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Posts Tagged ‘Easter’

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With all due respect to the believers out there, my hallelujah news this past week was only peripherally due to Easter Sunday. Most of it came from putting my overworked, overwhelmed hands into a bowl of bread dough, where I was able to dispel the stresses of the past month with a few turns.

2016 marks something like my 25th year of making Easter bread, a 100-year or so tradition my sister and I assumed, and I took it over entirely a dozen years ago. Chocolate-cinnamon babka is what I make. It is sticky and goopy, with spiced dark chocolate twirled throughout layers of buttery, eggy dough. No one argues with this recipe.

After a March of solid writing, phone calls, candy making and delivering, stage prop hunting and more delivering, I was beat from every angle. The crazy thing is, when the world spins too quickly and it feels like I can’t catch up, I crave the kitchen. I need to make something…and specifically, to put my hands in something.

When I flour my hands and first put them in the dough, an enormous calm washes over me that says this I can do. My heartbeat slows to match the motion of my hands. It’s probably akin to knitting, music-making, or any number of things that have a beat. But this has the added bonus of that raw yeasty smell and the cool feel of dough. Dough-working is instinct and skill: discerning when the dough needs more flour, how many turns it should take, when it’s springy enough to stop kneading. And I love dropping it into my parchment-lined, secondhand wooden bowl. I love covering it with more parchment and a dishtowel, and setting it to rise on the cooler end of my kitchen radiator.

I think back to our grandmothers and their aunts, sisters, cousins who bent over bread bowls in the middle of their chockablock lives, and wonder if their heartbeats slowed to a sane pace as well. I think about the unique stresses of their lives—illness, war, foreclosure, rationing—and wonder if they were able to breathe in yeast and and breathe out the cares of the day and the fear of the unknown. I don’t know. All I know is it puts heart back into me in a way nothing else quite does, letting me resume the world with a clear outlook.

Bread dough—now that’s a religion I can stand behind.

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The first batch set to rise by my radiator.

I was at it again for the past two days, baking and delivering bread as my family has been doing for close to a century. My Italian grandmother (who died before I was born) made one recipe, my dad made another, and true to the pattern, I make still another. Mine’s Martha Stewart’s chocolate cinnamon babka, which I describe in my last year’s post.

Here’s my photo album of the past two days.

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A cool photo, but I’m hoping you’ll be more impressed by the fact that I shot it lefty.

Once the unbaked breads are in their buttered springforms, I put them onto my dining room table, next to a radiator. It’s there that they’ll rise overnight.

When I was growing up, we set the pans between layers of our sleeping bags. Now I use this vintage blanket. It was on my grandmother’s bed at my aunts’ and uncle’s house, and it was the one my sister and I slept beneath whenever we stayed there. Kind of works here.

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Waiting to go night-night.

There’s nothing like waking up in the morning and pulling back the covers to find the bread dough puffy and sweetly fragrant.

Woo hoo! Risen breads in the morning light!

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Right before they go into the oven, I brush them with egg and a splash of milk (an ‘egg wash’). This makes them brown up to a glossy mahogany color.

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Below, the first batch cooling while the second batch is in the oven.

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Then they get loosely wrapped in aluminum foil, oozing chocolate and all; schlepped to the car; and delivered around the county. All recipients used to live in Interlaken, where I grew up, but there’s only one there now. I’ve been bringing him bread since I was old enough to walk it to his house without dropping it, since about 1974. He’s in his eighties now and uses a cane, but still stands at the door not just to watch me walk to my car and see that I get in, but stays to watch until I drive away.

One more nice story for this year…

I mentioned in my last post that this was the first year I bought eggs from a local farm. Not just local, but organic; and not just a farm, but growers whom I consider friends—Silverton Farms in Toms River, NJ.

I used almost a dozen of their brown and Araucana eggs*, just under two days old. Next year I’ll try to get them even closer to the time I bake, but the breads still turned out lighter than usual, light as foam. This was the first time since my grandmother’s day—from the 20s or earlier to the 40s or 50s—that a family member used fresh, local eggs to make Easter bread.

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Happy Easter, everybody. Now go eat some chocolate. Show some discipline.

*Click the ‘eggs’ link for pretty pictures; they’re sometimes called Easter eggs because of their lovely colors. So it was fitting)

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Clearly I used to be a Martha acolyte. Pussy willows, dyed eggs and vintage toys from my childhood. The lamb is also a music box that plays ‘Smoke On the Water’. Kidding, ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’. The bunny is a Steiff puppet. Both circa 1968.

