Articles in History
Proust had his madeleine; I have Jamaican black cake. Biting into a piece whisks me back to my grandmother Una Rust’s Harlem kitchen where, along with her sisters Doris and Petrona, she performed the annual black cake-making ritual before the holidays.
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I recall the glass jars of dried fruit, soaking in spirits, looking like a delicious science project; the beautiful mess of cinnamon and nutmeg dust that covered the countertops; baking tins lined in parchment paper, and the intoxicating scent of rum that filled the apartment. Practically elbow-deep in batter, they blended the concoction in giant Bon Ton potato chip tins because no bowl was big enough to contain batter for all the cakes they made for friends and family. Although of Jamaican descent, my grandmother and her sisters were born and raised in Panama, and their cake was surely a loving blend of the two heritages.
Caribbean Christmas tradition
For the uninitiated, black cake, made throughout the Caribbean, has a history as rich and flavorful as its sock-it-to-me rum taste. Some may refer to it as fruit cake, but this has nothing to do with the often dry, hockey puck of a dessert that so many have come to know and loathe.
Black cake, served at Christmas and special occasions, is like British plum pudding’s sassier sister gone island-style, and it’s a sexy hodgepodge of ground rum-soaked raisins, dates, prunes, citrus peel, cinnamon, nutmeg and brown sugar. Some versions have frosting on them (they are often used as wedding cakes) but my grandmother never used it, and for my palate, it’s like gilding the lily. Rich, dense and gorgeous are the common denominators for black cake; however, each culture, from Jamaica to Trinidad, puts a unique spin on it.
Black cake is a special occasion dessert. You don’t just whip it up. It’s time-consuming, and making it can be pricey: pounds of dried fruit, rum and other spirits can add up. But it is a good bang for your buck because it lasts. I remember how my mother would hide a few pieces in aluminum foil in the back of the fridge, behind something undesirable, and I would see her nibbling at it secretly, even in early spring.
I have been fantasizing about making this cake for years, but I really wanted Una’s recipe. Of course no one had the good sense to write it down. I contacted a few family members, but to no avail. I had to accept that the original Rust recipe died when my grandmother did. My little half-West Indian heart was crushed. (This is a cautionary tale: If grandma is in the kitchen cooking up some goodness, get the dang recipe.)
In search of the perfect fruit cake recipe
In my quest for an authentic recipe, I got in touch with Jessica Harris, culinary historian and cookbook author, who put me in touch with Sharifa Burnett, a lovely Jamaican woman who was kind enough to share her recipe with me. I decided to take the plunge.
I consulted my friend, Chef Arlene Stewart, a Trinidadian girl, on the best places to buy the dried fruit, because prices at my local Manhattan supermarkets would have emptied my wallet. We made a pilgrimage to Flatbush, Brooklyn, where we found shops that catered perfectly to my needs — bags and bags of dried fruit and citrus peel, special browning sauce used to color the cake, etc., all priced to move.
Once at home, I began the laborious task of grinding up the dried fruit. When my poor mini Cuisinart Chop and Prep died, I switched over to my blender. Once that was done, I put the mix in a large glass jar, added the rum and port, and let it marinate for almost a week.
A note about equipment
Should you decide to make this cake, be sure you have a powerful mixer and big bowl because the batter, with the addition of the dried fruit, is thick and abundant. I had to transfer everything midway to a bigger bowl, and then when my hand mixer wasn’t quite doing the trick (clearly, I need better appliances), I did what my grandmother did; I used my hands to blend the batter, and that worked quite nicely. The batter generously filled two 9-inch parchment-lined baking pans, and I found that it took longer than I expected — about 2½ hours — to bake. I just kept checking with a thin knife down the middle until it came out clean.
However, once my cake had finally baked and cooled, and I had brushed it with a little rum, it looked like the cake I had come to love. And when I finally took a nibble, I actually shed a tear. With the luscious blend of fruit, the dense texture, the aromatic rum flavor, it tasted almost as good as my grandmother’s, and the memories spent with family, long since passed, flooded back. Making that cake felt like a rite of passage, and I think Una Rust is smiling somewhere.
Sharifa Burnett’s Jamaican Christmas Black Cake
Makes two 9-inch cakes
For the fruit mixture:
1 pound prunes
1 pound dried currants
1 pound raisins
1 pound maraschino cherries
¼ pound of mixed peel (available at Caribbean specialty stores)
4 cups Port wine
1 cup white Jamaican rum
For the cake:
1 pound of dark brown sugar
1 pound butter
1 pound of flour
2 teaspoons of baking powder
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 teaspoon nutmeg
Pinch of salt
1 teaspoon almond extract
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
Browning sauce or burnt sugar to color (available in Caribbean specialty shops.)
¼ to ½ cup of rum or port wine for brushing
1. Combine the prunes, currants, raisins, maraschino cherries, mixed peel, wine and rum in a glass jar and let stand for at least 3 days.
As an alternative, you can steam the fruit on a low flame in red wine until it’s very soft, then grind the mixture in a food processor.
2. Heat the oven to 300 F.
3. Beat the sugar and butter together until mixture creamy and fluffy.
4. Mix flour, baking powder, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg.
5. Add eggs to the creamed butter mixture one at a time. Continue mixing and fold the flour mixture into batter.
6. Add fruit and alcohol mixture, almond extract and vanilla and continue mixing.
7. Your mixture should have a brown color. If the mixture is too light, then add browning or burnt sugar a small amount at a time, until mixture has a dark brown color.
