points for trying

vegan gluten-free "cookies."

vegan gluten-free “cookies.”

True friendship can be defined as attempting to make vegan cookies for someone observing Greek Orthodox Lent (no meat, no dairy, no eggs, no oil)… and by said friend eating said cookies despite them having only a vague resemblance to dessert.

Adapted from here, although I swapped out the banana for some of the Five Spice Cranberry-Strawberry compote/jam I made last week:

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I found the recipe unfortunately vague with respect to actual quantities (dates: packed or loose? Weight would have helped) and final desired consistency and ended up winging it a fair bit, which is perhaps why they ended up with a macaroon-type texture and far less than the couple-dozen cookies suggested as the yield.

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In the end, they are probably a great mid-morning snack: protein, fiber, healthy sugars. But as an actual dessert… not quite what anyone might have in mind.

Passing over passover

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Pesach has come and gone, although there’s still matzoh on the table. In general, I’m responsible for two elements of my cousin’s seder, the charoses and dessert. The former is why I’m really invited – I make a quart for a small seder and it’s never enough. The latter is an annual experiment with my family as the willing guinea pigs. This year, I made almendrados (lemon-almond macaroons) and some frosted brownies from Marcy Goldman’s book, neither of which I remembered to take pictures of because I was running around like a headless chicken at the time of their creation. I thought the brownies came out all right – with that much chocolate, how can it be bad? – but I think they could have been better.

But after the seders are done, it’s time for more pedestrian fare. Normal people can look forward to a week of meat and potatoes, but I will admit that I sometimes struggle with what to prepare. It’s not the bread or pasta that I miss, it’s the rice and beans and tofu and the spices that are verboten because of one reason or another.

Also, there was corn on sale at the grocer and every day that I passed it, I started really craving the corn-and-mung-bean salad I sometimes live on in warmer weather. But, of course everything but the basil is chametz, so there was none of that.

Of course, some parts of Pesach aren’t so bad – the first matzo brei of the year is always a treat.

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I’m in the wetting-the-matzo-beforehand camp – yes, this is a point of contention – and I generally use a 1:1 egg to matzo ratio. I’ve made both sweet and savory matzo brei; this is a sweet one – a pinch of salt, a pinch of sugar, and a lot of cinnamon.

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Something I tried for the first time this year was to make a kind of pancake – I was really going for crepe-like pancakes I could slice up as noodles for soup, but they ended up with a little bit of lift as they cooked – they flattened out once they got off the heat.

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They tasted nothing like pancakes, but they could fake it from a distance.

 

Something that had to wait for Passover to end:

IMG_3666 My cousin who hosts the seder just got back from a trip to Australia. In an attempt to head off the possibility of a kangaroo plushie or koala baby-doll t-shirt as a souvenir, I told her that I wanted Tim-Tams. I’d had them years ago when some Aussie acquaintances brought them along to a gathering; I presume they’re sold somewhere in NYC, but I’m sure these are fresher. And so much better than a stuffed kangaroo – imagine a chocolate-covered oreo except the cookie and cream are both tastier.

My cousin and her friend were most generous and I have a selection to snack from:

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Considering that I have baked my own treats for years and have never been a consumer of supermarket cookies… I have rarely been this excited by processed food.

Passover 2010, better late than never

After another unintentional vacation… Passover. Before it’s Shavuos.

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Everyone has horror stories of Passover desserts. The from-mix honey cakes that defy the laws of physics with their denseness, the macaroons that are really just glued-together super-sweet plastic shavings, the mandelbrot that’s left over scrap from the lumber yard. It’s a good thing everyone’s too full from the seder dinner to want a big dessert, especially as it’s too early in the year for much of a fruit selection.

The restrictions are something out of a food show challenge – no flour, no yeast, nothing with corn syrup or fermented grains… now make something tasty.

The best answer to that, near as I can figure, is to find recipes that just happen to be pesadik – flourless chocolate cakes and cookies, anything with a lot of nuts – and go from there. Bonus points for anything that doesn’t require the careful application of matzo meal, since no matter how well you disguise it, it’s still matzo meal. With the new fetish for gluten-free and other allergen-free recipes, it gets easier every year. (Also, there is an ever-increasing range of pesadik products that mimic what is temporarily verboten, but that’s sort of cheating.)

This year, I went for a chocolate something, a nut something, and a fruit something. All three came off well, I thought, with room for improvement if I choose to make them next year.

