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Willy Wonka might not agree, but not all chocolate is created equal. To find out what makes the difference between a $1 candy bar and an artisanal, single-origin chocolate, I went to Tuscany, Italy, to tour the headquarters of Amedei, a four-time winner of the Oscars of chocolate — the coveted Golden Bean award. There I went on a guided tasting of chocolate that Food & Wine Magazine calls “the world’s best.”

My visit began with a tasting of the various Amedei products, including tiny bars called Napolitains, assorted handmade pralines, and finally the best hot chocolate I’ve ever tasted, dense and rich with a hint of toasted almonds.

Amedei is the only Italian chocolate company that supervises chocolate production at every stage, from growing the cocoa bean to the finished product. During the visit, Cecilia Tessieri, owner of the Amedei chocolate company, explained chocolate’s complexity and gave an insider’s peek at how the pros taste chocolate.

Chocolate tasting tips

Tessieri says that to truly appreciate fine chocolate, you must use all five of your senses.

See. Start with your eyes. Great chocolate should have a nice sheen, but not be too glossy. Too glossy means that instead of using only expensive cocoa butter, less costly vegetable oils were added.

Hear. Break off a piece. Do you hear a snap? That’s a sign that the cocoa butter was properly crystalized.

Smell. Fine chocolate offers lovely complex aromas, and depending on where it’s from, may show off hints of toasted almonds, honey or dried fruit. Defective or lesser chocolate smells burnt or metallic.

Touch and taste. Put a small piece of chocolate onto the center of your tongue, but don’t chew! Fine chocolate has multiple flavor levels and chewing doesn’t allow time for them to reveal themselves. Cocoa butter is solid at room temperature, but soft at body temperature, giving us the chance to experience the silky feel of the chocolate as it melts in the mouth.

How chocolate is made

The visit continued with a video on harvesting chocolate and then a tour through Amedei’s facility for converting cacao beans into award-winning chocolate. “It all starts with the cocoa beans,” said Cecilia, holding a handful of aromatic toasted cocoa beans. A single cacao tree bears about 30 usable pods each year, yielding roughly 1,000 cacao beans, enough for about 2 pounds of chocolate.

The mature pods are handpicked and then carefully cut open so as not to damage the beans, which must remain intact to maintain a full chocolate flavor.  When a cacao pod is first opened, it has no hint of chocolate fragrance. Instead, the white fruit pulp has a lovely peach and tropical flower aroma and a fruity tart-sweet flavor.

The pulp and the beans are pulled out of the pod and placed in a container, often a simple wooden box lined with banana leaves, where it is left for seven to nine days. The beans ferment in the pulp’s juices, infusing them with additional flavor. They are then spread out to dry in the sun for about a week where they are gently turned, often by women on tiptoe, in what Cecilia calls the “the cacao dance.”

When the beans arrive at Amedei, Cecilia begins the process of converting these precious cacao beans into chocolate.

1. Cecilia does a “cut test,” slicing a sample of the beans in half to confirm their quality. Cacao beans must be perfect to be included in Amedei chocolate—uniform and smooth.

2. Then they are roasted in special proprietary indirect fire equipment.

3. After that, the concasseur, or nibbing machine, separates the husks from the beans to obtain tiny bits of cacao beans, the “nibs.”

4. Next, the nibs are ground into a thick paste called cocoa mass. I tasted the warm, fragrant mass and found it perfect, but Cecilia explained that it was still too acidic and dense. The missing crucial step is called “conching.” a slow, gentle grinding process lasting 72 hours that results in a silky smooth chocolate with perfect flavor. Finally comes tempering, melting the chocolate to just the right temperature to crystallize the cocoa butter. At this stage, the chocolate is ready to be made into the various Amedei products.

Cacao pod

Cacao pod
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Mature cacao pods are hand-picked and then carefully cut open so as not to damage the beans. Credit: Amedei.

From around the world

Cru, a French term meaning “growth,” refers to wines from a particular area. Since the ’80s the term is also used with other products that change flavor depending on where they’re made, including beer, whisky and chocolate.

“Chocolate can taste very different depending on where it comes from,” explains Cecelia during our tour. She scours the globe in search of the very best tasting beans. She illustrated those differences in a guided tasting of Amedei’s Cru line, which includes chocolates made exclusively from cocoa beans from various countries, explaining the special aroma and taste of each:

Grenada

Delicate, creamy taste with a lovely long-lasting finish.

Madagascar

Smells like hot chocolate with hints of lavender and herbs.

Rich with lovely hints of citrus and mint that almost tingles on the tongue.

Ecuador

Delicate roasted cacao aroma and the intriguing scent of a forest in the fall. The taste is just as complex, with a sequence of flavors revealing themselves, from green tea to pistachio and almonds to tropical fruit.

Jamaica

Fabulously complex aroma of dates, figs, apricot jam and ginger with a touch of carob, olives and freshly cut wood. The taste delivers all that the aroma promises, with the tang of candied orange peel and jam and richness of butter. Deep dark chocolate taste, yet not at all bitter.

Trinidad

Gourmet aromas of cocoa powder, Cuban cigars and a summer garden filled with fresh tomatoes with a taste of walnuts, vanilla and sweet persimmons.

Venezuela

Delicate aroma of sugar, warm melted butter, dried fruit and sandlewood. Naturally nutty taste of hazelnut, walnut, almond and cashew with slightly spicy hints. Intense flavor that is long lingering and rich.

Groups of at least four, and up to ten guests, can schedule a tour of Amedei in Italy. For information and reservations, go to their website, call 011-39-0587-48-4849 or e-mail office@amedei.it

There is one Amedei store in the United States, so if you can’t get to Italy, you can visit their shop at 15 East 18th St. in New York City, which features daily free samplings.

Torta Tenerina is a five-ingredient flourless chocolate cake. Credit: Francine Segan.

Torta Tenerina is a five-ingredient flourless chocolate cake. Credit: Francine Segan.

Torta Tenerina (5-Ingredient Italian Chocolate Cake)

Prep Time: 5 minutes

Cook Time: 20 minutes

Total Time: 55 minutes

Yield: 8

This flourless cake has a crisp, macaroon-like top layer and a dense, incredibly moist center. As the cake cools, it collapses just a little, creating a pretty webbing on the delicious crust. It’s made with only five ingredients, so be sure to use only quality chocolate like Amedei. A must-try classic! Recipe is in "DOLCI: Italy’s Sweets" by Francine Segan (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2011)

Note: The cake's total time includes 20 to 30 minutes of rest time.

Ingredients

  • 7 tablespoons, 3 ½ ounces, unsalted butter, plus more for the pan
  • 7 ounces dark chocolate, 70% cacao or higher, preferrably Amedei
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 4 eggs, separated
  • 2 tablespoons potato or cornstarch

Directions

  1. Preheat the oven to 350 F. Butter the bottom and sides of a 9-inch spring form cake pan .
  2. Melt the butter and chocolate in a small bowl, either in the microwave or over a saucepan of gently boiling water.
  3. In a large bowl beat the sugar and egg yolks with an electric hand held mixer until creamy and pale yellow. Add the chocolate-butter mixture and beat until creamy. Add the potato starch 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 20 minutes, until just set in the center. Don’t over-bake.
  6. The cake will continue to set as it cools. Allow it to rest for about 30 minutes before cutting it until it collapses and the top crust cracks a bit.
  7. Serve warm or at room temperature.

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Fennel in the field. Credit: Terra Brockman

I am not a licorice-lover — far from it — but I have become fanatic about the anise-scented fennel.

The first hint came when I had it slow-braised with a roast and reduced to a mild, sweet, and meltingly delicious vegetable with just the barest hint of anise. The next step was roasting it with Parmesan cheese, which only a fool would turn down. My conversion experience came when I was presented with thinly sliced raw fennel, served in a bowl of lemony ice water, after a meal in Sorrento, Italy.

As a confirmed fennel fanatic and evangelist, my tip for first-timers or skeptics is to try fennel that has been mellowed out through cooking. Chances are you will soon find the sweet, delicately nuanced aroma and flavor of raw fennel also enticing.

Five reasons to love fennel

  1. It’s versatile. You can’t really go wrong with fennel, whether you cook it or eat it raw. And all three parts — the base, stalks and feathery leaves  — are edible. The bulb is the part most commonly used, cooked with meat, braised on its own, or used in salads or on sandwiches. The stalks can be used for soups, stocks and stews, while the leaves can be used as you would herbs such as parsley, dill, or tarragon.
  2. Easy to prepare and enjoy raw. You can slice fennel thinly, and mix with a vinaigrette on its own, or toss with a green salad or potato salad. It’s fast, simple, and delicious.
  3. Easy to cook. For those who don’t like the anise scent and flavor of fennel, try cutting the bulbs into large chunks, and roast them under a chicken or other meat or fish. And no one I know can resist fennel lightly sautéed in wine, cooked in cream, or roasted in the oven with Parmesan.
  4. Low calories and high nutrition. One cup of sliced fennel has only 27 calories, but large amounts of vitamin C, folate and potassium.
  5. Its phytochemicals promote health and may fight cancer.  Fennel contains many health-promoting phytochemicals, naturally occurring chemical compounds such as the antioxidants rutin and quercitin, and other kaempferol glycosides that also give fennel strong antioxidant activity. But perhaps the most interesting phytonutrient in fennel is anethole — the primary component of its volatile oil, which has antimicrobial and antifungal properties. In animal studies, the anethole in fennel has reduced inflammation and helped prevent cancer. One study showed that anethole stopped breast cancer cells from growing. Researchers have also proposed a biological mechanism that may explain these anti-inflammatory and anticancer effects by showing how anethole is involved in the shutting down of an intercellular signaling system, thus stopping tumor growth.

Of course, the main reason to love fennel is that it is delicious. One of the simplest ways to cook it is this recipe from Jane Grigson’s “Vegetable Book.” Grigson also turns out to be a fennel fanatic, and notes: “My favorite fennel dish, the best one of all by far. The simple additions of butter and Parmesan — no other cheese will do — show off  the fennel flavor perfectly. The point to watch, when the dish is in the oven, is the browning of the cheese. Do not let it go beyond a rich golden-brown.”

Fennel Baked With Parmesan Cheese

Prep Time: 15 minutes

Cooking Time: 15 minutes

Total Time: 30 minutes

Yield: 6 servings as a side dish

Ingredients

6 heads fennel, trimmed, quartered

2 tablespoons butter

freshly ground pepper

3 tablespoons (or more) grated Parmesan cheese

Instructions

1. Cook the fennel in salted water until it is just barely tender.

2. Drain it well and arrange in a generously buttered gratin dish.

3. Be generous, too, with the pepper mill.

4. Sprinkle on the cheese.

5. Put into the oven at 400 degrees for 15-20 minutes, or until the cheese is golden brown and the fennel is bubbling vigorously in buttery juices.

Fennel Salad

You can make this salad as simple or as fancy as you like. Adding sweet dates and salty capers or olives make it exotic, but when you have fresh fennel all you really need is a light vinaigrette.

Prep Time: 15 minutes

Cooking Time: 0 minutes

Total Time: 15 minutes

Yield: 2 servings

Ingredients

2 fennel bulbs, thinly sliced, by hand or with a mandoline

Black olives, capers, dates (about 2 tablespoons each, or to taste), optional

Juice of one lemon

3 to 4 tablespoons olive oil

Salt and pepper to taste

Instructions

1. Rinse the fennel and slice very thinly. Also slice the dates and olives, if you’re adding them.

2. Toss the fennel with the dates, olives and capers.

3. Whisk the lemon juice and olive oil together with a pinch of salt and pepper.

4. Dress the salad and toss to coat well.

Main photo:  Fennel in the field. Credit: Terra Brockman

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Peaches for the Fourth of July

Our forefathers weren’t thinking of holiday fare or locavores when they signed the Declaration of Independence, but the Fourth of July fortuitously falls at a time of fabulous local food abundance. And seeking out local food is the patriotic thing to do. Fresh fruits and vegetables connect us in a literal and visceral way to our land, and buying them is good for our local environment, farmers and economies. Your purchase will support your community, give you an opportunity to interact with your local growers and food artisans, and provide you with the best-tasting food around.

While the Fourth doesn’t have the same gastronomic weight as the winter holidays, the possibilities are endless, but should start with whatever looks good at your local farmers market. If you don’t want to commit to a wholly local Fourth, just feature one local food — maybe the mint in your julep, the cabbage in your slaw, or the chicken on your grill. Or buy some local tomatoes, herbs, and cheeses and have a localicious pizza party.

Make this the year you declare your independence from high-fat, high-sugar crackers, chips, dips, cookies, and other processed holiday foods. Swap them out for low-calorie, high-nutrition fruits and vegetables from local farms, and this will be your best Fourth ever!

If you need help finding local foods, enter your ZIP code into Local Harvest. In just a few clicks, you’ll find many ways to connect with local producers and celebrate food sovereignty by eating fresh, delicious foods from your local farms and gardens.

mint soda

Make a cool mint soda for hot summer days. Credit: Cara Cummings

Cool Mint Soda

Mint is an all-time favorite for keeping cool in the summer, but chamomile, or lemon verbena, or any herb that strikes your fancy will also work in this recipe. Double it if you’re expecting a crowd.

Prep Time: 10 minutes

Cooking Time: 10 minutes

Total Time: 20 minutes

Yield: 6 servings

Ingredients

1 cup sugar

1 cup water

1 cup fresh mint leaves, coarsely chopped

Mint sprigs for garnishing

Sparkling water

Directions

1. Make simple syrup by dissolving the sugar in the water in a saucepan over medium heat.

2. Turn the heat off and stir in the chopped mint leaves. Let sit for a couple of minutes. When the mixture is cool, strain the mint leaves out.

3. Add two to four tablespoons (to taste) of the mint syrup to a glass of sparkling water. Add a mint sprig as a garnish.

Grilled stuffed peppers

Grilled stuffed peppers are a quick Fourth of July favorite. Credit: Cara Cummings

Grilled Stuffed Peppers

Use red, yellow or green bell peppers, or Italian or Hungarian sweet peppers.

Prep Time: 10 minutes

Cooking Time: 30 minutes

Total Time: 40 minutes

Yield: 6 servings

Ingredients

3 sweet peppers, halved

8 ounces mozzarella cheese (sliced)

1 large tomato, chopped

6 sprigs basil

Salt and pepper to taste

Olive Oil

Directions

1. Cut each pepper in half and remove seeds. Fill each pepper with the chopped tomato, and drizzle olive oil over the top of the tomatoes.

2. Add a slice of mozzarella on top of the tomatoes, and then add a dash of salt and pepper and a sprig of basil.

3. Place the filled pepper halves on a hot grill, but not directly over the flame. Cover and grill for about 30 minutes, or until the pepper is soft.

Pesto-flavored potatoes

Use pesto to add a light, summer flavor to potatoes. Credit: Cara Cummings

Parsley Pesto Potatoes, Grilled

Herb pesto is quick and easy to make in a food processor. Make a double batch, and use the extra on crackers or sandwiches.

Prep Time: 10 minutes

Cooking Time: 45 minutes

Total Time: 55 minutes

Yield: 6 servings

 Ingredients

1 cup fresh parsley, stems and leaves

1 cup pecans (you can substitute walnuts or pine nuts)

¼ cup hard cheese such as romano, grated

¼ cup olive oil

1 clove garlic, minced

Salt, to taste

1 to 2 pounds small new potatoes (or large potatoes cut into chunks)

Directions

1. To make the parsley pesto, put all the ingredients, except the potatoes, into a food processor and blend until well mixed.

2. In a large mixing bowl, toss the potatoes with the pesto.

3. Place the potatoes on a piece of foil on a hot grill, away from the direct flame. Cover the grill and cook until tender, about 30 to 45 minutes, depending on the size of the potatoes. When you can easily pierce them with a fork, they’re done. Top with extra pesto if you like.

Peaches for the Fourth of July

Make a quick, easy, and delicious dessert using fresh peaches. Credit: Cara Cummings

Grilled Peaches with Tart Cherries

While the grill is still hot, make this quick, easy, and delicious dessert. If you have a big group, slice up some local watermelons, muskmelons, and honeydew melons on the dessert table alongside the grilled peaches.

Prep Time: 5 minutes

Cooking Time: 15 minutes

Total Time: 20 minutes

Yield: 6 servings

Ingredients

3 peaches

1 cup tart cherries, pitted

½ cup honey

Olive oil

Directions

1. Cut the peaches in half and remove the pits. Coat the peaches in olive oil. If you have a citrus-infused olive oil, that is particularly nice!

2. Fill each peach half with some cherries, and drizzle with honey.

3. Place the peaches on the medium-hot grill for 10 to 15 minutes, or until soft.

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Peruvian chef Emilio Macìas in the cloister in Faenza. Credit: Carla Capalbo

Chef’s Table: As the Latin-American food movement continues to gather pace, and cities such as Lima, Peru, and Sao Paolo, Brazil, are joining the world’s hottest foodie destinations, it’s time to ask what contributions Latin America is making to modern cuisine.

“I would say unique ingredients and flavors,” says Emilio Macías, one of Peru’s rising stars. “Many young chefs from South America have traveled and worked in kitchens the world over learning about techniques and modern trends, and now they’re back cooking in their native countries. We’re cooking to raise awareness about the value of our native products and setting up direct links with their producers.”

Chef's Table

The first in an occasional series about the food and ideas of today's most influential chefs.


More from Zester Daily:

» Chef champions Peruvian food

» Gastón Acurio's food fair extravaganza

» CIA nurtures Latin chefs

» E-mag explores cultural, culinary boundaries

Macías was born in Mexico but trained in Japan and Europe (including at Mugaritz and Santi Santamaria in Spain). He was drawn back to Latin America by the successes of the Peruvian leaders of the movement, Gastòn Acurio and Virgilio Martínez Véliz — both ranked in the top 20 of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants. Macías opened his own restaurant before taking a leading position in 2012 at Acurio’s award-winning Lima restaurant, Astrid & Gastòn, in the gastronomic and development kitchens. He recently flew to Faenza, in Emilia-Romagna, Italy, to cook two meals at Postrivoro.

“Postrivoro is not a pop-up restaurant but a nonprofit association that creates occasional ‘itineraries for gastro-pilgrims’ by inviting talented young international chefs to cook for just 20 paying guests seated at a communal table,” says Enrico Vignoli, its co-founder, who works in Modena with 3-star Michelin chef Massimo Bottura. “The chefs are usually employed in the kitchens of trend-setting restaurants or are in the process of starting their own. We want to tell stories through food and share gastronomic experiences.” For each of Postrivoro’s six events per year, the chef is paired with a sommelier or drinks specialist and an artist to decorate the space.

Macías’ dinner and lunch were held in the crumbling medieval cloister of Faenza’s Chiesa della Commenda. Each course was matched with a drink created by bartender Oscar Quagliarini, who is famous for his imaginative cocktails. The Goth-styled “mixologist” seems more like an alchemist than a barman. He spices his drinks with exotic but home-made ingredients such as yellow sandalwood syrup, or seaweed, eucalyptus and ylang ylang tinctures. The décor was by Fototeca Manfrediana, a cooperative of young photographers shooting on film.

 

The crispbreads with purslane (green), cuy (orange) and mole (beige). Credit: Carla Capalbo

The crispbreads with purslane (green), cuy (orange) and mole (beige). Credit: Carla Capalbo

An inspiring lunch with Emilio Macías begins

Macías brought many of his principal ingredients and seasonings from Peru in his luggage. He complemented them with seasonal foods from Emilia-Romagna. Sunday’s inspiring lunch began with three irregular crispbreads arranged like natural elements on a plate of branches and leaves. Each was topped with the chef’s interpretation of a Latin American speciality, from a fiery mole con pollo (Mexican chicken with a sauce of 100 ingredients, including chocolate), to verdolagas y tuetano (purslane and bone marrow with Mexican salsa verde), to shredded cuy pibil (slow-roasted Peruvian guinea pig) accented with pink pickled onions. Cuy is popular in Peru for its tender, nutritious meat. “I wanted to bring one very special ingredient from Peru, as well as a little transgression,” says Macías.

Macías’ elegant Peruvian ceviche of tiny raw oysters, Adriatic scallops and cactus followed, in a refreshingly sour leche de tigre: a cool fish broth lifted by lime, ginger and chilies, topped with fresh acacia blossoms and cinquefoil (or potentilla) leaves. In esparrago y hoyas de mais, crisp local asparagus, grilled on one side only, gave focus to herbaceous poblano pepper couscous sprinkled with dark Peruvian Sacha Inchi nuts and spooned into a charred corn husk, its smokiness reminiscent of fire-roasted corn.

Memory featured in the dish called Papa Genovese too. This came from Astrid & Gaston’s recent tasting menu, “The voyage from Liguria to El Callao, 100 years of flavor,” which focused on the gastronomic influences brought by the thousands of Italian immigrants to Peru in the early 20th century. The dish was a visual and cultural play on pasta al pesto. In the original Ligurian version, diced potato often accompanies the pasta in the green basil sauce. Here, spaghetti-like strands of potato starred with toasted pine nuts in a pure-flavored extract of basil and spinach chlorophyll. They produced a new, but equally soulful, version of the classic dish.

“We tried to imagine how Italian immigrants felt about Peruvian food before they made their long journeys in the 1900s,” Macìas says. “Were they afraid of what they might have to eat there? Our dishes stir emotions as well as appetites.”

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Asparagus with couscous and corn husk. Credit: Carla Capalbo

Other courses featured langoustine smoked a la Veracruzana and slow-roasted Mexican pork neck in salsa roja. The meal ended with a delicate, chilled peach stew strewn with elderflowers, raw bitter almonds and rose petals, and a crisp chocolate ball stuffed with the makings of a tiramisù scented with charred guajillo chilies, mescal and sal de gusano de maguey: ground agave worms spiced with salt and chilies.

“Gastòn Acurio has been inspirational in the Latin American movement, moving private and government people to raise awareness about the value of our native products and setting up direct links with their producers,” says Macìas.

Macías' oyster and scallop ceviche. Credit: Carla Capalbo

Macías’ oyster and scallop ceviche. Credit: Carla Capalbo

Concentrating on local products

“The result is that we now can go straight to the fishermen, requesting, for example, only large-size fish. They release anything smaller back into the ocean. They’re paid well for the adult fish and simultaneously safeguard fish stocks.”

How does this apply to farmers? “Potatoes are a big staple in Peru: There are 3,000 known species with more being found all the time. Some only grow above 3,000 meters of altitude, far from the cities, with short seasons and limited yields. Demand from restaurants and enthusiasts can create fair distribution and markets while teaching people in the cities about the value of these ingredients.” Other foods being developed this way are quinoa, amaranth and some corn varieties.

“Peruvian food events such as Mistura, now in its seventh year, where farmers and chefs meet and exchange ingredients and information are helping spread the word about our continent’s gastronomic riches.”

So are memorable meals such as this.

Main photo: Chef Emilio Macías in the cloister in Faenza. Credit: Carla Capalbo 

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Moon cakes

The harvest moon is a time of great celebration in China. Referred to in English as both the Moon Festival and the Mid-Autumn Festival, this holiday is held during the eighth full moon of the lunar year (Sept. 30 in 2012). And, as with summer’s Dragon Boat Festival and spring’s Chinese New Year, traditional foods are an important part of this major Chinese celebration.