8. Line two 9-inch baking pans with parchment paper. Pour mixture in pans, filling each. Bake for 1½ hours, then reduce temperature to 250 F. Check cake after 2 hours with a tester (center of cake).
9. To preserve the cake you may brush the cake with wine and white rum. Wrap with wax paper then foil and place in a cool place. If you put it in the fridge, be sure to bring to room temperature for a few hours before serving.
Top photo composite: Una Rust (pictured) was the inspiration for a search for a Jamaican black cake recipe. Credit: Suzanne Rust
I’ve been exploring Mediterranean food for decades and written books about it, but only recently have discovered the phenomena of Greek yogurt, which was perplexingly unfamiliar.
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I didn’t know what Greek yogurt was, a term that first surfaced quite recently. I consulted other Mediterranean food experts and they were baffled, too. So I figured that it was one of two things: yogurt from Greece or a slick marketing term devised by American food companies to sell yogurt as a health food. Well, it’s certainly the latter.
More importantly, I have figured out that what marketers call Greek yogurt is none other than what I’ve been writing about and eating for 40 years, that is labna (also lubny or labneh or labne), which is strained yogurt.
Labna is the Arabic term, and it was only in Middle Eastern markets that you could find strained yogurt until quite recently. It is also called strained yogurt, kefir cheese and yogurt cheese. I had to laugh. For those of us who write about Mediterranean food and who eat it, hearing someone talk about Greek yogurt was like listening to a little kid marvel over a jack-in-the-box.
Yogurt in Greece and around the Mediterranean
Until the mid-1990s when high-quality yogurt became available I simply made my own because it’s ridiculously easy and there should be no hype about yogurt. Yogurt, a Turkish word (yoğurt), is a semi-solid cultured or fermented milk containing the bacteria Bacillus bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophilus. These organisms present in the “starter,” given warmth, will ferment whole or skimmed fresh milk overnight.
Yogurt may have been known by the ancients Greeks as pyriate. Andrew Dalby, who wrote an important study on classical Greek gastronomy, wrote about the Greek physician Galen, who related this older term, pyriate, with the oxygala familiar in his own day, which was a form of yogurt and was eaten on its own or with honey. The first unequivocal description of yogurt is found in a dictionary called “Divanu lugati’t- turk” compiled by Kaşgarli Mahmud in 1072 during the Seljuk era in the Middle East.
Yogurt spread rapidly throughout the eastern Mediterranean, but it hardly penetrated the western and northern Mediterranean. The use of yogurt was first recorded in France in the 16th century, when it was said to have cured the ailing King Francis I. The yogurt was administered daily by a Jewish doctor who had traveled on foot from Constantinople accompanied by a flock of sheep, and that was the last France saw of yogurt until the 19th century.
Make your own Greek yogurt
The Turks are far more picky about yogurt than Americans, and as a result one finds very high-quality yogurt in Turkey. Most yogurt is made from cow’s milk, with some made from sheep’s milk, while goat’s milk yogurt is rare in Turkey. Yogurt is a staple food in the Middle East and is now ubiquitous in the United States. Making your own is easy and after straining the yogurt I still call it labna.
Makes 1 quart
1 quart whole milk
3 tablespoons whole plain yogurt
1. In a saucepan, bring the milk to a gentle boil over medium heat, stirring frequently to make sure you do not scald the bottom of the pot. Once the milk is shimmering on the surface, simmer for 2 minutes. Pour the milk into a large mixing bowl and let cool until you can keep your little finger submerged in it to a count of 10.
2. Stir a few tablespoons of the hot milk into the yogurt and then quickly stir this back into the hot milk. Cover the bowl and leave overnight inside a turned-off electric oven. The next morning you will have homemade yogurt that will keep for a week. You can save some of this homemade yogurt as your starter for the next batch.
Note: To make strained yogurt, or “Greek yogurt,” pour the yogurt into a linen towel or several layers of cheesecloth, tie off, and hang from a kitchen sink faucet to drain overnight. In the Middle East strained yogurt is used as a breakfast spread for Arabic bread, served as a dip for hot foods, or eaten plain with some olive oil or honey.
Top photo: Greek yogurt. Credit: Clifford A. Wright
The use in food of true cinnamon from Sri Lanka, or Ceylon cinnamon, is not as common as the more familiar cassia, which is the one mostly used in Scandinavia for baking and hot drinks and in a lot of winter and Christmas dishes.
True cinnamon has a more complex and flowery taste. The aroma is light and complex, not as strong and pungent as cassia. True cinnamon is a rare spice in Scandinavia, and it is also more expensive.
In Sri Lanka, they grow cinnamon on hills and valleys. The cinnamon tree can be seen in many places. Some farms still do not use pesticides to grow cinnamon, and human labor does all the cultivating and processing.
Harvesting cinnamon is a hard and difficult job, and the preparation of the spice takes significant craftsmanship. You must carefully remove the cinnamon bark from the tree’s branches. Only skilled and experienced people can do it well. In the old days, these workers were called “chalias.” European colonizers were not known for treating them humanely; they were treated more like slaves.
Cinnamon has been written about going far back into history. In the Bible, in the book of Exodus, both kinds of cinnamon were described. The Lord gave Moses a recipe for holy oil with cinnamon that he had to prepare.
