Posts Tagged ‘Honey’


Honey Oat Pretzel

Honey Oat Pretzel

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

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

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

Then I read the article.

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

Food-grade lye? Seriously?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Here’s the recipe for Honey Oat Pretzels


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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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Is it the good turtle soup? (Or merely the mock?)

Cherry Cordial Frozen Yogurt

Of course the lyric of the Cole Porter song quoted here was all about discerning true love from mere passing fancy. (For the uninitiated, Cole Porter wrote many hit songs along with film and Broadway scores. Unfortunately he passed on before getting the opportunity to write for Beyoncé.)

However, I, true to form and blog content, am writing about food, in this case, frozen confections. Last week I wrote about desserts made with fresh cherries, and mentioned in passing what a shame it was that I didn’t have an ice cream freezer handy. Happily that has now been remedied and I am ready to freeze all manner of dairy products.

This isn’t my first time at the freezer, folks. I go back to the days of bagged ice, rock salt, and hand cranks. Let me tell you: hand cranked ice cream is manual labor, a clever trade off where you burn calories and then eat them back while hopefully avoiding the dreaded “ice cream headache.” Happily I have joined the twenty-first century: my Kitchen Aid now does all the work.

I should back up here for a moment and explain that I was all ready to write about something completely different this week. But the combination of fresh cherries waiting in my refrigerator, a rueful note from a friend about a late-nineties Cherry Garcia addiction, and the stinky-hot weather got me in the mood for making ice cream. Yet, something nagged at me, and I believe it was called vanity. I was afraid that with an ice cream freezer in hand I would shortly become a candidate for “The Biggest Loser.”

Thus my new mission: lowering the guilt quotient of frozen desserts (you can tell I mean business here because I used “thus” to start this sentence.) Clearly I have my work cut out for me; Ben, Jerry, and many others have been working on this mission for a very long time.

The science of ice cream is not a straightforward one. Indeed, Penn State has a world renowned course dedicated to ice cream science, nicknamed “Cow to Cone”; this is no mere “gut” course (although if you stop by Penn State’s Berkey Creamery enough you’ll have one. (A gut, I mean. Pardon the pun.))

Big companies have long been studying ways to compensate for the thin flavor and underwhelming mouth feel of low fat ice cream. What makes me think I could do any better? I don’t. I’m not out to remake the world of ice cream, I’m just looking to have something cool and delicious waiting in the freezer after a hot, stinky day. If I can manage to keep it healthy too then I’ll consider it icing on the cake (again, you’ll please pardon the pun.)

So, with lowered expectations well in hand I got work. I happen to be a big fan of Greek Yogurt. Even the low fat versions tend to be thick, creamy, and very satisfying. What if I combined the cherries and chocolate from last week’s blog with Greek Yogurt and took them for a spin in my new ice cream freezer? Sounds promising.

I combined a 37.5 ounce container of plain 2% Fage Greek Yogurt with two teaspoons of vanilla and five packets of Stevia-based sweetener, a supposedly healthy, herb-based non-sugar sweetener. I’m not big on artificial sweeteners, but I thought this would be a good occasion to take this one for a test drive.

Following the Kitchen Aid’s directions, I let that mixture spin around in the freezer for fifteen minutes before adding a cup and a half of sliced, pitted cherries, and a half cup of milk chocolate that I had cut into chocolate chip-sized chunks. (Slicing and pitting the cherries was the most labor intense part of the project, but even that was easier than cranking an ice-locked freezer. I pitted and sliced the cherries while sitting and watching TV. No biggie.)

The result just out of the ice cream freezer was still very soft, but very tangy, and with a pronounced cherry flavor – no doubt the sliced cherries gave up some of their juice as they were knocked around by the ice cream freezer’s dasher. Pinkberry came to mind, but better due the chewy cherries and chocolate that popped up with each bite.

After finishing the frozen yogurt with an extended stay in the freezer I dug in with crazed anticipation. Or I should say I tried to dig in: the frozen yogurt was frozen solid, and required well over a half hour before being ready to scoop and serve. Once scoop-able I thought it tasted even better, the intense cold muting some of the overly bright notes of the yogurt, the stevia, and the cherries.

But it was the texture that was a bit of a letdown, too icy in spots, and too “melty” in other spots, with no compromise in sight. Clearly science caught up with me and won. That’s the bad news. The good news is that the stuff was still delicious, cool, refreshing, and all about the fresh cherries. So, yes, it is definitely the mock turtle soup, but still yummy. (I’m not publishing a formal recipe. For now let’s consider this a work in progress.)

My next attempt will find me substituting a bit of honey for the stevia. The natural glycerin in the honey may help the freezing qualities of the yogurt. We’ll see. I’ll happily trade a few carbs for a better consistency. I’ll report the results to you in this venue, but for now I’ll get to work on that second batch.

No, don’t worry about me. It’s okay: I’ll make the sacrifice.


Read about my talented friend Fabiana Lee and her hand-crafted empanadas in The New York Times.


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Happy New Year!

Pumpkin Apple Praline Cake

Pumpkin Apple Praline Cake

No, I am not calendar-challenged; this Friday marks the beginning of the Jewish New Year holiday, which starts with Rosh Hashanah, and ends the following week with Yom Kippur. 

On the lunar-based Jewish calendar this year will be 5770, and yes, I agree, time flies: seems like it was just 5760.

Here’s the “Emily Post”: Yes, by all means wish your Jewish friends a Happy New Year, but do not say, “Happy Yom Kippur.” Yom Kippur is all about fasting to atone for your sins, and mourning those we’ve lost. Stick with, “Happy New Year” and you’re covered.

In spite of the fact that the holiday includes a day of fasting, as with any big holiday there is also a big meal. My baby niece (that’s what I call her in spite of the fact that she is a college graduate) is the event planner. I have been tasked with providing desserts. Baby Niece (or “BN” as she will heretofore be known) assigned me this task as much for my skills in the kitchen as for the fact that we are simpatico when it comes to our choice of which desserts should be served on any given holiday.

The tradition of desserts on this holiday is not a particularly rich one. Traditional Jewish New Year desserts include apples dipped in honey (a symbolic gesture of hope for a sweet new year,) Honey Cake, Sponge Cake, and Taiglach, which could be wonderful, but ends up being soup nuts coated with “honey” (I use that term loosely), and tossed with chopped almonds and a few confused-looking maraschino cherries. This is usually sold in a disposable aluminum pie tin.

Maraschino cherries in a disposable pie tin. Tempting. If you’re a smelter with a sweet tooth.

Jewish food is basically a reflection of the various places we have lived; for some this means a largely Eastern European influence, and for others a largely North African and Southern European influence.

As I am several generations removed from the Eastern European experience, I think it is time to reflect (and celebrate) the rich traditions of the place where I grew up.

Welcome to “Extreme Makeover: Jewish New Year Desserts” edition.

The sponge cake is the first to be shown the door. The role has been recast with Lemon Yogurt cake, a simple recipe from Ina Garten, a/k/a the Barefoot Contessa, which has a fizzy lemon intensity that belies its humble name. (My family and I do not observe kosher laws, so we can have a cake made with yogurt, a dairy product, in the same meal as meat.)

I have a few ideas for the Taiglach, but they’ll need some work in the lab before I can use them, so I’m moving on, for now, to the honey cake, which is joining its sponge cake buddy in blessed retirement.  Perhaps they’ll drop us a note now and then.

BN and my mom have been tempted of late by pumpkin which I think fits the harvest celebration aspect of the New Year beautifully.  But flabby, over spiced pumpkin loaf recipes abound, and frankly, with the homey simplicity of the Lemon Yogurt cake something equally rustic, but slightly more stylish is needed. There’s also the fact that I learned my lesson about over spicing pumpkin several Thanksgivings ago when my mom, between shovelfuls of my Pumpkin Pie paused long enough only to breathe and say, “Delicious! But I can’t taste the pumpkin.”

So, a light hand with the spice. The earthy intensity would come from the use of brown sugar and maple syrup which would sweeten the cake, and reflect my New England background. A few wisps of orange zest would supercharge the pumpkin flavor. With a nod towards the apples and honey tradition, there would need to be apples in the cake, but more fun I thought, if the apples could be sliced and end up on top of the cake. The goal is like the lovechild of a cake and a clafouti.

Then I had second thoughts.  It sounded good, but the lily needed a bit of gilding: the cake still seemed a bit plain, and I like things to have a bit of crunch, which, unless I was clumsy with an eggshell, is not something for which cake is usually known.

Hmmm…my mind lingered for a moment on the almonds and honey in the Taiglach. What if the honey and almonds could somehow be a source of crunch on the cake? This is frequently done using crushed praline, which is simply sugar cooked with nuts, then allowed to harden, and crushed into a powder. Why not do the same thing with honey and almonds?

The story, I’m happy to report, has a happy ending. A trial run revealed the need for a few adjustments: a bit less orange zest here, a slightly greener apple there, and the use of cake flour instead of all purpose flour to dry the crumb a bit. But all in all, a wonderful makeover for that tired old honey cake.

The cake, once cooled, was first dusted with confectioner’s sugar, then with the honey praline. The apples were cooked on the bottom of the pan so they would be on top when the cake was turned out of the pan. Combined with the confectioner’s sugar they formed a thin, almost “jammy” layer. The pumpkin cake retained the buttery brightness of the pumpkin and orange zest, but revealed the smoky sweetness of the maple syrup. The praline was the best surprise of all, starting and ending each bite with a toasty, honeyed crackle that said, “Happy New Year!”

And the good news is that the cake is perfect for any occasion during fall and autumn, from a gathering as big as Thanksgiving, to one as intimate as coffee with a chum.

Click here for my recipe, and “L’shana Tova!”

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