Thursday, October 27, 2005

Down South!

Just a quick note, since it's 1AM and I'm wiped out--but I'm in the South, for the very first time, at the Southern Foodways Alliance symposium, all about sugar and sweet things. Driving from Memphis to Greenwood, seeing fields of cotton for the first time, listening to pop country and then in the surprise of the chic Alluvian Hotel, eating pig candy (sugar-rubbed bacon with pecans) and getting a taste of that sweet southern hospitality. More on brandy milk punch, Julia Reed, and Doe's Eat Place to bed.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Come on in, the water's fine

"These people have a lot of parties," Teddy said sleepily.
"These people have a lot of money," Jane Louise said. "Maybe we should give a lot of parties. It feels just like family life, but everyone goes home afterwards."

-Laurie Colwin, A Big Storm Knocked It Over

Well, there's no getting around it. My birthday is making its annual appearance this weekend. Apart of the whole getting-older thing (note to self: hair dye), I'm actually fond of birthdays. Cards, cake, funny presents (goofy socks! fridge magnets!)--what's not to like? Given that there's only one day of the year when you can get total strangers to be nice to you for no reason, I don't understand those sour don't-make-a-fuss types hating on their birthdays every year.

But then again, Libras love a party. And we especially love a party together, preferably one with lots of little tea sandwiches and an endless assortment of nibbles at which to pick. No decisions, lots of little sweet and salty things, champagne: that's paradise, when you're born in October. And that's what my tiny birthday party is going to be: not dinner, but just nibbles, and chocolate (especially since K. mailed me a whole stack of Gianduja bars, sweet thing that she is), and of course, cake. Since it's autumn, finally, I'm going to skip the usual layer-cake-n'-icing thing and make the awesome gingerbread-apple-upside-down cake. The recipe's on here already somewhere; I'll link to it if I can find it.

Until then, the fire-escape garden has produced its last handful of tomatoes, ripening on a pie plate in the kitchen. The morning glories have been replaced with yellow-and-bronze chrysanthemums, and ivy is twining up where the petunias once flowered and fretted. The heavy seed heads on the sunflowers are slowly being emptied by the birds, and there's a bagful of crab apples and quinces sitting in my hallway, waiting to be turned into paradise jelly, using the lovelyBakerina's recipe, which is the same as the one in my 1940s edition of the Joy of Cooking, back when the Joy still had a full chapter of preserving and canning recipes. (The recent, much-vaunted redo of the book left jams and jellies out completely, thanks to a bunch of snitty NYC editors who live on soy lattes and Thai takeout and DO NOT CAN.)

So happy birthday to all you Libras and Scorpios out there, and now, go make a wish.

Songs for a Birthday

1. Beautiful Child (Rufus Wainwright)
2. I Was Born (Natalie Merchant)
3. You've Got What It Takes (Brooke Benton and Dinah Washington)
4. That Was Your Mother (Paul Simon)
5. Really Rosie (Carole King)

Monday, October 17, 2005

Pudding in Paradise

A bunch of years ago, when I was writing a dessert-and-pastry column called Queen of Tarts for the San Francisco Bay Guardian (yes, this Pie Queen concept has been going on for quite a while), I got an invitation to go down to a warehouse in South San Francisco. South San Francisco is what you first see from the airport, its claim to fame laid out in huge white Hollywood-sign letters: "South San Francisco: The Industrial City," framed by identical rows of boxy pastel houses, And the garage-like space I'd come to find was identical to every other locked box in a long row of corrugated metal and concrete.

Except for the smell. It was like all the brownies on earth baking together, tantalizing and warm and unbearably seductive. "I don't even smell it anymore," confessed Robert Steinberg, one of the founders of the then-nascent Scharffen Berger Chocolate company. A doctor turned self-taught chocolate maven, Steinberg was overseeing the company's tiny chocolate-making operation in tandem with co-owner John Scharffenberger, who'd recently left his family's successful sparkling-wine business in the Anderson Valley. Together, they were doing what no one else in America was doing on such a small scale: making bean-to-bar chocolate. (As far as I know, Jacques Torres's new Hudson Street operation is the only other small-scale chocolate-making operation in the States.)

