Monday, May 22, 2017

Inspiring New Cookbook: My Kitchen in Rome

My Kitchen in Rome alongside artichoke a la Romana
I just finished reading Rachel Roddy's My Kitchen in Rome: Recipes and Notes on Italian Cooking, which was reviewed in the latest issue of Edward Behr's always-thoughtful The Art of Eating. Roddy is an Englishwoman who discovered Rome in the course of her travels in Italy, fell in love with the city and never left. This book is a love letter to Roman cooking, celebrating its humble simplicity, seasonality, focus on good local ingredients and tradition, as well as the people involved in the food business in her neighborhood, Testaccio, a working class quarter that seems to be gentrifying.

The book has lots of good classic recipes, of which I have tried a couple (more on this later), but I already have so many good Italian cookbooks (from Marcella Hazan, Lidia Bastianich, Mario Batali and many others) that few were new to me. No, the great virtue of My Kitchen in Rome is rather that it makes you want, desperately, to be there. Roddy writes beautifully and lovingly about food, but also about the place where she lives and the people who inhabit it, and he book is an inspiration to eat, cook and feel Italian, either with her recipes or others that you might have been using for years. An example of Roddy's elegant prose:
     Whereas the food of Sicily had thrilled me, the food of Rome tripped me up and then pulled me to my feet, charming me with its simplicity, certainty and bold flavors -- notably the primi, or first courses. A deep bowl of pasta e ceci scented with rosemary, spaghetti coated with a seductive creamy sauce that's nothing more than eggs, cheese, and cured pork; more spaghetti, glistening with olive oil, flecked with parsley and clams, and tasting indignantly of the sea; a plate of stout potato gnocchi, no bigger than acorns, topped with bright red sauce and a blizzard of pecorino cheese. I quickly realized I didn't just want to eat these dishes, I wanted to understand them. I wanted to make them.
Don't you want to run out and get some indignant spaghetti with white clam sauce?

One of the most interesting and inviting sections is on pasta soups: pasta e patate, pasta e lenticchie, pasta e fagioli, pasta e ceci and, finally, minestrone. A long explanation of "the big soup" is on point and useful, but again it is Roddy's gorgeous writing that seduces and inspires:
     When you get to the simmering, the heat should be low and the simmer tremulous, the kind that has you checking that the flame hasn't gone out because the pan looks so still, then you lift the lid, look closely, see that the surface is quivering and suddenly -- plop! -- a burp of a bubble breaks the surface of the soup, and you are reassured that all is well.
How can you not rush to the kitchen and make minestrone?

Carciofi alla romana
Ragù con le spuntature (pork rib ragù)
This is a cookbook,so what of the recipes? In general, they are somewhat sketchier than those to which I am accustomed. the ingredients and quantities are there (translated from metric so lots of odd measurement, but that's fine), but the techniques presuppose that the reader can cook. I made a dinner for my friend Cochonette, which started well with a plate of fava beans and pecorino, with a Negroni cocktail, both suggested by the book, while we waited for the trippa alla romana (Roman-style tripe) to cook. The beans and Negroni were lovely, but the tripe was a disaster. I followed directions, washing the tripe in hot water, then plunging it into boiling water "for a few minutes." Well, my few minutes was probably an hour short, and I more or less gave up on this dish after adding a half hour to the actual cooking time; even reheated and braised for another half hour, it did not reach the desired tenderness.

But tripe is a specialty thing, and I am no expert on tripe, so I chalked that up to my lack of experience and moved on.

I then invited my friends M and V for dinner, and made Roddy's carciofi alla romana (Roman-style artichokes), which strongly resemble those I have been making for years but in any event were a big hit, followed by her ragù con le spuntature (pork rib ragù) served over (unfortunately pasty store-bought) gnocchi. This sauce, which consists of onion, pork ribs, canned tomatoes and salt and pepper -- no garlic, rosemary, red peppers -- was wonderfully clean and complex, the pork mingling with the tomatoes to produce an unexpected symphony of flavors.

The book contains many other recipes that I plan to make, in various categories, although I would generally compare hers to my many other versions to see whether Roddy's diligent approach results in the most authentic recipes or ones that add to the already extensive literature. Surely she has a feel for Rome, so I am optimistic.

