Sunday, November 30, 2008

POST-ELECTION CONFESSIONS : It’s More Than Just About Food

Political Exile, Political Refuge



I have to confess that the months, then weeks, then days, even hours leading up to the Presidential Election 2008 I did quite a lot of Nervous Baking. Cake, cookies, muffins, pies. Comfort baking. Comfort food. It kept me sane and focused. It kept me busy and kept me from running through the house pulling my hair and screaming from the sheer tension and angst.

What was unusual for me was that for the first time since my discovery of the world of blogs, I tore myself away from my daily fill of favorite food sites to the wide, wild, passionate, sometimes heated universe of political blogs. Living so far away from the center of the election universe, getting no closer to the battlefield than my tv, newspapers and computer allowed, having no one around with whom to talk, discuss, dissect or argue (well, argue...) I turned to the internet for succor. I was immediately sucked into the emotional whirlwind of the campaign, jumping from video to campaign site to tv commentary and interview to newspaper headlines. I followed on-line discussions about registration and phone banks, stories about door knocking and neighborhood drives, I witnessed the debunking of smears and I laughted at the gaffes. I listened to speeches and accusations, promises and jokes. But I still had no where to stop and rest, nowhere to unload my rantings, share my thoughts or air my opinions.

I finally settled on one blog, written by the passionate, hard-working, smart and funny AKMuckraker at Mudflats, logging on every morning and tuning into the chat. Needless to say, I found like-minded souls, political and ideological brethren. AKM brought us together around the proverbial political campfire, handing out mugs of hot cocoa and food for thought. She braved the snow and the freezing temperatures to courageously face the often mad, sometimes corrupt world of Alaskan Politics and beyond. All we had to do was pull up a comfortable chair in our warm homes and, with a click of our mouse, we were informed, amused and inspired.

Politics has always been a part of my life. Though rarely involved, I was always aware. My parents brought us along to listen to Hubert Humphrey speak in front of the Jewish Community in Cocoa Beach, Florida in 1968. Even at 8, I was somehow aware of the importance of this man who bent down to shake my hand, impressed by the significance of the moment. 1972, my brother Michael proudly wore his McGovern for President button though 3 years too young to vote, something that I thought was the epitomy of cool, adult and smart. His high school art projects were peppered with political caricatures and cartoons which I tried so hard to understand. We spent our teen years as bleeding heart liberals who decried the government’s wasteful spending on space exploration when people were living in poverty down on earth. My youth group projects often centered around the plight of the Russian Jews and the difficult, often controversial, situation of the State of Israel. I came of age in an era of Women’s Rights which sent out the message that we should be striving to have it all: graduate degrees and high-paying, high-powered jobs, equality in marriage and shards of that good old glass ceiling in our hair as we crashed our way onward and upward.

I actually started to feel the true effect that the power of governement, the wrong government, could have on our daily lives towards the end of my university years. I saw Reaganomics taking its toll on the middle and working classes, on the poor and those who were trying to help others not as well off as themselves. I saw that great surge forward of the upper class in America, the rich not only getting richer, but getting all the breaks as well. While those of us trying to achieve something greater than what we grew up with were having to push harder and harder against a door that was slowly closing on us. This was the moment when I decided to go into what I have since refered to as “My Self-Imposed Political Exile”. I packed two suitcases, dumped all my other belongings that I hadn’t succeeded in giving away out on the curb, and flew off to search for a better life, a a different culture, a more humane society. This was my one great political statement though maybe it just turned out to be a scream in an empty room.

And all the while, I listened, I watched, I studied and I voted.

Election 2008 will surely go down in history as the greatest election of modern times, a campaign and election that awaked so much passion, excited so much emotion and, yes, so much hope. More people came out to work for the Obama Campaign than has ever been seen before. Rejecting 8 long, dirty, difficult years of an Administration that failed America, failed Americans. Inspired by hope and propelled into action, motivated by a smart, educated, compassionate man surrounded by smart, educated and compassionate people, we voted him into office.

