World on a Plate

Exploring culture. One plate at a time.

Category: Cultural Traditions

The Baker’s Passport – Scotland

                   Shortbreadjpg

Christmas is here. Or so every commercial entity would have you believe. On November 1st I saw the first Christmas tree in the lobby of a movie theater in the City. Really could we at least let the Halloween candy digest? But what it does make me think about is buttery, crisp and crumbly shortbread. To me it is a purely seasonal cookie.

Walkers_petticoat_2 My go-to is the popular export from Scotland, Walkers. While the bars and circle shaped biscuits are popular the long-standing petticoat tails has long been been a curiosity.  While Mary Queen of Scots was fond of these and there’s a long history between the Scotland and France  one version says the name comes from the French petit gatelles meaning little cakes; it is generally thought that the name has its origin in the shape, which is similiar to that of the bell-hoop petticoats worn by women in the nineteenth century courts.

Originating from the oatmeal bannock that was served at pagan Yule time celebrations,  the round bannock was often scored in the center with a circle surrounded by wedges symbolizing the sun and its rays. This practice most likely originating from the Scottish New Year’s event called, Hogmanay. This shortbread varies in that it is often larger and a little thicker and decorated with candied citron peel and some almond comfits. In the Shetland and Orkney Islands it is found as Bride’s Bonn and has caraway seeds. Another bit of folklore and the superstitious share that shortbread was not cut into portions but rather broken into pieces by hand. Today we’re less bound by these traditions and find them in many shapes and sizes.

Needless to say many of us eat shortbread year round as it’s a perfect pairing with tea, coffee or hot cocoa. While many recipes are handed down within families the secret to many a baker’s prized recipe is simplicity. By seeking out simple, high quality ingredients and a very short ingredient list at that the cookie essentials shine. Recipes vary with an increase of the ratio of flour to powdered sugar and in some the the addition of corn starch or vanilla. The texture of shortbread in the following recipe can be altered by replacing 1/4 cup of the flour with rice flour giving them a more crunchy texture. Or, if you prefer a more delicate tasting shortbread that melts-in-your-mouth, replace 1/2 cup of the flour with cornstarch.

Once you have this recipe in your repertoire you can move on to Millionaire’s Shortbread which is like an uptown Twix Bar.

Simple Shortbread

Traditional shortbread recipes don’t usually add salt but do use salted butter it enhances the overall taste.

1 cup softened butter

½ cup powdered sugar

2 cups flour

Pinch of Salt

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

Beat butter and sugar together in a large bowl.

Stir in flour and salt. Mix with hands until smooth.

Spray a 9-inch fluted tart pan or a 9" square pan with nonstick cooking spray; set aside. Refrigerate until firm, at least 2 hours and up to overnight.

Press dough into pan. Using the tines of a fork, score dough from the edge of the circle in the center towards the edge of the pan into 12 equal wedges or squares (depending on type of pan you are using.

Bake the shortbread in the middle of the oven 25 minutes or until slightly brown around edges.

Remove from oven. Immediately cut into squares/wedges with a sharp knife

Cool on tea towel and store between waxed paper in a cookie jar.

Variations:

  • For a brown sugar version substitute the powdered sugar in equal portion for brown sugar
  • For chocolate shortbread add 1/3 cup cocoa to the flour step.
  • Along with 1 tsp vanilla extract add one of the following options:
  • Grated zest of citrus: either 2 limes or 2 lemons or 2 oranges
  • Mix in- 1/2 cup mini chocolate

The Baker’s Passport – Iran

        Nowruz_2

Aide shoma mobarak

 

Persian New Year, or Nowruz dates back over a thousand years and is a family event to celebrate the coming of spring. The two-week holiday begins the instant the sun crosses the celestial equator. This year it begins at  4:07 and 26 seconds PM-PST.

Norouz means "new day" in Farsi, the language of Iran, which is present day Persia. It begins on the first day of spring and is a two-week celebration of rebirth and renewal. Dating to pre-Islamic times, when much of the vast Persian Empire followed the religion of Zoroastrianism, Norouz today is the biggest holiday of the year in Iran. Schools and businesses are closed, and the well-to-do take vacations or retreat to the countryside.

