Monday, July 30, 2012

Pistachio Cake

Ebinger’s was a Brooklyn bakery that had somewhat of a cult following. The most popular of it’s cakes was their Blackout Cake, and if you search the web, you will find many versions. I personally like this one and this one, but how bad can any chocolate cake with a mousse-like filling, topped with dark chocolate frosting that’s then surrounded by huge chocolate cake crumbs be?
Now you’re probably thinking that I am going to discuss yet another version of the iconic Blackout Cake, right? Wrong! While that cake is/was truly addictive, aside from their jelly doughnuts (which I remember loving even when they were stale), my favorite cake was something called “Rum Cake.” I honestly don’t think there was a bit of rum in the cake, but there was a thick glaze that adorned the outside that might have had rum extract in it.  I think I remember sliced almonds decorating the lower half of the cake, leading me to believe it might have been an almond cake after all. I was not particularly attached to the glaze, but I have a thing for plain, buttery cakes, and that one was the epitome. Dense, but moist, crumbly, but firm...and buttery. The exterior had a bit of a crunch to it as I imagine the high sugar content caramelized and became crispy in the oven. It was not a large cake, and was sold in the shape of a small kugelhopf. I have been looking for this cake and its recipe everywhere. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to be anyone else’s favorite but mine, and every time I Google “Ebinger’s Cake,” that darn chocolate thing pops up. (There is also a Mocha Cake that comes up occasionally, and that one was really good too, but we’ll leave that for another day.)
Okay, back to the Rum/Almond Cake...imagine my delight when I read Nathan Englander‘s article in The New Yorker where he reminisced about Nora Ephron’s Almond Cake!  “ I must find that cake,” I thought. It turns out that Nora got it from Amanda Hesser, who got it from her mother-in-law, Elizabeth (See, m-i-l’s are good for something. I will remember that when I become one...hopefully not in the too near future.) It looked and sounded very close to the Ebinger’s cake, and I was determined to make it.  Regardless of the fact that it was 6:30 on a Friday evening, and my husband had just called to say he was on his way home...and...dinner, what’s dinner? (I admit I do have a tendency to get bitten by the baking bug at the most inopportune moments, but hey, at least we always have dessert!)
 For the sake of full disclosure, I knew that almond paste was a huge component of this cake, and also knew I did not have any. What I did have was a box filled with small rolls of Pistachio Paste that was given to me by my good friend Sirvan in Turkey. So, one could argue that it was not necessarily so much the Proustian desire to recreate the beloved cake of my childhood, but more so the desire to put to use the gift from a good friend. Let’s call it a draw and say that one desire stirred another. (And we’ll throw in a little bit of the desire that I had to make “Nora’s cake” too.)

Other than the fact that there is merely a whisper of pistachio flavor--next time I will add about a teaspoon of pistachio extract--this cake is perfect. It’s the kind of dessert you can keep in the freezer and pull out when a surprise guest comes by for tea. You can put it on a pretty platter, dust it with some powdered sugar, and slice off a sliver each time you walk by. (Ultimately there will be nothing left.)  Serving the recipe below, with spiced peaches,  fancies it up a bit. The cake will eventually soak up the winey peach-colored syrup and become soft and luscious. But that will take a few minutes, and you probably won't want to wait that long. A round mound of chocolate ice cream on the side would be a good chilly sidekick on a summer evening, and I don’t even think we’d be gilding the lily if a scoop of pistachio ice cream was added in addition.
Pistachio Cake
(adapted from Amanda Hesser)
2 sticks butter, more for buttering pan
2 cups sifted all-purpose flour (measured after sifting)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
7-ounce tube almond paste (I used pistachio paste, you can order it here)
4 egg yolks, room temperature
1 teaspoon almond extract  (I used vanilla extract)
1 cup sour cream
1 teaspoon baking soda
Powdered sugar, for sifting over cake
Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Generously butter sides and bottom of a bundt pan or a 9-inch springform pan.
Sift flour and salt into a small bowl. Set aside. Add pistachio paste and granulated sugar to the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment.  Mix slowly at first in order to incorporate the paste into the sugar. Increase speed and continue to mix for 5 minutes.   Add butter and beat at high speed until fluffy, about 8 minutes. Beat in egg yolks, one at a time, vanilla extract. Mix sour cream and baking soda and add to butter mixture. Reduce mixer speed to low and gradually add flour mixture, just until blended.
Pour the batter into the prepared pan and spread evenly. Bake about 1 hour and a 1/4. (I had to place a sheet of foil on top of cake during the last 15 minutes to keep it from overbrowning.) It is done when you press the top and it returns its shape, and also shrinks from the sides of the pan. Remove from the oven and place on a baking rack to cool in the pan. When ready to serve, sift confectioner's sugar over the top. (If using bundt pan, invert over a platter and then turn over again.)
I served this cake with Sugared Peaches from a recipe adapted from Sweet Amandine. (She used apricots.) I did not feel the need to add an extra step to peel the peaches beforehand, as the skins usually slip off once they are cooked anyway. And if they don’t, no worries.