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I actually had two competing recipes for flourless chocolate brownies and I ended up going with the one with no matzo in it. This came one from Nigella through an intermediary, who suggests that these be kept in the fridge and served cold. It’s a recommendation I wholeheartedly endorse, in part because it keeps them firm and fudge-like; if I wanted to make a “squidgybellied” dessert, I’d just make my Turkish chocolate pudding.

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As you can see, there is really no bad here.

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Like regular brownies, it’s a one-pot affair, except that you also need something to grind the almonds if you don’t buy them already processed.

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These were… sinfully good. Basically, fudge with a kind of sandy element (in a good way) and a crust. Cut them very, very small because a little goes a long way. And keep them in the fridge, well-wrapped.

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My usual ‘nut thing’ is to make almendrados, which are spiffy, easy, tasty, and fast. But my cousin doesn’t like cookies rolled in sugar, so I went in a slightly different direction this year – hazelnut thumbprint cookies.  These do have matzo meal in them, but it’s really very well hidden.

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When Deb made these, she used chocolate discs and, if/when I make these again, I shall endeavor to try that or something else to up the chocolate ratio just a tad, since I thought it was a little off with just three chips per cookies. I was tempted to half-dip these in chocolate to correct that, but I came home from work the day of the first seder to find my father with his hand literally in the cookie jar and, well, he obviously thought they were fine. And I also had a fruit cobbler to start, so these were not dipped. But next time, a little more chocolate. Because then they really will be a tiny bite of solid nutella.

 

The third thing I made was the aforementioned cobbler – properly, an apple-and-sour-cherry kuchen from A Treasure of Jewish Holiday Baking – but I took no pictures because it was a mere couple of hours before the seder when I started peeling apples.

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Okay, I lied, I took one picture, then I realized that I was terribly short of time. There are no pictures of the final product because it was still too hot to touch the pan when I had to wrap it in dishtowels and put cardboard underneath to carry it to the car to go to the seder. Also, it was not pretty.

I’d delayed because it was a fruit-heavy dish and I didn’t want it to get soggy waiting around overnight, which was probably the right move… if I hadn’t had to go to work that day and could have started it a few hours earlier. As it was, I was running around a bit and doubting the recipe and instructions – five large apples, is she sure? Did it say large? It did? And she wants it in what sized pan? Why does it need a springform if it’s not getting unmolded? The springform leaks if you don’t hold it right! Wait, why does she say smooth paste and I’ve got potting clay? – and had no time to think through any changes I might have wanted to try. Or sufficiently re-calculate the cooking time for the pan size difference.

All that said, I think it came out pretty well. I liked what I got even if it wasn’t what I was supposed to get. (Maybe it was; there were no pictures in the book for it.) I’ve never actually made an apple pie, so this was a bit of a novel experience. I sliced the apples too thick, for one. Also, finding a can of sour cherries was harder than expected; I found a can hidden in the Passover section of the supermarket – apparently only observant Jews eat them.

 

Also, since I make it every year and seem to make more of it every year: charoses.

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Or, how this…

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… becomes this.

 

… and from here on out, hopefully a return to regularly scheduled service.

hamantaschen redux, part two

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The first few years I made my own hamantaschen, I only made poppy (mun) and prune fillings because that’s what I had recipes for from Dad’s handwritten binder-of-goodness. And the reason Dad didn’t have any other fillings was because those were the only two acceptable ones, the traditional Ashkenazi fillings that our antecedents had made in Minsk. And since those were the only acceptable ones, that meant that all other varieties were verboten in the house when I was growing up. Sure, I’d seen raspberry and apricot in the bakeries; I’d even tried them a few times at other people’s Purim gatherings. But I’d never thought to make them myself.

(Okay, so there was the one year I had a jar of raspberry jam open in the fridge at Purim and I might have tried to make a few raspberry hamantaschen. But they might have bubbled over and this might have been before I was using silpat and parchment paper and it might have been a major effort to get baked-on, burned raspberry jam off of my old cookie sheets. And I might have vowed to never again try jam in hamantaschen. Ever.)

Over the years, I’ve gotten more comfortable with Dad’s mun and prune recipes and expanded on them, hopefully to the better. And, eventually, I did tiptoe up to and over the new frontier and decided to try apricot filling. I still haven’t tried raspberry again, though.

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All of these benefit from being made at least a day in advance, so keep that in mind.

Orange-Prune filling

1 lb pitted prunes
1 juice orange, thinly sliced and seeds discarded
1 cup water
1/4 cup sugar
1 tsp lemon zest

1 tb vegetable or other neutral oil
juice from 1/2 lemon
1/8 tsp grated nutmeg
3/4 cup medium-chopped walnuts — small pieces, not dust.

