MARDI GRAS KING CAKE

It’s Carol’s turn with our Sunday family dinner. As a nod to Mardi Gras this next week, she plans to make jambalaya. I am looking forward to that. Since Carol is cooking, that means that I am up for dessert. There are lots of Louisiana desserts that would go with jambalaya, but King Cake seemed to be the most appropriate. King cake is a tradition in many parts of the world, but in Louisiana it is served across the state, starting on Epiphany (January 6th) and ending on Mardi Gras (this year, February 13). There are many versions of king cake. Some folks make rings of filled cream puffs; others make baked meringues, etc., etc. The most common version is a brioche-like sweet bread, often filled with raisins or other dried fruit. The cake is topped with icing and sprinkled sugars in the traditional Mardi Gras colors of green, yellow, and purple.  I couldn’t find purple-colored sugar sprinkles, so I made do with red. I hope no one will notice. You can go all-out and fashion a “crown” of a circle of candied or maraschino cherries. The best part of the tradition, though, is finding the baby. A small plastic baby is hidden in the cake before it is baked. In the absence of the baby, a black bean will do. The person who gets the slice of cake with the baby (or bean) is supposed to have good luck. A less recognized part of the tradition is that the person is also supposed to bring the next king cake for the next celebration.

Interestingly, none of our many cookbooks from Louisiana contain a recipe for king cake. The recipe I have used is from King Arthur Flour. Laissez les bon temps rouler.

RECIPE

Mardi Gras King Cake

Ingredients

  • ½ cup unsalted butter, melted
  • ¾ cup lukewarm milk
  • 2 large eggs + 1 large yolk, white reserved
  • 3½ cups all-purpose flour
  • ¼ cup sugar
  • 1¼ teaspoons salt
  • 1 package (2½ teaspoons) fast rising yeast
  • ¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 1 teaspoon lemon zest

Filling

  • 8 ounces cream cheese, room temperature
  • ½ cup sugar
  • 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 1 large egg, lightly beaten
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 1/8 teaspoon almond extract

Icing

  • 2 cups powdered sugar
  • pinch salt
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 2½ tablespoons milk

Garnish

  • sparkling sugars – green, yellow, purple

Method

  1. Add all of the dough ingredients to the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook. Mix on low speed until a soft, silky, but sticky dough is formed. Cover the bowl and let the dough rise in a warm place for 1 hour.
  2. Transfer the risen dough to a lightly oiled work surface. Shape the dough into a 24 inch x 6 inch rectangle. Let rest while you prepare the filling.
  3. In a medium bowl, beat together the cream cheese, sugar, and flour until smooth. Add the egg, vanilla, and almond extract and continue to beat until smooth.
  4. Transfer the filling to the middle of the rectangle of dough, leaving enough of the dough bare so that it can be pulled up around the filling and pinched closed. Before sealing the filling, position the baby or black bean in the filling.
  5. Transfer the filled and sealed dough rectangle to a rimmed baking sheet lined with parchment. Shape the dough into a circle, sealing the ends together. Cover with a clean cloth and let rise for 1 hour.
  6. Bake in the middle on an oven preheated to 350°F for 20 minutes. Then cover loosely with aluminum foil and bake for an additional 30 minutes. Remove the cake from the oven and let it firm up for 15 minutes before transferring it to a baking rack to cool completely.
  7. Beat together the icing ingredients. Pour or drizzle the icing over the completely cooled cake. Sprinkle the colored sugars in bands over the icing. Make a ring on top with the optional cherries if desired.
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MARASCHINO CHERRIES

Kevin has developed a strong interest in Manhattan cocktails. He has read many recipes and tried many. He has looked into the qualities of various bourbons and rye whiskeys. The one thing he has settled on is the maraschino cherry that is an obligate part of any authentic Manhattan. He quickly dismissed the fluorescent red cherries that were available in my refrigerator and adopted the burgundy-colored cherries that are favored in most of the restaurants and bars in town. I will admit that they are delicious. They are also expensive. A small jar at the local Whole Foods competitor is $24. The cheaper fluorescent variety is not available at that store; at a more traditional grocery store a much larger bottle of the old standby is around $6.

