Breads of the World: Paska

For our first entrée into European breads, we’re again following a holiday track. Paska is a traditional Ukrainian Easter bread (there’s a Russian version as well, called kulich), tall and stately, enriched with milk, butter, sugar, and a boatload of eggs, and ornately decorated in celebration of both the holiday and the season. Sometimes it includes citrus zest, sometimes a splash of liquor, and sometimes even raisins. Typically the decoration, which can use up to a third of the total dough, includes braids, twists, intricate crosses and sun symbols, and sometimes flowers or birds or other indications of springtime.

My favorite detail about this bread is that it was frequently baked on Good Friday, then taken to church on Holy Saturday to be blessed by the priest before it was eaten on Easter. I’ve seen some speculation this may have been due to its pre-Christian origins – a bread that is originally made to celebrate the coming of spring, covered in dough-shaped symbols of fertility, might need a little shepherding back into the Christian fold (all puns intended). Korena in the Kitchen, my main recipe source, includes some other fascinating traditions surrounding this bread in her post about it.

Since part of spring celebrations – Christian and otherwise – involve acknowledging return to life and freedom from fasts brought on by the scarcity of winter or the restrictions of Lent, this bread is about abundance. Not only is it a sweet dough that requires plenty of rising time; it traditionally makes a huge quantity. The “Ur” recipe that seems to be floating around out in the internet world – at least what many of the sites I looked at seem to use or match up with – involves a staggering 12 cups of flour, 3 whole eggs and 8 egg yolks, an entire stick of butter and equal amount of vegetable oil, oh, and ANOTHER egg (at least!) to glaze the top. Marie Porter, in her bread-fueled reminiscence of childhood Easters, basically fills every loaf pan in her kitchen trying to contain it all.

I elected to halve the recipe. This is of course not simple when dealing with odd numbers of eggs, so I polled the cooks in my family and R., of course, had the answer: “Just beat up the whole eggs, measure out half, and have a scramble for lunch with the other half.” Works for me. I’ve included measurements below.

To achieve the traditional look, a paska should have tall, straight sides, with all the decoration crowded in on the top. If you have a tall-sided cake pan, use that. If not, as you can see in my photos, you can construct a collar out of parchment paper – be sure it’s long enough to wrap all the way around the inside of your baking pan plus a bit (I didn’t, which is why my loaf is a little wonky in shape), then fold it in half for a double layer. Remembering a similar move with souffles in an old Great British Baking Show episode, I tried fastening the edges of my parchment together with a paperclip. This was semi-successful, though it would have worked better if I’d followed my own advice here and used just one long sheet of parchment, not two. The dough is persistent, and it pushed its way through, creating gaps where my parchment connected.

Most recipes recommend waiting until this loaf is completely cool before tearing into it, ahem, slicing out wedges. We couldn’t wait that long, and ate embarrassingly big pieces as an afternoon snack while it was still warm. And you know what? Even though that’s not traditional, I wouldn’t have had it any other way. Somewhere between cake and bread, lightly sweet and somehow not overly eggy, this probably won’t replace challah as my typical Easter bake, but it will certainly make a more-than-occasional-appearance.

Paska
Mainly adapted from Olga Drozd on Ukrainian Classic Kitchen and Korena in the Kitchen
Makes 1 large round 9-inch loaf
5-6 hours, including rising/resting time
2 teaspoons active dry yeast
1½ teaspoons sugar
1½ teaspoons flour
2 tablespoons warm water
6 cups flour (you may use less) – I combined all-purpose and bread flour: about 3 cups of each
1 cup warm milk
1½ whole eggs (¼ cup or 2 fluid ounces) (I agree this is annoying, but you can eat the other egg-and-a-half for lunch, right?)
4 egg yolks
1/3 cup granulated sugar
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon vanilla
Zest of ½ a lemon (optional)
Zest of ½ an orange (optional)
2 tablespoons brandy (optional)
4 tablespoons (¼ cup) butter, melted + more to grease the pan, if you want to use butter
¼ cup vegetable oil
1 egg, separated, for decorations and glazing

 

  • In a large bowl, combine the yeast, 1½ teaspoons sugar, 1½ teaspoons flour, and 2 tablespoons warm water. Set aside for 10-15 minutes to activate the yeast.
  • Once the yeast is bubbly and smells like bread, add 2 cups of all-purpose flour and all of the milk; stir together with a rubber spatula or wooden spoon or knead by hand until well integrated, then cover and let rise 30 minutes.
  • Near the end of the 30 minute rise, combine the 1½ whole eggs, 4 egg yolks, and sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer and whisk with the paddle attachment until the mixture becomes pale and thick – this will take about 5 minutes.
  • Add the risen yeast and flour mixture to the whisked eggs. Add the salt, vanilla, zests and brandy, if using, melted butter, and oil. Switch to the dough hook and begin to combine at the lowest speed.
  • After a minute or two at the lowest speed, increase to medium low and continue to knead, adding flour as needed to create a smooth, elastic dough. I used both all-purpose and bread flour in my dough, but you could likely use all one or the other with similar results. Kneading in the stand mixer at medium low will take 7-8 minutes.
  • After you bring the ingredients together you could also tip out onto a well-floured board and knead by hand, adding flour as needed. By hand this will take 10-15 minutes.
  • Once you have a smooth, elastic, plastic-y dough (mine passed the windowpane test), let it rise, covered, in a large bowl for 1-2 hours until it has doubled.
  • While the dough is rising, prepare the baking pan: butter or grease a 9-inch round baking pan – it’s best if this has high sides but low sides work too. Cut a piece of parchment paper long enough to make a full circle around the inside of the pan. Fold it in half so you have a double layer, then wrap it around the inside of the pan to make a kind of collar – this will ensure the loaf rises straight up instead of bulging out as it bakes. You can use a paperclip at the top to hold the edges of the collar together.
  • Punch down the risen dough and remove 1/3 of it – this is for decorations. Set this 1/3 aside in a medium oiled bowl. Carefully place the other 2/3 of the dough into the prepared baking pan, being careful not to push the collar out of place. Cover both portions of dough and let rise 30 minutes.
  • After the dough has rested and risen for 30 minutes, use the 1/3 portion to make decorations. A twist or braid around the outside of the loaf is traditional, as are braided or twisted crosses, suns, flowers, and other Christian or spring-like shapes.
  • Separate the final egg, whisking the white until slightly frothy. Paint the top of the main loaf with the egg white, then place on your decorations. You can use toothpicks to keep them in place, but as they bake the egg white will serve as “glue.”
  • With all decorations adhered, cover and rise a final 30 minutes. During this rise, preheat the oven to 350F.
  • Just before baking, remove the cover from the loaf. Beat the separated egg yolk with a little bit of water, then paint this over the top of the loaf, decorations and all, for a glaze.
  • Bake in the 350F oven for 10 minutes, then turn the heat down to 325F and bake an additional 45-50 minutes, until the temperature inside is at least 190F.
  • Cool in the pan at least 30 minutes to ensure structural soundness, then remove from pan and parchment collar, carefully extract toothpicks, and cool on a wire rack. Most instructions say cool completely. We were only able to bring ourselves to wait an hour before slicing out fat wedges and having a taste while it was still warm.

Breads of the World: pão de queijo

For my first foray into breads of the Americas, I went south, to Brazil, for an addictive little puff called pão de queijo – literally “bread of cheese” or “cheese bread.” There’s some debate over whether this strictly counts as bread – the base is tapioca flour and the “dough,” such as it is, is formed in a method similar to pâte à choux pastry batter, the base for eclairs, cream puffs, gougeres, and the like. But based on both name and desire, I’m saying it counts.

Based on minimal research (the weekend of Week 4 in my world means a lot of paper grading and not a lot of time for culinary history), I’ve learned that pão de queijo was a product of colonization and the ingenuity of indigenous groups and later enslaved Africans.

When Portuguese colonizers arrived in the 1500s, they found many areas ill-suited to wheat production, so they – and the people they enslaved – learned from indigenous groups how to process manioc, or yuca. When this root is processed, it leaves behind an edible white powder. This was considered an undesirable byproduct by slaveholders, but slaves used it to make balls of starch that they baked and ate to supplement their diets.

In the 18th century, the states of Minas Gerais and Goias in southeastern Brazil became big cattle- and therefore also dairy-producing states, and cheese, along with eggs and milk, were added to the starchy mix to create these delicate crisp-on-the-outside-gooey-on-the-inside puffs. Olivia’s Cuisine suggests these little puffs may have been served to slaveholders as part of afternoon coffee service.

In the U.S., the traditional manioc is most frequently replaced with tapioca flour, and the traditional cheese from the Minas region – a mild, slightly salty soft cheese – with parmesan and mozzarella or queso fresco. Though it is not quite the same product, tapioca flour (also marketed as tapioca starch) has the same origin: the starchy yuca, or manioc, or cassava root, can be processed into a powder that, with the barest touch of liquid, becomes an incredibly sticky, glutinous mass that takes expertise and patience to work with. I noted to a friend while I was mixing up this dough that the combination of water, milk, oil, and tapioca flour already looked and felt like melted mozzarella cheese, and I hadn’t added any cheese to it yet.

My two base recipes for these, from Olivia’s Cuisine and Brazilian Kitchen Abroad, show much greater dexterity in working with the gluey batter/dough that forms these little puffs. I was unable to roll gorgeous little spheres like Aline shows in her recipe (although to be fair, my quantities were slightly different), and since I only had a single one pound bag of tapioca flour, I couldn’t add more. By my second sheet tray full of dough blobs, I was able to manipulate the mix a little better with very wet hands, but the next time I attempt these little treats I’m going to try for a slightly dryer dough.

Despite the difficulties in shaping, we could see easily why these are so well loved. They baked up into delicate, puffy rounds with golden cheese freckles. They are mildly cheesy in flavor but, when still hot, offer the same tempting cheese-pull as a good grilled cheese sandwich. After the first one (or two), I thought maybe I wanted them to have some herbs as well for additional flavor, but when I suddenly realized I’d eaten at least six little puffs, I decided maybe that wasn’t necessary, since I was clearly addicted without any additions.

The recipes I worked from claim to make about 30 little puffs, enough to bake up half for indulgent snacking and freeze the other half for a week or two down the road. I made slightly smaller “rounds” than they did, so I’m guessing I ended up with around 3 dozen, but the truth is I snatched the first one hot off the sheet tray, and then the next, and then N. had one… and an hour later I realized I’d never counted.

Holly the cheese hound sticking a curious ear out from under the table

 

* I suppose I really should have gone with Irish soda bread this week, though as I noted previously, I’m typically not very good at timing my seasonal dishes – I blame my day job, which often makes it a challenge to post here at all. Additionally, I do have several soda bread recipes here already, so if you’re looking to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day with a loaf, consider these!

 

Pão de queijo
Adapted from Olivia’s Cuisine and Brazilian Kitchen Abroad
Makes… 36? (see above explanation/excuse)
About 1–1 ½ hours, counting resting and baking time
1½ cups milk
½ cup water
6 tablespoons vegetable oil
2½ teaspoons kosher salt, or 2 teaspoons table salt
1 pound tapioca flour (also labeled tapioca starch)  * as noted above, mine were fairly wet so you might ultimately need more flour. Unfortunately it is most frequently sold in 1 pound bags.
2 large eggs
1½ cups grated parmesan cheese
1 cup shredded mozzarella cheese

 

  • Preheat your oven to 400F and line 2 baking trays with parchment paper or silicone mats.
  • In a medium saucepan, combine the milk, water, oil, and salt and bring to a simmer over medium heat.
  • If you are using a stand mixer, add the tapioca flour and then pour over the liquid mixture. Combine with the paddle attachment into a thick, sticky, pasty mass. If you don’t have a stand mixer, you are in for a workout. Dump the flour right into the saucepan and mix it into the liquid with a sturdy wooden spoon.
  • For either method, let the mixture sit for 10-15 minutes to cool before adding the eggs. You can run the mixer for some of this time to cool even faster – you may notice that mixing at this point produces a texture similar to melted cheese.
  • After the mixture has cooled for at least 10 minutes, add the eggs one at a time and combine fully – this will take some effort. Add the cheese a small handful at a time, again mixing well to incorporate, into a soft, sticky dough.
  • To shape and bake, I found wet hands the best tool. Dip your hands and a tablespoon into a small bowl of cool water, then scoop out tablespoonfuls of dough. If you can, shape them into a ball by rolling gently between your hands, then transfer to your prepared baking tray. If your dough is too wet to work with, you can either plop unshaped scoops onto the baking tray, or try adding more tapioca flour to the dough and mixing again.
  • When you have a full tray of dough blobs, move to the oven and bake at 400F for 15-18 minutes. They will be dry on top, with uneven speckles of browning from the cheese. We found them best eaten still warm and puffy, within minutes of emerging from the oven.

Breads of the World: ojos de Haman

It’s rare for me to be organized enough to produce a holiday dish sufficiently in advance of the actual holiday that you, my readers, could – gasp – make the dish for the holiday if you so desired. And yet here, for once, I’ve managed it. Purim is at the end of this week, an important holiday in the Jewish calendar, which celebrates the overthrow of the evil Haman. Royal advisor to the King of Persia, Haman planned to slaughter the Jews, and was thwarted by Esther, the queen, and her cousin Mordecai.

Purim is celebrated with feasting and can be, by all accounts, quite raucous. My friend M. relates childhood memories of delivering and receiving Purim baskets to and from family and friends, akin to an Easter basket, but more likely to be filled with hamantaschen and preserves than with chocolates and egg-shaped candies. In the Talmud, M. says, Jews are instructed to make themselves “so fragrant with wine” that they can’t tell the difference between “wicked is Haman” and “blessed is Mordecai.” This intensity of celebration sometimes produced dangerous results, as people would fall over at Temple (or right into the fire, per M). Other Purim traditions include retelling the whole story (the “Purim Spiel”), and using noisemakers to drown out Haman’s name every time it is uttered, which sounds like excellent fun.

The most common food related to the holiday is hamantaschen, the delicious triangular cookie with sweet filling, which I’ve seen translated both as “Haman’s pocket” and as “Haman’s ears.” Deb at Smitten Kitchen has a new one, and Jake Cohen has opinions about the filling. Kreplach, a savory dumpling, is another popular option.

Neither of these is bread, of course, but while I was poking around that weird neighborhood “the internet,” I came across two possibilities for this year’s project. Keylitsh, according to the blog Poppy and Prune, is an elaborately braided Eastern European challah served for numerous holidays. At Purim, the fancy braids are symbolic of the rope used to hang Haman. I am well versed in the three-strand challah I learned from my mom, and I’ve tried a six-strand once that went… poorly… so I kept going.

Poppy and Prune goes on to say:

If that’s not enough gore for your Purim table, I have just the thing for you: a traditional Moroccan bread known as boyoja ungola di Purim or ojos de Haman. This is a round, flattish loaf decorated with two hard boiled eggs in their shells, which are meant to represent Haman’s eyes. Each egg is held down with two thin strips of dough arranged in an x, and, once the bread is baked, it’s a traditional to rip them out of the loaf—you know, like ripping Haman’s eyes out. The dough for this bread is traditionally studded with anise and sesame seeds, as well as coarsely chopped almonds.

This sounded promising, and delightful, so I set about finding more information and a recipe that incorporated these flavorings. Kosher Cowboy offers a story about the symbolism of this bread, though I’m unclear on his source.

Some incarnations of this bread don’t stop at the eyes, but decorate the loaf to look like a magnificently evil head, complete with a long beard darkened by poppyseeds and round cheeks that puff up during baking. Mine, as you can see, were not that elaborate, although I appreciate that where the dough tore slightly below the eye crosses it left a pale stripe, then a darker, browned lower half that could, if you squint a bit, be seen as a thick beard.

Many of the recipes and traditions of this loaf come courtesy of Maggie Glezer’s A Blessing of Bread and Phyllis and Miriyam Glazer’s The Essential Book of Jewish Festival Cooking,  both of which look like beautiful books that might end up on my already-overpacked cookbook shelves…

The best part about this bread, besides eating it, is the shaping. It’s a lovely dough to work with, as are most enriched doughs, elastic and puffy. After lightly flattening and scoring the main ball, you get to poke in two divots, insert a hard boiled egg* into each, and add two pieces of dough in an X shape across the eggs and pressed into the main loaf, where they hold the eggs in place during baking. If you’re going the fancy route, you can use additional pieces of dough to make Haman’s facial features or, if you’re keeping it comparatively simple, as I did, you can just snip around the edge of each loaf at one inch intervals with scissors, which makes a lovely pattern like sunflower petals or, I suppose, like thick locks of Haman’s beard and hair.

As expected, in addition to being a lovely dough and a gorgeous loaf – deeply golden brown, shiny from egg wash, and scattered with sliced almonds – it is also delicious. We found it slightly sweeter and also less eggy than the challah my family makes, and the nuts and seeds were a lovely addition. I wasn’t sure how I would feel about chopped almonds inside, but I found I loved the added texture. I tend to avoid anise and anise-flavored things, but here it’s such a small amount it isn’t overpowering, and I found it reminded me slightly of a good, traditional biscotti (in flavor alone, though – the texture of this bread is much lighter and softer). Oh, and peeling back the X of dough to gouge out the hard-boiled egg “eye” on either side is, as you can imagine, also a delight.

Because Purim involves exuberant eating and drinking, many of the recipes I found for this bread, which is essentially an unbraided challah with added flavoring agents, make a LOT. I’m talking, 8 cups of flour, 3-4 loaves a lot, or even more: some recipes offer the more modest quantities for 3-4 loaves, and then provide instructions for a full 5 pounds of flour. I scaled mine back a little bit to just 2 loaves, one of which, eyeballs already extracted, is sitting happily in our freezer waiting for a weekend when we want something more celebratory than my standard sourdough toast.

* thanks to careless proofreading on a recent Whole Foods order, I ended up with a package of medium – rather than the grocery standard large – sized eggs. I used these smaller ones to make Haman’s hard-boiled eyes and was pleased with the results. Large eggs would work too, but depending on the size of your loaf they might be a tight squeeze to fit in.

 

Ojos de Haman
Adapted from Phyllis Glazer’s recipe at The Times of Israel, and shaping instructions from STL Jewish Light
Makes 2 loaves
3½-4 hours
5 1/3 cups all-purpose flour
1 TB + 1tsp active dry yeast
2/3 cups granulated sugar
2 tsp sesame seeds
2 tsp anise or fennel seeds
2/3 cups coarsely chopped almonds
½ tsp salt
2 large eggs
1/3 cup vegetable oil
1½ cups warm water
4 hard boiled eggs (I used medium eggs because I happened to have some and found they fit well. Large eggs would work too, but might be a tight squeeze on Haman’s face)
1 yolk + 1 tsp water, to glaze
2 TB sliced almonds

 

  • In a large bowl or the bowl of your stand mixer, combine the flour, yeast, sugar, sesame seeds, anise or fennel seeds, and chopped almonds. Whisk or mix to combine with the dough hook. Once well combined, add the salt and whisk in.
  • In a smaller bowl or a large glass measuring cup, stir together the eggs, oil, and warm water. Make a well in the flour mixture and pour in the wet ingredients. If you’re working with a stand mixer, knead with the dough hook on medium speed into a soft, slightly sticky dough: about 7-8 minutes. If you aren’t using a stand mixer, first stir the wet ingredients into the dry with a wooden spoon or a sturdy spatula, then turn out onto a floured board and knead by hand until soft and smooth: about 8-10 minutes.
  • Let the dough rise, covered with plastic wrap or a clean towel, until doubled: 1 – 1½ hours. Meanwhile, hard boil the eggs: bring a small pot of water to a rolling boil, then use a spoon to gently add the eggs. For large eggs, boil 10 minutes and then remove eggs and set aside to cool. For medium eggs, boil 8 minutes and then remove and set aside to cool. Remember: the eggs will bake along with the bread.
  • Once the dough has doubled in size, turn it out onto a lightly floured board and remove a piece the size of a small fist. Cut this into four pieces, then roll each into a thin strand about 6 inches in length. Cut each thin strand in half: these are for your Xs to hold in the egg “eyes.”
  • Divide the remaining dough in half. Working with one half at a time, roll into a ball, then use a rolling pin or floured hands to flatten into a disk 8-9 inches in diameter. With a razor blade or a sharp knife, slice a shallow crosshatch pattern into the surface of the dough.
  • Using your thumb or the knuckle of your index finger, firmly press two indentations into the dough about two inches apart in the top third of the disk. Place one cooled hard-boiled egg into each indentation. Use your reserved strips of dough to make an X shape across each “eyeball,” pressing firmly into the rest of the loaf to adhere, as in the photos above. Transfer to a baking tray lined with parchment paper. With scissors or a sharp knife, snip around the edge of the loaf at 1-inch intervals to create a petal pattern. Repeat with remaining loaf.
  • Let the shaped loaves rise, covered with a clean kitchen towel, for 30 minutes. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 350F.
  • After 30 minutes, combine the egg yolk and 1 tsp water in a small bowl. Remove the kitchen towel and glaze the loaves with this egg wash, trying to avoid the hard-boiled eggs as much as possible. Scatter or press on the sliced almonds, then bake in the preheated 350F oven for 20-25 minutes, until they are deeply browned.
  • Cool at least 15-20 minutes before eating. We started by peeling off the X of dough to pluck out Haman’s eye, but you should proceed as desired. Enjoy!

 

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.

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.

Plantains with lime, cotija, and honey

If you are working from home during this pandemic, you have probably thought more than once since March about the weirdness of time passing. On one hand, we’ve been doing this foreverrrrrrrrrrr. On the other hand… no, it’s been forever.

But within that space of Marchunetember, or whenever we are, time passes oddly. Sometimes I can’t believe it’s already Thursday (I know, it’s Monday. But you know what I mean). Sometimes the afternoon just will. not. end. We are feeling the first hints of fall here in Southern California: two beautiful overcast mornings in which the gloom was not smoke, thank-you-very-much, cool enough that I wanted pants on my dog walk. Yet later this week we are supposed to rocket back into temperatures in the 90s. There’s a bit of everything at once.

So this is a little dish that speaks to all of those things. It makes a nice lunch for one, but it would be an equally delightful afternoon snack for two. It could easily be doubled or tripled to feed your pod.  It’s sweet and salty and sour and a little spicy – in fact, it would go so well with this kicky, smoky, spicy mix that you might as well plan to serve them up for a happy hour together, whether that means margaritas, palomas, or puckeringly good lemonade.

I like a mostly-ripe plantain for this, yellow with streaks of brown on the peel, because I enjoy the mix of textures: crisp, fried exterior with cushiony softness inside. But you could also do them tostones-style, frying less-than-ripe plantain slices over medium-low heat first to soften, then smashing them flat and frying again over higher heat on both sides for even brownness.

I ate mine with a fork, as you can see from my not-quite-in-focus close-up, but if you want to go nachos style and use the plantain pieces as scoops, I say go for it.

Plantains with lime, cotija, and honey

Serves 1 as a light lunch or 2 as a snack

15-20 minutes

1 large, yellow plantain, peel removed, cut into about ½ inch slices (I like mostly ripe, but see above for another option)

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

2 tablespoons butter

salt and red pepper to taste – I like the fruity heat of aleppo pepper

1 lime, which you’ll use for zest, supremes, and juice

1-2 tablespoons crumbled cotija cheese

1-2 teaspoons honey

about 1 tablespoon chopped cilantro

 

  • In a cast iron or other skillet, heat the vegetable oil and butter over medium-low heat until the butter is melted. Add the plantain slices, dust with salt and pepper, and continue to cook over medium-low for 4-6 minutes, or until they are nicely golden brown on the bottom. Don’t rush it. Don’t turn up the heat. They need to cook inside but not burn on the outside.
  • As plantains brown, flip, dust the other side with salt and pepper, and cook on the second side until it is also nicely browned, around 4-5 minutes this time.
  • While the plantains are cooking, zest the lime and reserve that zest for serving. Then use a sharp knife to cut a thin slice off the top and bottom. Remove the remaining skin and pith by cutting it off in strips from top to bottom, following the curve of the fruit. When you have removed the skin all the way around, cut supremes: slice between the fruit and the membrane that separates each segment. This is a useful step-by-step as well.
  • To serve, pile the fried plantains on a plate or in a shallow bowl. Add the lime supremes and cotija crumbles. Squeeze on some juice from the remaining carcass of the lime. Drizzle on the honey, then scatter the cilantro and the reserved lime zest over the top.