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Archive for the ‘recipes’ Category

A Fresh Newport Steak from Florence Meat Market

Tucked away on a small street in New York City’s Greenwich Village there is a butcher shop called Florence Meat Market which opened in 1936 and doesn’t seem to have changed much since. There is sawdust scattered on the floor and all the meat is cut to order on big cubes of butcher block. These expert butchers know every cut and preparation, including some you’ve never heard of.

Florence Meat Market was opened by Jack Ubaldi, an Italian immigrant who learned the art of butchery at his father’s knee. He owned the shop until about 1975 when he sold it to Tony Pellegrino, a man he had trained himself. In 1995 Mr. Pellegrino passed it on to another Florence-trained expert, Benny Pizzuco, who still owns it today. It is this apprenticeship system that has allowed Florence to maintain such a high quality. According to Mr. Pizzuco they don’t hire butchers at the shop, everyone starts out wielding a broom and works their way up.

Obviously, Mr. Ubaldi knew his animals and how to break them down into any number of component parts. In fact, he knew them so well that he went so far as to invent a new cut of steak. In the 1940s Greenwich Village was a magnet for artists of all kinds. Then as now, they didn’t always have a lot of money left to buy food after paying the rent. Mr. Ubaldi hit upon a small, flavorful steak cut from the bottom butt of the cow. The bottom butt is an inexpensive cut and so these steaks could be sold relatively cheaply. They are shaped a bit like the crescent moon, but with the two tips folded towards each other. It is nicely marbled and comes with a lovely layer of fat around the outside.

In addition to being a good butcher, Mr. Ubaldi was a smart businessman. He knew that for this new steak to sell it had to have a good name. One day, while watching an ad for Newport cigarettes he realized that the steak (especially before it is folded together) looked a lot like the Newport logo. Thus was born the Newport Steak.

Some say it is simply a tri-tip steak which is a very popular cut in California. However, Benny Pizzuco insists that it is more than just that, but of course he would never reveal the secret. That said, some other New York butchers sell Newport Steaks, but none know the secrets of the Florence way of cutting and trimming them, so maybe they’re not real Newports? Or maybe it’s just good marketing. I suppose we’ll never know.

The Newport Steak is the perfect New York steak for several reasons. Many New Yorkers live alone and cook for one. The Newport is small, weighing only about a pound or less, well marbled, and since all of Florence’s meats are dry aged for up to three weeks, it’s very flavorful. While I’m sure Mr. Pizzuco’s Porterhouse steaks are amazing, it’s also nice to be able to get a small high quality steak for a good price.

The Newport is also very well suited to my favorite method of cooking steak in a New York apartment. If you live here, you most likely have a tiny, ill-ventilated kitchen, with a smoke detector right nearby. That means that cooking steak is an exercise in opening windows and positioning portable fans, and perhaps explaining to the neighbors that no, you are not on fire, just cooking steak.

Through consultation with my fellow Gothamites and the advice of the supremely helpful discussion boards over on egullet.org, I’ve developed a way to avoid all of that and still wind up with a pretty good steak. You’ll find full instructions below, but the important parts are heating your pan in the oven so it doesn’t smoke, searing the steak on the stove top for a minimal amount of time to avoid the smoke detector, and then finishing the steak in the oven for the same reason. The result may not be quite what you’d get in a restaurant, but if you start out with a $7.99 per pound Newport and cook it yourself, it’s a heck of a lot cheaper.

New York Apartment Steak

Serves 2

2 Newport Steaks from Florence Meat Market
Kosher salt
Black pepper
Cooking twine

Season your steaks liberally with kosher salt and black pepper. Allow them to stand on the counter until they come to room temperature.

Preheat your oven to 400F.

Place a large cast iron pan in the oven for at least 15 minutes before beginning to cook the steaks.

Tie a piece of cooking twine around the circumference of each steak. This will help it hold it’s shape during cooking, and it will cook more evenly.

When the cast iron pan is good and hot, carefully (!) move it to the stove top over medium-high heat. Place the prepared steaks in the pan and cook them for 2 minutes per side.

Move the cast iron pan with the steaks in it back to the oven and cook them there for 4½ minutes. Remove the pan from the oven, move the steaks to a plate, and let them rest for 5-10 minutes before serving.

You could make a pan sauce if you like, or serve each one with a pat of homemade tarragon butter on top. Me, I like them as is, with a side of buttery mashed potatoes.

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Wild chestnut trees have flourished in southern Europe since the ancient Greeks brought them from Asia Minor and the Romans spread them throughout their empire. For thousands of years poor subsistence farmers in that part of the world extended their crops with wild foods like chestnuts. In addition to roasting or boiling them, chestnuts were dried and then ground into a flour which was mixed with wheat flour to help it go further. Before maize (corn) became a common crop in Europe in the 16th Century, Italian polenta was made with chestnut flour. When famine threatened, it was often chestnuts and other foraged foods which stood between the people and starvation.

There are many traditional foods in Italy and Corsica made with chestnut flour including a flat bread known as necci, and chestnut flour fritters called fritelli. In the late 1940s an anthropologist interviewed some elderly people in Corsica who said they had never eaten wheat bread, only bread made from chestnut flour. The villages in mountainous Corsica are isolated and at that time there was little trade with the mainland. Corsicans also call the chestnut tree arbre à pain or “the bread tree.”

