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!

 

Breads of the World: Simit (project cook, no recipe)

One of these days, I’m going to have a bread post for you that has a clear recipe, accurate cultural and historical background, and beautiful pictures. What I have for you this week is a DELICIOUS bread, in spite of a narrowly skirted disaster I wasn’t sure would work.

Simit is a much lauded bread from Turkey: a deeply burnished, twisted ring coated in crunchy, well-toasted sesame seeds (though sometimes other seeds like poppy or flax are used), which cling on thanks to a pre-baking dunk in a thin syrup of water and molasses. They are sold by street vendors who sometimes push trolleys, but sometimes carry dozens and dozens of these rings, carefully and intricately stacked and balanced, on their heads, calling out the relative heat and freshness of their wares. More than one site I explored while looking for a recipe and information about this bread reminisces eating simit with Turkish tea while on an Istanbul ferry ride. It even holds a place in the art world: there is poetry about simit, though I wasn’t able to find an example in translation. Several artists have painted simit vendors selling their wares. This bread is a cultural icon.

It’s a bit worrying, then, that during the process of making this batch I wondered if there was a bread version of Cake Wrecks I could submit my attempt to. This is the fault of neither the bread itself nor the recipe I used – the baker whose version I made created a clear, fairly easy-to-follow set of instructions and ingredients (which I’ve linked to below). It was just… a series of challenges I wasn’t sure I’d be able (or willing) to overcome: my sourdough starter was sluggish. The resulting dough Just. Wouldn’t. Rise. When it finally did and I made the twisted rings, they were almost unmanageably sticky and welded themselves to both my silicone baking mats (thanks, Mom!) and the plastic-wrap I carefully draped over them. Basically, my dough was just too soft to work easily with.

My last ditch attempt to save the bread was to shove the still raw, mostly-risen rings into the refrigerator, hoping that would firm them up somewhat, since I knew I still had to dunk them first into the water and molasses dip, and then into a heaping pile of sesame seeds to coat both sides.

Delightfully, this worked. I was able to pry the sticky rings of dough up from their mats, dunk them in hot liquid and then sesame seeds, transfer them back to the baking sheets, and they didn’t fall apart! They didn’t get misshapen (at least not any more than they already were… Turks around the world, I’m sorry for my maltreatment of your beautiful bread)! And most gratifying of all, they rose in the oven into gorgeous, deeply bronzed rings well-coated with sesame seeds, and though we had them as part of a meze platter for dinner rather than the traditional tea pairing, we could see why they are so beloved: that nirvana of crunchy crust and chewy interior, the discernible bitter sweetness of molasses, like a caramel gone almost too far, and the toasty sesame seeds. I tore off a piece to try while I was cleaning up the kitchen, and I kept finding myself wanting another bite.

Because my own method was a bit… shall we say agitated… I’m not going to post a recipe here today. Please use Cenk’s sourdough simit recipe over at his site Cafe Fernando. It’s simple, the photos are beautiful, and I’d bet my next paycheck it’s a better representation of this classic twisted ring than my ministrations would offer. And yes, you really do need that enormous quantity of sesame seeds!

I will say, if you decide to make simit, I’d suggest one adjustment to Cenk’s method. As you’ll see, he calls for creating the twisted rings by rolling out a piece of dough into a 35 inch rope, then cutting that in half and twisting the halves together. In my small kitchen with limited counter space, I found it slightly easier to make two 18-inch ropes instead (try to keep them even in thickness or even a little thinner at each end, so, basically the opposite of my photograph…) and just twist them together, then connect the edges to make your ring.

Reflections: Jubilee Red Beans and Rice (no recipe), and Bread in a Pandemic

Jubilee Red Beans and Rice:

I don’t have any bread to share with you today, based in part upon some complications I’ve realized my “Breads of the World” project poses. More on that below if you’re interested, but first, instead of a typical recipe post I thought I’d share a few images and considerations about the meal we ate on Saturday. In an effort to diversify my cookbook shelves, one of my recent acquisitions is the beautiful volume you see above: Jubilee: Two Centuries of African American Cooking by Toni Tipton-Martin. As numerous Black cooks and food historians have in recent years, Tipton-Martin wants to acknowledge the tremendous role of Black cooks in “soul food” and “Southern food.” But she also wants to push beyond that – to restrict African American food to stereotypes is to perpetuate caricatures and poor representation. Tipton-Martin’s recipes come with history lessons – not all are extensive, but she recognizes and shares the background and development of the dishes she offers, sometimes with original recipes from centuries-old collections, and then her updated or adapted version.

Although the book certainly pushes beyond the borders of “The South,” on a cold, rainy day in Los Angeles I wanted something deep and warm and spicy I could spend the afternoon checking on, so I went with red beans and rice. Tipton-Martin’s recipe headnote is about Louis Armstrong and his devotion to the dish despite changing circumstances, a consideration of how traditions are sustained even as they undergo adaptation. Unless I’m baking, these days I tend to see recipes as guidelines rather than rules, but this one I followed to the letter, and it was basically perfect. A mound of hot, buttered rice underneath and a final sprinkle of cayenne pepper on top, and we were the happiest of quarantine campers.

Bread in a Pandemic:

Speaking of quarantine, while I continue to be enthusiastic about my “Breads of the World” project, I’m starting to realize it carries a few distinct challenges, emphasized thanks to pandemic conditions. First and perhaps most obvious: N. and I are going to eat a lot of bread this year. That doesn’t sound like a big or particularly intelligent revelation, I know, but it is a blessing-curse I hadn’t quite realized the magnitude of when I started collecting ideas. As my friend D. commented the other day, when you are a happy household of two working from home, baked goods weigh more heavily (all puns intended) in your day-to-day. Were this a typical year, I would just bring my bread of the moment to work and leave it in the department mail-room. It would be gone by mid-afternoon, and I’d be headed home ready to think through the next one. Now, although I certainly could (and probably should) engage in some bread-drops for local friends (what would you call a drive-by bread drop? A roll-out? A loafing?), the reality of making a loaf or a batch of buns is that most of the time N. and I will wind up eating them all. “We’re going to be having a lot of bread and salad this year,” I told him yesterday. He was delighted, but I can imagine weekly dosings might become less appealing than the panem et circensus alternative.

Second, there are a lot of breads to choose from! Again, not exactly an epiphany, but I could easily bake one or even two a week and still have pages of recipes to sift through in December. I don’t agree with all of their choices, but the list of breads on Wikipedia is both an entertaining read-through and a fair example of what I mean. I’m not obsessed with authenticity (and I don’t want every selection to turn into the intensive research I did for the naan-e-komaj I made earlier this month), but because I do want this project to be representative in both its scope and its recipes, I do want to look into the breads I’ve chosen at least a little bit, and if possible, to find a recipe or an overview from someone of or familiar with the culture or region that produced the bread. That takes time. Especially when the semester begins, my imaginary second career as a culinary historian will resume its usual status as unpaid-side-hustle, which means less time for exploring and writing about the breads I decide to recreate.

Third, and related to the point about being representative, breads from areas that are typically less well represented also often use less typical, and thus less accessible, flours. Cassava, teff, and millet flour are certainly not impossible to locate, especially with the whole internet at my literal fingertips, but they aren’t on the shelves at my usual grocery store. And since I’m not shopping as often as I would be under non-COVID conditions, I can’t just decide on a whim to make, say, pao de queijo one afternoon unless I already have tapioca flour on hand. That’s not a complaint, per se, but it is a realization that I’m going to have to plan around. You know, like everything else these days!

Until next time, then…

Breads of the World: Naan-e-komaj

Last week I took you on my own rabbit-hole investigation of a Persian bread called komaj or naan-e-komaj that I had chosen as the inaugural bread for my 2021 project. This week, I present the end result: a set of soft, pillowy, sunshine-yellow date-stuffed buns, and the recipe I used to make them. Since you’ve already got the potential history behind them – I’ll admit, the trail I followed last week could just be a set of coincidences; sometimes different dishes are called the same thing – I’ll try to keep my introductions here short and just give you some thoughts on process and flavor, and plenty of photos to enjoy.

Stretching the dough for the “windowpane test”

Almost there…

These are definitely a “project cook” item, as I suspect most of the breads I offer this year will be. Yeast-risen bread needs time, and these require not the usual two, but three rises before they are ready to bake. I tried to streamline a bit: unable to compromise the length of the rises much, even in my unseasonably warm Southern California kitchen, I settled instead for simplified shaping. The Maloufs, and the baking group who led me to their recipe, shape their buns with a cookie cutter, rolling out a rectangle of dough, brushing with water, milk, or egg to ensure adherence, placing the filling, folding the dough over itself to encase the filling, and stamping out a round or heart shape. I decided instead to go with my usual bun shaping method, which consists of folding, pinching, and rolling a rectangle of dough into a ball using the slight tacky tension between dough and board to seal the seam. You can see this process in my photos below or, if you need a more detailed step-by-step, check out yesterday’s instagram post for a short (awkward, one-handed) video demo of the folding and rolling: over there I’m just blackberryeating.

The only disadvantage to my method is that it can, if you’re not careful, result in the filling starting to protrude through the now-overly-thin top layer of dough. The solution is, I think, to flatten the corners rather than the middle of your dough rectangle before filling and folding, and to execute the roll-to-seal process fairly quickly. The good news is, since you’re making 16 buns you do have ample opportunity to perfect your method.

Shaping the buns: place about 1 teaspoon date filling in the center of a dough rectangle. Keep the center thicker than the corners, if you can.

Fold the corners of the dough rectangle up over the filling, then pinch together into a little purse.

Roll the ball, pinched side down, in little circles on a barely floured board with your fingers in a cage shape.

Rolling in a little circle between your fingers and palm helps close up the bottom seam.

This was my bottom seam – now it’s starting to seal together. A few more rolls and it will be ready!

Ultimately, these were 100% worth the time and the research. They are delicious. The date and cardamom filling, to which I couldn’t resist adding some orange zest, is rich and sweet, but each bun holds only a teaspoon or so, which means it’s also not overwhelming. The bun itself is soft with a slight chew, not too sweet, and on the edge of doughy inside, which makes me think of an almost-underbaked challah, or the perfectly moist interior of a Hawaiian roll. Yours will be slightly less bright yellow than mine – my hand slipped as I was measuring out turmeric and I ended up with a fair bit more in the mix than my recipe calls for. It may seem a bit odd to have cumin – a decidedly savory flavor – along with a sweet date filling, but don’t skip it. The play between the toasty, almost smoky cumin and the sugary dates is lovely, and makes these buns less a dessert item, perhaps, but a definite contender for breakfast, and perfect as a mid-morning or mid-afternoon snack with tea or coffee.

(Naan-e-)komaj
Makes 16 buns
About 3½ hours
This recipe is my version of two interpretations: it starts with the recipe from Saraban: A Chef’s Journey Through Persia, Greg and Lucy Malouf’s recreation of the bread they loved in southern Iran, and pulls in some suggestions from SaffronAmbrosia, the site of a participant in the baking group who auditioned and adapted the Maloufs’ recipe. The addition of the orange zest is my own; given the love of rose- and orange-blossom water in Persian cooking, I couldn’t resist a bit of citrus flavor to brighten the date filling.
For dough:
2 teaspoons active dry yeast
2 tablespoons warm water
pinch + ¼ cup sugar, divided
⅔ cup warm milk (or water)
1½ tablespoons olive oil
1 egg
3¾ cups bread flour
1 teaspoon turmeric
1 tablespoon whole cumin seeds, toasted and lightly crushed, divided
¾ teaspoon kosher salt (or ½ teaspoon table salt)
For filling:
12-15 medjool dates, pitted and cut into chunks (if they are firm rather than soft and sticky, soak them in hot water for about 10 minutes before chopping)
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
1-2 teaspoon(s) ground cardamom (start with 1; cardamom is strong!)
zest of ½ an orange, optional
pinch of salt, optional
To finish:
Milk, cream, or egg yolk to brush on top before baking
Optional: powdered sugar to dust after baking

 

  • Combine the yeast and 2 tablespoons warm water in a large bowl (I used the bowl of my stand mixer) and let sit for 10-15 minutes, until the yeast is bubbly and smells like bread. Using a wooden spoon or the paddle attachment, stir in the remaining sugar, warm milk (or water), olive oil, and egg.
  • Now add 3 cups of the bread flour, the turmeric, 2 teaspoons of the cumin seeds, and the salt. Stir with a spoon or the paddle attachment until the dough is starting to come together – it will have a rough, shaggy consistency. Switch to the dough hook or, if you aren’t using a stand mixer, tip the mixture out onto a well-floured board and knead until the dough becomes smooth and pliable and is no longer sticky. If it seems too wet, add the remaining flour ¼ cup at a time as needed – you might not use the whole amount. I ended up using only 3¼ cups total. When your dough is smooth and elastic, set it in a lightly oiled bowl, cover it with a clean cloth or plastic wrap, and set it aside until it has doubled – about an hour, depending on how warm your kitchen is.
  • At the end of the first rise, when the dough has doubled in size, “punch it down” by deflating it gently with your fist, then re-cover and set it aside to rise again for another hour. During this second rise, make the filling: combine the dates, butter, cardamom, orange zest, and optional pinch of salt. You can just mix them in a bowl if you want a chunky filling, or if you want something smoother, like a paste, use a food processor and pulse until the filling reaches your desired consistency.
  • When the dough has finished its second rise, turn it out onto a lightly floured board and divide it into 16 even pieces. I find this is easiest by first dividing into 4 large pieces, then cutting each in half and then in half again. Working with one piece at a time, roll or gently pull to flatten into a rough rectangle. There are two approaches you can use to shaping these. My method is to roll round buns, which I think is slightly easier but your filling may end up off-enter. The Maloufs and the baking group stamp out theirs with a round or heart-shaped cookie cutter, which is pretty and results in a centered filling, but requires rerolling the scraps. If you’d like to use that method, go here for instructions.
  • If you’re using my method, working with one piece of dough at a time, add a teaspoon of filling into the center of the dough rectangle. Fold each corner up and over the filling, trying not to stretch the dough too much. Pinch together the folded corners into a seam, but don’t press too hard, or the filling may start to poke through the top. Turn the dough ball over and form your hand around it like a cage, then roll gently with very little pressure in light circles on the board to form a smooth, taut round (see Joe Pastry’s excellent tutorial if you need help with this, or check my  instagram post from yesterday for a video demo). Let the shaped, sealed buns rise, covered, on the cookie sheet for about 15-20 minutes.
  • While the buns have their final rise, preheat the oven to 400F. After this final rise, paint the tops of the buns lightly with milk, cream, or an egg wash (egg yolk combined with 1-2 teaspoons water). Sprinkle the remaining 1 teaspoon cumin seeds over the top of each one, then bake in your preheated 400F oven for 8-10 minutes.
  • Let the finished buns cool on a rack for at least 10-15 minutes, then dust with powdered sugar if you wish. Serving with tea, like a spicy-sweet chai, or a cup of Turkish coffee would be ideal. Like many sweet buns these are best the day they are made, but leftovers are easily and deliciously reheated.

A small hungry helper who protests that she did not get any komaj to sample…

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.