 

Put the prunes, orange slices, water, sugar, and lemon zest in a medium saucepan. Bring the mix to a boil, then reduce to a simmer over very low heat, cover, and let it go for 45 minutes.

Remove the pan from the heat, uncover, and let it cool for 5-10 minutes, stirring gently once or twice. You should have a very soft compote, no matter how firm your prunes were to start.

Pick out the orange pieces, which at this point will just be very soft rind. If you’re not a huge fan of orange, you can discard them, but I pile most of them up on a cutting board, finely dice them, and then dump them back into the prune mixture.

Add the oil, lemon juice, and nutmeg to the pot.

Blend the prunes (and orange) until you get a thick, course paste. You want identifiable bits of prune. I’ve always been able to manage this with the firm application of a dinner fork (like I was beating eggs), but feel free to use a blender or food processor.

Stir in nuts.

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This is not a juice orange, clearly. I couldn’t find one – I could find sweet lemons, prickly pears, and kumquats, but no juice oranges. So what did I use? A blood orange. Which wouldn’t have been my first choice of alternate, but navel oranges are even less optimal.

(Ironically, I got a juice orange in a mishloach manot on Purim, when it was too late to do any good.)

I added a dollop of orange juice concentrate – you can see it in the lower left corner – and so feel free to change up to 1/4 cup of the water with OJ. Don’t use more than that, at least not without reducing the sugar.

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The ‘after’ picture. It’s easy to pick out the orange bits and even easier to mash this up without fouling an appliance.

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Poppy filling (mun)

1.5 cups poppy seeds, ground
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 cup raisins, finely diced
1/4 cup honey
1 egg
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tb lemon zest

 

Throw everything into a bowl and stir.

 

I’ve been reading through Marcy Goldman’s excellent Treasury of Jewish Holiday Baking and in her Purim section, she is very firm on the necessity of grinding your poppy seeds. (Which I’d never done.) She is also equally insistent that you need special equipment for this task, that a regular coffee/spice grinder or blender won’t work, and has a Cook’s-like mini-essay on her attempts to find one. My own investigations were much briefer – I looked on Amazon – and, not liking what I saw, I decided to give it a try in my spice grinder.

I don’t know what kind of grinder Ms. Goldman was using, but where she ended up with high-velocity intact seeds, my little Krups was more than up to the task. (I also ground my own cinnamon for this, throwing a few bits of Vietnamese bark in there afterward.) I had to do it in shifts, but it worked just fine. And let me tell you, the difference it made in the final product was significant.

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Before…

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…and after.

 

Ginger-Apricot filling

3/4 cup water or orange juice
1/4 cup lemon juice
12 ounces dried apricots, chopped roughly
1/3 cup sugar
1/4 cup candied ginger, finely diced
1/4 cup golden raisins, diced

 

Combine all ingredients in a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil and then reduce to low heat and simmer, covered, for 10 minutes, stirring once or twice. Make sure you have enough liquid for the apricots and raisins to soften and begin to break down.

Let cool for five minutes.

Unlike the prune mixture, this won’t break down with just a fork, so you’re going to need an appliance. I recommend a food processor or an immersion blender. Or a regular blender, if that’s what you’ve got. The end result should be a course paste.

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The original recipe doesn’t call for ginger, but I realized at the last minute that I didn’t have golden raisins and adding a cup of regular ones would make for some pretty odd-looking hamantaschen centers. So I upped the apricots, quartered the raisins, and threw in a handful of candied ginger cubes, which are possibly the single best reason Whole Foods should be allowed to exist.

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I don’t have a food processor and, for whatever reason, totally forgot about the immersion blender, so I beat the apricots to death with the paddle attachment. It worked, but I wouldn’t recommend the process. The mixture was less jammy than… slick. I think you can tell from the picture. It tasted fine and it looked fine in the hamantaschen, but…

 

As can be seen in the top picture, I had leftovers. The prune and apricot fillings make great toast partners. The poppy seed mixture will go into a cake. All’s well that ends well.

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hamantaschen redux, part one

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Among Jews of my acquaintance, I am seriously, seriously old school when it comes to Purim pastry because not only do I make my own hamantaschen, but I also make them completely from scratch. No jams, no canned fillings, no shortcuts.

Of course, according to my father I am a dangerous innovator for branching out beyond the poppy and prune that every Ashkenazi knows and either loves or hates. To which I must reply that I have peanut butter filling and chocolate filling recipes and those are disturbing innovations.