I’ve made chestnut soup in the past and of course eaten roasted chestnuts while listening to Mel Torme, but to get in touch with the medieval food traditions of southern Europe I chose to make a Tuscan chestnut flour cake called castagnaccio. Many of the ingredients are forageable, it’s really easy to make, and as an extra bonus it is both vegan and gluten free.

Castagnaccio is very rich so you only need a small piece, especially after all that turkey. It has a deep, earthy flavor, punctuated by the sweet raisins and a slight bitterness from the rosemary. The cake’s consistency, and the fact that it is not overly sweet, reminded me of Asian desserts made with red bean paste.

I, for one, am grateful to be using the lowly chestnut to celebrate abundance at Thanksgiving, rather than as a stop-gap to prevent famine.

Castagnaccio

Vin Santo is an Italian dessert wine, if you can’t get it, use a dry sherry instead.

Chestnut flour can be found in Italian specialty stores where it may be labeled farina di castagne. You can also order it from Amazon.com

⅓ cup Vin Santo or dry Sherry
1½ ounces raisins
10 ounces chestnut flour
1½ ounces sugar
a large pinch of salt
1½ – 2 cups water
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 generous teaspoon chopped fresh rosemary
1 ounce pine nuts

Put the raisins in a small dish and pour the Vinsanto or sherry over them. Leave them to soak for at least 30 minutes.

Preheat your oven to 400F.

Grease an 8-inch round cake pan with 1 tablespoon of the olive oil.

Mix the chestnut flour, sugar, and salt together in a bowl. Gradually whisk in water until a batter with the consistency of pancake batter is formed. It should be pourable, but not too thin.

Pour the batter into the prepared cake pan, it should be about 1 inch thick. Drizzle the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil over the top of the cake. Bake for 15 minutes.

Remove the cake from the oven. Drain the raisins and squeeze as much liquid out of them as you can, then sprinkle the raisins over the top of the cake. Also sprinkle the chopped rosemary and the pine nuts over the top of the cake.

Return the cake to the oven for another 15-20 minutes, or until it is a dark brown color and the top is cracked like parched earth. The cake does not rise as chestnut flour contains no gluten.

Allow the cake to cool completely before turning it out onto a plate. Serve with a glass of Vin Santo or dry Sherry.

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Farmers' Market Celery, top; Supermarket Celery, bottom

Until I started shopping regularly at my farmers’ market I was never a big fan of celery. Sure, it’s important as an aromatic vegetable to build a flavor base for soups or sauces, but on it’s own I always found it pretty insipid; pale and watery in both appearance and flavor. All that changed when I bought my first farmers’ market celery. I had a little trouble finding it at first because it looked completely different! Instead of the almost white stuff you get in the supermarket, this was a deep dark green and smelled delicious. I actually felt like just pulling off a stalk and eating it right there. When I got home, I did try some, and from that day on, I was a converted celery lover. The farmers’ market celery takes you on a flavor journey with each bite. It starts with a bright, wet sweetness, moving into a deep satisfying earthy green taste and then finishing with a little cleansing bitterness. The stalks are narrower than supermarket celery and it is a little stringier, but if that’s a problem, you can peel it a bit with a vegetable peeler.

In addition to handling all of the usual celery duties, this celery makes the best cream of celery soup I’ve ever had, try Julia Child’s recipe, it’s a little fussy but you won’t be disappointed. I was inspired to seek out more recipes starring celery and in my research I found a bunch of braised celery recipes. In the past, I had always wondered why anyone would braise celery, I could only imagine that it would become completely flavorless. But with my new best friend, farmers’ market celery, braising made a lot more sense.

So how did this happen? Obviously, if people were braising celery in the past, then it can’t have always been so wimpy tasting as the stuff we get in the grocery store. Celery leaves were found in the tomb of Tutankhamun (d. 1323, BCE), so it has a long history with humans. The word in English comes originally from the Ancient Greek selinon which actually means parsley. This makes sense because celery and parsley are botanically related. In ancient times, celery was mainly used as a medicine, and some believed it to be an aphrodisiac. As with many plants taken up for cultivation by humans, we started out with the wild variety of celery, also known as smallage. It was quite bitter which may account for its primary use in medicine. I guess they’ve always thought medicine should be hard to swallow.

In the 16th Century French and Italian gardeners began to grow it, and cooks used it as an herb to flavor dishes. By the 17th and 18th Centuries growers had created a slightly less bitter version through selective breeding, but it wasn’t really until the 19th Century that celery came into its own as a vegetable. Gardeners continued to breed for a sweeter varietal, but more importantly, they discovered that if soil was banked around the base of the plant as it grew, it would “blanch.” Covering up the plants caused them to form much less chlorophyll and so they were a much lighter green and they tasted sweeter.

We’re not sure exactly when celery came to America, but in 1856 a Scottish immigrant named Taylor, brought celery to Kalamazoo, Michigan. At first, it wasn’t too popular, but then a Dutchman named Cornelius De Bruin, began growing it in the rich bottom lands of the Kalamazoo river. He is also said to have made some improvements through breeding to the original variety that Taylor had brought from England. Whatever Mr. De Bruin did, it worked, celery took off and after that Kalamazoo was known as Celery City.

I recently tried to contact the farm from which I buy my super-green, delicious celery, to ask what variety they are growing and if they bank their plants, but I haven’t heard back yet. I suspect their celery is not banked, otherwise it wouldn’t be so green. Have our palates changed since the 19th Century when celery was considered too bitter and had to be made pale and sweet in order to be tolerable? We certainly eat more “bitter greens” like arugula, endive and broccoli rabe, than we did say, 20 years ago. If you think celery is boring, I urge you to find some of the strong dark green stuff and try it out. Below is a fairly simple braised celery recipe from Italian food maven, Marcella Hazen. It reminds me of concentrated bites of cream of celery soup, but with pancetta and Parmesan cheese — far from boring.