This should not be your first Italian cookbook, or even your third, but it certainly deserves a place on my shelf. More important, having read it, I WANT TO GO TO ROME!

Bobby Jay

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Syrian Cooking Lesson

Phyllo spinach triangles
One of my great joys is learning about the different cuisines and related food cultures in this world. I do this reading lots of cookbooks and by taking lessons at good cooking schools in Paris and New York. I enjoy getting to know different cultures by studying (and eating and cooking) their amazingly varied cuisines.

Last week I went with my friend Cochonette to an excellent cooking lesson on Syrian cooking at ICE Institute for Culinary Education, now located way downtown just across the street from the Freedom Tower. The teacher was Jennifer Abadi, who introduced me to Persian cooking at a lesson four years ago and kind of got me started on Middle Eastern Food. Jennifer is of Syrian Jewish heritage, and has written a wonderful book, A Fistful of Lentils: Syrian-Jewish Recipes from Grandma Fritzie's Kitchen, and maintains a very interesting blog on related culinary matters, Too Good to Passover. I have used many recipes from both, and correspond with Jennifer from time to time.

The title of the lesson was "A Fistful of Lentils," and all the dishes we made were from recipes in the book. All were delicious and none was technically difficult, although we had to rush to make the many dishes covered by the lesson.

Jennifer started with an interesting explanation of Syrian (particularly Jewish) food culture and history, placing it into geographical context, and including the migration of Syrian Jews to America in the early 20th century. Then we cooked seven dishes, which I will describe in the order of a meal. We started with a series of maaze (small plates) (this and all references will use the Syrian spelling, although there are many variations in the region). First up was baba ganush:

Baba ganush
Next was im'warah b'sbanech (phyllo spinach triangles), made with no cheese or meat, and smaller and more delicate than the Turkish and Greek varieties. See picture above.

And cheeyar b'bandoorah sa'lata (chopped cucumber and tomato salad with dried mint) (no photo) that was pretty much what you'd find in a Turkish restaurant.

There followed two main courses. The first, kibbeh fil seeniyah b'lah'meh (meat-filled pie), is the cake-shaped version of kibbeh, balls of meat stuffed into a thin meat crust, that are ubiquitous in Middle Eastern cuisine. It has the bonus of being much much easier to prepare than kibbeh balls, which are notoriously difficult. (For a wonderful digression on the mystique surrounding great kibbeh, see Claudia Roden's encyclopedic The New Book of Middle Eastern Food.)

Meat-filled bulgur pie
The other main dish was kibbeh m'geraz (meatballs and sour cherries), which showcased the Syrians' love for tart and sweet, very different from the Italians' agrodolce or the sweet and sour cabbage cooked by the Eastern European Jews . . .

Meatballs and cherries - my photo doesn't do it justice
. . .  accompanied by m'jedrah (rice with lentils) with yogurt-mint dressing: simple but delicious.

Rice with lentils
Finally, the pièce de résistance: knaffeh (shredded phyllo-ricotta pie), a  light, heavenly rose water-infused filling in a two-crust pie made with kataifi, shredded phyllo and covered with rose water syrup and chopped pistachios. I can't wait to have people to dinner to share this fabulous dessert, which has the subtle sweetness of an Italian cheesecake with a taste straight out of the Arabian Nights. In the word(s) of a late friend, FA-BU-LOUS!

Shredded phyllo-ricotta- pie
Get A Fistful of Lentils and try Syrian Jewish cuisine. Now.

Bobby Jay

Friday, April 21, 2017

How to Make Great Chicken Stock

One of the main reasons that my food tastes better than it used to is that I use homemade chicken stock rather than store-bought. The collagen-rich stock adds richness and body to pan sauces and soups and generally raises the level of the underlying dish perceptibly.

I use a pressure cooker and you should, too. But my recipe works without it. Either way, it takes just five minutes to get the ingredients in the pot and little maintenance thereafter (none if you use a pressure cooker).