Foods served during Norouz communicate spring themes. Sweet and sour flavors are meant to represent the duality of good and evil. Eggs represent fertility, and are served in dishes like the popular kuku (somewhat similar to an Italian frittata). Ash reshfte  a warm noodle soup, typically begins the new year meal. The symbolism of the noodles it is said represent wishes for the unraveling of life’s knotty problems. The main course for a typical Iranian New Year’s meal is sabzi polo hami, or green herbs and rice, served with a white fish sauteed with chopped onion, lemon juice, turmeric, salt and fresh garlic.

The number seven has been sacred in Iran for thousands of years. Significance of number seven historically was to represent the "Seven Eternal Laws", which embodied the teachings of Zarathushtra. The teachings included having a good mind, good guidance, and discovering the ultimate truth among other things.  At this time Iranians prepare a table or sofreh (a plastic sheet used as a tablecloth on the ground) on a rug with a variety of foods. Traditionally, these seven symbolic items are displayed for haft sin, the ceremonial table set for the Persian New Year.   Sofreh-ye haft-sinn or "seven dishes’ setting,"  each standing for the seven angelic heralds of life: rebirth;  health; happiness; prosperity; joy, patience, and beauty. The holiday dishes — each of which starts with the Persian letter sinn — represent the keys to a happy life. The symbolic dishes consist of sabzeh, or sprouts, usually wheat or lentil, representing rebirth. Samanu is a pudding in which common wheat sprouts are transformed and given new life as a sweet, creamy pudding, and represents the ultimate sophistication of Persian cooking. Sib means apple and represents health and beauty. Senjed, the sweet, dry fruit of the wild olive, represents love. It has been said that when the wild olive is in full bloom, its fragrance and its fruit make people fall in love and become oblivious to all else. Seer, which is garlic in Persian, represents medicine. Somaq, sumac berries, represent the color of sunrise; with the appearance of the sun Good conquers Evil. Serkeh , or vinegar, represents age and patience.  In addition seven sweets are often included:

"On the same table many people place seven special sweets because, according to a three-thousand-year-old legend, King Jamshid discovered sugar on Nowruz (the word candy comes from the Persian word for sugar, qand). These seven sweets are noghls (sugar-coated almonds); Persian baklava, a sweet, flaky pastry filled with chopped almonds and pistachios soaked in honey-flavored rose water; nan-e berenji (rice cookies), made of rice flour flavored with cardamom and garnished with poppy seeds; nan-e badami (almond cookies), made of almond flour flavored with cardamom and rose water; nan-e nokhodchi (chick-pea cookies), made of chick-pea flour flavored with cardamom and garnished with pistachios; sohan asali (honey almonds), cooked with honey and saffron and garnished with pistachios; and nan-e gerdui (walnut cookies), made of walnut flour flavored with cardamom and garnished with pistachio slivers."

                                  ~~excerpted from New Food of Life, Najimieh Batmanglij

A traditional menu includes ash-e reshteh, a hearty noodle soup; sabzi polow ba mahi, fresh herb rice and fish; and kuku ye sabzi, a lighter-than-air herb souffle. As with everything at Nowruz, many foods have meaning as an example: eating the noodles symbolically representing the Gordian knot of unraveling life’s knotty problems. Before we wander too deeply into the vast waters of Iranian food culture this needs to work itself back to desserts in the Persian new year with this recipe for the traditional walnut flour cookie enjoyed at this time.

Read the rest of this entry »

The Baker’s Passport – Iceland

               Bunday

Lent in many countries is filled with many wide and varied cultural traditions.  Historically, as well, Lent is a period of fasting.  As such many countries this time is also wrapped around food celebrations just before the 40-day fasting period begins with the idea being that you are strengthening yourself for the long days ahead.  Today the idea of fasting is not a common one so these food rituals have been re-envisioned over time sometimes in a more celebratory coloring. In Iceland, two days before the beginning of Lent, homes, restaurants and bakeries overflow with delicately-made cream puffs or buns. These buns, similar to a cream-filled chocolate eclair, come in all different shapes and sizes, filled with cream or jam and sometimes drizzled in melted chocolate.   

Children "earn" their share of buns by "beating" their parents out of bed.  This is done with their made-at-school bolludagsvöndur  (bun wands), that are colorfully decorated with strips of paper and shiny ribbon. Parents are then obligated to give their children one  rjomabolla or cream puff for every "blow" received.  It is thought that this custom is derived from acts of penance performed during Lent, evolving over time into a lighthearted children’s game.

