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    Happy 2019! It's a new year--time for a restorative. Me? Bok choy broth with tofu for lunch. The purple tinge is not your hangover talking to you--I added purple and gold "black" carrots to the bowl and it got a little Rose Parade on me.

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    Copyright 2008-2019Slow Food Fast. All writing and images on this blog unless otherwise attributed or set in quotes are the sole property of Slow Food Fast. Please contact DebbieN via the comments form for permissions before reprinting or reproducing any of the material on this blog.

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Ice Cream Therapy

Chocolate Cherry frozen yogurt

Just in time for my daughter’s return last week from college in a part of the northeast where it was still snowing in May, Pasadena entered its first major heat wave of the year–and our AC broke down in honor of the occasion. Fun times!

Today’s topic, as last year and the year before, when I first started this post (and then got side-tracked with all the college application stuff and the very unpleasantly named FAFSA)… and every year at this time, once the heat starts hitting town, is ice cream. Well, ice cream and a couple of lighter, more flavorful and frugal home-brew variations because that’s what’s uppermost on my wishlist, other than cooler air here and cooler heads everywhere. So anyway, imagine it’s two summers ago, not now, for at least the next two parts of this adventure…

Gelato

It started with gelato.

Right before the fourth of July two years ago, I found out that I could take my daughter’s sharps containers to a local sheriff’s office for disposal instead of having to drive to the CleanLA site in west Glendale (not a nice area, and the guys in white hazmat suits make you stay in your car and pop the trunk. They’re not mean about it but it’s still unnerving). When I looked up the Altadena sheriff’s office online, the map showed an unexpected gem across the main street: Bulgarini Gelato, which in 12 or so years of operation and despite its tiny size has become nationally known in the food world.

A friend has been after me for years to visit and try their pistachio gelato, insisting that it’s the real thing because they use Sicilian pistachios and it’s all natural (you know the kind of friend who speaks in italics). Despite or possibly because of how holistic she made it sound, I’d never gotten over there.

It’s a shame, in a way, because Bulgarini is the living result of a rescue operation–the owners did an apprenticeship in Italy to learn the old-style from-scratch processes for making real gelato, just as all the old guys were retiring and all the gelato shops were going to factory-made, synthetically flavored powdered mixes.

My husband and I had been to Italy… 25? can it be? years ago for a conference (the only way we could have afforded it then), when real gelato was still available. We quickly figured out how to order anything at one of the bustling gelaterie in Florence: sharpen your elbows and your tongue, know which of the 30 or 40–or more–flavors you want (spinach? avocado? rose? fior di latte? kiwi? cassata?), get to the front of the throng and have your money ready, because it’s gonna cost you. But a tiny cup–at an outrageous 3000 lire (right before the Euro took over)–held two or three distinctive flavors you ate with a tiny spoon and that didn’t melt as fast as ice cream, so you had more time to keep tasting as you wandered around the city, taking in the sights.

Bulgarini was almost the opposite experience. At mid-afternoon on a hot July day, the whole shopping plaza was silent and dusty and it took some time to locate the gelato shop in a group of new indie businesses off to the side of the deserted RiteAid. The gelateria was dead quiet, just a few customers trickling in at a time, though steadily. No need for elbows or decisiveness. Leo Bulgarini, the owner and artisan gelato maker, stood to the side with his arms folded, not saying anything as he supervised the girl behind the counter, who spoke a tiny amount of English and was obviously pretty new. There were only ten or twelve flavors in the case, reasonable for handmade in such a small shop, and none of them spinach or avocado–also reasonable, since most customers here probably wouldn’t be ready to chance them.

As in Florence, the prices on the chalkboard were authentically astronomical–the smallest cup was $7 for up to two flavors, plus an extra dollar for the Sicilian pistachio. Which I got anyway because that was the mission, even though I kind of gulped as I forked over a twenty, and asked that the second flavor be nocciola–hazelnut. I figured the super-dark chocolate and the fruit flavors were things I already knew I liked, and they might clash or overwhelm the subtleties of pistachio. The hazelnut would be just different enough to be interesting as well as a test of truth in flavor, because chocolate and fruit are easier to be convincing about and because commercial hazelnut flavoring tends to be disappointing–oversweetened and often synthetic.