Last spring I published a photo essay about eggs. This year I give you three stories about eggs.

1) My friend’s mom is an elegant, vivacious lady in her 60s who was born and raised in Japan. A couple of years ago I gave him a dozen local, organic eggs and asked him to share with his mom. There were brown and Araucana eggs. She didn’t see them until the following morning, but he told me that when she opened up the carton she quite literally squealed. Then I got this fantastic story.

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Thank you so much for getting us these delicious eggs! Sorry, I didn’t write this letter to you sooner, but I wanted to wait until I tasted both kinds. I love them both, but if I have to choose, I love the blue eggs better. They are creamier, and to me they have more depth to the taste. Yum….. I’m really enjoying them!  Eggs are one of my most favorite foods. When I was small, my mom used to send me to the greengrocer to buy some eggs. I took mom’s shopping bag, which was made with woven hemp, walked to the store. The eggs were in a worn plastic basket, normally 5 eggs in each, just placed on the wooden stand next to the vegetables. No refrigeration. The wife usually tended the store with one of her children on her back in a sling. She transferred the eggs in a bag made with old newspaper for me, so they could reuse the plastic basket again, and put them in my shopping bag. I walked home with my eggs in the bag. In those days in Japan, eggs were an important protein source, and when I had one whole boiled egg to myself, I was very happy. Eggs have a long history of memory in my mind…I just love them!

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Imagine not taking eggs for granted—being so appreciative of them that you could actually discern the flavor of one variety versus another? It’s mind-blowing. I want that.

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2) Sara Moulton, at the time Executive Chef of Gourmet magazine*, told a story about a cake she and her kitchen testers had fallen for, both for its flavor and for its impressive height. The chef graciously shared the recipe, and Gourmet baked the cake several times, as testers do, to make sure they could replicate it accurately for readers.

But when they did, while the flavor was there, the wonderful height was not. Time after time after time**. They went back to the chef and went through the recipe with a fine-toothed comb, both for ingredients and process, baked it again, but it was still flatter than the first they’d tried. This went on until they somehow learned that the chef lived across the street from a farm that had laying hens, and he routinely bought eggs there. Fresh eggs will make a difference in the lightness, airiness and height of your finished oeuvre.

3) Last one. This was just a nutty fluke, but I was kind of freaking at the time. I was having friends over and had hard-boiled a dozen eggs to make deviled eggs. Cut them all in half and all but one was a double yolk. Crazy, right?

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Totally not shopped.

And taking a page from Story #2…

I’ve been baking Easter bread all my life, taking over a tradition that’s three generations old, and will be going at it again this Friday and Saturday. But this is the first year I’m making a point to use local NJ eggs—the first time since my grandmother was baking, decades ago. So stoked. With any luck, they’ll make an already spectacular recipe even better, and I’ll have another story to tell.

*God rest its awesome soul. Online’s not the same.

**With apologies to Cyndi Lauper. Hoping you like cake.

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I love to make treats for the casts and crews of my shows, and to give as holiday gifts and thank-yous. 99.44%* of the time people love it. But that itty bitty percentage** left over gets all judgmental on me.

‘How can you make these things knowing there’s such an obesity problem in this country?’ they ask. I’ve even had people ask how I can live with myself, as if baking with butter and sugar is akin to mooning a Gymboree. Here’s my thinking.

Yes, a massive pile of Americans are obese. But they didn’t get that way from having a brownie at a Saturday night barbecue, or a couple of Bubbe’s latkes at Chanukah, or Cadbury eggs on Easter. And goodness knows I am not a doctor or a nutritionist. But I have mambo’ed with weight gain and loss my whole life. As my ninth grade biology teacher said, if you consistently eat more than you burn off, you gain weight. That’s how it works. So with a few exceptions, I’m pretty sure those suffering with serious weight issues got that way from consuming too much, or consuming rich foods too often—foods that are meant to be once-in-a-while treats.

Your Great Anye’s German stollen, that wonderful buttery dried-fruity holiday bread—that’s a treat. You’re not supposed to live on it. It’s a Christmastime joy, along with goodwill and empty parking places. The problem comes when the line between treats and everyday healthy foods becomes so blurred that for breakfast we grab a doughnut made with shortening and fake colored sprinkles instead of scrambled egg whites and whole wheat toast, or for lunch we choose Cool Ranch Doritos instead of a turkey sandwich. Many of us have forgotten the difference, forgotten to be discerning.

