Friday, June 14, 2013

Culinary Tourism*; or "To make bisket bread"

Reading cookbooks is a lot like traveling: in both you have to balance your desire for the new with your need for the known. If your destination is too familiar, you may as well have stayed at home; if it’s too strange, you may wish you stayed at home. So too with cookbooks. If they’re so familiar as to tell you what you already know, who needs them? But if they’re so strange as to be unusable, you may long for your good old comfort foods.

The thought passed through my mind the other day as I sat there reading through an early 17th-century cookery book by Sir Hugh Plat (also spelled Platt) called Delightes for Ladies to Adorn Their Persons, Tables, Closets, and Distillatories: With Beauties, Banquets, Perfumes and Waters. As I flipped through the pages, I read how to candy rose petals, how to hollow out lemons and then fill them with sugared rose water syrup, and how to mold sugar into a paste “whereof to cast Rabbits, Pigeons, or any other little bird or beast.”

Sugar. On the one hand, it’s as familiar an ingredient as they come, but on the other hand, how strange its uses in Plat’s pages—not to mention the quantities! There’s not a page that doesn’t call for pounds and pounds of sugar—cane sugar, that is, imported from the New World and which, by the time Plat sat down to write his book, had long since eclipsed honey as the country’s favorite sweetener.

When Queen Elizabeth I died—just a year after Plat published his Delightes—her teeth were black, but then so must have been those of many of her contemporaries. Dessert tables—then called “banqueting tables”—were the rage of the day and Sir Hugh wasted no time divulging the royal confectioners’ secrets to the ladies of the realm.

If you’re hoping I’ll share some of his recipes, my apologies. Lacking Queen Elizabeth’s sweet tooth (see my last post), I find the book historically fascinating, but it doesn’t send me running to the kitchen. Somehow I can resist the urge to candy my marigolds.

But then, in the midst of his (to my taste) overly sweet confections, Plat redeemed himself. Despite its unfamiliar language, I recognized the recipe entitled “To make bisket bread, otherwise called french bisket” to be an old friend.

Take halfe a pecke of fine flower, two ounces of Coriander seedes, one ounce of annis seedes, the white of foure egges, half a pinte of Ale yeast, and as much water as will make it up into stiffe past, your water must be but blood warme, then bake it in a long roll as big as your thigh, let it stay in the oven but one houre, and when it is a daye olde, pare it and slice it overthwart, then sugar it over with fine poudred sugar, and so drie it in an oven again, and being drye, take it out and sugar it again then boxe it, and so you  may keepe it all the yeare.

Translated into more familiar English, the 17th-century recipe combines flour, coriander, anise, egg whites, yeast, and water into a stiff dough that’s shaped into “a long roll as big as your thigh,” and baked. After cooling overnight, it’s sliced, sprinkled with sugar, and returned to the oven where the slices are dried out, sprinkled with sugar once again, and boxed for up to a year.

What Plat called “bisket bread,” we call biscotti. Still frequently flavored with anise (less often with coriander), today it’s more likely to be rolled into a log than a thigh—but then again, perhaps the thigh image is more appropriate considering that half a peck of flour amounts to approximately 18 cups. That’s a lot of dough!

As I said, reading cookbooks—especially historical ones—is a balancing act between the familiar and the strange.

*I borrow the phrase from the folklorist Lucy Long, editor of the 2004 collection of essays titled Culinary Tourism.
A most delicate and stiff sugar paste, whereof to cast Rabbits, Pigeons, or any other little bird or beast, either from the life or carved moulds.

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Wednesday, June 5, 2013

On Sweet Teeth, Dessert, and the SLCa2 Gene

My family frequently makes fun of me for what they see as my complete and utter lack of a sweet tooth. They just don’t understand how two scoops of Kahlua Brownie Fudge can leave me cold. Or how I can pass on the tiramisu. Or do without the strawberry-glazed cheesecake. As far as they’re concerned, there’s no such thing as a too sweet dessert.

Which puts me in mind of Paul Simon’s “one man’s ceiling is another man’s floor.”

What they call a good dessert—a chocolate-brownie sundae, cream-filled cannoli, baklava dripping with honey—I call saccharine-sweet. What I call a good dessert—walnut-black pepper biscotti, dark-chocolate-covered coffee beans, lemon sorbet—they call spicy, bitter, or sour. If it ain’t sweet, it ain’t dessert, they tell me.

