It’s not the work, it’s the stairs.

Birthday cake

Again?

I recently had an epiphany.

Epiphanies usually come to me when crisis strikes.  You know those moments:  when the dog bites, when the bee stings, when the cable goes out just as they’re about to announce the next couple to be cut from “Dancing with the Stars”.

This epiphany occurred during a moment of looming claustrophobia.  Claustrophobia usually only looms when I’ve been pushed to the back of a crowded elevator, but in this case I was sequestered in a conference room with a young woman—seconds out of her twenties—whose bloated sense of self-importance was matched only by her avoirdupois.  As she thumbed through her BlackBerry she bleated, “Bob is going to get back to me at any moment; we’re in the middle of something important.” (Translation: “YOU’RE not.”)

What followed was a monologue devoid of irony but tinted by a rather virulent strain of work martyrdom that concluded with the words, “When you get to be my age you expect these things.”

The lack of a “tell” on the part of the other folks in the room only betrayed that this crowd would have made a tough Poker circle.  But I’d wager that we were all thinking the same thing: “MY AGE?”

After escaping from this “Poseidon Adventure” of meetings, I repaired to my local Starbucks to ponder the wisdom of overstating one’s age.  I’ve been answering the age question with a coy “twenty-nine, again, ha, ha” for so long that it has become a bit precious. Clearly a new approach is needed.

So as the steam from my cup of Komodo Dragon Blend softened my pores, I resolved that forevermore I will be answering the age question with a resolute, “Five hundred and two. Again.” I will omit the “ha ha” so people will think I’m serious, but will be prepared to admit that I remember the strip mall they tore down to build Stonehenge, that my Social Security number is 1, and that when I was a kid and they said you were green around the gills it was because you were green and had gills.

LOL. YOLO.

Here’s how this works: if I were to tell you that I was twenty-nine you’d look at me and think, “Whoo…hard life.”  But if I were to tell you that I am five hundred and two you’d say, “Damn, you look amazing” because—and I can say this without boasting—for five hundred and two I am a total hottie.

I decided that this hypothesis required a bit of real world testing, so, like any good sociologist I headed off to Duane Reade for research.

As I purchased the candles on the cake seen in the picture that accompanies this story, the cashier asked if someone was turning 205. I explained that I was turning 502. She said, “Son, you look good for 502, but you cray-cray” which I’m just going to assume confirms my hypothesis. Thank you again Duane Reade.

Methuselah lived to be 969. He was Noah’s grandfather. (Fine old family. I believe they got into the shipping business.)  502 is a good round number, has a lovely symmetry, and gives me a bit of a “cushion” until I turn 969 and watch the big boat sail away.

In the meantime I have at least 467 more birthday cakes to eat…

The Christmas Dream

Pan d'oro

Pan d’oro

I don’t know if it is because of my propensity towards eating sardines before bedtime (a long story / another time), but I have noticed of late that I have been having some rather odd and perplexing dreams.

I am still pondering one that repeated a few nights ago wherein my subconscious spun a tale of spending Christmas with Mary, Mary Quite Contrary of nursery rhyme fame.

As fashioned by the festering chemical swirl of my cerebral cortex, Ms. Contrary was an exceedingly tedious young woman who made me long for a good, old-fashioned “Chinese food and movies” Christmas.

I bade her a Merry Christmas, only to be greeted by a bloated face held in a sour grimace as she informed me with a tap-tap-tap of her Rolex that we were still experiencing Christmas Eve; to whit, Christmas was nigh.

“Tut, tut” said I before remonstrating, “Be of good cheer else Father Christmas will not wriggle down your chimney to leave you gifts good and plain this holiday.”

Ms. Contrary would have none of it. “I’m a little old for Father Christmas don’t you think?” I could scarcely answer this apparently rhetorical question without suppressing a titter at the thought of the poor red and white velour-costumed, part-time Macy’s employee whose knees might be subjected to bearing the considerable heft of Ms. Contrary’s person should she choose that source to declare her holiday wishes.

In the hopes that a sympathetic soul might rescue me from this angry, vanilla-scented hillock in yoga pants, I stood on my tippy toes to try and catch a glimpse of other guests over her balustrade-like shoulder; alas, even fashionably late, I came to the suffocating realization that I was the first to arrive.

“Something smells delicious” I beamed, summoning every bit of sunshine I could muster.

“I made dinner” she glared. “When one invites people for dinner that usually means one serves dinner” she sassed with a twist of her head, spitting the last words at me.

“Ah!” I exclaimed, “I’ve brought dessert” and handed her my paper-wrapped, beribboned creation like a sacrifice being thrown into a roiling, steaming volcano.

With a drop of her shoulder she gave my creation a look similar to that which one would give a newly discovered rash.

“Ugh” she grunted. “You’re such a tool. I told you not to bring anything except wine.”