The custom of "bun day" came to Iceland from either Sweden, Denmark or Norway in the nineteenth century.  These countries also have their Lenten bun specialties. In Sweden, the smela is descended from the German and Danish kumminkringlor, a pretzel-shaped bread with cumin, which came to southern Sweden during the 1600’s when the area was under Denmark’s rule. The pastry tradition varies some between each of these Nordic countries. In both Finland and Sweden, semla, is prepared with a filling of marzipan and whipped cream, lots and lots of whipped cream. In Norway, it is called a Fastelavnsboller or Shrovetide bun.

King Frederick of Sweden loved his semla. He was done in (d. 1774) by 14 servings of this dessert (which was preceded by a grand feast) and soon died of indigestion. During this  period the buns were boiled in milk which gave way in the 19th century to the addition of sugar and cinnamon. Before the evolutionary jump to today’s indulgence, consisting of a cardamom-spiced wheat flour bun and a filling of the pastry as bread crumbs, milk and marzipan. It is then capped off with the top and finished with whipped cream. Traditionally it was served with a bowl of hot milk or most likely today with coffee.

Buns made of melted butter, flour, eggs and water and filled with cream are the traditional cream puffs and the most popular ones.  Other varieties include cream puffs with strawberries, blackcurrant, fresh fruit or  Daim chocolate. Meat balls and fish balls are also popular on this day. In fact Medieval Icelandic law texts say it is just fine to eat a double portion on the Monday and Tuesday preceding Lent. Much of the bun eating now, however, takes place on Sunday, however, since Monday is a work day. During this time Icelandic bakers estimate they sell one million buns.  This figure averages out to just about buns for every Icelander.

The two most common types of buns now are yeast buns, which make up 70 to 80 percent of the bakery buns, and choux-like pastry buns (cream puffs), but other types are also baked. In the first half of the twentieth century, the buns were usually made from cake dough. Often a jólakaka (Christmas cake) recipe was used, perhaps with an extra egg or two added, and the raisins left out. Deep-fried donuts called ástarpungar (Love Balls) are also served on Bun Day.

Needless to say folks are particular and passionate about semla.  I’ve included a cartoon from Mostly About Food below along with the comments of an expert enthusiast on this pastry:

"The bun itself should be a light golden brown and about 10cm across. The ‘lid’ is preferably triangular and properly sprinkled with powdered sugar. It should sit squarely on its cream bed. The whipped cream shouldn’t overspill the edges and should rise 2-3 cm – just so your nose doesn’t dip when eating…the bread mustn’t be too dense and should be lightly sweetened. The whipped cream ought to be hand-whipped and lightly sweetened as well."

               Shrovetide_2

Immediately after this Icelandic bun bonanza comes Shrove Tuesday, called sprengidagur, or Bursting Day.  This is day is filled with bowls and bowls of  salted lamb and split pea soup eat as much as possible, until you are about to burst.

Vatnsdeigsbollur

If you’ve prepared pâte à choux before you will find this recipe familiar.

1 cup (8 ounces) water

1/2 cup (1 stick, 4 ounces) unsalted butter

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 heaping cup (4 1/2 ounces) AP flour

4 large eggs

Directions
Preheat your oven to 400 degrees F.

In a medium-sized saucepan, bring the water to a boil, add the butter and salt, and stir until melted. Add the flour to the water/butter mixture and stir well until the dough pulls away from the sides of the pan. Let this mixture cool for about 5 minutes, in order that the eggs won’t cook as you add them. Add the eggs one at a time, beating after each one until completely integrated with the dough and the mixture is smooth rather than shiny looking.

Using a cookie scoop or two spoons (a teaspoon or tablespoon depending on how large you want your puffs), place a good spoonful of dough onto a parchment-covered baking sheet. You can get about 12 large spoonfuls to a sheet. This recipe will make about a dozen and a half if you’re using tablespoons, each enough for one good-sized serving.

Bake the puffs for 25 to 30 minutes depending on the size. Do not open the oven during the first 15 to 20 minutes, or the puffs may collapse.

While the puffs bake, prepare the filing. (see below)

After the puffs are baked, remove them from the oven and turn the oven off. Make a slit in the bottom of each puff with a knife, and turn them upside down on the baking sheet. Return them to the oven with the door cracked open and leave them for about 5 minutes. This allows the steam to escape so they won’t get soggy as they cool.

To fill, cut the puffs in half horizontally. When all are filled and topped off pour glaze over each one.

Filling

1 pint heavy cream, whipped

1 tsp or more almond extract (or lemon or vanilla)

1 tsp granulated sugar

Whip heavy cream with sugar.  As it nears whipped cream consistency add extract of your choice

Glaze

In double boiler over hot, not boiling, water, heat 1/2 cup semisweet chocolate pieces with 1 tbsp butter or margarine, 1-1/2 tsp milk, and 1-1/2 tsp light corn syrup until smooth, stirring occasionally.

Rosca de Reyes

          Kings

The last two weeks has seen quite of a lot of requests for this post from the archive. So here’s a piece of Rosca de Reyes for everyone all around!

Today marks the end of the Christmas holiday in many parts of the world. Twelfth Night or The Epiphany is also often referred to as Three Kings Day in some parts of the world. At feasts marking the occasion, there is often a special bread or cake with a bean, coin, or figurine baked in it. The person getting the piece with the good luck token becomes the Twelfth Night King or Queen, leading revelers in merrymaking.

The day celebrates the Biblical story of the three gift-bearing kings who reached the Christ child on January 6 after following the star of Bethlehem. According to the story, the Three Wise Men– named (Gaspar, Melchor and Baltazar – presented the Baby Jesus with gifts of gold (spiritual wealth of Jesus), frankincense (the image of the earth and sky) and myrrh (for medicinal and spiritual use).

Traditionally in Mexico, Three Kings Day was the gift-giving time, rather than Christmas day. In some rural regions of Mexico it is customary for children to leave their shoes out on the night of January 5, often filling them with hay for the camels, in hopes that the Three Kings would be generous. Mexican children would awake on January 6 to find their shoes filled with toys and gifts. Today many will write a letter to the kings (or choose one king as their favorite) asking for their special gifts and will leave the letter on the eve of Three Kings Day in an old shoe, under a bed.

In many cultures the day is commemorated with a Three Kings Cake. In Germany it is known as Dreikönigskuchen and is made with pecans and fruit. The French take is Galette des Rois is a typically a puff pastry filled with frangipane (almond cream) and a simple syrup icing. Many of us are here in the States are more familiar with its colorful and close cousin from New Orleans. In Mexico and Spain the “cake,” Rosca de Reyes is a bit more brioche like and flavored with lemon and orange zests, brandy, orange flower water and almonds.

The Rosca de Reyes, "kings ring" is a crown-shaped sweet bread decorated with pieces of candied orange and lime resembling the jewels of a crown.  It is often filled with nuts, figs, and cherries. Into this bread is baked a small plastic doll symbolizing a secure place away from Herod´s army where the infant child could be born. As each piece is cut with a knife, symbolizing the danger in which the Baby Jesus was in, everyone carefully checks their slice, hopping they didn’t get the figurine as they will need to host, Candelaria or Candle mass day. This day, February 2, is exactly, 40 days after Christmas when the Virgin Mary was purified. The nativity scene is put away and the baby Jesus, in the form of a porcelain doll, is clothed in his christening gown and presented in church.

Like pan de muertos, many women still prepare the breads at home.  Today, however, more and more families go to local bakeries where small versions serving two-three people and huge breads for 20 can be bought.  Tamales and hot chocolate can also be found on the feast table at this time.

Patricia Rain’s Rosca de Reyes recipe

Holiday Baking World

          Gingerbread

A re-post of last year’s popular favorite–Holiday Baking Around the World. I hope you and your families have a wonderful holiday and may the new year bring you happiness, abundance and plenty of great food.

Around the world holidays bakers regal family and friends with once-a-year treats.

Throughout Denmark the Danish Kringle, a flaky pastry shaped in a ring and filled with almond paste, topped with sugar and shaved almonds; Ukranians serve, Makiwnyk, a poppyseed roll; Christmas Eve Greeks prepare Christopsomo; julebrod is central to a Norwegian Christmas celebration and in Czech Republic bobalky is served over mushroom soup. In America and in Britain there’s also the ever present and chided fruit cake.

Germans, love almonds and pride themselves on their fruit-studded yeast bread, the Christmas stollen is the King of holiday breads. Oblong-shaped and tapered at the ends it is a flat loaf of bread with a ridge down the center and is covered with icing sugar. The traditional German stolen is so revered that it has it’s own annual festival where a Stollen-maiden is crowned. There is also a preservation society that monitors the commercial production of Dresden stolen to ensure quality and authenticity. Today there are 120 bakeries in the Dresden area authorized to use the official seal. During the Christmas season a marzipan log is tucked inside the dough. The trick is to taste a small bit of the paste with each bit of the buttery cake.

