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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

The Devil’s Food is in the Details

Melissa Clark has published an over-the-top cake recipe for the New York Times this week with two frostings and a demo video in her usual breezy style. The devil’s food cake, one of my favorite kinds, is pretty enough, and it looks like a fun idea, but… two homemade buttercream-type frostings? What kind of cake recipe is she using, and how does it compare with my usual (dare I say it) Duncan Hines?

I checked out the recipe itself and did a quick back-of-the-envelope calculation on the basic nutrition stats–carbs, fat, sodium, calories–then stared at it for a minute and wondered if I could possibly have been right.

Because the total I was coming up with was scary:  more than 1000 calories per serving for 10 servings. Half a day’s calories crammed into one piece of chocolate cake. It was about twice what I would have estimated looking at the photo. I mean it LOOKS pretty standard, if a little tall, on that cake stand. But 1000-plus calories per slice? Are you kidding? Had to be wrong.

So I went to the recipe nutrition calculator at myfitnesspal.com and tried it again. And it confirmed again that the recipe is indeed over-the-top, and over 1000 calories per tenth of the cake. What’s gone wrong here?

Here’s Clark’s recipe in the New York Times online for reference:

Devil’s Food Cake With Black Pepper Buttercream

and here’s what I saved off the nutrition calculator for everything–the cake plus both frostings:

Nutrition stats for Melissa Clark's 2-frosting devil's food cake for 10

Nutrition stats for Melissa Clark’s 2-frosting devil’s food cake for 10 people Calculated using myfitnesspal.com, 5/5/2014. Click the image to enlarge as needed, the numbers are still pretty scary.

My crude estimates, based on experience from having to calculate carbs in baked goods for a diabetic kid, were very close to the online calculator totals, within about 2o calories per serving and within 2-5% for each of the other stats.

And although it’s good to know my arithmetic and skepticism skills haven’t gotten rusty in the past month or so of trying hard not to bake, I think the nutrition chart above really tells you what’s going on in the world of popular recipe publishing today, particularly for American baking.

So let’s hit it over the head once more, because it’s still ridiculous: The first thing to think is, geeeeeeezzzzzz, over 1000 calories per serving.

How does Clark keep so thin? Did she actually eat a whole piece of this thing, or just pose for the photographer?

A 1/10th wedge of cake is a pretty big slice to begin with, and this cake is six layers tall–three full pans, cut crosswise in halves–for a standard-diameter round cake. In the accompanying demo video, Clark explains that the extra layers give you more room for frosting. “And isn’t that the best part?” she quips.

Well–I guess if you really like buttercream. She’s got both a vanilla-and-black-pepper buttercream AND a whipped chocolate ganache frosting. Does devil’s food cake really need so much dressing up to be good?

But here’s the added cost per serving: 111 grams of carb (about 2 meals’ worth), 86 grams of which are sugar. That’s 21 teaspoons of sugar per slice. A full day’s worth. 71 grams of mostly-saturated fat. Three full days’ worth.

Pro chefs excuse themselves for this kind of thing by calling their food “indulgent” or “decadent”. But this isn’t just excess, it’s mindless excess that doesn’t really add to the flavor or quality of the kind of dessert it’s supposed to be.

If you look at just the frosting ingredients, we’re talking 4 sticks of butter and 2 1/2 cups of sugar. The cake itself contains another stick-plus of butter and almost another two cups of sugar. So 5 sticks of butter and 4 1/2 cups of sugar total, or about half a stick of butter and half a cup of sugar per person, if you serve 1/10th cake as suggested. That puts it way into Paula Deen territory. Maybe even beyond Paula Deen.

I have to ask: Can’t we do a little better and still be decadent? Do we really need all that excess goo for it to be an okay cake?

It’s not that the frostings or even the cake are terrible-tasting or artificial or bland–she uses a whole real vanilla bean in the buttercream.  But it’s an awful lot of fat and sugar piled up with cake included merely as the excuse for the frosting.

That kind of tells you that the cake itself isn’t so hot. I’d rather have a smaller piece of a really good, really chocolate cake with more intense flavor per bite and no actual need to rely on frosting for interest. Something like Alice Medrich‘s revamped, lower fat Reine de Saba-style cakes (“Fallen Chocolate Soufflé Cake” and “Bittersweet Deception,” neither of which contain any butter) from Bittersweet, which she’s just reissued as Seriously Bittersweet. Or even David Lebovitz’s chocolate-butter-sugar-eggs flourless chocolate cake, which he’s dubbed “Chocolate Idiot Cake.”