And so we get fat, and we judge ourselves and others for it. We forget that eating, like most things in life, is about balance. We’re supposed to make healthy food choices most of the time. And we’re supposed to celebrate with indulgent foods at special times. Yes, supposed to. If we can decide to live by that tenet, maybe we’ll work out this obesity epidemic (or at least come closer to doing so). And I can’t think of a better time than now, holiday time, to emphasize balance in eating.

Please, have some of your mom’s killer lasagna bolognese and your best friend’s oatmeal cookies this holiday season. Just go easy the rest of the time. Get your veggies in there. Drink lots of water. Take care of yourself.

The really good news is when we choose to live this way, choose to eat healthy foods*** most of the time and blow it out a little on the weekends and on holidays, we’ll look forward to those special treats that much more. Remember anticipation? We’ll feel like kids again.

Full disclosure:

1) Last week I overdid it: I drank hot chocolate every single day without fail. Even with 1% milk, that’s a lot. This week I have to do better with balance.

2) I’m totally in the mood to make my mom’s sour cream coffee cake, but it’s something that we kids grew up eating on Christmas morning. I am making myself wait, just like I did last year, and I know I’ll be glad I did.

I’m so excited for that cake. It’s something, like the stollen, that says yesterday is gone, tomorrow is later, and I am living for this flavor, this texture—this luxury—right now. And there’s no crime in that.

*With apologies to Ivory soap. You’re doing a fine job.

**Don’t make me do the math.

***Which doesn’t mean it should taste like a loofah sponge, by the way. Find recipes that use spices, herbs, garlic, the good stuff, and you will not deprive yourself.

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The last few days have been busy ones for me, as they always are this time of year. I’ve taken over a three-generation tradition of baking and delivering Easter bread, begun by my grandmother.

I make six chocolate cinnamon babkas and distribute them across the county to friends and family. When the last bread is delivered and everyone’s mouths—my own included—are sticky from eating slice after slice of this glorious stuff, I rest. This year I’m resting and reflecting.

It’s been a tumultuous year for me between this Easter and last. Lots of loss, I don’t mind saying. Got divorced. Got hit by a car. Had to move two weeks after being hit by a car, which was all kinds of fun. I lost friends whom I thought would be permanent fixtures in my life.

There were gains as well, like writing and editing for a food magazine I’ve always wanted to work with, and there were other gains which, oddly, I realized because of the losses. After divorcing I learned I was stronger than I thought. After the accident that resulted in a concussion and a broken clavicle, I learned I was even stronger. And some of the new friends I met this year came into my life, I think, to teach me exactly what kind of people I want around me, what really good friends are, and do. Lemonade out of lemons, I suppose.

In my chocolate-laced stupor, feet up, I started thinking about the shape in which I make the breads. I’m an amateur folklorist, with a special interest in holiday lore, and realized how often the circle or spiral features in symbolism throughout the year. It’s usually at the equinox, as the sunlight weakens or strengthens.

Think about Rosh Ha’Shana, the start of the new Jewish year in the fall, when challah is made in the shape of a circle or spiral. Halloween, or Samhain, marks the end of the pagan year. It was then that buns called soul cakes were shaped into spirals and distributed from door to door. The recipients were the earliest trick-or-treaters. Think about Christmastime, and how Christians adapted the wreath from pagan tradition. Have you ever wondered why wreaths are round? It’s because they, like the challah and soul cakes, are meant to show the turn of the year, the assurance—maybe reassurance is a better word—that things keep moving. That life keeps moving. It’s one of the intractable facts of life, the reality of constant beginnings and endings, and it’s one we reinforce for ourselves again and again by shaping stuff into circles. What goes up must come down, and vice versa. Expect it.

When I was growing up, the breads my dad, sister and I made for Easter were braided and made into a circle. Later, when I took over the baking and found the babka recipe I now use, it called for the dough to be baked in a loaf pan, but I couldn’t bring myself to do that. The dough gets rolled out, scattered with chocolate, butter, cinnamon and sugar, rolled up, twisted…and then coiled into a spiral. And it’s not just because I grew up with it that way. It’s because life’s precarious. I need to see that spiral.