According to historians, the original Dresden recipe was far more austere than what we know today. Six hundred years ago ingredients included little more than flour, yeast and water due to Catholic dogma, eggs, butter and milk were strictly taboo. This forbearer of the holiday bread was known as Christbrod (Bread of Christ) due to its shape, as it represented the swaddled body of the infant Jesus and was used as nourishment through the fasting period leading up to Christmas. Today, the loaf is studded with raisins, almonds and flavored with orange and lemon.

In the United Kingdom, plum pudding which has no plums and isn’t a pudding has been a long British tradition. It is more of a cake made with raisins and other fruits and is steamed for hours. When it’s ready to serve, it’s doused with brandy, flamed and served with a butter sauce.

In Provence, the traditional Christmas meal is called le gros souper (the big supper). It ends with Les Treize Desserts, (13 desserts) symbolizing Christ and his 12 apostles. The desserts must be served all at the same time and each guest must taste each one of them. The sweets consist of fresh and dried fruits.

And of course writing on holiday dessert traditions wouldn’t be complete without mention of the French pastry dessert Bûche de Noël (yule log). There seems to be a general agreement that the tradition is tied to the age-old custom of putting a log of wood in the hearth to slowly burn on Christmas Eve. However after more research it appears that tradition is tied to the pagan worship of fire and vegetation. In ancient Celtic laying a carefully chosen tree trunk or stump at the back of the hearth and allowing it to burn down during the holiday festivities. The ashes were preserved to ensure good luck for the home.

Well, needless to say this rolled sponge cake is typically filled with a buttercream—chocolate, coffee or a simple vanilla cream. This year Parisian pastry chef Pierre Herme is using dark chocolate with yuzu an Asian citrus fruit.

In Italy, the Milanese have been eating panettone (pan-et-TONE-ay), for centuries. This is by far my favorite once a year treat. Although some suggest it’s nothing more than glorified raisin bread. Bah humbug. This large mushroom-shaped, brioche-style bread is fragrant with citrus oils, laced with eggs and butter and flecked with small pieces of candied fruit and whole sultanas (yellow raisins). It is also golden yellow from the eggs used to make it.

The “his”-tory dates back to the 15th century and a Milanese baker, apprenticed to a man named Antonio. In love with his boss’s daughter, the young man produced a rich, fruity creation. The instant success of Toni’s bread, or pane ad Toni won him his bride.

To this day, most of these dome-shaped cakes are made in Milan, beginning in September and ending before Christmas. Regulations state that you can’t call it panettone unless you use only butter. Recently, Milan bakers have taken the first steps toward controlling the recipe with that would guarantee traditional baking methods requiring shops to carry a multi-colored logo and a certificate of authenticity.

Holiday traditions around the world

Whole Foods Panettone French Toast

The Baker’s Passport – Italy

                 Susamielli 

Around the world at the holidays there are many cookies shared only during Christmas time.  Naples is no exception as the number of holiday cookies is many.  Recipes in English are not easy to come by as in general they haven’t been codified widely due to the history of origin.  Between the middle ages and the end of the 18th century most pastries in Southern and Central Italy where produced by covenants and a few monasteries. The pastries were sold to the public and the money used for upkeep and charity. Most of these recipes were only made in a single convent and the recipe was kept among the women.  As the power of the church declined many religious institutions closed and many of the recipes for these traditional sweets were sold off with exclusivity to pastry makers. Among a few Neapolitan Christmas treats are La collana del prete , the priest’s necklace, chestnuts strung together; Divino Amore, Rococò, Mustacciuoli and the sesame-honey "S" shaped cookie Susamielli pictured above.

Susamielli

1 1/2 cups honey
1 cup sugar
1 lemon, zest grated
3 1/3 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

Directions
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Bring honey, sugar and lemon zest to a temperature of 175 degrees. Form a
well out of the flour and mix in cloves and cinnamon. Pour the warm honey mixture
into the well and bring dough together with a fork, similiar to making pasta. Knead
dough with hands 2 minutes until smooth and elastic, 2 to 3 minutes.

Cut the dough into 1 1/2" balls and roll each ball into 4-inch long rope form. Form
each rope into an "S" shape and place onto a greased cookie sheet. Place in oven
and bake 20 to 22 minutes until light golden brown; remove; cool on baking
rack.

Día de Los Muertos

          Oaxaca_1_338_7

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.

PAN DE MUERTOS

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

Glaze
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.

Mother’s Cake

               Motherchild

The earliest Mother’s Day celebration is often traced back to the spring day celebrations in ancient Greece to honor Rhea, the mythical mother of the gods. However in the 1600s, England celebrated a day called "Mothering Sunday" on the fourth Sunday of Lent. At that time, many of England’s poor worked as servants for the wealthy. Since most jobs were far from their homes, the servants live in the homes of their employers.

On Mothering Sunday, servants were given the day off and many went to spend the day with who else but mom.  Many would bring along a special cake called the Mothering Cake.

As Christianity spread throughout Europe and the rest of the world, the celebration changed to honor the "Mother Church," the spiritual power that gave them life and protected them from harm. Over time, the church festival blended with Mothering Sunday celebration. People began honoring their mothers and the church.

This cake is a simple flourless chocolate cake and was a long-time favorite of the now departed Queen Mum.

Image: Louis Toffoli

Mother’s cake

Yields One 9" Cake

½ c almonds; skinned
6 oz chopped semi-sweet Chocolate
¾ c granulated sugar
6 oz unsalted butter
6 large eggs– yolks and whites separated
1 tsp

fresh lemon juice 

½ c heavy cream
2 ts instant espresso powder
8 oz chopped semi-sweet chocolate

CAKE

Toast almonds in a single layer on a cookie sheet in a 350F degree oven for about 15-minutes or until the almonds are lightly colored and fragrant. Make sure to shake the pan occasionally to turn almonds while toasting.

Pre-heat oven to 375F degrees. Spray the bottom of a 9-inch spring form pan with a non-stick cooking spray. Dust lightly with flour or very fine, dry bread crumbs. Shake out any excess and set prepared pan aside.

Warm chopped chocolate in the top of a small double boiler over warm water set at moderate heat. Cover until partially melted, then stir until smooth. Set aside to cool to room temperature.

Reserve 1/2 cup sugar and place the remaining 1/4 cup sugar with the almonds in a food processor or blender and chop until nuts are fine and powdery. Set aside.

In a large mixing bowl beat the butter until soft. Add 1/4 cup of sugar and reserve the remaining 1/4 cup sugar for use later. Beat sugar and butter until thoroughly combined. Add the egg yolks, one at a time, and continue to beat until smooth. Add the melted chocolate and blend on low speed until combined. Add almonds and continue to beat mixture on a low speed setting.

In a clean bowl with clean beaters, beat the egg whites with salt and lemon juice. Start on low speed and gradually increase until the egg whites hold a soft shape. Reduce speed again and add remaining 1/4 cup sugar. Then on high speed, beat egg whites to soft peaks. Gently fold the egg whites into the chocolate mixture about one-third at a time until blended.

Pour the cake batter into the prepared springform pan an quickly rotate to level the batter. Bake for 20 minutes at 375F degrees, then reduce heat to 350F degrees and continue to bake an additional 50 minutes. Remove cake from pan when cooled, after about 1 hour.

ICING

Prepare the icing by scalding the heavy cream in a saucepan over medium heat until a thin skin forms on the top. Add the espresso or coffee powder and whisk to dissolve. Add the chocolate and whisk to dissolve, for about a minute or two. Remove from heat and continue to stir to finish melting the chocolate. Let icing cool for about 15-minutes, then pour over the top of the cake, starting at the center. Gently push the icing with a spatula over the sides to dribble down the cake.

Top with shaved chocolate, or whipped cream just prior to serving. Strawberries on the side make a nice spring touch.

Sticky Gold #2

Mapletap

Although there are about 150 species in the maple tree family throughout the world it is only in North America, specifically in the northeastern United States and southeastern Canada, that all the right elements of climate and geography come together to provide enough sap to support a syrup industry. Maple syrup is produced from sap from black and sugar maple trees. These trees are the most preferred due to their high sugar content and can be found in sugar bushes or maple-syrup producing farms. A sugar bush is a forested area that contains mostly maple trees.

