Alex’s Birthday + Dark Chocolate Babka French Toast

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It’s summer, so it seems like time is moving a million miles a minute. We constantly have places to go and things to do, but this week, we’re saving up our energy to celebrate Alex’s birthday!

A quick ode to the quirks that define my husband: He doesn’t drink coffee in the morning. Even if it’s already made and offered to him. He usually only starts drinking coffee after 1:30 in the afternoon. His favorite foods are chocolate, cookies, tortilla chips, and…vegetables. He also has the crazy super power of being able to order, almost without fail, whatever on the menu a restaurant doesn’t have. Pork chops? We’re out. Skillet cookie? We took that off the menu. It was with this constant disappointment in mind that Alex’s birthday treat this year was created.

If you can believe it, there have been two times that Alex has seen chocolate french toast on a menu at a restaurant. Before ordering it, he was perplexed: “What is chocolate french toast? Where do they add the chocolate?” Chocolate drizzled on top? Chocolate chips? Chocolate bread? Anyway, the end of the story is that he ordered the french toast and was told, BOTH TIMES, that they didn’t have it. So we went on with our lives, assuming that chocolate french toast was actually just too good to exist in this world and we were just imagining it on menus. Then! It was time for Alex’s birthday. I’ve mentioned before that Alex doesn’t like cake. (“It’s fine,” he says.) So each year, I try to get a little creative with what his birthday dessert will be. And, this year, I said, “I’m going to make that man some chocolate french toast.” Dark chocolate french toast. Using chocolate babka.

Babka is a sweet yeast dough, often filled with chocolate or cinnamon, or sometimes fruit, and baked in a loaf. At first Alex was skeptical, only becoming more accepting when I explained it to him in Seinfeld. Then he was immediately on board. And so I set out to create the birthday treat of his dreams. Spoiler: It went well.

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Dark Chocolate Babka French Toast

Ingredients:
2 cups flour
6 tbsp sugar
1 1/8 tsp active yeast
1 egg
2 tsp grated orange zest
1/4 cup warm water
1/4 cup warm milk
1/2 tsp salt
4 tbsp butter, extremely soft

For the chocolate filling:
1/4 cup confectioners’ sugar
1 tbsp sugar
3 tbsp cocoa powder
2 oz dark chocolate, chopped
1/4 cup unsalted butter, melted

For the syrup:
1/3 cup water
3/4 cup sugar

For french toast:
4 3/4-inch slices of babka
2 eggs
2 tbsp whole milk or heavy cream
1/8 tsp salt
1 tbsp unsalted butter, for pan 

Whisk together the warm water and yeast in a medium bowl. Allow to sit for about five minutes, until frothy.

Oil a slightly larger bowl.

Add the milk, egg, butter, sugar, salt, zest, and 1 cup of the flour. Mix well with a wooden spoon. Continue adding enough flour to make the mixture easy to handle, up to 2 cups total.

Place the mixture onto a well-floured surface and knead until the dough is smooth and no longer sticks, adding flour as needed, for about five minutes.

Once the dough is elastic, place in the oiled bowl, and turn over to cover the entire surface of the dough with oil. Cover the bowl with a dish towel and allow to rise in a warm place for about 1 1/2 hours.

To make the chocolate paste, mix the confectioner’s sugar, white sugar, and cocoa powder. Chop your dark chocolate and melt your butter. While the butter is still warm, add the chopped chocolate, stirring until it is melted. Wait to mix the butter/chocolate mixture into the dry ingredients until right before you’re ready to spread it on the dough.

Spray an 8×4-inch loaf pan with cooking spray and line with parchment paper.

When your dough has rested, punch it down and begin to roll it out on a lightly floured surface. Roll to 16 by 12 inches, with the long side nearest to you. The dough is not too precious, so if you need to pull it a bit or use a bench scraper to keep the edges even, do so.

Now mix your butter/chocolate mixture into the dry chocolate ingredients. Spread the mixture over the top of the dough, leaving less than a 1/2 inch border around the edge.

Roll the long side of the dough up onto a roll. Place the roll seam-side-down.

Use a knife or bench scraper to cut the roll in half lengthwise–you want to end up with two long, narrow halves, with stripes of the chocolate mixture showing through.

Then, with the chocolate stripes facing up, gently lay one of the halves over the other until you have a long braid, banded with chocolate. If your ends have gotten uneven, you can again cut them down.

Place the braid chocolate-side-up into your oiled 8×4-inch loaf pan, tucking the ends under.

Cover with a dish towel and allow to rise in a warm spot for about 45 minutes to 1 hour. It will not quite double in size. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

After letting it rise, bake for about 20-25 minutes, until golden brown. To ensure it is done, insert a knife into the middle–it may come out with chocolate on it, but there should be no sign of dough.

While the bread is baking, whisk together the sugar and water over low heat until the sugar is completely dissolved.

Remove the loaf from the oven and immediately brush the glaze entirely over the top, ensuring some gets down each side of the pan.

Allow to cool.

If making french toast, mix together eggs, milk, and salt into a flat-bottomed pan. Place slices of babka into the mixture for about 30 seconds, then flip and allow to soak for another 30 seconds on the second side.

While the bread is soaking, melt the butter in a skillet over medium heat.

