Breads of the World, part 1: naan-e komaj research (no recipe)

*** This is not a recipe post. Instead, it details background and findings from research I did on the first bread I’ll make for my “Breads of the World” 2021 baking project. If you’re not into that, check back next week when I expect to have the recipe and photos up. ***

In the lead-up to the 2004 election, I was traveling with my then-boyfriend (now husband) around the East Coast, visiting graduate schools we optimistically thought we might have a chance of getting into. (Also sightseeing, but very virtuously telling ourselves that wasn’t our main objective.) One evening, I remember getting into bed at our hotel and watching The Daily Show, then hosted by Jon Stewart, and his plea to his audience and to the country: he wanted us to make his job – and the jobs of all comedians – hard, by electing John Kerry rather than incumbent George W. Bush, insinuating Kerry would be more difficult to satirize. Well, we didn’t. But I think of that now and then, as what happens in this country continues to make my “job” here hard. Too many times I have tried to weave together current events and food in a respectful and hopeful way. Too many times I have sat at my keyboard wondering how and whether to acknowledge what is happening, and what to say, and how to transition from that into whatever I have to share with you, because to not acknowledge it is to live in a dream world that too easily slides into complicity.

Today I can’t do it. There’s no transition. It doesn’t work. As Deb said on her instagram feed, “There’s not and never will be a ‘I like to unwind from watching an armed insurrection on live TV by roasting chicken.’ There’s no ‘Wow, really, they didn’t see this coming? Welp, let’s go slice some cabbage!’… But I am here, in the same place as the rest of us, angry and worried. And also, I still need to make something for dinner. Hope you get to refuel with something delicious tonight; we all need it.”

We need it. I need it. And in my attempts to avoid watching the news all day or doom-scrolling or refreshing that feed one more time, I fell down a rabbit hole researching the first bread I wanted to make for my “Breads of the World” project. And I got so interested by that and so excited about the bread itself that I want to share that research with you. No recipe today, thanks to the half-a-pie, the pitas, the pizza, and the sourdough loaf I already have kicking around my house (I’ve been retreating to the kitchen a lot lately), but hopefully next week after we’ve demolished a few of my current bakes and are ready for another.

My first entrée into this project is a Persian bread called, by turns, komaj or naan-e-komaj. According to Wikipedia this is similar to an Armenian sweet bread called nan e gisu (and sounds similar to another one called noon-e sheereen or Gata), which I’d also never heard of (but you can bet it’s on my list now). Like the bread’s history and origins, the recipe I’m planning to use was difficult to track down. I first ran across this bread, golden from turmeric and sprinkled with an intriguing combination of both cumin seeds and powdered sugar, through a search for Persian breads on pinterest, and gradually wound my way backward to a recipe from Saraban: A Chef’s Journey Through Persia by authors Greg and Lucy Malouf.

The Maloufs acknowledge the recipe in their book is their own interpretation of a bread they ate, and so I wanted to see if I could trace back to a source recipe, maybe something more authentic or traditional. As these things often go on the internet, not only did I not find an “authentic” or “original” recipe, likely because there isn’t just one; I found a pile of conflicting information to sort through. Komaj, or naan-e-komaj, seems to come in broadly two iterations: stuffed and unstuffed. The food site Persian Good calls komaj a “Persian oatcake” and provides a recipe for a fairly simple yeasted dough that, after it has risen, is treated like a cookie rather than a bread: stamped out with a cutter and sprinkled with sesame seeds before being baked. Conversely, in a list of Middle Eastern recipes from the Lorna Sundberg International Center, a division of the University of Virginia’s International Studies Office, I found a version of komaj that is unyeasted, but stuffed with date paste. The Malouf recipe seems to combine these alternatives, meeting in the more complicated middle with a fluffy, yeasted bun enclosing a filling of dates and cardamom, stamped out with a heart-shaped cookie cutter.

This sounded too good to pass up, but I wasn’t done with my research yet. Given the differing versions of the bread, I wanted to know more about it. The result was, of course, yet more tangled threads that don’t quite connect. Forgive the hashed metaphor, as O. Henry would say. The Maloufs’ recipe is for a wheat-flour based bun that they tasted “in the oasis town of Mahan in the south-east of Iran.” However, my searching turned up an article from the Journal of Ethnic Foods that cites komaj or “naan-e-komaj” as one of the “most important rice flour–based breads in the north of Iran” (Gharibzahedi). Rice flour based? North of Iran? Further, the article cites komaj as a bread from the Mazandaran province just south of the Caspian Sea, and here it is not baked, but fried in oil. Yet the description – “A Persian date bread with cumin and turmeric” – sounded like the same product I’d been chasing, and the ingredient list, which included not only rice flour, but wheat flour, milk or yogurt, egg, baking powder, and vanilla (cumin and turmeric are optional here, and sometimes raisins, cinnamon, and walnuts are incorporated as well), was fairly similar aside from being chemically leavened rather than with yeast (Gharibzahedi).

All this leads to some food truths I already know, and imagine I will continue to uncover as this project continues: food moves. Food changes. Food is adapted. As Naz Deravian says in the headnote to her recipe for Dahate Naan or “peasant bread” in Bottom of the Pot, “Stuffed ‘peasant’ or ‘rustic’ breads are common in all parts of Iran with slight variations to the recipe, usually in the filling, which distinguishes its provenance” (186). Her recipe, which has cardamom in the filling like the Maloufs’ but exchanges dates for walnuts, is also from the Caspian region, but a different province and ethnic group than the fried, rice flour-based Mazandaran bread I’d been chasing. A traceable step in the bread’s evolution? Or a happy coincidence of similar flavors? Perhaps both. Perhaps neither. Perhaps it doesn’t matter. The combination of savory-sweet here, with cumin, turmeric, dates, cardamom, and the orange zest I’m thinking of adding, making yet another version, is intriguing enough without knowing how and whether it moved from northern to southern Iran, acquiring yeast, stuffing, and the need for an oven on the way.

Until next week, then, when I hope to have a recipe and results to share. In the meantime, please be well, and if you know anything about this bread in particular or others like it, do leave a comment letting us know more about it!

 

2021: Project “Breads of the World”

The tree is down, the gifts are stowed (and a few more, of the monetary variety, used for items presently on order), and all of the ornaments are packed, except for a small nutcracker who hid beside one of my houseplants. I’m working on being hopeful about this year, and that’s about the closest I’m going to get to “resolutions.”

But I do want to post here more regularly, as always, and the years have shown me that this is more likely when I have an annual project to work on. This year, behind the trend as usual, I’m going with bread. I know, we spent a good portion of the year getting into (and probably out of again) sourdough and its discard potentials, and pizza crust, and perfecting decorative scoring. I hopped on the bus a bit later than many people did, as I noted a few months ago, but I’m firmly on board now even as many are disembarking in favor of whatever the next big thing proves to be.

My primary inspiration for this year’s project is a lovely man named Brendan Lynch. In case you’re behind, I’ll say only that he was a contestant in the third UK season of The Great British Bake-Off, and during his tenure there he explained he was engaged in a project to bake a number of “breads of the world.” That sounded so rewarding to me that I’ve latched decidedly onto the idea. 2021: Project “Breads of the World.” It’s an opportunity to cook and eat, but also to research and learn as I choose and develop recipes.

Before I blanket my kitchen in flour, though, two considerations. First, I want to be sure I really am looking worldwide. There are so many European breads, and as I noted to R. the other day, it would be easy to sit comfortably in France and Italy for the whole year (and not just in terms of baking, if I’m honest). But that’s not the world. It never has been. So even though I know some loaves of European origin will make their way in, I want to be sure I’m looking south and east as well. Injera from Ethiopia and sabaayad from Somalia. Persian komaj. Turkish simit. Filipino ensaymada. Buñuelos and pão de queijo and arepas and conchas and… you get the idea. And those are, I know, only a few of my options.

Second, I need to think a bit about what counts as bread. I’ve already decided quickbreads like banana or zucchini bread are exempt from this project. Despite their names, they are basically cake, and that isn’t what I’m after here. But I’m not sure I want to restrict myself solely to yeast-risen options. Biscuits aren’t bread, but naan or pita made with baking powder instead of yeast is. Parathas are bread, which means tortillas are too, though I don’t always think of them that way. And I don’t want to stay only in the savory realm either. Pannetone and sufganiyot and babka are breads, even though they are decidedly sweet.

So, while I restock my kitchen post-holiday-baking, let’s discuss. What do you think should count as “bread” for the purposes of this project? More importantly, what breads would you like to learn about and see here as I bake my way through 2021?

Project Cook: Soft-Centered Chocolates

Well. I wasn’t going to write anything today, especially not about this collection of chocolates I experimented my way through last weekend. But then E., a friend from college I had NO IDEA was following along (hi E! I’m so excited you’re here!!), asked on my humble-brag-okay-mostly-just-brag instagram post showing off my creations if I’d be posting the recipe or instructions here. And after I was done blushing, I remembered I had taken a few photos with my big camera along the way, and hey maybe I could put up a little something…

This collection was, as I said above, largely experimental, so I won’t be offering a precise recipe. I’d made three of them before with only a bit of adaptation: the amaretto truffles (top row), a white chocolate ganache spiked with amaretto as well as finely chopped almonds and dried apricots; the cranberry bourbon balls (second from bottom) were part of my Bittman project long ago, though in this iteration I used spiced rum, as one of my intended recipients doesn’t care for bourbon; and the whiskey caramels (bottom row), from the now long abandoned (I assume) blog Cheese and Chocolate, changing up that recipe only by coating the set caramel bars in dark chocolate and adding a sprinkle of sea salt on one corner.