Braised and Grantinéed Celery Stalks with Parmesan Cheese

Adapted from Marcella Hazen

Serves 6

2 bunches fresh celery (use the good dark green stuff)
1 small onion, finely chopped
2 tablespoons butter
¼ cup chopped pancetta or prosciutto
Salt
Freshly ground black pepper
2 cups homemade chicken stock or low sodium store bought stock
1 cup grated Parmesan cheese

Preheat your oven to 400 F.

Separate the stalks from the base of the celery and cut off the leafy tops. If you like, save the leaves and use them as you would parsley.

If you find the celery too stringy, use a vegetable peeler to peel the outside layer. Cut the stalks into pieces about 3 inches long.

In a saucepan bring 2-3 quarts of water to a boil, add the celery and allow the water to return to a boil, after one minute of boiling, remove the celery and set it aside to drain.

In a large skillet or saute pan, saute the onion in the butter until it becomes translucent, add the chopped pancetta or prosciutto. Cook for about 1 minute. Add the celery, a good pinch of salt, and a few grinds of black pepper. Cook for about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Add the chicken broth, and bring to a slow simmer. Cover the pan and simmer until the celery begins to become tender but is still a little firm when pierced, about 15 to 20 minutes. Uncover the pan, turn the heat up, bringing the liquid to a boil. Cook in this manner until all of the liquid has evaporated.

Use tongs to gently move the celery to a baking dish, then spoon the onion and meat mixture over the top of the celery. Finally, sprinkle on the grated Parmesan. Bake it in the upper part of your oven until the cheese melts and turns a little brown and crusty. Remove from the oven, let stand for 3-5 minutes and then serve.

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Greengage and Pistachio Crumble Cooling on the Windowsill

Somehow foreign names for ingredients always sound exotic. Wouldn’t you rather make aubergine Parmesan, than just plain old eggplant? Or creep away after leaving baskets of excess courgettes on your neighbor’s doorstep in the middle of the night instead of secretly gifting them with zucchini?

One mysterious ingredient I always wondered about in British cookbooks was the greengage. Despite sounding like a sort of lab equipment for measuring chlorophyll, it turns out to be a particular varietal of plum very popular in the UK and not at all well known on this side of the pond. After reading of their preternatural sweetness which is coveted in Britain for desserts and jams, I really wanted to try some. Alas, through the fruit was grown in America when we were but colonies of mother England, it is rarely found here now. Greengages can be difficult to grow and even harder to get to market as they do not ship well, so American farmers switched to less persnickety types of plum.

The greengage (Prunus domestica italica) is originally a French varietal where it is called Reine Claude after Queen Claude (d. 1524), wife of King Francis I of France. Around 1725 Sir William Gage, 7th Baronet of the name, introduced these succulent sweeties into England. An unsubstantiated story tells us that during shipping the labels came off the plum trees. Since they were green and owned by Gage, they became known as greengages.

Greengages?

You can imagine my excitement when I ran across greengages for sale at the Grand Army Plaza Farmers’ Market in Brooklyn last Saturday. When I got them home and started to do a little research into where they came from and how they got their name, I found that in the US other types of green plums are often labeled “greengage” even if they are not. I tasted them and honestly, they didn’t strike me as any sweeter than other plums I’ve had, so I’m wondering, are they real greengages? Or perhaps they were picked a little too soon? I read that they don’t really ripen well after picking. British readers, please have a look at the photo above and weigh in about their authenticity in the comments. For reference they are about the size of a golf ball and the flesh inside is golden.

Whether or not they are actual greengages I decided to make a dessert with them anyway. I chose a Greengage and Pistachio Crumble from a British book called Healthy Fruit Desserts by Christine McFadden which is full of not-too-sweet dishes containing unusual ingredient combinations. I loved the idea of putting green pistachios together with their plum cousins. The crumble was pleasantly tart and I really enjoyed the crunchy topping which the oats made quite substantial. This is one of those desserts that also makes a great breakfast, containing far less sugar than most of what you find in the cereal aisle.

Greengage and Pistachio Crumble
adapted from Christine McFadden

Serves 3-4

¾ lb. ripe greengages
2 oz. sugar (about 4 tablespoons)
2 oz. unsalted butter (about ½ tablespoon)
1 oz. shelled pistachios
2 oz. all purpose flour
2 oz. rolled oats
Demerara sugar for garnish

Preheat your oven to 375F.

Pour boiling water over the pistachios and let them stand for about 5 minutes. Drain the pistachios, squeeze them out of their papery skins and chop the nuts finely.

Cut the greengages in half and remove the pits. Place them in a saucepan with ¼ ounce of the butter and 4 teaspoons of the sugar. Cook them over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally and very gently, until the butter and sugar melt and the greengages start producing juice. Pour the cooked greengages into a 9 inch pie plate.

Stir the flour and rolled oats together. Cut the remaining butter into small pieces and use your fingers to rub it into the flour and oat mixture until the result looks like breadcrumbs or peas. Add the chopped pistachios and the remaining sugar and stir. Next, add water 1 teaspoon at a time until the dough comes together into a crumbly mixture.

Scatter the dough over the greengages in clumps and sprinkle with Demerara sugar.

Bake the crumble in the center of the oven for 25-35 minutes or until the top is golden brown.

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The Ninnion Tablet (circa 370, BCE) depicting the Eleusinian Mysteries / photo by Wikipedia user Marsyas

I first ran across barley water when reading a novel set in early 19th Century Britain, where it was prescribed as a drink for the ill and infirm. It turns out to be a lot older than that. For almost 2000 years barley water was the sacred drink of the Eleusinian Mysteries, an ancient Greek religious harvest celebration.

The people of Eleusis worshiped Demeter, a grain goddess. The myth connected with the Mysteries is as follows: One day Demeter’s daughter, Persephone, was gathering wild flowers in a meadow when she was kidnapped by Hades, god of the underworld. Demeter searched high and low for her daughter but to no avail. Finally, several gods of Olympus took pity on her and told her where to find Persephone, telling her that it was all part of a plan set in motion by Zeus. In her anger and grief, Demeter stopped all the plants from growing, causing a famine on the earth. Even the gods were hungry due to a lack of sacrifices. Finally, Zeus and Hades struck a deal so that Persephone might be returned to the world above. But Hades tricked her into eating some food before she left the underworld, some pomegranate seeds. This created a mystical connection between them which meant that Persephone must spend one third of every year in the underworld with Hades — the winter.

The Mysteries at Eleusis were celebrated over the course of nine days in late September. We only have a patchy idea what the rituals actually were since participants were warned not to reveal them on pain of death. However, we do know that it was a sought-after experience. Many famous people of the day were initiates including Aeschylus, Sophocles, Herodotus, Aristophanes, and Plutarch. The piecemeal writings we do have about people’s experiences at Eleusis contain descriptions of a positive, life-changing event including sacred visions of paradise and apparitions of the gods.

We know that participants would make several processions back and forth between Athens and Eleusis which were about 13½ miles apart and there was fasting involved, along with the ritual sacrifice of young pigs. The initiates would break their fast by drinking a beverage called the kykeon. What may be a recipe for this drink has survived in a 7th Century, BCE poem called “Hymn to Demeter”. According to the hymn the kykeon consists of barley, water, and a type of mint. The barley is said to represent Persephone because every year it dies and spends winter in the underworld, only to return with the spring.

The fact that the ritual was essentially kept secret for almost 2000 years is a testament to how powerful the experience must have been. This has lead some modern scholars to hypothesize that the kykeon contained a hallucinogenic substance. Research is still being done and papers are still being written; suffice it to say that the Eleusinian Mysteries remain a mystery.

Even if you’re not interested in joining the cult of Demeter, barley water is a pleasant, thirst quencher which supposedly contains lots of healthy nutrients, although I was unable to find any analysis in my research. Inspired by the recent heat wave we’ve had in New York, I decided to try it out. I made two different versions, the first is in a more ancient style, containing only barley, water, mint and some honey. The second has added citrus juices, turning it into a sort of orangeade. A similar orange barley water is sill served to the athletes at Wimbledon every summer.

Barley Water With Mint

Makes about 1 quart

When you shop for barley you’ll most likely see “pearled barley,” but you might also find “hulled barley,” or “hull-less barley.” Hulled or hull-less barley is a whole grain still containing the germ. I used hulled barley for this ancient version of the drink because the pearling of grains didn’t begin until about the 16th Century.

Do save the cooked barley for another use, it makes a nice breakfast re-heated with some milk and honey, or you can use it in a soup or salad.

1 cup hulled barley (see above for types of barley)
8 cups water
1 bunch fresh mint
honey

Put the leaves from the bunch of mint in a bowl.

Bring the barley and water to a boil in a medium saucepan on the stove and then turn it down to a bare simmer and let it cook half covered for about thirty minutes or until the barley is cooked.

Strain the barley water into a large bowl. Reserve the cooked barley for another use. Bruise the mint leaves by mashing them with wooden spoon or a cocktail muddler. This will bring out the flavorful mint oil. Put the bruised mint leaves in the hot barley water, pushing them under as best you can and allow it to steep for about five minutes. Taste it and if you want it mintier let the leaves steep longer.

Strain the barley water into a pitcher, add honey to taste, stirring until it dissolves completely. Then chill in the refrigerator for several hours until completely cold. Serve over ice, with a sprig of mint to garnish.

Orange Barley Water

Adapted from Christopher Hirsheimer and Melissa Hamilton

Makes about 1 quart

Here I used pearled barley which is more commonly found in shops, but feel free to use hulled or hull-less barley if that’s what you’ve got.

Since you’ll be using the peel of some of the fruits try to buy oranges and lemons that have not been sprayed with pesticides.

You can use white sugar if you like, but Demarara gives a little extra complexity.

Do save the cooked barley for another use, it makes a nice breakfast re-heated with some milk and honey, or you can use it in a soup or salad.

1 cup pearled barley (see above for types of barley)
8 cups water
6 oranges
2 lemons
Demarara sugar

Bring the barley and water to boil in a medium saucepan and then turn it down and let it simmer, half covered, for about a half hour or until the barley is cooked.

As the barley cooks use a vegetable peeler to peel just the colored part of the rind from three of the oranges and one of the lemons. Try not to peel the white pith which is bitter. If you find some strips of rind have pith on them, you can scrape it off with a knife. Next, juice all of the fruit.

