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Posts Tagged ‘nutmeg’

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I do love me a hot cross bun. The kind from the store are okay, but homemade ones are a totally different animal. A very cozy, awesome, affectionate animal. My recipe is from The Joy of Cooking*. It’s a milk bread spiced up with cinnamon and nutmeg and sweetened with a handful of raisins**.

Hot cross buns are very easy to make. I baked them one morning this past week—a wildly hectic week, quite frankly—and didn’t sweat it. Simple, fun, great payoff, kids (especially the little ‘uns) adore cooking…it got me to wondering why more people don’t bake them at home. I think part of it is yeast anxiety. True? Maybe we perceive ordinary things like sugar and eggs and flour as controllable. But we think of yeast as something with a mind of its own. It’s not the case. To an extent, every ingredient on Earth as well as several on Jupiter has a mind of its own. The way to work well with ingredients is to understand them. Don’t frazzle; just know that if you add a little sugar and warm water to yeast, it will grow and make a bread. That’s really it.

Here’s butter melting in a heavy pan. Lovely way to begin anything.

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Added dry ingredients and stirred with a fork until it becomes, below, what some recipes call ‘shaggy’. Post gratuitous Scooby-Doo references in the comments below.

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Once it came together, I added the raisins and kneaded it for a while until it became smooth and stretchy. Then I covered it with a dishtowel (with a piece of parchment underneath to keep it from sticking) and set it on my radiator (which was warm, but not hot, that day). Here’s how it looked after it rose.

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I punched it down (the English call it ‘knocking it down’) and let it rise again. Dumped it out onto a parchment-lined cookie sheet and pondered for an inordinate amount of time whether I wanted to make just one BIG bun. It’s tempting, right?

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Enjoys walks on the beach, candlelit dinners, and fantasies of world domination.

But nah.

Cut the dough into buns and brushed them with just milk. I was out of eggs, so I couldn’t make an egg wash (which is one egg mixed with milk or cream, to make the tops Saint-Tropez tan).

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Plain milk worked fine.

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I icing’ed one with powdered sugar that had a little milk stirred in and made a cross to salute tradition.

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And then I decorated the rest differently since I’m agnostic. Either way, they taste the same: fantastic.

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*The book’s 15 years old and the binding’s split and duct taped. Good thing we don’t all go to seed so early in life.

** I think it needs two handfuls, but that’s me.

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It’s high summer, so last week I jumped at the chance to make faithful reader Katerina’s beautiful jam recipes from her native Athens, Greece. With its average summer temperatures in the low 90s (F) and very little rainfall, local fruit has the chance to go all Greta Garbo on the vine or tree and just get sweeter by the day. People who are used to such luxuries know how best to enjoy them, so like a good girl I followed Katerina’s recipes to the letter.

First one, and here’s Katerina:

Melon Jam

I made this recipe because I found myself with lots of melons. I have done many attempts to find the best way of treating the fruits. Please have in mind that the taste of the jam depends on the variety of the fruit.

Melons (I use the ones of August – they have the best taste and aroma)*

Granulated sugar (depending on taste)

I do not give exact quantity of sugar since the fruits can be very sweet. The best approach I have found is to melt the fruits in a food processor and add sugar in small quantities, let it dissolve and taste the result. When satisfied, put the mixture of fruits and sugar in a heavy-bottomed saucepan and let it boil at medium temperature, stirring occasionally. Add 1 tablespoon of lemon juice per pint of jam. When thick, it is ready. Put it in sterilized jars, turn them upside down in order for them to be sealed, and during the winter you’ll have a taste of summer.

*

Me again. It’s true that you won’t know what the jam needs until you taste the fruit, and it can vary pretty widely. Melons are desert natives. Here in temperate NJ, if the summers are sunny and dry and Gobi-like, our local melons are better than a candy store. But if we get too much rain, they’ll taste like their cucumber cousins and depress the crap out of your peanut butter sandwich.

I used a really ripe, local, organic cantaloupe. If you can do the same, I heartily endorse it. Unless your supermarket carries local melons (and read the fine print on what they consider local; it still might be from 1,892 miles away), they just aren’t going to have the sweetness and character of fruits that were grown close by and allowed to ripen on the vine. Mine needed only a bit of sugar. I added some fresh grated nutmeg, too.** It cooked down to a luminous orange and tasted remarkably of pumpkin (another cousin). But it’s a more cheerful version of pumpkin, as pumpkin would taste after getting the top car on a Ferris Wheel and swinging it back and forth, much to the consternation of its little sister.

The next jam is even yummier. I make peach goo*** every summer, but loved the idea of adding stuff that hadn’t occurred to me.

