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Emergency Éclairs 2.0, Even More Microwaved

 

plate of eclairs

All the components of an éclair are at least partly microwaveable, flavorful and pretty forgiving. Even if you have to serve them upside down.

Here we go again, because it’s been Valentine’s Day this past weekend and I have pretty loose time standards for such things…I did actually make these before dinner on the 14th, so it counts. Not that you really need VDay as an excuse.

Éclairs are a lot simpler than they look in the pastry shops, and a lot cheaper than you’d think to make at home–in fact, cheaper than almost any American-style dessert in terms of calories, sugar, fat, salt… A surprisingly small amount of ordinary pantry staple ingredients goes a very long way and makes a bigger show than if you tried making brownies.

If you have a microwave, they can also be a lot quicker than most cookbook recipe specs, even though there are three separate parts to prepare and assemble–the filling, the shell, and the chocolate topping–rather than the usual American one-bowl dump-mix-and-bake scheme.

Éclairs don’t hit you over the head with sweet–they rely on the contrast of textures and flavors between the mostly unsweet pastry shell, the delicately sweet pastry cream, and the deep chocolate (or other flavor, but it has to be an actual flavor to be good, not the typical flavorless, oversweetened canned cake frosting) topping.

Éclairs have also become something of a canvas for artistic expression in Parisian bakeries; David Lebovitz has some great photos of ones with reproductions of paintings screened onto the tops, woodland scenes in colored icing and fondant and flavored marshmallows, fruit fantasias, and I don’t know what else, not to mention the fillings. They’re gorgeous to look at in the glass pastry cases but you couldn’t walk down the street, find a park bench, and just eat them with your fingers. You’d end up wearing them.

So the classic chocolate-topped, pastry cream-filled éclairs are still my favorite, partly because you can’t find them in most of the bakeries here.

Baking the dough is the one part you can’t really do in the microwave, more’s the pity (although you can do it in the toaster oven for a small batch). But otherwise, I can say it was worth it and–although I needed to step on a scale Monday morning to be certain–not that devastating dietwise…or even diabetes-wise. But, as with rugelach, you probably shouldn’t do this too often. Holidays and sharing are a pretty good idea. Leftovers are not. Limit the dietary badness.

Unromantic morning-after nutrition stat check: At the medium-small size I made, they weigh in at about 22 grams of carbohydrate, 160 calories, 6 grams of fat (mostly saturated, from the butter and chocolate plus egg yolks) and maybe 40-50 mg max of sodium apiece. Verdict: Not too shabby for a French dessert. Could be worse and often is. Stick to one apiece, plus some fruit, and eat it with a light supper that includes a green salad and you should be reasonably fine. Also svelte, happy, and able to sing «Non…je ne régrette rien…» the next morning. But please don’t. Not before coffee.

Even if you eat two at a time after supper because you’re not sure how long you can store the extras in the fridge so they don’t go all soggy the next day, it shouldn’t hit you like a ton of lead…well, not too much like a ton of lead. At least they weren’t full sized; they were pretty filling. Afterward, when we were lying in a daze on the couch recovering, my husband suggested just freezing any extras next time. He had a point.

About halving a recipe

I was in a hurry and couldn’t find the lower-saturated-fat recipe I’d used successfully for “Emergency éclairs 1.0” so I went with the recipes for choux paste shells and pastry cream in the “basics” back section of the white Silver Palate Cookbook. The dough and pastry cream worked fine in the microwave, as I think almost any standard recipes would.

Since there are only myself, my husband and our daughter here for dinner and eligible for éclairs (plus the cat, who is miffed that we didn’t count her), I cut both recipes in half–I repeat, limit the dietary badness…

The pastry cream was fine, but I hadn’t read all the instructions for the choux pastry, or I’d have known that the 3rd egg was for a completely unnecessary egg yolk glaze. When I halved the recipe I used an extra egg white as the “half egg,” and when the puffs puffed, they left nothing behind, no base, just a hollow, once I peeled them off the foil. The result was still fine for us but a little awkward for presentation–I had to sit them upside down like boats to fill them, and then cover the filling with the ganache. So definitely go back to the right proportions for the choux recipe (repeated below).

The ganache…is always very chocolate, very microwaveable, very forgiving of awkwardness and therefore perfection itself. It covers a lot of sins and makes you feel much better about them.

Mostly Microwaveable Éclairs

This is half-recipes all the way: it makes 6-7 half-size éclairs, 3″ rather than the standard 6″ monsters at the bakery. We each had two after supper and were completely stuffed.

