Archive for the ‘Festival Cooking’ Category

No matter where you live or what you call it, the object of the last day before Lent is the same: eat as much of the soon-to-be-forbidden foods as you can before it’s too late. Lent, which begins this year on Wednesday, February 17th, is a 40 day season during which Christians traditionally fast, pray, and give alms to the poor. In the Medieval period, observant Christians were forbidden meat, milk, eggs and animal fats during Lent. The modern Catholic church has eased these rules, encouraging voluntary fasting and abstinence. This is defined as eating only one full meal per day (or two small ones which add up to less than one full meal), and the omission of meat and poultry on Ash Wednesday (the first day of Lent), and all the Fridays in Lent. It has also become traditional for people to give up something they particularly enjoy for the 40 day period, although that is not an official church policy.

As you might imagine, the Medieval rules led to lots of serious eating during the days leading up to Lent. Aside from having one last taste of your favorites, you needed to use up all the eggs, milk, and animal fats in the house. In the days before refrigeration, using up the meat was not as much of an issue because it was only acquired right before it was to be eaten, so most households didn’t have a lot lying around.

In particular the very last day before Lent is a great excuse for wild parties; in Iceland they call it Sprengidagur which means Bursting Day; the French name for it is Mardi Gras or Fat Tuesday; in Sweden it is Fettisdagen; in Estonia, Vastlapäev; in Spain, Martes de Carnaval; in the Czech Republic, Masopust, which means “goodbye to meat,” and in German, Faschingsdienstag. In English-speaking countries it is known as Shrove Tuesday, Pancake Tuesday, or simply Pancake Day. The word “shrove” comes from the archaic verb “to shrive” which means to obtain absolution for your sins. It was important to be shriven before the beginning of Lent as it is a season of penance.

Even though the rules are no longer as stringent, this religious tradition has left us with some wonderful seasonal foods. Since their purpose was to use up all of the non-lenten ingredients in the house, they have some things in common. They are often fried and they are very rich, containing eggs, milk, butter, and if a creative cook can manage it, some meat thrown in for good measure.

In Portugal they make Malasada which is a fried dough; the Polish enjoy their Paczki or jelly doughnuts; in Sweden you would be eating Semla, a pastry spiced with cardamom, filled with almond paste and whipped cream, and served in a bowl of hot milk; in Croatia, which was part of Venice for hundreds of years, they eat Fritule which are fritters enhanced with brandy and lemon zest; and the denizens of the Czech Republic say “farewell to meat” by holding large pork feasts during the time leading up to Lent.

In English-speaking countries the traditional Shrove Tuesday meal is pancakes, they can be made either savory or sweet and are a great way to use up eggs, milk, butter and other fats. Traditionally in Britain they were served with a rich meat stew. In some places slices of sausages or other meat are mixed right into the pancake batter. Try out the recipe below and imagine, if you will, Medieval British cooks flipping their pancakes while keeping one ear cocked to hear the the ringing of the shriving bell or pancake bell which reminded them to use up all their fats and come to church to be shriven.


Adapted from The Joy of Cooking

Makes about 14 four inch pancakes

1½ cups all purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons sugar
1¾ teaspoons baking powder
2 eggs, separated
3 tablespoons melted butter
1¼ cups milk, or buttermilk

Stir together the dry ingredients with a fork. In a separate bowl, beat the egg yolks and the milk or buttermilk together, then stir in the melted butter.

Pour the eggs and milk into the bowl with the dry ingredients and stir only enough to just wet all the dry ingredients, don’t beat too much; you want it to look lumpy. It should be thick but still pour fairly easily off a spoon. If it is too thick add a bit more milk or buttermilk and if it is too thin add more flour.

Whip the egg whites until they form stiff peaks and then fold them lightly into the batter, taking care to deflate them as little as possible.

If you cook the pancakes on a non-stick surface you won’t need any butter. If you use a regular pan then use just a little butter to keep them from sticking.

Heat the pan over medium-high heat until water splutters when a few drops are sprinkled on it.

Use a large spoon to transfer the batter to the pan. Don’t drop it from way up high, just let it pour from the tip of the spoon onto the pan, this will help control the pancake shape. Once you have formed the pancake let it cook for 2-3 minutes or until most, but not all, of the bubbles which form on the uncooked side have burst. Then flip the pancake and cook the other side for 1-2 minutes or until nicely browned.

Break open your first pancake to see if the inside is cooked properly and adjust the heat under your pan accordingly, then continue making pancakes until all the batter is used up.

To keep the pancakes warm before serving, keep them on a plate in a warm oven separated by clean kitchen towels. Without the towels between them they will steam each other and lose their nice texture. You can prepare a stack of folded kitchen towels in advance and put on pancake in each layer.

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Aside from the cute accent, being married to an Australian has other advantages. We get to celebrate extra holidays, which of course involve food. January 26th is Australia Day, commemorating the arrival of the so called First Fleet at Sydney Cove in 1788. It marks the founding of the penal colony of New South Wales and the first European occupation of the continent of Australia.

One of the foods that is revered as being uniquely Australian is the lamington, a square of yellow or sponge cake covered in chocolate icing and rolled in dried coconut. Holding a similar place in the hearts of Australians as the brownie does for Americans, lamingtons are often served on Australia Day, but can also be found in bakeries and cafes year round. In particular they are the undisputed star of what we would call the bake sale, but which in Australia is simply known as the lamington drive. Any time money needs to be raised for a good cause, scores of people form assembly lines of cake baking, chocolate dipping and coconut rolling. Or they buy commercially made lamingtons at the store (no worries mate, we won’t tell).

It is thought that lamingtons are named for Charles Cochrane-Baillie, 2nd Baron Lamington, who was Governor of the colony of Queensland from 1896 to 1901. Supposedly, the governor arrived with guests at his summer home Harlaxton House in Toowoomba, which being in a somewhat mountainous area of southern Queensland is much cooler than the tropical north. His chef, Armand Gallad, was taken by surprise and had only day-old sponge cake to serve for tea. Improvising, he dipped the cake in some chocolate icing and rolled it in dried coconut. While nowadays coconuts grow all over Queensland, they were not as ubiquitous in the 19th Century and dried coconut was not a common ingredient in colonial cuisine. Needless to say, the newly invented tea cakes were a big hit with the governor’s guests who immediately asked for the recipe.

Australians are not known for wearing their patriotism on their sleeves, but they do enjoy Australia Day — any excuse for a barbeque; remember, January is summer time down there. Before we get to the lamington recipe, have a look at this ad for Meat and Livestock Australia made by former Australian Rules Football star Sam Kekovich with his rather opinionated take on what should be served on Australia Day:


Makes 10-12 two-inch squares

You can use any yellow cake or sponge cake for this, but since it is a 19th Century recipe I decided to use a génoise which is an egg-leavened cake that was frequently used to make petits fours and other fancy tea cakes.

Génoise Cake adapted from Julia Child

4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
⅔ cup flour, sifted
3 large eggs
½ cup sugar
1½teaspoons vanilla extract
1 pinch salt

Preheat oven to 350F

Prepare an 8 inch round cake pan as follows: put a piece of waxed paper, cut to fit, in the bottom of the pan, then butter it well. Finally, flour the pan, knocking out any excess when finished.

Melt the butter and set it aside to cool.

Beat the eggs, sugar, vanilla and salt with a portable mixer or a stand mixer for about 10 minutes or until they are very thick and pale colored. When you lift the beaters out of the bowl a ribbon of batter should fall from them and lie distinctly on the surface in the bowl before sinking back in. This is what is known as the “ribbon stage” in baking.

Sprinkle about 1/4 of your sifted flour onto the batter and then quickly but gently fold the flour into it until it is almost incorporated. Do your best not to deflate the batter. Add 1/2 of the remaining flour and fold it in. Next, fold in about 1/3 of the cooled melted butter and then continue alternating between flour and butter until everything is incorporated.

Pour the batter into the prepared pan and give it a shake to even it out. Bake for 20-25 minutes or until the top is spongy when pressed and the cake has just started to pull away from the edges of the pan.

Let it cool in the pan for about 10 minutes, then turn it out on a cooling rack. If the cake doesn’t come out of the pan right away leave it upside down on the rack for a few minutes and it should drop out. Peel off the waxed paper if it has stuck to the cake. When the cake has fully cooled (in about 11/2 hours) wrap it tightly in plastic wrap and refrigerate over night.

Chocolate and Coconut Coating

Be sure to check the label on your package of coconut. Much of the stuff sold in supermarket has added sugar, which makes it too sweet.

4 cups (about 1 pound) confectioner’s sugar
⅓ cup cocoa powder
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
½ cup milk
2 cups dried, unsweetened coconut

Remove your génoise cake from the refrigerator and cut it into 2-inch pieces.

In a double boiler, or a heat-proof bowl set over a pot of simmering water (don’t let the water touch the bottom of the bowl), combine the confectioner’s sugar, cocoa powder, butter and milk. Stir together until it becomes a smooth liquid that is easily pourable. Remove the icing from the stove, but leave the water simmering as you will probably need it again during the process.

Pierce each piece of génoise cake with a fork and dunk it in the chocolate icing until it is completely covered. It helps to use a spoon in the other hand to scoop icing over the cake. Hold the piece of cake over the bowl and allow any excess icing to drip off, then place the cake on a plate of dried coconut and quickly roll it to cover all sides. Finally, put the finished lamington on a rack to set.

As you go, you’ll find that the chocolate icing will thicken as it cools, making it difficult to dip the pieces of cake. Bring the bowl or pot back to the stove, set it over the simmering water and stir to regain a pourable consistency. You may have to do this several times during the icing process. If, towards the end, it is still too thick even after reheating, add a little milk to thin it out.

Continue until all of your lamingtons are iced and rolled in coconut. Once they have set they will keep for several days if stored in an air tight container.

Variation: After the lamingtons are set you can split them with a knife and fill the center with strawberry jam.

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My mother is from Connecticut, my dad was born and raised in the Bronx, and my husband is Australian, leaving me no defense against being called a Yankee; or at least a Yank in my husband’s case. Hewing to stereotype, our Yankee family usually has a standing rib roast and yorkshire pudding for Christmas dinner, but I think it might be time for a change. This year I’m making a southern-style Christmas dinner, with aged Kentucky country ham as the centerpiece, surrounded by traditional sides like collard greens and corn bread.

How did this come about? Well, I confess to being lured in by Saveur‘s most recent issue and its focus on all the different ways ham is prepared as a celebratory food around the world. I’ve been served aged country ham in the past, by a friend who grew up in the south, and when I started reading up on the history, that clinched it.

American aged country ham is a traditional food of the south, found mainly in Virginia, Kentucky, Maryland, Tennessee, the Carolinas, Georgia, and Missouri. It is actually a close cousin to prosciutto, jamón ibérico, speck, and other similar European dry aged hams. All of these styles of ham rely on a salt cure to suck the liquid out of the meat, preserving it and concentrating its flavor. After the salt cure (which sometimes also includes sugar and spices), the ham can be smoked (or not) and then hung in a cloth wrapping to age for at least 6 months.

Due to the time consuming nature of this process, it’s getting harder and harder to find a true dry aged country ham. Some of the old makers have been bought out by larger companies who are now taking shortcuts with the process to yield more profit. Even in the 1970s when James Beard was writing his American Cookery, he said, “Nowadays one seldom finds a ham aged more than two or three years. Formerly it was not uncommon to find them aged six or seven years, especially from Virginia or Kentucky.” Adding to his lament, I can say that during my research for Christmas dinner, I could only find hams that had been aged for one year.

I decided to go with Col. Bill Newsom’s Aged Kentucky Country Ham for my Christmas dinner. I like the fact that the company is owned by the founder’s granddaughter and she still uses the same 18th Century family recipe to cure the hams, which includes a salt and brown sugar cure and then a slow smoke over hickory wood.

Ham ordered, I began to research recipes. A word of caution: there are many horror stories on the Internet, from people who heard about the wonders of aged country ham, decided to try it out, but cooked it the same way they would a ham bought in a (Yankee) grocery store. Aged country ham needs to be soaked for one or two days before cooking to remove the excess salt left from the curing process. If you don’t do that, it will taste like a piece of rock salt with ham flavoring. It is also important to serve aged country ham sliced as thinly as possible (think prosciutto here) and at room temperature which makes it taste less salty.

As with all traditional foods, there is much lore surrounding the best way to prepare it. Betty Fussell, and others claim that tea in the soaking water will help draw out the salt. I’m going to try out that suggestion and see what happens. Other popular recipes include the use of Coca-Cola or Dr. Pepper as part of the braising liquid. I think I’ll stick with white wine, or maybe apple cider, and a little Calvados (see, I’m still a Yankee at heart). The final question is, to glaze or not to glaze? I’m not sure yet. I’m thinking a fruity, but not too sweet, glaze could be a nice foil for the intense, salty ham. Other traditional options include bread crumbs, brown sugar and mustard; or molasses, brown sugar and mustard. So many choices!

Below I’ve listed our complete Yankee Southern Christmas menu and I wish you and yours a sumptuous and flavorful holiday!

Col. Bill Newsom’s Aged Kentucky Country Ham

Nigella Lawson’s Sweet Corn Pudding

Melissa Clark’s Wildflower Honey and Whisky-glazed Sweet Potatoes (except I’ll be using Bourbon instead of Whisky)

Collard Greens braised slowly with the ham hock cut from our country ham

Robb Walsh’s Cane Syrup Pecan Pie

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Homemade Christmas

I first started making food gifts for Christmas when I moved away from home. I was a starving young person trying to eek out a living in the big city and cooking gifts was a lot cheaper than buying them. But there are other advantages as well. Don’t tell anyone, but it’s a lot easier and more relaxed to make your presents. The only shopping you have to do is for ingredients and the grocery stores are not nearly as crowded as the malls and boutiques. If nature decides to dump a big pile of snow on your home the weekend before Christmas, it doesn’t disrupt your plans because you were going to stay in and cook up gifts anyway. The best part of giving homemade food gifts is the appreciation you get in return. If the receiver of your gift is a cook themselves, they know how much work went into it and are genuinely thankful. If they’re not a cook, they are likely to be even more in awe of your skills. You can’t lose.

Cookies are of course one of the first things people think of to make as presents. I like to make several different kinds, for festive variety. This can get complicated quickly, the first time I tried it, I found myself in the kitchen for what seemed like weeks, making five different cookie doughs. Through experience (and reading lots of cooking magazines) I learned how to make it a lot easier on myself. Many cookie doughs are quite similar, so you can start with one or two base doughs and transform them into quite a number of very different cookies. Have a look at this article from Fine Cooking magazine. They give three dough recipes that can be made into nine different cookies! If you’re really organized (and have the space) you can bake them in advance and freeze them.

I like to turn Christmas gift cooking into an opportunity to learn new things. While this can be dangerous if you have a disaster, it keeps things interesting. Just give yourself enough time to make a backup gift if your experiment doesn’t turn out. This year I tried my hand at candy making. I’d made peanut brittle in the past, but had never tried caramels. My first batch turned out a little harder than I wanted — more like toffee — but with some adjustments to the cooking time, I’m hoping the second batch will be nice and chewy. So, some friends and family will get toffee this year and others will get caramels. As Saint Julia says, “never apologize.” So what if it’s not exactly what you planned, if it’s tasty, then who’s to know?

I’m already thinking about next year’s gifts. Winter is the height of the citrus season, and here in New York we get lots of beautiful lemons, oranges and grapefruits from Florida, California, and Europe. Maybe I’ll try making a citrus fruit curd next year. If you’ve seen the price on imported jars of English lemon curd, you’ll know why this makes a great gift. The other secret is, it’s dead easy to make. Most recipes are for lemon, but you can substitute any citrus fruit; I’m thinking grapefruit would be fun. The best recipe I’ve seen is again from Fine Cooking, can you tell I’m a fan? Tangy, citrusy gifts are the perfect thing to brighten up these dark days of winter.

Happy Holidays!

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