Chicken stock ingredients in pressure cooker - before and after cooking

Bobby Jay's Chicken Stock

I have a million recipes for chicken stock, but here's what I do:

Ingredients (you don't have to be very precise about any of these):
  • 2 1/2 lbs of chicken backs, 1 1/4 lbs of chicken feet (it's REALLY better if you can get feet, but otherwise use wings - much more expensive and a lot less collagen)
  • 1 medium onion, quartered (I like to keep the peel on, which gives a darker stock, but you can peel)
  • parsley (most importantly the stems, but I use the leaves, too) - about 10-15 stems
  • 1/4-1/2 tsp of black peppercorns
  • 1 or 2 whole cloves
  • A couple of medium carrots, cut into medium pieces
  • A couple of stalks of celery cut into medium pieces

Put everything into a pressure cooker, then cover with water. If you don't have a pressure cooker, use a big pot. Bring to a boil under pressure (or not, in which case you need to skim the impurities as the chicken comes to a boil), then cook at pressure for about 45 minutes or simmer slowly for a couple of hours -- three is even better -- making sure the chicken stays covered. You can also put it all into a slow cooker and leave it all day on low, but I prefer the pressure cooker.
NOTE: I don't use garlic or salt. which most recipes call for. I prefer to do that when making the dish in which the stock is used.

When done, strain, then reduce by 1/3. Let cool overnight, then take the fat off the top and discard (or use for schmaltz, if you're into it). 

Chilled stock with fat layer on, then removed, showing gelatinous stock
Next, put the stock into 1/3 cup muffin pans (I use silicone), and freeze. If you've done this right and uused chicken feet, this will have a gelatinous consistency.

Stock in 1/3 cup muffin pans
Store the 1/3 cup stock disks in a big (2-gallon if you can find them) ziploc bag for future use.
Frozen 1/3-cup chicken stock disks
To use, add enough water per disk to get to 1/2 cup, so 2 disks = 1 cup of very rich stock. You don't have to reduce, but my muffin tins are 1/3 cup so it fits if reduced by 1/3. If you have different units to freeze in, adjust accordingly. You probably will have about 18 disks, i.e. 6 cups of frozen stock, or 9 cups of stock once diluted. 

You can also freeze the cooled stock (reduced or not) in freezer grade ziploc bags. Put a cup or two into a quart bag, then gently squeeze out as much air as possible and lay on its side in the freezer.
Homemade stock is so precious that when I am making a recipe that calls for a huge amount of it, such as chicken soup or chicken in the pot, I use homemade stock for half and Swanson's for the remaining half. Totally fine.
Of course, you don't have to reduce or freeze the stock at all. You can use it right away or store it in the fridge for a few days. You're going to boil it anyway when you use it.

Dark stock option: if you want a dark stock, you can roast the bones, carrots, onions and celery in a hot over for an hour or so and then use all (adding the parsley, pepper and cloves) as above. It will be less gelatinous but have stronger taste. I generally don't do this for chicken, but do for turkey stock.

Try it. But seriously, get a pressure cooker; it makes your stock better and faster, and lots of other things, too. And today's pressure cookers are totally safe, despite what your grandmother may have said.

Bobby Jay

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Passover 2017 -- Still Mostly Sephardic

Once you have a successful formula for a traditional meal, be it Thanksgiving or the Passover Seder, you don't want to mess with it too much, because people expect and, hopefully, hope to find last year's favorites this year. So my seder this year was a lot like last years's with changes here and there.

Thus, the great bulk of the seder consisted of Sephardic/Mediterranean dishes from a large array of countries: Syria, Morocco, France, Italy, Iran,  Israel and Greece, As usual, the main exception was my sister-in-law's stupendous matzoh ball soup, returning to the table after an enforced absence due to illness in 2016.

We started with my go-to Burnt Eggplant with Tahini, from Yotam Ottolenghi's Plenty, always a crowd pleaser. This year I added the optional bits of fresh cucumber, which added texture but also mellowed out the bitterness of the tahini.

Burnt eggplant with tahini, pomegranate seeds and endive leaves
Another old favorite that had not been on recent year's rotation was Jacques Pépin's tapendade, made with a mixture of oil cured and Kalamata olives, presented with pain azyme (the fancy French name for matzoh).
There would have been a mutiny if I hand't served Mario Batali's Lemon-Scented Veal Meatballs, which I made with matzoh flour instead of white bread for the panade binder.
Lemon-scented veal meatballs

Another dish returning to the hors d'oeuvre portion of the evening was my very own creation: a spread made with smoked ricotta (you can use plain, with or without a little liquid smoke, if you can't find it), sun-dried tomatoes and lots of lemon zest, thinned with yogurt and olive oil to a smooth texture, with a little crushed red pepper thrown in.

Smoked ricotta, sun-dried tomato and lemon zest spread
As usual, the fifth appetizer was a concession to the Eastern European tradition: bites of gefilte fish procured from Citarella and served with homemade, head-exploding horseradish made by my mother-in-law. I just love this.
Gefilte fish bites with homemade horseradish
Also prepared for the cocktail hour: the iconic Bar Nuts from the Union Square Cafe Cookbook, mixed notes roasted and mixed with a spicy rosemary butter blend.

For the dinner, I made he best-looking hard-boiled eggs I have ever made, served over a dollop of spinach cooked for hours with red onions. Inspired by a recipe originally from Corfu in Greece that is in Joan Nathan's new book King Solomon's Table, which I haven't read (although a different one of her books is a source of the Bordeaux Style Haroset described below).

Hard-boiled eggs on spinach
Next came Heidi's matzoh ball soup that warms the heart and screams PASSOVER!

Heidi's great matzoh ball so
There followed Dja'jeh Zetoon b'Limoneh (Syrian Chicken with Lemon and Olives) and a Moroccan Lamb Tagine, made by Cousin Vicki from a recipe that I got at a cooking class in Paris: sweet and beautifully spiced. These dishes, which reprised our 2015 Seder, were supplemented by Iranian caramelized fennel from Sirocco, by Sabrina Ghayour (the fennel looked great but was horribly undercooked, not to make again).
wise from front: Persian rice, caramelized fennel, lamb tagine, Syrian chicken

My absolute favorite Seder dish, and the reason I started cooking Sephardic food for Passover, is Persian Rice, which is famous for its tahdig crust, which I learned to make at an Iranian cooking lesson. It is impressive but not really difficult if you know how.

Persian rice with crunchy tahdig, with fava bean and dill salad
One of the highlights any Seder, for me at least, is haroset, a fruit and nut spread that is symbolic of the mortar used by the Jews in Egypt to make bricks for Pharaoh, eaten as the famous "Hillel Sandwich" with bitter horseradish on matzoh and thereafter just eaten on matzoh because it tastes so good. This year I made two varieties, as I did last year: first, Joan Nathan's Bordeaux Style Haroset from Quiches, Kugels and Couscous: My Search for Jewish Cuisine in France, which I have used for several years. Second, Syrian Haroset from an on-line recipe by Jennifer Abadi, a wonderful confection of tart Turkish dried apricots, lemon juice, orange flower water and chopped pistachios.

Bordeaux Style haroset
Syrian haroseet with pistachios
For dessert, as with last year, my go-to Blueberry (and Raspberry) Tart from Food52 Genius Recipes, with alterations. I used Clotilde Dusoulier's pâte sablée made with gluten-free (and hence wheat-free) flour (Bob's Red Mill Gluten-Free 1:1 Baking Flour) and I used potato starch in lieu of cornstarch (not Kosher for Passover) for the filling. A success, although the crust was not quite as crispy as the conventional wheat-based variety. Still, you can make a pretty good gluten-free tart for your friends who can't or just don't eat wheat.

Blueberry and raspberry tart 
Finally, for my ginger-loving mother, Fresh Ginger Cake from David Lebovitz' Ready for Dessert, adopted for Passover by using matzoh flour, served with crème fra îche. Another repeat from 2016.
Ginger molasses cake 
Well, not quite finally. At the last moment, I decided to make coconut macaroons, and used the interesting recipe found in Food52 Genius Recipes, which uses coconut chips in lieu of shredded coconut, resulting in an interesting craggy appearance and texture.
Macaroons, some with chocolate, and closeup
And that was it! At least until next year.

Happy Passover!

Bobby Jay

For convenience, here is a list of the sources for the dishes that made up the meal.

