Archive for the ‘party food’ Category

Far Yeast

Hong Kong Sausage Buns

Hong Kong Sausage Buns

“Hmmm. No. Let’s keep walking.”

We continued walking along Mott Street. It may as well have been Mars for all I knew. I’d always found Chinatown a bit dizzying for a solo venture. I’m afraid of eels—or am I just grossed out by them? Either way, I pictured myself tripping and falling into one of the eel-filled vats in the sidewalk displays the fish mongers maintained. Love that fishy smell.

So, it was good to have an ally, a guide, who knew the lay of the land. My Asian friend would poke his head into various restaurants, look left, then right, and the search would continue.

I asked what he was looking for—the criteria he was using to judge where we’d stop—and he replied, “I’m looking for a place with no white people.” The stricken look on my pale face wordlessly begged the explanation that he was trying to avoid the touristy places in favor of the more genuine “neighborhood” spots where the locals eat. The irony was not lost on me: if I ate there his rule would be broken. But I was hungry and kept my mouth shut.

Finally we found just the right place. It was a little noisy, the more so because so many of the folks were seated around large round tables, creating a party atmosphere.

We had come downtown in search of Dim-Sum. Every Dim-Sum restaurant has a little bit of the Ziegfeld Follies in its spirit. I always picture leggy showgirls dressed as egg rolls and scallion pancakes descending a glowing staircase.  The truth is admittedly a bit balder: waiters and waitresses parade by with trays of small items like red bean buns, egg rolls, and chicken feet. As you select from the passing flotilla, your little plates pile up. Later the waiters use your pile of plates to calculate the bill.

By the way, I don’t consider myself a devotee of chicken feet…who does? But eating them is considered good luck, and I’m as superstitious as they come, so I ate chicken feet. No, I didn’t mind them (tastes like chicken!), and no, this blog is not about preparing chicken feet.

I immediately realized my affinity for this kind of eating. Small bits and variety: that’s for me. If you’ve never had Dim-Sum, it is a very amenable way of eating, and usually very social. It is sort of a low stakes game for trying something new, like chicken feet. If you don’t like them, you haven’t committed to an entire meal of them, and they will soon be replaced by something else. (The reverse also holds true: if you fall in love with something you can make a whole meal of it, provided they don’t run out.)

Dim-sum is often a breakfast meal, and as odd as that sounds on this side of the globe, it can actually be deeply satisfying at that hour. But later in the day you have the advantage of seeking dessert after—for if you are an old fogie like me you still cling to the “no dessert before lunch” rules. Sensible and old fashioned? I guess so.

When I mention Dim-Sum to people I often get a vague flash of recognition. When I mention Hong Kong-style bakeries to people I get blank looks. To my mind though, the two things go hand in hand. Admittedly that is due to habit: when I finish a meal of Dim-Sum there is generally a Hong Kong-style bakery a few steps away. But there’s a synergy of style too.

I would also make the argument that Hong Kong-style bakeries are an extension of the Dim-Sum brand. The concept is similar: good things in a small package. I cannot however make the claim that everything at a Hong Kong-style bakery is dessert, for much of it falls into the savory category.

There is a certain vanilla simplicity to the items you’ll find. This is to be embraced because it speaks to a certain predicable consistency. The bread has an almost super-charged fluffiness, and if the flavors don’t exactly jump out at you, they don’t overwhelm you with sweetness either. Balance? Yin and yang?

I’m a big fan of Cream Rolls which are simply buns filled with coconut buttercream and sprinkled with a touch of coconut. But I also find the Sausage Rolls appealing, and if that doesn’t fall under the usual provenance of dessert-time, they can still make the claim of being a prime late afternoon snack with a tumbler of bubble tea, the creamy tea drink that first found its way into the world via Hong Kong bakeries. (The bubbles are actually oversized tapioca pearls.)

The question in my baker’s mind has always been: how do they get the bread so reliably soft? A little internet research revealed the secret: tangzhong.

Sounds mysterious, like some kind of herbal or tuberous ingredient that you could only find in Asia, right? Wrong. It is very basic bread-making science.

Here’s the concept: when baking bread you want to develop the gluten which is the protein in flour. Sometimes having tough gluten is desirable (chewy bread), but sometimes it’s not (Hong Kong buns).The easiest way to soften the proteins is to cook the flour with a bit of liquid. A slightly slower way, popular amongst artisanal bakers is called “autolyse”, a fancy name for letting the dough sit for a while to let the flour absorb the liquid.

So what is tangzhong? Just a bit of flour cooked with water or milk until the mixture thickens (the work of just a few minutes), and then allowed to cool (the work of…okay, an hour maybe two.) Just as with sourdough starter you add a bit of this to your dough.

While Hong Kong sausage rolls are usually filled with hot dogs, I decided to up the ante slightly by filling mine with something a bit fahncy: a good quality chicken and turkey sweet Italian sausage. You can try a breakfast / brunch version filled with maple sausage or chicken and apple sausage, but I think the basic sweetness of the bun really seems to call out for something savory.

In spite of what I just said, you can use the same recipe to make the Cream Rolls mentioned above, either in the “horn of plenty” style picture above (you’ll need to bake the dough on cannolli or cream horn forms), or by just baking ovals, slicing them down the top New England Lobster roll style, and filling them with a pastry bag. If coconut isn’t your thing, you can also fill the buns with a Nutella-Whipped Cream mixture.

But those sausage rolls…if my barbecue is rained out this fourth of July holiday you know what I’ll be eating.