“Well you know I’m kind of a light weight when it comes to alcohol, and I do like to bake…” I started, before realizing that I had released the kraken.

“Are you saying I have a drinking problem? That I’m an alcoholic?”

“Oh not at all!” I squealed, attempting to back away from a cliff over which I had unwittingly placed one foot.

“Tell me you didn’t make those frosted cookies with the red and green sprinkles! Those are so grandma!”

“No, this isn’t cookies…”

“I knew it!” she boomed, stamping her large, but delicately shod foot. “A cake.”

“Actually it’s a Christmas bread.”

“You mean a Panetone?” she snorted with disgust. “I hate anything with that candied citron stuff. Oh no! Tell me it’s not a Stöllen!” she ranted, “I hate Stöllen.”

“None of those” I cowered, “It is a Pan d’oro.”

Wrenching it away from me with a dimpled paw, she quickly tore off the festive paper wrapping that had protected my masterpiece.

“For your information Mister Food Blogger, that’s a cake, not a bread. I hope you brought the powdered sugar to sprinkle over it.”

“But it’s called Pan d’oro which means bread of gold, and it’s made with yeast” I simpered before being reprimanded in the most severe way.

“It’s a cake, and I asked you to bring wine.  Anyway, you’re not getting dessert until you’ve had all seven fish courses. Get in there and start eating. March!

Wake me up in time for Christmas. Please.

Mash Note

Look y'all! It's Spoon Bread!

Look y’all! It’s Spoon Bread!

For me, Thanksgiving is all about the sides.  It’s kind of like being taken to a concert of a huge star, and only watching the backup singers: “…the turkey is fine, but those potatoes are like a little bit of heaven.”

Every time I turn on the TV someone is talking about how to make perfect mashed potatoes for Thanksgiving.  Sadly, this is lost on me.  I was never a big mashed potato fan.  Give me my potatoes (and my cookies) with a little crunch, please.  I’m a roasted potato fan, which is a good thing, because they take much less effort.  While I agree that mashed potatoes fall well within the dowdy (a good thing), homey, Thanksgiving aesthetic, they are, in truth, very sneaky.  It can be difficult to get mashed potatoes just right.

This year Hanukkah falls on Thanksgiving, so I’m hoping Mr. Piddleyboo (my Pop’s version of a Hanukkah Santa Claus) drops some latkes on my Thanksgiving plate.  That’s all the potato I need.

If you need a Thanksgiving starch that is soft and supple might I recommend a grand old Southern tradition?  Spoon bread. Or is it one word: Spoonbread?

Spoon bread is a pudding made with slow-cooked corn meal.  Some recipes involve whipping egg whites before they are introduced into the batter, but I insist that if you’re going to all that trouble just go ahead and make a Corn Soufflé.  Please note that the presentation of either item on my Thanksgiving table will make me happy in equal amounts.

Don’t let the word soufflé or the concept of making one daunt you.  If you have a Kitchen Aid stand mixer, soufflé is well within reach, and can even be made partially or fully in advance. Yes, it will collapse if made in advance, but yes, it will taste better than if you had served it piping hot, straight from the oven.  (Use technology to crow about your achievement: take a picture of your soufflé straight from the oven in its fully puffed glory and email or tweet to your friends and family. “Wait until you taste this!”)

Shall we discuss our table manners?  As idealized as this big meal has become, we all know the potential family minefield that the usual Thanksgiving Dinner presents.  Keep in mind that however tempting, or however deserving the potential target may be, it is poor etiquette to fling spoons full of mashed potato at your table mates.

Stick with the dinner rolls.

Is that sand between my toes or are you happy to see me?

Banana Walnut Bread

Banana Walnut Bread

I’ve decided to build an iPhone app that will help people answer the question, “What did you do on your summer vacation?” The twist—the gimmick—will be that you can’t write a word until Summer has receded into memory, your flip-flops have been thrown under the bed for the winter, and you can’t leave the toasty warmth of your kitchen without wearing something made of wool.  Yes, friends, this will be “The Procrastinator’s Guide to Summer Scrap Booking.”

I’m sure I’ll get around to this…eventually.

Following that general timeline, I’m just getting around to jotting down a few poetic thoughts about what came out of my kitchen during the warm weather. Hint: I could fit these thoughts on a cheap postcard of Ocean Grove, New Jersey.  Why Ocean Grove?  It’s a really nice summer place, but I’m scared to go there because John Quinones and the crew from ABC’S “What Would You Do?” keep popping up, documenting people’s bad behavior. Hey, I’m an angel, but with the wrong editing I may come off badly. And as Nora Ephron said, “Lighting is everything.”

But I digress…

The kitchen of my expansive New York City apartment (with views of Central Park, the Hudson AND East Rivers—framed) gets very hot during the summer. I find it interesting that something grown in tropical climates, the common household Banana, cannot survive a 90-degree New York City apartment kitchen without becoming the botanical equivalent of road kill.  Yet, stored in the refrigerator they begin to resemble the pods from “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”.

