Canada Day + Butter Tarts

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Today is Canada Day! Similar to our 4th of July in the US, Canada Day is a national holiday that celebrates the anniversary of the Constitution Act of 1867, which united the three provinces of Canada–Canada, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia–into the unified country of Canada. It’s often referred to as “Canada’s birthday.”

So I decided to celebrate our neighbors from the Great White North by making what must be one of their greatest culinary contributions to the world: Butter tarts. Think of a more buttery and less sweet pecan pie, baked into individual tarts. This fine little dessert is one of the few pastries considered truly Canadian.

Having existed for hundreds of years, there is no proof of the exact origin of the butter tart, but there are several theories on when and how the butter tarts were created.

The butter tart is perhaps most closely associated with the filles à marier (marriageable girls), also known as the filles du roi (King’s daughters), a group of nearly 800 young women who were sent to Canada between of the years of 1663 and 1673 as part of a program sponsored by Louis XIV. The program’s intentions were to increase the number of French citizens in “New France” by sending women to marry and have children with the French men who had already settled in Canada, and also to entice more men to immigrate to Canada, whose population at the time would have consisted of many more men than women. The program worked: Over the ten-year period in which the women were sent, New France’s population more than doubled.

It is said that the influx of the King’s daughters caused the invention of the butter tart, since the newly arrived women took on the duties of the home, including cooking, and used local ingredients, such as maple syrup. The butter tart was likely predated by the sugar pie, or tarte au sucre, and eventually raisins and pecans–critical but divisive ingredients in the butter tart–were added later. While today butter tarts are closely associated with the Ontario (English-speaking) area of Canada, and are somewhat similar to the British treacle tart, it might be that the tarts got their start in the French-speaking areas of Canada, such as Quebec, the first of the three ports that the King’s daughters would have been able to disembark.

As with many recipes, butter tarts became especially popular in Canada in the 1920’s and 30’s, after recipes were published in newspapers that reached a much wider group of home bakers. Today they are widely available throughout Canada and an annual Butter Tart festival is held every year in Midland, Ontario.

Even among the most polite Canadians, there are arguments about what makes a true butter tart. Some Canadians are vehemently against the addition of raisins, while others say that it isn’t a true butter tart without them. (To complicate the current raisin-or-no-raisin-argument, recipes printed in the early 20th-century include not raisins, but currants.) Additionally, some think that the filling should be gooey and runny when you bite into it, while others think the filling should be firm.

For the texture of the butter tarts shown here, I split the difference: This filling doesn’t ooze when you bite into it, but it’s not firm either. Also, I went with a pecan topping, and dropped the raisins–maybe I’m just an American with a partiality to pecan pie.

Butter Tart

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Canadian Butter Tarts 
Makes 12 small tarts.

Ingredients: 
Your favorite pie dough, enough to make one bottom crust of a pie. I like this one.
3/4 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup maple syrup
6 tbsp unsalted butter, melted
1/8 tsp salt
1 egg, lightly beaten
1 tsp vanilla
1/2 cup pecans, toasted and chopped, or 1/2 cup raisin, chopped.

Instructions:

Lightly grease one 12-cup cupcake tin and allow to chill in refrigerator as you prepare your butter tart crusts.

Roll out pie pastry to 1/4-inch thick. Cut into 12 circles, 4 1/2-inches in diameter (you want them to be approximately the size of a cupcake liner.)

Press each circle of dough into the cupcake cups, pressing as needed to fit the cup. Return to the refrigerator as you prepare your filling.

If you are using pecans, finely chop and measure after chopping. If using raisins, soak them in hot water for at least fifteen minutes. Drain, pat dry, and chop finely.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

In a medium bowl, mix together brown sugar, maple syrup, and melted butter until thoroughly combined. Add in egg and vanilla and mix to combine.

Remove the cupcake tin from refrigerator, and fill the bottom of each tart with finely chopped pecans or raisins.

Fill each tart about halfway with brown sugar mixture. (It will bake up further in the oven.)

Bake tarts for five minutes at 400 degrees. Then, lower the oven to 375 degrees and continue baking for 12-15 minutes, until the top is bubbly and no longer jiggles if you shake the cupcake tin.

Allow the tarts to cool completely in the tin before enjoying.

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The chopped pecans rise to the top of the tart, and become slightly crisp, while there is a gooey, buttery (but not too sweet!) layer underneath. It’s like a less-sweet, individual version of the pecan pie. I am certainly not claiming that this version is as good as anyone in Canada can make. However, if this is any indication of what the Canadian version is like, count me in.

