Archive for the ‘Food on screen’ Category

Downton Seder

Flourless Chocolate Napoleons

Flourless Chocolate Napoleons

It should come as no surprise that I am an unapologetic Downton Abbey addict. I was a huge soap opera addict too. If any of the words you’re about to read appear smudged it is because I am still teary-eyed over the loss of One Life to Live. The latter has only been gone since January 13, yet I continue to stare longingly at the list of scheduled recordings on my DVR praying for a miraculous return from the dead (hey, this is after all soap opera we’re discussing. Anything can happen…)

Downton Abbey was a wonderful diversion from my loss, although it was a bit like being given one of those tiny four-piece boxes of Godiva chocolates when you are used to having an enormous Hershey’s with Almonds: it’s delicious, but gone in a blink. Are you sneering derisively at my choice of programming? That, chum, was part of the fun of being a soap fan, so there. If you have any illusions about Downton Abbey, let me help you out: it is a SOAP OPERA. All caps. Period. That’s why you loved it and can’t wait for it to return.

Part of its distinction is the amazing attention to detail that goes into its production. Predictably, my eye is drawn toward the many dinner table and kitchen scenes—seemingly more than most shows. The kitchen and the cooks, Mrs. Patmore and young Daisy, figure prominently in every episode. The folks upstairs eat a lot, and they eat well.

I have always been fascinated by the women who ran the kitchens in those houses. They were from a class of society where they had to “go into service.” Mrs. Patmore is portrayed stereotypically as a bit of a drudge: short, stout, and frowsy. (In fact, Lesley Nichol, the actress who portrays Mrs. Patmore, recently joked in an interview that when she reported to friends that she’d been cast in a sort of upstairs / downstairs series she replied to the question “Which one are you?” with the answer, “What do you think?”)

Yet, think about the skill, judgment, and knowledge required to do the job. I’m not talking about long hours here; walk into any contemporary restaurant kitchen and you’ll see folks putting in some mighty long days. I’m talking about the juggling needed. The Mrs. Patmores of the world fed the folks upstairs and downstairs, and did so while keeping within the budget set by the folks upstairs. You can be sure that she planned every menu around what was available seasonally and had to be able to credibly prepare meals that more than pleased the master and his wife—even if the meal was hunted by the master on the estate (would you know what to do with mutton?)

You can also be sure that special occasions had to be met with a worldly, well-informed eye keeping up with what the more fashionable houses were serving; not just any cake would do for dessert. If Lord and Lady So-And-So served it you did too.

(Okay, yes, perhaps I get too involved with these stories. But good story-telling does that to me.)

So I was thinking it might be fun to bake something in tribute to Downton Abbey and Mrs. Patmore (geek!). I’ve also been on a jag about baking stuff that is Passover friendly and gluten-free. Hopefully there’ll be chocolate involved. (No calories or fat would be even better; alas I’m not a magician.)

Flourless Chocolate cake is certainly nothing new in either the gluten-free or Passover realms. It’s a good idea, but it’s been around the block enough times that it could already use a new outlook.

Surely a woman like Mrs. Patmore was no stranger to the roulade and the genoise. These are cakes that rely on air beaten into the eggs for their leavening rather than baking soda or baking powder and are more what we associate with European-style cakes or tortes than the big fluffy monsters (and I use that as a term of endearment) we bake.

Yes, there is usually flour involved, but eggs are sturdy little creations and if you ask them nicely and treat them with respect they’ll do triple duty for you by adding moisture, structure, and lift to cakes, giving flour the day off. Roulade is baked in a small sheet pan—a jelly roll pan—convenient because roulade is filled with jelly and rolled…usually.

But I have other plans for it.

Rolling a roulade can be fussy. My roulade (chocolate by the way) is simply turned out of the pan and cut into shapes with a knife. You could also pull out your trusty biscuit cutter and make little individual layered tortes…drizzle a touch of lukewarm ganache on top.

I stuck with something I thought Mrs. Patmore would be proud of, Napoleons. I piped a bit of sweetened vanilla whipped cream between two layers of the roulade, and finished with fresh raspberries and dusted the whole affair with confectioner’s sugar.

Gluten- free Passover at Downton Abbey anyone?


Here’s the Flourless Chocolate Roulade recipe


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Yes, Virginia…

Latke Cookies

Santa isn't expecting these...

I recently received an email from a precocious youngster named Virginia questioning the existence of Santa Claus. Kids these days! Skeptics in a skeptical age. I replied by telling her to watch the coverage of the Kardashian wedding again. Watch that and, trust me, you’ll believe in Santa Claus. And flying reindeer. And elves.

Funny. I’ve never questioned the existence of Santa Claus. Sometimes you just have to roll with it. No, I’ve never actually met the guy. But I’ve never met George Clooney either, and no one questions his existence. Anyway I think the world is a better place with Santa Claus in it.

