World on a Plate

Exploring culture. One plate at a time.

Month: November, 2006

Jack o’ All Squashes


When is a pumpkin a pumpkin and when is it not?  Or are they the same?  Pim wondered aloud here and as she prepared a beautiful French fall soup with potimarron.  Curiosity got the better of me (as it often does) as it seems that there are so many new varieties at the markets these days.

Part of the confusion can be cleared up with the definition, pumpkin really only means "large hard-skinned squash."  Beyond this the meaning is mostly arrived at by cultural usage of the term.  What is considered a pumpkin changes as you travel around the globe and also regionally. Here in the U.S. pumpkin typically refers to the rounded orange squash of any size that is carved for Halloween or pureed for Thanksgiving pie.  Bottom line…pumpkins are a type of winter squash.

I then began to wonder about the difference between summer and winter squashes.  After looking through a few gardening books,  I learned that summer squashes are eaten when the fruit is immature and the skin tender. On the other hand, winter squashes are allowed to mature. Usually these varieties are baked, as their flesh is typically hard and mild in flavor. 

Pumpkins are in the cucurbita family which includes squash and cucumbers. While there are many species of squash for this investigation we’ll need to just leave that to the gardeners to sort out.  As a general rule the home chef can usually swap one for the other in recipes.   The chestnut-flavored potimarron Pim uses in her soup originated in China and is now widely used throughout France.  It’s also known elsewhere as the Hokkaido squash.  Its skin is soft enough that it is doesn’t need to be peeled.

Calabaza or Cuban Squash, Caribbean pumpkin or West Indian Pumpkin is raised in warmer climates and can be found year round.  It can be found freshly chopped and packaged in Latin markets as it is very difficult to chop. It is a central part of the of the Latin American diet.

Another commonly found squash variety is Kabocha, this is the Japanese word for squash which falls into the buttercup squash category.  Many recipes I found while researching, call for taking the typically dark green,  five pound-ish squash and removing the top to reveal the bright orange flesh, cleaning out the seeds and stuffing and baking  it with a mix of ground meat, onions, seasonings and dressing with grated cheese. Often in Japanese restaurants you’ll find this as tempura.

Living solo, I like the Delicata or sweet potato squash. This type runs about 3 inches wide and 8 inches long with thin green stripes running lengthwise. It’s size is perfect for one and ideal for baking or stuffing.

Back to the pumpkin.  Although native to the Americas, it has traveled around the world to become a staple in dishes as diverse as Asian porridge, East Indian curries, and Italian ravioli.  Today it is grown everywhere but Antartica. Early settlers of New England made pumpkin pie by filling a hollowed shell with milk, honey, and spices, and baking until done. Ninety-nine per cent of pumpkins are used for decoration. Which means that most of us reach for the can of pumpkin puree for our pies, breads and soups. The largest processor of pumpkins is Libby.  And while there is an unsubstantiated Internet rumour that canned pumpkin puree is really butternut squash according to the company their canned puree is made from Dickinson pumpkin, a sugar-pie variety. 

Cooking Guidelines

One pound of winter squash yields about 2 cups of cooked, mashed squash.

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Per Se – 10.22.06

Tasting of Vegetables


white wine poached bartlett pear with anise-hyssop leaves


glazed cipollini & pearl onions, young leeks, valencia orange "supremes" & "petite" mache  with "sauce malaise"


butternut squash "millefeuille," "Panade aux quatre epices," brussels sprouts,

crispy sage & pomegranate reduction


"confit of violet and globe artichokes, rainbow swiss chard ribs and nicoise olive "crouton" with armando manni "per me" extra virgin olive oil 2005 & aged balsamic vinegar


sunchoke "flan,"  Sunchoke "Chips and field mizuna


"mezzi rigatoni" with cabot creamery’s aged cheddar, black winter truffles and "brioche" breadcrumbs


k&j orchard’s Chestnut "puree," golden purslane and chestnut-scented honey


pumpkin "genoise" and custard with "gelee d’apfel cvee et confit de pommes"


cream cheese icing, indonesian cinnamon ice cream, candied pecans and black raisin "coulis"



