Archive for the ‘Pastry’ Category

La Silvana

Chouquettes

Chouquettes

In the world of grand opera there was no bigger star than Giulietta Silvana. At the Met—the old “Diamond Horseshoe” on 39th Street—even the sleepiest of men who’d been dragged to the opera by their culture-climbing wives woke up when “La Silvana” arrived center stage.

There was, of course, no shortage of men who swept through the stage door in their top hats and capes hoping to court “La Silvana.” The usual nightly contretemps between a Diva and her tenor? For “La Silvana”, this was just the opening salvo to a night of romance. Like a bee collecting pollen, she never settled on one flower. Reporter after reporter asked why, and to all she simply replied, “Show me a man of substance, and I will have sung my last Lucia.”

European suitors, many of them of royal lineage, also fell under her spell during visits to La Scala, the Palais Garnier, the Royal Opera House, and countless concert stages. Her great rival, Lily Pons, was green with envy at La Silvana’s independence from the grasp of one man.

At home, which was usually the best suite in the best hotel in whatever city she sang, she was tended to by a staff who doted on, and anticipated her every whim. Her private chef ensured that there would never be too much of her to squeeze into the corsets that costume designers inevitably built into her costumes; a private masseuse pounded every excess ounce of avoirdupois from her that the chef may have missed. What the chef and masseuse may have missed, her own notoriously steely discipline and focus nipped in the bud. She sailed around the world like a maharani: staff, clothes, jewels, and determination never far from her reach. If you find the theory that Great Divas are born Great Divas dubious, let La Silvana wipe away all doubts.

Still, if you were to observe closely, you’d notice some clues to the “real” La Silvana. At every meal, in any restaurant, even on the most luxurious ocean liner, she would rub the silverware with her napkin as if the cleanest was never clean enough. Then there was the locket: a large silver locket that never left her neck no matter the role or costume. She always held it when, as Tosca, she made her final plunge. No man, no maid, no costume designer could make her remove the locket. It was reported (but never confirmed) that she slept with it in her grasp.

Sadly, time—age—was unkind to La Silvana. Inevitably, her voice became heavy, her face matured, and she began to find herself shunted aside in favor of younger singers—both on stage and off.

Rather than linger on in the shadows, La Silvana did what she thought was expected of a Great Diva: she simply disappeared. Her whereabouts—even whether she was dead or alive—became one of the great mysteries of the Opera world.

However, after the recent death of Professor Carlos Bernberg—one of the world’s great scholars on twentieth century opera (and a notorious pack rat)—we are finally able to reveal what happened to La Silvana after she took her final bow. For, hidden amongst the boxes that defined the Professor’s living and working space lies the story of La Silvana’s Act II.

The story of her second act begins—by sheer coincidence—on a snowy Christmas Eve. Still awash in the rosy glow of music as he made his way from Carnegie Hall through the falling snow, Professor Bernberg, heeding the rumbles of his empty stomach, decided that a light, late supper was in order. Worried that Schrafft’s (his usual haunt) would be closed, he decided to try a small bistro he’d spied on his many trips through the neighborhood. Its warm glow always reminded him of Vienna, but its name always captured his fancy: “Lucia”. Not, “Lucia’s Place” or “Café Lucia”. Just “Lucia”.

He paused as he entered, for the restaurant was full and the boisterousness of the crowd left him with the impression that he was intruding on a private party. Through the smoky haze he could see a small staff of red-jacketed waiters clucking and bowing, and in the back, through a window cut in the wall, a cherub-cheeked man, white hair under a toque, fussing in the kitchen.

A short, slightly plump woman with silver hair grabbed both of his hands and greeted him like an old friend. She explained that while there were no individual tables available, if he didn’t mind, she could happily seat him with others. His initial reluctance was overruled by another rumble of his empty stomach, and he soon found himself seated at a large round table with seven other diners. Not so much seated as “tucked in”, as the plump, silver-haired matron who greeted him made sure his chair was pushed in and his “serviette” spread in his lap just so. While telling him about things to look for on the menu, she stood with a cloth and wiped his silverware.

Indicating the other people at the table, she allowed, “My friends will tell you that I am biased, but I think we have the best Veal Marengo in the world.” Nodding towards the kitchen she continued, “Franco is Piedmontese, so he knows just the right amount of white truffle to add.”

Well, given such salesmanship, and the agreement of his tablemates, how could the Professor not try the Veal Marengo?

After his meal—and a rather bracing glass of Cotes de Nuits – Villages—he patted his stomach in appreciation of the fine meal, and the happy conversation with the strangers at the table.

Insisting that he have something sweet with his coffee, the silver-haired matron delivered a small plate baring just a few simple, round pastries that were studded with nibs of sugar. They were hollow, and the nibs of sugar sweetened the toasted, egg-infused, pastry with little “pops” each time he took a bite.

The Professor pleaded with the silver-haired matron to know what they were.

“Ah, those? They are Chouquettes. I first had them on a Christmas Eve many moons ago in Vienna. A place much like this one. I was with my first love, my only true love. I had to plead with the baker for the recipe for I knew that I would want my love to have Chouquettes every Christmas Eve. I carried the recipe in my locket for many years. I always felt that I could conquer the world if I kept the recipe close to my heart.”

As she pointed to her large silver locket, the Professor looked her up and down while a wash of memories flooded him. “You are La Silvana!” he gasped.

“Ha!” she giggled. “La Silvana! I made her up like a child pretends to be a cowboy or an Indian. Would people have come to see Gertrude Silverman sing? I think not. So I became Giulietta Silvana. But all the fame and riches could never bring back my true love. He was lost in the Great War. After I stopped singing I opened this place so that every night I could re-live those dinners in Vienna. Some days, at my darkest, I imagine that the door will open, he’ll walk in, and we’ll be reunited forever.” Then, with a sigh, “But it is not to be.”

She smiled at the professor and said, “You’ll keep my secret, yes? Better for the world to think La Silvana just evaporated into thin air then for them to know she is now a dumpy, grey haired frau. So here I am, hiding in plain sight. Shhhh…” she teased, holding her finger over her lips if playing a game of Hide and Seek. As she made her request she offered the Professor one more Chouquette. He bit into it and as the sugar made little “pops” in his mouth, he knew almost as if he’d been placed under a spell, that he would never reveal the secret of La Silvana.

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Want to make your own Chouquettes? Follow my recipe for Gougeres, but omit the cheese. Before baking, sprinkle with nib (pearl) sugar, or any large grain sugar.

Look at this! The “I Heart Christmas” cookies seen below (inspired by noted artist Laura Loving) are in The New York Times!

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

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This holiday season consider a gift to the Robin Hood Foundation.

Mère

Chocolate Financiers

From a little baker…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Her 100th birthday.

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Click here for the Financier recipe.

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

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

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

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Salute the Tweet

Cousin Ronni

A selection from the Pie Bar

A selection from the Pie Bar...

My cousin Ronni is so dumb she thinks you file your taxes with an emery board. She thinks a football coach has four wheels. She thinks…okay, perhaps I’m being too harsh.

The truth is Cousin Ronni doesn’t have a nasty bone in her body. As a rather jaded adult I often find myself thinking that I would be better off being more like her. For Ronni, everything is a surprise, everything is new, and everything is amazing.

Ronni, (short for Veronica) and I grew up together. Even though she’s my first cousin and she lived on the next street over, our family experiences were very different. Ronni is the oldest child of my Mom’s older sister, Aunt Polly, and her husband, my Uncle Frank.

Uncle Frank wasn’t Jewish, he was Roman Catholic. I’ve always assumed that he and Aunt Polly must have been a pretty daring match back in the day. She was a nice Jewish girl who ran off with an Italian trumpeter. My Grandmother wasn’t pleased, and never quite got over the match. Through the years she would continue to say Uncle Frank’s name in a way that sounded like she was telling you the milk in the fridge had soured.

I always liked Uncle Frank. He taught me how to shake hands “right”. This probably started when I was three or four. He’d stick out his hand for me to shake, I’d offer mine, and if my grip wasn’t firm enough he’d say, “Aww, c’mon.” As I got bigger and stronger the “Aw, c’mon” was followed by an approving, “…ehhhhre ya go”. It always seemed like the bigger I got the smaller he got, and when he grew elderly we’d shake hands and he’d pull his away, shake it as if in pain, and say, “Cripes, whaddaya trying to do to me?”

When I say he and Aunt Polly “ran off” I’m not exaggerating; their first years of marriage were spent travelling with an orchestra that specialized in playing debutante balls and society weddings. Aunt Polly wasn’t particularly musical, so her job with the band seems to have been keeping her eye on her Italian Trumpeter. I don’t think she had all that much to worry about. Uncle Frank was kind of a quiet guy and, while he wasn’t a bad looking guy, he never stood taller than about five-foot-four.

After some years of travelling they decided to settle down and start a family. Uncle Frank became a high school music teacher and taught trumpet in a little knotty-pine paneled studio that he and my Dad built in their basement. Unfortunately Aunt Polly and Uncle Frank had trouble starting a family—I never found out if it was her fault or his, but at some point I guess it became obvious it just wasn’t going to happen.

They adopted Ronni the year I was born, and a few years later they adopted her little brother Frank junior. (Yeah, Frankie and Ronni.) This has always fascinated me. I know nothing about her biological family, but Ronni always seemed like a little half Jewish, half Italian kid. Maybe that’s why as an adult I always think Jews and Italians are so much alike. Except, Italian food is better than ours.

On the other hand, Little Frankie had ice-blue eyes, and wheat-blond hair. I swear that from the cradle he sensed his displacement and acted accordingly. Aunt Polly’s most frequent epithet was, “FrankieFrankie…gawddammitFRANKIE!”as he squirmed, flailed, and wriggled out of her grasp. If you were nearby you were usually enlisted to try and wrangle him.

By the time we reached High School I had become adept at pretending that I had no connection to Frankie, and even better, developed “Frankie Radar” which enabled me to always be at the opposite side of any room—or building—or city—from him. My Mom would just shake her head, and tut-tut, “Poor Polly. At least she has Veronica.”

True. I never knew Ronni to be anything but bubbly, happy, and blithely unconcerned with…well, anything. She’d just roll her eyes and with a soft giggle, say, “Frankie…”

I get along with Frankie pretty well now, although this status is aided and abetted by the fact that we rarely see each other more than once a year. I think he’s given up on me ever joining him in his thug-dom, and I actually find him kind of funny in his ridiculous but admirable fearlessness. (Frankie likes to jump out of planes. If god meant me to fly I’d have feathers.) Actually it’s Frankie who taught me all the “Ronni is so dumb” jokes. It’s okay, she laughs at them too. Like being able to decipher hieroglyphics or some other hidden language, she “gets” Frankie like no one else can.

One day Ronni announced that she was getting married. I think Frankie took the news badly. Maybe he thought she wouldn’t be there for him anymore? Maybe he didn’t like her fiancé? I don’t know, I just know he looked grim.

“Wait ‘till you see the dessert…” she warned me about the wedding. I hadn’t been to that many weddings at that point in my life, so I had nothing to compare it to. I just expected to be given a slice of a big white cake to take home in a little waxed paper bag imprinted with wedding bells and the names “Veronica & Carl.”

What I got was a “pie bar.” This was Ronni’s proud invention. You lined up, took a plate, and a man in a chef’s hat filled a little pie shell with whatever you wanted. They had hot apples, fresh berries, chocolate Bavarian, ice cream, lemon curd, meringue, and a bunch of other stuff.

As Ronni walked around to each table, she glowed with pride as her guests congratulated her. I think she was glowing more about the little pies than about anything else.

Even Frankie was his old self that day. He said, “I love you, Sis,” and as he went to hug her he tilted his pie plate and slipped a scoop of vanilla ice cream down the back of her dress.

As she let out a loud, “Hooooahhhh!” I heard my Aunt Polly yell, “AwwwwgawdammitFrankie!”

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Wedding tweets are ringing…

Travelogue – High Seas Edition

Lemon Bars

Lemon Bars

Passover? Check. Easter? Check. Let the games begin. I have an unfailing, infallible, city-boy barometer that tells me every year when Spring has truly sprung: my eyes itch, my nose runs, and my throat gets raspy—a timbre somewhere between the earthiness of Bea Arthur and the pan-pipe squeak of Walter Brennan. Appealing.

No, this isn’t one of those city-boy rants about disliking nature, for Spring is to be celebrated. Even after the mild Winter we had, I still get the drift of the whole reborn/renew thing. It’s nice, right? I get it.

The change can be jarring though. Just about a week ago I was up in Massachusetts actually shivering and freezing my gougères. Today is warm and sunny. Spring weather makes me want to go on a picnic. I’ve always loved picnics since I was a tot in front of the TV watching Yogi Bear steal “pic-a-nic” baskets.  Just how die-hard of a city boy can I be if I like picnics?

The key is that I believe the word “picnic” can be very broadly defined.

