Sunday, March 30, 2008

Chocolate and the Art of Diplomacy

A few years ago, when I headed a not-for-profit institution in Chicago, I was asked to entertain a group of young would-be not-for-profit executives from Belarus. The reason for their visit to the United States was to learn how to effectively manage their organizations. Here in the U.S. we refer to the not-for-profit sector as "The Third Sector". We have scores of nonprofits so our Eastern European counterparts must think we know how to run them.

Belarus is a small country in Eastern Europe that borders Russia, the Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia. Its capital is the city of Minsk. Without going into a long political or economic commentary (I have a degree in Political Science but I'll leave that to the experts), it's safe to say that the people of Belarus have had their challenges. Formerly a part of the Soviet Union, Belarus declared its independence in 1991. The populace of Belarus speaks Russian, as well as Belarusian, Polish, and Ukrainian. My new found friends spoke mostly Russian and had not yet mastered the English language. I was in a cultural, if not diplomatic quandary. How do I break the ice? How do I communicate? How do I reach across and build a bridge? I have a friend who has a degree in Foreign Service from Georgetown. Why I didn't think to call her I cannot say – hindsight. Suddenly, the light went on ... chocolate!

I bought bags and bags of foil-wrapped chocolate candy and miniature chocolate candy bars. I brought several cut-glass bowls from home (didn't I say you can never have too many bowls?) and filled them with the chocolate. When my international colleagues arrived at my office, I was ready! It was a wonderful meeting, a complete success ... seven of us munching happily on chocolate. They were happy, they listened, they understood ... I listened, I understood. At the conclusion of our gathering, I filled little bags with the chocolate, so my guests could take some along. Ahh ... so this is diplomacy! I'm good at this! Ambassador potential! The experience left me wondering if world leaders at summit conferences concentrated more on what they had in common - FOOD - they might get along a little better. As James Beard remarked, "Food is our common ground, a universal experience." Maybe there should be summit meetings disguised as food conferences. A chocolate convention instead of a Geneva convention. Butter instead of guns. I'm reminded of Madhur Jaffrey's comments regarding America's nuclear and trade pact with India. India gets nuclear fuel for its energy and America gets Indian mangoes - perhaps India's greatest culinary gift (if you've never had one of the seasonally available mangoes from India, I implore you to do so).

As I was recently patting myself on the back for being such a diplomat, I came across Dorie Greenspan's recipe for "World Peace Cookies" so called, because a neighbor of Dorie's is convinced that these fantastic chocolate cookies (originally the creation of Parisian pastry chef Pierre Hermé) could help ensure world peace. I quite agree. In an effort to foster continued harmony, Dorie was kind enough to give me permission to publish the recipe, which can also be found in her book, "Baking from My Home to Yours". Thanks, Dorie.

Got to run - I have to update my resume so I can send it off to the United Nations.


1¼ cups all-purpose flour
1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 cup plus 3 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
2/3 cup light-brown sugar, packed
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon fleur de sel* or 1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
5 ounces bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, chopped into chips, or a generous 3/4 cup store-bought mini chocolate chips

In a medium bowl, sift together the flour, cocoa, and baking soda.

Working with an electric mixer, beat the butter until it is soft and creamy. Add the sugars, the salt, and the vanilla and beat for another 2 minutes. Reduce the mixer speed to low and add the dry ingredients, mixing only until they just disappear into the dough. You want to mix this dough as little as possible once the flour is added. Toss in the chocolate pieces and mix only to incorporate.

Turn the dough out onto a work surface, squeeze it so it sticks together, gather it into a ball, and divide the ball in half. Working with one piece of dough at a time, shape it into logs about 1½ inches in diameter and about 9 inches long. (Make sure the logs are solid—if they feel as if they’ve got holes in the center, flatten and roll them again.) Wrap the dough in plastic and chill the logs for at least 2 hours or up to 2 days.

Before baking, center a rack in the oven and preheat to 325° F. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper, nonstick aluminum foil, or silicone baking mats.

Working with a sharp knife, slice the logs into ½-inch-thick rounds. (Don’t worry if the rounds break—just squeeze the bits back together again.) Place the cookies on the sheets, leaving about 1 inch of spread space between them.

Bake only one sheet of cookies at a time and bake each sheet for 12 minutes—they won’t look done, but they’ll firm as they cool. Put the baking sheet on a cooling rack and let the cookies stand until they reach room temperature. Repeat with the second sheet of cookies.

* Fleur de sel is available at Whole Foods, Sur La Table and other specialty shops. The “wow” factor in these cookies is the salt which intensifies the chocolate. It’s impossible to eat just one of these fantastic treats.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Bananas Foster

In a sincere effort to keep my aging mother reasonably healthy, my brother advised her to eat several bananas a week. That was a mistake. Anytime anyone made a suggestion to my mother, she often (though not always, depending on the source) did the exact opposite, just to be obstinate. Up until this point, my mom loved bananas. Mostly, she enjoyed them cut up in a little dish with a light sprinkle of sugar and cream. She liked them on cereal, too. Back in the day, mom also prepared Bananas Foster for dinner parties. She also made Crepes Suzette. The late 50s was the era of the "chafing dish" and flaming desserts were all the rage - a sort of "food as theatre" ritual - drama! Suddenly, mom despised bananas. Why? Because they were good for her! A nutriceutical! Baa! No more bananas! If my brother had suggested that mom give up bananas - then she'd be eating them every day! The same thing happened with eggs. No more scrambled eggs for mom! I told my brother to zip it and just show up with pickled herring from Chicago's Andersonville neighborhood.

