Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The Great Compromise

For nine months, I've met every challenge that the cooks of yore have thrown at me (or so I like to think). But there are times when this historical food blogger is stumped.

Take a gander at this recipe, published in The "Settlement" Cook Book (1903), by Mrs. Simon Kander:

Matzos Pudding
  • 3 matzos (soaked, pressed and stirred until smooth)
  • 10 eggs beaten separately
  • 2 large apples (peeled and grated)
  • 1 cup goose fat
  • 1/2 cup white wine
  • Grated rind of a lemon
  • Sugar to sweeten
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
Stir one-half hour and lastly fold in the beaten whites. Grease form well, bake in a moderate oven one-half hour and serve with wine sauce, six eggs, one cup of weak wine, sugar to taste. Stir constantly until it thickens as it is apt to curdle.

I mean, what is this? It starts with a porridge of unleavened cracker crumbs ... morphs into imitation bread pudding ... and ends with an egg-and-wine sauce for good measure? Is it even a dessert? And what's with the goose fat?

Since starting this project, I've often studied this recipe, intrigued by the unusual use of traditional Passover crackers but baffled by the directions and uninspired by the ingredients. And after my disappointment with that utterly pointless Irish potato concoction, I'm wary of strange puddings.

The official title of The "Settlement" Cook Book was "The Way to a Man's Heart." Molly O'Neill writes that the title "was quite in earnest, since poor cooking was often a source of marital strife."

They say the key to a good marriage is compromise, so I decided to negotiate with Mrs. Kander. I'd take her suggestion for Matzos Pudding, but I'd be making a few changes.

To begin with, goose fat was out: a custard of milk, cream, and eggs suits the modern palate, and brings us back into comfortable bread pudding territory. To give the dish more substance, crushed matzos made room for leftover whole wheat bread. Lemon peel? That could stay. But I added some Eastern spices (vanilla, cardamom, and star anise), inspired by a recipe for Lemon-spice Bread Pudding with Sauteed Peaches by Tasha Garcia and Julie Taras.

And in the produce section of Whole Foods, gazing at perfect, speckled globes of Asian pears, I found more inspiration. Two apples in the pudding became four pears in the sauce. I chose a variety, all at the peak of ripeness: two Comice, one Bosc, one Asian. I riffed on the classic dish of pears poached in wine: pears stewed briefly in lemon juice, butter, and red wine. A perfect compromise between Garcia and Tara's sauteed peaches and Kander's very rich wine sauce.

For the pudding, I followed Garcia and Tara's recipe fairly closely, but substituted half-and-half for their combination of whole milk and cream because it meant one less purchase at the store. And I added matzos, of course, broken into pieces. I mixed most of the matzos into the bread-and-custard mixture 20 minutes before baking, so that the matzos would soak up some of the cream and flavor, but reserved a handful to sprinkle on top just before sticking it in the oven.

The result was heavenly and wholly original. Matzos added a welcome crunch to the mundane (but wonderful!) mushiness of bread pudding. Lemon and spices and pears and wine make for an all-encompassing experience, like a goose down comforter on a cold winter's day (you see? We got some goose in there after all). The recipe below was a group effort -- Garcia, Tara, and Kander all contributed their part -- and I'm immensely proud of it.

Matzo-Bread Pudding with Pears in Wine Sauce

The subtle flavors of whole seasonings -- a vanilla bean, a few cardamom pods, and a pair of star anise -- add a great deal to the dish, but if they are unavailable, you may substitute vanilla extract and ground cardamom and star anise.

For the pudding:
5 cups 1-inch bread cubes from day old bread with crusts
4 matzo crackers, broken up into small pieces
1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise (or 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract)
3 cups half-and-half
4 cardamom pods, crushed (or a pinch of ground cardamom)
2 whole star anise (or a pinch of ground anise)
1 1/2 teaspoons grated lemon peel
3 large eggs
1 1/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon salt

For the sauce:
4 large pears, preferably different varieties, cut into 1/2-inch thick slices
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons sugar
1/2 cup dry red wine
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) butter