In any case, I tasted and was floored. Really floored, but too shy in that environment to say anything.

When the silence threatened to become extra-awkward, I ducked out into the shaded courtyard and tasted it again. The Oregon hazelnut was so clean, so crisp, so exactly and precisely hazelnut and nothing else–not faint, not sweet or faked with extracts or overdressed in any way–that it was actually more impressive and possibly more Italian than the Sicilian pistachio that followed. The texture was right too–slightly stretchy, not super-rich, and it didn’t melt right away, so there was time to eat it in small experimental tastes.

Was it worth seven or eight bucks for a 3-4-ounce serving? There’s no way I could make a habit of it–it really is too expensive for a snack. But for a special occasion, the real thing is worth a try. My husband was overscheduled for his birthday that year, and we were away the next, but he’s just going to have to clear his slate so I can drag him back before his next birthday. Maybe tomorrow, actually.

Ice cream parlor ice cream

A few weeks after the Bulgarini experience, we flew east to see my mom and do college tours in Boston and then hung out with my sister in Maine. After a day or so of dank heat we finally admitted it was more than we could handle–what can I say, we’ve gone soft since moving to the land of 10% humidity or less. We gave in to temptation that afternoon and sampled hand-cranked ice cream at a local ’50s-style ice cream parlor. There was an impressive list of flavors on the chalkboard–easily more than 40, including licorice, various berries and several different variations on chocolate, caramel and coffee. We all liked it well enough, but I was the only one who got something other than your basic oversized milk-chocolate-caramel-cappuccino.

I came away with an important realization: Ginger just isn’t as common as it should be, it’s a great flavor that really deserves a comeback. But it shouldn’t be stuck in sweet, bland basic vanilla superpremium ice cream that’s starting to drip before you even get out the door. Even after I told the girl at the counter to give me only half the softball-sized scoop she was aiming at my cone, and she complied, puzzled that anyone would ask for less instead of more, it was just way too much. My husband went for two flavors, two full scoops. I’m still not sure how he possibly managed it, and I was watching (queasily). Oy. Boys are just into stunt portions is how I explain it.

When we got back home to California, our cat was fine, the kitchen hadn’t crawled away, and reality sat waiting on the doorstep: school was only a couple of weeks down the road and it was hot here too–though not as humid, at least. I suggested ice cream (light, not Haagen-Daz)–and my daughter glared; after the excess version from Maine, she was trying not to, which was probably smart for all of us.

The skinny versions

If you can’t get to Altadena or Maine, and you’re not sure a $5+ pint of ersatz supermarket gelato is the real experience (it isn’t) or you want a flavor that’s not so predictable, you can make gelato yourself for not very much money. Cookbooks from the 1990s abound with recipes (though probably not the spinach or rose flavors), and you might be able to find a Brazilian recipe for avocado ice cream online.

The basic idea for gelato is to make an egg and milk custard and blend it with fruit, nut pastes or other flavorings before freezing. Some use cornstarch in addition to or as a substitute for some of the eggs, and that’s as traditional as all-eggs in some parts of Italy. The base ingredients are inexpensive either way. Continue reading

Halloween Candy Carb Guide

Halloween is coming…if you have a diabetic kid, as I do, it’s more difficult than Valentine’s Day to deal with the ups and downs. This year my daughter is in college and making her own decisions, but we’ve been strategizing since her first Halloween with T1D (Type 1 diabetes, the kind that requires insulin round the clock) about how to handle the (several pounds of) candy haul safely without spoiling all the fun.

She will tell you I spoiled it by throwing out one or more pounds (out of 3, more than we even handed out) behind her back a couple of years later, and she still feels ripped off. I will tell you that she eked out at least 2 of her 3 pounds of junk for over a month of getting to eat a piece or two every day with a meal, so what’s she complaining about?

Now of course she prefers actual chocolate, high-percentage, with some actual chocolate flavor instead of light-brown oversweetened waxy mush. But the appeal of trick-or-treating lasted a long time and is probably still going strong.