I followed the Hong Kong Sausage Roll recipe on “Christine’s Recipes”


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Land of the Rising Tweet

My Commencement Speech (or) Pardon my cliché

Ice Cream Waffles

Ice Cream Waffles

To me, commencement speeches always seem like eulogies turned inside out. Hopefully you laughed or chuckled at that line—even if it was only on the inside. Laughter is something that seldom happens when hearing a eulogy, unless it’s for Chuckles the Clown (this is referring, of course, to the classic Mary Tyler Moore episode.)

But if eulogies are delivered at the end of a life, then it follows that you could kinda, sorta say that about commencement speeches too. That’s the end of a life and the beginning of another.

I once heard a commencement speaker compare the return of textbooks by graduating seniors to the turning in of rifles at the end of a war. Wow. I didn’t like school either, but I never felt like I was crouched in a fox hole. Well, maybe at prom, but that, as they say,”… is a whole other Oprah.”

All these years later I often think, “What did I learn in school?” The stuff I really remember was practical, “how to” stuff, like splicing video tape—something they do with a computer now and a skill that I seldom use in the kitchen.

I like to think I learned everything valuable I know in the years after school. The most valuable thing I’ve learned is that baking a cake is a microcosm of life’s experiences all crammed into a little tin pan and an hour or two.

Baking requires hunger, anticipation, planning, organization, a little chemistry, the ability to let go, and the ability to deal with failure and keep going.

Many people view baking as an exercise in rigidity—follow the recipe or all heck will break loose. I beg to differ. I think of baking as an exercise in technique and its continual refinement. This is kind of like ballet or singing. Performers accomplished in either of those disciplines continue studying and taking classes even long after they have achieved success—and for some even after they have retired. It is this continual striving to get better that I think of every time I plug in my Kitchen Aid and start baking. You’re never done; school continues. It’s the shape of the classroom that changes. (I had to throw in the latter. Every commencement speech has lines like that.)

Hopefully as you travel down life’s hallway (I promise I’ll stop) the knowledge you accrue along your journey will give you the resilience to handle whatever surprises may be placed in your way. Sometimes this means you need to—yes, you’ve heard this before—think outside the box.

Learn to embrace the unexpected. We have an anchor woman here in New York named Sue Simmons. Late in her career she has become notable for the things she says when she forgets the microphone is on. This includes an “f-bomb” or two. She’s being “eased” into retirement next month. Part of the reason is that folks worry about what might come out of her mouth. I think this is a mistake. I say, keep her on and take away her script. Let her wing it, then sit back and hope for another “f-bomb” or better. I think ratings would go up and the news would be much more fun.

Any baker—or even better—anyone who ever toasted a slice of bread knows what I’m talking about. Ever burned a piece of toast? Did you scrape off the burnt part then serve the toast anyway? You were thinking outside the box. If you’d thrown away the toast you wouldn’t be embracing the unexpected, you’d be trying for perfect toast. The pursuit of perfection can waste a lot of bread. (Okay, you have to admit that one was cute.)

Thinking outside the box doesn’t always mean things have to be hard. In fact this can make things easier.

Take the little Belgian waffles in the photo above. These were made to satisfy a craving. Real Belgian waffles (Liege or Brussels style) require yeast dough, and a few hours wait while the dough rises. But this was a craving, which meant I needed them NOW.

So I used a simple waffle recipe, and sprinkled some vanilla sugar and Belgian pearl sugar onto my waffle iron just before adding the batter. The result was a reasonable facsimile of the true Belgian waffle.

If you throw enough ice cream at them no one will ever know the difference. And that, graduates, is all you need to know about dessert and life.


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“Baccalaureate Tweetalot”

Canelé…or can’t I?

Mini Pound Cakes

No. I didn't.

When I was a kid I had the most amazing wanderlust. This was, of course, in the days long before the internet, so I would buy pre-posted postcards at the Post Office and send them off to different companies requesting the most current brochures they offered. A few days later an envelope bearing my name would be on our doorstep. In those days travel brochures tended to be small tri-fold affairs, and I would voraciously unfold them like I was studying a map of buried treasure from a far-away island.

My favorites were ones from the steamship lines—in those days ships still looked like ships as opposed to the “hotel-with-a-smokestack” look they have now. I found it all endlessly entertaining.

I still do and evidently I’m not alone. There’s a thriving market for old ocean liner merch on ebay. A few years back I bought an enormous linen tea towel that had been sold as a souvenir on the famous liner “Queen of Bermuda.” I paid about three bucks for this pristine, colorful 1961 item, with the thought of having it framed to hang in my kitchen. The good news is that it hangs there as planned. The bad news is that it cost me an arm and a leg to have it framed. Add a couple of zeroes to the cost of the tea towel and you’ll get the idea. Oh well, I can honestly say that in all the years it has been hanging in my kitchen it has never lost its ability to make me smile.

My other passion as a kid was cars. This was during Detroit’s heyday. If you had money you lusted after names like Coupe de Ville and Corvette. A6? E300? Where’s the romance there? (Not that I’d turn my nose up at either of them, ahem.) New car showrooms always managed to stock enormous, glossy brochures, and if my little feet didn’t find me in a showroom, there was always the annual Auto Show.

The irony is that as an adult my travel wanderlust has all but evaporated, as has my interest in cars. There are probably multiple reasons why travel has lost its allure, not the least of which are: an ever more dangerous world, and the sheer discomfort of travel in the twenty-first century. For me the glamour of air travel is now all wrapped up in one question: does the airline have little seatback TV’s? Yes, that’s me. I’m the guy who goes on vacation to…watch TV.

Cars have lost their glamour because the air got polluted and gasoline got expensive, so the only guiltless pleasure behind the wheel is to drive an electric car or a hybrid. Zzzzzz.