Happy Canada Day!

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German Chocolate Cupcakes

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Today is National German Chocolate Cake Day! And we’re here to talk about it. First, right off the bat, let’s get one thing straight: German chocolate cake has absolutely nothing to do with the country of Germany. Shocked? I know.

So why is German chocolate cake called such? In the early 1850’s, an English-American chocolate mill worker named Samuel German invented a sweet chocolate baking bar for The Baker Chocolate Company in Dorchester, Massachusetts. Walter Baker, owner of Baker’s, bought the recipe from German for $1000, and the chocolate bar was named in honor of him: Baker’s German’s Sweet Chocolate.

At the time, Baker’s (which is also a misleading name, as “Baker” was the last name of the family, and was not chosen to mean that the chocolate was only for bakers) chocolate was exclusively used for baking. It was more bitter, whereas the German chocolate bar had a higher sugar content, and was marketed as “palatable” and “a great favorite with children,” implying that it was meant to be eaten on its own, much the way you would eat a Hershey’s bar now, instead of to be used in baked goods.

The Baker Chocolate Company continued to thrive over the next hundred years, which allowed for what we now know as German chocolate cake to be created. German chocolate cake, a multi-layered chocolate cake separated by a caramel-pecan-coconut filling, and sometimes topped with chocolate frosting, is often attributed to Mrs. George Clay, a homemaker in Dallas, and was first shared by The Dallas Morning News food editor Julie Benell in 1957. While this is the most-referenced origin of the recipe,  I’ve seen a reference to almost the exact same recipe over a year earlier in a May 1956 edition of The Irving News Record, printed in Irving, Texas. Curiously, the 1956 article states that “Daisy,” the food editor for The Irving News Record, actually got the recipe from her daughter, who was living in Oklahoma, and brought it back to Texas.

Whether we thank “Daisy” or Julie Benell for the recipe, we know that once it hit papers, it spread like wildfire across the United States. By 1958, General Foods, which now owned Baker’s chocolate, had decided to print the recipe in a recipe booklet. After this, the public’s interest was fully piqued, and Baker’s German chocolate sales increased by a whopping 73%.

It should also be noted that, by the earliest printings of this recipe in newspapers, the cake was already being called “German chocolate cake” instead of “German’s chocolate cake.” I’ve seen a lot of references to the fact that the name changed over the years, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. I have guesses as to why this is, the most probable being that home cooks, 100 years after Samuel German invented his chocolate bar, had no idea that the possessive German’s chocolate bar was created by a man named Samuel German. I would suppose that they assumed it was a German form of chocolate.

Hopefully this post will give Samuel German a bit of his due. To celebrate the day of his influence, I’ve made cupcakes, instead of the traditional 3-layered cake.

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German Chocolate Cupcakes
Makes 20-24 cupcakes.

Ingredients: 
For cupcakes:
1 1/2 cups flour
1 1/4 cups sugar
1/4 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup cocoa powder
1 tsp salt
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp baking powder
2 large eggs
1 egg white
1 tsp vanilla
1 cup buttermilk
1/3 cup vegetable oil
2 oz. Baker’s German chocolate, chopped
1/2 cup boiling hot coffee

For filling: I used 3/4 of the filling from Sally’s Baking Addiction.
6 tbsp unsalted butter
3/4 cup brown sugar, packed
2 large egg yolks
6 oz evaporated milk
3/4 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups sweetened shredded coconut
3/4 cup pecans, chopped

Optional:
Chocolate frosting (store-bought works fine, but you can also make your own)
Maraschino cherries

Ingredients: 

For cupcakes: In a large bowl, whisk together flour, sugar, brown sugar, cocoa powder, salt, baking soda, and baking powder.

In a medium bowl, mix well the eggs and egg white, vanilla, buttermilk, and vegetable oil.

Add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients. Mix together until fully combined.

Chop chocolate and add to a bowl. Pour boiling coffee over the top. Quickly whisk until the chocolate has melted, then quickly whisk into the other ingredients.

Preheat oven to 350. While the oven is preheating, fill two cupcake tins with cupcake liners.

Fill each liner up halfway. Bake, and begin checking for doneness at 18 minutes.

Remove and allow to cool completely.

For topping and filling:

Add the butter, sugar, yolks, and evaporated milk in a saucepan.

Heat over medium heat, stirring occasionally.

Allow the mixture to come to a steady boil, then begin whisking constantly until the mixture thickens (about 4-5 minutes).

Remove from heat and stir in the vanilla, shredded coconut and chopped pecans. Allow to cool completely before filling cupcakes.

