Articles in Breakfast
Wild mountain huckleberries are everything store-bought blueberries dreamed they could be.
The flavor of the two is similar, but concentrated in huckleberries and balanced with a slight acidity. It’s hard to imagine that the huckleberry, only a fraction of the size of a pea, could possess such intense flavor. But you know what they say about small packages. This particular small package delivers the apex of summer to me, for it ripens only after the mountains have seen their peak heat.
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I remember how angry I was when I realized that the scrubby little plant that had been at my ankles at every hike of my childhood was actually loaded with tasty huckleberries. I likely would have had a distinct advantage in picking them as a child too because the fruit dangles delicately below the plants’ foliage, often completely disguised from above.
In my small region of the Rocky Mountains, there are several species of the genus Vaccinium, with berries ranging in color from red to blue to black. Some would argue that it is most appropriate to refer to them as blueberries, and you might also hear them called billberries, grouseberries or whortleberries.
I learned them as huckleberries, and the fun-to-say name has stuck with me. It often happens that common names for plants vary from region to region. A plant known for generations to one household as pigweed may be a plant from an entirely different genus to someone in a different part of the world. This is why foragers need to refer to Latin binomials when specifying a plant.
Huckleberry plants are usually tall enough to get your boots wet, but rarely tall enough to get your calves wet. I find the pale green of their leaves to be distinctive, and instantly recognize the carpets of huckleberry plants rolled out on the moist soil beneath conifer or mixed conifer and aspen trees. Huckleberry plants are branched and shrubby, with alternating leaves that I’ve most often observed to be less than an inch long.
The fruit are slightly different in appearance from the blueberries most people recognize from the store. In addition to being smaller than a pencil eraser, they have what looks almost like a belly button at their growing end.
For me, the only complication comes in the fact that huckleberries ripen at the same time porcini burst forth on the mountain. To collect enough of the tiny fruit to use in a recipe takes a serious amount of time and effort, and I’m often torn as to whether to use my time to hunt mushrooms or huckleberries. Some years, I’ve merely enjoyed them as trail snacks. In the end, I’ve never regretted picking enough to use in a recipe.
It is a natural to preserve huckleberries as a jam, though I’ve never collected enough to make more than two tiny 4-ounce jars. A few years back, after noticing that my wild syrups sat in the pantry without being used, I discovered that I much prefer making shrubs, which are like syrups made with a healthy dose of vinegar. Most often flavored with fruit, shrubs are, to my mind, the grown-up answer to syrups. Shrub can be used in many of the same places as syrup, such as in fizzy water and cocktails, or to dress fruit salads, but the vinegar used to make shrub gives it a perfect punch of sour meets sweet.
If you prefer to enjoy your huckleberries right away, they are a great addition to all manner of baked goods. You might want to try them in a straight-up blueberry muffin recipe. I recommend using a recipe that calls for sour cream, which I’ve found reliably makes superior blueberry muffins. I really enjoy scones, and think that huckleberries make them only better.
The only trouble with making scones is that the dough is a bit stiff, which can make adding delicate huckleberries a challenge. I’ve gotten around this to a large extent by freezing the berries before they are incorporated into the recipe. The scones recipe I use is adapted from one of my grandmother’s old community church cookbooks, and was attributed to a woman named Edith Hibbard.
There are some shrubs that I prefer to make with fruit that has never been cooked, only macerated with sugar. However, I think it is easier to maximize the flavor and amount of juice in huckleberries by making a cooked syrup.
Preparation time: 2 hours
1 part fruit (all parts by volume, not weight)
3 parts sugar
1 part water
Rice vinegar or other light clear vinegar, equal in measure to the amount of huckleberry syrup
1. In a pot, lightly crush the huckleberries together with the sugar, and let them sit for an hour.
2. Add the water, and bring the huckleberries to a boil. Being such small berries, this is all they need to cook. Remove the pan from the heat, and let the huckleberries cool to room temperature.