I have felt the wave of change sweep over me and all around me. I am still in a dream-like period of disbelief. I am also, like many others, going through election withdrawal. Yes, it has allowed me to refocus on my baking and my blog, as well as my family, I should mention, but the build-up to November 4th was so exhilarating that I am completely exhausted by the fever pitch of the past few months. But the let down is mixed with the true hope that things can and will change. Hopefully we are moving back as well as forward to a more diplomatic, compassionate country, a country and an administration committed to education, health and opportunity.

My own personal political refuge in a small country called mudflats has given me the desire to bring myself out of my political exile and return home. Sooner or later. But for now, through the magic of internet I have been drawn into the shelter of a group of passionate, caring and intelligent people who have gathered around AKM’s campfire. We have opened up our minds and our hearts to each other, going well beyond the talk of issues and administration. We all agree that this election has made us understand how close we are, in fact, to the center, how our every vote, our every action can indeed affect other human beings around us, and how together we can bring about the change we need and crave. We have truly formed a family that I mean to hang onto for a long time.


Saturday, November 29, 2008

GREEK SPINACH-FETA & MOROCCAN LAMB TRIANGLES

A LITTLE GEOMETRY - MY COOKING IS SHAPING UP

A few weeks ago, our neighbor Manu came over for a glass of wine before dinner, accompanied by his delightful and mischievous 3-year-old daughter Rosalie. I pulled out all of the usual aperatif olives and store-bought crackers. But give me any reason at all to cook or bake and I will. It is yet another chance to try a new recipe on an unsuspecting guinea pig or elicit oohs and ahs from admiring crowds (well, just a little leeway for exaggeration please....).

I have loved Spanikopita since my brother recreated Anna Thomas’ fabulous recipe from her amazing cookbook The Vegetarian Epicure. Well, as the old saying goes, you can’t return home again.... Once I was married and my children were small, I tried to recapture those heady days of my youth, the days of candles and incense, coop markets and college dinner parties when we were all vegetarians. Kids love feta, I thought, so maybe this is a geat way to get them to eat spinach! Well, needless to say the results were more than disappointing. The filling was boring and watery. I guess I just hadn’t yet developed the patience to work with spinach. Until a very recent lunch with a friend. She prepared these Spinach-Feta Triangles and I finally understood the secret to thoroughly drained spinach. She also added freshly grated parmesan cheese and just a bit of fresh chopped mint. Both complemented the spinach and the feta perfectly. These are utterly delicious!



GREEK-STYLE SPINACH-FETA TRIANGLES

1 1/2 lbs (800 g) fresh spinach, well-cleaned and coarsely chopped
1 1/2 cups (235 g - one package) feta cheese, drained and crumbled
1/2 cup (60 g) grated parmesan cheese, fresh when possible
3 large eggs, lightly beaten (if you make this in pie form, use 4 eggs)
2 Tbs chopped fresh mint
1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
freshly ground pepper and a dash of salt to taste
1/2 lb (250 g, about 20 sheets) filo dough, thawed if frozen - if you make these 6 large triangles, you will need 12 sheets
Melted butter for the filo


Wash the spinach leaves, shake off excess water and put into a large pot with a tight-fitting lid. Steam the spinach until wilted, then pour into a collander to drain. Allow to cool until easy to handle. Press out all the excess water you can with your hands, then gather up the cooked spinach and place in the center of a clean but old cloth dishtowel. Wrap or roll up the spinach in the towel and squeeze for all you are worth, squeezing out as much water as possible. Place the spinach on a cutting board and chop.

Put the chopped spinach in a mixing bowl, add the crumbled feta and parmesan cheeses, the chopped mint, nutmeg and salt and a good grinding of pepper (when adding salt, do so sparingly; remember that the feta is salty). Blend well. Now beat the eggs until well blended and stir them into the spinach-cheese mixture.



Preheat the oven to 375°F (190°C).

Now - the filo triangles. As you use each sheet of filo, keep the rest of the sheets covered with a just-damp towel so they don't dry out.

Melt the butter and allow to cool a bit.

Lay out the first sheet of filo with the wider length side to side , left to right. Brush the sheet quickly with butter. Lay a second sheet on top of the first and brush with butter. Repeat with a third sheet.

With a very sharp knife, carefully slice from top to bottom into three equal strips. This will make the first three triangles.

