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Posts Tagged ‘heirloom’

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Last summer my neighbor, a lovely English lady, flattered me by asking if I would edit her family recipe for Traditional English Christmas Cake. She considers it an heirloom; and in the hopes that her children and grandchildren would make and enjoy it for years to come, she wanted it to be as clearly written as possible. I edit recipes often for the magazine I work with, but the prospect of doing this gave me chills—good ones.

Start with the fact that I am an Anglophile who has seen many recipes for this iconic cake but have never tasted it. Next, add in the fact that my neighbor is a graduate of London’s Cordon Bleu; she actually made Coronation Chicken for ambassadors and dignitaries for the Queen’s coronation in 1953. Wow. Lastly, throw in the history of the recipe, which goes back centuries. (To give you an idea of how far back I’m talking, a variation calls for 12 marzipan balls to be placed on top, and some historians believe they represent the 12 Titans.) This recipe is a piece of living history, and I was offered the chance to be a part of it. I couldn’t wait.

My neighbor asked that I get the edited recipe back to her sometime in the fall, so in early October I delved into it. She was very happy with my edits and reformatting. Last week she gave me a slice of the fruitcake, which she had made for a garden club holiday party. It was like nothing I have ever tasted, surprising and complex. And a couple of days ago, I made the cake for myself—a little version of it.

The recipe predates refrigeration by hundreds of years, back when brainy and resourceful women figured out how to make food last. This is an example of what they learned. We know adding alcohol to foods preserves them. Here, the extra addition of a double layer of icing to the cake acts as a yummy edible Saran Wrap, helping it to stay fresh for a good month.

Which brings me to my next point, which you were waiting for. The traditional holiday fruitcake is much maligned, and generally I’ll agree it’s well deserved. Store bought fruitcake can be leaden, tough to swallow and moreover dangerous to drop even at short distances. But a homemade fruitcake, made with care and beautiful ingredients? I wanted to see if it was worth making, whether it’s been passed down for so many generations for a good reason, one this generation has missed.*

The first thing you do is roughly chop up dried fruits, like fancy raisins, cherries and unsulfured apricots, and soak them in brandy overnight. Or you can use fruit juice. The next day you make the cake batter and mix the fruit into it. My neighbor said to use only dark colored fruits because it’s supposed to be a dark cake (hence why I used unsulfured apricots), and indeed it is; the addition of brown sugar and a bit of molasses to the batter helps keep it dark, too.

Once baked and cooled, you release the cake from the pan and put it on its serving plate, tucking strips of parchment underneath. This way, after you’ve iced it, you can pull the strips out and discard them. Your plate stays clean as a whistle.

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Next you roll out some marzipan (I used my own, but a good quality store bought brand like Odense works, too) that you’ll use to cover the top and sides of the cake. Set it aside for a minute. Then put some apricot jam and a little water into a saucepan and heat it up so the jam loosens and becomes syrupy. That gets brushed on top of the cake, then you cover it with your marzipan. Here’s how mine looked. It’s a bit of a patch job, but this is home cooking. And Martha I ain’t.

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Royal icing comes next. I have never made it before and was amazed at how easy it is. You put a couple of egg whites into a bowl, beat them a bit, then add confectioners’ sugar spoonful by spoonful until you get the consistency and amount you like. That’s it. If it gets too thick, add a little lemon juice or milk. Mine was almost as gooey as honey, thin enough to pour. I used an offset spatula to coax it down the sides and made sure all surfaces were covered.

Royal icing dries at room temperature, or I should say the top of it dries to a delicate crispness, like the top layer of newly fallen snow. Underneath it stays a bit creamy and soft. Luscious stuff.

If you come from the south of England, you decorate this cake with lots of Christmasy embellishments. If you come from the north, you decorate sparingly or not at all. My neighbor friend is from the south, so I followed her lead.

Below is the cake just after I put on the icing. I put the little bottle brush trees on at this point so their bases would stay affixed to the top of the cake.

