Archive for the ‘party food’ Category

The Christmas Dream

Pan d'oro

Pan d’oro

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No, this isn’t cookies…”

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

“Actually it’s a Christmas bread.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wake me up in time for Christmas. Please.

Boston Pops

Boston Pops

Boston Pops

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Follow me on Twitter @butterflourblog

And look at my pretty pictures on Pinterest!

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Habit-forming

"Icebox" cake

“Icebox” cake

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hey look: we put the cake in Icebox Cake.

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Click here for the Icebox Cake recipe

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

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

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Whole Foods and me: a love story (gone wrong)

Spiral Bread

Spiral Bread

The people who run Whole Foods will, no doubt, be absolutely devastated to learn that I intend to never shop at their stores again. Shhhh. That noise you hear is them scurrying to hide under their desks so that they can curl into the fetal position and have a good cry at this news.

It’s not for the reason you think.

Many folks like to nickname the chain “Whole Paychecks” due to the (I think) inaccurate perception that their prices are higher. I’ve actually had great success over the years finding bargains on what I perceive to be excellent products. So what’s the problem?

Their stores are zoos. I just can’t stand it anymore. I’m not an architect. I’m not an anthropologist (well, not a professional one), and I have never worked in a grocery store, even as a bag boy (like the cool kids in my high school who all worked at the Triple A Market.) There are certainly other markets in New York that are equally crowded (that’s been the rap on Fairway for years.)

But there is something in the magic mix that is the Whole Foods shopping experience that is so anarchic, so impolite, so lacking in civility, so…unpleasant that I must conclude that life is too short to spend another moment struggling to navigate their aisles. I applaud their success. I applaud their aesthetic. I applaud their fish counter. But they are complete and utter failures at managing the traffic within their stores. Is it due to the carts that are the size of a humvee? Is it due to aisles that are perhaps too narrow? Is it due to their propensity towards placing islands of New Jersey blueberries smack dab in the middle of the most crowded part of the store? I just don’t know.

I’m the first to admit that I am a geek: I love to trawl the aisles of a supermarket. No matter what city I’m in the supermarket is one of my stops—even in Europe. It is an activity that brings me great pleasure. That’s why I resent Whole Foods so much: the experience of shopping in their stores (at least in New York City) sucks the pleasure out of the experience, making it a chore. There’s no time to discover new things: I’m too busy being in someone’s way. As I was checking out last weekend, the cashier, trying to be helpful, recommended that the best hours to shop at Whole Foods were early in the morning. I didn’t mention to her that I like to do my grocery shopping on my own terms, not when it is more convenient for Whole Foods.

I never did find what I had gone in there to buy. I wanted to make the incredible Spiral Bread you see in the photo above. This is based on a recipe from my beloved old Craig Claiborne-penned New York Times Cookbook. It is really just a hearty old-fashioned Farmhouse White loaf with a stuffing (You roll the dough into a flat rectangle, spread your filling of choice on top, roll jelly-roll style then place in the loaf pan and bake.) The cookbook gives recipes for two different kinds of fillings, one parsley and scallion, another anchovy-based (umami anyone?), both of which are yummy, but delicate.

With Super Bowl coming up, I wanted to make something with a bit more substance, ideally with some meat added to the parsley-scallion filling. On a previous trip to Whole Foods I had seen some very tempting American Speck, the herbal-infused ham. I thought that either the speck or some kind of Parma-style ham would give the bread the savory oomph I was seeking. (Hey, don’t laugh. I am trying to bring up the level of Super Bowl food. Sorry: not a Buffalo wing fan.)

Sadly the Speck was nowhere to be found at Whole Foods last weekend, so I switched to plan B: sausage. My thought was to cook some very nice sausage filling, drain it thoroughly, and use that as the filling.

I ended up experimenting with chicken sausage. Chicken sausage does not have the loose-knit consistency of pork sausage, but what it lacks in crumble it compensates with flavor and lower fat. Oh, and since it is pre-cooked I could skip that step.

You can see in the picture that I ended up dicing the chicken sausage. Looks odd, yes, tastes great, yes.

To give the bread a little heft I cooked some oats with the milk that goes into the recipe. You’d never know they are there because they dissolve as the dough kneads in the stand mixer.

Knead the dough by hand? Are you kidding? What is this 1962?