My adult wanderlust is centered on food. This food wanderlust is, thankfully, easily explored within the walls of my own kitchen, and is at times, a bit silly. Let’s visit one of the sillier examples, shall we? (Grab your coffee: you’ll need the caffeine.)

I have no recollection of how the idea to make Canelés got into my head. Canelés are little pastries from Bordeaux that, like so many things in life, seem simple and straightforward, yet in truth require a strict observance of technique, timing, and practice. Also, the recipe requires the use of food-grade beeswax. Sans beeswax they are simply not the same thing, and disregarding the requirement is a little like saying that it doesn’t matter that Lucille Ball had red hair. No, wait, that’s a bad analogy. It’s a little bit like saying that it doesn’t matter if a Hershey Bar is made of chocolate. Okay, still not a great analogy, but you get my drift.

The beeswax in the Canelé is melted, often mixed with a bit of butter, and brushed into the Canelé mold. This serves to keep the batter from sticking, but also imparts a delicate flavor, a glossy sheen, a burnished warmth, and ever-so-slight crackle to the outside of the finished canelé.

The batter itself is a bit like a custard, and is definitely a close relative to the popover or the Yorkshire pudding. The common practice is to mix the batter, then allow it to rest for 24 to 48 hours. Here, unfortunately, are the shoals upon which my attempts to make Canelés have foundered. I never think to plan ahead. The sitting time is considered as essential as the beeswax.

I’ve been very motivated to try baking these, and even invested in a special silicone Canelé mold. It sat in my kitchen, in its box, in its Sur la Table shopping bag for weeks as I would trip over it, each time cursing it for being in the way, and myself for not having tried to bake Canelés yet.

Finally, I took the mold out of the bag and out of its box and declared that this would be the weekend when I would finally bake Canelés. And then I didn’t. But knowing that once unboxed a cake pan must be used (a cardinal rule in my kitchen), I decided to bake something a bit simpler, just to test the mold. Welcome, friends, to the department of reduced expectations.

My first thought was to bake Petit Fours. My second thought was that they are too icky, jammy, and sweet. What about something simpler…a l’il something to have with coffee. A nibble.

The result is a yummy little cake, dispatched with two or three bites. To give them a bit of finish, the little cakes are turned out of the canelé mold as soon as they are removed from the oven and dredged in superfine sugar mixed with just a hint of cinnamon. The silicone canelé mold gives them just a bit of crust and the sugar a sandy crunch. They’ll remind you of little raised doughnuts from some groovy country bakery.

Yeah, go ahead. Dunk them.


Here’s the Mini Pound Cake recipe. (I’ve also included information on buying the Canelé mold.)


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What is the French word for Tweets?

Happy Small Birthday

Chocolate Peanut Birthday Cake

Chocolate Peanut Birthday Cake

I recently had the pleasure of celebrating yet another birthday. I turned thirty-three, an age I chose because I enjoy the alliteration. (I received multiple Hallmark birthday greetings exhorting me to “do” whatever I want, after all, “…it’s your birthday!” I’m “doing” thirty-three. Thank you to Hallmark for the de facto permission slips.)

If you detect the slightest note of bitterness in my tone I will confess that I am not a big birthday guy. I don’t go around crowing, “Next Wednesday is my birthday! Yaaaay!” Just not my style. For me, birthdays help to tick the box on the following tasks: 1. Eat chocolate. 2. Check my surroundings and the overhead compartment to make sure I am still vertical, a/k/a breathing, a/k/a alive. Check. Double check.

The great thing about these reduced expectations is that I enjoy other peoples’ birthdays in a proportion equal to my own if not more—again, if there’s chocolate, and I’m still breathing, and they’re older.

On the surface it would seem ironic that I enjoy baking birthday cakes for my friends, but again, that simply ensures a socially acceptable source of chocolate consumption. Furtive chocolate consumption can be so…dreary. (Dreary is such a great word, but hard to use without sounding, well, dreary.)

Speaking of cake, a few months ago I got together with four or five friends to celebrate one of their birthdays. Someone had stopped by Magnolia Bakery and bought an enormous chocolate cake with frosting the color of a yellow highlighter. It was absolutely delicious. But the cake was so big that even after we all had seconds there was still enough left over for many, many more birthday boys and girls. I love birthday cake, but even a glutton like me has limits.

This is a scene repeated at birthday celebrations around the globe. Birthday revelers circled around a table, pointy hats perched jauntily on their heads, playing a game of, “Have another piece!”/ “No you have another piece.”/ “PLEASE, I’m just going to throw the rest away!”

Well, I’m here to end this game once and for all.

Here’s my proposal: I insist that it is easier to bake a little birthday cake than it is to bake a big birthday cake. Big cakes make you think of big metal pans, drums of frosting, and an endlessly whirling stand mixer.

But my little birthday cake concept is much more relaxed. Let’s break it down, shall we?

This is one time when baking from scratch has a clear advantage over a mix. When you bake from scratch you actually can scale down a recipe to make a smaller cake. Using a mix you are locked in to one or two pan sizes. While you could perhaps bake half a box of mix, the question would remain what to do with the other half? My easy chocolate cake recipe can be made with a big bowl and a wooden spoon or rubber spatula.

Paper Panetone Molds

Paper Panetone Molds

Okay let’s talk pans shall we? I don’t have the nerve to insist that you should go out and buy five inch cake pans. (Martha would, but she and I run in different circles.) Instead, I recommend paper Panetone molds which will break the bank at approximately fifty cents a piece. Admittedly this is not a green solution. You use them once then toss them. But you won’t have to worry about your cake sticking to the pan.

So, the cake is done, but what about the frosting? For that thick, creamy, sugary frosting don’t you need a mixer? Fear not mixer-less folk! I have a magic ingredient. Sweetened Condensed Milk is a worthy short cut—yes, you may think I am taking a page from Sandra Lee, but the end result is too noble, and…uh, addictive for it to be offensive. It is a bit wholesome, and will pull together and smooth out the few other ingredients you’ll need to make frosting. (Like a Kitchen Aid in a can!)

I toyed with this concept for a while. Too much sugar? Too much fat? Then it dawned on me: this is cake frosting we’re talking about. It’ll never be health food.

As it happens, peanut butter is one of my favorite foods, and combining it with chocolate makes my heart sing. My Chocolate Peanut Butter frosting is worthy of the most important birthday on your list. It also tastes like something from an old-fashioned ice cream and confectionary shop, so if cake isn’t on your mind, warm it a bit and pour it over some ice cream.

Finally, don’t be afraid of decorating the cake. Just spread half the frosting between the layers and spread half the frosting on top. Don’t fret about getting the sides just right; Leave the sides naked to the breeze. Even cake maven Rose Levy Beranbaum endorses this concept for its relaxing informality.

But don’t forget the candles. Thirty three. Yes. That’s all.


Here’s the Chocolate Peanut Butter frosting recipe.

And here’s the All Occasion Chocolate Cake recipe.

And here’s more information about the paper Panetone molds. (Available at Sur La Table.)


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The first tweet of spring!

Drift away


A cherished old photograph of my grandfather hung on my wall until recently when it mysteriously crashed to the floor. The glass broke, and the frame cracked, but thankfully the picture, probably a century old, survived intact.

It was kind of fun to take it to be re-framed for I hadn’t really looked that closely at it for a long time. As I studied the face of my twelve or thirteen year-old grandfather I noticed how much my Mother looks like him. The resemblance in some cases may only be apparent to me—the straightness of the upper lip and the set of his eyes— but nevertheless it is there. This drew me toward my mirror. How much of those little jigsaw pieces found their way to my face? The older I get the more I notice the resemblance to my Mother, so therefore I must have some of his features too.

I have always noticed that I also have a similar attention span to that of my Mother: zero.

This becomes apparent when I watch movies or TV or go to the theater. Five minutes and my mind has gone elsewhere. I will often catch myself and remind myself, “You’ve been looking forward to watching this show for days, PAY ATTENTION!”

Often I find myself with a particular group of friends for a night of watching some special event or another on TV. This usually involves Chinese or Vietnamese food, and dessert. Sadly, whatever knockout attire Brad and Angelina may have been wearing on the red carpet goes swiftly off my radar in favor of a second taste of “Goi Du Du”, an amazing green papaya and spicy beef salad we always order.

That answers one vital question: just where does my mind go when it drifts away? Answer: the buffet. Fortunately I have retained some measure of self control over my appetite, along with a sense obligation to my friends. “Put down the fork and PAY ATTENTION!”

(I became aware of this one time when a friend said he had the impression that the rest of the world disappeared when I eat.)

Okay, sorry. I enjoy my num-num, what can I say? But it isn’t just idle daydreaming that is happening when I drift away. Generally I am thinking, “How did they make this?” or “What’s that little flavor in the background.”

If the food is terrible—or even worse, non-existent (No!), I start thinking, “I wonder if I can pick something up on the way home?” This is accompanied by a quick estimate of how far out of my way this will take me.

The worst, of course, is “the bad sandwich.” I have used quotation marks to indicate a bit of drama. We have all been held captive by “the bad sandwich.” The unique selling points of “the bad sandwich” are: rubbery wraps, flavorless cold cuts, and unidentified sauce.

Not long ago while choking down a bad sandwich I made a vow to never be guilty of such a sin. As we’re about to enter Super Bowl / Award Show season I am prepared to make good on this commitment and naturally I am starting with the bread.

As we live in the era of the wrap I understand that many people consider the bread portion of the sandwich to simply be an edible bit of dinnerware—a food carrier. I consider the bread to be an integral part of any sandwich. Bad sandwich bread is like bad frosting on a cake.

I cherish the crunch of the crust and the chew of the inside. (Too intense?) Here’s my acid test for good sandwich bread: if it squishes when you go to cut your sandwich the bread is unsuitable for sandwich use. Here’s my suggestion. Use Pan Cubano, Cuban Bread.

This bread has a hearty, crunchy crust, and a sturdy interior that doesn’t melt away when you throw a bit of mustard on it. By design Cuban Bread is meant to be squished and take it with a smile. A Cuban sandwich is pressed like a Panini but without the grill marks. It is usually filled with ham, Swiss cheese, pickles, and mustard, but don’t feel hemmed in by its habits. Just pay tribute to me, and fill it with lots of flavor. This is no place for mild deli meat; this is the land of tangy cold cuts, and a bit of pepper.

Cuban Bread’s stocky demeanor also lends itself to a bit of off label use because it makes the best garlic bread ever.

If you’re a beginner to bread baking you’ll find this to be one of the simpler bread recipes around, although I don’t recommend attempting it without a loyal, trusty Kitchen Aid to do the work for you.

On the other hand, if you choose to do without the stand mixer, you can always log baking Cuban Bread as an upper body workout.


Click here for the recipe for Cuban Bread


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Looking forward to the warmer tweets…

The Hair Dream

Grilled Semolina Flatbread with Onion Yogurt Dip

Grilled Semolina Flatbread with Onion Yogurt Dip

There’s a theatrical legend that tells of a great actor’s ability to milk applause from the audience. (I don’t remember which actor the legend describes.) Supposedly he would appear for his curtain call and milk the applause by slowly pacing from one side of the stage to another, giving his rapt attention and breathless thanks to each section of the audience. As he did this he would make note of which section’s applause seemed to be subsiding, and place his body in front of them “surprised” and “moved” by their adulation.

