Articles in Breakfast
Early February in France means it is time to get your pans ready. The winter days are finally getting a little longer and sunnier and la chandeleur (derived from chandelle, “candle” in French) is at hand, which means crêpes are in the air.
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The French tradition, combining pagan and Christian origins, has been going on for centuries, but it seems to be losing momentum. Everyone still knows about it, but fewer and fewer seem to indulge in the annual crêpes orgy.
As in other parts of the world, home cooking is on the decline while TV food shows are getting more popular. Bakeries now sell ready-made crêpes for a quick fix at nearly $2 a pop. “Ridicule,” said my mother over the phone the other day. And Maman, as often, is probably right. Crêpes are a fun, easy to do homemade affair.
The church, crêpes and a sweet tradition
What are we celebrating, besides a humble form of sweet gluttony? In the Catholic Church, chandeleur marks the presentation of the child Jesus, his first entry into the temple, as well as the day of the Virgin Mary’s purification. I fail to see how thin pancakes came in the picture, except for the resemblance one could see between them and the halo depicted over the heads of holy figures in religious paintings since the 4th century or so.
The pagan origin of the chandeleur links more directly to the round disks of cooked dough the form and shape of the sun which, come February, becomes more and more present as days get longer at a faster pace. It’s not spring yet, but you can see light at the end of the tunnel, and it is still cold enough in most parts of the Northern Hemisphere to stand in front a stove flipping pancakes without having to turn the air conditioning on.
This is also the period of the year when winter wheat was being sowed. Crêpes were a way to celebrate the flour to come by using the one at hand. Interestingly enough, a Comité de la Chandeleur was founded and funded by a major French flour producer in 1997, reminding the population of the godly tradition with ads and billboards. The committee no longer exists. It is now in our hands to make the tradition survive.
A simple crêpes recipe for indulgence
Like every person brought up in France in the last century, I have my good share of childhood crêpe memories: pleasure and pain mixed in a batter of family recollections. While my father and brother were expert at eating the end result, my mother and I were excited by the making process.
We didn’t bother with a recipe and that in itself shows the tradition was still vivid, culturally ingrained. We just knew what to put in the dough: flour, eggs, milk, as well as water, cider or beer, a little fat (oil or melted butter), a little sugar, a touch of booze, traditionally dark rum, and a dash of salt. The trick was to avoid any lumps by using first a wooden spoon and then a whisk.
After letting the batter rest for an hour or so, came the time to show more developed skills. For years, we didn’t have a non-stick pan. We dipped a halved potato in oil to grease the thin metallic pan we used for about everything. With time, I’ve favored using a piece of paper towel folded in fourths and dunked in oil rather than a spud, leaving me to wonder how common paper towels were in Paris in the 1960s. The first crêpe always stuck, no matter what.
At age 7, there was my culinary confirmation that you can’t always get things right the first time in life. The ugly torn crêpe was eaten nonetheless, giving the chance to adjust the recipe-free batter with a little more liquid, salt or sugar if necessary.
If the crêpe didn’t have enough elasticity an egg was added and then, we were good to go. A super-hot pan is essential to achieve one of the essential criteria of a noble French crêpe, thinness, or finesse. Held as a rising sun, the crêpe was supposed to let light go through it, if not the image of my smiling mother behind the lump-free delicacy. A ladle was poured in the super-hot greased pan and then, with a swift movement of the wrist, the batter was to cover the whole pan in a thin coating.
Mastering crêpe-making technique
Chandeleur folklore says that if you manage to flip the crêpe in the air while holding a gold coin in your left hand, good fortune will come your way. I’ve personally never seen this done, perhaps because our entourage didn’t carry gold around so often. We just weren’t keen on the tossing-in-the-air show, partially because our crêpes needed some help with our bare fingers to be lifted off the pan.
When the edge started to get brown, we lifted one side with a small knife, then pinched the crêpe with both hands and flip it as fast as possible to avoid blisters in the process. I was always fascinated by the fact that the A-side of our edible records had a beautiful, uniform golden hue, whereas the B-side looked so different with its erratic brown spots.
We kept piling the crêpes on top of each other on a plate set atop a pot of simmering water so that we could enjoy our crêpes warm en famille. Brother and father were called to come and the filling game began with a variety of jams and spreads. For me, butter and sugar were the only fixings I needed to make me forget my reddened fingers, as crêpes were washed down with Normand cider, mindless of the few degrees of alcohol that helped make the pain go away and the party feel special.
Makes about 12 crêpes
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon sugar
¼ tsp salt
2 large eggs
1 cup milk
6 tablespoons water (or beer or cider)
1 tablespoon melted butter (or neutral oil)
1 tablespoon dark rum or cognac (optional)
Oil and paper towel to oil pan
1. Sift the flour with sugar and salt in a mixing bowl. Whisk in eggs, milk, water, melted butter and rum or cognac.
2. Let rest for 1 hour or more.
3. Heat pan greased with oiled paper towel. Add ¼ cup of batter or so and tilt the pan in a circular manner to spread the batter as fast as possible. When edges begin to brown, flip over with your hands or in the air and cook the other side 30 seconds.
4. Place cooked crêpe on a plate and repeat, repeat, repeat!
Tips and variations:
- To avoid any lumps and go faster, mix batter in a blender adding dry ingredients into the wet ones.
- For savory crêpes, eliminate sugar and alcohol from batter and add a dash more salt.
- To keep crêpes warm, place them on a plate sitting atop a saucepan with simmering water.
- Typically, French crêpes are rolled or folded in four.
- You can also layer the crêpes one on top of each other smeared with one or several toppings until you obtain a form of cake that you can then slice in wedges.
- Crepes can be kept wrapped in plastic and refrigerated up to 3 days or frozen up to 3 months.
Top photo: Crêpes to celebrate chandeleur. Credit: Philip Sinsheimer
I no longer drink and therefore no longer need to deal with hangovers, but plenty of revelers do have to manage that problem on New Year’s Day. A dish you’ve made ahead will be a welcome sight.
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If you were like me you could barely make the coffee, let alone a breakfast that your fat-seeking taste buds believed was your hangover salvation. There always was a solution lurking in the back of your mind, but unfortunately you needed to have prepared it before New Year’s Eve.
I’m referring to the modern American miracle known as the breakfast casserole. It’s simple enough: You basically get everything compiled the day before and then bake it in the morning. It’s as easy as pie or as casserole.
Egg and Bacon Breakfast Casserole
This strata casserole is a delight for a Sunday brunch with a few friends or a New Year’s Day breakfast. The first time you make it you will immediately start dreaming up alternative fillings. No problem, it’s a versatile casserole.
After you make this version with bacon you can start replacing the bacon with, let’s say, a cup of diced ham and a half cup of sautéed sliced mushrooms. Or you could use Swiss cheese and diced cooked chicken, or cooked broccoli and Gruyère cheese, tomatoes and cooked pork sausage, or, well, you get the idea.
Butter for greasing dish
4 cups ½ -inch cubes hearty white bread or French bread, with or without crust
2 cups (about 6 ounces) shredded mild or sharp cheddar cheese
½ cup finely chopped onion
8 large eggs
¾ cup half and half
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
6 thick-cut bacon slices, cooked and crumbled
1. Heat the oven to 350 F. Butter a 10-by-12-by-2-inch or similarly sized baking casserole.
2. In a large bowl, toss the bread cubes, cheese and onion together, then arrange this mixture evenly over the casserole.
3. In the same bowl, beat the eggs, half and half, mustard, salt and black pepper to blend. Pour this egg mixture over the bread cubes.
4. Sprinkle the bacon over.
5. Bake until a knife inserted into the center of the strata comes out clean, about 25 minutes. Serve hot.
Top photo: Breakfast casserole with eggs, bacon, French bread and cheese. Credit: Clifford A. Wright
We are concerned about species of animals that might be headed for extinction, but we don’t seem to be as concerned about our endangered culinary traditions. There are recipes that need to be saved. Food is who we are. It’s what binds us together culturally in this multicultural country. One such food from New England is red flannel hash.
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Red flannel hash is hardly made anymore, probably because it’s a way of using the leftovers from a New England boiled dinner, which also is rarely cooked anymore. A boiled dinner is simply corned beef brisket, beets, parsnips, carrots, onions, cabbage and potatoes with a few spices, boiled only in water for dinner and served with a horseradish sauce.
But red flannel hash is so good that it can be made from scratch without using leftovers. How it got its name will be instantly obvious once you’ve made it. If all you’ve ever had is the heartburn-producing canned corned beef hash then what awaits you is a surprise and a delight.
In the modern age of global food distribution and processed consumer food products, regional specialties like this fall out of favor and are in danger of being lost forever. Like recipes that call for local produce grown only in a small area or ethnic delicacies from small immigrant groups, these dishes are in jeopardy of becoming unknown.
Often said to be a food eaten by the colonists, red flannel hash more likely was concocted in the early 20th century as a way of using leftovers. Its characteristic red color comes from corned beef and beets. Typically cooks would start with chopped up leftover boiled dinner and add potatoes to make the dish a hash.
Because it was such a breakfast favorite, especially in New England diners, and not everyone had made a boiled dinner the night before, recipes appeared for making the hash from scratch.
Red Flannel Hash
2 ounces salt pork, sliced and cut into ½-inch pieces
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
½ small onion, finely chopped
6 ounces cooked corned beef, finely chopped, not ground
1 pound cooked Yukon gold potatoes, peeled and finely chopped
¼ pound cooked turnips, finely chopped
1 pound cooked red beets, peeled, trimmed and finely chopped
¼ cup heavy cream
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
4 large eggs, poached
1. Preheat the oven to 400 F.
2. In a 12-inch cast iron skillet, over medium heat, cook, stirring the salt pork until crispy. Remove and leave the fat in the skillet. Add the butter to the skillet, then over medium heat, cook, stirring the onion until translucent, about 5 minutes.
3. Combine the corned beef, potatoes, turnips, beets and cream in a bowl, and toss gently with some salt and pepper.
4. Transfer the hash to the skillet and spread it out with a spatula so it covers the skillet. Reduce the heat to medium-low, cover and cook until a crust forms, about 15 minutes.
5. Place the skillet in the oven and cook until the top is crisp, about 15 minutes.
6. Meanwhile, poach the eggs. Remove the hash from the oven, cut into wedges and serve with the crispy salt pork and poached egg.
Top photo: Red flannel hash. Credit: Clifford A. Wright
One winter when I wasn’t eating sugar, the idea of not baking was really plaguing me. If I couldn’t make cookies, how could I find that holiday feeling?
After much pouting, I came up with an idea that wouldn’t get lost in a sea of homemade treats. Pancake mix would stand apart from the crowd. Plus, when the people I loved headed into the kitchen one lazy weekend morning, I could go with them to the griddle — one of my favorite places on the planet.
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Pancake mix is one of the easier mixes to make because you don’t have to add fat. You can, of course, but then you have to worry about potential spoilage, and incorporating the melted butter or oil evenly throughout the mix. If you want, you can add fat to the batter, but I don’t. I find it drags down the cakes, which pick up plenty of butter from the griddle.
Highlighting lovely flours is another advantage of this gift. Stone-ground whole-grain flours do really well in pancakes. The bran and germ layers of grains contain much more flavor than the starchy endosperm, which is the only part of the grain milled for white flours. This means that whole-grain flours can be celebrated for vibrant flavors, not just their banner fiber.
Regionally produced flours are fairly easy to find. Because they are freshly milled from interesting varieties of grains, they have great tastes. They also add ecological and community economic values to your giving.
Last but not least, when you make your very own pancake flour, you are echoing the first packaged mix. Aunt Jemima Pancake Flour was invented in 1889, and contained only wheat flour, corn flour, salt and sodium phosphate. The name came from a song in a minstrel show.
Within a year, another milling company bought the formula and the mill. R.T. Davis added powdered milk to the mix, and hired a spokesperson. Nancy Green was a former slave who worked for a Chicago judge, and she played Aunt Jemima inside a booth shaped like a flour barrel at the Chicago World’s Fair. She was so popular that extra security was hired to tame the crowd waiting for her cakes and tales.
Those stories, and the ones featured in ads well into the 20th century, celebrated the imaginary cook’s ability to keep Union soldiers from scalping her master. Her pancakes mollified the troops, and her colonel kept his hair, and his life.
I’m amazed that just a generation after the Civil War, appetites for antebellum fairy tales were so strong. The way the company has held onto the Mammy stereotype for more than a century is also amazing.
Packaged food started with simple breakfast items
What is most stunning to me is the fact that such small improvements as adding leaveners, salt, and powdered milk could make a product succeed. How much time does it take to blend these ingredients at home? Less than a minute.
I see this as the dawn of packaged food. Breakfast is where we began to surrender our ability to feed ourselves to an anonymous industry. Aunt Jemima put a face on food as production scaled up, removing the faces of the farmer and miller from the immediate community.
Here’s how you can put your own face on your loved one’s breakfasts. My basic formula is this.
Homemade Pancake Mix
4 cups flour
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1½ tsp salt
2 buttermilk powder, optional (if you want people to use just water and egg for their mix)
Mix all ingredients well with a whisk and put in plastic bag, or a container with a tight fitting lid. Brand new coffee bags are handy, and you can decorate them.
1 cup homemade pancake flour mix
¾ cup milk
1 tablespoon yogurt
(Or skip the milk and yogurt and add ¾ cup water for the buttermilk variation)
1. Blend well and let sit for 10 minutes before using. This helps the flour absorb the moisture thoroughly. If the batter needs a little thinning, add some more milk.
2. Cook on a hot buttered griddle, flipping when the first side has little bubbles.
This mix takes well to variations. Mostly I fiddle with the flour. Some great combinations are:
- 2 cups whole wheat pastry flour, 1 cup rye flour, 1 cup cornmeal.
- 1 cup whole wheat pastry flour, 1 cup rye flour, 1 cup cornmeal, 1 cup oats or ground oats.
- 2 cups buckwheat flour, 2 cups rye flour.
- 2 cups buckwheat flour, 2 cups whole wheat pastry flour.
- 2 cups cornmeal, 2 cups rye flour.
- 3 cups cornmeal, 1 cup rye flour.
If you are making mixes for people who are not devoted to whole grains, you can use all-purpose flour in place of some or all of the whole-wheat pastry.
I never add sugar to pancakes, because I find whole grains sweet enough on their own. If you want, add ¼ cup of brown or white sugar per batch.
Please use a baking powder you know is strong and sturdy. For me, that is Rumford Double Acting baking powder.
If you really love the recipient, buy them an old cast aluminum griddle at a thrift store. Aluminum griddles distribute heat very evenly, and nothing makes a better pancake.
Top photo: Pancakes from a homemade mix. Credit: Amy Halloran
Imagine being 7 years old and being offered an array of cookies and cakes for breakfast every morning. For my son Liam, that was one of the highlights of accompanying me on a six-week long research trip through the European Mediterranean the summer after he finished first grade. I also took my best friend’s 20-year old daughter Rachel, Liam’s beloved babysitter, so he would have somebody to play with. Nonetheless, it was sometimes not very much fun for him to be dragged from one place to another just so his mom could find and eat great food. Liam has always loved great food too, but constant traveling can be hard for a 7-year-old.
It was all worth it for him, though, when we arrived at Il Frantoio, an old olive oil farm that is also an azienda agrituristica, or farmhouse hotel, in the southern Italian region of Apulia. Il Frantoio is one of the most beautiful places on earth. Every room in the elegant house has been lovingly restored by the owners, Rosalba and Armando Ciannamea. Wherever your eye turns, it falls on something pleasing to see. Olive groves, some of them more than 500 years old, with beautiful, huge trees, stretch for miles within the whitewashed walls of the property. Armando produces several different olive oils, and the farm also produces wheat, fruit and vegetables, everything organic.
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The beauty of the place and the unforgettable dinners may or may not have been lost on Liam. What he will always remember about Il Frantoio is that they served cookies for breakfast. Every morning, when you cross the quiet courtyard and enter the dining room, you encounter a lace-covered buffet with bowls of fruit from the farm’s orchards — plums and peaches, apricots and nectarines in summer, apples and pears in the late fall — and baked goods from the kitchen — several varieties of cookies and cakes, breads and pastries made with flour ground from Il Frantoio’s own heirloom wheat; homemade jams and honeys. Pitchers of fresh orange and grapefruit juice are covered with handmade lace doilies to protect them from flies. Needless to say, Liam woke up early every day and couldn’t wait to get to breakfast. He always went straight for the cookies.
Italian Butter Cookies with Anise and Lemon Zest
Makes about 4 dozen cookies
180 grams (6 ounces) unsalted butter, preferably French style such as Plugrà, at room temperature
125 grams (⅔ cup) sugar
55 grams (1 large) egg
1 teaspoon finely chopped lemon zest
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 teaspoons aniseeds, crushed in a mortar and pestle
275 grams (2¼ cups) unbleached all-purpose flour
5 grams (1 rounded teaspoon) baking powder
1 gram (¼ teaspoon) salt
1. In a standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the butter with the sugar until fluffy and pale, about 4 minutes. Scrape down the bowl and beaters. Add the egg, lemon zest, vanilla and aniseeds, and beat together.
2. Sift together the flour, baking powder and salt. On low speed, beat into the butter mixture, just until combined. Gather the dough into a ball, then press down to a 1-inch thickness. Wrap tightly in plastic and refrigerate overnight or for up to 3 days, or place in the freezer for 1 to 2 hours. Alternatively (if you don’t want to roll out the dough), remove spoonfuls of half of the dough and plop them down the middle of a piece of parchment paper to create a log about 2 inches in diameter. Fold the parchment up around the log to and refrigerate for 2 hours or longer. Repeat with the remaining dough.
3. Preheat the oven to 350 F with the rack adjusted to the lowest setting. Line baking sheets with parchment.
4. Cut the dough into 2 or 4 pieces, and roll out one piece at a time on a lightly dusted work surface, or preferably on a Silpat, to about ¼-inch thick. Cut into circles or shapes, dipping the cutter into flour between each cut, and place 1 inch apart on the baking sheet. Keep the remaining pieces of dough in the refrigerator or freezer.
5. Bake for 10 to 12 minutes, turning the baking sheets front to back halfway through. Remove from the oven and cool on a rack.
Note: You can brush the cookies before baking with a little egg wash if you want them to look shiny.
Chocolate Walnut Biscotti
Makes about 4 dozen biscotti
125 grams (1 cup, approximately) unbleached all purpose flour
120 grams (approximately 1 cup, tightly packed) almond flour
60 grams (approximately ½ cup) unsweetened cocoa
10 grams (2 teaspoons) instant espresso powder or coffee extract
10 grams (2 teaspoons) baking powder
4 grams (1/2 teaspoon) salt
55 grams (2 ounces) unsalted butter
150 grams (approximately ¾ cup, tightly packed) brown sugar, preferably organic
110 grams (2 large) eggs
10 grams (2 teaspoons) vanilla extract
100 grams (1 cup) walnuts, chopped
1. Preheat the oven to 300 F. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment. In a medium bowl, mix together the flour, almond flour, cocoa, instant espresso powder if using, baking powder and salt.
2. In the bowl of an electric mixer, cream the butter and sugar for 2 minutes on medium speed. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and the beater with a rubber spatula and add the eggs, coffee extract if using and vanilla extract. Beat together for 1 to 2 minutes, until well blended. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and the beater. Add the flour mixture and beat at low speed until well blended. Add the walnuts and beat at low speed until mixed evenly through the dough. The dough will be moist and sticky.
3. Divide the dough in two and shape 2 wide, flat logs, about 10 to 12 inches long by 2 ½ inches wide. The logs may spread while you bake, so it’s best to place them on two parchment-covered sheets. Place in the oven on the middle rack and bake 40 to 45 minutes, until dry, beginning to crack in the middle, and firm. Remove from the oven and allow to cool for 20 minutes or longer.
4. Place the logs on a baking sheet and carefully cut into ½-inch thick slices. Place on two parchment-covered baking sheets and bake one sheet at a time in the middle of the oven until the slices are dry, 30 to 35 minutes, flipping the biscotti over after 15 minutes. Remove from the oven and allow to cool.
Top photo: The breakfast table at Il Frantoio. Credit: Martha Rose Shulman
Scrapple is one of those regional American favorites that remain a mystery to outsiders. You’ll find it in the mid-Atlantic states. Scrapple is a hog-parts mush formed into solid blocks, or logs, sliced, floured lightly and fried in fat. I first had it in Maryland in the early 1970s and have been wild about it since.
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One of the great regional foods of America, you’ll find it also in northern Virginia, eastern Pennsylvania, Delaware and southern New Jersey. Scrapple is made from leftover parts of hog processing, including offal such as the head, heart, liver and other innards that are boiled, bones and all, for the extraction of any gelatin. The edible matter is separated from the inedible and the meat is mixed with cornmeal and made into a mush with seasonings such as sage, thyme, savory, black pepper and salt. It is then solidified and stored.
It’s often described as Pennsylvania Dutch, but this is a misnomer. In fact, the expression is incorrect as the Dutch never settled in Pennsylvania but rather in New York. It began as a misunderstanding of the original German settlers who were the Pennsylvania Deutsch (Pennsylvania Germans). The earliest record of German settlement in Pennsylvania is in 1683 when a group of Quakers and Mennonites from the Rhineland founded the hamlet of Germantown.
These were mostly poor farmers seeking refuge from the Thirty Years’ War in America and afforded passage as indentured servants for the most part.
Their hardscrabble lives in 17th-century Pennsylvania meant everything had to be used including the scraps of the pig slaughter, probably giving scrapple its name.
Scrapple is related to its German precursor, panhas, a kind of pudding-wurst, but probably got its English name, scrapple, in the mid-19th century from the word scraps. It’s usually dredged in flour so it will hold together when frying and develop a crispy brown crust. Scrapple is fried in butter or pork lard and eaten for breakfast with eggs. All kinds of things can accompany it, such as applesauce, grape jelly, ketchup, horseradish or mustard. Scrapple is hard to find outside of the mid-Atlantic, but both the Rapa Scrapple company and Habbersett scrapple company provide store locators, and it can be bought on Amazon too, although in amounts that might last you years.
¼ cup unsalted butter or pork lard
½ pound scrapple, cut into slices about ½-inch thick
All-purpose flour for dredging
1. In a skillet, melt the butter over medium heat.
2. Dredge the scrapple slices in flour, tapping off any excess.
3. Lay the scrapple in the skillet and cook, turning once, until both sides are crispy brown in about 5 minutes. Serve hot.
Top photo: Scrapple and an egg. Credit: Clifford A. Wright
Summer in Scandinavia is a season of berries, and they are enjoyed in many different ways, both sweet and savory. The abundance of daylight hours combined with the not-too-warm weather make the berries thrive. They do not grow big but instead stay small and very tasty.
Strawberries can be in season all summer if the weather allows it, or they can be available for only three weeks. Therefore, as soon as the season starts, you become greedy and eat them every day for breakfast, lunch and dinner: in the mornings on yogurt, for lunch on rye bread and in the evening with cream or boiled with sugar as fruit porridge.
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Raspberries are in season in Scandinavia in July. Pick them when they are warm, dark and ruby red and eat them straight away or save some for a morning treat on raw grain flakes with cold milk. I also like to make jam and save some for Christmas, serving them in December with small doughnuts known as æbleskiver. Both raspberries and strawberries are also often accompanied by cold custard in the traditional Danish summer layer cake.
Other summer favorites are red currants shaken in sugar — a classic recipe in Scandinavia. Take 2 pounds of red currants, rinse and take off the sprigs, then mix gently with 1 pound of sugar; leave for three days at room temperature and shake now and then until the sugar has dissolved. It will keep for weeks in the refrigerator. Serve in the mornings on porridge or yogurt and also for dinner with roast chicken or lamb as well as with butter pan-fried fish or on vanilla ice cream.
Black currants are ideal for sorbet, cordial and jam. Jam is eaten in Scandinavia in the morning with cheese, butter and bread. Therefore, it really makes sense to stock up with jam so you have enough to last through the winter.
In addition to strawberries and raspberries, Scandinavians also enjoy their famous blueberries. They are picked in late July and all through August. Blueberries are best plucked wild, when they are smaller and tastier. The wild berries are also the really healthy superberries. If traveling to Sweden, where the blueberries grow, I definitely recommend packing a lunch box and spending a day in the calm, shadowy pine woods picking blueberries, then finding a spot at a small freshwater lake to take a lovely lunch break. Blueberries should be eaten soon after picking; blueberry tarts and pancakes are excellent ways to use them.
Growing up in Scandinavia, berry season was a treat as a child, primarily because the grown-ups would take us to pick them and while we were doing so, we were allowed to eat as many as our stomachs could handle. This was before candy and sodas became part of the 24/7 offerings.
Summer berries bring back sweet memories
All through the summer my grandmother would use berries in cooking and baking. A lot of preserving would be going on in her kitchen. Later on, my mother kept the tradition alive, and over the years I have together with my mother developed a range of recipes for jam, jellies, vinegars and cordials.
We did not pick most of the berries wild but rather in fruit orchards or private gardens, where people grow more berries than they can eat themselves. In my childhood we were always invited to Mrs. Carlsen’s garden to pick red currants, black currants and gooseberries. In exchange, my grandmother would give Mrs. Carlsen jars of jam from our summer production.
There are still plenty of fruit bushes around in private gardens. They were planted many years ago to guarantee supplies. But times have changed, and homemade jams and cordials are not part of people’s busy, everyday lives. Birds probably eat the majority of the berries instead. Denmark’s land is highly cultivated and, therefore, does not have vast forests with a lot of wild blueberries. To find that, you’ll have to go to Sweden, Norway and Finland.
Gooseberry time is late July and August. There are green and red varieties; the green one — the more tart of the two — is perfect for gooseberry compote.
Scandinavia’s seasons can vary month to month. Awareness about the region’s turbulent weather patterns is growing, and preserving is becoming popular even in the urban environment. You do not need to preserve 10 pounds of berries to make a cordial or a jam. Just 1 pound and a cup of sugar will do, and you can make one jar at a time. It’s actually easy and can be done while cooking dinner.
Crêpes With Gooseberry Compote
Serves 4 to 6
For the compote:
1 vanilla bean
1 pound unripe gooseberries, trimmed
1 cup superfine sugar
For the crêpes:
1 cup buttermilk
½ cup light beer
1¾ cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon caster sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 vanilla bean
1¼ cups whole milk
Butter for cooking
1. Make the compote by halving the vanilla bean lengthwise and placing it in a pan with the gooseberries and sugar. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for 30 minutes. Pour the hot compote into sterilized preserving jars and seal tightly. When cool, store in the refrigerator.
2. Start making the crêpe batter by beating the eggs together in a large mixing bowl. Add the buttermilk and the beer and beat again.
3. Sift the flour, sugar and salt together, then add to the egg mixture and beat until smooth.
4. Slit the vanilla bean in half lengthwise and scrape out the seeds with the tip of a knife. Stir in the milk and vanilla seeds.
5. Let the batter rest for 30 minutes before cooking the crêpes.
6. Melt a little butter in a skillet. When hot, add 5 tablespoons of batter to the skillet, twisting the handle gently to make a large, thin crêpe. Cook until golden on each side — it takes about 2 minutes. Set aside and repeat with the remaining batter. Stack the crêpes on a plate; they will stay warm like this for some time but if you prefer, you can put them in an oven set on low heat.