Bananas eaten out of hand are fine but I always end up with too many as I don't want one every day. Bananas can easily be frozen and placed in a freezer bag, but sometimes I just don't get around to doing so. I bake Banana Bread and Banana Cake with Chocolate or Caramel frosting and sometimes make Banana Ice Cream, which is very easy as it contains no eggs. I usually take the really ripe bananas (one day away from soupy) and throw them in the blender with milk and protein powder. This usually makes me feel rather self-satisfied - as if it somehow reverses yesterday's martini.

Most bananas that we eat are "Cavendish". They're engineered to withstand long transports and to maximize shelf-life. They really don't have much taste until they get quite ripe, although the folks at Cook's Illustrated (America's Test Kitchen) maintain that roasting bananas brings out their flavor. In her book, "The Weekend Baker", pastry chef Abagail Johnson Dodge said, "For the deepest banana flavor, the peels need to be completely black, so black that you might be tempted to throw the bananas out. Bananas this ripe are the only kind that will give breads, muffins, and cakes the strongest banana flavor." Her comment is attached to her recipe for Banana Layer Cake, which is excellent as are the other fine recipes in this approachable volume. Lately, I've been trying some of the other cultivated varieties such as finger bananas and red bananas - which have become readily available. Some of them seem sweeter and have a more intense flavor. In any case, bananas are nutritionally sound - packed with potassium, Vitamin B6, and Vitamin C. They seem to be eminently digestable, as well, and they're the ultimate portable food.

Bananas Foster was created in 1951 at Brennan's restaurant in New Orleans. The original recipe includes butter, brown sugar, cinnamon, banana liqueur, dark rum and of course, bananas. The dish is flamed and served over vanilla ice cream. The thirty-five thousand pounds of bananas consumed at Brennan's each year is a testament to the enduring popularity of this dessert.

Now I don't want to mess with Brennan's formula. They invented this luscious sweet and they evidently know what they're doing. Their recipe is readily available on the Internet (I don't print original recipes on this website without obtaining permission from the authors and/or their publishers) and it's delicious. I prepare a similar dish which technically isn't Bananas Foster. The nice thing about this recipe is that you're likely to have all of the ingredients on hand (I don't keep banana liqueur in the pantry but I always have dark rum).


4 firm ripe bananas (yellow with a few black spots*)
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
3/4 cup light brown sugar, packed
1 tablespoon light corn syrup
2 tablespoons whipping cream
1/4 teaspoon non-iodized salt
1/4 teaspoon mace
1/3 to 1/2 cup dark rum (I use Myers's)

Slice the bananas lengthwise and then quarter them. Melt the butter in a skillet over medium heat (this is one of those times when a non-stick pan is quite useful). Add the brown sugar, the salt, and the mace and stir with a wooden spoon until the sugar dissolves and the mixture begins to bubble. Stir in the corn syrup and cream. Add the bananas and saute until they are heated through and coated with the resulting syrup. Carefully pour in the rum. Cook over medium heat until the rum is reduced a bit. You can flame this dessert if you want (omit the cream) but I don't. Frankly, I don't flame things - even with a fire extinguisher in the kitchen. I have enough excitement without creating more, so you're on your own in this regard.

This dish can also be made with frozen pineapple or peaches, which are available all through the year (feel free to use fresh in season). Just substitute 1 bag of frozen fruit. The warm fruit can be served over ice cream or pound cake - or, what the hell, ice cream AND pound cake (a purchased "all-butter" poundcake is fine). This dessert is ridiculolusly simple to pull togther and everyone will think you're a genius (and you will be if you routinely keep fruit and pound cake in the freezer at all times). If you want to serve it as a family dessert - kids included - just leave out the rum or substitute an equal amount of apple cider. In spite of everything, I think mom would approve.

Note: For this recipe, the bananas should be yellow with no green color. A few black spots are acceptable. The bananas should still be firm enough so they don't fall apart.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Lamb Shanks with Rosemary

It is said that March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb. This is especially true in Chicago. We recently had a teaser - a couple of sunny spring days - but today we're back to winter with several inches of snow. Spring, being inherently mercurial, will be on-again off-again until mid-April. There's still time to savor those one-pot bistro-style dishes before we get into grilling this and that and eating lighter fare. A favorite among the stove-top stews are Lamb Shanks, which take especially well to braising. The long slow simmering renders the lamb as supple as butter and the addition of fresh rosemary, thyme, red wine, orange peel and garlic make me feel like an alchemist of sorts, creating a sensation of accomplishment and comfort. I always prepare extra lamb shanks as the leftovers can be made into a marvelous ragu served over pappardelle, at which point I'll be able to transcend comfort and move directly to the higher plane of peace of mind.

Braised Lamb Shanks are not as temperamental as Coq au Vin, less greasy than short ribs, easier on the conscience than Osso Buco and sexier than Pot Roast. It's a dish that begs you to haul out that blue enamel Le Creuset Dutch oven (or if you're really fortunate, a Mauviel copper Dutch oven) that you got for Christmas. I use a 7-quart hard anodized Dutch oven that my mother gave me more than 20 years ago. It's a honey - with high mileage. There are some newer pots that I'm considering that are a bit wider and more accommodating for certain dishes, but my trusty old Dutch oven has yet to fail me.

Braised Lamb Shanks is one of those dishes for which I really don't need a recipe, although I have several recipes in my file which I have used from time to time and they're all excellent. I just wing it and know instinctively how to put this dish together. For the sake of this post, I retraced my steps and penned a recipe which I trust will bring my readers comfort.