Overall, a good technique, and perhaps something we should all try to adapt or emulate in our own humble worlds. Why not? It’s a big tough world, and I say take all the applause and adulation you can find, no matter what the source, even for the smallest accomplishments. To that end, I am introducing something never before seen in a blog: the applause sign, something previously seen only by TV studio audiences and next to Donald Trump’s mirrors. As you read the following blog you will occasionally see [APPLAUSE] which is your cue to stop and applaud a particularly pithy thought , or me.


I’ve been thinking of this recently because this is the time of year when that firm grip so many folks may have had on accomplishing their New Year’s resolutions has begun to slip. Yes, your gym may be more crowded during the month of January, but like the old adage about New England weather, if you don’t like it, give it a minute.

In the meantime give yourself a huge round of applause for anything you may have accomplished since 12:00AM, January 1st. Finally put away your Christmas tree? You are a star! [APPLAUSE]

Me? I reached my first goal of the new year. I’m extremely proud and have been spending far too much time patting myself on the back. Clearly it’s time for a reward.

Oh, uh, what was my goal? My goal was to make a resolution. I’ve never done that before. This is not to say that I don’t consider myself a candidate for self-improvement (far from it). I have simply never before left resolutions for the end of the year. My usual M.O. is to make them throughout the year. Naturally this means I also fail (and succeed) at them throughout the year.

I know, I know: you’re thinking, “Making a resolution to make a resolution is cheating.” Perhaps you are right. But again, I contend that this is a tricky time of year and any and every effort must be rewarded, even if the reward is faint praise. So, thank you! [APPLAUSE] Oh, and you over there? Thank you!

What was my resolution? To grow a full head of hair. I acknowledge from the outset that there are some genetically based barriers standing between me and the successful completion of this goal. Some may say it is impossible, to which I have three replies: 1.) Never say never.  2.) You’ve obviously never had “The Hair Dream.” 3.) I didn’t define a timeline during which this must be accomplished. This includes future lives, if you are so inclined to believe that kind of thing. (Fans of Shirley MacLaine may now applaud.) [APPLAUSE] Oh! Thank you so much! Stop. You may be embarrassing me.

Frivolous? A waste of a resolution? I think not. It is “impossible” for me to grow hair, you say? Then by comparison losing a few pounds will be a piece of cake (pardon the semi-pun.) (Is Louise Hay reading this? Perhaps it will make her get off her unmotivated tush and get moving.)

Wait. You’re asking, “What’s ‘The Hair Dream’”? This is a recurring dream I (and many other bald folks) have where I wake up in the morning, go into the bathroom, and am greeted in the mirror by a reflection of myself with a full, thick, head of hair. What follows is a session of hair styling featuring every style from the last twenty years that I may have missed out on. Contrary to most happy dreams, there is no disappointment when I wake up. And if you can dream it you can do it. Right? [APPLAUSE]

Meanwhile, if your resolutions included eating more healthfully, there’s no need to swear off the kitchen, or even the fun of baking. There’s no magic here, just a little technique, and the correct choice of ingredients.

Yes, portion control is vital, but even more vital is making sure every bite counts. Pack every nibble with flavor and texture, but keep everything healthy. A tall order? Not at all.

Last weekend I spent about an hour in the kitchen and made something I can snack on guiltlessly all week. My little grilled flatbreads owe a debt of gratitude—and a dab of yogurt—to Indian Naan, but could actually come from anywhere. The leavener, baking powder, doesn’t really make the dough rise as much as it relaxes the flour making these flatbreads a snap to roll out, but durable enough to grill (indoors or out).

The small amount of Greek yogurt in the recipe leaves enough in the container to make a respectable amount of dip. No Lipton Onion Soup mix here. My magic ingredient? Spanish anchovies, which perform a bit of umami magic by lending a bit of saltiness and nuttiness to the dip before disappearing and taking any unpleasant fishiness with them as they steal off into the night.


Oh, stop. You’re spoiling me.


Click here for the recipe for Grilled Semolina Flatbread with Roasted Onion Yogurt Dip


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New Year, New Tweets!

Holiday baking with Sneezy

Gluten-free Chocolate Krinkles

fudgy, chewy, and gluten free...

I am no stranger to allergies; I am a drippy-nosed, scratchy-throated, itchy-eyed dweller of a city with questionable air quality. Snow White called me the other day to ask if I’d fill in for Sneezy while he has some minor surgery. (Rim shot. Heigh Ho…)

My glamorous self-portrait aside, I was baking Christmas cookies the other day and realized that someone I admire very much cannot indulge because she is gluten intolerant. This is often referred to as an allergy, but it is actually the result of Celiac Disease which manifests itself by making the body unable to digest the gluten in bread, cake, and cookies. Clearly I have ignored these folks long enough; it’s time to invite them over to the cookie table, eh?

I completely understand. I don’t usually bake with real butter because it upsets my stomach. I use Earth Balance sticks, an excellent substitute, yet I recognize that some allowances need to be made to compensate for the various differences. As an example, I would never make a plain butter cookie with Earth Balance. No matter what they do to the stuff, it will never taste quite like real butter. Luckily—or perhaps because of this—I am drawn to treats with slightly more intense flavors. The latter, I think, is the key to baking without butter.

Call it gustatory sleight of hand if you like, but the fact is, if you draw attention to other flavors in a cookie, no one will notice or care about the lack of butter. (I should mention that I have no opinion about how healthy one type of fat is versus another. This is purely—and predictably—about my personal comfort.) I would only warn you to use caution with whatever product you use instead of butter; some do not match the fat-to-water ratio of butter and will compromise the texture of your baking. (Stay away from tub margarine and hedge your health bets by looking for something with non-hydrogenated oils and / or no trans-fats.)

Anyway, why reinvent the wheel? This sleight of hand philosophy can be applied to gluten-free baking as well. The trick is to find flour that will produce delicious cookies—not just good for gluten-free, but good AND gluten-free. This is not quite as straight forward as substituting Earth Balance for butter. Flour is a tricky item: even substituting different wheat flours can make a drastic difference in your baking. This can be caused by variations in the type of wheat, the grind, or even whether the flour was bleached—the latter is almost always the rule with cake flour.

Then there is gluten which is the product of the protein in wheat, barley, rye, and oats. Here’s the big problem: gluten is what makes bread, er, “bready”. It’s the magnificent “chew” in that baguette you just gnawed you way through while leaning over the sink so the calories wouldn’t count. (Yes, that’s how I think.) One of the reasons cake recipes often tell you to not over mix is so that you won’t over develop the gluten; in cakes and cookies you only want the protein for the structure it can lend the finished cake. Over mix that tender chocolate cake and you get rubber. That cupcake you just inhaled? Flour gave it its structure, sugar gave it its bulk.

Yeah, well, anyway, Merry Christmas, where are my cookies, you ask? Who are you: Santa with a couple million more chimneys to hit before the reindeers’ union mandated golden overtime kicks in?

Okay, I’ll cut to the chase. I found a flour called cup4cup which was created by Lena Kwak, of Thomas Keller’s famed The French Laundry restaurant. These folks seem to know what they are doing (!) so I decided this may be good flour for me to experiment with a bit of gluten-free baking. It is a mix of cornstarch, rice, milk powder, tapioca, and a few other healthy ingredients. The texture is powdery, similar to cake flour. Oh, by the way, it’s a little pricey; a three pound sack retails for $19.95.

I just needed a Christmas cookie with an intense flavor that would distract from any mischief the new flour may cause. A perfect candidate is Chocolate Krinkles, a dark, slightly chewy, chocolate cookie. The fudgy texture and flavor make this a cookie that is hard to ruin. (Put enough chocolate on a football and it would be delicious.)

My main concern, borne of many years using alternative ingredients for Passover baking was that the flour would smell funny (Passover flour often smells like wet paper when added to the wet ingredients.) I’m happy to report that other than a very powdery texture, cup4cup flour handles—at least in this recipe—just like all purpose flour. I’m even happier to report that a select group of associates did not notice anything amiss with the cookies and were genuinely surprised to learn that they were gluten free.

The folks who formulated the flour don’t recommend baking regular bread with the flour, but biscuits, brioche, quick breads, and anything that doesn’t have to rely on gluten for structure all seem like viable candidates. I’ll test a few out and let you know.

In the meantime my gluten-free friends can pack on some holiday pounds with the rest of us.

Ho ho ho…


Here’s the recipe for the Gluten-free Chocolate Crinkles, along with information about where to purchase cup4cup flour. And don’t forget last week’s regular Gingerdoodles, both 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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Holiday Tweets are gluten-free too!

My Stuff

Crunchy Peanut Butter Cookies

Crunchy Peanut Butter Cookies

I am not an appliance junkie. That does not mean that I am immune to the charms of the shiny, beautifully lit toys in the Williams-Sonoma catalogue. I find them endlessly fascinating, especially the coffee makers. But that is purely window shopping on my part. I’m strictly an analog, boil-water / pour-into-Melitta kind of guy.

This reminds me of the “My Stuff” section of the magazine “Vanity Fair” where they question successful creative types about the brands of clothes and household items they use, including underwear, toothpaste, and coffee makers. I always imagine the Luddite thud that would reverberate off the page if the “Vanity Fair” editors ever asked little ol’ me for my preferences. “Ah, Melitta. How unstylishly retro…,” they’d smirk in caffeinated superiority. “Crest? Sounds so rugged…”

If I ever start depending on an eleven-hundred dollar coffee maker for my daily brew, there had better be an exponential increase in the square footage of my bank account.  No sir, for now, I get suckered in a much lower rent district. If it’s under ten dollars I’m in. I look at it this way: if I were to buy a niche appliance for several hundred dollars, I may use it once or twice then pack it back in its box until the next time I need it. Under ten bucks? I’m less likely to feel guilty about tossing a failed experiment to save space. Don’t misunderstand: I’m not appliance averse. I just prefer workhorses like my Kitchen Aid stand mixer. Yeah, I have a waffle iron, and I do use it. Once a year.

Certain smaller specialty food markets are ideal for shoppers like me because they tend to carry items rife for discovery. I’ve actually made some great discoveries this way, including Ines Rosales tortas, and Damak chocolate. This past summer I fell under the spell of Bindi Coffee Gelato. Bindi is not a new name in the freezer case, but I’d never seen their gelato in a market here in New York before. I kept telling myself that it was lower in fat than regular ice cream. So is crack. They have a lot in common.

During one of my trips in search of some Bindi crack gelato, I happened to pass the display of various brands of peanut butter.

PB2 Peanut Butter Powder

PB2 Peanut Butter Powder

I’m not sure how things catch my eye. I have a friend whose career is centered on the art and science of brand recognition. I have my own scientific approach: I have the supermarket memorized. Shopping for me is a gigantic game of “one of these things is not like the other.” In other words, the new stuff sticks out. On the trip in question it was powdered Peanut Butter that stuck out. Far from being a skeptic, my first instinct was to assume that there was some important use for this product about which I knew nothing. Therefore I simply had to buy it.

As it turns out, I am not the only one playing the “one of these things is not like the other” game. The cashier was right there with me. She gave the jar a close examination, gazed up at me and asked, “What do you do with it?” I told her I’d have to get back to her on that one.

Bringing home an item like this is not unlike adopting a new puppy from the pound. (A very quiet puppy.) You sit and stare at it for a few minutes, and wonder, “Okay, what do I do with you now?” Indeed this period of wonder extended to several months as the powder sat on my kitchen shelf until I could think of a use for it.

This is not to say that the product has no reason for being. It is perfect for folks who are on a low-fat diet but still want the flavor and protein of peanut butter. Finally, it occurred to me that the easiest way to get inspired would be to just open the bottle and taste a little bit of the powder. Good news: It tastes like peanuts. (Duh.)

But this got me thinking about it not as a peanut butter substitute but as a flavor source. When you add peanut butter to a recipe you get the moisture of the fat in the bargain. The downfall with that is that whatever you are making can end up too “loose.” Peanut butter powder has the potential of providing the opposite service: all the flavor, plus it can act as a thickener—or at least not loosen things up. Hmmm. Peanut butter frosting? Satay sauce? All good uses for this stuff.

With Halloween coming up I am test driving a few things that I will be bringing to a friend’s party. Peanut Butter Cookies seemed like a perfect old fashioned treat that kids and adults would enjoy. They can be tricky though, because sometimes they simply lack peanut flavor. So, I added a generous two tablespoons of the powder to my recipe.

The result is a bit crunchier than the usual peanut butter cookie, but that’s all for the better. The peanut butter flavor is pronounced, making these cookies as addictive (to me) as a jar of peanut butter. In fact, that’s how the cookies taste: like a sweetened, crunchy slab of peanut butter.

The basic recipe is great even without the peanut butter powder, but with it the flavor can stand up to a few chocolate chips thrown into the cookie dough.

Hey, Vanity Fair editors! How about a new section called, “My Cookies”?


Click here for the recipe for Peanut Butter Cookies.


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Mmmm: Crunchy tweeter butter…

Fall Back: Springy Ahead

Citrus Chiffon Cake

Citrus Chiffon Cake

The couple of weeks that follow Labor Day are like a limbo. It still feels like summer, but you can sense Fall running up behind you to tap you on the shoulder. If you’re like me you slow your walking down a bit so Fall can catch up. That also means the Jewish High Holidays will soon be tapping the other shoulder, and like High Tea, it’s really all about the food. (Pardon my sacrilege.)

No matter how devout you are, chances are that at some point during the season you’ll end up with someone placing a napkin containing either a slice of Honey Cake or Sponge Cake in your hand. Honey Cake evokes both the apples and honey tradition of welcoming a sweet new year, and the European Pain d’Epice influence earned from thousands of years of the Diaspora.

On the other hand, Sponge Cake is the Jewish Wonder bread.

Ah well, I come here not to bury Sponge Cake but to make peace with it, kind of like striking up a conversation about politics with a cranky old uncle. (Good luck.)

Perhaps I am painting with too broad a brush. Perhaps it is not Sponge Cake that is the enemy, but poorly made Sponge Cake, baked way too far in advance, and wrapped tightly in plastic. (Mmmm. Sounds yummy, right?)

The Sponge Cake to which I am referring, a staple of High Holiday supermarket fare, is actually Chiffon Cake. Chiffon Cake was created by an American named Henry Baker. (Baker! I love it when peoples’ names work out like that: Tommy Tune is a musical theater performer and director. We had a relative (by marriage) named Ike Oven who was also a baker. A friend swears he knows a Dr. Doctor. By those rules my last name should be Thinksheisawriter.)

Chiffon Cake differs from Angel Food Cake or Jelly Roll sponge (biscuit) because of the addition of oil. While the oil does provide moistness, it also makes for a damp cake, and lacks the rich flavor of butter—a potential pitfall in a cake that lacks other flavorful ingredients.

Don’t blame baker Henry Baker; he didn’t intend for Chiffon Cake to be served plain. He piled it with fruit, custard, whipped cream—anything to dress it up. His Chiffon Cake was the canvas, the other stuff was the paint.

So there you go: we’re serving the canvas. No criticism from me though, because I understand why: convenience. Chiffon Cake is a “little something” traditionally served after observing a long worship in temple when the blood sugar of millions of Jews has crashed lower than yesterday’s Dow. When I was a kid you got cake and grape juice. Chiffon Cake was cheap, easily obtained, and ready for a crowd with just a few swipes of a knife. Also, kids wouldn’t get it all over their clothes.

There used to be something so essentially Jewish about cake. The comedian Jackie Mason has made it the subject of a whole routine: “It is easy to tell the difference between Jews and Gentiles. After the show, all the gentiles are saying ‘Have a drink? Want a drink? Let’s have a drink!’ While all the Jews are saying ‘Have you eaten yet? Want a piece of cake? Let’s have some cake!'”

When the comedian Rosie O’Donnell was trying to thank Barbra Streisand for being on her show she brought her cake. (Streisand was an aficionado of the late, lamented Ebbinger’s bakery chain. O’Donnell had one of the Ebbinger’s recipes recreated for the occasion.)

Mason’s riff on cake always made me think of a Sour Cream Coffee Cake my mother used to make. Even now it brings to mind cinnamon, brown sugar, and walnuts. Chiffon Cake? No.

None of this solves the issue of bad Chiffon Cake, but I would do well to mind the old adage, “One man’s feast is another man’s famine.” Translation: just because I don’t like Chiffon Cake doesn’t mean the world shares my opinion.

As a test I decided to make my own Chiffon Cake therefore putting to rest the debate about whether or not fresh, homemade Chiffon Cake makes a difference. For this little contest I held myself to one rule: it had to be baked in a loaf pan to match the format of the supermarket brands.

The supermarket brands have an indeterminate sweet, cakey flavor. I thought it might make my cake more interesting if it made a specific choice, as if it could say, “Hello, I am a Citrus Chiffon Cake.” My old trick ingredient, frozen concentrated orange juice, was nominated, as was fresh lemon zest and juice, plus a bit more vanilla extract than usually called for. No need for subtlety here as the hefty amount of eggs in the recipe tends to blunt the sharp edges of any added flavors.

The result is springy in texture, bright in flavor, but still unquestionably the High Holiday Sponge Cake I’ve come to know and be bored by. Still better than the fossilized supermarket loaf, but screaming for some ice cream and strawberry sauce.

I don’t need a holiday for that.


Click here for my Citrus Chiffon Loaf.

Also good for the High Holidays: Pumpkin Apple Praline Cake and Challah.


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Sweet tweet (complete)


Chocolate Ganache Cupcakes

No special occasion needed...

Some years ago I was invited to a party at the home of a close friend. When I arrived I made the usual and expected round of “Hellos” to all the people I knew at the party. My greetings included those to one who would best be described as a friend of a friend. She extended a disinterested hand and introduced herself as one would to someone you’d never met. Polite.

Unfortunately we’d played this little charade more times than I am comfortable mentioning. I had met this individual for the “first time” enough times that I don’t have enough fingers to keep count. I was seemingly purged from her memory after each meeting like the contents of your computer’s recycle bin. No recollection at all. Yet, I knew her name, both of her husbands’ names, how many kids she had, and a vague idea of their ages.

After another friend who witnessed this scene picked her jaw up from the floor we recovered nicely and had a nice party.

The next day I called the close friend who had proffered the invitation to thank him for his hospitality and in a moment of fed up candor let fly with the opinion that his friend was a dope. (Yes, I may have used a more explicit compound word.)

He offered some weak excuses for his friend that mainly revealed an acknowledgement and acceptance of her social shortcomings…her “problem” as he called it. He’s simply not a judgmental person. Rather than feeling slighted by this, I actually ended up wishing that I could be less judgmental.

Through the years the same scenario has happened to me a couple of other times with a couple of other people. I may be getting to the age that I just don’t care anymore. Wait. No. I’m not quite there yet. It still rankles and still doesn’t answer the question: if I remember you, why don’t you remember me?

Conversely, a few years ago I was at the theater seeing an awful play. I stepped outside to the street to use my phone. After I finished my conversation I turned to head back into the theater and was stopped by a smiling man who looked at me and yelled, “Bobby!” It took a moment to register that he was talking to me because my name is not Bobby. (Never has been.)

I shrugged, “Sorry, I think you have the wrong guy” and continued into the theater. But he persisted and followed me. In the brighter light of the lobby I could see he wasn’t some unhinged homeless man on a chemically induced field trip. He was nicely dressed, clean, and looked more than a little bit insulted.

“Are you sure you’re not Bobby Smith?”

Taking refuge amongst the theater’s front-of-house staff, I avowed, “Oh, yeah” but the man remained unconvinced—skeptical perhaps that a long lost friend was either playing a joke on him, or had entered the witness protection program.

It was at this point that one of us entered “The Twilight Zone” because he asked me to prove my identity by showing him my driver’s license. Luckily the gentleman was otherwise persuaded that I was, indeed, not Bobby, and departed.

(Actually, I think in part he was intimidated by one of the tougher looking ushers who was giving him the evil eye. I wouldn’t have wanted to mess with her either.)

Tall, bald, bespectacled, and what my grandmother used to call “hamish”: here in New York we are a rather interchangeable, dime-a-dozen crowd. Legions of us swarm the city taking each other’s Bar exams, drug tests, and marriage vows when the real guy is unavoidably detained or just off fishing. Will the real Bobby Smith please stand up?

And what of my insistent pursuer of mistaken identities? One could make a few guesses about him: unacknowledged poor eyesight…unobservant…perhaps he assembles the “no fly” lists for the TSA? Poor Bobby Smith (or is it Smythe?). With friends like that…

The ironic soundtrack to this little documentary is Nat King Cole singing “Unforgettable.” (Use the version where they superimposed his daughter’s voice to create a duet. It’ll be easier to cross cut the film.)

It seems to me that the world may be divided into two groups: the first group looks at you, remembers you, and files you away in the appropriate area of their cortex to be recalled at will by the human brain’s amazing face recognition system. The other, much smaller, group lacks the ability to retain this information. It is to those poor, sad, souls that we must extend a hand to help them through the lunar landscape of social interaction.

Advertising copywriters have been addressing this problem for years in perfume ads. There’s even a perfume named “Unforgettable.” This is all based on the theory that the whiff of a perfume will implant itself in the cortex along with other memories of you. If the proximity is close enough, sometimes it really does work.

Some of us just aren’t the perfume type. That’s why they invented the chocolate cupcake. While we cannot wear cupcakes, we can bring them to work or to friends. There’s no need for a special occasion—we’ll create memories nonetheless. Someone will always remember you. Just play it very cool. “Oh, those? I had a few minutes so I threw them together.”

You won’t be lying. The recipe is part of my Bowl & Spoon program. No mixer is needed, even for the ganache frosting. They mix together quickly, and to frost them you only need to dip the tops in the ganache: no frosting technique is needed. If you can dunk, you’re in.

BTW: if you know Bobby Smith tell him that some guy who looks like the actor Kevin Pollack was looking for him.


Click here for the recipe for Bowl & Spoon All-Occasion Chocolate Cupcakes.


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