Predictably, I gave in to the common solution of using dying bananas to make Banana Walnut Bread.  I used the recipe in Craig Claiborne’s version of “The New York Times Cookbook” which dates back to 1961.  As with most things from that era, it has a bit more charm (hello), although this is due to Claiborne having called it, “Banana Tea Bread”.  That name conjures up the vibe of a different era, but I don’t own a tea service or a doily, so this Banana Walnut Bread—with canola oil replacing the recipe’s shortening—was purely a weekend snack.  Toasted, then topped with a little cream cheese, it also made a really good high carb pre-workout breakfast. (I make no claims about this being health food, but it certainly is wholesome.) Using Canola Oil means you can eat it straight from the fridge without it being like a big, cold, brick, but toasting it brings out its earth tones.

Pumpkin Blondies

Pumpkin Blondies

A few weeks ago, one of my treasured yoga teachers, Kyle Miller, decamped to Los Angeles.  All of my teachers are amazing, but yoga seems to waft from Kyle’s pores like the scent of patchouli from a burning incense stick.  I started practicing yoga at a fairly late stage in life, and am about as flexible and graceful as a “two by four”, so I consider myself lucky to have had someone as skilled, enthusiastic, and spiritual as Kyle to get me enthusiastic about returning to the mat.  Kyle has teamed up with some colleagues to start a business called Yoga for Bad People.  I hope someday she’ll return to New York and start “Yoga for Good People who are Bad at Yoga”.  I’ll be there.

Kyle’s final New York class was a packed, emotional (and sweaty) treat to attend. She is beloved. My Bon Voyage gift to her was a short stack of Pumpkin Blondies. I was hoping that the pumpkin and maple flavors would give her a little taste of the Northeast to savor in Sunny LA.  These were based on a simple Blondie recipe I found on line; the pumpkin, maple syrup, and chocolate chunks were my addition. (I struggle when it comes to making things without chocolate. The Banana Walnut Bread mentioned above almost succumbed.)

Mixed Berry Crisp with Pistachio Crumb topping

Mixed Berry Crisp with Pistachio Crumb topping

This past summer I found myself craving the delicate richness of home-made ice cream…often.  Perhaps too often. My excuse was that I was experimenting with using the same base to make different flavors.  Really. It was for the greater good. My favorite flavor remains Peppermint Stick. I tried adding chocolate to it, but the chocolate gets too cold, which blunts its flavor. I had better results adding finely chopped chocolate to the top of the scooped ice cream.

To accompany one particularly silky batch of Vanilla Bean, I made very simple, little Berry Crisps.  These make suitable baking subjects during the hot weather because the berries are (relatively) cheap and plentiful, and because you can throw them in the oven and retreat to the air conditioning while they bake.  The zaftig smoothness of the ice cream cuts the spiky, almost vinegary sweetness of the berries.  And the cold / hot “thing” is my second most favorite food juxtaposition, after “salty / sweet”.  So, there may have been the odd salted pistachio in the crumb topping.

Boston Pops

Boston Pops

Boston Pops

I like to loaf. Makes sense. I write (as often as possible) a blog about baking.

I’m sure you know where I’m going with this: indeed, the kind of loafing I’m talking about involves making a body-sized dent in my sofa, the white-noise hum of my air conditioner lulling me into a sweet, drooling afternoon nap. Ahhhh, summer.

I’d like to report that I will be spending the Fourth of July Holiday swinging in a hammock on the verandah of the amazing Hamptons beachfront hedge fund mansion of my friends Bill and Judy Cantwell. I’d LIKE to report that. Alas, Bill and Judy are mere figments of my imagination…and unfortunately, so is their amazing Hamptons beachfront hedge fund mansion. Ditto the hammock and verandah. (Don’t I have a rich, detailed inner life?)

Don’t be sad for me. Last year I actually did spend the Fourth of July at the beach front home of a couple of friends. Actually, water front would be more accurate: they live in Boston, right on the “hah-buh.” It was spectacular. We watched “Old Ironsides”—the famous revolutionary war frigate U.S.S. Constitution—sail by us and fire her cannons. Having grown up in Boston, I have to say that I was moved.

Many cities have their traditional Fourth of July celebrations. Here in the Big Apple we have the Macy’s Fireworks show in New York Harbor. Last year in Boston we discussed walking over the Charles River to watch the Boston Pops Orchestra play their annual outdoor concert. It turned out to be a lucky break that we stayed home as the concert was evacuated due to the threat of severe thunderstorms. (Mother Nature stole the spotlight. Again. What a ham.) This year I’ll be plopped on the aforementioned sofa, the orchestra will be on TV, and I’ll be screening “Yankee Doodle Dandy” starring Jimmy Cagney. Believe me, I’m already happy just thinking of this.

Part of planning for any really good staycation is, of course, the meals. So far the menu includes crab cakes. Let’s talk crab cakes for a moment, shall we? My recipe is (pardon the pun) a mashup of many recipes, with the most notable steal being the multi-colored diced peppers from Ina Garten. You can keep your panko breadcrumbs, by the way. A few years ago pure serendipity caused me to make my crab cakes with matzo meal, and the change has been permanent. Yes, matzo meal can be dense and gluey, but you end up getting the same binding qualities by using less. (Sadly, I still err on the side of cheaper crab meat—claw, not back fin. Hey, crab meat doesn’t grow on trees.)

Also on the menu will be the “Quintessential Chocolate Chip Cookies” Martha Rose Shulman wrote about recently in the New York Times. I have my own very proud recipe, but this one make a very good, straightforward cookie.

The thought of making Peppermint Stick Ice Cream is tempting…but I’m kind of stuck on fruit pops. I waited through a long, cold winter to road test the Zoku Popsicle maker some friends gave me as a gift, and it’s a lot of fun to use.

There are a couple of tricks to keep in mind. My Zoku makes one pop at a time, so I won’t be opening up shop any time soon. But that limitation kind of ratchets down the expectations. Instead of it being a big project, it becomes more of a little treat. Also, eliminate any fantasies of sugar-free pops. Since sugar freezes solid a lower temperature it is that ingredient that keeps the frozen pops just soft enough to slip out of the mold without too much of a fight. Leave out the sugar (as I did in one of my attempts at pop making) and your pops won’t budge. My red, white, and blue “Boston Pops” seen in the photo employed a simple lemonade recipe: fresh lemon juice, superfine sugar, and water. A drop of food coloring in the Zoku mold allowed me to indulge in the patriotic theme even though the pops were all the same tangy lemon flavor.

And yes, the red ones turned my tongue red: the sure sign of a well made Popsicle.

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Questions or comments? Drop me an email Michael@butterfloureggs.com

Follow me on Twitter @butterflourblog

And look at my pretty pictures on Pinterest!

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Lord Won’t You Buy Me a Mercedes-Benz

The chill of it all. Frozen Lemon Mousse

The chill of it all. Frozen Lemon Mousse

That chill you’ve been feeling was not just a prolonged winter. That was me giving my kitchen the cold shoulder.

Yes, we live differently here in New York. If someone has a kitchen, a real honest-to-goodness kitchen, for goodness sakes, it’s because they are wealthy or, like Peggy Olson, they were pioneers. I have a friend who has lived on West 80th Street since the late seventies. If, as the book says, “…to every thing there is a season, turn, turn, turn…” she has seen a lot of seasons and a lot of turns. She’s still there, but H&H Bagels? Gone. Broadway Nut Shop? Gone. The dance studio that became a rug store that became a Filene’s Basement that became a Syms? It’s a DSW. For now. Turn Turn Turn. (Zabars is still there. Long after Armageddon folks will still be lined up in there for smoked fish.)

People change and grow. The city changes. My kitchen? I still have to go outside to change my mind…buh-dump-bump.

I reached a point a few weeks ago where I just decided that my kitchen and I needed to take a break. As with any relationship, that usually means the party’s over. As with any New York relationship it usually means we’re still living together because one or both of us cannot, at this moment, move. (uhhhh, hint, the kitchen ‘aint going nowhere.)

Yet, this may be a good thing. Every now and then you should step back and make an honest appraisal of a problem and decide what you can do to fix things. So here, friends, is a picture of what would bring me some domestic bliss. Real world be damned.

  1. If my kitchen is too small, I suggest making it bigger. I think increasing its size ten-fold would suffice. For now.
  2. More counter space would be nice. In the case of my kitchen any counter space would be nice. I suggest an increase of several hundred percent.
  3. An automatic dishwasher. I don’t mind doing dishes. I’d just like a little help. Perhaps an intern like those folks on TV. (Yeah, Rachael Ray cleans up after they tape her show. I dare any of these folks –Martha, Rachael, Giada, Ina, Paula, that woman with the spiky blond hair (or the Guy with the spiky blond hair) – to devote an entire episode to just doing the dishes. We could make it a series where they compete to see who can clean a dirty kitchen fastest. I even have a name: “I’ll Wash / You Dry”. Cute, right?)
  4. A Blue Star range. It’s like the ubiquitous Viking range but it comes in several colors and configurations. I’m terrible at deciding on colors, so perhaps two Blue Star ranges would be best. Then I could “live with them” for a while and decide which one I like best.
  5. Two wall mounted ovens. Gas / convection. I don’t know which brand is best: make me an offer.
  6. Two All-Clad saucepans. One two quart, one four quart. I have the All-Clad skillets already and love them.
  7. Aww shucks, throw in a couple of All-Clad skillets too. You just never know when someone will drop by.
  8. A grill.
  9. A vent for the grill.
  10. A room with Metro shelves where I can store all of my kitchen…stuff. (You often see Ina Garten exiting hers with today’s very special key ingredient.) I believe this is called a pantry.
  11. One of those cooling racks on wheels they use in restaurants and hotel kitchens. I forget what they’re called in the trade, but you can slide about eight sheet pans into them and roll the whole thing around. Indispensable for anyone who likes to bake.
  12. A table for six—eight in a pinch—so that we can have an honest to goodness sit down dinner right in the kitchen. (For New Yorkers a sit down dinner means the floor.)

Correct me if I am wrong: I don’t think there’s anything particularly outlandish here. Do you?

In the meantime, I have devised a plan to get myself back into the groove with my kitchen, and you’ll be happy to hear that couples therapy is not in this plan. I’m going to select a few things that I can achieve with a minimum of space. Sheets and sheets of cookies seem out of the question for now. Cooler items that don’t require a lot of fussing would be good, so I started with a Frozen Lemon Mousse.

I made it in a spring form pan with an almond flour crust, but it would work well in little ramekins as an individual dessert. I chose the single, larger pan because that’s all that would fit in my freezer.

Uh-oh! Forgot something:

  1. An enormous refrigerator and freezer where everything is at eye level.

That’s the kind of chill I like.

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Want the Frozen Lemon Mousse recipe? Drop me an email Michael@butterfloureggs.com

Follow me on Twitter @butterflourblog

And look at my pretty pictures on Pinterest!

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Save Our Ship

Zwieback

good for what ails you

“You can’t set her on fire, you can’t sink her, and you can’t catch her.”

You’re reading a blog about baking, so your mind must be wondering: who on earth could this quote describe? Julia Child? No. The answer isn’t a “who”, it’s a “what”, although if you’re a sailor or naval-type you will debate the latter point.

The quote is attributed to William Francis Gibbs, the preeminent naval architect of his day, a man who designed over 5000 US Navy ships and the famous World War II “Liberty” ship fleet. So, which of those mighty battle ships was Gibbs describing? None. He was describing what I have always thought is the most beautiful ocean liner ever built, the s.s. United States.

It is not hyperbole to describe the United States as the culmination of Gibb’s life-long dreams, and, perhaps, the love of his life. (When asked which he loved more, the ship or his wife, his unblinking answer was, “The ship — a thousand times more.”)

Gibbs was many things: tough, profane, a self taught naval architect, and perhaps, as he has recently been labeled, the Steve Jobs of his day. That’s an apt description of Gibbs; the technological advances he built into the United States were true shipbuilding game changers.

A tough old salt he may have been, but it is worth noting that his firm employed women in key jobs, including the one who designed the propellers for the s.s. United States. (No small job by the way. The ship set records for speed that stand to this day, yet was noted for its lack of vibration, something that is usually caused by the propellers.)

After a couple of high profile ocean liner fires, he built the Unites States to the very highest standards of fire safety. Advertising for the ship often noted that the only wood on board was in the butcher’s blocks and the grand pianos. (Gibbs wanted aluminum pianos, but William Steinway proved that his wood pianos wouldn’t burn by inviting Gibbs to the Steinway factory, dousing a piano with gasoline and lighting a match. The piano smoldered a bit but didn’t burn, and Gibbs was satisfied.)

The s.s. United States was launched in 1951 and her career was heavily subsidized by the U.S. government until 1969 when the Nixon administration pulled the plug, sending her into a sudden and surprising retirement. Over the years she has changed hands many times, had her sleek mid-century interiors stripped away, and for the last seventeen years been tied up at a pier across from an Ikea in Philadelphia.

the s.s. United States: rusting,abandoned, but still beautiful

the s.s. United States: rusting,abandoned, but still beautiful

What’s amazing is that she still exists and hasn’t been sold off for scrap metal—yet. Now in the hands of a group that is trying to save the ship, she sits rusting, yet still as beautiful as ever. The group, the SS United States Conservancy, seeks to make her an integral part of a waterfront development, with New York, her former home, seemingly the favorite location. Personally I think she’d be very cool in New York City, docked next to the air craft carrier Intrepid, sporting her red, white, and blue smoke stacks, two sisters standing as testament to the highest examples of twentieth century American engineering and craftsmanship.

Unfortunately cobbling together the deal to recondition and place the ship in the right setting has been taking more time than the conservancy has money, so a trip to the scrap yard is a constant threat. (The conservancy reports they have only about two months in reserve for the ship’s current upkeep.)

In addition to the usual fundraising route, they have devised a very creative crowd-sourcing scheme—to which I am proud to say I have contributed. Save the United States is a great site where you can learn more about the ship and contribute to the conservancy by “buying” pieces of a virtual version of the ship. (I “own” fifty square inches of the First Class Observation Lounge. Please remove your shoes when passing through.)

Even if you don’t want to contribute, I recommend a visit to that site and to the conservancy’s main website, http://www.ssusc.org/ to learn about this great American creation.

You need not worry about getting seasick: it is a pretend ship, and I have baked an old seasickness remedy standby that was always available on ocean liners—including the United States.

Zwieback may be more familiar as a teething cookie for babies, but this mildly sweet, nutmeg infused toast is light as a feather, and its crunch can be intensely satisfying—and stomach settling. The recipe is available from the King Arthur Flour site. I recommend the full dose of nutmeg, but make sure to let the Zwieback cool thoroughly before eating or the nutmeg can be a little overwhelming. Try these dipped in some New England Clam Chowder. Or plain if you’re a little queasy.

And Bon Voyage!

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Write to me at the email address below with any questions or thoughts you may have. Thanks!

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The Afikomen

The Afikomen

Passover tends to be a little humorless, as it centers mostly on stories of living in bondage to despotic Egyptian pharaohs. So here are a couple of humorous Passover Seder anecdotes—one from showbiz, and one from my life. This is my version of a sort-of Readers Digest-style “Life in these United States’ Seders” column.

First story: My Aunt Sarah was an ardent fan of the sixties television serial “Peyton Place.” One year a very important episode happened to be scheduled to air during our Passover Seder. Yes, indeed, the Seder ground to a screeching halt (seemingly between the third and fourth questions) as Aunt Sarah got caught up on Allison Mackenzie’s latest assignation. I can still remember her staring hypnotically at the TV and then crowing afterward, “Yes, it’s only a half an hour, but they put a lot into that half hour!”

Why is this night different from other nights? Tonight I had to watch “Peyton Place” on their TV.

Second story: The late composer Jule Styne is a legend in musical theater, having written the score to scores of shows including “Gypsy” and “Funny Girl”. One year he decided to throw a fancy, catered Passover Seder to which he invited, among others, the equally legendary star Ethel Merman.

(Backstory: I’ll just say it. Merman had a reputation as a tough old broad. She’d been born in Queens as Ethel Zimmerman and hated that people thought she was Jewish when she was actually of German descent.)

When Styne invited her to the seder she asked, “Will there be anything I can eat?” Styne assured her she would not go hungry. Styne greeted Ethel at the seder, and escorted her to a place of honor at the table, where she immediately reached into her handbag, pulled out a ham sandwich, and plopped it on the plate in front of her.

Indignant, Styne grabbed the sandwich, threw it on the floor, and scolded Merman by saying, “Ethel! You’re insulting the waiters!”

He then promptly turned his back on her and convulsed in laughter.

Why is this night different from other nights? On this night we don’t take (bleep) from show folk.

Ahhh, Passover humor. I could go on and on, but you’re dying to know about the chocolate and nuts in the picture above, so without further ado I’ll tell you all about it.

That’s chocolate-covered Matzo in the picture above. Chocolate-covered Matzo is sometimes called “Afikomen” in tribute to the tradition of hiding a bit of matzo for dessert, then having the kids play “Find the Afikomen”. Whoever found the Afikomen could then eat it for dessert. Yup. That was prize. Whee. I figure dropping a bit of chocolate on top gives the kids a little more incentive. The adults too.

Okay stop rolling your eyes, I know you’ve seen chocolate-covered Matzo before. Why is this different? It’s what I put on top.

Here’s where things get a little tricky. Those are Spanish-style Caramelized Almonds on top. They have a mild sweetness that doesn’t overwhelm the chocolate. The tricky part is that they are made with confectioner’s sugar. Confectioner’s sugar contains corn starch which makes it strictly NOT kosher for Passover. If you are strictly kosher the work around is to pulverize granulated sugar in a food processor fitted with the steel blade, and add in a bit of Passover potato starch to emulate the corn starch’s powdery qualities. Or if you’re as strict as I am you just use confectioner’s sugar, and just say, “Yeah, what ever.” (After I pass into the next world I’ll drop you a note telling you how hot it is where I am…) (Unless you’re there, then I can tell you in person.)

Unlike the normal sugary coating you’d expect, these have a more frosted quality, slightly less sweet, and can be adjusted with some nice additions that will bring some complexity to this confection, which, when all is said and done, can be a bit plain.

My first addition was a bit of cinnamon. I have a friend who often adds cinnamon to his chocolate frosting. Just ask the Mexicans: it’s a great combination.

My second addition is a little bit of salt. Yes, I know that salted chocolate is quickly becoming like this year’s blackened redfish (ubiquitous), but there’s something about the salt with the nuts, chocolate, and the starch of the matzo that just works.

By the way, eagle-eyed folks will notice that I used whole wheat matzo and dark chocolate, but egg matzo and milk chocolate would make a pretty terrific combo too.

 

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Write to me at the email address below with any questions or thoughts you may have. Thanks!

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You have already won

Chocolate Mousse

Another chocolate miracle…

Back at the dawn of the internet age—let’s say 1999—the electronic chain letter was born. My sincerest gratitude to William Beldru, widely considered the creator of the modern, electronic chain letter. Mr. Beldru, a native of West New York, New Jersey (a city that never made sense to me) accidently set off the first chain letter by writing a short email to the youngest of his six siblings as a convenient way of arranging a family gathering.

The momentous words of that first chain email are engraved above the portal to the International Internet Museum in Washington, D.C. (a city that never made sense to a lot of people): “Friday Night: Chicken or Fish?”

It wasn’t long before internet-enabled Americans were all racking their brains for lists of twenty friends who would not be enraged by the claim that breaking the chain or deleting the email would bring them bad luck. So we endured charming, folksy tales of teachers who never let us down but who had hit hard times, and prayers for angels hovering over us but just out of reach until enough of us had forwarded “…the attached prayer (scroll all the way down)”.

The biggest whopper of them all is the apocryphal story (still darting around the AOL-sphere) about the famous department store that supposedly charged a customer in its restaurant $250 for a Chocolate Chip Cookie recipe. I know for a fact that this is untrue as I was able to buy the recipe for a mere $5 initial investment in a Nigerian savings account.

My weariness at this electronic detritus will perhaps explain why a lot gets by me. Except for the naughty bits, I am guilty of ignoring my junk mail box. That’s why I tend to depend on (what I call) authoritative voices to draw a virtual yellow highlight through the life-changing stuff I need to see. Your questions are A.) What are authoritative voices? and B.) How can I sign up to be one? The answers are, A.) The New York Times internet edition, and “Your Daily Horoscope on Twitter” and, B.) Don’t call us, we’ll call you.

But it was Melissa Clark, the excellent food writer for the Times who brought something to light that I think will (honestly) change my life. Supposedly there has been a recipe going around the internet for Chocolate Mousse that has two ingredients: chocolate and water.

Sure enough: there’s Ms. Clark starring in a video on the Times’ site making it happen. Thank goodness this was not one of those tricks where they say, “Don’t try this at home” because that’s what I set out to do.

It took me a couple of viewings of the video to see what was going on, but it was one of those “slap on the head-wish I’d thought of that” moments. The best part: I think I have improved on Ms. I’m-A-Fancy-Writer-For-The-New-York-Times Clark’s technique, and now, for a minimal investment, this secret can be yours. Oh. Sorry, I still have junk email on my mind.

Here’s the story. Ganache is a basic chocolate sauce which, depending on the temperature, can be used to make truffles, or whipped and used as cake frosting. You pour warm cream over chopped chocolate, allow the chocolate to melt, whisk together and then proceed using varying techniques. The fat in the chocolate and the fat in the cream are compatible: really all chocolate is a ground powder suspended in fat. The common assumption that oil and water don’t mix is borne out if you melt chocolate then accidently get a few drops of water in it: It clumps.

But a chemist would look at your seized melted chocolate and tell you to add a lot more water or a lot more chocolate or a lot more fat. Am I a chemist? No. Am I a chocoholic? Yes. But if you’re a chemist you understand that this recipe provides enough water to properly suspend the fats and solids in the chocolate.

This recipe makes a ganache with water instead of cream. (That’s the “Reader’s Digest” version of the story.)

Ms. Clark insists that once you have melted the chocolate and water together, you must set the mixture in its bowl over an ice bath and whisk until the mixture cools enough to whip into a creamy mousse-like consistency. That could take quite a while.

I am far too lazy for that. I planned ahead and used my Kitchen-Aid mixer. As directed, I melted ten ounces of bittersweet chocolate in a saucepan with one cup of water. This happened very fast. I whisked it all together briefly, just to make sure the mixture was uniform. But instead of using an ice bath, I poured the mixture into a glass bowl, and stashed it tightly wrapped in my refrigerator and let it sit overnight.

The next day the mixture had set into what I would call a soft solid. That’s where the Kitchen Aid took over. I whisked the soft solid in the Kitchen Aid for about a minute and as you can see from the photo above, ended up with a very nice mousse. What it lacks in complexity and mouth feel it makes up for in fun.

You may feel the need to doctor the recipe a bit—I added a hefty spoonful of Medaglia d’Oro instant espresso powder as it whipped in the mixer, and Melissa Clark sprinkled hers with a touch of Fleur de sel—but this stuff will definitely come in handy.

If you are a vegan or about to celebrate Passover this opens up some possibilities. For Passover, I think I’ll make a Chocolate Tart with an almond-flour short crust. (The almond flour will add a bit of richness.) Maybe I’ll make a bit of whipped cream available for folks.

If you are a vegan you could potentially make really great truffles this way. Scoop the refrigerated mixture with a melon-baller and dredge in cocoa powder or crushed nuts. You can also pour the mix into tiny ramekins or espresso cups and make a very satisfying Pots de Crème enforcing a bit of portion control without advertising it too loudly.

