mmm... matzo ball soup
My dear friend, Krista, recently shared with me that she is battling brain cancer. After going through a wave of emotions and expressing appropriate concern, my first instinct was to make her matzo ball ball soup. While what she is dealing with is way beyond the rumored healing powers of Jewish Penicillin, and since I have no training in oncology, it seemed an appropriate way to to provide a small amount of caring and comfort while she recovers from her surgery. Also the incessant rain called for something warming and cozy. She also requested my matzo candy, and a brain tumor seemed like a pretty good reason to make an exception to my rule of only making it during Passover, but she is the only one getting it. The rest of you will have to wait until the end of March. I’ll also wait until then and let Gordon give you the history of matzo (the bread of affliction), and share my theory that the only reason we don’t eat grain during Passover is because our ancestors ran out of it by that time of year, so today I’ll focus on the soup itself.
Pretty much any Jewish cook worth her salt should be able to make matzo ball soup. It is a staple at any Jewish deli, the Passover meal, many a Shabbat dinner and basically anytime a Jewish kid shows any sign of the sniffles. The soup should be a chicken broth, possibly with some veggies like carrots or celery, and the matzo ball are made with a combination of matzo meal, oil or schmaltz and eggs. Beyond that there are a plethora of variations for what is ultimately a very simple dish. There have been long running battles over the preferredness of “sinkers vs. floater” which is usually an indication of the density of the dough, and “big vs. small”. Krista claimed to like them all, but I fall into the big, floater camp and have concluded that the key to floaters is baking powder. Others will claim using seltzer water, but I fail to see how the carbonation will continue to provide levity after 20 minutes of boiling, but many people swear by it.
Hidden among her otherwise rational and delightful qualities, Krista has a phobia of eating chicken with the bone still in, or pretty much any meat that reminds her it was once an animal. She will seriously only eat boneless breasts or cut up pieces of chicken and I have managed to scare her out of a kitchen with the sight of raw chicken thighs. I had a fleeting thought that this might have been a symptom of the brain tumor but alas… even with the cancer removed she is still clinging to this habit. So as not to risk her being unable to enjoy her soup, I am going to refrain from posting photos of making the stock and my flying chicken routine and refer you back to Gordon’s schmaltz and stock recipe. Here’s hoping she is on her way to a full recovery and “a gezunt ahf dein kop” (a Yiddish health blessing that literally translates to “good health on your head”)
Delicious little chocolate filled cookies
In a much belated response to Gordon’s rugelach post a little while ago, I made it my mission to find a good Israeli recipe for rugalach. So after much internet research I finally found a great recipe in one of my cousin’s older cookbooks.
You can really put in any filling you like, varying from nuts to fruit flavorings, whatever your suits your fancy. I decided to go with chocolate knowing all my very willing taste testers would all be happy with that. I experimented with a number of different chocolate variations, first starting with a chocolate syrup, chocolate chips, and then a chocolate spread. All where tasty but I personally felt the spread was the most delicious, so I give that in the recipe below.
“I ate him with some fava beans and a nice Chianti” -Hannibal Lecter
Fava beans are one of the oldest beans eaten in the Western world. In fact it was the only bean known in Europe before the discovery of the Americas (where the common bean is from). The fava bean is eaten all along the Mediterranean basin and well into Asia where they come in a variety of sizes. I can remember eating steamed fava beans with my breakfast in Amman seasoned with salt and herbs that were more than an inch wide.
According to Claudia Roden, fava beans were used in making a traditional Egyptian Shabbat stew that her father called tfadalou. It consisted of whole eggs that were slow cooked with the beans in the still hot ashes of the communal baths or bakeries. It would form the center of a meal with a slew of salads and bread on Shabbat afternoon (a seuda shlitshit or third feast of the Sabbath).
In Israel fava beans are used in a porridge that is simply called Ful (pronounced fool). It is a simple dish that is frequently eaten as a breakfast with hard boiled eggs or as part of a lunch with grilled meat and pita. This dish is a lot like musabacha a warm mix of whole and crushed chick peas. At Humas Said in Akko (or Acre) you can get humas with ful bringing these two similar dishes together.
My personal favorite is the ful at Samir’s in Ramle (located at the top of Detroit Community St. -the things people name streets!). It is a warm mix of stewed fava beans, garlic, salt, pepper and lemon juice. This very simple dish has only one real requirement, that you make it from scratch using dried fava beans.
