Sunday, December 30, 2007

2007: A Year of Culinary Types

Just one year ago, I wondered what I would possibly write about.

I’d created the Culinary Types blog as a means to pursue a regular writing discipline about something so core to my life – food. Yet as 2007 loomed, I had no formal classes planned, and no culinary travels on the calendar.

What would I possibly write about?

It turned out that the answer to that question was almost as easy as, “What shall I eat?” The options were endless. In fact, I wrote over 100 entries in 2007.

While Culinary Types is about writing, it is far more than words – it is the people at the heart of each story. For without them, food would just be ingredients, or so much organic matter. Each “Culinary Type” adds key ingredients to the recipe that creates this ongoing chronicle: artistry, care, technique, passion, a spirit of adventure and a deeply-rooted personal history that connects them to the food they offer at this table.

There were so many Culinary Types that captivated me in 2007:

There were chefs who left their corporate jobs to pursue their passion for food, like Juan Pablo Chavez, founder of Healthy Meals JPC in New York City, and John MacPherson of the B&B The Foster Harris House in Little Washington, Virginia who with his wife Diane serves up exquisite breakfasts of pure fantasy and the best hospitality on the East Coast.

We dined with home cooks, like my friend Jill from Ottawa who meticulously researched and jointly mastermind the American-Canadian Cooking Project, and inspired a Locally-Grown Canadian Feast, two cross-country culinary collaborations. And, we followed the trials and tribulations of my own kitchen experiments from sushi to tagine.

We met food artisans who care deeply about their craft, like Jon Wright who produces creamy Vermont gouda cheese at Taylor Farm, and the Sprague family who invite the public into their rustic sugar house to learn about the production of pure Vermont maple syrup.

There were epicurean delights, like my birthday celebration dinner at The Inn at Little Washington.

We learned about the science of the kitchen from trend-makers like “The Curious Cook” Harold McGee, while I joined my friend “Lee Sloan,” a grand dame of food and wine, to investigate the cutting-edge phenomena of molecular gastronomy and raw food.

We tasted the creations of skilled bakers, like Tante Kremer’s Hungarian Nut Torte, and sampled a fluffy procession of Retro Cakes, uncovered by the Old Foodie. The names of the original creators may be lost to the annals of time, but every crumb was infused with history, flavor and emotion.

We journeyed with culinary road warriors like my colleague “Splint McCullough,” experiencing first-hand this avowed carnivore’s religious experience with roast beef at the world-renowned Carnegie Deli.

And of course, there were food bloggers – new friends like Lydia of the Perfect Pantry and her wonderful Drop In and Decorate program, and Susan the Food Blogga and her fascination with eating Christmas Cookies! But, a review of 2007 would not be complete without a mention of my delicious, surprise meeting with the brilliant Veronica, proprietor of the blogosphere’s top test kitchen. That was indeed an unexpected culinary treat!

I am submitting my list of 2007 Culinary Types to “One Hot Stove” and Nupur’s "Best of 2007" event. I just recently learned of "One Hot Stove" at Lydia’ Perfect Pantry, and I’m looking forward to discovering more about Indian regional food from Nupur in 2008.

What will I write about in 2008? I’ve only just begun to explore locally-grown foods, and I’m curious about American regional cooking, so there may be some "Low Country" cuisine from the American South in my near future.

I do wonder what I’ll write about in 2008, but I have a feeling the feast has just begun.

Happy New Year!

©2007 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Visions of Sugar Plums

At the risk of sounding like a culinary Scrooge, there is probably no such thing as a sugar plum. The term is not listed in Larousse Gastronomique, so it’s probably not gastronomically sound. Indeed, there are listings for sugar beet, sugar cane, caster sugar and barley sugar in the Oxford Companion to Food, but alas, no listing for sugar plums. There is a Wikipedia Sugar Plum entry, but it is a suspiciously vague stub, having more to do with the Night before Christmas, and the Nutcracker Ballet.

Perhaps sugar plums are more a state of mind than of sugar consumption, because if the last few days are any indication, I do believe that sugar plums indeed exist.

The delicate top of the miraculous Pear Custard Pie prepared for my brother Ken and sister-in-law Pam’s annual Caroling Party has the effect of a white poinsettia or “angel wings” in the snow. It is so simple and elegant, and offers the sweet nectar of Bartlett pears and a feathery golden custard filling.

The second annual Christmas Pudding, is a mountainous, amber-colored Steamed Date Pudding with Whiskey Sauce that is the grand finale of my Christmas Day Dinner. A weekly showering of Irish whiskey makes it a truly spirited and festive dessert, so potent that my nephew Doug, a fraternity-dweller, even thinks it packs a punch.

A half-cup of whiskey is warmed and then poured over the pudding. Then a flick of the Bic, and blue flames dance merrily about the pudding. After a day of revelry, and serving dinner to nine people, it sure ignites my holiday cheer!

If you’ve never seen an actual Christmas Pudding blazing, click on the clip below – almost live – from my dinner table on Christmas Day. But, don’t look away, because the flame is fleeting, much like the holiday season.

In the words of Tiny Tim, “God bless us, everyone!”

©2007 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Tante Kremer’s Hungarian Nut Torte

Over the years, my mother would often mention Tante Kremer’s Hungarian Nut Torte. It was a favorite from her childhood and she’d tried to bake it as an adult, but had not had much success. It is just days before Christmas, and I have decided to see if I can create a special gift for Mom. I will attempt to recreate Tante’s Hungarian Nut Torte. Marcel Proust said flavors could inspire a range of memories, so what better gift to give a loved one at the holidays?

The recipe is written in my Grandmother Hilda’s handwriting. Apparently she wrote it down for my mother shortly after she and my dad got married and made their home in Far Rockaway, Long Island. It seems deceptively simple, but I immediately notice some possible gaps in the recipe.

I remember stories of Tante and Uncle. I have vague memories of meeting them, and sitting as a child on what seemed like a vast staircase in their entry hall in College Point, Long Island.