Carefully move the soaked bread into the hot pan, allow to brown (about 2-3 minutes on each side).

Serve warm with berries, powdered sugar, syrup or butter. Enjoy! 

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My God, it is a thing of beauty. And the taste? Forget it. It looks so much more difficult to create than it is. You will need a little time, mostly for letting it rise, but if anything is worth waiting for, it’s this french toast. (It’s so good, I think I might trying making another loaf to use in my friend Sarah’s grandmother’s bread pudding recipe.) For this dough, I used my mom’s time-tested pecan roll recipe. For the filling, glaze, and preparation, I followed this Seven Spoons recipe, halved, which itself is an adaptation of Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi’s recipe from Jerusalem: A Cookbook. I only made one loaf, because I’m no fool: I know that 2 loaves of babka equals one loaf per person in this household, and I just can’t have it around.

On Alex’s actual birthday, we will be going out for a nice Italian dinner. I can’t say where, because this post goes up before his birthday and Alex’s birthday dinner location is always a secret to him. Then we’ll go out for drinks (but more likely we’ll be tired, get one drink, and go home, which is nice, too).

Happy birthday, my dear love! This babka’s cool, but not half as cool as you.

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Michigan Trip + Blueberry Muffins

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Hey, guys! How was your 4th of July?? I hope it was full of good eating and safe fireworking! We spent our 4th on the road, on our first road trip of the season! We were in Michigan for a few days, stopping in all the adorable lakeside towns we could find. We made a stop at the National Cherry Festival in Traverse City and ate plenty of cherry pie, cherry donuts, and cherry salsa (SO.GOOD.). We ended by spending some time in one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen, Sleeping Bear Dunes.

On our way back to the city, we stopped to grab some blueberries from a roadside fruit stand. (Did you know that the western swath of Michigan is part of America’s fruit belt? What a perfect place to be when practically every beautiful fruit is in season.) Blueberries are native to the United States, and Michigan is one of the top producers of the berry.

Native Americans have been using the wild plant for centuries, usually combining it with meat and fat to form pemmican, or adding it to cornmeal bread, or using it as a dye for clothing. But wild blueberries are not the blueberries that you find in stores. In the early 20th century, a botanist named Frederick Coville began experimenting with ways to domesticate wild blueberries. He published his findings in 1910, revealing that wild blueberries thrived in acidic soil, and his work was read by a cranberry farmer’s daughter living in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey, named Elizabeth Coleman White. She had often noticed wild blueberries growing near her family’s cranberry bogs, so she reached out to Coville, inviting him to her farm to continue his study of how the wild fruit could be bred as a viable season-lengthening crop. Coville, with the funding of White’s father, was able to work with local residents who knew where the the best wild plants were located. For five years, locals would bring Coville wild berry plants. Coville, in turn, would attempt to cultivate the wild plants. Only a handful of the 100 plants that were brought to Coville proved successful. In 1916, Coville and White sent their first domesticated blueberries to market. It’s hard to believe that “tame” blueberries have only been available for a little over 100 years.

Blueberries are on the menu today because… it’s National Blueberry Muffin Day, and on top of that, July is National Blueberry Month! So let’s celebrate!

I have the best memories of my mom making blueberry muffins (from a box) on Saturday mornings, biting into the warm muffins too soon and getting burned by little molten lava blueberries. I also have great memories of just destroying the cartons of blueberries my mom would buy in the summer. I think I was trying to get all my nutrients in one sitting.

Anyway, this recipe for blueberry muffins is not from a box, but it’s still weekend-morning-easy to make, and makes tall and fluffy muffins that aren’t too sweet (very important to me, when it comes to muffins) and are just stuffed to the gills with fresh blueberries. They are what you want in the morning and also any other time of the day.

For the muffin recipe, I tweaked the no-fail pancake recipe that I’ve been using for over a decade. The pancakes are delicious, I thought, so why not try it. The results did not disappoint.

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Blueberry Muffins
Makes 12 muffins.

Ingredients:
2 cups flour
1 cup sugar
1/2 tsp salt
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1 cup buttermilk (or 1 cup whole milk, plus two tbsp lemon juice or white vinegar)
5 tbsp unsalted butter, melted and cooled
1 large egg
1 tsp vanilla extract
2 cups blueberries, washed and dried

Instructions:

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Combine the flour, sugar, salt, baking powder, and baking soda in a large mixing bowl.

In a large measuring cup, or small mixing bowl, combine the buttermilk, butter, egg, and vanilla extract. Whisk to combine. (If you don’t have buttermilk, you can instead use 1 cup whole milk, combined with 2 tablespoons of fresh lemon juice or white vinegar. If you use this method, combine these items and allow to sit for five minutes before adding the butter, egg, and vanilla.)

Stir the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients until just combined. (If the mixture is still a little dry, you can add up to a 1/4 cup of whole milk, one tablespoon at a time. The mixture should still be quite lumpy, but should not be clumping together or have any dry streaks.) Carefully fold in blueberries, without too much additional stirring.

Allow the batter to rest for about 10 minutes at room temperature.

Fill a muffin tin with paper liners. Spoon the mixture into the top of each liner. Bake for 10 minutes, then turn the pan 180 degrees and continue baking for another 10 minutes. (You can begin checking for doneness at the 18 minute mark. When done, the top of the muffin should spring back when gently pressed.)