If the cake’s just there as a frosting vehicle, why not be honest? I’d rather skip the cake and make dessert some intense ganache truffles to eat in smaller quantity with strong coffee. And even then I’d cut back on the fat and sugar so I could concentrate on the flavor.

If you are going to try and make some version of Melissa Clark’s cake, you really need to cut it down to size. In my two public performances exploring Continue reading

Purim options

standard cookie-dough hamantaschen

Regular hamantaschen with prune lekvar

Almond meal-based low-carb hamantaschen

Almond meal-based low-carb hamantaschen

Purim is here tonight, a little late thanks to the “leap month” this year (drawbacks to a lunar holiday calendar) but none the worse for it–it’s over 80 degrees here, which means it’s almost time for Purim. Los Angeles is the only place I’ve ever been, including Israel, where people were slathering sunblock on their kids and gasping for water bottles at a Purim carnival well ahead of lining up for hamantaschen and games. It was 94 degrees that year. Fifteen years of this and I’m still not used to it.

Purim, of course, means manic baking, heat wave or no, because the adults’ reading of the Megillah (the Book of Esther) had…ummmm….last-minute planning and no one thought about hamantaschen as part of the refreshments until midweek. I think I’m the only one left in our  shul who still doesn’t care about having a fabulously original themed cocktail party for the adults afterward. Any kind of cocktail party is more drinking than I want to do, and I’m damned if I wanna dress up in full office battle array again after so many years sidestepping all the suits in my closet, just so I can fit in with the Mad Men theme. I’ve never even seen the show.

But I actually make hamantaschen at home once in a blue moon instead of schlepping over to the Valley to buy them from a kosher bakery.

So I did the stupid, crazy thing and volunteered. How many people? I asked–maybe 60. So I have SIX batches of dough sitting in my freezer relaxing. It took about half an hour, about 5 minutes apiece,  to do all the batches in the food processor, one after another and weighing out the ingredients so they’d be consistent. And yet…after all the excitement from two weeks ago, I’m just not all that geared up to roll it all out and bake it just this minute. Maybe when things cool down slightly–half an hour? Maybe?

Friday happens to have been Pi Day as well–and to my daughter, who was supposed to be my second-in-command for this delicate operation, and to her algebra teacher this morning, that meant Pie Day. They had about four different kinds of pie for all the math classes, and none of them had to calculate the areas or volumes of the wedges they sampled. My daughter, of course, was so elated that she ate two entire meals’ worth of carbohydrate in about fifteen minutes, and still came out with a pretty good blood glucose number an hour later–good on the calculated guesses, there–but at the cost of running through insulin that could have lasted her three or four more hours if she’d eaten an ordinary lunch. Teenagers! Mothers of teenagers!

Still, not to lose the spirit of things too much. It occurs to me that hamantaschen qualify as very small pies, only triangular. So we eventually started the process of inscribing a triangle inside a circle–240 times, if we can get through all the batches before showtime. Me, I’d settle for 3 or 4 batches and call it a week.

The raspberry jam filling–all that hard work for the first batch of rolling and filling–leaked all over the place. Too bad there isn’t still a vogue for vampire-everything; the first batch would have qualified! Too thin. You need a thick serious filling to stay in place during the baking.

So–time to nuke the prunes for lekvar and the figs for the heck of it (plus toast a small sampling of the poppyseeds in my freezer to see if they’re still okay to use for a filling, and to make sure I don’t pour in the bag of nigella seeds instead by mistake!). I rarely see these anymore, but I still believe in doing traditional fillings alongside the modern, newfangled apricot-jam-and-chocolate-chip ones. It’s true that if we keep skipping the prune filling, we might not turn into our own grandparents, and if we miss out on the poppy seed filling (known in Yiddish as mohn) we might pass the all-critical drug tests (à la Seinfeld) with no interferences, but then again we’d miss the ta’am, and what’s the joy of hamantaschen without a taste of the past?

