Archive for the ‘Technique’ Category

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.


Click here for the recipe for Blueberry Crunch Cake.


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Mr. Wizard?

Biscoff & Coffee Ice Cream

Biscoff & Coffee Ice Cream

Lately every time I share a meal with my brother he makes me roll my eyes. He is intrigued by the recently released Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking by Nathan Myhrvold, Chris Young, and Maxime Bilet. Me? Not so much.

If you don’t know who Nathan Myhrvold is, you may find his biography daunting. I sure do. Here’s the “head of a pin” version: started college at 14, PhD in theoretical and mathematical physics by age 23, formerly Chief Technology Officer of Microsoft, oh, and by the way, a master French chef who has finished first and second in the world championship of barbecue.

Ummmm. I can bake cookies and tie my shoes—although not at the same time. Oh, and I have to double-tie my shoes, because they tend to come untied if I don’t. My lack of intrigue with Myhrvold’s book is, I think, a classic case of projecting my own self-perceived short comings onto it. That and it is 2438 pages with a list price of $625—although savvy shoppers can snag it on Amazon for $477.93. You’ll have to wait though, as it is sold out.

The book itself deals heavily with the science of cooking. I never think of myself as someone who is interested in the science of cooking. Yet, as I think back on some of the things I‘ve written in this space I realize that my self-image seems to have been heavily self-censored. Anyone have a copy of that magazine quiz, “Are you a Geek”? I think it was in Popular Science. I need to be re-tested.

In the meantime your low-rent Mr. Wizard has brought you another food science lesson. Happily it ends with a dish of ice cream.

One thing I know about myself: you do not want to go grocery shopping with me. I am not a “quick run into the market to pick up a couple of things” kind of guy. The guy with the cart who is cruising up and down every aisle with extended stops in the imported food aisle? Smile and wave as you pass me.

Anyway, on one of those extended cruises I came across Junket rennet tablets.  I think they caught my eye because I remembered my Mom feeding me Junket rennet custard as a kid. I’ve never been much of a milk drinker, and it was a way to get milk into me. (I’ve never even liked milk on my breakfast cereal.)

Rennet is an enzyme that is harvested from the stomach lining of cows, and it coagulates milk. Many cheese makers use rennet to separate milk into curds and whey. The curds are then treated in many different ways to make all the different kinds of cheese we love. The whey is used for many products from protein powder supplements to animal feed.

Truth is, these tablets have been sitting on my shelf for months. I bought them without really thinking of how I would use them. Reading through the attached pamphlet though, my eye was immediately drawn to a recipe for ice cream. Who knew? Rennet ice cream! Yes, I know: you’re just as amazed as me!

It makes sense. Ice cream needs an ingredient that will emulsify the mixture in order to prevent ice crystals from forming as it freezes. Many cooks use eggs. Commercial ice cream often has other ingredients to do this, including gelatin. But the coagulation caused by the rennet can be done without heat. No cooking means less time needed to chill the mixture, which means the ice cream will be in your dish that much faster.

Low-rent Mr. Wizard would like to remind you of one of his guiding principles: always read and re-read a new recipe before using it. I did not, so as they say on Twitter, #FAIL. This is science, so if the recipe says Whole Milk, do not use 2% Milk.

I think my other mistake was being a bit too diligent in following the cooking instructions. The recipe says to warm the milk and cream to lukewarm at 110˚F. I very carefully did so, but I think my thermometer may have been misplaced in the sauce pan. I’m guessing I may have overheated the milk because not only did the rennet not coagulate the milk and cream, the resulting mixture would not freeze, even when I stuck it in the regular freezer for a few hours.

Starting from scratch, I deduced that the reason the mixture is warmed is to dissolve the sugar in the milk and cream. What if I skipped the heating stage altogether?

On my second attempt, I decided to dissolve the sugar mechanically. I combined everything except the cream in the blender. After the sugar dissolved, the cream was added and mixed very briefly to avoid whipping it. This attempt was perfect and creamy. It is not as silky as custard-based ice cream. The flip side to that is that is not too rich or heavy either.

In the meantime, on another of those meandering trips up and down the grocery aisle I found Biscoff cookies. I was first introduced to these toasty, brown sugary, Belgian cookies when I was served one for breakfast on an airplane trip. (Yes. One cookie the size of two fingers. For breakfast. Well done, airlines! I remember thinking, “I hope they didn’t go to too much trouble.”) Printed on the side of the cookie wrapper are the words, “Europe’s Favorite Cookie With Coffee.” What could be better than coffee ice cream with Biscoff cookies crumbled in?

Uh oh. I think that was one of the questions on the “Are you a Geek?” test.


Click here for my recipe for “Biscoff & Coffee Ice Cream


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From the desk of…

Roasted Onion Tart

An Open Letter to Martha Stewart

Dear Martha

You are such a doll. I appreciate your supportive comments; just that fact that you take the time to read my blog on your iPad each week during your morning yoga, and that you’ve assigned it its own button on your home screen has me thrilled to kittens. To answer your question: yes, my blog is free for everyone, and for the time being I have no plans to charge a subscription fee. Let’s just say that my overhead is a bit lower than yours.