Remove the muffins from the oven and allow to cool in the pan for about 10 minutes. Eat right away, or remove to a wire rack until completely cooled.

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I believe these muffins will be making a regular appearance in my house from here on out. The recipe only makes twelve muffins, because I find that they don’t keep for very long, and while they’re good, 12 muffins seems sufficient for most households. However, the recipe could easily be doubled if you have guests or are a blueberry muffin monster.

Also, if you have any good recipes that use blueberries, please pass them on. I still have lots and I cannot sit back and watch these precious babies go bad. Back in May, I made blueberry rhubarb pandowdy. I’m thinking of doing it again, this time swapping out the rhubarb for some delicious, sweet peaches that I’ve had my eye on.

I hope you’re taking full advantage of blueberry/fruit season. If you follow this blog, or my social media, I will apologize now for the inundation of fruit-related recipes/photos that are to come. You’ve been warned!

 

Sponge Cake with Strawberries and Cream

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Hey! I jumped off here for a bit. My dude and I paid a nice little visit to New Orleans, the only other city we’ve ever lived in together. It was half vacation, half we’ve had too much Chicago winter and, even though it’s getting nice now, our bones are still frozen. Since we left, New Orleans is 300 years old (what?!) and way cooler. Us leaving may have even had something to do with that. We do not usually go to the swankiest places, but a quick rundown of our old and new favorites include: Elizabeth’s and Paloma Cafe, in the Bywater, for great food and drinks; our old haunt Cure on Freret (they just won the James Beard Award for Outstanding Bar Program!); Alto, the poolside, rooftop bar at the Ace Hotel; Bouligny Tavern, our favorite neighborhood spot (when Uptown was still our neighborhood); and Jacques-Imo’s on Oak, for really solid New Orleans cuisine (be prepared to wait for a table).

So, now the reason for this post: It’s the two-year birthday of my little blog-baby! As a person who studied and loves history, but has no interest or intention of ever teaching, my blog has become my little passion project of researching, writing about historical people, historical recipes, and family recipes. I’ve been lucky enough to have very, very cool women agree to share their family recipes and stories with me. I’ve learned some cool new things myself, and hopefully you have, too! I’m having a mini-celebration with cake.

When I was little, my favorite dessert was strawberry shortcake (and my favorite cartoon was Strawberry Shortcake–which came first??). I see recipes for strawberry shortcake online and they look amazing, but they are not what I had as a child. In fact, the only strawberry shortcake recipe I knew as a child was probably mostly chemicals: Those little store-bought, yellow, spongecake discs, accompanied by a tub of bright red glaze, strawberries (perhaps the only non-lab-created ingredient), and cool whip. As a child of the nineties, my body was raised on preservatives and corn syrup. I think it’s really nice when I hear people my age say that cookies and candies weren’t even allowed in their house, or that if desserts were allowed they were always hand-made from scratch. That just wasn’t my experience. Cake was available at every celebration, and almost always from a box. And I loved every minute of it.

As a grown-up who knows more about nutrition now, I eat a little better. Cakes are made, sure, but I enjoy only a little, or give them away as gifts. Also, I am blessed with a lot more time than my mom had. I am not working overtime in a factory, with two kids to feed. So, while I appreciate the tiny celebrations that we had, my happy medium as an adult is making things I love from scratch, with fresh and whole ingredients (including sugar and butter) when I can. This strawberry sponge cake is my version of my favorite childhood treat.

There is no history to this post, except for my own. It’s just a thankful strawberry spongecake recipe to remind me of summer days as a child, why I love food so damn much in the first place, and how grateful I am that people like you show up to look at my pictures and read my words.

To begin, and to really get the nostalgia flowing, instead of a biscuit-like base (like the ones I see online that are very beautiful and delicious), I made a yellow sponge cake. There are not one, but two, layers of strawberries, one layer floating just above the cake, dripping with a strawberry glaze that melts into the top, the second sitting on a cloud of fluffy whipped cream. It’s my own personal version of heaven.

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Sponge Cake with Strawberries and Cream
Makes one 9×13-inch cake.

Ingredients:
For cake:
2 cups unbleached cake flour
2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
3/4 cup whole milk
4 tbsp unsalted butter, melted
1 tsp vanilla extract
5 large eggs, room temperature
1 1/2 cups sugar
For topping:
2 cups strawberries, hulled and quartered (measure after quartering)
3/4 cup sugar
2 1/2 cups strawberries, hulled and sliced (to add to sauce)
1 1/2 cups strawberries, hulled and quartered (to add to whipped topping)
2 1/2 cups heavy cream, very cold
1/4 cup sugar
pinch of salt
2 tsp vanilla

Instructions:

For the cake: Grease a 9×13-inch pan and line with parchment paper (you may want to use a binder clip to hold the parchment to the sides of the pans). Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Sift together the flour, baking powder, and salt into a bowl. Set aside.

Melt the butter and combine with the whole milk. Stir in the vanilla. Set aside.

In a double boiler, combine the eggs and sugar. Whisking constantly, heat the mixture over medium heat for 5-8 minutes. The sugar should be dissolved, and the mixture should be very light yellow and thin. Remove from heat.