When that huge white orb rises in the east at the end of this month, Chinese will do as they have done for millennia: gaze at the moon, nibble on the filled pastries known as moon cakes, and tell their children stories about the lady Chang’e and the jade rabbit who live up there.

Both of these tales have to do with the search for immortality. The husband of Chang’e obtained an elixir of immortality from the Queen of the Western Heavens. Before he could take it, though, Chang’e discovered the concoction, quickly swallowed when she heard her ill-tempered husband returning home, and floated up to the moon, where her face can still be seen — what we in the West call the Man in the Moon. If you rotate that image 90 degrees to the left (counterclockwise), you should also be able to make out the Jade Rabbit pounding up more elixir in a mortar.

Apollo 11’s Man on the Moon and a ‘Bunny Girl’

These two legends eventually crossed the Pacific to become part of American history: According to the Apollo 11 moon landing transcript in July 1969, Houston told astronaut Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin that “among the large headlines concerning Apollo this morning, there’s one asking that you watch out for a lovely girl with a big rabbit,” and the myth was then described to him. Aldrin replied, “OK. We’ll keep a close eye out for the bunny girl.”

After she fled to the moon, Chang’e came to be worshiped in China as Taiyin niangniang, or the Moon Goddess. Traditional households used to offer moon cakes to her on the 15th day of the eighth lunar month, as well as such seasonal presents as sprays of cockscomb flowers, soybean pods with their tendrils attached and muskmelons. This was a completely female ceremony, but as the sun went down, everyone in the village would walk outside with round paper lamps as reflections of the moon’s benevolent light, sharing the round cakes that mirror the shape of the moon, and celebrating the harvest season with a sweet treat.

Moon cakes: Recipes vary with region

Every region of China has its own version of moon cakes. In Beijing and the rest of the north, the pastry tends to be white, with a feathery exterior so flaky that this version is known as fanmao, or ruffled fur. In the areas around the Yangtze River near Shanghai, people make moon cakes of puff pastry, while in southern areas around Guangdong and even farther west, bakers prefer to use a cookie dough scented with caramel. This last version is the one we generally see in Chinese grocery stores.

The fillings, too, reflect the culinary styles of the region. Some are made with bean paste, others with Chinese dates or coconut, and still others with a crunchy mixture of nuts and dried fruits, as in the recipe in Part 2 of this series. Some even have a whole salted egg yolk wrapped up in sweet bean paste, which provides a lovely savory and buttery texture to each bite.

Top photo: Fruit- and nut-filled moon cakes. Credit: Carolyn Phillips

Coming on Sept. 26, Part 2: An updated recipe for fresh and delicious homemade moon cakes. For a sneak preview, see slide show below.

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Chinese pastry molds. Credit: Carolyn Phillips


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It was that time of the week. The servant had swept and mopped the floors around the house and then headed for the bathroom where she soaked the soiled clothes in a red bucket filled with soapy water. Then she grabbed the baseball bat-like stick and thrashed the fabrics with a rhythmic beat. Soon they made their way into a white plastic bucket filled with clean water for rinsing. Each piece of clothing was twisted dry, except for the cotton saris that lay, beaten clean, in a twisted pile on the bathroom’s white-tiled floor.

Meanwhile my mother, Amma, was in the kitchen heating up a large, stainless steel pot of water on a kerosene-fueled stove. She threw in a bowl of long-grain rice from a newer crop sold by the rice vendor who came to our door once a week with a large gunnysack trailing heavily over her left shoulder. The fresher the crop, the starchier the rice, I later found out, and this was important for my mother’s impending chore.

The water came to a second boil and the rice kernels rose to the top with each rising bubble, puffing up with heated pride. The cooked grains clouded the water sticky-white. With a slotted spoon, Amma scooped out a few grains, squishing one between her thumb and forefinger to test its doneness. Pleased to see it give in with no residual hardness, she placed a tight-fitting lid on the pot, lifted it off the stove and turned it on its side. With the lid slightly held back, she poured the starchy liquid into a large bowl in the sink. She didn’t have a colander.

Rice, starch and saris

My mother grabbed the starch-filled bowl and shuffled to the bathroom. She dunked the saris, one at a time, in the rice water, coating each with the starch and letting it soak through. After 15 minutes, each was lightly rinsed and wrung dry by hand. Akka, my grandmother, awoke from her nap and grabbed the saris that now lay in a bucket, waiting to be dried. She hung them out under the hot sun on a clothesline pulled taut between two hooks nailed on each end of the balcony’s wooden ledge.

Once dry, the saris were picked up by the ironing vendor. They came back into our home the same day, all starched and neatly pressed, smelling like hot, steamed, nutty rice.