  • Burnt eggplant with tahini and pomegranate seeds: Yotam Ottolenghi, Plenty.
  • Tapenade: Jacques Pépin, Essential Pépin.
  • Lemon scented veal meatballs: Mario Batali, Food Network. Caution: the recipe calls for 4 lemons; 2 are more than enough.
  • Bar Nuts: Michael Romano, The Union Square Cafe Cookbook.
  • Bordeaux style haroset: Joan Nathan, Quiches, Kugels and Couscous: My Search for Jewish Cooking in France.
  • Syrian style haroset: Jennifer Abadi, blog Too Good to Passover.
  • Dja'je zetoon b'limoneh (chicken with lemon and olives): Jennifer Abadi, A Fistful of Lentils. 
  • Persian rice, Cooking lesson by Jennifer Abadi, favas from Louisa Shafia, The New Persian Kitchen
  • Caramelized Fennel: Sabrina Ghayour, Sirocco.
  • Fresh ginger cake, David Lebovitz, Ready for Dessert.
  •  Blueberry tart: Kristen Miglore, ed., Food52 Genius Recipes.
  •  Coconut Macaroons: Kristen Migliore, ed., Food52 Genius Recipes

Monday, March 27, 2017

Paris - A Week of Food

Pleurotte omelet
I recently spent nine days in Paris, without Joan or Sylvie, to do various things: check on renovations of our kitchen and bathroom, attend the annual shareholders' meeting of our building and attend the opening of Jeffrey Horvitz's marvelous show of 18th century French drawings at the Petit Palais and, the cherry on the sundae, to attend the ceremony in which Jeffrey was named a chevalier of the Légion d'Honneur.

When I am alone in Paris, I seldom go to great restaurants, preferring to save that pleasure for sharing with Joan. Instead, I cook simple things at home, taking advantage of the great products that are available, and go to simple restaurants.

The day of my arrival, I made a pleurotte omelet with grated two-year old comté. But even before dinner, I took a walk on the Île Saint-Louis and got a bitter chocolate sorbet with pine nut praline ice cream at Berthillon.

Berthillon's bitter chocolate sorbet and pine nut praline ice cream
The next day, I went with a friend to the well-know brasseerie le Stella, in the 16th arraondissement, where I had a perfect steak tartare. This dish is generally served with capers, onions, mustard, worcestershire sauce and, sometimes, hot sauce on the side, which you mix in to taste. (Usually I mix in a lot of everything.) Le Stella serves theirs with everything already in, all chopped extremely fine so the texture is silken and uniform, and the seasoning is perfect!

Steak tartare at le Stella
During our last trip to Paris, we had fantastic bread at Restaurant H, and asked where they got it. The answer was Ernest et Valentin, quite far to the East of our apartment. This time I walked there (whew!) and admired the flans and other things in the window, and bought a piece of the flan, a croissant and some whole wheat bread. All were quite delicious, and I was not surprised to learn that they were voted the best bakery in Île de France by M6, a television chain, in 2016.

Flan at Ernest et Valentin
Croissant, bread and flan from Ernest et Valentin
On my third night, I made one of my go-to Parisian dinners, truffled boudin blanc with Puy lentls. Always a treat, and I got to break in my new induction cooktop and electric broiler.

Boudin blanc truffé aux lentilles
Sunday, I made quesadillas with some lovely speck and a melange of comté and emmenthal cheeses on Lebanese flatbread. On day five, I ate at an excellent small Thai place about five minutes away, and enjoyed my usual: the very spicy Tom Yang soup with shrimp and duck breast with green curry.

The next day, lunch consisted of a wonderful pork cheek stew that I made at a cooking lesson the day before; the meat was the tenderest pork I have ever eaten and the taste was rich and complex due to the mixture with assorted vegetables. Later, after attending the opening of the very impressive Salon de Dessin at the Bourse, I joined Jeffrey and a group for dinner at the nearby classic Bistrot de l'Opéra Comique, where for some reason they didn't like me and kept forgetting my orders. The food was fine, however, when it finally arrived, and a good time was had by all.

Day seven saw Jeffrey's induction into the Légion d'Honneur in a dignified ceremony at the resplendent Quai d'Orsay, after which I went to my favorite oyster bar at Garnier, near Gare St-Lazare, for the assorted oyster platter and some bulots.

The next day was the shareholders' meeting mentioned above, after which I joined the president of the board of our building and her husband and daugher at Chez Margot, a nice bistro about 100 meters away, where their son is a waiter. Very nice moules marinière.

Chez Margot
My last night was spent with friends at their home, where we dined on dos de cabillaud, a very popular French dish. Cabillaud means cod but it is not at all like our cod. I brought what turned out to be a very tasty pork terrine that I had made earlier in the week at the cooking class referred to above. Prodigious amounts of wine were consumed in accompaniment of this lovely meal.