In the land of home-grown behemoths like Hershey's, they had to import their fire engine red, Willie-Wonka-ish machinery from Germany, where family-run chocolate companies still had old, small machines to sell. The beans came in rough burlap sacks, stamped with their country of origin--Venezuela, Cote d'Ivoire, Ecuador. We toured the room, pausing at each machine as the beans went from roaster to concher to tempering vat. The chocolate itself was startling: intensely flavored, with a vivid smokiness balanced by fruitiness.

Professional pastry chefs were Scharffen Berger's target market, and soon, in San Francisco, menus were touting Scharffen Berger chocolate the same way they bragged of Frog Hollow peaches and Acme bread. But Steinberg and Scharffenberger were caught off guard by the public's clamour for their chunky slabs of baking chocolate.

Now, Scharffen Berger has a sleek new home in a rehabbed brick warehouse in south Berkeley (where you can take a fragrant tour of the whole chocolate-dusted works, then taste their wares in the adjoining Cafe Cacao). The product line includes both the original big baking blocks and a whole wide range for straight-up chocolate eaters: smooth, slender 3-oz bars of various cocoa-bean percentages (the higher the percent, the darker and stronger the chocolate), cute chunky two-bite bars, cocoa powder, cocoa nibs (tiny bitter tidbits of the roasted bean itself), even milk chocolate (something Steinberg swore, in the beginning, that he’d never do). And the company has a corporate parent: the original rubber-candy-bar company itself, Hershey's.

But so far, Scharffen Berger's still doing what it does best. And their brand new Gianduja bar--ahhh, my sweet, I insist! Dark chocolate mixed with pure hazelnut paste into a silky toffee-colored bar, it's like Nutella for grownups, not too sweet, with that special smoky edge roughing up the smooth suaveness of the hazelnut. Melt this onto a baguette, or some toasted brioche, and you will have died and gone to breakfast in heaven’s youth hostel.

On the Scharffen Berger website is a recipe for a chocolate pudding made with this. Fair warning: anyone making this for me better show up with a ring.

And elsewhere in the news, Cafe du Monde is back! They're up and frying down by the French Market, bringing the sweet smell of sugar-dusted beignets and chicory coffee back to the French Quarter. When times are tough, the tough start frying.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Rained out, but apple pie prevails

Good morning from rainy, rainy NYC. I had high hopes of showing K. the glories of an East Coast autumn over this long weekend--all the tasty treats they don't have in warm states, like hot apple cider, pumpkin patches, and apple-cider doughnuts made in goofy Rube Goldberg machines right before your eyes. Every orchard in the Hudson River Valley was having a hayride-and-apple-picking extravaganza for the weekend, it seemed. There would be cider-pressing and performances by the Magical Puppet Theater at the nifty biodynamic Hawthorne Valley Farm, even a Civil War re-enactment in Montgomery, just in case K. needed a little taste of home, albeit with a Union slant. She packed up her tent--how cold could it be?--I made a reservation at the sweet-sounding Milk & Honey b&b for the first night, and we synchronized our watches to meet in Albany.

Well, you already know how this goes, right? The b&b was homey and laid-back and fun. We learned that Chatham, NY is not on big-city time, which means the Blue Plate restaurant closes its doors at 8:45pm (and meaning, of course, that we didn't get to try it, since we didn't actually get it together to leave our room seeking dinner until 9pm). And that the Greig Farm orchard, on a cloudy Friday, was virtually empty, save for us and a whole bunch of little trees laden with dozens of kinds of apples and acres of pumpkins scattered in the most unlikely of places.

But then the rain started to fall. And fall, and fall, and fall. Unlike the few other hardy campers in the park, we didn't have tarps and canopies rigged up over our tiny tent. At 2:30am, one of the tent poles collapsed. By 6:30am, the nylon walls were running with water, the roof of the tent was bowed down to within 2 inches of our heads and we were caught like a couple of almost-drowned cats in a sack. We spent the morning thawing out over coffee and sausage at the diner in Red Hook (a very classic 1920s Silk Cut model, for you vintage-diner fans), then another hour reading the New Republic at the laundromat as our muddy socks and sodden sleeping bags churned around in the industrial-sized washers. And by the afternoon, we were on the thruway, heading back to the one warm place we knew--my apartment in Brooklyn.

Which was, by contrast, a blissful oasis of hot showers & clean flowery sheets. With the car parked, we stayed in the neighborhood, walking to Prospect Park (trees! waterfalls! squirrels! who needs the country?), eating curried salmon with pineapple at Blue Star, catching a movie at the Cobble Hill cinema (Tim Burton's Corpse Bride--ehhh. Not original, not funny, in fact lame all around. Skip it. The preview for the Johnny Cash movie, however, looked hot), shooting free pool at b61, and drinking hot mulled cider all day long.

And since we did come home with two big bags of hand-picked apples, I scooted out of bed early on Monday morning and whipped up a homemade apple pie. It looks squashed in this picture, but actually it was very pretty (and tasty!), with squirrel and leaf cutouts on top. And while the pie baked, K. made apple-orchard scrambled eggs, with sauteed onions, apples, and chunks of pork sausage. You could throw in a little thyme, too, and maybe some sharp cheddar cheese. Serve with some hot cider, toast and apple butter, and be happy for flannel pajamas and a roof over your head.

Apple Pie to Save the Day

2 1/2 cups flour
1/2 tsp salt
1 TB sugar
1 1/2 to 2 sticks butter (3/4 - 1 cup), depending on how buttery you want your crust
6 TB ice water

Mix dry ingredients, cut in butter (leave it chunkier than you think!), and toss in ice water. Flatten into two rounds, wrap in plastic or stick in a zip-loc bag, and chill. After at least an hour or so of chilling, roll out the crusts between sheets of wax paper.

Meanwhile, peel, core, and cut up a bunch of apples. Since I already had way more apples on hand than I knew I'd need, I just kept peeling and slicing until I had enough to fill my pie pan in a nice heap. But buy at least three or four pounds of apples; having too many apples is always a good thing. Toss apples with about 3/4 cup of sugar (more or less, depending on your taste), 1 tsp cinnamon, a handful of raisins (optional), a scant tablespoon of flour, and a pinch of salt. You can throw in a little nutmeg, cloves, allspice, or ginger, too, but be gentle--you want the mellow apple taste to prevail.

Line the pie pan with the bottom crust, heap in your apples, and top with top crust. Press edges together and crimp the crust edge. If you want, you can brush the top with an egg wash (1 egg yolk beaten with 1-2 tb water), and top it with little cutouts of leaves or apples or squirrels, if you're like me and collect goofy cookie cutters for just this purpose.

Bake at 375 degrees for 1 hour. You may need to cover the edges with foil for the last 20 minutes or so to prevent them from burning. Crust should be well browned and filling bubbling. Let cool to warm, then serve with vanilla ice cream or sharp cheddar cheese. After all, as the New Englanders say, Apple pie without the cheese/Is like a hug without the squeeze.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

A Sweet Year

Come sundown on Monday, it will be Rosh Hashanah, the start of the two-day celebration of the Jewish New Year, and of the two-week-long stretch known as the High Holy Days, which ends with Yom Kippur. Me, I'm mostly a baking Jew. I do challah for Friday nights, hamentaschen for Purim, latkes for Chanukkah, flourless chocolate cake and matzoh-meal muffins for Passover. But Rosh Hashanah is a lovely holiday, and it even gets me back to temple, sometimes. Determined by the lunar calendar, Rosh Hashanah floats around, cropping up anytime from early September to early October. In 2001, it fell just a few days after Sept. 11, and I was definitely not the only sloppily observant Jew who suddenly needed to hear the familiar liturgy. What I realized at the end, though, was that I was really there for the headliner: the blowing of the shofar, the long ram's horn that drones like a wild, Biblical bagpipe at the close of the day's services.

The sound of the shofar is a wake-up call, blowing all the past year's dust out of your head. At the same time, you don't get off scot-free. The two weeks of the High Holy Days are a time to clear debts, to make amends, to call anyone you've been behaving badly to and rub the slate clean. No Hail Marys, no priestly intercession; you have to go out and do it yourself.

But back to the baking side of things: every culture has its symbolic New Year's foods--lentils with a stuffed pig's foot in Bologna; noodles in China; hoppin' john (black-eyed or field peas with rice) down South. And where most traditions take long life and prosperity as their metaphors, the dishes of Rosh Hashanah are all about sweetness. Nothing sour, nothing bitter: New Year's foods are honey-sweet, full of fruit and warm spice. This is the year still perfect, a full glass of health and happiness. It's a rare moment of bubbly hope for a religion and culture more used to looking over its shoulder for the Cossacks coming round the corner.

New fruits--something freshly harvested in the fall, something still yet new for the season--get pride of place on the table. Here on the East Coast this means apples, just coming into season now. But I like to add pomegranates, Concord grapes, and fresh figs, a mix of autumn bounty both local and Biblical. Slices of apples are dipped in honey and eaten to ensure a sweet year, followed by chunks of round, raisin-studded challah, spread with yet more honey. I love to make a huge challah at this time of year, studded with golden raisins, with extra honey and extra eggs. The next morning, it makes the best French toast ever, French toast that will spoil you from making it with any other bread.

Last year, on a freakishly hot night in mid-September, a dozen friends sweltered in my living room, rubbing ice cubes over their necks and arms, drinking everything cold in the house and tearing a challah the size of a Thanksgiving turkey apart with their hands. Sugarkill's Moroccan chicken tagine, a bowl of couscous, a salad with roasted figs, a gingerbread-apple cake--they all got eaten. But a year later, what everyone remembers is the bread.

Honey-Glazed Challah for Rosh Hashanah

2 tsp yeast
1 1/2 cups lukewarm water
2 eggs plus 2 egg yolks
1/4 cup vegetable oil or melted butter
1/2 cup honey
1 TB salt
7-8 cups flour
1 cup golden raisins
1/2 cup honey, for glaze

Sprinkle yeast over water and let dissolve for a few minutes. Beat in eggs, yolks, honey, oil, and salt. Stir in several cups of flour and beat to a thick batter. Add more flour, a cup at a time, to make a medium-soft but not sticky dough.

Turn out onto a lightly floured surface and let rest 10 minutes. Knead for 8-10 minutes, until dough is smooth and stretchy. It should feel warm and pliable, like a soft stomach or a relaxed inner thigh. Turn dough back into mixing bowl, cover with a damp towel or plastic bag, and let rise for 1 1/2 hours, or until doubled in bulk. Punch down and knead again for another couple minutes. At this point, depending on your schedule, you can let it rise again or go straight to shaping the loaves.

Divide dough into two lumps (or you can, if so inclined, use all the dough in one massive loaf). Stretch the lumps into flattish rectangles, and sprinkle with golden raisins. Roll up into a log, and generally push and pull the dough around so the raisins get distributed. You can, of course, add the raisins back when you're putting in the flour, but kneading dough with raisins in it is a pain, as the raisins are continually popping out and needing to be shoved back in. It's like raisin whack-a-mole.

Anyway, pull the lumps or logs or whatever into two long ropes of dough. The best directions for making a round loaf that doesn't list and collapse in the oven comes from Marcy Goldman's excellent cookbook, A Treasury of Jewish Holiday Baking. "Form a rope of 18 to 24 inches, thicker at one end, tapered at the other. Take the rope of dough and with one hand, lift the narrowed end and wind the entire length around the thicker end of the strand so that the thick part becomes the middle of the challah. Tuck the tip under the coil and press it down to seal it closed." You can also cheat and form your loaf in a big round cake pan, which will help keep the shape.

Otherwise, place the loaf/loaves on a parchment-lined or greased baking sheet. Drizzle with honey. Let rise again for 30 minutes. then bake in a preheated 350 oven until well-browned and hollow-sounding when you thump it. Let cool on a rack.

And you know, if you want this recipe and more for your very own, you can search out my lovely little book all about honey, available on Amazon and, if you're very lucky, in the occasional nifty gift shop or bookstore. It's called Honey: From Flower to Table, and it's full of weird bee facts and beautiful flower-and-honeybee pinup photos, not to mention the ultimate non-sucky bran muffin recipe and a cool DIY beeswax-honey lip balm.

And speaking of Jewish food, NOSH is finally open. It's run by Marc Elliot, of seafood hangout Blue Star, and promises all things deli, from pastrami and brisket to matzoh ball soup and blintzes. 214 Atlantic Ave, between Court and Smith Sts., Cobble Hill, Brooklyn.