There are many ways to cook rice, especially one as refined as basmati. The absorption/steeping method and the open-pot pasta method are ideal. Some people use rice cookers and even pressure cookers to cook this delicate grain, and I find that they generate too intense a heat, resulting in a mushy, overcooked texture.

To salt or not to salt the rice is the Shakespearean query. In my recipes for curries, stir-fries and chutneys, I use just enough salt to bring out the flavors, so I do recommend salting the rice you’ll be serving with them. If you don’t salt the rice, you may want to add a bit more salt to the dish you are serving with the rice.

Cooking Rice With the Absorption/Steeping Method

Makes 3 cups

Ingredients

1 cup Indian or Pakistani white basmati rice

1½ teaspoons coarse kosher or sea salt

Directions

1. Place the rice in a medium-size saucepan. Fill the pan halfway with water, to cover the rice. Gently rub the slender grains through your fingers, without breaking them, to wash off any dust or light foreign objects, like loose husks, which will float to the surface. The water will become cloudy. Drain this water. Repeat three or four times, until the water remains relatively clear; drain. Now add 1½ cups cold water and let it sit at room temperature until the kernels soften, 20 to 30 minutes.

2. Stir in the salt, and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Cook until the water has evaporated from the surface and craters are starting to appear in the rice, 5 to 8 minutes. Then, and only then, stir once to bring the partially cooked layer from the bottom of the pan to the surface. Cover the pan with a tight-fitting lid, reduce the heat to the lowest possible setting, and cook for 8 to 10 minutes (8 minutes for an electric burner, 10 minutes for a gas burner). Then turn off the heat and let the pan stand on that burner, undisturbed, for 10 minutes.

3. Remove the lid, fluff the rice with a fork, and serve.

Cooking Rice With the Open-Pot Pasta Method

Makes 3 cups 

Ingredients

1 cup Indian or Pakistani white basmati rice

1½ teaspoons coarse kosher or sea salt

Directions

1. Fill a large saucepan halfway with water, and bring it to a rolling boil over medium-high heat.

2. While the water is heating, place the rice in a medium-size saucepan. Fill the pan halfway with water, to cover the rice. Gently rub the slender grains through your fingers, without breaking them, to wash off any dust or light foreign objects, like loose husks, which will float to the surface. The water will become cloudy. Drain this water. Repeat three or four times, until the water remains relatively clear; drain.

3. Add the rice to the boiling water, and stir once or twice. Bring the water to a boil again and continue to boil the rice vigorously, uncovered, stirring very rarely and only to test the kernels, until they are tender, 5 to 8 minutes. Immediately drain the rice into a colander and run cold water through it to stop the rice from continuing to cook. (The problem with his method is that the grain will go from just-right to overcooked in mere seconds if you are not attentive.)

4. Transfer the rice to a microwave-safe dish and stir in the salt. Just before you serve it, rewarm it at full power, covered, for 2 to 4 minutes.

Photo: Closeup of basmati rice. Courtesy of iStockphoto

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You wouldn’t necessarily peg Cleveland native and “Iron Chef” Michael Symon as a rye whiskey guy, but just this summer he started promoting the rustic spirit at food and wine festivals around the country, starting in June with the Food and Wine Classic in Aspen.

That’s where Symon introduced a few new cocktails based on rye, working with Knob Creek, a small-batch bourbon specialist started by Jim Beam’s grandson, a sixth-generation Master Distiller.

Rye whiskey was once America’s favorite, around the time of the early 1900s. It was the basis for many famous drinks — the Manhattan and the Old Fashioned among them. Today’s partisans will differ on whether rye, bourbon or other kinds of whiskeys work best, but early cocktail books definitely call for the Manhattan to be made with rye, vermouth and bitters, adorned with a maraschino cherry or two. The Old Fashioned also calls for the rye to be mixed with bitters and maraschino cherries, with a sugar cube and a squeeze of lemon giving it an identity of its own.

But Prohibition changed rye’s fortunes as people discovered bourbon. Sweeter and stronger, bourbon gave them more illicit bang for their buck.

Pendulum shift from bourbon to rye whiskey

Today’s chefs and bartenders, with a taste for savory, even slightly bitter drinks, are drawn to the spicy, herbal flavors of rye, with its pronounced taste of aged oak. Rye is a hardy cereal grain, and unlike bourbon, which is made from corn, rye whiskey is derived from at least 51% rye. The rest of the grain mash may contain other types of grain, like wheat and barley, though many producers use 100% rye. Like other American whiskeys, rye is then aged two years (or more) in charred oak barrels.

In addition to the larger American whiskey houses such as Knob Creek (a division of Jim Beam), smaller producers are also getting into rye now.

Small-batch distillers of rye whiskey

Anchor Brewing in San Francisco was among the first, releasing Old Potrero Single Malt Rye Whiskey in 1996 looking back to the 19th century for step-by-step distillation inspiration, aging the whiskey in charred oak for three years for a mellower yet still spicy concoction.