Divide the spinach mixture into 6 (like I do here) or more parts depending on whether you want to make more or less triangles.* Scoop up one quantity and place it on the edge of the first strip of filo closest to you. Now, to form a triangle, lift up the bottom edge and bring the right bottom corner up towards the left edge (side), lining up the bottom and side edges to form a triangle. Holding this in place, use your free fingers to push the spinach mixture so it fills the triangle shape. Lift this up and fold upwards and continue folding until you have only about an inch of filo dough at the top. Brush this with butter to moisten, fold it over and seal your triangle "package". Place the triangle on a parchment-lined or buttered baking sheet.



Continue until you have made three triangles with the first three sheets of buttered filo. Repeat the process with three more buttered sheets and the rest of the spinach mixture. You now have 6 large triangles on your baking sheet. The triangles can be made ahead up to this point. Cover them with plastic wrap and put into the fridge until ready to bake.



Brush the surface of each of the triangles with more melted butter. Bake for 15 minutes until golden.

* You can make this as one large pie, layering 8 - 10 of the buttered filo sheets in a buttered baking dish (the size of the dish depends on how thick you like the filling to be), spreading the spinach mixture evenly, then layering and buttering 8 - 10 more filo sheets on top. Bake until golden. Or you can make many more smaller triangles by cutting the filo dough either width- or length-wise into narrower strips.

Serve large triangles for lunch or dinner with a salad or smaller triangles as finger food.



The first time I tried this recipe for Little Meat Triangles from Claudia Roden’s The Book of Jewish Food, I found it rather bland. It was basically just lamb flavored with sauteed onions and a little dash of spices. As I really love North African lamb dishes, I decided to borrow a bit from my favorite, Lamb with Prunes. Pretty much the same dish - with chunks of lamb instead of ground meat - but with that wonderful Oriental touch of sweet prunes and honey which complement the meat and onions beautifully and with a blend of spices found in so many Moroccan tagines and snacks. I usually increase the quantity of pine nuts, as well, as I love their delicate crunch.

NORTH AFRICAN INSPIRED LAMB TRIANGLES

1 small to medium onion, finely chopped
2 Tbs vegetable oil
3/4 - 1 lb (350 - 500 g) ground lamb, depending on quantity of triangle you would like to make
Salt and pepper
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
1/4 tsp ground ginger
2 or more Tbs pine nuts, lightly toasted
handful golden raisins
1 - 3 Tbs liquid golden honey
1/2 lb (250 g or 1 package) filo dough, thawed if frozen (count 3 large or 3 - 4 small for 3 sheets of filo dough)
Melted unsalted butter or vegetable or olive oil for brushing the filo dough



For the filling, heat the oil in a large heavy skillet, add the chopped onion and fry until golden, giving it a slightly carmelized flavor. Add the ground lamb and toss, breaking up any chunks, until lightly browned. Salt and pepper the meat to taste. Add and blend in the spices. Toss in the pine nuts and a handful of golden raisins, stirring to heat everything through. Drizzle honey over the mixture a tablespoon at a time, stirring it in and tasting until it is just the right sweetness for you. Let the lamb filling simmer until the meat is cooked and the raisins are soft and plumped.



Allow to cool. Preheat the oven to 350°F (180°C).

Prepare the filo dough for making the triangles. As you use each sheet of filo, keep the rest of the sheets covered with a just-damp towel so they don't dry out.

Melt the butter and allow to cool a bit if using butter.

Lay out the first sheet of filo with the wider length side to side, left to right, for large triangles, or away from you for smaller triangles. Brush the sheet quickly with butter or oil. Lay a second sheet on top of the first and brush with butter/oil. Repeat with a third sheet.

With a very sharp knife, carefully slice from top to bottom into three equal strips. This will make the first three triangles.

Scoop up a large tablespoon or teaspoon (again, depending on desired size of triangle) and place it on the edge of the first strip of filo closest to you. Now, to form a triangle, lift up the bottom edge and bring the right bottom corner up towards the left edge (side), lining up the bottom and side edges to form a triangle. Holding this in place, use your free fingers to push the lamb mixture so it fills the triangle shape. Lift this up and fold upwards and continue folding until you have only about an inch of filo dough at the top. Brush this with butter/oil to moisten, fold it over and seal your triangle "package". Place the triangle on a parchment-lined or greased baking sheet.

