Labor Day Grill

Happy Labor Day, and thank you unions!

I don’t have a recipe to share with you – as was the case a few weeks ago, the recent heat in our area meant we didn’t cook so much as throw anything that could be grilled in that general direction.

The ubiquity of grilling and barbecues at Labor Day weekend parties (at least in other years – if you’re having a party this year, it involves masks and social distancing, right?!) got me wondering: why do we celebrate this holiday, first signed into law by Grover Cleveland in 1894 (as a response, by the way, to a huge strike of railway manufacturers, workers, and their union demanding better treatment – this article explains a bit more, including work we have left to do!), with grilled and picnic foods?

The most straightforward answer seems to be that our method of celebrating has little to do with the holiday’s origins – we don’t think much about labor on Labor Day (aside from perhaps being happy we aren’t doing any), nor that many people who labor away don’t get any break on this day intended to celebrate workers. Our celebrations, beer and burgers and potato salad with or without mayo, center around a final gasp of summer glory before the inevitable slide into fall temperatures, which, I guess, are real in some places…

It’s interesting that this tradition of barbecue, used on a day intended to celebrate the people – the work force – is also such a people’s cooking method, by which I mean its origins are multiple and in many ways quite humble. I’ve alluded previously to the African diasporic origins of barbecue; meat can be slow cooked over a fire while the labor force – Black slaves, in this case – works all day.

But indigenous American and Caribbean groups also used this low-and-slow method of cooking meat over a flame, and as the method spread, brought north and west by colonizing and colonized groups, adaptations were inevitable. The British added basting for moisture, painting the meat with sauce while it cooked. German and French immigrants contributed to the mustard-based sauce popular in parts of South Carolina.

And grilling meat over a fire is hardly just an American practice. Kebabs figure in Indian, Pakistani, Arab, and Turkish foodways. Though we usually think horizontally when we grill or barbecue, gyros and al pastor, itself developed from the shawarma of Lebanese immigrants to Mexico (right? I had no idea! Consider this a plug for David Chang’s Netflix show Ugly Delicious, though be warned: the language is not exactly G-rated), tend toward the vertical: a tall spit standing between floor and ceiling from which slowly rotating meat is carved. And then there’s Nigerian suya or mixed grill, spicy with cayenne, earthy with ground peanuts. And of course there are so, so many more.

All of these origin stories, these food traditions and adaptations, have become part of the American story with all its tangles and troubles, as have the people who imagined, cooked, and ate them, contributing their ideas, their labor, and their traditions. So in some senses, far from just a final excuse to cook over flames while summer fades, grilling on Labor Day seems like just the right way to celebrate.

Sourdough Soft Pretzels

I think it took me a little longer to fall into the sourdough-everything craze than it did some people, but that could be because I’ve been nurturing a little starter for some time now. Left with a bit of discard, though, from a (semi)weekly bake of my standard sourdough loaves, I decided to branch out from pancakes, and revisited the humble-but-stellar pretzel. Thus although I don’t have a clever or nostalgia-laced story to offer today, in an effort to get myself back into this blog-thing I supposedly have and considering that we mowed through the first batch of these in about twenty minutes and were already planning a second, they certainly seemed worth sharing!

I’m adapting two recipes here: one from King Arthur Baking Company (have you seen they’ve updated their name?!), and one from Smitten Kitchen, which she in turn adapted from Martha Stewart. The KAF (or, I guess, KABC?) recipe doesn’t include the traditional boiling step, moving their shaped dough straight into the oven after a single rise. I wanted the extra browning and chewy texture the baking soda boil offers (I have neither the materials nor the courage to use food grade lye… at least not yet…), so I used SK’s procedure for that part.

We had our half dozen chewy, slightly tangy results dunked in a beer cheese sauce – a simple, roux-thickened mix of stout, milk, mustard, and cheddar whisked into a smooth, thick cheese gravy,* and, in an attempt to be slightly virtuous, a side of sautéed cabbage.

Enjoy the sequence of pretzel-shaping shots below, featuring N. as my arm-and-hand model (he was also very keen to perfect his technique, so even though I told him he only needed to shape one pretzel while I photographed, he did three of the half dozen we made that night before I pushed him aside – I wanted to play with dough ropes too!).

* cheese gravy sounds weird, I know. But this had more body than just a sauce; it clung thickly to the pretzels and could have made a great macaroni and cheese base. It didn’t have the right ingredients or flavors to be a queso (Tex-Mex) or a fondue (Swiss), so I’m going to embrace the weirdness. Cheese gravy it is.

 

Sourdough Soft Pretzels
Adapted from King Arthur Baking Company and Smitten Kitchen
Makes 12 (but easily halved; I’ve included quantities for both below)
2-3 hours (it will take longer to twist and boil 12 pretzels than it does for 6)

 

For 12:
¾ cup + 2 TB water
2 teaspoons active dry yeast
1 TB honey
1 cup sourdough starter, unfed / discard
3-3½ cups bread flour
¼ cup milk
1 TB butter
1½ teaspoons salt

 

For 6:
⅜ cup + 1 TB warm water
1 teaspoon active dry yeast
½ TB honey
½ cup sourdough starter, unfed / discard
1½-1¾ cups bread flour
2 TB milk
½ TB butter
¾ teaspoons salt

 

For the boil:
water to fill a 12-inch skillet
¼ cup baking soda
2 TB brown sugar

 

To bake:
Coarse salt or pretzel salt

 

  • Combine the yeast, warm water, and honey in a medium bowl (I used the bowl of my stand mixer). Let them sit for 5-10 minutes, until the mixture is bubbly and smells like bread. Add 1½ cups of the flour, and all of the sourdough starter, milk, butter, and salt.
  • Using the dough hook, knead into a smooth but slightly sticky dough; for me this took about 5 minutes on medium speed. If it really seems like it is too wet (too sticky), add the remaining ¼ cup of flour and knead at least 2 minutes longer.
  • Cover the dough and leave it to rest for 45 minutes, ideally in a warm place. It will only rise a little bit, so don’t be alarmed.
  • Line two baking sheets with parchment paper, then dump and pull your risen dough out onto a lightly floured board. Using a knife or a bench scraper, divide the dough into 12 even lumps (or 6 if you are making a half recipe).
  • Now the part that can seem intimidating: shaping the pretzels. Working with one piece of dough at a time, use your fingers and the palms of your hands to roll the lump or ball of dough into a long, even rope about 18 inches long. Above you can see N. measuring the one he’s working on. Note: too much flour on your board here is not a good thing. You don’t want the rope to stick (as you can see some of ours did), but you do need some friction or the dough will just slide around on the board instead of rolling and elongating.
  • Drape the 18-inch rope into a U shape on your board. Holding each end between your thumb and forefinger, but leaving the bottom of the U on the board, gently cross the left side over the right side about 2 inches from each end. Repeat, again crossing the (new) left side over the (new) right side so you have two twists in your pretzel. Now, again holding one end in each thumb and forefinger, flip the ends down to the bottom of the U shape to form a pretzel. Pinch the points where they intersect with the U a little bit to keep them in place. Gently but quickly, relocate your shaped pretzel to one of the lined baking sheets. Repeat with the remaining dough.
  • When you have twisted all 12 (or all 6) pretzels into shape, stow them in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes. This is a pretty soft dough, so plunging them right into the boil might result in disintegration.
  • While the pretzels chill, fill a 12-inch skillet about ¾ of the way with water and bring it to a boil. This is also a good time to preheat the oven to 350F, and to line an additional baking sheet with parchment paper.
  • After at least 30 minutes in the refrigerator, remove the tray(s) of pretzels and set them near the stovetop. Carefully, (carefully!), add the baking soda and brown sugar to the boiling water. There will be a lot of abrupt bubbling and fizzing! Stir gently to disperse and dissolve, then carefully add the pretzels 2 or 3 at a time. I find this should be done gently but with speed, to prevent the dough from stretching out of shape.
  • Let the pretzels boil in the bath for about 30 seconds, then use a strainer or spatula to flip. Boil another 30 seconds on the second side, then carefully, again using the strainer or spatula, remove the pretzels from the water and arrange them with space in between on the empty parchment lined baking sheet. Repeat with the remaining pretzels, letting the water come back to a boil between each batch. They won’t grow too much in the oven, but you don’t want to overcrowd them; I would suggest no more than 4 on each baking sheet unless they are very compact.
  • While the pretzels are still wet from the baking soda bath, sprinkle on some coarse salt or pretzel salt, then slide into the preheated oven and bake 25-30 minutes, until they are deeply golden and have a slightly crisp crust.
  • Remove from the oven and consume, with glee, as soon as they are cool enough to handle (or, if you’re me, a few minutes before that…).

“slow food”

There is beauty in slowness. I recently ran across the argument that we (as Americans, in particular) don’t value times of slowness and times of do-nothing-ness because they are times lacking in productivity, and for us, lack of productivity = lack of worth. So because I am not actively producing something when I curl in my favorite chair or “succumb” to the feeling of not wanting to read an article or compose a post or imagine a dish, I am being “lazy” or “wasting” my time.

But immediacy, and busyness, and the constant need to be doing something “worthwhile” can be damaging. I have to remind myself of that, especially as I hold in my consciousness the truth that I haven’t posted here in over a month, and mentally wring my hands that I haven’t been motivated to get in the kitchen and photograph my doings or try to imagine a dish that doesn’t already exist in 25 easier, quicker, and cleverer versions than the one I’m just beginning to consider.

This mental wringing has led to two possible “projects” for 2020, both of which I initially leapt upon with great enthusiasm. Yes. This was it. And then, as the first week of the month and then the second passed, and I started to consider grocery lists and recipe structures as well as planning my own scholarship and a sudden spate of meetings and a few necessary jobs on the house and a possible family visit and a handful of get-togethers with friends, they fizzled. And that’s okay.

So I have to remind myself, as I watch another week go by and get yet another (five or six at least) notification(s) from various social media connections to this blog that it’s been a while since I last posted, that slow is okay. Not posting is okay. It’s okay, in a labor of love that this blog is intended to be, if I don’t toss something up there just for the sake of posting. It’s okay to let things mull and slosh around in my brain for a while, deciding what comes next. This is an especially good reminder given the other kind of writing I’m sinking into this month, which is entirely academic: it’s okay if it unrolls slowly.

These truths together – that doing “nothing” is okay, and that slow does not mean lazy – help me see that, at least for a little while, I may need to change directions here, in this little space. This has been for a long time a recipe blog. It has been a place I use to show you what I am cooking in words and in images and provide you with the capability, through a recipe that is usually carefully planned but sometimes, I’ll admit with only a glimmer of shame, approximated, to recreate the dish about which I must wax poetic. But this space began, back in 2008, as a replacement for an old Live Journal that was turning into a meal-planning diary. It was a place for me to talk about food: the food I was growing, the food I was cooking, the food I was consuming and what I thought about it. And that was exciting.

I think, for a little while at least, I’m going to return to that. Instead of fighting myself to create, develop, and perfect a dish that can be photographed beautifully and codified into an easy-to-follow recipe, which is how I’ve felt about this space in the last couple of months, I’m going to take a breath and just… talk about food. It’s a bit of a low-pressure refresh: slow, thought driven instead of schedule-driven, reflective and free.

Let’s see what happens.

King Arthur Flour (Cherry) Brownies

For several years now, I’ve been pursuing the perfect brownie. Most brownie aficionados battle over fudgy vs. cakey or center vs. edge (speaking of which, are you aware of this piece of kitchen equipment?). My quest, though, is all about the flaky, shiny top. The perfect brownie, for me (aside from being fudgy-but-not-too-fudgy-and-definitely-a-center-piece-thanks-very-much), has a deep chocolate flavor, fairly dense texture, but then a crispy, wafer-like layer that magically forms during baking and, once cool, reflect the light back as you gaze lovingly at it before gobbling it up.

But the recipes I’ve tried don’t always have that result. I’ve definitely accomplished the deep, rich chocolate flavor, but the shiny top crust eludes me. I’ve tried suggestions to beat the eggs a long time, getting them really foamy, and I’ve read several ideas about chocolate chips, rather than unsweetened chocolate, as the source of the flaky shine. I haven’t yet achieved it myself, though.

But as of last weekend, I’ve come really close. There was a hint of a top layer, just barely flaky, and though it wasn’t consistently shiny, I could see the barest shimmer in a few spots. Like the tarte au citron au David Lebovitz a few months ago, this isn’t my recipe. It’s from King Arthur Flour. But I’m offering a suggestion or two and one very worthwhile addition, so that ideally our next pan of brownies comes out perfect.

KAF relies on two sources of chocolate in their mix: unsweetened cocoa powder, and the aforementioned chocolate chips. It seems the chips add just enough additional fat and sugar to the mix to help form that flaky sheen as the brownies bake. KAF also requires you to melt the butter and partially dissolve the sugar before bringing the batter together. It’s a little extra work, but getting the sugar dissolved faster is evidently part of the magic.

The recipe I’m linking to below suggests melting the butter, then stirring in the sugar and bringing it up to 110-120F, mixing that into the egg and cocoa mixture you’ve already created, and then dumping in flour, 2 cups of chocolate chips, and stirring “until smooth.” I surmised this means until the chips have melted into the rest of the mixture, but for me, by the time I was stirring in the chips the rest of the batter had cooled down enough that there wasn’t enough residual heat to melt them, and I didn’t want to keep mixing lest I start developing the gluten in the flour and end up with tough brownies. So next time, and what you might try in the meantime, is to add the chips right into the melted butter and sugar mixture. Stir them up to get them good and melted before combining with the rest of the ingredients. Maybe that, at long last, will produce the shattering shininess I’ve been craving.

One other adjustment to KAF’s already delicious recipe: for added interest and to cut sweetness a bit, I dumped in a heaping cup of tart dried cherries along with the chips and flour. My tasters found this an extremely worthwhile addition; studded with tart little pops, the brownies become more complex in flavor, and the cherries plump a little during baking and stay moist for several days afterward. I considered steeping the cherries in brandy for a half hour or so before mixing them in, but one of my taste testers is pregnant, so this time around I skipped the booze and was perfectly satisfied.

You can find the King Arthur Flour recipe I worked with here.

If you would like to add cherries, as I did, mix 1 heaping cup of tart dried cherries (such as Montmorency) into the batter along with the flour, then proceed as in the KAF recipe.

Tarte au Citron au David Lebovitz

Now with photos!

As I mentioned way back in August, while in France this summer N. fell head-over-heels-silly in love with tarte au citron. This is far from shocking; as far as I’ve been able to determine – and I’ve been feeding him for some time now – his two favorite flavoring agents are lemon and plain old black pepper.

Of course I intended to make him one – well, us; I can’t say I don’t also love what is essentially lemon curd in pie form – but somehow months passed and I never got around to it. And this weekend, facing down the disappointment of a wonderful green salsa I intended to share with you until it almost caused an electrical fire and may have destroyed my blender, at which point I stopped paying attention to quantities and photography, I had to square off against the equally important truths that it’s been almost a month since I last published anything here, and that I just didn’t feel like engaging in recipe development to try and make something innovative when the existing reality is basically perfection already.

So I’m trying something new. I’m allowing myself an option I shouldn’t think of as “lazy,” but as informative. I’m reporting on a recipe I used. Here, I’ve made David Lebovitz’s tarte au citron, employing an unusual method for tart dough he learned from a friend, and a filling that was exactly what I needed to make loving use of two lemon-filled bags I received recently from friends (thanks, M. and A!). Those contributions not used here went into a big pitcher of pisco sours I, regrettably, didn’t think to photograph until they were half gone. What kind of blogger even am I?

The method for the dough reminded me of the base for pate a choux, which you’d use for cream puffs, eclairs, or churros: the butter is melted and the flour gets stirred into it; no obsession with cold fat here. I found the quantity of dough just a touch less than I comfortably wanted to press into my tart pan, and in fact a few cracks did develop as it baked, but the genius idea of saving a piece of raw dough “about the size of a raspberry” to patch cracks prevented any filling leakage.

I do think I cooked the filling a little longer than I should have, as it took a while to strain and there were some suspiciously eggy looking bits left in my sieve. But hey, less time in the oven?

N. made “mmm” noises a lot while he ate his slice, so I think it passed muster, though the edges of the crust were uneven and we weren’t sitting at a table outside a restaurant in a cobbled alley in the south of France. The tart shell here is buttery and crisp, though I wonder if cooking the butter a touch longer would offer the extra luxury of brown butter flavor. Many of Lebovitz’s commenters said it was flaky; I found it more like shortbread, but was pleased with the texture. The curd inside is rich and silky and not overly sweet; tasting it made me salivate a little in a way I appreciate from tart desserts.

My “original” addition here is limited to adding some blackberries before serving. While it’s certainly not particularly innovative to add fruit to a dessert, they were a nice textural change and flavor pairing for the lemon. And they were on sale. If you’re going to do the same, you might even toss them lightly in some sugar before placing and serving (though if you’re going to try this, you’ll need to slice and eat fast, because sugaring the berries will make them bleed juice into the pristine sunshiny surface of your tart).

Tart Dough recipe here

Lemon filling and assembly recipe here

 

Raspberry Lemon Bars

Continuing my current fascination with layers and my own tendency toward unnecessary complication, this week I decided to fix what ain’t broken. I love the combination of raspberry and lemon (incidentally, these are the only two flavors that I allow to come in contact with cheesecake, which is saying something), so I wondered how the classic lemon bar would fare if I required it to carry a layer of tart ruby compote between the crust and the curd.

I decided to let myself off the hook on these in terms of recipe development – there are so many excellent lemon bar recipes out there that I saw no need to reinvent the wheel, so to speak, if my objective was just to add some fancy rims. I went with Deb’s whole lemon bars from her first cookbook, a riff on this tart. I like that they use the whole lemon (less waste! more flavor!), I love that they use a food processor for both components, and I’ve been pleased enough with the result on previous baking missions that this time I only adjusted her filling requirements by jamming in yet more citrus.

Speaking of jam, if you wanted to make your life easier for the raspberry component you could probably just empty a few tablespoons of preserves over the parbaked crust and wind up with something completely satisfactory. I opted instead for a defrosted bag of frozen berries – it’s winter and grocery store selections are less than desirable for a number of reasons – and cooked them down with a few tablespoons of sugar. You could go fresh too if you wanted; I include estimates below.

We found these delightful. And we keep on finding them to be so. In fact, every time I go back to the cutting board where I left them, I find fewer there. At first I thought the raspberries overpowered the lemon, but after my … well… we’ll call it my nth sample, I’ve decided there’s a nice harmony between the different sources of tartness. I do think the lemon takes a slight backseat, so I’m also including measurements here for a version I think you’ll find less raspberry-forward.

One note: to get that gorgeous, traditional, snowy-topped powdered sugar garnish, you must wait for these bars to cool completely. If you sprinkle it on when the bars are even slightly warm, the powdered sugar melts frustratingly into the lemon layer and all but disappears.

Raspberry Lemon Bars
Adapted very lightly from The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook
Makes 16 squares of about 1½ inches
A little over an hour, plus cooling time of at least 30-40 minutes
For crust:
1 cup all-purpose flour
⅓ cup sugar
¼ teaspoon salt
8 tablespoons (1 stick or 4 ounces) unsalted butter, cut into chunks
For raspberry compote:
12 ounces frozen or fresh raspberries, for a raspberry-forward layer
6 ounces frozen or fresh raspberries, for more subtle raspberry presence
1-2 tablespoons sugar
For lemon filling:
2 medium lemons
1⅓ cups sugar
8 tablespoons (1 stick or 4 ounces) unsalted butter, cut into chunks
4 large eggs
2 tablespoons cornstarch
¼ teaspoon salt
Powdered sugar, to finish

 

  • Preheat the oven to 350 with a rack in the middle. Cut two pieces of parchment paper slightly larger than an 8-inch baking dish and arrange them perpendicular to one another across the bottom and up the sides. You’ll use these as a sling to remove the bars from the pan later. Lightly grease for extra insurance.
  • Add the raspberries and 1-2 tablespoons sugar to a small pot. Cook over medium to medium-low heat until they have expelled some juice and thickened slightly. Alternatively, if you are using fresh raspberries and want them less processed, toss them with the sugar, crush them very gently with the tines of a fork, and set them aside for a few minutes.
  • While the raspberries cook, make the crust: blend the flour, salt, and sugar in a food processor by pulsing 3-4 times for 1-second intervals. Add the butter and continue this 1-second pulsing routine until the crust just starts to come together – it will still be powdery, but hold its shape if pinched between your thumb and forefinger.
  • Dump the crust crumbs into the prepared baking dish and use your fingers or the bottom of a cup measure to press them firmly across the bottom and about ½ inch up the sides. Prick the dough all over with a fork, then stow in the preheated 350F oven for 20-25 minutes, until it is lightly browned. If any bubbles appear, gently prick them with a fork. Leave the oven on.
  • While the crust bakes, make the lemon filling: cut the lemons in half and assess the pith (the white layer below the skin). If it is more than about ¼ inch thick, remove the skin and pith from one of the lemons, leaving only the flesh. If it is less than ¼ inch thick, keep it all. Cut the lemons into slices and remove any seeds. Then, add the lemon slices – skin and all! – and the sugar into the same food processor bowl you used for the crust (you don’t even need to wash it out), and process on high until the lemon is thoroughly pureed – about 2 minutes.
  • Add the butter chunks to the pureed lemon and process again until the butter is well integrated. Add the eggs, cornstarch, and salt and pulse in 1-second intervals until the mixture is well combined. Don’t forget to scrape the sides of the processor bowl down once or twice with a spatula to ensure an even mixture.
  • To assemble, pour and scrape the raspberry puree over the parbaked crust, using a spatula or the back of a large spoon to spread it evenly across the hot crust. Next, pour and scrape the lemon filling over the raspberry puree. I was worried about the fillings bleeding into each other, but found the lemon stayed on top just fine provided I was pouring from a very low height.
  • Bake the bars for 35-40 minutes, until the filling is set and the top is lightly browned; you are looking for only a slight jiggle when you move the pan. The top may look a touch browner than you wanted – don’t worry. Powdered sugar covers that right up.
  • Remove the pan from the oven and let it cool completely, either on a rack or in the refrigerator.* Gently use the parchment sling to remove the entire square to a cutting board. Trim off the edges, if desired (I like this for neatness and consistency), then slice into 16 squares. If the knife is pulling at the top layer, clean it in between slices by dipping it into a glass of very hot water and then wipe away the residue. Sprinkle gratuitously with powdered sugar, then serve.

* Cooling completely is important: if you add the powdered sugar garnish when the bars are even a tiny bit warm, it will melt frustratingly into the lemon filling layer and disappear.