Articles in Holidays

Smiling sugar skulls are a mainstay of Mexico's Day of the Dead celebrations on Nov. 1 and 2.

Many cultures around the world honor departed ancestors with holidays each year. Some feature altars. Some burn incense. But feasting is the common thread that runs through many of the celebrations.

The dead are part of that — with food offerings left in their honor.

In Mexico’s two-day Day of the Dead celebration — el Día de los Muertos — Nov. 1 celebrates the lives of departed infants and children. Nov. 2 honors those who died as adults. On both days, families provide the favorite food and drink of the departed.

In China, families set out plates of food during for their ancestors at the Hungry Ghost Festival. An empty place at the dinner table is sometimes left for an ancestor to join in the feast.

The Hungry Ghost Festival, which is thousands of years old, is traditionally celebrated on the 15th day of the seventh lunar month. Chinese families place ancestral artifacts on a table, burn incense and display photographs of the dead.

Remembering the dead with food, flowers and festive décor

Mexico’s tradition also features colorful altars to honor ancestors.

MexicanSugarSkull.com offers this detail on the offerings — ofrendas — that families set out on their Day of the Dead altars:

“They are decorated with candles, buckets of flowers (wild marigolds called cempasuchil and bright red cock’s combs), mounds of fruit, peanuts, plates of turkey mole, stacks of tortillas and big Day-of-the-Dead breads called pan de muerto. The altar needs to have lots of food, bottles of soda, hot cocoa and water for the weary spirits. Toys and candies are left for the angelitos, and on Nov. 2, cigarettes and shots of mezcal are offered to the adult spirits. Little folk art skeletons and sugar skulls, purchased at open-air markets, provide the final touches.

 

The Day of the Dead sugar skulls are an example of the festive way that the Mexican culture approaches death -- with an air of celebration as a way to joyfully remember departed loved ones. Credit: Cheryl D. Lee

The Day of the Dead sugar skulls are an example of the festive way that the Mexican culture approaches death — with an air of celebration as a way to joyfully remember departed loved ones. Credit: Cheryl D. Lee

Mexico’s Day of the Dead is believed to trace its origins to pre-Hispanic Aztec rituals. After the arrival of Spanish conquistadors, the celebrations were moved to coincide with the Christian holidays of All Saints’ Day (Nov. 1) and All Souls’ Day (Nov. 2).

Not just a Mexican holiday anymore

Today, Day of the Dead has grown in popularity far behind the borders of Mexico and Latin America. The traditional observance from central and southern Mexico can now be seen in Día de los Muertos imagery and art around the world.

You can purchase just about anything you need for your own Day of the Dead celebration. From sugar skull molds to authentic Mexican Día de los Muertos folk art pieces, which are sometimes used as an altar decoration by celebrants.  The happy skeletons are shown doing many different things, from cooking to selling wares at the market. There are even skeleton mariachi bands. Families will purchase the colorful skeletons that depict activities their departed family member enjoyed in life.

Creating Mexican calaveras - the sugar skulls that are omnipresent in Day of the Dead celebrations - is an easy holiday activity for families. Youngsters get as much joy out of decorating the skulls as their parents do.

Creating Mexican calaveras – the sugar skulls that are omnipresent in Day of the Dead celebrations – is an easy holiday activity for families. Youngsters enjoy decorating the skulls as much as their parents do. Credit: Cheryl D. Lee

Making sugar skull decorations is very simple, using only three ingredients and a mold. The fun part is decorating them. I recruited my 7-year-old daughter and her friend to decorate the skulls. The kit came months ago, and my daughter had been bugging me since the day it arrived to make them. Not only was it a fun activity, it gave me a chance to talk about honoring our ancestors and remembering them in a fun — not sad — way.

I encourage families to make the skulls together, even decorating the skulls to resemble the deceased in their families and extended families.

Día de los Muertos Sugar Skulls

Prep time: 10 minutes

Drying time: 8 hours

Yield: 5 medium skulls

Ingredients

For the sugar skulls:

3 cups granulated sugar

3 teaspoons meringue powder

3 teaspoons water

For the royal icing:

1 pound powdered sugar

⅓ cup water

¼ cup meringue powder

Gel paste food coloring, assorted colors

Directions

For the sugar skulls:

1. In a medium bowl, mix the sugar and meringue powder.

2. Sprinkle the water over the sugar mixture.

3. Using clean hands, knead the mixture until all the sugar is moistened and it feels like wet sand. Make sure there are no lumps.