Mom adds the additional history that I’m missing. She writes:

We called her simply “Tante” and her husband “Uncle.” But they were Elizabeth and Joseph Kremer, my father’s aunt and uncle who had emigrated from Hungary. My father’s mother died when my father was a teenager and Tante mothered him from then on. Tante and Uncle’s home in College Point, Long Island became Dad’s home more than his own. In fact, I never remember talk of any other home. Dad absolutely adored Tante and Uncle and his three cousins Rose, Katie and Margaret. He became one of their family.

Tante was an excellent baker and had several specialties that were baked year in and year out for the holidays and for celebrating special occasions like birthdays and anniversaries. I remember four types of cookies: 1) Kupfel (horn) filled cookies made with cream cheese and butter, which were like mini-croissants filled with apricot or prune butter, 2) Walnut Egg White Kisses like swirls of meringue with a walnut half in the middle that just melted in your mouth, 3) Hard, flat, round anisette cookies about the size of a 50 cent piece, 4) Rolled butter cookies cut in shapes – stars, crescents, diamonds, hearts – brushed with egg whites and sprinkled with finely chopped nuts mixed with fine granulated sugar – so fragile and delicate they just melted in your mouth. My Mom became very proficient at making the rolled butter cookies. For Christmas Eve, Tante made round donuts with coins baked in the centers – pennies, nickels, and dimes for good luck.

Most delightful of all was Tante’s Hungarian Torte which was made for every special occasion – thin layers of cake made with chopped hazelnuts and put together with whipped heavy cream. Heavenly!

Only three of Tante’s recipes survive – Kupfel, Walnut Kisses and Nut Torte, although I believe my cousin has a yeast coffee cake recipe of Tante’s. These recipes are somewhat sketchy and lacking in detail because Tante just made these delights “by heart.”

The scene at my oven is like a slightly fractured version of Veronica’s Test Kitchen. The counter is strewn with blown-up versions of handwritten recipes, open cook books containing guidance on baking tortes, and stray bread crumbs and hazelnuts. My first version flops badly, because I follow the apparent direction in the original handwritten recipe, and use two spring form pans. The two layers are far too thin and fragile and stick to the bottom of the pan. I toss the results, and I’m almost tempted to head for the bakery and purchase some holiday cookies. But Veronica is my inspiration for constant focus and experimentation. I am determined to get this right. I try to muster all of my pastry training, and focus on the proper techniques for sponge cakes, tortes and flourless cakes. I scrupulously adhere to the methods for whipping egg whites. The following formula is successful:

Tante Kremer’s Hungarian Nut Torte

5 eggs separated
1 cup hazelnuts, toasted with skins removed, and chopped fine in a nut grinder
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
½ cup fine white bread crumbs
1 cup sugar

1) Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

2) Grease only the bottom (not the sides) of a 9.5 inch spring form pan. Cut a circle of parchment, and place it in the pan, and grease the parchment as well.

3) In a stand mixer, beat the eggs yolks on medium-high speed for 10 minutes until eggs are lemon-colored and thick, the consistency of butter. Continue beating and add sugar gradually over the next 10 minutes, until mixture is thick. Beat up to 25 minutes.

4) Mix in the bread crumbs, the finely chopped nuts and the teaspoon of vanilla.

5) Using a clean bowl and beaters beat the egg whites with a pinch of cream of tartar, slowly at first, and then increase speed until stiff peaks form.

6) Fold ¼ of the egg whites into the yolk and nut mixture (it will be quite thick at first). Then gently fold in the remaining egg whites. Pour the batter into the prepared pan, and place it on a baking sheet in the pre-heated oven.

7) Bake approximately 20 to 25 minutes. The torte will creep up the sides of the pan like a sponge cake. Remove when the torte is golden and springs back when touched in the center. After removing the torte from the oven, the center will deflate slightly. Let the torte cool completely in the pan. Use a flat knife or spatula to gently separate the sides of the torte from the pan before releasing the spring form. Remove the parchment.

8) Spread whipped cream sweetened with superfine sugar over the top of the torte and pipe additional cream in a circular rosette pattern.

The results are indeed festive. I cut a slice and place it in front of Mom. She takes a bite and smiles. “That’s it. That’s what it tasted like!” We each have two pieces.

Later, when she and Dad prepare to leave, Mom thanks me. “This allowed me to think back on some happy memories.”

And, I hope Tante Kremer is smiling too!

©2007 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

A Special Holiday Glow

Oh, the weather outside is frightful, so while others flock to the mall, I’m nesting for much of the holiday season and continuing my personal exploration of Christmas culinary customs from around the world.

The rain and sleet pound against the windows, so I turn up the tree lights and turn on the radio, where George Frideric Handel’s Messiah is being broadcast live from lower Manhattan. It’s the perfect afternoon for a steaming glass of Gluhwein.

Gluhwein from Germany is a hot, spiced wine that is the European continental cousin to wassail, the classic Christmas punch from Great Britain. Gluhwein is a favorite in Munich, where hoards of shoppers huddle over hot mugs, while browsing the outdoor Christmas markets. There, they sample seasonal foods and can purchase Christmas ornaments, gifts, and the traditional Christmas stollen.

I improvise a recipe for Gluhwein from several versions of the drink:


1 bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon
One lemon, sliced
One orange, slice
2 sticks of cinnamon
6 whole cloves
A pinch of cardamom

Combine all ingredients in a large pot and heat until steaming. Do not boil. Heat for about 5 minutes, and then remove from the heat and let stand for one hour. Reheat before serving, and strain. Pour into glasses or mugs and add fruit slices and cinnamon sticks for garnish.

The cup is fragrant with spice and warm tannins and a vibrant hint of tart citrus. It is definitely worth rejoicing over, and the Hallelujah Chorus chimes in right on cue.

As I’m igniting my holiday spirit in New York, my fearless, globe-trotting colleague BD has arrived in the city of Munich, just in time to visit the Christmas Market. In the style of a seasoned foreign correspondent, he offers dispatches and photos from the actual Medieval Christmas Market in Munich, where Gluhwein is the celebratory drink of the month:

BD writes:

“Here is further proof that I'm a lousy photographer, but you may be able to make something of these - all in the “Medieval Market” or Christmas Market, near Odeonplatz, in the heart of Munich … absolutely jammed, 20 minute wait for wine, but cheery atmosphere prevailing, though very cold ...brisk here but festive - and yes, the wine (while expensive, 26 euros for three glasses) does leave one with that special wintry inner illumination.”