Therefore, every year Christmas week presents me with one crucial decision: what kind of cookie to leave for Santa Claus. Yes, I always leave him cookies and milk. I also leave carrots for the reindeer, although I doubt they’d turn their noses (so bright) up at the cookies. No, JOSN (Jolly Old Saint Nick) doesn’t indulge, but I suspect that has more to do with the fact that he’s in a hurry than with my cookies. It is strictly unofficial, but leaving goodies for Santa wins you points when it comes time to decide whether you belong on the naughty or nice list—whether or not he eats them.

This is an extension of something I learned from the folks on Wall Street: hedge your bets. (Santa has always been very generous with them. He must have quite a bit of cash tied up in derivatives.)

Over the years I have left different kinds of cookies for the old guy, usually reflecting whatever I had baked for the season’s parties, although there have been times when I baked a batch of Chocolate Chip cookies especially for Santa so that he would smell that they’d just come out of the oven.

This year with Hanukkah and Christmas overlapping I thought it might be fun to help Santa celebrate the festival of lights. I suppose I could leave him a plate of latkes; surely he doesn’t find those waiting at the base of most chimneys. But I don’t know if he’ll like cold latkes and somehow it just didn’t feel right to leave him anything other than cookies. Why not a latke that is actually a cookie?

This kind of trompe l’oeil / kitsch baking isn’t my usual calling. Yes, it is just this side of Sandra Lee, but as we are in the hap-happiest season of all, it really adds up to a bit of harmless fun.

I got the idea last week when I went to a daytime holiday potluck. People brought things ranging from Devil Dogs to Toll House Cookie bars. (Trust me, my eyes went right to those Devil Dogs.) But sitting amongst all the sweets was a platter of latkes. They were hot, and I was hungry, so I could smell every ingredient, the potato, the onion, the egg, the matzo meal, even the oil in which they’d been fried. (I must have been really hungry.) Still, it was a “one of these things is not like the other” moment, and the thought flashed through my mind, “The latkes should be cookies.”

Back in my kitchen I pondered how I could “make it so.” It seemed as though the best way to do this would be to decide on the flavor. Obviously onion is out of the question. But many folks enjoy their latkes with applesauce, or sour cream. Some like them sprinkled with sugar. The latter felt right. ‘Tis the season for a sugar cookie, and for that extra “zetz” cinnamon and sugar seemed even better.

The technique of making the cookies look like latkes was actually the easy part. The best latkes are made by shredding the onions and potato on the side of a box grater. Why not shred the cookie dough the same way? Then, just arrange the shreds on a cookie sheet. I couldn’t use just any dough, though, because certain cookie doughs would spread too much, losing the shredded look as they bake. My standby “I Heart Shortbread” recipe was enlisted.

The trick is to be extra gentle with the shredded dough when arranging it on the cookie sheets. Also, as great as the cinnamon and sugar is when baked on the cookies, I may experiment by dusting a mixture of cinnamon and confectioners’ sugar on the cookies just as they come out of the oven. I think the result would have a sort of a crunchy / dough-nutty flavor.

I really think this may be the year Santa actually eats the cookies I leave for him. But if not, more for me!

Merry Christmas and Happy Hanukkah!


Click here for the recipe for Latke Cookies.

For your holiday baking you may also like my Christmas Fruitcake (for fruitcake haters), my Gluten-free Chocolate Crinkles, and Gingerdoodles, all perfect for your holiday table.


Here’s the link to the Butter Flour Eggs Holiday Cookie Baking Primer 101. It also includes a recipe for Chocolate Pepper Cookies and some technique and equipment suggestions. Don’t start your holiday baking without it!


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I saw three tweets on Christmas Day…

Bing gets me going



I was thinking the other day about folks who live down south. They are accustomed to a holiday season without snow. True, there have been plenty of holiday seasons up north where we had no snow, but we still had the fun of seeing our breath on a chilly winter morning, or hugging a friend just in from the cold and feeling their icy cheek against ours.

Sounds poetic, but deep down all I’m really thinking about is my personal comfort (natch!). I perspire when the temperature goes above fifty degrees; my Mother refers to me as a Polar Bear. Yes, I’m certainly as pale as a Polar Bear, and, yes, I’m the guy who opens his windows in the middle of winter—you simply have to here in New York because our apartments are all heated by steam heat. (Bob Fosse fans should now snap their fingers a couple times, and tilt their bowlers over their eyes.)

One year while “trapped” in hot, sunny Arizona, Irving Berlin coped with a palm tree encrusted holiday season by penning “White Christmas”—the best selling single of all time. While I don’t have orange and palm trees swaying outside my window (as Berlin mentions in the usually unsung verse to the song) it is sixty-five degrees as I write this, and I am willing myself to feel the holiday spirit. (The dozens of Cyber Monday offers in my Inbox don’t seem to be doing the trick.)