6 lamb shanks, about 1 pound (12 to 16 ounces) each
All-purpose flour, for dredging
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Non-iodized salt and freshly-ground pepper
2 large onions, chopped
1 large carrot, diced
1 stalk celery, chopped
3 cloves garlic, 1 minced, 2 left whole
2-1/2 cups dry red wine or white vermouth, divided
2-1/2 cups low-salt beef or chicken stock or broth
1/2 cup diced canned tomatoes
2 tablespoons aged balsamic vinegar or pomegranate juice
2 tablespoons tomato paste
3 tablespoons chopped fresh rosemary or 3 teaspoons dried rosemary
3 fresh thyme sprigs or 1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 Turkish bay leaf (do not use California bay)
1 teaspoon Herbs de Province*
Scant teaspoon grated lemon peel(colored part only)
Scant teaspoon grated orange peel (colored part only)
1/3 cup tawny port (such as Graham's, Dow's, Sandeman's or Warre's)

With a sharp paring knife, cut away the papery parchment covering (the "fell") from the lamb shanks and remove any excess fat. Dredge the shanks in flour and sprinkle them with the salt and pepper. Set aside. Heat the oil in a 6-8 quart Dutch oven over medium-high heat and add the onions. Reduce the heat to medium-low, and sauté the onions until caramelized, about 10-15 minutes. Add the shanks, three at a time, and brown them on all sides. Transfer the shanks to a platter. Add 1 cup of the wine and bring to a boil, scraping up the onions and brown bits. Return the shanks to the dutch oven (they do not have to be in a single layer) along with the carrot, celery, garlic, and the rest of the wine and simmer for 5 minutes at medium heat to reduce the wine. Add the remaining ingredients (except the port) and stir to distribute the tomatoes and tomato paste. Bring mixture to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer, covered, for 30 minutes. Add the port. Simmer another 60 to 90 minutes until the lamb is tender when pierced with a fork. Serve with egg noodles, mashed potatoes, polenta, or couscous. The meat from any leftover shanks can be shredded and mixed with the sauce and served over pappardelle or any pasta your heart desires. This dish is even better the second day.

* Herbs de Province is a blend of chervil, rosemary, tarragon, lavender, marjoram, savory and thyme.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Bread Pudding

The results of my "comfort dessert" survey are in and it appears that Bread Pudding remains the stepchild of desserts, the bastard at the family reunion, a dessert with humble origins but with so much potential. Bread Pudding need not feel ashamed among the glossy ganache laden Chocolate Cake, the towering Croquembouche, the charming Pavlova, or the ostentatious Black Forest Torte. No, it must stand tall and proud, ultimately outshining its pretentious fellow desserts with its genuine intentions and warm approach. Originally devised in England as a way to use up leftover stale bread, Bread Pudding now shows up on the menus of many upscale restaurants, making it a legitimate and welcome member of the dessert cart.

My former husband was repelled by the very mention of Bread Pudding. When he was a youngster, he attended a Catholic military grammar school for boys run by nuns (yes, you read that correctly). As it so happens, I was educated through grammar school and prep school by the very same congregation of sisters, although my educational experience was normal - at least in a Catholic school sort of way. Beginning in about the fourth grade, whenever any of the boys in my class would act mischievious, the nuns would threaten to send them to their military school 25 miles away. Sometimes we'd acquire a new teacher who had taught at said military school, and we'd be frightened to death. "Sister Mary Eva Braun taught at St. John the Terrifying so you had better watch out!" Yikes!

When I met my then husband-to-be and we were going through the requisite disclosure of our respective childhoods, his attendance at the military school was unveiled (he's the youngster to the right of the priest) I was mesmerized. At last I'd get the real story, a behind-the-scenes revelation of what actually happened at this gulag. It was like seeing something you weren't supposed to see (like the convent laundry room). I discovered that these poor kids had to go to school six days a week! They had some sort of military drills on Saturday mornings that were commanded by a retired United States Army General, which I think was followed by chopping rocks. Our nuns were strict and God knows we had better tow the line and show up for First Friday Mass, but drill instruction? No way.

Meals at the military academy were undoubtedly designed to quash one's spirit. According to my former spouse, this was no more apparent than in the Bread Pudding - a grey and soggy mass of questionable origin. A spurious "dessert" crafted to remind the children that they must indeed do penance to pay for their sins. I decided when we married that this was a past that could not be overcome, a mountain that I could not hope to scale.

I baked cookies and cakes and pies and muffins. I prepared Chocolate Mousse and Raspberry Roulades. I frosted and whipped and plated - but I did not dare wander into the land of Bread Pudding. Years later, after we had divorced, I had a small family gathering to celebrate my daughter's birthday. We had Basque Chicken and I fashioned a tall and impressive cake with a mountain of buttercream and snowy flaked coconut. As the chicken dish already had potatoes, I pondered the realm of possible side dishes. I came across a Savory Bread Pudding with mushrooms, artichoke hearts and strips of red bell pepper. Like a Breakfast Strata, it could be prepared the night before and refrigerated and then just popped in the oven the next day. Perfect! I told my guests it was a "Souffle" whose origins were in Orléans, France. My former husband had been stationed there while in the army and was taken with the town (home to "Joanie on the Pony" - his humorous reference to St. Joan of Arc). Success! The "Souffle" was gobbled up with gusto. Could he have a second helping? Why certainly - have all you like! Back in the 50s, my mother used to serve Beef Stroganoff at dinner parties. Her secred ingredient? Anchovy paste! An infintisimal amount designed to enrich the sauce. Mom never told anyone - not even my father (I was sworn to secrecy) and there were never any leftovers. Lesson learned.

Bread Pudding is one of my favorite desserts. This is evidenced by the fact that I have 57 dedicated recipes for this comforting sweet - all kept in its own special file. All are fantasic. Some have dried apricots, others use cherries or blueberries. Some are graced with a generous dose of Chinese cinnamon (cassia) and raisins and others use pumpkin puree or cranberries. There are a few that contain chunks of chocolate - dark, milk, or white and still others that are swirled with tart lemon curd. One is full of apples and walnuts and ribboned with caramel. Some are served in squares, others in individual white porcelein ramekins. My favorite way of serving Bread Pudding is spooned directly out of a deep gratin dish. They are all rich with eggs, whole milk, and cream and almost all of them are intended to be christened with some sort of boozy sauce - Whiskey, Rum, Cognac, Grand Mariner, Kirsch, or Framboise. Perhaps if the good nuns at St. John the Terrifying had managed a little Whiskey Sauce, everyone would have been a little happier, Saturday drills would have eliminated, and Bread Pudding would have been a Thursday night regular at our house.


1 large 2-day-old challah or day-old French bread (about 8 ounces)
2 tablespoons soft unsalted butter (for buttering the gratin dish)
2 cups half-and-half
1 cup heavy whipping cream
1 cup buttermilk
6 large eggs
1 cup sugar
zest of one medium orange (colored part only)
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2 teaspoons pure orange extract
1/4 teaspoon non-iodized salt
2 cups fresh or Individually Quick Frozen* blueberries, divided (see note)

Preheat the oven to 350°. Cut the bread into 1/2 cubes and spread them on a baking sheet. Toast the bread until light golden brown, about 20 minutes - tossing the bread around with a spatula after 10 minutes. Leave the oven at 350° if you plan to bake the bread pudding within an hour.

Generously butter a 2-1/2-quart gratin dish. In a large bowl, whisk together the half-and-half, cream, eggs, sugar, orange rind, extracts and salt. Add the bread cubes and 1 cup of the blueberries and toss together gently with a large spoon. Transfer to the gratin dish and refrigerate for 1 hour and up to 8 hours so that the bread soaks up the liquid.

Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 350°. Cover the pan with aluminum foil (preferably nonstick foil) and place the dish in a larger pan such as a roasting pan. Pour in enough hot water (from a tea kettle) to reach about an inch. Bake the pudding in the water bath (bain-marie) for about 30 minutes. Remove the foil and bake another 10 minutes until the pudding is set. Remove the pudding from the larger pan very carefully with oven mitts so as not to burn yourself. Let the pudding rest for 10-15 minutes before serving with the sauce. The pudding can be cut into squares or spooned out of the baking dish and may be served warm, or at room temperature.


1 cup light brown sugar, packed
1-1/2 cups heavy whipping cream
1/3 cup Grand Marinier or Gran Gala Liqueur
2 tablespoons light corn syrup
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1/4 teaspoon non-iodized salt
1 cup blueberries

In a heavy medium saucepan, stir together the brown sugar, salt, and cornstarch until well blended. Stir in the cream, orange liqueur, corn syrup and butter. Bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring all the while and cook for 1 minute. Add the blueberries and cook for another minute or two until the blueberries soften a bit and release their juices. Take the pan off the heat, cover, and let the sauce thicken further for about 10 minutes. Serve with the bread pudding.

Note: Individually Quick Frozen blueberries (IQF), are flash frozen at extremely low temperatures. This gives the blueberry an individual fruit identity. You can tell if blueberries are IQF if they appear separate when you open the bag. Other frozen or canned blueberries will turn the bread pudding an unappetizing greyish color.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Irish Soda Bread with a Special Nod to St. Joseph

It seems to me that St. Patrick's Day (March 17) overshadows St. Joseph's Day (March 19) by a mile. The greeting card stores are fully stocked with St. Pat's Day cards with only a few dedicated to St. Joe. The wine and spirit merchants are busy hawking dozens of Irish brews, whiskeys, and cream liqueurs. The "wearing o' the green" extends to shamrock festooned socks, but I have yet to see a red pair devoted to St. Joseph. Then there are the St. Paddy's Day parades, the music, and of course, the requisite Irish Soda Bread. Oh, sure - you'll see a "St. Joseph's Day Table" here and there, particularly in ethnic neighborhoods - but unless your Roman Catholic parish is hosting such an event, you'll likely miss it altogether. The real loser is poor St. Edward the Martyr who gets caught in the middle with his feast day being March 18. St. Ed wasn't even a martyr in the strict sense but he defended his faith nonetheless and he gets swept under the carpet (sort of like having your birthday on Christmas).

Irish Soda Bread - preferably with lots of butter - is my favorite part of St. Patrick's Day. I like Corned Beef and Cabbage (the horseradish being the best part of that deal) and I've been known to down a pint or two - but Soda Bread is irresistible and comforting - with raisins or not, white flour or whole wheat, or with caraway seeds - I never met one I didn't savor.

Wanting to give St. Joseph his due, I decided to devise a soda bread that would pay him homage. The answer? Dried cherries! A bit of red in the midst of all that green! Dried cherries are a wonderful addition to many recipes. My friend Jim bakes fabulous Chocolate-Cherry Biscotti. I like dried cherries in Chocolate Chip Cookies and they're good in many savory dishes, too - especially with pork and lamb. Dried cherries are easy to find - American Spoon Foods, Target Stores (Archer Farms brand), and Trader Joe's are good places to start. If you cannot find them, dried cranberries are a good substitute.


1-3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup whole wheat flour
2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder (be sure it's fresh!)
1/2 teaspoon non-iodized salt
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted cool butter
3/4 cup dried cherries (or cranberries)
1 cup buttermilk
1 tablespoon very soft butter

Preheat oven to 375°. In a large bowl, combine the flour, sugar, baking soda, baking powder, and salt and blend well with a wire whisk. Using a pastry cutter, work the butter into the flour mixture until it resembles coarse crumbs. Stir in the dried cherries. Add the buttermilk and blend well. Knead the dough - about 5 or 6 times - on a floured board until it just comes together. Do not overknead. Shape into a round loaf. Using a sharp knife, cut an X on top of the loaf about 1/2" deep. Rub the top with the soft butter.

Place the loaf on a baking sheet covered with parchment paper. Bake for about 30 minutes until golden brown and the bottom sounds hollow when tapped. Transfer bread to a wire rack to cool. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008


One of the first indicators of spring is rhubarb. Most people have a strong response to rhubarb - they love it, they hate it, they don't understand it (is it a fruit or a vegetable?) or they're afraid to try it. I think those who say they hate it either have never tried it or perhaps as a child, they took a bite of raw rhubarb thinking it was red celery - surprise! Rhubarb is not related to celery but one can certainly see the resemblance between the stalks. A relative of buckwheat (which is not really wheat - are you still confused?), rhubarb grows without much encouragement in both temperatate and cold climates throughout much of the world. It is native to Asia but loved by the British, Scandinavians, Russians, Eastern Europeans, Iranians, and many of us who live in the United States.

Much of the fresh rhubarb sold in stores is cultivated hothouse rhubarb (most of it grown in Michigan, Oregon, and Washington) but you'll find it at farmer's markets from April until June . Rhubarb is also available frozen in some supermarkets, Dole being the most popular brand in my neck of the woods. It's conveniently already washed, trimmed and cut into handy size pieces. One caveat, the huge leaves of rhubarb are full of oxalic acid and therefore highly toxic. Rhubarb in stores is sold minus the leaves - but if you acquire some with the leaves, remove them by cutting the rhubarb high on the stalk thereby removing the leaves with a portion of the stalk and discard them. Fresh rhubarb should be stored in the refrigerator for no more than three days.

Rhubarb's history is peppered with tales of its curative powers. My Great Aunt Cora regarded it as a "tonic" and used to make rhubarb syrup (which added to sparkling water becomes a refreshing drink). While its so-called medicinal properties are no doubt old wives' tales (though it is reported to be a natural laxative), rhubarb is nutritionally sound - zero fat, high in fiber and rich in Vitamin C. Rhubarb's best buddy however is sugar, without which it would be inedibible.

Also known as "pie plant" in the United States, undoubtedly because so much of it ends up in pies, rhubarb is also wonderful in muffins, quick breads, cakes, coffee cakes, fools, crisps, cobblers, chutneys, and jam (usually strawberry-rhubarb). I'm currently considering the jam as a cake filling for a classic White Cake with a Cream Cheese Frosting. Rhubarb also works in savory dishes and pairs nicely with pork. It seems to be enjoying a resurgence as it is appearing on the menus of some very tony restaurants. My mother used to make "stewed rhubarb" which was just rhubarb cooked with a little water and a lot of sugar. We ate it ice cold in little dishes. Sometimes mom would serve it over vanilla ice cream, which is my preference - and served over a piece of classic New York cheesecake, it's divine!

Monday, March 10, 2008

Mixing Bowls

When my mother died, someone asked me about the most valuable advice she had given me. Without hesitation I said, "moisturize, moisturize, moisturize!" OK, that was NOT the most valuable advice she bestowed upon me - but it was great advice. Kitchenwise, mom said, "You can never have too many bowls!" I have to agree. From my collection of four-ounce stainless prep bowls to my 13-quart stainless "granola" bowl (great for mixing large granola concoctions), I rely on all of them. I recently eyeballed a 20-quart stainless steel bowl at Bridge Kitchenware and found it nearly irresistible. It's big enough to bathe an infant (assuming it would be reserved for just that purpose) but in the kitchen it might serve to brine a turkey.

For the most part, I prefer stainless steel or Pyrex® bowls because they are sturdy, nonreactive, dishwasher-safe and unlike plastic, they don't transfer funky flavors to food. Stainless insulated bowls are great for keeping ice cream custards cold (yes, on occasion I make homemade ice cream, the last batch being "Pomegranate Pistachio"). My melamine bowls with pouring spouts and handles have dozens of uses and are especially handy for pancake and cupcake batter. Some of my bowls have plastic covers with snap tight lids, others have non-skid bottoms that keep them from skittering across the countertop and I have several that have measurements clearly etched directly on their surfaces.

Those of you who saw the film "Ratatouille" may remember the term "Mise en place". Literally, it means "set in place". Practically, it means "everything in place". When you get ready to bake a cake, for instance, you read through the recipe, make sure you have the necessary ingredients, and then go about organizing your equipment, preheating the oven (which can take as long as 20 minutes) and putting many of the ingredients in individual bowls. For a cake, this may mean baking soda, baking powder, salt, spices and extracts. I like to line my little filled prep bowls on the counter. It assures that I have what I need, eliminates the stop and start which wastes time, and guards against cross-contamination (reaching for the vanilla with raw egg on my hands, for example). I also think these little bowls are damn cute.

Aside from food preparation and storage, I have quite a few serving bowls - from fruit and cereal bowls to soup bowls, chili bowls, and the usual vegetable recepticles. I have Bosco-Ware soup bowls in an array of cheerful colors that keep soup hot and onion-soup bowls that can be run under the broiler. Two of my favorite bowls are cobalt-blue glass. I like to fill them with lemons and set them on the counter. If you're not ready to replace your countertops just yet, a transparent blue bowl piled with lemons can really spruce up your kitchen.

One of my favorite memories of my mother is of her sifting flour into a cream colored ceramic bowl with a blue stripe. That bowl saw a lot of action. Mom also had a deep-fryer. There was a little chef on the side whose eyes would light up when the oil had reached the right temperature - very cool! When garage sale time comes around, go ahead and get rid of that waffle maker you haven't used for 20 years and that bright orange enamel fondue pot from 1972, but hang on to those bowls! On second thought, you might keep that fondue pot, too. Fondue is back and retro is fashionable.

Cupcake Love

Cupcakes, it would seem, are all the rage. From New York City's celebrated Magnolia Bakery (famous for their Red Velvet Cupcakes) to San Francisco's imaginative Citizen Cake (and now Citizen Cupcake!), cupcakes have captured our hearts. Dozens of cupcake instruction manuals line the baking sections of bookstores such as Dede Wilson's "A Baker's Field Guide to Cupcakes" and "Cupcakes" by Elinor Klivans. There's even a website called "Cool Cupcakes" for all your cupcake decorating needs (see links).

In the past, cupcakes seemed to be reserved for children's parties and casual family gatherings. Now you see them at black-tie events and weddings (I don't know what happens with the traditional "cutting of the cake" but the presentations I have seen are gorgeous and it certainly makes serving effortless). Not only are cupcakes chic, they are often the pièce de résistance of the dessert cart - edging out Crème Brûlée and Flourless Chocolate Cake in popularity.

Baking equipment and supplies designed specifically for cupcakes are selling like ... well, cupcakes. Wilton Industries offers a little kit called "Cupcake Heaven", a 12-piece cupcake decorating set that sells at Target and other stores for under $10. Several manufacturers sell covered cupcake pans, some with extra high tops to protect more elaborate frostings, making portability a snap. Cupcake "tiers" make a dynamite presentation and they can be had for only a few dollars. Cupcake liners are available with every possible decor geared to holidays and special events. In addition to the three pan sizes for conventional cupcakes (mini, regular, and jumbo), Wilton, King Arthur Flour, and other outlets also sell a giant cupcake pan with a 10-cup capacity. This isn't really a cupcake, however, but might be a whimsical alternative to a conventional birthday cake. There are silicone pans and cupcake liners, too - but there's something about those little paper liners that makes cupcakes unique and I prefer conventional pans for baking anyway.

You don't really need a cookbook devoted to cupcakes to make these divine confections (although these volumes offer many decorating ideas). Virtually any recipe for a layer or 13"x9" cake will work for cupcakes (just be sure that the capacity of the pans is the same as that of the recipe and don't fill the individual cups more than 2/3 full). Angel Food and Chiffon Cake recipes work just fine, too. Chiffon cakes work especially well for whipped cream injected cakes, as they have to be refrigerated and Chiffon Cakes, being oil-based, don't get hard in the refrigerator. The flavor possibilities for cupcakes are nearly endless and embellishments can be as easy as a sprinkling of powdered sugar or as elaborate as candied violets and edible gold leaf.

My favorite cupcake? Almond-flavored White Cake injected with a bit of raspberry jam and frosted with white buttercream. Or is it Coconut Cupcakes with tart lemon filling and showered with flaked coconut, or ... I'm reminded of my father when asked what his favorite opera might be - "The last one I heard", he would reply. My favorite cupcake? Probably the last one I ate. What makes a cupcake special is that everyone has their own little cake, and frankly, a freshly baked cupcake just lifts one's spirits

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Garlic Embargo (and a Recipe for Ragù Bolognese)

At the risk of shocking my readers, I'd like to see a month-long garlic embargo. Of course that will never happen, given its widespread popularity. Garlic, it appears, seems to permeate almost every savory dish we eat - it is ubiquitous. The problem with garlic is that it is often used with a heavy hand. All that you taste is the garlic. Our palates have been trained to confuse what is common for what is good. Then there's the widespread use of processed garlic in the form of powder, flakes and garlic salt - all of which are acrid and bitter - a poor substitute for fresh. Dining out can be a challenge too, as many menu items are loaded with garlic. You order Tilapia and it's bathed in garlic butter. You choose the Lobster Bisque and it's garnished with artfully placed swirls of garlic oil. Uh, no, thanks - where's the lobster? The chefs just assume that we want all that garlic. Not! You know there's a problem when you get home and your bra smells like garlic! (If you're a guy and your bra smells like garlic, then you have an issue which I'm not prepared to address). There is no question that garlic can be a flavorful, if not essential ingredient in many dishes: Bagna Cauda, Caesar Salad, Spaghetti alla Puttanesca, Coq au Vin, Shrimp Scampi, Skordalia ... and my braised lamb shanks or pot roast without garlic would be like an opera season without Puccini - acceptable but not preferable.

In her book, “Essentials of Italian Cooking, Marcella Hazan said, “To equate Italian food with garlic is not quite correct, but it isn’t totally wrong, either. It may strain belief, but there are some Italians who shun garlic and many dishes at home and in restaurants are prepared without it... on occasion, a more emphatic garlic accent may be appropriate, but never, in good Italian cooking, should it become harshly pungent or bitter." In "Trattora Cooking", cookbook author Biba Gaggiano said, "A heavy hand with garlic doesn't make a dish 'Italian'. The basic principle that guides all Italian cooking also applies to the use of garlic - just enough to flavor a dish, but not too much to overpower it. Never use the dried-up garlic flakes or powder sold in supermarkets. The taste will kill a dish, not enhance it."

One of the things that sets authentic Bolognese Meat Sauce apart is the absence of garlic. Neither Hazan’s nor Gaggiano's sauces contain it. The flavors of this classic dish are derived instead from the trio of onion, carrot and celery, white wine, and the meat itself. Gaggiano's recipe adds two ounces of finely chopped pancetta.

Among my hundreds of cookbooks, I probably have 50 recipes for Ragù Bolognese, some of them using as many as eight cloves of garlic! Some also employ Italian sausage, mushrooms, red wine, bay leaves (too strong for this dish), bell pepper or crushed red pepper. I can promise you that green bell pepper will ruin this recipe, at which point you might as well add the garlic and a can of beans and call it "chili con carne". My friend Marcy, who was born in Rome, says, "there are as many recipes for Bolognese in Italy as there are cooks." Over time, I have developed my own recipe for Ragù Bolognese. You may add garlic if you wish, but the designed delicacy of the dish will be overshadowed.

Ragù Bolognese

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
2 slices thick-cut bacon, finely diced or 3 ounces pancetta, finely diced
2/3 cup finely chopped onion
2/3 cup finely chopped celery
2/3 cup finely chopped carrot
1-1/2 pounds ground beef chuck
1/2 pound ground pork
1 cup dry white wine
1/2 cup beef stock or broth, as needed (preferably homemade)
3 tablespoons tomato paste
1 28-ounce can whole tomatoes, with their juice
1 parmigiano-reggiano cheese rind (optional)*
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg (preferably freshly grated)
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon dried thyme or 1 tablespoon fresh thyme
1-1/2 teaspoons fine sea salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
1 cup whole milk
1 pound high-quality imported dried fettuccini, linguini, or spaghetti*
Freshly grated parmigiano-reggiano cheese

In a 5-quart dutch oven, with the burner on medium, heat the butter and oil. Add the bacon and sauté until brown, about 5 minutes. Add the onion, celery, carrot, oregano, thyme, salt, and pepper and sauté 5-6 minutes. Add the beef and pork, stirring with a wooden spoon to break up the meat and cook until it loses its raw color, about 5 minutes. While the meat is simmering, place the tomatoes in a blender and pulse until the tomatoes are chopped into small pieces. Add the wine to the dutch oven and cook another five minutes, so that the wine is reduced. Add the tomato paste, tomatoes and optional cheese rind and cook another 5 minutes. Add the milk and nutmeg. Simmer with the burner on low for 1 hour, stirring 3 or 4 times and adding the stock if the sauce seems too thick. Taste the sauce and adjust the seasoning with salt and/or pepper if necessary. Serve with desired pasta and freshly grated cheese. Serves 4-6.

* Cheese rinds can add a wonderful depth of flavor to sauces, soups, stews, and braises. They are ridiculously inexpensive and easily found at most cheese shops.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Exotic Biscotti

Perhaps it is the captivating tales of "1001 Arabian Nights", or the enchantment of Omar Khayyam's poetry, or just the idea of riding on a magic carpet, but Persia has always held a certain fascination for me. Persia (Iran) has as rich a culture and civilization as can be found on the planet. The art, literature and architecture are as mesmerizing as that of Egypt or China and the food is remarkably fragrant and exotic - and supported by a long culinary history. I am only beginning to delve into Persian cuisine, with the help of Najmieh Batmanglij, whose cookbooks ("A Taste of Persia" and "From Persia to Napa: Wine at the Persian Table") are the ideal way to begin.

In "A Taste of Persia", Batmanglij talks about "the Iranian attitudes toward food" and takes us on our own brief magic carpet ride through this ancient cuisine. "Hospitality ... is central to Persian life. Hospitality must be generous: In traditional Persia, a host would remain standing, serving his guests and eating nothing himself. Customs change but the attitude remains. Hospitality is like gift giving, the saying goes: One should do it handsomely or not at all. Next, one should cook according to what is best in season, so that food is fresh and of as good quality as may be." There's a commitment to the Slow Food movement!

The ingredients in many Persian dishes provide layers of flavor that not only taste wonderful but smell delightful. Pistaschios (which are native to Iran), pomegranates, dates, saffron, rose water, sour cherries, and cardamom abound. It is interesting to note that saffron and especially cardamom are also used extensively in Scandinavian baking (I grew up smelling cardamom before cinnamon!).

Being a neophite with regard to Persian sweets, I wanted to create something that would incorporate the flavors and fragrance of Persia with something familiar - something to be shared with friends and family who have not yet experienced the seductive pull of Persian cuisine. I like these biscotti with a cup of Earl Grey or Darjeeling tea while listening to Rimsky-Korsakov's "Scheherazade".


1-3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon non-iodized salt
2 teaspoons rose water*
2 teaspoons ground cardamom (Penzey's preferred)
1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened
1 cup sugar, preferably superfine
2 large eggs
1-1/2 cups unsalted shelled pistachios

In a medium bowl, stir the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and cardamom together with a wire whisk and set aside.

In the bowl of an electric mixer, combine the butter, sugar, and rose water and beat on medium speed until light and fluffy. Drop in the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Reduce the speed to low and add the pistachios. Mix until the nuts are just incorporated. Place the dough on a sheet of plastic wrap and wrap well all around. Chill for 1-24 hours.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line a large baking sheet (16"x12") with either parchment paper or Reynolds Release foil. Divide the dough in half and using lightly floured hands, shape each half into a log about 1-1/2 inches in diameter. Place the logs on the baking sheet spacing them about five inches apart. The logs will spread significantly during baking. Bake the biscotti until light brown, about 27 minutes. Remove them from the oven (but leave the oven on) and cool for about 10-15 minutes. Using a large spatula, transfer the biscotti to a large cutting board and using a serrated knife, slice the biscotti on the diagonal at 3/4" intervals. Place the slices, cut side down, on the baking sheet and return to the oven for about 10-12 minutes, turning them over after five minutes (be careful not to burn your hands). Transfer the biscotti to wire racks to cool (biscotti will continue to firm up as they cool). Place the biscotti in a cookie tin or another airtight container. Cookies may be stored for about two weeks. Yield: about 36 biscotti.

Note: Rose water may be found at Whole Foods, Sur La Table, and Middle Eastern groceries. Rose water has a pronounced flavor and fragrance and must be used judiciously. Some may prefer as much as a tablespoon or as little as a teaspoon. Orange flower water may be substituted for a different, but equally exotic taste. Slivered almonds may be substituted for the pistachios. The dough in this biscotti recipe handles very nicely as it is not as sticky as many other biscotti recipes.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Wild Strawberries

Fast forward: The summer of 1959, my parents sent me off to Ironwood, Michigan to spend the entire season with my mother's first cousin. There was a bit of a crisis regarding my aging grandfather which rendered my parents "otherwise occupied". I was not a happy camper with regard to this arrangement. I was a city kid and like most kids, wanted to be with my family and friends during the summer months. Being a country mouse just wasn't my thing (no Marshall Field's!). Mom's cousin, affectionately known as "Beka" was bit on the strict side, to say the least. My mother wasn't much of a disciplinarian and didn't get rattled easily. Life at home was basically, "be home before dark". My father worried - a lot - about this looseness - but mom was in charge and appeared to know what she was doing. Now I was under the thumb of a formidible woman who demanded to know my whereabouts at any given time. I really missed my parents and wanted to go home - and I hated the water, which was rusty all the time. Chicago has really great tap water! Nevertheless, I was in safe and excellent hands - which was the point of the whole engagement. There was one saving grace - the food. As much as I longed for my mom's cooking and baking, Beka was no slouch in the kitchen. While the groceries weren't exotic or cosmopolitan (no Oysters Rockefeller or Crepes Suzette), they were delicious and plentiful.

Beka, being Swedish Lutheran, attended the Lutheran Church every Sunday. Oh yes, I missed being Catholic for the summer, too - and sometimes I was permitted to attend Mass at the local Catholic Parish. Frankly, the Lutheran Church was a better deal. The Lutheran "Ladies Aid" provided many smorgasbords in the church basement, which were extraordinary. These women were in a fierce competition with each other for the best dish and the finest baked goods. Sundays were something to look forward to - sort of an "all-you-can-eat" Swedish banquet. There were Sunday picnics, too - out at Little Girl's Point on Lake Superior - all catered by the Ladies Aid. God knows I never went hungry.

One of the joyous discoveries of my summer in Ironwood were the wild strawberries. Whether these were bona fide wild strawberries, Fragaria virginiana or the cultivated wood strawberries known in France as fraises de bois, F. vesca, I cannot say - as I have very little knowledge of botany. I imagine they were truly wild - at least I'd like to think so, as it makes the whole adventure more romantic. The taste of these tiny berries was indescribable - intense, heavily perfumed, with the perfect balance of sweetness and acidity - more the attributes of a black raspberry. They were not glamorous looking, like the bright red and often huge cultivated strawberries of California. Their flavor, however, was incomparable. Roger Williams, the founder of Providence in 1636 said of the wild strawberry, "...this berry is the wonder of all fruits growing naturally in these parts. It is of itself excellent so that one of the chieftest doctors of England was wont to say that God could have made, but never did make a better berry..."

How often have you purchased some of those California strawberries only to discover they have very little flavor. Sure, they look beautiful as a cake decoration - but they are, in my opinion, a disappointment. According to Elizabeth Riely, author of "A Feast of Fruits", strawberries are best eaten in the patch - lush, juicy, and warm from the sun. Failing a backyard bed or pick-your-own farm, try to find locally grown berries."

Today, we're spoiled. We demand out-of-season and out-of area produce twelve months out of the year. Produce is engineered to be hearty enough to withstand long trips and rough handling - but it isn't necessarily full of flavor. Spinach, berries, and all manner of fruits and vegetables are trucked or flown in from thousands of miles away - setting us up for the possibility of food poisoning. The longer the produce travels, the more time there is for the bacteria to multiply. That summer in Ironwood, I ate every day from Beka's vegetable garden. Let's support the Slow Food movement and eat locally and seasonally (although I'll admit it's hard to be a locavore in the middle of winter in the Midwest). You'll support your local farmers and growers, help reduce carbon emissions, and eat better. If you can hunt down local farmer's markets, the chances of eating organic produce is very high. In the meantime, if you're looking for a place to see the colors of Fall at its best, a trip to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan will leave you breathless and while you're there, make friends with the Lutherans.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

My Swedish Mother - Or How I Started Cooking

Full disclosure - I'm only 25 percent Swedish, my maternal grandmother having been born in Sweden. My half-Swedish mother was raised in Ironwood, Michigan in the Upper Peninsula. If you look at a map, you'll notice that Michigan's "mitten" has very little to do with the UP. It's a different world up there - "God's Country" - full of pine trees, snow, Lake Superior walleye (my favorite fish) and some of the world's kindest people. My mother grew up ensconced in a Swedish-Lutheran enclave - an extended family - most of whom arrived in Boston circa 1901. My grandmother was widowed when my mother was only three years old. By the time my mother was 12, she was doing the lion's share of the cooking for the remaining family of four, as my grandmother was out trying to make a living as a nurse-midwife. These were difficult times and Ironwood was hit hard by the 1918 flu pandemic

My mother's Aunt Bertha served as her inspiration in the kitchen. Bertha was, by all accounts, an elegant cook, despite the paucity of attainable foodstuffs. If ever there was an example of turning a sow's ear into a silk purse (or a magnificent stew), it was Bertha. Ironwood, like other communities of its era and ilk, pioneered the "slow food" movement, using what was seasonably available (venison, fish, wild strawberries) and whatever grew in local gardens during the summer. Preserving and canning were essential (if not tedious) exercises if you wanted tomatoes, beans, or beets in January. Mom learned by watching, tasting and doing. While other little girls were playing with dolls, mom was wielding a wooden spoon and cleaning fish.

My mother grew up and went off to college in Marquette, Michigan. During the summer of 1931, my Chicago-born, Irish-French, Roman Catholic father took a trip to the UP and met my mother at a dance. They married shortly thereafter and took up residence in Chicago. Although it was the Depression, my father had a job with International Harvester (and continued to work for the firm until his death in 1961). The first week of their marriage, dad gave mom a whopping $10 for "housekeeping necessities". Much to my father's chagrin, she spent the entire wad on herbs and spices. Mom had made her mark and the rest, as they say, is history.