Cinnamon has played a vital role in European history. It was an important commodity and a source of growth for the European economy in the 15th and 16th centuries. Christopher Columbus went looking for cinnamon in the West Indies, but as far as we know he found nothing. His fellow countryman Lorenzo Almeida had more luck. In 1505, when Almeida arrived in Ceylon, he found cinnamon trees.
In Europe, cinnamon was sold at a high price for decades, but in the 16th century the price fell and it became more accessible for the common man. Thus, cinnamon became the most popular spice in Europe, as reflected in recipes from that era.
In 1795, the British took over control of Sri Lanka from the French. The trade in cinnamon was about the economy and power and, as with a lot of other commodities, played an important role in history.
Cinnamon trees are not tall; they are more like a bush, and they are pruned often. Harvesting is done twice a year, and at each harvest you take three to four branches and leave the rest. You can also pick the leaves and make cinnamon oil because the leaves have a wonderful delicate and flowery scent. A tree can live for about 40 years; after that, cinnamon producers plant new ones.
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To harvest cinnamon, the branches are processed by scraping off the outer bark, which is discarded. Then the workers loosen the inner bark with a special knife. The bark has to come off when still wet. The 1-meter-long bark strips are folded into each other as a stick. This must be done before the bark dries. (The inner wood is sold off separately to households as firewood.) The cinnamon sticks are then left to dry for a few days under a roof, and then they are dried in the sun. The whole process takes about five to six weeks.
Recently, I visited a cinnamon farm in Sri Lanka just outside Galle. The work of making the cinnamon sticks is carried out in a house on the hill in the shadows of the palm trees and only a few meters from where the cinnamon is harvested.
The cinnamon worker sits on the floor on a leather carpet, wearing a leather apron. To see a worker cut, prepare and clean the branches is fascinating — utter craftsmanship. It takes years of experience to learn the trade, and some of the workers have been employed here for more than 30 years. The hand movements are very meticulous and particular. You can really see the care and craftsmanship both in using the knife and in the entire process of folding the layers of bark into the stick.
In Sri Lankan cooking, it was very interesting to see that they used small pieces of cinnamon in many curries. It is a bit like how we in the West and in Scandinavia use bay leaves in stews, soups and broths, which makes sense because the cinnamon tree is of the same family as the bay leaf tree. In small quantities, cinnamon adds a subtle flavor to such dishes as fish curries, dal or beetroot curry.
Cinnamon is called “kanel” in Danish and Norwegian and a similar word in Swedish. It originates from the German “Canelle.” Both powder and stick cinnamon are part of Scandinavian food culture. Besides baking, we use it in Danish, apples cakes, breads, buns and spice cakes. It has been used here since the Middle Ages in many variations.
For the past 100 years, different versions of cinnamon buns have become popular. They are baked differently in each Scandinavian country. In Copenhagen, Denmark, cinnamon buns seem to be rising in popularity. All the bakeries are doing variations on cinnamon rolls or buns in all sizes, and a lot of them are organic.
We eat cinnamon in our legendary cinnamon buns and rolls; in hot drinks; and especially at Christmas in the gløgg. We eat cinnamon powder mixed with sugar on rice porridge and in rømmegrø, a Norwegian specialty; it’s a porridge made from a sour cream called rømmer boiled with wheat flour, and then hot milk is added. We use cinnamon for curing herring and salmon, in aquavit, in preserving and in various cookies. For this time of year, when it is cold, the fragrance of the warm spice in cinnamon buns is a treat I think we should succumb to at least once a week.
Makes 24 buns
For the buns:
2¼ teaspoon dry yeast
2 cups lukewarm whole milk
1⅓ stick softened butter
1 egg, beaten
6½ cups plain wheat flour
½ teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons ground cardamom
⅔ cup caster sugar
For the filling:
2 sticks soft butter
⅔ cup caster sugar
6 teaspoons ground cinnamon
For the glaze:
1 egg, beaten
Sugar for sprinkling
1. In a large bowl , dissolve the dry yeast in the warm milk using a wooden spoon. Mix in the butter, then add the egg and stir again.
2. Sift together the flour, salt and cardamom and add to the milk mixture with the sugar, stirring to form a dough. Keep stirring until the dough comes cleanly from the edge of the bowl.
3. Knead the dough on a floured work surface for about 5 minutes. Return it to the bowl, cover with a tea towel and leave to rise for 1 hour at room temperature.
4. Make the filling by mixing together the butter, sugar and cinnamon.
5. Divide the dough in half and roll it out to make two rectangles measuring about 16 by 12 inches (40 by 30 centimeters).
6. Spread the cinnamon filling over the top of each. Roll each piece of dough into a wide cylinder and cut into 1-inch (2.5-centimeter) slices.
7. Line some baking trays with baking paper or parchment paper. Lay the cinnamon rolls on the paper, pressing down on each one so they spread slightly. Cover and leave to rise for 30 minutes.
8. Preheat the oven to 425 F (220 C or Gas 7).
9. Brush the cinnamon rolls with the beaten egg and sprinkle with sugar.
10. Bake for 12 to 15 minutes, then leave to cool on a wire rack. Serve warm or cold with a nice cup of tea.
Top photo: A worker prepares the bark in the cinnamon house at a Sri Lankan cinnamon farm. Credit: Trine Hahnemann
For weeks I have been incubating ideas about what in my repertoire I might suggest for your Thanksgiving table. With all that’s abuzz in the food press about dry brining turkey and gussying up pumpkin pie and such, I have decided not to go anywhere near the subject for fear of dishonoring the true spirit of Thanksgiving with ideas about Venetian roast turkey with pomegranate or savory speck-flecked pumpkin pie encased in a rosemary pastry crust.
