Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The Very Best Lentil Soup

Woman doesn't live by cake alone and so I present a rare (for this blog) savory recipe -- a delicious lentil soup -- perfect for the cooler fall weather. I'm breaking from my all-sugar-all-the-time recipes because this soup is just that good. (And it looks much better in real life than in the above photo.)

This Very Best Lentil Soup recipe is courtesy my dear childhood friend Susan Zetzer who, many years ago (in the pre-internet age), hand wrote the recipe and mailed it to me from her home in San Francisco. (Susan is an amazing cook, not to mention a very successful executive in the financial world.) I make this a lot and each time I serve it to guests they request the recipe.

Below are some of the ingredients. Not pictured are the kale, the wine and the beef stock (and probably a few other things).

Susan's handwritten recipe is below, and below that is an easier-to-read typed version. It's fairly easy to make and fills the entire house with a lovely aroma.

The Very Best Lentil Soup (adapted by Susan Zetzer from Marcella Hazen)

2 medium yellow onions, chopped
4-5 large carrots, chopped
8 stalks celery, chopped
1 head kale, chopped into 1 inch strips (take out ribs)
Olive oil
½ stick butter
½ cup shredded pancetta
2/3  cup white wine
2 medium cans chopped tomatoes
1 ½ tsp. red pepper flakes
¾ pound lentils (I use French lentils, but brown lentils work fine)
2 cans beef broth and three cans water

Saute onions in olive oil and butter until yellow in a large stock pot.
Add carrots – sauté.  
Add celery – sauté together for almost five minutes, gently! 
Then add kale and sauté three minutes more.  (Do not try to cook all the vegetables at one time!)
Add tomatoes and juice, sauté over medium heat – not too fast!
Put some butter in a small sauté pan, heat it up and sauté the pancetta until it starts to curl.  Cook a little more and add the wine.  Cook until alcohol is gone and it starts to thicken.
Add lentils to the tomato-vegetable mixture and cook through five minutes
Add the pancetta and wine – cook for another minute.
Add the broth and water (more water if it gets too thick). Add the red pepper flakes.

Cook at a high enough heat so that the soup is always smiling, about 1 ½ hours, when the lentils are tender.  

Note from Susan at the bottom of the recipe: This freezes beautifully and is a very big crowd pleaser. You can make a vegetarian version but it will not have the same elusive taste that happens when pancetta and dark greens come together. You will like it with shaved Parmesan and a nice olive focaccia.

Below, a pix of Susan and me last month when she was in NYC for business. She is so sophisticated!

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Date Cake

Last week, when I COULD NOT stop eating some delicious dried dates, I needed to take emergency action before I consumed the entire pound in one sitting. The solution was to bake these beauties into a wonderful date cake, a moist and yummy confection that's as good three days after it's baked as it is fresh from the oven.

Recipes featuring dates were extremely popular in the early to mid-20th century, when the vintage recipe card I used was probably written. Dried dates -- available year-round when most fruits were out of season up north -- added sweetness and moisture to all manner of baked goods.

I did not follow the confusing instructions (which I later figured out called for beating the butter, adding the sugar and THEN the egg) but simply mixing them all at once worked fine.

Spoon the batter into a greased and floured pan. I used a round pan, but this cake would be better in a square pan.

Bake until a toothpick comes out clean. The edges of the cake will separate from the sides. Let it cool in the pan for about ten to 15 minutes...

before turning it out to cool completely.

Cake as Pac Man.

Because the instructions on the original recipe card are literally all over the place, I rewrote it for easy baking.

Date Cake

Preheat oven to 350 F

Grease and flour an 8 x 8 inch square or 9-inch round pan. (Square pan is best.)

1 c chopped dates
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 c chopped nuts
1 c boiling water
1/2 c (one stick) unsalted butter
1 c sugar
1 egg
1 1/2 c all purpose flour
1 t cinnamon
1/2 t cloves
1/2 t salt
1 t vanilla or almond extract

In a bowl, combine dates, baking soda and boiling water.  Set aside.
In another bowl, combine flour, cinnamon, cloves and salt.

Cream butter, add sugar and blend well.
Add egg and combine.
Add date mixture.  Add nuts.
Add dry ingredients and blend.
Add in flavoring (vanilla or almond)
Combine well, pour into prepared pan and bake 35 to 40 minutes.
Let cool slightly and turn out of pan.
Dust with confectioner's sugar if desired.

Production notes: Do not add the nuts to the first mixture, which is covered with boiling water. That would make them too soft. I've also found that non-pitted dates are moister, so I use those, but the pitted ones would also be fine, especially because they are softened by the boiling water.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Sea-Foam Nut Squares

The vintage recipe card for Sea-Foam Nut Squares was calling my name for a long time and last week I succumbed. I'm glad I did. These brown-sugar meringue topped bar cookies are so delicious, it's hard to figure why they never caught on. They have a lot of flavors and textures -- and they feed a crowd. (In fact, three separate departments at Henry Street Settlement, my place of employ, enjoyed the sea-foam bars and all raved about them.)

Start by making the base, a fairly straight-forward, albeit sticky, cookie dough.

Spread it on a well-greased (or parchment covered) baking sheet.

Don't worry if it doesn't reach the corners.

Next, start the topping. Whip the egg whites until they are firm and have stiff peaks. To prevent over-whipping, add some cream of tartar or a bit of salt.

Gradually add in the brown sugar, whipping after each addition.

Spread the meringue on top of the cookie layer.

Sprinkle on the nuts. I used pecans, but any nut would work well.  

Bake for about 30 minutes, until the meringue is dry.

Cut into squares while still a bit warm.

The end scraps are for the cook.

The instructions on the recipe card are very confusing to us modern folk, so I've rewritten them for clarity.

Sea-Foam Nut Squares

Preheat oven to 325 F

For the base:
1/2 c butter
1/4 c sugar
1/2 c firmly packed brown sugar
2 egg yolks
2 T. cold water
1/2 t. vanilla
2 c flour
1/2 t salt
1 t baking powder
1/8 t baking soda
1/4 c. milk

Mix the flour, salt, baking powder, and baking soda together and set aside.
Cream the butter, add the sugar and blend well.
Add the brown sugar and mix well.  Add the egg yolks, water and vanilla.  Mix until well combined.

Add the flour mixture alternately with the milk until combined.

Grease a 15 x 10 inch pan (or two 9 x 9 pans), but a lower-sided pan is easier.  Spread the base mixture evenly, using an offset spatula, the back of a spoon or a butter knife. Set aside.

For the topping:
2 egg whites
1 1/2 c firmly packed brown sugar
1 c chopped nuts

Beat the egg whites until stiff, but not dry.  Gradually add the brown sugar, beating well after each addition.  Spread this mixture over the base and sprinkle with chopped nuts.

Bake 25 to 35 minutes until the meringue topping is dry.  Cut into squares.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Scottish Shortbread

Scotland may not have gained independence after yesterday's historic election, but it will always have its most famous pastry -- Scottish Shortbread.  While the vote was being tallied, I decided to bake this country's greatest gift to the pastry world -- an easy and delicious wonder of a cookie.  

Traditional shortbread has just three ingredients: sugar, butter and flour. I was lucky enough to have a recipe from Olive Facey whose family was originally from Alloway (birthplace of Robert Burns), given to me by her son Stephen shortly after she passed away a few years ago.

Despite her Scottish heritage, Olive's recipe calls for confectioner's sugar, while the the truly traditional cookie uses white sugar.  But the result was fantastic, proving that one can certainly improve upon tradition.

Start with room temperature butter. Blend it well with confectioner's sugar and gradually add the flour.

When it's all blended, it will be a bit lumpy.  Simply remove from the mixing bowl and form it into a smooth ball.

This recipe makes a very stiff dough.  I rolled it between two sheets of parchment to get a (not perfect, but good enough) circle.  You can also use a cookie cutter to make smaller cookies.

Crimp the sides of the dough with the tines of a fork. Pierce the top with the fork as well. Using a serrated knife, score the dough to make for ease of separating the pieces later.

Bake until very lightly brown.

Cut into triangles and enjoy!

Production notes:  I made the first recipe because, even though Olive suggests that the second one "might" be her mother's recipe, it is less traditional, using cornstarch in the mix.
For the method, I beat the butter until soft, added the sugar and then gradually added the flour.  Then I formed it into a ball and rolled it between two sheets of parchment.
This shortbread was done in 30 minutes, so watch the oven closely. Some people say that shortbread shouldn't brown at all.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

World's Easiest Pumpkin Bars

Sometimes when things are too easy, one suspects that they will fail -- like, what's the catch?  But these moist and delicious pumpkin bars prove that one can bake their cake (easily) and eat it too.

This recipe is so simple and so quick, that it's the perfect baking project for children. With ingredients found in most pantries, you can put together the batter for this dessert in minutes.  As with many vintage recipes, this one is incorrectly titled, for this is a sheet cake, not typical bar cookies.  Not that there's anything wrong with that!

 How easy is this? Truly, just dump all the ingredients in a single bowl and

mix thoroughly until combined.  Pour into a 9 x 13 inch pan and bake.

Voila! Pumpkin sheet cake!

Cool slightly and cut into bars.

Production notes: I followed this recipe exactly, baking it in a 9 x 13 inch pan. When it was written, cans of pumpkin contained 16 ounces. Today, most have just 15 ounces, but it will be fine with the slightly lesser amount.

Typical of many vintage dessert recipes, this is not overly sweet. So you can make a frosting of confectioners sugar mixed with a little milk or simply dust the cake with confectioners sugar.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Henry Street Garden French Apple Pie

Each fall the DH and I spend a day in the country picking apples at one of the many orchards that dot the Hudson Valley. But not this year.  Instead, I harvested apples even more locally -- from a fruit-laden tree growing in the garden adjacent to Henry Street Settlement, my place of employ. For the first time in recent memory, the squirrels didn't destroy the crop.

To showcase these Granny Smith beauties, I made a French Apple Pie, which is basically an apple crumb pie.  Now, I've rarely had success with apple pies -- they are either too runny or too dry -- but this vintage recipe hit it out of the park.* The hand-typed recipe promised that "You will be delighted with the results." And I was.

Below is the apple tree, growing in Martin Luther King, Jr., Community Park, right next to the Settlement's headquarters. The park, a true sanctuary on the Lower East Side, was created from funds donated by the Louis and Anne Abrons Foundation to the Plant-A-Lot Project of GrowNYC.

Can you tell I'm the marketing director at Henry Street?

Get started by peeling and slicing the apples. Make easy work of this by enlisting the help of a family member, as I did. (Thanks, Paul.)

Combine the apples with flour, sugar and cinnamon.

Place the mixture in an unbaked pie crust. (Pie crust recipe at the end of this post.)

Prepare the crumb topping.

and place atop the apples.

Bake for just 45 minutes.

Cool, slice and enjoy!

Production notes: I followed the recipe exactly, but used a regular -- not a deep dish pie pan (because I don't own one). I used cinnamon (not nutmeg) and didn't add any water to the filling.
*Be sure to choose apples appropriate for pie, as some will not hold up when baked, making for a watery filling.

For the pie crust, I used my version of the tried and true recipe published in the original c. 1980 Silver Palate Cookbook, which is pretty vintage itself at this point. This makes a double crust, so you can cut it in half to make the single-crust required by French Apple Pie.

2 1/2 c. all-purpose flour
1 stick of cold butter, cut into small pieces
6 T. cold Crisco, cut into pieces
2 t. sugar
1 t. salt
3 - 6 T. cold water

Place dry ingredients in a food processor and whirl to blend.  Add butter and Crisco and process until it resembles cornmeal. Transfer to a round bowl, and add the water, a couple of tablespoons at a time.  Blend with a fork.  When it holds together, transfer to a lightly floured surface and form a large ball.  Divide in half and either roll out between two sheets of plastic wrap, or refrigerate until it's a bit firmer and then roll out.