When the barley is finished cooking, strain the barley water into a pitcher. Add the citrus rinds and the fruit juice to the pitcher and stir. Taste the barley water to see if it needs any sugar. Depending on how sweet your oranges are, it may not. Add Demarara sugar to taste and stir with a long spoon until it is completely dissolved. Chill the pitcher in the refrigerator for several hours until it is completely cold. Serve over ice accompanied by a slice of orange.

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Today is Comestibles’ first anniversary, so what better corner of food history to explore than that of the birthday cake.

People have been celebrating holidays with special baked goods for thousands of years, but the white fluffy birthday cake with sweet icing we associate with every child’s party is a fairly modern invention. It could not exist without two important technologies that came out of the industrial revolution, grain mills equipped with porcelain or metal rollers, and baking powder.

Before the invention of roller mills (about 1870) flour was made using grind stones resulting in flour that contained some of the bran and all of the germ of the wheat. To get white flour the miller then had to sift or boult the flour through a succession of cloths of differing weaves which filtered out the bran and the germ. The oil that comes out of the germ during milling stayed in the flour giving it a gray-ish yellow color. The presence of that oil shortened the shelf-life of white flour to about six months after which it would go rancid. All of these limitations meant that white flour was expensive and used only by the wealthy or for special occasions.

When flour is ground using rollers, the grain passes through two rollers moving at different speeds the slower one holds it and the faster one strips it. Scraping off the germ before grinding meant that no germ or germ oil got into the flour. And so was created the first truly white flour, ground solely from the endosperm of the wheat. It was a snowy white and due to the lack of wheat germ and wheat germ oil, it had double the shelf life of the old style “white” flour. The new technology made it much less expensive and the longer shelf-life meant that it could be shipped all over the country. Everyone could have white flour.

The other invention important to those towering, sugar-laden birthday treats is baking powder. It was Initially created in England in 1843. The first American manufacturers were Evan Norton Horsford and George F. Wilson who founded the Rumford Chemical Works in Providence, Rhode Island in 1857. Before chemical leavening, cakes had to be raised with the power of eggs alone, which requires a lot of elbow grease with a whisk (remember, no stand mixers in the 19th Century), and speed to get it into the oven before it begins to collapse. It took an expert baker with lots of skill to make a fluffy, high angel food cake. Baking powder changes all of this, anyone could just add some to their recipe and poof, a cake as light as a cloud.

According to the incredibly useful Food Time Line, the first recipe printed in an American cookbook that was specifically referred to as a “birthday cake” was in Jennie June’s American Cookery Book by Jane Cunningham Croly, published in 1870. To celebrate Comestibles’ first anniversary I decided to try making it, or I should say them, as the recipe is for cakes plural, in individual servings.

The most intriguing aspect of this recipe is the topping. It calls for colored caraway seeds. Candied caraway seeds (also called comfits) have been an after-dinner treat since at least the Medieval period, caraway being thought of as good for the digestion. It is also common to see candied fennel and cumin used in the same manner. It is quite easy to use natural food colorings to make comfits in a variety of cheerful colors. Perhaps these are the ancestor of the rainbow sprinkles which adorn our ice cream cones.

I was not able to find anyone selling candied caraway seeds, but I came close. Kalustyan’s in New York, had candied anise in their baking section, although sadly it was not brightly colored, just pure white. They also had candied fennel seeds in pink, white and yellow which are often served at the end of a meal in Indian restaurants. Finally, I also brought home some green mukhwas which are another Indian mouth freshener in bright red and green. There was no ingredient list on the package, but common ingredients for mukhwas include fennel seeds, anise seeds, coconut, and sesame seeds. They are sometimes also flavored with essential oils like peppermint. As you can see in the photo above, I tried various combinations of toppings on the cakes.

I also found a recipe for caraway comfits which I would love to try. I’ll post more about it here when I do.

These cakes are more like scones than what we might think of today as a birthday cake, but still good to eat. They are quite rich with butter and the currants combine nicely with the slightly savory “sprinkles,” giving a flavor similar to a spice cake.

Birthday Cakes

Adapted from Jane Cunningham Croly

Makes 8 scone-sized cakes

¾ cup dried currants
1 pound flour
4 ounces sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
4 ounces unsalted butter, chilled (1 stick)
1 large egg
about 1 cup milk
⅓ cup candied caraway seeds, or candied fennel, or sprinkles

Preheat oven to 425F.

Soak the dried currants in warm water for 10-15 minutes as you prepare the rest of the recipe.

Use a fork to stir together the flour, sugar, baking powder and salt. Cut the butter into smaller pieces, and work it into the dry ingredients using a pastry cutter, two knives, or your fingers until the resulting mix resembles breadcrumbs or peas.

Add the egg and stir with a fork.

Add the milk 1/4 cup at a time until the dough just comes together. When you pick up a handful it should stick together and not be too crumbly. Be careful not to add too much milk, you don’t want the dough to be wet. You may use a little more or less than 1 cup of milk depending on the humidity on the day you make the cakes.

Drain the currents and add them to the dough mixing throughly with your hands to distribute them evenly.

Divide the dough into 8 equal pieces and place them on an ungreased baking sheet. Sprinkle the candied caraway seeds or other toping on each one, pressing it into the dough slightly to help it stick.

Bake for 20-25 minutes or until the tops are light brown.

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Pound cake is the workhorse of the tea cart, able to withstand drowning in fruit syrups and whipped cream, or it can be easily tarted up with a citrus glaze. It’s the perfect thing to toss in the oven when you find out the new vicar is coming to tea in a couple of hours.

Back in the mists of time, the closest most people had to a cookbook was a kitchen notebook in which they would keep track of things they had made in the past, in order to be able to make them again. But of course, that assumes the person in question could read and write, which most people couldn’t until the industrial revolution made paper and books affordable. Before there were cookbooks, recipes were passed on orally from mother to daughter or auntie to niece. Pound cake is a perennial favorite because the recipe is so easy to remember. Even if you’re not the kind of person who likes to cook without a recipe (sort of like tightrope walking without a net), you can manage this one.

It’s called pound cake because it uses one pound each of the four main ingredients, butter, sugar, eggs, and flour. It originated in northern Europe where ingredients for cooking were (and still are) measured by weight. The French have a similar cake called quatre quarts or Tôt-fait which means “four quarters” or “soon made.” The “four quarters” refers to the 250 grams of each ingredient which adds up to one kilo.

Being an old recipe, this pound cake contains no chemical leaveners, relying only on eggs to help it rise. Consequently, you must cream your butter and sugar very well, and beat in the eggs one at a time. This is still a pretty dense cake, but all that beating will help prevent you from ending up with a doorstop. If you’re not convinced about using a scale to measure your ingredients, read this article from the Los Angeles Times by one of my favorite food writers, Michael Ruhlman.

Pound cake is plain but quite rich, and easily dressed up with a bit of stewed rhubarb, homemade preserves, or for something really special, soak it in a bit of Grand Marnier and drizzle some chocolate sauce over it. Next time you need to impress someone with last minute baked goods, don’t reach for a cookbook, just grab the kitchen scale and get to work.

Pound Cake

Adapted from Fannie Merritt Farmer

This makes a rather large cake. If you like, halve the recipe and bake it in a 9 x 5 x 3 inch loaf pan.

1 pound unsalted butter, softened
1 pound sugar
1 pound eggs by weight without their shells (9-10 large eggs), room temperature
1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
1 pound all purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt

Pre-heat oven to 325 F.

Grease and flour a 10-inch tube pan.

In a mixing bowl use a fork to stir the flour and salt together.

Put the butter in a large mixing bowl and use either a stand mixer or a portable hand mixer to beat the butter starting at a low speed and slowly increasing to a higher speed. Stop when the butter is the consistency of mayonnaise (about 30 seconds with a stand mixer or 1 minute with a portable hand mixer).

Scrape down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula. Add the sugar and beat for 2 minutes at medium with a stand mixer or 3 minutes at medium with a portable hand mixer. The mixture will be soft and whitish, but still granular looking.

Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each one. Stir in the vanilla.

While beating at medium speed gradually add the mixture of flour and salt, scraping down the bowl as necessary. Continue to beat until the batter is smooth and homogenous. Pour the batter into the prepared pan and even out the top with a rubber spatula.

Bake in the center of the oven for 1 – 1¼ hours, or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.

Put the cake pan on a wire cooling rack and allow it to cool for about 5 minutes. Then remove the cake from the pan and allow to cool on the rack completely before serving.

Variations: Add the grated zest of one lemon, or 4 ounces of raisins soaked in rum, or ¼ teaspoon of ground mace.

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Photo by Wikipedia user Grcampbell

In the past, I have expressed my withering disdain for single-use kitchen gadgets like garlic presses, shrimp de-veiners, and pineapple slicers. Today I’m adding another one to the list, the Raclette Machine. I’m bowled over that people are willing to pay hundreds of dollars for an appliance that makes a dish created by Swiss livestock herders who had nothing but a campfire, some cheese and a chunk of bread. I guess the idea is that doing the cooking at the table preserves the fantasy that we’re all sitting in front of a fireplace in our Swiss chalet? Come on.

My love of history leads me to do my best to make dishes the way they were (or are) traditionally made by the people who first thought them up. Consequently, I think I’ll take some Raclette along on my next camping trip. Meanwhile, I’ll enumerate below several ways it can be made easily at home without fancy, expensive equipment

Raclette is the name of the finished dish and the name of the cheese which is the main ingredient. The semi-firm cheese is partially melted in front of a fire and then scraped (“racler” means “to scrape” in French) onto a plate filled with freshly boiled new potatoes, cornichons, pickled pearl onions, and crusty bread. Other popular accompaniments include thinly sliced cured meat such as the Swiss air-dried beef called Bündnerfleisch. To drink there is usually beer, tea or kirsch, although a nice dry Swiss white wine won’t go amiss either.

But before we start cooking let’s talk about the most important component of this dish, the cheese. There are lots of cheeses out there labeled “Raclette” and they are certainly not equal. If you have access to a good cheesemonger who will discuss the cheeses and allow you to taste samples before cutting a piece the size you desire, go have a chat with them about Raclette. If you’re stuck buying pre-cut cheese from the case in an anonymous supermarket, learn to read labels. Good Raclette is a raw milk (au lait cru), semi-firm, cow’s milk cheese made in Switzerland or France and aged for three to six months.

The Swiss Canton of Valais is particularly known for the high quality of its Raclette. So much so that the Swiss Department of Agriculture registered “Raclette du Valais” as an AOC (controlled designation of origin) product. If you have a chance to look at the whole or half rounds of the cheese, you might see the name of the village where it was made imprinted on them. Names to look for include Bagnes, Conches, Gomser, or Orsières. Raclette made in other parts of Switzerland might be labeled “Raclette Suisse.” These are not necessarily bad, but beware of industrially produced cheese made from pasteurized milk, it won’t be as good.