Maybe The Wizard of Oz offers the best example. Do you remember what the very start of the yellow brick road looked like? Exactly. It’s good to have reassurances from time to time, during the holidays or whenever. We’re all in Dorothy’s red shoes.

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this has been going on in my family for a long time, making easter bread for family and friends. and by a long time, I mean 70 years at least, possibly longer. it’s not the same recipe, or the same recipients, or lord knows the same method. but still, every holy saturday since I could ring a doorbell and smile, I have delivered homemade bread. this year was my favorite. tell you why.

wait, first the backstory: my paternal grandmother baked easter bread, then my dad took over, then my sister and I took over from him. at first we helped and watched. after a few years dad was like the foreman, coming in just to knead and supervise. once I could knead, it was all my sister and me.

the recipe we made, called easter basket bread, came from a mid-century Time-Life cookbook. and true to mid-century cooking, it featured shortcuts, like the addition of lemon pudding mix instead of actual lemons. the result was yeasty, faintly lemony, and had a beautiful golden color. this was the family easter bread for a good 30 years, delivered piping hot. (more on that later.)

it didn’t always go well. my sister and I had a slogan we used as a starting-pistol shot to begin work: ‘marisa, scald the milk.’ well, I usually burned the first batch and annihilated a pan doing it. soon my mom got wise, running into the kitchen and shrieking,  ‘stop!’ in enough time to hand me a crappy pan to use instead of her fancy all-clads.

then there was the year mom misread the pudding packages and got the kind without sugar. we didn’t know until we tasted it. the resulting loaves were a gift to the food bank. it was okay, but it wasn’t easter bread. our hungry friends and family had their little noses pressed against their windows that morning, waiting, when we called to apologize and to tell them to expect bread the following day. already on a roll (har har), we banged out another double batch within a couple of hours. that mishap was thereafter dubbed ‘the pudding incident’.

but cutting the dough into strips, braiding it, and tucking in really fresh eggs brought by my uncle, a food inspector for the state—this was a good time. late at night, so doused in flour we’d look like the walking dead (and often so tired we’d feel like it, too), the loaves went night-night under our old sleeping bags. in the morning we’d lift back the covers for the big reveal: plumped-up bread ready to be brushed liberally with egg wash and sprinkled with nonpareils. The latter bounces uncontrollably onto the counter, the kitchen floor, and pretty much everywhere, amusing the dog and inciting groans from my mom, who didn’t relish the thought of discovering them all over the house like itty-bitty easter eggs.

as each batch came out of the oven, my sister and I delivered our mahogany-brown wonders on foot, and later, by car. now, dad was picky about everyone getting their bread hot, which wouldn’t have been a great trick, considering all of the recipients lived in our 900-resident town. but mrs. wengler, ever-gracious, always asked us in to sit and catch up, and auntie rosemary was a warm and loving chatterbox who never wanted us to leave. we were always in a rush, knowing dad was home, grousing about us getting back to deliver the rest hot. hurry! hurry!

that’s how it was until 2004, after which my then-husband and I found a new recipe and took over, spreading gooey chocolate joy near and far. it’s a babka recipe from my pal martha that I took some liberties with, adding intense saigon cinnamon instead of regular, and shaping loaves into my family’s traditional ring.

but this was my first year going it solo. I made it slowly and enjoyed the unique tactile experience that is making bread from scratch. then I packed it all up and took off in the drizzle. (it’s always drizzling on holy saturday morning. always.)

who gets bread now? sadly, mrs. wengler has passed on, but mr. wengler anticipates it as much as ever. he has been opening the door to someone in my family—at the same house—every holy saturday morning since 1969. my cousins, who grew up eating our easter bread and all of whom live locally, tell me they can’t wait for it. one said it best of all: ‘life is so crazy…this is one thing we can count on, and look forward to.’

but I promised to tell you why this year was my favorite. it’s because I didn’t worry about whether the bread was hot. instead, I let the extra loaves wait nicely in my backseat while I stood in assorted kitchens for an hour or more, laughing, yammering, and generally having an awesome time. we talked about what’s going on now, what went on in the past, telling new jokes and old stories. it was like reapplying glue to a bond. I left the house at 9 and didn’t get back until early afternoon. and that’s when I got it—I really got it: that it’s not about the bread being hot. it’s not even about the bread.

Vintage springform for Easter bread.

Chocolate-cinnamon babka.

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