4. Pack the mix firmly into the sugar skull mold.

5. Carefully invert the mold onto a baking sheet or piece of cardboard.

6. Gently tap the mold to release the sugar skull from the mold.

7. Let the skulls dry for at least 8 hours to overnight.

8. Decorate the skulls with royal icing.

For the royal icing:

1. In a stand mixer, beat the icing until it makes stiff peaks.

2. Divide the icing and use paste food coloring to make assorted colors.

3. Using a piping bag, decorate the skulls as desired.

Main photo: Mexican sugar skulls for Day of the Dead celebrations. Credit: Cheryl D. Lee 

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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.

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?

Cider doughnuts make for a tasty October treat. Credit: Michael Krondl

Cider doughnuts make for a tasty October treat. Credit: Michael Krondl

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

Ingredients

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

4½ ounces (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

Directions

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

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Jack-o'-lantern. Credit: Nathan Hoyt

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.

What has come to represent Halloween more than the pumpkin? It doesn’t matter if it’s the jack-o’-lantern or pumpkin candy, pumpkin-head ghosts or the pumpkin-hurling headless horseman of Washington Irving legend (whose Sleepy Hollow grave I can all but see from my front porch). Cucurbita pepo, cultivar of the squash plant, is emblematic of the one day in the year when we mock the specter of death.

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.

Pumpkin baklava with honey-walnut topping.

Pumpkin baklava with honey-walnut topping. Credit: Tom Hopkins

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

Ingredients

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)

Directions

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

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Sour cherry pie. Credit: Susan Lutz

In our house, asking for cherry pie means one thing: sour cherry pie. Just as there are “eating apples” and “cooking apples” that differ in acid level and sugar content, these same differences exist between cherries. Sweet cherries — like eating apples — are delicious raw. Sour cherries, with their higher acid level and lower sugar content, will make you pucker if you pop them into your mouth straight off the tree. While a pie made with sweet cherry varieties (such as Bing or Rainier) can be cloying, a pie made with Montmorency or North Star cherries has the perfect balance of sweet and sour.

It’s been my experience that people who say they don’t like cherry pie have never tasted a sour cherry pie. Surprisingly few folks know that sour cherries exist, partly because it’s hard to find sour cherries (Prunus cerasus) in many parts of the country. Sour cherries, also called tart cherries, are thought to have originated in the region between the Caspian and Black seas. Cherry trees still grow wild in that area, which includes part of Russia, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. The Greeks were cultivating sour cherries by 300 B.C. and the popularity of these tart cherries spread quickly to Italy and throughout Europe.

French colonists brought sour cherries to North America and by the mid-1600s cherries were plentiful in Virginia, my home state. Today most sour cherries commercially grown in the U.S. are produced along the Great Lakes in western Michigan, as well as in parts of Wisconsin, New York and Pennsylvania.

My love of cherry pies came early courtesy of my mother. She truly is famous for her pie baking skills — at least in her Virginia town where the local paper has profiled her and her homemade pies. She has forged some deep relationships with local sour cherry growers, who reserve gallons of cherries for her each summer. Even in a bad winter —  like this last one, which killed off much of the cherry crop — my mother somehow leaves a supposedly “sold out” orchard with brimming boxes of cherries unavailable to the typical customer.

The harvest season for sour cherries is short — just a few weeks at the end of June and early July. This delicate fruit doesn’t ship or store well, so the first step in making pies for the rest of the year is preserving the fruit. Sour cherries may be canned in the traditional way, but it’s even easier to freeze them.

Although my mother often gets gallons of cherries at once, she freezes them in small batches. Seeding cherries is no small effort and it’s nice to spread the work out over a longer period of time. But the biggest advantage to this method is that you can freeze the precise amount of seeded and sugared cherries you need to make one pie. My mom actually prefers making pies from frozen cherries because it’s easier to control the amount of juice that goes into the pie filling if you separate the liquid from the cherries during the thawing process.

How to preserve sour cherries

To freeze, wash and seed four cups of cherries and place them into a large bowl. Sprinkle cherries with ½ cup of sugar, stir to combine, and let rest for 30 minutes. Freeze sugared cherries in 1.5-pint freezer containers or quart-sized freezer bags. Be sure to label your containers with contents and dates. Frozen cherries can be stored for up to one year. When taking frozen cherries out to thaw, put them in a colander with a bowl underneath to collect the juice.