The point being, people with Type 1 diabetes still like candy and can in fact eat some of it with insulin to cover it, just “in moderation” as the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation puts it. In moderation meaning a little at any one time, preferably not on its own but with an actual meal that contains protein and vegetables and fiber to help de-spike it (for Halloween, I suppose I should say, “defang it”). And always with known and limited carb counts and the right amount of insulin to cover it.

Regular candy bars come with nutrition labels and carb counts, and you usually only buy one at a time, but Halloween throws everything off. The little minis and fun-sized and so on? And artificial sweeteners aren’t really the answer, especially not for kids, because there are some emerging health issues. If your kid (or you) have a candy haul with no labels, how do you carb count?

There are three ways to deal and you’ll want them all.

Start with the eyeball method

This is good for when you’re still on the street or at a party, or whenever you don’t have better measurement methods or official info handy…

If it’s a chocolate, the square minis (less than an inch on a side) are about 5 grams of carb apiece, and so are the small wrapped hard candies (“boiled sweets” in the UK) like Brach’s or Kraft peppermints and butterscotch, regular-sized thin 1″ plain lollipops and so on.

The slightly bigger 1 1/2″ long by 1/2″-5/8″ rectangles of standard chocolates are about 8-11 grams apiece.

The JDRF’s annual official guide to Halloween candy carbs

Once you get your haul home, or if you have a smartphone on you, use the official carb counts for any common candies with brand names. The  JDRF Halloween Candy Carb Guide is a PDF list you can print out and stick on the fridge or keep handy on your smartphone. They update it every year to keep it current.

When in doubt, weigh it out

Your best bet for any candy without a label–gummy worms, home-made or unwrapped chocolates, candy-bowl candy, etc.–is to weigh it on a scale that shows grams. Almost anything but sesame halvah (which you’re unlikely to pick up trick-or-treating) will be more than 85% carb by weight. (Halvah is about 50% by weight because it’s half sesame paste, half sugar syrup, but really. It’s kind of the exception.) Regular fudge is similar in texture but in terms of carb, it’s right up there around 90% like most commercial candies.

Most mass-market chocolate candy (i.e., Mars and Hershey, not the high-percentage bars) is 85-95% carb by weight, so if you weigh it in grams, multiply by 0.9 and you’ve got a pretty good estimate at least in reasonable single portions (1-2 pieces of candy, half an ounce or so). Hard candies like peppermints or butterscotch, Jolly Rancher, Lifesavers, etc. are basically 100% carb, so whatever they weigh in grams is the number of grams of carb. Jelly beans and gummy worms are in-between but figure 90-100% carb by weight.

Those percentages are a bit finicky and not everyone needs to know the carb to within a gram or so. If you don’t have a head for math or a calculator handy, just weigh it and figure it’s all carb, keep the portions limited to half an ounce (15-20 grams of candy) and and you won’t be off by more than 1-2 grams of carb.

For more tips on helping a young kid deal with diabetes and candy at Halloween, and more on general carb counting by weight for regular foods, check out the Carb Counts page (or just click the tab at the top of the blog).

Frittata on the Rebound

Dr. Lustig’s “Teaching Breakfast” clinical teaching program for families with obese or diabetic children posed a question for me that I didn’t get a chance to test out until this morning. If something with balanced protein and vegetables–say, an omelet–is a better choice than most breakfast cereal, or poptarts, or doughnuts, or whatever most kids are eating before they go to school, how do you get that to be affordable and quick to prepare on a schoolday?

The easiest way to do eggs for several people at a time without overdoing the cholesterol is probably to do a big omelet or scramble and take out some of the yolks. But you might not have time  to do it at the optimal time for the gourmet–that is, right before you’re going to eat it. Not if you’re heading your kid(s) out the door with the daily litany to grab socks, shoes, homework and lunches and not to worry about what color lipstick (or hairstyle, or comic book, depending on age and taste) because you’re going to be late and come on, already.

