulse to blend and then process until very smooth. Allow to cool to room temperature, then cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate for at least one hour and up to 2 days.
4. To assemble: Put a tall glass upside down into the center of a serving plate. Press the chestnut mixture through a potato ricer into a mountain-shaped cone around the glass. Remove the glass.
5. In a large bowl using an electric mixer whip the cream with 1/4 cup of the remaining sugar until peaks form. Stir in the remaining tablespoon of brandy.
6. Fill the hollow left by the glass with whipped cream and top the chestnut “mountain” with more whipped cream. Sprinkle with the meringues and candied chestnuts, if using. If you like, arrange a few candied violets around the base. Serve immediately.
* Note: You can also make this dessert with ready-roasted chestnuts, available in glass jars in most supermarkets.
Main photo: Castagnaccio, a traditional dessert from Tuscany, is made with chestnut flour, which is so naturally sweet it needs no added sweeteners. Credit: Aurelio Barattini
Perugia is the more important of the two provinces of Umbria and in culinary terms is most famous for its chocolates. Perugina, the chocolate firm founded in 1907, makes chocolate kisses (baci) famous throughout Italy and even in the United States. It’s also the historic home of a novel Christmas cake.
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A variety of sweets are made around Christmas such as pinoccate, little diamond-shaped sweets made of sugar and pine nuts, hence their name. They usually are made “black” with chocolate or “white” with vanilla. Locals say that the small cakes were made by Benedictine monks as early as the 14th century and are served to end lavish Christmas feasts.
A simple syrup is made until rather dense and then the same weight of pine nuts as the sugar is added and poured onto a marble slab to be shaped as one makes peanut brittle. The diamonds are cut and cooled, with half of each piece being chocolate and half vanilla. They are then wrapped in black and white pairs in festive and colorful Christmas paper.
Another Christmas delight from Perugia that is a bit easier to make is the symbolic eel or snake-shaped torciglione (twisted spiral) Christmas cake. The Perugina say it is shaped like an eel to represent the eels of nearby Lake Trasimeno, while others attribute a more symbolic meaning rooted in pagan times. The Greeks saw snakes as sacred and used them in healing rituals; the snake’s skin shedding was a symbol of rebirth and renewal, an appropriate symbol at the time of the birth of Christ.
Torciglione (Holiday Almond Meringue Snake)
In most of Umbria, but in particular around Lake Trasimeno in the province of Perugia, torciglione is a Christmas and New Year’s Eve sweet. It is also sometimes called a serpentone or biscione and it’s made as a symbol of luck. It is claimed that this sweet was developed in the 19th century by a master pastry cook, Romualdo Nazzani, who opened a cake shop in Reggio Emilia and created some magnificent sweets, such as biscione, which means “snake.”
This Christmas cake is made with an almond base and meringue topping decorated with candied peel to represent the eyes of the snake. In Christian iconography, the snake can represent temptation as it was in the Garden of Eden. Eating the snake is thought to bring luck.
Prep time: 15 to 20 minutes
Baking time: 40 minutes
Yield: 8 servings
1 pound whole blanched almonds, toasted and chopped
3/4 pound (about 1 1/2 cups) sugar
2 tablespoons rum
Zest from 1 lemon
3 large egg whites, beaten until stiff
3 tablespoons pine nuts
2 coffee beans
1 candied cherry
1. Heat the oven to 325 F.
2. In a bowl, mix the almonds, sugar, rum, lemon zest and egg whites until a dense consistency.
3. On a buttered parchment paper-lined baking tray form the mixture into the shape of a snake. Place the pine nuts over its surface. Put the coffee beans in as eyes and the cherry as a tongue. Bake until golden brown, about 40 minutes.
Main photo: Torciglione (Holiday Almond Meringue Snake). Credit: Clifford A. Wright
Holidays have long inspired traditions, and, for me, nothing inspired them more than Christmas. Many of my family’s traditions were passed down from Mom Skanes, my maternal grandmother, whose Christmas joy belied her otherwise solemn demeanor.
Her house was the center of our celebrations. It sat on an island that, in winter, was overwhelmingly bleak. My grandfather painted the clapboards bright green to temper the slate sky and ocean, and at Christmas, when snow draped the eves and red lights shone from every window, the house beckoned us inside to celebrate.
Mummers, too, sometimes took part in the celebration. Wearing flour sack hoods or more elaborate and less frightening masks, they re-enacted a Newfoundland, Canada, tradition still observed then in isolated communities such as ours, of going from house to house in disguise, demanding glasses of rum and slices of fruitcake. Some, like Marley’s ghost, dragged chains behind them, slapping the links against doors for entrance but, if they wanted my grandmother’s bread pudding, they had to leave the chains outside. They would do so gladly for a taste of the Queen of Puddings.
British pudding recipes have withstood the test of time
Variations of Mom Skanes’ refined “bread soaked in milk” pudding date back to 17th century Britain, and one version in particular, Monmouth Pudding, was an early version of the one she made. Both consisted of layers of meringue, jam and bread soaked in milk (or milk and cream).
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Her recipe came across the ocean to Newfoundland with her English ancestors. A story also accompanied the recipe on the journey, that of a duke tasting the pudding and declaring it the most delicious thing he’d ever tasted.
Although she told the story from time to time, Mom Skanes put no stock in such a fanciful tale — although, secretly, I think she thought any duke would have been lucky to taste that pudding. We commoners certainly understood our luck as we offered up our bowls and begged for more. At Christmas, though, there was no need to beg, because there was always plenty.
She served the Queen of Puddings after our traditional Christmas Eve supper of lamb chops, mashed potatoes and molasses bread. While my parents and grandparents lingered at the table, I took my pudding into the den, curling up in my grandfather’s big chair where I so often fell asleep to the sound of music on the radio. On Christmas Eve I was too excited for the sound of hoofs overhead to fall asleep, and, besides, there was pudding to get me through to the next treat.
I ate it in layers, starting with the meringue, which I slurped off the spoon, filling my mouth with sweetness. Then I ate the raspberry jam and bread custard layers together. Although it was terrible manners to lick the bowl, I did, and the telltale signs of guilt lingered on my chin when my grandmother came to check on me. On that night, however, instead of chastising me, she simply marched me upstairs to wash my face and hands.
Mom Skanes was generous with food throughout the year, but at Christmas she went out of her way to make sure there was enough, not only for family and friends but, more especially, for neighbors in need. She baked for weeks leading up to the holidays, often with me perched on a stool at her elbow, watching as she measured and sifted, mixed and stirred. She creamed butter and sugar for cakes by hand but whipped egg whites for the pudding with an electric mixer that whirled around the bowl, making a cloud of white that rose higher and higher. Soon, I thought, it would float up to the ceiling, but instead, it ended up on top of the pudding’s raspberry jam.
The pudding was the last thing she made, and on Christmas Eve morning, with Bing Crosby dreaming of the “White Christmas” beyond our windows, she began by slicing and then buttering stale bread. After layering the bread in a baking pan, she made the custard, allowing it to soak into the bread before carrying the pan to the oven, me trailing behind to make sure she didn’t spill anything. The pan was so heavy that her strong arms shook as she took it from counter to oven.
Soon the aroma of vanilla filled the kitchen and, later, when the jam and meringue had been added and the pudding returned to the oven, I was charged with watching through the glass as the meringue turned golden.
The Queen of Puddings was delicious, but some loved it most because of its lightness, a lovely change from the dense and heavy fruitcakes of Christmas. I loved the meringue the most because of the magical way my grandmother transformed egg whites into a cloud; for a while, I thought it was a skill only she possessed.
For Mom Skanes, the pudding was a way of using up stale bread, because she couldn’t abide wasting food that was a blessing. There was something else she loved about the pudding, though: It was refined and, serving it softened, for a little while, what could be a hard life on that bleak island.
I still make the Queen of Puddings on Christmas Eve, carrying on her tradition, making it as much for the memories it evokes as for its taste. Like the little girl who ate the meringue first, curled up in her grandfather’s chair, I still slurp it off my spoon and fill my mouth, again, with sweetness.
The Queen of Puddings (Mom Skanes’ recipe)
Prep time: 25 minutes
Cook time: 40 minutes
Total time: 65 minutes
Yield: 4 to 6 servings
For the bread pudding:
1 cup whole milk
1 cup table cream (18%)
1 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
4 egg yolks
1/2 cup granulated sugar
5 slices white bread, crusts removed
1/4 cup melted butter
1 cup raspberry jam
For the meringue:
4 egg whites, at room temperature
1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1. Preheat the oven to 325 F.
For the bread pudding:
1. In a medium saucepan, add the milk, cream and vanilla. Bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring occasionally. Meanwhile, in a small bowl, whisk the egg yolks and sugar until the mixture is light and creamy. Slowly whisk the egg mixture into the hot milk and cream, whisking constantly until the egg mixture is incorporated. Remove the pan from the heat.
2. Brush both sides of the bread with melted butter. Place the bread evenly into the bottom of a greased 2-quart baking dish.
3. Pour the custard mixture over the bread. Use a fork to gently submerge the bread so the liquid soaks into it.
4. Place the baking dish into a roasting pan (or another large, high-sided pan). Pour enough hot water into the roasting pan to reach halfway up the sides of the baking dish.
5. Carefully place in the oven and bake until the pudding is set (the bread will be firm when pressed with a fork), about 25 to 30 minutes. Remove from the oven.
6. Increase the oven temperature to 375 F.
7. In a small saucepan, warm the raspberry jam. Spread the jam evenly over the bread pudding.
For the meringue:
1. In a large clean bowl, add the egg whites. Beat using an electric or hand mixer until soft peaks form.
2. Add the cream of tartar and continue beating until stiff peaks form.
3. Gradually add the sugar and beat until all sugar has been added and the meringue is thick and glossy.
4. Spread the meringue evenly over the jam layer. Bake until the meringue is golden brown, about 8 to 10 minutes.
Note: The pudding can be served hot or cold.
Main image: Queen of Puddings. Credit: Sharon Hunt