Monday, September 26, 2011

On Pudding, Bread or Otherwise

Corny as it may sound, every September my daughter invites her friends over for a tea party as a sort of welcome back to school. Don’t get me wrong: this is no dress-up party for five-year-olds in pink tulle tutus and paste pearls. My daughter’s in high school and this is an honest-to-goodness English afternoon tea, complete with pots of Darjeeling and Earl Grey, cucumber sandwiches, currant scones (with clotted cream and raspberry preserves), leek and cheddar tartlets—all arranged on a traditional three-tiered stand—with a lovely lemon fool (that’s English for mousse) adorned with berries and mint sprigs to complete the occasion.

Frugal by nature, though, I have a bone to pick with those dainty little tea sandwiches. It’s got nothing to do with the way they taste: I love the lemon-dill buttered cucumber sandwiches, the sea salt-sprinkled radish ones, and the garden-fresh chive and cream cheese on wheat. It’s the matter of their crustlessness that gets me. I acknowledge that tea sandwiches just don’t look proper with their crusts still on; nonetheless, their nakedness bothers me. I’ve never been one to cut the crusts off my sandwiches, and so as I gaze upon the heap of discarded crusts that grows ever higher as we assemble plates of carefully constructed triangles, I know with a certainty what I’ll be doing tomorrow. Making bread pudding. Although I’ve never been the sort of woman who’d buy an outfit to match a scarf, truth be told, I'm precisely the sort of woman who’d cut the crusts of tea sandwiches for the sole purpose of putting those cast-offs to good use.

What could be easier, after all, than drying out those crusts on a cookie sheet, and then soaking them in some milk (and cream, if you’ve still got some left over from the tea party), then adding eggs, sugar, vanilla, and, depending on your taste, raisins, cinnamon, and/or nutmeg, before, finally, letting the magic of the oven transform the soppy glop into the essence of all that’s good and right about old-fashioned thrifty home kitchens?

As much as I love that it’s made of cast-offs and staple ingredients I’ve always got on hand—and, of course, as much as I love how it tastes—I also love that odd little word pudding, a name that strikes me as at once homey and majestic, equal parts ugly duckling and majestic swan. There’s no word quite like it, is there?

And as I chant the word, mantra-like, in my mind, all of a sudden I stop. Wait a minute. What about Yorkshire Pudding, which is really more popover than dessert? And what about black pudding, which is just another way of saying blood sausage (tastier than it sounds for those who haven’t tried it)? What qualifies them as puddings? What do they have in common with each other, much less with bread pudding, rice pudding, chocolate pudding, and figgy pudding (which we tend to sing about at Christmastime more than we eat)? And why, now that I’m on a roll, do the Brits call their desserts puddings? In one of my favorite cookbooks, Jane Grigson’s English Food, the chapter titled “Puddings” includes recipes for apple pie, cherry tarts, pears in syrup, and brown bread ice cream—each and every one a winner, but not a single one a pudding in my sense of the word.

What gives? Is there, I wonder, a lowest common denominator, a non-negotiable, a sine qua non when it comes to puddings—a Platonic ideal of puddinghood?

To the books I go. It turns out that blood pudding and the liver pudding (sometimes called "scrapple") beloved by southerners are closer to the original meaning of pudding than the custardy concoctions we understand the word to mean today. According to my etymological dictionary, in the thirteenth century, pudding referred to “a kind of sausage, the stomach or one of the entrails of a pig, sheep, etc., stuffed with minced meat, suet, seasoning, boiled and kept till needed.” Sort of like a traditional plum pudding, when you think about it. Perhaps, I read on, the word derived from the West Germanic pud, which meant “to swell” (as in “pudgy”), or, perhaps it was adapted from the Old French boudin, “sausage,” which came from the Latin botellus, also “sausage” (and from which we get our “botulism”—an unfortunate connection, but what can you do?). In a cookery book dating to 1430, there’s a recipe for a Puddyng of purpaysse (that’s porpoise to us) which is sort of a pudding and sort of a sausage at the same time. It's also very likely to make you glad you didn’t live back then.

Puddyng of purpaysse: Take the Blode of him, and the grece of hym self, & Ote-mele, & Salt, & Pepir, & Gyngere, & melle these to-gederys wel, & than putte this in the Gutte of the purpays, & than lat it seethe esyli, & not hard, a good whylys; & than take hym uppe, & broyle hym a lytil, & than serve forth.