By the way, if you’ve read this far, Angels are on their way and your beloved fifth-grade teacher has made a miraculous full recovery.

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Click here for the recipe straight from the New York Times

Write to me at the email address below with any questions or thoughts you may have. Thanks!

Let me email you when the blog has been updated! Opt in by clicking the biscotti at right or by sending your email address to michael@butterfloureggs.com

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Habit-forming

"Icebox" cake

“Icebox” cake

I think I may be clinging too closely to a routine. Perhaps this is unhealthy?

Here’s the problem. My Sundays are programmed and scheduled to the point that they make some weekdays look relaxed. I will admit a great reluctance to making any adjustments to this schedule as it consists of activities that I enjoy and look forward to. Just one example: every Sunday I make pizza. I’m not giving that up. This activity is so deeply ingrained that if civilization as we know it ever disappears, I will still be found every Sunday trying to bake pizza over whatever source of heat I can find.

Slightly earlier in the day you’ll find me dutifully sprawled on my sofa watching America’s Test Kitchen, the TV show produced by the Boston-based folks who publish Cook’s Illustrated Magazine.

I’ll admit to a certain love / hate relationship with the show and magazine. Some of their recipes can be a bit labor intense, with certain individual ingredients requiring their own multiple steps of pre-prep. But everything they prepare really does look good, and I am convinced that they know their stuff and produce the show with a minimum of TV trickery. None of this really matters. I sit motionless, as transfixed to the screen as I used to be when Captain Kangaroo would weave his magic with construction paper.

A few weeks ago they did something that literally made me sit up from my sprawl, point at the screen, and say out loud, “That’s a great idea!” with an enthusiasm so ripe that, had you been there, you likely would have heard the exclamation mark too.

After this huge buildup I’m sure it will be a huge letdown to tell you that all they did was cut a sheet cake into four pieces.

Layering a cake has always been a tricky proposition for me. I love height, and I love cakes with more than two layers. I just think they are fun and a bit dramatic. I usually bake cakes for special occasions like birthdays, so a little drama isn’t unwelcome. I think it is safe to say that any time you hand something to someone that is on fire there is already a bit of drama afoot, but when the cake has been cut and is being passed on a sagging paper plate, awaiting decimation, a bit of “Wow” should still remain.

The America’s Test Kitchen folks were baking carrot cake that day. Instead of baking the cake in the usual round layer pans, they baked one sheet cake, cut it into four pieces, and ended up with a handsome, square, four layer cake. The advantage to that recipe was that they could better control the cake-to-cream cheese frosting ratio.

I like carrot cake, but given a choice I’ll always go for chocolate cake with white “boiled” frosting, a combination I grew up on in New England. The frosting was called “boiled” but was really a meringue, usually Swiss or Italian. The difference is how the sugar is cooked, with Italian Meringue being the sturdier of the two. (I never fail to be entertained by whipping egg whites into fluff. Yes, I am easily amused.)

I’ve tried various chocolate cake recipes for years but have recently settled on a doctored version of the Hershey’s “Perfectly Chocolate” chocolate cake recipe found on the back of their cocoa powder cans.

Apologies to the folks at Hershey…the doctoring includes not using powdered cocoa, but melted, unsweetened chocolate. (Hershey makes that too, so the ingredients stay “in the family” so to speak.) The other doctoring is simple: brown sugar instead of white, and the addition of instant espresso powder. The recipe is easy, and there’s no butter—canola oil is used instead, which I think makes it a better, moister, cake. Kind of fudgy, but still definitely cake.

The first thing I noticed about baking the recipe in one sheet pan was that I didn’t have to worry about dividing the batter evenly amongst several pans. The cake baked in one even layer, so cutting off the crown as is often necessary with round layers, was eliminated.

I made a minor change to the Americas Test Kitchen technique: instead of cutting the cake into four quadrants (two cuts, north to south and east to west), I cut it into four long strips (three cuts, all north to south—get it?) The change in geometry made my cake come out more like a squared log than just a square.

Stacking the layers with a thin veneer of meringue between each was simple, and the first cut inspired my name for this cake: “Icebox” cake.

If you are unfamiliar with Icebox Cake, this was a simple “no bake” dessert made from Nabisco Famous Chocolate Wafer cookies (addictive, and hard to find) and whipped cream. You stacked layers of the cookies and whipped cream into a log, refrigerated it, then served it in slices.

My personal preference is to serve it not quite chilled, so if you store it in the fridge let it sit out for a while. Each slice is a combination of fluffy meringue and fudgy cake. Looks particularly fetching aflame with candles, but stash this recipe away and think of it when barbecue season rolls around too.

Hey look: we put the cake in Icebox Cake.

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Click here for the Icebox Cake recipe

Write to me at the email address below with any questions or thoughts you may have. Thanks!

Let me email you when the blog has been updated! Opt in by clicking the biscotti at right or by sending your email address to michael@butterfloureggs.com

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