Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Poverty Cake (And Jews Without Money)


Working at Henry Street Settlement, a social service agency founded in 1893 to fight the social causes of poverty, I tend to think about poverty a lot.  I've been thinking about it even more than usual, having just read Michael Gold's 1930 best seller, Jews Without Money, a semi-autobiographical novel of his childhood on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.  In the book, Gold (a communist who co-founded The New Masses and later was a columnist for The Daily Worker), blamed every misfortune, large or small, on poverty.  (I was lucky enough to attend Vivian Gornick's illuminating salon/conversation about the book at the Tenement Museum's Tenement Talks; the next and final session of her Immigrant Novel Series there is March 5, when she will tackle another classic, Henry Roth's Call It Sleep. Do consider going to that, or you can spend the evening with me at a poverty-fighting event at the Park Avenue Armory that night, The Art Show Gala Preview to benefit Henry Street.)  

That's a long way to get to Poverty Cake but here we are. Initially, I figured it was another version of Depression Cake, Poor Man's Cookies, Canada War Cake or any number of similarly named confections created when butter, sugar and eggs were scarce.  But, as the DH said upon trying a slice, "This poverty cake is rich."  And it is -- rich in flavor and fat (it has both butter and eggs) and is a really good spice cake -- not at all what one would expect from poverty cake. This would make a perfect after-school snack.

To make the cake, boil the raisins in the water and then add one stick of butter.



Add the rest of the ingredients and then simply pour into an 8 x 8 inch pan, which you've either greased and floured or lined with parchment paper.





This cake travels really well.  Of course, I brought some to work...




...where even poverty-fighter-in-chief David Garza had a small piece. (Who would want a big piece of poverty?)  




Henry Street's original poverty fighter, founder Lillian Wald, was fond of the expression "full of ginger."  This cake isn't full of ginger, but has plenty of other spices.







The cover of the latest edition of Jews Without Money -- a compelling novel certainly worth a read. In it the narrator writes that poverty makes some people insane, and he quotes his father as saying:  "It's better to be dead in this country than not to have money."












Sunday, February 24, 2013

I Name Thee Gingersnaps



Last Saturday, I hosted a dinner party attended by some very knowledgeable  food world folks but fortunately one of them, Arthur Schwartz (along with his charming partner Bob Harned) brought the main course -- delicious barbecue from Fletcher's in Brooklyn.  Responsible only for dessert, I decided to make Three-Ingredient Lemon Chiffon Pie (thinking it would be a refreshing counterpoint to the rich entree) and some cookies (pictured above) from a "new" old recipe in my collection.

The recipe intrigued me for three reasons: it was untitled (as in what kind of cookies are these?), its unusual method of preparation, and because of a note at the bottom of the scrap of paper on which it was written:  Cookies from Mrs. Martin she had gotten it from Edith's mother.  (More on these wonderful cookies later in the post.)

The dinner got off to a most inauspicious start or, as Arthur said, it was "fakakta."  First, the DH was called into work last-minute.  Arthur and Bob, upon arrival at my place, discovered that the barbecue order was missing some essential dishes, and had to return to Fletcher's.  Aylin OneyTan, the renowned Turkish food writer visiting New York for a cookbook conference, was running late.  But not as late as two other guests, Joe Mizrahi, of Smokin' Joe's True Blue Texas Barbecue  and his girlfriend Lilly Braun Goldbard whose family emergency found them an hour away in Jamaica, Queens, when they should have been in Brooklyn.

But it all turned out fine.  The DH arrived home in time for the end of the main course.  Arthur and Bob got the missing ribs -- and a parking spot.  Aylin arrived bearing wonderful Turkish treats (more on that below), and Joe and Lilly made it here in record time, though Joe, in his rush, did not bring the artisenal hot dogs and kielbasa he made and wanted us to try. Hopefully, there will be a next time.

From left: Joe, Lilly, the DH (Paul), Arthur, Aylin and Bob.
Now, on to dessert.  These cookies, which are really gingersnaps, are delicious, even better the day after they're baked.  You can make then thin and "snappy" or make them a bit thicker and softer.   They're excellent in both incarnations.

In most cookie recipes, one creams the butter and sugar.  This recipe calls for boiling sugar and molasses, and then melting the butter in the hot mixture. Aylin, an expert in Turkish cuisine, said she was familiar with this technique, but I've rarely seen it in American recipes.


When the mixture is cool, the eggs are added.


The dry ingredients, among them flour, cinnamon and ginger.


The recipe says to "add flour enough to roll."  I used about five cups.  This makes a lot of cookies.  You can cut them with any cookie cutter, but I'd recommend one not exceeding 1.5 to 2 inches.  The dough is sticky and smaller cookies are easier to transport the baking tray.


If you want a soft, chewier cookie, roll the dough a bit thicker and reduce the baking time.  Do the opposite if you want a crispy cookie.


These cookies played second fiddle to the pie (as cookies often do) but if I'd not had so much wine, I would have remembered to serve what would have been the evening's highlight dessert -- Pismaniye.  This Turkish sweet, brought by Aylin, looks like string (below).  It's made by blending flour roasted in butter into pulled sugar and is sort of like cotton candy, so it's fun to eat, but has a more interesting texture and more complex flavor.

I should have figured Aylin would have brought something interesting.  She led a Context tour that the DH and I took in Istanbul, introducing us to all sorts of mind-blowing foods.  And even though she lives in Turkey, I can still follow her (and so can you!) as she writes the Fork and Cork column in the English-language Hurriyet Daily News.




Finally, the cookie recipe!

Gingersnaps
1 C sugar
1 C molasses
1 C butter (two sticks)
2 eggs, beaten
1 tsp. baking soda dissolved in 1 tbs. hot water
1 tsp. ginger
1 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 tsp. salt
5 (or more) cups of flour

Preheat oven to 350 degrees

Bring sugar and molasses to a boil.  Turn off heat and add butter. When mixture is cool, add beaten eggs.  Mix thoroughly and add baking soda, ginger, cinnamon, salt and flour.  Add flour one cup at a time.
You can refrigerate dough to make it a bit easier to roll out, or simply roll out immediately.  Place cookies on parchment lined baking sheet.
Bake cookies for about 8 minutes.

Note: You can control the texture of the cookies by rolling them thinner or thicker and baking them longer for a crispier texture, less for a chewier cookie.
I sprinkled the cookies with a pearl sugar for visual interest, but this step isn't necessary.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Old-Fashioned Lemon Cream Scones


Can a scone effect change? I made these recently for the caregivers at the nursing home where my mother-in-law spent the final two weeks of her life. When Lucy was admitted to the home, her daughter quickly assessed the situation and asked that I bring baked goods for the staff, thinking that small acts of kindness (or sweetness) might translate into more attentive care.  I don't know if the brownies, cakes and cookies had their intended effect, but I hope that the joyful hugs of appreciation I received from the nurses were extended to Lucy each time they entered her room.

In general,  I am not a fan of scones -- so little butter! -- but once in a while, a well-restrained baked good can be a good thing. And unlike many scones I've known, these are, while not exactly bursting with moistness, not dry either.  Plus, they have cream and lemon, both promising ingredients in anything sweet or savory.

The carefully printed recipe card is probably from the mid-20th century, modern enough to have the method listed but old enough to simply say "hot" oven (which I took to mean 375 degrees).

The first order of business is cutting the butter into the flour, a task I always hated until I discovered the wonders of the food processor.


Mix the lemon zest with the sugar.


Mix the ingredients until all the flour is moistened.


Roll the dough and cut into squares, and then triangles. (Love the illustration of this on the recipe card.)







Friday, February 15, 2013

Tarte a l'Orange: Not a Love Story


You know that famous Seinfeld break-up line -- It's not you, it's me.  Well, in the case of this tart -- It's not me, it's the recipe.

I made this Tarte a l'Orange for the latest installment of the Ballet Cook Book Dinner Series, an ambitious project where a group of us recreate meals in the 1966 Ballet Cook Book, by Tanaquil Le Clercq.  Each chapter features recipes contributed by choreographers and/or dancers.  We chose Tanaquil's chapter for the most recent dinner.

Balletomanes can read about the entire dinner (our most successful to date) and the tragic life of Tanaquil here, in ballet blogger Ryan Wenzel's post, and here in Balletcatessen, Antonio Carmena's new culinary-dance blog.  Antonio, a soloist with the New York City Ballet, chefs all the Ballet Cook Book dinners (and beautifully, I might add).

I had high hopes for this dessert yet they were dashed not once, but twice.  The first tart, made for the dinner was a disappointment on many levels.  The pastry shrunk a lot, causing the sweet filling to cement itself to the sides of the pan.  It was only the skill of Antonio -- a true kitchen magician -- that enabled him to extract 12 presentable slices.  (Antonio would normally have been involved in the dessert making, but he had both a performance and a rehearsal the day of the dinner.  I tried to channel him as I prepared the crust, for he is truly gifted in the pastry department, but even that couldn't save it.)

One serving of Tart a l'Orange, plated with an eggnog so thick (thanks to me over-beating the cream) that we piped it on the dessert plate. Luckily, it was so booze-laden that it was good as both a beverage and a garnish.

Determined to conquer this recipe, I made the tart again a few days after the dinner. But it suffered the same fate as the first, making me think of the saying, the sign of a crazy person is repeating an action and expecting a different result.

The original tart, top picture, was made with naval oranges; the repeat performance, below, was made with Cara Cara oranges, which are larger and have a redder hue.



Pastry #1, below.  I'm ashamed to even post a photo of this patched disaster.


The second time, it looked better before baking (below), but it still shrunk horribly in the oven.


As expected, an orange tart requires both orange zest and juice...


...but the unexpected ingredient is apple "water" made by pressing cooked apples through a sieve.


The Cara Cara oranges, below.


To create sections without the white pith, peel the orange with a small knife and cut into each section with the same small knife to release it.


The second tart, below.


I managed to get only four decent (sort of) slices from the tart, which I quickly brought to my neighbors and their two teenage boys.


Watch Antonio's entertaining, fast-action video of the dinner, our most successful yet, even accounting for the disappointing disaster.




In case anyone cares to try this, here's the recipe.  The topping part is flawed too. First, it's way too sweet. Second, it needs to cook way longer than five minutes to achieve a glaze-like consistency.  Luckily, for the dinner, Antonio's partner, the ultra-talented positive thinker Michael Pereira, talked me into letting the sauce reduce or we would have had an even bigger disaster on our hands.


Wednesday, February 13, 2013

I (Still) Love Lucy



Three years ago today, I wrote this post about a cake I made for my mother-in-law.  Sadly, she died on Monday, so I'm reposting this in tribute to a wonderful mother, grandmother and true New York character.  Lucy -- you will be missed.

Now most Midwestern Jews might find cooking and baking for their New York Italian mother-in-law a bit intimidating.  Not me, because my MIL Lucy, unlike 99 percent of Italian-American grandmothers, does not like to spend any time in the kitchen.

Born in a tenement on Mott Street in Manhattan's Little Italy, and raised in another in East Harlem, Lucy grew up in a large family whose matriarch cooked enormous Italian meals from scratch.

When Lucy went on to have her own family, she did not carry on that tradition.  She raised three fabulous children (one of whom I married) but none will remember her for her culinary skills.  My husband jokes that even today, at age 83, her diet is similar to that of our 20-year-old son:  fast food, anything fried, and anything sweet. And she is no locovore. The further the food is from its source the better -- she recently gave me a dozen eggs that were purchased directly from a farmer, saying she preferred to get hers from the supermarket.

Lucy has been under the weather lately, so DH and I have been visiting a lot, bringing her groceries and home-made food (though she would truly prefer entrees from Wendy's or Burger King -- maybe next week).

Last week, short on time before our visit, I whipped up a Kitchenette Cake, a simple one-egg cake with a broiled icing.  The recipe, originally from 1890, was updated to 1955 standards in the Gold Medal Jubilee cook pamphlet, "A treasury of favorite recipes modernized by Betty Crocker."  It's a delicious cake; DH says it's his favorite (but he says everything is his favorite). While I normally follow these old recipes to the letter, I cheated on this one.  Knowing Lucy would love more sweetness and more of a "candy" topping, I embellished the broiled icing with extra butter, sugar, nuts and coconut.  Both she, and her companion Perdy (she's perdy good, says the DH) enjoyed the cake.

I'm happy to report that Lucy (pictured below, in the 1970s) recovered from that bout of illness, and went on to enjoy nearly three years of good health before she passed.





Sunday, February 10, 2013

Date Fills


I've had a love affair with dates ever since my fourth grade teacher brought some to our Fairlawn Elementary School* classroom, covered each with a generous sprinkling of powdered sugar (as if dates need more sweetening!) and invited us all to try one.  Never had I tasted anything so exotic and delicious.  It made all my trips to the local penny candy story for Lemonheads and Smartees seem so, well, juvenile and one-dimensional. I begged my mother to buy a box and I've been enjoying all varieties of dates (medjoul are my favorites) ever since.  Sometimes I buy too many -- hence another date recipe, this one a "date newtons" or date sandwich cookie.

This recipe is from an Amish collection I purchased recently on eBay, a collection filled with the most wonderful confections.  Here, they are called date fills, but they often go by the name date sticks.  It seems that almost every recipe box or notebook I have, most from 1910 to about 1960, have at least one version of this cookie.

Date fills are not super simple to make, but so worth the effort.  I prefer to buy dates with their pits intact which adds another step, but you can buy pitted dates.  Make the filling first.  Pit and chop the dates, and cook them with water, sugar and lemon juice.  You will soon have the date paste for the filling.


The butter, sugar, flour and oats dough is easy to put together.  Roll it out between two sheets of parchment or wax paper.  Plastic wrap might work well too.


Place the rolled pastry on a baking sheet and spread the date filling on top, a step I sadly neglected to photograph.  This is best accomplished using an offset spatula, but the back of a spoon and a butter knife can be employed for this task, as well.


The slightly tricky part is placing the top crust layer on the date filling.  As you can see, mine looks rather rustic, but that's ok.


Bake it in the oven until it's browned.

When it's cooled, cut it into small squares.  The uneven ends -- quite delicious -- are well-deserved treats for the cook.






*Fairlawn Elementary was renamed the Judith A. Resnick Elementary School for its former astronaut alum who perished during the Challenger disaster in 1986.