The story of the two maraschino cherries is very interesting. Going back to the eighteenth century, Croatia on the Dalmatian Coast preserved its small, sour marasca cherries in alcohol for later consumption. Eventually that led to the development of a liqueur called maraschino which enjoyed wild popularity around the world. In the United States, Prohibition was established so that both the liqueur and the cherries preserved in the liqueur were banned. Meanwhile, an enthusiastic chemist in Ohio set out to develop a method to preserve cherries. No alcohol was involved, but a lengthy chemical process that involved bleaching of the cherries, multiple preservatives, and FD&C red dyes (now FD&C  red dye 40) produced the familiar bright red cherry that as a child I loved on top of banana splits and in punch bowls. (I made myself sick as a ten-year-old, fishing out the maraschino cherries from the punch at my uncle’s wedding)

Until recently, we had no choice but the bright red synthetic maraschino cherry, but the real thing has made a comeback. The limitation in the resurgence is, of course, the cost. Being the tightwad that I am, I was unwilling to spend $24 for a little jar of real  maraschino cherries. I decided that I would make my own rather than shelling out the money to Luxardo, which has become the (almost) monopoly of maraschino cherries and maraschino liqueur. So far my investment has included $30 for a bottle of Maraska maraschino liqueur from Zadar, Croatia (the original site of the whole maraschino industry), $8 for a pound and a half of Bing cherries (marascas are not readily available unless you visit Croatia), several dollars for sugar, cinnamon sticks, spices, etc., and my free labor. It is clear that I have made a strong statement about the economies of DIY over the high prices of the authentic stuff.

The good news is that making your own maraschino cherries is easy. The bad news is that they don’t taste the same as the real thing. The really good news is that they still taste mighty good, and you have well over a half bottle of liqueur left to enjoy on its own. You definitely need a cherry pitter, but a small one works just fine. The only thing else that is required is a little patience.

RECIPE

Maraschino Cherries

Ingredients

  • 2 pounds fresh Bing cherries, rinsed, stems removed, and pitted
  • ½ cup sugar
  • ½ cup water
  • 1 stick cinnamon
  • 1 large strip lemon peel without white
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 cup maraschino liqueur

Method

  1. Pit the cherries and set aside.
  2. In a pan large enough to hold the cherries in a single layer, combine the sugar and water and bring to a boil. Add the cinnamon, lemon peel, and vanilla.
  3. Add the cherries to the boiling mixture and continue to simmer for 5 minutes. Stir in the liqueur. Turn off the heat, and allow to cool.
  4. When the cherries are completely cool, transfer to clean jar(s) (You will have enough cherries for about 1 pint) and cover with the cooking liquid.
  5. When the jars are completely cooled, move them to the refrigerator and let them continue to macerate for at least two days.
  6. Well covered and refrigerated, the cherries should last for at least a month’s worth of Manhattans (or Old Fashioneds).

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GRANDMA’S BRAN BREAD

I have been planning on baking this bread for a long time. It has been one of my favorites since I was a little kid. My grandmother had a ritual: every Monday she would do laundry, and while the clothes were washing she would start a batch of six loaves of bread for family meals during the week. (Our family ate a lot of bread.) Grandma usually made white bread, but sometimes she would make bran bread, which I called white bread with brown specks. My mother was also a good baker, making family-famous breads, rolls, and sticky buns. I had one particularly bad year when I was around five or six years old. I was hospitalized five times, the last one for a tonsillectomy. When I awoke from the anesthesia, my mother and father were at my bedside. They asked if there was something that they could get for me. In my drowsiness I said that what I wanted most was some white bread with brown specks. That had to wait until after my rehabilitation with Jello, custard, and pudding. When I was able to eat more solid food, my mother baked the bread, this bran bread. From that time on, as a welcome gift, she always baked a couple of loaves whenever I returned home from college and even when my own family and I visited many years later.

The secret ingredient for this bread is All-Bran cereal. Probably my mother or grandmother got the original recipe from a cereal box. Another important ingredient, molasses, gives the loaf a slightly sweet, earthy taste. In any case, the recipe makes a delicious loaf with tight, flavorful crumb and  a chewy, thick crust. For this bread, in particular, I have always wished that you could bake a loaf of nothing but ends (or heels as we always called them). The bread is perfect just slathered with butter, but it also goes well with cheddar cheese or fresh fruit preserves.