My sure fire remedy? Queue up Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” album, and start baking Christmas cookies. There now, that wasn’t so hard, was it? (I also placed a snowflake wallpaper on the screen of my phone. It helps.)

Anyway, allow me to introduce my first cookie of the season, the Gingerdoodle. As you can tell from the name, it is built on the chassis of the famous Snickerdoodle. Snickerdoodles are fine, but I always think they are Sugar Cookies with yearnings for greater things. With the Gingerdoodle, their ambitions have been fulfilled. (You think I’m crazy for ascribing ambition to a cookie?) All I have done is take a basic Snickerdoodle and add a bit of spice, heat, and texture. It is still a soft, somewhat cakey cookie, but, as Ina Garten would say, “…with the volume turned up.”

I’ve never understood the Christmas-time passion for sugar cookies or the big cheap tins of “Danish Butter Cookies” –many of which have never been within miles of Copenhagen. Even when decorated, sugar cookies tend to be a bit transparent in flavor, meaning you can roll them around on your tongue as much as you’d like but you’ll never taste anything more than flour, butter, and sugar. The “Danish” cookies usually hint at a bit of cardamom, which is not a bad idea, but it’s usually executed in a sleepy way.

I demand more, darn it. Give me complexity. Give me a bit of surprise. Make me want to come back for more. Throw in some chocolate if you can, and I’ll be abuzz with the holiday spirit. The Gingerdoodle is a chocolate-free zone so we’ll have to look elsewhere for our choco-fix. That’s what the holiday color foils on Hershey’s Kisses are for…this week.

The basic Snickerdoodle is only mildly spiced with a wisp of cinnamon. The overall effect is like cinnamon toast—this, of course, is not a bad thing at all. But here’s my question: this time of year, why do you bake cookies? Usually you give them to friends or coworkers, or share them in cookie swaps. Don’t you want yours to stand out a bit? Tut, tut, baking holiday cookies is not the time to follow the pack. So let’s bake a cookie that will stand above the crowd, shall we?

First let’s take a look at the spice in the Snickerdoodle. A mere two teaspoons of cinnamon is added to spice up a very large batch of cookie dough. It’s not even added to the dough, it is sprinkled on the outside before baking. I’ve added an additional two teaspoons to the dough, plus the heat of two teaspoons (or more if you like) of ground ginger, the fragrance of ground cloves, and the kick of a generous half cup of chopped crystallized ginger. The latter also adds little dots of sugary chew to the finished cookie.

As I mentioned, these are a soft, cakey cookie, but I like a little crunch, so the cookies are made with and sprinkled with demerara sugar, the large grain, honey-brown sugar. (Layers: it’s like a nice cashmere sweater over a really good white shirt.)

As they bake they will fill your home with spiced holiday scents that would turn a Williams-Sonoma holiday candle green with envy.

Luckily, green is a holiday color…


Here’s the recipe for the Gingerdoodle.


Here’s the link to the Butter Flour Eggs Holiday Cookie Baking Primer 101. It also includes a recipe for Chocolate Pepper Cookies and some technique and equipment suggestions. Don’t start your holiday baking without it!


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Have yourself a merry little Tweet

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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Gogito ergo tweetum. (#FF @butterflourblog)

“Do I smell Baked Pears Alicia?” (The Sequel)

It is not often that pears are shrouded in mystery. This past weekend the question, “Did you get the pears?” caused a stir that landed on the many Monday morning message boards that dissect the latest episode of “Mad Men.” (Many viewers could not hear the answer, which was, “We’ll talk about it inside.” But that’s a whooooole other blog.)

One of the first things I wrote about on this blog was my fascination with food used as a prop in movies, TV, and on stage. I have always thought that it was a personal obsession. Most people get lost in the story; I get lost in the food. I can’t slice garlic without thinking of Clemenza’s spaghetti-cooking scene in “The Godfather.”

The Google search that has brought more people to this blog than any other was for a little item named “Baked Pears Alicia,” a dessert served in “The Dinner Party”, a particularly funny episode of the classic sitcom, Mary Tyler Moore. Turns out plenty of people would like to know what “Baked Pears Alicia” was. But the pears have been shrouded in mystery. I had always assumed that the writers just thumbed through the same cook book to find the whole menu. Ah well, wrong again.

Last year when I wrote about the pears I didn’t delve too much into the mystery. The blog wasn’t about the pears, it was about food on screen. But as the year has gone by I have searched high and low and checked cookbooks old and new and come up empty.

A real reporter would have dug deeper, perhaps tried to contact the writers, or at least checked the Library of Congress. Alas, I have done none of the above. You see, I had an ulterior motive: I was hoping all along that there was no such thing as “Baked Pears Alicia”, that the writers made it up because it sounded funny. Why would I hope this? Because I wanted to make my own recipe.