Sugared Peaches
(adapted from Sweet Amandine)
5 peaches, quartered, stones removed
3-4 tablespoons vanilla sugar
1 vanilla bean 
½ c. white wine
Heat the oven to 425 degrees.
Measure the vanilla sugar into a shallow bowl or pie plate.  Split the vanilla bean down the center and scrape out its seeds. Add all to the bowl, mashing the seeds into the sugar crystals. Press the peach slices into the sugar to coat them (both sides), then place them skin side down in a casserole dish.  
Add the wine to the dish, taking care to pour it into a space between the peaches so that you don’t wash off the sugar.  Bake for about 30 minutes, until the peaches barely resist the fork, and the syrup around them has been colored by the fruit.  
Serve the peaches on the side of a nice slice of cake and, spoon a little of the syrup on top of them. The peaches can be eaten warm, with a scoop of vanilla ice cream, and they are equally delicious chilled, served over plain yogurt.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Jagodzianki: Polish Blueberry Buns

(A portion of this blog post appeared on

A summer vacation in the mountains sounds exotic. A summer vacation at a bungalow colony/egg farm in the Catskill Mountains sounds less so.  As a little girl growing up in Brooklyn, I didn’t usually get much exposure to “real nature” on the streets of East Flatbush, but once our car traveled two hours north, this city slicker encountered a rural playground. And that was as exotic as I was going to experience for a long time.
Just minutes from our summertime bungalow was a blueberry bramble. It was just a short walk down the road and could be reached through a clearing in the bushes. Our goal was to find as many berries as we could, and armed with plastic bowls, buckets, and dented metal colanders, we embarked on what felt like a treasure hunt.

The sun was always high, its rays were hot shards that pierced through the branches amidst the berries. The sky was always blue, and paled only in comparison to the deep-blue jujubes we sought. We were nicely hidden once we passed through the clearing, and unless one knew we were there, he would be hard pressed to find us. The only sound we made was with our berries: “blue marbles” I liked to call them. The first few to hit the containers plinked softly. “Don’t throw them!” the grown-ups who accompanied us admonished. As the bowls and buckets filled and berries piled upon berries, the sounds became more muffled. Picking and filling, picking and filling, and here and there stopping to taste. Some were firm and tart, picked too soon, and others were softer, sweeter, and juicier.