Gaja, Rossj – Bass, Piedmont, Langhe, 2005

Clos du Bourg, Vouvray, 2000

Paul Hobbs, Pinot Noir, Russian River, 2004


Dining Notes: Dinner was with the King & Queen of Haute Cuisine, The Carters. It was our final dining experience and came after the close of the Gourmet Institute.  It was our way of celebrating a friendship that was born over Oaxacan street food and continues over 20-year old Balsamic vinegar.  As I wrote this up I am thinking that my, oh my aren’t there a lot of quotes on this menu everything is special and elevated and quite exceptionally elegant.  And yes, yes I did the vegetable tasting. There was just moreon that selection that fit my leanings and palate. I was not disappointed in any way. Also I had the best gin & tonic–Plymouth gin with house-made tonic.  Also not to mention the two kinds of butter–salted from a small dairy in Vermont and unsalted Strauss Dairy butter that accompanied the breads–the pretzel roll (which seems to be the pervasive choice in Manhattan these days) was–would be overlooking a detail.

Also, we received a tour of the pristine kitchen, so quiet, so ordered. The flat screen TV provided a window into dinner prepartions in Napa. Everyone in the kitchen was focused but calm. It was all very Zen. Chef Kellher, attended the Gourmet Institute that afternoon put was jetting off to Germany to accept an award.

Seriously, as the many calls I made attested, "if I died in my sleep that night I knew that I had experienced one of the best meals of my entire life.


The Baker’s Passport – Japan


Oh, where to start, in the past or in the present! At times during the development of this writing I became excited, enchanted and entangled in the world of Japanese desserts. From wagashi to mochi. So if I don’t just start we’ll get nowhere and we’ll begin with today.  In researching this article, I learned that in the strict sense of Japanese tradition, there is no sweet course to a meal. It ends with rice, pickles and tea. Sweets are regulated and very sparingly, as an partner to tea. However the country does have another informal meal called oyatsu that commonly occurs at 3pm everyday.  Oyatsu consists of a drink, tea for adults and milk or a soft drink for the young ones, accompanied by a sweet or savory snack.

Pocky Some of my favorite Japanese snacks are Pocky, slim biscuit sticks with one end coated in chocolate.  There are many other flavors such as sesame, green tea and a dark chocolate one called Men’s.  I’ve yet to figure out why that is.  A savory compliment to a cocktail wasabi green peas are a great alternative at your next party! And of course there’s that late 20th creation mochi ice cream. These confection spheres are about as big as a ping pong ball with an outer rice shell surrounding ice cream.   And as recently as last week Japanese desserts are growing trend inNew York where Kyotofu opened last week offering Japanese-inspired Western-focused desserts such as  black sesame sweet tofu, warm chestnut mochi chocolate cake and sansho-pepper tofu cheesecake.

Kasutera, simple sponge cake, a popular specialty of Nagasaki.  Originally from Castilla region of Spain many cakes were brought to the country by Portugese missionaries through the port of Nagasaki during the 16th century.  According to history this cake was able to be preserved for a long time. In the Edo era, it was a sweet that was precious and was served for the envoys from Korea.  Over time the recipe was adapted to fit to the Japanese palate.

Today this sponge cake can be found at festivals, from street vendors and in local markets. It’s a treat and a special commercial jingle sung by bears.

Kasutera is traditionally made of simple natural ingredients with the essence of honey as the most common. However, today there are many variations – – powdered green tea, cocoa, and brown sugar. A good pan de castilla is moist, has a very fine texture, and is very light. It should have a dark brown and sugary top and bottom – the sides are usually cut off, exposing the yellow crumb.