Scoop out the center of each cupcake, but not the entirety of the top.

Pipe a ring of chocolate frosting around the top of each cupcake, optional.

Fill each cupcake with the coconut/pecan mixture. Top each cupcake with a maraschino cherry, optional.

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Look, there are people who can do amazing things with cake. I’m not one of them. I kind of hate decorating cakes. Cupcakes, though, I can do! Plus, you get your own little maraschino cherry on top that you don’t have to share with anyone!

Thanks, Samuel German, for giving the world the essential ingredient for your namesake cake!

Tiramisu

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Hey, guys! It’s been a while! I stepped away from the blog for the month of May (you didn’t notice), but now I’m back! And, even though it’s not really warm enough here to be using the old “It’s been too hot here to turn on the oven, so here’s an awesome no-bake recipe” food blog trick, I’m doing it anyway! Let’s talk tiramisu, shall we?

Tiramisu, though an iconic Italian dessert here in the states, has only existed since the middle of the 20th century. (This gives you an idea of what Italians were doing with mid-century recipes, while we were over here putting hot dogs in Jell-O.) Roughly translated to “pick me up,” or “cheer me up,” it’s composed of savoiardi, or lady fingers, dipped in espresso, layered lasagna-style with a fluffy mixture composed mostly of eggs and mascarpone cheese, and finally dusted with cocoa. It’s sweet, and bitter, and creamy. Basically a dream.

Even though it’s hard to imagine a time before tiramisu, it wasn’t even introduced to the United States until the 1980s. The earliest record of a tiramisu recipe I could find in a newspaper was from 1981. Until quite recently, it was thought that tiramisu was created in the 1960s or 70s in the Veneto region of Italy in a restaurant called Le Beccherie, by the pastry chef Roberto Linguanotto. However, even this story is up for debate. Some stories say the recipe was instead created by Alba Campeol, who owned Le Beccherie along with her husband Ado. It’s said that she came up with the idea after her mother-in-law brought her a zabaglione, or an egg yolk custard made with wine, spiked with espresso to help give her energy after the birth of her children.

Perhaps the most convincing argument comes from famous chef Lidia Bastianich. Bastianich, while researching her book Lidia’s Italy: 140 Simple and Delicious Recipes from the Ten Places in Italy Lidia Loves Most, may have discovered the origin one step before the Campeols. Restaurant owner Celeste Tonon told Bastianich that chef and restaurateur Speranza Garatti was the true creator of tiramisu. He said that Garatti served a variation of the dish in a goblet and called it coppa imperiale. Tonon also claims that it was not Alba Campeol, but Ado, who recreated the dish and renamed it tiramisu.

Aside from this wide-ranging fight in Veneto, there have also recently been claims made from the nearby region of Friuli-Venezia Giulia. While arguments were going on a few years ago in Veneto about who created tiramisu, Friuli-Venezia Giulia drew a line in sand by declaring that the dessert was one of their traditional dishes. The rivalry was ignited when authors Clara and Gigi Padovani claimed they discovered recipes for the dish in Friuli that date back to the 1950s. 

It’s also worth pointing out that while this dish as a whole is relatively new, savoiardi (ladyfingers), an important component of this very simple dessert, have been around much longer. Savoiardi date back to the late 1400s in the newly-created Duchy of Savoy, a small area that lay on the French-Italian border. A dry, sweet, sponge biscuit, cut in the shape of a finger, they were created to honor a visit to the Duchy by the King of France!

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Tiramisu
A very slight adaptation of this recipe. Makes 6-9 servings.

Ingredients: 
28-30 Italian savoiardi (ladyfingers)
2 cups very strong coffee/espresso
3 tbsp creme de cacao or dark rum
4 large egg yolks
3/4 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup sugar, divided
1/2 tsp vanilla
pinch of salt
8 oz mascarpone
1/3 cup cocoa powder, divided

Instructions: 

In a shallow bowl, mix together the espresso and creme de cacao or rum. Set aside.

In a small bowl, beat together the egg yolks with 1/4 cup sugar until the mixture becomes light yellow in color and smooth. Set aside.

In a large bowl, combine the heavy cream, 1/4 cup of sugar, vanilla and a pinch of salt. Beat together until the cream is light and about triple in size. Add in the mascarpone all at once and continue to beat until fully combined. Fold in the egg yolk mixture until fully combined.

Working quickly, briefly dunk the savoiardi, one at a time, into the espresso mixture, lining the bottom of an 8×8-inch pan. Once you have placed one layer of lady fingers, spread half of the egg mixture over the top, then dust with half of the cocoa. Place another layer of lady fingers, and repeat. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least two hours, or overnight. Serve chilled.

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This is not the first dish I’ve written about here that has a lively and contentious dispute about its origins. It certainly makes a big difference when a heavyweight like Lidia gets involved, but in truth, we aren’t closer to knowing who exactly soaked these dried cakes in espresso before covering them in cream. But I do know, we owe whoever it was a debt!

Peanut Butter and Jelly Linzer Cookies

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Ah, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I prefer them more in my adult life than I ever did as a kid. I have distinct memories of peanut butter in jelly sandwiches in a brown paper bags for lunch. Then, when lunch came, I usually wouldn’t eat, because by that time, the jelly had seeped through the soft white bread. As a child, I found this unacceptable, assuming something was wrong with it. I was an awful child, is what I’m saying.

But every now and again, since becoming an adult, I will need a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. If I can’t think of anything to eat, and I’m not craving anything (a real rarity), I’ll just make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and everything is right with the world again.

Some might argue that a peanut butter and jelly sandwich is more American than apple pie. (And they would basically be right, since apple pie has been around since at least the 1300’s, and probably originated in England.) Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are a truly American, born and bred.

The peanut butter and jelly sandwich came about with the proliferation of its three ingredients, at approximately the same time: peanut butter, jelly, and sliced bread.

Let’s begin with peanut butter. Peanut butter was developed in the late 1800’s as a health food, by John Harvey Kellogg, a name you might recognize from your breakfast cereals as a kid. Kellogg ran the Western Heath Reform Institute, a sanitarium in Battle Creek, Michigan, which was more a health spa for the middle and upper classes, rather than a hospital. Kellogg began using a peanut paste in the sanitarium as a way of administering vitamins for patients who had trouble chewing or swallowing. Before Kellogg, it was Dr. Ambrose Straub who patented the first peanut butter making machine. Kellogg, however, patented the first process to produce peanut butter. At this time, the peanut paste that Kellogg was feeding his patients was unlike the butter as we know it today. It would be years before peanut butter was available to the masses, as it did not transport well, and was generally only considered a health food for the rich.

By 1901, the very first peanut butter and jelly sandwich recipe was printed in The Boston Cooking School Magazine of Culinary Science & Domestic Economics, by Julia Davis Chandler. Chandler suggested that her readers serve the bread, crab apple jelly, and peanut paste bite, to guests at parties, or high tea. Though Chandler combined peanut butter with jelly, at the time, peanut butter was most often served with savory accompaniments, such as watercress, at upscale restaurants or tea rooms.

As for jelly, it has been around, in some form, for more than a thousand years. The first known recipe for a jam dates back to the 4th or 5th century in one of the earliest known cookbooks in existence, De re coquinaria (called the Art of Cooking in English), otherwise known as Apicius (after its presumptive author). However, until pasteurization, jelly would have been made in smaller batches, for the home. It was Nicholas Appert, a Frenchman, who answered Napoleon Bonaparte’s offer of a reward for anyone who could find a way to preserve foods in large quantities for soldiers in 1785. Appert discovered that, by boiling the fruit at high temperatures, and storing them in jars that had been tightly sealed, food would remain safe to eat for long periods of time. Since that time, home cooks would use this method to make jams and jellies as a way of preserving seasonal fruit for the winter. In 1918, however, the brand Welch’s, which was, at the time, exclusively making grape juice, invented “Grapelade,” a food similar to marmalade, but using grapes. The initial stock was bought by the U.S. Army for troop rations during World War I. After the War, the troops brought home their love of grapelade, and in 1923, Welch’s created their Concord grape jelly, the cornerstone of the original PB&J.

The third and final component of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich is the bread. Of course, bread has been around for thousands of years. But, like jam, making bread was something that was often done in the home, and required time. In the late 1920’s, Otto Frederick Rodhwedder of Iowa invented a bread slicing machine, which revolutionized the way people ate bread. With the arrival of sliced bread, people were eating more bread than ever before. And the timing of the invention, just a few years after Welch’s released their grape jelly, meant that people were using more jams to go along with their bread. By this time, too, peanut butter was no longer considered only a food for the rich. The price point had dropped, allowing all classes to enjoy it. By the time the Great Depression hit in 1929, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches had become an easy, fairly nutritious, and cost-effective meal that was easy for children and adults alike to assemble and carry with them. By the time WWII began, peanut butter and jelly sandwich ingredients were included in the soldiers rations, which cemented their status as a icon in American history.

For today’s recipe, I thought, why not take the beloved sandwich, and dessert-ize it by turning into a beloved sandwich cookie. I give you: Peanut Butter and Jelly Linzer Cookies.

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Peanut Butter and Jelly Linzer Cookies
Makes about 15 sandwich cookies. Adapted from this recipe from Southern Living.

Ingredients: 
1 cup unsalted butter
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup packed light brown sugar
1/2 cup creamy peanut butter
1 large egg
1 1/2 tsp vanilla
3 cups flour
3/4 tsp salt
1/3 cup grape jelly
powdered sugar, optional

Instructions:

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line two large cookie sheets with parchment paper.

In a large bowl, beat together the butter, both sugars, and the peanut butter until well combined. Add in the egg and vanilla and beat in until just combined. Add in the flour and salt, all at once, and beat in until just combined with no white streaks remaining.

Dump out the dough onto a well-floured surface, gathering up any loose pieces that fall away, and form into a disk. Separate the disk into two equal pieces.

Working with one half of the dough, roll out to 1/4-inch thickness. Cut out 15 (or as many as you can fit) 2 3/4 to 3-inch circles with a cookie or biscuit cutter. Place the cut outs onto the parchment-lined cookie sheet, about 1 centimeter apart.

Bake for about 9-10 minutes, or until lightly golden brown. Allow to cool on the cookie sheet for five minutes, and then remove to a cooling rack.

Repeat the above process with the second half of the dough, this time cutting out a smaller hole in the center of the circle cutouts. Place the cutouts on the second lined cookie sheet and bake for 9-10 minutes.

When the cookies have completely cooled, put a one teaspoon dollop of grape jelly in the center of each of the whole cookies. For the cookies with the center cutout, sprinkle with powdered sugar (optional), and sandwich with the cookies topped with grape jelly.

*Cookies can be served immediately, but I think they actually get better after a day in an airtight container.

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These cookies are quite delicious, almost impossible to stop eating (especially if served with milk!), and really do taste like a PB&J. Bonus: They look like they have little jewels in the middle! Happy National Peanut Butter and Jelly Day! P.S. If you’re craving more peanut butter history, you can check out my previous post here.

Purim + Ginger Pear Hamantaschen

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Yay! It’s the first day of spring. Finally! We’ve had several days of sun and 40-plus degree weather. I think the warm weather is finally on its way and I’m ready for it.

In addition to Spring springing, Purim also begins this evening. Purim is a Jewish holiday, celebrated from sunset to nightfall of the next day. The celebration of Purim dates back to the reign of the Persian King Ahasuerus (likely the king now known as Xerxes I, or Artaxerxes I). The Jewish holiday celebrates the delivery of the Jewish people from genocide by the hand of the King’s royal vizier, Haman, as well as the bravery of Queen Esther.

According to the book of Esther in the Jewish Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible) and the Christian Old Testament, King Ahasuerus chose a beautiful young woman named Esther as his second wife, after his first wife, Vashti, disobeyed him at a festival. Esther, therefore, became Queen of Persia. However, Ahasuerus did not know that the woman he had chosen as his bride was a Jewish orphan, living with her cousin and guardian, Mordecai, in exile.

After the marriage of Esther and Ahasuerus, Mordecai discovered a plot by two of the King’s eunuchs, who were plotting the King’s death. Mordecai, through Esther, exposed their plan, and was rewarded by the King.

But tensions rose in the court when Mordecai refused to bow to the King’s vizier, Haman. The King had decreed that everyone should bow before the vizier and, when Mordecai refused, Haman the vizier was enraged. Subsequently, the vizier discovered that Mordecai and Esther were Jewish, and he began plotting the extermination of all the exiled Jews in the kingdom. Haman even went so far as to have gallows erected specifically for executing Mordecai. But Mordecai discovered Haman’s plot in time, and used Esther’s favor with her husband to sway the King. Esther was hesitant to approach the King without him summoning her, as the act was punishable by death. Realizing that she may die if she went to the King, but that she might save the rest of her people, she went to Ahasuerus, unsummoned. The King did not kill her, and instead granted her request of attending a dinner party, along with Haman. At the dinner party, Esther invited them to a second party, set to take place the following day. It was at this second dinner that Esther, realizing that she had the favor of the King, exposed Haman’s plot to destroy the Jewish people, as well as her own identity as a Jewish woman. The King, realizing that his wife would be killed as part of Haman’s plan, and also remembering Esther and Mordecai’s involvement in exposing the plot of his assassination earlier, instead decided to execute Haman on the same gallows that he had erected for Mordecai.

Purim takes place on the 14th day of the Hebrew month of Adar, said to be celebrated after the 13th day, which Haman chose as the Jews’ execution day. Purim takes its name from the purims, or lots, that Haman drew to determine which day to massacre the Jews.

Jews celebrate their victory over Haman by holding festivals and large meals, wearing costumes, and reciting the Megilah, or the Book of Esther, and sharing food.

For today’s recipe, I made a traditional pastry associated with the holiday of Purim: hamantaschen, which is translated literally to “Haman’s ears.” However, tasche also means pocket or pouch in German, and it is commonly thought that this refers to the money that Haman offered the King to exterminate the Jewish people. In Hebrew, tash means “weaken,” which may reference the celebration of the weakening of Haman. Traditionally filled with poppy seeds, these cookies have been eaten in association with Purim since at least the 1500s.

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Ginger Pear Hamantaschen
Makes 20-24 hamantaschen.

Ingredients:

For filling:
3 3/4 cups pear, peeled, seeded, and chopped finely
1 1/4 cup, plus 1 tbsp white sugar
1 1/2 tsp lemon zest
4 tbsp lemon juice
1 1/2 tsps freshly zested ginger root

For cookie:
3/4 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
3/4 cup confectioner’s sugar
1 tsp lemon zest
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 egg
2 1/4 – 2 1/2 cups flour, plus more for rolling dough
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp baking powder
1 egg white, beaten and mixed with a splash of water to make an egg wash

Instructions:

For filling: In a heavy-bottomed saucepan, combine the pear, sugar lemon zest, lemon juice, and ginger root.

Place over low-medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the mixture thickens, about 30-45 minutes. You can mash the fruit with the back of a spoon as it begins to soften.

Allow to cool to room temperature, then pour into a sanitized jar and refrigerate.

For cookie: In a medium bowl, sift together 2 1/4 cups flour, salt, and baking soda.

Add butter and sugar to a large bowl and beat until very smooth and almost completely white in color, about five minutes.

Add the lemon zest, vanilla, and egg, and beat until just incorporated.

Add the flour mixture to the sugar mixture in three batches, beating each batch until it’s just incorporated. If the mixture is very sticky, you can add the remaining 1/4 cup of flour.

After you’ve added all the flour, begin pulling the mixture together into a ball. It may look a bit dry at first, but should come together. There may be some crumbs and that is OK.

Wrap the ball with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 1 1/2 hours, or as long as overnight.

Once refrigerated, preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Roll the dough out on a lightly floured surface to about 1/8-inch thick.

Line two large cookie sheets with parchment paper.

Using a 2- or 3-inch round cookie cutter, punch out as many circles as you can. Feel free to re-roll the scraps to punch out more circles.

Beat together egg white and water.

Using a pastry brush, cover the top of each circle with egg wash. Add about 1 1/2 – 2 tsp of ginger pear filling to each cookie. Fold three sides of the circle up to form a triangle. Place on cookie sheet at least 1-inch apart. Bake for about 10 to 15 minutes, or until lightly golden brown at the edges.

Remove from oven to a cooling rack and cool.

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Food is an excellent way to celebrate ritual and tradition over many generations, and this humble cookie is one such recipe. I hope you love it. Chag Purim Sameach!

The Melungeons + Chocolate Gravy

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Ooh! That feeling of spring is in the air! Meaning, it’s supposed to get over 40 for consecutive days this week. We’re already well into March, and I’m slowly starting to remember how much I love Chicago when it’s not gray and only 5 degrees. We’re almost through this, guys.

Before we’re able to dig into all the beautiful fruit recipes of spring and summer, right now we’re keeping our focus on chocolate. More specifically, we’re talking about chocolate gravy. Stay with me here. When my friends ask about my blog, they’re often curious where I get my recipes. It varies, but sometimes my research projects lead me in an unexpected direction. A while back, when looking into a family in southern Kentucky, my research led me to a group of people in the area known as Melungeons, which then led me down a rabbit hole of trying to figure out who exactly these people were, and where they had come from.

If you have never heard of the Melungeons, as I hadn’t: The group is mostly found in the Appalachian region now, but it’s thought that they may have originally come from North Carolina or Virginia. The term Melungeon, likely coming from the French word melange, meaning “mixed,” was used in the past as a derogatory way of distinguishing this particular mixed-race group. Today, the term has been reclaimed by descendants of the earliest members of the group.

But the question–that not even those identified by this name could answer for a long time–is: Who were the Melungeons?

The mystery surrounding the Melungeons comes from the fact that they lived in Appalachia, but had different physical traits than many of those settlers of northern European heritage in the area. While today many Melungeons would appear Caucasian, Melungeons a century ago were identified by their darker skin and light eyes. These features led to rumors about the origin of the group. They were alternatively identified as gypsies, or Turks, or even as the long-lost descendants of the Aztecs. However, their heritage was most commonly believed, even among the Melungeons themselves, to be Portuguese.

Before 2012, historians and genealogists guessed that the group was composed of the descendants of Native Americans, free African Americans, and possibly Portuguese. However, in 2012, with the emergence of DNA testing, the group finally began to learn their real heritage, and it proved fascinating. While, of course, there is no single type of Melungeon DNA, samples taken from modern-day members identified a common result: that they were likely descended from men with Sub-Saharan African lineage, and white women of European descent. The best assumption is that these groups would have intermarried sometime around the 1600s, likely between free, formerly enslaved men, and white indentured servant women.

It is hard to say where the suggestion of Mediterranean or Middle Eastern heritage came from, but it is very likely that the group, appearing darker than those of European ancestry, were trying to make sure family members remained free, and did not suffer legal repercussions. For example, in 1874, a woman named Martha Simmerman was challenged for her inheritance, and if it had been determined that she had African ancestry, she would have lost the case. However, her attorney asserted that her family was descended from the Phoenicians, an ancient Mediterranean civilization, who had migrated to Portugal before arriving in the United States. Additionally, as recently as 1924, Virginia passed the Racial Integrity Act that included the so-called “one drop” rule, which would deny legal privileges to anyone of even partial African descent.

The obscurity of the history of the Melungeons is terribly sad, but is also a reminder of the incredible things that genealogical research, as well as DNA testing, can dig up.

After learning the amazing story of the Melungeons, I looked at several Melungeon cookbooks, and found today’s recipe: Chocolate gravy. More broadly, this is a fairly common southern recipe. The Gravy (that is, the Southern Foodways Alliance, not the chocolate gravy referenced in this post) says that chocolate gravy should be thicker than a chocolate sauce, thinner than chocolate pudding, and is commonly served with biscuits. It is associated with the Blue Ridge Mountains, an area also associated with a large Melungeon population.

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Chocolate Gravy

Ingredients:
2 tbsp unsalted butter, or bacon fat
1/4 cup cocoa
1 1/3 cups milk
1 cup water, or strongly brewed coffee
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
salt, to taste

Instructions:

Bring coffee to a boil over medium heat. Add in the butter or bacon fat.

Mix cocoa, sugar, flour, and salt in a small bowl, and mix in a little milk to make a paste. Add remaining milk to the coffee in the saucepan.

Add the chocolate paste to the saucepan, and whisk together over low heat until smooth and thick.

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There are particular family names associated with the Melungeon group, such as Collins, Gibson, Goins, and Denham (one of these names is what led me down this rabbit hole in the first place). I’m curious if any of my readers know of any connections they have to the Melungeons! Alternatively, did any of you grow up eating chocolate gravy for breakfast? (Lucky!) Or, do you have any other genealogical mysteries that have (or haven’t!) been solved? Those are totally my jam, and I’d love to hear about them. Particularly if you have a recipe to go along with them!

Madeleines with Blood Orange Glaze and Pistachios

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Happy Mardi Gras! In honor of the holiday, we’re celebrating with some French history and buttery cookie-cakes. I give you, the madeleine.

The madeleine is most closely associated with the small town of Commercy, in the Lorraine region of eastern France. While no one knows for sure the true provenance of the madeleine, both nuns and royals are said to have had a hand in popularizing the cookie-sized cake.

Often the madeleine is associated with two different female bakers of the same name. Some histories suggest that the madeleine was simply named after a baker employed in the castle of Jean François Paul de Gondi, Cardinal de Retz in Lorraine. However, this is probably the least likely story of all, as absolutely no evidence of such a baker named madeleine has been found, nor any evidence that a baker in the household had any hand in the creation of the dessert at all. It’s also unclear if the house the woman worked in belonged to the Cardinal at all.

A slightly more convincing story suggests that an exiled Polish King and his French king son-in-law may have played a part. In 1725, King Louis XV of France married Maria Leszczynska, the daughter of the former Polish King, Stanislaw I Leszczynski. After losing his throne, Stanislaw was given the Duchy of Lorraine. He established himself in the Chateau de Luneville, and it’s suggested that it was here that the first madeleine was created by a woman named Madeleine Paulmier. Legend has it that Madeleine was a baker in the Duke’s castle and that in 1755, after she had created the madeleine, the Duke’s son-in-law, King Louis XV of France, tasted the confection, fell in love with it, and introduced the new dessert to the Court of Versailles. Others say the Duke gave it to his daughter, Maria, the Queen of France, and that it was she who introduced it to the court. Some sources state that the cookies were named after the baker herself, while others say that the King named them for his wife, Maria, though why they would be called madeleines instead of marias is hard to say. (I wish that I could dig through some local records in Lorraine to see if there was any credibility to this claim. With both a first and last name, if this woman existed, certainly she should show up somewhere.)

The second suggestion is that madeleines were not created in Lorraine at all, but instead in the kitchen of Jean Avice, the cook to Prince Talleyrand in Paris. Avice is credited with the distinctive shell-shape of the cookie, achieved by baking the batter in aspic molds. This seems like a good argument in favor of Avice, but his recipe is often dated to the 19th century, and madeleines almost certainly existed before then. Recipes dating back to the mid-1700s have been found, and were already being made in other parts of France.

I think perhaps the most compelling argument for the cookie is not related to a baker named Madeleine at all, but rather to the faith of French nuns. The name Madeleine is the French form of “Magdalene,” as in Mary Magdalene, the follower of Jesus Christ. It is known that convents around France baked lots of things, which would support the theory that nuns were behind at least the name of the dessert, if not also the recipe. It also seems that Commercy, in particular, had a convent named after Mary Magdalene. After the convents of France were shut down in 1790, the nuns may have sold the madeleine recipe to bakers for a profit. This might also explain how it spread across France around that time. While it might be more romantic to imagine one baker named Madeleine creating the treat in a humble kitchen, the fact is pastries were already big business in the 1700s, particularly in France. Additionally, there is a popular cupcake-like dessert in Spain that closely resembles the madeleine, called a magdalena. It’s hard to say which dessert came first, but the Catholic link between the two countries and the similarity in names seems undeniable.

While the dessert has been popular in France for centuries, a mention in the 1920s by Marcel Proust, in his work In Search of Lost Time, may have been responsible for taking the cake’s popularity beyond the French border. In the work, he describes how the madeleine crumbs transport him back in time to his childhood (though, as Proust grew up more than 160 miles away from Commercy, one must assume that the cookie had already been popularized throughout France.)

Perhaps we will never know the true creator for sure, but you can add your own name to the history of the dessert, and make it yourself! For the recipe, you will need a bit of lead time: Once made, the batter should be refrigerated at least three hours. After that, things come together quickly, and what you’re left with is fluffy, buttery, and perfect straight from the oven, or cooled and glazed. Either way, they’re quite comfortable alongside a hot cup of coffee.

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Madeleines with Blood Orange Glaze and Pistachios
Makes 12 full-size madeleines, or 24 mini madeleines.

Ingredients:
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/8 tsp salt
2 eggs
1/3 cup sugar
1/2 tsp almond extract
1/4 tsp vanilla extract
2 tsp blood orange zest, optional
4 tbsp (or 1/4 cup) butter, melted, plus 1 tbsp butter, melted, to grease the pans

For topping, optional:
1/2 cup of powdered sugar
OR
1 tsp blood orange juice
1/2 cup confectioner’s sugar
1/2 cup pistachios, chopped finely

Instructions:

Whisk together the flour, baking powder, and salt. Set aside.

Add sugar and eggs to a large bowl. Beat with a hand mixer until thick and pale, about 2-3 minutes. Fold the vanilla and almond extracts and orange zest into the mixture until just combined.

Fold in the melted butter. Sift the flour mixture over the top and fold in until no dry streaks remain.

Press plastic wrap directly on top of the batter (as you would with homemade pudding) and refrigerate for at least three hours, or up to two days.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Brush melted butter into the shell molds in a madeleine pan (or a small muffin tin), freeze pan for 5 minutes, then brush the remaining melted butter on. Lightly flour each shell.

Fill molds almost all the way to the top, but not quite full. (Batter will will be thick, but will spread and even out as it bakes).

Bake for 10-12 minutes. Begin checking for doneness at 10 minutes. Each cookie should spring back when you press your finger into the center.

Dust lightly with powdered sugar. Or, add about 1 tbsp of blood orange juice to 1/2 cup of confectioner’s sugar. Dip half of a (cooled) madeleine into the glaze, and immediately top with fresh, chopped pistachios.

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Perhaps there is no more perfect dessert than a madeleine. Half cookie, half cake, a springy sponge cookie-cake that makes for a light-as-air dessert. It’s a perfect little two-bite, shell-shaped morsel, and it’s not hard to see why it went down in history.