With a hand mixer or stand mixer, beat the eggs and sugar together until about double in size. When ready, the mixture will be very light yellow in color, and will hold its shape for a moment, when you move the beaters through it.

Pour in all the flour mixture and gently fold from bottom to top until all dry ingredients are incorporated. Add in the butter and milk mixture and stir until combined. The batter will be quite thin.

Pour the batter into the pan, bake for about 25-30 minutes, turning the pan 180 degrees at the 15-minute mark.

When it is lightly golden brown on the top, springy to the touch, and a toothpick inserted into the middle comes out clean, it is done. Allow to cool in the pan for 10 minutes, then allow to cool completely on a wire rack.

For the topping: Hull and quarter strawberries and add them to a food processor with sugar. Blend until liquefied, then strain the mixture into a bowl.

Slice two cups of berries and stir them into the sweetened berry purée.

Beat the heavy cream with the sugar and vanilla.

Quarter the two remaining cups of strawberries.

Using a large serrated knife, slice the very top layer off the cake to make it a flat and porous surface. Pour the strawberry purée mixture evenly over the top of the cake. Add whipped cream. Then top with quartered berries and mint (optional).

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This cake is not for everyone. Not even my mom who used to make it for me, who says she doesn’t like “goop” on her cake. But for me, it’s perfect. It’s simple, it’s delicious, and it’s a little messy. Probably good for a picnic. It checks a lot of boxes.

If you share my passion for food and history, you’re always welcome here! This is not a business for me, but it does feel like more than just a hobby. Thanks so much for reading and I hope you’ll be back soon!

Cherry Cheese Danishes

Update from my last post: The weather is no longer killing me. It’s supposed to get up to almost 80 today!! I feel like a mummy coming back to life. We grilled for the first time, next weekend we’re going to our first baseball game of the year, and I’m eagerly checking the weather every day to see if the temperatures are creeping up. Anyway, it finally feels like a new season.

And, speaking of new seasons, it’s the first day of May, colloquially known as May Day, which is an unusually historic calendar event, and which gives me an occasion to write about today’s recipe. Originally, May Day was an ancient pagan celebration of the arrival of spring, actually celebrated at the end of April. However, in many countries across the world, May Day has been adopted as a day to honor workers. This holiday, also known as International Workers’ Day, was created in the contentious 1880s after the infamous Haymarket Affair in Chicago. On May 4, 1886, during a labor rally in support of an eight-hour workday, a bomb was thrown at police. One policeman was killed by shrapnel, and six other officers and at least four civilians were killed in the chaos. It was assumed that local labor-activist anarchists were responsible for throwing the bomb, and very shortly eight self-described anarchist leaders of the labor movement were arrested for the officer’s death (some of whom were not even present during the rally). Eventually, four of the defendants were hanged for the crime, while one committed suicide, two were given a life sentence, one was sentenced to 15 years in prison.

Though the Haymarket Affair occurred in the United States, it was later formally decided that Labor Day, which had been semi-officially established during the same period of labor agitation, would be celebrated in September. However, for much of the rest of the world, May 1st was chosen by a delegation of Socialist and Communist groups in the late 1800’s as the day to celebrate laborers and the working class, partly thanks to its proximity to the Haymarket anniversary.

But let’s get to why you’re really here: These precious, puffy Danishes.

The delicious Danish may have been popularized thanks in part to a labor movement. There are a couple of theories about their creation, and likely both have a bit of truth. The first story involves Niels Albeck, a Danish baker who, in the 1830’s, traveled to Vienna to study the art of traditional Viennese pastry. He returned and opened a bakery in Denmark selling Viennese pastries. The second story centers around a strike that took place in Denmark in the 1850’s: After Danish bakers went on strike, bakery owners replaced their absent employees with Austrian and Swiss bakers. In fact, in Denmark the pastry is not known as a “Danish” but rather as wienerbrød or “Vienna bread.” And the official name for the dough that produces these flaky, buttery treats is known as Viennoiserie, French for “things of Vienna.” But Danes are well aware that the pastry that carries their name in the U.S. was created elsewhere. I asked my good friend Jen, who studied abroad in Denmark years ago, what Danes thought of the Danish pastry. She told me that her Danish friends knew about the dubious naming of the pastry, and told her, “We would never mix cheese with sugar.”

And, while the first “Danish” pastry in the US quite possibly arrived with Danish immigrants, its popularity greatly increased in the early 1900’s, when a Danish baker by the name of L.C. Klitteng, who was one of the bakers for President Woodrow Wilson’s marriage to Edith Bolling in 1915, began doing touring presentations on how to make a traditional “Danish pastry.” (I could find no mention of the Danish pastry in newspapers before 1915.)

I was hoping to find an older recipe for the dough to compare it to other laminated dough recipes and see if anything special sets it apart, but I couldn’t find any historical recipe for it. So, instead, I used the recipe below. While making this dough is not necessarily any more difficult than other pastry, it does take some time (mostly several hours for the dough to chill). But if you can plan ahead a bit, these would be easy to prepare for a weekend brunch.

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Cherry Cheese Danishes
Makes about nine four-inch Danishes. This version of laminated dough is from Yossy Arefi, via Samantha Seneviratne.