I got my wish.

I have never worked as a food stylist.  The new film, “Eat Pray Love” was styled by Susan Spungen who, as I mentioned last year, also styled the film “Julie and Julia”. She is very skilled and experienced — in fact she’s a Martha Stewart veteran. I don’t know if I have what it takes to do that job; so much of it is just visual. I think I’d get hung up on getting into the character’s “head” (as it were.)

Surely the prop pears we fleetingly see Mary passing around the room were just plain ol’ baked pears. But my head goes right to the question, “What would Sue Ann Nivens do with a pear?” (And by all means go for the double entendre here: she would.)

So, not unlike the way an actor finds a fictional character, I found “Baked Pears Alicia.” I started from the outside and worked in. I knew four things that would inform my final result: 1) How they looked, 2) That they smelled good, 3) Sue Ann Nivens, host of “The Happy Homemaker” on WJM-TV made them, 4) They were pears. (I also knew that the main course in that episode, “Veal Prince Orloff” was straight out of “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.”)

Appearance: they looked simple and unadorned, save for some liquid I thought I could spy in the bottom of the dish. This told me that they gave off a lot of liquid, and that whatever culinary magic Sue Ann wove must have been in the cooking medium.

Smell: I think Sue Ann would have used more than just cinnamon, so I added something that was indulgent, fragrant, and would suit the period: a whole vanilla bean, seeds and pod, plus a good dash of fresh ginger, and a whisper of cardamom. I think these would have been in Sue Ann’s somewhat classical, mid-century culinary vocabulary.

The main and most important ingredient – after the pears, of course – is a really delicious dessert wine. Cost-wise you could really go crazy here, but I stuck with a slightly sane Argentinean Torrontes whose mellow sweetness could easily be mistaken for a Moscado. (For the record, yes, it was redolent of pears. Said so right on the label.)

Keeping in mind that the game here was baked, not poached, pears, I used the spiced liquid (which truly wasn’t far from mulled wine) as a marinade before baking the pears, letting them absorb the flavors of the spices and the wine.

After baking the pears I sprinkled them lightly with a bit of Demerara sugar for sparkle, and some crushed Amaretti cookies for crunch. While the spiced wine boiled and the pears baked, the vanilla and cinnamon perfumed my kitchen. If there is ever a Butter Flour Eggs Scented Candle, (never say never) this is how it will smell. Not icky sweet, just mouth watering.

You’ll notice that the only sugar I added was the small amount sprinkled on the pears after they baked; the wine is so sweet that any further sugar would be overkill, producing a dessert that is way too syrupy. As I write this, we have barely passed mid-August; pear season doesn’t hit for at least another month, so save this dessert for cooler autumn nights. In fact, the warmth and richness of the spices, and the visual of the sparkling pears makes this a really great Christmas dessert. (Is it too early to start talking Christmas?)

How’d I do? I like to think Sue Ann would’ve lovingly stroked my bald head and given me a saucy wink.

And if I’ve whet your appetite for Mary’s dinner party, you can watch the entire Mary Tyler Moore episode on Amazon for $1.99.


Click here for the recipe for my version of “Baked Pears Alicia.”


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No Hair

Chocolate Raspberry Babka

Chocolate Raspberry Babka

This past Friday I asked a trusted friend and advisor what I should make and write about in my blog this week.

“Babka,” came the answer, “Chocolate Babka. CHOCOLATE RASPBERRY BABKA,” the tone of voice making it clear that this was resolutely not a suggestion, but an assignment to be fulfilled in return for a favor recently delivered.

Now, aside from the fact that I have never actually baked a babka, I found this a really good – uh, suggestion. It’s been a while since I baked something that relied totally on my taste memories of years gone by. For most people I assume taste memory has nothing to do with it; for them, Chocolate Babka invokes the well-known “Seinfeld” episode where Jerry and Elaine get to the bakery too late and have to settle for a Cinnamon Babka – clearly (to their thinking) a lesser babka. To make matters worse, their babka has a hair in it. (This is also the episode where Jerry explains the profundity of the Black and White Cookie.)

In the past I have written about my obsession with food as it is portrayed on screen, but as you never actually see a babka in the “Seinfeld” episode, there is nothing for me to emulate. Anyway, I am not setting out to make a lesser babka, and certainly not a hairy one.

Here’s a game: in three words or less, describe babka for the uninitiated. I’m going to say “coffee cake on steroids.” I know: that was four words. A more complete description is a dense, sweet, filled, yeast cake. The traditional Jewish New York babka is made by filling and twisting or braiding the yeast dough. I see them all around the city in the shape of a loaf, but the babka of my youth was tall and round, notable for its hard, toasty, crunchy crust, its gooey filling, and its ample hat of crackling streusel. The tall, round cakes I remember must owe their shape to the traditional Russian – Polish version. The name Babka may come from “Baba” which translates as “Grandmother.” The theory is that the twisted, braided dough creates a design on the outside of the cake that looks like the pleats of a Grandma’s skirt. A version of this was made in the run up to Easter, so my timing is apt.

History lesson completed, I stepped out of the “Way-Back Machine” on a mission to build a better babka. In this case, I’m defining “better” as faster and maybe easier, because the traditional babka recipe I found is a bit of a lengthy project. As it turns out, no matter how you slice it (pardon the pun) making a babka is project baking, something best done when time is not an issue. The good news is that I have organized it into some easy steps. It still takes a little while, but none of the tasks are particularly difficult.

A babka recipe is really three recipes: the first, for the yeast dough, has the requisite rising time. The second and third recipes, for the filling and the streusel topping, are quick and simple, but contain a lot of moving parts.

This begs the question, “Why bother?” I have a couple of answers based specifically on my experiences baking babka this past weekend. The first answer is: because last Saturday night we New Yorkers experienced a howling, window-shaking rainstorm. In short, the perfect night for project baking, as I’m a terrible Scrabble player, so I stay stashed safely in the kitchen. The second answer is: I defy you to top the taste of babka straight from the oven, still marginally too hot to eat. My third answer (extra-credit) is: the aroma of baking babka will make you wish for more house-bound weather. Chocolate plus raspberry plus yeast. You do the math.

I’m not much of a coffee drinker, but I’ll pause in the coffee aisle of the supermarket just to smell the beans. Baking is the same experience; sometimes the aromas coming from the oven are worth the price of admission.

It would be fun to tell you that I got the recipe from my sainted great-grandmother, a legendary baker. But the truth is that the yeast dough recipe came from the back of a box of pearl sugar that has been sitting on my shelf longer than I can remember. It’s one of those recipes that gets a frequent look with the thought, “Someday…” The streusel is from my Butter Flour Eggs Crumb Cake recipe. The filling? I winged it. Oddly enough, I think the filling came out the best of the three.

I also added a small touch. Literally. Instead of baking one big babka, I baked two baby babkas. One for the previously mentioned friend and advisor, and one for me. A happy arrangement.

While I prefer the babka fresh from the oven, there is something gratifying about carefully toasted slices of day (or two) old babka with a dab of butter or cream cheese. (Don’t heat slices of babka in a toaster. The filling will drizzle out and make a mess. Use your oven and a cookie sheet.) The bonus here is that even reheated babka fills the kitchen with the same great baking smells.

Hair is optional.


Click here for my recipe for Chocolate Raspberry Babka.


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O! Yule Love This!

In glorious Technicolor, and Stereophonic Sound

In glorious Technicolor, and Stereophonic Sound

Every time I watch a holiday movie, an angel gets its wings. I can’t help it. During the holiday season my fascination with food as it is portrayed on screen dovetails with an obsession I’ve long had with holiday-themed movies. Yes, I know everyone loves “It’s A Wonderful Life”—me too. But there are other movies I watch that are perennial favorites which also tickle my foodie-bone.

“Holiday Inn” is a veritable buffet. Most folks would be content with Fred Astaire dancing and Bing Crosby singing “White Christmas” beside a glowing hearth in an empty inn. Not me. I look for the scenes where Bing is in the kitchen plating New Year’s dinner to music, and later, lovesick over losing the girl (you know the formula: boy gets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back), he refuses to eat “Mr. Jones”, the Thanksgiving turkey, claiming he knew “Jonesey” too well. The Thanksgiving dinner he refuses always makes my mouth water – startling when you consider that the movie is in black and white.

Crosby is perhaps better known for singing “White Christmas” in a later movie named for the song itself. As much as I enjoy that movie, and in spite of the fact that it is also set at an inn, it doesn’t have the same culinary appeal as “Holiday Inn.” The most we get to see is a glass of Coke and the remains of a sandwich. But that’s okay, the movie has other charms.

This year though, my attention has been drawn to a lesser-known holiday movie, “Christmas in Connecticut.” I have been writing this blog for several months and writing about the charms and limitations of cooking in my small New York apartment is, I think, part of what makes the engine run. “Christmas in Connecticut” shares a similar theme, albeit with the conceit that in addition to working from a tiny New York City apartment, the protagonist, Elizabeth Lane, “America’s Best Cook” (played by Barbara Stanwyck), actually can’t cook. (I can!) But here’s a taste of what I mean, and why, this year, I am so tickled by this film:

The camera pans from a close up of a woman’s hands typing on a portable typewriter to a grimy window from which we can see the backs of several New York City buildings. In the foreground, waving in the wind, laundry is drying on the clothesline of a neighboring apartment.

Elizabeth: “From my living room window as I write, I can look out across the broad front lawns of our farm like a lovely picture postcard of wintery New England.”

The camera tilts down to a radiator, which is hissing loudly as steam escapes from a valve.

Elizabeth: “In my fireplace the good cedar logs are burning and crackling.”

The camera pans back to the desk to reveal Elizabeth Lane as she takes a bite of her breakfast: a plate of sardines.

Elizabeth: “I’m just about to go into my gleaming kitchen to test the crumbly brown goodness of the Toasted Veal Cutlets á la Connecticut in my oven. Cook these slowly…”

I’ll spare you the plot synopsis—rent the DVD from Netflix—but suffice it to say that Stanwyck finds herself in a bind and ends up having to go to great lengths to live up to the farm housewife image she has created. It’s a charming film, perhaps a bit old fashioned, but if you’re looking for lessons about life to reflect on during the holiday season, this is not the movie to screen. Stick to “It’s A Wonderful Life” for sermonizing; this flick is purely a romantic comedy.

But it’s that small patch of real estate that Elizabeth Lane and I share that makes me reflect on some of the hoops through which I must leap in my own cracker box-sized urban kitchen. The flip side is, of course, that I think I could teach a thing or two about project planning, including risks, milestones, and scope creep. Cooking or baking is the supreme exercise in organization. Start with a concept, make a list, end with a birthday cake; it’s not magic, it’s organization. (That thumping noise you hear is yours truly patting himself on the back.)

I always joke that if, someday, I am blessed to have a huge, fully tricked out kitchen, due to my experience in my itty-bitty kitchen, I will still use only a few square inches of space, and continue to balance all the bowls on the edge of the sink (uh, the huge, deep, white porcelain farmhouse-style sink.)

Ha ha ha.

The truth – hopefully—will likely find me luxuriously spread out around a marble-topped island while in the background, the oven of my six burner restaurant-grade stove is preheating. “Where did I leave those eggs? Uh-oh, they’re all the way over there.”And ‘round and ‘round that island I will trot, lap after lap, burning off the calories of the goodies I am preparing.

Ah, one can dream. Are you listening, Santa?

Many years ago I waited tables in a distinguished Manhattan restaurant run by an equally distinguished chef. The dirty little secret was that the kitchen was smaller (and hotter!) than most home kitchens, including some New York apartments. Yet, they turned out four-star cuisine (still do.)

I always consider eating to be one of life’s great pleasures. There’s a reason food tastes good. There’s a reason why food in every culture is an expression of love. Consider the word “feed.” We feed our stomachs. We feed our souls. Sometimes if we’re lucky we accomplish both in the same exercise. Food maintains us, helps us thrive and grow—sometimes to excess, yes, but you get the point.

So, it isn’t the size of the kitchen, is it? It’s the size of the heart.

(I’ll just keep repeating that over and over the next time I feel hemmed in by my kitchen.)

Okay, my holiday sermon is done. I’m hungry! Let’s eat!

You’re wondering: what is that big, fat, chocolaty concoction in the picture above? That’s the Buche de Noël I made for a friend’s Christmas party. Also known as a Yule Log Cake, it is not exactly subtle or delicate. Calling it sweet would be an understatement. While transporting it to the party I kept referring to it (in my mind) as “The Beast”—understandable, as it was large enough to serve at least fifteen people. What makes me laugh is that folks at the party were a bit intimidated by it. Someone had to drag me out of the kitchen (where all good parties end up) with the exhortation that, “Everyone wants to eat the Yule Log, but they’re afraid to touch it unless you make the first cut.”

Really? That wouldn’t have stopped me: I would have asked, “Hey, where’s the knife?”

Of course I also made cookies for the party, but I wanted some kind of special focal point on the dessert table, something epic. If I were in the movie business this would be my big holiday release. Consider it my “White Christmas in Connecticut at Holiday Inn.” It stars two flavors of buttercream (chocolate and coffee), with cocoa biscuit á roulade (jellyroll cake) in a supporting role. A chorus of beautiful meringue mushrooms rounds out the cast.

I hope you are duly entertained.

Happy Holidays to you and the ones you love! Don’t forget to leave cookies for Santa and the reindeer.


A few days ago I had the great pleasure of spending time with a wonderful woman named Helen Stafford of the Ronald McDonald House of New York. Helen gave me a tour of this amazing facility which provides a temporary “home-away-from-home” for pediatric cancer patients and their families. The Ronald McDonald House is supported entirely by private donations. Please read about this amazing place, and keep them in mind when considering your year-end charity donation.


Want to make your own Buche de Noël? Write to me at the email address below if you want the recipes and process for the Buche de Noël—or any other thoughts you may have. Thanks!

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They all laughed when I sat down to play the Choux.

My cookbook collection. Perhaps a bit single minded?

My cookbook collection. Perhaps a bit single minded?

I learned to cook from a book. When I was fourteen or fifteen I picked up my mother’s copy of The New York Times Cookbook by Craig Claiborne and just started cooking. I think the first thing I made was Choux pastry so that I could make éclairs.

Yes, I know: fifteen years old and making éclairs. Hey, it kept me off the streets, alright?

Chefs may sneer at my learning from a book, but I never had any pretense about being a chef; that’s not my thing. I’m more from the school of cook well so you can eat well.

After my years as a child prodigy, my interest in cooking would then lay dormant. One day, like Rumplestiltskin waking up from his extended snooze, I found myself, wooden spoon in hand, stirring something in a pan. Poof: I was cooking again.

This has had some strange repercussions, the most notable being that unlike many New Yorkers, I rarely eat out. I think that has as much to do with my enjoyment of cooking as the fact that I was a waiter for many years and couldn’t bear to set foot in a restaurant for a long time. No busman’s holidays for me.

My naissance as a cook aside, I noticed recently on Mad Men that Don Draper was eating a dinner of cold chicken salad, Ritz crackers and a can of Bud which the director made a point of showing Don’s wife open with a church key.

(A church key is the little metal tool we used to open cans and bottles before the advent of the pop top and screw top.)

(OK, I will now pause while you insert the joke of your choice about how old I am.)

(No, I do NOT remember the strip mall they tore down to build Stonehenge.)

(The latter was for those of you who could not think of an “old”  joke.)

ANYWAY, watching Mad Men has made me think about the food of the sixties. I mentioned some weeks ago in this blog that I am always fascinated and distracted by food used as a prop in plays, movies, and TV shows. Don Draper’s chicken salad dinner is no exception, but it also made me wonder about the various fashions that come and go in food.

One of the current fashions is cupcakes. Cupcakes are everywhere, and frankly, without mentioning any names, some of them just aren’t that great. The point is though, that at some point cupcakes will get tired, and people will be waiting a half hour in line for something else. Lest you think I’m wrong, think back on the Chipwich and the Dovebar. Yes, you can still get them, but like Madonna’s punk wardrobe in Desperately Seeking Susan, you just kind of laugh and think, “Wow, I forgot all about those.”

My New York Times Cookbook was published in 1961, coincidentally the same year in which the first season of Mad Men is set. I always use this book like a dictionary, usually on a very specific mission, consulting the index first. But I have never read it like a novel, starting from the beginning. Reading the book that way gives you an almost Edith Wharton-esque view of mid-twentieth century food fashions.

You need only go a few pages in to find a world awash in aspic. The best way to describe aspic is that it is basically an amber-colored savory Jello used as a garnish. This lost world is landscaped in chopped aspic, aspic cut into neat geometric patterns, and aspic used as a coating on food, kind of like the shellac on a culinary decoupage. An appetizer of Galantine of Turkey wears its aspic coating like the tuxedo on the Maitre D’s who used to man the doors of fancy hotel restaurants.

The Galantine is the first recipe in the book, and like the opening number of a floor show at the old Copacabana, it is big and ornate. Bring on the dancing girls! Picture a fifteen pound turkey completely boned, flattened, and stuffed with fat back, veal, tongue, duck, raisins, and nuts. It is then rolled in cheese cloth, simmered in broth, chilled, and coated with aspic like a big fat bug trapped in amber. Wheee!

I don’t know how folks in 1961 reacted, but my 2009 mouth is agape.  I honestly can’t decide whether I should be revolted, or struck dumb with admiration. Everyone has an old aunt with a living room like this.  On the rare occasion that Auntie sweeps the plastic dust covers off the furniture and lamps, you’re blinded by the flash and brocade and realize you’re standing ankle deep in a plush-carpeted time capsule.

Admittedly, in 2009 we are perhaps a bit too aware of making sure we can see our feet in the carpet at all times, so I got to thinking, “Don’t be so damn judgmental.” After all, Thanksgiving is just eight weeks away. How many people across America are already thinking, “Yum! Time to order the Turducken!” And isn’t Turducken (and Turporken) just the hillbilly cousin of the Galantine?

Plus ca la change, plus ca la…plush carpeting.

But if you walk back into Auntie’s kitchen, pull up a chair around old Auntie’s dinette, and have your first adult conversation with her, you’ll find her well read, well travelled, with some good stories to tell, and still a great cook. Old Auntie didn’t have a food processor or Kitchen Aid stand mixer. A recipe direction to use a mortar and pestle to grind some spices is not unlike being admonished that we young folks have it so easy.

Yes, there is plenty of “goo-gaw” in the book, but if you wade carefully past the eight different kinds of pate, the monosodium glutamate called for in more than one recipe, and a tempting lesson on how to make your own Danish pastry, “…fit for a Royal Dane,” you end up with an aesthetic that is at once wise, worldly, and reliable.  That, along with Claiborne’s sprinkling of pithy advice, such as reminding the reader to, “…add garlic according to conscience and social engagements” remind me why this book remains a relevant touchstone in my kitchen—especially when I am trying to expand my repertoire.

Now before I go any further, I need to mention another appetizer recipe just a few pages further in. For this recipe, Claiborne wrote a short annotation:

“This appetizer has become almost as popular as pizza pie in metropolitan America but it is still worth repeating.”

Hint: You need to be a certain age to remember this appetizer. I only vaguely remember eating it as a kid—maybe it was at someone’s wedding, I’m not sure.

I speak of Rumaki.

How’s that for a name out of the past? Pizza, thankfully, is still with us. As much as I’d like to say, “Hey, let’s revive this old treasure and make it the new cupcake!” I’ll now print the list of ingredients to illustrate why Rumaki, like the hoop skirt, is not likely to have a comeback, er, return:

  • 6 chicken livers
  • 18 canned water chestnuts
  • 9 bacon slices cut in half
  • 9 scallions, sliced thin lengthwise
  • ½ cup soy sauce
  • ¼ tsp ground ginger
  • ½ tsp curry powder

Intrepid souls or folks into giving Mad Men-theme parties can click here for the full recipe. For the rest, suffice it to say that you make toothpick kabobs of the liver and chestnuts, and wrap them with the bacon and scallions, marinade in the soy sauce and spices, broil and serve.

We could, however, update this recipe by replacing the chicken livers with, say, thinly sliced chicken or beef tenderloin, couldn’t we?

Ah, now I’ve got your attention! All of the sudden my mouth is watering. See what I mean about this book? I’ll start experimenting…

Just by coincidence, my other “go-to” book is How to Cook Everything by Mark Bittman. Bittman is Claiborne’s direct descendant at the New York Times.

Finally, there is an irony here that is not lost on me. I am writing a blog, singing the praises of a cookbook anthology of fifty-year old recipes from one of the great metropolitan newspapers. In 1961, nobody could have known the price technology—like blogging—would extract on our newspapers. But I’m hoping that by changing their recipe a bit, as they seem to be planning to do, the great metropolitan newspapers will stick around. Like pizza pie.

“Do I smell Baked Pears Alicia?”

“Baked Pears Alicia”

Do I have a food fetish? I am fascinated by food as it is portrayed on screen or on stage. The subject has been on my mind due to all of the publicity for the movie, “Julie and Julia.” I was glad to see that Susan Spungen, the Martha Stewart veteran who styled the food for the movie, was the focus of some of the attention.  After all, in a movie about food, the food itself is one of the characters.

When I see people eating on TV or in the movies my mind goes right to: “Who really cooked the food?” “Is is hot or has it been sitting around for a while?” and on and on.

I’m a little vague on the origins of my fascination though. At least twenty years ago I read that the “roast beef” that the actors ate onstage nightly in a Broadway play was actually pumpernickel bread. Twenty-plus years I have carried this around with me.  Why?

A shrink would ask me, “What does this make you think of?” Ah. Easy: Veal Prince Orloff, guest star of an episode of the “Mary Tyler Moore Show” where Sue Ann Nivens, a/k/a “The Happy Homemaker” catered a dinner party for poor, party-challenged Mary.

I use the term “guest star” loosely, because Veal Prince Orloff was, of course, not a person but an entrée. Wikipedia reports that Veal Prince Orloff is a braised loin of veal, thinly sliced, filled with a thin layer of pureed mushrooms and onions between each slice, and stacked back. It is then topped with béchamel sauce and cheese and browned in the oven. (This is based on the recipe in “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” by Julia Child, Louisette Bertholle and Simone Beck.)

(Yes, there was a real Prince Orloff, a Russian ambassador to France during the 19th century.)

(Yes, I just googled Veal Prince Orloff to write this posting, and yes, it has its own Wikipedia entry.)

Which brings me to a startling revelation: the Veal Prince Orloff portrayed in the Mary Tyler Moore Show was not Veal Prince Orloff at all. A recent screening of the episode (ah, the sacrifices one makes to become a blogger) revealed that the item masquerading as Veal Prince Orloff was actually Beef Wellington. I can only speculate why this happened. Perhaps the prop-man thought Beef Wellington would “read” better on the small screen. Hey, that’s show biz, right? I should not be surprised that they cast the role based on looks.

Sue Ann’s dessert that night was “Baked Pears Alicia.” My research on “Baked Pears Alicia” was a bit more difficult as its screen time was much less than the Veal Prince Orloff. You get only the most fleeting glimpse of the pears as Mary passes them on a tray.

Now, I love crisps, cobblers, and pies, especially with a dab of ice cream melting on top, but let’s face it: sometimes fruit desserts can be such a let-down.


Click here for the recipe for my version of “Baked Pears Alicia.”


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