  1. To make the pudding, preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Toss the bread and melted butter on a large rimmed baking sheet. Place bread in oven and toast until golden, stirring occasionally, about 15 minutes. Set aside.
  2. Meanwhile, scrape the seeds from the vanilla bean into a medium saucepan; add bean. Add half and half, cardamom, star anise, and lemon peel to pan and bring to a simmer. Remove from heat, cover, and let steep for 30 minutes. Strain.
  3. Whisk eggs, sugar, and salt in a large bowl. Gradually whisk half and half mixture into egg mixture. Add bread and toss gently to combine. Cover and let stand at room temperature, stirring occasionally, at least 1 hour and up to 2 hours. Twenty minutes before baking, add all but about 3 tablespoons of the matzo pieces to the bread mixture and stir gently to combine.
  4. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Butter a 11 x 7 x 2-inch glass baking dish. Transfer bread mixture to prepared dish and sprinkle with remaining matzo pieces. Bake until just set, about 55 minutes. Cool pudding at least 10 minutes.
  5. To make the sauce, combine the pears, lemon juice, sugar, and wine in a bowl and toss. Melt the butter in a heavy large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the pears; cook until juices thicken slightly, stirring gently, about 4-5 minutes. Serve the pudding warm or at room temperature with the pears.

Thursday, April 24, 2008


My debut as a Washington hostess was not the cool-headed, pearl-strung affair I imagined as a little girl with big political dreams (and by little girl I mean a 26-year-old, last week).

It was a gorgeous day, demanding icy margaritas on a cherry blossom’d patio, not a less-than-happy hour or three spent near a hot stove. The only cherry blossoms in sight were the red splotches emanating from my over-warm cheeks.

There are times in life and in the kitchen when nothing seems to go your way. This was one of those times. The pork tenderloin was disappointingly fatty and oddly shaped and I was so generally frustrated that in attempting to tenderize it, I managed to tear it into pieces with a wooden cutting board. FYI: pork is not a punching bag.

I couldn’t shake the feeling that if Jackie Kennedy ever cooked – which let’s face it, is highly unlikely – she would never be reduced to a furrow-browed, damp-necked, expletive-spewing mess.

But despite its manic inception, the meal actually turned out quite wonderfully, including the ragged tenderloin, prepared according to Mark Bittman's genius and defiantly simple recipe (I adapted for a crowd and did the first browning in the oven).

In fact, I’d go so far as to say that if Jackie ever ate – which, let’s face it, is also highly unlikely – I believe she would have offered gracious endorsement of our delicate first course: cool vichyssoise soup.

My guide was a 1965 recipe from the notable 20th century gourmand Michael Field, who edited the insanely popular and influential TIME-LIFE cookbook series. He explained that the decidedly Francophilian (not a word, but should be) leek and potato concoction we know as vichyssoise actually originated in the U. S.

Mr. Field instructs that “a cold soup tends to be pallid and should be pampered with a bit with good stock and thick cream if it is to make any impression on the palate at all.” Well, I don’t know about you, but there’s nothing I detest like a pallid soup. I gave that vichyssoise all the TLC my poor tenderloin was missing.

The result was refreshing (no small feat considering how much butter and cream went into it), and, I believe, well seasoned (taking a cue from Michael Ruhlman in The Elements of Cooking, I seasoned with salt all the way through, from cooking the leeks to the final taste test.) My soup needed a bit of extra salt because I used vegetable broth instead of chicken broth to accommodate a vegetarian guest.

Mr. Field cannot underestimate the importance of a good stock – a point on which he and the well-bred, horse-loving Jackie would agree on – but I don't believe much was lost in translation to canned vegetable broth. The spirit of Franco-American diplomacy, of cool buttery sips and saucy cocktail chatter, reigned supreme. Jackie would have not only approved but maybe – just maybe – asked for a second helping.

Vegetarian Vichyssoise

Adapted from Michael Field, Michael Field's Cooking School, 1965.

4 cups vegetable broth
4 tbsp. butter
2-3 medium to large leeks, white and light green parts, finely chopped (about 1 ½ cups)
1 small onion, finely chopped (about 1/3 cup)
2 pints potatoes, sliced about ¼-inch thick
Several big pinches of sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper (or white pepper, if a perfectly white soup is important to you)
1 cup heavy cream
4 tbsp. finely cut chives

  1. Melt the butter over low heat in a large, heavy skillet. Add the onion, leeks, and a big pinch of salt and cook slowly for about 20 minutes, stirring every now and then and adjusting the heat so the vegetables barely color.
  2. When the vegetables are soft and translucent, transfer them to a 3- or 4-quart saucepan. Add the stock, potatoes, another big pinch of salt, and bring it all to a boil. Reduce the heat at once, partially cover the pan, and simmer until the potatoes are soft and crumble easily with a fork. Remove from the heat and allow to cool enough to handle safely in a food processor.
  3. Working in batches, pulse the soup in a food processor a few times – it shouldn’t be perfectly smooth, so resist the temptation to over-blend it. Taste for seasoning, add salt if necessary and a few cranks of black pepper.
  4. Cover the bowl and refrigerate until thoroughly chilled. Serve in chilled cups with a sprinkle of chives on top of each portion.