Continue until you have made three or four triangles with the first three sheets of buttered filo. Repeat the process with three more buttered sheets at a time until you have either used up all of the lamb filling or you have the number of triangles needed and the triangles are lined up on a baking sheet. The triangles can be made ahead up to this point. Cover them with plastic wrap and put into the fridge until ready to bake.

Brush the surface of each of the triangles with more melted butter or a beaten egg yolk.

Bake for 20 - 30 minutes or until golden.



The large triangles can be served for lunch or dinner with a salad, the smaller triangles as finger food.

NEEDLESS to say, Rosalie preferred the store-bought crackers, although she did enjoy pulling off the crisp filo and eating what didn't fall onto the carpet.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

GLAZED APPLE LATTICE COFFEE CAKE

APPLE OF MY EYE 

Mmmm...Autumn is definitely apple season. Warm, glazed coffee cake with the surprising tang of orange, a masterful hint of cardomom and nutmeg. Slice into the cake and see the golden apple filling and catch the scent of cinnamon. What comforts us more on these chilly fall days than a slice of homemade cake laden with apples and filling our home with the aroma of the holidays? I can't imagine ever rolling out of bed so early in the morning as to be able to put this recipe together in time to serve it for a weekday breakfast before everyone rushes off to school or office, but it is the perfect project for a lazy Saturday or Sunday morning. Watching the dough rise. Slicing apples. Braiding, waiting and baking. And watching their faces as you put it on the table next to the pot of hot coffee and tall glasses of cold milk for that afternoon snack or holiday treat.

This is a wonderful recipe given to me by my friend Johey, though I don’t remember where she found it. I have doodled around with it a bit, mostly changing filling proportions and doing away with a confusing addition of butter cookie crumbs. The dough is surprisingly easy to make and so soft, silky and sensuous to handle. The filling is made in a flash, using firm pie apples, tangy and sweet, able to hold their shape after cooking. Try and find oranges and lemons that have not been treated as you will be using the zest.


 

GLAZED APPLE LATTICE COFFEE CAKE 

Dough:
2 Tbs warm water
1 pkg. (7 g) active dry yeast
1/2 cup milk
6 Tbs sugar
5 Tbs (75 g) unsalted butter, room temperature if possible
1 tsp salt
2 large egg yolks
1 tsp finely grated orange zest (about 1 large orange, reserving the orange for the juice)
1/2 tsp ground cardamom
1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
2 to 2 1/2 cups flour

Filling:
2 Tbs (30 g) unsalted butter
6 Tbs brown sugar
3 - 5 medium sized apples*, peeled, cored and sliced
1 tsp finely grated orange zest
1 tsp finely grated lemon zest
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/8 tsp ground cardamom
1/8 tsp ground nutmeg

*use pie apples that will hold their shape even after cooking, slightly tangy, sweet tasty apples. I’ve used Jubilee as well as Golden for pies, and thought they hold their shape and are the perfect texture when baked, they are somewhat bland in flavor to me. I use Reine de Reinette in France which cook down the same as Goldens but have much more flavor, sweet and just tart enough.

* the original recipe calls for 3 apples, but I (as well as my family) found that it just wasn’t enough. We could barely tell that the apples were there. So I use up to 5.

Glaze:
1 cup powdered sugar
1 1/2 to 2 Tbs fresh-squeezed orange juice


Prepare the dough :

Place the warm water and yeast in a small cup and let stand until yeast dissolves and is frothy, about 6 minutes.
Put the milk, sugar, butter and salt in a small saucepan and heat gently over medium-low heat until the sugar dissolves and the butter melts. The mixture should be just warm. Pour this into a large mixing bowl; cool to lukewarm if necessary. Whisk in yeast mixture, egg yolks, orange zest and spices. With a rubber spatula, fold in 2 cups of the flour until it the dough comes together. Turn out onto a floured surface and knead gently, adding extra flour, tablespoon by tablespoon, until your dough is smooth and silky.
Place the dough in a large clean dough. Cover with plastic wrap, placing it against the surface of the dough to keep it from forming a crust, then cover the dough with a dish towel. Place in a warm, draft-free area and allow to rise for 2 to 2 1/2 hours, until doubled in size.