[Porpoise Pudding: Take the blood of him and the grease of him, and oatmeal and salt and pepper and ginger, and mix these together well, and then put this in the porpoise’s gut and then let it seethe easily and not hard for a good while, and then take him out and broil him a little and then serve it forth.]

Oatmeal-thickened spiced porpoise blood seethed inside the gut—how good does that sound? With a little analogical reasoning, though, the connection becomes clear. What sausage is to casing, puddings are to the bags in which they were traditionally boiled: thus Porpoise Pudding (not Porpoise Sausage), not to mention all the hundreds of English puddings that combined some sort of meat with a grain, suet, and eggs, and were then either boiled, steamed, or baked. As time went by, casings and bags were replaced by baking dishes, tins and molds, and thus it was that puddings came to include both savory and sweet concoctions, whether they were immersed in liquid or baked in an oven.

It was George Bernard Shaw who once quipped that the United States and Britain are two countries separated by a common language. What they call pudding, we call dessert. What we call pudding, they call custard, a sweet creamy dessert thickened with eggs, flour, tapioca, cornstarch, gelatin, rice, or—to get to the point at last—bread. In fact, in the case of my bread pudding—which is, when all is said and done, more cakey than puddingy—my guess is that at some point in our history a frugal housewife had more bread on her hands than she knew what to do with and so shifted her proportions about and bequeathed to the world the first avatar of the dessert I, equally frugal, have just now taken out of my own oven. Or so I like to imagine . . . 

Monday, September 19, 2011

My Problem with Honey

I have a confession to make. Even though it may very well cost me every last reader, I have to be honest. I don’t like honey. Don’t like it at all. Never have. Not in tea, not in ice cream, not in poached fruit. Too sweet. Too sticky. Too cloying. I don’t even like being called “Honey” and I've always taken honeyed words with a grain or two of salt. As far as I'm concerned, the land of milk and honey sounds entirely too unctuous, and when I made the discovery that mildew comes from the same root that gave French and Italian their honey words, miel and miele (they're all sticky things that have something to do with plants), I knew I wasn’t the only one who found something unsavory about the syrupy glue.

I acknowledge that I’m in the minority. Having grown up in a Jewish household (no, that’s not the minority I’m referring to), I remember my parents and siblings dipping apple slices into honey to insure that the new year would be a sweet one. I, however, always preferred the Passover meal with its sinus-opening horseradish that was meant to remind us of the bitterness of slavery during the long sojourn in Egypt. As far as I was concerned, horseradish won out over honey every time.

But now I’m older and have a dilemma on my hands. I’m no longer as rebellious as I once was and want to serve something appropriately seasonal to celebrate Rosh Hashanah. It’s just that I can’t stand the standard dessert offering—honey cake—as dreaded to me as fruit cake is to many people come Christmastime. What is it about holiday desserts? If we really liked them as much as we pretend to, wouldn't we eat them the rest of the year too?

Lucky for me I discovered a solution when I was least looking for one—in, of all places, the Burgundy region of France. In Dijon, to be precise, the same city that’s given the world one of the few condiments that can give horseradish a run for its money: Moutarde de Maille. But my solution to the honey cake dilemma had nothing to do with mustard, instead arriving unexpectedly at breakfast the first morning of my stay in Dijon. Along with the standard croissants and baguette, the hotel set out slices of a tawny-colored bread I hadn’t seen before: dense, chewy, neither overly-moist nor overly-sweet, and redolent of anise, coriander, and ginger. If you’re surprised when I tell you that I didn’t leave that hotel without the recipe in hand, you clearly don’t know me. Nor should you be surprised to discover that as soon as I got back home, I set about researching the bread, which by then I knew was Pain d’Epices—or, in English, Spice Bread. To my complete and utter delight, I learned that what I’d been eating wasn’t only hauntingly-flavored, but was also a tidy little slice of history.

You have to love a bread with a story like this one's got. It began life a thousand years ago on the other side of the globe—in tenth-century China when the T’ang dynasty invented a recipe for what they called mi-king, “honey bread.” In the thirteenth-century Genghiz Khan’s Mongol horsemen brought it with them to Turkey and Arabia, where pilgrims and Crusaders to the Holy Land developed a taste for the bread which they dubbed with the Latin name panis mellitus, “honey bread.” The returning Crusaders brought it back to Europe where it became a favorite food of the wife of Philip the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, and later of their grandson, Philip the Good, whose place of residence was Dijon, the same city I visited centuries later.