RECIPE

Grandma’s Bran Bread

Ingredients

  • 3 cups lukewarm water
  • 1 package dry yeast
  • 1 cup All Bran cereal
  • 1 tablespoon salt
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 1 tablespoon molasses
  • 3 tablespoons melted butter + more for brushing tops of baked loaves
  • 8 cups (about) unbleached all-purpose flour

Method

  1. In a large mixing bowl, combine the warm water and yeast. Mix in the bran and allow to rest for a few minutes. Then add salt, sugar, molasses, and melted butter. Mix well.
  2. Add flour, a cup at a time. Stir thoroughly after each addition. You will be able to add about 6 cups of flour before the dough becomes too stiff to mix in the bowl. Turn the dough out onto a flat working surface covered with the remaining 2 cups of flour and knead until the flour is completely absorbed, and the dough has a springy consistency.
  3. Return the dough to the washed, dried, and lightly oiled bowl. Cover with plastic wrap or a clean dish towel. Set in a warm place and allow to rise to double in volume. Punch down and let rise again until doubled.
  4. Deflate the dough and divide in half. Shape each half into a loaf, and place in two greased 9×5 inch bread pans. Let rise again until doubled.  Bake in an oven preheated to 375°F for 1 hour or until the loaves test for doneness with a hollow sound when thumped on the bottom.
  5. Transfer to a baking rack to cool completely before slicing.

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CHALLAH

Our son, Peter, is one of the bakers of the family. It was he who learned to make biscuits at his grandmother’s side. He also built a brick-lined oven in the kitchen stove, to the consternation of his wife, René. Peter and René and their two daughters visited for a few days from the Bay Area. The girls brought a candle, paperweight, and some art work that they had made. Peter brought a beautiful loaf of challah from a batch of twelve loaves that he had made as holiday gifts for friends and neighbors. It was a beautiful loaf, lightly golden and topped with sesame seeds. I use the term, “was” because it disappeared the first morning, toasted and buttered, along with a cup of tea or coffee.  None was left for the excellent French toast it would make. René spent some of her time working on my pronunciation “challah”. Peter says his recipe came from Baking with Julia, Dorie Greenspan, William Morrow and Co., New York, 1996, p 93. The book is the companion of the television show of the same name. The TV baker and recipe author was Lauren Groveman, a cookbook author and life coach. This is my edited version of that recipe.

RECIPE

Challah

Ingredients

FOR THE BREAD

  • 1½ tablespoons active dry yeast
  • ½ cup tepid water
  • ½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 1 cup whole milk
  • ½ cup sugar
  • 1 tablespoon honey
  • 2½ teaspoons salt
  • 4 large eggs
  • 6½ cups all-purpose flour, measured and set aside
  • melted butter

FOR THE GLAZE

  • 1 egg
  • 1 egg yolk
  • 1 tablespoon water
  • sesame seeds
  • coarse salt

Method

  1. In a small bowl, dissolve the yeast in the tepid water. Be sure the water is not so hot as to kill the yeast. Set aside for 5 minutes.
  2. In a small saucepan over medium-low heat, combine the butter and milk. Stir occasionally until the butter is melted and the mixture is warm. Transfer to a large mixing bowl and add the sugar, honey, and salt. Stir with a large wooden spoon until completely mixed and the sugar and salt are dissolved. Cool if necessary until it is just warm to the touch. (No more than 110°F)
  3. Stir in the dissolved yeast and the eggs. Then add flour, ½ cup at a time, stirring with a wooden spoon to completely incorporate the flour before the next addition. When you have stirred in about 5 cups of flour and the dough is getting too stiff to stir, turn the dough out on a work surface covered with the remaining flour. Knead for at least 10 minutes until most of the flour is incorporated and the dough no longer sticks to your hands or work surface and is smooth and elastic.
  4. Wash, dry, and grease the mixing bowl. Shape the dough into a ball, brush with melted butter, and transfer to the bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and set in a warm place in the kitchen to rise until doubled, about 1½ to 2 hours. When the dough has risen, punch down, cover again, and let rise a second time until doubled, about 45 minutes to an hour.
  5. Deflate the twice-risen dough and cut in half, setting one half aside, covered, while you work with the other half.
  6. Divide the dough into three equal pieces. Roll each piece into a rope about 16 inches long, thicker in the middle and tapered at each end. Align the three ropes together. Working from the center, braid the three ropes together, tucking the ends underneath when you have finished the braiding. Turn the loaf around and, again working from the center, braid the three ropes together, tucking the ends underneath the loaf when you are finished.
  7. Repeat the braiding process with the second half of the dough.
  8. Transfer the loaves to two baking sheets lined with parchment or a silpat. Cover the loaves with a kitchen towel and let rise in a warm place for about 40 minutes or until nearly doubled.
  9. While the loaves are rising, whisk the egg, egg yolk and water together, forcing the mixture through a sieve so that it is smooth. Brush the tops of the risen loaves with the mixture; let the loaves sit for 5 minutes; and brush again. Sprinkle the glazed loaves with sesame seeds and coarse salt.
  10. Bake the loaves in the middle of an oven preheated to 375°F for 20 minutes. Brush the loaves with glaze and continue to bake for 20 more minutes or until browned and sound hollow when thumped on the bottom.
  11. Transfer to a baking rack and cool completely.

