Thursday, September 27, 2012

Fig-Filled Cookies



These are not your mother's fig newtons. Not even close, unless your mother is a cook-from-scratch Italian who raised her children behind the family grocery store in 1950s Cleveland.  For this recipe is from actor Vincent Romeo's memoir, Behind the Store, in which each chapter is organized around one of his mother's treasured recipes.  My kind of book, indeed.

I bought the book at a reading at the Cornelia Street Cafe in the spring (the DH's latest book, Leaving Story Avenue, was featured at the same event) and put it aside until last week when Josephine, a wonderful-in-every-way co-worker, brought me fresh figs from her father's fig tree. This is not just any fig tree -- her father brought the cutting that spawned this tree from his native Italy 50 years ago and planted it in his new homeland in New York.  It has flourished ever since -- just look at these gorgeous figs.


I truly planned to use these delicious figs in the recipe, but they were so good that I kept eating "just one" and before I knew it there was "just one" left in the bowl.  Luckily, I was able to buy some fresh figs in the market which, though not nearly as good, worked well in the recipe.

Now, these are not the easiest cookies to make, nor are they the most beautiful, but I suspect with practice they can be both.  The dough -- from Mrs. Romeo's recipe for biscotti (but not the twice-baked biscotti popular today) -- is a bit tricky to work with.  She made S-shaped cookies with the dough and her husband ate them for breakfast every morning.  At holiday time, she repurposed the dough for these treats.

No need to wait for a holiday.
First, chop the figs and cook with water and sugar.


Wait until the liquid reduces a bit and then add flour, lemon and chopped nuts.


While the filling is cooling, make the dough and roll it out on a lightly floured surface.


I followed the instructions (at bottom) for the first few cookies, but thought that it was yielding a poor filling-to-cookie ratio, and it was slow going besides, so I streamlined the process, below.


Although I've never made ravioli, I used a similar technique and efficiently prepared four cookies at a time.




I gave Josephine a few cookies which she shared with her parents, and I was thrilled to learn that they loved them.  High praise indeed coming from an Italian mother who won't let store-bought cookies cross her threshold.  Try as she might, Josephine couldn't locate a photo of her father, Gaspare, wrapping the fig tree for the winter season, but she was able to send this one, showing him relaxing beneath his beloved pergola of grapes.  (Hmmm....wonder if he makes wine.)


The recipes are below. You'll need to improvise a bit, but that's half the fun.  I baked them at 350 degrees until they were golden.  Let cool before enjoying.



Tuesday, September 25, 2012

How I Met My Hero on My Lunch Hour


Today, just a few blocks from my Lower East Side office, I walked into the wonderful Essex Street Market and came face-to-face with one of my all-time pastry heroes -- Dorie Greenspan. (Reason number 2,045 I'm glad I live in New York.) I didn't have to wait on a long line or fight crowds to see her.  There she was, manning counter of her tiny new cookie shop, Beurre & Sel, opened with her son Josh and a business partner Daniel Seehoff. Dorie was charming and unassuming and even more lovely than I'd imagined.  (Ellen, my colleague who accompanied me to the market and whose mother is a huge Dorie fan, couldn't get over the fact that this pastry legend was simply there, selling her cookies.)

Those of my readers who bake, and those who simply follow the food world, surely know Dorie Greenspan.   She's the author of nine cookbooks, star of an iPad ap (from which I finally learned to master pastry cream), creator of the world-famous World Peace Cookie and of one my very favorite cakes, French Yogurt Cake, much better than it sounds and the only cake that the French bake at home.  There's also something called Tuesdays with Dorie, in which hundreds of bloggers bake one of her recipes each Tuesday, and then write about it, for that's what bloggers do.


Back to Beurre & Sel.  I couldn't decide which cookies to choose so I did the only sensible thing, which was to buy one of each.  I can't remember all the offerings, but among them were a lime coconut, the world peace, a plain sable with sparkling sugar, a really unusual sable with blueberry jam and struesel, an espresso with Vahlrona chocolate, one with white and dark chocolate chunks and a very buttery brown sugar pecan cookie.

I set up a sample table at my desk at Henry Street Settlement.  It didn't take long for the pristine cookies above, to look like the cookie scraps, below.  One cookie was better than the last, though the brown sugar pecan and the jam strusel cookies were considered the favorites.  But let's just say they were all addicting.  I took the remains of the day home to my grateful family and there were raves all around.  When I want to get on their good side, I know just what to do --  bring home a box of whole cookies  Or Dorie showed us some charming cylindrical packages, stacked with what she called cocktail cookies, miniature versions of the larger ones.  A chocolate mint cookie only comes in the small size. What a fabulous hostess gift those would be.


For all you New Yorkers and all of you who will visit, get yourself to the Essex Market, one of only two remaining markets created by Mayor LaGuardia in 1940, in an attempt to bring the sidewalk pushcart vendors inside to a more sanitized and controlled environment.  The modern day Essex is filled with a mixture of old and new, and not to be missed.  For the history and, equally important, for these cookies.  In what is probably not a coincidence the other branch of Beurre & Sel (and the one with the ovens) is in La Maqueta in East Harlem, which happens to be the second remaining LaGuardia era city market.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Grandma Jean's Challah: A Rosh Hashanah Miracle


Yesterday, I spent time with my Grandma Jean, even though she died seven years ago at the age of 100.  How is this possible?

It all began in the morning when, after deciding to bake a challah, I went in search of a vintage recipe in my collection.  I figured my best chance was in one of the recipe collection books I recently took from my mother's kitchen.  After looking through several and finding not one challah recipe, I opened a spiral-bound book of recipes contributed by members the Akron chapter of B'Nai B'Rith Women. Bingo, I found a recipe -- but not just any recipe.  I couldn't believe my eyes when I saw that the contributor was none other than my grandmother, Jean Glauberman.


Grandma Jean was famous in Akron for her baked goods, and queen among those was her challah.  She baked them all the time and for every occasion, to celebrate births, to honor deaths, for holidays and every week for Shabbat.  She didn't let age slow her down -- at age 98 she baked a challah for my son's Bar Mitzvah.  It flew in the overhead compartment on her flight from Akron to New York.  (Below, the challah in action.)


When she died in 2005, I thought her recipe went with her.  That's because she really had no recipe.  When I'd ask, she'd say, well you start with a five-pound bag of flour, at which point (and this was way before I became a fearless baker) my head would start to spin and brain become as cloudy as a flour storm.

So imagine my surprise and delight when the one recipe I found turned out to be hers!  (I luckily took her at her "written" word that all measurements are approximate and they are, I discovered.)

Of course, I set out to make it, and you should too.  Though it is not as rich as many challah recipes (Grandma Jean, pictured below in 2002, was too frugal to use more than two eggs, for example), it's really quite good.  My brother reminded me that she used to add a drop of yellow food coloring to her challah, I realize now, to give the appearance of an egg-ier, richer bread.  She also used this dough as the base for many other breads (onion bread, hardtack, etc.)  -- see the recipe above, which I'm sure she dictated to someone.  I can just hear her say: Or make rolls, or whatever.



Want to give this a go for the Jewish New Year?
Make a well in the middle of ten cups of flour.


Add one package of dry yeast and pour a little warm water over to cover it.  Wait five minutes, until it begins to foam a bit.

Add the rest of the ingredients, as indicated on the recipe -- BUT, the four quarts of water is definitely wrong.  Start with two cups and add more as needed.

Then, knead the dough on a lightly floured surface.  When smooth and elastic, place in a bowl and cover until it doubles in size.

Note to self:  Next time, use a bowl large enough to accommodate the dough.


This recipe makes two large loaves.  For the the first one, I just formed a ball, placed on a baking sheet and brushed with an egg wash (a beaten egg).  I baked it in a preheated 350 degree oven for about 35 minutes.


It will look like this, when it's done.


For the second loaf, I decided to get fancy as Grandma Jean did and braid the challah, but in a round shape in the New Year tradition.  For instructions, I turned to Smitten Kitchen, the mother of all food blogs.  Click here to learn how.  You can see illustrations below.






Friday, September 14, 2012

The Ballet Dinner, Fourth Edition


I'm late to this party -- the fourth installment of The Ballet Cook Book Dinner Series was held nearly two weeks ago.  The good news is, I can simply link to what everyone else posted about it.

So, if you like the French food, former New York City Ballet principal Violette Verdy, or ballet in general, or reading about a group of people recreating recipes from the 1966 Ballet Cook Book and then serving the results to unsuspecting guests, then by all means, please click through to the links.  You can find the recipe for this lovely quiche, pictured above, and for the cream puffs prepared with panache (and dance) by Antonio Carmena, head dinner chef and New York City Ballet soloist, below.

Read all about the dinner (and our very special guests) on Brooklyn Rail Dance Editor Ryan Wenzel's wonderful blog, BodiesNeverLie.com.  And see the dinner in action in Antonio's charming video, Dinner with Violette Verdy.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O51xuCp2zdE


Above, Antonio piping out the pate a choux for the cream puffs; below, baked and cooling.



Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Buttermilk? Yes, Please.


There's a wonderful article in The New York Times dining section today about buttermilk, full of information that I've always suspected is true.  For example, supermarket buttermilk is not real buttermilk!  It's not always easy to find, but it's worth searching out real buttermilk.

I also learned that the reason a lot of the vintage recipes in my collection call for sweet milk (instead of simply milk) is that buttermilk was so prevalent, especially in the south, that the distinction had to be made.

Here are a links to recipes featuring buttermilk from my blog, griddle cakes and  buttermilk pie, followed by a link to the Times story.  Enjoy!

http://www.acakebakesinbrooklyn.com/2011/04/buttermilk-griddlecakes.html

http://www.acakebakesinbrooklyn.com/2011/04/buttermilk-pie-crack-pie-of-1950s.html

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/12/dining/buttermilk-often-maligned-begins-to-get-its-due.html?_r=1&ref=todayspaper



Sunday, September 9, 2012

German Chocolate Cake


Sometimes, "box top" baking can't be beat. And so it is for German Chocolate Cake -- I haven't found a better recipe than that printed on the box of German's Sweet Chocolate.


I only make this cake when I'm going to see my friend Mary, and it's within a few days of her birthday, as she is quite fond of this cake.  Here's Mary now, on her actual birthday, in her fab new apartment (paint samples on the wall), looking like a slice of cake has never crossed her lips, even though she's no stranger to home-baked treats.


German chocolate cake is a bit time consuming -- one must separate the eggs, but since I've discovered a revolutionary way to do it (click here), this step will be fun instead of daunting.

The egg whites will look foamy after a few minutes of beating.  At this point, I always add some cream of tartar, available at supermarket spice displays -- not cheap, but it will last forever. The cream of tartar prevents one (me) from overbeating the egg whites, which makes them dry and unusable.


Beat until stiff peaks appear -- your signal that the whites are ready. (Lift the beaters to check the progress during the beating.)


Fold the whites gently into the cake batter that you've prepared.  The whites will lighten the cake.


The naked layers, below, awaiting adornment.  German chocolate cake will never win a beauty contest -- it's more of a home-y (and homely) cake, which is a good thing.  No pressure on the cook and the focus is on the flavor.


The frosting really makes this cake.  It is a cooked confection with pecans and coconut, very sweet and quite addicting.  It does require the cook to commit 12 minutes stirring the pot while the frosting cooks. No texting allowed. Talking on the phone or listening to music is.


The "box top" recipes, below.  One reason I think these types of recipes are good: The company that makes the food wants our repeat business, so if they invest in a really great recipe, chances are we will.



Monday, September 3, 2012

How to Separate Eggs -- Like Magic!




Hate to separate eggs?  Watch this video and it will revolutionize your life -- or at least demonstrate how to separate eggs easily and without a mess.  Bring on the meringues and sponge cakes!