• Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

    Join 147 other followers

  • Noshing on

    In the frying pan, nearly ready to serve. I made this one with carrots, curry spices, chile-garlic paste, allspice and cinnamon, and a little vinegar and lemon for acidity.

  • Recent Posts

  • Contents

  • Archives

  • Copyright, Disclaimer, Affiliate Links

    Copyright 2008-2018Slow 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.

    ADS AND AFFILIATE LINKS

    I may post affiliate links to books and movies that I personally review and recommend. Currently I favor Alibris and Vroman's, our terrific and venerable (now past the century mark!) independent bookstore in Pasadena. Or go to your local library--and make sure to support them with actual donations, not just overdue fines (ahem!), because your state probably has cut their budget and hours. Again.

    In keeping with the disclaimer below, I DO NOT endorse, profit from, or recommend any medications, health treatments, commercial diet plans, supplements or any other such products. I have just upgraded my WordPress account so ads I can't support won't post on this blog!

    DISCLAIMER

    SlowFoodFast sometimes addresses general public health topics related to nutrition, heart disease, blood pressure, and diabetes. Because this is a blog with a personal point of view, my health and food politics entries often include my opinions on the trends I see, and I try to be as blatant as possible about that. None of these articles should be construed as specific medical advice for an individual case. I do try to keep to findings from well-vetted research sources and large, well-controlled studies, and I try not to sensationalize the science (though if they actually come up with a real cure for Type I diabetes in the next couple of years, I'm gonna be dancing in the streets with a hat that would put Carmen Miranda to shame. Consider yourself warned).

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

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

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

Breakfast without Matzah Overload

Last night we were very much in the spirit of Pesach–a total rush job at home, to the point where I realized I was supposed to have a boiled egg somewhere on the seder plate just as it was getting pretty far past sundown. Organization isn’t always our strong suit, especially on school nights. Last year I posted my Bart Simpson-style Passover Chalkboard Litany of kvetches and survival tips. This year: how to deal with matzah when they won’t sell you anything less than enough for 70 people for $2.99–such a deal! (well, okay, it is). You could feed nearly the whole Sanhedrin (because in our family, everyone argues about everything and I’m sure my 13-year-old is ready for law school as we speak. Good thing I can’t afford it yet!)

As with any style of food, too much of a good thing is still too much. I think I learn that the hard way every Passover. How to eat mostly vegetables and lean proteins and fresh fruit and yogurt…and not just sit there eating matzah like it’s going out of style? There’s more than enough matzah to go around–even in gefilte fish, especially in gefilte fish, which I’ve lost my taste for over the years since discovering how to cook regular fresh fish well, aka “not-gefilte”  (though I still buy a jar for my noncooking husband for lunches during the week.)

I don’t do matzah kugel, sweet or mushroom (a waste of mushrooms in my jaundiced opinion). I’m not a huge fan of matzah brei (exception: matzah brei “blintzes”), matzah lasagne, mina de espinaca, or any of the other matzah-plus-egg-heavy adaptations of regular food. Although I have seen one attractive-enough looking picture of a mina de espinaca, I’d still do it without the matzah sheets…

I try hard these days not to make matzah balls either, though this year I might make an exception–once–for my poor daughter who never gets any because she’s vegetarian and the “not-chicken” soup at Shabbaton this March didn’t have any flavor and there were no matzah balls in it like there were in the yes-chicken soup. Oy! Maybe it’ll be a weekend project to figure out a good from-scratch version–we have school and taxes this week. A lot of school and taxes.

My mother, who is famous for not cooking more than necessary, taught me how to make pretty-good fresh-tasting haroset Russian Jewish style (’cause that’s what we were). Apples, walnuts (though almond flakes are also just fine with me), cinnamon, sweet wine or grape juice, maybe or maybe not honey, chopped coarsely so it stays crunchy. But I’ve been to a couple of community seders out here in Pasadena where the haroset was mashed down like baby food and to add insult, had matzah meal in it. I know, matzah bits probably started out as a less expensive alternative to nuts, and I can’t blame anyone for that in their own homes. A professional caterer is quite another story. There’s really no excuse in California, where nuts are pretty plentiful (both the human and the arborial kind).