Prepare the filling :

Melt the butter in a large, heavy skillet over medium-high heat. Add the brown sugar and cook, stirring, until you have a thick, grainy sauce, about 1 minute. Add the apple slices, tossing until all the slices are pretty much coated with the sugar-butter. Cook until the apples are tender and the sauce has been reduced to a glaze, about 7 minutes. Mix in the grated zests and the spices and toss until the apples are evenly coated. Cool the filling at least 30 minutes or up to 3 hours.

Assemble the cake :

Roll the dough out onto a well-floured surface into a 14 x 12-inch rectangle, the longer side perpendicular to your body. I then carefully slide the rolled-out dough onto a large length of oven-safe parchment paper and then, if need be, make a quick size adjustment with the rolling pin. Arrange the apple mixture down the center of the dough, leaving an inch border at the top and bottom ends and about 3 or 4 inches on each side. With a sharp knife and starting about an inch from the apples, slice straight out to the edge of the dough at 1-inch intervals, making about 13 strips down each side (don’t panic, I use my trusty tape measure). Starting at the top, fold the strips of dough over the filling, on a slight angle and alternating, overlapping the strips, to form a lattice down the center. Seal the open ends of the dough at the top and bottom.



Carefully slide or lift parchment paper and place with the cake on a baking sheet. (If you don’t have parchment paper, make sure your baking sheet is well greased) Cover loosely with plastic wrap and a towel and let rise for 1 to 1 1/2 hours.


Preheat the oven to 375°F (190°C). Bake, uncovered, for 30 to 35 minutes, until golden brown. Carefully slide a spatula underneath and lift up just to make sure that the underside is also golden brown.

Remove from the oven and slide the parchment with the cake onto a cooling rack/grill. (If you didn’t use parchment, slide a spatula under the cake to make sure it is loosened and slide off of the baking sheet. Cool for 30 minutes.


For the glaze :
Mix the powdered sugar with 1 1/2 to 2 Tbs freshly squeezed orange juice. Stir until well blended and a thick glaze forms. Drizzle over the cake.


This cake stays fresh for a few days to enjoy for breakfast or snack.

EXTRA :


I made two batches of the sweet dough yesterday, because, truth be told, I was afraid that the first would not rise. So I let the second dough rise then I put it in the fridge over night. This afternoon, I took it out and let it come to room temperature, then cut it into 12 pieces and formed them into buns. I placed the buns on parchment paper on a baking sheet, covered with plastic wrap and let rise for about 3/4 hour. I then brushed each with an egg wash (1 egg yolk + 1 Tbs milk) and sprinkled with sugar. Then I baked them until golden, about 25 minutes. An added treat!

Thursday, November 20, 2008

PUMPKIN PIE

CONFESSIONS : Return to Autumn

I started this blog several months ago and then - stopped -. Lots just started happening in my life and hadn’t quite mastered the whole blog thing, mostly the technical side of it. Then came summer and so much started to happen at once.

My 30th high school reunion
I lost my father-in-law
Had a bid on our appartment then lost said bid
Discovered that my brother has ALS
We lived through the most exciting, passionate Presidential election of our time
My best friend fell off the wagon

Hard times, emotional times. The Ups extremely high, the Downs so so low. Trying to confront and deal with it all. I am still passionate about food, baking is still my love, my joy, my solace. I turn to baking when I am happy and excited, when I am stressed and sad. I love the peaceful, sensual quality of baking, I love making those for whom I bake sigh with pleasure.

Needless to say, the direction my blog has taken will slightly veer off track sometimes from now on. I have so much more to say, so many more feelings to express through word and through food.

I apologize for this slightly boring interlude, but felt that I needed an explanation for my disappearance and reappearance. Today, I have a rich, deep orange slice of pumpkin that is just begging to be turned into pie, so here we go, back on track, the rest will follow accordingly...