Pan de Castilla

Cooking for the American Table" by Susan Fuller Slack

1 cup plus 1 tablespoon granulated sugar
1/4 cup honey
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon orange extract
1/4 teaspoon salt
7 large eggs, separated
1 cup cake flour, sifted
1/8 teaspoon cream of tartar
1 tablespoon green tea powder or unsweetened cocoa powder*

(optional-if using omit the orange extract)

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Use parchment to line the bottom of a 10-inch tube pan, preferably with a removable bottom or 2 (8 x 4-inch) loaf pans. Grease the parchment. In a large bowl, whisk 1 cup sugar, honey, vanilla,  orange extract, and salt into egg yolks. Place bowl in a large pan of hot water. With an electric mixer, beat about 5 minutes on medium-high speed until pale yellow and doubled in volume. Gently fold in sifted flour.

Using clean dry beaters beat the egg whites in a large bowl on low speed 1 minute, increasing speed to medium-high. When foamy, sprinkle in 1 tablespoon sugar and cream of tartar. Beat until stiff but not dry. With a spatula, fold the egg whites in three steps. Pour batter into pan. Tap gently on the counter to remove air bubbles.

Bake on middle rack of oven 35-45 minutes or until golden brown.  Signs that the cake is near done will be the sides of the cake pulling away from the pan slightly; the top will be flat and will feel spongy when pressed with finger.   Remove from oven and cool 20 minutes. Carefully run a small knife between the edge of the cake and pan. Turn over pan and gently remove from pan. Remove parchment paper and cool completely. Serve or store airtight.

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The Health Food Diner

No sprouted wheat and soya shoots
And Brussels in a cake,
Carrot straw and spinach raw,
(Today, I need a steak).

Not thick brown rice and rice pilaw
Or mushrooms creamed on toast,
Turnips mashed and parsnips hashed,
(I’m dreaming of a roast).

Health-food folks around the world
Are thinned by anxious zeal,
They look for help in seafood kelp
(I count on breaded veal).

No smoking signs, raw mustard greens,
Zucchini by the ton,
Uncooked kale and bodies frail
Are sure to make me run


Loins of pork and chicken thighs
And standing rib, so prime,
Pork chops brown and fresh ground round
(I crave them all the time).

Irish stews and boiled corned beef
and hot dogs by the scores,
or any place that saves a space
For smoking carnivores.

Maya Angelou

Día de Los Muertos


This is now the annual post for this holiday.   The image is one I took during a trip to Oaxaca during this festival period three years ago.  These handmade items are ornaments for the ritual bread made during this time. It’s also the most requested image via Google Images. I’m certain that my photograph is being re-appropriated from here to Mexico.  Good spirit karma, perhaps.

Last year during my two week visit to Oaxaca for Día de Los Muertos the aroma of sweet bread gently woke me during my stay in Oaxaca City. The inn’s neighbor was one of the largest family bakeries specializing in pan de muertos.

Día de Los Muertos, the Day of the Dead, is celebrated throughout Mexico on Nov. 1st and 2nd, with some activities beginning on the evening of Oct. 31. The first evening, (Nov. 1) is for remembering los angelitos (children) who have died; the second evening is dedicated to honoring adults.

According to Chloe Sayer, author of The Mexican Day of the Dead, the festival period is a confluence of the “conquest of what is now Mexico by the Spanish in the early sixteenth century fused” with “the Aztec idea that life is but a momentary dream and the medieval European notion of death as the great equalizer, stripping the vanities and pretensions of rich and poor alike.” I think it’s a wonderful celebration of life, food and an experience that everyone should have at least once in their lifetime.

Día de Los Muertos is what happens when a conquering people show up after 1,000 years of cultural ritual. Accommodations were required for the new house guests stuck on staying. It’s a complex mix of indigenous pre-Hispanic spiritualism and Roman Catholicism which was adopted after the Spanish conquest. Today it still is a celebratory and honored time throughout Mexico and in some parts of California and Arizona. I would also say one vast difference between the two holidays is that the Anglo-Saxon holiday of Halloween is all about the scary aspect of the dead and in Mexico the dead are remembered and their lives celebrated.

The influence of traditional Aztec beliefs of death and afterlife, can be seen everywhere during this time. Each region of Mexico has it’s own cultural practices. The state of Oaxaca (wha-HAH-kah) is one of the most popular destinations due to it’s rich traditions around the period. I’d like to think it’s because of the connection of the food, family, friends and tradition. It probably has more to do with Oaxaca’s central geography in Mexico leaving it to be a bit more rural and as a result less apt to be influence by outside influences.

Unfortunately, it was a bit disappointing to me while in Oaxaca to see the influence of the Halloween holiday—and not in a positive way. According to some reports this holiday was first celebrated in the late 1960s but became even more of a presence in the 1980s and particularly in the 1990s, after Mexico joined the United States and Canada in NAFTA.

The Aztecs believed that strong scents could lure the dead back to the land of the living and as a result strong scent of copal incense is used to help spirits find their way to this world. It hangs heavy in the air where ever you go–graveyards, markets, and homes–where ever there’s an altar. Flowers adorning altars and tombstones symbolize the shortness of life. The traditional flower is the zempoalxochitl (literally "twenty flowers" in the Nahuatl language but commonly known as "the flower of the dead"), a type of marigold. Arranged on the altar they may also be found sprinkled from the dead’s gravesite to the home, creating a pathway. The pungent scent also helps the guide the souls.

During this time many Mexicans participate in masked processions, and build elaborate home altars covered with marigolds, candles, and photos. Ofrendas (offerings) of the deceased’s favorite food and drink are put out. Families stay up all night awaiting the arrival of the masked muertos who arrive with a small brass band to raise the dead through dancing and a lot of mescal drinking along the way.

Along with remembrances and prayers for the deceased, it’s also a time of rejoicing, a reunion for living family members who have come from afar and for those deceased, who presumably have traveled even farther.

Food traditions surrounding Día de las Muertos include bringing food and liquor to graveyard picnics, some bring along entire BBQ grills; placing photos of deceased loved ones, candles, incense, candied skulls and religious symbols on the tombstone and also on home altars.

Food and beverage offerings differ for children and adult spirits. Children are provided with fruits, tamales and sweets such as calaveritas de azúcar, candy and dulce de calabaza, or even a small pan de muerto. Beverages may include chocolate, atole and yes, even soft drinks.

Food offerings for adults tend to be spicier. Favorites are chicken or turkey mole, tamales, enchiladas or other foods the deceased was particularly fond of. Beverages include alcoholic mescal, pulque, beer, chocolate and coffee.

Water is always offered, on the altar, after all wouldn’t you be thirsty after a long trip?

One of the most important and commonly found foods during this time is the pan de muertos, (bread of the dead) a must as an ofrendas, at the cemetery or home altars. This sweet Mexican egg bread is baked beginning from mid-October to mid-November, specifically to celebrate the Day of the Dead.

The loaves of bread, weighing any where from 1 to 2 pounds, are shaped into large circular hojaldra (puffed bread). These are then decorated with bone-shaped pieces of the bread dough called huesitos (little bones). The bones are said to symbolize perpetual life. In some parts of Mexico the bread is decorated with sesame seeds; in Mexico City sugar is sprinkled on top.

Villagers in the more rural areas outside of Oaxaca City, will often bring a large sack of flour, dozens of eggs and the other necessary ingredients including embellishments, usually ovals with various faces painted on them (picture above), and take it all to the local baker for preparation and baking. Each loaf is said to represent an individual soul.

Now for the good and bad news. This bread is addictive. That’s the good news. It’s also labor intensive. Bad news. The upside is that this recipe makes enough to satiate the obsessed. The last time I made it I was visiting my friends Samantha and Chris in Denver. I met them during the culinary tour of Oaxaca. Chris was always looking for this bread in Oaxaca. So it’s probably wise that his wife is a master at this recipe. She made it look simple. Between three of us we ate two large loaves in a 12-hour period. Chris is a King of Moles. He’ll be here tomorrow as guest writer.