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I added tiny pine cones around the perimeter, then while the icing dried I made two rabbits, a fawn and a squirrel out of more marzipan tinted with gel paste. (If I added the animals before the icing dried, their color would stain the icing.)

I’ve been making marzipan animals for years, but they’re always somewhat stylized, less realistic. They’re also quite a bit larger. I have never worked so small as I have here: the largest figure is 1.5″ and the smallest is just 3/4″. But when I started thinking about how to decorate the cake, the thought of making this little woodland scene jazzed me. I loved the challenge, and I love working with my hands. This is something I really needed, especially after the grueling past couple of months. Made me feel human again, like myself again.

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This morning I had a little piece of the cake. The allspice, cinnamon and freshly grated nutmeg are what come through first, heady and wonderfully fragrant. I didn’t taste a whole lot of the alcohol, but that might be because I have a dopey oven, and when I turned the temperature down from 325 to 295 as the recipe instructs, the cake finished baking before it made it to 295. So most of the alcohol probably burned off, and the cake was less moist than it should have been, but I still love it. I was worried that the marzipan and royal icing that covered the already sweet cake would make it molar-looseningly cloying, but I was surprised to find that they were less sweet than the cake, and actually mellowed it.

And it was a little piece, not a big one. My neighbor tells me another reason why Americans aren’t fond of fruitcake is because we’re used to cutting cake in large slices and eating the whole fat slice. But this cake is very rich, very intense. It is not meant to be cut the way you would a Bundt cake. It is meant to be cut in what she called ‘fingers’, in inch-long lengths, the way my mom cuts a slice of banana bread into fifths. That’s all you want at one time from this cake; a little goes a very long way. Which is good because you’ll want the cake made from this ancient recipe to last, you’ll want to have some to nibble on each day as you watch the sky darken, as our ancestors did before us.

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*Guess the answer 🙂

Post script: This is my 100th blog post! Thank you for reading, and I’m looking forward to playing with my food, with you, as long as I can.

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If the apple were to post a listing on match.com, it’d get dozens of hits because it has it all—looks, personality and versatility.

This pictorial features the glorious apple in the height of its season. All shown are organic, and what’s more, none ever saw the inside of a supermarket.

The small apples are crabapples, which I picked from a tree in my town. I know of five crabapple trees within walking distance, some planted and some wild. They are all alongside the lake, and thus the EPA dictates that they cannot be sprayed. As is always the case, while I was picking, someone stopped to ask what they were, what they tasted like (very tart), and what I was going to do with them (make jam. And another day, schnapps).

The large apples were purchased from Tom Nivison at Silverton Farms. The splotchy red ones are Empires and the green ones are Mutsus. I think the deep red ones are Romes. The apple trees in the photos are Tom’s own: ‘Liberty’ and ‘Freedom’. ‘They look like hell, but they taste great,’ he said, as he polished one on his shirt and took a bite. He’s right. I took a ‘Freedom’ home in my pocket (that’s the sliced apple on the cutting board) and it was my ideal combination of floral sweetness with a little bite of tartness.

Jump at trying a new apple whenever you come across one; go for something different than the usual suspects (Red Delicious, Golden Delicious, McIntosh, Granny Smith). Every now and again at a farmers market or a specialty store you’ll spot a bin of dinky little Lady apples (great for caramel apples for the little ‘uns) or better yet, an heirloom variety you’ve never heard of before. Crunch into it and let a wave of adjectives (or colors, or whatever) swirl through your mind.

There was a time not too long ago when most land-owning folks had an orchard, or at the very least, a few apple trees (each tree was grown for a different dish, no less). Think about the possibility that the apple you’re eating might have been grown by your great-great grandmother. It’s not only delicious…it could even be a five-sensory link to the past.

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When the world got to be too much for Holly Golightly, she went to Tiffany’s. Ishmael went to sea. Me, I go to Trader Joe’s just because I know the guy behind the register will take the shopping basket right out of my hand and pack everything up himself. And he’ll grin the whole time, and say the corn chips I am buying are his current addiction.