Also look for Corsair Artisan Distillery’s Wry Moon from Nashville, Tenn., made in small batches and unaged so it will mix well for cocktails. Copper pot-distilled, it has rye’s distinctive peppery spiciness. Corsair also makes an aged 100% rye, double distilled and left to linger two-plus years in new charred oak, an intense expression for serious rye aficionados.

Rittenhouse is another great, small-batch distiller of rye, as are 1512 Spirits (Barbershop Rye) and High West, a distillery based in Park City, Utah, maker of Rendezvous Rye, a combination of 6-year-old and 16-year-old ryes, and Double Rye, another combo that mixes in corn mash as well, for a touch of sweetness. High West also makes Bourye, a rare blend of bourbon and rye in one bottle, and a 21-year-old Rocky Mountain Rye.

Knob Creek Spice of Life by Chef Michael Symon

Serves 1

Ingredients

4-5 fresh mint leaves

½ ounce white peach nectar

2½ ounces Knob Creek Rye

1 ounce ginger beer

Directions

1. Muddle mint, peach nectar and rye in the bottom of a shaker.

2. Add ice and shake vigorously.

3. Strain over ice and top with ginger beer.

Photo: Spice of Life cocktail, created by Michael Symon.  Credit: Courtesy of Knob Creek

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Cruzan Coconut Old Fashioned cocktail

Ah, rum. Once thought to be demonic, it has a thickly dark and stormy past. Rum is derived from molasses, the byproduct of refined sugar made from sugarcane, which is grown mostly in the humid West Indies.

The British, no strangers to sweet tooths, loved it, and early American settlers, so much closer to the source, started their own distilleries in and around what is now New England. It was during this colonial heyday that rum helped kick off a tradition of mixed drinks, and the rum punch and rum sling were born. Rum was a key part of the infamous “triangle trade” of sugar, rum and slaves during the colonial era. But the United States’ rift with Britain, and post-Revolution taxes on the spirit, drove rum into a decline in the U.S. Its popularity waxed and waned over the decades — it hit a high during Prohibition, inspired by Ernest Hemingway (a daiquiri man).

Rum market is rising

More recently, the mojito has become rum drink No. 1 in the U.S. Although the cocktail’s origins are traced to Cuba, it is thought to have been inspired by the bourbon-based mint julep of the American South. Like the mint julep, the mojito starts with fresh mint muddled with simple syrup, and is then mixed with fresh lime juice, rum and soda water, strained over cracked ice in a tall, frosty glass.

Spirits forecasters believe rum to be the next big thing, spurred by better quality and better marketing. The United States remains the biggest market in the Americas, consuming more than four times the volume of the second-biggest market, Cuba, according to market analysis by just-drinks.com/IWSR.

That amounts to almost 25 million 9-liter cases of rum sold in the U.S., worth $2.2 billion, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States. Total rum sales from the year prior were up 1.4%, with growth even higher in the high-end premium (3.1%) and super-premium (2.4%) categories.

Notable countries of origin and their brands include Puerto Rico, where the world’s biggest brand, Bacardi, is made, Martinique (Clément, Rhum Vieux St. James), Jamaica (Appleton, Myer’s), Trinidad (Angostura) and Barbados (Mount Gay), as well as the British (Pusser’s) and U.S. Virgin Islands (Captain Morgan, Cruzan).

Separating out top-shelf rum

Mixed with high-quality molasses, high-end and super-premium rums are run through an extensive distillation process to get rid of any debris before aging takes place in charred American oak barrels, many of them previously used to age bourbon, for a minimum of 14 months. Some rums are aged upward of 12 years.

Single-barrel rums, after their initial time in used oak, are aged a second time in new American oak for anywhere from four to 12 years. More full-bodied than a younger rum, this category of rum takes on a lot of the barrel’s finer points, from notes of vanilla and toasted coconut to butterscotch and baking spices.

Smoothed by time, single-barrel rums may be enjoyed neat or on the rocks, but also lend a whole new level of complexity and flavor to cocktails. We use a single-barrel rum in our recipe this week.

Cruzan Coconut Old Fashioned

Serves 1

Ingredients

For the coconut water:

1 can coconut water

For the Old Fashioned:

Orange peel

2 ounces Cruzan Single Barrel Rum

½ ounce rich simple syrup

3 dashes bitters

Coconut water ice cubes (see additional recipe below)

 

Directions

1. Pour a can of coconut water into an ice cube tray, ­straining out pulp if necessary. Freeze for several hours.

2. Cut a wide swath of orange peel and lightly press it into the bottom of a rocks glass.

3. Add rum, syrup and bitters.

4. Drop in a few coconut water ice cubes and stir gently.

 

Photo: Cruzan Coconut Old Fashioned     Credit: Courtesy of Cruzan

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