3. Strain out the solids from the huckleberry syrup, and be certain to save them to put atop ice cream or your morning toast.
4. Measure the syrup, and combine it with an equal amount of rice vinegar. Stir gently to combine. Pour the shrub into mason jars, and store them in a very cold pantry or refrigerator for at least six months before serving. Once aged, the sharp edges of the vinegar will soften and become the perfect balance for the fruit.
Huckleberry Cream Scones
Preparation time: 30 minutes
Yield: 6 servings
2 cups flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
4 tablespoons cold butter, cubed
¾ cup plus 1 tablespoon cream
1 egg, beaten
½ teaspoon vanilla
1 cup huckleberries, frozen
1 tablespoon coarse sugar
1. Preheat the oven to 400 F. In a medium bowl, combine the flour, baking powder and salt.
2. Add in the cubes of butter, and gently toss them with a fork to coat them with flour. Then use the back of the fork to crush the pieces of butter into smaller and smaller pieces as they combine with the flour. Stop when most of the butter is unrecognizable.
3. Make a hole in the center of the flour and butter mixture. Add the ¾ cup cream, egg and vanilla to the depression and use the fork to gently beat them together before gently combining them with the flour and butter. Just before the dough comes together, add the huckleberries. As gently as possible, continue stirring, just until the dough holds together.
4. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and press the dough into a circle 1½ inches thick. Use a butter knife to cut the circle into six wedges. Gently separate the wedges so that they are at least 2 inches apart, and blunt the pointy end with your finger.
5. Brush the top of each with the extra tablespoon of cream, and sprinkle on some of the coarse sugar.
6. Bake for 20 minutes, or until the bottoms and tops of the scones are lightly brown.
Main photo: Mountain huckleberries. Credit: Erica Marciniec
If there is an egg or two around the house, I would rather eat at home than go out. I love the taste of a good egg, especially my preferred pastured eggs.
I like to make dashimaki tamago, a simple Japanese omelet made with kombu seaweed dashi, or an even simpler dish: cracking a raw egg over a bowl of freshly steamed rice, drizzling it with a little soy sauce and eating it with chopsticks. The hot rice cooks the raw egg to become a creamy, non-fried rice. Either egg dish brings me to my comfort zone, but there is no shortcut for getting good eggs.
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My sources for pastured eggs are my local farmers in Tehachapi, Calif. — Jon Hammond and Kim Durham of Linda Vista Ranch — named by one of Hammond’s great aunts in 1921 because of the great views. (Linda Vista means “beautiful view” in Spanish.)
The great views come from the fact that the ranch is on a gentle ridge that is one of highest points in the Tehachapi Valley. Hammond and Durham have a cooperative venture with neighboring farmer Alex Weiser, who provides the cull produce and leftover plants after harvest from his farm for animal feed. The three farmers raise English pigs called Gloucestershire old spots and chickens for pastured eggs — Americanas, Orpingtons and Black Stars.
For a person like me who grew up in cities for the most part, picking up a carton of fresh eggs directly from a farmer can turn into an adventure. On a recent visit, flocks of gregarious chickens were roaming freely on their pasture, scraping the ground for seed, insects and other critters. I didn’t know chickens eat small animals until Durham told me about a family of mice she found inside the chicken shed. Before she had a chance to trap the mice, the chickens got to them and pecked them alive.
The floor of the chicken hut is covered in fresh hay. It is always clean and pleasant inside, with gentle light coming through the gaps between the aged planks. The eggs laid that morning are waiting to be collected by Durham. A few hens are in the brooding boxes, and a rooster with black plumage and a large red comb on his head crows out loudly, perhaps reminding me who is boss around the farm.
Durham said she doesn’t care much for the roosters because they pick on the hens. “We are actually going to have this one tonight for dinner,” she says. Before long, her friend Jose arrives to prep the rooster, which will be cooked in a pit.