Trees can be tapped after 50 years of age by boring holes in the trunks. This “opening” of the tree to gather the colorless, almost tasteless “sugar water” occurs in the late winter/early spring. Each mature tree may have as many as four taps. Each opening yields about 10 gallons of sap a year.

Buckets fill slowly, drop by drop, with a sweetish, watery liquid that is boiled down to make the flavored syrup. The tree sap is boiled in a sugar shack or cabane a sucre. During this heating process the clear sap begins in a watery form that contains about two per cent of sugar, it eventually transforms into a high concentration of sugar suspended in water.  This explains why it takes about 40 gallons of maple sap to make one gallon of pure maple syrup. It will take anywhere from 6-8 hours until the sugar content is more than 67 per cent it is officially maple syrup. 

If the sugarmaker continues the evaporation process, the result is maple honey (a thicker consistency), followed by maple butter (which is thick and spreadable), and, once almost all the water has been evaporated, maple sugar. Maple sugar is about twice as sweet as granulated white sugar. It also browns more quickly, and imparts much more flavor than white sugar.

Making maple syrup requires freezing nights and warm (but preferably not over 50 degree) days. Typically, three or four weeks in early spring, when the nights fall below freezing and the days are beginning to warm up the sap or “sweet water” flows up from the tree roots. Extended periods of either below freezing temperatures or days without freezing nights will stop the sap flow. As a result, sugarhouses often start and stop boiling at different times due to local weather factors. A sugarmaker’s life during tapping season can be unpredictable with 24 hour work days interspersed with two or three days of inactivity until the next sap run. One thing’s for sure, when the trees begin to “bud out” the harvesting of sap is over. On average the sap flows takes place for only ten to 20 days, often with up to a third of the season’s yield in a single day.

Today only weekender or boutique tappers still use tin spigots and white pine buckets. Larger operators use a gravity flow system that brings the sap from the trees to a holding tank where it goes through an osmosis unit to remove impurities and about two-thirds of the water. It’s easier and more efficient for the farmer, and has less of an impact on the trees. It allows for a shorter boiling down time, saves time and fuel costs. The next step in the flow is the evaporator, where it is reduced to a syrup, and takes on its typical rich coffee hue. Large sugarhouses can process as much as 1,700 gallons of sap an hour. The final step is a boiling in a sterile stainless steel tank.

Peter Singhofen/ PennsylvaniaMaple Syrup (photo essay)

A Sugarbush Tale 11minute documentary on of sugaring (awesome!)

Sticky Gold

          Cabaneasucre

Today begins a series on maple syrup. Over the next few weeks all thoughts and writings will be turned toward this very American product.

One of the life’s simplest extravagances is maple syrup. People go crazy for this liquid and very edible form of gold. I have a Canadian friend who when invited to attend a brunch will ask, will there be pancakes? If so, she’ll arrive at the event open her bag and a jug of pure Canadian syrup is placed on the table—later it is tucked back into the bag. I also remember my Dad bringing home a very coveted gallon of maple syrup from a friend newly transplanted to Vermont. Don’t even think of passing the inferior stuff around the breakfast table. New Englanders can’t be fooled.

The production of maple syrup traces back beyond the Colonial period and into Native American culture. The North American Maple Syrup Producers bulletin suggests one legend involving a Native American chief who “supposedly hurled his tomahawk (probably in disgust) at a tree. The tree happened to be a maple, and sap began to flow. The clear liquid that dropped from the wound was collected in a container that happened to be on the ground below. His wife, believing the liquid was water, used it to cook venison. Following cooking, both the meat and the sweet liquid that remained were found to be delicious. Retracing how this occurred revealed that sweet sap from the maple trees was the only difference.” Another bit of New England lore suggests that perhaps the Native Americans discovered the sweetness of the maple tree by eating "sapsicles," icicles of frozen maple sap that form from the end of a broken twig. As the ice forms, some of the water evaporates, leaving a sweet treat hanging from the tree.

Contrary to public perception, production does not take place in winter. It takes place in late March and early April at the sugar shack, where feasts are held with traditional "cabane à sucre" (sugar shack) foods: pea soup; baked beans; maple-cured ham; oreilles de crisse (fried strips of salt pork), omeletes, and maple-sweetened desserts such as, crepes and grands-pères (dumplings poached in maple syrup). To round it all out at the end of the meal everyone goes outside for the traditional hot maple taffy pull, served on a bed of fresh snow and scooped up with wooden sticks where it hardens and can be twisted, sucked and chewed.