PUMPKIN PIE, sweet and simple

Pumpkin pie reminds me of autumn, the chill outside, the warmth and the pervading scent of cinnamon inside. Dark afternoons and gold and red leaves on the trees. Piles of apples and citrus and deep orange wedges of pumpkin at the market. Roasting chestnuts and pulling on our rubber boots Sunday mornings and heading deep into the forest to hunt for mushrooms. We have no Thanksgiving decorations in store windows here in France, no turkeys or pilgrims. All Saint’s Day slides into Armistice Day and we start seeing the city trucks move in, hard-hatted, yellow-vested men sprouting from cherry pickers, hanging electrical wires and then the Christmas lights. All of this lends to the overpowering urge to dust off the seasonal recipes and start adding to the pre-holiday magic .

I never liked pumpkin pie growing up. I think it was because it was always made with canned pumpkin and evaporated milk. I don’t remember where I got this recipe from, but I love it. I make it with fresh, deep orange muscat pumpkin that can be found in any market or fruitseller’s in France for pennies. It makes a fabulous, sweet pumpkin soup, as well. Then add lots of maple syrup, cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger - I actually double the quantities of these spices found in the original recipe.

My pumpkin pie is best eaten warm or room temperature with whipped cream - fresh whipped, barely sweetened is best, but canned spray chantilly cream is just fine in a pinch - or vanilla ice cream. Morning, noon or night.

SWEET PASTRY PIE CRUST

1 1⁄4 cups flour
1⁄4 cup sugar
7 Tbs (100 grams) unsalted butter*
1 egg, lightly beaten

Stir flour and sugar together in a bowl. Add the butter cut into cubes and, using thumb and finger tips, rub the flour and butter into each other vigorously until it resembles sand on the beach and there are no more large chunks of butter.

Pour the lightly beaten egg over the flour-sugar-butter mixture and stir vigorously with a fork until all of the dry ingredients are moistened and it starts to clump. With fingers, press together into a ball and place on a floured surface. With the heel of one hand, smear the dough forward quickly, a little at a time (a tablespoon maybe) until all the dough has been "smeared". This blends in the last of the butter. Scrape the dough together and work briefly, just enough to form into a smooth, homogeneous ball.

Wrap in plastic wrap and put in fridge until needed or, if making your pie right away, just until it is firm enough to be easy to roll out without sticking to your rolling pin.

*most pie crust recipes call for the butter to be chilled. I have found that butter at room temperature is easier and quicker to work into the flour and the dough seems to be fluffier. If it is too sticky to roll out right away, 5 to 10 minutes in the fridge should do the trick.

PUMPKIN PIE


Uncooked sweet pastry pie shell
2 cups fresh pumpkin purée
1 1⁄2 cups milk (I use low fat)
1⁄2 cup pure maple syrup
2 eggs, lightly beaten
2 Tbs flour
2 tsps ground cinnamon
1⁄2 tsp ground nutmeg + 1⁄2 tsp ground ginger
1⁄2 tsp salt



Preheat the oven to 425°F (220°C).

Lightly butter a pie plate and line with the uncooked sweet pastry pie dough, trimming off any excess dough. Prick lightly with a fork.

Purée pumpkin by cubing the pumpkin flesh and putting in a large pot with about an inch of water. Bring to a boil, lower heat, cover tightly and let steam until soft. Pour into a collander in the sink and let drain really well, allowing it to cool at least slightly. Purée and measure, draining any excess water if necessary.

Put the purée into a large bowl. Add the flour, spices and salt and stir until well blended. Add the eggs, or if the purée is still hot, add just enough milk to cool it a bit then stir in the eggs quickly. Add the milk and maple syrup and stir everything together until very well blended. Pour into the pie shell until filled about half way. Transfer the pie onto the rack of the pre-heated oven and then carefully pour the rest of the filling into the shell (this should avoid sloshing it onto the floor while carrying it to the oven. Just a trick.)


Let cook about 40 minutes or until the center is just set and the shell is browned around the edges and underneath.

If you have leftover dough, you can roll it out and cut out shapes (like a pumpkin or leaves) and very carefully place on the pie about 10 minutes before the pie is finished baking.

Mmmmm...it smells like the holidays! Enjoy!

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