By the way, if beans give you gas (a byproduct of the oligosacchrides present) then one possible solution is to boil them briefly and then rinse them before continuing to cook in fresh water. A better solution is the traditional one, cook them low and slow to break down those carbohydrates into something your body can actually digest.
Recipe after the break Continue reading
One thing that Jewish women do especially well is gossip (there is a dominant gene for this running in my family), and nothing goes better with gossip than coffee, well, except for cake. It turns out this tradition of getting together for coffee, baked goods and conversation has a long history, that began somewhere in Central Europe. The Germans have a word for such a gathering, “kaffeeklatsch” which was later Americanized to coffee klatch. The Germans called the cake they served with coffee, bundkuchen and the Hungarians called it gugelhupf, but most shared the trait of being cooked in tube pans that created a hole in the center of the cake. One of the first coffee cake recipes to appear in an American cookbook was for bund kuchen in The Settlement Cookbook (speaking of, check out Gordon’s faithful recreation of schnecken from the 1931 edition) which calls for “a deep, round, fancy cake pan with a center tube”. Sometime in 1950 the women of the Minneapolis chapter of Hadassah asked a designer from Nordicware to create a pan that would allow them to recreate the cake recipes that their mothers brought over from the old world and the result was the bundt pan that served as the mold for cakes served to gossiping women and Shabbat Onegs everywhere and eventually became the best selling cake pan in America. Somewhere along the line the kutchens came to be called coffee cakes for the beverage they are served with, as most of them contain no coffee. Nowadays you cannot enter a Starbucks or Peets without a wide array of coffee cakes from bundt pans to accompany your non-fat, half-caf, chai latte, and you have a group of mid-western Jewish ladies to thank for it. I personally find coffee cakes to be a fantastic excuse to eat cake for breakfast.
I was inspired to make coffee cake by this months issue of Cook’s Illustrated which called for a regular tube pan to support an almond sugar topping on a lemon cake with a swirl of cream cheese in the center. Since cream cheese is the Jewiest of cheeses, and I love lemon cake, it seemed the perfect start to a new year of cooking. It turned out to be a complete disaster with the total collapse of the cake onto the filling. After consulting with the master cake baker, my stepmother, rather than torture myself I decided to go with the more tradition cinnamon crumb style with a some extra topping thrown in the middle, for version 2.0. I mistakenly put double the baking powder in version 2.0 and it bubbled over on itself and the topping sank to the bottom, so you are witness to version 2.1. Cake is clearly not my thing … Actually, the thought of all these cakes is making me a little verklempt, so talk amongst yourselves. I’ll give you a topic: coffee cake is neither coffee nor a cake… discuss.
What you can't see is almost a stick of butter
Babke, is Polish for grandmother. Which is odd because these tasty yeast cakes bear no resemblance to little old peasant women. Rather, it resembles brioche, the bread with the butter baked in and a dough so rich you cannot really make it by hand. Babka are part of the shared culinary legacy of both Jewish and Catholic communities in Eastern Europe. Among the Poles, a babka was prepared for Easter using fruit or rum. The Jewish version however leans towards chocolate. This preference is immortalized by Elaine in Seinfeld season 5 with the line “(the cinnamon babka is) a lesser babka” (this is after they see the last chocolate one get snapped up).
While all of this is terribly interesting, it does not explain why I had to ransack several Jewish and non-Jewish cookbooks to find a recipe for this dessert. One thing I can tell you is that in many cookbooks the first entry in the B’s is bacon (including the ’31 edition of the Settlement Cookbook, written mostly by Jewish housewives). After a fair bit of digging I was able to find a few recipes to work from. The one that provided the most help oddly was the new Gourmet Today published just on the eve of that fabled magazine’s demise.
Recipe after the jump
So the past week has included two cake baking disasters for me. I have a lovely post about coffee cake all ready to go, but have not successfully baked one yet. I started with a challenging one that included a tunnel of cream cheese filling that ended up just under-baked enough to collapse on itself when I turned it out. Then I decided to pare down to a simpler one with the traditional cinnamon nut crumb topping. As it was baking I decided to type up the recipe, and I had the horrible realization that I had put in double the baking soda. By this time the batter had bubbled up the sides of the pan and the topping had sunk completely to the bottom. So with two cakes in the trash and nothing to post I decided to take a break and read the New York Times.