Just loving your magazine of late—it absolutely comes alive on the iPad. I’ve taken the liberty of making a few notes that I have forwarded via DM. Just think of them as a few idle thoughts that I know will help you to improve your magazine. (You’re welcome!)

Anyhoodle, it seems that you and I are about to butt heads (again!) I hope this won’t be as contentious as The Great Caesar Salad Battle of 2008, but I make no promises. I know that you are a bit of an absolutist, but please keep an open mind: even Julia Child tried McDonald’s once.

The lovely sampler you cross-stitched for me is framed and hanging in my kitchen. It serves as a constant reminder about pie crust and similar pastry, exhorting me to “make it cold and bake it hot.” Here’s the thing, though: I happened to come across an old cookbook that General Foods published in 1955 for their Spry brand vegetable shortening, a product that fell out of sight many years ago.

(You have no one to blame but yourself for this bit of kitchen archeology; you’re the one who encouraged me to get into collectables.)

I recognize that the ages-old technique for making pie crust has been to “cut” chunks of fat (lard, shortening, butter) into flour. Even for me that remains the ideal way to go. And as you so often remind us, the reason for working with cold ingredients and baking them in a hot oven is pure science: as the pastry bakes, the fat and liquid steam away, leaving a delicate, flaky pastry.

Ah, but some unknown home economist at General Foods had an idea to streamline the process. The “Water-Whip” pastry recipe was devised to take most of the guess work out of pastry. Harried housewives could whip some shortening with a bit of boiling water, and then add the flour, and they were done. No waiting for the dough to “rest.” No guessing if they’d added just the right amount of water.

Yes, the resulting dough was a little sticky, but the instructions were clear: roll the dough between two pieces of waxed paper. (To me, the most startling thing about the 1955 cook book is that there is not an electric mixer in sight. Every recipe is stirred by hand with a wooden spoon or fork. Can you imagine? Pioneering days: all that is missing are the covered wagons.)

In the past you and I have chuckled about my aversion to the old-fashioned vegetable shortenings, of which the late, lamented Spry was one. Was it you or Alexis who kept calling me “Fat-O-Phobe”? Well, no matter. They are loaded with hydrogenated fats and preservatives, so I won’t use them, I don’t care what you call me. (Sticks and stones…).

To be fair, vegetable shortening wasn’t really invented to be health food, was it? It was invented to be a convenient alternative to lard, and to have a longer shelf life. It was only in the past twenty or so years that we realized the hydrogenated oils and the trans-fats they contain are so bad.

Thankfully there are now some really good non-hydrogenated alternatives—I think even Crisco makes one. (Modern living! Yay!) I’m a fan of Earth Balance. I’m perhaps a bit more forgiving of whatever a product’s flaws may be. I remember reading an article a few years back where some woman said if she tasted a cookie made with margarine she would spit it out. I know! Tacky, right?

A few days ago I thought it would be fun to experiment with the old “Water-Whip” recipe with an eye toward adapting it to the twenty-first century. As mentioned, my choice of shortening is healthier. I also used my Kitchen-Aid stand mixer. Yes, it makes a somewhat sticky dough, but I knew ahead of time that I would not have patience for rolling it out between two pieces of waxed paper. I’ve tried that before with unhappy results. If I couldn’t roll it on a floured board then all bets would be off.

I’m happy to report that I enjoyed the results. The dough wasn’t that difficult to use with a dusting of enough flour to keep the dough from sticking to the board and the rolling pin, if you work fast, and roll only as much dough as you have room for: small counter or small kitchen = small crust. (Hey, I could put that on a sampler for you!)

Yes, yes, I know. It’s not really pie crust. It’s more of a savory shortbread. But baked into a Roasted Onion Tart it had the appropriate toasty, crumbly, tenderness. Rough and rustic? Yes. Polished and complete? Perhaps not. Delicious? Mmmm-hmmm.

Roasting the onions gave them a sugary sweetness that the slight saltiness of the “Water-Whip” crust showed off with aplomb. It would make a wonderful side dish with a green salad or as a selection in a summer breakfast buffet. (Can’t wait to visit you in Maine this summer. Remind me again when “black fly” season is?)

Hope you’ll try the crust. Ring me if you have questions.




Click here for my recipe for “Roasted Onion Tart.”


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Makes a good brooch too…

Flower Cookie Centerpiece

Flower Cookie Centerpiece

Mr. Maple Tree, a certain gentleman who resides outside of my living room window, has finally started to sprout leaves. I noticed this development about a week ago when one tiny little green bud appeared at the end of a branch. This week he is displaying what looks like green pom-poms. Soon those will grow into full-fledged clusters of green leaves. Tree hugger? Me?

I love winter, but will happily admit that this year’s snow fest was a bit of overkill on the part of Mother Nature. My winter boots asked for disaster pay. (Rim shot, please.)

Bottom line: finally, spring is here.

In the Big Apple this is school vacation week. I live near a middle school that normally clangs with the screeches of hundreds of teens. But the quiet this morning reminded me of a western town in a John Wayne movie just before the Dalton gang arrives. The only thing missing was the tumbleweeds.