BD leaves me with one final message for the holidays: “Glow for it!!!”

By the way, in case you hadn’t figured it out, Gluhwein, is translated as “Glow Wine” because it leaves you with that special glow.

May your holiday celebrations glow with happiness!

©2007 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Monday, December 17, 2007

Chocolate Crackles

Christmas is proclaimed with NOISE!

You hear the sound of Silver Bells in the snowy street. A multitude of Heavenly Hosts announce a miraculous birth. American colonists in the 18th century fire canons, shoot muskets and bang pots and pans to welcome Christmas morning. The British pop paper tubes called Christmas Crackers which conceal special trinkets. Drums sound in Ethiopia to welcome the feast of the Epiphany. A 17th century carol from Burgundy called Patapan recreates the sound of flute and drum in vocals.

Chocolate Crackles don’t make quite the same racket, but the double coating of granulated sugar and confectioner’s sugar creates a pretty “crackling” effect on the tender bittersweet chocolate buttons. There is a slight crackle when you take a bite of this festive cookie, and it might even inspire you to sing!

I’m submitting this recipe to Susan, “The Food Blogga” who is hosting “Eat Christmas Cookies” this month, a global food blog event of Christmas cookies around the world. Take a bite of these snow-covered chocolate treats – and make a joyful noise this Christmas!

© 2007 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Barbara Kingsolver's Locally-Grown Miracle

Locally-grown food is all the rage these days. But, beyond a lovely salad or a succulent piece of grass-feed lamb, do you think you could exist for an entire year only on food that you'd grown yourself, or purchased from your neighbors?

Since my neighbor is an electrician, I'd probably starve.

Barbara Kingsolver is the author of a variety of best-selling works of non-fiction and fiction, including The Poisonwood Bible. Her book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life chronicles a family experiment. Kingsolver, her husband and two daughters chose to follow a diet consisting almost exclusively of locally-grown food for an entire year.

Where does your food come from? How much does it cost to get it to your table? How would you handle the challenge of eating locally?

Kingsolver has an edge up on most of us. She lives on a farm in Virginia, located in an agricultural region of Appalachia. In the book, she covers a variety of familiar themes that have gained prominence recently in the press such as industrial faming and the concept of food miles. But unlike Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, which at times felt overwhelmingly depressing, Kingsolver manages to weave hope, insight, and practical advice into every chapter. She is thought-provoking and inspiring and sometimes just a wee-bit-preachy, but the food sounds so delicious that it doesn’t really matter much.

The family is able to eat locally with great success, and in some months generates enormous yields. During the summer months they are simply overrun with zucchini. The details of daughter Lily’s home-grown egg business are fascinating, and Kingsolver’s “Vegetannual” – an imaginary plant that sprouts delicate vegetables in the spring and hard-skinned vegetables in autumn is an effective image to reinforce the inherent qualities of seasonal produce. Late in the book, the author does admit to keeping emergency boxes of macaroni & cheese for finicky guests (You go girl!) and while I could have done without the lengthy prose on turkey sex, it does reinforce how deeply involved you can become in the annual rhythms of agriculture. Kingsolver’s descriptions of raising and slaughtering animals for food are sobering but pragmatic. The family plans and strategizes over menus obsessively, and manages to keep freezers stocked with their yields that carry them through the lean winter months. And, they save a boat load of grocery money in the process.

The primary effect of the book is that it does get you thinking hard about food choices, and I am now much more conscious of those tiny labels that identify where my produce was grown. The possibility for change can sometimes seem overwhelming when you stand in the produce aisle and scan the mountains of fruits and vegetables that were shipped from thousands of miles away. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle is less a manifesto, however, and more a handbook for thoughtful food choices. It features a cornucopia of resources woven into the text on sustainable agriculture, food policy, recipes and ways to locate and support farmers markets. There is a companion website which includes a link to an extensive site called Local Harvest. Here I learned there is indeed an organic community supported garden, a sustainable farm, and a restaurant serving local and organic produce not five miles away from my home. So, perhaps the ideal of revolutionizing my diet – even on the primarily urban East Coast – is not that far-fetched.

Just last night, I took note of a report in Time Out New York that a gentleman named Robert LaValva – the co-founder of a nonprofit organization called New Amsterdam Public – is looking to open a public market at the former Fulton Fish Market in New York. The goal is to offer sustainable food sourced from within 500 miles of New York. They’re hosting a prototype event called “Wintermarket” at the South Street Seaport on Sunday, December 16th. We may find that people like Barbara Kingsolver and her family will some day be looked on – not simply as a curiosity – but as pioneers, and their actions may eventually contribute to the fruition of projects like the proposed New Amsterdam Market.

It is possible that one family can foster a miracle.

© 2007 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Monday, December 10, 2007

Chocolate Panforte – Siena Cake from Italy

If you plan to serve an 800-year-old Italian confection to guests this holiday season, you may need to take certain precautions. Cut slices thin, serve with a sharp steak knife, and be wary of morsels that fly across the table.

I usually take a couple of samples of my creations into the office, but I’m a little afraid of wrecking my boss’s dental work.

All joking aside …

I first learned of Panforte di Siena during a culinary pilgrimage to Tuscany and the medieval city of Siena, Italy in September 2006. The god Hades was in command of the late-summer day. It was hotter than hell, and difficult to find shade in the hilltop city.

It is said that there is an ancient document preserved in Siena, dated in the year 1205, which records a tax of “bread with pepper and honey” paid to a group of nuns. Panforte translates as “strong bread.” In fact, it uses only a small amount of flour and no leavening agent. There are a number of variations, but honey, strong spices, nuts and dried fruit are the common ingredients. It is incredibly dense, chewy and flavorful.

Those medieval nuns must have had powerful bicuspids.

Huge rounds of panforte, studded with hazelnuts grace the windows of bakeries in Sienna. They are captivating to the eye, topped with mounds of powdered sugar and command a high price.