What I like to do is serve it with a bowl of strong, frothy agua de chocolate so that I can dip the soft pieces of bread into the chocolate.


Excerpted from My Mexican Kitchen by Diana Kennedy

The starter can be made ahead or the day before. (Any leftover can be frozen but is best used right away.) In fact, the final mixture can be kneaded and then left overnight in the refrigerator – which I do to help it develop a better flavor – and brought up to room temperature before forming an the final rising.

Yield: 1 large bread, about 11 inches in diameter, or three small ones

The Starter

1 pound (roughly 4 cups) unbleached flour, plus extra for bowl and working surface
1 ¼ teaspoons sea salt, finely ground
2 ounces (1/3 cup) sugar
Scant 1 ounce (3 scant Tablespoons) crumbled cake yeast or 1½ scant Tablespoons
Dry yeast
½ cup plus 2 tablespoons water
3 large eggs, lightly beaten

Put the flour, salt, sugar and yeast into a mixing bowl and gradually beat in the water and eggs. Continue beating until the dough forms a cohesive mass around the dough hook; it should be sticky, elastic and shiny about 5 minutes. Turn the formed dough onto a floured board and form into a round shape. Butter and flour a clean bowl. Place the dough in it and cover with greased plastic wrap and a towel and set aside in a warm place – ideally 70°F – until the dough doubles in volume, about 2 hours.

Final Dough

The Starter torn into small pieces
8 ounces (1 cup) sugar
7 ounces (14 tablespoons) unsalted butter, softened, plus extra for greasing baking sheets
1 pound unbleached flour, plus extra for board and bowl
8 egg yolks, lightly beaten with 2 Tablespoons water
¼ cup water, approximately
1 teaspoon orange flower water and/or grated rind of 1 orange

4 egg yolks, lightly beaten
¼ cup melted unsalted butter, approximately
1/3 cup sugar, approximately

Liberally grease 4 baking sheets (for both breads while proofing).
Put the starter, sugar and butter into a mixing bowl and mix well, gradually beating in the flour and egg yolks alternately. Beat in the water and flavoring, you should have slightly sticky, smooth, shiny dough that just holds its shape (since eggs, flours and climates differ, you may need to reduce or increase the liquid). Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and form into a round cushion shape.

Wash out mixing bowl, butter and flour it, and replace the dough in it. Cover with greased plastic wrap and a towel and set aside in a warm place – ideally about 70°F – for about 1½ hours, until it almost doubles in size, or set aside overnight in the bottom of the refrigerator.

Bring the dough up to room temperature before attempting to work with it. Turn out onto a lightly floured board and divide the dough into two equal pieces. Set one aside for forming later. Take three quarters of the dough and roll it into a smooth ball. Press it out to a circle about 8 inches in diameter – it should be about 1-inch thick. Press all around the edge to form a narrow ridge – like the brim of a hat – and transfer to one of the greased baking sheets. Cover loosely with greased plastic wrap and set aside in a warm place (about 70°F) to rise about half its size – about 1 hour. Taking the remaining one-quarter of the dough, divide it into four equal parts. Roll one of the parts into a smooth ball. Roll the other 3 strips about 8 inches long, forming knobs as you go for the "bones." Transfer the four pieces to another greased tray, cover loosely with greased plastic wrap, and set aside to rise for about 1 hour.

Repeat these steps to form the second bread with the other piece of dough that was set aside. Heat oven to 375°F.

At the end of the rising period, carefully place the strips of dough forming the "bones" across the main part of the bread, place the round ball in the middle to form the "skull," and press your finger in hard to form the eye sockets. Brush the surface of the dough well with the beaten yolks and bake at the top of the oven until well browned and springy – about 15 to 20 minutes. Turn off the oven, open the door, and let the bread sit there for about 5 minutes more. Remove from the oven, brush with melted butter, and sprinkle well with sugar.