Articles in Recipe

Harīsa. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clifford A. Wright

Given how easy it is to make harīsa, the ubiquitous chile paste of North Africa, I’ve never had much use for those inferior tubes of the stuff. Harīsa is the most important condiment used in Algerian and Tunisian cooking, and you need to make this recipe and keep it in the refrigerator before attempting any other Algerian or Tunisian recipe you might have in my or others’ recipes.

It’s hard to believe that so essential a condiment could evolve only after the introduction of the New World capsicum after Columbus’ voyages. It’s thought that the chile entered North Africa by way of the Spanish presidios that dotted the coast in the 16th century or came up from West Africa overland from the Portuguese holdings there.

Harīsa comes from the Arabic word for “to break into pieces,” which is done by pounding hot chiles in a mortar, although today a food processor can be used. This famous hot chile paste is also found in the cooking of Libya, and even in western Sicily where cùscusu is made. In Tunisia it would be prepared fresh at home. The simplest recipe is merely a paste of red chile and salt that is covered in olive oil and stored.

Harīsa is sold in tubes by both Tunisian and French firms. The Tunisian one is better, but neither can compare to your own freshly made from this recipe.

I first became intrigued with making harīsa from a preparation made by Mouldi Hadiji, my Arabic teacher more than 30 years ago. I concocted this version, based on a Berber-style one I had in Djerba, from a recipe description given to me by a merchant in the market in Tunis, who unfortunately provided measurements that could last me a century (calling for 50 pounds of chile).

Tlitlu bi’l-Lahm (fresh pasta pieces with lamb in spicy harīsa sauce). Credit: Copyright 2016 Clifford A. Wright

Tlitlu bi’l-Lahm (fresh pasta pieces with lamb in spicy harīsa sauce). Credit: Copyright 2016 Clifford A. Wright

Some cooks also use mint, onions or olive oil in their harīsa. You also don’t have to use the exact dried chiles I call for, but at least one should be quite piquant.

Be careful when handling hot chiles, making sure that you do not put your fingers near your eyes, nose or mouth, or you will regret it. Wash your hands well with soap and water after handling chiles. After you make your first harīsa, with all the modern conveniences, I hope you can appreciate what exacting work this was, making it in the traditional mortar — 50 pounds of the stuff!

Harīsa

Prep time: 1 1/4 hours

Yield: 1 cup

Ingredients

2 ounces dried Guajillo chiles

2 ounces dried Anaheim chiles

5 garlic cloves, peeled

2 tablespoons water

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground caraway seeds

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground coriander seeds

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

Extra virgin olive oil for topping off

Directions

1. Soak the chiles in tepid water to cover until softened, 1 hour. Drain and remove the stems and seeds. Place in a blender or food processor with the garlic, water and olive oil and process until smooth, stopping occasionally to scrape down the sides.

2. Transfer the mixture to a small bowl and stir in the caraway, coriander and salt. Store in a jar and top off, covering the surface of the paste with a layer of olive oil. Whenever the paste is used, you must always top off with olive oil making sure no paste is exposed to air, otherwise it will spoil.

Variation: To make a hot harīsa, use 4 ounces dried Guajillo chiles and 1/2 ounce dried de Arbol peppers.

Note: To make ṣālṣa al-harīsa, used as an accompaniment to grilled meats, stir together 2 teaspoons harīsa, 3 tablespoons olive oil, 2 tablespoons water and 1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh parsley leaves.

Main photo: Harisa. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clifford A. Wright

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Kale salad with walnuts for a healthy new year. Credit: Copyright 2015 Andrew Lipton

Like 50 million to 70 million other Americans, I battle with insomnia. My love for food inspired me to start there in search of relief. Here’s what I found.

A shopping list for the sleep-deprived

Chickpeas have sleep-inducing properties. Credit: Copyright 2015 Andrew Lipton

Chickpeas have sleep-inducing properties. Credit: Copyright 2015 Andrew Lipton

Almonds: Rich in magnesium, a mineral needed for quality sleep. A recent study published in the Journal of Orthomolecular Medicine found that low magnesium levels make sleep more difficult.

Carbohydrates: A bowl of your favorite cereal with milk combines carbohydrates and dairy. Along with corn chips, pretzels and rice (especially jasmine rice), cereal has a high glycemic index, which causes a natural spike in blood sugar and insulin levels, shortening the time it takes to fall asleep. Normally we want steady levels to avoid mood swings and insulin resistance. But if you’re in need of sleep, the increase in blood sugar and insulin aids tryptophan in entering your brain and bringing on the sleep.

Chamomile tea: Steeped five minutes with a teaspoon of honey, this increases the glycemic index while acting like a mild sedative to aid relaxation.

Cherry juice: Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Rochester say that drinking this before bed will bring on sleep quickly, as cherries boost melatonin levels.

Elk: Contains nearly twice as much tryptophan as turkey!

Honey: Raises insulin and allows tryptophan to enter the brain more easily. A spoonful before bed, whether by itself or mixed into chamomile tea or yogurt, could give you a more restful sleep.

Hummus: Chickpeas are a good source of tryptophan.

Kale and other leafy veggies: Loaded with calcium, these help the brain use tryptophan to manufacture melatonin. If you’re anti-kale, spinach and mustard greens are good options.

Lettuce: A Guatemalan friend swears that drinking boiled water in which three pieces of lettuce have been soaked for 15 minutes before bedtime will put you out. Lettuce contains lactucarium, the milky fluid secreted at the base of a lettuce leaf, which has been reported to cause a mild sensation of euphoria.

Passion-fruit tea: Contains a harmala alkaloid found in high levels in the passion flower. This is a naturally occurring beta-carboline alkaloid that quiets the nervous system. Drinking a cup one hour before bedtime will help induce a sounder sleep.

Root vegetables: Potatoes, sweet potatoes, carrots, beets, parsnips, daikon and red radishes, jicama, turnips and gourds are rooted in the soil and therefore reputedly ground us. When we are stressed, root veggies are the things to eat; in winter, they give us warmth and balance. Their magnesium helps relax the nervous system, which reduces stress hormones and helps the body rest; try eating them with leafy greens for additional magnesium. Potassium, which lowers blood pressure and calms the body, is found in high levels in root veggies, as is vitamin C, which does not deplete when cooked. And root veggies are complex carbohydrates, which produce serotonin (without causing a sugar rush) and lower stress. They can therefore help you sleep soundly without waking up.

Shrimp and lobster: Crustaceans contain a lot of tryptophan, which the body converts to serotonin and melatonin.

Walnuts: A good source of tryptophan, an essential amino acid that can enhance sleep by helping to produce the hormones that set our sleep-wake cycles — namely serotonin (a hormone in the pineal gland that communicates information between neurons) and melatonin (which controls the body’s circadian rhythm). Walnuts also contain their own source of melatonin.

Warm milk: My grandma used to say warm milk can help you sleep, but so can any dairy product ingested before bedtime, including cheese and yogurt. Calcium helps the brain use the tryptophan found in dairy to manufacture sleep-triggering melatonin. It also plays a role in regulating muscle movements, quieting the muscles.

A meal to excite the tastebuds yet calm the system

Elk tenderloin cooked in the pan. Credit: Copyright 2015 Andrew Lipton

Elk tenderloin cooked in the pan. Credit: Copyright 2015 Andrew Lipton

Here’s a perfect dinner that’s sure to induce sleep. Any full-bodied Pinot Noir or Cabernet will pair nicely.

For more information on health and sleep, see Ronald Bazar’s new book, “Sleep Secrets: How to Fall Asleep Fast, Beat Fatigue and Insomnia and Get a Great Night’s Sleep.” Also check out Jenny Herman’s website, Healdsburg Nutrition.

Sweet dreams!

Hummus

Ingredients

8 ounces dry chickpeas, soaked overnight, plus 8 ounces canned chickpeas, drained and rinsed

1 clove of garlic, minced

Big splash of olive oil

Several pinches salt

4 tablespoons cold water

Directions

Blend all ingredients in a food processor. Serve with pita chips.

Kale salad

Ingredients 

1 handful black kale per diner, washed, stemmed and lightly crunched with salt

1 handful toasted walnuts

Thinly sliced red onion or shallot

4 tablespoons olive oil

Squeeze of 1 lemon

1 tablespoon honey

Directions

1. Slice the kale very thin. Place in a bowl with the walnuts and onion or shallot.

2. Whisk together the oil, lemon and honey, add to the salad and toss to coat.

Roasted Elk Tenderloin

Ingredients

2 pounds of elk tenderloin

1 clove garlic, minced

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon pepper

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 lemon

Directions

1. Preheat oven to 375 F.

2. Pat tenderloin dry with a paper towel and rub with garlic. Season with salt and pepper.

3. Heat olive oil in an ovenproof skillet. When almost smoking, sear tenderloin on all sides. Drain off the oil and squeeze the juice of the lemon onto the elk.

4. Place pan with elk in the preheated oven. Roast for 10 to 14 minutes until medium-rare, then remove and let rest for 5 minutes. Slice to serve.

Jasmine Rice Pudding

Ingredients

2 cups water

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon finely grated lemon or orange zest

1 cup jasmine rice

4 cups whole milk

1/2 cup sugar

1/2 vanilla bean, halved lengthwise

1 cup raisins

Ground cinnamon and heavy cream for garnish

Directions

1. Combine water, butter, salt and zest in a heavy saucepan; bring to a boil.

2. Stir in the rice and return to a boil. Cover and simmer until all water is absorbed, 10 to 15 minutes.

3. Combine milk, sugar and vanilla bean in another heavy, uncovered saucepan and bring just to a simmer, stirring until most of the milk is absorbed and you have a creamy substance. Pour carefully into the rice and mix to combine.

4. Transfer to a serving bowl, and serve sprinkled with cinnamon and heavy cream poured on top.

Main photo: Kale salad with walnuts for a healthy new year. Credit: Copyright 2015 Andrew Lipton

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Green and yellow plantains at Carniceria Mimi in Canas, Costa Rica. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Latt

I was intimidated by plantains. Having eaten them in Latin American restaurants, I knew they were good when served with roast chicken, rice and beans. But seeing them in the market, I had no idea how to cook them. A trip to Costa Rica changed all that when a chef demonstrated how plantains are easy to prepare and delicious.

Like bananas, their sweet cousins, plantains are naturally fibrous and a good source of potassium.

Although they look like large bananas, they are not edible unless cooked. Primarily starchy, especially when green, plantains also have a stiff, bark-like peel. Delightfully easy to cook, plantains are used to create delicious side dishes.

Available all year round and grown primarily in the southern hemisphere, plantains are cooked in a great many ways — steamed, deep fried, sautéed, boiled, baked and grilled. The same fruit is prepared differently when it is green than when it is yellow or black. The first time I visited a Mexican market in Los Angeles, I noticed bunches of very large bananas with mottled yellow and black skin. I thought the blackened fruit was spoiled. In point of fact, when the peel turns yellow and then black, the starches in the fruit have begun to convert to sugars.

Plantains, yellow or black, will never be as sweet as a banana, but when cooked in this ripened state, they produce a deliciously caramelized side dish or dessert.

In his kitchen at Villa Buena Onda, an upscale boutique hotel on the Pacific Coast in Costa Rica’s Guanacaste Provence, Chef Gabriel Navarette demonstrated in a cooking video how easy it is to prepare plantains. In fact, they are so easy to cook, now that I am home, I make them all the time.

Chef Gabriel Navarette with a plate of patacones. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Latt

Chef Gabriel Navarette with a plate of patacones. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Latt

The only difficulty with cooking plantains is finding a market that sells them. Not available in supermarkets in many U.S. cities, markets serving the Spanish-speaking community will have plantains. Seek them out because besides selling plantains, the markets will also be a good source of mangoes, papayas, tomatillos, chayote, fresh chilies, Latin spices and a good selection of dried beans and rice.

Navarette demonstrated how to prepare plantains three ways. He stuffed green plantains with cheese and baked them in the oven. He flattened green plantains and fried them twice to make patacones, thick, crispy chips served with pico de gallo, black beans, guacamole or ceviche. And, he caramelized yellow plantains to serve alongside black beans and rice on the wonderful Costa Rican dish called casado, which always has a protein such as chicken, fish, pork or beef.

Villa Buena Onda, or VBO as it is known locally, is an intimate destination. With only eight rooms, the hotel fells like a private home with a personal chef. The price of the room includes all three meals. Navarette and his fellow chefs make each dish to order.

Navarette studied at Instituto Nacional de Aprendizaje, a prominent school training professionals in many fields. He worked in resort and hotel kitchens, moving up the ranks from server to line cook, then as a sous chef and finally as the head chef at VBO for the past eight years.

Cooked yellow plantains. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Latt

Cooked yellow plantains. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Latt

What attracted me to his food, as well as that of his cousin Diego Chavarria on the weekend and Rosa Balmaceda in the morning, was that each dish tasted home cooked but was plated in the most beautiful, five-star way.

Aided by César Allonso Carballo to translate, Navarette was happy to show me how to cook plantains. I was amazed at how easy they are to cook.

Cooking yellow plantains to use as a side dish or dessert is the essence of simplicity. Simply peel each plantain, heat a half-inch of safflower or corn oil in a carbon steel or cast iron pan over a medium flame, cut the plantain into rounds or in half lengthwise and then cut into 5-inch long sections, fry on either side until lightly browned, drain on paper towels and serve. All that can be done in five to eight minutes and the result is delicious.

The crisp and savory patacones are slightly more complicated to prepare but not much more so.

Patacones from the kitchen of Villa Buena Onda

Yellow or black plantains should not be used to make patacones because they are too soft.

In the restaurant, Navarette uses a deep fryer to cook plantains. That is fast and easy so he can keep up with the orders, but I discovered at home that by using a carbon steel pan I was able to achieve the same result using less oil with an easier clean up.

The oil may be reused by straining out cooked bits and storing in a refrigerated, air-tight container.

Enjoy the patacones with an ice-cold beer and, as the Costa Ricans say, Pura vida! Life is good because everything is OK.

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cooking time: 10 minutes

Total time: 15 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

2 green plantains, washed

1 cup corn or safflower oil

Sea salt and black pepper to taste (optional)

Directions

1. Cut the ends off each green plantain. Using a sharp knife, carefully cut along the length of the tough peel being careful not to cut the flesh of the plantain. Pry off the peel and discard.

2. Preheat oil in a deep fryer to 350 F or a half-inch of oil in a large sauté pan over a medium flame.

3. Cut each plantain into 5 or 6 equal sized rounds.

4. Place the rounds into the deep fryer for 3 to 4 minutes or until lightly browned. In the sauté pan, turn frequently for even cooking, which should take about 5 to 8 minutes.

5. Remove, drain on paper towels and allow to cool.

6. Prepare one round at a time. Put the round on a prep surface. Place a sturdy plate on top of the round. Press firmly in the middle of the plate until the plantain round flattens, then do all the other rounds.

7. Place the flattened plantains back into the deep fryer for 2 minutes, or 4 minutes in the oil in a sauté pan as before. Turn as necessary in order to cook until lightly browned on all sides.

8. Remove from the oil, place on paper towels to drain and cool.

9. Season with sea salt and black pepper (optional).

10. Serve at room temperature with sides of black beans, pico de gallo, sour cream or ceviche or all four so guests can mix and match.

Main photo: Green and yellow plantains at Carniceria Mimi in Canas, Costa Rica. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Latt

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The proper proofing of the croissant dough leads to a perfect result: fluffy and airy on the inside with brittle, crisp, butter-infused layers on the outside. Delicious! Credit: Copyright 2015 Hiroko Shimbo

The new year of 2016 is fast approaching. I am now trying to complete the tasks planned for this year but left unfinished, both business and personal. By doing so, I can welcome a new year as a fresh start.

This is what we do in Japan at the end of each year. But something has bothered me for long time, and I have let the years pass without fixing it in my kitchen. It is the croissant. In Japan, croissants are deeply rooted in our culinary culture and have been a part of my life, long before coming to America. So, this October I attended a class at the International Culinary Center in New York City on making authentic croissants. I can now start the new year with the proper croissant that I have dreamed of.

Falling in love with croissants

The proper proofing of the dough leads to a perfect result - fluffy, airy inside with brittle, crisp, butter infused layers on the outside. Delicious! The perfect croissant requires labor, attention and dedication. Credit: Copyright 2015 Hiroko Shimbo

The perfect croissant requires labor, attention and dedication. Credit: Copyright 2015 Hiroko Shimbo

It was 30-some years ago when I first visited Paris and instantly fell in love with croissants. Flaky, crumbling, buttery croissants at small cafés in the city became my breakfast. I can still picture myself in the mornings, standing at a long counter bar in these cafés, staring at bottles of liquor and wine on the shelves behind the counter, and then biting into shattering layers of a crispy croissant. With small sips of strong coffee, I always reached for a second croissant in the always-full basket on the counter.

The richness of the butter stayed long in my stomach, but never enough to spoil my lunch. The real croissants back then were rather small (about 6 inches long), narrow, extremely brittle on the outside and airy inside. But today, this gem seems to have disappeared from the streets of Paris.

A bit of Paris in Tokyo

A dazzling selection of authentic French pastries, including baba au rum, is made daily at this Tokoy pastry shop. Credit: Copyright 2015 Hiroko Shimbo

A dazzling selection of authentic French pastries, including baba au rum, is made daily at this Tokyo pastry shop. Credit: Copyright 2015 Hiroko Shimbo

Now, let me take you to a very special place in Japan. There is a little patisserie called Aux Bon Vieux Temps near Oyamadai station southeast of central Tokyo. I lived near this station for about three years with my husband, Buzz. On one of our weekend walks, we happened to pass by a small, very French-looking pastry store. We entered and found that it was full of the highest quality authentic French breads, pastries and chocolates. The store became our Sunday breakfast pilgrimage destination — especially for very crisp, buttery, authentic croissants and a cup of very good coffee. Because of Aux Bon Vieux Temps, I no longer had to dream about the old croissants of Paris.

No shortcuts allowed

On my latest trip to Aux Bon Vieux Temps in Tokyo, Chef Kawada greeted me from the kitchen with a charming smile. His apron was smeared with splashes of chocolate, butter, cream....the ingredients he was working with on that day. Credit: Copyright 2015 Hiroko Shimbo

On my latest trip to Aux Bon Vieux Temps in Tokyo, Chef Kawada greeted me from the kitchen with a charming smile. His apron was smeared with splashes of chocolate, butter, cream … the ingredients he was working with on that day. Credit: Copyright 2015 Hiroko Shimbo

Chef Katsuhiko Kawata, the owner and pastry chef of Aux Bon Vieux Temps, has been making authentic croissants for years in Tokyo, while the super-sized, bread-like croissants have invaded France and America. Chef Kawata apprenticed and learned the art of baking croissants in his 20s in Paris. He is 70 years old today and still working in his kitchen. His approach to producing quality, artisan croissants and pastries is the same as that of classical music player. During every available minute, he practices his art and polishes his skills. Laziness and shortcuts are out.

On our most recent trip back to Paris, I was saddened by my encounters with ugly, fatty, dense and bread-like croissants at local cafés — the Americanization of the croissant in every aspect of quality had come to France. The use of industrial dough and shortcut baking processes may be among the reasons for this demise. However, last year in March, a very welcoming article appeared in the Wall Street Journal, “Welcome Back to Authentic Croissants in Paris,” by Alexander Lobrano. That article inspired me. I should stop complaining about fake, fat croissants in the city and learn how much labor, time and care is necessary to bake a good croissant by myself.

Dough techniques

Chef Galarch at ICC showed us how to laminate the dough with butter. The temperature must be carefully controlled so that the butter and dough are pliable, but the butter does not melt. Skill, attention and patience are required. Credit: Copyright 2015 Hiroko Shimbo

Chef Gerlach at the International Culinary Center showed us how to laminate the dough with butter. The temperature must be carefully controlled so that the butter and dough are pliable but the butter does not melt. Skill, attention and patience are required. Credit: Copyright 2015 Hiroko Shimbo

The croissant class taught by chef Mark Gerlach at the International Culinary Center was only a scant five hours in duration. The correct way to make croissants requires at least a full 48 hours, the chef said. In order for the students to engage in all processes of the preparation, we used dough that had been kneaded and rested in advance.

Real croissants: It’s in the dough

Here, from the class, are seven tips on how to make real croissants:

  • Use quality ingredients.
  • Dehydrate flour properly.
  • Use butter with 83% fat.
  • Proof the dough at a temperature of 68 F and humidity of 65-70%.
  • Apply proper lamination technique (folding butter into dough multiple times to create very thin alternating layers of butter and dough).
  • Roll out the dough into correct thickness and into the proper size and shape.
  • And finally, bake it just to the state where crumbling and fluffiness meet.
After cutting the dough into proper shape, length and size I rolled it into a perfect crescent shape. After painting with egg wash, my little babies are ready for baking. Credit: Copyright 2015 Hiroko Shimbo

After cutting the dough into proper shape, length and size, I rolled it into a perfect crescent shape. Once painted with egg wash, my little babies are ready for baking. Credit: Copyright 2015 Hiroko Shimbo

Now I am committed to baking fabulous croissants in my kitchen to celebrate the start of an exciting new year. I shall start the project two days before I enjoy the end of this year properly with a bowl of traditional soba noodles on New Year’s Eve. Maybe you will, too.

Croissant Dough

Instructions on creating the croissant can be found in many places, but here is how to make the dough.

Yield: About 1700g (18-21 croissants)

Prep and resting time: 3 1/2 hours

Ingredients

This recipe uses international measurements, because they are more precise — and precision is very important in this recipe. (Equivalents are 1 ounce = 28 grams and 1 pound = 453 grams.)

750 grams bread flour

15 grams salt

100 grams sugar

30 grams softened butter

38 grams fresh yeast

150 grams milk

285 grams water

345 grams butter

Directions

1. Mix the flour, salt, sugar, softened butter, yeast, milk and water in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment. Mix them on low speed just to combine. Increase the speed to medium and mix for 5 minutes or until a smooth sticky dough comes together.

2. Oil the inside of a large bowl and transfer the dough to the bowl. Cover the bowl with a plastic wrap and leave at room temperature for 1 hour.

3. Remove the dough from the bowl and flatten it. Using a rolling pin, roll it out into a 12-inch square. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and refrigerate until it is between 50 and 60 degrees F.

4. Place a block of butter between sheets of parchment paper and, using a rolling pin, shape it into a 6-inch by 12-inch shape.

5. Place the butter in the center of the dough. Pull the parchment paper away from the butter. Wrap the dough around the butter, making sure that the dough completely covers the butter but does not overlap at the seam. Lightly pound the dough with a rolling pin to make the butter more extendable.

6. Roll the dough into about a 30-inch by 8-inch rectangle. Perform a double turn.

7. Rotate the dough and roll it again into 30-inch by 8-inch rectangle. Perform 1 single turn. Roll the dough into a 12-inch by 8-inch rectangle.

8. Wrap the dough with plastic wrap and refrigerate it for 1 hour or overnight.

Main photo: The proper proofing of the croissant dough leads to a perfect result: fluffy and airy on the inside with brittle, crisp, butter-infused layers on the outside. Delicious! Credit: Copyright 2015 Hiroko Shimbo

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Tummàla, a Sicilian Christmas specialty. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

Families all seem to have their own Christmas classics — roast turkey, baked ham, crown roast or pork, or prime rib. Many Italian-Americans will have lasagna or a feast of seven fishes. One spectacular preparation for a change of pace is to follow some families and make the classic Sicilian Christmas tummàla.

Tummàla is a timbale of rice, a magnificent concoction of layers of baked rice, poached chicken, veal meatballs, hard-boiled eggs, cheeses and a cheesed omelet to create a golden mantle.

Although a Christmas specialty, Sicilian cooks prepare tummàla for all sorts of celebrations when a grand culinary gesture is warranted. It is considered a representative example of cucina arabo-sicula, a contemporary folkloric expression of a supposed Arab culinary sensibility found vestigially in the contemporary Sicilian kitchen, some 800 years after the last of the Arab-Sicilian population disappeared. At the very least, it is considered Arab-Sicilian because the Arabs introduced rice to the island in the ninth or 10th century.

The Italian translation of the Sicilian tummàla is timballo, leading one to believe that this dish is derived from the French timbale, a baking mold in the shape of a kettledrum, hence its name.

In fact, the name comes either from Muhammed Ibn al-Thumna, the 11th-century emir of Catania, or from tummala, the purported Arabic name for a certain kind of plate, although that etymology is not confirmed.

Assembling a Sicilian classic

Assembling Tummàla. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

Assembling tummala. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

Traditionally, this dish is made with a chicken with its unborn eggs. The cheeses called for are pecorino pepato, caciocavallo and fresh mozzarella. Pecorino pepato is a young pecorino cheese made with peppercorns thrown into the curd. Caciocavallo is a spun-curd cow’s milk cheese and can be replaced with provolone.

Mozzarella is used in place of fresh tuma, a fresh pecorino cheese that is only found at the source of production, so it’s not available in this country. It is possible to find a young tuma aged between three and six months in Italian markets in the United Sates. One can also try Internet sources such as Murray’s Cheese or igourmet.com.

Finally, don’t let the list of ingredients intimidate you. Great length, in this case, does not mean great difficulty.

Sicilian Christmas Tummàla

Prep time: 1 1/2 hours

Cooking time: 3 1/2 hours

Yield: 8 to 10 servings

Ingredients

One 3-pound chicken

2 medium onions, cut into eighths

2 celery stalks, cut into chunks

4 ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded and quartered

5 fresh parsley sprigs

10 black peppercorns

1/2 cup fresh bread crumbs

3 tablespoons milk

3/4 pound ground veal

3/4 pound pecorino pepato cheese, grated, divided

1 large garlic clove, finely chopped

6 tablespoons finely chopped fresh parsley, divided

1/2 teaspoon salt 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

7 large eggs (2 hard-boiled and sliced)

1 medium onion, chopped

2 tablespoons pork lard

1/2 pound mild Italian sausage, sliced 1/2 inch thick

1/4 pound pork rind (optional), cut into thin strips

2 tablespoons tomato paste

2 1/2 cups (1 1/4 pounds) short grain rice, such as Arborio rice, soaked in tepid water to cover for 30 minutes or rinsed well in a strainer, drained

Unsalted butter as needed

1 cup dry bread crumbs

1/2 pound fresh mozzarella cheese, sliced

1/4 pound caciocavallo cheese, thinly sliced

1/4 pound pecorino cheese, grated

Directions

1. In a large stockpot that will fit the chicken comfortably, place the chicken with its gizzards, onions, celery stalks, tomatoes, parsley sprigs and peppercorns. Cover with cold water and bring to a near boil over high heat. As soon as the water looks like it is going to boil, reduce immediately to a simmer and cook the chicken until the meat falls off the bone when pushed with a fork, without letting the water boil, 2 hours. Don’t let the water bubble; otherwise it toughens the chicken.

2. Meanwhile, prepare the veal croquettes. In a bowl, soak the fresh bread crumbs in the milk. If the mixture looks soggy, squeeze the milk out. Add the veal, half of the pecorino pepato, the garlic, 2 tablespoons chopped parsley, 1/2 teaspoon salt and the pepper. Lightly beat 1 egg and add to the mixture. Mix well with a fork or your hands. Form croquettes the size and shape of your thumb. Cover and put aside in the refrigerator.

3. Drain the chicken, saving all the broth in a smaller pot. Remove and discard all the skin and bones from the chicken and cut the meat into small pieces.

4. In a large sauté pan, cook, stirring, the chopped onion in 1 tablespoon lard over medium heat until golden, about 8 minutes. Remove from the pan and set aside. Add the remaining lard to the pan and cook the veal croquettes until they are browned. Add the sausage and the pork rind and cook for 10 minutes. Add the sautéed onion, the remaining 4 tablespoons parsley and the tomato paste diluted in 1 cup hot water. Cook over low heat for 10 minutes. Set aside.

5. Preheat oven to 350 F.

6. Bring the chicken broth from step 1 to a boil and reduce by one-third. Pour 2 1/2 cups broth into a heavy saucepan, bring to a boil, add the rice and about 1 1/2 teaspoons salt. Cook, covered and without stirring, until al dente, about 15 minutes. Pour about 3/4 cup broth into the veal-sausage mixture.

7. Drain the rice, if necessary, and mix it with the remaining pecorino pepato.

8. Butter a deep baking dish or baking casserole and spread 1 cup dry bread crumbs on the bottom, shaking vigorously to spread them thin so that they coat the bottom of the baking dish, dumping out any excess.

9. Spread the rice on top of the bread crumbs, about 3/4 inch deep. Spread three-quarters of the chicken and half of the veal croquettes and sausage mixture on top of the rice. Make a layer of hard-boiled egg. Layer the mozzarella cheese on top of the eggs. Cover with the remaining veal and sauce. Spread on a layer of caciocavallo cheese. Mix the remaining chicken with the remaining rice and spread it on top.

10. Beat the remaining 4 eggs lightly and combine with the pecorino cheese. Season with salt and pepper. Pour the sauce evenly over the top.

11. Bake until the top has a nice golden crust, about 1 hour. Check from time to time to be sure it doesn’t dry out. The tummàla can be served directly from the baking dish with the pan sauces or with tomato sauce.

Tummàla. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

Tummala. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

Main photo: Tummàla, a Sicilian Christmas specialty. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

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Uri Scheft's pistachio financiers are baked in small pyramid-shaped molds. Credit: Copyright 2015 Martha Rose Shulman

Recently, master baker Uri Scheft of Breads Bakery in New York and Lehamim Bakery in Tel Aviv shared this recipe for his pistachio financiers. Baked in small pyramid-shaped silicon molds, they are delicious.

What I liked best about the little cakes were their crispy edges. This made me think the batter would make delicious tuiles, those delicate, crisp buttery cookies that are draped over a rolling pin when they come out of the oven so that when they cool they’re shaped like a roof tile.

I remembered that another great pastry chef, Sherry Yard, also uses cake batter for her tuiles; her recipe is in the pound cake chapter of her cookbook “The Secrets of Baking.”

My instincts were right! The nutty, crisp, rich-tasting tuiles are fabulous and have great staying power.

You will need pistachio paste, which is available in baking supply stores, Middle Eastern markets and online. If you can’t decide which to make, use half the batter for the financiers, refrigerate the other half overnight and the next day make tuiles.

Uri Scheft’s Pistachio Financiers or Tuiles

Delicate, crisp tuiles can be made from the same recipe as financiers. Credit: Copyright 2015 Martha Rose Shulman

Delicate, crisp tuiles can be made from the same recipe as financiers. Credit: Copyright 2015 Martha Rose Shulman

Prep Time: 1 hour (add overnight rest for batter for tuiles)

Baking Time: 20 to 25 minutes for financiers; 1 hour 20 minutes for tuiles

Yield: 50 tuiles or petits fours

Ingredients

6 ounces butter, preferably French style, such as Plugrà

5 large egg whites, at room temperature

1 cup sugar

1 cup less 1 tablespoon almond flour (without skins)

1/3 cup potato flour (or potato starch), sifted

1 teaspoon dark rum

2 scant tablespoons pistachio paste

2 tablespoons chopped pistachios (optional)

Directions

1. Place butter in a small saucepan and melt over medium heat until solids have settled and butter is golden brown with a nutty aroma (the solids on bottom of pan will be a darker brown), 5 to 10 minutes. Remove from heat and transfer to a heat-proof measuring cup. You should have 2/3 cup melted butter. Allow to cool to lukewarm, 90 to 105 degrees F. This will take more than 30 minutes, but best not to chill in the refrigerator, as butter should be liquid when you add it to the batter. Meanwhile, weigh out remaining ingredients.

2. Combine egg whites and sugar in bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the paddle and beat at medium speed for 2 minutes. Stop and scrape down sides of bowl and beaters. Add almond flour and beat for 2 minutes at medium speed. Scrape down bowl and beaters.

3. Add cooled butter, including browned bits at bottom of pan, and beat at low speed for 1 minute. Add potato flour and beat at low speed until incorporated, about 1 minute. Scrape down bowl and beaters.

4. Add rum and pistachio paste and beat at medium-low until well combined.

Baking differences

Tuiles and financiers use the same ingredients, including rum, almond flour, potato flour and pistachio paste. Credit: Copyright 2015 Martha Rose Shulman

Tuiles and financiers use the same ingredients, including rum, almond flour, potato flour and pistachio paste. Credit: Copyright 2015 Martha Rose Shulman

For Financiers:

5. Preheat oven to 350 F, with rack in the middle. Line baking sheets with 1 1/2- x 1 1/2-inch pyramid-shaped silicon molds. Pipe or scoop batter into molds (I use a 1 1/4-inch scoop). Bake 20 to 25 minutes, switching sheets front to back halfway through, until cakes are dark brown on the edges and a tester comes out clean when inserted. Remove from oven and allow to cool completely in molds for one hour. They will detach from molds easily once cool.

For Tuiles:

5. Cover batter tightly and refrigerate overnight for best results.

6. Remove batter from refrigerator and allow to come to room temperature. Preheat oven to 350 F with rack positioned in middle. Line sheet pans with silicone mats or with parchment. (Silicone mats are easiest to work with).

7. Using a 1 1/4-inch scoop or by tablespoons, scoop batter onto baking sheets leaving a good 2 1/2 inches between each one and staggering rows. If desired, sprinkle chopped pistachios on top. You will only be able to get about 8 to a sheet. For super thin tuiles, use a small offset spatula to spread batter. (It will spread anyway when you bake, but spreading it before results in very thin, lacy tuiles). Place in the oven and bake 10 minutes, or until golden brown on edges and beginning to color on top. Cookies will spread on baking sheets.

8. Meanwhile, place a rolling pin on your work surface propped against something so that it won’t roll, or on a sheet pan, propped against edges. When cookies are ready, remove from oven and let sit on pan for 30 seconds to a minute, then slide an offset spatula under and drape each cookie while still pliable over rolling pin. They will curve and cool quickly. Transfer to a rack to cool completely. If cookies cool too much and are not pliable by the time you get the last ones off the baking sheet, place back in oven for 1 minute and they will soften up again. Repeat with remaining batter until all of it is used up.

Main photo: Uri Scheft’s pistachio financiers are baked in small pyramid-shaped molds. Credit: Copyright 2015 Martha Rose Shulman

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Try serving a

For simple holiday entertaining, take a cue from Italy and select a few quality ingredients that are wonderful alone, but that can dress up for any party. Three Italian classics — Grana Padano aged cheese, Prosciutto di San Daniele and Mortadella Bologna — can create dozens of delectable nibbles.

Following is a look at some of the possibilities.

Entertaining gluten-free

Wrap a slice of succulent prosciutto around veggies for elegant Italian umami "sushi." Credit: Courtesy of Mortadella Bologna IGP

Wrap a slice of succulent prosciutto around veggies for elegant Italian umami “sushi.” Credit: Courtesy of Mortadella Bologna IGP

Thinly slice prosciutto or Mortadella Bologna and serve on a pretty wooden board. Set out wedges of Grana Padano  with a cheese knife and clusters of grapes for simple, elegant party nibbles.

Wrap a slice of succulent prosciutto around veggies for Italian umami “sushi.” Try zucchini, carrots, enoki mushrooms, cucumber and avocado, which all pair wonderfully with prosciutto. Mortadella Bologna also makes a great roll-up. Sprinkle with chopped pistachios for color and crunch.

Fruit pair perfectly with cold cuts and cheese. Melon is a classic with prosciutto, so for a festive variation, dice cubes to create mini bites. Cantaloupe and honeydew melons make a pretty color mix.

Figs and fruits

Figs pair perfectly with cold cuts and cheese. Credit: Courtesy of "Philosopher’s Kitchen," Random House

Figs pair perfectly with cold cuts and cheese. Credit: Courtesy of “Philosopher’s Kitchen,” Random House

Figs too are a classic pairing, but fresh figs aren’t readily available during the holidays, so use dried instead. Simmer a dozen dried figs in a cup of white wine to make them soft and summer sweet.

Top with anything you like including prosciutto, chopped pistachios with honey and mascarpone cheese with a sprinkle of lemon zest.

Guests love a little skewer to nibble with a glass of bubbly Prosecco Superiore. Try Prosciutto di San Daniele and Grana Padano served with fried sage leaves and cubes of Mortadella Bologna accompanied by pistachio cream, made by blending finely ground pistachios with a little heavy cream and mascarpone or cream cheese. Fresh fruit like pears, apples and grapes pair perfectly with the naturally creamy sweetness of Grana Padano. It’s also wonderful with dried fruit. Spear chunks with olives and dried cranberries for a tangy-savory combo.

A toast to the party

Melt Grana Padano cheese with prosciutto or mortadella for bruschetta toppings. Credit: Courtesy of Grama Padano DOP

Melt Grana Padano cheese with prosciutto or mortadella for bruschetta toppings. Credit: Courtesy of Grama Padano DOP

Grana Padano lends itself to all sorts of bruschetta toppings. Melt onto bread to accompany Prosciutto di San Daniele or Mortadella Bologna, or for a vegetarian option top with chopped fresh or sun dried tomatoes or red bell peppers.

Mini sandwiches are always a party favorite. For an Italian riff — called “panettone gastronomico” — horizontally cut tall brioche bread into 7 equal slices to create 3 sandwich layers. Use your favorite filling, then stack and slice into triangles. The top section sits above as a decorative garnish.

Little baked pasta cups make a versatile appetizer. Just a quarter pound of pasta makes 24 bite-sized treats that can be eaten plain or topped. To make, combine cooked angel hair pasta with a beaten egg and some grated aged cheese. Twirl on a fork and bake into mini muffin tins until firm and golden at the edges. Then serve plain or topped with Prosciutto di San Daniele, Mortadella Bologna, shaved Grana Padano or pesto.

Everything Cheese Crisps

These cheese crisps are perfect to serve with cocktails, for garnishing soup or salad, or just as an afternoon snack. Credit: Copyright 2011 Quentin Bacon

These cheese crisps are perfect to serve with cocktails, for garnishing soup or salad, or just as an afternoon snack. Credit: Copyright 2011 Quentin Bacon

The usual bag of chips is OK for everyday, but dazzle party guests with these creative cheese crisps by cookbook author and PBS TV host Ellie Krieger who notes, “These easy, cheesy nibbles are a gigantic punch of Grana Padano flavor in a light lacy crisp. I brought in an extra touch of fun by flavoring them with all of the seasonings of my favorite “everything” bagel.”

Adapted from Comfort Food Fix, © 2011 by Ellie Krieger. Reproduced by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.

Prep time: 10  minutes

Bake time: 8 minutes

Total time: 18 minutes

Yield: 8 servings

Ingredients

2/3 cup finely grated Grana Padano cheese (2 ounces)

1 teaspoon all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons sesame seeds

1 teaspoon poppy seeds

1 teaspoon dried minced onion

1/2 teaspoon garlic powder

Directions

Preheat the oven to 350 F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. In a small bowl, combine the cheese, flour, seeds, onion, and garlic powder. Spoon heaping teaspoons of the mixture onto the prepared baking sheet, leaving 2 inches between each mound. Using your fingers, pat the mounds down, spreading them so each is about 2 1/2 inches in diameter. Bake until they are golden brown, about 8 minutes. Allow to cool completely on the baking sheet before lifting them off carefully. Make the crisps up to 2 days ahead and store in an airtight container at room temperature.

Main photo: Try serving a “panettone gastronomico,” a sandwich tower, at your next party. Credit: Copyright Rovia Signorelli, Alessandria Italy

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Main photo: Speculaas With Almond Filling are best when made with freshly ground spices. Credit: Copyright 2015 Michael Krondl

Long before there were Christmas lights, cards, trees or even Santa Claus, and before there were Christmas cookies, richly frosted Yule logs or candy canes … there was gingerbread.

At least since the Middle Ages, what we loosely call gingerbread — richly spiced cookies, wafers and honey breads — has been part of the winter holiday season. There’s a street in the medieval heart of Prague named after spiced honey cake makers. And we know that the Bavarian city of Nürnberg (Nuremberg) was a gingerbread exporter in the 14th century, as was the Dutch city of Deventer not much later. Ever since, the scent of Christmas has been that of gingerbread.

In much of central and northern Europe, the holiday season stretches for several weeks, beginning on St. Nicholas Day (Dec. 6) and ending a month later on Epiphany (around Jan. 6). St. Nicholas was a semi-mythical 4th century Middle Eastern bishop, the sometime patron saint to merchants, sailors and thieves. In his modern incarnation, he is mostly known for rewarding good children and punishing the bad.

The Netherlands Santa: An old bishop and his servant

In the Netherlands, "Sinterklaas" arrives each year accompanied by a black-faced companion named Black Pete, deriving from Holland’s colonial history. Credit: Copyright 2015 Michael Krondl

In the Netherlands, “Sinterklaas” arrives each year accompanied by a black-faced companion named Black Pete, deriving from Holland’s colonial history. Credit: Copyright 2015 Michael Krondl

In the Netherlands, the white-bearded bishop (known there as Sinterklaas) arrives each year (supposedly) from Spain, accompanied by a black-faced companion named Black Pete. The tradition of an African servant seems to derive from Holland’s not altogether savory colonial history. That it endures is baffling to most outsiders even if the Dutch insist that it is all just good fun.

America’s Santa Claus is largely derived from Sinterklaas, though he has no sidekick, is much jollier (perhaps because of the remittances from starring in Coca Cola ads?) and hails not from sunny Spain but from the North Pole.

Dutch bakers and their aromatic dough

The Dutch speculaas is made with a richly aromatic dough. Credit: Copyright 2015 Michael Krondl

The Dutch speculaas cookie is made with a richly aromatic dough. Credit: Copyright 2015 Michael Krondl

Whereas edible Santas are usually made out of chocolate, Saint Nicks come in the form of gingerbread; these may be the original gingerbread men. Dutch bakers follow medieval tradition by continuing to press richly aromatic dough into elaborately wooden molds carved in the shape of angels, animals and hearts, but most especially Sinterklaas. Since the large cookies are the mirror image of the mold, the Dutch named them speculaas — derived from the Latin word for a mirror — a term that they now use for any kind of gingerbread.

This shape, along with the distinctive spicy scent, announces the season. The winter treats are richly flavored with exotic, Eastern spices. In the Middle Ages, it was widely believed that spices such as cloves, nutmeg and cinnamon originated in the Garden of Eden, which was supposedly located somewhere east of the Holy Land. Accordingly, martyred saints, or their remains, were believed to emanate sweet and fragrant spice — and, naturally, so did their gingerbread images.

Moreover, some of these original edibles were literally precious because of the high cost of the Eastern aromatics. Imported from half the world away by ship, camel and ox cart, the spices were both expensive and rare. Accordingly, how much and which of these costly seasonings ended up in the cakes depended on the time and place. The British were fond of ginger, so we call our spice cakes “gingerbread.” In Germany and other parts of central Europe, the local “gingerbread,” or Lebkuchen, often contained no ginger whatsoever. The famous Nürnberg interpretation was made with cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon and cardamom. And the cheap versions, sold at country fairs, were concocted of rye flour and honey and were barely spiced at all.

In the days when sugar was an elite treat, the peasantry often grated this inexpensive Lebkuchen on their porridge in lieu of sugar. Meanwhile, the French have their own spice bread, or pain d’épice, and add anise to the usual sweet spice masala.

Many varieties of spicy treats

This recipe for a spicy treat is adapted from the Dutch culinary historian Christianne Muusers and features an almond filling with many layers of aroma. Credit: Copyright 2015 Michael Krondl

This recipe for a spicy treat is adapted from the Dutch culinary historian Christianne Muusers and features an almond filling with many layers of aroma. Credit: Copyright 2015 Michael Krondl

Yet no one is quite as obsessed with gingerbread as the Dutch. Food historian Peter Rose has documented some 47 varieties of speculaas, and that doesn’t even include the pepernoten (spice cookies) handed out by black-faced Netherlanders on St. Nicholas Day.

Nobody can touch the Dutch when it comes to the quantity of spice in their gingerbread. This too is part of a colonial legacy, when the little country controlled the world supply of nutmeg and cloves. Today, the Dutch make cheese studded with whole cloves and often include nutmeg along with salt and pepper when setting the table. Not surprisingly, some speculaas has the kick of a cinnamon red hot. Most Netherlanders wouldn’t be able to tell you what goes into speculaas spice, since they buy the mixture already mixed, but cloves and nutmeg are typical, as is white pepper.

No matter the recipe, it seems purposely made to ward off Holland’s damp winter chill. A bite of sweet, intensely spicy speculaas sends a warm glow throughout your body. It’s not hard to understand why this was once thought an edible morsel of paradise.

Speculaas With Almond Filling

This recipe is loosely adapted from the Dutch culinary historian Christianne Muusers. She suggests putting a little rose water into the almond filling, which adds yet another layer of aroma to this profoundly spiced treat. Though just about everyone in Holland will just reach for a package of prepared speculaas spice, it’s worth grinding your own spices — they’ll be much more intense. I like to use muscovado, a natural brown sugar, in the dough, although another brown sugar will certainly work.

Prep time: About 45 minutes

Baking time: About 30 minutes

Total time: 1 hour and 15 minutes

Yield: 2 dozen pieces of speculaas

Ingredients

Spice Dough:

2 cups all-purpose flour

3/4 cup natural demerara sugar (or substitute light brown sugar)

1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 teaspoon grated nutmeg

1 teaspoon ground cloves

1/2 teaspoon ground white pepper

3/4 teaspoon ground ginger

1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom seed

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons (1 1/4 stick) cold, unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch pieces

3 1/2 ounces (about 1 cup) sliced almonds

Grated zest of 1 lemon

1 large egg

2 tablespoons heavy cream

Almond filling:

10 ounces almond paste

1 egg

1 tablespoon rose water

1 lightly beaten egg for brushing

2 dozen to 3 dozen whole blanched almonds for decorating

Directions

1. To make the dough, combine the flour, demerara sugar, spices, salt, baking powder and baking soda in a food processor. Pulse to combine. Add the butter and pulse until the butter pieces are about as big as flakes of oatmeal. Transfer mixture to a bowl. Stir in the sliced almonds and lemon rind. Stir together the 1 egg and the cream. Sprinkle this over the flour mixture, then gently toss this mixture with your hands until you have a rather dry dough. If it doesn’t hold together, add another tablespoon or two of cream. It should be about the consistency of pie dough. Cover and refrigerate overnight; this allows the flavor of the spices to infuse the dough.

2. Make the filling by putting the almond paste into a food processor and gradually adding the egg and then the rose water, teaspoon by teaspoon. You need the filling to be spreadable but not runny. This may be made a day ahead and refrigerated.

3. When you’re ready to bake the speculaas, set your oven to 350 F. Take half the dough and roll it out on a floured board to about a 1/4-inch thick round or rectangle. (If it feels too hard, let it sit out for half an hour before rolling.) Transfer this to a parchment-lined baking sheet. Use plenty of flour when you’re rolling out the dough, and don’t worry if it breaks as you are transferring it — you’ll most likely need to cut it and patch it anyway to form an even round or rectangle.

Almond paste filling

The almond paste filling should be be spreadable but not runny. Credit: Copyright 2015 Michael Krondl

The almond paste filling should be be spreadable but not runny. Credit: Copyright 2015 Michael Krondl

4. Spread the almond paste over the dough, leaving a border of about 1/4 inch naked. Roll out the rest of the dough, drape it over the filling, and even out the dough to make a smooth edge.
Brush generously with lightly beaten egg, using the brush to smooth out any cracks and crevices. Using a knife, trace diamonds over the surface. Decorate the top with whole, blanched almonds.

5. Bake for 20 to 30 minutes in the preheated oven until firm and a rich brown. Make sure to cut it into pieces before it cools completely. I usually cut it into squares or diamonds of about 2 inches.

Main photo: Speculaas With Almond Filling are best when made with freshly ground spices. Credit: Copyright 2015 Michael Krondl

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