 

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EAST TEXAS DONUTS

I have been promising to make donuts with my grandson for so long that I am sure he began to see it as one of those promises that never get fulfilled. Finally, I was able to make good when he spent the night with us while his parents had a late evening. On such occasions, it has been our tradition to walk across the street for sushi at a little neighborhood sushi bar (Remember this is LA!) This time we got our sushi fix, came back home, and watched a movie. I had already made the donut dough and let it rest in the refrigerator. In the morning, my grandson was up early, anticipating the donut making and eating the results. I pulled the dough out of the refrigerator and rolled it out so we could cut, fry, and eat until Mom and Dad came by to pick up our charge.

The recipe comes from our family cookbook, but the original source was a dear friend of Mom Mom, my mother-in-law who lived in East Texas. Mom Mom lived on the farm, and Elizabeth lived in the city (population 400), but they visited often with one another and belonged to the same quilting circle. One time many years ago, Elizabeth brought a batch of freshly made donuts to the farm. They were so good that Mom Mom asked for and got the recipe. It should be understood that fried donuts are a great tradition in East Texas. There were Krispy Kremes before it was cool, and one of our must-stops on any trip to the farm was Bobby Jo’s Donut Palace in Fairfield.

Elizabeth Montgomery was an excellent cook. I have written about her kitchen exploits before when I wrote about East Texas Casserole. This recipe is another of her contributions that became a welcome addition to our family repertoire. These donuts are raised rather than cakes and fried rather than baked. We used a small donut cutter, so they are not as big as Krispy Kremes, but a bigger cutter would bring them closer to that pinnacle. Eat them plain or add whatever kind of sugar bomb you choose. We shook them in a bag of sugar – plain, powdered, or cinnamon – and that was all they needed.

RECIPE

Elizabeth Montgomery’s East Texas Donuts

Ingredients

  • 2 packages dry yeast
  • ¾ cup warm water
  • ½ cup (one stick) unsalted butter
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1 cup water
  • 1/3 cup sugar
  • 2 eggs, beaten
  • 1 tablespoon salt
  • 6½ cups all-purpose flour
  • canola or peanut oil for frying
  • sugar, powdered sugar, and cinnamon for coating

Method

  1. In a small bowl, dissolve the yeast in the warm water and set aside to proof.
  2. Melt the butter and transfer to a very large mixing bowl. Stir in the milk, water, and sugar. Stir until the sugar is dissolved and the mixture has cooled a bit. Stir in the proofed yeast.
  3. Add beaten eggs and salt. Then stir in the flour, one cup at a time, mixing well after each addition of flour. The dough will be very soft.
  4. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and place in the refrigerator overnight.
  5. When you are ready to make the donuts, work with half of the dough while keeping the other half cold in the refrigerator. It is important to make sure the dough remains chilled while you work with it. On a heavily floured work surface, roll the dough into a circle about ¼ inch thick. The cold dough will not absorb the flour, and the flour will keep the dough from sticking to the rolling pin or the work surface.
  6. Using a donut cutter, cut out the donuts. Finish with the second half of the dough when you are ready.
  7. Cover the donuts (and donut holes) with a clean cloth and let them rise for about 30 minutes before frying them.
  8. Fry the donuts, 3 or 4 at a time,  in canola or peanut oil heated to 350°F, turning the donuts so they are nicely browned on both sides. Remove to a cooling rack or several layers of paper towels on a brown paper sack.
  9. Shake, one at a time, in brown paper lunch bags containing sugar, powdered sugar, or sugar and cinnamon. Serve while still warm.

Yield

  • The recipe makes about 2½ dozen donuts.
  • If that’s too many, you can freeze half the dough for another day of donuts.

 

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BUTTERNUT SQUASH SHAKSHUKA

With winter here, squash and root vegetables are at their zenith in the kitchen. Butternut squash is one of the favorites, and it’s a favorite of mine, too. At the same time, preparations can get a little bit boring. Butternut squash soup is on many menus, roasted squash cubes appear on the internet, and mashed squash, sautéed squash, and candied squash are all in abundance. We had a squash consigned to the vegetable drawer while we were out of town. Even though squash seems to keep forever, this one really needed to be eaten.  I tried to think of something a little novel. The hollow in the base of the butternut just seems to beg to be stuffed with something, but what? I thought of tomatoes and then baked eggs. Why not combine them all? That sounded like shakshuka, although what I finally came up with is definitely not shakshuka even though it uses similar flavorings and food combinations. My final dish turned out to be tasty, and it used up that butternut squash.