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

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

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Saccharomyces and me: a love story

Buckwheat Grissini

Buckwheat Grissini

There are times when cooking seems like a chore: when you’re tired, impatient, or just have other things on your mind. There are times when cooking seems like, well, cooking, a loving exercise in the care and feeding of yourself or your family. Then there are the times (and I think these are my favorite times) when cooking feels like an arts and crafts project. Baking, frosting, and decorating a birthday cake is really just a big arts and crafts project. Cookies and even the humble Rice Krispies Treats fall under that category too.

The exacting and repetitive nature of a lot of baking can turn people off. They don’t want to feel restricted by a recipe. They don’t want to feel restricted by decorating the same cookie in the same way dozens of times.

I don’t really consider myself a touchy-feely-tactile person. I don’t like slimy things, in fact, I won’t even wear my metal wrist-watch during the hot weather because it gets sticky from my perspiration. (The latter always makes me think of Grace Kelly’s heiress character in “To Catch a Thief” explaining why she doesn’t wear jewelry: “I don’t like cold things against my skin.” This was a Hitchcock movie, so the line is imbued with multiple meanings.)

Yet, give me some bread dough, and I’ll squish it and stretch it and slap it and roll it around like a little kid making mud pies. Any baker feels connected to the living, breathing organisms that bloat and puff a pile of flour and water. Every Sunday night as I make my pizza I often think that master potters have nothing on me; they’re working with a lump of clay. I’m working with millions of little yeasties, all seemingly holding their breaths at the same time so that when I bite into the crust it will be crunchy and chewy, tender enough to yield to my delicate middle-aged teeth, yet, up to the job of holding all that sauce and cheese. When the bell rings and I open the oven door for bread—or any yeasty treat—I always feel the tingle of a little miracle. Every time the timer rings a yeast cell gets it wings. They gave their lives for my slice of pie.

This past weekend I found myself in need of a little treat and a little soothing arts and crafts. I was craving savory, so I settled on Grissini. For a while back in the ‘90s any restaurant worth its salt greeted you with a stalk of home-baked grissini—usually with a mashup  of complex flavors. So while this project may seem as dated as a plate of blackened catfish, I contend that for the home baker in need of occupational therapy, baking grissini can be a soothing task.

My baking-geek passion of late has been experimenting with alternative grains. What I find interesting is that variation of flavors and texture these can lend to my yeasty treats. If 2012 was the year of spelt (which has now found a place in my weekly pizza), then 2013 has started off as the year of buckwheat.

I need to backpedal a bit here. Buckwheat is not actually a grain, it is the seed of an herbal plant. But that’s splitting hairs: do you care that the tomato is actually a fruit? No? Then you won’t care if buckwheat isn’t wheat.

I have a bag of buckwheat flour sitting in my fridge, the remnants of a blini and smoked salmon New Year’s Eve adventure. I’ve been eating buckwheat my entire life, perhaps because of my Russian-Jewish background. A bowl of Kasha Varnishkes (buckwheat with bow tie noodles) was never far away if there was a roasted chicken for dinner. My Pop enjoyed Aunt Jemima Buckwheat pancakes as a weekend treat (I don’t think Aunt Jemima makes the stuff anymore), and as an adult I have come to prize Buckwheat for its healthy dose of vegetable protein without the frou-frou of fat. Oh yeah: it tastes good too, kind of like a lighter, more moist version of cooked bulgur wheat.

So, while pulling the bag of type “00” flour I needed to bake the grissini, I spied the bag of buckwheat flour and thought, “Hmph, why not?”

A quarter cup of the flour replaced an equal amount of the white flour, but went a very long way towards darkening the dough. I was cautious as buckwheat lacks the gluten that the yeasties need to puff the dough.

The arts and crafts portion of the program involved the actual rolling of the little ropes. Too much flour on the board and you don’t get enough traction to roll them into ropes, too little and they stick and squish to the board. A little flour dusted on my hands then patted on each portion of dough was just the touch needed. The actual shape is very forgiving, as lumpy and bumpy are the order of the day as long as you make them somewhat uniform in length.

I went old school with flavorings relying on poppy seeds, sesame seeds, garlic powder, and sea salt. Happily, they bake with relative speed—about 15 minutes, but sadly, if you’re not careful they’ll disappear even faster.

They can be a bit addictive.

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Click here for the Buckwheat Grissini recipe

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

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

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Discovering Chris (likes cake)

Apple Skillet Cake

Apple Skillet Cake

It was nice to get out of my apartment after being holed up waiting for Hurricane Sandy to have her way with us. I had a standing invitation to visit an elderly friend who just re-did his apartment and was having a few friends in so he could show it off.

Like so many New Yorkers Chris has lived in the same place for many years, and his views and location are—shall we say—extraordinary. The downside is that it is a sixth-floor walk up. It’s a climb. But Chris, having long ago retired (he was in the shipping business) never leaves his perch.

My goodness. For an elderly gent he’s the life of the party. He spent the entire time standing on his new coffee table.

Naturally I couldn’t show up empty handed. The question was: what shall I bring to a housewarming…or to be more accurate, a “redecoration-warming”?

It’s Fall. Every fall, this young(!) man’s fancy turns to apples.

That’s not entirely accurate. I should say my fancy turns to apple cake. A nice piece of apple cake just hits the spot for me on a chilly fall day. Hey, you can’t just eat chocolate all the time. (What the heck am I saying? Of course you can…)

I’ll admit that there are only so many ways to make apple cake. My ideal would be a cake that is not too sweet, not too heavy, that would have apples just tinted with a sting of cinnamon, and cooked through. Too many apple cakes end up with dull, undercooked apples. Don’t let this happen to you!

My standby trick for the latter problem is to cook—sauté—the apples first. Some people may object to this, after all, it is an extra step, and yet another pan to be washed, dried and put away. But I’m afraid I must insist.

Photobombing Chris

We couldn’t get him off the coffee table…

I kept thinking of all the big puffy apple pancakes I have made or been served over the years. You may have seen these referred to as “Dutch Babies” or “Dutch Apple Pancakes”. Kin to popovers, they owe their appeal to the high amount of eggs in the recipe that make the pancake puff so dramatically in the oven. The eggs, in turn, give the pancake a richness and heartiness that can be very satisfying.

Nice…but it’s not cake. And I want cake.

I do love my All-Clad skillets, and what better place to cook apples than there? While I’m at it, why not bake the cake in an nice shiny skillet and bring the whole thing as a gift to ol’ Chris?

I started off with three large apples cored, and thickly sliced. (I used a couple of Braeburns and a Cortland. I don’t think the variety matters all that much in this recipe.)

In the large skillet I slowly melted butter and sugar until I had a rough approximation of a light caramel sauce. Then I added the sliced apples and let the whole thing bubble until a lot of the liquid cooked away.

After removing from the heat, I made a very simple bowl and spoon cake batter (no mixer!). I poured it over the apples and spread it in an even layer. It seemed like there may not be enough batter to cover everything, but since the recipe calls for a healthy dose of baking powder, I knew that the heat of the oven would give it enough of a “whoosh” to cover everything.

I have to admit that I was experimenting: taking a little bit from this recipe and a little bit from that—not always a smart thing to do when baking. When you’re cooking on top of the stove you can taste as you go and adjust the seasonings as needed. Baking is a little like pottery: sometimes you really just don’t know what you’ll get until the timer beeps and you open the oven door.

In this case you get what seems like an unassuming cake in a pan…straight from the oven it almost looks like baked polenta. But then you turn it over and serve it apple-side-up, dusted with some confectioner’s sugar, and you have a gentle, homey snack, dessert, or even breakfast that would not have been out of place in a colonial tavern.

I could tell that Chris was thrilled, although he wouldn’t let on, being the stone-faced hombre he is. His apartment is beautiful, but as I wandered around I questioned whether he’d actually ever use the shiny, new skillet that the cake came in.

He doesn’t have much of a kitchen.

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Click here for the recipe for Apple Skillet Cake

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

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

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Donate to the American Red Cross to support Hurricane Sandy relief. Please.

Meister

Honey Oat Pretzel

Honey Oat Pretzel

I never developed a taste for beer. This is kind of a shame, as I find the art of beer making fascinating. Why wouldn’t I? Beer making—the art of the brew meister—is really close to baking. They create recipes the same way I do. (That Autumn Pumpkin Pilsner didn’t just “happen” you know.) We both use yeast too, and I do love my yeast.

No, this blog isn’t about making beer at home. That brings to mind The Three Stooges, but there‘s only one of me (although clearly my barber and Curly’s went to the same school.) Supposedly my grandfather made his own root beer, something not uncommon in his day, so someday maybe I’ll give that a shot.  For now I will stick with what I know which is…uh, oh yeah: baking.

I was flipping through one of the many food magazines out there (I forget which) and saw an article about making pretzels. My immediate thought was that this would be a fun thing to do.

Then I read the article.

They were writing was about making “real” pretzels, and required boiling them in water spiked with food-grade lye (“…available in some Asian markets.”) Now, I don’t mind a complicated recipe (ok, within limits) and I don’t mind hiking down to an Asian market—not a tough chore here in New York—but I wanted and expected something more along the lines of, “Hmmm, I think I’ll make pretzels / abracadabra they’re done / break open some brewskies.”

Food-grade lye? Seriously?

I should explain my love of the pretzel. My dad was hooked on the big, unsalted ones that came in a box. They were hard as rocks, and for my Pop, I think the charm was in their granite crunch. I seem to recall that he also liked to chew ice cubes. Yes, his Dentist had battle fatigue. I think of my dad when I eat pretzels, and this is likely why I reach for pretzels when I have agita.

Then, there was The Great Pretzel Obsession of 1995. I remember it like it was yesterday: a couple of friends and I were hooked on honey oat pretzels, although I’m vague on the brand: Bachman’s, Rold Gold, or were they Snyders? They had just a hint of sweetness, and just a touch of salt. It was hard to not mindlessly eat a whole bag in one sitting. Hard, but not impossible. Ahem.

I thought it might be fun to reference that slightly sweet, slightly salty character in something I could make at home. No, my home kitchen cannot produce the crunch of a big commercial oven, but what I can do is better: something chewy and warm from the oven.

Soft, baked pretzels are a traditional big city item. Many years before food trucks my Mom bought me a soft, baked pretzel from a street cart on my first visit to New York. I actually remember that it was burnt and not very good. But its pull-apart chewiness had enough charm to last several blocks before the burnt parts and my undeveloped childhood attention span caused me to lose interest. (Thus, I was introduced to my first New York City trash can.)

A basic Fleischmann’s Yeast recipe for pretzels was my starting point; a bit of doctoring introduced a good shot of honey, and, because oats tend to dissolve into bread dough, I used oat bran for a bit of grainy texture.

I passed on anything even resembling a boiling step, and went straight to baking my little coiled delights. A little brush of egg wash helped them brown beautifully and helped the restrained dusting of sea salt stay put.

I’m not much of a drinker—this would perhaps disqualify me as a brew meister—but warm from the oven with a stein of Boylan’s Diet Root Beer these pretzels make a quiet night in front of the TV into a real party.

But, hey, that still makes me a beer and pretzels guy.

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Here’s the recipe for Honey Oat Pretzels

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Eenie. Meenie. Meinie.

Blondies? Hermits?

Blondies? Hermits?

I can’t decide if I think indecision is a good thing or a bad thing. Ah, the irony.

Recently I went to dinner with my Mom. She ordered skirt steak, but then sat with a cloud over her head wondering if she should change her order to lamb chops. I berated her (gently) with a huffy, “Once I make a decision I move on…always listen to your first instinct.” (Don’t worry: she still has plenty of ammo in her belt to cut me back down to size.)

What I forgot were my own—frequent—moments of indecision that usually occur before I do something. So for those keeping score: Mom, hand wringing after. Me: hand wringing before. Tie ball game, folks.

My brand of indecisiveness reared its ugly head a few days ago when it began to feel like fall and I decided I wanted to revisit my old recipe for Hermits. Hermits are the old-fashioned bar cookie that usually have a heavy jolt of molasses, spice, and raisins. These were a neighborhood bakery standby when I was a kid, but it occurred to me that they were, perhaps, a bit too intense for the uninitiated: some people hate raisins baked into anything, others can’t abide molasses, yet another group would pass on both. Hermits have another potential problem: no chocolate. Oh-oh.

What I couldn’t decide was whether to stick with tradition, or trod my own path and risk them not being Hermits but Blondies.