Well, anyway. Second seder is tonight, but what about the rest of the week–after taxes, as it were? Passover brings on a lot of nutritional challenges if you eat dairy or vegetarian. How not to eat too many eggs in a single week? How to stay away from the canned coconut macaroons and other assorted “Kosher for Passover” horror sweets my husband brings home because he thinks that the kashrut labeling makes up for the “nutrition” labeling (which really oughtta say, “WHAT nutrition?! This is pure sugar and potato starch, buddy! And palm oil! And artificial colors and flavors! Almost as good as Froot Loops!”) I’m pretty sure I’ve already mentioned this, but it’s because he’s a boy, and there’s nothing much to do about it except shudder, put the box of “goodies” in some inaccessible place on a low shelf, preferably behind the broccoli, which is merely green and mysterious or better yet, okra (which he fears more than taxes, and that’s saying something).

Note it down: ALL the packaged cake and cookie substitutes are a bad deal for anyone diabetic or even marginally thinking about becoming diabetic–very, very spiky, and almost never worth it. Also guaranteed to induce repetitive eating and the false sensation that you’re “starving” about three seconds after you eat them. And in the last 20 years, they’ve been faked-up further–even the kichel, a dry, stiff, barely-sweet puff halfway between an empty creampuff shell and a biscotti, has had artificial flavorings added recently–why bother?

Do we really even need such matzah-filled “delights”? Nowhere is this poverty of product more evident than in the kosher-for-Passover cake “mixes” (for which I always hear Julia Sweeney’s line “Where are yer mixes, hon?” from God said, Ha!). Last year’s example, which I’m not letting happen again: the Manischewitz Blueberry Pancake mix box my husband proudly brought home one day “on sale! it was 99 cents!” And naïvely suggested I could make for breakfast–this upon seeing that I’d just finished making cheese blintzes from scratch with real ingredients, and real raspberries. Don’t squint at me like that–he’s still breathing. I just decided his sudden brainfreeze in the wife department had been caused by jetlag, and contented myself with reading the ingredient box back to him.

The man is not a cook and is pretty happy not to be. Still, he does like to eat. And read. Somehow it never occurred to him to read in service of eating by checking what’s actually on and in that pancake mix box. It had 20 ingredients, no nutrition, and no blueberries. “Blueberry bits” contained–are you ready?–food coloring, sugar, artificial flavor, and sodium alginate. So suddenly you can’t tell the difference between berries and blue goo?

I had to go into extra innings with the cauliflower and broccoli and eggplant and asparagus and tomato/artichoke heart salads just to overcome the unusually high crap factor, even though I didn’t use the mix. Just reading it was enough to require emergency grapefruit. I was too ashamed to donate it to a food pantry, either.

So….real is definitely the best way to go with food for the week. Breakfasts can be tricky–matzah and jam, matzah and cream cheese, matzah and almond butter…it gets pretty tired pretty quick. And on the other hand, blintzes are for weekends only and frankly? I’m still annoyed about that pancake mix incident a year later! Nu…

Three relatively low-crap, moderately-low matzah alternative breakfasts that are (most important!) low-labor for those post-Seder mornings when you are Done and Off Duty to your nearest and dearest (except for coffee):

1. Matzah-nola, what it sounds like, ingredients straight from the cupboard or freezer. There is actually a product out commercially this year called “Matzahnola”; my version I invented a year or two ago out of desperation against the nutrition-free Passover version of Cheerios my husband brought home, but I didn’t think it was that good a name–who knew? Anyway, I’m not bitter (though the fresh-grated horseradish is still stinging my sinuses from last night).

2. The old-style Israeli breakfast, not the modern endless hotel breakfast buffets–more like the kibbutz specials where you’re expected to get out there and weed a cotton field right afterward. Which I have actually done in my less cynical youth.

3. The bonus “I can haz CAKE?” breakfast, a favorite of fridge-scrounging champions everywhere Continue reading

Pinned for Purim!

Thanks to Yael Shuval for choosing my Low-Carb Hamantaschen for her board at Pinterest.com.

Three years ago I developed almond-meal based hamantaschen for my daughter, who had been diagnosed with Type I diabetes only a couple of weeks earlier and needed something that was low enough in carb that (at the time, anyway) she could actually have one or two when all the other kids were having theirs and without having to get an extra shot of insulin.

Almond meal has only about one-fourth as much carbohydrate per cup  as wheat flour, so it seemed like a good substitute. To our surprise, although the dough was a little finicky to work with, the hamantaschen came out tasting pretty good, and they were indeed pretty low carb, about 4-5 grams per mini-hamantaschen. Granted, they were also pretty small, but it was a symbolic triumph in the first few weeks and made us all feel like being diabetic wasn’t going to be the end of having fun.

Now that my daughter is on an insulin pump, getting an extra shot is no big deal, though in our experience the pitfall is that it’s now just a little too easy, especially for a preteen, to “eat anything you want, at any time, without thinking about it, as long as you program the insulin for it” which is one of the less responsible marketing messages in Medtronic’s brochure for teenagers (note: the pump itself is pretty good, but it still doesn’t mean you don’t have to be careful about what you’re eating). Those sour gummy heart candies the teacher handed out for snack earlier this week and left on my daughter’s desk, for instance….well, candy never seems like as much food as it really is, and I think my daughter gained a valuable lesson when she added up what she’d really eaten…she wouldn’t be the first one.

It’s always good to have a general plan in place for holiday eating so you don’t overdo the treats or eat an entire meal’s worth of carb in just a few cookies or candies or whatever…what can I say, we’re working on it.

Still. In the last year or two I’ve mostly gone back to making standard hamantaschen based on Joan Nathan’s classic cookie-dough recipe, which I like a lot and which looks and tastes much, much better than the dry, pasty-white horrors at the annual Purim carnival.

hamantaschen1

What I like about the standard flour-based recipe, other than that it tastes and looks good and is easy to work with, is that I can roll the dough out very thin and get crisp, delicate hamantaschen that are a decent cookie size but still hold together nicely and are not extravagantly carb-laden, particularly if the fillings are reasonable and you don’t eat ten at a time (the big challenge). They’re not as low-carb as the almond meal ones, but they still work out okay–about 7 grams apiece for a 1.5-2″ cookie. They taste good even made with pareve (nondairy) margarine instead of butter.

The LA-area idea of hamantaschen usually involves M&Ms, colored sprinkles, anything completely artificial. I bet gummy sour hearts (this afternoon’s culprit) would be a huge hit too. I don’t think they’ve heard of either prune or poppyseed out here in at least a generation.

Traditional fruit or nut fillings are a much more decent bet for carb, and they taste better (and look nicer too, because I’m not 6 years old and don’t insist on rainbow colors anymore). They’re also easy to make from scratch in a microwave or on the stove top so that you can decide how much sugar to put in them. Continue reading

A Handful of Farina Breads

Simit bread or "beigele" with labaneh and herb spread

It’s been a couple or three weeks since my last post. I am currently in the desperate process of using up as much hametz, which is flour-yeast-bread-beans-lentils-rice-pasta-fillo-dough-oatmeal-etcetera, as possible before Passover. Right after Purim  I discovered I still had about 5 sacks of dried beans and lentils cleverly saved up and a sack of whole wheat flour and a 2-lb. bag each of bulgur AND farina! And a pound of wild rice. And a new bag of soy flour. Most of all which I couldn’t donate to the food shelter because it was either bulk or partly opened. Yeesh. What’s a girl to do?

Well…we’re certainly going to find out in the next couple of posts, aren’t we?…Even my suddenly-vegetarian daughter–yes, the very same one who kept bugging me about why I wasn’t cooking enough chicken for her last year–is wondering whether she has the stomach for more black bean burritos in the next two or three weeks (her conclusion: as long as there’s chipotle salsa around, what’s the problem?) My husband is looking at both of us cross-eyed.

Okay, then. Project #1 (well, after the pot of black beans, anyway; those were pretty standard and don’t call for a post): bread.

Long, long ago, in a kibbutz kitchen far, far away, I made some bread for my parents, who were coming to Israel for a visit during the year I was there. December in Israel–drizzly and cold some days, bright and cool others. You never know what you’re going to get.

But I’d missed my parents dearly for half a year. To celebrate seeing them I had in mind something like one of the blackish poppy-filled strudel I’d seen in a Romanian bakery in the middle of Haifa’s downtown “Hadar” shopping district amid the felafel stands and bookstalls. Only I wanted something not sweet, and with a better dough. A savory bread, like a bialy but with poppy seeds. So onion and maybe a little parsley or dill, now that I’d worked in the side kitchen for 5 months and knew the Hebrew names for both herbs.

I decided on a basic bread dough, flour-water-yeast-salt with a bit of oil. I rolled it out flat into a long rectangle and filled it with chopped, fried onions, parsley, dill, thyme and salt (it actually had too much salt, to my embarrassment, but my mother loved it anyway) and a couple of handfuls of poppy seeds. Then I rolled up the column of bread, twisted it around itself into a longish double rope, glazed it with egg yolk and baked it. It was pretty good and looked impressive. And it was really easy. My mother ate it all week sightseeing while my dad was at his conference.

Those days are gone, but a recent trip my husband took brought back the memory along with a couple of loaves of multigrain herb bread from a traditional German bakery he discovered in Tehachapi. The breads lasted an entire week at room temperature (of course, our humidity’s so low in Pasadena that this may be an exception) without seriously high salt in the dough, and every time we passed the dining room table, the aroma of dill and thyme and scallions and sourdough made us want to tear off a chunk to eat just as-is.

Two weeks ago was Purim, the feast of lots (as in drawing lots to determine someone’s fate, not lots as in lots-of-hametz-to-use-up). It’s the holiday from which we get the term “the whole Megillah”–the Megillah being the Scroll of Esther, a long Scheherezade-style story set in Persia and very long to read out loud in one sitting to a large congregation while they cheer the heroes and boo the villain (also Scheherezade-style, it’s the wicked vizier–am I giving anything away? It’s always the wicked vizier, except when it isn’t. And did I mention it’s kind of long? Okay, then).

So anyway, I decided to make some of this scrolled bread to give as Purim shalachmones–food baskets sent to friends, but didn’t get that far this year. Hamantaschen was about the limit of my ability, since it’s also get-your-kid-into-a-decent-school-for-next-year lottery time.

Usually these days the mishloach manot (same term, without the Yiddish accent) are candy bars, bagged snack foods, and maybe some raisins or an orange to round out the “3 different foods” custom. Occasionally you still see hamantaschen but the junk food factor has really taken over very sadly, I gotta say, even if it’s Israeli junk food. I mean, okay, felafel-flavored Bisli is fun once, but it’s really not much better than Cheetos, except that the wrapper is a good exercise for my daughter’s Hebrew reading skills (especially once she figured out which word meant “carbohydrates” on the nutrition label).

Nobody on the west coast even makes poppy seed hamantaschen anymore, to say nothing of prune lekvar filling, the two classics of my childhood. It’s a cultural deterioration I aim to remedy. Maybe next year–but for now, this weekend, with a container of poppy seeds still in the freezer, I’m thinking about making the bread, since it’s delicious, also involves poppy seeds and is unlike anyone else’s. And because I have flour and yeast to use up before Pesach, which is now right around the corner.

So I started pulling the flour off the shelf and realized I’d used up all the bread flour for hamantaschen but I still had a good 3-4 pounds of whole wheat, which wouldn’t make a good bread all by its lonesome. And on the other hand, I had both bulgur and farina–bulgur for tabbouleh or a wheat version of polenta, but farina–2 pounds of it. Well…it’s wheat and fairly fine. Maybe if I ground it up a bit further in the coffee grinder? I did, though the end result seemed less than convincing that I’d made any difference in it at all. Still pretty grainy. Dumped it into the food processor anyway along with an equal amount of whole wheat flour, some yeast, a little salt, and enough water for a fairly stiff but elastic ball of dough once it was processed.

The dough was pretty heavy to lift out and the farina absorbed a lot of water but it did seem to be developing some stretch, at least. I let it rise overnight in the fridge and started testing it out the next day. Continue reading

What do you make on New Year’s Morning?

Apple pie for New Year's Day

If you’re me–as I was, this morning, and will be until I can find someone better and clearly cooler to be–you make pie to take for a brunch at the house where a childhood friend is visiting. We had a great visit at her mother-in-law’s and my daughter got to meet my friend’s kids and trade rolled eyes while us uncool parents hung out and swapped tales of child-raising woe and pride–all the usual things.

But this morning–there’s no denying it–was a little rough. I got up about two hours later than I’d hoped to, after worrying much of last night about what kind of fool was I to offer to bring apple pie for 15 when I’d never made an actual apple pie before, just pumpkin pie and various apple cobblers–which probably wouldn’t add up to the same thing. And my friend and her husband are the “accomplished cook” sort of couple that makes such a gambit even riskier. Sort of like going to that 30th class reunion, only crossed with a cook-off. I’m not southern enough to enjoy the prospect very gracefully.

So at 9 a.m. I was up, cranky, and snarling (effectively, as it turns out) at my nearest and dearest that if they wanted breakfast they were on their own; I had pie to figure out and only about 2 hours or so to do it in before we had to leave, and maybe I could be convinced to brew coffee after the pies were in the oven, but until then they were cordially invited to seek out the Starbucks and leave me to my fate. Which was about a pound of flour, 3 1/2 sticks of butter, 3/4 cup of sugar, some cinnamon and cloves and 11 huge Granny Smith apples.

I think I made more dough than I’ve ever made before in one recipe–double crust for two pies. Only other double-crust pie I’ve ever made was the medieval tart for my daughter’s class a month or so ago (and I was panicked enough that she had to remind me that it had worked out fine, so what was the big deal?).

When you scale up like that, will your recipe still work? will it be too tough or uneven? too dry? too stretchy? will it roll out right? –too much worrying for one morning before benefit of caffeine, I’ll tell you that.

I had actually checked out about 5 different baking books to compare notes on dough and apples and how much sugar for how many apples–and on and on. You will say–correctly–that I probably shouldn’t have bothered. Apple pie has got to be one of the big basics, and despite the fact that every one of the books had about the same ratios, none of them were exactly alike, and they all looked fine.

I don’t usually get like this, and if it had been an apple crisp, I certainly wouldn’t have worried about any recipes at all. But pie. Pie is a standard, and apple pie even more of a standard. Everyone knows what it’s supposed to look and taste like. It’s the only food Americans really get French about.

There’s nothing to do about that, except to take the chance and pick your friends wisely, so they’ll be thrilled you brought a homemade pie or two. Which is what I did. And it turned out much better than I had any right to expect. So if you’ve never tried it, and you actually like apple pie–this is not bad. Not bad at all.

The only other hidden wisdom in this post is how to schlep your pies, still hot, across Los Angeles at noon on New Year’s Day. Think Priority Mail ™–the Continue reading

%d bloggers like this: