Noshin' the 'Taschen, 2023
In anticipation of Passover which arrives in less than a month, Purim provides both incentive and opportunity to clear out our kitchen cabinets of flour. It also nudges some of us towards the dark recesses of the freezer. Though I tend to align myself with traditional Hamantaschen fillings, this year I'm more than happy to color outside the poppy seed, apricot and prune lines. Inspired by the very last of last year's rhubarb stash and an over abundance of wild blueberries, I'm putting the prunes and poppyseeds on pause; ditto for the dried apricots.
Oven roasting strawberries and rhubarb heightens their flavor while taming the excess liquid that yields a runny filling. Frozen blueberries make a sturdy stove top jam that can be as sweet and lemony as you wish. I've never been smitten with dry, crumbly cookie versions of the tri-corner pastries; probably a latent Hebrew-school-Purim-costume-parade syndrome. Though my preference is delicate cream cheese dough, I'm also a fan of yeast driven Hamantaschen. Both require a little extra time and fiddle, but they are so well worth it. And if you feel up to the challenge of watching melted butter transform from bright yellow to golden brown, the nutty flavor of brown butter pairs beautifully with blueberries. Regardless of the flavor profile you choose, the story of Purim remains an important reminder of Queen Esther's bravery. As we celebrate the holiday today and tomorrow, it's a fine idea to consider the power of a pastry; one that symbolizes hope and resilience.
When Mardi Gras "roulez-s" around, I'm reminded to give a nod to Anna Laura Squalls, head baker at the Pontchartrain Hotel from 1960-1985. Squalls' ingenuity is responsible for elevating Baked Alaska to the iconic Seven Mile High Pie. A gravitational wonder composed of vanilla, chocolate, strawberry and peppermint ice creams, it was blanketed in torched meringue then drizzled with chocolate sauce. Mile High Pie stands tall on my list of indelible food memories from the Pontchartrain's Caribbean Room.
For breakfast, the hotel's Silver Whistle Coffee Shop served muffins bursting with blueberries. Most mornings before hopping the street car to the Saenger Theatre, I bought one muffin, still warm, tucked inside a waxy bakery bag. Diligently breaking off small pieces, the challenge was making it last for the duration of the trip from the Garden District to Canal and Carondelet. I was introduced to Squalls on my first day at the hotel and would wave and say good morning whenever I caught a glimpse of her in the kitchen. Very much the driving force behind the hotel's iconic baked goods and desserts, I was a little in awe of her but she was warm and engaging. Revered by the staff and the guests with good reason, she was a female culinary icon who sadly received far less recognition on the national and world culinary stages than she deserved. I think about her with the same sort of affection I felt for Jessie who had such a mastery of kitchen knowledge and innovation, a skilled trouble shooter and creative. I'm pretty sure both women would have advised me to leave the ice cream pie in the freezer (at the very least) overnight before slicing it with a hot knife. (Neither freezer patience nor waiting for chocolate sauce to cool is among my strong suits, as evident in the photo.) Squalls' addition of peppermint ice cream ends this dessert on a jazzy note; refreshing but not overly minty.
The calendar flip from January to February triggers a food memory involving neither chocolate nor conversation hearts, but one of pineapple. A former stint turning out desserts in an Italian restaurant coincided with February 14th. Hours spent in tiramisu purgatory were paused to accommodate several cases of baby pineapples. The executive chef rhapsodized over a dessert for two; a baby pineapple, halved, scooped out, filled with oven-roasted pineapple, topped with gelato, garnished with cookies. Good news- mini pineapples lack a tough inner core. Bad news- they still require plenty of painstaking knife skills. Turns out that dunking Savoiardi in espresso is far less fuss.
With the fruit resting comfortably in a large Cambro container, my attention turned to cookies. Biscotti played nicely, but Pizzelle, less so. Requiring a brief spin through an antiquated iron, the anise spiked waffle cookies were needy. The waffle iron was cranky, with a history of shorting out mid-bake. Pizzelle were finicky and fragile and popular amongst the line cooks. During service, the same person responsible for salads was the person plating desserts. (That always troubled me; pesto and pineapple sharing tight quarters.) Pleading with the kitchen crew not to snack on the cookies, I pitched my hours old cappuccino in defiance. Due to its popularity (with both patrons and back of house), the dessert special became a regular menu item, pausing only briefly when the Pizzelle iron drew its final anise scented breath.
A recipe suggestion tagged along with each case of baby fruit. One was no different than a recipe from a 1920s cookbook for "stewed pineapple compote." I incorportaed the compote into a classic Italian crostata, sandwiched between a short-crust pastry, aka pasta frolla. What makes this filling particularly appealing now is that it doesn't call for eggs, and if you opt for a cookie crumb crust, there's not much butter involved. I'd be lying if I didn't acknowledge that pineapples trigger some less-than-stellar memories for me. I'm still a little skittish around anise extract, Pizzelle irons and baby pineapples, but that's strictly a personal problem.
ORANGE YOU GLAD THERE'S CRUMB CAKE
The Captain seated behind the Trader Joe's Customer Help desk assures me that both Peppermint Jo-Jos and Candy Cane Crunch Chocolate Bars are strictly seasonal items. Any hopes of dunking chocolate cookies sandwiched with peppermint cream into a cold glass of milk have been dashed. Like most shoppers steering their cart between dairy and produce, I am inevitably drawn to an expansive wall unit in the rear of the store, an area that pre-pandemic, was generously outfitted with coffee urns and small cups so you could caffeinate and shop simultaneously. Those were the glory days. Over time, the wall became a haven for seasonal/feature items. Currently, the area is awash in orange. It seems that each time I peruse this display, the oranges are assembled in a slightly new formation, a marketing ploy created as a subliminal pull of my coat sleeve, encouraging me to buy another bag. These purchases have caused some disgruntlement at my house; namely between other members of the citrus family fighting for elbow room in an already congested refrigerator. Clementines, Satsumas, Blood Oranges, Tangelos, Valencias and Cara Caras leave little room for lemons and limes, let alone Ruby Red grapefruits. Sure, I could leave them sprawling all willy-nilly across the countertops, but I have my hands full just wrangling the mesh bags into a semblance of order. Crafty, I'm not, so repurposing them into kitchen scrubbies or gift wrap is highly unlikely.
Freshly squeezed orange juice is a small luxury that my grandmother swore by. I don't remember oranges confined to mesh bags, more clearly I recall my mother pausing by a mountain of oranges at the A & P and hand picking each one, placing them in a large brown paper bag What I vividly remember is the daily wake up call of the Sunbeam juicer, a steady whirr-pause-whirr as the machine reliably separated pulp from juice, always wanting a second glass because it was so delicious. It took a little digging but it appears that in the early 1960s, oranges sold for 89 cents/dozen.
As a family dedicated to breakfast sweets, our allegiance was to Jessie's cinnamon swirled sugar buns. Crumb cake was something I enjoyed at a friend's house (hugely popular after slumber parties) but made infrequent appearances alongside my father's Chemex coffee maker. Fortunately, my grandmother had a fondness for the occasional slice of Entenmann's crumb cake, and when she moved to Florida, she would pick one up at the Publix, placing the box on top of her refrigerator for safe keeping.
I'm a devout believer in a cake-to-crumb ratio hovering near 50%. Spiking the cake batter with zest and a little orange juice (that has been reduced to concentrate the flavor) plays nicely against the sour cream cake. And though some might protest, you can add a thin layer of fruit or jam or curd, (all in the name of flavor and freeing up fridge space). But most critically, what distinguishes crumb cake from ordinary coffee cake is the heft of the brown sugar crumb. Ask any New Yorker and they'll tell you
A NOSTALGIC NOSH OF DELI HISTORY
Much in the same way an unwrapped garlic pickle permeates a refrigerator, the delicatessen experience is deeply imbued within my soul. Though Katz's on Manhattan's Lower East side is tethered to my youth, my deli memories span years and miles spent as both customer and waitress. Visits to both Wolfie's and the Rascal House in sunny Florida taught me the intricacies of the 'early bird special' and the proper way of concealing the contents of a bread basket in one's purse, should one so desire. Summers as a waitress at Larry's Deli in suburban New Jersey provided a deep (and sometimes painful) study of matzoh ball soup; specifically the gravitational dangers present when serving behemoth bowls to a group of diners wildly gesticulating with their hands. I learned that both 'hangry' and well fed diners can be lousy tippers, and that for many, Dr. Brown's Cel-Ray soda is considered essential to the Jewish deli experience. And for those not smitten with the herbacious soda, both Cream and Black Cherry rank high on the preferred beverage list. The glitzier beverage, the egg cream, is in my opinion, less of a thirst quencher and more of a dessert. Regardless, it is always the egg cream that inevitably overflows when attempting to make the transfer from tray to table, sending the harried waitress back to the wait station for a stack of kitchen towels. Mopping up a runaway egg cream is never simple; a river of chocolate and seltzer loves running rampant beyond the confines of a table top ultimately landing on the white linen trousers of a woman debating the cantaloupe with cottage cheese vs. a hollowed out bagel with light cream cheese.
Hal's Deli played a major role in my college experience, often providing comfort between two slices of seeded rye bread layered with thinly sliced meats, Swiss cheese and neon Russian dressing. Post college, I worked in an office for an individual in the entertainment industry who ordered lunch from the Stage Delicatessen on a daily basis. His selection, plucked from a dizzying menu of options, never deviated from one day to the next; a mammoth turkey leg which he consumed with audible enjoyment from his perch at a table overlooking Central Park.
All these years later, having long since retired my rubber-soled waitress shoes, over-stuffed sandwich emporiums still draw me in with equal parts love and trepidation. The pull of a carbohydrate busting blintz smothered in sour cream is strong. So is the hypnotic fragrance of salty meats wafting over a counter mingling with the jarring flavor of a sour pickle. But a tableful of demanding diners, arguing the virtues of kreplach and the density of matzoh balls, or insisting on 'center cut' tongue or a pastrami sandwich with extra rye bread, triggers my worst deli nightmares. Nightmares of forgotten soda straws, of mistakenly decanting Dr. Brown's Cream instead of Cherry, of retrieving the wrong sandwich from an overwrought line cook only to deliver it to a table you've already served; a table hungry for their check who will bicker over who ordered the cottage cheese and neglect to leave a gratuity.
The New York Historical Society's exhibition, "I'll Have What She's Having" has been on my go-to list for a while. It leaves you hungry for more; akin to a lunch made up of half a sandwich served alongside a cup of soup and a generous monkey dish of health salad. (For those who haven't worked in a deli, monkey dishes are small bowls with flat bottoms, often used for pickles, salads and cole slaw. Health salad is a curious non-specific mash-up of raw vegetables, notably driven by cabbage, dressed with sugary vinegar and void of mayonnaise, hence the subliminal message of health.) The artifacts explore deli's rightful place in popular culture, serving up plenty of details, while paying homage to the Ashkenazi immigrants who influenced and created the delicatessen as a uniquely American institution. Best to experience this installation on a full stomach; at the very least, pack your bag with a black and white cookie which should sustain you until you can wrap your hands around an over-stuffed sandwich, a side of slaw and a half sour pickle.
QUICHE ME QUICK
On this Friday the 13th, borrowing some humor from The New Yorker and some gospel from The Silver Palate. Quiche is the ideal breakfast/lunch/dinner/snack to guide you through a season of winter-y produce. Lean into the leeks and onions, scallions and herbs. Most any greens will appreciate a quick sauté, even those formerly destined for salad. Add some fresh herbs to your favorite pate brisee and take the time to blind bake the crust. Pouring custard into a quasi-baked pastry shell rarely leaves you with a well-baked crust. Taking the time to line the shell and blind baking it until raw dough no longer poses a threat is well worth the effort. The custard filling (3 eggs plus 1 & 1/2 cups of dairy), needs little more than salt, pepper, a grating of nutmeg and maybe a hit of @kozliks mustard. Don't skimp on the cheese and even though you might be dodging the wine, fill a festive glass with bitters and some sparkling water. Now pretend it's April (or October) in Paris.
PUTTIN' ON THE SPRITZ
Butter cookies piped through a decorative nozzle or extracted using a cookie press are classified as Spritz cookies. Considered by many 'de rigueur' for holiday merriment, Christmas cookies were not part of my youth. However, Jessie was constantly replenishing a cavernous cookie tin with treats made in a Mirro cookie press.
I liked to get in the way of production, ooh-ing and aah-ing over the myriad of shapes. (I've mentioned before that I was partial to the dog shaped disc that looked more like a canine pre-bake as opposed to post-bake.) Jessie had years of experience with the aluminum kitchen gadget and knew that piping lengths of dough using the bar disc was the most expedient choice. Once piped, the ribbons of dough could be cut into 2" or 3" lengths yielding dozens of chocolate or vanilla wafers. There were the most agreeable of the Mirro lot; you knew exactly what you were getting regardless of embellishment. Sugars, drageés or nuts were a nice touch but unnecessary in order for the cookies to be recognizable. Occasionally, Jessie dunked the cookies in melted chocolate and dotted them with chopped walnuts. I suppose it had more to do with supply and demand, less about glitz.
The process of spritz cookie-ing is something I now enjoy, having recovered from Post Traumatic Spritz Disorder, a malaise that haunted me through years of cookie press demos; part of my job description when employed by an American retailer of high end bakeware. Spritz's blank cookie canvas is easily modified. Chocolate dough spiked with espresso is my idea of a balanced breakfast. When 5 o'clock rolls around, vanilla spritz with the lightest drizzle of Aperol glaze and candied orange seamlessly crosses the line from afternoon tea into cocktail hour. Melted chocolate on most spritz cookies is an excellent idea and though no one is forcing you, that's when you reach for your favorite sprinkles. The beauty of the spritz cookie is that underneath it all, they're quite plain, rather light and very easy to eat. If you don't have a cookie press, the holidays are rapidly approaching. Align yourself with the "nice" as opposed to "naughty" list and let it be known.
HOW TO HAVE A SUPERLATIVE THANKSGIVING
For bakers, Thanksgiving is so close you can actually touch it. With every pie shell rolled, every little (or large) oven burn, Thanksgiving feels quite tangible. Even if you aren''t trapped in the sugar trenches, there's an over abundance of holiday inspiration easily within reach.
In case you haven't heard, this could be your BEST last-Thursday-In-November yet. Inundated with articles and click bait taunting with the BEST recipe and methodology to achieve holiday superstardom is making me slightly nauseous. No offense intended in the way you might approach the meal, but I'm planning on roasting the turkey as usual. It's quite possible my stuffing isn't your idea of the BEST STUFFING EVER but we look forward to our tangle of matzoh, caramelized onions and fresh herbs doused in homemade turkey gravy. Best is such an over-used word. My best doesn't have to align with your notion of best. Wouldn't the words, "Our Favorite" be a better choice than "The Best" when penning those boastful headlines and directives? Because my favorite doesn't have to be your favorite and honestly, it doesn't have to be the preeminent in its category.
Thoughtfully prepared food enjoyed in the company of some of your favorite people should be more than enough to feed your soul. So no apologies here but I won't be spatchcocking, confit-ing or cane syrup-ing. I've given up the turkey-in-a-bath-of-brine and I will always return to James Beard for pie inspiration. Not because my way is the best way, but because it's our favorite.
What isn't a favorite and certainly not the best way to get Thanksgiving dinner on the table is learning that your oven has a safety lock. (Said lock activates when the oven has been on for too many consecutive hours.) In that case, it's always best to keep the oven manual within reach. One of this week's big surprises was finding a glut of Meyer lemons at the market. A far cry from the flavors of the season, the lemons made sacrificing a highly coveted pie shell from the freezer an easy decision. Best of luck as you navigate the days leading up to your very, very outstanding holiday.
Give thanks for pie crust that's a snap to put together and gives your rolling pin a pause. Mini pretzels, pecans (or walnuts), a bit of brown sugar and melted butter do the heavy lifting in this press-in crust. All the worries associated with making the perfect pie crust don't apply here. Ideally you want to align this shell with a stove top filling; my choice is butterscotch but dark chocolate is also a top contender.
I realize not everyone feels dessert is an integral conclusion to their nightly meal, but some of us do. And for the lead up to the big pie day, you might not want to be fussing with any more pie shells than are strictly necessary. This one does appreciate 8-10 minutes in the oven at 325 degrees to hold itself together although in a pinch, you can simply freeze it solid before filling. And the oven time affords you a brief opportunity to tidy up/clean out your fridge because you know refrigerator real estate (and freezer, too, for that matter) is of critical importance in the next two weeks. Don't say I didn't warn you.
In less than three weeks, Thursday the 24th of November will plunk itself down smack in the middle of your kitchen, ready or not. In my house, Thanksgiving morning commences with a ribbon cutting facilitated by Al Roker wielding a giant pair of scissors against a backdrop of West 77th Street and Central Park West. Broadway show tunes, the high flying antics of Underdog and Snoopy, plus a flotilla of floats (serving as mobile stages for pop/rock singers I’ve never heard of) fill three jam packed hours of the MACY's Thanksgiving Parade. In that small window of time, the morning feels endless. Once the National Dog Show takes over the tv screen, the clock is really ticking and getting Thanksgiving dinner on the table feels more like a sprint than a leisurely jog. For this particular race, fuel is essential, meaning a little something to accompany those multiple cups of coffee is an integral part of the operation.
Whether you are the ringmaster of the Thanksgiving circus or simply a guest trying desperately to stay out of the way, a no-fuss breakfast option is key. My Thanksgiving prep features more than a freezer full of pie shells. The inventory includes too many bags of cranberries, (some of them with a tear in the corner, allowing renegades to bounce around like runaway skittles), several containers of once fresh rhubarb, plus the fixings for turkey gravy. Additionally, I squirrel away a no-fuss breakfast option, one that asks little of me other than taking the time to prepare it in advance. No yeast-driven dough, no rolling required and not much needed in the way of embellishment. Even if you are not up to your elbows in giblets and gravy but instead, over-the-river-ing to someone’s house, it’s a really nice gift-able item.
For many years, my Sunday mornings were tethered to restaurants which meant dizzying numbers of quick breads, mini muffins and scones. Being responsible for the first course of many bleary-eyed, mimosa-sipping Philadelphians wasn’t exactly relaxing. Assembling two humble loaves in your home kitchen with your favorite tunes playing on repeat, however, is pretty delightful. While the holiday lends itself to some classic flavors, I tend to align myself with three steadfast loaves. A classic option is plump with cranberries, toasted walnuts and plenty of orange. My other two favorites showcase pumpkin; one swirled with dark chocolate and candied ginger, (a slightly assertive wake up call), while another is studded with apples and spiked with cider. I am happy to nibble away at any/all of the above, stopping only to brew a second round of coffee in the empty Chemex. With no offense intended, the one loaf that isn't invited to my November breakfast is zucchini. Let’s just leave zucchini where it belongs, in August. And if the stars align correctly, three weeks from today, your breakfast will consist of multiple slivers of leftover pie.
Professional Pie-isms & Seasonal Sarcasm