Apparently, the meat comes out especially tender when cooked this way. I realized that the eggs I got from Durham that day would be the last related to this rooster. Sorry, pal.
Authentic flavors for a Japanese omelet
Dashimaki tamago is a light and slightly sweet omelet with a rectangular shape. The rectangle is achieved by using a rectangular or square pan called a tamagoyaki-ki, which can be found in Japanese hardware stores or online. I like the copper pans with tin linings. You can also use a regular round omelet pan or a well-seasoned skillet.
Unlike a Western omelet, butter and cream don’t come into the equation for dashimaki tamago. I use a little stock, usually a kombu or bonito dashi, soy sauce and a little sugar or mirin.
Another distinct characteristic of the Japanese omelet is its beautiful layers. The egg is not scrambled; instead, while it is frying, a fork or pair of chopsticks is used to roll it into a tube. When it is cut into slices, a swirl pattern emerges. The omelet is allowed to cool and then cut into bite-sized pieces. For more color and flavor, you can chop some herbs or vegetables and incorporate them into the swirl.
My grandmother made her dashimaki tamago in a round pan instead of a rectangular one. She got the eggs from a local farmer in Kamakura, Japan. The eggs were wrapped in old newspaper and carried in a hand-woven basket on the farmer’s back. I always wondered how the farmer kept the eggs from cracking. Maybe they were pastured eggs that had strong, resilient shells.
My grandmother would serve dashimaki tamago on a small, wooden cutting board and slice it right at the table. It was one of the signature dishes she made for me while we visited with each other. Grandmother always tried to make the best out of every occasion. The eggs served her well.
Serves 2 to 4
6 pastured eggs
6 tablespoons dashi (see recipe below)
2 teaspoons Usukuchi soy sauce, plus more for serving
2 teaspoons cane sugar or mirin
1 tablespoons chive sprouts (optional)
2 tablespoons grapeseed, walnut or light sesame seed oil
2 tablespoons grated daikon radish
1 square pan or medium-sized round, well-seasoned skillet
1. In a bowl, combine the eggs, dashi, 2 teaspoons soy sauce, mirin or sugar. Do not beat too much; combine just enough to mix the egg yolk with the egg whites. Mix in chives if using.
2. Heat the pan with the oil over medium high heat. Test the pan by dropping a little egg batter on it. The batter will sizzle if the pan is hot enough.
3. Pour ¼ of the batter into pan and cook the eggs, spreading the batter quickly and evenly over the pan.
4. When the batter is cooked halfway (about 30 seconds), lift a far corner of the egg and fold it in. Then push the rolled egg into the corner on the opposite side and add another ¼ of the batter, making sure to lift the egg roll so the batter gets underneath it.
5. Cook the batter and roll it again. Essentially, you are rolling the egg omelet to make layers. Repeat this step two more times, until all the batter is used, incorporating the first roll into the second, the second roll into the third roll and so on. When finished, transfer the tamago onto a cutting board.
6. Using a sushi mat, roll the omelet into a rectangle shape and let rest for a few minutes.
7. Slice the omelet crosswise into 1½- to 2-inch pieces. Serve with grated radish and additional soy sauce.
Makes 1 cup
This is a versatile seaweed stock that can be used as a base for making miso soups and sauces. Store in the refrigerator.
2-inch piece of kombu seaweed
1 cup of water
1. Hydrate the kombu seaweed in water overnight.
2. Use the infused stock, called kombu dashi, to season the dashimaki tamago or other recipes.
Main photo: Dashimaki tamago. Credit: Sonoko Sakai
I know spring has sprung when the hens start churning out eggs, and when the root vegetables from last fall start to sprout. And I know that now is the perfect time to use those new eggs and old potatoes in a classic Spanish tortilla, or tortilla Española.
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Before getting to this workhorse of Spanish cuisine, which according to Penelope Casas in her classic “The Foods and Wines of Spain,” “can be eaten at any time of the day or night, and transcends any conventional meal categories,” let’s visit the hens and potatoes.
Even while snow covered the ground in mid-March, the eggs started rolling in because bird brains and bodies respond not to temperature, but to day length. And when there are more than 12 hours of light, the hens kick into high gear. This makes sense when you consider that the best time to bring a baby chick into the world is when it’s a hospitable place with a smorgasbord of tender vegetation, worms and insects.
Potatoes don’t have brains (although they do have eyes), but nature has nevertheless made them wise, and they respond to both temperature and light. As long as it is dark and cool, they stay in a state of suspended animation. But introduce some light and heat, as I do when I periodically move potatoes from the root cellar into the kitchen cabinet, and before you know it, you have sprouts. Depending on the variety of potato, the sunward-yearning sprouts, with a burst of proto-roots at their base, can be white, pink or lovely lavender.
Don’t worry about those sprouts
Of course, “lovely” and “sprout” don’t usually go together when people talk about potatoes. If you buy non-organic potatoes, it’s probably been decades since you’ve had one sprout on you. Many people think a sprouted potato is one that has gone bad.
But what’s really bad is that the vast majority of potatoes in our food chain are sprayed with chemicals — usually chlorpropham or maleic hydrazide, under brand names such as Bud Nip or Taterpex. These plant growth regulators inhibit cell division so the treated potatoes won’t send up sprouts for up to a year after harvest. This is just the way growers, shippers and grocery stores want them.
But it may not be the way you want them. Many consumers prefer organic produce to food that has been treated with pesticides, synthetic fertilizer and other chemicals. While there are valid food preservation and economic incentives to use chemicals to prevent sprouting, it also makes sense to try to lighten our toxic load at every opportunity.
Many European Union countries have banned at least one of the common plant growth inhibitors, maleic hydrazide. Meanwhile, in the U.S., we hear little or nothing about sprout-inhibiting chemicals, and go happily on our way, believing that an un-sprouted potato is fresh and perfect, while the sprouted one is old and possibly dangerous.
It is true that the green-tinged potatoes, and in particular their sprouts, contain naturally-occurring glycoalkaloids, which are toxic at high concentrations. But once you pare away any green spots, and snap off any sprouts, you’ve got a perfectly good potato, ready to be married with some new eggs in a Spanish tortilla.
Simple ingredients combine for a spring Spanish tortilla
Penelope Casas writes that “A Spanish tortilla has nothing in common with its Mexican counterpart except its Latin root — torte, meaning a round cake.” There are fancier recipes to be found, but this five-ingredient version, adapted from Casas, is the truest and best I know. So get some fresh eggs and scoop those sprouting potatoes out of your cabinet. It’s springtime and that’s tortilla time.
Serves 4 as a main course, or 8 as an appetizer
¼ cup olive oil (or more to keep potatoes from sticking together)
4 or 5 waxy potatoes such as Yukon Gold (about 1½ pounds) sliced into ¼-inch rounds
1 medium Spanish onion, ¼-inch dice
Salt to taste
5 large eggs
1. In a deep 9-inch skillet, heat the olive oil. Add the potato slices one at a time and alternate layers of potato and onion, salting the layers generously. Cook slowly over medium-heat, lifting and turning now and then. You don’t want the potatoes or onions to brown, just to soften nicely. The potatoes should be tender, but not breaking apart or sticking together.
2. While the potatoes are cooking (15 to 20 minutes), lightly beat the eggs with a generous pinch of salt, and set aside. When the potato-onion mixture is cooked, gently drain in a colander set over a bowl, saving the oil for later.
3. Put the potato-onion mixture into a bowl, and let cool about 5 minutes. Then pour the beaten eggs over the mixture, and let it sit anywhere from 15 minutes to several hours. This step helps marry the flavors.
4. In a 10-inch non-stick pan, heat about a tablespoon of the reserved oil. Dump the egg-potato-onion mixture into the pan, as if it were a thick omelet. Cook about halfway through, until the bottom is golden brown. Most of the egg on the top should be almost but not quite set.