Makes 4 to 6 servings.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Controlling Your Peanut Butter

George Washington Carver was an agricultural inventor, distinguished Tuskegee professor, and trailblazing American who rose from slavery to the heights of scientific achievement.

And so I mean no disrespect when I say that what may be his most lasting achievement is that thing we slather between two pieces of bread for what is one of the world’s best sandwiches. That thing that transforms an unassuming stalk of celery into a deliciously insect-laden log. That thing that so comically gets stuck on the roof of a doggie’s mouth.

Oh yes, the quintessential American schmear: peanut butter (with apologies to cream cheese.)

In 1916, Mr. Carver published what is likely the first recipe for peanut butter, just one of more than 100 peanut recipes included in How To Grow the Peanut and 105 Ways of Preparing It for Human Consumption. The recipe, titled "Puree of Peanuts Number Two (Extra Fine)," was part of Carver's efforts to "expand the market for the legume," as Molly O'Neill writes in American Food Writing. And did he ever.

To quote the Skippy website, "nobody consumes as much peanut butter as Americans." Damn straight, and no one puts us in a corner either. Seventy-five percent of our households bought a jar last year. On average, we each eat 3 pounds per annum. Not to give you sticky brown nightmares, but that's 8,000 calories and 685 grams of fat.

I feel like I ate half my quota since I made peanut butter last week. It's been all PB, all the time. It's one of the reasons why I've been AWOL -- apologies for not posting in more than two weeks. You see, I can barely reach past my PBB (peanut butter belly) to type this. Once again, Bill Watterson, creator of "Calvin and Hobbes," has totally nailed it: "If you can't control you peanut butter," he said, "you can't control your life."

Mr. Carver's recipe is way more complicated than it needs to be these days: he roasts then shells then grinds then adds salt/sugar/boiling water then boils over very low heat for 8 to 10 hours. His end-product is much denser than the sort of thing we're used to: it's chilled and sliced, eaten hot or cold, and sometimes "rolled in bread crumbs or cracker dust and fried a chicken brown" -- an "excellent substitute for meat." (Not unlike nutloaf, a contemporary recipe.)

I just don't have the time to contend with that particular recipe, not when making peanut butter is as easy as:

  1. Dump roasted, shelled peanuts in a food processor
  2. Press "Go"

But I did want to make myself suffer a bit in honor of Mr. Carver, so I ordered raw peanuts from Virginia (which I wrote about for a new food site I'm contributing to, Ffffood -- check it out!). I roasted and shelled them myself (with help from Jane), a pointless endeavor that took much longer than I expected. First they must be shelled, then roasted very briefly to loosen their skins, then their papery jackets must be removed. Some of those buggers just won't budge. It's not as bad as removing your own skin, but it's close.

I adapted this modern PB recipe, which is "for kids." Indeed, organizing a peanut-butter-making activity for kids is probably the only reason to make it. You don't save yourself any money and you certainly don't save any time. But it is a lot of fun -- so long as you say a silent thank you to Mr. Carver while you purchase pre-roasted, pre-shelled peanuts and blithely press "go" on your food processor.

Crunchy Peanut Butter

2 pounds raw peanuts, in the shell (or make it easy on yourself: buy them roasted, possibly even shelled – in which case, you’ll need 4 cups!)
2 ½ tablespoons peanut oil

  1. Shell the peanuts. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Arrange peanuts in a single layer on a baking sheet and roast for 3 to 5 minutes. Let cool for a few moments and then rub off the skins with your fingers. For those peanuts that won’t easily give off their skins, roast for another 3 to 5 minutes and try again.
  2. Arrange shelled and skinned peanuts on the baking sheet and roast for about 10 minutes, until golden brown. Toss and redistribute peanuts twice so they’ll cook evenly.
  3. Let the peanuts cool. Reserve about ¾ cup of peanuts. Combine the rest of the peanuts and the peanut oil in the bowl of a food processor and process on high for 2 – 3 minutes, until smooth. Add the reserved peanuts and pulse 6 – 10 times, until the peanut chunks are evenly distributed. Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator.