Low and behold there is an article on the growing popularity of Kosher foods. This managed to raise my hackles despite the cake fatigue. Since I have already mentioned some of my issues with the kosher meat industry, I’ll give you my run down on my issues with the rest of the kosher food industry. Most packaged, canned or processed foods that bear a hechsher, do so only because the food production company has paid a company, like the Orthodox Union, to send out a rabbi inspector (a mashgiah), to check out the ingredients and the manufacturing process for trayfe or any practices that might mix meat and dairy. They typically pay a large sum of money for this service and inspections are done about once a year. There is absolutely nothing about this inspection that looks for health or safety violations, so whatever feelings of “purity” people are getting from the hechsher are based totally in emotion.
Seriously, Extreme Torchin’ Tamale Pringles have a hechsher and so does Toll House refrigerated cookie dough, and it got recalled over the summer for e. coli contamination. Trust me, I have learned from experience, e. coli is not something you want to encounter and a hechsher won’t protect you from it. The New Yorker Magazine did an article about a year ago on how China is becoming the fastest growing exporter of kosher food and the mashgihim who are selling their services to the Chinese factories. After the rash of tainted and toxic Chinese made food imports a few years ago, a simple hechsher is not enough to convince me of the purity of these products. As I have stated many, many, times, if keeping kosher is important to you, the best and healthiest way to do it is to eat real, fresh, food you have purchased locally and made from scratch, not from a box. If what you are looking for is purity and healthier foods … well the same logic applies.
OK… rant over. Tomorrow I am having the cookie monsters over to make peanut butter cookie and assuming I don’t totally ruin those, I will attempt my cake once again and you may eventually get to read my fascinating history of the coffee cake in America.
Filed under Jewish, Kashrut
Can you smell the beefy goodness?
Pot roast is my father’s favorite dish, for the leftovers. He has a great fondness for cold pot roast sandwiches. Now I could blithely tell you that my father is a Jew, and therefore this is a Jewish dish. But it does in fact appear in a number of Jewish cookbooks, and is usually considered an alternate Shabbat dinner option- for those who could afford to move up from chicken to eating cows.
But the real reason I chose to make this dish was for my friends Sandra and Rona. When I was visiting each of them in Wisconsin a few weeks ago I noticed that they both had shiny new crock pots (or slow cookers in the new marketing parlance) bubbling away on their counters. Crock pots seem to have made a comeback in the last few years. Spurred by the move towards comfort food, the recession pressure to shop further down the food chain and the fresh crop of good looking cookers in sexy colors and styles (including this monster).
Now, I cannot think of a more welcoming site when it has been hovering near zero Fahrenheit for the last fortnight, but like anything this dish benefits from some careful selection of meat and flavor components. First the meat, you want to pick out a large piece of chuck roast. Preferably a chuck-eye roast rather than a seven bone or top blade roast. Different markets will call these different names, so what you want to look for is a large well marbled piece of chuck with no bones and that is at least 2 inches thick. Also make sure it will fit in your cooker.
But my father is right about one thing, it is a great meal for leftovers. I just packed them into the fridge- tomorrow we’ll try those sandwiches.
Recipe after the break
Steamed and sliced
I am not going to go on and on about Katz’s deli again. It is enough to merely point out that if you want REAL pastrami then you must go to a REAL delicatessen. Which brings me to the reason I chose to make this dish. Almost everything that is labeled pastrami in an average market, deli and (and this pains me) every outlet in Israel is not pastrami. In fact if you wander into an Israeli supermarket and ask for pastrami you will be shown to a cooler filled with pastrama a term that is attached to any cooked and sliced meat- much like “ham” is used in the U.S. As for the American stuff, it is usually some version of roast beef with some sort of pepper spice rub on the outside. It bears as much resemblance to real pastrami as a Carl Buddig product does to whole cuts of meat.
Now, pastrami is not a quick thing to make. It is a minimum 5 day process that some extend out to two weeks. Your first decision is whether to use a brine or dry cure. A dry cure is more traditional, but a brine cure will impart the same flavor and also boost the liquid content for a more moist cut of meat. The second choice is whether to seek beef plate or use the more commonly available brisket. The third choice is about smoking. You can in fact smoke without a smoker. By using an oven smoking bag or liquid smoke you can get the same flavor as a smoker. Since I really wanted to play with a smoker, and don’t have one, I waited until I was planning a trip to my parents so I could use theirs.
More after the break.