But, I argue back, think about this: the word dessert has nothing to do with sweet. Nothing whatsoever. It comes from the Middle French dessert which meant “last course,” or, literally, “the removal of what has been served,” from desservir, “to clear the table.” Fruit and cheese, for instance, were often the last things served and so, I argue, qualify as dessert. Technically, anything can be considered dessert if it’s served last.

But that’s a technicality. In reality, if you’re going to serve a dessert to almost anyone other than me, it had better be sweet. 

Once I even tried researching the matter online. “Why do people want sweet desserts?” I typed in. Apparently six years ago, someone asked the same question and received the following responses: “What other kind of dessert is there beside sweet desserts?” “Because sugar tastes good and that’s [sic] the way taste buds are.” Hands down, my favorite reply was: “Is this a trick question??”

The more I researched the matter, the more “scientific” evidence I discovered, all explaining why my family craves sugar. Because evolutionarily, our species sensed that sweet foods are more nutrient-rich than bitter ones (but wait: aren’t we told that kale is the über-vegetable?). Because breast-milk is sweet and so from infancy on, sweet is our favorite taste.

I even came across an explanation of why some people crave more sugar than others. According to a group of geneticists from Toronto, “people with a certain DNA difference in their SLCa2 gene ate more sugar than people with other versions. The researchers hypothesize that these folks may have brains that are less sensitive to the amount of sugar in the blood. Which means they may need to eat more sugar to feel full.” 

By this logic, it’s not my family’s fault that they can’t control themselves in a pastry shop or ice cream parlor. It’s genetic. 

Here's a thought. If you, like me, lack the SLCa2 mutation, let me know what your favorite dessert is. There’s power in numbers. Maybe, just maybe, we can petition for walnut-black pepper biscotti or (fill in the blank) to join the ranks of the cannoli and tiramisu on the dessert menus of the world.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Butter Up

How can you not love a city that’s got a street named after butter?
Sorting through my photo library recently, I came across a shot of a street sign I took when I was on vacation in Belgium last summer. Why did I take it? Well, on the one hand, I wanted to remember the narrow cobble-stone street down which I wandered, happily munching cookies, waffles, and chocolate. But truth be told, I also wanted to remember the sign on which was printed the street’s name: Rue au beurre/Boterstraat. Hence my photo.

For complicated historical reasons, roughly half the city’s population speaks French and the other half Dutch (or, more precisely, the dialect of Dutch known as Flemish); thus street signs appear in both languages. So too do the menus that restaurants display to entice hungry passers-by. The dish that best epitomizes Belgian cuisine, as any visitor knows, is mussels and fries, but it’s called by its French name of moules-frites as often as it is by its Dutch name of mosselen-friet. If there’s a contender for the national dish, it’s got to be Belgium’s answer to boeuf bourgignon—but the dish appears variously as carbonnade de boeuf à la Flamande and as Vlaamse stoverij.

Of course I know that, on the one hand, it’s simply a matter of two names for the same thing. What the Dutch call boter, mosselen, and stoverij, the French call beurre, moules, and carbonnade. On the other hand, as I have so often observed, translations of food names are seldom as straightforward as you might think.  If they were, why would we so automatically prefer the French names to the Dutch ones? Who can deny that beurre has a panache that boter simply doesn’t have? And just think of the difference between soupe de poisson (or de poulet) and Waterzooi. Similar ingredients but one sounds like a delicious fish (or chicken) soup and the other . . . ? Well, the other you probably have never even heard of.

But here’s the rub. As much as we prefer French names, our English food words are a lot closer to the Dutch ones. Case in point: we put butter on our bread just as they spread boter on their brood.

So why are we so quick to prefer beurre? And why do the guidebooks refer to Brussels’ chief tourist destination—its square surrounded by ornately decorated and steeply gabled guildhalls—as the Grand Place, rather than the Grote Markt, as it's known by half the population?


Because for historical reasons even more complicated than the ones I referred to above, we speakers of Germanic languages (which include English and Dutch, not to mention German, Norwegian, and Swedish) have been brought up to believe that if it’s French, it’s got to be more sophisticated. But do champignons a l’escargot really taste so much better than paddestoelen met slakkenboter? They’re both just mushrooms with snail butter. And are crêpes really so much tastier than pannekoeken? Or have we just been taken in by self-proclaimed Gallic resonance?

Admittedly not as elegant as a mille-feuille, it’s the chewy waffles with their nuggets of pearl sugar I’m still dreaming of. And, by the way, that’s wafel, not gaufre.