Ingredients:
For dough:
1 1/2 cups flour, plus more for rolling
2 tbsp sugar
2 tsp active dry yeast
3/4 tsp salt
14 tbsp unsalted butter, cubed and very cold
1 egg (plus one more for egg wash)
1/4 cup milk
2 tbsp water
For filling:
8 oz cream cheese, softened
1 egg
3 1/2 tbsp honey
zest of one small lemon
pinch of salt
Jam or berry filling
For glaze:
1/2 cup powdered sugar
2-3 tsp milk

Instructions:

For dough: In a food processor, combine the flour, sugar, yeast, salt, and butter. Pulse a few times to combine the mixture. When ready, the butter pieces should be about the size of small peas and the dough should just begin pulling away from the sides of the processor bowl.

In a small bowl, beat together the milk, egg, and water. Pour the dough mixture from the processor into a medium-sized bowl. Pour the milk and egg mixture over the top and fold the liquid into the dough until it’s evenly covered.

Pour the mixture onto a sheet of plastic wrap. Fold into a ball, and then after you wrap the ball, form it into a rough rectangle. Refrigerate for at least three hours, or overnight.

Once refrigerated, place the dough on a lightly floured surface. Roll out into an 8×15-inch rectangle. Use your hand or a bench cutter to shape the sides and corners to keep them as even as possible. The dough will still be quite shaggy and large butter pieces will be visible. With the short side nearest to you, fold one edge of the dough down, then fold the other edge over on top of it. You should have a book-shaped rectangle again at this point. Turn the dough 90 degrees and repeat the rolling and folding process. Continue this for a total of five folds and turns, straightening the edges as you go. Once you’ve made your fifth turn, wrap the dough again and refrigerate for at least an hour. After an hour, roll out the dough and fold again, for a total of six turns altogether. Wrap the dough again and refrigerate for at least two hours, and up to two days.

When ready, roll out the dough into a 13×13-inch square. Trim about 1/2 an inch off each edge (using a pizza cutter works well) to make sure the edges are very straight. Then cut 9 4×4-inch squares from the dough. Beat together an egg with one tablespoon of water or milk. Brush this mixture across the top of the entire large square, then reserve the remaining mixture for after the dough has risen. Then, working with one small square at a time, fold each corner to the middle and place on two large parchment-paper-lined baking sheets. Repeat with each square. Cover the baking sheets with plastic wrap, and allow to rise slightly for 60 to 80 minutes.

As the dough is rising, beat together the softened cream cheese, egg, honey, lemon zest, and salt. If you’re using a pie filling for the topping, be sure to drain, but not rinse, before using.

For the glaze, mix together powdered sugar and milk in a small bowl.

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.

Once the dough has rested for at least an hour, place about 1 tablespoon of cream cheese filling in the middle. If using fruit topping, you can spoon about a tablespoon of that over the top of the cream cheese mixture.

Bake for about ten minutes, turning the pan 180 degrees halfway through. Allow to cool slightly before spooning the glaze over the top. Enjoy!

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This dough was a fun experiment for me. I had never made laminated dough before, and I knew it was pretty time-consuming. But I was curious, and I also had some fine flour that my mother-in-law sent me from Cairnspring Mills in the Skagit Valley of Washington State. (This is not a sponsored post, I just thought it was a nice gift, and a nice flour to use.) I made my “Danishes” cherry cheese, because it is absolutely one of my favorite pastry combinations of all, but you can have fun with it. We don’t have a lot of beautiful produce here yet, but I’m thinking next time… rhubarb? Why not?

So, whether you are celebrating with a dance around the May Pole, or a union march, happy May Day to you!

Indiana Persimmon Pudding

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All the signs of the holidays are here: Last Friday, we walked over to the local hardware store and picked out our Christmas tree, as we have done for the last four years. And the next morning we woke up to a beautiful snow-covered city. For the record, this is Phase 1 of winter, where I say I love snow, and I talk about how magical the city is when it snows. One month from now, though, I will be downtown, standing on the sidewalk too close to the street, and get annihilated by gray slushy splash from a large truck. Or I’ll step off the sidewalk into what appears to be a shallow snow pile that is actually knee-deep, and have cold, wet feet for the rest of the day. Phase 2 of winter is called, “Snow in the city is a disgusting dirty mess.” Welcome to Chicago.

After the tree and the snow, the third sign of the holidays is all the baking. Pies, cookies, breads, you name it. When it’s cold outside, one of my favorite things in the world is waking up early, making myself some coffee, and baking while I’m still in my robe. A dream of mine is to one day make a gingerbread house from scratch. (Last year, Alex and I got the bright idea to make a gingerbread house, so we bought little decorations, like gumdrops and tiny rock-shaped candy-covered chocolates. Then we realized that making a complete gingerbread house from scratch cannot be done in the hour that we wanted to devote to it, so we just ate the candy decorations while we watched It’s a Wonderful Life and Barbershop. That’s a true story.)

Anyway, while I’m in the mood to bake I’ve been trying out some new recipes that I found throughout the year and put aside until, you know, I felt like it. One of those recipes was persimmon pudding.