What remains were, by rows, a failure-turned-unexpected-and-monumental-success (second from top); an easy win (third from top); and a disappointment (fourth from top or third from bottom, depending on how you’re counting). Just a little about each, and then a “recipe” and a few suggestions. The failure-turned-success I’m calling “White Russians”: an attempt at fudge that was too soft and poured out too thin, re-melted with more dark chocolate, some kahlua, and a little bit of vodka. This time it did set, so it got a coating of white chocolate and a line of espresso powder, and everyone who has tried it thus far has oohed and ahhed over it.

The “easy win” was a brandy and cherry truffle: a bit of brandy and a bit of luxardo cherry juice in the ganache, along with chopped luxardo cherries, a dark chocolate coating, and a dried cherry on top. I liked them and I wouldn’t say no to another (or two), but they aren’t the ones I keep coming back for. Maybe kirsch instead of brandy to heighten the cherry flavor?

The disappointment was one I made especially for R., who loooooooves the Middle Eastern confection halvah: basically a candy made from sesame and honey or sugar with a unique, sandy texture. I’d read this could be reproduced at home by mixing tahini and hot sugar syrup (I used honey), and tried out a recipe from The New York Times. While the flavor was great, the texture was somewhere between toffee and taffy: at first tooth-breakingly hard, then chewy enough to make me fear for my fillings. And despite halving the recipe, of course I ended up with more of these than of anything else. Nevertheless, I coated them in chocolate, sprinkled on some sesame seeds, and sent them along. None of my recipients has demanded I pay for their dental work yet, so I’m calling that a tentative success…

But enough of that, Chelsea, you’re probably saying. Tell us how to make the good ones. Right. Truffles and their ilk require three basic things: a ganache, which is a mixture of chocolate and (usually) cream, plain old melted chocolate to coat them, and some flavoring and/or decorating agent. Where it gets fun is in the flavoring: though you don’t want to overload the ganache that forms the center of your chocolates, you can probably crowd in as much as 1/4 cup of finely chopped dried fruit, or well-toasted nuts, or even candied citrus peel or crystalized ginger. Maybe even candy cane, if that’s your jam. I like to use a flavorful liqueur as part of the liquid component in mine, but you can replace that with something alcohol-free if you prefer – I’ve also used a ginger syrup as well as juice from luxardo cherries. I haven’t tried it, but a small amount of vanilla or almond extract would probably be great as well, or even one of those flavored syrups used for fancy coffee drinks or Italian sodas. And of course you could also just go pure with 100% cream.

Even though I said I wouldn’t, here’s a “recipe” and procedure. Let me know what you try, and may your holiday, if you celebrate this time of year, be bright.

Basic Ganache for Soft-Centered Chocolates
I’ve never timed myself on these – let’s estimate about 30 minutes to make the ganache, a few hours, or as much as overnight, to let it set, then another 30 minutes to coat the set centers. This is a project.
16 ounces semi-sweet, bittersweet, or white chocolate, divided
6-8 tablespoons heavy cream
Up to 2 tablespoons liqueur or liquid flavoring agent of your choice
Up to 1/4 cup finely chopped additions (see above for ideas)
Toppings of your choice, preferably related to the flavors inside
  • Prep a containment vessel: for 8 ounces of chocolate, I like to line a loaf pan with plastic wrap. You could probably also use parchment or wax paper; just be sure all the corners are covered.
  • Melt 8 ounces of the chocolate and the cream in a double boiler, or (my preferred method) a glass bowl over a pot of hot water. Stir frequently, and don’t let the hot water touch the bottom of the bowl or splash into it. How much cream you use depends on how much liquid flavoring agent you want. With liqueurs and syrups I’d suggest 6 TB cream and 2 TB liqueur. With an extract, which are usually extremely strong, you’ll want more cream and less flavoring.
  • When the chocolate and cream have melted together smoothly, stir in the liquid flavoring agent, if you’re using it, as well as any finely chopped additions you’re using.
  • Carefully pour and scrape the whole puddle into your lined containment vessel and refrigerate until set. I usually leave it overnight, but realistically this doesn’t take more than a few hours. Once it has set completely, remove the block from the pan and slice it into your desired size squares or bars, keeping in mind they will be a little bigger once they are coated in chocolate. If your set ganache seems soft after slicing (this will especially be true if you are using white chocolate), take out some extra insurance by stowing the pieces in the freezer for a bit before coating them.
  • To coat, melt the remaining 8 ounces of chocolate, either semi-sweet, bittersweet, or white, in a double boiler. Place a big sheet of wax paper or parchment paper on your counter. Using a tool of your choice (I like a pair of forks for this), dip in each piece of ganache one at a time until completely coated, lift and wait a few seconds to let the excess drip off (or scrape carefully, if you’re impatient), then remove to the wax or parchment paper. If you are adding a topping of some kind, sprinkle or place it on before the chocolate coating hardens.
  • Let the coated chocolates sit until completely set, then box up as desired (mini cupcake wrappers work nicely to set them in), or just pop straight into your mouth. I won’t tell.

*** Other, less-involved ideas: dip dried apricots, or candy canes, or shortbread cookies in chocolate! If you want to be fancy, you could apply a white chocolate drizzle after letting them dry. You could also coat marshmallows, or pre-made caramels, or pieces of fudge in the melted chocolate of your choice (or, if you’re looking to mellow the sweetness of fudge, in straight cocoa powder). Prefer sprinkles to a chocolate drizzle? Get it. Crushed up candy canes to peppermint powder? Go wild.

Smoked salmon sushi rolls

This is one of those meals we have all the time but it never occurs to me to post here. It’s just a weeknight meal. It doesn’t feel “impressive” or “blogworthy,” but as I was making it the sixth-or-so time in so many months, I finally asked myself why. Well, because, I answered (what? You don’t have these kind of conversations with yourself?), it’s so… simple. There’s not much to actually cook, it doesn’t take long, the ingredients are (mostly) really easy to find, and… why did I think this wasn’t worth posting again?

We’ve been calling these “sushi burritos” mainly due to size and shape, but they really are just unsliced maki rolls, filled with avocado, cucumber, pickled ginger, and a generous portion of smoked salmon. “No raw fish?” you’re thinking, “so how is that sushi?” Ah, but “sushi” refers not to the fish – though that is probably what many of us call to mind first when we hear the word – but the rice: short grain, combined with (usually) seasoned rice vinegar, and then wrapped, covered, or rolled with other ingredients.

Here I’m using smoked salmon instead of the more traditional uncooked fish. Though I agree it would never stand up against a beautiful slice of raw ahi, the substitution is nice for a few reasons. First, especially if you are limiting your trips to the grocery store right now, you don’t have to worry about using it immediately – convenient if your avocado is less ripe than you’d hoped. Second, it tends to be much less expensive. Third, the texture is not quite the same, but it is comparable – on the tongue this does not feel like cooked fish, and if you can find one that is not particularly smoky, the salmon flavor comes through nicely. You could also use a cured product like gravlax for an even purer salmon-y flavor. And if you aren’t comfortable purchasing or consuming raw fish at all, this is an easy workaround.

Aside from acquiring the ingredients, the most intimidating component of sushi for many people is the rolling: spreading the rice evenly over the nori, trying to keep all those central components together, ending up with a nice, tight roll and good shape. For me, though, it’s the slicing. That’s when things start to come apart: when you disrupt the structural integrity of the nori, now nice and flexible after absorbing some of the moisture and warmth of the rice, by running a usually-not-sharp-enough knife through it. Here I forgo all but one slice, drawing my sharpest knife just once through each long roll, on a diagonal, and calling it a day. We get to the eating part faster that way.

I noted above that the ingredients for this meal are mostly easy to find. If you have an Asian market nearby, they are very easy to locate. If you don’t, your grocery store probably has an “ethnic foods” aisle with most of these ingredients: the rice vinegar, nori sheets, and pickled ginger (the same stuff, often lightly pink, that comes on your plate next to the blob of wasabi at your local sushi joint) will more than likely be there. If you can’t find wasabi mayonnaise, that same aisle will probably have various options for prepared wasabi – I just get a tube of it and add it to regular mayonnaise until the degree of nostril-tingling spice suits my fancy.

I’m also using furikake here (same aisle), a rice seasoning that is basically a mixture of sesame seeds and finely diced nori, seasoned with salt and sugar. My current container also has bonito flakes, and there are spicy varieties too. Bonus: furikake is also a madly delicious seasoning mixture for popcorn.

If you are efficient about all this, you can prep your vegetables and get everything else ready in the time it takes the rice to cook. My rice cooker usually requires about 25 minutes, and I find I can usually have everything else prepped and laid out in that time span. (Yes, I use a rice cooker for this instead of cooking my rice on the stove. I like the insurance that it offers, since it switches to “keep warm” when it’s done instead of, you know, continuing to cook into a blackened mess because I forgot to set a timer and got busy with other tasks…).

The play of flavors here, as you know if you enjoy sushi, is so comforting and so, just, good. The avocado and salmon are rich and fatty, so the watery crunch of cucumber and the pickled ginger punch provide a nice foil. The wasabi mayonnaise is just background spiciness, and the nori, warmed and moistened by the rice, takes on a chewiness I really like against the seasoned rice. You could serve this however you want, though we like two rolls a-piece, each one sliced in half at a steep angle. No need for utensils here – we just pick them up, pinch the uncut ends together a bit to avoid anything escaping, and enjoy the resistance of the chewy nori wrapper with each bite. You could likely also wrap them into cones for a more traditional hand roll shape, though I’ll admit I haven’t tried it that way yet, and thus I’m including instructions only for my method.

Smoked salmon sushi rolls
4 whole rolls (serves 2)
30-40 minutes, depending on how fast your rice cooks (some rice cookers take longer than others, and can differ from the speed at which rice cooks on the stove)
2 cups short grain white rice, cooked on the stove or in a rice cooker
¼ cup seasoned rice vinegar (if yours is unseasoned, stir in 1 teaspoon sugar and 1 teaspoon salt)
optional: 2-3 tablespoons furikake seasoning
about ½ a small cucumber, cut into long planks as thin as possible
4-6 ounces lightly smoked salmon, cut or torn into small pieces
½ ripe avocado, very thinly sliced
1-2 tablespoons pickled ginger (also called sushi ginger)
4 sheets nori
1-2 teaspoons wasabi mayonnaise

 

  • First, cook your rice. Use the time as it cooks to prep the other ingredients: thinly slice the cucumber using a knife or y-shaped vegetable peeler. Cut the avocado into very thin slices. Cut or tear the salmon into small pieces (this makes for easier eating). Fish out the appropriate amount of ginger from the container. Get everything laid out for easier construction.
  • When the rice is done, immediately mix in the vinegar and, if using, the furikake seasoning. It will be extremely tart at first, but the vinegar flavor will mellow as the rice cools. Set it aside until it is cool enough to handle.
  • To build the rolls, lay a piece of nori on your work surface, rough side (if there is one) facing up, short end toward you (most nori I’ve worked with is slightly rectangular, not exactly square). Spread a small amount of wasabi mayonnaise evenly over the nori, leaving a small border on all sides.
  • Scoop on about ⅓ cup of rice and use your fingers to spread/sprinkle it somewhat evenly over the nori sheet, leaving a half inch or so border at the far edge. About half an inch in from the edge closest to you, place two slices of cucumber, then about a quarter of the salmon pieces, then a few thin slices of avocado, then a few pieces of ginger. As you can see in my photos above, these should be arranged horizontally from your perspective, and all fairly tightly together.
  • Begin to roll the nori sheet by folding the short end closest to you up and over the row of fish and vegetables, then continue to roll until you get to the opposite side. The half-inch border you left rice-free will ensure a clean closure of sorts.
  • I like to slice these just once, on a diagonal, with a very sharp knife. Then we pinch the uncut ends together a bit and eat them out of hand, like a small burrito.

Project Cook: Apple Spice Cake with Walnuts and Ginger

Sometimes dishes emerge from nowhere – no set, traceable inspiration; just an idea baked or simmered into existence. Philosophical. Cartesian cooking. Sometimes they are more geographical, linked to location and experience – blogs are rife with this, aren’t they? “This cake reminds me of my pilgrimage to…” But sometimes they are more narrative: visible evolution, each major ingredient or element its own origin story, entering the room at a moment that changes the direction of the final dish.

No surprise that the narrative method is one I favor. This magnificent stack began life as a carrot cake. That is, I wanted to make a cake, and after seeing (and resisting) a container of crystalized pineapple at the grocery store, carrot cake with crystalized pineapple sounded perfect. And then I thought about adding crystalized ginger too. And then I wondered whether some apple along with the carrot would be good, because fall, and pineapple turned into a third wheel that rolled away from the party. And then, inspired by old episodes I was watching of The Great British Bake Off, I wondered about adding dried apple, and maybe finely chopped, toasted walnuts to the filling instead of just plain cream cheese frosting, and suddenly the carrots – the very namesake of the cake! – started to feel out of place.

Suddenly I was planning an apple walnut cake. I tore through several cookbooks and a recipe site or two looking at various apple cake recipes – most rely on applesauce for both flavor and moisture, which I wasn’t interested in using – and came upon Deb’s roasted apple spice sheet cake, which does have a fair amount of applesauce, but also chunks of pre-cooked apples that, as she puts it, transform into “soft pillows of apple pie-like puddles.” I didn’t read much past that before deciding I, too, must have such puddles in my cake.

But I still wanted the moisture and freshness I knew shreds of raw apple would bring, and so while I dithered over recipes and quantities I remembered the cake’s initial origins and adapted my favorite carrot cake recipe: a triple layer extravagance from The Bon Appetit Cookbook that calls for pre-toasted nuts and a thick, rich, almost too sweet cream cheese frosting. Not much changes in the cake itself, aside from the significant shift from carrot to apple, except that I subbed in brown butter instead of the as-written vegetable oil, and as usual, it was a worthwhile extra effort.

This cake winds up so packed with threads of grated raw apple, toasted and chopped nuts, crystalized ginger, and the soft chunks of roasted apple, that it almost doesn’t feel like enough batter to encase the additions. The layers when you spread them into the pans are thin, but they do puff as they bake, into lovely, spicy, delicate layers you really do have to let cool for at least 15 minutes before taking them out of the pan. What became my middle layer, which emerged from the pan in six or seven moistly crumbling pieces, is proof positive of this. (Worth noting: if that kind of disintegration happens to you, reform the layer to the best of your ability on a sheet of plastic wrap, enclose it tightly, and put it in the freezer for half an hour or so before stacking and frosting. I was amazed by how well the pieces magically re-adhered.) If you’re worried about the fragility, I think you could get away with adding an additional ¼ cup flour to the recipe and still retain adequate moistness, but I haven’t tried this. If you do, let me know how it works out.

There are all sorts of other fun things you could do with the cake itself to change it up. Tart dried cherries would be lovely along with or instead of the golden raisins I’ve called for. Those raisins could easily be re-plumped in rum or brandy, a step I’m sorry I didn’t think of until my layers were already in the oven. The walnuts could be swapped out for pecans. You could play with the variety of apples you use – I almost always tend toward Granny Smiths or another tart green apple for cooking because I like their flavor and sturdiness, but you could mix and match as you please.

What I really want to talk about here, though, is the filling and the frosting. When I frost a cake, with a few notable exceptions, I typically put the same thing between the layers that I do around the outside. Here, though, whether it was thanks to Bake Off (likely) or just lightening strike inspiration, I wanted some texture in the filling, and the finely chopped mixture of dried apples and toasted walnuts woven through the cream cheese frosting was delightful.

As for that cream cheese frosting, it’s serviceable, easily pipe-able, and as rich and delicious as you could ever want. But N. and I noticed that, at least on the first day and despite the tablespoon of lemon juice I added for mitigation purposes, it is very, very sweet. Not surprising, given the number of cups of powdered sugar my recipe called for, but challenging for an insomniac to consider for an afternoon snack. So I have some thoughts, which I’ll admit I’ve tried exactly none of.

  1. You could decrease the quantity of powdered sugar down from 4 to 3 cups (you might end up wanting to add less vanilla as well, if you do this). This will produce a wetter frosting that might be harder to pipe, if that’s what you’re going for, but I think it would probably still spread successfully and stay where you put it.
  2. You could make the frosting a day ahead (would that make a difference? I don’t know…). Or, perhaps more logically, you could plan to make the whole thing a day before you serve it. We thought the whole cake tasted great – maybe even a bit better – after a night in the fridge.
  3. You could add a dried spice or herb to the frosting for an additional, not-so-sweet flavor. I thought first of ginger, which would make sense with the spices in the cake, but then, quite unconventionally, I thought of sage. Good with apples, decidedly savory, and about as stereotypically Fall as you can get, would a teaspoon or so of dried sage, finely crumbled and beaten into the frosting, tamp down that sweetness a bit?
  4. You could go the “naked” or “semi-naked” route, using only a small amount of frosting and spreading it on such that the sides of the cake artfully show through. You’ll have a fair bit of frosting left over if you opt for this route, but cream cheese frosting freezes quite well so I don’t see that as a bad thing. Emergency back-up frosting feels like a good idea.

Since I’m sure you’re limiting your social gatherings at this point and thus you might not be sure you really want a triple layer cake sitting around, you’ll be happy to know that this cake is a good candidate for freezing. We ate, over the course of I’m-ashamed-to-admit-how-few-days-it-was, about half of it, and then I carefully plastered over the cut portions with some extra frosting so no cake was exposed. Leaving the fully frosted cake in the fridge overnight ensures the frosting crusts a little bit, which makes it easy to wrap securely in plastic wrap and deposit in the freezer until you next need a rich, spicy, sweet reminder of fall.

Apple Spice Cake with Walnuts and Ginger
Adapted from The Bon Appétit Cookbook
Makes 3 9-inch layers, serves 10-12
About 90 minutes, plus cooling and frosting time
For the cake:
1 cup walnuts, divided (see filling and frosting ingredients, below)
4 large, tart apples, like Granny Smiths, peeled, divided
1½ cups unsalted butter (3 sticks)
2 cups granulated sugar
4 large eggs
2 cups all-purpose flour (as noted above, if you’re worried about very fragile layers, you could probably get away with 2¼ cups flour, but I haven’t tried that yet)
2 teaspoons baking soda
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
¼ teaspoon ground ginger
½ cup golden raisins (optional: soak in warmed rum or brandy for 10-20 minutes to rehydrate, then drain)
¼ cup chopped crystalized ginger
For the filling and frosting:
½ cup dried apples, finely chopped or cut with kitchen scissors
¼ cup finely chopped walnuts, from the 1 cup total listed above
½ cup unsalted butter (1 stick), at room temperature
16 ounces cream cheese, also at room temperature (I prefer Philadelphia brand)
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1 tablespoon lemon juice
4 cups powdered sugar (see numbered thoughts on frosting sweetness, above recipe)
Optional: extra dried apples, crystalized ginger, and cinnamon, for decoration
  • To make the cake, preheat the oven to 375F and put the walnuts on a baking tray in the oven to toast while it is preheating. When they smell fragrant and have darkened slightly in color, they are ready. Remove and set aside until cool, then chop roughly.
  • Quarter and core 2 of the peeled apples, arrange on a foil-lined baking sheet and roast in the preheated 375F oven until they are browned underneath and dry to the touch, about 20 minutes. When done, set them aside to cool, then chop them roughly into chunks of your desired size.
  • Meanwhile, brown the butter and prepare the remaining apples. For the butter, melt all 3 sticks in a medium saucepan and let cook over medium heat until the solids on the bottom take on a toasty brown color. First it will foam up, then subside, then brown. It’s easiest to use a pot that does not have a dark surface, since you can see color changes in the butter more easily. Once those bits have browned, remove the pot from the heat and let cool.
  • For the remaining two apples, grate on the large holes of a box grater or use the shredding disc of a food processor (be careful to avoid stems and seeds). Gather the shreds into a clean kitchen towel and give them one good squeeze, then set aside. Don’t squeeze them out too much; we want some of that moisture for the cake.
  • Once all your pre-cooked ingredients have cooled down, lower the oven temperature to 325F and make the batter. In a large bowl (I used the bowl of my stand mixer), beat the sugar and the cooled brown butter together. Be sure to scrape in all of those browned bits from the bottom of the pot – that’s where much of the toasty flavor resides! Add the eggs one at a time, beating well.
  • Add the dry ingredients, sifting if you want to bother. I never do.
  • Stir in the golden raisins, ¾ cup of the toasted, roughly chopped walnuts, the crystalized ginger, and the grated apple. Finally, gently fold in the chunks of roasted apple.
  • Divide the mixture evenly between 3 well-greased 9-inch round baking pans. You can line with parchment paper too, if you want the extra insurance. The layer of batter in each will be thin. If you, like me, only have two 9-inch pans, bake two layers first, then use one of those pans again for the final layer after the first batch has cooled a bit.
  • Bake in the preheated 325F oven until a toothpick inserted comes out with just a few moist crumbs, 30-35 minutes.
  • Cool layers in pans for at least 15 minutes, then remove from pans and cool completely. I’m serious about that 15-minute thing, by the way. Trying to take them out before that could result in disintegration!
  • To make the frosting and filling, finely chop the remaining ¼ cup of walnuts and combine with the finely chopped dried apples in a small bowl.
  • In a large bowl, beat together the room temperature butter, cream cheese, vanilla, and lemon juice until well combined. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and the beaters to ensure full integration.
  • Add the powdered sugar ½ cup at a time, to prevent cough-inducing clouds, and beat well after each addition, until the frosting reaches your desired thickness.
  • Scoop out about 1 cup of the frosting and add it to the small bowl with the walnuts and dried apples; use a flexible spatula to mix in. This is your filling.
  • To fill and frost the cake, position one fully cooled cake layer on a plate or cake stand. (If you are messy like me, you might want to arrange strips of wax paper to cover the exposed parts of the cake stand or plate while you frost.) Using a flexible rubber or an off-set icing spatula, spread about ½ of the filling evenly over this first layer of cake, going all the way to the edges. Add the next layer of cake and repeat, then top with the final layer of cake.
  • Use the remaining cream cheese frosting to frost the cake as desired. If you want to do a crumb coat, use a small amount of frosting to coat the entire cake, not worrying about full coverage. When done, pop it in the fridge for a few minutes to let any crumbs that have come unstuck from the cake set into the frosting as it chills. Then remove from the fridge and continue. I usually scoop about two thirds of the frosting right onto the top layer of cake, then use an off-set spatula to gently push it toward the edges of the cake and down the sides, filling in any uneven gaps and creating as smooth a surface as I can. You may end up with extra frosting, which is convenient if you are thinking of freezing part of the cake, as explained above.
  • This looks lovely with just the frosting, but if you want to decorate a little, consider artfully arranging a few dried apple rings and chunks of crystalized ginger in the center of the cake, then dusting the top edge with cinnamon before slicing and serving.

Raw brussels salad with pecorino and panko

Perhaps you thought, given election results and my Halloween wordplay in last week’s post, that this week would offer something sweet. I hope, then, you won’t think a salad composed mainly of raw brussels sprouts a horrible trick.

I had in my files an idea for a brussels sprouts salad with wafer-thin slices of radish and apple tossed with buttery bread crumbs, and then I saw an instagram picture of a salad by LA chef Antonia Lofaso, which looked to be a huge mound of shredded brussels sprouts studded with grapes and pecorino cheese, and everything clicked together.

Here, you’ll process a full pound of brussels sprouts: a few large leaves will likely fall off or be easily peeled away while you trim the stem end and clean up the sprouts; reserve those – they make lovely little cups in the salad itself that collect showers of cheese and panko. In fact, you could likely do the entire salad of individually harvested brussels sprout leaves, but I didn’t have the patience for that. Instead, I turned to my food processor, where I see two possible choices: for a texture like a fine coleslaw, you could shred. For some variation in size and texture, you can pulse, which is what I opted for. This results in some very small leafy bits, and some more substantial chunks.

The sprouts, the transparently thin slices of radish and apple, tossed together in a lemon and honey vinaigrette, would themselves make a perfectly serviceable and somewhat virtuous salad course. But of course that’s not really me. All of those vegetables – and you, about to consume them – deserve a glorious topper. In this case, that takes the form of bread and cheese. First, a generous shower of pecorino romano cheese – you could certainly grate or microplane it, but I find I like the impact of what Deb from Smitten Kitchen calls “rubble-like” cheese so appealing and so easily done in the food processor already used for the sprouts, that I will always choose it over the wispier option produced by grating (at least for this salad). The final coup de grace is almost a full cup of panko bread crumbs deeply browned in butter. If you can’t do bread, you can easily make this gluten- and wheat-free by subbing in ground almonds or hazelnuts and get roughly the same effect, I’d wager.

In either case, what you’re left with is a glorious mountain of veg, topped with a deep snowcap of cheese and crumbs. With a seasonal brew or a glass of something sparkling on the side, perhaps, I think that’s a tremendous treat.

Raw brussels salad with pecorino and panko
Serves 2 generously, 3 more moderately
20-30 minutes
3 TB unsalted butter
¾ cup panko bread crumbs
½ teaspoon salt
1 pound brussels sprouts
3-4 radishes
1 small granny smith apple
2 teaspoons honey
2 teaspoons whole grain or Dijon mustard
zest of 1 lemon
¼ cup (4 TB) lemon juice
2-4 TB olive oil (I like my dressing very acidic)
salt and pepper to taste
½ cup grated or ground pecorino romano cheese

 

  • In a medium skillet, melt the butter over medium heat and add the panko and ½ teaspoon salt. Stir frequently until the panko is uniformly dark golden, then turn off the heat and set the panko aside to cool completely.
  • For the vegetables, first trim the brussels sprouts stems and remove any wilted or damaged leaves. Peel off a few easily removed leaves whole and set aside. If you want the sprouts shredded, like a fine coleslaw, use the shredding disc and feed the whole sprouts into the tube until all are reduced to tattered ribbons. If you prefer a more varied texture, as pictured, put the whole sprouts into the food processor bowl with the regular blade and pulse at 2 second intervals until they are mostly chopped but a few larger chunks remain. Dump and scrape all the brussels spouts, including the whole leaves you reserved, into a large bowl.
  • Trim the stem ends off of the radishes, then use the tails to hold them steady while you slice them as thinly as possible. Quarter and core the apple, then slice it thinly. Add the apples and radishes to the bowl with the brussels sprouts.
  • To make the dressing, stir together the honey, mustard, and lemon zest with a small whisk or a fork. Stir in the lemon juice, then add 2 TB of olive oil in a slow stream, whisking constantly, until the dressing emulsifies. Taste for seasoning and adjust as desired, adding salt, pepper, and more olive oil as you wish. Pour the dressing over the vegetables and mix well.
  • If you haven’t already, grate or grind your pecorino cheese. I like to use the food processor for this: once it is empty of brussels sprouts (no need to wash in between), add the cheese in small chunks, then run the processor on high until the chunks are ground down into a fine rubble similar in size to the panko.
  • If you want to serve the salad in individual portions, use tongs or your hands to create a tall pile of dressed vegetables on plates or shallow bowls. Sprinkle on a healthy snowcap of cheese, then a mountain of panko right on top.
  • If you want to serve the salad in a large serving bowl, use the tongs or your hands to push the dressed vegetables together in the center, creating a tall pile. Top with the cheese, then the panko, for a thick drift of golden crunchiness right on top.