If dealing with fresh sour cherries seems like too much work or sourcing them is an impossibility, you can often find jarred or canned sour cherries at Trader Joe’s or Middle Eastern markets. These canned sour cherries are usually Montmorency cherries and they’ll work fine. Just be sure that you’re not buying cherry pie filling, which is usually more sugary goop than cherries.

The hardest part of making a sour cherry pie is finding the cherries, but making cherry pie does require a certain amount of practice. The following recipe comes straight from my mother. I cannot guarantee that it will make you the focus of local newspaper profiles or will make your kitchen a place where neighbors drop in simply on the off-chance they can get some pie. But it will make you a convert to sour cherries.

Mom's Sour Cherry Pie

Prep Time: 2 hours

Cook Time: 1 hour

Total Time: 3 hours

Yield: 1 (9-inch) cherry pie, plus an extra round of pie dough

Recipe courtesy Linda Lutz.

Ingredients

  • 2 quarts sour cherries (fresh or frozen)
  • 1 cup and 1 teaspoon granulated sugar
  • 3 cups plus an additional 4 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon plus a pinch of salt
  • 1 cup vegetable shortening
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • ⅓ cup plus 1 tablespoon cold water
  • 1 tablespoon white vinegar
  • ¼ teaspoon almond extract
  • 1½ tablespoons butter

Directions

  1. Wash and seed cherries.
  2. Place about 4 cups fresh sour cherries into a medium bowl and add ½ cup of the sugar.
  3. Let sit for at least an hour to allow cherries to draw juice, stirring occasionally.
  4. To make pie dough, place 3 cups of the flour and 1 teaspoon salt into a large bowl.
  5. Measure 1 cup vegetable shortening and add in small pieces to flour mixture. Using the tips of your fingers, pinch the shortening into the flour mixture until the flour-covered fat balls are the size of slightly flattened peas.
  6. Beat one egg in a small bowl. Add water and vinegar to beaten egg and stir to combine.
  7. Slowly pour liquid into flour mixture, stirring gently with two fingers until all liquid is added. Have a light touch with dough to keep it flaky. Stir no more than is necessary to work dough into a ball.
  8. Divide dough into three parts and shape into flat rounds. Wrap dough in plastic wrap and refrigerate while you making pie filling.
  9. Drain cherries into a colander, reserving juice.
  10. In a saucepan, combine ½ cup sugar, 4 tablespoons of flour and a pinch of salt. Slowly stir in reserved juice.
  11. Cook mixture until it begins to thicken, then add cherries, almond extract, and 1½ tablespoons of butter. Cook over medium heat for 5 minutes.
  12. Remove cherry filling from the heat and let cool while preparing pie dough.
  13. Take two rounds of pie dough out of refrigerator and unwrap them.
  14. Working with one round at a time, roll pie dough out on flour covered pastry cloth or countertop.
  15. When the round of dough is about half its needed size, use fingers to pinch any cracked edges back together. Continue rolling dough until it’s large enough to cover your pie pan. Dough should be no more than ¼ inch thick, but a generous 1/8-inch thick is even better.
  16. Place first round of dough into bottom of pie pan and roll out the top crust using the same method.
  17. Pour cherry filling into pastry lined 9-inch pie pan. (My mother prefers a glass pie dish so she can see how the bottom of her crust is browning.) If filling appears too thick at this point, add a bit of water before pouring filling into pie crust.
  18. Cover with top crust and cut approximate10 half-inch long slits in the top crust.
  19. Sprinkle the top of the pie with 1 teaspoon of granulated sugar.
  20. Cover the outer edges of the pie crust with aluminum foil or a metal pie edge protector to keep the edges of the crust from burning.
  21. Bake at 425 F for 35 to 45 minutes or until golden brown. If top crust seems to be browning too quickly, lay a piece of aluminum foil over the top of the crust for the last 10 minutes. Let pie cool before serving.

Notes

You can use up to 1½ cups sugar, but we like cherries pies tart. Extra round of pie dough can be frozen for future use. Keep dough round in plastic wrap and place in a freezer-safe plastic bag. Pie dough will keep in the freezer for several months.

Main photo: Mom’s Sour Cherry Pie is always a crowd-pleaser. Credit: Susan Lutz

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Worth the trouble: a pizza-sized s’more. Credit: Charles Perry

The invention of the s’more was a landmark in American culinary history, comparable to the equally simple and classic root beer float. Neither s’mores nor floats can really be improved.

But the s’more can be made bigger, lots bigger, as you might want to do as a salute to the return of camping season. This isn’t the sort of s’more you make over a campfire; it’s definitely more of a s’more on the scale of a pizza, made (but not cooked) on a pizza stone. It is a bit of trouble to make — you have to start it the day before and you need a good thermometer — but your guests will be amazed.

The best part is, you may very well have all the ingredients in your pantry and refrigerator right now. The main things you need are unflavored gelatin, graham crackers, bittersweet chocolate and cream.

It’s very similar to marshmallow pie with chocolate ganache frosting, which was really conceived of as a plus-size Mallomar rather than any variety of s’more. The pizza shape results in a higher proportion of frosting and crust to filling — in particular, there’s more of the graham crust, with its toasty, buttery aroma and cinnamon perfume. The filling is still that incomparably creamy homemade marshmallow, which does not need to be melted to be luscious.

The traditional s’more (and Mallomar) filling has a vanilla flavor, but you might want to try coffee liqueur instead. Of course, that would technically make it a … s’mocha.

Let me call your attention to National S’mores Day, which is coming up on Aug. 10. Study this recipe (and marshmallow pie too). You have plenty of time to practice.

Oh, I know! Put fresh marshmallow on them and dip them in ganache! What to call them, I wonder? S’lesses?

S’mores alla Pizza

Prep Time: 5 hours

Cook Time: 15 minutes

Total Time: 5 hours, 15 minutes

Yield: Serves 16

Ingredients

    For the crust
  • 20 graham crackers, 9½-10 ounces
  • 4 teaspoons sugar
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • Optional: dash nutmeg
  • 5 ounces butter, melted
  • For the filling
  • 1 cup water (half for step 1, half for step 3)
  • 2 (1-tablespoon) packets unflavored gelatin
  • ½ cup light corn syrup
  • 1½ cups sugar
  • ¼ teaspoon vanilla extract or coffee liqueur
  • For the ganache frosting
  • 8 ounces bittersweet chocolate
  • 8 ounces cream

Directions

    For the crust (prep time: 1 minute; cook time: none; total time: 30 minutes)
  1. Break up the crackers and put them with the sugar and cinnamon (and nutmeg, if using) into a food processor. Process until fine, about 20 seconds. Pour in the melted butter and pulse about 10 times, until just amalgamated.
  2. Pour the crumbs onto a 12- or 13-inch pizza stone (the cheap metal kind with a rim actually works fine for this) and spread with your fingers almost to the edge. Crimp a low pizza-type rim around the edge between the edges of your hands and flatten the center with your palms. Refrigerate at least half an hour before filling.
  3. For the filling (prep time: 20-25 minutes; cook time: 10 minutes; total time: 5 hours)
  4. Put ½ cup water in a mixing bowl or the bowl of an electric mixer and sprinkle 2 packets of gelatin over the surface. Allow the gelatin to sit until it forms a rubbery mass, about 5 minutes, then set the bowl over a small saucepan of simmering water. Leave without stirring until the gelatin is entirely dissolved (no floating layer), 10 to 15 minutes.
  5. Remove the bowl from the saucepan and set aside until cool, 10 minutes. Return the mixer bowl to the mixer (if you have used a mixing bowl to dissolve the gelatin, scrape the gelatin into the bowl of a mixer) and whip the dissolved gelatin, as if it were egg whites, for 1 minute.
  6. In a small saucepan, mix the corn syrup, sugar and remaining ½ cup water. Bring to a boil over high heat, reduce the heat to medium and place a lid on the saucepan for 3 minutes so that steam can wash any sugar crystals off the walls.
  7. Remove the lid, raise the heat to high and insert a thermometer probe into the syrup. When it reaches 238 F, about 10 minutes from the start of cooking (the sign is that if a bit of syrup is dropped into cold water, it forms a firm ball), pour the syrup into the gelatin, scraping out all the syrup you can with a spatula. Beat on high until the temperature of the mixture is just warm, 20-25 minutes.
  8. Beat in the vanilla or other flavoring and scrape the warm marshmallow onto the pizza crust. With a spatula, working carefully but without wasting time, spread it over the surface as evenly as possible, making the center slightly lower than the edges. Return the pizza stone to the refrigerator and refrigerate 4 hours to overnight.
  9. For the ganache frosting (prep time: less than 1 minute; cook time: 5 minutes; total time: 1 hour, 6 minutes)
  10. Chop the chocolate into small pieces, put into a food processor and process to the consistency of coarse sand.
  11. Put the cream in a small pan or saucepan and bring to a full boil. Pour the hot cream onto the chocolate and process until smooth, 10-15 seconds. Spoon onto the marshmallow with a spatula fairly close to the edge, allowing drips here and there. Refrigerate until the ganache hardens, at least 1 hour.
  12. To serve, cut the “pizza” into wedges with a warmed sharp knife or a pizza cutter. Slide a warmed knife or pie server under the slice and carefully remove it.

Notes

Monroe Boston Strause, who invented the graham cracker crust in the 1920s for his famous Black Bottom pie, wrote that you can make the crust stiffer by adding 2 tablespoons water and 5 teaspoons corn syrup to the graham crackers and baking it at 425 F for 5 minutes. I’ve never tried this, because, frankly, I like a crumbly crust, but if you want a stiffer crust, that’s what Strause said, and he was nationally known as the Pie Man in his day.

These days Nabisco is marketing its graham crackers in a box with three packets of nine crackers each, but I think this crust needs a total of 20, so you’ll have to think of some use for the remaining seven crackers.

Main photo: A pizza-sized s’more. Credit: Charles Perry

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Peppery Fried Chicken Wings. Credit: Hirsheimer & Hamilton,

Is there any more American a dish than fried chicken? Each succeeding wave of immigrants has brought it in some shape or form, and it is woven throughout our gastronomical fabric. The first were the Scots, who were prone to cook it before dipping it in egg and crumbs, then cook it again in boiling fat. West African slaves transplanted their version, by all accounts more tantalizing, to the American South. Not only did they fry the birds for their masters, they were allowed to keep chickens of their own. Hogs were free-man’s food, but they were the compost engines of the colonial kitchen and their rendered fat was plentiful. If Martha Washington’s cooks fried chickens for her lavishly in butter, they dipped theirs in a spicy flour coating before frying them in lard.

Beginning in the mid-1700s, African-American women, renowned for their fried chicken prowess, became vendors for live or cooked poultry. Even before Emancipation, they cooked it up in big iron frying pans and peddled it on the streets. During segregation, they sold it from their home kitchens or opened establishments black folk could eat in. Once fried, chicken was a portable meal. “In days when traveling meant hazarding the vagaries of racial laws on Southern roads and being hungry without having a place to eat, a shoebox of fried chicken became a virtual talisman against starvation on the road for many blacks,” wrote Jessica B. Harris in “Iron Pots &  Wooden Spoons: Africa’s Gifts to New World Cooking.”

Black or white, Southerners proudly claim they eat 10 times as much fried chicken as everyone else. In his book “American Taste,” James Villas contends that to know about fried chicken you have to have been weaned and reared on it in the South. Having grown up on Italian fried chicken, I could quibble with that. Fried chicken has other roots. Pollo fritto, scented with garlic, traveled to Ellis Island with Sicilian immigrants. Austrians brought their schnitzel ideas to the Midwest, converting from veal to chicken and utilizing the whole bird, not just the breast. In 1858, Lizzie Black Kander, a Jewish emigrant in Milwaukee, recorded three recipes for “Fried Spring Chicken” in the “Settlement Cookbook” among single entries for reindeer steak, mud hens, partridge and goose.

If turkey is supposed to be the emblematic American bird, it gets no more than a perfunctory write-up. Recipes call for using 1½-pound chickens. One prescribes dredging the youngster in flour and ginger, and frying it in plenty of butter or chicken fat. A second calls for coating it in cracker crumbs, followed by an egg bath, then the crumb treatment again before frying. A third says to massage it with plenty of butter and seasonings (we are left to wonder what those were), roll it in fine bread crumbs and oven-fry. Such tender young birds as she describes, raised to peck and scratch in the barnyard, make the most delicious-flavored fried chicken.

Fireworks on the Hudson River. Credit: Nathan Hoyt

Fireworks on the Hudson River. Credit: Nathan Hoyt

American humorist Calvin Trillin would eventually write “Fried-Chicken War,” an account of the fierce competition in Crawford County, Kan., between two local fried chicken establishments. When the owner of Chicken Annie’s moved to have the road on which both stood named “Chicken Annie’s Road,” Chicken Mary took umbrage.

Overall, though, the fried chicken revolution was peaceful. It has my vote for Independence Day. Is there any food more emblematic of the people who built America than this evocative bird, its skin enticingly crisp, its meat moist and juicy? Leaving behind the grim associations with slavery, fried chicken is in the best sense American, a dish originating at a time when we were farming people, a dish of merged continents and mixed heritage, one that spanned our nation from bayous to prairies to the vast expanses beyond.

Many ways to fry a chicken

Pan-fried, deep-fried or oven-fried; batter-dipped or breaded; dredged first in flour — or not; dipped in egg — or not; rolled in breading or cracker meal instead; fried in oil or lard, butter or schmaltz? Bacon or ham thrown into the skillet for added flavor? What is best? As Villas wrote in 1982, “Without question, the most important secret to any great fried chicken is the quality of the chicken itself, and most of the 3 billion pullets marketed annually in the U.S. have about as much flavor as tennis balls.”

Two great Southern cooks have taught me how to make sublime fried chicken. One, the late legendary African-American chef Edna Lewis; the other, her protege, Joe Randall, who runs a cooking school in Savannah, Ga. My primal memories of fried chicken are of the dish as prepared by my mother in the Italian way, and accompanied by apple fritters made from the leftover batter. There are as many ways as there are cooks, and here’s one of mine, adapted for chicken wings. You can make it the evening before if you like and have it all ready for the picnic basket or the backyard get-together the next day. Serve the wings before the hamburgers, or with the hamburgers, or even instead of the hamburgers.

Peppery Fried Chicken Wings With Garlic and Rosemary

Prep Time: 15 minutes

Cook Time: 40 minutes

Total Time: 55 minutes

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

This is adapted from a recipe for fried chicken that I learned to make from a Tuscan cook I knew. The wings are my favorite part, perfect as finger food and with all that surface for crisp coatings to stick to. The chicken becomes crispy outside and at the same time, succulent inside, redolent with rosemary and fresh garlic. Cayenne pepper gives them a terrific little kick; if you like it hot, add more. To make it in the traditional Tuscan way, omit the cayenne and serve the cooked chicken with lemon quarters for squeezing at the table.

Ingredients

  • 16 chicken wings, preferably organic and free-range, at room temperature
  • 8 large cloves garlic, minced
  • 4 tablespoons minced fresh rosemary leaves, or 2 tablespoons dried crushed rosemary leaves
  • About 1½ cups unbleached all-purpose flour
  • Fine sea salt
  • ¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 3 large eggs
  • Grape seed, safflower, peanut or other vegetable oil for frying

Directions

  1. Wash the wings and pat dry thoroughly with paper towels. Keep the wing tips intact and cut the wings at the joint to separate the drummettes. In a bowl, combine the wings with the garlic and rosemary and massage the herbs into the meat.
  2. Spread the flour on a sheet of waxed paper. Season with salt to taste and plenty of cayenne pepper. Beat the eggs in a wide bowl next to the waxed paper. Line a large platter with a double layer of paper towels, keeping additional paper towels on hand.
  3. Pour the oil to a depth of about 1 inch in a large, heavy-bottomed skillet and warm over medium heat until sizzling hot. Just before you are ready to begin frying, lightly dredge each piece of wing in the flour. Dip the wing piece into the beaten eggs to coat then dredge lightly in the flour once again. (Keep in mind that if the chicken is coated in flour and egg and left to sit for even a few minutes, the coating will become soggy and the chicken will not be crisp and light.)
  4. Slip the chicken wings into the hot oil, piece by piece. Do not crowd the pan with too many pieces at once, or they will not cook evenly. Fry until golden and thoroughly cooked through to the bone, about 10 minutes in total for each piece, depending on the size. Transfer to the paper towels. Turn each wing piece over on the paper to ensure that excess oil is absorbed from both sides, using additional paper towels as necessary to drain thoroughly. Sprinkle them with sea salt while they are still hot.
  5. When all the chicken is cooked and drained, pile the wings on a clean, hot platter and serve.

Notes

Recipe is from "Italian Home Cooking: 125 Recipes to Comfort Your Soul" by Julia della Croce (Kyle Books)

Main photo: Peppery Fried Chicken Wings. Credit: Hirsheimer & Hamilton, “Italian Home Cooking: 125 Recipes to Comfort Your Soul” by Julia della Croce (Kyle Books)

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Black-eyed peas, also known as cowpeas or field peas, are a staple of many cultures around the world. Black-eyed peas have been cultivated in Africa for thousands of years and traveled to the New World with slaves who were brought to the Americas.