More affordable are the smaller cakes, wrapped in paper, available in most stores and novelty shops, with Panforte Margherita a favorite.

Panforte is one of those cakes that is steeped in legend. Another tale says it was invented around the year 1000, when Siena began to import sugar and spices from the Far East. One story says a nun miraculously devised the recipe and drove away the devil with the heavenly aromas. Another links panforte to a miracle of the Baby Jesus. While it is widely known as a traditional Christmas cake, it is available year round, and it is difficult to track the clear association to the Christmas holidays.

For my re-creation, I choose a recipe for Chocolate Panforte that was devised by the legendary goddess of home keeping. It resembles Panforte Nero, which is flavored with bittersweet chocolate. The preparation involves combining unsweetened chocolate, bittersweet chocolate, whole hazelnuts, dried cherries, flour, cinnamon and brandy with melted honey and brown sugar. The simmering honey melts the chocolate into a thick paste which is spread in a springform pan and dusted with cinnamon and cocoa powder.

The results are authentic, although the resulting cake could perhaps destroy a medieval fortification. While it does not slice easily, it is decadently dense with flavor, and it tastes subtly rich accompanied with a glass of dry sherry. A thin wedge goes a long way, but you need a powerful knife and fork to cut small bites. It is really quite wonderful, albeit, slightly inconvenient to eat.

I wrap up several slices for the gang at the office. I’m going to advise that they pick up the wedge and eat it with their fingers. The plastic forks in the pantry will never cut it with this medieval masterpiece.

©2007 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Elementary, My Dear Chef

Robert B. Parker’s Boston-based detective Spenser is a gourmet cook and Sue Grafton’s California private eye, Kinsey Millhone loves her Big Macs and Peanut Butter and Pickle sandwiches. Indeed, many famous literary detectives are obsessed with food.

But could the World’s Greatest Detective boil water? Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s creation, Sherlock Holmes was renowned for his brilliant deductive mind, his cocaine habit and his ever-present chronicler Dr. John Watson, yet food is not the first association one makes with the famous consulting detective. Or is it? Recently uncovered evidence suggests otherwise.

The Sherlock Holmes Cookbook was published in 1976 and written by Sean Wright and John Farrell, two Holmes devotees. The authors assert that food was ever present at Holmes’ and Watson’s flat at 221-B Baker Street in London.

The year 2007 marks the 120th anniversary of the publication of the first Sherlock Holmes adventure. Various celebrations are underway, including the American premiere of the play “The Secret of Sherlock Holmes” at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, Massachusetts. So it seems a fitting tribute to revisit the Sherlock Holmes Cookbook and explore the cuisine of 1890 London by gaslight.

Part one investigates late-Victorian era dishes, and you’ll find traditional recipes for Bubble and Squeak, Roast Grouse, and Hotch Potch, all delicacies likely to have been consumed by Holmes and Watson. The second-half of the book is comprised of clever menus designed as homage to the most famous, or infamous of Sherlock Holmes’ sixty recorded cases. There are recipes for “Moriarty’s Mulled Cider” (Holmes’ greatest nemesis), “More than Six Napoleons” (“The Adventure of the Six Napoleons”) and “Hellish Hound Punch” (“The Hound of the Baskervilles”).

The authors say that “breakfast is the preeminent Sherlockian meal” and Holmes’ long-suffering housekeeper, Mrs. Hudson would have prided herself on preparing a proper English breakfast for the duo. Indeed, the recipe included for Scotch Woodcock – a dish of scrambled eggs and anchovies – is the ultimate Victorian culinary curiosity, particularly for those of us who are more accustomed to starting our day with a bowl of Cheerios.

Scotch Woodcock

4 eggs
4 slices buttered toast
1 ½ tablespoons anchovy paste
8 anchovy fillets
Capers for garnish

Scramble the eggs. Spread toast with anchovy paste and place eggs on top. Criss-cross each piece with 2 anchovy fillets and sprinkle with chopped capers. Serves 2.

To supplement my hearty breakfast of Scotch Woodcock, I’ll indulge in a spot of English Breakfast Tea prepared in my authentic Sherlock Holmes tea pot.

As the great detective would say, “The game is afoot!”

©2007 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Monday, December 03, 2007

Dutch Speculaas Cookies for Saint Nicholas Day

Who is Saint Nicholas, and why is he handing out gifts on December 6th? Doesn’t he know that Christmas is December 25th?

And what about that thing he’s got for wooden shoes?

While it might be easy to assume that the image of jolly old Saint Nick was invented, or at least perpetuated by the Coca-Cola Company, the origins of the miraculous giver of gifts reach back to Europe and the Netherlands in the Middle Ages.

The real-life Saint Nicholas was born in Asia Minor and lived in the late third and fourth centuries. He was renowned for his generosity and is given credit for many good deeds, including saving three penniless sisters from a life of prostitution and rescuing a group of young travelers from an evil innkeeper. He is also the patron saint of seafarers. Over time, the generosity and charitable deeds attributed to Saint Nicholas evolved into a tradition of gift-giving, one that continues to this day in the Netherlands.

Here in the New York area, there is a distinctly Dutch influence. One can find fanciful windmills on Long Island where the Dutch settled and during December, Saint Nicholas Day traditions are recreated at several historic Dutch homes in the Hudson Valley. Dutch immigrants brought the customs of Saint Nicholas to the New World, but eventually Saint Nicholas got a makeover and became the roly-poly man in the red suit with the massive publicity machine that we now know as Santa Claus.

The feast day for the original Saint Nicholas is still celebrated on December 6th in the Netherlands. On the night of December 5th, Saint Nicholas visits homes and leaves gifts of fruit, nuts and cookies for good children. Dutch youngsters leave wooden shoes by the fireplace as a receptacle for these gifts.

Speculaas is a Dutch almond spice butter cookie that marks the arrival of Saint Nicholas Day in the Netherlands and heralds the start of the holiday season. My search for the origins of Saint Nicholas takes me to a website which details his story. There I learn that speculaas is often shaped before baking using traditional hand-carved wooden molds that depict the image of Saint Nicholas. For the past 25 years, Illinois-based wood carver Gene Wilson has perfected the art of hand-carved cookie molds from beech and cherry hardwoods. I purchase two “deep cavity speculaas molds” depicting Saint Nicholas for my yuletide baking.