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I’ll admit I’m not entirely certain what that American spirit is because there is no precise record of the menu on the auspicious day in 1621, auspicious, that is, for the newcomers. While I am as fond of the proverbial bird and all the trimmings as anyone, I haven’t yet swallowed my grammar-school lessons about how it all went down at Plymouth Rock between the Wampanoags and the dour lot of newcomers.
Pilgrims getting creative with pasta
For the benefit of those who, like me, are skeptical of the official version of Thanksgiving history, let me quote how my favorite American writer on food topics, Calvin Trillin, crusader for changing the national Thanksgiving dish from turkey to spaghetti alla carbonara, recounted the story to his children, as told in a 1983 essay in “Third Helpings.”
“In England, a long time ago, there were people called pilgrims who were strict about making sure everyone observed the Sabbath and cooked food without any flavor and that sort of thing, and they decided to go to America, where they could enjoy Freedom to Nag. … In America, the pilgrims tried farming, but they couldn’t get much done because they were always putting their best farmers in the stocks for crimes like Suspicion of Cheerfulness.
“The Indians took pity on the pilgrims and helped them with their farming, even though they thought the pilgrims were about as much fun as teenage circumcision. The pilgrims were so grateful that at the end of their first year in American they invited the Indians over for a Thanksgiving meal.
“The Indians, having had some experience with pilgrim cuisine during the year, took the precaution of taking along one dish of their own. They brought a dish that their ancestors had learned many generations before from none other than Christopher Columbus, who was known to the Indians as ‘the big Italian fellow.’
“The dish was spaghetti carbonara made with pancetta bacon and fontina and the best imported prosciutto. The Pilgrims hated it. They said it was ‘heretically tasty’ and ‘the work of the devil’ and ‘the sort of thing foreigners eat.’ The Indians were so disgusted that on the way back to their village after dinner one of them made a remark about the pilgrims that was repeated down through the years and unfortunately caused confusion among historians about the first Thanksgiving meal. He said, ‘What a bunch of turkeys!’ ”
The real deal with spaghetti alla carbonara
I feel compelled to make a few comments about Trillin’s account as to the nature of the first Thanksgiving Day dish. Everyone knows that recipes, when they migrate from their country of origin to a foreign kitchen, undergo transformation as much as people do. By Trillin’s account, only a few generations after the native dwellers had gotten their hands on it, they had already embellished it, gilding the lily, so to speak, with characteristic American excess so that it would have been hardly recognizable to Cristoforo Colombo who, like every other Italian, suffered the indignities of name change upon reaching the shores of America.
If we are to believe the account, the Wampanoags’ version included two kinds, not one kind, of cheese, and two kinds of salumi. No doubt the spaghetti wasn’t imported. It’s a good thing Italy’s famous native son wasn’t around to see it, or later incarnations that plied the dish further with cream, wine, broccoli and even caviar. Everything but the kitchen sink was lavished onto the once-humble progenitor that was named, or so some think, for the Roman carbonari, men who worked in the forests burning wood to make charcoal.
Probably there is no dish whose origins are as mysterious. Of course, some say the carbonari invented it. By other accounts, Italian women concocted it when presented with bacon and egg rations by American soldiers during World War II. I am assured by reliable sources that it is an ancient dish with roots in the kitchens of the norcini, famed pork butchers of Umbria. That theory would add a bit of credence to Trillin’s pre-Columbian explanation, which is as well founded as any I’ve seen.
What is undisputed is that the mother recipe was a simple affair born in the porky lands of Rome or Umbria, of strand pasta, guanciale or pancetta, egg and sheep cheese, initiated with extra virgin olive oil.
If we are to entertain Trillin’s tale, by the time the Wampanoag were making it in Plymouth, the dish had evolved into the first example of Italian-American cooking, which, as we all know, is as far from the real thing as Plymouth is from Rome.
In any case, the recipe ingredients and method presented here are considered by Italian historians to be the authentic version. Viva true spaghetti alla carbonara and Happy Thanksgiving to all.
The Authentic Spaghetti Alla Carbonara
As with any Italian recipe for pasta, it is necessary to use imported Italian pasta, which is unequaled for its ability to retain a wheaty flavor and elasticity throughout cooking, thus delivering a true al dente result. The recipe is marvelously simple and a revelation to anyone who has not experienced the true spaghetti alla carbonara, as long as it is followed precisely. That means no substitutions, no straying from the instructions, no ad-libbing and no succumbing to last-minute flights of inventiveness. Even if you were to wind up with something tasty, it wouldn’t be the original. If you’re after authenticity, this is it.
5 extra-large eggs, beaten
¾ cup freshly grated aged pecorino romano
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
½ pound guanciale (unsmoked cheek bacon) or pancetta, thickly sliced and diced
1 pound imported Italian spaghetti
2 tablespoons kosher salt
1. In a bowl, combine the beaten eggs with the grated cheese and season with sea salt and pepper to taste.
2. Select a serving bowl for the pasta and keep it warm.
3. In a skillet large enough to hold the cooked spaghetti after it’s drained, warm the olive oil. Add the guanciale or pancetta and sauté over medium heat until nicely colored and crispy around the edges but still chewy (those bits burn awfully fast, so stand over the pan until they’re properly browned, not burnt). Turn off the heat and set aside the pan in a warm spot on the stovetop.
4. Fill a pot with 5 quarts water and bring it to a rapid boil over high heat. Add the spaghetti and the kosher salt together and stir. Check package instructions for cooking time. Cook, stirring frequently, until the pasta is 2 minutes away from being al dente. Drain it, reserving about 1 cup of the cooking water. Transfer the spaghetti to the skillet with the guanciale or pancetta and toss over low heat. Add ½ cup or so of the cooking water to moisten and loosen up the tangles. Simmer until the water is nearly evaporated.
5. Remove the skillet from the heat, transfer the pasta to a serving bowl, and immediately add the egg and cheese mixture while the pasta is steaming hot, tossing vigorously to distribute the egg mixture while making sure it does not coagulate into scrambled egg. The temperature should not exceed 160 F, though it’s not easy to take a reading of it. If the pasta seems to be dry, add more of the reserved cooking water to loosen it up. Serve at once, passing the pepper mill at the table.
Top photo: Spaghetti alla Carbonara. Credit: Hirsheimer & Hamilton from “Italian Home Cooking,” by Julia della Croce
Diwali, also called Deepavali, the festival of lights, is a holiday of jubilation and togetherness celebrated by Hindus, Jains, Buddhists and Sikhs throughout India as well as in Indian communities around the world.
The festival is embraced by people regardless of religious background; it connects the followers of various religions in grand celebrations of victory of good over evil. With warmer days turning into a mild winter in India, the fun-filled Diwali is celebrated by each community in its own special way, and each religion adds its own color and customs to this grand festival of lights.
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Houses are decorated with myriad tiny lamps and candles placed around the home, in courtyards, and gardens, as well as on rooftops. These displays symbolize removing ignorance and gaining knowledge. The night sky lights up with fireworks streaking like lightning, splintering into rainbows before vanishing in a dazzle of flashing smoke. A wide assortment of sweets and savory snacks are prepared at home or bought from sweet shops and shared with everyone. Because Diwali signifies renewal of life, it is common to wear new clothes on the day of the festival.
Sweet and extravagant
More than sumptuous feasts, sweets prepared with various nuts and flours, milk, dried fruits and fragrant spices such as saffron and cardamom are the centerpiece of Diwali celebrations. These sweets are often decorated with vark, a very thin layer of edible silver.
In times past, preparations began weeks ahead with the cleaning, roasting and powdering various lentils and rice in the granite grindstone, making paneer (cheese) and ghee at home, and buying fresh oil straight from the oil press. The irresistible aromas of barfi, gulab Jamun, peda, jilebi, laddu, mysorepak and a host of other sweets and savories lingered in the air.
Today sweets are often bought from commercial manufacturers. It is the busiest season for the sweet shops in India. Sweets, snacks, fruits and nuts packaged in beautiful containers are exchanged with friends and neighbors.
The date of Diwali fluctuates as it is based on the Hindu calendar with solar years and lunar months. It falls either in October or November, just the day before the new moon. In 2013, it is on Nov. 3.
India is a land of mythological tales of Hindu gods and goddesses, and Diwali means many different things to people from different regions. In north India, Diwali celebrates Lord Rama’s homecoming after killing the demon king Ravana. One of the unique customs of Diwali consists of indulgence in gambling. Nowadays, cards have replaced dice.
In south India, Diwali celebrates Lord Krishna’s triumph over demon king Narakasura. Festivities start very early in the morning with entire households waking up before dawn for an auspicious oil bath. Children light up firecrackers, and everyone feasts on sweet delicacies.
In Gujarat and neighboring states, the festivities continue for a week. On Dhan Teras, Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and prosperity, is worshiped in the evening with lighting of lamps. This day is believed to be auspicious to purchase metals. Celebrants often buy gold or silver or at least one or two new metal utensils.
For the business communities of Gujarat, Diwali also marks the beginning of the new financial year, which starts the day after Diwali. In Bengal, Orissa and Assam at Diwali, Kali Puja is celebrated by lighting firecrackers in honor of the goddess Kali. The occasion is also marked by creating intricate patterns with colored flour called rangoli. After the rangoli is drawn, lamps are set on top of the designs and lit.
The significance of Diwali extends beyond Hinduism. The Jains celebrate this day in honor of the attainment of nirvana, or eternal bliss, by Lord Mahavir, who was the last tirthankara, or religious teacher, of the Jains.
The foundation of the Golden Temple of Sikhs at Amritsar is believed to have been laid on Diwali day in 1577. Buddhists celebrate quietly by chanting and remembering Emperor Asoka who converted to Buddhism on this day.
With more and more Indians migrating to various parts of the world, the number of countries where Diwali is celebrated keeps increasing. Because it is not a public holiday outside India, Diwali celebrations often take place on a weekend close to the actual festival. In major cities across the United States, the festival takes the form of a great fair with vendors selling Indian goods as well as food, cultural performances and fireworks. The White House has hosted Diwali celebrations since 2003.
Regardless of the varying styles and forms of celebrations observed by different regions, there is an underlying similarity in the celebration of this festival. Diwali festivities all celebrate the victory of good over evil and symbolize a reaffirmation of hope and a renewed commitment to friendship and goodwill. Diwali’s traditional dishes reflect this uplifting theme and emphasize wonderful sweets, including an easy-to-make semolina pudding.
Rava Kesari (Semolina Pudding)
Here is an unbelievably easy dessert made with farina or cream of wheat, which are readily available in U.S. supermarkets.
½ cup ghee
10 cashew nuts, coarsely chopped
2½ cups milk
A few strands of saffron
1 cup farina or cream of wheat
2 cups sugar
1 teaspoon powdered cardamom
1. Heat two tablespoons of the ghee in a skillet and fry the cashews until they are golden brown. Add the raisins and let them plump up. Remove it from the stove and set aside.
2. Add saffron to the milk and stir well.
3. In a large, heavy skillet, toast the farina in 2 teaspoons of the ghee until it is well toasted. Add the saffron-milk mixture and cook over medium heat, stirring continuously, for 8 to 10 minutes. When farina starts to thicken, stir in the sugar and the remaining ghee, and reduce the heat to medium-low. Stir continually to prevent lumps from forming.
4. When it is dry, in about 6 to 8 minutes, sprinkle cardamom and add the cashew nut and raisin mixture. Stir well to combine.
5. Scoops of warm rava kesari may be served in small bowls. Or spread it on a greased plate, after the mixture has cooled down, and cut it into squares or other desired shapes.
Top photo: Diwali sweets and lamps. Credit: R.V. Ramachandran
Modern Mexican Day of the Dead festivities stem from indigenous religions intertwined with Spanish colonial Catholicism. Día de los Muertos is one of Mexico’s most beloved holidays, where traditions run deep in pueblos of the southern state of Oaxaca as they reflect ancient Zapotec and Mistec cultures.
Families plan for the celebration weeks, even months, in advance. Anticipation mounts while bank accounts get stressed as people buy hundreds of specialty candles, fancy sugar skulls, incense and burners, and sheets of brightly colored tissue paper with cutout designs to embellish homes, grave sites and altars. Loyal patrons swarm their favorite bakers far in advance with huge holiday bread orders. Kilos of cacao beans, sugar, cinnamon and almonds are stone ground, dried and then formed into disks for drinking chocolate and Oaxaca’s famous mole.
Fanciful foods part of Dia de los Muertos
When great-grandma’s treasured tablecloth finally gets unfolded, meticulously ironed and then draped over a simple table to metamorphose into a home altar, the magic begins. Similar in spirit to decorating a Christmas tree, convention rules in most homes a few nights prior to Oct. 31 as everything from heirloom candlesticks to beloved kitschy knickknack skeletons get pulled out of storage to be placed here and there by excited children.
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Day of the Dead traditions run bright and deep
Thoughts change gears from altars to grave sites Oct. 31 through Nov. 2 as relatives crowd into cemeteries to clean and decorate graves, especially those of children on the 31st. On the 2nd, deceased adult graves are again embellished with fresh candles, armloads of fluorescent orange marigolds, magenta cock’s combs and teeny white and gold wild field flowers. Candlelight and DayGlo colors guide souls back to exactly the right spot. Families often spend both nights graveside among hundreds of candles, where a smoky scene transforms to surreal as copal sap frankincense wafts through inky midnight air. Fires are lit in huge metal drums to provide warmth, additional light and yet more smoke. Later, middle-of-the-night cemetery picnics are common — mesquite blazes provide fuel for feasts of grilled meats, vegetables, tortillas and hot chocolate.
Elaborate, creative sand paintings are also popular grave art. Huge examples are meticulously done by church and school groups around town and on cemetery grounds, where they are judged and awarded prizes. From classic saint depictions to contemporary relief images of skeletons, many take days to make and are often there at dusk one day and gone the next, like a whisper of copal smoke in the night.
At sunrise, everyone staggers off to church before heading home for a quick nap. Families will soon begin to visit one another’s altars with bread offerings. Some callers bring flowers or a candle, but everyone places something on the altar of each house visited. Holiday foods of turkey in black mole, tamales and hot chocolate make their way onto a buffet table for visitors to enjoy as they travel from house to house. The scene is festive, with music, mezcal and reminisces of good times with departed loved ones. This is Oaxaca’s Day of the Dead, as it was hundreds of years ago and as it remains today.
Mexican Hot Chocolate
Mexican hot chocolate is a rustic drink made with water (or milk) and retains an earthy, coarse texture from being stone ground.
Makes 1 quart (4 to 6 servings)
1 quart water (or regular, low-fat or nonfat milk)
1½ cups Oaxacan, Mexican or Mexican-style chocolate (such as TAZA, Ibarra or La Abuelita), coarsely chopped (about 4 disks)
1. Warm one cup of the water (or milk) with all the chocolate in a deep saucepan over medium heat, stirring, to melt the chocolate.
2. Pour in the remaining liquid, stir and bring the water to a boil (or the milk to a simmer).
3. Remove the saucepan from the heat. Beat the hot chocolate in the deep saucepan with a whisk, hand mixer, electric hand mixer or immersion blender until the top is covered with lots of bubbles or, best, with a thick foam.
4. Ladle into cups and serve immediately.
Or, pour the chocolate into a jarro de barro (a Mexican clay pot with a bulbous bottom and narrow top to keep chocolate from splashing out) and beat the liquid vigorously with a molinillo (Mexican hand-carved wooden chocolate foamer). Pour directly into cups with some foam in each cup.
Traditional flavor variations: Add ground canela (Mexican, or pure Ceylon, cinnamon), Mexican vanilla, powdered almonds or ground chile powder to the chocolate along with the cup of water or milk.
Top photo: Day of the Dead breads at the Tlacolula, Oaxaca, Sunday market. Credit: Nancy Zaslavsky
For such a storied vegetable, the pumpkin has a dull reputation in the United States. Except for a bit of excitement around Halloween and its proverbial presence on the Thanksgiving table, it’s fairly dismissed. On the other hand, Italians, who grow more of them than Americans, love pumpkins far too much to smash them in the streets for a bit of fun.
Cucurbitaceae, the genus that includes pumpkins, squashes and edible gourds, has nourished people on nearly every continent for millennia. Although it is true that the Spaniards brought pumpkins and squashes to Spain along with other New World specimens, historical accounts from Apicius to Charlemagne place them on pre-Columbian tables throughout Europe. Of course, it was mostly the poor who ate them and other edibles from the plant world; only the higher classes ate meat with any regularity.
Pumpkins of Venice
Of all of Italy’s gastronomically diverse 20 regions, none raises the pumpkin to such culinary heights as the Veneto, of which watery Venice with its 100 islands and 150 canals is the glittering fairy-tale capital. On the remote lagoon islands where the first settlers migrated from the outlying provinces in the fifth century to escape marauding barbarians, the inhabitants hunted waterfowl and small game, fished, harvested salt, and grew fruits and vegetables. Pumpkin, what the Venetians call zucca (“suca” in dialect), which lasted through the cold weather, kept the wolf from the door until spring.
For Julia della Croce's tips on growing your own zucca or selecting pumpkins and squashes, look below the recipe.
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The pumpkin — marina di Chioggia (pronounced kee-ohj’-jah), also known as sea pumpkin, after its native town in the lagoon — is by far the best I have tasted. Dense, flavorful and silky, it is hardly any wonder that so many delicious recipes have been derived from it.
Called “suca baruca” (warty pumpkin) in Venetian dialect, the slightly squashed sphere with gnarled, dark green skin and vibrant orange flesh is rich and sweet enough, once cooked, to eat as a confection. Once, vendors walked around the streets of Venice balancing wooden planks piled high with roasted pumpkin on their shoulders, hawking, “Suca baruca, suca baruca” to eager schoolchildren or anyone else wanting a sugary snack.
The “suca” criers are gone, replaced by souvenir peddlers, but Chioggia pumpkins have become universally loved in Italy and beyond, and vendors with their big golden wedges of pumpkin still ply the markets from the Rialto to Sicily. Mauro Stoppa, chef and skipper of the Eolo, a restored vintage flat-bottom sailing bragozzo, runs dining cruises on the lagoon and makes Chioggia’s ancient signature dish, suca in saor, sweet-and-sour pumpkin, in his galley.
He salts slices of zucca in a colander as for eggplant to remove excess moisture. Next he dredges them in flour and fries them in olive oil until crisp. Then he smothers them in three alternating layers of thinly sliced and gently sautéed onions, sultanas, toasted pine nuts and white wine vinegar. He chills this mélange for several days before serving it as an appetizer. Each of the ingredients contributes to a perfect sweet-and-sour harmony, but of prime importance is the zucca, which alone provides the sweetness to balance the vinegar.
North American offerings
We could grow marina di Chioggia pumpkin in the United States commercially if there was a demand for it, though I imagine its sheer size would discourage the prospect of shipping it to market, whereupon it would have to be cut into smaller sections for selling. Still, all is not lost. Widely available, silky-textured butternut squash and the West Indian calabaza stand in nicely for sweet and savory dishes, and for pie filling.
Overall, the Cucurbitaceae family’s bland and compact flesh makes these squash an ideal canvas for the savory and sweet creations the Italians cook. The blossoms are prepared in a variety of unusual ways, while the pulp is made into soups, Amarone-spiked pumpkin risottos, pumpkin tortelli, cappelletti and gnocchi, to name just a few dishes.
They can also be used in savory pumpkin tarts flecked with prosciutto, sweet versions with pumpkin-honey-candied orange filling and walnut-flour crust. One of my favorite recipes is one I grew up with, a colorful meeting of pumpkin (or squash), garlic slivers, black dry-cured Moroccan olives (if you’ve ever wondered what to do with these prune-like olives besides adding them to tagines, now you will know) and thyme.
Although my mother was born in Sardinia, when her mother died at a young age, she was sent to live in Rome with a family that retained a gifted Venetian cook. It’s hard to know where this dish, redolent of garlic and tomato, came from, as it is more southern Italian in character than anything else. Perhaps it was my mother’s own invention, but I can’t help but wonder whether she wasn’t struck with pumpkin love in that Venetian kitchen long ago.
In America, our Halloween jack-o’-lanterns were swiftly turned into suchlike as this stew (never did a good thing go to waste), thick minestrone with other vegetables from our outgoing autumn garden, or pumpkin budino (flan) on Sundays.
Italian Winter Squash Stew With Tomato, Dry-Cured Olives And Garlic
The combination of fresh pumpkin, cumin- and chili-spiked black dry-cured Moroccan olives, garlic and tomatoes may sound unusual to Americans, but it is superb, at once naturally sweet and intensely aromatic. Pumpkin or squash alone is bland, but the pungent dry-cured olives and garlic carry it to glory. Making this dish a day or two before you plan to serve it gives the flavors time to develop. Avoid serving it with other courses containing tomato sauce.