I had my first persimmon well after I left Indiana for college. And, even when I had it, I figured it was some exotic fruit that I would never have seen on the produce shelves at Kroger. So didn’t I feel like a dope when I found out that the persimmon is native to the eastern United States, and grows wild Indiana (mostly southern Indiana, but still!), among other places. In fact, persimmons are kind of a big deal in southern Indiana, with a Persimmon Festival held every year in early fall in Mitchell, Indiana, for the last 71 years.

The word persimmon comes from the Powhatan language, and means “dry fruit”. Tasty, huh? Before they ripen, persimmons have a high number of tannins, like a very dry red wine, but about 1000 times worse. If you bite into an unripe persimmon, dry fruit is exactly what comes to mind. All of a sudden it feels like you have a mouth full of bitter gauze. It’s not great. I read somewhere that a ripe Hachiya should feel to the fingers like a full water balloon. And, as revolting as that analogy is, it is correct. If you let them ripen fully, you have a sweet and juicy fruit, the perfect base for this pudding.

I found references to persimmon pudding in Indiana as early as the 1890’s. In one paper from Richmond, there is a reference to using native Indiana persimmons in “one of those good old North Carolina persimmon puddings.” So perhaps persimmon pudding, famous in Indiana, is actually a dish that traveled through North Carolina, before making its way to Indiana, similar to the Hoosier sugar cream pie I made earlier this year.

And, when I say pudding, I’m not talking about Snack Packs. What I mean is the typical English pudding style, which is often steamed or baked, and results in something between a custard and a cake. These dishes used to be extremely popular in the Eastern United States. In fact, last year, I made Indian pudding, a recipe from colonial times, which is a similar texture to this pudding but is made with cornmeal and is less sweet. This dessert has just the right amount of sweetness, along with the cinnamon and nutmeg, to make you think, “Oh, yeah, that’s the taste of the holidays right there.”

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Indiana Persimmon Pudding
This recipe is a slight variation on this recipe, the winner at the 2014 Persimmon Festival in Mitchell, Indiana. Makes 4-6 servings.

Ingredients: 
1 cup persimmon, processed and strained (about 2-3 medium-large Hachiya persimmons)
3/4 cups buttermilk
1/4 tsp vanilla
3 tbsp butter: 1 tbsp for greasing the dish, 2 tbsp for the mixture, softened
3/4 cup sugar
1 egg
1/2 cup flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/8 tsp baking soda
1/8 tsp salt
1/2 tsp cinnamon
Pinch of nutmeg

Instructions:

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

Grease at least a one quart baking dish with 1 tablespoon of butter and set aside.

In a small bowl, add flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, and nutmeg. Stir to combine.

Take skin off of persimmons, roughly chop and blend in a food processor for about 10 seconds until smooth. Pour the processed persimmon through a mesh strainer and discard the pulp. Measure out one cup of the strained persimmon into a separate bowl.

Add the buttermilk to the persimmon and stir together.

In a separate bowl, using a mixer, cream together the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter, with the sugar, until smooth. Stir this mixture into the persimmon-buttermilk mixture with a wooden spoon.

Sift the flour mixture into the persimmon mixture using a wooden spoon and stir to thoroughly combine. No flour streaks should remain, but the mixture will not be completely smooth, and there will be some lumps.

Pour into the greased baking dish and bake for 70-80 minutes. Begin checking for doneness at the 70-minute mark by sticking a knife in the center and closer to the edges. Once the knife comes out clean in each area, it’s done.

Serve warm with ice cream or whipped cream and enjoy!

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Yes, this recipe takes a while to bake. Low and slow, beebs. But it takes almost no time to throw together. And when it’s done, you have a rich, warmly spiced pudding, with a caramelized exterior. It’s admittedly not much to look at, but it is delicious and is the definition of comfort food. And, as most things are, it’s best served warm, with ice cream or whipped cream on the side. Let me know what you think if you decide to whip up a batch!

Zeny’s Chicken à la King Hand Pies

Kristina

Today, I’m so excited to have my dear friend Kristina Alto as my guest. I met Kristina almost three years ago, when we were working for the same company in downtown Chicago. We worked in the same department and hit it off quickly, bonding over our love of food, pop culture, and our not-so-secret dream of leaving our office jobs for careers we were more passionate about. Kristina has a dual degree in international politics and political science from Loyola, but while pursuing jobs in that field, she “began craving something else,” she told me. “I found that I really wanted to do something creative, that I wanted to make something. I found an outlet for that in writing and baking.”

She has always loved being in the kitchen. “I remember begging my mom to let me wash the dishes after dinner when I was young and didn’t know what I was doing,” she recalled. “I still remember the first thing I tried making on my own – some sort of weird chip dip that was more mayonnaise than anything else. But I was probably 9 and anything tasted good on Ruffles potato chips.” Amen.

Baking, on the other hand, is newer to her. “I started playing around with scones. From there, I found more recipes I wanted to explore.” Her husband’s enthusiasm helped her follow her interest. “Conrad encouraged me to take the plunge and just go for it. I can’t say what made me decide to go to pastry school as opposed to jumping right into a kitchen but I’m so grateful that I did.” At the end of 2015, she left her office job, and by early 2016, she was enrolled at the French Pastry School, studying to become a pastry chef. “School was the perfect transition from cubicle to kitchen,” she told me. After finishing her program, Kristina started working for one of Chicago’s most popular bakeries, Hoosier Mama Pie Company.

Kristina and I have been trying for over a year to get together to cook. A while back she told me that she was interested in making one of her Filipino grandmother’s recipes. There are two recipes that Kristina remembers especially fondly: Puto, a Filipino steamed rice cake, and Chicken a la King. “I can still picture her in the kitchen of our Skokie apartment, standing at the stove while I sat at the table – or under it,” she said.

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Her grandmother, Zenaida (Zeny for short), grew up in Quezon City, in the Phillipines, the second youngest of eleven siblings. Kristina told me, “She loved to sew and she was incredibly dedicated to family – especially to my mom and uncle. She made it a point to visit us in Chicago as often as she could and I can’t tell you how much I loved having her around. Her stays always meant lots of great food and new play clothes. She was a whiz on the sewing machine so I always had a solid stash of fun play clothes – they were usually ridiculous skirts.” A girl after my own heart.

The recipe that Kristina decided to share with me and you is Chicken à la King, which is often served over rice, or the way Zeny made it, served with slices of French bread. “It was one of my absolute favorites because not only was it delicious but it was pretty much the only meal we could have without rice.” Instead of either rice or bread, Kristina wanted to bring her Hoosier Mama experience to the table and try to bake the mixture into a hand pie.

She told me, “Chicken à la King is definitely not a family recipe but I wish I knew how my grandma came by it. When my mom moved to America from the Philippines, my grandma gave her a Filipino cookbook. It was a slim paperback with a bright yellow cover with brown pages and she used it every time she came to visit us in Chicago, writing notes and recipes in the blank spaces. Her Chicken à la King recipe is handwritten in one of the blank pages and my mom had to text it to me, with a few clarifications.” The ingredient “cherry wine” Kristina decoded to mean “sherry wine.” She summed up her choice: “Chicken à la King is demonstrative of my grandma’s love of cooking and trying a new recipe, and the hand pie dough is a nod to my own kitchen adventures. Strangely, even though this isn’t a Filipino dish, it’s what I always think of when I remember her.”

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Chicken à la King Hand Pies

Ingredients:
Dough:
Enough pie dough for two two-crust pies. You can use your favorite recipe. I provide a link to instructions on how to make the dough we used, below.
Chicken à la King:
2-3 tbsp unsalted butter
1 tbsp flour
1/2 cup chicken stock
1/2 cup evaporated milk, scalded
1/4 tsp salt
Black pepper, to taste
1 cup cooked chicken, diced
1/2 cup mushrooms, sliced
1/4 cup pimiento peppers, diced
1/4 cup green peppers, diced
1 egg yolk, slightly beaten
2 tbsp sherry wine
Egg wash:
1 egg
1 tbsp milk or cream

Instructions:

For this recipe, Kristina used the Hoosier Mama Pie Company pie dough.

Melt butter in saucepan.

Add chicken stock, flour, and milk gradually, stirring constantly. Cook slowly until thick. Season with salt and pepper.

Add chicken, mushrooms, peppers, and pimientos.

Blend in egg yolk and wine, and continue cooking until the mixture thickens.

Allow to cool in the pan while you roll out your dough. Roll the dough out to about 1/8-inch thick. Using a bowl, trace 5-inch circles in the dough and use a knife to cut them out. You’ll have enough dough for 12-15 of these.

Line one large cookie sheet with parchment paper.

Beat an egg and milk in a small bowl. Brush the egg wash all over one side of one of the rounds, particularly coating the edges of the circle. Spoon about 2 tbsp of the Chicken à la King mixture, being careful not to overfill. Fold the circle over, pressing the edges together, and sealing the edge with a fork. Place the rounds on the parchment paper-lined cookie sheet. Continue with all of the remaining dough rounds. Place the hand pies into the freezer for 15 minutes, while you preheat your oven to 375 degrees.

Bake the hand pies for 30 minutes, or until golden brown, turning the pan 180 degrees about halfway through.

Allow to cool, and enjoy!

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These were really, really delicious, and Kristina and I put away several before they had even cooled. But my favorite part of making this recipe with Kristina came after we finished the filling. Kristina told me that she had never made this recipe, and hadn’t had it since her grandma made it. She said she was worried it wouldn’t turn out. After we mixed everything together, she tasted a bite and said, “Oh! That’s exactly like I remember it!” It was so nice to see how happy she was to remember that flavor. That’s the magic of a family recipe!

Thanks so much for sharing your grandma’s recipe with all of us, Kristina!

Orange Ginger Pecan Sticky Buns

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I don’t want to alarm anyone, but TOMORROW IS THANKSGIVING! Is it just an aging thing, where every year when another holiday season rolls around, you ask, “Where is time going?!” Must be.

Anyway, I absolutely love the holiday season. Our parents are dispersed, so we sort of occasionally pop in here and there, sometimes for the holidays, sometimes not, depending on our travel budgets and work commitments. We’d like to see them all more, but that’s how it is. (My God, we are getting older.) Anyway, that means that we generally do holidays here at home, or with friends in the city. This year, we’ll be here at home, which is great for extreme homebodies, such as ourselves. When we were putting our meal list together, we realized that all we really wanted was side dishes and pie. And what’s the other benefit to cooking a Thanksgiving meal just for ourselves? We get to serve only side dishes and pie.

This is also just a busier work time for both of us. I have a few projects to finish before Christmas and Alex is diligently working on the final stages of his dissertation, which has us both ripping our hair out. Anyway, while he’s working on that, I’ll be in the kitchen practicing my own form of Thanksgiving meditation, which is cooking while listening to Christmas records, then watching the Thanksgiving episodes of Bob’s Burgers. I’m hoping for a little snow, maybe. I missed Chicago’s first snow of the season because I was in Indiana–but I celebrated with the traditional first-snow meal of the Dakotas, ICYMI.

But, onto the reason we’re all here: The buns! Back when my family actually used to get together for holiday family dinners, everyone would bring a dish, or several, and we would feast and laugh. There was probably football on. One year, my mom decided to do a completely innocent thing and made some pecan sticky buns for dessert. Then they were so good that the world collapsed, and everyone lost their mind and demanded that she make them again for every single family dinner after that. True story.

Our family doesn’t really do holiday dinners anymore, at least not the giant ones that we used to, so it’s been actual years since I’ve had my mom’s pecan rolls. But when I was visiting her last week, we got to talking about them.

I had some wild ideas about doing the recipe a little differently. I’m always trying to change things up a bit on here. I’ve found that updating classics is a great way to learn about and honor the past, but also evolve with times. However, I would feel awful doing a twist on such a fantastic original, if my mom wasn’t all for it. I mean, I know we’re just talking pecan buns here, but they are my mom’s pecan buns. Instead, she gave me her blessing. “You should do it,” she said when I told her my idea. “It sounds delicious.” (Moms have such a wonderful, unique way of making you feel like every idea you have, big or small, is great and completely in the realm of possibility. I’m pretty sure if I said, “Hey mom, I think I’m also going to run for president,” she’d say something like, “You’d be so good at that! We should go get an outfit for your first press conference.”) Luckily for me, this updated version turned turned out just the way I imagined they would.

You start with a pretty basic sweet dough recipe, then you punch it up with some bright orange and spicy ginger. It will fill your house with all the right smells.

Orange Ginger Pecan Sticky Buns

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Orange Ginger Pecan Sticky Buns
Makes 8-12 buns

Ingredients:
Sweet rolls:
1 1/8 tsp active dry yeast
1/4 cup warm water
1/4 lukewarm milk
1 egg
2 tbsp butter, extremely soft
6 tbsp sugar
1/2 tsp salt
1 1/4 – 2 cups all-purpose flour

Orange caramel pecan sauce:
5 tbsp unsalted butter
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup pecan halves
1 tsp vanilla extract
4 tsp orange juice

Filling:
2 tbsp unsalted butter, melted
1/4 cup sugar
1 1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground ginger
1 tbsp orange zest
1 1/2 tsp grated fresh ginger

Instructions:

Whisk together the warm water and yeast in a large bowl. Allow to sit for about five minutes.

Oil a large bowl.

Add the milk, egg, butter, sugar, salt, and 1 cup of the flour. Mix well. Continue adding enough flour to make the mixture easy to handle, up to 2 cups total.

Place the mixture onto a well-floured surface and knead until the dough is smooth and no longer sticks, adding flour as needed, about five minutes.

Once the dough is elastic, place in the oiled bowl, and turn over to cover the entire surface of the dough with oil. Cover the bowl with a dishtowel and allow to rise in a warm place for about 1 1/2 hours.

While the dough is rising, create the orange caramel pecan sauce. In a saucepan, add the butter and heat until just melted (or continue to heat until browned). Remove from heat and mix in the brown sugar until dissolved. Add the pecans, vanilla extract, and orange juice. Pour the sauce into the bottom of an 8- or 9-inch pie or cake pan that is at least two inches tall.

For the filling, melt the two tablespoons of butter in a small bowl; set aside. In another small bowl, thoroughly combine the sugar, cinnamon, orange zest, and the grated ginger.

After it’s risen, punch the dough down and pour out onto a lightly floured surface. Roll the dough out into a 13″ x 9″ rectangle.

Brush the two tablespoons of melted butter over the entire surface of the dough. Then coat the top of the dough with the orange-ginger mixture.

Roll the long side of the dough up tightly into a roll. Use a knife or unflavored floss to cut the uneven ends off. Then continue cutting 8-12 rolls, about 1 1/2 inches thick, out of the dough.

Place the rolls swirl side down into the orange caramel pecan sauce in the pan.

Cover and allow to rise for about 45 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

Bake for about 20-25 minutes, until golden brown.

Remove from oven. Immediately place a dish over the top of the pan and quickly invert, allowing the orange caramel pecan sauce to drizzle over the top.

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Gosh, they’re good. Something about the orange and ginger cuts right through all the sweetness and balances everything out. Don’t like pecans? Don’t add them. (Although they do toast up a bit at the bottom of the pan, essentially becoming sweet, crispy bites of heaven.) These are a great dessert for your Thanksgiving dinner and, honestly, a really solid day-after Thanksgiving breakfast option. Even reheated these babies are top-notch.

This Thanksgiving day, and every day, I’m thankful for my family (especially you, mom!), my friends, and the fact that you all show up and I get to share these recipes with you all. Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!