Hamantaschen Recipes

Low-Carb Almond Meal-Based Hamantaschen

My version of Joan Nathan’s Hamantaschen, with four fillings: poppyseed, prune, apricot/chocolate, labaneh/cheesecake

Microwaveable dried fig and dried apricot fillings (originally for fillo pastries, but still good for this, and a lot less drippy than jam)

However–if you are feeling “Mad Men”, you might think of reconfiguring the hamantaschen motif for cocktail party fare instead. I was thinking about this Thursday but figured it would be too weird. Then I saw an article about it yesterday in one of the big three newspaper cooking sections–dammit! scooped again! In any case, if you’re feeling a little avantgarde, you could do a batch of savory hamantaschen if you feel like it. Use rugelach, bureka or olive oil tart dough instead of the standard sweet dough. Roll it out fairly thin, and fill with feta or bleu cheese mixed with labne or very thick sour cream, plus a little onion and some thyme, maybe a pecan or two. Or something with very cooked-down mushrooms and onions (so they don’t get soggy). Or pesto and cheese. Or spinach with cheese and nutmeg and lemon rind. Or tapenade. Etc.

Chickpeas of all sorts and descriptions

Since Esther supposedly refused meat and ate only chickpeas, chickpea recipes are also more or less relevant to Purim. Mine are not particularly traditional–look up Iranian Jewish recipes elsewhere on the web.

Chickpea crêpes  These can be savory or sweet, and they don’t require eggs or milk

The “other” moussaka–eggplant and chickpea stew

Hummus from scratch (aka how to nuke dried chickpeas)

Fast Hummus made with chickpea flour (microwaved)

There’s also the possible “nahit”–fry chickpeas in olive oil, drain and sprinkle with salt and pepper.

Or a cold chickpea salad with mint, scallion, garlic, olive oil and lemon juice or vinegar.

Or channa masala dal, something like the red lentil dal but with chickpeas (and not mashed)

Post-Kiddush: our leftovers are better than yours

Round spare spanakopita just for us after the big kiddush

Round spare pinwheel-style spanakopita just for us at home. The big ones for the brunch had three pounds of spinach apiece (and were cut in small diamonds), but they still went together pretty fast–except for squeezing all that spinach dry…

This weekend I did it again–I made the kiddush, or in common speech a lunch buffet, for my congregation’s Saturday morning service. My husband kind of volunteered us for this week and because he doesn’t cook, most or all of the cooking, shopping, chopping and schlepping landed on my shoulders.

Last time he volunteered us, it was for our anniversary, and  I was ready to skip ahead to the divorce until I got over it, because it’s a lot of work to cook for 60 or so people who like to eat. And kibbitz. Especially when the 60 suddenly turns into 80-plus and having to use the synagogue kitchen with the more complicated and confusing rules on only a week’s notice. As they did this time…..

Soooo….a two-day hell of shopping and then marathon cooking-and-juggling in my little galley kitchen. The microwave got a serious workout. So did the food processor and the oven. Sometimes all at once. And it was raining hard for three days, so bringing things over to the synagogue kitchen as I went got a little tricky. I triple-wrapped the chocolate cake and stuck it in a USPS Priority Mail box so it wouldn’t get left out in the rain. Same idea for the spanakopita trays.

A few hints about cooking big and real for a synagogue brunch, learned the hard way by moi and passed on for your edification and safety (and sanity):

1. You can buy a 6-lb can  of chickpeas for massive half-gallon batches of hummus (Mid-East brand, maybe Goya as well). Cost? about $5. But–as I found out, and I’m glad no one was filming the process–industrial-sized can equals industrial-strength steel. A dinky hand-operated can opener is no match for such an item. I got just far enough to be able to pry open a kind of spout but there were tears and long-fluent-repetitive-all-throughout-the-house swearing sessions involved.

Still….

2. If you have a good corner greengrocer, you can buy quantities of eggplant for cheap–eleven or twelve eggplants made for a large tray of roast eggplant and onion slices (with garlic slivers and za’atar sprigs and olive oil) plus a large vat of baba ghanouj. Only the five eggplants I nuked for the baba ghanouj didn’t feel like cooperating fully when it was time to peel them. Might have been easier to peel first, then nuke, since it was all going into the food processor eventually. Next time…

3. Whole smoked whitefish for whitefish salad comes two ways–cold-smoked or hot-smoked. What’s the difference? I asked the counter guy at my favorite Armenian grocery. “Cold-smoked is a little less hard,” he said. So I bought it, thinking he meant the hot-smoked was tough as shoeleather and twice as chewy. I was wrong. Cold-smoked actually means the fish is smoked raw, like lox, only a little drier and tougher. But you don’t necessarily want to put it in whitefish salad that way. Man, it still had the scales on too. I couldn’t get it off the bones for love or money, and there were a lot of bones.