5. Using a large inverted plate set on top of the pan, carefully flip the omelet onto the plate.
6. Add another half tablespoon of the reserved olive oil to the pan, and carefully slide the tortilla back into the pan, to finish cooking, which will take only a minute or two. Slide onto a plate, and serve hot or at room temperature.
Top photo: Tortilla Espanola. Credit: Terra Brockman
In the heyday of 1970s vegetarianism, quiche was the go-to dish. Everybody was making them. When I taught vegetarian cooking classes then, quiche (not the classic quiche lorraine with lardons, of course) would be one of the first recipes I’d teach. I made them by the sheet pan for catering jobs; they were extremely popular, even though I now know that the crusts I made in those days weren’t very good, and the formula I used for the custard wasn’t nearly as satisfying as the formula I use now.
Then quiche went out of fashion. This happened gradually, as Italian food stepped into vogue and Julia Child gave way to Marcella Hazan. I was living in France during this period of time, and since the classics of French cuisine are not fashion-driven, I could always get a good quiche. They were and are standard savory fare at just about every French bakery. I found entire boutiques devoted to savory tarts, and learned a lot about fillings.
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I let quiche slide for a number of years myself, as I focused more on Mediterranean pies and chose olive oil over butter. But after working with Jacquy Pfeiffer on his prize-winning book, “The Art of French Pastry,” I became enamored again with the quiche. I learned Jacquy’s formula for a rich, savory pie crust that is easy to roll out, and my adaptation, made with half whole wheat flour, rolls out as easily as his. It is luscious, nutty and flaky, quite irresistible. I also learned from Jacquy to let my vegetable filling air out so its moisture would evaporate and not dilute the custard, and to make the custard with a combination of egg yolks and whole eggs. “The yolk’s lecithin is a great emulsifier that brings the water and fat together,” says Jacquy, “while the white is a great binder. Using only egg yolks … would give the tart an eggy aftertaste. Using only whole eggs would … make the custard too firm.” Who knew?
My quiches are as much about the vegetables that go into them as they are about the custard, the cheese (I like to combine Gruyère and Parmesan), and the crust. My favorites, the ones I make at the drop of a hat, are filled with spinach or other greens and onion, or with savory pan-cooked mushrooms. Then again I love a cabbage and onion quiche, with a little caraway thrown in; and in spring I’ll use steamed or roasted asparagus, spring onions and lots of fresh herbs. There may be nothing new about these pies, but a good quiche never gets old.
Classic Cheese Quiche
2 egg yolks
2 whole eggs
1 (9-inch) whole wheat pâte brisée pie crust, fully baked (recipe below) and cooled
½ teaspoon salt
Freshly ground pepper
⅔ cup milk
1 to 2 cups vegetable filling of your choice
3 ounces Gruyère, grated, or 1 ounce Parmesan and 2 ounces Gruyère, grated (¾ cup grated cheese)
1. Heat the oven to 350 F.
2. Beat together the egg yolks and eggs in a medium bowl. Set the tart pan on a baking sheet to allow for easy handling. Using a pastry brush, lightly brush the bottom of the crust with some of the beaten egg and place in the oven for 5 minutes. The egg seals the crust so that it won’t become soggy when it comes into contact with the custard.
3. Add the salt, pepper, and milk to the remaining eggs and whisk together.
4. Spread the vegetable filling (recipes below) in an even layer on the crust. Sprinkle the cheese in an even layer on top of the filling. (If you are making a simple cheese quiche with no vegetables, just sprinkle the cheese over the bottom of the crust in an even layer.) Very slowly, pour in the egg custard. If your tart pan has low edges, you may not need all of it to fill the quiche, and you want to avoid overflowing the edges. So pour in gradually and watch the custard spread out in the shell. Bake the quiche for 30 minutes, or until set and just beginning to color on the top. Allow to sit for at least 15 minutes before serving.
Note: Alternatively, toss the vegetable filling with the cheese and spread in the bottom of the crust rather than layering the cheese over the vegetable filling.
Whole Wheat Pâte Brisée
222 grams French style butter such as Plugrà (8 ounces, 1 cup), at room temperature
175 grams whole wheat flour or whole wheat pastry flour (approximately 1½ cups less 1 tablespoon)
175 grams unbleached all-purpose flour (approximately 1½ cups less 1 tablespoon)
7 grams fine sea salt (1 teaspoon)
92 grams water (6 tablespoons)
1. Make sure that your butter is at room temperature. Place it in the bowl of a standing mixer. Sift together the flours and salt and add to the mixer. Mix at low speed just until the mixture is well combined. Do not over beat. Add the water and beat at low speed just until the mixture comes together. Do not over mix or you will activate the gluten in the flour too much and you pastry will be tough.
2. Using a pastry scraper or a rubber spatula, scrape the dough onto a large sheet of plastic wrap. Weigh it and divide into 2 equal pieces. Place each piece onto a large sheet of plastic, fold the plastic over and and flatten into ½-inch thick squares. Double wrap and refrigerate for at least 2 hours and preferably overnight.
3. Very lightly butter two 9-inch tart pans. If you can see the butter you’ve used too much. Roll out the dough and line the tart pans. Using a fork, pierce rows of holes in the bottom, about an inch apart. This will allow steam to escape and aid in even baking. Refrigerate uncovered for several hours or preferably overnight.
4. To pre-bake, heat the oven to 325 F. Remove a tart shell from the refrigerator, unwrap and line it with a sheet of parchment. Fill all the way with pie weights, which can be beans or rice used exclusively for pre-baking pastry, or special pie weights. Place in the middle of the oven for 15 minutes. Remove the “faux filling” and return to the oven. Bake for another 15 to 20 minutes, or until light golden brown and evenly colored. There should be no evidence of moisture in the dough. Remove from the oven and allow to cool.
½- to ¾-pound white or cremini mushrooms, wiped if gritty
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Salt and freshly ground pepper
2 shallots, minced
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme, rosemary, or sage (or a combination), or ½ teaspoon dried, OR 1 to 2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
¼ cup dry white wine, such as Sauvignon Blanc
1. Trim off the ends of the mushrooms and cut in thick slices. Heat a large, heavy frying pan over medium-high heat and add 1 tablespoon of the olive oil. When the oil is hot (you can feel the heat when you hold your hand above the pan), add the mushrooms. Don’t stir for 30 seconds to a minute, then cook, stirring or tossing in the pan, for a few minutes, until they begin to soften and sweat. Add the remaining oil, turn the heat to medium, and add the shallots, garlic, and thyme, rosemary or sage. Stir together, add salt (about ½ teaspoon) and freshly ground pepper to taste, and cook, stirring often, for another 1 to 2 minutes, until the shallots and garlic have softened and the mixture is fragrant. Add the parsley and wine and cook, stirring often and scraping the bottom of the pan, until the wine has evaporated. Taste and adjust seasonings. Remove from the heat.
Spinach and Scallion Filling
1 to 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil (to taste)
2 bunches scallions (about 6 ounces), trimmed and sliced
1 to 2 garlic cloves, to taste, minced (optional)
1½ cups chopped blanched or steamed spinach (12 ounces baby spinach or 2 bunches, stemmed and washed well in two changes of water)
1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1. Heat the oil in a medium skillet over medium heat and add the scallions. Cook, stirring, until tender, 3 to 5 minutes. Add the garlic if using and cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Stir in the spinach, thyme, salt and pepper and stir over medium heat for about a minute, until the spinach is nicely coated with olive oil. Remove from the heat.
Top photo: Cheese quiche. Credit: Paul Cowan /iStock
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 tablespoons 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