Archive for the ‘Summer Food’ Category

Is that sand between my toes or are you happy to see me?

Banana Walnut Bread

Banana Walnut Bread

I’ve decided to build an iPhone app that will help people answer the question, “What did you do on your summer vacation?” The twist—the gimmick—will be that you can’t write a word until Summer has receded into memory, your flip-flops have been thrown under the bed for the winter, and you can’t leave the toasty warmth of your kitchen without wearing something made of wool.  Yes, friends, this will be “The Procrastinator’s Guide to Summer Scrap Booking.”

I’m sure I’ll get around to this…eventually.

Following that general timeline, I’m just getting around to jotting down a few poetic thoughts about what came out of my kitchen during the warm weather. Hint: I could fit these thoughts on a cheap postcard of Ocean Grove, New Jersey.  Why Ocean Grove?  It’s a really nice summer place, but I’m scared to go there because John Quinones and the crew from ABC’S “What Would You Do?” keep popping up, documenting people’s bad behavior. Hey, I’m an angel, but with the wrong editing I may come off badly. And as Nora Ephron said, “Lighting is everything.”

But I digress…

The kitchen of my expansive New York City apartment (with views of Central Park, the Hudson AND East Rivers—framed) gets very hot during the summer. I find it interesting that something grown in tropical climates, the common household Banana, cannot survive a 90-degree New York City apartment kitchen without becoming the botanical equivalent of road kill.  Yet, stored in the refrigerator they begin to resemble the pods from “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”.

Predictably, I gave in to the common solution of using dying bananas to make Banana Walnut Bread.  I used the recipe in Craig Claiborne’s version of “The New York Times Cookbook” which dates back to 1961.  As with most things from that era, it has a bit more charm (hello), although this is due to Claiborne having called it, “Banana Tea Bread”.  That name conjures up the vibe of a different era, but I don’t own a tea service or a doily, so this Banana Walnut Bread—with canola oil replacing the recipe’s shortening—was purely a weekend snack.  Toasted, then topped with a little cream cheese, it also made a really good high carb pre-workout breakfast. (I make no claims about this being health food, but it certainly is wholesome.) Using Canola Oil means you can eat it straight from the fridge without it being like a big, cold, brick, but toasting it brings out its earth tones.

Pumpkin Blondies

Pumpkin Blondies

A few weeks ago, one of my treasured yoga teachers, Kyle Miller, decamped to Los Angeles.  All of my teachers are amazing, but yoga seems to waft from Kyle’s pores like the scent of patchouli from a burning incense stick.  I started practicing yoga at a fairly late stage in life, and am about as flexible and graceful as a “two by four”, so I consider myself lucky to have had someone as skilled, enthusiastic, and spiritual as Kyle to get me enthusiastic about returning to the mat.  Kyle has teamed up with some colleagues to start a business called Yoga for Bad People.  I hope someday she’ll return to New York and start “Yoga for Good People who are Bad at Yoga”.  I’ll be there.

Kyle’s final New York class was a packed, emotional (and sweaty) treat to attend. She is beloved. My Bon Voyage gift to her was a short stack of Pumpkin Blondies. I was hoping that the pumpkin and maple flavors would give her a little taste of the Northeast to savor in Sunny LA.  These were based on a simple Blondie recipe I found on line; the pumpkin, maple syrup, and chocolate chunks were my addition. (I struggle when it comes to making things without chocolate. The Banana Walnut Bread mentioned above almost succumbed.)

Mixed Berry Crisp with Pistachio Crumb topping

Mixed Berry Crisp with Pistachio Crumb topping

This past summer I found myself craving the delicate richness of home-made ice cream…often.  Perhaps too often. My excuse was that I was experimenting with using the same base to make different flavors.  Really. It was for the greater good. My favorite flavor remains Peppermint Stick. I tried adding chocolate to it, but the chocolate gets too cold, which blunts its flavor. I had better results adding finely chopped chocolate to the top of the scooped ice cream.

To accompany one particularly silky batch of Vanilla Bean, I made very simple, little Berry Crisps.  These make suitable baking subjects during the hot weather because the berries are (relatively) cheap and plentiful, and because you can throw them in the oven and retreat to the air conditioning while they bake.  The zaftig smoothness of the ice cream cuts the spiky, almost vinegary sweetness of the berries.  And the cold / hot “thing” is my second most favorite food juxtaposition, after “salty / sweet”.  So, there may have been the odd salted pistachio in the crumb topping.

Boston Pops

Boston Pops

Boston Pops

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Mutiny on the Bounty

Suburban bounty

Suburban bounty

I am convinced that the compulsion to plant a garden and grow things is hard wired into us. Is this a good thing? You tell me. Growing things requires an array of talents. For some the talent lies in acquiring the needed real estate. For some the talent lies in understanding what plant life needs so that it is properly nurtured. It is a wonderful thing to be able to walk outside of one’s door, snip a few things, and feed soul and family.

You’d think Mother Nature could have made it a little easier. I know that gardening as represented by Ina Garten on TV—that brand of gardening where you grab a shiny little pair of clippers, sweep through a pair of French doors into your garden (“Isn’t it faaabulous?”) and end up with pesto –is a fiction drawn by the video editor’s magic wand.

Real gardening is that little patch of dirt you cleared away in the back yard. That little three-by-three square next to the fence where you got the dirt under your fingernails, sprinkled in the seeds from their skinny paper envelope, that sandy oasis in a desert of concrete that you checked on and fussed over each day for weeks, practically willing the first shoots to peek through the dirt. My Aunt Sarah had a garden like that, and the bounty was celebrated and boasted about and washed and eaten with relish…or as relish.

I do not make this statement from first-hand knowledge. I am a city dweller and as such my horticultural endeavors do not extend far beyond a small juniper tree that sits in my kitchen window. Mr. Juniper Tree, whose specialty seems to be looking pretty, will not be brewed for homemade gin, and is resolutely not staying for dinner.

Still, there comes a day early in the August of each year when the bounty of my non-city dwelling friends’ gardens appear on my kitchen counter. I am blessed. I am also compelled to ask, “How many damn tomatoes can I eat?”

I take comfort in knowing that the tomatoes in their tattered ShopRite bags appear before me because the people who grew them asked that same question. I am therefore, the beneficiary of bounty overrun. The tomato equivalent of the bargain book aisle at Barnes and Noble. I am the vine-ripened “Mikey likes it!” The average suburban tomato vine is seemingly so abundantly fecund, that I often feel people who want to plant a garden should get the same warning as the little kid who keeps asking Mom and Dad for a puppy: “It’s not just for Christmas, it’s for every day.”

If I were a member of a previous generation I would likely be readying canning jars and the related equipment needed to “put up” the tomatoes for winter. Back in the day that was how you ate tomatoes in the dead of winter. But I am a child of the space age: I can get anything I want, any time I want it. So the question is: what do I do with all these tomatoes now? Tomatoes look grand on my kitchen counter for a couple of days, but beyond that I’ll need to write place cards for the fruit flies that will start feasting on them. I have to act now. Or as my Aunt Sarah would have said, “RIGHT now.”

(Aunt Sarah, who is no longer around to defend herself, would nevertheless agree that she was successful at growing tomatoes not because of a green thumb but because the vines were intimidated by her.)

One of the reasons people grow their own tomatoes is that they usually do taste better than the ones you buy in the supermarket. This is mostly true, so for the first few days I eat sliced tomatoes with a few crackles of sea salt, and herb and garlic goat cheese—my preference because I find mozzarella a bit bland and goat cheese is easier on my stomach.

After I’ve had enough of sliced tomato salad, I make sauce—or gravy, as my Italian friends call it. This requires a bit of refined technique and the proper ingredients. Feel free to use this technique when cooking anything Italian. It starts with a generous dose of garlic, really good Extra Virgin Olive Oil, fresh oregano, a piquant, crumbly, Parmesan cheese, and, the most important item of all (and this is indispensible): Sergio Franchi. If listening to him sing “Volare” and “Quando, Quando, Quando” doesn’t put me in the right mood, doesn’t make me feel Italian, then I skip the project and have Chinese food. What can I say? The man was a god.

After I have made sauce—uh, sorry, gravy—I move on to a savory Tomato Tart. This is humble, farmhouse-style convenience food: make it Sunday, and you can eat it cold from the fridge for the rest of the week.

If I have been lucky enough to have been the recipient of cherry or grape tomatoes, then this confirmed old teetotaler reaches for the vodka bottle. I don’t know what it is about them, but I seem to sleep very well after eating cherry tomatoes that have been marinated in vodka. This was a party hors d’oeuvre standby about twenty years ago.

But for pure versatility Tomato Cobbler or Tomato Crisp is, I think, the best way of finishing off the tomato bounty. Of the two the cobbler is the more labor intensive, but, for your trouble, is also more satisfying. This is really just a bigger version of grilled, breadcrumb-topped tomatoes. I bake this in a soufflé dish. Toss four or five quartered tomatoes with some minced garlic, a bit too much grated Parmesan cheese, a few snips of fresh oregano, and salt and pepper into the dish. Top with some biscuit dough for a cobbler. To make it a crisp, omit the biscuit dough and substitute a generous handful or three of cracker crumbles mixed with just enough softened butter so the crumbles hold together in loose clumps. Bake in a hot oven until the top is browned and everything is bubbly. Easy, yes?

The fun there is experimenting with different kinds of crackers, although if you are a hopeless snacker (like me) you’ll end up eating the crust and realize that you are losing interest in the tomatoes.

And after all those tomatoes, that shouldn’t come as a surprise, should it?

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“Tweet a mio per favore”

The Italian Team

Semifreddo

Amaretti Semifreddo with roasted apricots

I’ve been making a lot of ice cream this summer. When I post a story in this venue about ice cream I tend to get a little paranoid about it. There are a couple of reasons: 1. There is no shortage of excellent ice cream available to buy, already made, at your local supermarket. 2. People still tend to think of ice cream as an ultimate indulgence, the 70’s drug binge of desserts. I half expect to receive an email calling me a horrid little man, and asking how I dare suggest such an indulgence—and besides, don’t I know that most people do not own an ice cream freezer? To which I would reply, “Little? Thank you!”

It seems no one can stop at just one or two scoops. I cannot fix people’s will power—or lack thereof—but I do have remedy for people’s lack of an ice cream freezer.

Whenever I have a question about food I look to the Italians. French food is magnifique, but even at its most casual has an arms-length formality. Italian food is a party even at its most formal. In the dessert realm I have always given the edge to the French, but as I get older I gain more and more respect for the Italian way with dolces—especially if I can introduce chocolate into the equation.

This is, admittedly, chalked up mainly to perception on my part. In my mind’s eye Rome is always sun-splashed and hot, but it’s always sweater and beret weather in Paris. Hmmm: where is my beret?

So, taking my ignorant cultural bias with a grain of salt, I think if I were to ask an Italian what to make if I wanted a frozen dessert but didn’t have an ice cream freezer, the answer would be: semifreddo.

Semifreddo translates as “half-frozen” which is exactly what it is. If, like me, you are a fan of letting your ice cream sit for a while until it hits the “gooshy” stage, then semifreddo is your man—uh—dessert. Don’t worry, it doesn’t hit the half frozen stage through you setting timers or reading thermometers. The ingredients do all the work for you.

The bad news: you will need an electric appliance—a hand-held mixer being the preferred mode of beatery here—although the heartier among us can (and do) make do with a whisk. This appliance is needed to whip some heavy cream and then whip a couple of eggs. I’m too lazy to do this the old fashioned way. The eggs are whipped until they are pale yellow, thick, and creamy. The cream is whipped to stiff peak stage. The two items are lightly folded together, plopped into a mold (in this case a loaf pan), then stashed in the freezer where the foamed eggs lighten the whipped cream and keep it from freezing solid.

There’s beauty in this concoction, and it is a beauty that is a reflection of your own taste, for the basic recipe becomes a blank slate upon which you can heap the bounty of your own imagination.

As this was my first go at semifreddo, I may have played it a bit safe, using a couple of obvious choices. I loosely crumbled about a half a package of little amaretti cookies and used those as a middle layer. During their stay in the freezer they were moistened slightly by their surroundings, but retained enough of their crunch to make them a prize. I oven-roasted a few fresh apricots and served those as a lumpy sauce, the oven magnifying their pungency, a nice counterpart to the vanilla buttery-ness of the semifreddo. Does this still count as “fruit for dessert”?

My next attempt may be a bit more fanciful. If I have the time I’ll make a simple praline from sugar and pistachios and crumble that as a middle layer. The salty pistachios and the sugar will lend a crunchy spikiness to the mellow frozen fluff. I think this may go well with a thimble of Vin Santo. Drink it? Pour it over the semifreddo?

You choose.

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Click here for the Semifreddo recipe.

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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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“Tweeting far niente”

Ceremonial Duties

Home-made Sugar Cones

waiting for Ben and Jerry

So far my only real celebration of summer’s arrival has been to listen to Nat King Cole sing about those lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer. That always puts me in the mood for a good Clam Roll.

I absolutely love summer.

Okay, that’s a total lie. Let’s just say that I’ve gotten old enough to make my peace with summer. Nat King Cole, a few reliable old movies that I watch every summer, and the hypnotic hum of the air conditioner are what get me through. When those wear off a dab of ice cream does the trick. And just as they used to say about Brylcreem, “A little dab’ll do ya.”

A little dab of ice cream? Who stops there?

I know lots of folks who cannot get enough ice cream. I’m a more recreational user. But in the hot weather there’s something mighty appealing about the ceremony that surrounds ice cream.

When I was a kid my mother used to take me to Jules Salon for Men to have my hair cut. Jules, an expat Frenchman, ran a very modern (at the time) establishment for executives, but it was still very much a barbershop. So, there was little Mikey sitting on the bench, legs crossed, waiting, reading Paris-Match. I couldn’t understand a word in the magazine, but I like to think I learned a thing or two about Peugeot, Catherine Deneuve, and Georges Pompidou anyway.

As I write this I keep thinking about how barbershops have disappeared, but then the sting of truth washes over me: it’s not barbershops that have disappeared, it’s my hair, and therefore my need for barbershops.

ANYWAY…

After my haircut a trip of mere steps would find us in the chilled quiet of Bailey’s, an outpost of the beloved but sadly departed Boston confectionary. I find it hard to believe that places like this have seemingly evaporated. They were temples devoted to the worship of chill. Everything fed this nurturing cool, from the thick marble tables, to the twisted metal seat backs, and the steel, ruffle-rimmed metal ice cream dishes. Not a paper cup in sight.

On a hot summer day, our post-haircut treat was a drippy, hot fudge sundae with Mocha Lace ice cream, marshmallow sauce (instead of whipped cream), and salted walnuts on top. This was eaten with a loooooong metal spoon. We would chase that with tiny glasses of icy cold water that dripped from an enormous marble lavabo before trotting by the candy counter for a glimpse of the dusty, jewel-toned Turkish Delight.

Yes, each sundae likely wiped out that year’s harvest of sugar cane from a small Caribbean island. But this wasn’t an everyday indulgence, merely an occasional treat. My behavior—good or bad—was irrelevant, for nothing would keep my Mother from her appointed date with Mocha Lace. I suspect her choice of Jules Salon for Men had as much to do with its proximity to Bailey’s as it did with Jules’ talent with my little scalp.

The Ice Cream ceremony takes many forms. It could be the frightening jingle of the Mister Softee truck, or the technique you’ve honed to dampen the slam of the freezer door after you’ve snuck yet another spoonful of Phish Food…or Chubby Hubby…or both.

The common sugar cone is part of my ceremony. I love them just as much as the ice cream; yet, I prefer my ice cream in a dish, with the sugar cone perched on top like a pointy hat. With each spoonful of ice cream I get a bit of crunch from the cone, yet I don’t have to worry about ice cream melting out of the bottom and rolling down my wrist. Peculiar? Sue me.

Until recently I had never tried baking my own ice cream cones. The hardest thing about this was finding the right utensil. I absolutely refused to spend the forty or fifty dollars on yet another electric appliance. This had less to do with spending money and more to do with lack of kitchen storage. I knew I needed a pizzelle iron. Who knew unless you’re willing to dig deep, that the pizzelle world has gone all electric? (Yes, I was horrified by this too, so rest easy.)

Finally I consulted Fante’s, the great Philadelphia-based kitchen supply store. After my search for an old fashioned stove top pizzelle iron had run aground in Manhattan, they offered a happily modest selection, along with great advice, recipes, and a bit of history thrown in.

(Did you know that pizzelle irons used to be given as wedding gifts etched with the new bride’s initials and the wedding date? Totally charming. Maybe I’ll have mine etched with an outline of Mikey the Pig, this site’s mascot currently oinking at the top of this page. Anyone know a trustworthy pizzelle etcher?)

I’ll admit that I did have some trepidation before my inaugural run with my old-school iron. Would the cookies stick? Would they burn? I figured who cares? The iron isn’t electric so if the worst happened I could just soak it in the sink and scrub it with some steel wool. Hey, the thing only cost about sixteen dollars. I was willing to take a chance.

I worried for nothing. After following Fante’s instructions to season the iron, each ice cream cone slid out of the iron without a fight before being rolled and left to harden (which happens fast.)

For my bonus round I substituted gluten-free flour for the all-purpose kind called for in the recipe. There was really very little difference; if anything the gluten-free cones had a slightly more fragile crumble point. (If you try the gluten free kind make sure your baking powder is also gluten free.)

And yes, that’s the scoop on making ice cream cones.

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Here’s my sugar cone adaptation of Fante’s Pizzelle 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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How ‘bout some jimmies on that Tweet?

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.

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

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Land of the Rising Tweet

Frozen Assets

Peppermint Stick Ice Cream

Martian landscape...or frozen delight?

You’ll be relieved to hear that my winter hat, gloves, and a couple of scarves are still sitting out in a handy place.

Yes, I keep reminding myself that winter—or what passed for winter this year—is over. It is shorts and flip-flop season now. Part of the reluctance of putting my woolen saviors away is that I want to launder or dry clean them first. Part of my reluctance is rooted in disbelief that the calendar today says, “June.” Really? Wait. Where did the first five months go? I can find my hat and gloves, but March sped by so fast that my hat and gloves seem to be the only evidence that March actually happened.

I face the beginning of every summer with the same grim resolve: “I will sweat now. Perspiration will be my constant companion.”

Oh my. That is grim. I need some ice cream. That’ll cheer me up.

In spite of what sounds like a dread of warm weather, one tiny corner of my brain has been waiting impatiently for summer. That’s because that corner of my brain has been focused intently on a tightly wrapped bowl of crushed candy canes that I stashed in my freezer last December. They have been waiting there—a frozen asset—since they were used as decoration on a batch of Christmas cookies. A friend had requested a repeat performance of cookies dipped in white chocolate and sprinkled with the crushed candy canes.

Or course during November and December candy canes are as much a part of the holiday season landscape as Señor Claus. To decorate the cookies I bought a package of candy canes and blitzed them in the food processor. The hardest part was getting the cellophane off of each individual cane (Noted to self at the time: don’t buy individually wrapped candy canes.)

One box of candy canes makes quite a bit more crushed candy than you could imagine, leaving quite a bit left over after I finished the cookies. The fleeting thought of discarding the rest was quickly overtaken by the fleeting inspiration to make Peppermint Stick Ice Cream “next summer”. At the time “next summer” seemed like a ship on a very distant horizon, yet here it is urgently ringing my doorbell.

The good news is that if candy canes abound during December, on June 1st my freezer seems to have an exclusive distribution deal. Suddenly the bowl of crushed candy which has been in the way all these months seems like buried treasure.

Even better, I can pat myself on the back: I’ll be telling people that I knew the Facebook stock would tank, so instead  I invested in peppermint futures and they have paid off handsomely. Buy and hold? Indeed.

There is purity to my childhood memories of Peppermint Stick ice cream that is hard to match. I am assuming my memories are of Howard Johnson’s version with its little premeditated pops of peppermint candy. I was tickled to see Mad Men pay tribute to HoJo’s this season, including a poster spied over Jon Hamm’s shoulder advertising Wednesday Fish Fry, a frequent landing pad for us when the summer heat made our kitchen unbearable. The Mad Men script highlighted HoJo’s orange sherbet, an item that wasn’t on my childhood radar. But they got the pointy shape of the scoop just right.

When I was a kid I must have literally stuck my eye into the ice cream because my memories are not of a cone, a scoop, or a dish, but of a frozen, creamy, Martian-pink landscape dotted with tiny candies. It would, on occasion, rain—hail—chocolate jimmies. Yes, this POV memory is a bit disturbing, but doesn’t everyone have a food memory like this? No? Uhhh, you mean this isn’t normal?

Well, it is this sort of trippy, psychedelic sense memory that makes me think in December of making ice cream in June, and I felt a huge responsibility to my memories to get it right, to make perfect Peppermint Stick ice cream. This is not brain surgery, although after re-reading my memory above it occurs to me that a brain surgeon would likely have a field day examining mine.

Clearly this was not the time for short cuts or easy recipes; I wanted to do this right. I had never taken the time to make an honest to goodness cooked ice cream base, so this was my maiden voyage. If you can plan your ice cream making a day or two in advance this is clearly the way to go.

Cooking custard sounds like a lot of trouble, but the truth is that if you can heat a can of soup, you can make Crème Anglaise, a/k/a ice cream base. The only real tricks (I think) are patience and a candy thermometer.

Well, think about it: the recipe uses four egg yolks…anytime you throw egg yolks over some heat you do run the risk of scrambled eggs. So, the patience is because you should use a lower heat than you may be used to and will have to stand and stir for several minutes. The candy thermometer will ensure that you do not cook the custard over 180 degrees which will scramble the eggs. Other than that it’s pretty simple. For best results you’ll need to cook the custard the day before you want to make the ice cream so that it can be chilled thoroughly before freezing.

The crushed candy canes (you can substitute the little round starlight peppermint candies) don’t get added to the ice cream until the final minute or two in the ice cream machine. If you have crushed them into a powdery crumble enough of the candy will dissolve into the ice cream tinting it a blushing pink that reminds me of my grandmother’s cheeks after she applied an item she quaintly called “rouge”.

I fought the further temptation—this time—to add a ribbon of melted chocolate as the ice cream machine whirled round and round. The Italians use this technique to add chocolate to Stracciatella gelato. When the melted chocolate hits the frozen cream it hardens and then crackles into the ice cream.

The combination of chocolate and peppermint will surely be visited before the summer ends.

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Click here for my Peppermint Stick Ice Cream 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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“Frozen Tweetberry, please”

How’s that spelt?

Spelt Breadsticks

Spelt Breadsticks

My Mom is obsessed with a cinnamon roll.

This is not to be confused with the icky, sticky, cinnamon buns sold in malls. This is more from the old-fashioned breakfast roll school: barely sweet, a little crusty, and fun to pull apart. My use of the word “obsessed” is not a joke; she must have this roll with one of her meals every day. Such a story about someone my Mom’s age—and we won’t deal in the banalities of specific numbers here—brings to mind what they say about the one hundred-plus year old folks in small Siberian villages who smoke two packs of cigarettes a day: hey they lived this long, they must be doing something right.

If my tone registers with you as being a tad judgmental, it has more to do with what gets paired with the cinnamon roll than the choice of the roll itself. (The cinnamon roll comes from only one specific bakery near where Mom lives.)

Who am I to judge? For if I am to be truthful, I must admit that the little gourmet here is just as apt to do the same thing.

My Mom and I have similar food habits. Although she’s much guiltier of this than me, we can both plead guilty to being able to eat the same thing every day for months. Alas, these obsessions don’t have a happy ending. I can lunch on the same salad or sandwich daily until one day, unannounced, my appetite declares that it simply will not tolerate a repeat performance. While hardly a tragedy, I have been known in these situations to stand on a corner looking this way and that, desperately clueless about what I should have for lunch. (It usually takes a few days of interim foraging before I settle on my newest lazy lunch choice obsession.)

I say it all the time: you can put the most miserable slop in front of me, but if there’s something good in the bread basket I won’t complain. If one man’s feast is truly another man’s famine, then it would seem futile to plan a meal in the hopes of keeping everyone happy.

So, what about – like my Mom’s current bread obsession—designing the whole meal around the bread? Sure, there are sandwiches, but even with sandwiches the calculation is usually filling first, bread second. I think this may be a way to keep everyone happy. Of course, it has to be good bread.

I’ve been down the “bread as utensil” road before, and it can be a bumpy ride, indeed. It works with miraculous Indian breads like chapatti and naan, but then I could make an entire meal of just those. The bumpy ride was a meal from another part of the world where I was left bereft of satisfaction. This failed because neither the bread nor the food being scooped by the bread were satisfactory.

What if we used the bread like a combination utensil, sandwich loaf, and fondue dipper? Prosciutto with melon is a good example of this concept; antipasto, main course, and dessert, all in one slender snack. The problem here is that the melon is a bit slippery. Bread is rarely—if ever—slippery. Clearly the better choice.

People often wrap grissini, the skinny, crunchy breadsticks, with a ghostly shaving of prosciutto. This is promising. You can also make a great dipping dessert with grissini—like the Poky sticks from Japan. But grissini lack the oomph required that could make them meal worthy.

That’s why I’m nominating the hearty-but-deceptively-light Spelt breadsticks for the gig. I had never baked with spelt before. It brings the whole grain flavor and nuttiness to the bread without the weight and grit of whole wheat flour.

Many people used to think that spelt flour was suitable for those folks on gluten-free diets, but this is not true. It does have its benefits though, like the lightness I just mentioned.

The breadsticks themselves are generously proportioned, not unlike a small loaf of bread. Serve these standing like soldiers in drinking glasses surrounded by assorted antipasti ingredients, and perhaps some flavored olive oil for dipping. A nice warm weather meal, yes?

Please don’t mention to my Mom that I compared her to the one hundred-plus year old folks in small Siberian villages who smoke two packs of cigarettes a day.

She doesn’t smoke.

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Here’s the Spelt Breadstick 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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You’re tweet…

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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Flower Power

Squash Blossoms

Squash Blossoms...hard to find / easy to cook

I was recently admonished by a trusted friend that some of my recipes are too involved—too many ingredients, too many steps. (An admonishment is like a scolding without the finger wagging.) But here’s the thing: for me, the kitchen is an oasis, especially on a hot summer day when I have my A/C cranked to “meat locker”. I don’t mind a few extra steps. Even if I am listening to music or watching TV while I cook, I generally tune those out and get a lot of very important thinking done while I, say, boil sugar (alarmingly, one of my favorite pastimes).

This all reminds me of a time when I changed jobs and had to train the person who was taking my place. Not to cast anyone in a negative light (too late), but it was a difficult transition. She just didn’t understand any of the work she was inheriting and, like a big, fat, dumb salmon, kept swimming against the tide. The lesson I learned – and hopefully she also learned (although I know she didn’t)—was that I can only demonstrate how I do something. It may not be the best or most optimal way, but it’s how I got the job done. So there.

What you see when I cook is a work in progress—both the cook and the cooked. So sometimes I go out on a limb to learn something new or try something new.

(Defensive anyone?)

But speaking of easier recipes, a few days ago an errand took me a little out of the way. I found myself very hungry, and, happily, in the middle of a farmers’ market. The farmers’ markets here in Nueva York can be touch and go. Example: this one featured a booth where someone was selling maple syrup (provenance unknown) in bottles shaped like the Statue of Liberty. Unfortunately I already have that bottle in my Maple Syrup Bottle Collection.

But as I turned to step down the subway stairs I spotted a couple of tables selling the type of stuff I like to find at a farmers’ market: fresh currants, and, one of my all time faves, squash blossoms.

Currants are a great ingredient (especially for someone who likes to boil sugar), because they make great preserves, or a great glaze for chicken. They’re a little on the tart side uncooked, but I thought they’d be fun stewed and added to an eggy vanilla ice cream as it freezes. Fresh Currant Ripple is most definitely not something you find at Carvel.

Ah, but Squash blossoms? For a city boy these are like bringing the farm into my little urban kitchen. They are that breath of fresh country air I always imagine you get when you get out of the car at the farm after a long drive from the city.

(How naïve. That first breath of country air you get at the farm actually smells like…well…there are cows and horses and chickens there. Smells like a farm. Or like New York on a hot, summer day.)

Maybe the novelty (to me) is that squash blossoms have remained a true farm product; they are too perishable for supermarkets. Like fiddle ferns, they always seem (to me) like something you luck into.

They’re kinda groovy, relaxed, and they look like hippies dressed in tie-dyed psychedelic orange. These are the flower that blossoms from tops of squash as they grow. I’ve never grown squash; perhaps if I did I’d take them more for granted.

Okay, maybe not the easiest ingredient to find (I can already feel the breeze from the finger wagging I’ll get), they are however, easy to prepare. These are very informal preparations. In fact, I learned these when camping out one summer as a kid. Take your pick: savory or sweet.

You may have had something similar to the savory kind on Super Bowl Sunday when you’ve been served Jalapeño Poppers. For this recipe you simply throw some ricotta cheese, garlic, anchovy, salt and pepper to taste in a food processor, and whirr until combined. Fill the blossoms and then dredge in flour. Pan fry in canola oil quickly, just until the flour starts to brown. Drain on paper towels and eat while still warm. Cooking through isn’t really the point here, this is just to add to the overall flavor.

The sweet variety is just as simple. Combine ricotta and just enough confectioners’ sugar in the food processor so that the cheese is only mildly sweet, say about a tablespoon or less to a cup of ricotta. Stuff the blossoms with the cheese and pan fry as above. Dredge the filled, fried blossoms in cinnamon and sugar as soon as they come out of the pan. Let these cool to just warm and serve as a special dessert or treat.

This is the part where I tell you how I did things. These ideas are optional. First, I use Wondra flour to dredge the blossoms. You may have seen this stuff in the supermarket packaged in a tall blue canister. Wondra is a very powdery flour that chefs swear by for dredging.  You can also use it to thicken gravy. I like it because it makes a very light, slightly crisp coating, an important concern with our delicate blossoms.

Second, I fill the blossoms with a pastry bag and nozzle. It’s just easier for me, but please feel free to use a spoon.

Groovy, huh?

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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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