RECIPE

Butternut Squash Shakshuka

Ingredients

  • 1 medium butternut squash
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 Roma tomato, diced
  • ¼ cup chopped green bell pepper
  • 1 tablespoon tomato paste
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • ½ teaspoon ground cumin
  • 2 large eggs
  • salt and pepper
  • Greek yogurt

Method

  1. Wash, dry, and split the squash lengthwise. Scoop out the seeds and membranes from the cavities. Place 1 tablespoon of butter in each of the cavities. Arrange the squash halves on a baking sheet and place in the middle of an oven preheated to 375°F. When the butter has melted, about 5 minutes, brush some of it on the squash flesh. Continue to bake for 30-40 minutes.
  2. Meanwhile, heat the olive oil in a small saucepan over medium heat. Add the tomato, bell pepper, tomato paste, garlic, and cumin. Cook for a few minutes until the vegetables are wilted and the juices have been released. Remove from the heat and set aside.
  3. Test the squash for doneness with a kitchen fork. When the flesh is soft and easily pierced, remove from the oven. Partly fill each of the squash cavities with the tomato mixture, leaving enough room for the eggs.
  4. Top each of the cavities with an egg and return to the oven for 10-15 minutes or until the egg whites have set and the yolk is still runny. Watch carefully at this point to make sure the egg does not overcook.
  5. Remove from the oven, season with salt and pepper, and transfer to individual serving dishes.
  6. Spoon on 1 or 2 tablespoons of yogurt and serve immediately while still hot.

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PAIN PERDU – NEW ORLEANS-STYLE FRENCH TOAST

We have been spending several days in San Francisco, watching two of our grandsons while their parents are off to London and Paris for a cooking demonstration along with “professional observation and study” of some amazing restaurants in both cities. I have been in charge of packing lunches, and each evening I look at the lunch boxes to see what has been eaten. It is usually a big let-down but also a stimulus to pack something they will eat. Pirate’s Booty seems to be a sure-fire winner. Keep in mind that they are six and three years old. Still.

Susan and I have been sharing breakfast duties. Of course, there are always toast soldiers and dry (no milk!!) Cheerios to proffer, but that gets monotonous, even for the cook. So far, Susan has been the winner with plates that include maple syrup or – the kids’ favorite – Louisiana cane syrup from Shreveport. Taking a cue, and wondering what to do with a dried-out hard loaf of French bread that Sarah had left after using part of it for Thanksgiving dressing, I decided to make French toast.

“French toast” apparently got its name in England; there are other names for the dish in other countries. In France and New Orleans it is known as “pain perdu” i.e. “lost bread”. I’m not sure about Paris, but I am certain that it is a staple in New Orleans. Most of the cafes and bistros that are open for breakfast in the French Quarter feature it.

Honestly, I am not a big fan of French toast like my mother used to make. Slices of store-bought sandwich bread dipped in egg and fried always seemed like  a soggy egg and toast. But pain perdu is a totally different experience. Done properly the dish should be puffy and golden with a crisp outside and a custardy inside. The secret is to use good-quality dry bread and give it enough time to soak up the egg and cream bath.

RECIPE

Pain Perdu

Ingredients

  • slices of dried French bread
  • eggs (one egg for each slice of bread)
  • cream (½ cup for each slice of bread)
  • Vanilla sugar (1 tablespoon for each slice of bread) Note: you can make vanilla sugar by placing a vanilla bean in a covered container filled with sugar and letting stand overnight. Alternatively, you can substitute  plain sugar and ¼ teaspoon vanilla extract.
  • unsalted butter (1 tablespoon for each slice of bread)

Method

  1. Arrange bread slices in a pan large enough to hold them in a single layer
  2. Beat the eggs well and then combine with cream, sugar, and if needed, vanilla extract.
  3. Pour the egg mxture over the bread slices, turning the bread once before covering with plastic wrap and refrigerating overnight. Turn occasionally to make sure both sides of bread absorb the egg mixture.
  4. Heat a large skillet over medium-low flame. Add butter and heat until the butter stops foaming. Add the soaked bread and fry until both sides are golden. Serve immediately with syrup or fruit compote.

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