One berry, 
Two berry, 
Pick me a blueberry. 
- Bruce Degen
 The intermittent bursts of sun itched my skin and I proceeded with great care so as not to get pricked by the thorns. Every once in a while one would catch my tee shirt and I would ever so gently pry myself from its grasp all the while trying not to draw blood. Old tee shirts and jeans were the uniforms we wore for this task. In the battle between skin and barbs, and berry juice and fabric, barbs and berries were the victors every time. After a long while, someone would call, “Finish up!” and the ragtag group would emerge from the hideout, scraped, stained, and squinting at the full daylight that accosted our now shade-acclimated eyes. We would trudge home, our bellies and bowls filled with berries, glancing furtively at one another to see whose containers were filled higher than our own. 
The health benefits that have recently been associated with blueberries have raised the fruit’s credibility to superstar levels. But in the wilds of South Fallsburg, New York, during the summer of 1965, antioxidants and vitamin C were the last things on our minds. My mom was a purist: our berries were washed and added to cubes of melon and 
honeydew. They would also be folded into bowls of tart sour cream and then dusted with spoonfuls of sugar crystals. For a more sophisticated end product we looked to “Buba,” the grandmother of our group.  She would make jagodzianki (ya-go-janki), doughy buns, that hid the berries until one bite gave them away. The purple berry juice, would seep through the dough and stain my hands and fingers as I tore at the bun. Buba is long gone, and for all I know, her recipe went with her. I found a similar one, and adapted it (of course) a bit. Lemon zest added to the filling gives it a nice 
zing. And the crunchy streusel topping transports these not-too-sweet breakfast buns into the dessert zone where they to a nice hot cup of coffee or a tall glass of cold milk.
Polish Blueberry Buns (Jagodzianki)
(adapted from In Ania’s Kitchen)
2 Tbsp.  all-purpose flour
2 Tbsp. granulated sugar
2 1/4 tsp. instant yeast (1 packet)
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/3 cup sugar
2 eggs, beaten
1 tsp.  vanilla extract
pinch of salt
1/4 cup unsalted butter, melted
2 cups blueberries
1/3 cup sugar
2 tbsp. bread crumbs
zest of one lemon, finely grated
1 large egg, beaten
Streusel Topping:
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
3 Tbsp. granulated sugar
1/8 tsp. kosher salt
3 Tbsp. cold, unsalted butter, cut into 1/4 inch pieces
Make Dough:
In a small mixing bowl add milk, 2 Tbsp. sugar, 2 Tbsp. flour and
yeast. Mix until well combined. Set aside until mixture becomes foamy ( around
20 minutes).
 Beat eggs in the bowl of a stand mixer until light and lemon-colored. add remaining ingredients for the dough except melted butter. Add yeast mixture and mix with a paddle attachment until well combined. Add melted butter and mix  until emulsified, about 3 minutes. Spray bowl with oil and cover with a kitchen towel. Allow dough to rest until doubled in size (approx. 2 hours).
Brush the beaten egg over the tops of the buns. Sprinkle the streusel topping evenly over the tops of the buns and gently press it in.
Prepare Filling:
In a small bowl, mix the blueberries with sugar, breadcrumbs and lemon zest. Set aside.
Prepare Streusel:
Measure dry ingredients into a mixing bowl. Add the butter to the mixture. Rub the butter between the tips of your fingers, breaking it into smaller bits. Continue rubbing until the mixture feels like coarse sand. Mix half of the beaten egg into crumb mixture with a fork. Place bowl in refrigerator until streusel is needed.
Heat oven to 375 degrees. Sprinkle the dough with a little bit of flour and knead with a dough hook attachment until the dough is smooth and elastic. (Approx. 10 minutes).
Transfer the dough onto a lightly floured work surface. Knead lightly and then roll out into an approximate 16-inch square square, about 1/4-inch thick. Cut into 3-inch squares. You will have approximately 12-16 squares.
Place about 1 Tbsp. of blueberry mixture in the center of each square and fold the corners up and over around the berries, encasing them totally. Place the buns, seam-side down on a baking sheet covered with parchment paper. Cover buns with additional parchment and set aside to rise for another 30 minutes.
leaving them space to rise. Brush the tops with the remaining beaten egg, and mound about 2 Tbsp. streusel on each, pressing down gently. Bake for 20 -25 minutes, until buns are golden brown and streusel is browned and crisp.


Thursday, July 12, 2012

Artichoke Chicken From "The Chew," Who Knew?

I made a very tasty chicken dish for dinner the other night, and I have to give credit where credit is due. So, thank you Donna Giblin! Donna and I have never met--she won a contest on the daytime TV program, “The Chew,” and I just happened to catch that segment. (I know what you’re thinking...someone who prides herself on the fact that she watches NO daytime TV was watching “The Chew?!?”) Well, if you must know, I leave the TV on for my dog, Dashiell when I run over to the gym. The show that runs around that time here in Cambridge is “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire.” By the time I get home, the game show is over, Dashiell has acquired lot of useless trivia, and “The Chew “ has begun. When last week, Mario Batali mentioned Donna’s Chicken with Artichokes, rather than shut the TV, I stopped to watch. And I must say I am glad I did. In fact, I liked this dish so much, I may even put “The Chew” on my DVR schedule. It wouldn’t be considered daytime TV if I watch it at night, right?
I always keep my ear out for simple, one-pot dishes, since it’s usually just the hubby and myself for dinner, and there really is no reason to fuss.This dish reminds me a little of this one, but it is even simpler. There are a few absolute ingredients in the recipe (like chicken and onions) but if you don’t have some of the others, and can improvise, you will still end up with a terrific dinner. I have to admit that I did adjust the recipe just a smidge (my changes are in parentheses), but Donna seemed like a really nice lady (three cheers for Loooong Island!), and I’m sure she won’t mind. 
Artichoke Chicken
(adapted from Donna Giblin’s original recipe on “The Chew”)
3 1/2-4 pounds chicken legs and thighs (I used bone-in chicken breasts, halved)
1 cup artichoke hearts, halved (I used an entire 12-ounce can)
1 medium onion (cut into chunks - to match the artichokes)
1 pound white button mushrooms (halved or quartered)
2 tablespoons brown mustard (I used Dijon)
1 clove garlic, minced (I used 2 large cloves)
(1 head fennel, coarsely chopped)
1/4 cup olive oil
1/4 cup red wine vinegar (I used balsamic vinegar)
1/4 cup red wine (I used white wine)
1/4 teaspoon dried basil
1/4 teaspoon dried thyme
1/4 teaspoon dried tarragon
1 bay leaf
salt and pepper, to taste (I used 1 tsp. of each)
Heat oven to 350 degrees. In a small bowl, whisk together the mustard, wine vinegar, wine, dried herbs, bay leaf, and salt and pepper. Place the chicken pieces, skin side up, in one layer, on the bottom of a 9 x 11” Pyrex pan. Scatter the chopped vegetables over the chicken pieces and pour the oil mixture evenly over the vegetables. Bake for approximately one hour and thirty minutes, basting every 20 minutes. (I baked the breast for about one hour.)
NOTE: If I were to make this dish again (and I will), I would add the artichoke hearts halfway through the baking process. I would have preferred it if they were a little firmer. I might substitute julienned red bell peppers or halved sun-dried tomatoes for the fennel. Or I might add them all--you can never have enough veggies!