Timing: If you’re doing the whole thing in one go, start by preheating the (regular) oven to 400 F, then make the pastry cream, which is really fast, and chill and stick it in the fridge, then do the choux paste, because as soon as you make that you need to dollop it out and bake it right away. If you use the microwave for the pastry cream, and you should, the choux will be ready to go just about when the oven beeps. Continue reading

How to fly with a pie

Happy Chanukah–tonight was the first night–and as per usual, a belated Happy Thanksgiving too. I hope everyone ate nice, had fun, enjoyed and helped do the dishes wherever you gathered.

Now that it’s over, I have a few more additions to the list of things I’ve learned–good or bad–about How To Travel With Food ™. Because my in-laws, who usually host Thanksgiving, are traveling in Africa (!!!–think elephants coming up to their cabin porch), my ex-brother-in-law invited all the rest of us to join him for the weekend instead. In Sonoma. At what turned out to be not a cabin with or without elephants, but a luxurious private residence he’d booked for the group as a vacation rental. And it was out and out marvelous. If a little weird and unsettling in its own way.

Sonoma-Kenwood.jpg

When we were still deciding how to reach Sonoma from Pasadena, we realized with dismay that it’s about 10 or 11 hours by car at the best of times, and Thanksgiving week is not the best of times. When we lived on the east coast, a trip like that would have us thinking airplane automatically, but out here we usually just suffer. My niece and her boyfriend drove up from San Luis Obispo, usually 4 hours north of us, and it took them 9 hours instead of 5 or 6. So I was really grateful to my husband for finding affordable plane tickets for an hour’s flight into Oakland. So far, so good, and it took a lot of the strain out.

But all those airline rules. And we were the ones bringing pumpkin pie. In carry-on. My ex-BIL offered to pick up a couple of big stalks of brussels sprouts for me up there (I don’t think we even had any more at down here by this time; Trader Joe’s was out of them by weeks) as well as a green cabbage for Greek cabbage salad. These are big heavy scary-looking items you just don’t want to schlep on a plane unless you’re auditioning for the live version of Shrek. As the shopping list got longer, I decided to just bake the pies at home, cool them, freeze them as far as possible, and take them in a stiff box with some ice packs stuffed in the corners and hope for the best.

Continue reading

In search of good rye bread

I’ve been attempting rye bread and kornbroyt (Jewish sourdough whole wheat bread) on and off since about last Chanukah–almost a whole year! You would think this was unnecessary, since I live close enough to North Hollywood/Valley Village, the eastern hub of LA for Jewish bakeries and delis (the older western hub is “the Fairfax” neighborhood and the Pico/Robertson area). The rye bread you can get at these places isn’t terrible; my synagogue orders it regularly along with 6-braid challahs for big events, and it’s okay. It just isn’t much better than Arnold’s or Sara Lee, the lightweight commercial supermarket versions I grew up with in the south when we couldn’t get the real thing from New York more than once or twice a year.

Last spring I bought the big crusty half-boule loaves of wholewheat sourdough from Trader Joe’s to sub in for kornbroyt at a big synagogue brunch and they were wonderful–and also not screamingly high in sodium as most hard-crust sourdoughs are (Whole Foods, most bakeries, certainly La Brea and friends). Certainly less per serving than the French loaves and ciabattas and other items on the gourmet bread stand at TJs. The Pain Mich’ demi-boule was a very good deal all the way around, and I’ve bought it weekly for years.

But shortly afterward, TJs switched bakers and the new ones produced something that only looked similar. The crust was flabby and the crumb was like the stuffing of old office chairs–crumbly and weak, lacking flavor, not springy and full of moxie like the real thing. What could have happened to my favorite shortcut to the good life? They still haven’t fixed the problem. Which is probably at least partly due to an inferior use of sour culture. Or CUL-choo-ah as my mom says (Brooklyn accent hard to miss).

So I was going to have to figure it out for myself if I didn’t want to remain a deprived child.

For the past 30-40 years, according to Stan Ginsberg and Norm Berg in their book Inside the Jewish Bakery, the flavor and texture of commercial rye bread  have really been watered down as companies went national and American-style with it. It became paler and lighter in texture, with less rye flour and more additives–oils, conditioners, salt. And they used commercial dry yeast instead of sourdough culture, which takes too long and for a long time wasn’t generally considered reliable or controlled enough a process for mass production–probably not for FDA and local health inspectors either. So most commercial rye bread lacks the true rye sour starter flavor, and is no longer really chewy or dark. Or crusty. Which is how I want mine.

All of those lost characteristics from my childhood memories of real New York rye bread and kornbroyt, made by local union bakers and brought down to Virginia once or twice a year by my grandparents, have now regained popularity in the US foodie arena. Well, not rye bread as such, but “old world” artisan wholegrain sourdough breads that seek to copy Poilâne’s legendarily crusty round loaf. Enthusiasts bring up a lot of sinister-sounding bakers’ terms: levain, cloak, slash, hydration percentage, etc. And they’ve come respectably close. But they’re still lacking the sign of authenticity: the union label pasted on the endpiece!

One major American bakery to achieve similar cult status to Poilâne is Tartine. Complete with three lengthy baking manuals so far on how to build a sour, incorporate all kinds of grains and let the sour culture digest them for the right number of days until they’re ready to set up as loaves.

The books are filled with gorgeous, crusty loaves that cost a fortune at gourmet bakeries if you can find them at all in your town. But it’s like looking through the bakery window, hungry, with your nose pressed up against the glass. Most people don’t have the singlemindedness to follow all the steps at home more than once, much less for more than one or two varieties of more-expensive, Whole-Foods-only, alternate grain breads.

The books are also filled with testimony as to just how many years it took each baker on the team to fulfill his or her apprenticeship and perfect the technique.

Years, though. That’s a lot of time to get yourself a decent home-baked loaf of rye bread that tastes like it could stand up to corned beef. Which makes me wonder whether a mere cookbook can really teach it.

So why bother (except for the perverse curiosity that drives me to mad-scientist-like experiments that probably won’t win the Nobel this year, or any year)? Because once in a while you want good rye bread even if you live on the West Coast.

Looking at the pictures and even reading the instructions can’t give you the exact right sour or air temp or humidity or other conditions that make Tartine’s bread award-winning. Your yeast may vary. You may not have the same sensitivity in your hands or know exactly how moist or elastic or heavy or whatever the dough needs to feel like at each stage. You have to be willing to experiment and fail a couple of times and pay attention to how it looks, feels, smells, and be willing to fiddle around and adjust the next time.

That’s okay. Perfection is not a Jewish ideal, so much, and rye bread is not so hard to improve with practice. Our great-(great-etc.) grandmothers were making rye bread pretty often in the shtetls with whatever starters they had and could keep going throughout some pretty challenging winters. And every spring they’d have to get rid of their sour cultures right before Passover and start over from scratch as soon as it was over. In Russian-Polish spring weather. (My grandfather always said you knew it was spring when the first oxcart got stuck in the mud. It meant the ground had finally thawed.)

So you could probably figure that the women in the shtetls weren’t always overjoyed to have to throw away their sour cultures every spring, and the first loaves of bread in the shtetls after Passover ended might not have been a lot of good for a week or so extra. Or they could have turned out like my first one, especially if it took an extra week for the miller to supply new rye and wheat flour.

To tell you the truth: getting a rye sour started is no big deal–I seem to have done it on the first try, even while taking the onion shortcut (see the bottom of the post) and being much too casual with the flour and water proportions in Ginsberg and Berg’s rye bread instructions from Inside the Jewish Bakery. It’s just that getting the sour ready for baking takes a while–like 3 to 5 days. And then it gets more refined and hopefully consistent as you feed it sequentially over time. Professional bakers guard their established sours like gold.

Rye sour getting started with raw onion

Rye sour getting started with raw onion

What went wrong on my first try, right before New Year’s, was that I didn’t put in quite enough wheat flour for the final dough. I was still thinking loose, elastic, relatively wet dough like my usual pizza dough or challah dough, and this needed to be stiffer to match the picture in the book, which showed an actual spherical ball of dough. I figured my usual dough would be a little moister and give nice, big ragged holes–however… Continue reading

Happy 4th!

rawblueberrypie-2pounder-med

The raw blueberry pie right before we cut into it.

If you have to do a pie in the middle of summer, say, if you’re bringing something to a Fourth of July outing, this might be the kind you want. It only takes a few minutes to put together (other than picking over the blueberries to make sure you’re not leaving any stems in). And Trader Joe’s is selling two-pound containers of blueberries for a moderate price, about $6, at least in southern California. That’s enough for a pretty big pie. So I got two boxes for my daughter’s birthday party last week and discovered that just one box was about a third more than my old newspaper recipe called for. Well…we can always use a few blueberries around the house! And the pie ingredients are so simple it’s not hard to scale up a bit and still have it work out nicely. Very nicely, in fact.

The syrup you start the filling with can be boiled up in a minute or so in the microwave, so you don’t have to heat up your house or stand over a stove. Then you just stir in the starch slurry and some lime juice to thicken it, and start folding in the raw berries. When they’re all in, you pour it into the crust and let it cool until set.

And I’m not sure you actually have to run an oven for a graham cracker crust, although I did for about 10 minutes–I think it makes the sugars melt a bit with the butter, so the resulting caramel, if you can call it that, binds the crumbs together and then hardens slightly when it cools and the crust stays crisp a little longer. But maybe that’s just fantasy. If you want to keep the oven off, you’ve got my vote. If you want to buy a frozen graham cracker crust-lined pie tin (or two; with this amount of filling you could probably do 2 standard smaller pies), that’s your call too.

I don’t usually buy graham crackers at all, but for this I think it’s worth doing the crust at home–it takes maybe 2-3 minutes to grind up enough for a crust and press it into a pan, and it’s a little more versatile than the commercial versions. I can put in a bit less sugar and butter than the standard crust recipes do, skip the salt, throw in a little almond meal if I feel like it, and add a couple of pinches of cinnamon and ginger to spice things up. Leftover crackers are handy for making impromptu ice cream sandwiches, if you can keep your kids away from them until you’re ready to do that.

Here’s my scaled-up version for a two-pound box (909 g. approximately) of fresh blueberries. That’s about 300 grams more blueberries than the old 4-cup recipe I copied from my mother-in-law, so it needs somewhat more in the way of crust and sugar, but not actually that much more–go by taste and be conservative. This version is sweet but fresh, which is the joy of keeping most of the blueberries raw. It won’t make you feel like you’ve just eaten half a jar of jam. Continue reading

Passover Dessert Challenge: No Eggs!

 Passover-eggless-chocolatealmondtorte-halfsheet

Bear with me, I’m still a little hyper (see below). Three days before the first Passover seder, and I’ve been asked to bring a non-fruit, non-macaroon dessert. With a few caveats.

This is the ultimate, I think: a fresh dessert, preferably deep chocolate, with no dairy (serving at a meat meal), no fake stuff (because I can’t stand it) and obviously for Passover, no chametz (forbidden grains like wheat, barley, oats, etc.) or kitniyot (legumes, corn, rice, peas and green beans, some seeds, nuts and spices, plus some vegetable oils derived from them, like sunflower…). Also, for reasons of the requesting family’s allergies, no pistachios, hazelnuts or cashews, or cinnamon.

Or, and here’s the kicker for Passover desserts–eggs. No eggs! And it’s got to be moist and fabulous, or at least obviously better than the standard choke cake box mix, and prettier than the all-real-but-undecorated apple-almond cake I served a couple of years ago. And it’s got to rise and still be kosher for Passover under Orthodox Union rules. Which I had to look up on line for some of the possibilities I had in mind.

It’s not dread in my heart, surprisingly, but a little tinge of excitement at another chance to mess around and come up with something decent.

I’ve done a few home desserts that weren’t bad and that didn’t contain most of the forbidden items. My first best hope is something as close as possible to my favorite, Sacher torte (because I’m unoriginal and because at least I’ll like it). I’ve been working on this for a while and I thought, I can get by without eggs as long as I have some other way to raise the cake and keep it from turning into a rubber brick.

And eggs aren’t the only way to raise a cake or make a cookie without violating the kosher-for-Passover rules. It turns out that some brands of baking soda, including Arm&Hammer and a number of smaller and store brands, are processed under sufficient supervision so there’s no contamination from cornstarch or grains or the like, and are now considered kosher for Passover under O-U rules–it’s worthwhile looking them up. So is all unflavored bottled soda water, even without a kosher certification mark. That one I remember from my student days, when somebody said you could pour seltzer into matzah ball mix to lighten it.

Another item that turns out to be okay is linseed–aka flax. So if you grind linseed and bring it up with water, you could do a kosher-for-Passover dessert without eggs for the kinds of things flaxmeal works for. Consult a vegan dessert book (aside: a lot of the authors are Jewish! Maybe not so surprising), use matzah cake meal and/or almond meal instead of standard flour, and you might be in like Flynn (or at least like Feldman).

Other key ingredients to check are K-leP (kasher lePesach; kosher for Passover)…

The chocolate, obviously. Elite makes so-so quality but certified pareve kosher for Passover bittersweet bars, and they can definitely be put to work. Hershey’s plain (not Special Dark) non-dutched cocoa powder is accepted by the O-U even with just its regular certification mark. Some cider vinegar is probably certified–but fresh lemon juice or orange juice might work too, in case I can’t find an O-U-labeled version. And unflavored raw almonds, walnuts, pecans and almond meal from Trader Joe’s are also all approved, at least this year. Also white cane sugar and non-iodized salt with a regular year-round O-U certification mark.

Other items:

Plain dried fruits as long as they’re not coated with vegetable oils or the like.

Plain fresh fruits other than raspberries and their kin, which are hard to inspect for tiny bugs among the drupelets (but which the O-U has a whole procedure for inspecting at home to make them okay–it boils down to washing and looking carefully. So much for the mystery…).

Spices are more of a pain–some, like caraway and fennel, are considered kitniyot, even though very similar ones in the same family, like anise, are acceptable. Not that I was going to put any of these in a chocolate cake, mind you, but I like to keep my options open for other, non-chocolate, possibilities. Ground spices need to be certified for Passover, and most of the supermarket store brands aren’t.

Finally there’s the taste/texture issue, the 11th commandment: Thou Shalt Serve No Choke Cake (not even before its time, and thank you so much Paul Masson).

You want something raised with seltzer or baking soda and no eggs, you’re taking your chances on a pretty dry item. Almond meal contributes oil and moisture without making things oily as long as you remember to cut down on oil ingredients to compensate. But depending on how light or springy you want your cake, you may need more matzah cake meal for structure, which really dries things out if you go too far with it. Weighing the matzah meal is better than measuring into a cup because it’s dryer–already baked–so it’s denser than regular flour. You need more liquids if you use matzah meal–hence the usual eggs. Without eggs, you want something that will retain moisture in the cake and still give a bit of structure. Apples or applesauce would be my best bet, substituted for whatever oil, margarine or butter your cake recipe calls for, just slightly lower volumes to avoid making the batter too wet.

Pumpkin I’ve also tried in my callow youth. While it’s fine and occasionally impressive for a non-chocolate dessert and for plenty of savory dishes, something about it suppresses the essence of chocolate. The one time I tried canned pumpkin for fat-free brownies, the texture came out near-perfect, but it mysteriously sucked all the chocolateness out of the air while the brownies were baking. And then there was a serious blank in the chocolate department when I tasted, even though the texture was good and I’d put in a lot of cocoa powder. Life is unfair. And on the other hand apples won’t let you down, and even a little applesauce works beautifully instead of oil both in chocolate box mixes and in from-scratch cakes. Should work for Passover versions too.

Lest you wonder whether it’s possible to do a decent pareve frosting suited to a Sacher Torte Occasion, which–no surprise here–is what I’m aiming for, I’ve just done a test run (Wednesday) on the whole cake recipe I had in mind, thinking I might have to adjust before Friday.

This cake is a cocoa-flavored version of the basic gingerbread (cake, not cookie) recipe from the Silver Palate cookbooks. I’ve used it for honeycake at Rosh Hashanah with good results—even in the microwave. I almost always substitute unsweetened applesauce or grated apples for any oil in standard cake recipes or box mixes.

Here I’m also increasing the baking soda a little to compensate for the lack of an egg and substituting almond meal for most or all of the flour (and not adding molasses or ginger, obviously). From the typical nutrition label, I estimate the almond meal is about fifty percent oil by weight, most of it polyunsaturated fats. You really don’t need any more fat in the cake. It’s not low-cal even so, but the advantage healthwise is that most of the oil is polyunsaturated and monounsaturated, plus the almonds have fiber and protein. Beats adding sticks of butter.

The Silver Palate gingerbread method is pretty classic: you mix the dry ingredients together. Stir in the egg and oil (in most recipes) or in this case just the apple or applesauce and extra baking soda. Then you pour on fresh hot coffee or boiling water and stir quickly to get things just mixed to a batter. A little vinegar or in this case, a squeeze of fresh lemon juice, stirred in at the last minute before pouring into a sheet pan and sticking it in the oven, helps the coffee activate the baking soda.

The pareve, egg-and-butter-free chocolate cake didn’t rise a ton, probably because I included exactly zero matzah cake meal, and just a tiny token bit of potato starch, probably not quite enough to keep the rise. The cocoa powder itself provides a little backbone as it cooks, but probably next time I’ll add either another two or three spoonfuls of potato starch or a single sheet of matzah, crumbled into the coffee grinder and turned into fine grind cake meal.

But even as it was, first time around, this cake came out like you wouldn’t believe. Excessively fudgy cake, insanely good, and the attempt at a completely nondairy ganache without nasty creamer or margarine-type additions went so well I’m going to have to patent it or something.

As I’m sure (and sorry) is apparent, due to the serious cocoa-and-hot-coffee content, plus the elation that it wasn’t a flop, I found myself on a caffeine high and completely unable to shut up about it while driving my kid home from school. She discovered I wasn’t wrong. We both recommend thin (half-inch) slices to avoid shock, caffeine highs, and that feeling afterward like you’ve just eaten Monty Python’s wafer-thin mint. You will be satisfied–a little goes a long way.

This half-inch slice is seriously enough for a serving. It's that rich.

This half-inch slice is seriously enough for a serving at the seder. It’s that rich.

Anyway, this is going to work and it is SIMPLE. And tastes fabulous. Fabulous, very definitely. If you like flourless chocolate cake and ganache, try this at home. Even though, as I say, it has no butter. No eggs. And no crap. And it’s not too slow (though the baking time kind of is; 40-45 minutes because it’s very moist and stays that way after it collapses back down and shows light cracking–see photo at top of post). Continue reading

Purim: Poppyseed filling with a Persian-style twist

poppyseed filling with orange blossom water

Tonight is Purim, when we dress up in costume, make fun of dire villains and dull kings, cheer modest heroes and most of all praise a heroic woman, Esther, who risked everything to change the king’s addled mind and spare the Jews of the Persian empire.

In previous years, I’ve done the Hamantaschen thing–low carb, medium carb, all homemade, no pasty white horrors, praise of Joan Nathan’s basic recipe from her first cookbook…lots of non-Dayglo, non-candy fillings from figs, prunes, apricots, and so on…

Today I’m probably not going to get a chance to bake anything or even cook very much, because I decided to take a leaf out of Esther’s Megillah this year and read part of the fifth chapter, splitting it with my (much-wiser-than-Ahashverosh) husband. So about three days ago I decided I was going to go for it and learn the Purim cantillation (trope marks for chanting) system. Which takes more nerve than usual, because it’s tricky and somewhat deceptive, like the entire story. And it’s been almost two years, since my daughter’s bat mitzvah, since I’ve even chanted Torah. And, like I said, three days ago. Not brilliant.

Luckily there’s Youtube. And a number of synagogues post recordings by their hazzanim (cantors, male and female) for the cantillation marks and for the readings as a whole. Only there are so many versions for Purim! It’s a late holiday in our history, after a lot of us were living in the Persian empire, and the different melodies reflect our already dispersed community. One interesting version was by a Moroccan hazzan–his system actually had a couple of trope mark tunes that are nearly the same as ours for the regular weekly Torah and Haftarah readings. Maybe those are the oldest ones that everyone has more or less in common? Cool!

So–our daughter is chanting a few verses with her youth group for Chapter 7 tonight, and the director is bringing kosher Persian food from a restaurant on the West Side of LA, where the largest Iranian (and Iranian Jewish) community outside of Iran resides. I wish I were a kid tonight, for sure.

Still, in honor of the occasion and the roots, I did get around to making poppyseed filling for the hamantaschen I’ll make tomorrow.

I went to my local Armenian greengrocer yesterday morning for vegetables and picked up a new bag of poppyseeds, hoping they were fresh, really fresh enough to use. My previous latest bag in the freezer has puffed up suspiciously with air–suggests it’s no good and starting to release gases even though I didn’t open it before freezing, dammit.

I tasted the new poppyseeds raw–okay. But rancid sometimes only shows up when you toast them, so I poured a spoonful in a metal pan and swirled them around on the stove until the aroma came up. Then I test tasted those once they were cool enough. Still good, still lucky.

Poppyseed filling is quite an elaborate affair in my trusty 1984 spiralbound edition of Joan Nathan’s The Jewish Holiday Kitchen. Figs, apricot jam, brandy, egg whites? Oy. Ten or more ingredients. A production, and kind of expensive considering how many younger people don’t like poppyseed filling. Including my daughter, I’m sad to report (see below)…

But I do, which is the important thing, and my supermarket no longer carries those cans of Solo in the Jewish Foods section. So I decided it was fine to simplify. And while I was at it, to add a hidden Persian-style element or so for the occasion of Purim.

So this filling looks black…but holds the essence of early spring and orange blossom within it. And if anyone doubts that it’s completely effective in its ability to transform, at least temporarily, I should add that my daughter, who insisted she tells me every year she hates poppyseed filling with a hot hate, and that I never listen, took a tiny bite and looked surprised and pleased…at least for about five seconds, until the bitter toastiness of the poppyseeds came through like a bagel at rush hour, poor kid, and she pulled a Tom Hanks (from Big, the caviar scene). She even did the wiping-the-tongue-desperately-with-a-napkin bit. And no, I’m not sure I should be telling you this. Five seconds delay, though. From her, I’m gonna have to count that as a win. And it was pretty funny, another point to Purim.

Poppyseed Filling With a Persian Twist

  • 6 oz (172 g; it was the size of bag they sold) very fresh poppyseeds
  • 6 oz. sugar (again, 172 g, but anyway, the same amount as the poppyseeds)
  • 1/4 c (60 ml) water
  • juice of a lemon
  • orange part of the rind of an (organic, washed) orange or tangerine (in this case), grated or if that’s too much of a pain, shredded with a knife and ground in a coffee grinder or food processor with an additional spoonful or so of sugar
  • pinch each of ground cloves and cardamom (if you have it)
  • very tiny shake or grinding or pinch of nutmeg
  • up to another 1/2 c. water (see instructions and PS note at the bottom)
  • 1/2 t. vanilla
  • 1 t. orange blossom water (yes, this was my idea of the Persian twist, and it’s good, though probably it should have been rosewater for authenticity–I just wasn’t ready for that)

Taste-test the poppyseeds raw, then toast a spoonful in a dry steel saucepan on the stovetop until you start to smell their aroma. Cool and taste-test again before using to make sure there’s no funky, off, or rancid flavor to them.

ground poppyseeds

Then grind them a few pulses in a coffee grinder (in two batches) or in a food processor or blender.

In the steel saucepan, combine the sugar and water with a squeeze of lemon and let the sugar wet down all the way before turning on the burner to medium. Bring just to a slow simmer without stirring–the slurry should start to go clear as the sugar dissolves.

poppyseeds cooking in syrup

Add the ground poppyseeds and stir gently. It should be a thick dark-gray grainy mass. Keep the pot on a low heat so it bubbles gently but doesn’t spit for about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally but not hard or you might cause the syrup to seize. As it cooks add the lemon juice, spices, grated orange or tangerine rind and stir in, then [see the PS below] test-taste–if the seeds are still kind of hard, add 1/4 c. water, let simmer with a lid partway on for a few minutes, stir and do it again here until the seeds soften a bit and the raw-poppy edge is off. Add the vanilla and just before taking it off the heat, stir in the orange blossom water. Take a tiny bit and let it cool enough to taste and adjust any flavorings, then take off the heat and pour into a container to cool to room temperature. It will thicken further, especially after you put it in the fridge.

B’te’avon, bon appétit, and Chag HaPurim Same’ach!

PS…AKA, next-day “Do-over,” kind of. Because I wouldn’t want anyone to try this, be happy for a few minutes, and then kind of hate the result when they took a second taste. If it needs a fix, it needs a fix, and I felt this did…

The next day I took it out of the fridge for a taste test before deciding if I really wanted to bake…it was pretty grainy and the top was crusted sugar. I stirred it and realized the seeds were pretty hard still and kind of bitter–not rancid, just really raw-poppyseed. Very strong. I think I didn’t have enough liquid in the recipe compared with Joan Nathan’s, even without all the jams and things. She had “juice of an orange” in there somewhere next to the juice of a lemon, and I’d assumed it was mostly for flavor, but probably the extra liquid helped cook the poppyseeds too (hence, the “up to another 1/2 c. water” bit I’ve just added to the ingredients list).

Never one to look away from a challenge (oh yeah? I hear someone muttering sarcastically in the background)…I decided to reheat the filling in the microwave with some extra water and a lid for a minute or so and see if that would induce the poppy seeds to absorb some of the water and soften up a bit. I stirred in about 1/4 c. of water, which immediately went cloudy-white, kept stirring, and the filling thinned almost to pancake batter consistency. Put a lid on and heated 2-3 minutes in the microwave, let sit a few minutes to absorb. It was better as well as thicker, and a little of the poppyseed bitter edge was out as well. So I did it again with another 1/4 c. water, heated 2 minutes or so, let it sit again and it thickened back up but the seeds were definitely softer and a little more brown than black (although I admit it’s pretty hard to tell).

In any case, I’d do this the first time around while it’s still cooking on the stovetop. Add the extra water in bits after you’ve added the poppyseeds and spices, and before adding vanilla or orange blossom water (so you don’t evaporate them off). Expect to cook it down from about pancake batter looseness until it becomes very thick, a grainy paste. Then taste a little and feel to see if the seeds have softened and mellowed in flavor–add more water and cook longer or else do the microwave thing instead if you’re impatient, but I think it might only take maybe as much as 15-20 minutes on the stove rather than the 5 minutes I’d expected.

Safety: The only thing about heating syrups in the microwave (this is basically a syrup with seeds) is that they can get very, very hot. So 1. keep an eye on it while it’s heating and be ready to stop the microwave if it starts to boil over (this didn’t, either time, but you just don’t know) and 2. don’t use a plastic microwave container because the mixture could melt or scar plastics. Proper microwaveable ceramic or old-style borosilicate pyrex is ok if you still have some from 20 years ago or can find it in Europe and tote it home. (NOTE: “new Pyrex” that clanks and is made outside the US is made of soda lime glass and is not very heat-stable–see right sidebar warning).

 

Artichoke-olive spanakopita for a party crowd

Artichoke and olive spanakopita tastes authentic even though it's completely nondairy. The party round is pretty quick to put together, too.

Artichoke and olive spanakopita tastes authentic,  even though it’s completely nondairy by request–which makes it a good vegan choice too. And it’s easy to put together.

Last night we went to a big New Year’s Eve party–a rarity for us; we’re usually with family one coast or the other. Of course, getting to go to a party means rushing around the house a few hours ahead to find an outfit that fits, is clean, looks about right, doesn’t require very high heels or an engineering degree to figure out how to put it on. Luckily most of our friends are low-key that way.

The party was potluck–the hosts provided a couple of solid main dishes and we and the other guests brought the side dishes and accoutrements. A pretty good division of labor, I think. So I offered to bring spanakopita, which is pretty easy. Or at least, I figured out an easier way last week to get the spinach squeezed out than by doing three pounds of spinach handful by painful handful, and it was pretty good for the Chanukah party, so why not do it again?

But our hosts’ family, all five of them, have a cluster of serious food allergies–primarily eggs and dairy, but a couple of other odd ones like cinnamon as well, and not all of the allergies match up from person to person. It’s a testament to their bravery and sociability (which I admire and wish I had greater stores of) that they throw big parties and let other people bring food.

I decided to do spanakopita anyway and just leave out the dairy–butter isn’t a big deal if you have olive oil for the fillo leaves, and I don’t make it with eggs in the filling. So far, so good. But what should I substitute for the feta? Feta’s usually a big part of the show.

Tofu might have been easy, and it’s a protein source, but one of the kids can’t do soy, and it doesn’t really taste right. Nuts–don’t know. Nondairy cheese substitutes–I haven’t tasted these myself and they have so many ingredients plus loads of salt that it wasn’t worth chancing without consulting the family.

My best options to add to the spinach came down to:

1. Greek olives, pitted and chopped–right on the saltiness, but maybe odd-looking. No one else I know has ever paired up spinach filling with olives.

2. Cooked and drained mushrooms–I would do this, but my daughter confesses she doesn’t like them when I make spinach quiche. And she does like my spanakopita. So…

3. Marinated artichoke hearts–they have a little saltiness, but mostly lemon and garlic, which is just about right. And artichoke hearts pair pretty nicely with spinach and are a familiar enough combination that most people will probably be okay with them. You just have to remember to drain them well so they don’t make everything soggy.

I thought I’d go with the artichoke hearts alone, but after tasting the spinach and artichoke heart filling, adding more lemon and garlic (because you can never have enough) and herbs and scallions, I decided what the heck and threw in a handful of Alfonso olives I had in the fridge–12 big purple, winy olives, pitted and slivered, did not look weird after all and they gave just enough distinctive tang and salt for the big salad bowl worth of filling to satisfy without overpowering it.

I figure, when you try something new or off-beat with a substitution, you have to test-taste to know if it’s worth doing again or recommending to anyone else. Maybe no one will agree with you, or maybe they will, but if you don’t like the result to start with, you’ll feel bad serving it up. Or maybe you’re made of tougher stuff than I am and it depends on who you’re serving it to and what have they done for you lately?

So anyway, if you can’t have feta or other dairy, this is definitely a good way to go. The olives and marinated artichoke hearts are authentically Greek enough not to taste or feel like fakey or second-rate substitutions. The spanakopita ended up tasting pretty good, and got eaten up amid some serious competition.

Also, I’ve decided this is also a good time for a slideshow. For a while now I’ve been meaning to do a step-by-step post on setting up a round tray of spanakopita or baklava, because I think it’s simpler and quicker than a plain rectangular casserole, and it looks more impressive and party-ready too. So I took some pictures as I went along (note to self: wipe olive oil thumbprints off camera grip), Continue reading

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