Every New Year’s Day, I am sure to have black-eyed peas and rice on my table. They are considered good luck, just as greens represent money. The greens can be collards, mustard, kale, Swiss chard, even cabbage. There would usually be a couple of meaty smoked pork hocks simmered with the black-eyed peas and the greens when I was growing up, a tradition I still follow, although I may substitute the hock with smoked bacon. Commonly known as Hoppin’ John, the mix of black-eyed peas and rice is a Southern staple that has spread nationwide.

Guyana, a small country in South America, has a dish called Cook-Up Rice, which is eaten on New Year’s eve. Like Hoppin’ John, it is a mix of rice and legumes, such as black-eyed peas or pigeon peas. Simmered with coconut milk, meat and aromatics, the rice and peas cook up into a flavorful meal.

Black-eyed peas, which are actually legumes, are usually found in the supermarket dried. But during summer and fall you can often find fresh black-eyed peas in the pod at your local farmers market. When fresh, they quickly become tender when cooked, making them a good source of protein for a cool summer salad.

The inspiration for this salad is Hoppin’ John. Rice-shaped orzo pasta is used instead of actual rice. The addition of a variety of fresh vegetables and a Creole spiced herb vinaigrette make this vegan salad perfect as a main dish or as a side dish with an assortment of grilled foods.

Black-Eyed Pea Salad. Credit: Cheryl D. Lee

Black-Eyed Pea Salad. Credit: Cheryl D. Lee

Black-Eyed Peas Salad

Prep Time: 20 minutes

Cook Time: 10 minutes

Total Time: 30 minutes

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

Ingredients

  • 1 cup orzo pasta
  • 4 cups cooked black eyed peas
  • 1 cup sweet corn
  • 1 chopped bell pepper
  • 2 scallions, sliced on diagonal
  • 2 tomatoes, seeded and chopped
  • ½ cup champagne vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 1½ teaspoons Creole seasoning
  • ½ teaspoon sea salt
  • 1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves, lightly chopped

Directions

  1. Cook the orzo according to package directions, drain and rinse with cold water.
  2. Place the cooked pasta, black-eyed peas, corn, bell pepper, scallion and tomatoes into a medium bowl.
  3. In a small bowl, whisk together the vinegar, oil, Creole seasoning, salt and thyme.
  4. Pour the dressing over the other ingredients, mixing well to distribute the dressing.
  5. Let the salad sit for at least an hour to let the flavors meld.

Main photo: Black-eyed peas fresh from the pod. Credit: Cheryl D. Lee

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Corned beef and vegetables. Credit: Lynne Curry

There are many good reasons to make your own homemade corned beef for St. Patrick’s Day this year. If you’re already a devoted pickle maker, corned beef is just another product of brining. If, like me, you’re conscientious about the source of your food, selecting grass-fed beef is the most healthful and sustainable option available for this March holiday feast.

Let’s start with the simple culinary adventure of “corning” beef. This archaic term just means salting, and it’s one of the most ancient methods for preserving meats. For today’s cooks, the brining process transforms the flavors and textures of the beef by expelling excess moisture and infusing it with salt and seasonings.

I was intimidated about making my own corned beef until I understood that it was just a matter of soaking meat in salted water and then simmering it until tender.

What could be easier?

Most of the “work” involves waiting four or five days for the beef to cure in the refrigerator, then waiting again while it simmers very slowly. For your patience — with only about 15 minutes of active work time — you get a classic corned beef supper with all the trimmings of cabbage, carrots and potatoes plus leftovers for grilled Reubens, corned beef hash with poached eggs for brunch or sliced cold corned beef on dark rye with mustard.

Any way you use it, corned beef is the best entry into the wide world of cured meats, known officially as charcuterie.

The cut: Beyond brisket

Brisket is the classic corned beef cut, and deservedly so. You can’t go wrong with this tried-and-true favorite. But, in the grass-fed market, brisket is a smaller cut due to the generally smaller frame size of these cattle, and there are only two on every animal.