We didn’t have this problem in my childhood; you either got out to the bus stop on time by yourself or you walked to school in disgrace, because my mother was not going to make our breakfast or lunch (for which we were immensely grateful), or do any big rescues for “emergencies” based on footdragging. And staying home was not an option we wanted to explore. My sister and I could count on the other one telling on us, not to mention the prospect of running into Mom if she came home early or picked up a phone call from the school attendance clerk. Motivation is everything…

But grownups have these dilemmas too. Who wants to be messing about with a frying pan and washing up when you’re trying to get to work? So many of my daughter’s teachers last year could be spotted out in the parking lot of the school right before the first bell, standing by their cars and bolting down an egg mcmuffin-type thing from a fast food drive-through (drive-thru? hate that commercial spelling) with a cup of coffee in the other hand. Quick, seemingly nutritious, but actually horribly high-salt-and-fat-and-calorie-for-what-it-is, and quite expensive too. Not a good daily habit. If you can do eggs and coffee from scratch at home, you’re bound to do them better and a lot cheaper. You could probably save up for a new tablet or pair of theater tickets within weeks, and you might even lose a bit of weight.

So eggs. A frittata has a lot more vegetation in it than a classic French-style omelet, and it’s more sturdy–look at the very solid, nearly stiff Spanish potato-filled version; always served at room temperature in cubes or wedge slices, almost as some kind of potato kugel.

Well, okay, you don’t want a potato frittata if you’re trying to get the nutrition up to snuff without tons of calories or grams of carb. You want some lighter but substantial vegetables so you don’t end up feeling like you swallowed a lead balloon for the rest of the day.

But the good news is that you don’t have to cook and serve it right on the spot. You can do it ahead and stick it in the fridge. If you do it the night before, you can cut it into wedges and microwave one on a plate for 15-30 seconds and you’re ready to go. Or, of course, you can serve it cold–kind of like the classic cold pizza for breakfast, only  better balanced. And most frittatas go well with salsa.

I am not a fan of the kind of isn’t-it-rustic-Italian-or-Provençal glossy magazine frittata instructions that call for frying first and then running under a broiler or what have you. That takes time and heats up the house ( bad in Los Angeles) and probably calls for expensive stovetop-to-oven-friendly cookware, which is usually not [sorry, forgot the “not” when I first posted this] nonstick. A lot of excess fuss for an effect you can perfectly well achieve in an ordinary nonstick frying pan in a couple of minutes on the stovetop, which is how most people who make frittatas at home “authentically” in tiny Italian or Provençal kitchens actually make them. Unless you’re doing a fancy brunch service for 20 diners at a time, in which case it might actually be quicker to do a baked eggs thing in a big casserole and skip the frying. But then I’d hope you were getting paid through the nose for that. Little chance of collecting caterer’s fees at home.

As for the vegetables, cauliflower and zucchini are both very good low-carb, low-calorie stand-ins for potato, and they’re pretty inexpensive and easy to prepare, especially if you have a microwave so you can parcook them on a plate for a minute or so before adding them to the frying pan. That gives you a chance to soften them through quickly and at the same time drain off some of the liquid–they’ll fry faster and won’t make the frittata soggy.

Cauliflower has more fiber, vitamin C and calcium than zucchini, and it’s a bit firmer as well. Zucchini is milder and easier for kids (or adults) who aren’t yet used to eating a variety of vegetables. A frittata like this is also the ideal way to use up that scary-big overgrown zucchini your enthusiastic gardening neighbor gifted you with. Or that someone anonymous parked on your doorstep in the middle of the night.

…It is getting to be the season for that sort of reverse larceny, now that I think about it. Someday I feel it would be right to invent a spring-loaded, siren-enhanced trap for stealth zucchini donors. Something involving on-the-spot forced acceptance of a large cafeteria-style green or orange jello mold with canned fruit cocktail floating in it, faded-pink “cherries” and all, as the price of escape…  Or maybe I’ve just been watching too much “Big Bang Theory” with my daughter this weekend and have started to channel my inner Sheldon. And really, I don’t mind stealth zucchini nearly as much as gifted Meyer lemons.