Not a week of showstoppers, but lots of good eats nonetheless. It's Paris after all.

Bobby Jay

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Chocolate Babka

This was the month of chocolate babka.
Chocolate babkas cooling in baking pans
Inspired by my success making challah from Uri Scheft's Breaking Breads, I decided to try making Scheft's chocolate babka. His babka, available at Breads Bakery, is credited with starting a babka craze.

Sheft presents two kinds of babka dough: basic and advanced. I used basic, which is a fairly simple to make yeast dough, which is turned into babka after resting a day in the fridge. Advanced, which is what Sheft uses at Breads Bakery, is a laminated dough, made by folding butter into the basic dough - using the same method as one uses to make puff pastry or croissants - and then waiting a further 24 hours. I'm sure the advanced makes a better (flakier and even richer) babka, but the one made with the basic dough is utterly fantastic.

Once you have the dough, you roll it out and then spread a pound (literally!) of Nutella and a third of a pound of chocolate chips on top, then roll it into a long cylinder, cut that into four pieces and braid them together, making two loaves. A three-hour rise in two bread pans and you are good to go.

Close-up of chocolate babka
Chocolate babka interior
I made chocolate babka twice, once to give a loaf to an ailing friend, and the second time for Joan to sserve to clients at  her Japanese art gallery. An unqualified hit each time!

Now I am faced with a dilemma: for my next project, should I go for broke and try the advanced dough, or try a cinnamon raisin-walnut or a rum raisin and cheese babka next? I will probably go for the advanced, just because the challenge is irresistible. I'll report back either way.

Bobby Jay

Monday, February 20, 2017

Valentine's Day at Home

Joan and I are never home for Valentine's Day, but this year we were. So I decided to make a special romantic meal for the two of us, incorporating some luxury ingredients that I don't use every day.

We started with slices of foie gras from Comptesse du Barry, from a can but still delicious, served on toasts from my recent challah efforts. Traditionally brioche toast is used, but challah, though a bit less rich, is pretty similar. Served with Champagne Gosset Brut Grand Reserve.

For the appetizer, tiny Nantucket Bay scallops sauteed on skewers and glazed with a sauce of soy sauce, white pepper and red wine vinegar, courtesy of the great Joël Robuchon (from Simply French, written by Patricia Wells). Served with a simple salad of micro greens from the Sunday farmer's market behind the Museum of Natural History, dressed with a thinned version of the same glaze.

Then a simplified version of poulet en demi-deuil (chicken in mourning), so named because a layer of black truffles cooked under the skin is thought to resemble a widow's mourning dress. Buttered and roasted in foil with a little cognac and Madeira in the cavity. Not as truffly as you might expect, but delicious and succulent in any case; a simple cooking method that I might try again. Served with buttered egg noodles and sauteed asparagus wrapped in prosciutto. A nice Côte-Rôtie Brune-et-Blonde de Guigal1999 accompanied the main course.

Truffled roast chicken, egg noodles and prosciutto wrapped asparagus
Finally, a decadent chocolate dessert -- Rose Levy Beranbaum's Choccolate Oblivion Torte, made with only three ingredients; Schaffenberger's 62% chocolate, eggs and butter. No flour, no sugar. Instead of cutting wedges I cut out rounds with a heated cookie cutter. Served with crème fraîche, raspberry sauce and raspberries. A pretty presentation, including the red notes appropriate to Valentine's Day.

Rose Levy Beranbaum's Chocolate Oblivion Torte
I hope you, too, had a happy Valentine's Day, no matter what you were doing or eating.

Bobby Jay

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Changing Bread Gears -- The Challah Chronicles

A slice of challah from Breaking Breads recipe
 I have been having fun for a number of years baking country style breads. First, Jim Lahey's no-knead bread, as taught at length in his My Bread, then Chad Robertson's, as taught in his Tartine Bread and Tartine Book No. 3. Lahey's bread uses 1/4 teaspoon of yeast per loaf, abnd relies on a long, slow (12-18 hour) rise to get the necessary gluten development. Robertson's uses natural leavain starter instead of yeast. Lahey's is easy and produces excellent bread: Robertson's is hard, but produces a loaf of great complexity and interest, worth the trouble.

Recently I read Molly on the Range, in which Molly Yeh, who is half Jewish and half Chinese, has a number of challah recipes, and determined to make one or more of them. Then Molly recently said on her blog, My Name Is Yeh that she had encountered the challah made by Uri Scheft, owner of Lehanim Bakery in Tel Aviv and Breads Bakery in New York City, and concluded: "it was the best challah ever and i swore off my own challah recipe. byeeeee."

Enough said. I bought Scheft's newly released Breaking Breads, and set off to make challah his way. Here is my first effort, topped with a mixture of nigella, poppy and sesame seeds:

Challah from Breaking Breads recipe
Not bad looking, but I did not use enough egg wash so the loaves did not shine they way they should have. More important, although the taste was fine, the texture was not quite right, a bit dry and not the "very tender bread that pulls apart in cottony strands" that Scheft describes. I made the loaves with butter instead of oil, which is traditional because challah is generally eaten with meat dishes and dairy and meat don't go together in Kosher tradition. While Scheft says using butter makes for a richer and more tender loaf, I wonder whether that choice was wise. Even good European style butter has about 16% water, so using the same weight of butter as oil results in less oil in the bread. I determined to use oil next time.

Today I tried again changing two things. First, I put a heavier coating of egg wash atop the bread, and yes, it was shinier, although I have room to improve on that score. A side benefit of a heavier coating of egg was that more seeds adhered to the surface.
Challah from Breaking Breads recipe - second try
My second change was to use grape seed oil instead of butter, which, as I had guessed, resulted in a delicate and tender crumb.

Challah from Breaking Breads recipe - second try: crumb
Scheft's challah tastes great and keeps well if stored in a plastic bag with the cut end covered. And compared to Robertson's natural leavain bread, which requires daily feeding of your starter and 22 hours once you decide to make the bread, its simplicity itself. Less than three hours from start to finish.

Scheft's book has many variations on challah, then an extensive chapter on babka, many exotic flatbread techniques, etc. Lots to think about and try. In the meantime, more challah is definitely in the picture.

Bobby Jay

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Dark Chocoolate and Coconut Macarons

Chocolate coconut macarons
Each year J is an exhibitor at New York's Winter Antiques Show, one of the best art and antiques shows in New York, and I have a tradition of supplying macarons for her to share with clients and fellow dealers.

Inspired by our flavor discovery at the renowned Berthillon, on the Île Saint-Louis -- sorbert cacao amer with glace noix de coco -- I set out to make chocolate coconut macarons this year. I found two credible recipes in my cookbook collection, one by Pierre Hermé, the king of macarons, and the other by the excellent pâtissier Christophe Felder. The problem with both was that they used milk chocolate, which J does not like. While I sensed that milk chocolate might be better in theory, the way hazelnut gianduja is better with milk chocolate, I decided to stick with dark. But not too dark: I used Ghirardelli's 60% baking bar to avoid the potential clash between the bitterness of very dark chocolate with the gentle sweetness of the coconut. Also, the texture of very bitter chocolate when melted is not as smooth as that of more moderate choices.

Macaron shells are made by folding a soft meringue into a mixture of confectioner's sugar and powdered almonds. The meringue may be French style, made by mixing granulated sugar into egg whites as they get whipped to soft peaks, or Italian style, made by mixing hot sugar syrup into the egg whites and whipping until the whites cool down. Italian meringue is much harder to make but results in a meringue that has a denser texture and is more forgiving to cook with. So I went with Pierre Herme's Italian  meringue mixed with unsweetened coconut flakes and, to my amazement, it came out perfectly.

Uncooked coconut topped macaron shells
Baked macaaron shells, interior
Baked macaron shells, tops
 For the filling I made Pierre's chocolate coconut ganache, using the aforesaid 60% chocolate and this, too, came out well. But this was no surprise, since a ganache is very easy to make.

There remained only the assembly, making little chocolate ganache sandwiches with still more coconut flakes sprinkled on top, and then a couple of days in the fridge. This improves the texture dramatically, and two days later they were perfect. Here's a nice one:

Chocolate covered macaron
Technically, they were the best I have ever made, by far, as attested by a number of my "customers." Personally, though, I would have preferred an even darker chocolate ganache made without coconut in order to recapture the satisfying chocolate hit that I remembered from Berthillon.

Next time I hope to reach chocolate coconut macaron Nirvana!

Bobby Jay