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
3 large cloves garlic, sliced
1 cup canned tomato purée, or ½ cup tomato paste mixed with ½ cup water
1 medium-sized butternut or Hubbard squash or 1 small pumpkin (about 1½ pounds), peeled, seeded and cut into 1-inch dice
20 black dry-cured Moroccan olives, pitted and halved
1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme, or ½ teaspoon dried thyme
½ teaspoon salt
freshly ground black pepper
1. In a saucepan over medium heat, warm the oil and garlic together until the garlic is fragrant, about 4 minutes. Add the tomato sauce, stir and bring slowly to a simmer, about 4 minutes. Add the squash, olives, thyme and ¾ cup water. Cover partially and simmer over low heat until tender, about 40 minutes.
2. Season with the salt and pepper to taste. Serve immediately or chill and reheat gently before serving.
Ahead-of-time note: This dish can be made up to 3 days in advance.
* * *
Growing your own zucca or selecting pumpkins and squashes
Gardeners with hospitable climates might want to consider planting marina di Chioggia. Johnny’s Selected Seeds, which grows and preserves rare heritage seeds, is one of the few sources for it. For other seeds and information on squash and pumpkin varieties, Leslie Land’s blog is one of the best resources. Sadly, she died in August, but her vast knowledge and gardening and kitchen advice will remain accessible online. See especially her advice for choosing the best variety of squash and picking a good pumpkin or squash at the market.
Top photo: Italian winter squash stew with tomato, dry-cured olives and garlic. Credit: Hirsheimer & Hamilton, “Italian Home Cooking” by Julia della Croce (Kyle Books)
Here’s a fusion dish that combines Kashmiri and Chinese influences. It’s not a new one — it appears in a 14th-century collection of recipes and medical advice that was compiled for Kublai Khan’s grandson.
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The Mongols ruled a large territory with many peoples in it, which gave them a taste for foreign cuisines. When they roamed on the steppes, they’d had an excessively boring cuisine, which was basically nothing but boiled meat and dairy products.
This recipe is found in the book “Yinshan Chengyao,” which was written for one of the Kublai Khan’s grandsons and translated in 2000 by Paul Buell and Eugene Anderson. One of their problems was that the Chinese writing system doesn’t have a good way of spelling sounds and it has to “spell” foreign words using Chinese characters that sound kind of the same. Buell and Anderson interpreted the name of this dish as Bal-po soup, Bal-po being a name for Nepal and Kashmir. As they point out, the recipe is more like Kashmiri food.
So what we have here is something like Middle Eastern food that’s taken a turn toward India and then China. It’s lamb and chickpeas in a broth flavored with saffron, turmeric and cardamom, served with rice pilaf. The recipe specifies fragrant, non-glutinous rice, which sounds like basmati. More exactly, it says to serve the soup on top of the rice, apparently jambalaya style. But the soup also includes Chinese daikon radish, giving the effect of radish-y potatoes.
Just a touch of guesswork
The recipe doesn’t tell us everything we’d like to know. It gives a measurement for saffron that works out to one-one-hundredth of an ounce (try measuring that in your kitchen) but no measurement for the meat. So there’s a lot of room for interpretation, and I’ve chosen to modify the recipe slightly on top of that. It calls for asafetida, which to me just tastes like stale garlic. If you want that flavor, use asafetida or garlic powder to taste. I prefer fresh garlic.
And it says to cook chickpeas along with the meat, but chickpeas may need to cook for two and a half hours or more. If you want to cook the chickpeas with the meat, add a half-cup raw chickpeas and increase the water by two cups, and check the water level regularly. In any case you should end up with two to two and a half cups broth.
And then you can get a whiff of the short-lived fusion cuisine of the glittering Mongol court seven centuries ago.
Bal-po Soup (Mongolian Lamb Jambalaya, if you prefer)
For the soup:
1½ pounds boneless lamb
2½ cups water
½ teaspoon salt
4 to 5 cardamom pods, crushed
1 daikon radish, about 1 pound
1 (14-ounce) can chickpeas
¼ teaspoon pepper
¼ teaspoon saffron
½ teaspoon turmeric
Vinegar to taste
For the rice:
1⅓ cups basmati rice
3 cups water
½ teaspoon salt
Cilantro for garnish
For the soup:
1. Cut the lamb into chunks roughly 1 inch square and an inch or less thick. Put in a saucepan with the water, bring to the boil and remove the scum that rises. Add the salt and cardamom and cook until the meat is very tender, about 1 hour.
2. Remove the meat and set aside. Peel the daikon and cut into coin shapes about ¼-inch thick. Cook in the broth until translucent, 7 to 10 minutes. Set aside with the meat and keep the meat and daikon warm.
3. Degrease the broth and return to the saucepan. Drain and rinse the chickpeas and add to the broth along with the pepper, saffron and turmeric. Simmer while making the rice.
4. Add vinegar to taste.
For the rice:
1. Rinse the rice repeatedly in cold water until the water runs clear. Bring 1⅓ cup water to a boil in a small saucepan, add the salt and the rice reduce the heat to low, cover and cook 14 minutes.
2. Remove the lid, fluff the rice into a mound with a fork and poke 2-3 holes to the bottom of the rice with the fork handle. Cover the pan with 2 layers of paper towel and the lid, raise the heat to medium-low and cook 7 minutes longer.
1. Remove the lid and paper towels and scoop the rice into 4 large soup bowls. Distribute the broth and chickpeas among the bowls. Arrange the meat and daikon slices around the rice and garnish with sprigs of cilantro.
Top photo: Mongolian lamb bal-po soup. Credit: Charles Perry