Yield: About 3 cups.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Eight Decades, One Meal

Last weekend, 29 people came from Santa Barbara, San Francisco, San Jose, Palo Alto, Vancouver, Boise, Denver, Dallas (Pennsylvania), St. Paul, and Brooklyn to Sarasota, Florida, with one purpose: to celebrate.

And there was a lot to celebrate: the 80th birthday of my grandma Sulochana (Sue or Sulo for short), the 75th birthday of my great-uncle Mert, the 70th birthday of my great-aunt Mira, and Mert and Mira's 40th wedding anniversary.

There was sun to bathe in and ocean to splash in, there were sand castles to make and spectacular sunsets to admire. There were even a couple of sharks to be scrupulously avoided. But most importantly, to me (and, dear reader, to you), there was food.

One evening, my uncle Roger and cousin Anthony prepared a smorgasbord of curried chicken and saag and cauliflower and naan, a delicious expression of Sulochana's dual heritage: Indian and Swedish. Twelve-year-old Elia ended the meal on a sweet note with perfectly fried Gulab Jamun in rosewater syrup, inspired in part by this post.

On another night, when we were all too tired from the grand birthdays/anniversary celebration to do any real cooking, my dad made quesadillas with the party platter cheese leftovers. The requests for one more quesadilla kept coming, and he was reduced to using the dubious remains of a nut-covered cheese ball. (Not recommended.)

And then there was the grand finale: a meal that celebrated every decade of Sue, Mert, and Mira's lives, from 1928 to 2008.

The menu (in chronological order):
  • 1920s: Uncle Mark's Piña Colada
  • 1930s: Key Lime Pie, a more or less joint effort by my dad, Mark, and Aunt Cathy*
  • 1940s: Great-Grandma Olga's Meatloaf (made by Great-Aunt Mira)*
  • 1950s: Green Bean Casserole by Aunt Tami, and Elia and I made a Pineapple Pie from American Food Writing.
  • 1960s: Grandma Sulo's Sour Cream Coffeecake (made by Aunt Diane) -- published on a new food site where I am now a contributor!
  • 1970s: Grandma Izzy's Sweet Potato, Marshmallow, and Pineapple Casserole (by my cousin, Anthony)* and BBQ chicken with Stubbs sauce, grilled by my dad
  • 1980s: Great-aunt Patricia's Spicy Wraps, Three-ways
  • 1990s: Uncle Mark's Marinated and Grilled Veggies
  • 2000s: My mom, Shelley, made a salad loosely based on Heidi's Citrus Parmesan Farro Salad (with couscous instead of farro).
* Recipes to come soon!

It was quite a spread. I was not completely happy with my contribution -- Pineapple Pie from Fruits of Hawaii (1955) -- but I'm pretty confident of how it could be improved.

We did a few things right: we added a bit of minced, fresh ginger. A lovely touch. We also reduced the sugar and replaced half of it with with brown sugar for a greater depth of flavor. Two cups of finely chopped fresh pineapple was too little, and too mushy. My dad mused that pineapples may have been less juicy 50 years ago. Whatever was going on there, I would cut the pineapples into just-smaller-than-bite-size chunks, and go all out with about 3 cups total.

Pineapple-Ginger Pie

1 9-inch unbaked pie crust, with top
1/3 - 1/2 cup flour
1/4 cup white sugar
1/4 cup brown sugar
1/8 teaspoon salt
2 eggs
1 tablespoon fresh-squeezed lemon juice
3 cups chopped fresh pineapple (sliced just smaller than you would for a fruit salad)
1/2 - 1 teaspoon minced fresh ginger
2 tablespoons butter

Preheat oven to 450 degrees F. In a mixing bowl, combine flour, both sugars, and salt. Beat eggs slightly and add to the flour mixture. Stir in the lemon juice, pineapple, and ginger. Pour into the pie shell, dot with butter, and moisten edge with water. Cover with the top crust. Bake for 10 minutes at 450 degrees F; reduce heat to 350 F and bake 35 minutes longer.