Articles in Baking
Was there pumpkin pie at that first legendary Thanksgiving? My bet is there was.
You will recall from grade school that the first grand feed was held in Plymouth, Mass., in 1621 by the Pilgrims to mark their first harvest — and the fact they were alive. This was something to celebrate, given that 50% of their compatriots didn’t make it through the first year. We know they the feast lasted more than three days, but exactly what was on the menu remains a bit of a mystery.
The English being English, the reports of the event mention only the meat. We know they invited about 90 Wampanoag who brought plenty of venison, and the Englishmen managed to bag a week’s worth of unnamed game birds, so there’s a pretty good chance wild turkeys were among them. As far as cranberry sauce and mashed potatoes, marshmallow-topped yams and Campbell’s green bean casserole, or even pie, the record is silent. We know they had no potatoes, marshmallows or Campbell’s soup.
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But there’s a semi-decent chance they might have sent the kids into the cranberry bogs to pick the autumn fruit and stewed some sort of condiment out it. After all, this sort of thing was popular enough in England at the time. And they probably did have pie, an English staple if ever there were one, though apple pie would have been out of the question — not because they wouldn’t have been familiar with it. Apple pie is mentioned as early as the 14th century, and the cookbooks familiar to the Puritans included plenty of apple pie recipes. The trouble was, any apple trees in Massachusetts would have been no more than seedlings.
What were the other options? Back across the Atlantic, pie shells — or “coffins,” as they were known — could be filled with just about anything: pigeons, mutton haunches, minced meat, baby pigs, rabbits. For a lark, four and twenty live blackbirds might be tucked away in a pie crust and released at the dinner table. Fruit and vegetables were popular fillings as well, often sweetened, but not always. Pumpkins, or pompions, as they were called, had taken up root in England long before the Mayflower sailed and consequently pumpkin pie recipes showed up early, though not in a form the test kitchens at Libby’s would recognize. John Gerard recommended baking them sliced with apples in the 1590s. Hannah Woolley’s popular 17th-century culinary guide, “A Gentlewoman’s Companion,” described a “pompion pye” made by sautéing pumpkin pieces with thyme, rosemary, marjoram, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and pepper. These are mixed with eggs and sugar and layered in the pie shell with apples and currants. To serve the pie, you lift off the lid, stir the pumpkin to a purée and replace the lid.
Apparently, there were parts of England where pumpkins were cultivated specifically for a custardy apple pumpkin pie. It’s reasonable to surmise that early New England settlers made something similar but with just pumpkins. Maybe pompion pye, made of familiar native squash, was one of the exotic European preparations the Wampanoag guests got to taste in 1621.
Certainly the kind of smooth pumpkin custard-filled pie we’re familiar with became commonplace in New England. Amelia Simmons’ “American Cookery” from 1796 has a couple of recipes for it as well as a variant made with apples mixed with squash. All these are based on old-world models, on pies filled with a sweet purée of potatoes, chestnuts, quinces or even African yams. The main difference: In the king’s English, these were called “baked puddings”; in America they eventually came to be “pies.”
No Libby’s for this apple pumpkin pie
Compared to 100 or more years ago, today’s cook is presented with both advantages and impediments to making a decent pumpkin pie. Canned pumpkin is ubiquitous, almost all of it made by Libby’s, from a pumpkin variety called Dickinson that resembles a giant, tan football. Finding your own cooking pumpkin, however, isn’t always easy.
There are plenty of those big, happy, orange pumpkins, but they are intended for carving jack-o’-lanterns, not eating. Their flesh is scrawny, insipid and altogether useless for pie, or any other culinary effect. Like the Libby’s variety, cooking pumpkins tend to be the color of butternut squash, with a thick layer of orange flesh. The so-called cheese pumpkin is one kind that can be found at farmers markets this time of year. But even these, you can’t just roast and use. To get the desired density for a custard-type pumpkin pie, the roasted pumpkin flesh needs to be lightly puréed (a food processor or food mill will do the job) and then drained. The easiest way to do this is to line a large sieve or colander with a coffee filter. After two or three hours, the consistency will approximate what comes from a Libby’s can.
Is it worth the effort? That’s not the sort of question a Puritan would ask.
Apple Pumpkin Pie
Adapted from “The Great Little Pumpkin Cookbook”
Prep time: about 1/2 hour
Cook time: about 1 hour
Total time: 1 1/2 hours plus time needed to make pastry
Yield: 8 to 10 servings
While this doesn’t exactly reproduce the consistency of the old British custardy pumpkin apple pies, it is a tasty departure from the usual autumn staples. If a cooking pumpkin isn’t available, a butternut squash will serve the same purpose.
1 recipe double crust pie pastry (recipe follows)
1 1/2 pounds cooking pumpkin or butternut squash
1 pound firm cooking apples such as Northern Spy, Baldwin or golden delicious
2 tablespoons cider vinegar
3 tablespoons flour
3/4 cup dark brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
Large pinch nutmeg
Large pinch cloves
1 egg, lightly beaten
1. Roll out half of the pastry for a bottom crust and place in a 9-inch pie pan. Refrigerate.
2. Preheat oven to 425 F.
3. Scoop out the pumpkin seeds, cut the pumpkin into 1-inch strips, cut away the peel and slice the strips into 1/8-inch thick pieces. (You should have 4 cups.)
4. Peel, quarter and core the apples. Cut into 1/4-inch slices.
5. In a large bowl, toss the pumpkin with the apples, vinegar, flour, brown sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves. Arrange in the pastry-lined pie pan.
6. Brush the edge of the dough with the beaten egg.
7. Roll out the remaining dough and place on top of the filling. Crimp the edges. Cut vent holes in the top crust and brush the top with the egg.
8. Set on the bottom shelf of the oven. Bake 20 minutes. Lower temperature to 350 F. Continue baking until golden brown and the pumpkin offers no resistance to a knife or skewer, about 1 more hour.
9. Cool at least 2 hours before serving. Serve at room temperature or slightly warm.
Double Crust Pie Pastry
Prep time: 10 minutes
Total time: 10 minutes plus 2 or more hours of chilling
Yield: Makes enough dough for 1 double crust or 2 single crust pies.
2 1/3 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
8 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
6 tablespoons lard or vegetable shortening
about 1/3 cup ice water
1. Sift together the flour, and salt. Add the butter and shortening. Using your hands or a pastry cutter, break up the two fats in the flour until the mixture is about as fine as rolled oats.
2. Add just enough water to moisten the flour. Toss to form a rather dry dough. Do not overmix. Gather the dough together and wrap in plastic film. Refrigerate at least 2 hours.
Note: The dough may be made ahead and refrigerated for up to 3 days or frozen for several months.
Main photo: Apple Pumpkin Pie. Credit: Michael Krondl
For years my sister, who cannot tolerate gluten, has foregone stuffing at Thanksgiving, and carefully scraped her pumpkin pie filling away from the crust. But I’ve been working on gluten-free pie crusts, and now I can accommodate her.
I’ve played around with several of my own gluten-free combinations and have a couple that I like a lot, but they are tricky to roll out. So I looked around this year for commercial gluten-free flour mixes and found a couple that worked for me. My goal was to find a flour that I could substitute for wheat flour in the pie crust formulas that I use regularly for my pies and tarts.
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I made both pâte sucrée (sweet dough) and flakier pâte brisée using two different gluten-free flour mixes, Bob’s Red Mill Gluten Free Pie Crust and King Arthur Gluten Free Multipurpose Flour. I liked the results, for both crusts and flours (although I did not use the formula on the Bob’s package for the crust so can’t vouch for that). Note that the Bob’s Red Mill Gluten Free Pie Crust is not their gluten-free flour product; that product contains fava bean flour and definitely won’t taste right in pie crust (I’ve tried). I have adapted Jacquy Pfeiffer’s pâte sucrée and pâte brisée recipes for these gluten-free versions.
For Thanksgiving pies like pumpkin and pecan, I use the pâte brisée most often because it is less sweet and goes better with these traditional fillings. But for fruit tarts — say if you are making an apple pie — the pâte sucrée is a great choice.
I can’t overemphasize the importance of weighing (in grams) rather than measuring for pastry. I consistently found that the gluten-free flour mixes had a much smaller volume to weight ratio than regular flour, which on average (depending on weather, how long it has been stored, how much it has been aerated) measures about 1 cup per 120 to 125 grams. But the gluten-free weighed more per cup, about 150 grams. The recipes will work best if you weigh.
Gluten-Free Pâte Brisée
Prep time: Ideally, 2 to 3 days total, but only 20 minutes active work
Cook time: 30 to 35 minutes
Total time: 55 minutes – 3 days
Yield: Two 9-inch crusts
This is a flaky pastry with just a small amount of sugar. You can also use it for savory tarts; just leave out the sugar. You will have a more accurate and consistent outcome if you use a scale and the gram weights rather than a measuring cup.
222 grams (8 ounces) unsalted French style butter, such as Plugrà (82% fat), at room temperature, plus a very small amount for the pans
6 grams (approximately 3/4 teaspoon) salt
30 grams (approximately 2 tablespoons) sugar
375 grams (approximately 2 1/2 cups) gluten-free flour mix or pie crust mix, preferably Bob’s Red Mill Gluten Free Pie Crust mix or King Arthur Gluten Free Multipurpose flour, sifted
80 to 92 grams (6 to 7 tablespoons) water, as needed
1. Place soft butter, salt and sugar in the bowl of a standing mixer and mix on low speed for 1 minute. Add flour and mix on low speed just until ingredients come together. Add 6 tablespoons of the water and mix only the dough comes together. If it does not come together right away, add remaining water. Do not over mix.
2. Scrape mixture out on a sheet of plastic wrap and flatten it into a square. Wrap well and refrigerate overnight.
3. The following day, remove dough from refrigerator, weigh and divide into two equal pieces. Refrigerate one piece while you roll out the other.
4. Very lightly, butter a 9-inch pie dish or tart pan. You should not be able to see any butter on the dish. Roll out the dough – it is easiest to do this on a Silpat — and line the pie dish or tart pan. Ease the dough into the bottom edges of the pan and crimp the top edge. Pierce the bottom in several places with a fork and refrigerate uncovered for several hours or overnight. If freezing, refrigerate for 1 hour, then double wrap in plastic wrap, then in foil. Label, date, and freeze. (Roll out and freeze the other half of the dough if not using).
5. To pre-bake pie crust, heat oven to 325 F. Line crust with parchment and fill with pie weights. Place on a baking sheet and place in the oven for 15 minutes.
6. Remove from oven and carefully remove parchment and pie weights. Return to oven and bake 15 to 20 minutes, until lightly browned and dry.
7. Remove from oven and allow to cool completely.
Gluten-Free Sweet Tart Dough
Prep time: Ideally, 2 to 3 days total, but only 20 minutes active work
Cook time: 30 to 35 minutes
Total time: 55 minutes – 3 days
Yield: Two 9-inch crusts
Essentially a pâte sucrée, this dough should remain cold when you roll it out. Ideally, you should give it another overnight rest once rolled out, uncovered in the refrigerator, so that the pastry dries out even more. If you don’t have the extra day, give it at least an hour.
168 grams (6 ounces) unsalted French style butter, such as Plugrà (82 percent fat) at room temperature, plus a very small amount for the pans
1 gram (approximately 1/4 teaspoon) fine sea salt
112 grams / approximately 1 cup confectioners’ sugar, sifted
39 grams / approximately 1/3 rounded cup skinless almond flour, sifted
7 grams / 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
63 grams / approximately 1 extra-large egg plus 1 to 2 teaspoons beaten egg
315 grams / approximately 2 cups plus 1 1/2 tablespoons gluten free flour mix or pie crust mix, preferably Bob’s Red Mill Gluten Free Pie Crust mix or King Arthur Gluten Free Multipurpose flour, sifted
1. In a standing mixer fitted with paddle attachment, or in a bowl with a rubber spatula, cream butter and sea salt on medium speed for about 1 minute. Scrape down sides of bowl and paddle with rubber spatula and add confectioners’ sugar. Combine with butter at low speed. Once incorporated, scrape down bowl and paddle. Add almond flour and vanilla extract and combine at low speed.
2. Gradually add egg and 1/4 of cake flour. Beat at low speed until just incorporated. Stop machine and scrape down bowl and paddle. Gradually add remaining flour and mix just until dough comes together. Stop machine from time to time and scrape crumbly mixture that separates from dough on sides and bottom of bowl, then restart machine to incorporate into dough. Do not overbeat. Dough will be soft to the touch.
3. Cut a large piece of plastic and scrape dough out of bowl onto plastic. Gently press into a 1/2-inch thick rectangle. Double-wrap airtight in plastic and refrigerate overnight or for at least 3 hours.
4. The following day, remove dough from refrigerator, weigh and divide into 2 equal pieces. Refrigerate one piece while you roll out the other.
5. Very lightly butter a 9-inch pie dish or tart pan. You should not be able to see any butter on the dish. Roll out the dough — it is easiest to do this on a Silpat — and line the pie dish or tart pan. Ease the dough into the bottom edges of the pan and crimp the top edge. Pierce the bottom in several places with a fork and refrigerate uncovered for several hours or overnight. If freezing, refrigerate for 1 hour, then double wrap in plastic wrap, then in foil. Label, date, and freeze. (Roll out and freeze the other half of the dough if not using).
6. To pre-bake pie crust, heat oven to 325 F. Line crust with parchment and fill with pie weights. Place on a baking sheet and place in the oven for 15 minutes. Remove from oven and carefully remove parchment and pie weights. Return to oven and bake 15 to 20 minutes, until lightly browned and dry. Remove from oven and allow to cool completely.
Main photo: Pecan pie with gluten-free pâte brisée. Credit: Martha Rose Shulman
In the beginning, there was the pineapple, and it was good — very, very good, about as good as anything ever gets. But if you didn’t live in pineapple country, it was hard to obtain ones perfectly ripe and in good condition. Then there was canned pineapple, and though it might not have been quite as good as fresh pineapple, it was still pretty darned good. In fact, it begat one of the great creations of the 20th-century American kitchen: the pineapple upside-down cake. Its informing flavor came from the caramelization of the slices that lay on the bottom of the cast-iron frying pan while the cake baked on top.
But then fresh, ripe pineapple became more readily available, and people got tired of dealing with cast-iron pans, and anyway, new pineapple dishes had come along (hello, tiki cuisine). In the 1960s, the pineapple upside-down cake faded away.
Finally, in our own time, chefs discovered the idea of roasting pineapple and started roasting pineapple all over the place, and it was good. It was good for the same reason that pineapple upside-down cake had been good: Pineapple goes wonderfully well with caramelized flavors.
You don’t have to roast the fruit to get the same effect. You can even combine fresh or canned pineapple and butterscotch to get that old-fashioned caramelized flavor. This recipe is based on a pineapple-coconut cake in Nancie McDermott’s “Southern Cakes” (Chronicle Books, 2007). It’s kind of frivolous, but it is good.
Prep time: About 30 minutes
Cooking time: 30-35 minutes
Total time: About 1 hour
Yield: 1 two-layer cake, 6 to 8 servings
For the cake:
About 1/4 cup butter and 3 tablespoons flour for coating pans
3 cups cake flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup milk
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 pound (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
2 cups sugar
For the butterscotch-pineapple filling:
3 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon flour
3 tablespoons sugar
1 20-ounce can crushed pineapple or 1 1/2 cups crushed fresh pineapple with liquid
3 tablespoons butter
1/3 cup butterscotch bits
For the frosting:
2 egg whites
1 cup sugar
1 tablespoon light corn syrup
2/3 cup pineapple juice, reserved from filling
Optional: 2 or 3 drops of yellow food coloring
For the assembly:
1/3 cup butterscotch bits
For the cake:
1. Preheat the oven to 350 F.
2. Smear the interior of two 9-inch cake pans generously with butter. Line the bottom of the pans with 9-inch rounds of parchment paper or waxed paper and butter them (this step is optional, but it will help you to remove the cake layers intact). Sprinkle the interior of the pans with about 1 1/2 tablespoons flour each and shake around to coat; overturn the pans above your sink and tap to remove excess flour.
3. In a bowl, mix the 3 cups flour, baking powder and salt and set aside. In a separate bowl, mix the milk and vanilla and set aside.
4. Using an electric mixer, beat the softened butter at high speed in a mixing bowl until light and lemon-colored. Continue beating the butter and slowly add the 2 cups sugar. When the mixture is smooth, about 2 minutes, add the eggs one at a time, beating for 20 seconds after each addition and then scraping down the sides of the bowl with a spatula or wooden spoon.
5. Scoop in 1 cup of the flour mixture and beat at medium speed until the flour is just incorporated. Add half of the milk-vanilla mixture and beat at high speed until incorporated, gently urging all the ingredients together with a spatula. Repeat, alternating flour and milk, until the batter is just incorporated.
6. Scrape the batter into the prepared baking pans, smooth the tops and place in the oven. When the surface has just started to brown, 30 to 35 minutes, give the center a gingerly touch to see whether it has set — it should spring back. (The layers are definitely done when they start to pull away from the sides of the pan, but by that time they may be a little dry.)
7. Remove the pans from the oven and let them rest on racks or folded dish towels for 10 minutes. Set a plate or another rack on top of each pan and overturn it; the layer should pull away at a tap. Overturn the layers again so they’re right side up and let them cool for 20 or 30 minutes.
For the filling:
1. Stir the flour into the sugar.
2. Drain and squeeze the pineapple, reserving 2/3 cup of pineapple juice for use in the frosting.
3. In a small saucepan over medium heat, melt the butter and butterscotch bits. Add the sugar-flour mixture and stir until incorporated. Add the crushed pineapple and stir until thickened, about 5 minutes.
For the frosting:
1. Put the egg whites, sugar, corn syrup and pineapple juice in the top of a double boiler. Put about 1½ inches of water in the bottom of the double boiler and, over high heat, bring it to a boil. Meanwhile beat the frosting ingredients with an electric beater for 1 minute.
2. When the water has reached a full boil, set the top of the double boiler over the bottom, reduce the heat to medium-high and start beating again. After about 7 minutes, the frosting will start to lose its sheen and to form stiff peaks when the beaters are lifted from it.
3. Remove from the heat, add food coloring if desired and beat for 1 minute longer.
To assemble the cake:
1. Place one cake layer on your serving dish with the flat side up. Spread half of the butterscotch-pineapple filling over it, almost to the edge.
2. Set the other layer on top of the first and spread the rest of the filling over the top and sides of the cake. Sprinkle the butterscotch bits as evenly as possible across the top.
Main photo: Pineapple-Butterscotch Cake. Credit: Charles Perry
Torta al Testo, a sort of pita bread from Umbria in Italy, is baked on a wood-fire-heated stone, in a dying art that dates back to the ancient Etruscans.
In Umbria, the simple pizza-like dough is rolled out to the thickness of what the Umbrians describe as a “pretty woman’s earlobe.” Then it is slapped onto a stone that’s been heated in a wood-burning fireplace and pricked all over to keep it from puffing up like Indian naan. Because the dough is thin and therefore cooks fast, there’s no need to return the stone to the oven — the residual heat in the stone is all the dough needs to cook through. Before the advent of mechanical timers, Umbrians used recitations of “Hail Mary” to measure how long it took to bake the flatbread on each side, which doesn’t amount to many; it’s the equivalent of a couple of minutes per side at most.
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While the bread is still warm, it’s cut in half, then carefully split horizontally with a knife and stuffed with regional Umbrian prosciutto, porchetta or salume, especially Norcia’s specialties — capocollo and lombetto. For a meat-free version, Umbrians fill the torta al testo with cheese and veggies, like stracchino cheese and arugula. Served in wedges, torta al testo would make a unique snack or pre-dinner nibble. It’s also great for lunch with a salad.
Even though the Umbrians use a huge round stone as their testo, a pizza stone is a fine substitute.
Torta al Testo
This recipe comes from the nonprofit Italian group Home Food Italy.
Prep Time: 10 minutes
Cooking Time: 15 minutes
Total Time: 25 minutes
Yield: 4 servings
2 cups all purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1. Heat a testo or pizza stone in a wood-burning stove or oven set at 500 F while you prepare the dough.
2. Put the flour into a bowl with the baking soda, salt and ½ cup water. Stir with a fork, adding a few drops of water at a time until it comes together enough so you can knead it. Knead the dough on a lightly floured work surface for about 10 minutes, until the dough is smooth.
3. Form a ball and roll out with a rolling pin until you get a disk about 1 inch thick.
4. Once the testo or pizza stone is very hot, put the dough onto it and pierce with a fork so it doesn’t rise. Allow it to cook on the testo or stone for about 6 minutes and once browned, turn over. Cook on the other side until done.
5. Cut the torta in half and then cut into it horizontally. Fill with cheese, salami, greens or your favorite sandwich fillings.
Main photo: Torta al testo, a thin dough, cooks quickly on a heated stone. Credit: Francine Segan
As we slide into the holiday season, my mind turns toward maple: maple syrup, maple frosting — and maple fudge.
The world has quite enough chocolate fudge, in my heretical opinion. Chocolate is certainly majestic, but maple has something wonderful and poetical to say for itself. Nobody who has had a bite of maple fudge will ever turn another down. It’s the ideal Thanksgiving sweet, the boss of all stocking stuffers.
These days, a lot of people seem to think that fudge making is so difficult it has to be left to professionals. Oh, fudge, I say. Homemade fudge is an American tradition. Nineteenth-century college girls are said to have invented chocolate fudge — apparently without spoiling their grade-point average.
The anatomy of a beloved candy
Culinarily speaking, fudge is related to caramel because it involves cooking a dairy product (milk, half-and-half or cream) to the point that it undergoes the Maillard reaction, which produces appetizing browned flavors. Specifically, fudge is related to the 19th-century Mexican candy called panocha, which included the decisive step of stirring in chopped nuts.
Fudge has a luxurious texture because it is whipped as it cools to prevent the formation of large crystals. Small crystals melt easily and appealingly, and a fat-based ingredient — butter or chocolate (or both) — adds its own lusciousness. The faint bitterness of the nuts takes the curse off the overwhelming sweetness of the candy, which is why nuts have become all but universal in fudge recipes.
For maple fudge, the most common nuts are walnuts or pecans, which are both excellent. On general principle, I would first toast them at 350 F until they can easily be pierced by a needle, about 7 minutes. I have also tried toasted coconut as a substitute, which is pretty good, though I was surprised to find that the coconut flavor dominated the maple more than I liked. Ultimately, I decided I favored the version made with toasted hazelnuts. Because, face it, hazelnuts are awesome.
It’s not as hard as you think
Many fudge recipes call for a pastry marble to cool the syrup on, which can make those who don’t own one uneasy. So just use a baking pan instead. (I wouldn’t recommend a cookie sheet without a raised edge, however, because if it isn’t perfectly level, the hot syrup can drip right off.) You do need a good thermometer, but these days any serious cook has one.
In short, the following recipe is somewhat flexible. You can cook the syrup to 240 F or so; you can let it cool to 105 F before beating it; you can beat it longer than the specified time. The crucial thing is that the syrup must reach the soft-ball stage, 238 F at sea level. (If you live at an elevation above 3,500 feet, you are probably familiar with the degree to which you must adjust your temperatures.)
Prep time: 5 to 10 minutes
Cooking time: 30 to 35 minutes
Total time: About 2¾ hours (includes cooling time)
Yield: 25 to 36 pieces
4 tablespoons (½ stick) butter, divided, softened
3 cups sugar
¾ cup maple syrup
1½ cups half-and-half
3 tablespoons corn syrup
2 teaspoons vanilla
1½ cups roughly chopped nuts — pecans, walnuts or toasted hazelnuts — toasted for 5 to 7 minutes at 350 F
1. Line an 8-inch baking dish with aluminum foil (make sure that the edges extend past the rim) and grease with 1 tablespoon softened butter.
2. In a 3-quart pot over low heat, stir together the sugar, maple syrup, half-and-half, corn syrup and salt until smooth. Continue to stir until the sugar is dissolved, 5 minutes.
3. Insert the sensor of a candy thermometer into the mixture. Increase the heat to bring to a boil and cook without stirring until the syrup reaches the soft-ball state (238 F), about 15 minutes. The syrup will foam up alarmingly but settle down by 225 F. Warning: The heated syrup can cause severe burns. Wear an apron and use oven mitts.
4. Remove the thermometer probe from the pan and pour the fudge onto a pastry marble (if you don’t have one, use a 12-by-18-inch baking pan sprayed with nonstick spray). Divide the remaining 3 tablespoons of softened butter into several pieces and dot them here and there on top.
5. Clean the thermometer sensor and stick it anywhere in the fudge. When the temperature measures 110 F (about 5 minutes on a marble, 10 or 12 minutes on a baking pan), scrape the fudge into a mixer bowl with the mixer paddle attached, add the vanilla and beat until the fudge is thick and losing its shine, 5 to 10 minutes.
6. Mix in the nuts. Turn the fudge into the prepared baking dish and let it cool to room temperature, 2 hours.
7. Remove the fudge from the dish by lifting the edges of the aluminum foil and transfer it to a work surface. Rub a chef’s knife with a piece of paper towel wetted with vegetable oil and make 4 cuts in one direction and then 4 cuts in the other, or 5 cuts in each direction, re-oiling the knife as necessary. Wrap the pieces in waxed paper.
If it is not to be eaten immediately, store the fudge in an air-tight container (it can otherwise absorb moisture and soften, particularly in damp weather). It will keep several weeks in a refrigerator, but generally speaking, it’s a gift best given fresh.
Main photo: Maple-hazelnut fudge. Credit: Charles Perry
When the young teen superstar Mozart arrived in the Trentino region to play his first Italian gig, they had to call out the guards to protect him from being mobbed by fans. The Justin Bieber of his day, Mozart stayed in Rovereto, a small town that straddled the then-Italian-Austrian border. We don’t know what he played in the beautiful Baroque church, (a bratty show-off, he often improvised as he went along), but it’s a good bet that afterward he dined on polenta, polenta and more polenta.
Polenta vs. pasta
Polenta is to the far north of Italy what pasta is to the rest, and it is widely eaten throughout Trentino-Alto Aldige, Lombardy, Piedmont, Veneto, as well as in Tuscany. At one time smart Italian restaurants would not have been caught dead serving polenta, il cibo della miseria, the food of poverty. Basically it is a sort of thick porridge made from maize (corn) and water, and for centuries was a staple, belly filling food for impoverished rural people. Put that way, it sounds less than glamorous. Tell the folks today they’re getting gruel or grits — not buying into a slice of dolce vita lifestyle along with the Balsamic and sun-dried tomatoes — and you’re not going to sell a lot of packets. For many consumers, it’s still a case of overpriced and over-hyped.
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Nonetheless, the wheel of polenta fortune has turned, and it has morphed into a fashionable food accessory, presented as elegant crispy triangles, diamonds and squares, as well as a smooth, buttery puree.
At its best, polenta can have a slightly nutty, sweet-corn-like taste, but essentially it is a carrier of other flavors and textures, a backdrop for sauces and a foil for meats, vegetables, fungi or cheese. It is remarkably versatile, served hot, cold, firm, supple or sloppy, thin or thick, or two fingers wide. Leftovers can be baked, fried or grilled. It can also be sweetened with sugar and cinnamon or used in cakes and pastries.
There are hundreds of regional recipes, but at its simplest, all that’s needed is butter and grated Parmesan or Grana Padano to transform a dull dish into something altogether more special. It is a country food made good.
Polenta, the old-fashioned way
There is something magical about the way polenta turns from a dull grain into a golden slice.
Making polenta the old-fashioned way is as good as a workout at the gym. Polenta is traditionally cooked in an unlined copper pan called a paiolo. The salted water must boil furiously in a vortex created by swirling the water clockwise (the reverse may well be the case in the southern hemisphere, if plugholes are anything to go by).
The cornmeal is added in a slow, steady drizzle (a pioggia, as if it were raining), then stirred vigorously (great for the biceps) with a bastone in the same direction for about 40 minutes lest it catch or congeal into hard lumps. The bastone, or wooden stirring stick, needs to be long, as polenta has a nasty habit of spitting viciously as it cooks. Once it becomes a cohesive mass, like a bubbling yellow swamp, it is poured onto a wooden board or even a scrubbed kitchen table, and cut with a wooden knife or long thread.
If you don’t have a paiolo, then it’s unlikely you will also have a big fireplace hearth with a cooking crane on which to hang your pot. Despair not — any large, heavy pot that gives an even heat will do, and it’s even possible to buy electric polenta makers with paddles a little like ice cream machines.
When looking for polenta to buy, consider the Molino Spadoni brand: Fioretto Polenta is yellow and fine-grained and becomes beautifully creamy; Bramata Polenta is thicker and more granular and produces a more rustic polenta.
Contemporary cheats, however, use instant polenta: The maize flour is steamed and pre-cooked, added to boiling water, stock or milk, and is ready within minutes. Valsugana is a popular instant brand in Italy.
Anna del Conte recommends another cooking method in “The Classic Food of Northern Italy”: cook it in a pressure cooker or the oven. Del Conte has also endorsed a revolutionary approach, at least in purist polenta circles, in which the polenta is added all at once to cold water.
Polenta: The five-minute method
Follow instructions on the instant polenta packet, adding extra hot liquid if you like your polenta on the runny side. Use stock or milk and water in place of just water if preferred for extra flavor.
Stir in a generous amount of butter and Parmesan to make a mash-cum-puree. Either serve as is or pour into a greased loaf pan and let cool until firm. Slice it thickly, brush with olive oil, and fry or grill until brown and nicely toasted.
Grilled Polenta With Fontina
Prep time: 15 minutes
Total time: 30 minutes
Yield: 4 servings, as an appetizer
3 to 4 plum tomatoes, diced or roughly chopped
Salt and coarsely ground black pepper
12 slices of firm, cooked polenta (about ¾ cup uncooked)
1 to 2 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup Fontina cheese, shredded or sliced
Fresh basil leaves, shredded
1. Mix the tomatoes, salt and pepper together and set aside.
2. Brush both sides of the polenta slices with olive oil. Broil under a medium heat for 5 minutes or until one side is golden. Turn the slices over and top with the cheese.
3. Cook for another 5 minutes or until the cheese melts.
4. Place on serving plates and serve, topped with the tomatoes and shredded basil leaves.
Baked Polenta With Italian Sausages, Mushrooms and Cheese
Prep time: 40 minutes (plus chilling for several hours or overnight)
Total time: 60 minutes
Yield: 4 servings, as a main course
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1 small onion, chopped
2 large garlic cloves, crushed
1 red pepper, cored, seeded and diced
2 Italian sausages with fennel seeds, casing removed, crumbled
2 cups mushrooms, chopped
3/4 cup of polenta (cornmeal)
1 tablespoon fresh, chopped parsley, plus extra for serving
Pinch of cayenne pepper
½ cup ricotta cheese
1 cup grated Gruyere cheese
Salt and pepper
1/4 stick butter, diced
2 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese
1. Heat olive oil in a frying pan and lightly sauté the onion, garlic and red pepper.
2. Add the crumbled sausage and cook until the meat starts to change color.
3. Add the mushrooms and cook for another five minutes, then set aside.
4. Cook the polenta according to the packet instructions. When it is ready, remove from the heat and stir in the parsley, a pinch of cayenne pepper, the ricotta and Gruyere cheese. Add the sausage and sweet pepper mixture, fold in well, season with salt and pepper.
5. Pour the mixture into a shallow, round dish that has been lined with plastic wrap. Cool, then cover and chill for a few hours or overnight.
6. When ready to serve, preheat the oven to 190 C. Use the plastic wrap to remove the polenta onto a board. Cut the polenta into wedges and place into an oiled shallow roasting dish, large enough to hold the polenta in one layer without crowding.
7. Dot with the diced butter and sprinkle with the Parmesan cheese. Bake 15 to 20 minutes, or until the polenta is golden.
8. Garnish with chopped fresh parley, serve with a good tomato sauce.
Main photo: Grilled Polenta With Fontina and diced tomatoes can be made in about 30 minutes, if you use instant polenta. Credit: Clarissa Hyman
Centuries of polenta
1. The culinary ancestor of polenta was pulmentum, a grain paste made from farro, a kind of spelt, in the form of either a hard cake or soft porridge. It was a staple for the legionnaires of ancient Rome.
2. Before maize was introduced to Italy from America in the 17th century, polenta was made using wheat, barley, oats, millet, chestnut flour or buckwheat. The last two are still used in parts of Tuscany as well as in Valtellina and other Alpine valleys.
3. When the new grain was unloaded in Venice, it would usually have come via Turkey. It is still sometimes called granoturco or Turkish corn in Italy.
4. Not all polenta flour is egg-yolk gold. In the Veneto, it is often made from special, extra-fine white maize, polentina bianca, and is so thin it is spooned rather than cut.
5. In parts of the Trento and Piedmont, black maize flour may be mixed with buckwheat to make polenta nera or polenta taragna.
6. There are also different gradings of polenta. Strictly speaking, the right degree of coarseness should be chosen for each dish. Coarse ground to go with rich meat and tomato sauces, sausages or salt cod; the finer variety for more delicate dressings of cheese, milk, butter or wild mushrooms. Either way, stone-ground polenta is worth seeking out for its more complex, extra-nutty taste.
It’s not by chance that October is National Doughnut Month. A fat circle of fresh-fried dough is a lot more appealing when the air is cool and crisp, especially when accompanied by cup of steaming cider. Moreover, you don’t have to worry about what you’ll look like in a bathing suit — until next year.
Of course national anything days, or months, don’t just happen. They exist because somebody once had an agenda. Sometimes, the days stick, like Thanksgiving, while others, like Health Literacy Month, have a hard time getting traction.
We can thank the now-defunct Doughnut Corporation of America for the monthlong celebration of sweet dough rings. The DCA once controlled virtually all the country’s automatic doughnut machines and most of the mix that went into them. One of the corporation’s brighter ideas was to dub October as National Doughnut Month in 1928.
The Halloween connection
When they did this, the connection of the ghoul fest and doughnuts wasn’t entirely spurious. Before Halloween became a kid’s holiday, people used to have Halloween parties, which often featured seasonal cider and doughnuts. One party game was to bob for apples. Typically, the apples floated in a tub; however, in one variant, the apples were hung on a string. This was also done with doughnuts. The trick was to eat the treat with your hands tied behind your back. To make it a little trickier, the air bobber could be blindfolded. And, in a version of the game that might be suitable for National Fitness Month, several doughnuts are strung horizontally along a stretched cord, laundry-line style (they can also be suspended from the line on lengths of ribbon). The competitors must “chase” the pastries down the line, eating as many as they can, without the use of their hands. These sort of Halloween doughnut acrobatics were popular long before the DCA set up its first shop in Harlem in 1921.
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The company, founded by an Eastern European immigrant named Adolph Levitt, came up with all sorts of wacky promotions in its early years. Perhaps its most successful was the creation of the National Dunking Association, an organization devoted to dipping doughnuts in coffee. In 1940s, the organization boasted three million members and counted Zero Mostel, Johnny Carson and even choreographer Martha Graham as card-carrying dunkers.
In a somewhat more serious vein, during World War II the company supplied its machines free of charge to the American Red Cross, even if they charged the charity for the batter. Just in case America didn’t get the secret-weapon role that doughnuts were playing in the conflict, Levitt’s company put out full-page ads in Life Magazine that featured servicemen on the front, rushing eagerly to get their doughnut fix. In one frame of the comic-strip formatted ad, one dough-faced soldier purrs, “M-M-M, just like home.” In another frame, servicemen on leave whoop it up at a Halloween party. “Service men (and women) look forward to being invited to Halloween parties this year,” we’re told. “And what’s Halloween without donuts and coffee or cider?”
A perfect match
While doughnuts and cider were long considered a likely match, cider doughnuts appear to have been a more recent invention, likely in the early 1950s. This is another innovation that we can attribute to the Doughnut Corporation of America. As people increasingly piled into cars for a drive to the local pick-your-own orchard, the owners of farm stands started adding cider doughnuts to their offerings, not just for Halloween but throughout the leaf-watching season.
In the postwar era, trick-or-treating became ever more popular. In part, it made more sense in the growing suburbs than it had in gritty cities, but trick-or-treating was also pushed by the candy companies. Yet, in smaller communities, homemade treats continued to outnumber Snickers bars.
Connie Fairbanks, a Chicago-based food and travel writer, recalls growing up in Wheaton, Kan., a town of about 90 people at the time. “Everybody went from house to house,” she recalls. And every house had its specialty. “One woman was known for her popcorn balls,” she reminisces, “and my mother was known for her glazed, raised doughnuts. They were always warm when the kids came in.” Her mom made them once, maybe twice, a year and fried them in lard rendered from the family’s own hogs. “I remember the dough feeling like a baby’s bottom.” Fairbanks added that her mother’s secret was to beat the dough, by hand, and not add too much flour. “I remember the smell, it was unbelievable.”
Can you think of a better way to celebrate Halloween? Or, for that matter, the 31 days of National Doughnut Month?
Whole Wheat Apple Cider Doughnuts
Recipe adapted from “The Donut: History, Recipes, and Lore from Boston to Berlin“
Many commercially produced doughnuts are made with a batter that is too wet to roll. This results in lighter pastry but requires a doughnut extruder. One way of getting around that is to use a piping bag to “extrude” the doughnuts. This also gives you the option of making the doughnuts any diameter you like. You will need a heavy pastry bag fitted with a ½-inch plain tip, and, once formed, the doughnuts are much easier to handle if you chill them for an hour or two in the refrigerator.
Cook Time: 60 to 90 seconds per doughnut
Yield: 16 doughnuts
For the doughnut dough:
1½ cups apple cider
½ cup milk
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
8 ounces (about 1¾ cups) bleached all-purpose flour
4ounces (about 1 cup) whole wheat flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon cinnamon
Large pinch grated nutmeg
Large pinch grated cloves
5 ounces (about ⅔ cup) raw (turbinado) sugar or substitute light brown sugar
1½ ounces (3 tablespoons) unsalted butter, softened
1 large egg, at room temperature
1 egg yolk, at room temperature
Oil or shortening for frying
For the cinnamon sugar:
4 ounces (about ½ cup) granulated sugar
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
1. In a small saucepan, boil the cider until it is reduced to ¼ cup. Cool.
2. Line two sheet pans with parchment paper and spray lightly with vegetable spray. In a measuring cup, stir together the milk, reduced cider, and vanilla. It will look curdled. In a medium bowl, whisk together the flours, baking powder, salt, and spices.
3. In a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, beat the sugar and butter until well incorporated, about 1 minute. Add the egg and egg yolk and beat until fluffy, smooth, and pale, 2 to 3 minutes.
4. Alternately add the milk and flour mixtures into the egg mixture in 2 or 3 additions, beating on low speed until just barely combined between each addition. Stir until the mixture just comes together to make a soft, sticky dough. Do not overbeat or it will get tough.
5. Working with about half the dough at a time, fill a piping bag fitted with a ½-inch plain tip. Pipe circles of dough about 3 inches in diameter on the parchment Repeat with the remaining dough. (The dough needs to keep its shape; if too loose, add a tablespoon or two more of flour.) If you wish, you can smooth the seam with a damp finger. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 1 hour and up to 6 hours. Remove plastic wrap, lightly dust the doughnuts with flour, place another pan over each pan, and invert. Carefully peel off the parchment paper.
6. Using a deep fryer or a heavy pan, heat at least 3 inches of the oil or shortening to 360 F. If you’re not using a deep fryer with a built-in thermostat, check the temperature using a candy or deep-fry thermometer. Drop several doughnuts at a time into the heated fat, making sure there is enough room for all of them to float to the surface. Cook 30 to 45 seconds per side, using a slotted spoon or tongs to turn each doughnut. When the doughnuts are golden brown, transfer them to a cooling rack covered with paper towels. Cool to just above room temperature.
7. Whisk together the granulated sugar and 1 tablespoon cinnamon in a wide bowl. Toss the barely warm doughnuts in the cinnamon sugar mixture, and serve warm.
Main photo: A woman bobs for doughnuts at an event at The City University of New York. Credit: Michael Krondl
Halloween is observed in countries around the world, but probably no one celebrates it with the gusto that the U.S. does: the gallows pranks; the ghoulish parades and masked parties; the trick-or-treating in costumes. And then there is the ubiquitous grinning jack-o’-lantern, carved from the season’s plentiful pumpkins.
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Along with the spirit of Halloween goes a devil-may-care attitude about eating sweets. What’s a Halloween vigil without pumpkin-themed treats? For those who’ve outgrown the candy corn and pumpkin marshmallows, why not go Greek for Halloween with baklava — pumpkin baklava, that is. If you like that flaky pastry, you might enjoy this lightened version even more.
For an American spin on an ancient classic, I can’t think of a better trick than to slip the proverbial pumpkin between the buttery layers of this autumnal treat. Here’s the recipe that a fine New Jersey cook and baker, the late Matina Colombotos, a second-generation Greek-American, taught me one October 30 years ago.
Matina’s Pumpkin or Squash Baklava With Honey-Walnut Topping
Baklava is a traditional nut-filled pastry that is soaked with honey or syrup. Matina layered the phyllo sheets with a sweetened squash mixture and drizzled a little honey over the baked pastry. To keep the phyllo moist while you work with it, cover the sheets with foil or waxed paper and then with a barely damp towel. Leftover phyllo can be wrapped, sealed tightly and refrigerated up to three days.
Prep Time: 1½ hours
Cooking Time: 1 hour, 10 minutes
Total Time: about 2 hours, 45 minutes
Yield: 18 pastries
2 pounds pie pumpkin or butternut squash, halved, seeded, peeled and coarsely grated (about 7 cups)
½ teaspoon salt
⅓ cup light brown sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
⅛ teaspoon nutmeg
24 phyllo sheets (13 inches by 9 inches each), thawed following package instructions
10 tablespoons butter, melted
1 cup walnuts, toasted and chopped fine (4½ ounces)
½ cup golden raisins (3 ounces)
1. Preheat oven to 375 F.
For the baklava:
2. Mix the squash and ½ teaspoon salt in a large colander set in the sink; let stand 45 minutes, frequently pressing on squash with the back of a spoon to release excess moisture. Transfer drained squash to a large bowl. Add brown sugar, cinnamon, and nutmeg; toss to combine.
3. Place 1 sheet of phyllo in a buttered 13-by-9-inch baking pan. Brush phyllo sheet with some of the melted butter. Place a second sheet of phyllo over the first sheet and, again, brush with some of the melted butter. Repeat layering with 10 more sheets of phyllo, brushing each sheet with butter.
4. Spread squash mixture evenly over the layered phyllo and then sprinkle walnuts and raisins over the squash mixture. Place another sheet of phyllo over the squash mixture. Brush the phyllo sheet with melted butter. Repeat layering with remaining 11 sheets of phyllo, brushing each with butter.
5. With the long edge of the pan positioned toward you, cut the baklava, from top to bottom, into six strips that are about 2 inches wide. Turn the pan, short edge toward you, and cut the baklava into three 3-inch wide strips to make a total of 18 rectangles.
6. Adjust oven rack to the middle position. Bake 40 minutes; then reduce the oven temperature to 350 F and bake until the phyllo leave are golden, about 30 minutes longer.
For the topping:
7. Drizzle warm baklava with honey and sprinkle with walnuts. Cool slightly. Serve. (You can cool it completely, cover and store at room temperature up to two days.)
Main photo: Jack-o’-lantern. Credit: Nathan Hoyt