I am an unapologetic Peeps addict, so I tend to think of Easter as Christmas with marshmallow. Oh, and instead of poinsettias, tulips and daffodils are on display. While I’d love to have a garden—and a gardener to maintain it—alas, it seems as a dweller of the big city the only crop I seem to be able to grow with any abundance is dust. (There’s a joke there, somewhere. Something about dust bunnies and Easter bunnies, but I haven’t quite figured it out yet.)

I enjoy watching Ina Garten, TV’s Barefoot Contessa walk outside her kitchen door to snip something from her garden and arrange it simply in a water glass and use it as a centerpiece. I could try the same thing, but there’s no rosemary growing in the hallway. (My landlord would frown on that.)

You do what you can with what you’ve got. I can’t grow flowers but I can bake them. So try this on for size: a little Martha Stewart-style crafts project I call the Butter Flour Eggs Cookie Centerpiece.  I started using cookies as cake decoration a while ago, so it is not a stretch for me to try to find other venues in which to display their beauty. (My first thought was to use them as Christmas tree decoration. But living in a New York apartment, there are a few disincentives to leaving food sitting around.)

At heart the cookies are made from basic shortbread dough—my same easy to roll recipe that I used on Valentine’s Day. To my eye these sugary flowers always look like they were drawn with a sparkly crayon, which makes them perfect for occasions where children will be among the celebrants. Using a bit of royal icing (a/k/a edible Elmer’s Glue) I attached a bamboo skewer to each one and grounded that firmly in a cupcake. Two or three plates of those down the center of a long table will be my centerpiece at Easter dinner.

The color palette is your choice; you can see I gravitated towards groovy ‘60’s yellow and pink. I won’t be insulted if you find my choice a bit loud and decide to go with something a bit more subtle (zzzzzzz). Your choices are as wide as the colors of sanding sugar you can find. For these cookies I recommend rolling the dough to a hefty ¼” thick. Paint a bit of egg wash on the unbaked cookies and sprinkle with the sanding sugar before baking. Cool thoroughly before gluing the skewers with Royal icing and allow a few hours for the Royal icing to harden and dry.

Don’t feel confined by a vanilla cookie or the flower cookie cutter. A couple of Christmases ago I made little chocolate wreaths with Royal icing that looked like brown Wedgewood.

If your kids are home from school this week, the cookie centerpiece is a great project for you to supervise. And if you’re not feeling ambitious don’t worry about the royal icing and skewers: just stick the cookie right into the frosting.

This reminds me of a friend who used to have a country house. No slouch in the kitchen, if you visited him during the winter chances are you would be served a steaming plate of Cincinnati Chili. During warmer months the chili was retired but you could look forward to hand churned ice cream or “Dirt Cake” which was (I think) chocolate pudding and cake served in a real (sterilized)clay pot, topped with chocolate cookie crumbs (the dirt) and a real flower. It was pretty convincing until he started spooning it onto plates.

You can do the same thing with the cookie centerpiece, although for my money the cartoon-y quality of the cookies matches cupcakes better. Don’t go crazy with the cupcakes here—you can even use store bought. I made very simple white cupcakes and placed everything on simple white plates.

No surprise here: as usual for me the cookies are the star of the show.


Use this recipe for the cookie dough: I Heart Shortbread Cookies.

And it’s not too late to bake for Good Friday or Easter. Click here for my recipe for Hot Cross Buns.


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Thank you, Oz

Hot Cross Buns

Hot Cross Buns

The last stop before Grand Central Station on the Metro-North commuter train is 125th Street. Once passed, there is a sense of relief and anticipation that you’re almost “there” (that’s the relief)—but that “there” is our jumping, jiving city (that’s the anticipation).

In the case of the Easter and Good Friday holidays, the relief and anticipation are all about spring and summer and nice weather – an all too important consideration after the rough winter we’ve had this year.

Of course, at this time of year it is easy to get over confident about the weather, but Mother Nature tends to be a tricky, moody, old biddy, so we really don’t know what she has in store, but the days are just that much longer, and even the coldest mornings are just that much warmer.

Alongside seasonal weather changes are seasonal supermarket changes, for the spring heralds the arrival of the Passover food on your grocer’s doily-lined shelves, and Hot Cross Buns in the bakery section. The latter were always a curiosity to me. I had tried them and found that their spiced- icky, sticky bun-candied fruit allures held no sway over me. They always struck me as sticky buns gone wrong; bread that wanted to be fruitcake, but realized it had arrived four or five months too late and missed Christmas; dough that took the wrong path. (Has this gotten a bit film noir? Sorry.)

Purely out of a sense of duty then, I felt compelled to make Hot Cross Buns for this blog. My conscience was bothering me: can one write a baking-centric blog and ignore Hot Cross Buns? I think not.

So with that great burden weighing on me (heavy sigh), I started researching them. The great thing about the internet is that if you think it, someone, somewhere, has, at some point in time, written about it. I had an art professor in college – a tough cookie—who liked to say, “There truly is nothing new under the sun.” Surely he was talking about the internet too.

What the internet revealed to me filled me with a great deal of relief. I had expected the basic flavors and ingredients of Hot Cross Buns to be as tightly proscribed as the placement of medals on a military uniform. Turns out I was wrong. The only constants I found amongst all the variations were 1.) duh: there’s always a cross on the top (although not always sweet) and 2.) Hot Cross Buns are sweet.

While Hot Cross Buns may traditionally have been a Good Friday treat, in recent years they have broken off from their niche purpose and become a year-round bakery staple. If I ever needed an excuse to make the long trip down under to Australia (I didn’t), the revelation that the Aussies add chocolate chips to their Hot Cross Buns could certainly have been one. Bravo, Aussies, for that was the inspiration I needed to bring some enthusiasm to the project.

While the Aussies add more than just chocolate chips to their Hot Cross Buns, the allure of chocolate cannot be overstated. After reading this blog each week, my sister-in-law will often write me a short email consisting solely of the words, “Can I put chocolate on that?” I could write about sauerkraut and she would likely ask the same question, for, like me, chocolate is her cure-all. (I even crave it when I have, uh…digestive distress.) This week, the answer is a happy, “Yes, but there’s already chocolate there.”

The internet also revealed a bit of discussion about the texture of the buns. Should they be hearty and dense, or light and puffy? I have come down clearly on the side of light and puffy, and this dictated a lot of technical issues about the recipe. Light and puffy means two rises, and, because we want something just slightly sweet, a little richness in the ingredients is called for. While some bread doughs get by with only water and oil or butter, a whole egg plus a little milk and butter will give our Hot Cross Buns a supple richness that will support the sugar without making the gentle sweetness seem “thin.”

The result reminds me of the wonderful Parisian-inspired subtly sweet rolls they sell at the extraordinary Silver Moon Bakery on New York’s Upper West Side.

The process of baking bread seems intimidating to some, but the truth is, if you can plug in a Kitchen-Aid stand mixer you can bake bread. (Sounds like a sales pitch, no?) Measure a few ingredients, turn on the mixer, then leave the dough to rise. Yes, it can be three or four hours from plugging in the mixer to taking the Hot Cross Buns out of the oven. But you only work for about a half an hour. The rest of the time the yeast and your oven are doing the work. (Sorry, I shout this every time I bake any form of bread.)

I love a recipe that serves more than one purpose. It is a perverse form of recycling, but next week’s Hot Cross Buns could show up at a special holiday weekend breakfast next fall. (Well, not the same actual rolls. I’ll make a fresh batch.) All I have to do is make a squiggle with the icing instead of a cross.

But even that amount of change isn’t needed.


Click here for my recipe for Hot Cross Buns.

…and don’t miss these great Passover recipes (they’re great any time of the year):

Coconut Macaroons

Passover Honey Cake

Torta di Mandorla per la Pasqua. (A very light Passover chocolate – almond torte)


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Aluminum. Mine.

Passsover Honey Cake Slices

Passover Honey Cake

Growing up in a Jewish home I was always made acutely aware of how important good food was—is—at any occasion. Even the post-funeral gatherings we call “sitting shiva” are excuses to pull out the good napkins. That’s why I am always mystified by my people’s willingness to put up with bad food on Passover. The excuse is always that you cannot cook with “chametz”, the umbrella word describing ingredients that are not allowed on Passover. This usually refers to anything bread or flour related, and any kind of leavening, but the actual rule bans things made from wheat, barley, oats, rye, or spelt. The only wheat product allowed is matzo and what I lovingly refer to as its derivatives: matzo that has been ground, crumbled, or otherwise processed so that it can be used in other recipes.

There is such a thing as Passover Baking Soda, which confuses me because I thought the purpose of the Passover holiday was to commemorate bread not being allowed to rise. Passover Baking Soda’s loophole? No cornstarch.

From a baker’s point of view it’s kind of like being told that you must substitute breadcrumbs for flour.

Generations of commercial kosher bakers have been putting their kids through Harvard and Yale just by selling Passover desserts to even the most unobservant Jews (hello) who have always been willing to pay for Passover-compliant cakes and cookies. Here’s the problem: a lot of it just isn’t very good, especially the supermarket brands. A lot of it is also…shall we say, “premium-priced.”

Apologies to the folks who produce the supermarket Passover stuff (and to their well-educated progeny), but a cake that has been sitting in a box for an unknown amount of time has a few strikes against it.

Is it heresy for me to complain? All I want is a good piece of cake, for goodness sake.

Luckily, I’m handy in the kitchen and have figured out a few tricks that result in desserts that aren’t just good for Passover, they’re good anytime of the year. Last year I made a Northern Italian-style Torta di Mandorla per la Pasqua, a chocolate, almond, egg white torte. I actually served it before Passover to a group of non-Jewish friends who loved it, and remains one of my favorite recipes. (It is very light so perfect for summer.)

This year I decided to re-visit the Grandmother of all Jewish Holiday desserts: Honey Cake. When I was a kid with (I’m guessing) a much less discerning palate, my presence at any event could be secured with the promise of honey cake. The typical honey cake comes in a loaf, usually encased in (don’t get me started) a disposable aluminum pan. To my adult palette though, honey cake always tastes a bit syrupy, and manages to be both too dry and too sodden. Not sure how that’s possible.

Blame science. In baking, the type of flour, its grind, the kind of wheat used, and how the milled flour has been treated are some of the things that rule how a cake gelatinizes (mixes with liquid then bakes into a solid). Passover Cake meal is basically powdered Matzo and has its own rule book, but it is easy to predict that this ingredient will lend density to a cake. The usual trick has always been to lighten the cake meal in a way that imitates traditional cake flour. This is usually accomplished by adding potato starch. The results vary according to the other ingredients in the cake. In the case of honey you end up with a wet, damp cake because honey is hygroscopic: it actually pulls moisture in even when baked.

Okay, I promise: no more science. But the takeaway here is: use too much honey and you’ll have a damp, heavy cake. Too little, your cake is dry. Just the right amount and you’ll have a cake that works at staying fresh. The question is: what can you add that will give the cake a true “crumb”, texture that makes a cake feel like a cake when you take a bite?

For the answer you can thank the current popularity of macarons, the colorful French-style almond macaroons. I have been trying to learn to make them (they’re tricky) and have a bag of almond flour sitting in my refrigerator. Almond flour is just the man for the job: it will mix well with the Passover Cake Meal to make a nice crumb and is Passover-friendly on its own.

Using almond flour in cake is certainly nothing new. Europeans have been baking with it for generations. So taking a cue from a French Galette, the simple round torte, I called my Springform pan into service.

The beauty of my concept was that with the honey and almond flour I already had two very flavorful ingredients. A couple of more layers of flavor would be ideal, so I used a delicate sprinkle of orange zest, and a not so delicate dash of frozen concentrated orange juice whose character would slightly overlap the honey while adding a sunny note of its own. A little cocoa powder and vanilla extract would bring some perfumed but earthy notes to the cake.

The result has the slight chewy crumb of a galette and a delicate honeyed sweetness that some may find reminiscent of the desserts the Spanish Sephardic Jews favor.

No disposable aluminum loaf pans required…or allowed.


Click here for the recipe for Passover Honey Cake.

Click here for the recipe for Torta di Mandorla per la Pasqua.


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Nothing Up My Sleeve (Oops! Wrong sleeve…)

Coconut Macaroons

The can is purely ceremonial...

I’m beginning to feel self conscious: I’ve been boiling so much sugar lately that I’m afraid my neighbors must be thinking I’ve started a rum factory in my kitchen. The true explanation is quite innocent: I just happen to be baking things that require boiled sugar as part of their magic.

Let me tell you a little story. (Have a seat.) Many years ago I worked with a talented sleight-of-hand artist. While that sounds like the opening salvo of a very old-fashioned dirty joke, it is the truth. Sleight-of-hand artists differ from regular magicians in that everything they do is designed to be witnessed from very close range. While you watch an illusionist pull a rabbit out of a hat, part of your mind is usually doing the work to reverse engineer how the illusionist may have made this happen. At the very least you  know there’s bound to be something special about that hat—some way of hiding the rabbit.

With a sleight-of-hand artist all you see is a few coins, and a couple of pairs of hands, one pair of which likely belongs to you. My usual startled reaction to my co-worker’s tricks (and I use that word with a great deal of guilt) was, “How did you do that?” The answer was always, “It’s magic.” I could never figure out a better explanation.

I get the same zing when I boil sugar to 238 degrees: It never fails to amaze me that a saucepan of clear, dangerously hot, boiling syrup can magically transform into so many different things. Magic.

Sugar boiled to 238 degrees is commonly referred to as being at “soft ball stage.” It is called that because if you put a drop or two of the sugar syrup into a glass of cold water it should form a soft or malleable ball shape. This is cooking chemistry at its simplest. Boil the sugar to a hotter temperature and you get “hard ball stage.” You guessed it: a few drops in a glass of cold water would be hard to the touch.

If you’ve ever had Salt Water Taffy then you’ve had something that didn’t stray that far from soft ball stage sugar syrup. They cool the hot syrup on a marble slab, add a few drops of flavoring and coloring, then stretch and pull the mixture (usually by machine) until enough air has been incorporated that it has the soft milky quality that has pulled us in from the Boardwalk for so many years.

Remember the Scooter Pies I made a few weeks ago? The marshmallow I made to fill them is simply soft ball syrup whipped into gelatin. The frozen soufflé I made for Valentine’s Day had an Italian Meringue base made with egg whites and the very same soft ball syrup. The silky but rich buttercream on your cousin Debbie’s wedding cake likely started life boiling in a sauce pan (cousin Debbie may have her own dark secrets.)

Naturally if I didn’t have a Kitchen Aid-type stand mixer these things would not be in my repertoire. So it is only natural that I should find myself in front of the bubbling sauce pan again, this time so that I can resolve some unfinished business from last year.

A year ago in preparation for Passover, I decided to make Coconut Macaroons. I have an aversion to the kind they sell in the little cans. When I eat those I taste nothing but sugar and the can. I used a recipe I found that employed a generous dollop of coconut milk, a couple of egg whites, and some confectioner’s sugar. On paper it all sounded delicious. On the cookie sheet it was a loose, runny mess. I kept adding things to firm up the mixture: more confectioner’s sugar, a bit of Passover potato starch, even a touch of almond flour. Nevertheless the liquid from the cookies ran, dripped and burned onto the bottom of the oven. Have I ever told you about my fool-proof trick for ridding your kitchen of smoke? That’s because I don’t have one.

I tried that recipe a couple of times. While the resulting macaroons tasted okay they were also a bit greasy from the coconut milk. They were moist, but had no texture because the coconut was so wet it never got a chance to toast while the cookies baked. They were also far too rich for Passover dessert.

Back to the drawing board. This year it occurred to me to follow the k.i.s.s. rule: keep it simple, stupid (the latter referring to yours truly.) One package of sweetened coconut. One small batch of Italian meringue. Done. The result is a cross between a classical French Coconut Meringue (the crunchy kind) and the inside of a Mounds bar. The bonus is that they are relatively very light (as light as anything with coconut can be), and they are painless to make in quantity (you can easily double my recipe.)

Yes, by all means feel free to dip these in chocolate.

If you miss the can, you can supply your own as I did in the picture above.

It is part of the ceremony, right?


Click here for the recipe for Coconut Macaroons.


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Six Degrees of Boston Cream Pie

Boston Cream Pie


The actress Melissa Leo dropped “the “F” bomb” in her Oscar acceptance speech the other night. Personally I find this endearing and ironic. Endearing because it was a “real” moment—I place “real” in quotation marks because, let’s face it, it was an Academy Awards acceptance speech; how real could it be? It’s not like they pulled someone in off the street, stuck a statue in her hands and told her to give a speech. Nevertheless there was something genuine about the moment.

I find it ironic because she won the award for playing a rather foul-mouthed character. Or am I simply projecting a self-created veneer on this character? The movie for which she won, “The Fighter”, is a true story set in Lowell, Massachusetts, not all that far from where I grew up. I knew dozens of women like her. To be honest, I was more struck by the hair and makeup in the movie. They nailed it—that’s what those women really looked like.

Like another recent movie, “The Town”, I may have had moments where the accents let me down—the Boston accent is deceivingly difficult to do, and on film is more often done wrong than right. Pahkin ya cahr in Hahvid Yahd (trans: Parking your car in Harvard Yard) is not as easy as it seems. For that matter, I’d be willing to bet that Harvard Yard has a strict no parking policy.

While we’re on the subject of my heavily Irish-influenced home town, I’m reminded that St. Patrick’s Day isn’t far off. Pity the poor foodie on this day. Would it be terribly snarky to suggest that, food-wise, St. Patrick’s Day lacks subtlety? St. Patty’s day is usually celebrated with all things green, including beer and bagels. (I shouldn’t complain: in Chicago they tint the entire Chicago River green.) Irish Soda Bread? I did that last year. Corned Beef and Cabbage? It’s not calling my name.

Ah, but what about dessert? Some of us need a dessert that isn’t mugged and foamy after the Corned Beef and Cabbage. Don’t worry, I practice a strict “No Green Cake” policy.

First, pupils, here is this week’s history lesson. During the years I was growing up in Boston, the Ritz-Carlton was considered the city’s most luxurious hotel. That may or may not still be true, but it was the dowdier Parker House Hotel that was the backdrop against which quite a bit of history was played. The Parker House Hotel has been around in one form or another since 1847, the current building dating back to 1927. Aside from being the first Boston hotel to have hot and cold running water and an elevator, it is also where JFK announced he was running for the Senate, where he proposed to Jackie, and where he held his bachelor party. (We’ll let that last item slide.)

Authors like Edith Wharton and Stephen King wove portions of their stories through the Parker House (although in King’s short story “1408” he names the hotel “The Dolphin.”) Even more interesting is the parade of world-changers like Ho Chi Minh and Malcolm X who walked its halls—as employees. (According to Wikipedia, Ho Chi Minh was a baker. Who knew?)

Naturally the most interesting part of the hotel’s history—to me—is that it is the birthplace of the Boston Cream Pie, and, of course, the Parker House roll.

Boston Cream Pie is one of those old-fashioned diner desserts that we take for granted. For the uninitiated, it is not a pie, it is a cake. It is easy to take it for granted because by modern standards it is—like the Parker House was for many years—dowdy, or plain. Keep in mind that it wasn’t created to be dowdy or plain. It was created to be cutting edge; it is only the passage of time that has dulled that edge.

To make a Boston Cream Pie is to appreciate the tradition and the art that went into its creation. Let me explain it this way: making a Boston Cream Pie is like dancing an old but well choreographed ballet: it’s all about classic technique and basic steps.

In this case the basic steps are chiffon cake, pastry cream, and ganache. Don’t be fooled. While it is only three steps, you must dance each of them perfectly.

The chiffon cake may actually be the easiest. The original recipe likely used genoise, but I like the fragrant, sugary, yolkiness of a chiffon cake better. The vanilla pastry cream just requires a bit of patience and a good whisking arm, but learn to do this step well and you’ve conquered Éclair filling, and perfect, silky, pudding. Ganache requires a good eye for texture: your eyes tell you when it is ready, although there is a bit of leeway here in the definition of “ready.”

The result is like a step back into a scene from “The Age of Innocence.” Or in the case of me and my friends, an Oscar party where it earned very positive notices. The fragrant, eggy chiffon cake blends with the intense vanilla of the pastry cream (which I blended with whipped cream) to make an almost lemony sweetness. I used a whipped ganache on top, although to tell the truth, next time I’ll skip that step and drizzle warm ganache over the top. That will result in a lighter touch with a more intense chocolate hit.

Meanwhile, I wonder what Ho Chi Minh’s Boston Cream Pie was like?


Drop me a note if you want the recipes for Boston Cream Pie.


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Tiptoe Through the Tulipe

Tulipe Paste Hearts

How many hearts are too many?

As if I needed an excuse. February is here and that means Valentine’s Day is barreling down the road towards us; while many folks associate that with roses, for me it’s all about the chocolate.

I love tradition, and if the old fashioned heart-shaped box of chocolates is your preference, then I won’t quarrel with that.

Me? I think I straddle the fence between easygoing and annoyingly precise. My favorite chocolate (at the moment) is a simple, humble, chocolate bar. Tie two or three blocks of my beloved (and cheap) Damak chocolate together with a ribbon and I’m perfectly happy. Easy? Well, yes, except that Damak is imported from Turkey, is only available in a handful stores here in New York, and can be hard to find because it flies off the shelves. Weeks go by, and (poor me) there’s no Damak Chocolate to be found. (Hear me Nestlè?)

For those who want to shake things up a bit, there are other paths to follow. Last year my Baby Niece hand decorated chocolate-dipped shortbread cookies for her young gentleman. (Okay, yes, I helped.) For others, Valentine’s Day can be symbolized by a special meal. I know one rather zesty young woman whose husband has been well trained: for her the hearts and flowers of Valentine’s Day are perfectly embodied in the guise of sliced filet mignon at Ben Benson’s Steakhouse. Rare please.

My Baby Niece, for one, is indifferent to flowers. Yeah, she likes chocolate—kinda, sorta, I guess. But if you really want to make her happy, something twinkly in a light blue box from the store where Holly Golightly ate breakfast is your best bet. I hate to be crass, but the price of roses on Valentine’s Day makes her preference a good deal. And it won’t wilt after a week.

If there is ever an occasion when it is the thought that counts, when you need to show someone that you’ve been listening, it is Valentine’s Day. The really important ingredient is to know your audience.

Sometimes just a little bit of fuss is all you need.

And if it’s fuss you want, my little Tulipe Paste hearts in the picture above are for you. These will dress up anything—even a Tofutti Cutie— on Valentine’s Day and make it something special. (Apologies to you if think Tofutti Cuties are already something special.)

Unfamiliar with Tulipe Paste? I understand. But if you’ve ever been given a can of those little rolled “cigarette” cookies (usually filled with chocolate cream), you’ve had Tulipe Paste. Pepperidge Farm sells them under the name “Pirouette.” Some pastry chefs refer to these as Tuile cookies.

Are they easy to make at home? Let me put it this way: if you can spackle a wall, you can make Tulipe Paste cookies. (That’s a “yes.”) The good news? The batter has only six ingredients. The bad news? You’ll need couple of items of easily obtained special equipment—some of which you can easily make yourself. (I did.) Hint: it’s worth the trouble.

Tuile Cookies are one of those things like blackened redfish: about fifteen or twenty years ago they were everywhere. Then they were heaped on the junk pile of culinary trendiness; the shag haircut of the pastry kitchen. Okay, maybe not that bad. They still show up swirling around a pile of mousse every now and then. You get my point though.

I like them, and they’re fun, so I’m putting on my rubber gloves and fishing them out of the junk pile. Conniving blogger that I am, I have an ulterior motive: they’re crunchy. But before they are crunchy, they are soft and mold-able—and I think this makes them an invaluable tool in the home baker’s…uh…tool belt. (I myself do not wear a tool belt when baking.)

The most common way 1990’s chefs used the latter phenomenon was to drape the hot-from-the-oven cookies over a bowl. As the cookies cooled they hardened into the shape of the bowl and were served filled with fresh berries and whipped cream—actually, not a bad idea for Valentine’s Day. Make a couple of Tuile Bowls, fill them with a few chocolate-dipped strawberries (make ‘em or buy ‘em at the Godiva store) and you’ve got something special.

Frozen Chocolate Souffle

Tulipe hearts and Chocolate Gelato

I mentioned that you’ll need a couple of pieces of special equipment to make these cookies. The first is a little offset spatula to spread the batter. The second is a stencil because the basic technique is that the Tulipe Paste is spread into a stencil secured firmly to a baking sheet. To make the bowls you’ll need a round stencil measuring approximately six to eight inches, or you can try making free hand rectangles without a stencil. This is actually a really great technique to get the feel of working with the paste. For my little heart shaped cookies, I made a heart-shaped stencil from the plastic top of a tub of almonds. Take that, Martha Stewart. (The hearts in the picture above are approximately actual size.)

The little heart cookies have approximately the same crunch as potato chips, so add these to some melting dark chocolate gelato or mousse and you get the happy play of sweet, chocolately, and crunchy.

Now, that’s something I can fall in love with.


Click here for the recipe for Tulipe Heart Cookies and some tips on working with Tulipe Paste .


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Welcome to the Spa.

A little

A little

Hey, how’re you doing? How’s your year going? Me? Fine, fine…although I could use a cookie right about now, thanks. At the moment though, no cookies; I am concentrating on losing the ample holiday joy that is making my pants just a little tight. I wouldn’t be surprised if the buttons and zipper in my pants sued me for hazard pay.

The bad news about the holidays ending in the dead of winter is that we are all at the peak of our “fatten-up-for winter-and-then hibernate” instinct. So, to then turn around and start trying to lose weight seems like Mother Nature is taunting us. Bears have the best technique: they sleep through several weeks’ worth of meals then emerge svelte but ravenous. I don’t recommend this for humans. Okay, maybe runway models—if they can fit the hibernation into their schedules.

I look at it this way: during the holidays I eat a lot of the stuff I make myself. Simply by changing what I make (no cookies) I have a head start on dropping my holiday heft.

As I continue my sentence at hard labor for sins of over indulgence committed at holiday time, I am looking around every proverbial corner for meals that will amuse me. Having been a waiter for a long time, I am able to adapt ideas I saw over the years in restaurants to this cause.

As it happens, my memory was jogged a few days ago during a trip through the plastic wrap and foil aisle of the supermarket. (Yes, yes I know: I hit some exciting spots, don’t I? A colleague just returned from Buenos Aires. It’s summer there. I just returned from Gristede’s. It’s winter there.)

Ah, yes, the supermarket: my eye caught a box of parchment baking bags. Long ago I had a chef teach me (or try to teach me) the elaborate crimping technique they use to create the beautiful parchment bags in which they steam and serve food. Pre-made parchment bags seemed like a convenient idea for me. Lazy? Yes. Sorry, it’s the hibernation instinct coming out. (I’m milking that excuse for all it’s worth.)

Don’t worry: I’m the first one to snore at steamed food. I’ll even throw in a “yech.” The real trick I learned from those chefs is what goes in the bag along with the beautiful fish and perfectly manicured vegetables.

Any chef worth his salt (pardon the pun) will tell you that it all starts with the best ingredients. Yeah, sure: that’s like saying that great literature is just a bunch of words. Chefs know how to “goose” the flavor in everything they cook: a little extra grilling here, a little touch of pepper there.

When it comes to parchment-bag steamed meals—which enjoyed a vogue about fifteen years ago—the magic ingredient was compound butter. Compound butter goes back – at least—to Escoffier. The concept is trés simple: soften butter, mix in colorful, flavorful ingredients, and freeze into a log. Slices of the frozen butter are then added to cooking food, or in the case of beef, melted on top as the beef is plated for service.

The gorgonzola you often see in photos relaxing alluringly on a filet mignon was likely a bit of compound butter. In the case of the about to be steamed fish in the picture above, I made a citrus compound butter. Right about now you’re asking, “Hey buddy! I thought you were on a diet. What’s up with the butter?”

My answer is that I don’t use real butter. Even on a good day I can’t eat butter. You may notice that many of my recipes mention that I use a butter substitute. To be polite, real butter is delicious, but gives my stomach…um…grief. Purists: I agree, nothing tastes like real butter. But nothing is better than a happy tummy tum tum. Aside from that, using real butter in this recipe is relatively harmless. At most you’d be using two tablespoons. I say go for it.

I use Earth Balance because its mix of oils mimics the healthy profile of olive oil. (There are several excellent products like this.) This makes it perfect for the Butter Flour Eggs spa menu. Besides: it’s the flavors in the compound butter that do the heavy lifting. The butter is mostly there for moral support.

The citrus compound butter recipe is simple: allow a quarter pound of butter to soften. With a fork, mash in the grated rind of three oranges, and one lime. Feeling ambitious? Throw the butter in a blender with the grated citrus rinds, a half teaspoon of salt, and a tablespoon of orange juice. (I find the blender version delicious but hate cleaning the blender.)

Roll the butter into a parchment-wrapped log and freeze. When it is time for dinner, cut the log into silver dollar-sized slices, place in the parchment bag with the other ingredients, salt and pepper, and bake.

To be honest, the flounder shown in the photo above is not ideal for this technique. Use a slightly thicker fish like halibut, salmon, or the ubiquitous sea bass. I added julienne strips of carrot, red pepper, and fingerling potato. Yes, potato on a diet. One. Sue me.

Again, it’s about the technique. Anything you add to the bag should be cut to approximately the same size so that everything cooks evenly. Green beans? Perfect too.

Keep this technique in your back pocket for summertime. A little gorgonzola butter on your burgers anyone? How about melting some of the citrus butter on your corn on the cob?

As I write this it is 27˚ outside and the weatherman is predicting snow. Mmmmm. Summer. I’ll be thin by then.

Won’t I?


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