7. When the crêpes are all done, serve with the gooseberry compote.
Top photo: Crêpes with gooseberry compote. Credit: Columbus Leth
Strawberries! How do I love ye? Let me count the ways: strawberry shortcake, strawberry jam, strawberry pie, strawberry ice cream, strawberries and cream, strawberries and prosecco, strawberries and genuine aceto balsamico tradizionale di Modena, or just a little handful of fresh-from-the-garden strawberries sliced over the morning granola
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There are so many reasons to love a strawberry, do you really need more? If so, turn to nutritionist Rosie Schwartz, who points out the health impact of strawberries on her Enlightened Eater blog:
- They have a powerful anti-inflammatory impact
- They improve insulin sensitivity
- They offer a whole range of heart healthy benefits
- They guard against cancer
- They protect against cognitive decline.
Swartz offers state-of-the-art scientific evidence for these advantages.
Aside from their evident nutritional benefits, who could deny the sheer pleasure of this most remarkable fruit? When experts talk about fruity flavors in olive oil or in wine, the fruit that comes to mind, at least for me, is almost always strawberries. To me, the intense, pervasive flavor and aroma of ripe strawberries is the very definition of fruitiness, and it is irresistible.
We have strawberries in the supermarket produce section almost all year round, but they come from industrial farms in California and they are often raised with an eye to their visual impact rather than flavor. For taste, however, nothing beats strawberries grown in a cool northern climate, where the intensity of sunlight around the solstice ripens them quickly and the cool temperatures give them an intensity southern-grown berries lack. Best of all, of course, are the wild strawberries found on the forest floor, but they are so few and so difficult to transport that they are best consumed sitting right down by a woodland path and eating them by the handful.
Competition from the critters
I have strawberries in my garden in Maine, but it’s an annual contest with the local chipmunks as to who gets there first. Most mornings I find a few discards lying on the garden path, a bite taken out and then the berry tossed aside. Why? I hate to think the chipmunk is more discriminating than I am. Perhaps he was disturbed by the neighbor’s cat.
So I rely on a farmstand nearby. Mrs. Beveridge’s strawberries are dark red, big, luscious, full of flavor. And aroma — just passing the stand in the car, with the windows down, I am drawn into their seductive web.
Strawberry shortcake is an all-time American favorite, of course. Who doesn’t love it? Here in New England, the shortcake comes as a baking powder biscuit, with more than the usual sugar added, that is split in half, buttered, piled with strawberries, dolloped with sweetened whipped cream, and topped with a final garnish of the most perfect strawberry from the bunch. That’s all well and good, but I’ve also discovered that ricotta pancakes, perhaps sweetened slightly more than you would want at breakfast, make an equally grand dessert when mounded with deep red strawberries and a fluff of white whipped cream with just a drop or two of vanilla added.
Here’s the recipe, and I’m guessing it’s going to be handy in a few weeks when blueberry season rolls around again:
Makes about 12 pancakes, 6 servings
¾ cup whole wheat flour
¼ cup unbleached all-purpose flour
3 to 4 tablespoons sugar
1¼ teaspoons baking powder
Pinch of fine sea salt
1 cup well-drained ricotta
3 large eggs, separated
¾ cup whole milk
Grated zest of 1 lemon
¾ teaspoon vanilla extract
Vegetable oil or unsalted butter for the griddle
2 cups partially crushed strawberries, plus whole berries for garnish
Whipped cream flavored with a little sugar and ¼ teaspoon vanilla
1. Toss together with a fork the flours, 2 to 3 of the tablespoons of sugar, the baking powder and the salt.
2. In a separate bowl, combine the ricotta, egg yolks, milk, lemon zest and vanilla, and beat to mix thoroughly. Fold into the flour mixture.
3. In a separate bowl, using clean beaters, beat the egg whites until stiff, adding 1 tablespoon of sugar about halfway through. Using a rubber spatula, fold the egg whites into the batter.
4. Heat the griddle or skillet and smear with about a teaspoon of oil or butter. Drop the pancake batter by ⅓-cup measures onto the hot griddle. Cook until done and golden brown on each side, turning once.
5. Serve each pancake topped with crushed berries and a dollop of whipped cream plus a couple of whole berries on top.
Top photo: Fresh strawberries. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins