Zucchini Spice Bread

Well, I did it. In my exuberance about having a vegetable garden at last (one year into our tenancy in our very own house, N. built us a few raised beds and I treated myself to a few varieties of heirloom seeds), I brought home a little zucchini plant from the garden store.

The first time I planted zucchini, it did what zucchini does: it grew so many squash for us that, halfway into summer, and after grilling, stuffing, roasting, and frying, I filled every baking dish in my kitchen with batter and looked for new friends so I had new possibilities for offloading all the loaves and cakes and muffins my happy plant had obligingly helped me produce.

The second time I planted zucchini, which was only a year or so later, about seventy percent of our potential squashes got about three inches long, then turned yellow at the blossom end, softened, and shriveled. Unwilling to dive into experimental hand pollination, I sighed and concentrated on tomatoes instead.

So I was delighted when, in a different garden and a different state, this spring’s zucchini plant proved the adage about third times and charms, as it perked its little leaves up and started to produce its familiar little orange blossoms. And then it got bigger, and I celebrated our first little courgettes. And then it made more. And its leaves reached the size of small umbrellas. Its flowers would have fit a full four-ounce mini-log of goat cheese and had room to spare. Suddenly, underneath those spiky umbrella-sized leaves and fragile, pollen-dusted blossoms, I was facing down an army of tiny squashes and remembering why so many avid home gardeners leave laundry baskets of zucchini on their neighbors’ porches in the summer.

It was time to bake zucchini bread. Fortunately, I have a pretty foolproof recipe, a zucchini spice loaf from the thick and dependable Bon Appetit Cookbook, and that is fine. But I wanted to play. My recipe calls for vegetable oil, cinnamon, and chopped toasted nuts. Oil is a good choice for quickbreads, especially if the loaf also contains nuts, because it’s 100% fat and thus keeps the bread moist. But the best banana bread I’ve ever had, bought from a roadside stand in Maui, was advertised as containing all butter. I wondered if, with a little tinkering, I could bring that buttery perfection to my zucchini loaf.

Converting from oil to butter requires a little calculation – butter is not 100% fat; it’s a mix of fat and water, so you need more butter than oil if you’re substituting. Since the oil is liquid when it’s incorporated into the batter, the butter would need to be as well, and if we were already melting it, well, we might as well go the extra step and brown it. This would also evaporate that pesky water in there, leaving us with 100% fat again.

That sorted, and wanting to keep things toasty and rich, I replaced half the granulated sugar called for in the original recipe with brown sugar, added some tart dried cherries for extra interest, and replaced the cinnamon with cardamom for a bright kick that played well with the fruit. And how was it? Well, so far we’ve sliced our way through three loaves of the stuff and I wouldn’t say no to another piece.

Should you decide to make your own (or if you’ve been the victim – I mean recipient – of some of your neighbors’ zucchini harvest), know this: this is quite a thick batter, almost like soft cookie dough rather than cake. There’s not a lot of liquid in the mix – just eggs and the melted butter – and I think that’s why the recipe doesn’t require any draining of zucchini shreds before you fold them in. They add just enough juice of their own to keep the loaf dense but tender after an agonizing hour and a half in the oven. That means, all told, this is at least a two hour endeavor, which might entice you to skip the initial steps of toasting the nuts and browning the butter. Don’t be tempted. Both really to enhance the flavor in a way it would be a shame to miss.

As is frequently the case for quickbreads, this is delightful on its own, sliced right from the loaf. It stays reasonably fresh wrapped in aluminum foil on the counter for 3-4 days. If, however, it starts to feel a little stale, or if you’ve overbaked it a touch, I’ll just remind you that a smear of cream cheese rectifies many sins…

 

Zucchini Spice Bread
Adapted from The Bon Appetit Cookbook
Makes 1 large loaf
2–2½ hours
2½ cups flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cardamom
1 teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon baking powder
3 eggs
1 cup granulated sugar
1 lightly packed cup brown sugar
16 tablespoons butter (2 sticks)
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 cups grated zucchini
1 cup finely chopped walnuts or pecans, toasted
1 cup dried tart cherries or chopped dried apricots

 

  • Spray or butter a 9x5x3 inch loaf pan, and preheat your oven to 350F. This is a good opportunity to toast the nuts – they are usually ready by the time the oven reaches its target temperature. Once they are lightly browned and smell fragrant, set them aside to cool.
  • For the batter, first brown the butter. To do this, place the sticks of butter in a small saucepan over medium-low heat and let them melt and bubble. First, there will be a lot of foam on top. Then it will clear to liquid gold, then you’ll start to see a lot of clear bubbles stacked atop one another. Keep waiting and stirring occasionally. Eventually you’ll start to see some darker yellow residue, then pale brown, then almost bronze bits mixed in with the clear melted butter when you stir. As soon as these bits look bronze, turn off the heat and remove the pan to allow it to cool. If you get antsy, you can put the pan in the freezer for a few minutes.
  • In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, salt, cardamom, baking soda, and baking powder. In a larger bowl (I used the bowl of my stand mixer), use an electric mixer or the paddle attachment of a stand mixer to beat the eggs until very well combined and foamy on top. Gradually add the granulated sugar and the brown sugar, then mix until pale and thick, about 4 minutes. It will look almost like you are on your way to meringue. Add the vanilla and the cooled brown butter, beating well to combine.
  • Now incorporate the dry ingredients in three additions, beating just until combined. The batter will be very thick. Stir in the grated zucchini, then fold in the nuts and dried fruit, if using.
  • Pour and scrape the thick batter into the prepared loaf pan and bake in the preheated 350F oven until the top is dry and crusty, and the center is cooked through and a toothpick or cake tester inserted emerges with only a moist crumb attached. This will take about 1 hour and 30 minutes.
  • Let cool in the pan at least 10 minutes to avoid breakage, then turn out onto a wire rack and cool completely before slicing.

Chopped Challenge #4: Green Gazpacho “Shooters” with Mayonnaise Toasts

Course: appetizer

Ingredients: sourdough bread, buttermilk, mayonnaise, ginger

Unlike other Chopped Challenges N. has issued me, this one emerged Athena-like: fully formed and near immediately (though admittedly without the headache). Though the most commonly recognized form of gazpacho is tomato-based, as I offered to you last fall, a green version, usually blended with bread for viscosity and sometimes with some kind of acidic dairy product (more typically yogurt), is also reasonably well known. Thus two of my requisite ingredients were already attended to.

Though the green iteration of this cold soup can include anything from tomatillos to green bell peppers, I decided on cucumbers for the crisp, liquid coolness, and grapes for a sweet touch that I thought would go well with the ginger. To keep things feeling savory, a few scallions made their way into the mix, as well as a handful of parsley for an herbaceous flavor and a more brilliant green color.

As for the mayonnaise, a traditional gazpacho incorporates generous glugs of olive oil, and what else is mayonnaise if not another fat source, already emulsified in itself? The few tablespoons I decided to allow in the soup didn’t feel like adequate representation of the ingredient, so I sliced up the other half of the sourdough batard, slicked it with a thin layer of mayo, and toasted it under the broiler for a warm, crunchy accompaniment to provide contrast. For aesthetic value and interest, as you can see, I dolloped in a touch of yogurt and a few halved grapes just before serving.

We found this tasty, and I think it would be an incredibly refreshing first offering at an outdoor gathering, particularly fun served in tall shot glasses (perhaps without the garnish) for cool, quick sipping. It wasn’t our absolute favorite, though I must admit its flavor improved given a night in the fridge to let the flavors intensify. Straight out of the blender it will taste quite sweet, but after the requisite minimum of two hours’ chill time, it edges back toward the savory side as the cucumber asserts itself. We found the buttermilk needed a touch of help from some vinegar for the right tang, and the ginger in my version was surprisingly mild, so I’m offering a range in my ingredient list below; aim high if you want a more assertively spiced soup.

Green Gazpacho “Shooters” with Mayonnaise Toasts
Serves 6 as an appetizer
2½ hours (includes chilling time)
For gazpacho:
1 cup crumbled or torn sourdough bread
1 cup buttermilk
3 small seedless cucumbers (I like the Persian variety)
1 cup seedless green grapes
3-4 scallions, white and pale green parts
⅓ cup parsley leaves and stems, or a combination of parsley and mint
1-2 tablespoons grated fresh ginger
3 tablespoons mayonnaise
2 teaspoons white wine vinegar
Salt and pepper to taste
For toasts:
Thin slices of sourdough
Mayonnaise to spread
To serve:
Dollops of yogurt, optional
A few additional green grapes, halved, optional
Snipped chives, or individual parsley and/or mint leaves, optional

 

  • To make the gazpacho, combine the torn or crumbled sourdough and the buttermilk in a bowl and let sit 10-20 minutes. Meanwhile, cut the cucumbers and scallions into rough chunks and add to a blender with the grapes, parsley (or parsley and mint), ginger, mayonnaise, and vinegar. After the bread and buttermilk have soaked, add this as well and blend until smooth. Return to the bowl (or just keep it in the blender, if you prefer) and refrigerate for at least 2 hours, or overnight for more intense flavor.
  • When you are ready to serve, preheat your broiler and spread the slices of sourdough with a very thin layer of mayonnaise, being careful to get it all the way to the edges (otherwise burning results, as you can see from a few of mine). Set the toasts in a single layer on a broiler pan or other oven-safe tray and broil just until they are lightly browned and just starting to become crisp.
  • Pour or ladle the gazpacho into small bowls or glasses, garnish with a dollop of yogurt, a leaf or two of complementary herbs, or a few fresh grape halves, and serve with the toasts on the side.

Fake-out “beef and broccoli” over brown rice cakes

I fell off the wagon in a big way. I know. Between the time of the semester and the recent loss of my best canine kitchen helper*, I haven’t felt particularly inspired in the kitchen as of late. And I’m behind on my Chopped Challenges. The producer/judge has been informed of this and is apparently “cooking” up a basket for me… But I do have one little triumph I’d like to offer.

I tend to vehemently resist foods that try to be other foods – I like tofu and tempeh, but I like them for what they are, not as “fake meat.” I’ll happily buy both soy-based sausages and bratwurst in the same shopping trip, because I like the taste of each one. So it’s not really common for me to concoct vegetarian meals for the purpose of substitution or imitation. But when, a few weeks ago, I unceremoniously tipped a few tablespoons of oyster sauce over a skillet full of well browned mushrooms and kale and the result tasted almost exactly like a plate of beef and broccoli from a neighborhood Chinese restaurant, and when we spent the part of the evening usually reserved for reluctant washing of dishes instead picking the leftovers out of the skillet, I decided this one was worth sharing.

Recently I’ve discussed my new obsession of crisping rice in the pan before serving, and as the owner of a new stove with magnificently hot burners, this practice is getting easier and more dependable, and I just can’t. stop. doing. it. Here, I thought the crisp nuttiness of the rice would be a great flavor and textural contrast to the vegetables and their savory sauce. In lieu of a fancy ring mold, I packed steaming spoonfuls of cooked brown rice into a biscuit cutter, pressing the rice down firmly to create a disc that stayed together, before levering it carefully a pan of extremely hot oil to brown and crisp on each side.

It’s a classy looking presentation, too, if you’re careful enough that the cakes stay together during transport, as you can stack or fan the cakes artfully across a plate or platter before smothering them with their umami-laden topping.

For a light dinner (but heavy in flavor), we didn’t think this needed another thing, but if you want added substance, a good bowl of won ton or hot and sour soup as a lead-in certainly wouldn’t be amiss.

* At the very end of March, after much discussion and heartache, we let our Lucy go. She was almost fifteen and her quality of life was beginning to diminish due to mobility problems and increasingly frequent infections that were becoming resistant to antibiotics. Don’t worry, though; we sent her out with true foodie-style aplomb: on her last day she had bacon for breakfast, and a big slice of chocolate cake after a lunch of chicken, rice, and broccoli bits (her favorite vegetable), because why not? Eventually, her remains will fertilize and hopefully help grow a raucous mix of wildflowers in the back corner of our yard, beneath a pink trumpet tree. We think she would like that.

She couldn’t stand like this anymore, but this was her favorite way to be in the kitchen with me: interested and close to the food.

Fake-out “beef” and “broccoli” on brown rice cakes
Serves 2-3
About 60 minutes (brown rice takes a while…)
1 cup raw brown rice
24 ounces crimini mushrooms
8 ounces kale
about 6 tablespoons olive oil, divided
2-3 tablespoons oyster sauce
1 tablespoon soy sauce or to taste
black pepper to taste
1-2 tablespoons sliced green onion tops, dark green parts only

 

  • Cook the 1 cup brown rice according to package directions. I always use my rice cooker, where it takes 45-50 minutes. You’ll prep and cook everything else while it is working. When it finishes, remove the lid of the cooking vessel to let it cool slightly, and stir in the 1-2 tablespoons sliced green onions.
  • Preheat the oven to 400F. As soon as you turn it on, line a sheet tray with aluminum foil, drizzle on 2 tablespoons olive oil, then put that in the oven while it preheats, so the oil is hot when the mushrooms are ready.
  • While the oven and the pan heat, prep the vegetables: stem the mushrooms, wipe the caps gently if they seem dirty, then quarter each one. Remove the central tough stem from the kale and chop into bite-size or slightly larger pieces (it will wilt down a bit as it cooks), and set aside. Slice up the green onions and set them aside as well.
  • When the oven has preheated, carefully remove the oiled pan, add the mushrooms and a little more oil, then place back into the oven. Roast at 400F for 20 minutes, remove and pour off any collected liquid, gently toss the mushrooms, and return to the oven to roast for another 20 minutes. They will be deeply browned, a bit wrinkled, and concentrated in flavor.
  • When the mushrooms have about 10 minutes to go, heat a scant 1 tablespoon olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the kale all at once and let it cook down for a minute or two, then toss in about 1 tablespoon water to help. Wilt until it is as tender as you like; I like a bit of bite in there still, so I only cook it for 3-4 minutes.
  • When the mushrooms and kale are finished cooking, add the mushrooms to the skillet with the kale, stir in the oyster sauce (start with 2 tablespoons – it is strong), then season to taste with soy sauce, black pepper, and/or more oyster sauce as you wish. Set aside (if you want fewer dishes, dump the vegetable mix back onto the sheet tray you cooked the mushrooms on, turn off the oven, and put the tray back inside – the residual heat will keep things toasty while you finish the dish. Meanwhile, quickly wash out the skillet, dry, and continue as directed below.)
  • To make the rice cakes, heat the final 2 tablespoons olive oil in a skillet over high heat until the oil is shimmering and almost smoking. While it warms, if you haven’t done so already, mix the 1-2 tablespoons sliced green onions in with the rice. Pack about ⅓ cup rice into a 3 inch ring mold or biscuit cutter set on a cutting board that can handle the heat, pressing down very firmly with the back of a spoon. Carefully remove the cutter; if you’ve packed tightly enough, the rice should stay together. Repeat until you have sufficient rice cakes; plan for 2-3 each (I found 2 per person was perfect; I think N. would happily have gone for a third).
  • Use a spatula to carefully transport the rice cakes from cutting board to skillet one at a time. Once they are in the skillet, do not adjust or move them. Turn the heat down to medium-high, and let them sit and sizzle for 3 minutes without disturbing them. This is essential for structural integrity.
  • After 3 minutes undisturbed, gently but firmly flip each rice cake using a thin spatula, and cook another 3 minutes until nicely browned on both sides.
  • To serve, arrange rice cakes on a plate as desired, add a few scoops of kale and mushroom mixture on top, and eat immediately.

Winter salad with roasted cranberry vinaigrette

I know it may seem a little odd to post a recipe for salad on Christmas Day. This is, after all, for those who celebrate Christmas, traditionally a day of heavy, indulgent food. It is about mashed potatoes, and standing rib roast, or lamb, or turkey, or well-glazed spiral ham, and pie. It is, as a dear old family friend of ours once declared (though he was talking about Thanksgiving), “not about lettuce!” I would offer in response that, honestly, neither is this salad. It is about the tartness of fruit, the jeweled colors, the crunch of nuts, the funk of the cheese. And sure, it is backed up by crisp cabbage and neutral greens, but really, it’s about a mix of brightness to break up whatever richness the rest of your table is heaving under, topped off by a puckering dressing of pan-roasted cranberries bobbing in balsamic vinegar (or lemon juice, if you prefer) and sweetened just enough with honey or maple syrup.

The dressing here is based on a recipe from PCC Markets. The spiced walnuts are lightly adapted from this Martha Stewart recipe – I’m not including it as part of my recipe since hers is so clear, but I will say that I used mustard powder and garam masala instead of her cumin and coriander, as I thought they would blend better with the rest of my salad ingredients.

Of course you can add or subtract anything you please here. Roasted root vegetables would add heartiness, arugula or radicchio would add peppery bitterness to the greens; pecans or hazelnuts could replace the walnuts as the spiced nut component. Dried cranberries or golden raisins could bolster and sweeten the cranberries from the dressing. If you aren’t a fan of blue cheese, a crumbled chevre would be a nice replacement.

Whatever beautiful additions or changes you make, be sure to toss it with the dressing at the very last minute – or serve the salad undressed and the vinaigrette in a small dish on the side – as the balsamic instantly sullies the brightness of the apples and radishes. And do serve the dressing with a spoon, so the burst cranberries can be fished out and liberally distributed. And whatever you’re eating this season, I hope it is delicious, and just what you wanted, and that it brings you joy. Merry Christmas.

Winter Salad with Roasted Cranberry Vinaigrette
Serves 6-8 as a side salad
20-30 minutes
For roasted cranberry vinaigrette:
½ cup fresh cranberries
2 tablespoons honey or maple syrup (plus more to taste, if needed)
1 tablespoon water
¼ cup balsamic vinegar or lemon juice
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
¼ cup olive oil
salt and pepper to taste
For salad:
5 cups mixed greens, such as spinach, romaine, or butter lettuce
1 cup finely shredded red cabbage
5-6 radishes, topped and tailed, thinly sliced into discs
14 ounce can drained mandarin orange segments (or fresh segments from 3-4 mandarin oranges)
½ cup crumbed gorgonzola or other blue cheese
½ cup spiced walnuts (see above for a link to Martha Stewart’s recipe)
½ cup pomegranate seeds
1 green apple, quartered, cored, and thinly sliced
1 avocado, halved, pitted, and cut into cubes

 

  • To make the dressing, heat the cranberries, the 2 tablespoons honey or maple syrup, and the tablespoon of water in a skillet over medium-high heat. Swirl or stir occasionally until the cranberries pop, 5-6 minutes.
  • While the cranberries are cooking, whisk together the mustard, balsamic or lemon juice, and olive oil in a glass measuring cup or in the container you’ll be serving the dressing from. Plop in the cranberries and their collected liquid after they have all popped, whisk well, and season to taste with salt and pepper. If the dressing seems too tart you can add more honey or maple syrup, but remember it will taste diluted once it is distributed over the salad. Set aside to cool before serving.
  • While the dressing cools, assemble the salad: toss the greens and the cabbage in a large bowl. Add the radish, the mandarin segments, the cheese, the spiced walnuts, and the pomegranate seeds.
  • Just before serving, prep and add the apple and the avocado (you want to wait till the last minute for this so they don’t brown). Toss, if desired, or serve untossed so diners can see all of the bright components.
  • Add the dressing at the last minute, or serve alongside so diners can add their own dressing as they serve themselves.

Autumn Bisque, now with post and recipe!

I promised you a recipe when I was feeling a bit better, and suddenly a week slid by! It’s not that I wasn’t feeling better (though suspected food poisoning that requires two days – TWO! Two entire days! – home from work does take a while to recover from); it’s just that the end-of-semester panic that seems to make many of my students momentarily forget how to write seemed to strike me too. The words dulled and tripped and, in the face of multiple fires breathing their way up and down Southern California and all the other apocalyptic promises of the impending end of the year, chose to stay inside, thank-you-very-much.

But it’s time to shed that cocoon and step back out, and besides, this soup, with its medley of root vegetables, apple for sweet tartness, and luxurious quantities of cream, is all the velvet goodness a winter table requires. Its inspiration comes from a gorgeous bowl at my sister’s wedding last fall – a soup so rich and luxe and flavorful it was practically a down comforter. I knew it had root vegetables in it, I knew it had cream and herbs, maybe butternut squash, maybe sweet potato… so I wrote to the catering director at the venue and got into a very silly standoff: I wanted an email with a recipe, she wanted me to call (during HER business hours, east coast time – didn’t she know I was at work too? Didn’t she know I abhor phone calls?!) so she could tell me how she makes it, which sounded more like procedure than like an ingredient list with quantities. This went back and forth for a week, with me refusing to call and her refusing to provide a recipe, and finally I just gave up. Ten months later, the time to recreate the soup arrived, and I had only my muted memories from a night soaked in champagne and joy to go on.

To that end, I have no idea how close this is to the original. I picked sweet potatoes, parsnips, and celery root for an intriguing background flavor – you could change up the vegetable choices and use winter squash, or carrots, or even rutabagas. I suspect the venue’s version had even more cream, and I don’t think it included the spritz of nutmeg I added (mostly for looks, but we liked the flavor of it too), but there’s something about pouring in over a cup of heavy whipping cream and watching the contents of the pot go from bright orange to decidedly pale gold that makes a home cook’s arteries start whispering threats. I also don’t think the venue added a last minute slug of irish whiskey, but I’d recommend that you do, since just that little bit somehow rounds out the flavor in a way nothing else could.

What I do know is: this is cozy. It’s smooth, and rich, and pleasantly filling, and would be perfect with a bright, citrus-spiked salad full of radishes and pomegranate seeds and bitter lettuces.* And a thick wedge of bread to round things out. Maybe this one. And it leaves me lacking only one soup, with three weeks to go, to make this project complete.

* wow, that sounds good, doesn’t it? Want one next week? I’ll see what I can do…

Autumn Bisque
Makes 10-12 first course servings; about 6 main course servings
About an hour
4-6 cloves garlic
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 medium white onion, diced
5 cups chicken or vegetable stock
2 cups peeled and diced celery root
2 cups peeled and diced sweet potato
2 cups peeled and diced parsnips
1 green apple, peeled, cored, and diced
3 sprigs fresh thyme (plus more to serve, if desired)
1 sprig fresh sage (4-5 leaves)
1 bay leaf
1½ cups heavy cream
1-2 ounces whiskey, brandy, or marsala, optional
1-2 teaspoons salt, to taste
sprinkle of nutmeg, to serve

 

  • Set the oven temperature to 350F. In a small, oven-safe bowl, drizzle the garlic cloves with a little bit of olive oil, some salt and some pepper. Top tightly with aluminum foil and stow in the oven until the garlic smells sweet, 20-25 minutes. There’s no need to wait for the oven to preheat.
  • While the garlic is roasting, melt the butter in a large pot over medium heat. Add the diced onion and cook gently with 2 pinches of salt until the onions are tender and slightly translucent, but not browned. This is called sweating, and should take 8-10 minutes, during which time you can peel and dice the other vegetables.
  • With the onions softened, pour in the stock, then dump in the diced celery root, sweet potatoes, parsnips, and apple. Stir in the thyme, sage, and bay leaf, then raise the heat, cover with a lid, and bring to a boil.
  • Once the liquid is boiling, reduce the heat to medium or medium low, keeping the soup just at a simmer until the vegetables are fork-tender: easily speared but not disintegrating; about 30 minutes. The apple will be softer than the others; the celery root will likely take the longest.
  • When the vegetable chunks are tender, remove from heat and add the roasted garlic – once it has cooled a bit from its time in the oven, just squeeze the cloves right out of their skins, and straight into the soup. Then, very carefully and working in batches, relocate the soup to a blender and blend until very, very smooth. Hot liquids can expand rapidly in the blender, causing small “explosions,” so leave some room in the top, leave a space with the lid for air to escape, and consider covering the top with a thick kitchen towel just in case.
  • Transfer the smooth soup back to the pot. If you’re feeling especially fussy, you could try straining it first. I didn’t, but if you do, let me know how it goes!
  • Back in the pot, stir in the heavy cream and the alcohol, if using, and the salt. Start with 1 teaspoon, taste, then add more if you feel the soup needs it. Return to low heat until warmed through.
  • To serve, ladle into bowls, dust lightly with nutmeg, and top with a sprig of thyme if you’re feeling fancy.

Dessert Latkes

One of the great shames of holiday food, I feel, is how assertively we restrict it to holidays. Every Thanksgiving when I eat that first piece of turkey straight off the carving fork (there are privileges to being the cook), I think to myself, “why do I only make this once a year?” Of course, that’s after I’ve already had a glass of wine and a few snacks, so I’m repressing the amount of work I’ve just undergone to get that thing defrosted, prepped and suitably accompanied, and haven’t yet allowed myself to think about the labor to come of denuding its carcass, fabricating broth, and dreaming up leftovers.

But turkey is only one example. There are so many other foods that we reserve strictly for their special day. In my family, the challah my mom taught us to make gets trotted out on Christmas Day, and sometimes on Easter. It was a surprise to me to learn that my aunt N. makes it multiple times a year, whenever she and her husband want a slice. But this is a silly thing to be surprised about. Why shouldn’t we make whatever foods we crave, whenever we crave them? I don’t think gingerbread would cease to be special just because I make a batch in March and in October as well as the night before Christmas. Besides, holding onto these foods as once-a-year-sacred means we don’t get an opportunity to experiment with them, since whatever masses you’re feeling probably want THE dish, not a derivative thereof. And okay, I admit, the old standard is good in itself, but the opportunity to play is one of the great rewards of cooking: what if I added apples to the gingerbread this time around? How would the turkey be with dill and mustard powder rubbed into the butter?

One of the great injustices of this restriction of holiday foods is that people are not, I suspect, ingesting as many latkes as they rightfully should be. While it’s true that these carry a slightly more meaningful symbolic link to their holiday than gingerbread does, indulging their delectable crispiness without pondering on the miracle of the oil lasting a full eight nights feels to me like sensible celebration rather than sacrilege. And once you get into the habit of eating latkes throughout the year, rather than just during Hanukkah, you start to realize that potato and onion are nice and all, but there are other options out there that deserve attention in crispy fried form.

This time around, I wondered what would happen if you moved latkes from the dinner to the dessert course. Sweet potatoes seemed like a natural choice, and instead of onion, I went with apple – it adds a tart sweetness that mellows as it cooks, and it would contribute, I thought, similar water content as the onion in the original. A toss with flour and eggs, some cinnamon to lend extra autumnal feeling, the requisite bubbling fry, and then a stack dripping with maple syrup, or sweetened sour cream, or maybe a drizzle of honey for really tooth-aching indulgence.

When I dug in, I found the combination of frying and sweetness reminded me ever so slightly of funnel cake – the snowy sprinkle of powdered sugar on top would have fit right in. I do suggest using orange sweet potatoes (often marketed as yams) if you are serving these for dessert; they are a little less firm in texture when they cook, but they are definitely sweeter. On the other hand, if you are looking for an interesting, produce-led alternative to pancakes, use the slightly less-sweet yellow or white fleshed sweet potatoes, and these could slide right in as a breakfast – perhaps for the holidays, okay, but in the spirit of not restricting ourselves, perhaps for any cool morning the urge for something special arises.

* though these are designed to be sweet, they could easily edge back toward the savory camp with the addition of black pepper or sage, and a more traditional topper of plain sour cream. Or you could make them even more dessert-like by adding other wintery spices we associate with pies and cakes – maybe even pumpkin (pie) spice in all its polarizing glory, as a nod to the season.

 

Dessert Latkes
30-45 minutes
Makes 9-10 3-inch latkes
2 medium sweet potatoes – orange fleshed for a sweeter product, white fleshed for less sweetness
1 medium granny smith apple
2 eggs
¼ cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
½-¾ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
Vegetable oil to fry
Maple syrup, powdered sugar, honey, or sour cream mixed with some brown sugar, to serve

 

  • Peel the sweet potatoes. If using a box grater, shred them with the large holes. If using a food processor, cut them down into large chunks that will just fit in the feed tube. Quarter and core the apples. Use a box grater or food processor fitted with the shredding disc to shred the sweet potatoes and apples. Scrape the shreds straight onto a clean kitchen towel and wring it out vigorously into the sink. When you’ve exhausted your arm muscles, let the towel-wrapped shreds sit for two minutes, then squeeze again. You should be able to extract a little more.
  • In a large bowl, beat together the eggs, the flour, the baking powder, the salt, and the cinnamon. Dump in the drained sweet potato and apple shreds and mix well – I find a fork works reasonably for this, but nothing is as good as your fingers to ensure even integration.
  • Heat vegetable oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat; you want enough to come about ½ inch up the sides (the quantity will vary depending on the size of your pan). Cast iron is my vessel of choice for latkes.
  • When the oil is shimmering, carefully place small heaps of the latke mixture straight into the skillet – I use my hands for this, but of course you’ll need to be very careful. Ensure the small heaps don’t touch one another. Use the flat side of a spatula to gently flatten each heap.
  • Cook over medium-high heat 4-5 minutes, until the bottoms are crisp and well browned. Flip and cook another 3-4 minutes, then remove from heat and repeat with remaining mixture.
  • While you are cooking the latkes, it’s useful to store each batch in a 300F oven on a wire rack placed over a cookie sheet. This keeps them warm and lets any excess oil drip off.
  • To serve, stack up a pile of latkes and drizzle, sprinkle, or pour on your desired topping. Eat hot.