Okay. Back to the frittata–after all, if you already know how to make a basic omelet, this post is mostly just for entertainment, a mere vehicle for shocking photos of various vegetables that have been foisted off on us by well-meaning friends. It’s enough to make you feel like Wallace & Grommit in “The Curse of the Were-Rabbit”:

Monster zucchini half

Monster zucchini. This is a dinner plate and steak knife we’re talking about here. And only half the zucchini. The other half of which I’m sure is still stalking the neighborhood in the wee hours of the night.

IMG_8903

Breaking down a zucchini (well, how would YOU go about it? I didn’t have a wooden stake or silver bullet or anything) for a monster omelet.

Continue reading

Sleepover fare

My daughter who loves vegetables and will often eat them ahead of whatever else is on the plate at supper suddenly became selfconscious yesterday about serving them to her friends at her birthday sleepover–no, no, no, Mom, none of my friends will eat them, and they probably don’t want fish, we want pizza. Not your pizza. Pizza from the good takeout place in Sierra Madre. And no anchovies this time.

We’ve known these girls since kindergarten–or earlier. They eat vegetables. But pizza it was. With some raw veggies for snack thrown in beforehand.

Our experience with the standard kid party fare is not very happy. Chips, soda, candy, popcorn–and that’s just the open bowls sitting around. Then pizza, cake, ice cream, possibly more candy.You’ve got to wonder what kind of parents actively choose such a menu–and the answer these days is, most people. All of these things are pretty addictive–everyone grabs for seconds without thinking.

Our daughter has been to a few of these parties and discovered the hard way that everything she knows how to do as a Type I diabetic flies out the window the instant she gets there. All her friends are grabbing handfuls of these very high-carb, mostly processed foods which we never get at home (except for ice cream), and the behavior is as addictive as the snacks. Even when she plans a strategy ahead of time with a goal for a limited reasonable maximum of carb grams and she calculates insulin for everything meticulously, she ends up pretty high hours later–as in, at 3 a.m., long after the insulin for the food has run its course.

It’s extremely hard to calculate carbs accurately enough with most processed snack foods at a party to avoid big glucose spikes later on. Even if you do everything right. There’s just something about junk foods–either you end up eating three meals’ worth of carbs in an hour of snacking without even feeling it because your friends are eating that way and it seems normal at the time, or these foods really digest a lot differently from standard things like bread or pasta. If it’s happening to our daughter, who can see the ugly results by getting a fingerstick three or four hours down the road, when she’s antsy and fractious and can’t sleep at 3 a.m., you know it’s also putting an extra burden on your kid who has a working pancreas.

So it might be a good idea to get fresh with the standard teen birthday party menu–if you’re doing pizza, skip the bags of chips and soda, add some veg and lighten up on dessert.

Salad was not achieved despite best intentions only because there was no room to get through to the kitchen where the vegetables of the week were lounging in the fridge. With the girls suddenly launching into “girl tawk” over pizza (a less appetizing combo would be difficult to imagine), and since we don’t have a separate den, our living room and dining room quickly became no-parent territory. My husband and I sidled up, grabbed some pizza and some carrot sticks and hid out in our bedroom so as not to intrude or have to hear any of it–win/win.

So given the awkwardness of getting past them and into the kitchen, vegetabalia last night was reduced to the bag of sugar snap peas and a bag of baby carrots we’d put out for a snack–not up to par, really, but it worked out fine. The girls ate them happily enough and didn’t notice the lack of or even seem to miss chips, cheetos, popcorn, potato chips, pretzels, goldfish etc. They were all too busy watching “Big Bang Theory” episodes and gossiping nonstop. It just goes to show you–the party is not in the bag [of chips, as per the tv ads], it’s in the participants.

I’d made a rather large and beautiful raw blueberry pie for dessert–chocolate cake after pizza just seems so wrong when it’s so hot out, and besides it’s summer with a vengeance. All indications (pretested and verified by my kid) were that both the crust and the filling were up to snuff. My daughter calculated for her best chances of being happy and more or less within range at her own party so she could have a piece with her friends, and she stopped worrying about the lack of junk food. I mean, pizza serves perfectly well as its own form of junk food–you don’t need any extra.