When you mention the word picnic most people’s minds go straight to the image of the classic wicker picnic hamper. One summer during college I worked in a store that sold very elaborate (and very overpriced) picnic hampers fitted out with china, flatware, drinking glasses, gingham napkins, and a wet bar. (Kidding about the latter; just wanted to see if you’re paying attention.)

All that frippery is nice, but I think it is totally unnecessary. Admittedly the dishes and flatware were eco-green before their time, but that’s a sidebar to the main conversation.

My favorite picnic was a very New York experience, and while I do not remember the cost, I doubt it would be much of a stretch to call it dirt cheap. No wicker hamper. No blanket set out on the ground– in fact, no ground…but more about that in a moment.

First, I must cop to an embarrassing problem: I am rather prissy about washing my hands. If I eat something messy I am usually compelled to immediately wash my hands. Even too much vinegar in my salad triggers this compulsion. When I say “wash my hands” I mean wash my hands—little wet wipes usually will not satisfy. Obviously on a picnic this could present a problem, but I have it well under control via menu choices that support my apparent hand-related OCD.

Even under the best of circumstances it can be a trial to watch me eat a sandwich. No, I’m not messy. What I am is: annoyingly fastidious about everything staying in the sandwich. If anything falls out, then the entire operation must revert to fork and knife, except for the bread which at that point may be too soaked through with whatever for me to enjoy.

The other popular choice for picnic time is cold chicken. Based on my sandwich travails outlined above, how well do you think I’d do gnawing on a cold chicken wing? (Actually, this is a trick question. I just don’t like cold chicken. Put me next to a sink generously supplied with fluffy towels and skin nourishing soap and I’ll still be indifferent to cold chicken.)

By now you are likely under the impression that I am completely averse to eating anything without a utensil, but that it far from true.

Okay, enough of my soap and water blues; on with the picnic, city-boy style.

Let’s stop by Zabar’s on the way. While there we’ll be grabbing a baguette and avail ourselves of their slicing services.

We shall also step back into the cracker aisle (it’s next to the coffee). Any cracker is fine as long as the label is in a foreign language (and not ridiculously overpriced.) An alternative to crackers are my beloved Ines Rosales Tortas. I’d recommend getting both, but we’re going on a picnic and I like to travel light.

Next, depending on the weight of our purse (don’t you carry a purse? Mine is flat, plastic, and bears my name and a bank logo) we will choose a selection of thinly sliced meats and cheese. I’m a fan of Parma ham. (Sounds like a bumper sticker…) There’s also salami, speck, prosciutto—the beauty of a place like Zabar’s is that they’ll give you a little taste before you buy.

Let’s reverse course into the cheese aisle…a bit of razor-thin sliced Jarlsberg before we make our final and most important stop: the selection of chocolate bars up front near the cashier. I’m taking Damak pistachio-studded milk chocolate from Turkey, long my favorite , but go ahead and pick a dark chocolate so we can tell ourselves it’s actually health food, and then we’ll be on our way. (Grab a couple of bottles of water and I’ll meet you at the cashier.)

Because this is a city-boy picnic the first leg of the trip is—natch—the subway. We’ll jump on the 1 train and take it all the way down to South Ferry where we’ll meet our picnic destination: the Staten Island Ferry.

And I have a little surprise for you: hidden in my backpack are Lemon Bars that I baked just for this occasion. Is there anything that sings warm weather and sunny days better than a homemade Lemon Bar?

No, no, they’re all for you. Too messy for me…

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Here’s the Lemon Bar recipe.

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

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By any other name…

Chocolate Almond Biscotti

Chocolate Almond Biscotti

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’ll be making these again.

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Here’s the Chocolate Almond Biscotti recipe

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Have a couple of tweets with your coffee

Back From the Beach (The Sequel)

Cornbread and Pandebono

South...and "souther"

The deadpan look on the face of the TSA agent said: “Okay, now I really have seen everything.” In her defense, who could blame her? How often does she come across guys carrying bags of flour in their carry on luggage? She carefully swabbed the outside of the packages and let me go.

(Hint to travelers: when traveling with flour, take it out of your luggage, put it in the bucket, and run it through the scanner.)

(I ask you: how many travel blogs would you have had to look through to get advice for carrying flour on board a plane?)

And you ask: why am I traveling with flour? Can’t I get it at home? A reasonable question. The TSA agent asked it too.

I have enough key chains and refrigerator magnets. I do not need any more tchochkes, so when I travel my idea of a souvenir hunt usually involves a trip to the supermarket. I don’t always know what I want when I go, but I can be easily hypnotized by the sight of a colorful wrapper with foreign words.

During this year’s summer trip to a beach down south I actually went in search of something specific: Martha White. That’s not a person; it’s a brand of flour that is legendary down south. You just can’t find it up north, and I have been told that if you want to make really great biscuits, then Martha White is your gal—uh – flour.

Unfortunately the only Martha White flour I could find this trip was the self-rising cornmeal flour. But that’s okay: biscuits later, cornbread now.

While I was trolling the aisles, I also came across a whole section of South American foods, including items from Brazil, Colombia, and Venezuela. I am a big fan of Brazilian Pão de Queijo, a bread made with tapioca flour and cheese. Facing me in the aisle was a box, imported from Colombia, containing a mix for Pandebono. Pandebono is a type of bread made of corn flour, tapioca starch, cheese and eggs. Supposedly you eat them warm with Hot Chocolate. Naturally I couldn’t resist.

One bumpy ride with fastened seat belts later, I was in my kitchen mixing the Martha White cornbread. Cornbread can be a contentious issue amongst its devotees. Many southerners show disdain for northern cornbread. Maybe they have a point. The sweet yellow cornbread we serve up north is dense and moist like a dessert. Southerners prefer a more savory white cornbread, often baked in a roaring hot skilled with a bit if pre-heated fat.

I know that I am always banging the drum of scratch baking, but I am not mix averse, I am bad ingredient averse. As an example, let’s take the ubiquitous Jiffy mixes. One of the primary ingredients in their corn muffin mix is lard. Hey Jiffy: it’s 2011. Seriously. Lard?

So that’s why the Martha White mix gets my stamp of approval. The ingredients are white corn meal, flour, baking soda and salt. I added my own egg, milk, and oil. The Martha White mix makes a very savory, toasty cornbread that is very light, and would be great with a bowl of chili, or as a stuffing for roast turkey or chicken.

Speaking of ingredients, the Panbebono mix lists tapioca starch as the first ingredient. Most people know tapioca as a pudding or gravy thickener, so for this gringo it is surprising to see it used in bread. I shouldn’t be surprised though, because it is getting some play as an ingredient in gluten-free baking. It also produces things with a texture that is a bit foreign to me: gummy. Gummy is a misleading word in that it sounds like a pejorative. A more accurate description would be that the Pandebono rolls have an inside that is similar to a popover.

As with the Martha White Cornmeal mix, the Pandebono mix is also very basic, and required that I add my own grated Cotija cheese, a touch of margarine or butter, and water. Cotija cheese is fairly easy to find here in New York, and its briny, crumbly taste and texture isn’t that far from Ricotta Salada.

The Pandebonos are good warm, but I found them to be even better when allowed to cool which tames their gummy texture, and brings out the contrast of the briny cheese, and the sugar in the mix. These are a real revelation for me and I can’t wait to experiment with other cheeses—possibly heresy to Colombians, so apologies in advance.

I wonder if Martha White is listed on a “no-fly” list?

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Read what I made last year when I came back from the beach.

You can order Pandebono mix here

You can order Martha White mixes here (so who needs to travel?)

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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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September is back to Tweet time… tweet early and often!

Another Bowl and Spoon “thing”

Tiger-Stripe Brownies

Tiger-Stripe Brownies

I come from a long line of politically incorrect folk, on both sides. Maybe it’s my whole Massachusetts liberal “thing” that makes me, perhaps, a bit too acutely aware of these transgressions? But there’s no escaping it. I had an aunt whose cleaning woman was named “Brownie.” But “Brownie” was white, so go figure that one out. Auntie is long gone so I can’t ask her why her white cleaning woman was named “Brownie”, and I can’t ask my Mother; she just rolls her eyes at the mention of Auntie. (I think that has to do with a sister-in-law “thing”.)

(Oh, my. Another Aunt had one of those lawn jockey sculptures in front of her house. During the civil rights movement in the ‘60’s she painted his face white. That Aunt is long gone too, but for all I know the lawn jockey is still there holding his lamp up to his blushing pale face. )

(I could ask my Mother about that too, but I know her answer would be something along the lines of, “She did? My goodness, what a memory you have…”)

Seems to me that the Brownie—and by that I mean the fudgy, chocolate bar cookie— has been teetering on the edge of all sorts of moral decrepitude for ages now. Freud said, “sometimes a cigar is just a cigar,” but the foul whiff of bathroom humor has also hung over Brownies for me ever since I went to summer camp as a kid. You fill in the blanks on that one. I don’t write that kind of humor. (That would be caused by an uptight liberal “thing”.)

Yet, what are we going to call the Brownie instead? The Chocolate Bar cookie? I think not. It is neither a chocolate bar, nor a cookie.

We liberals have passed this way before. Seinfeld devoted an entire monologue to the racial harmony represented by the Black and White cookie.

I’ll have to go blindly with Freud on this one: sometimes a brownie is just there to satisfy chocolate cravings.

Now, to change the subject slightly (and at this point wouldn’t you?), I recently decided that I needed to unchain myself from what seemed to be an addiction to making things with my Kitchen-Aid stand mixer. I think things had gotten out of hand.

How much marshmallow and whipped cream does one person need to make? I make this claim with only half an apology. Making whipped cream in a Kitchen-Aid mixer is a rush, man. Fast? Let’s just say don’t walk away from the mixer.

Pulling back from this technological addiction seemed a bit limiting at first, but as you can see from the previous paragraph, well advised. Then I reminded myself that my great grandmother came into the kitchen armed only with a bowl and a spoon. (I have skipped a generation. Neither grandmother was a baker. I swear one thought cookies grew in boxes.)

I’ve written about my great grandmother’s kitchen exploits before; she serves as an acute reminder that I can give my Kitchen-Aid a rest and still make some really great stuff. Blueberry Crunch Cake? Done.

In addition to being morally questionable, Brownies are one of the all time great comfort foods. Do you have a friend who just went through a big break up? Nothing fixes a broken heart better than a brownie. (Well, okay, a brownie and some ice cream.) Brownies also make a great birthday cake. To paraphrase a friend, if they don’t like brownies, they must be communist. (Wow. Liberals, communists, Freud, foul whiffs. Happy summer!)

The great unacknowledged truth about brownies is that they are a simple one bowl cookie. Yes, I also know that they say that the best brownies come from a mix, but with all due respect, I disagree on many levels. Shall we break this down?

Cost? The average mix costs about $2.50 per box. To that you must still add your own eggs and oil. Mine? See “quality of cocoa used” below. Cocoa powder is the biggest expense here.

Time? I dunno. Mine are pretty darn fast. And you still have some measuring to do with a mix.

Quality of cocoa used: I know where my cocoa comes from. Betty or Duncan’s? I’m sure it is excellent. (Yes, I’m being condescending.) The truth is, you just don’t know where Betty or Duncan’s cocoa comes from.

Okay, okay, I’ll cave on one area: if you are not much of a baker perhaps the mix is your best bet. I bake a lot, so I have flour and all the other ingredients already. If you don’t bake much you’ll have to buy all that stuff.

But perhaps if you invest in a bag of flour and a tin of excellent cocoa powder you will be encouraged to bake more often? I hear you: a debatable point.

There is one other little nagging item. The mixes contain partially hydrogenated oil, an unhealthy fat. In addition, you need to add your own oil and eggs. My recipe? No partially hydrogenated oil and you can control the quality of all the ingredients, even making the whole thing organic if you wish. No debate there.

What’s the score so far? (Oh, a draw. Darn.)

Okay then, I have one last trick up my (chocolately) sleeve. Tiger stripes. You can’t do these if you make brownies from a mix. These are not to be confused with peanut butter or sour cream which some people—me included—enjoy adding to brownies. The stripes in this recipe don’t introduce any other flavors or ingredients; they are purely for looks. I used to work with a very sweet woman who enjoyed wearing animal prints. These are a toast to her. Make these for someone and they are sure to remember.

You’ll notice that the recipe uses canola oil instead of butter. While there are some health benefits to this choice I must admit I had an ulterior motive. I like my brownies with just a touch of chill on them. I just think the chocolate tastes better that way. If you refrigerate brownies made with butter they aren’t as chewy straight out of the fridge.

The stripes are, of course, optional. If you prefer your brownies monochromatic simply skip that step in the recipe.

That’s a choice “thing.”

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Click here for the recipe for Tiger-Stripe Brownies.

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Bowl And Spoon

Blueberry Crunch Cake

Blueberry Crunch Cake

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Click here for the recipe for Blueberry Crunch Cake.

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When Life Hands You Strawberries…

Strawberry Ricotta Tart

Strawberry Ricotta Tart

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

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

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

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

Not this time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Click here for my recipe for Strawberry Ricotta Tart

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