Because Switzerland is not in the European Union, the AOC status for Raclette only applies within its own borders. That means that anyone from outside the country may make a cheese and call it Raclette. For example they have been making Raclette in the eastern part of France which borders on Switzerland (Savoie and Franche-Comté) for a very long time. It is done in a slightly different style which makes it softer and milder than its Swiss cousin. I’ve also had very nice Raclette from Puy de Dôme in the Auvergne region of France. Try a few and see which you like best.

This gooey comfort food does cry out for a chilly autumn night in front of the fire with friends, but new potatoes are in the farmers’ markets of the Northeast right now, so I couldn’t resist making it in Summer. I used a milder French Raclette which was warm and cuddly, sliding like a lava flow over my plate of potatoes and pickles.

Raclette with a Fireplace or Oven

Adapted from James Peterson

This is a fun dish to serve to a large group. Everyone can take turns heating up the cheese and scraping it onto their plates.

Serves 6-8 people

1½ – 2 pounds Raclette cheese in a half-round or wedge shape.
3 pounds new potatoes
sea salt or fine Kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
1 jar good quality French cornichons
1 jar of pickled pearl onions
2 good quality French baguettes

Method for a fireplace or campfire (see below for several other methods including using the oven):

Build a good fire. Use a butter knife to scrape the brown rind from the cheese. If it is too thick, cut it off with a sharp knife. Put the cheese on an oven proof plate or a stone. Put the plate or stone right next to the fire with the cut face of the cheese (not the part where the rind was) facing the heat.

Scrub the potatoes and put them in a sauce pan with salted water which covers them by 2 inches. Bring them to a boil and then turn the heat down and simmer them for 15-25 minutes, or until tender (time will vary with potato size). Drain the potatoes, allow them to cool a bit, and remove their peels. Keep the potatoes warm by putting them near the fire or in a 200 F. oven.

When the potatoes are ready and the cut face of the Raclette is soft and gooey, put a few potatoes on a serving plate, carefully pick up the cheese (use oven mitts if necessary) and use a spatula or the back of a knife to scrape along the cut face, pushing melted cheese onto the serving plate. Add salt and pepper to taste and serve with crusty bread, cornichons, and pickled onions.

Put the cheese back in front of the fire so it will be soft for the next round. Any leftover cheese can be wrapped and chilled to be used another time.

Method for Oven:

Preheat the oven to 400 F.

Scrub the potatoes and put them in a sauce pan of salted water which covers them by 2 inches. Bring them to a boil and then turn the heat down and simmer them for 15-25 minutes, or until tender (time will vary with potato size). Drain the potatoes, allow them to cool a bit and remove their peels.

Use a butter knife to scrape the brown rind off of the cheese. If it is too thick, use a sharp knife to cut it off. Slice the Raclette into ¾-inch thick slices.

Place the potatoes in a baking dish and arrange the sliced Raclette on top of them. Bake until the cheese is totally melted and covering the potatoes (about 10-15 minutes). Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Spoon some potatoes and cheese onto serving plates and serve with crusty bread, cornichons, and pickled onions.

Other alternative methods:

As above, for either of these methods you first must scrape or cut the rind from the cheese. Then prepare your potatoes.

If you have a gas stove, you can remove the grate and put your cheese on a fireproof plate or stone with the cut face as close to the flame as you can. I tried this, and it works pretty well. Make sure it is good and hot before you start scraping because it cools rather quickly.

I haven’t tried this last suggestion but I think it would work. If you decide to give it a shot let me know how it turned out in the comments. Put nonstick pan over high heat on your stove top and put the cut face of the cheese facing down in the pan. When the cut face becomes soft and gooey, carefully remove the cheese from the pan (using gloves if necessary) and use a spatula or the back of a knife to scrape it over your serving dishes as above. Repeat as necessary when guests request further helpings of cheese.

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It has happened to all of us. You buy a bunch of parsley so you can chop up about a tablespoon of it to use for garnish, and the rest languishes forgotten in the fridge, where it eventually turns to sludge. Well, dear reader, it doesn’t have to be that way anymore. The gauchos of Argentina have come galloping to the rescue with a savory sauce that will fill your kitchen with the aroma of wild green places: Chimichurri.

As usual around here, I went looking into the history of this traditional Argentine condiment and found some surprising things. Food historians do think it originated with Argentine cowboys. By 1580 when Buenos Aires became a permanent settlement, there were already vast herds of wild horses roaming the endless prairies of Argentina. The Spanish settlers brought cattle (a breed which would eventually contribute to the development of the Texas Longhorn) and the beef-centered cuisine of Argentina began. The gauchos lived as nomads, roaming the wild land, slaughtering feral cattle, cooking the meat in the open, and eating it with their trusty facónes. Due to this minimalist existence, when these men wanted a sauce for that hunk of steer roasting over an open fire, it isn’t likely they had garden-fresh parsley on hand. The original Chimichurri sauce probably consisted of dried parsley and oregano, along with garlic, vinegar, oil, and salt and pepper. It may have been more akin to English mint sauce (which is also vinegar-based), than the fancy, fresh Chimichurris of today.

And how about the name? There is a folk etymology that attributes the sauce to an English or Irish soldier named Jimmy who joined in the fight for Argentine independence. His sauce was Jimmy’s curry, which was difficult for the Argentineans to pronounce and so it became Chimichurri. A more intriguing possibility is suggested in Steven Raichlen’s new book Planet Barbecue!. There is a word in the Basque language, “tximitxurri,” which can be interpreted to mean, “a mixture of several things in no particular order.” There is a Basque presence in Argentina, and they are well known as expert animal herders. I’m putting my money on tximitxurri, besides, I think every language needs a word for “a mixture of several things in no particular order,” don’t you?

Alright, so let’s pull out the kitchen-equivalent of our facónes (gauchos didn’t have food processors), and get to work. Even though I love the idea of trying to reproduce the ur-Chimichurri, I did have fresh parsley to use up so we’ll go with a fresh version. The other thing I discovered in my research is that there are about as many recipes for Chimichurri as there are cattle in Argentina, and many of them don’t just contain parsley, some are even red instead of green. This one is adapted from the first rate web site Asado Argentina, whose webmaster is an American living in Argentina with a mission to bring a love for Argentine cuisine to the world.

There is no real cooking involved in making this sauce, yet it made my kitchen smell wild and exotic. In the end it is a summery, kaleidoscope of flavors, that lingers on the palate, and only gets better with age in the refrigerator. Chimichurri sauce is traditionally served with barbecued meats, primarily offal and sausages, but really, it goes with everything.

Chimichurri Sauce

Adapted from Asado Argentina

Makes about 1½ cups

Contrary to popular belief, the bay leaves used in cooking are not poisonous. We remove them from food because they are very stiff and could easily scratch the throat if swallowed. Here we crumble the leaves into very small pieces before adding them to the sauce, which makes them easier to swallow and allows the flavor of the herb to permeate the sauce.

1 bunch flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped (about ½ cup)
1 medium onion, finely chopped
4 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
½ a red bell pepper, seeded and finely chopped
1 tomato, peeled, seeded and finely chopped
1 tablespoon dried oregano
1 tablespoon paprika
4 bay leaves, crumbled into very small pieces
1 tablespoon coarse sea salt or Kosher salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 pinch dried red pepper flakes (or to taste)
¼ cup water
¼ cup red wine vinegar
½ cup olive oil

Put all of the ingredients except for the water, vinegar and oil together in a large bowl and toss well to combine. Let stand for at least 30 minutes.

In a small saucepan bring the water and vinegar to a boil and pour it over the ingredients in the bowl and toss. This blanches the onions and garlic, creating a more mellow flavor. Let stand for at least 30 minutes.

Lastly, add the olive oil and stir. The sauce is ready to serve, but it benefits from a day or two in the fridge, so do consider making it in advance.

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Photo by Flickr user ka_tate

You know those recipes you hear about and then tuck away in your mental “must try that” file? Today I’m pulling one out from way back in 2003. At that time I was an avid reader of Julie Powell’s groundbreaking blog, the Julie/Julia Project, in which she cooked all 536 recipes in Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking in a year. Food blogs in those days didn’t have photos (really!), so It was like an old fashioned radio serial — think Flash Gordon — with readers tuning in every day (there was no RSS either) to see what (mis)adventures had befallen our cook-heroine during last night’s dinner preparations.

One of the dishes from the project which always stuck in my mind was Baked Cucumbers with Cream (Concombres a la Crème). The idea of hot cucumbers sounded really odd to me, but Julie gave them a rave review. In fact, her post on the subject is a fine example of her bold style which was sadly lacking in the recent movie-version of events. Here’s a sample:

Cucumbers baked with cream, I got to tell you, are fucking fantastic.  This baking of cucumbers has changed my life, I shall never be the same.  I’ll be one of those moms who puts disgusting looking shit in their kids’ lunchboxes so everyone thinks their freaky little monsters.  But I’ll have baked cucumbers to sustain me.

For all this time I remembered how amazed she was, and I finally got around to trying this recipe. It’s good. I don’t know that I’ll go with “life changing,” but it’s certainly unexpected. The cucumbers are sweet and slightly nutty and all the cream and butter makes for a rich treat. It’s sort of like a warm Tzatziki sauce. It would make a smashing side dish for lamb chops.

Baked Cucumbers with Cream

Adapted from Julia Child

Serves 4

6 cucumbers (each about 8 inches long)
2 tablespoons of white wine vinegar
1½ teaspoons salt and more for seasoning
⅛ teaspoon sugar
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
⅓ cup fresh dill, roughly chopped
4 scallions, minced (white and light green parts only)
⅛ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper and more for seasoning
1 cup heavy cream
1 tablespoon fresh chopped parsley

Peel the cucumbers, slice them in half lengthwise, and use a small spoon to scoop out the seeds. Next cut the cucumber halves into strips about ⅜ inch wide and cut each strip into 2-inch pieces. Toss the cucumber pieces with the vinegar, 1½ teaspoons of salt and the sugar and allow them to stand for a minimum of 30 minutes. This draws a lot of the water out of the cucumbers, making them easier to cook.

Drain the cucumber pieces in a strainer and pat them dry with a paper towel.

Preheat your oven to 375 F.

Put the cucumber pieces in a baking dish with the melted butter, dill, scallions and ⅛ teaspoon of the black pepper, toss to coat. Bake in the center of the oven for 1 hour, stirring 2-3 times during the baking. They will not brown very much at all. When they are done take them out of the oven and keep them warm while you make the sauce.

In a small saucepan, boil the cream until it is reduced to ½ cup. Season to taste with salt and pepper and pour it over the hot baked cucumbers, stirring gently to coat them. Garnish with chopped parsley and serve.

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