Friday, April 12, 2013

My Introduction to Som Tam (or, Green Papaya Salad)


It’s not often that dinner out is interrupted by a furious woman bursting into the restaurant and screaming in a language you can’t understand; nor does it often happen that your meal is interrupted by three uniformed policemen doing their best to restore calm as the entire restaurant staff, from cooks to waiters, gathers en masse to shout back in the same incomprehensible language.  

What were we to do? We had theater tickets and had to eat before 7:00. We’d found the one restaurant in town that was open on Easter Sunday. Despite the fact that it was completely empty, we’d sat down and ordered our food. Eyes on our watches, we were getting very hungry. And there we sat as the battle lines formed, doing our best not to pry into what clearly wasn’t any of our business. All evidence suggested that we weren’t going to be eating anytime soon.

Just as we were thinking we ought to leave, a plate of spring rolls made it to the table. Not the vegetarian ones we’d ordered, but we devoured them anyway. Not bad. Then something arrived that looked sort of like a plate of noodles. We hadn’t ordered any noodles, but the fight was still raging, more policemen were arriving, clearly the waiters had more important things on their mind than our dinner, so, gratefully, we tasted them. 

And immediately realized that what we were eating was 1) not noodles at all; and 2) not just good, but magnificent. Turns out that we’d been given precisely what we’d ordered—Som Tam, or Green Papaya Salad—without having realized it.

No doubt many of you already know that green papayas can be shredded into spaghetti-like strands (sort of like the aptly named spaghetti squash), but we, who didn’t know this, imagined we’d been given a cold noodle salad.

Live and learn, as they say. Papayas have long been one of my favorite fruits and there are few things I like more than a bowl of papaya cubes sprinkled with lime juice. But when I think papaya, I think orange—whether the pale orange of an apricot or a cantaloupe, or the more vivid hue of a persimmon, carrot, or pumpkin. I don’t think greenish-white. Somehow or other, green papaya salad had never made it onto my radar screen. Well, consider me a convert.

Sour, salty, spicy, and sweet: what could be better than that classic Thai blend of lime juice, fish sauce, chili peppers, and just a touch of sugar? When it’s stirred into  shredded green papaya, green beans, tomatoes, and chopped peanuts, the result is addicting. Trust me.

Knowing I’d need another fix—and very soon—I googled Green Papaya Salad right away and found not only dozens of recipes, but also—much to my delight—that in order to make it, I’d need a shredding tool sold under the names of Thai Kom Kom Miracle Knife or Kiwi Pro-Slice Peeler. With this amazing little gizmo, I am now able to reduce an unripe or green papaya to spaghetti-like strands, thus being able to re-create at a moment’s notice the salad we’d all but inhaled despite the shouting, doors slamming, and sirens that accompanied our introduction to Som Tam

Som Tam (Green Papaya Salad)
(adapted from, literally, dozens of recipes)

2 green papayas, peeled & shredded
½ lb string beans, cut into 1” lengths, blanched until crisp-tender & 
plunged under ice water (Thai yardlong beans are traditional)
2-3 plum tomatoes, seeded & chopped
½ cup chopped unsalted peanuts

                                                      ¼ cup Asian fish sauce                 
½ cup lime juice (to taste)
2 tbsp sugar (palm sugar is tradition, but brown will do)
1 tsp minced garlic
2 Thai bird’s eye chilies (or any other chili pepper), minced
A few tablespoons dried shrimp (traditional, but the salad’s fine without)

Toss the salad ingredients together in a large bowl. Mix the dressing ingredients together and pour over. Stir well. Garnish with chopped cilantro before serving.
[Note: traditionally, this salad is pounded together, ingredient by ingredient, in a mortar and pestle and no doubt there are many purists who insist the salad can be made in no other way. I’ve heard the same claimed of pesto sauce—that it doesn’t taste authentic unless the basic and garlic are pounded in a mortar and pestle. What can I say other than acknowledge that according to such purists, neither my pesto nor my som tam is authentic. Somehow, I can live with the shame.]

Epilogue: It turned out that the shouting concerned who owed or didn’t owe whom money. The apologetic & embarrassed owner didn’t want to charge us for the meal, but the food was so good, we insisted. Not only that, we’re going back for more.

Friday, March 15, 2013

“To a worm in horseradish, the whole world is horseradish” (Yiddish Proverb)


As a child, I had one association with horseradish. Passover. On the seder plate it was called maror—Hebrew for “bitter herb”—but my parents tended to call it by its Yiddish name of chrain. Although it was supposed to remind us of the bitterness of years of slavery in Egypt, I was always partial to horseradish. Not the prepared stuff you buy in tiny little jars, but the freshly grated variety, moistened with vinegar and seasoned with a bit of salt. Today you can find horseradish root at the supermarket just about anytime, but back then it was stocked once a year, a few weeks before Passover. As soon as I saw a chunk of the deceptively odorless root in the refrigerator, I knew what to expect. My father’s annual ritual of horseradish preparation. 

Come the weekend before Passover, he’d get to work, peeling the root, chopping it into manageable pieces, and tossing it into the food processor with some vinegar and a pinch of salt (no doubt he also added a few spoonfuls of sugar). A few seconds of pulsing was all it took. But the drama of the ritual lay in the opening of the food processor. As I recall, he would don a surgical mask for the moment of truth, because the fumes that wafted out of that processor would otherwise have knocked him out. Try it. You’ll see. 

Horseradish doesn’t have a smell when it’s whole. When it’s been cut, however, it releases the same compound that’s responsible for the sinus-blasting and eye-popping pungency of wasabi and mustard, to both of which it's related (and which, not coincidentally, are two of my other favorite flavors).  That mucous membrane-irritating compound has a purpose other than that of adding savor to my dinner or serving as a symbol of bitterness; it protects the plant from the chomping teeth of an unsuspecting herbivore—like a horse, for instance, after whom the horseradish is not in fact named and to whom it’s positively poisonous. “Horse” used to mean “strong, large, or coarse,” as in horse chestnuts or a horse laugh (not “hoarse laugh” as I always thought, but “horse laugh”).

Now if a knife can break enough cell walls to release the acrid compound, just imagine the potential of the whirring blade of the food processor. And if the odor is sharp enough when the root is being cut or grated on a chopping board on the countertop in a well ventilated kitchen, just imagine the ferocity of the pent up odors when they’re suddenly released en masse. Most recipes I’ve read merely advise you to avert your face when you remove the lid of the processor; my father, more cautious still, resorted to desperate measures.

Some of the horseradish he’d put in glass jars; to the rest he’d add some boiled beets (or were they pickled beets?) for a touch of sweetness. But for me, only the white stuff would do. For me, gefilte fish was incomplete without it, as was the brisket, the charoset, and the matzah. Without horseradish, the meal lacked savor. To me, it was horseradish that defined Passover.

But I’ve since found out that Passover isn’t alone in claiming the root or in bestowing its nose-clearing pungency with symbolic resonance. In much of Northern Europe, a traditional Easter dish is Horseradish Soup, called Bialy Barszcz in Poland. Rich with sour cream and kielbasa, the soup is spiked with a hefty amount of grated horseradish—symbolizing Jesus's sacrifice—and traditionally served with hard-boiled eggs, symbolizing his rebirth.

Slavery in Egypt or Jesus’s sacrifice. A lot of symbolic weight to put on the shoulders of a root that’s simply trying to protect itself from being eaten by a grazing herbivore. Or by me.

Whether it's Easter or Passover you're celebrating, here's how to prepare your own horseradish. For every pound of horseradish root, you'll need about a half cup of white vinegar and a teaspoon and a half of salt. Peel & coarsely chop the horseradish. Place it in the food processor with a few tablespoons of the vinegar. Pulse until the horseradish has broken down. Add the salt and enough of the remaining vinegar to get a pasty consistency. If you must, you can add a few teaspoons of sugar or a peeled medium (uncooked) beet. Purist that I am, I add neither.

Addendum: After having spoken with my parents (two of my closest readers), I have two corrections to make. First, it was my mother—not my father—who peeled and chopped the horseradish, in addition to making the chicken soup, matzah balls, gefilte fish, brisket, and virtually everything else (no doubt, she'll want me to credit the guests who bring the kugels and desserts, but blog posts—like Academy Award acceptance speeches—have to know when to call it quits).  Second, my father alerts any of you tempted to try making your own horseradish that the surgical mask alone is not sufficient to protect you against the fiery fumes that will emerge when you twist off the top of the food processor. In addition to the mask, he advises goggles.

Friday, February 22, 2013

On pancakes, flapjacks, hotcakes, griddlecakes, hoecakes, johnnycakes . . .

Last week marked two holidays associated with food: Valentine’s Day, when, as they have since the 15th century at least, lovers regale one another with sweets and flowers; and Shrove Tuesday, the day when one feasts on the rich foods one won’t taste again until the lean days of Lent have come and gone. In New Orleans, it’s called Mardi Gras, literally “Fat Tuesday,” and but I’m partial to the British name, Pancake Tuesday (or just plain Pancake Day), which has always struck me as a bit silly (sorry all you Brits!). Think of it: of all the foods you could indulge in if you were to throw caution to the wind, would it be pancakes that came first to mind?