Given its lack of abundance, brisket can be either hard to find or relatively expensive. So, I’ve learned to use other cuts that are well suited to corned beef. For example, hard-to-use bottom round roast, also known as rump roast, in this recipe below, in particular, is remarkably good and very lean. Other inexpensive cuts, including sirloin tip and chuck roast are easy to find and will save you money. Tongue is another traditional choice with rich meat that brines wonderfully.

Step 1: Brining:

The technique of soaking meats in a salt solution — brining — is a common method to maintain moisture and add flavor to pork and chicken. The science behind this is simple, according to French food scientist Hervé This: when meat is submerged in a salt solution, the water in the cells leaves the muscle until the concentration of salt inside and outside the cells is equal. The result is more tasty protein inside and out.

Salt, sometimes used in combination with curing salt or sodium nitrite (also known as pink salt for the color it is dyed to prevent confusion with table salt), is the main agent used to prevent the growth of bacteria in preserved meats. When the meat is fully cooked as in this corned beef recipe, the curing salt is optional.

Another function of the brine is to convey other seasonings into the cells, including the cloves, allspice and coriander in the classic pickling spice, plus peppercorns and bay leaves. When you start with more flavorful grass-fed beef, then this works all the better.

Step 2: Simmering

After a quick rinse, simply cover the meat in a tight-fitting pot with fresh water. Bring it to a simmer and cook at a low and steady heat for several hours. When you can easily slide a skewer in and out of the meat without any resistance, it’s done. Or, you can slice of a piece to taste and make sure it’s tender to the bite. Cool and store the meat in the cooking liquid to keep it moist and your homemade cured deli meat is ready to eat.

The grass-fed difference

If you’ve heard that grass-fed beef cooks quicker than conventional beef, you will be in for a surprise. Although meat science states that heat penetrates the leaner muscle fibers of grass-fed faster than conventional beef, my experience is that grass-fed corned beef will take longer to cook — up to three and a half hours at a slow simmer. Moreoever, the texture of the meat will be firmer, not the melt-in-your-mouth texture some corned beef lovers expect.

For everyone who finds satisfaction in DIY creations, your own corned beef will be a triumph to share on March 17. I like to invite friends over to indulge in a generous platter of corned beef with a bounteous display of vegetables, including traditional choices of cabbage, carrots, potatoes or unconventional ones like kale and parsnips, garnished with good mustard and a strong craft ale.

Grass-Fed Corned Beef

Unlike store-bought corned beef, which is pink from curing salt, this homemade corned beef turns out pale red-brown with all the flavors of traditional corned beef.

Serves 6 with leftovers

Ingredients

½ cup kosher salt

¼ cup sugar

3 garlic cloves, minced

2 tablespoons pickling spices

3 bay leaves, crumbled

1 tablespoon cracked black pepper

1 (3½ to 4 pound) bottom round roast

2 medium onions, peeled and quartered

4 medium carrots, peeled and cut into 2-inch-long rounds

Directions

1. Bring 2 cups of water to a boil over high heat in a small saucepan. Remove it from the heat, add the kosher salt and sugar, and stir until they dissolve. Pour the salt mixture into a 4-quart or larger glass, ceramic, or plastic container. Add 4 cups ice-cold water along with the garlic, pickling spices, bay leaves, and black pepper. Add 1 cup ice cubes and stir to chill the brine rapidly or put it in the refrigerator for 1 hour.

2. Pierce the beef all over with a wooden skewer to help the brine penetrate, submerge the beef into the brine, and refrigerate for 4 to 5 days.

3. Drain the beef along with the garlic and spices in a large strainer and rinse it briefly in cool running water, reserving the garlic and spices. Discard the brine. Put the beef in a pot that fits it snuggly and fill the pot with cool water to cover the beef by 1 inch. Add the reserved garlic and spices.

4. Bring the water to a boil over medium heat then reduce the heat to low, and simmer gently, partially covered. After about 2½ hours, add the onions and carrots, and continue to simmer until a skewer slides in and out of the beef with ease, 3 to 3½ hours total.

5. Serve the corned beef warm in thick slices moistened with some of the cooking liquid and with the vegetables on the side. To store, transfer the corned beef into a container, add enough cooking liquid to cover it, and refrigerate it for up to 4 days.

Recipe reprinted with permission from “Pure Beef: An Essential Guide to Artisan Meat with Recipes for Every Cut” © 2012 by Lynne Curry, Running Press, a member of the Perseus Book Group.

Top photo: Corned beef and vegetables. Credit: Lynne Curry

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