Plus you don’t want to be crunching too loudly when Sheldon and Leonard are going at it over whichever comic book hero’s superpower is the more mathematically sound.

 

 

 

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).

 

FDA warning on powdered caffeine

The Washington Post carried a story yesterday on a new FDA warning about powdered caffeine’s potential for a lethal overdose. Caffeine is relatively unregulated as a dietary supplement and companies have been selling it mixed into “energy” drinks and “shots”, inhalers and other forms, including pure powder, through Amazon.com and other internet venues.

Most of the stupids (I mean, more politely, naive consumers) who buy caffeine-laced “energy” products are teenage boys and young men–no great surprise. Guys in that age range tend to have trouble getting up in the morning and being alert for class. The proliferation of the iPad, the smart phone, and game apps isn’t helping. A cheap, legal and potent stimulant seems like just the thing to counteract the effect of late nights and early exams. Combine that with a pitch about “energy” and fitness–mostly in the form of weightlifting and bodybuilding, a sector rife with dietary supplement abuse marketing, and wishful thinking about instant “buffness”, as my now-teenage daughter scoffs–and you’ve got a really bad deal.

But it doesn’t take much of the purified caffeine powder to overdose and the difference between stimulated and dead can be as little as a few milligrams–much too hard to measure accurately with a teaspoon or even most kitchen scales.

Caffeine is far from harmless even in limited doses (otherwise, why would we bother to drink coffee?) And it’s definitely a drug–I had to work with it in the lab way back in my radioactive youth. And it’s really inexpensive.

Why the “dietary supplement” label is still allowed to cloak quasi-drug and drug products from FDA control is a mystery to me. It’s a bad deal for everyone eventually, because as more of the supplement compounds are discovered to have harmful effects–think anabolic steroids or some of the “smart” drinks and relaxants added to “energy” drinks over the past decade–Congress ends up having to legislate against them one by one, and the FDA has to go through a torturous combination of warning letters and negotiations with the companies involved and attempt to draw up new regulations–a very expensive and drawn-out process. And it’s usually piecemeal and illogical–caffeine levels in soda are regulated, pure powdered caffeine is not.

In the meantime, hospitalizations from caffeinated energy drinks and other easily abused products have doubled since 2007, and there have been a number of deaths from caffeine overdose, including the Indiana teenager whose parents had no idea he was buying and consuming powdered caffeine when he died at the end of May, and whose case spurred the FDA’s attention this time. The state of Oregon is also currently going after 5-Hour Energy in a lawsuit over false advertising claims about ingredients that actually do nothing much, when the real stimulant effect is due to a dose of caffeine.

But even if you’re not a naive teenage boy, the whole caffeine-laden environment has expanded beyond anything that makes sense. More and more people are finding themselves overdosed (not lethally, usually) but with the shakes or dizziness. Between the Starbucks venti and proliferation of 20-ounce sodas as the new normal serving size, there’s a new source of trouble, because caffeine is showing up in foods we don’t expect to contain it.

Food companies are adding caffeine to candy and snacks these days as never before–even in oatmeal and pancake syrup. The FDA is taking the “negotiate with the companies and hope they back down” approach, as they did with Wrigley for its Alert caffeinated chewing gum a year ago. They don’t currently have the impetus to forbid adding caffeine to foods as they did with alcoholic caffeinated beverages a couple of years ago–the “blackout in a can” as Charles Schumer put it–but they’re at least making noises about getting it back out of foods that children and teenagers are likely to eat. I like the coffee cup graphic up on their Q&A page about it, but will it really change anyone’s mind or make them look harder at the ingredient lists if they’re already buying these products?

Why put caffeine powder in non-coffee foods in the first place? It doesn’t taste like much or stimulate the tastebuds, exactly. But the combination of mental stimulation via caffeine with eating a particular snack food is probably intended to make lackluster processed foods more attractive and even addictive in either the literal or marketing sense. Given the price of caffeine powder compared with almost anything else the companies could add, I’d be willing to lay odds on who’s going to be even more addicted to caffeine than the consumers. Cue the Pavlov effect.

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)

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