But apparently the British have long loved their pancakes. The word first appears in a 15th century cookery book, but I doubt the recipe would feature at your local IHOP: it called for pepper, mace, cloves, saffron, and "if thou wilt," a little minced pork or veal. By the time of the 1615 The English Housewife (the full subtitle of which is “Containing the inward and outward virtues which ought to be in a complete woman; as her skill in physic, cookery, banqueting-stuff, distillation, perfumes, wool, hemp, flax, dairies, brewing, baking, and all other things belonging to a household”), Gervase Markham provides a more familiar recipe, with the addition of some sweet spices, for what he rather immodestly calls “The best pancake”:

To make the best pancake, take two or three eggs, and break them into a dish, and beat them well; then add unto them a pretty quantity of fair running water, and beat all well together; then put in cloves, mace, cinnamon, and nutmeg, and season it with salt: which done, make it thick as you think good with fine wheat flour; then fry the cakes as thin as may be with sweet butter, or sweet seam [fat, grease, or lard], and make them brown, and so serve them up with sugar strewed upon them. There be some which mix pancakes with new milk or cream, but that makes them tough, cloying and not crisp, pleasant and savoury as running water.

Markham may have preferred pancakes made with water, but his recipe would be self-defeating as far as Shrove Tuesday is concerned when the point is to eat up as much butter and cream as possible (it isn’t called Fat Tuesday for nothing). And such pancakes aren’t only eaten; they’re also tossed in the air in a custom known as “pancake races,” held in villages throughout the UK since long before Markham put pen to paper and continuing to this day. The most famous such race, according to Ronald Hutton’s The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain, “is confined to adult women [who] run from the market square to the church, using standard-sized frying pans in which each pancake must be tossed at least three times en route.” Regulations are strict: all contestants must wear aprons and headscarves, and the course run must measure exactly 380 meters/415 yards.

I’m not aware of any such custom here in the US, but what we lack in the way of pancake racing we more than make up for in the quaint and quirky names we give our pancakes. Flapjacks, for instance, for which The Dictionary of American Regional English provides the following synonyms: "Flapjack. 1. A pancake. Also called clapjack, flapcake, flapover, flatcake, flatcjack, flipjack, flipper, flopjack, flopover, slapjack.”

And that’s not to mention the more familiar hotcake, griddlecake, hoecake (perhaps cooked on hoes propped over an open fire), or johnnycake (traditionally made from Rhode Island’s Narragansett white-cap corn and often believed to have evolved from “journey cake”). 

All this history aside, my own personal pancake preference tends toward a heartier batter than the one Markham touted in his English Housewife. I’d rather my pancakes not be quite as flat as, say, a pancake. Since I've almost always got a container of buttermilk in the fridge and a box of baking soda in the cabinet, I can stir up thick batters at a moment’s notice. Like the following one, which is sort of Scottish (the oats and the buttermilk) and sort of American (the maple syrup) all at the same time, and so should satisfy eaters on either side of the Atlantic.

                                                   Oatmeal Pancakes
(makes about 12 4” pancakes)

              1 cup rolled oats                                  2 tablespoons sugar
              1 cup buttermilk                                  1 teaspoon baking soda
              1 egg                                                    1 teaspoon baking powder
              1/2 cup water                                       2 tablespoons maple syrup
              1 cup all-purpose flour                        3 tablespoons vegetable oil

Pour the buttermilk over the oats & let stand for 15 minutes or so. Add everything else and stir until incorporated. Ladle about ¼ cup of batter onto a hot griddle (which I don't bother to grease) & when the the edges look firm & the bottom is golden-brown (you can peek under to check), flip to cook the other side. You don’t need me to tell you to serve the pancakes with whatever you like—syrup, jam, cinnamon & sugar—but I will say that oatmeal pancakes are especially good with warm apple sauce or apple slices sauteed in butter and sprinkled with cinnamon & sugar.

Friday, February 15, 2013

On Biscuits

For those who enjoyed unraveling the vexed matter of why limes are green but limas are yellow (if you missed it, click here), here’s another post dedicated to the wonderful world of confusing culinary nomenclature.

Biscuit. The more you think about it, the less you know what it is you’re thinking about.

Has your mind’s eye conjured up a dry crisp baked good crying out for some sort of rehydration—whether in tea, coffee, or milk (as in the case of Shredded Wheat Biscuits)?

Or are you envisioning a soft flaky quick bread, sliced latitudinally and slathered with butter and jam—or doused in country gravy, as they do down south)? 

If it’s the crispy meaning of biscuit that comes first to mind, then you might also be the sort of person to call trucks lorries and elevators lifts. You’ve got a bit of the Brit in you. After all it’s the Brits who love their digestive biscuits and who tend to use the word to refer to what we Americans call cookies.

If it’s the biscuits-and-gravy sense of the word that comes to mind, then you’re not likely to have Hovis Digestive Biscuits in your larder (which you’re not likely to call a larder in the first place) and you’re far more likely to call cookies cookies.

History hardly helps. Literally the word means “twice cooked” (from the Latin bis (twice) and coctus (past participle of coquere, to cook) because that’s what biscuits once were. Intentionally dessicated little flour-based baked goods meant to sustain one during long journeys and endless wars. Think hardtack, oatcake, and rusk.

Or, more palatably, think biscotti—the twice-baked diagonally cut almond-studded bars from Italy which are best softened by a brief dip in a glass of vin santo. Or there’s zwieback—from the German zwei (twice) and backen (to bake)—the twice-baked sweetened crisp bread more likely to be moistened by the aching gums of the teething toddler for whom they’re marketed these days in the US.

What was it about that transatlantic crossing that transformed dry-as-a-bone ship’s biscuits into meltingly tender beaten biscuits?

Seems the answer has something to do with the Dutch, whose koekje (“little cake”) referred to hard little baked goods like today’s speculaas, those crunchy spice cookies often cut into the shape of a windmill. It was the Dutch koekje, rather than the English biscuit, that took root in the New World and thus on this side of the Atlantic we eat cookies, while on the other side they eat biscuits. 

As for biscuit in the southern sense? Well, hold the gravy, add some currants, and all of a sudden they reveal their resemblance to scones—the favorite teatime treat of Britain and which, in the northeast part of Scotland are sometimes called “sweet biscuits.” Why soft buns should be called biscuits is another story.

Still another is why the company that manufactures some of America’s favorite cookies—Chips Ahoy, Oreos, Mallomars, and Fig Newtons—should be called Nabisco, from National Biscuit Company.

Monday, February 4, 2013

What makes shortbread so short?


Mama’s little baby loves short'nin', short'nin',
Mama’s little baby loves short'nin' bread.

Funny how you don’t stop to think about words you use everyday. Like elevator. If you stopped to think about it, you’d realize that it comes from elevate. So how, I ask you, can something that’s named after its ability to go up be called the same thing when it comes down?

By the same token, not too many people stop and wonder about how shortbreads, shortcakes, and shortening itself got their names. What’s so short about shortening? What are shortbreads being distinguished from? Longbreads?

Well, yes, in a manner of speaking. It’s just we don’t call them longbreads anymore than we refer to descending elevators as descenders. 

A picture speaks a thousand words, so picture to yourself, on the one hand, a shortcake—as in a strawberry shortcake before it’s been filled with strawberries and topped with whipped cream—and, on the other, picture to yourself a rustic Italian bread, one of those nice round crusty loaves all dusted over with flour. Cut into the shortcake and you know what’s bound to happen: it’s going to crumble into moist little crumbs. Cut into your country loaf and, although the crust is likely to shatter, you’re not going to end up with any crumbs on your countertop. You’re far more likely to end up with a slice that’s more hole than bread. But rather than feeling cheated, study that hole more closely. See those strands stretching from side to side? That’s gluten, the protein in the wheat that, when combined with water and kneaded, becomes elastic and stretchy enough to surround and support the air pockets that make the dough rise. The bigger the air pocket, the longer the gluten has to stretch—and long, as we all know, is the opposite of short.

Which takes me back to shortening. As in shortbread and shortcake.
For reasons that chemists explain with words like hydrophilic and hydrophobic, when you add a fat to your wheat and water, the gluten spurns other gluten molecules in favor of the fat, which means no long stretchy strands and, consequently, no air pockets. When baked, the dough becomes cakey and crumbly rather than stretchy and bready. In other words, it becomes what’s known as “short,” which did once have the secondary meaning of  “easily crumbled,” as in a 15th-century recipe that instructs us to “Take warm barm  [yeast], and put all these together and beat them together with thy hand till it be short and thick enough."

Any fat technically qualifies as shortening, but especially those that remain solid at room temperature, like lard, which was the traditional shortening until the French chemist Hippolyte Mège-Mouriès invented margarine in 1869 and the German chemist Edwin Cuno Kayser hydrogenated cottonseed oil in the early twentieth century, resulting in the product most often thought of today as shortening: Crisco.

So much, so good. But there's still something funny about the word. For a reason that I can't figure out, it almost never refers to butter, even though it's all but impossible to conceive of shortcake and shortbread made with anything else. What would be the point of Walker’s Pure Butter Shortbread without the butter? 

And “short’nin’ bread,” as in the one Mama’s little baby loves? Well, here’s a recipe from the lovely Charleston Receipts, America’s Oldest Junior League Cookbook. You’ll note that its name notwithstanding, it’s butter that makes that short’nin’ bread taste so good.

Short’nin’ Bread

1 ½ cups flour
¼ cup light brown sugar
¼ lb butter, soft

Cream the butter and sugar. Add the flour and mix thoroughly. Roll out quickly on a floured board, about ½” thick. Cut shapes with small biscuit cutter. Bake on lightly greased and floured shallow pan at 350° for about 20 minutes.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

On Garlic, Mosquitoes, Vampires . . . and Bad Breath

Last week’s post on Chicken with 40 Cloves of Garlic got me thinking, not about the dish’s qualification as an easy and heart-warming post-holiday dinner (which was the point of the post), but about its claim to fame: its legendary forty cloves of garlic. More specifically, I got thinking about our contemporary love affair with garlic. Hard to imagine cooking dinner these days without mincing up at least a few cloves of garlic. But this hasn’t always been the case. Not, at least, for us English speakers.

When the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley traveled through Italy in the early 19th century, he was horrified to learn that women—yes, even women—ate the pungent little cloves. “There are two Italies,” he wrote home; “The one is the most sublime and lovely contemplation that can be conceived by the imagination of man; the other is the most degraded, disgusting, and odious. What do you think? Young women of rank actually eat—you will never guess what–garlick!” Nothing, to Shelley, could better illustrate Italy’s degraded condition than the fact that its women ate garlic. Even Shelley,  iconoclastic romantic poet that he was, simply could not fathom kissing a young woman with garlic-scented breath. 

But then Shelley was simply echoing traditional English views voiced over a hundred years earlier by the gardener and diarist John Evelyn in his Acetaria: A Discourse of Sallets:

Garlick, Allium; dry towards excess; and tho' both by Spaniards and Italians, and the more southern people, familiarly eaten, with almost everything, and esteem'd of such singular vertue to help concoction, and thought a charm against all infection and poyson  . . . We absolutely forbid it entrance into our salleting, by reason of its intolerable Rankness, and which made it so detested of old; that the eating of it was (as we read) part of the punishment for such as had committed the horrid'st crimes. To be sure, 'tis not for ladies palats. nor those who court them.

Deemed inappropriate for young ladies’ palates (or for those who court them), yet force-fed to criminals: such was the distaste in which garlic was held.

And yet, by the same token, it was also believed to be a “charm against infection and poison”—which claim, by the way, has been confirmed by modern medicine that has identified garlic’s strong smell to result from the sulfur-containing molecule that results when cloves are chopped or crushed, thereby releasing the enzyme allinaise which converts the amino acid alliin into the smelly but antibiotic and antifungal compound allicin. Thus, whether for good or for ill, it's only when garlic is chopped, crushed, or chewed that it gives off the powerful odor that makes your breath smell—and your skin and blood as well. Apparently mosquitoes find the smell unappealing and so don’t bite garlic eaters who are thus spared such mosquito-borne diseases as malaria, dengue, yellow fever, and West Nile virus.

But mosquitoes are hardly unique in their dislike of garlic Just think of vampires and their legendary aversion to it. If you want to protect yourself against the likes of Count Dracula, you’d be wise to follow Bram Stoker’s advice: rub garlic over your window sashes, door jambs, and around the fireplace “to ensure that every whiff of air that might get in would be laden with the garlic smell.” Take the further precaution of adorning yourself with a wreath of garlic flowers around your neck.

Interesting, isn't it, that despite its medicinal properties—not to mention the protection it provides against blood-suckers of all shapes and sizes—garlic was nonetheless forbidden to young ladies. Apparently it was better they die of malaria or join the ranks of the undead than suffer the indignity of halitosis, or, in plain old English, bad breath.

Two final tidbits on the subject of bad breath. First, it was another pungent allium from which garlic derives its second syllable: the leek (gar was the Old English word for spear; perhaps the long bladelike leaves of the garlic plant were thought to resemble spears)—and bad breath was associated with leeks as well. According to Isabella Beeton’s 1861 Book of Household Management, “to prevents its tainting the breath, the leek should be well boiled.” 

The second tidbit brings me full circle back to my Chicken with 40 Cloves of Garlic. Since it's only when they're chopped, crushed, or chewed that garlic cloves release their odiferous fumes, by cooking them whole, one can enjoy their mellow, creamy sweetness with no ill effect.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Chicken with 40 Cloves of Garlic; Or, A Wintry Dinner for the Weary

On the one hand, an intimate wintry dinner with friends is just the thing to restore your faith in the pleasures of hearth and home. Nothing like a fire crackling away and the warm glow of candlelight to make you feel that all’s right with the world. On the other hand, when that intimate dinner falls days after the excesses of the holidays, it might also be just the thing to make you wish you could spoon up a bowl of oatmeal and call it a night. There’s only so much festivity one can endure and after you’ve hit your limit, you’ve hit your limit.

If, your holiday overload notwithstanding, friends have nonetheless been invited, something obviously must be served. But what? When the thought of another roast is enough to make you retire your oven mitts and resort to your drawer of take-out menus, here’s a dinner that will save the day. It balances seasonal conviviality and the simplicity of a family supper. Nothing takes too much time and, apart from slicing potatoes and apples, there’s almost no effort involved. Not including salt & pepper or olive oil & butter, no dish calls for more than five ingredients and those five called for are on almost everyone’s hit parade. Who doesn’t love chicken, garlic, potatoes, salad, and apples? 

Don't, by the way, be alarmed by the quantity of garlic. When you leave the cloves whole, you don't release the sulfur compounds that give garlic its characteristic & strong taste; left whole, the cloves will soften into a sweet mellowness. In fact, despite the traditional name of this dish, I often add more than 40 cloves.

Chicken with Forty Cloves of Garlic

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
3 chicken breasts & 3 thighs - skin removed,
each piece cut in half and sprinkled with salt & pepper
40 whole peeled garlic cloves
½ cup chicken stock
½ cup dry white wine

Heat the oil and butter over high heat in a large skillet and brown chicken pieces on each side. Lower heat and add garlic, making sure the cloves settle on the bottom of the skillet. Sauté for about 10 minutes. Add the wine and stock; bring to a simmer; cover and let simmer for 15-20 minutes. That’s it.

Potato Galette

4 russet potatoes - peeled & sliced into very thin discs
 (if you have a mandoline, now’s the time to use it)
3 tablespoons butter

Melt the butter in a 9-10” inch non-stick skillet. Pour most of it into a small bowl. Layer the potato discs into the skillet, drizzling with the reserved butter and sprinkling with salt and pepper as you go along. Cover tightly & brown over a low heat for about 20-25 minutes; slide onto a plate & invert back into the skillet. Cover & brown the other side for another 20 minutes or so. Slide onto serving plate & cut into wedges. (You can, of course, sprinkle in some minced garlic and/or herbs if you like.)

Endive Salad with Walnuts & Blue Cheese

3-4 heads Belgian endive
½-1 cup toasted walnut halves
4 ounces blue cheese, crumbled
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
4 tablespoons walnut oil (or olive oil)

Separate endive leaves but keep them whole. Toss in a large bowl with the toasted walnuts & the crumbled Roquefort. In a small bowl, stir together the lemon juice and the oil; season with salt and pepper. Toss onto the salad.

Apple Tart

4 cooking apples – peeled, cored, quartered, and each quarter sliced into quarters
3 egg yolks
¾ cup heavy cream
5 tablespoons sugar
Pre-baked 9-11” tart shell – you can buy one or make your own (I make mine in the food processor in the usual way, using 1 ½ cups flour, a pinch of salt, 7 tablespoons butter, and about 4 tablespoons ice water; refrigerate until cold; roll out & line a tart shell; line with foil and pie weights; bake at 375° for 20 minutes; remove foil & bake for another 20 minutes. Let cool before filling.)

Arrange apple slices in concentric circles in the pre-baked tart shell. Whisk together the yolks, cream, and 3 tablespoons of sugar. Pour over the apples. Sprinkle the remaining 2 tablespoons of sugar on top. Bake at 375° for about 45 minutes or until very golden-brown. You can broil for a minute or two if you want it even browner. Serve warm or at room temperature.