Peach Jam with Ginger

700g. (about 1.5 lbs) peaches

500g. (about 1 cup)  granulated sugar

50g. (about 1.5 ounces) fresh ginger root

2 cinnamon sticks

1/2 tsp cloves

Juice of 1 small lemon

Wash fruit. Cut peaches into small pieces and crush them lightly with a fork. Peel and then grate the ginger on a coarse grater. Put the peaches and ginger in a saucepan with a thick bottom and sprinkle with sugar. Allow to soak in the juice until sugar is completely dissolved. Place the pot over high heat and add the spices and lemon juice. Allow to boil 5 minutes, stirring continuously with a wooden spoon and removing the foam from the surface. Lower heat and let boil for 3-4 minutes more. Remove the foam and cinnamon sticks and fill sterilized jars with the hot jam. Shut tight and push up the lids. Turn the jars upside down till the jam reaches room temperature.

*

At the tippy top of the post are the peaches I used. They’re local, ‘light spray’ (it’s hard to find an organic peach in NJ), and look the way peaches look when the farmer doesn’t fuss over them. Russeting and some marring is good. In my many years of picking and eating peaches, I can say with some authority that the ones that are a little rough around the edges will be sweeter. The difference in flavor is striking enough that last year I blogged about it here.

The peaches cook down to an mellow-tasting amber mixture, and the spicy hit of fresh ginger, then cloves and cinnamon, is surprisingly fun. I’ve been eating this stuff out of a Tupperware for the past week.

Both recipes are good on sandwiches, on toast, or on the fantastic bagels brought by your summer visitors from the city.  Bonus: They can be made after a day of fun at the beach, or dreariness at the office, or vice versa, allowing you to go all Greta Garbo—a perfectly acceptable way to be this time of year.

Thanks to Katerina Papaspiliopoulou 🙂

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Melon (cantaloupe) at top; peach ginger at bottom.

*Absolutely true, and in NJ,  September melons can be even better.

**Angie Wink, that one’s for you.

***Sometimes jam, sometimes compote, we had this discussion.

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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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I love pumpkin pie as much as the next chick, really I do. But October has this treat written all over it.

Cider syrup does not come in a jar or a bottle (not that I know of, anyway; and even if it was, this version is probably better just because it’s homemade in your own cute little cucina). You can cook it up in about 20 minutes, your house will smell incredible, and your family will think you’ve been sneaking away for private lessons with the Barefoot Contessa.

Take out a small saucepan and put in 1/2 c sugar, 2 tbsp cornstarch, 1/2 tsp cinnamon and 1/4 tsp nutmeg.* Mix it up.

Next add 2 c apple cider, and if you can get it with nothing added, all the better, because the flavor will be more intense.**

Add a couple of apples, peeled and sliced as thickly or as thinly as you like. Use different varieties, if you can get them. Any will do except maybe Macintosh, which tends to plotz in the pan. Hang onto those for applesauce.

Boil, stirring, for one minute. Take it off the heat and add a pat of butter for richness. Stir. Done.

The syrup should be goopy and gorgeously aromatic. It’s great hot over pancakes or waffles, which is how I grew up eating it (Dad would make pancakes with apples in the batter and then we’d spoon this stuff over it). Put a square of hot gingerbread or hot pumpkin bread in a shallow bowl and dump some of this, cold, on top, for breakfast, and you’ll feel like you have nothing to do all day but putter around the bed-and-breakfast wearing Ugg slippers and reading House Beautiful. Or do what I do: put the syrup in a Tupperware, stick it in the fridge until it gets good and cold, then take a spoon to it. Sometimes I feel guilty doing this, knowing full well how many other worthwhile ways I could be enjoying this, but it doesn’t last long.

I just bought little local, organic Bartlett pears from the farmers’ market and am going to try them in a riff off this recipe, with cardamom, my current obsession, substituted for the cinnamon, and pear brandy, steaming hot over vanilla ice cream.  Brown sugar instead of regular granulated sugar would be good too. Any other riffs you can think of? I’m all eyes.

*Saigon cinnamon, available in my local supermarket and possibly in yours, makes such a difference in pungency and fragrance that I don’t bother using any other kind of cinnamon in any of my baking. Same goes for using nutmeg in its original seed form. It’s about the size of a hazelnut, and again, can be found fairly easily. Just grab a cheese grater, or better, one of those neato microplane graters, and grate some right into your bowl. Don’t fret too much about measuring. Yes, you can use ordinary cinnamon and ground nutmeg and get decent results. But only decent.

** NJ shore residents: Don’t fool around and just head straight to Delicious Orchards.

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