In those chewy little slices I lingered over at my hotel every morning I realized that I'd found a way to square the circle. At last I could bake a honey cake that didn’t taste like one and didn’t even have the dreaded word in its name. It’s got enough honey to satisfy the traditionalists, but it’s also got enough spice to give your mouth something to savor other than sweet. And, to boot, it’s got enough history to satisfy even me.

Originally the bread was made of rye flour, honey, and spices; and the dough would have been left to rest for months—or even years—which would have given ample time for the honey to ferment, giving the bread a delicious yeastiness it no longer has today. The recipe I was given, though, which the hotel attributed to the nearby Chateau de Gilly, has obviously been adapted to more modern tastes and techniques. Wheat flour has replaced the rye, and baking powder the fermentation. The added sugar is probably testament to the Renaissance’s sweet tooth; and no doubt the liquor would once have been brandy rather than rum. It was during the reign of Louis XV, by the way, that it received the name we know it by today, pain d’épices, which, when you think about, is very similar to our  more familiar gingerbread, also made with spices and honey (or at least it was until it arrived in America where molasses took over—but that’s another story for another time).   

If your taste buds are anything like mine and you prefer a spice bread to a cloying honey cake, this is the seasonal dessert for you.

May your New Year be sweet—and a little spicy.  

Chateau de Gilly’s Pain d’Epices

3 ¾ cup flour
1 cup sugar
2 tsp baking powder
½ tsp salt
1 tbsp ground ginger
1 tsp ground coriander
1 tsp anise seeds
¼ tsp ground nutmeg
¼ tsp ground cloves
2 eggs
¾ cup honey
1 cup warm water
1/3 cup dark or amber rum

Preheat over to 400. Butter and flour two 8” loaf pans. In a large bowl, combine all the dry ingredients. In a separate bowl, whisk together the wet ingredients (only 2 tbsp of the rum). Combine the two with a rubber spatula. Spread into the loaf pans. Bake for 15 minutes. Lower the heat to 350 and bake for 40-45 minutes or until done. Cool in the pans on a rack for 15 minutes, and then turn out. While still warm, brush with remaining rum. Let cool completely.

If you want a heartier and more historically authentic bread, you can replace some of the flour with rye flour, and you can cut back on the sweetness by reducing or omitting the sugar and adding some freshly ground black pepper instead; finally, grating orange zest into the batter makes the resulting bread still more fragrant. One of the most wonderful things to do with this bread, by the way, is to spread slices of it with black currant preserves, another specialty of the Burgundy region.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Fruit of the Fall

Now that summer’s officially over (well, not officially, but Labor Day has come and gone, the kids are back in school, and the hazy, hot, and humid days are nearing their end), I think apples. I’m lucky to live in a part of the country that's lush with apple orchards and every September my family comes home with bushels of Macouns, McIntoshes, Empires, and Spencers (our personal favorites). But while we're out there, climbing to the highest branches and reaching for the biggest, plumpest, juiciest apples of all, my mind starts wandering, as it's wont to do. Of course I think about all the things I'm going to do with the apples once I get home: apple pie, apple sauce, apple chutney, and the layered sliced-apple cake that's gone before you know it. 

As I perch there on a perfectly comfortable branch watching everyone else stretch and strain, I start to wonder too about our national obsession with the fruit. There’s Johnny Appleseed, of course, and there’s my home town, New York, the Big Apple. The computer I’m typing on is called a Mac, and who doesn’t know that an apple a day keeps the doctor away? But the more I think, the more I realize that we’re hardly alone in our obsession with the apple. Apparently people have always been captivated by the fruit of the fall. But is that fall as in the season or fall as in sin?

In fact, although I have neither polls nor statistics to back me up, I’m confident that, if I were to ask you what fruit it was that Adam and Eve ate in the Garden of Eden, nine out of ten of you would answer it was an apple. But here’s the curious truth: there’s no apple in the story. Not a single one. Eve’s exact words before she gave in to the wily serpent were, “‘We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.’” All things considered, it seems far more likely that the forbidden fruit would have been a fig, pomegranate, quince, or some other species native to Mesopotamia. Apples, on the other hand, are indigenous to the region of modern-day Kazakhstan. Eve probably wouldn’t have recognized an apple if one hit her on the head.

And yet, for no obvious reason whatsoever, millions of people the world over have automatically assumed the forbidden fruit of Eden to have been an apple. Why?

On the one hand, the assumption is easy to account for. When people think fruit, they all but invariably think of apples, which is why so many exotic new species have historically been considered a type of apple. What do pineapples have to do with apples? And why else would a French potato be a pomme de terre (literally “earth apple”) or a German orange an Apfelsine (literally, “Chinese apple”)? Perhaps the same habit of identifying all unknown fruits and vegetables as a type of apple is responsible for our faulty assumption.  

There’s another possibility—one that involves similar-sounding words in Latin, the language into which the Bible was translated. When the word malum is pronounced with a long ā, it means apple; but when the vowel’s short, it means evil. It’s from the short-vowelled malum that we get so many of our nastiest English words, like malice, malevolent, malady, and malignant. Suddenly we’re put in mind of all those myths and stories in which the apple’s apparent sweetness is used to tempt, seduce, and destroy. It’s no accident that it was an apple bearing the words “For the Fairest” that started the Trojan War of Greek mythology, or that it was an irresistible yet poisonous apple the vainly jealous Queen used to tempt her too-beautiful stepdaughter Snow White. The biblical story is by no means the only one in which the pleasure that the fruit promises comes with a hefty price tag. The Fall of Man, the fall of Troy, and the fall of Snow White can all be pinned on the apple.

But there’s still more to the story. Eden’s forbidden fruit was identified as an apple at a specific moment in history and for a specific reason: in the early sixth century in order to convert northern pagans to Christianity which, as we all know, esteemed the grape rather than the apple. It was a poet living in what was then called Gaul who first identified the precise fruit it was that grew in the middle of the garden. “She gave in to his treachery and, herself consumed, bit into the apple.” The work was The Fall of Man by the poet Alcimus Ecdicius Avitus. Avitus wasn’t only a poet, however; he was also an archbishop famous for his tireless battle against the heresies that were threatening the Church so far up north. It was his job to convert both the Celtic and Germanic pagans, and he had his work cut out for him.

The Celts’ longed-for paradise was the western isle known as Avalon, which means “The Place of Apples.” The wizard Merlin used to deliver his prophecies while standing in an apple orchard. In Germanic legends as well, apples were the source of immortality and fertility. The gods remained immortal only so long as they ate the apples of the goddess Idun, and when the Norse god Odin’s grandson prayed for a son, the sign that his wish was about to be fulfilled was an apple dropped into his lap.

How better to convert those apple-loving pagans than by convincing them that their sacred fruit didn’t confer the immortality they believed it to, but, quite on the contrary, that it lured them with false, dangerous, and sinful knowledge? The strategy worked. Ever since Avitus’ epic, it’s been the apple that has tempted Eve and deprived her and her unwitting spouse—not to mention all the rest of us—of eternal life in paradise.

How do you like them apples?

(Adapted from my recent Words to Eat By: Five Foods and the Culinary History of the English Language)

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

A Labor Day Pig-Pickin'

“And we hope y’all can join us for our Annual-Welcome-to-North-Carolina-Labor Day-Pig-Pickin’.” A pig-pickin’? Were they kidding? What was a pig-pickin’ in the first place and, in the second place, no thank you. Visions of ravenous hyenas scavenging on wildebeest carcasses flashed through my mind. Needless to say, I was no hyena roaming about on the vast plains of the Serengeti. I was from New York City, the land of Zabar’s, H & H bagels, Korean greengrocers, and match-box-sized kitchens. Where dinner was likely to be cold sesame noodles, Ta-Chien chicken, and broccoli in garlic sauce that arrived at your apartment door in little white cardboard boxes with metal handles, or, when you decided to eat out (which you did as often as possible, especially on hot summer nights), sturdy white oversized plates of insalata caprese and risotto con gli asparagi to be lingered over with a bottle of Pinot Grigio or a Vernaccia in the colorfully lit back garden of an Italian ristorante in the West Village. If I ever ate pig at all—and to be honest, I ate it as little as possible—I never thought of it as pig, but as pork—or better still, as prosciutto, pancetta, mortadella, or one of the many other wonderful cured or smoked Italian cold cuts that go by the collective name of salume. They don’t sell pig loins, pig tenderloins, and pig chops in the meat section of the supermarket after all. Pigs are the short-legged, stout-bodied, even-toed ungulates that waddle around in sties, rooting their muddy snouts into garbage-filled troughs and snorting with delight. Pork, on the other hand, is what you eat. Or ham. But even then, it’s all too easy to think of your own pulled hamstring and once you’ve realized that it’s not only pigs who have hams—how else could you have a hamstring, after all?—you’re no longer in the world of the edible, but of the living.

But back to the pig-pickin’. There I was, a born and bred New Yorker about to move to North Carolina for a year because my husband had won an academic fellowship that carried with it a residency requirement. The pickin’ was the brain child of a Southern gentleman by the name of Corbett Capps, an engineer by trade who was in charge of the building in which all the serious academic research was to be conducted, and a pit master by avocation who regularly drove up to points north, pig and all necessary accoutrements in the back of his pick-up truck, in his tireless quest to introduce curious Yankees to the gustatory pleasures of the Tar Heel State. “Put a little south in yo’ mouth” might well have been the clarion call of Corbett Capps’ mission to spread the taste of southern barbecue to those not lucky enough to have been born south of the Mason-Dixon line. Like me, for instance.

Now, my husband might have been most concerned with finishing the book he was working on (he did), but I, not as high-minded, was more interested in the food of the region—and what I very quickly discovered was that Eastern North Carolina’s claim to culinary fame is, hands down, barbecue. Not what we Northerners call barbecue, which is dismissively shrugged off down there as no more than grilled hamburgers and hotdogs, and not what they call barbecue in Texas, which tends to be beef ribs or beef brisket slathered in a spicy tomato-based sauce, but real barbecue, which, in North Carolina, can only mean pig. More specifically, a pig somewhere between 60 and 100 pounds, beheaded, betailed, and befooted, splayed open and gutted, cooked over hickory wood for anywhere from eight to eighteen hours, mopped from time to time with a hot red peppery vinegar, and served with cole slaw and hush puppies, those deep-fried little corn bread fritters that, rumor has it, were tossed to the hungry dogs yapping around the camp fire in order to keep them quiet, hence their name.

A splayed-open and gutted pig may be a thing of beauty to a North Carolinian, but it wasn’t to me. What I saw on that sticky September late afternoon was a big dead animal sprawled belly up across a huge metal barrel drum. What I smelled, however, wasn’t bad. In fact, it smelled good. Very good. So, determined not to be the snobby New Yorker that I so clearly was, I steeled myself to do just as the natives did. I picked. With my fork, not my fingers. From the middle of the carcass—avoiding those areas that only a day or two before had abutted the head, feet, or tail, as though the degree of unadulterated pigginess somehow mysteriously increased the farther one traveled from the relatively innocuous torso, if one can speak of a pig’s torso, that is. With not the slightest bit of resistance whatsoever, the meat came off in shreds and chunks, and the instant I brought those shreds and chunks to my lips, I saw the light, just as surely as Paul did on the road to Damascus almost two millennia ago. I was instantly and irrevocably converted.  Barbecue suddenly made complete and total sense to me. This was, hands down, the best meat I’d ever tasted in my entire life. Sweet, salty, succulent, with tender fleshy bits alternating with burnt crispy ones. I couldn’t stop picking and eating, and I’m sure that I made quite a pig of myself on that hot September day in the woods, with banjos playing, sweet tea flowing, banana pudding waiting for dessert, and more y’alls and darlin’s than I’d ever heard.

The whole business of pig-pickin’s and porcine nomenclature got me thinking. What was I reacting to more viscerally as I stood there in my New York City apartment, holding the phone to my ear and listening to that oh-so-hospitable Southern voice invite me to eat a pig? The mental image of a big dead animal splayed wide open or the no-holds barred name pig-pickin’? Would I have had the same immediate stomach-clenching reaction if that drawling voice on the telephone had invited me to a Labor Day pork roast? Perhaps, I thought, it was more the name than the thing that sent such a spasm of nausea straight through me. If it had been a pork roast I’d been invited to, I might have had a much different reaction. Pork, after all, is not all that different from the French porque or roast from rôtir, and we all know how we love it when our foods have French names. But a pig-pickin’? Nothing French about those words. Picg was what medieval Germanic tribes would have called baby swine and pician was what they would have done to that picgs’ carcass—hardly an image of elegant gourmets sitting down to dine.

It was my reaction to that North Carolina Labor Day pig-pickin’ that first made me aware of the power of food words. In one way or another, we react to them. They make our mouths water, they make our stomachs twinge, and—perhaps most of all—they convey attitude. An attitude that holds a tarte aux pommes to be more refined than an apple pie, a boeuf bourgignon superior to a beef stew, and a pork roast more sophisticated than a pig-pickin.’

The obvious question, of course, is from where our food words derive their power.

(Excerpted and adapted from my Words to Eat By: Five Foods and the Culinary History of the English Language, St. Martin’s Press, 2011)