The recipe for speculaas is simple and fragrantly-spiced cookie dough that is reminiscent of gingerbread. I can’t resist a nibble here and there of the buttery cookie dough, as I bake:

Dutch Speculaas Cookies for Saint Nicholas Day

Source: June and Gene Wilson, HOBI Picture Cookie Molds

1 cup margarine or butter
1 cup brown sugar firmly packed
2 teaspoons cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ginger
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
¼ teaspoon nutmeg
¼ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon almond extract
3 tablespoons milk
3 cups all-purpose flour
¼ teaspoon baking powder

1 – Cream margarine. Add sugar, spices. Cream until fluffy.
2 – Add extract and 3 tablespoons milk, beat to blend.
3 – Add flour and baking powder, a little at a time, blending well.
4 – Cover dough lightly; chill for 3 hours or more.
5 – Press dough into wooden mold sprinkled with powdered sugar and trim excess dough. Release from mold and place on cookie sheet.

6 – Bake in preheated 350 degree oven for 10 – 15 minutes

I’m submitting this recipe to Susan “The Food Blogga” who is hosting “Eat Christmas Cookies” this month, the biggest holiday cookie swap the blogosphere has ever seen!

My Dutch speculaas cookies are ready to enjoy with a spot of tea for Saint Nicholas Day, but there are other ways to honor the ancient saint of charitable good deeds and generosity. A spontaneous donation to a favorite charity would be a great way to keep the legend of Saint Nicholas alive.

Happy Saint Nicholas Day!

©2007 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Christmas Pudding, Stirred-Up on Sunday

The time? Just a few days ago. The occasion? Stir-Up Sunday, the date on which households around the world, for eons upon eons, have prepared their holiday plum pudding.

What do you mean, you forgot to celebrate Stir-Up Sunday?

Until just one year ago, I too, was a plum pudding novice. That was until Jill from Ottawa and I initiated our cross-continental celebration of Stir Up Sunday and the traditional lighting of the Christmas Pudding.

For those of you who just joined us, Jill and I met while pounding veal into paper-thin cutlets at La Varenne cooking school in Burgundy in September 2006. Since she lives about 400 miles away, we will periodically cook together virtually, although on occasion, we have actually cooked together in person. See “The Tale of Two Puddings” for last year’s holiday culinary collaboration, “The American-Canadian Cooking Project” and “A Locally Grown Canadian Feast.”

Stir-Up Sunday is known in England as the Sunday before the first day of Advent, but it is also the day to prepare Christmas Pudding, a steamed dessert of dried fruit, spices, and butter or suet. Family members each get a chance to stir ingredients into the batter and tradition allows them to make a wish with each stir. The steaming technique gently cooks the fat in the batter, and allows the pudding to slowly expand over several hours.

Last year, we gave scrupulous attention to our Christmas Pudding project. We researched the history of this yuletide dessert, we investigated the benefits of ceramic and tin pudding molds, and we debated over just the right recipe. We checked in on each other’s progress by the hour, praised the virtues of hard sauce, and made a big fuss over the ceremonial flaming of the pudding.

This year, it’s been more like “Fa la la la la, la la la la!”

Jill was feeling under the weather last week, so she decided to go with last year’s recipe for the sake of expediency. I am a chronic experimenter, and wanted to try something new. Yet I am also starved for free time. I’m also not sure I want to go the beef suet route this year. Jill had used a recipe with butter which looked quite nice. So I dip into the classic “The Frugal Gourmet Celebrates Christmas” where I find a festive recipe for Steamed Date Pudding with Whiskey Sauce. Once the ingredients are combined and steaming in the pot, it is a mere two hours to completion. That gives me plenty of time to catch up on back-logged episodes of the Bionic Woman.

The Frugal Gourmet being, well, frugal, means that the recipe is a little low on alcohol. There is a whipped whiskey sauce that can accompany the dish, but I want my Christmas Pudding to be boozy, completely drenched in liquor. I locate a bottle of 80 proof Irish whiskey that has been aging (or perhaps neglected) in the cellar for nearly 20 years and go to work. I submerge the dates in whisky overnight, and I plan to soak the cheese cloth, that I will use to wrap the completed pudding before storing it for up to four weeks. With the really important ingredients accounted for, Sunday morning arrives and I realize that the recent Robert E. Lee Cake has completely depleted my cache of butter, so I must run out to the market at the last minute to pick up a fresh supply.

So much for making that list and checking it twice.

While at the grocery store, I suddenly experience a carnivorous craving and also purchase all the ingredients for a slow cooker dinner of polish sausage, apples and sauerkraut. At least I’m keeping consistent with the cooking techniques of the day, but clearly, the omission of beef suet from the pudding recipe has left me feeling deprived.

Meanwhile, up in Canada, Jill has invited several friends with their toddlers to help assemble the pudding and make wishes. Kitchen helpers! Why didn’t I think of that? In addition to assembling plum pudding, she is serving apple cider-cheddar soup for lunch, which frankly, I find incredibly ambitious. Her lunch guests have gotten into the holiday spirit and bring her a gift of a "spurtle" to use for stirring the pudding. I can’t quite decide if it looks like a culinary tool or a blunt instrument from an Agatha Christie mystery. Jill writes: “I'd never heard of or seen a spurtle before, but a little research informs me that it is a traditional Scottish tool for stirring porridge. I'm not sure that it's a traditional tool for stirring plum pudding, but it did the trick.”

I just use one of those space-age silicon spatulas. No sense of tradition, whatsoever.

Jill is matter-of-fact about her Christmas Pudding results: “It looks...well... just like last year's.”

Back in the States, I am deep into preparation. In addition to dates, the recipe contains butter, honey, lemon zest and chopped pecans. I toast the pecans for a special touch. The batter mixes up quickly with my KitchenAid, which I’m certain Mrs. Crachit never had access to in Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.” I snap the lid of my tin mold shut, place it in the steamer, and position myself in front of the television for the next several hours. I don’t smell much in the way of spices, but the sauerkraut and beer is really tempting the old nostrils.

About 120 minutes later, I return to the steamer and the results are heavenly. The lofty pudding is a golden-honey color and it slips easily out of the mold. It has the subtle aroma of warm spices, conjuring up mental images of gingerbread and visions of sugar plums. I wrap the finished pudding in gauzy cheese cloth, drenched in Irish whiskey, and tuck it into the back of the refrigerator for a long winter’s nap.

It all takes about as long as an episode of Iron Chef. Which means I now have plenty of time to focus on the real joys of the holiday season – like online shopping! (I’m just kidding, Dad!)

©2007 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Friday, November 23, 2007

General Robert E. Lee Cake from 1879

Annabelle stood beneath the portico of the manor house at Davenport Hall Plantation and surveyed the estate. The warm breeze off the James River ruffled her petticoats and the afternoon sunlight danced across the shimmering fields of cotton. The seemingly-endless view of low-lying shrubs were now unkempt and unruly but that iridescent silvery haze that magically embraced the surrounding countryside each day never failed to dazzle her.

Annabelle’s people were deeply rooted in this territory. The Davenport family had secured a land grant in 1650, and many generations had managed the Virginia estate, building a prosperous agricultural enterprise. She was the last of the Davenports and the guardian of their legacy.

She took a deep breath, turned and entered the main hall. She walked past the parlor and made her way to the kitchen. The wallpaper in the entry hall was peeling and the curtains in the parlor hung askew. The North wall was damaged by canon fire from the Union Army. The gilded mirror had become cloudy and there were hairline cracks in the glass. Upkeep was difficult, but Annabelle remained optimistic. Today was a special day. It was his birthday. She would be reunited once again with the handsome and gallant Major Grant Finchley.

Annabelle fondly pictured Major Finchley in her mind. He was tall, with a broad chest, powerful shoulders and glossy ebony hair. Standing six-foot-two, he cut an imposing figure in his pewter gray Confederate uniform. Major Finchley was an exemplary soldier. Indeed, he was commended for his bravery at the Battle of Beaver Dam Creek.

Caterina was in the pantry, putting the finishing touches on the birthday cake. At one time, hundreds of slaves had worked the Davenport Hall Plantation. Caterina was an enslaved African who had been freed when the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, but she’d stayed on at Davenport Hall. It was the only home she’d ever known, and she’d been Annabelle’s constant companion for years.

Annabelle inspected Caterina’s work. It was a grand, impressive cake – four layers tall, filled with a golden lemon-jelly filling and adorned with beautiful dollops of fluffy frosting. She could smell the delightful essence of orange and lemon. “How lovely, Caterina,” commended Annabelle. “Major Finchley will be so pleased.”

Annabelle glanced down on the work table. The hand-written receipt with directions for preparing the cake was in a diminutive penmanship. She’d gotten it from her mother who had died earlier that year. “A favorite of General Lee,” Mother Davenport had written at the bottom of the receipt.

This was the perfect cake to celebrate Grant’s return. Major Finchley worshiped General Lee, as had so many of her friends and neighbors. Annabelle recalled when General Lee had died in October of 1870. Thousands of mourners came out to witness the funeral procession.

The clock chimed in the entry hall. “It’s time, Caterina,” said Annabelle. “Major Finchley will be arriving momentarily.”

“Yes, Miss Annabelle.” Caterina carefully carried the cake to the parlor and Annabelle followed. She placed the cake at the center of the tea table. On the settee, a gray military uniform was neatly laid out next to an officer’s sword and a folded Confederate flag. Annabelle took a seat at the tea table and Caterina quietly backed out of the room.

Her grandson Billy had crept into the entry hall and was peering into the parlor, watching with curiousity.

“Why is Miss Annabelle sitting alone in the parlor?” Billy whispered.

“She’s waiting for Major Finchley. She does it every year on his birthday.”

“Major Finchley?”

Caterina nodded with some sadness. “He was an officer in the Confederate Army and he was her beau. He and Miss Annabelle were to be married, but he died a hero in 1862 at the Battle of Beaver Dam Creek.”

Billy’s eye’s widened. “Miss Annabelle is waiting for a ghost?"
"Perhaps,” replied Caterina. “But, I think Major Finchley is still very real to Miss Annabelle, even after all these years. We should leave her alone.” Caterina pulled Billy back and silently shut the parlor door.

The shadows of late afternoon had enveloped the parlor. Twilight was approaching. Annabelle cut two slices of the exquisite layer cake. She placed one golden slice at the place setting across the table, and one slice in front of her.

She took a ladylike taste of the cake, the crisp citrus flavors melting on her tongue. Major Finchley was still alive to her. She could feel Grant in the room again, strong, dashing and heroic. He would always be with her.

Life would change. Institutions would crumble. Some people would prosper, some would struggle, and some would die. But tradition and heroism would always survive.

Author’s Note: Several months back, The Old Foodie sent me some recipes and historical background on the Robert E. Lee Cake for our Retro Cakes project. This cake is representative of regional confections named after revered political and historic figures. Many cakes commemorated Northern and Southern heroes after the American Civil War (1861-1865). One can find recipes for a loaf cake served with butter or jam called the Lincoln Cake, which honored President Abraham Lincoln, a style of cookie called Davis Jumbles, named for Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederate States, or General Gordon Cake, a cornstarch cake named for a controversial Confederate officer from Georgia.

The Robert E. Lee Cake – an orange and lemon layer cake – was traditionally believed to be a favorite of the Civil War general who led the confederate troops in the “War between the States,” although this is difficult to confirm. Most sources date the first written version of Robert E. Lee Cake to 1879 and General Lee died in 1870.

A reference in the book “The Robert E. Lee Family Cooking and Housekeeping Book” (1997) by Anne Carter Zimmer suggests that a recipe for citrus layer cake was well-known in the Lee family but never written down. She does include a recipe for a version called “Mrs. Lee’s Cake.” The early variations are complicated and time-consuming and produce very large cakes. The term "receipt" was used to describe recipes transcribed by hand and passed from mother to daughter, a practice that occurred well before the proliferation of cookbooks, cooking shows and food blogs available today. Subtle variations on a recipe would often occur between generations, and there are many versions of Robert E. Lee Cake. I used a recipe that evokes the flavors and style of the earliest versions, but employs more modern baking techniques. It is still a complex baking project requiring many techniques and lots of patience. This is a very sweet celebration cake, and the first bite of lemon curd filling packs a tart punch, much like the filling in lemon meringue pie.

The fictional story of Annabelle Davenport’s longing for the return of her lover, the war hero Grant Finchley, evokes the sensibilities behind the Robert E. Lee Cake -- that of deeply-rooted pride in the history and traditions of the Old South, despite the passage of time. Today, one can still visit a number of majestic plantations along the banks of the James River in Virginia, and be transported to another time and place.

I baked the Robert E. Lee Cake for the 50th birthday celebration of my brother Ken, a Civil War enthusiast who has long harbored an impish fascination with unsuspecting frosted layer cakes. I dedicate this post to Ken. Many thanks to Veronica, the proprietor of the blogosphere’s top Test Kitchen, for graciously providing the photos of the impressive statue that stands in Richmond, Virginia as a memorial to General Robert E. Lee.

©2007 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Giving Thanks at Breakfast

I’ve never met Plymouth, Massachusetts native Marjorie Cronin. I don’t even know if she’s still alive. But for the past several years, Mrs. Cronin and I have shared a Thanksgiving morning tradition. We both make her Cranberry Cornbread for breakfast on Thanksgiving Day.

I first encountered Marjorie Cronin’s story in an article by Joan Nathan in the New York Times Food Section, published on November 19, 2003, called “Practically a Pilgrim, Celebrating the Old Way.”

The story describes how Marjorie Cronin, who was born in Plymouth (home of “The First Thanksgiving”), has been a Thanksgiving enthusiast her entire life. She and her family participated in the annual Plymouth community celebrations, and in recent years, she and her sisters spent days preparing pies and side dishes in the kitchen of her converted 18th century tavern house located in Kingston, Massachusetts.

Mrs. Cronin’s traditional Thanksgiving breakfast consists of Cranberry Cornbread. She picks the cranberries by hand at the local Bog Hollow Farm, and cuts each berry in half before folding them into the sweet, rich batter of stone ground corn meal. The slicing of each lipstick-red cranberry becomes a thoughtful, rhythmic, meditative action.

For me, Cranberry Cornbread is at the center of my quiet time on Thanksgiving morning. It’s a moment to watch the autumn leaves blow across the deck, drink coffee, listen to music, watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, count my blessings, and anticipate feasting with family in the afternoon.

Mrs. Cronin would be 79 this year, and I hope she’s celebrating with the same kind of joy and thanksgiving that she’s had for nearly eight decades. I’ll be thinking of her, as I slice my Cranberry Cornbread.

Happy Thanksgiving to All!

©2007 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Old-Time Maple Gingerbread in a Snap

My schedule becomes a nightmare around the holidays. Every year, I can see it coming like a turkey waddling across the barn yard. It may look like a clear shot to Thanksgiving, but suddenly my calendar is choked with out-of-town assignments. Last year, I dozed off three times during Thanksgiving dinner, having just arrived home from Europe the night before.

And, now as another festive season approaches, instead of spending time preparing in the kitchen, I’m on the security line at the airport.

I’ve learned to cope with the travel. I got rid of my lace-up shoes years ago, and I have a whole selection of microfiber clothing that crunches into any suitcase and comes out wrinkle-free. I listen to seasonal music on-the-go on my Ipod, and I dream up holiday menus while reclining in the emergency exit row.

It helps to have a selection of recipes at hand that are short on preparation and big on those traditional autumnal Thanksgiving flavors.

Quick breads are a welcomed addition to any road-warrior’s culinary portfolio, and easily prepared and frozen in advance of the holiday feast.

Old-Time Maple Gingerbread takes only minutes to prepare and can be squeezed in between a flight to the Windy City, a trek to Denver, or an Amtrak trip to our nation’s capital. It’s a great way to use the gallons of maple syrup I purchased in Vermont, and it’s a snappy alternative to the usual options of pumpkin or corn bread on the Thanksgiving table. The loaf emerges from the oven a lustrous amber-color and each sweet, tender slice has hints of ginger, toffee and caramel.

And, if you happen to see a guy trying to get a 20-pound turkey through the metal detector at LaGuardia Airport this holiday season, be sure and say “Hi!” It’s probably me.

©2007 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Monday, November 12, 2007

Tackling Tagine

The Halloween-orange clay pot and cover -- shaped suspiciously like a pointed witches hat -- had been hoisting a guilt trip on me since last summer. Not to mention, collecting a thin layer of dust.

I’d purchased the tagine at Sur La Table in New York, when Veronica and I were browsing between classes at the Harold McGee Lecture Series. Immediately, I thought of John and Ramiza, my brother and sister-in-law who live in Morocco. Ramiza is an excellent cook and is particularly skilled at Middle Eastern, Indian and Moroccan dishes. She’s inspired me to venture outside my culinary box, and creating an authentic Moroccan dish would be a nice way to evoke their presence, even though they now live thousands of miles away.

That was July. Now, here we are approaching the end of the year and my little personal-sized tagine is feeling decidedly unloved.

Enter Lydia of the Perfect Pantry. Recently she wrote about a tagine she had designed with an artist friend, and offered a recipe for Chicken with Prunes and Almonds, a dish traditionally served at Ramadan. The list of ingredients set my mouth a-watering and I knew it was time to take the plunge and tackle tagine.

I choose a Sunday night for the big event, but quickly realize that I’ll need to plan ahead. The sticker on the glazed terra cotta tagine strongly recommends that it be submerged in water for 12 hours before its first use. Ah, well. Saturday night is “bath night,” after all.

On Sunday the tagine is removed from its long soaking and wiped dry with a dish towel. I spend the afternoon at a chamber music concert and return home confident that I’ll have dinner on the table in about an hour, according to the recipe. I halve the recipe, since my tagine is smaller, and quickly combine boneless chicken thighs, cinnamon, nutmeg, honey, almonds and prunes. I top the concoction with the witch’s hat and place it on the electric cook top set on low heat.

That’s when the paranoia sets in. Instead of kicking up my feet and enjoying a cocktail, I keep returning to the kitchen to make sure the clay pot doesn’t explode. I’ve never put a casserole directly on the cook top. However, the old adage, “a watched pot never boils” can be applied to the tagine -- “a watched tagine never explodes.” That’s fortunate.

However, it does start to sweat, and a hint of steam begins to rise.

Dutifully, I stir the mixture from time to time. I am somewhat concerned about regulating the heat on the stove, which I find is a chronic problem with electric ranges. In her directions, Lydia says “be patient” and the watery liquid will eventually become a thick, mahogany sauce. It is beginning to simmer, but I’ve already passed the one hour mark, and the chicken is still somewhat raw (note previous remarks about temperature regulation of electric ranges). It is at this point that I go for the cocktail.

We are now nearing the second hour of the great tagine test. The terra cotta has not exploded, and I hear some sizzling happening inside that supernatural witch’s hat. At this point, it is almost time for “Brothers and Sisters” and I would very likely be borderline cranky, if not for the cocktail, but I am determined to see this experiment through. I open the pot for one more stir and witness a transformation. Before my eyes are succulent tender chunks of chicken covered in a rich glossy sauce. The taste is sweet and savory, infused with honey, warm exotic spices and melt-in-your-mouth almonds.

I nearly squeal with delight. It is that good. The witch’s hat has performed its magic. John and Ramiza would be proud.

©2007 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Cranberries Down Under

No, this is not a post about perky red fruit found below the Equator. But, for those of you who have a driving desire to turn Thanksgiving upside-down this year, this tempting cake is a fine option.

There have certainly been many attempts to turn our national day of Thanksgiving topsy-turvy. Sweet Potato Casserole with Mini Marshmallows, and Turducken immediately come to mind. Then, there are the annual "new-and-improved" turkey techniques we have to master for one meal out of the year, be it brining, or backyard grilling. Has anyone tried beer can turkey? (I'm not joking!)

In many respects, Thankgiving is really about culinary individualism. When my nephew Doug was just a young tike, he made the ultimate culinary statement on Thanksgiving Day when he skipped the turkey, gravy and stuffing and had a banana instead, because "it's the only thing I like here."

Cranberry Upside-Down Cake isn't about a radical reinvention of the holiday menu. It's a nice blend of elegance, tradition and suburban kitsch. Cranberries are high in Vitamin C, were cultivated by the Native Americans before the early settlers arrived, and were grown for commercial purposes beginning in the early 19th century in Cape Cod, Masssachusetts. The first American cookbook, American Cookery, written by Amelia Simmons in 1796 recommends that turkey be served with cranberries. More than a decade ago, during an autumn visit to Cape Cod, I was lucky enought to visit a cranberry bog during harvest season. The bog was flooded with water and looked like a crimson lake. Over the years, creative food marketers have come up with thousands of formulas for cranberry relish, and even a recipe for Mock Cherry Pie, made with cranberries.

The process is exactly the same as pineapple upside-down cake. Butter and spices coat the bottom of the cake pan, followed by a layer of fresh cranberries and a thick batter. Once baked and inverted, the glistening top is thick, jammy and studded with jewel-like ruby-colored fruit. You immediately note a tart scent of warm spices which evokes a memory of cinnamon "Red Hots." The recipe is simple, takes just under an hour to prepare and can be found here. Try it this Thanksgiving. It might inspire you to do a headstand in the kitchen. Just be careful not to hurt yourself.

I made Cranberry Upside-Down Cake for the farewell party for our intrepid associate, "Babs Gordon," who is leaving us and moving on to new adventures. For the past two-and-a-half years, Babs has graced us with her razor-sharp insight, keen intelligence and gracious humor. No doubt her new employer will be head-over-heals for her as well!

©2007 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Drop In & Decorate: Cookies for Donation

Cookies and love go hand-in-hand. I learned that from my grandmothers who would bake us luscious sand cookies pressed into fluted molds, rich holiday butter cookies and chewy oatmeal raisin cookies from a recipe invented by fitness expert Jack La Lanne. The action of preparing and bringing us the gift of cookies was an expression of love. I learned it from my mom, as well, who patiently taught me to make Peanut Butter Cookies and Chocolate Coconut Drops, from Betty Crocker’s New Boys and Girls Cook Book, that our family would share.

My friend, Lydia – one of the nicest people in the entire blogosphere and the proprietor of the Internet’s best-stocked pantry – also knows that love is the primary ingredient in homemade cookies. Lydia is once again leading a program she created five years ago called “Drop In & Decorate: Cookies for Donation.” She’s asked her blog friends to spread the word. The concept is simple, and a great way to share confections and love throughout the community: bake some cookies, invite family, friends or co-workers to help decorate and then donate the cookies to a local shelter, food pantry, lunch program or senior center.

It’s amazing the happiness that has been generated by some sugar, flour, icing and a little love. Last year, Lydia herself hosted 62 adults and teens who decorated 800 cookies for delivery to six shelters in Rhode Island. But even a single batch of cookies is sure to inspire an afternoon of fun and put a smile on the face of someone less fortunate. Would you give it a try? Lydia offers a well-stocked pantry of resources that can help you get started at her Ninecooks web site.

This year, King Arthur Flour is pitching in and has created a special kit to make it easy to host your own Drop In & Decorate party. If you order a Drop In & Decorate baking kit now through November 15, King Arthur Flour will include a free dough scraper with each order. Add the kit to your shopping cart. On the payment page, enter Promotion Code "Dropin" to the Promotion field and click the Update button. The page will refresh and the dough scraper will be added to your order. The offer is valid through November 15 only, but the kit is on sale until December 26, and would make a great holiday gift.

I love to visit Lydia’s Perfect Pantry and learn the real story behind my favorite ingredients. Lydia is one of my favorite "Culinary Types" and her pantry prose makes me smile every day. And, if you join her Drop In & Decorate party, you will surely spread smiles throughout the community this holiday season!

©2007 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved