Archive for the ‘Almonds’ Category

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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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My Roman Holiday

Blood Orange Cake

A love for blood oranges…

Some years ago I was at a Fancy Food Show at the Javits Center here in New York. If you’ve ever been to any kind of trade show—the auto show, the boat show, pet couture week—you know that there’s a lot of walking involved and after a while you get hungry and thirsty. You would think that this would be solved by the mere fact that you are at a Fancy Food Show, but ironically pickin’s were slim that day. I seem to remember eating Jamaican beef patties, and some kind of meringue-topped “nibbly” desserts. Bottled water was yours…for a price, and upstairs, out of the exhibition hall.

Thankfully the folks from San Pellegrino had set up a booth where they were passing out little sample cups of their fine aqua minerale. Five or six trips to the well only began to put a dent in my thirst. On one of my return trips I noticed an array of little multi-colored bottles displayed. From the labels I could see that they were orange and grapefruit sodas. A third line of unlabeled bottles were bright red and small enough that they brought to mind the little wax “soda bottle” candies we used to get from the penny candy store back in the 1900’s. (They were right next to the wax lips.)

As stingy as they were with the water, the folks from San Pellegrino were delighted to introduce me to Aranciata, their pulpy, fresh, orange soda that most Americans would equate with Orangina. If I really wanted an authentic Roman refreshment (I was told) they needed to add a dash of the liquid in the tiny red bottles too. Roman-style swag? Who could say no? Well the drink was yummy, the red stuff—which I learned was called San Bittér—was the bitter, herbal, syrupy ying to the Aranciata’s citrus yang, a non-alcoholic version of Campari and orange juice. I felt as though I was basking in the Roman sunshine. Ahhhh…

I thought of this recently after hopping aboard the blood orange bandwagon. January seems to have become the season blood oranges, and, truth be told, I need a little Florida food sunshine in January, which can often seem unrelentingly gloomy. (I mentioned this to my dentist who comforted me by exclaiming, “Thank goodness you don’t live in Finland! They don’t see the sun for weeks.” Thanks, Doc.)

I bought a half dozen of the fruit and decided to experiment. I found them inconsistent. Eaten out of hand, one was bright and sweet, another was tart and bitter. The combination of sweet and bitter is what made me think back to my San Pellegrino “Roman Holiday” at the Javits. I suppose I could have just bought a few bottles of San Bittér and Aranciata and called it a day, but the thought of baking something with the Blood Oranges intrigued me. Would it be sweet or bitter? Would it be both?

My first thought was Crème Brulee. Extra skinny slices of the fruit on top of the custard, with the crackling dome of bruleed sugar on top. Sounds good, but I really craved a twist on an old fashioned upside down cake.

Pineapple Upside Down Cake always suffers from a case of the “icks”: too sweet, too syrupy, too many maraschino cherries. I wanted something that would celebrate the blood oranges, but, secretly, if someone just wasn’t into the fruit, I wanted them to have a nice piece of cake waiting beneath.

Pineapple Upside Down cake gets a lot of the goo from the syrup used to can the fruit. I made up for that by gently and briefly simmering the juice of one blood orange with the requisite brown sugar and butter. Maraschino cherries were banned from the room; who needs ‘em? The slices of blood orange had a nineteen-sixties, Marimekko pizzazz that made the cherries irrelevant.

For the cake I decided that a simple, yellow cake would not be up to the job, so I swapped out a bit of flour and substituted ground almond meal. Instead of butter I used canola oil. A good dose of grated orange zest combined with the almond meal made sure no one would miss the butter I was omitting—and the canola oil and almonds are considered “healthy” fats. (The latter is, shall we say, my attempt at lessening the guilt attached to eating a big hunk of cake. Oh yeah: there’s vitamin C in the oranges too. Okay, I’ll stop.)

Depending on the bitterness or sweetness of the blood oranges you’ll either end up with a pleasantly sweet, gooey cake, or a slightly bitter, tart cake with a sweet gooey syrup. The latter will bring you a bit of Roman sunshine in the gloom of winter. (If the tartness or bitterness isn’t your thing, dust the cake with some confectioner’s sugar, or serve with a dollop of sweetened whipped cream.)

Besides: who wants a predictable cake?


Click here for the Blood Orange Upside Down Cake recipe

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Chocolate Financiers

From a little baker…

Henri was one of those guys. (He still is, but slower.) When we were in school together he had what I called “Henri’s Seventh Sense of Right.” This referred to his unerring sense of the right thing to wear, the right thing to say, and the right thing to do. He was a better student than me. He was French by birth, (although raised here) and brought all that the French label implies to the table, including an accent that appeared and became thicker at will. I was plain ol’ American and had a Boston accent that came and went of its own accord. He smoked Gauloises like he was breathing pure oxygen; I choked as though I’d been buried in sand. His surname points to an aristocratic lineage, mine is what is politely referred to as an “Ellis Island creation.”

I admit that at times I felt like more of a fan than a friend as I watched him charm everyone who crossed his path: teachers, shop keepers—even my Mother. From my adult perch I assume I was studying Henri, hoping to absorb by osmosis some of whatever he could do. I’m not aware that this worked. You should not read any resentment into my profile of Henri. Envious? Absolutely. Jealous? No, for if I had been Henri, I could not have had him as a friend, so, I am the lucky one.