Nothing against Blondies.

Okay, something against Blondies: I always felt that their whole raison d’etre was to be the anti-Brownie, assiduously avoiding chocolate in order to present an overly sweet, bleached face to the world. The trouble with that is that they never assert any identity of their own.

I feel it is important to pause here for a moment and reflect on the fact that I just applied some kind of psychology to a bar cookie. Psychologists out there are having a field day. How did that make you feel? Our time is up for today. Feel free to take the Kleenex with you.

Uh-huh, so, back to the cookies.

My Hermit recipe had already made some allowances for modern taste. I lessened the amount of molasses and substituted tiny Zante currants for the raisins, a choice which preserved the “raisiny” flavor minus the goo of baked raisins. Would the earth open and swallow me whole if I went even further? What would be so bad about a mashup of all the best things from Hermits, Blondies, and Brownies? I know I’d be happy.

The special guest star—not usually seen on this stage—is chocolate. But I am not abandoning the molasses bite either, just reducing it to a “note” along with the vanilla. I was reluctant to retain the spice—in the form of cinnamon, but a friend’s excellent Chocolate-Cinnamon icing inspired the courage to leave it in.

Nuts seemed like a prerequisite, but I am weary of walnuts, therefore pecans were nominated, both chopped into the batter and used whole as decoration on top. The chocolate was chopped by hand too; chocolate chips seem too uniform for a cookie that has such a rough—dare I say—artisanal quality. (Call me “home on the range”…or should that be at the range?)

You can see from the picture above that I ended up with bars that slightly resemble Blondies or smaller, fatter Hermits. They’re not as sweet as Blondies, or even Toll House bar cookies. They’re less aggressive than Hermits. Blondies for Chocolate Lovers? Hermits for the 21st Century? I can’t decide what to call them. How about EenieMeanieMeinieMoes?

Last decision: do I eat them all myself or give some away? Hmmm…

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Here’s the recipe for EenieMeanieMeinieMoes

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Irene

Noodle Kugel

“Her Mother’s” kugel

Irene was a woman of few vices. Unfortunately they were also her main skills.

She puffed unfiltered “Herbert Tareyton” cigarettes like an ocean liner smokestack. She played high stakes canasta, a game that kept her both hot footing it from country club to country club, and—she claimed—paid for her yearly cruise to the Bahamas on the “Oceanic”, where—she claimed—she made enough at Bingo to “…buy a few odds and ends.” (That was code for jewelry.)

Irene was many things to many people, but one thing to five gentlemen in particular—a wife. (Serially, not concurrently.)

I was too young to remember more than the last unfortunate gentleman, but rumor had it that husband number one had been a major player in the Mayer Lansky organization. In legal terms, he “pre-deceased” her. Somewhere along the line—and again I am vague on particulars—one of them performed the proverbial “going-out-for-a-pack-of-cigarettes-and-never-coming-back” exit trick. Five husbands? One can only admire her persistence.

She wafted through our lives like a smoky, Jean Natè-scented, strawberry-blonde powder puff of tobacco smoke. My Mother had “inherited” her from my Grandmother with whom Irene had been best buds in high school, a math equation that I could never quite reconcile in my head.

You have to admire people like Irene. She lived and breathed the philosophy that when you wake up Tuesday morning, Monday never happened. Don’t look back. I seem to remember her saying that, punctuating the declaration with a single, staccato, phlegmy cough.

If your memories of your life are like disjointed scraps pasted into a book, then here’s another one: one day after school I was sitting in the den watching “The Three Stooges” and furtively eating a piece of chocolate rugalach I had swiped from the “girls” dessert tray. The “girls”? My Mother was hosting a friendly, informal card game in the living room. Over the cackling I heard Irene’s voice yell, “Always play the ace, Lois!” From the girlish joy in her voice it may as well have been a gospel hymn, and this bit of advice has stuck with me all these years. I had no idea what it meant, or how to apply it, but I was positive that someday, somewhere, it would come in handy. “Always play the ace, Lois!”

Don’t look back…unless it’s cards.

Irene had no children of her own, so she doted on my Mother who served as Irene’s de facto “borrowed” daughter. However, I’m not positive she ever learned my name because I was always “Kiddo” as in “Kiddo, hand Auntie Irene her purse.” The latter was a task I didn’t particularly mind because I had an almost perverse fascination with its contents. Yet the purse itself seemed intent on keeping Irene’s secrets, as access was controlled by a substantial brass clasp that required more strength to open than my little hands could manage. I’d hand her the purse, she would withdraw whatever tobacco, lipstick, or tissue-related item was needed, and close it with a snap that sounded like the door locks on her Coupe de Ville. For all I knew, the purse could actually have been her Coupe de Ville, magically transformed into a purse when she came inside the house. I never thought to check the street outside to see if the two things co-existed. (You can tell that my other television vice at the time was “Dark Shadows.”)

On select Friday nights Irene would show up for dinner, Dorothy Muriel’s corn muffins, and a box of warm, salted cashews in hand. She would sit and eat our roasted chicken and suck the bones like she was willing them to melt. My Mother informed me that this was because Irene had grown up poor. On the rare occasions I’d been to her high-rise 60’s brocade boudoir there was no evidence that anything in the kitchen had actually been touched, save for a whistling tea kettle and a half empty jar of instant Maxwell House. Clearly her favorite spot for dinner was “out.”

Irene would inevitably tag along with us to temple on the Jewish High Holidays—a yearly ritual also known in our reform temple as Jewish Fashion Festival. On these occasions Irene would forgo the corn muffins and cashews in favor of what she referred to as “her Mother’s” Lokshen Kugel, the noodle pudding that launched a million Jewish Pyrex baking dishes.

The trick to serving Irene’s kugel was to not serve it at all. It was inedible. As implausible as it sounds, her kugel managed to be too wet yet somehow too dry, too bland, yet somehow cloyingly sweet. The only evidence of any custard was a stray curd of cottage cheese here or there. The crunchy noodle topping that many prize was a minefield of potential dental damage. My Mother served it the first year or two, then in subsequent years left it in the oven and as we finished the big holiday meal would “find” the forgotten kugel and exclaim, “Irene! We forgot your kugel! Should we serve it now? Is everyone still hungry? No? I know! We’ll wrap it and have it tomorrow—Irene, make sure I give you some to take home.”

She should have been on the stage, my Mother. But somewhere, deep down, I don’t think Irene was buying the act. I doubt she took it as a “ding” against her cooking skills, for she never claimed to have any. (Yes the other, more tragic, thought was that the kugel was exactly how her Mother had made it.) But it was Irene’s next step that, from my adult perspective, helped all questions about Irene jell into an answer.

The next year she showed up again with “her Mother’s” kugel. I found out while conducting my inspection of the kitchen (a/k/a stealing food before dinner). I saw my Mother stacking what looked like little muffins on a platter. My hungry glance asked and my Mother answered, “Irene brought little kugels.” Then, sotto voce, “I tried one. They’re good!”

Indeed they were. Irene insisted nothing had changed, that it was still “her Mother’s” kugel, just that she’d made little ones in a muffin tin “…and it made all the difference in the world.” But an outside hand had obviously been at play…she was palming cards from a deck hidden up one of the sleeves of her nubby silk suit.

For one thing, each little kugel was just the right mix of silky custard and noodle. There was just the slightest hint of sweetness. In addition to the crunchy noodles on top, there was what looked like a streusel topping, except made from broken matzo—again, just a hint of sweetness, and a toasty crunch that was no threat to your teeth. Clearly Irene was the turnaround queen, for “her Mother’s” kugel became the hotly anticipated side dish for several High Holiday seasons.

After Irene joined the great Canasta game in the sky, my Mother went to work cleaning out the brocade boudoir. Going through Irene’s desk in search of other paperwork she came across her appointment book and found an entry for early September that said simply, “Order kugel.” Hmmm.

The mystery seemed to have run to ground until the final days of cleaning out the boudoir when “Glady”, Irene’s cleaning woman, came in to do one final vacuum of the brocade. She and my Mother started reminiscing about Irene, when my Mother noted the lovely array of jewelry “Glady” wore.

“Glady” explained, “They’re all from Mrs. Irene. Every time I make the kugel she give me jewelry!”

“Always play the ace, Lois!”

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Here’s the recipe for “Her Mother’s” kugel

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The Great Compromise

Hand Pies

Red, white, and blueberry

Warning: What follows is a colossal stretch of logic. Don’t say we didn’t warn you. – The Editors

I love to throw around a big word every now and then. I mean the words no one uses except when jokingly throwing around big words or showing off at the Scrabble board. I’m partial to triskaidekaphobia—the word, and the condition. Yes, I had to use spell check to make sure I’d spelled it correctly, and yes, I was impressed that it was in the Microsoft Word spell check dictionary. Evidently Microsoft’s engineers share my phobic nature.

As you know, triskaidekaphobia refers to the fear of the number thirteen. Friday the thirteenth? Uh-oh.

But many years ago someone pointed out to me that we should celebrate the number thirteen. There were thirteen original colonies, and that whole story turned out okay. Didn’t it? (I’ll leave politics to the politicians. I’ll just keep my big bazoo shut and continue making up facts as I need them.)

Hey, I saw the movie 1776, so I know that creating the United States wasn’t easy. Reason number one: it was 90 degrees in Philadelphia that summer and they wore those powdered wigs without air conditioning. If that were me, you’d be moving me around with a squeegee. Reason number two: all those opinionated, headstrong men had to compromise to make any progress and get the Declaration of Independence completed and signed. Compromise is just so…old fashioned. After all, I think I know what’s best, don’t you agree?

Sidestepping that question for a moment, a few days ago one of my favorite things happened. I had a “What’s that ?” moment. These are moments where I am figuratively thrown off my feet by seeing something unexpected. This is kind of like when Tom Cruise got his first glimpse of the alien spaceship in War of the Worlds, except without the look of horror and the knowledge that Dakota Fanning will mop the floor with him in all their scenes together.

I was walking through Whole Foods and I saw Pearl River Chocolate Hand Pies on display. Definitely a “What’s that ?” moment.

I still haven’t figured out how they made the filling. It was a cross between a brownie and flourless chocolate cake. Not drippy, but not cakey, and with a steady, unyielding semi-sweet flavor. The crust was a little bit shortbread, and a little bit pie crust. Hand pies…I love the concept.

Yet I had concerns, deep, worrying, wrinkle-inducing concerns. (Yes, an exaggeration.)

If I were to substitute fruit fillings would the pies become too drippy or messy to, say, eat them as you walk down the street? Could I make a decent crust? These are basically empanadas, and I have been humbled by past, unsuccessful attempts at making empanada dough. Perhaps a compromise was in order?

After all, if the founding fathers could compromise and create a country, then I could do the same and give up a little of my “from scratch” baking snobbery and make hand pies from pre-made empanada dough. (Is it some kind of patriotic heresy to put hand pies and the drafting of the Declaration of Independence on the same level?)

(See, we warned you! – The Editors)

Pre-made, pre-cut empanada dough is certainly not a foreign object in my neighborhood New York City markets—Goya makes them in two sizes and colors. The question is, Are they any good?

The answer is: they’re just okay, but they have a couple of sparkling advantages over making your own.

Advantage number one: someone else has mixed the dough and cut them into circles for you.

Advantage number two: they are incredibly easy to use.  Because most of the discos were cracked or broken it seemed obvious that the bag I bought had been roughly handled. Yet, when thawed they were easily mended, filled and sealed. The little rolled, crimped edge? The Goya “discos” handled crimping like a champ.

But all of this convenience comes at the price of flavor and texture. I found the discos to be more like a substantial version of wonton wrappers. Not bad, mind you, but just lacking the faintly sweet flakiness of really good empanadas.

Still, the ease and convenience factor are hard to resist. My hand pies were filled with strawberries, but where I think these will shine is if you fill them with something slightly more assertive like spiced peaches, or even pumpkin. (Serve the latter warm with Maple Ice Cream on Thanksgiving.)

I know that Goya isn’t the only game in town when it comes to empanada dough, but here in the big city if you’re talking about neighborhood convenience Goya is a behemoth. Even in my heavily Dominican-influenced neighborhood Goya seems to have crowded out any other brands in my corner bodega.

A quick search on line doesn’t return a lot of competing products in this category. There is another company named La Cubanita, but I couldn’t find a way to order their product. There’s also a Goya empanada shell that is imported from Argentina, and another brand named La Salteña that I need to road test. (If you really know your empanada dough drop me a line with your advice.)

Happy Independence Day!

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