Friday, July 6, 2012

On Summer, Bungalows, and Peach Preserves

Whoever said “you can’t take it with you,“ has never seen a packed car traveling 
up to the Catskills - Anonymous

Given the fact that June 30th does not fall out on a Friday every year, I can say with great certainty that my final day of school at PS 135 in Brooklyn was not always June 30th. Even though I believed it was. The date was circled on my mental calendar, and when the third week of June rolled around, I could hardly stand the anticipation. My obsession was not so much associated with the end of the school year as it was with the knowledge of knowing that when my bedtime came on (or about) June 30th, I would be heading off to slumberland in South Fallsburg, New York, in the Catskill Mountains--my summer home away from home. 

By the time I arrived home on the last day of school, our car was already packed, my dad was already yelling at my mom about how much junk she was bringing, and she was yelling back at him. (Just another day in my world.) And finally we were on our way, car stuffed to the gills with boxes, and me in there amongst them, somewhere.The drive up to the Catskills rivaled the final destination, and it had nothing to do with the scenery. About 48 miles from New York City, on what was called “old route 17,” was an attraction so popular, that strategically placed billboards counted off its location in miles...and then feet, so that your curiosity (and appetite) would be properly whetted by the time you got there.
On the totem pole of rest stops, the Red Apple Rest occupied the pinnacle, but it wasn’t so much the quality of the food that enticed people--it was really a glorified cafeteria--it was the location. Back in the days before the New York State Thruway was built and essentially became “The Reader’s Digest” version of the long drive, condensing the travel time to the Catskills by a few hours, the Red Apple Rest was approximately at the halfway point--a welcome respite from the bumper-to-bumper traffic one often encountered during the summer months. Seeing the giant red plaster apple that was precariously perched atop the roof, was a glorious sign for me that summer had actually begun. The crowd that joined us in the huge asphalt parking lot was generally the same: fancy new cars, old jalopies (“cherabunchkas” as my dad would call them) heaving with the weight of old jalopy suitcases lashed to their roofs with rope, Greyhound buses filled with octogenarians heading to “Borscht Belt” hotels like the Concord and Grossinger’s, and children heading to sleepaway camps. And then there were families like mine--Holocaust survivors and their kids heading on to bungalow colonies where they would create modern-day shtetls, spending the summer with other survivors and their kids. The place was a madhouse--more of a tradition than just an eatery.
While my dad would wait outside guarding the car, because you never knew when someone might covet our “B List” things that were not good enough for Brooklyn, but were just fine for the bungalow in the Catskills, my mom and I would venture inside. Regardless of the time of day, my menu never varied: a cheeseburger, French Fries, and a soda. I was often tempted to order the scrambled eggs and toast just to get at the square slivers of paper-wrapped butter that came with the dish, but my gastronomic world had not yet been expanded back then.  When we were done, we would return to the car and Dad, strawberry ice cream cone in one hand, would invariably ask what took us so long, forgetting the other throngs of people piling in and out of the place.
And then it was back beside the boxes of our second-tier sheets, towels, and cookware. Some of these things had not even been unpacked since the previous summer, and every so often I would get a whiff of the mothballs that were thrown in to ward off any evildoers. About sixty miles later I sat on the porch of our bungalow, slowly forgetting our little apartment in Brooklyn that seemed millions of miles away. The summer stretched before me, and the possibilities were endless.  There were new friends to meet, and old friends to reconnect with, and those experiences shaped my life in ways I could not have imagined. 

It's unfortunate that the bungalow colonies and hotels of that era have all but disappeared. Whatever is left is in virtual disarray. The things that charmed and enthralled us in childhood often lose their luster when we look back in retrospect. Things that seemed big are now small, and things that seemed new are now older and shabbier. And so it is with the glory days of the Catskill Mountains.
The Red Apple Rest is also gone. It closed up tight in 2006, but I hear it had been on the verge for many years prior. Faster routes going North put the first nails in its coffin, and the demise of the popularity of vacationing in the Catskills locked the lid. It sits abandoned now, another relic of the past.The droves of people and cars are gone, and with them went a lifestyle that no longer exists. It was a simple time when summer meant leaving the heat and humidity of the city for the mountains, lakes, streams and swimming pools of a place that seemed so special, it was referred to in quotes: “The Country.” It meant ramshackle bungalows, cookouts on the basketball court, Color War, and games of volleyball and Red Rover. No TV, no phone for two months, Tuesday night bingo, and Thursday night movies in the meeting hall strangely called, the "casino." YouTube, Facebook, and the Internet were not even in anyone’s realm of thinking back then. Our entertainment was playing pinball, catching speckled orange salamanders in pickle jars filled with bright green moss, and sitting with friends around an umbrella table in the evening that stretched late into the night; telling secrets and laughing. 
We were sent out by our moms to get Kaiser rolls and cupcakes that were slathered in sweet crackly icing from Madnicks “the baker,” who drove his truck into the parking lot and honked his horn early in the morning. Other food vendors would also come peddling their wares: Ruby The Knish Man, Shimmy The Pickle King, and when we heard the staticky, tinkling sound of what was supposed to be Asian-inspired music, we knew that Chow Chow Cup, with their pseudo egg rolls and Chow Mein was on the premises. Sometimes we’d drive into town and go to the supermarket. And then to the bagel bakery, where the floor was covered with sawdust and the wooden screen door snapped behind you with a lazy creak when you entered. There we’d get bialys and pletzels, boards of crisp bread that were topped with crunchy onions. They would all be thrown into brown paper bags and the yeasty aroma would hit you as you opened them on the way home because you couldn’t wait to tear into the still-warm-from-the-oven dough. 
As we kids got closer to outgrowing the bungalow colony experience, we still stuck around for a while longer.  We smoked behind the bungalows, snuck into the hotels at night, and kept our secrets to ourselves. And then it was over. I’ve tried to explain the phenomenon to my children, but they don’t understand. Nor would I expect them to. These are my memories, and they will have their own. Their summers were often spent in mountain camps and at the beach. And on trips to exotic places, like Asia and Europe. The experiences were different, but years from now, as they look back and try to explain them to their own children, they too will feel the nostalgia I feel. And they will polish up the tarnish, and forget about the tears and hurt feelings. And everything small and old will become big and new again.

In summer, song sings itself - William Carlos Williams

Sweet peaches, that drip with lazy, syrupy juices when you bite into them epitomize summer for me. A great way to harness that summer taste so you can have summer in winter is by making preserves. The recipe below has been adapted from “Preserving The Taste,” by Edon Waycott, a jam and jelly guru from California. I had the privilege of taking a class from Edon and while some of her methods are a little more involved than traditional ones, the end products are fresh and bursting with pure fruit flavor. Be sure to use a heavy-bottomed shallow pan so that evaporation can take place in the shortest time. If you don’t wish to go through the entire preserving process, the fruit preserves will last for about two weeks in the refrigerator.
(adapted from "Preserving the Taste)
6 to 7 pounds peaches (8 cups), peeled and sliced
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
1/2 cup Mexican brown sugar (penoche) if unavailable, substitute regular brown sugar
1tsp. cinnamon
1/2 tsp. freshly ground nutmeg
1 vanilla bean
2 Tbsp. lemon juice
Toss the peaches with the sugar in a large bowl and let stand at room temperature for 2 to 3 hours, stirring occasionally. Place a large colander in a large nonreactive shallow preserving pan. Split the vanilla bean down the center and scrape the beans into the pan. Add the vanilla pod as well as the cinnamon and nutmeg. Pour the fruit and juice through the colander. Let drain for 15 minutes. Remove the colander with the fruit to a bowl.
Place the pan over high heat, add the lemon juice, and boil the juice into a syrup. (It will look very foamy with small bubbles covering the entire surface.) The time it takes will depend on how deep your pan is. Test with a candy thermometer; it should read 222 degrees. Immediately pour in the reserved fruit and any additional juice that may have collected at the bottom of the bowl. Remove the vanilla bean pod. Cook over high heat just until the peaches appear caramelized around the edges. They will become more golden and look glazed.
Ladle into hot, sterilized jars, wipe the rims clean with a damp towel, and seal with new lids and metal rings. Process in a hot-water bath for 5 minutes. Remove, cool, check seals, label, and store.