One day early in our friendship he announced, “You must meet my Mère. You will love her.” I sensed that as formidable as I found Henri, he found his grandmother even more so, but I could not imagine why. This went on for a few weeks. My brain built up an immunity to, “You must meet my Mère. You will love her.” I stopped hearing it until one day he said, “Come meet Mère tomorrow after class.”

The next afternoon found us climbing out of the subway and rounding a corner to the back of Carnegie Hall. Although I was blissfully unaware that we were due at an appointed time, clearly we were running late, as Henri’s pace became more and more urgent. Entering a side door of the Hall, we rushed by a guard who seemed unconcerned by our presence. Riding up in the old elevator, I used the back of my hand to blot the perspiration from my face and giggled at the thought, “I didn’t practice, practice, practice.” I wondered what Henri’s grandmother would be doing upstairs at Carnegie Hall, although based on Henri’s family, clearly she wasn’t sewing costumes.

We walked down a hallway that was like stepping on the set of an old show biz movie. Translucent glass-paneled doors only hinted at what was going on behind them: the screech of a soprano here, the thumping of dancers’ feet there, a laugh, a conversation just out of ear-reach. Henri knocked on one of the doors, and it swung open as if the person inside had been waiting with her hand on the knob.

She was très petite and crowned by a head of dark red curls. She glared at Henri, pointing to a watch that dangled from a chain she wore around her neck. Henri launched into a French monologue, of which the only word I understood was “subway.” She sighed and held up her arms for a hug which Henri rewarded with a kiss to one cheek and then the other. She then pushed him back gently, and spun him around for a proper, grandmotherly inspection, and, pointing to his ripped jeans complained, “Oh, Henri, please don’t wear those rags when you visit me.”

Henri began to complain in French but she cut him off.

“Don’t be rude. Speak English or your friend will think we’re talking about him.”

Unlike Henri, Mére spoke with a pronounced French accent, a lovely, lilting sing-song that bore no resemblance to the clichéd Maurice Chevalier accent I was used to from my old movie habit.

Henri explained to Mére that he thought I’d enjoy looking at her pictures because of my obsession with old Hollywood (this was pre-internet or DVD, so it was harder to “get my fix.”)

Mére beckoned us into her studio with a shrugging, casual, “Well, come see what I have. I didn’t have a chance to pull out anything special.” Before I could take a step Henri stopped me, whispering, “She probably worked all morning choosing just the ones she wants to show off. And when she serves tea, don’t call the little cakes “brownies.” But before I could get an explanation, a sharp “Henri?” from across the studio propelled us into a large open room two stories high, topped by a large, sloping glass skylight. It was hard to decide if it was a salon or a photographer’s studio, but the large view camera perched off in a corner tilted it in favor of a studio.

Mére had lined up at least twenty large black and white portraits in a way that suggested, “Look at me…but I don’t care if you do.” The photographs were of actors, writers, and other prominent folks. From the style of dress, hair, and make-up on the women you could tell they dated from the late forties to the late sixties. All were lit in that glistening film noir Hollywood studio-style that captured a moment in time, a reaction, a momentary flash of the person’s personality. Each bore the same small signature in the lower right corner: Mére’s. My reaction was a poetic, wise, gaping stare. I couldn’t even muster a simple, “Wow” overwhelmed as I was by the collective energy of the photographs.

As I walked along the line, I mentioned the names I knew and inquired of Mére the ones I did not. Of the faces I did not know, she would punctuate the name with their occupation which, I gathered, was usually a bit of an understatement, like saying, “Arthur Miller. He wrote plays.”

I lingered a while in front of Anthony Quinn. A favorite actor of mine, his expression seemed passive yet commanding, as if he were holding out his hand, waiting for you to kiss his ring. Mére witnessed my intense study of the dark eyes, and said, “You remind me of Quinn.” A beat, then, “He was difficult.”

She swept off to a far corner of the studio, and started fussing in the tiny kitchenette. Henri whispered, “I think she’s impressed that you actually know who most of these people are.” As before, I couldn’t get an explanation of his brownie warning because Mére commanded us to join her for tea, which she served while perched on a settee. (Something I had only seen in movies. At home we had a sofa.) That was when Henri’s warning about the brownies became evident.

Presented with the tea were little cakes that looked like brownies, but had obviously been baked in individual little rectangular cake tins. She served them with a pot of whipped cream. Having been well warned, I took a bite of one the almond-scented chocolate cakes. Avoiding Henri’s face I asked, “What are these called?”

Mére shrugged with disinterest, “Those are Financiers. A little baker makes them for me.”

“Those are her favorite,” added Henri, contradicting her apparent disinterest.

A few years later I was saddened to learn of the death of the little baker who baked the Financiers for Mére, and became determined that she should not do without. After a few tries I learned how to bake Financiers myself. Over the years I have packed them in little boxes and delivered them to Mére, just as I did last week to mark a very special occasion:

Her 100th birthday.


Click here for the Financier recipe.


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“Is that tweeting, or is that my heart pounding?”

I really want world peace. And cookies.

Almond Macaroons

Gluten-free, Passover-friendly, sauce on the side...

People throughout the ages have commented on the apparent similarities between foods of many cultures. Take pasta as an example. The Japanese have soba noodles; Italians have spaghetti. Chinese throw wontons into broth; Jews throw Kreplach into broth—and with this last example you’d be hard pressed to tell the difference.

This year I am struck by the similarities between baking for folks on a gluten-free diet, and baking for folks observing Passover. Okay, calm down. Yes I know there is a glaring difference, but the higher-level view is remarkably similar.

Gluten-free folks avoid wheat, oats, barley, and rye. Passover folks avoid anything with leavening. But the similarity is that in order to bake something good for either group you must remove something (usually flour) and substitute it with something else. Believe it or not there are some substitutes that are perfect for both groups. No, what follows is not a recipe for gluten-free Matzos. I did see those in the market last year, so yes, they do exist. (Speaking for me and me alone, if I were gluten-free I’d just skip Matzo altogether.)

Many of the same problems overlap when you are baking for Passover or for Gluten-free diets. Flour can be a delicate item, and baking is (to be unglamorous for a moment) an exercise in chemistry. Upset the delicate balance and your end result will be (to use a highly scientific term) yucky.

If you’ve never baked for Passover before, allow me to introduce you to the traditional Passover substitute for flour: Passover Cake Meal. It is made by grinding matzo into a fine powder. Imagine grinding saltines (minus the salt) into a powder and using that to bake cookies. Imagine soaking a bowl of saltines in water. Mmmmmm. Smells good, eh? That’s what baking with matzo is all about.

Not that there hasn’t always been a certain “soul food” charm to the endeavor. I’m good for one plate of Matzo Brei (a/k/a, “Fried Matzo”—broken pieces of matzo scrambled with eggs) per year. It’s a treat and goes with the whole “fat and salt” aesthetic of soul food. More than one per year and I swear you are just looking for trouble.

Walk with me for a few minutes, would you? (it’s the middle of winter, we could use the air). Let’s walk down Madison…yeah, I know, I never get over to the East Side either. But there’s something over there I want you to see: les macarons. We won’t have to walk far because they are everywhere. You’ve seen them. You’ve likely even gotten a Groupon discount offer for them in your Inbox. They’re the beautiful, multi-colored, perfectly round macaroons that are usually filled with buttercream. They are to the 2010’s what Godiva chocolates were to the 1990’s. They’re also incredibly tricky to make at home. So I leave these to the pros. Trust me, I’ve tried.

But what I learned trying to bake macarons was that I can make a version that is less strict, and that is a happy treat for folks on gluten-free diets and folks celebrating Passover…and folks who fall into both categories.

It frustrates me that on paper they seem soooo easy. A few ground almonds, some sugar, a little egg white. But if the almonds aren’t ground just right, and the sugar isn’t mixed into the almonds just right, and the egg white doesn’t…well you get the picture. (Or shall I continue?)

But if your ultimate goal isn’t the perfection of les macarons, then you can combine the ingredients with abandon, add your own magic tricks, and end up with chewy, almond-scented macaroons that will make you skip the seder and head right for the dessert table.

I’ve taken some liberties here: well, a cheat actually. I’m using almond paste in addition to ground almonds. I’m also not expecting to end up with perfect disks, rather, I’m happy with toasty brown, irregularly-shaped cookies.

You can actually make these without the ground almonds, but using them adds a bit of structure to the batter that makes the job of dropping portions onto your cookie sheets less drippy and messy.

By the way there’s no dairy in these either, unless you include the egg whites. (I don’t.)

Amazing, eh? A “one-size-fits-all-except-those-who-are-allergic-to-nuts” cookie!


Here’s the Almond Macaroon recipe


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By any other name…

Chocolate Almond Biscotti

Chocolate Almond Biscotti

When I was in high school we lived in a very charming old New England town just outside of Boston. There was even a town green which, as part of a charming tradition, was the location of our high school graduation ceremony. (We wore white dinner jackets instead of caps and gowns. Very picturesque.) It was a town full of charming areas to hike, a wonderful, progressive high school (it had a smoking lounge for the students), and some families could actually trace themselves back to relatives who came over on the Mayflower.

The one thing it didn’t have was a lot of Jewish folk. This was quite a change from the city we lived in prior, where you were either Irish or Italian Catholic or Jewish. WASPs? No.

That’s why I was taken by surprise when a friend invited me to a party at her house where my eyes and nose spied her Mother in the kitchen baking Mandel Bread. For all intents and purposes that was the same as waving a banner that said, “We speak Jewish.”

While I have never defined myself by my religion, it is an inescapable fact of being human that we are drawn to the familiar. I think it may be related to the reason we enjoy watching the same movies every Christmas, and listen to the same songs over and over again. There’s comfort in the familiar.

That’s also why you can call them Biscotti all you like, but they’ll always be Mandel Bread to me. And yes, I do have my high school friend’s Mom’s Mandel Bread recipe.

However, semantics betray me. Mandel Bread actually refers to a twice baked almond slice cookie. (Mandel=Almond) Most of the Mandel Bread I bake have never been near an almond. The one at the top of my blog that serves as a link to the subscription page is Cranberry Orange Cornmeal.

Admittedly my biscotti / mandelein are a rustic affair. The basic drill for baking this type of cookie is to mix the batter, shape it into a very flat loaf and bake it. Then you slice the loaves and return the slices to the oven to toast. There have been times when I may have gone overboard with the toasting and ended up with very hard cookies. Great for dunking, but perhaps not so great for eating as is.

I used to send these to an elderly aunt who lived in a nursing home. She called me and after effusive thanks mentioned that the cookies were a touch too hard, and asked if I couldn’t make them a touch less hard. I was happy to comply, but after another round of cookies produced the same request I was forced to ask her to clarify, which she did by explaining, “We’re old. You’re gonna break our teeth.”

I’ve always struggled with the toasting part. Too much or too little, it never seems as though I get it exactly right. Just what is exactly right?

A couple of weeks ago I was eating dinner with a couple of friends to whom I have forgotten to send a “Thank You” note for the dinner. (Thank you!) At the end of the delicious meal the waiter deposited a small plate of biscotti on the table and the rest of the world (for me) disappeared as the biscotti absorbed me. They were notable for being crispy, not crunchy, and not hard, but not soft either. They were, in a word or two, just right. (Goldilocks would have loved them.) There was also the faintest hint of almond. Hmmm.

This past weekend I was in the baking aisle of my local supermarket where I spied a box of Almond Paste. Just under the words “Almond Paste” on the front of the box was a picture of biscotti. And on the back of the box was a recipe for Double Almond Biscotti. Ah. Light bulb moment.

Let’s start with the Almond Paste / Marzipan question. Not the same thing. Marzipan is a kind of almond paste, but not vice-versa. Marzipan has more sugar and is often used for modeling into shapes. Almond paste is kind of like a very sweet vegetable shortening. (Very sweet. It’s about half sugar with slightly less fat per gram than shortening or butter.) Did I mention that it makes the best biscotti (and now, truly Mandel Bread) I have ever baked?

I followed the recipe as written (with the exception of substituting chocolate for sliced almonds—wouldn’t you?). As a test I slightly over-toasted them in the second baking. Instead of becoming forbiddingly hard they remained engagingly crisp, yet dunkers would still be very pleased.

They are, uh, were, the most perfect biscotti / mandel bread I have ever baked. I haven’t tried it yet but I suspect that you could substitute your preferred gluten-free flour (like my favorite, Cup4Cup) without sinking the ship.

I’ll be making these again.


Here’s the Chocolate Almond Biscotti recipe


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Have a couple of tweets with your coffee

If you’re reading this you may already be late

Breakfast on the run...

Breakfast on the run...

The brisk fall morning sight of children on their way to school makes me happy. No, it is not the prospect of learning or expanding one’s horizons that cheers me; it is the bald fact that I do not have to go to school anymore. I didn’t hate school, but I didn’t love it either.

Nah. Scratch that. I hated school.

I feel guilty admitting it, for I have a great respect for education. I’d probably be a better—or at least more attentive– student now than I was when I was a kid. I have a friend, a woman of “a certain age” who just got her Master’s Degree. She confided the same thing to me, including the fact that she was now a better student. My unscientific conclusion has always been that you can break school kids into the same basic categories as adults:

Category 1: the workaholic. My high school was loaded with them, including one annoying, “straight A” soul who would refuse to look at her tests as they were handed back with the big red grade on top. When the bell rang she would frantically exit to the hall, then perform ritual leaps of joy in celebration of her A+, like it was a big, freakin’ surprise. It’s several hundred years later and, yes, I’m still bitter and annoyed. (She now works for the I.R.S.)

Category 2: the rest of us. The “…For Dummies” series of instructional guides always manage to catch our eye. I don’t want to say that I was a bad student, but I recently flunked a vision test. Honestly, I can’t study a menu without breaking into flop sweat. (Ohhhh, I‘ve got a million of ‘em…)

I know that there are many of you out there who feel at home in this category.

The interesting thing is that being in one category as a kid doesn’t guarantee that you’ll end up in the same category as an adult. The workplace is littered with formerly indifferent students who now consistently take the later train home because they have “… just a little bit more to do.” I wish I’d been a better student, but as an adult part of me rejoices that I will never be labeled a workaholic. There’s so much other stuff to do…

Like you, I had a ten mile commute to school through forty inches of snow in one hundred degree heat. Uphill. Both ways. I would forestall my departure by eating a healthy breakfast. Our cook would have my pancakes, eggs, and bacon ready just the way I liked them, and I would…okay clearly I’ve gone off the rails here. I wrote the word “forestall” and everything went blurry.

The truth is I have only vague memories of eating breakfast when I was a kid. I know I did, but beyond the concept of a bowl of cereal the specifics are hazy. Wheaties? Cheerios? Cap’n Crunch? I’m really not sure. There may have been an experiment with instant Cream of Wheat, but that was short lived. We had a breakfast nook, but I think we used it to eat dinner and to watch my Dad’s 8mm home movies. Harrumph: a whole section of my life haphazardly executed.

Now I am much more deliberate about my breakfast choices. Will I get hungry too soon before lunch? Will it make me fat(ter)? Can I work and eat it at the same time? I look around and watch what others are eating for breakfast and notice with a great amount of apprehension that folks seem to be looking for one vital element in their breakfast: a kick start. Lordy, when did Coca Cola become the breakfast of champions?

No kick start for yours truly; if I wanted that I’d pay someone to slap me across the face a few times. (Don’t even try it.) Slow and steady is more my style. It works for me and I find that most mornings I am fully awake by 1 PM.

Still, I find my busy schedule sometimes doesn’t allow me to linger over breakfast. The question is: short of gruel-like instant oatmeal, what is a supercharged healthy breakfast that I can eat on the run? A chum swears by toast with a swipe or two of peanut butter. I need a bit more entertainment than that in the morning. I have devised my “best in show” breakfast on the run.

I almost resent the health benefits of oatmeal; Quaker oatmeal is practically advertised as an alternative to Lipitor. But I can put my crankiness aside long enough to include it as part of my breakfast. Thumbing through my beloved old copy of The New York Times Cook Book by Craig Claiborne I found a recipe for “Old-Fashioned Oatmeal Bread.” Oatmeal bread has always been a favorite of mine. Usually only mildly sweet, yet slightly dense, this recipe has a delicate crumb and a toasty crust.

Yes, I understand that the thought of baking bread gives most people pause. But if you are in possession of a Kitchen-Aid stand mixer bread making requires very little work and very little expertise. Yes the entire process takes several hours from bag of flour to loaf of bread, but most of that time you can do other things.

I also substituted almond butter for the peanut butter my chum uses. This was a choice dictated only by taste, and I also topped the almond butter with slices of green apple. The combination is almost pastry-like, but you can feel smug in the knowledge that the entire affair is very healthy. You can use any kind of apple you prefer, but I use green apple in the morning on the advice of a friend who is a singer. Green apples have an astringent quality that can help clear your throat of impurities.

That’s good news as a clear throat can help me maintain my phlegmatic demeanor through the rest of the day.


Click here for the recipe for Old-Fashioned Oatmeal Bread.


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Classical Education

Crispy Chocolate Chip Cookies

Crispy Chocolate Chip Cookies

I have an easy answer to the question, “If you were trapped on a deserted island and could only choose one food what would it be?”

My answer is chocolate chip cookies. I don’t even have to think about it. I am known within my family circle as “the cookie monster”. Do you require further proof?

Warning: this means that I am no pushover when it comes to chocolate chip cookies. I have tasted them all—indeed, with a sense of duty—and have developed a vocabulary of preferences. My choices may not agree with yours, but hey, this is my sun-parched trip to the deserted cookie jar.

My grandmother used to reward my angelic behavior by asking, “Mikey, do you want a cookie?” The singularity of this offering makes me laugh now, but the fact is, that’s how we used to roll. If I was particularly good (always!), I was offered a second cookie. I never felt cheated or deprived; in those days I don’t think it ever occurred to anyone to feed a five or six year old more than one or two cookies at a throw.

Those cookies were grueling for my Grandmother to prepare. But her hard work was my first bit of kitchen education. Granny taught me just the right way to use your thumbnail to cut through the waxed paper that wrapped the box, without having to remove the entire wrapper. (Those were the days before cookies and crackers were packaged to survive Armageddon.)

(Uh-oh. I imagine my Grandmother is looking down at me right now, peeved that her bit of kitchen magic has been revealed. For free.)

Oh, I kid Granny. Actually, I grew up at a funny time. Moms still baked, but convenience foods presented such an undeniable novelty that folks naturally gravitated toward them. The first home baked cookies I actually remember eating were the Pillsbury “slice and bake” cookies. As a kid I liked them, and why not? You smelled them baking. They were warm and a little gooey. As they cooled they set up and got a bit crispy.

Then all heck broke loose. Chocolate chip cookies became big business. Companies opened chains of store-front cookie-only bakeries. My favorites were the freshly-baked Famous Amos cookies they used to sell at Bloomingdales. These were a universe away from the packaged ones sold under that name now. (Wally Amos lost control of the company early on via a bad business deal. Sad for him, sadder still for me. Yes, when it comes to chocolate chip cookies it’s all about me.)

Peggy Lawton Choco Chip cookies

Peggy Lawton Choco Chip cookies

Up in New England we had a great regional brand of packaged cookies. Peggy Lawton Choco-Chip cookies were—are— a deli and convenience store staple. The ubiquity of Peggy Lawtons causes folks to take them for granted. Are they a great cookie? Let’s call them “best in class.” Yes, Peggy Lawtons are a factory-made cookie. But allow me to answer the “great cookie” question thusly: whenever I make chocolate chip cookies I think of them. I begged a friend visiting Massachusetts to smuggle some back to New York for me. Your taste buds sometimes trump logic. Granted, some folks may bite into a Peggy Lawton and say, “I don’t get it.” I simply shrug my shoulders and say, “De gustibus non est disputandum, baby.” (There’s no use arguing about taste…baby.)

As I got older and my knowledge of ingredients, baking (and latin) increased I, like most home bakers, went through my Toll House cookie phase. I consider this to be baking adolescence, for one soon learns to rebel against the Nestle recipe. It starts slow: a few walnuts here, a little coconut there, and soon you’ve created “your” cookie.

I’m not a big fan of the basic Toll House recipe—too soft and too cakey for me—but it does represent a really great jumping off point. Over the years I’ve added all sorts of extra ingredients to make my own version—always with Peggy Lawton and Famous Amos in the back of my head. I’ve added walnuts, or almonds, sometimes peanuts. I’ve used different types of chocolate, including chopping my own from a big block. The really good news is that you can’t mess up the basic Toll House recipe unless you burn it.

These past few weeks I have started presenting a series of basic recipes that do not require a stand mixer, just a bowl and spoon. The further good news about homemade chocolate chip cookies is that they fit the bowl and spoon profile. Of course, mine are a bit different than what you may expect.

The first difference is that I do not use butter, I use butter substitute. Note that I have not used the “m” word—margarine. I use the term butter substitute because many margarine products have less fat and more water, which may cause cookie failure. So, look for products that, like butter, have 11 grams of fat per tablespoon. (I like Earth Balance which is made from healthy fats. My aversion to butter? It gives me a tummy ache. I’m being delicate.)

You can use butter, but there will be some differences, the most notable being that cookies made with butter do not spread as much as they bake.

My biggest variance from the basic Toll House recipe is that I use exactly one half of the butter called for. This takes the focus off of the butter and puts it onto the sugar, resulting in a crisper cookie.

The only real adjustment you must make to the basic Toll House recipe when preparing with bowl and spoon is that that butter or butter substitute must be warm and soft, otherwise you’ll never be able to mix all the ingredients into a cohesive dough.

For the cookies in the picture above, I used milk chocolate chips and slivered almonds. Milk chocolate chips make a big difference: they are so mellow that they blend with the strong caramel flavors of the cookie dough. Feel free to use the expected semi sweet chips, but invest the extra dollar or so in really good chocolate. I used Ghirardelli chips. Whole Foods also sells Guittard, another premium brand. You’ll taste a difference.

Semper chocolatum!


Click here for the recipe for Crispy Chocolate Chip Cookies.


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Bowl And Spoon

Blueberry Crunch Cake

Blueberry Crunch Cake

It often occurs to me that if I weren’t in the kitchen cooking or baking I would likely be fixing (okay, breaking) something mechanical. I’ve always been like that. Always fiddling with something, pushing its buttons, seeing how it works. I’m a “Popular Science” man in a “Bon Appétit” world. Truth is though, having watched chefs at close range I realize that the best of them are just gearheads in white coats. While they have huge respect for craft and technique, they also love trying out a new toy. Crème brulee blow torch anyone? (Don’t forget your safety goggles.)

It is only natural to become a bit reliant on these toys. When was the last time you didn’t plug in a toaster to make toast? Not the same thing, you say. Really?

I’m not being judgmental but merely pointing out that it is human nature to constantly seek out the right tool for any job. The Williams-Sonoma catalogue plays right to that strain of DNA. Sure, you could hammer that nail with the heel of your shoe, but why would you when there’s a great invention called a hammer? Granted, hammering with your shoe has its advantages, not the least of which is storage. When you’re done hammering you simply put the tool away by putting it back on your foot.

Hey. I think we’ve got a great idea for a new “as seen on TV” item here. The Shammer? The Shoemmer? We’ll work on it. Surely we can do better than “Pajama Jeans.”

I am the first to admit that I may have an over reliance on my Kitchen Aid stand mixer. If I could drive it like a car I probably would. I make no apologies for this; it is built like a Sherman tank and I have no doubt that even New York City cabbies would veer out of my way if they saw me driving around the city in it.

This, of course, begs the question: if my Kitchen Aid were somehow incapacitated could I still bake something decent? An even better question is: in a city full of folks just starting out, who have varying amounts of limited time, kitchen space, and equipment, can some decent scratch baking get done?

If you don’t live in Manhattan you may not realize some of the great oddities of everyday life here (I’m talking about the stuff that doesn’t get aired on Eyewitness News.) We live without things that people elsewhere take for granted. I know plenty of folks here who don’t have a real kitchen. Instead they have a couple of burners, and a below the counter fridge. They may have supplemented this with a toaster oven and perhaps a microwave. Almost none of us have a washer and dryer in our apartment, even in the fanciest of buildings. (This is the reason I hate doing laundry.)

Carrie Bradshaw may have been as hooked on her couture as I am on my All-Clad, but you never saw her lugging her dirty La Perlas and a jug of Tide down to the Laundromat. A glaring omission.

Cooking-wise, this reminds me of one of my great “pet –peeves.” My admiration for Ina Garten or Martha Stewart aside, the thing you never, ever see on TV cooking shows is the clean up. You think when the director yells, “Cut!” at the end of a taping that Martha rolls up her sleeves and starts washing the dishes? Uh-uh. That’s what the interns are for.

(Now THAT’S an idea for a TV show: “Battle of the Network Dishwashers.” Sorry folks. I’m keeping that one for myself.)

(That’s not to say that Martha can’t wash dishes. Something tells me that she can do it better, faster, and more efficiently than you and me put together. No I’m not scared of her. Much.)

I may be overly reliant on my Kitchen Aid, but I wasn’t born with it in my hands. Give me a big bowl and a wooden spoon. I’ll still get the job done. My mission? A small vocabulary of recipes that can be made in any kitchen with only the most basic ingredients and equipment. The payoff? Wholesome baking, from scratch, that you would be proud to share with friends, office-mates, family, or someone special (cue saxophone.)

Please don’t be turned off by the word “wholesome.” I don’t mean Donny Osmond (yeah, yeah, I know, “What’s wrong with Donny Osmond?” Nothing.) I mean good food, with healthy, recognizable ingredients. Wholesome. The other payoff is that limiting the equipment makes clean up easier and faster. I can’t guarantee that I’ll never use a mixer in this set of recipes, but if I do, you can use the hand-held kind. (A cheap, easily stored investment.)

For me, the downside of limiting ingredients is that there may be times when you lose a bit of complexity in the flavors. If that’s the case, I’ll mention a few options that you can add if you are feeling ambitious. There are a few expectations: you must have a big bowl, measuring spoons, measuring cups, and baking pans that fit your oven. That’s the price of admission. Oh, and that bowl? I prefer glass, but stainless steel is fine too, and get one bigger than you ever think you’ll use. You can also serve salad from it, or store other bowls in it. Mine is (I think) 6 to 8 quarts.  (Here’s a good example.) Why the fuss over the size of the bowl? Because to me there is nothing more aggravating than trying to stir something in a bowl and having it overflow. A big bowl means you can stir with abandon.

Every few weeks or so I’ll add to this list of recipes. This week’s recipe has an added bonus: it is actually three recipes, all from the same ingredients, with slight variations in the preparation.

With local blueberries so abundant during this time of year, I decided to start with a Basic Blueberry Crunch Cake. If you choose, you can use the same recipe to make muffins, but I prefer the cake, and you should feel free to serve it straight from the pan. The crunch topping is a very basic streusel, but with less butter, so the topping is looser. The cake is yummy, but I would have preferred the spiciness of some cinnamon, and maybe the springiness of a scraping or two of lemon zest. Twice the prescribed amount of vanilla extract wouldn’t be a bad change either. If you’re feeling ambitious, add about a teaspoon of cinnamon to the crunch topping, and a teaspoon of lemon zest to the cake batter when you’re mixing the sugar into the egg.

Besides the cake and muffins, you can use the same recipe to make blueberry pancakes.

By the way: I’ve already cheated. I used a rubber scraper to transfer the batter from the bowl to the cake pan. I could have used my hand, I guess, but c’mon.

Next mission: to see if I can get my Kitchen Aid to do my laundry.


Click here for the recipe for Blueberry Crunch Cake.


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When Life Hands You Strawberries…

Strawberry Ricotta Tart

Strawberry Ricotta Tart

I am a big fan of the “Barefoot Contessa”, Ina Garten, from the Food Network. This is a strange and disturbing obsession. No, I don’t want to be her. It would be nice to meet her…I guess…although I am wary of meeting anyone I’ve seen on TV. The “real-life” version invariably disappoints. But I would like to visit Ina in her “barn”, show her to the door, say good bye (“Love ya baby, now get out…”), and keep the “barn” for myself. (“Barn”? Old McDonald should have such a “barn”.)

I do admire her, and can’t help but think that my cooking has been greatly influenced by her. But I am puzzled by something. For years I have been watching her clucking about breaking eggs into a separate dish before adding them to a batter because “…you never know when you’re going to get a bad egg.”

I’ve been baking and cooking with eggs for many years and have never gotten a bad egg. Two yolks? Yes. Cracked shells? Yes. (May I add that my cracked shells are usually the fault of the big oaf who carries the eggs home from the market?)

So, bad eggs? No. Bad strawberries? Ohhhh, yes. A few days ago I bought a pint of strawberries. You know this kind, they come in a clear plastic container. A brand name that I have come to trust because the strawberries sold under that name are usually very sweet and juicy.

Not this time.

Well, at least they weren’t mealy, they just had no flavor. Perhaps they were past their prime and my neighborhood grocer let them “stay too long at the fair”? They seemed fairly fresh, so the “when in doubt throw it out” rule also did not apply here. I could have dumped a bunch of sugar on them, but in truth, all I would have ended up with would be a bowl of wet, red sugar.

They actually might have been okay in some muffins or pancakes, but I just wasn’t in the mood for those. I wanted dessert—but nothing heavy. Hmmm. Inspiration needed here…

A week or two ago I had a long conversation with a chum about Boston’s North End. Growing up nearby, the “Nawth End”, like New York’s Little Italy, was a Mecca for genuine Italian food. I use the word “genuine” gingerly; a better description would be that we assumed the food in the North End was one step closer to what we would eat if we were actually in Italy. Through our leafy suburban lens, the North End somehow looked like a foreign land to us—Little Italyland—an image reinforced by a popular TV commercial for Prince Spaghetti. If you are –ahem—a certain age and grew up in the Northeast you know that Wednesday is Prince Spaghetti day. (But I digress.)

(I gained some understanding of how a neighborhood can assume neo-theme park status on a stinking-hot summer day a couple of years ago. As I walked through Times Square eating an ice cream cone I was accosted by a tourist who twanged, “Ooo! Where all is the ice cream?” Alas, I’ve digressed again.)

(My favorite Times Square story recalls a tourist asking me, “Where all is Times Square?” I was standing at 42nd St. and Broadway at the time. I thought I was being “punked.” Okay. Last digression, I swear.)

Our usual habit in the North End was to eat dinner in one place, and then troop down the street to another place that specialized in desserts. Cannoli? You bet. But there was also Ricotta Pie.

This was long before the ‘90’s obsession with Mascarpone cheese and Tiramisu, so if it was dessert and contained cheese, it was Ricotta. Funny how some things become clichés and others become perennials. The mystique and novelty of Tiramisu long ago wore away, leaving behind an often badly executed “heart attack in a plastic cup.” Cliché. Old hat. Sooo five minutes ago.

Cannoli? A perennial. As classic as a well maintained old Rolex. Never out of style.

I’ve actually never seen Ricotta Pie since our family forays into the North End. New York is such a Cheesecake-centric city that its little Italian cousin has been overshadowed. New York Cheesecake is a joyous celebration of dairy excess; I enjoy a bite or two, but beyond that have never succumbed to its wiles. Too much sameness. I find I’m always digging through to the (usually) sodden graham cracker crust just to break up the monotony.

Ricotta Pie was a simpler treat, and not designed to overwhelm. A few bites with an espresso, and you were good. The starchiness of Ricotta cheese is a quality that isn’t appreciated enough in desserts. That’s where I found my inspiration for a dessert with my boring strawberries.

A simple Ricotta custard with a graham cracker crust studded with the berries. A few bites with an espresso.

Still, the graham cracker crust seemed like an unfinished thought. It needed a little something more, so I added a bit of almond flour. While this addition makes the crust a bit richer, the almond flavor somehow makes the graham crackers taste more “graham-y” and infuses the ricotta with hint of extra flavor too.

You can see from the photo above that I used the same square crème brulee dishes I used a couple of weeks ago to make my little cobblers. But don’t feel hemmed in by this because you can just as easily make this recipe in a pie plate or springform pan.

What’s the Italian translation for “Tonight is Ricotta Pie night”?


Click here for my recipe for Strawberry Ricotta Tart


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Aluminum. Mine.

Passsover Honey Cake Slices

Passover Honey Cake

Growing up in a Jewish home I was always made acutely aware of how important good food was—is—at any occasion. Even the post-funeral gatherings we call “sitting shiva” are excuses to pull out the good napkins. That’s why I am always mystified by my people’s willingness to put up with bad food on Passover. The excuse is always that you cannot cook with “chametz”, the umbrella word describing ingredients that are not allowed on Passover. This usually refers to anything bread or flour related, and any kind of leavening, but the actual rule bans things made from wheat, barley, oats, rye, or spelt. The only wheat product allowed is matzo and what I lovingly refer to as its derivatives: matzo that has been ground, crumbled, or otherwise processed so that it can be used in other recipes.

There is such a thing as Passover Baking Soda, which confuses me because I thought the purpose of the Passover holiday was to commemorate bread not being allowed to rise. Passover Baking Soda’s loophole? No cornstarch.

From a baker’s point of view it’s kind of like being told that you must substitute breadcrumbs for flour.

Generations of commercial kosher bakers have been putting their kids through Harvard and Yale just by selling Passover desserts to even the most unobservant Jews (hello) who have always been willing to pay for Passover-compliant cakes and cookies. Here’s the problem: a lot of it just isn’t very good, especially the supermarket brands. A lot of it is also…shall we say, “premium-priced.”

Apologies to the folks who produce the supermarket Passover stuff (and to their well-educated progeny), but a cake that has been sitting in a box for an unknown amount of time has a few strikes against it.

Is it heresy for me to complain? All I want is a good piece of cake, for goodness sake.

Luckily, I’m handy in the kitchen and have figured out a few tricks that result in desserts that aren’t just good for Passover, they’re good anytime of the year. Last year I made a Northern Italian-style Torta di Mandorla per la Pasqua, a chocolate, almond, egg white torte. I actually served it before Passover to a group of non-Jewish friends who loved it, and remains one of my favorite recipes. (It is very light so perfect for summer.)

This year I decided to re-visit the Grandmother of all Jewish Holiday desserts: Honey Cake. When I was a kid with (I’m guessing) a much less discerning palate, my presence at any event could be secured with the promise of honey cake. The typical honey cake comes in a loaf, usually encased in (don’t get me started) a disposable aluminum pan. To my adult palette though, honey cake always tastes a bit syrupy, and manages to be both too dry and too sodden. Not sure how that’s possible.

Blame science. In baking, the type of flour, its grind, the kind of wheat used, and how the milled flour has been treated are some of the things that rule how a cake gelatinizes (mixes with liquid then bakes into a solid). Passover Cake meal is basically powdered Matzo and has its own rule book, but it is easy to predict that this ingredient will lend density to a cake. The usual trick has always been to lighten the cake meal in a way that imitates traditional cake flour. This is usually accomplished by adding potato starch. The results vary according to the other ingredients in the cake. In the case of honey you end up with a wet, damp cake because honey is hygroscopic: it actually pulls moisture in even when baked.

Okay, I promise: no more science. But the takeaway here is: use too much honey and you’ll have a damp, heavy cake. Too little, your cake is dry. Just the right amount and you’ll have a cake that works at staying fresh. The question is: what can you add that will give the cake a true “crumb”, texture that makes a cake feel like a cake when you take a bite?

For the answer you can thank the current popularity of macarons, the colorful French-style almond macaroons. I have been trying to learn to make them (they’re tricky) and have a bag of almond flour sitting in my refrigerator. Almond flour is just the man for the job: it will mix well with the Passover Cake Meal to make a nice crumb and is Passover-friendly on its own.

Using almond flour in cake is certainly nothing new. Europeans have been baking with it for generations. So taking a cue from a French Galette, the simple round torte, I called my Springform pan into service.

The beauty of my concept was that with the honey and almond flour I already had two very flavorful ingredients. A couple of more layers of flavor would be ideal, so I used a delicate sprinkle of orange zest, and a not so delicate dash of frozen concentrated orange juice whose character would slightly overlap the honey while adding a sunny note of its own. A little cocoa powder and vanilla extract would bring some perfumed but earthy notes to the cake.

The result has the slight chewy crumb of a galette and a delicate honeyed sweetness that some may find reminiscent of the desserts the Spanish Sephardic Jews favor.

No disposable aluminum loaf pans required…or allowed.


Click here for the recipe for Passover Honey Cake.

Click here for the recipe for Torta di Mandorla per la Pasqua.


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