Sure it’s summer, but that doesn’t automatically mean comfort sits in our laps every day, all day. Sometimes, like today, which must be the 17th sticky, grey day in a row, we need to seek out (or barring that, to remember) the stuff that makes us grin like a Trader Joe’s cashier. Here are some of my favorites.

1) Listening to a farmer describe how she relaxes after a long, hot day at the market: she goes inside her barn, turns on the fan, and cracks open a cold beer.

2) Choosing the tightest, smoothest, rosiest heirloom tomatoes for my favorite summer sandwich: sliced on bread smeared with mayonnaise, sprinkled with salt, and summarily devoured.

3) Watching shaggy-haired groms—that’s pre-teen surfers—skateboarding to the beach with a slice of pizza poised in one hand and a bottle of Coke in the other.

4) Seeing local theatre productions that are big enough to attract extraordinary talent but small enough that afterward you can meet and shake the hands of the actors.

5) Having a teatime treat of cherries (or peaches, or blueberries) with a drizzle of real cream.

6) Visiting a local farm and having your zucchini weighed on an ancient scale.

7) Watching dogs on the beach, wet from seawater, tear up and down the beach as they follow their surfing owners.

8) Going to the boardwalk and being handed a sopping, sloppy hot sausage sandwich with absolutely no pretense.

9) Being at the beach to witness the sunset bathing everything for miles in palest pink.

10) Strolling the midway at the Italian-American festival in Oakhurst, NJ every August for the food, rides and more of my cousins on one acre than anyplace else on earth.

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When I was growing up, weekends in the summer (much like weekdays in the summer) were spent at the beach. My dad would load up the tall aluminum jug with ice cubes and then fill it with orange juice, vodka and Grenadine, recreating a drink he enjoyed in Jamaica sometime in the 60s. Over the course of the day, visitors would sprint across the hot sand, cool their feet in the shade under our beach umbrella and have a couple of Dixie cups of this stuff. It was popular enough among my parents’ friends that one of their little daughters passionately disagreed with her teacher one day at school, insisting, ‘A Flamingo isn’t a bird; it’s a drink!’

This drink was so celebrated, and the coral color so pretty, that of course I tried it. Once. And I hated the alcoholic wallop. But recently I started thinking it might be fun to make a Flamingo for my own taste, wondered if it would be worth a shot to try make one that was better suited for drinking than for polishing the TV cabinet.* The chance came last night when I was invited to a party at the home of my good friends Kim and Doug. An extra lucky break for someone who is a novice (me) when it comes to drinks: Doug used to be a bartender. If I was going to learn to make a good Flamingo, I needed a good teacher, and he was very willing to be that. Done.

Pure orange juice was easy enough to find. But a word about Grenadine: I was astonished, and frankly disgusted, by the contents of the Grenadine that’s available. There were three brands at Foodtown, and two of them—the biggest names!—contained high fructose corn syrup, red food coloring and precious little else. Seriously—it’s just goo. Grenadine’s supposed to be a pomegranate-based syrup, for crying out loud. The last bottle had all of the other stuff in it, but DID contain pomegranate juice, so it won.**

I gave Doug the orange juice and Grenadine and asked him to use plain vodka (Grey Goose, if you must know). He got out one of those shaken-not-stirred mixers, just shy of two cups, and got to work making the inaugural Flamingo. I watched, figuring if I didn’t like how he made it that I’d try it on my own, but darned if he didn’t nail it on the first try.*** It was refreshing and tropical-y with just a breath of vodka to adult it up. And he even chilled the glass by keeping ice water in it while he mixed the drink. Lovely stuff.

Here’s how he made it:

Load a martini glass with ice water. To an ice-filled mixer add 1.5 shots of plain vodka. Top off with chilled orange juice. Add a couple of shakes of as pure a Grenadine as you can find. Shake well. Pour off ice water and add mixture. Serve immediately.

My hosts tasted it and liked it, and my sister—who remembers it from our childhood as well—liked it as much as I did.

Isn’t it cool to think an heirloom doesn’t have to be a quilt or a doll or jewelry? And isn’t it even cooler to think an heirloom can evolve…maybe even be improved for another generation?

*Someone has to wonder these things.

**Next course of action: I’m going to make my own. Pomegranate juice is available at well-stocked supermarkets. How hard could it be to add a bit of simple syrup and reduce it ?

***It’s totally who you know.

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Peach blueberry pie, Red Bank.

Mid-April. We turn our winter weary selves to the strengthening sun and take deep breaths of the sweet air. The world is yawning, stretching, and growing greener. Another spring.

The predictable sameness of the supermarket isn’t going to cut it this time of year. A farmers market is. Hat, small bills, some cloth shopping bags (French housewives know the stretchy mesh kind are best because they can always fit one more onion), and off you go. Ride that spring momentum.

Like New York City during Fashion Week, the farmers market is a seasonal showcase; specifically, for the local and the just picked. This is what’s in fashion from the earth, right now. Produce sold there is going to be more nutritious, more flavorful, and often cheaper than whatever the supermarket has recently misted with water and glossed with wax.

Young cheese, Red Bank.

This is an opportunity to try stuff you’ve always wanted to, or to try stuff you’ve never even seen before. The blog you’re reading says ‘open your eyes’ at the tippy top for this very reason. If you’ve only ever shopped at supermarkets, going to a farmers market is like entering another galaxy—albeit one right at home—and in the best imaginable way. It’s a way to make your life bigger. Sniff the freshness of lemon verbena now, be dazzled later in the season by the explosion of sweetness in an heirloom tomato. Take in the greens and golds, the deepest, plummiest purples.

One of the best things about farmers markets is of course that they feature farmers. And bakers. And other people who are invested in what they’ve grown or made for you. They’re excited to talk to you about it. Questions are good. (Once a supermarket cashier held up the greens I had put on the conveyor belt and asked me what kind they were. This is not good.) You can talk about butterstick zucchini with the guy who planted it, tended to it, and picked it. This bin of zucchini is his labor of love, not just his job. And the man can give you recipes in his sleep.

Introduce yourself and get his name. After you take the zucchini home and cook it, go back and tell him how much you dug it. Or tell him you fouled the recipe up, if you did. He’ll give you pointers on how to get it right. It’s hard to beat that kind of attention and service.

Local brown and white eggs, Asbury Park.

Collards, Atlantic Highlands.

Ask for a taste. (You can do that there.) Prepare to be surprised. Ask more questions. You’ll find out oddball stuff, like if you add a teaspoon of almond extract to peach pie it will make it celestial. Think about what an almond looks like in its shell and what a peach pit looks like. Pretty similar, right? It’s because peaches (and nectarines, and cherries) and almonds are all cousins. Because of that, they have a natural affinity for each other.

Have you ever bitten into a strawberry that was picked three hours ago? It’s still warm. Chances are it’s also smaller than the ones you’ve seen at the supermarket. Often those are dipped in chocolate—and a good thing, too, because on their own they taste like wet cotton balls. Big strawberries are bred to 1) wow you by their size 2) sit on a shelf for a week. Flavor? Niente.

Taste one that’s small and local. That means it’s bred for flavor, which further means it’s never going to be sold in a supermarket. The farmer grew this variety because he knows he can pick these little guys, pack them in the back of his flatbed and get them into your hands inside a day.

Red cabbage, Asbury Park.

Hot pepper jam, Asbury Park.

If you come across a table behind which stand an elderly woman and her son, and you can’t pronounce their last name, and they make old-style sour rye bread, please buy one.  Ask the woman how long she’s been making bread and why she still does it. She wants to talk about it.

Last summer I met a portly man whose parents taught him to make focaccia and fresh bufala mozzarella, in his hometown of Rome, 50 years ago. I could tell you how good this bread and cheese tasted, but you’ve probably already guessed.

Many of these purveyors are keeping ancient traditions alive. One taste, and both the flavor and the link from past to present will astonish you, bring tears to your eyes if you let it.

Heirloom tomatoes, Asbury Park.

Everyday life can make our heads spin. But farmers markets can bring us back down to earth, literally and figuratively. The growers chatting, your neighbors browsing and tasting along with you, the pooches scooting along beside them—all make a farmers market a bustling place. But paradoxically, it can also give us a sense of peace. The handmade, the homegrown, and the people who offer it have the power to soothe the overwrought spirit as well as to make us feel more alive. It can make us want to stretch along with spring itself.

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Growing up, I’d only eat tomatoes in ketchup or in sauce—never fresh. I don’t know if it’s because in the 1980s heirloom tomatoes weren’t as prevalent as they are now or because my family pretty much stuck to Foodtown’s beefsteak variety, but I found any fresh tomato on our summer table to taste, well, boring. Even the celebrated Jersey tomato didn’t do it for me; it tasted like a wet gym sock.

Now I wait through bleak Novembers, raw Januaries and rainy Aprils for heirlooms, and I get them organically grown from Silverton Farms in Toms River.

Heirloom tomatoes are old varieties that didn’t make the homogenous cut for supermarket stocks. The ones you see there were bred to withstand the rigors of shipping and sitting on a shelf for days or even weeks. “Ripened” not by way of sun and time but by way of ethylene gas (yum, right?), let’s just say they weren’t bred for flavor.

The tomatoes on this page, on the other hand, are grown the way they always have been. No messing around with the natural order of things means their natural flavors and characters remain intact.

Silverton’s first batch is ready in July and the season continues through September. Variety and abundance are at their peak around now. They come in shades ranging from crimson and canary yellow to pink, dusky purple and even brown. They’re fragile, allowed to sun-ripen. And they taste the way they always have…for centuries. Pretty comforting, and pretty incredible.

These red ones below, ‘Juliet’, are shaped like plum tomatoes but are smaller and have an acidic, bright flavor that works well with almost any recipe you’ve got, from cooked down into sauces to cut up onto a pizza to chopped up into salads. Use these when you make panzanella, that glory of mid- to late summer.

Get out a big bowl, cut up day-old Italian semolina bread into 1-2″ pieces, sprinkle with cold water until somewhat tender, and put the pieces into the bowl. Add cucumbers, cut to about the same size (I cut out the seedy centers first), and white onion. Mix in salt and pepper, and add olive oil and red wine vinegar until it’s fairly well coated, even a bit saturated. Taste and see what it’s lacking. Fix. Last, rip up a handful of fresh basil leaves and throw that in. Toss and serve. It tastes even better the next day if you are lucky enough to have any left over.

The yellow guys below, ‘Sungold’, are cherry tomato-sized, candy-sweet like the berries they are, and are my favorites to use in a spicy pasta dish. I love a good paradox.

Heat up some water for your fettuccine in a stockpot, and while that’s coming to a boil, cut a quart or more of the Sungolds in half. Put them in a big, wide saucepan over medium heat. Add olive oil (extra credit if you can get a hold of some oil that’s had chilies steeped in it for awhile), salt, pepper, minced fresh garlic, and red pepper flakes, all to taste. In a little saucepan, heat some more olive oil until it’s crackling but not smoking. Then add a couple of handfuls of fresh bread crumbs, left over from any old bread. Stir it now and again until it’s golden and a bit crispy. Take it off the heat. Cook the pasta, drain it, and plunk it into the wide saucepan with all of the other goodies. Toss it together, then add a few torn fresh basil leaves. Load up a bowl for yourself with the pasta, then sprinkle some of the bread crumbs on top. Killer.

I admit with some shame that I don’t know the names of the varieties below. But I can tell you the best way to enjoy them.

Take two slices of white bread (even the lame squishy kind will do, although a denser white bread is best). Slather mayo on both slices, and sprinkle with salt and pepper.

Cut one of these voluptuous mamas into quarter-inch slices. Use a serrated knife to make it easier. Hold a slice up to the light. This is an essential step; you need to see exactly what a marvel of nature this is.

Layer one or two tomato slices onto the bread slices. Salt it, close it up, slice your sandwich in half, find yourself a soft chair in a very quiet part of the house, and chew slowly.

I promise you—it doesn’t get any better than that.

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