However, the microwave came to the rescue. I cut the fish in half and Continue reading

Pastry again: vinegar adds the tender touch

Most people, if faced with a quick baking dilemma, probably go to the supermarket and buy cookies or brownie bites or something.  And it makes sense, kind of, although with a food processor, you can make pretty good cookies and brownies in less time than it would take you to fight over holiday parking, much less elbow your way through the store.

The corresponding shortcut for most people who do bake would probably have to be pie crust–to say nothing of puff pastry dough. For years I’ve been looking for ways to make a pastry dough that is close to puff pastry–flaky and light and puffy–without being as heavy on saturated fats and calories. Not the easiest combination.

Fillo (purchased, I’m not enough of a DIYer to make my own yet and my kitchen’s too tiny for rolling and tossing a huge thin sail of dough the right way)–fillo is good for a lot of things, but it’s so obviously itself and not pie dough, tart dough or puff pastry. It’s also pretty salted–I always have to comparison-shop to remember which commercial version has the least sodium per ounce (they vary within brands, because some are intended for savories and the others for sweet pastries. I think the savory ones are much too salty and use the less-salted ones for spanakopita and so on as well as for baklava).

After having made a variety of pie doughs–standard flour-butter-salt-water, olive oil tart dough, rugelach butter-cream-cheese dough, and even a puff pastry recipe with about half the fat called for in the classics–plus croissants that I finally got right–I can say my latest experiment is something of an eye-opener for me.

All of these worked okay as doughs, but except for the olive oil tart dough, which I use routinely for quiche, none are really all that light-tasting or actually light in terms of fat content and overall calories. And rolling them thinner than the standard 3/8 inch (thinner equals less dough and fewer calories per serving…) sometimes leads to a tough pastry. The fact that I tend to use bread flour instead of all-purpose or cake flour is probably at fault as well, I’m sure, but I’m mostly a bread baker and not exactly a perfectionist, so how many different sacks of flour do I really want hanging around my cramped galley kitchen at any given time?

A week or two ago I checked out an older cookbook (late ’80s) on Armenian food and tried to puzzle out the Armenian, Lebanese, Turkish and Russian influences–it’s a real mix. I was looking for a recipe for bureka dough, and this book had one.

The recipe for spinach burekas had an accompanying (and aging, over-tinted ’80s-style) photo of a browned and flaky dough wrapped around a log of improbably-green spinach filling on a platter lined with too-green lettuce and too-orange tomato slices underneath. But other than the color enhancements, the spinach log, kind of like a spinach Wellington, looked pretty nice.

To my great surprise, the dough was quite similar to some of the ones Joan Nathan had in The Jewish Holiday Kitchen.  The key ingredient differences from my standard pie doughs are:

1. slightly more butter for the amount of flour than for standard pastry dough (to be expected–you want it flakier, you probably need more fat in the dough) though a lot less than for rugelach or puff pastry

2. a little vegetable oil as well

3. an egg. Nathan’s “muerbeteig” egg dough for a plum pie calls for a hard boiled egg yolk, of all things, but the one here is raw. I’m not sure what it’s for, exactly. Perhaps for leavening or some other structural purpose–maybe it helps the dough puff into layers and hold them better with less hard fat than puff pastry requires?

4. a quarter-cup of dry white wine–which I didn’t have, only red, which would have turned the dough gray…so I substituted half apple cider vinegar and half water–the vinegar because Nathan had used it in a dough with egg. Why wine or vinegar? I think–don’t quote me–it’s the acidity, which breaks down gluten a little and tenderizes the dough. Certainly it did in this case compared to my usual experience.

So anyway–this dough came out surprisingly well. It doesn’t puff anywhere near as much as puff pastry–at least not while rolled out as thin as possible, and I haven’t tried it thicker–but it’s light, crisp and tender at the same time and not heavy or greasy. It’s unsweetened and mostly unsalted and would be equally good for savory pastries, Wellingtons and other encased main-dish things (like pot pies, coulibiac of salmon, and spinach-type fillings) where it’s the top layer or a wraparound, and for sweet ones like the impromptu almond paste and apple tartlet at the bottom of this post. Continue reading

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