All that being said, just because I follow the old school approach doesn’t mean that there can’t be changes or improvements. I made three this year, one from necessity and two because they seemed like good ideas. More on them later.

Old school hamantaschen takes a bit of planning because they take a lot of time. The fillings need to be done in advance and both they and the dough benefit from a stay in the fridge. The preparation is more involved than your average drop cookie and they spend a fair bit of time in the oven. I spread the process out over three days during the course of a week, for example.

Hamantaschen dough

4 eggs
1/2 cup oil
1 cup sugar

4 cups flour + more for rolling out
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 teaspoons baking powder

Tools: bench scraper, drinking glass/biscuit cutter

Beat the eggs, oil, and sugar together until pale lemon-colored and frothy, a few minutes. Add flour, salt, and baking powder and mix to combine.

The dough will be very soft and sticky, which is why I recommend chilling it for a few hours (or overnight) in the fridge. Cold, it will remind you of play-doh.

When you are ready to start making the hamantaschen, preheat the oven to 350F and generously flour your work surface.

Working in batches, roll out the dough to about 1/8-inch thinness or better. You’ll get a feel for how thin you can go as you work, but thinner is better. Cut out the circles with your glass or cutter, making sure the dough is moveable before you start cutting out circles – you’ll have to use the dough scraper to get them up, but you want to be able to lift them without destroying the circles. Re-roll the scraps, adding fresh dough if the scraps are drying out from the flour on the bench.

When you’ve accumulated a half-dozen or so discs, fill and form them before moving on.

Egg wash

1 egg + 1 egg yolk
2 TB milk or water
pinch of sugar

Whisk until thoroughly combined

Tools: pastry brush

On a separate surface – either another counter or on a cutting board – brush the top side of the disc completely with the egg wash.

Place a teaspoon (heaping or scant, depending on the size of your circles) of filling [recipes to follow] in the middle. To fold, pinch in the top to form the first corner, then do the next two simultaneously.

Place on a parchment/silpat/greased pan. These don’t expand too much, but don’t crowd them. Brush again with egg wash if desired.

Bake for 30 minutes, or until the bottoms are deep golden. The tops won’t change color much, so be mindful.

Remove to a rack and let cool completely before storing.

I got 52 hamantaschen out of this batch, but your total will vary depending on how thin you roll and how big you cut the circles.

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The cast of characters, including a very shy rolling pin, all collected. You’ll need a lot more room than this.

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These look bigger and thicker than they really are. The hard part of rolling the dough is getting a feel for how much flour to use to keep the dough from sticking while also not drying it out too much. Not enough and you’ll be scraping up sticky blobs, too much and it gets papery.

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I have a fancy silicone pastry brush, but I just went with the half-inch bristle brush that I got at Janovic Plaza. Because there’s no reason that clean paint brushes aren’t perfectly good for the kitchen.

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You’ll start to use more filling the more confident you are in folding. Also, the later it gets into the process, not only will your comfort level rise, but you’ll just want to get the whole thing over with.

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I haven’t figured out how to take pictures and show my hands at the same time, so you’ll have to settle for a description: using both hands, push the top of the circle together and pinch.

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Do the next two corners at once; it’s easier. Once you’ve got all three corners sealed, you can do any minor shaping necessary to make sure there’s no gap between corner and filling.

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The cookies will swell up while baking, but they won’t spread out, so this is perfectly acceptable spacing.

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This is the batch I tried with the extra egg washing. I can’t say I like the look – they seem dirty to me. But they had a nice texture to them and nobody else seemed to think they needed to bathe.

Fillings – orange-prune, lemon-poppy, and ginger-apricot – will follow in a separate post.

spanakopita με matzo

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“Inventive, but so wrong,” I believe was the phrase used. Which didn’t stop the (Greek) Best Friend from taking a second piece.

I’d been planning on making spanakopita with matzo since last year, when I found this recipe too late to use for Pesach 2008. It’s fairly straightforward as written and the taste was fine, but I will adjust it next time because the directions say to add two cups milk and then, essentially, take two cups of milk out and waste them by soaking the matzo (you don’t need to soak the matzo, you just need to get them moist the way you would with matzo brei).

That irritation aside, it was fun, tasty, and not only made good luncheon spread fare, but also was a fabulously easy and convenient lunch to take along to work Pesach week.

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The first layer getting laid down.

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All ready for the oven.

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After the oven. Underneath is the ubiquitous matzo toffee, which I ate far too much of, gave away not enough of, and ended up throwing out a bunch because it’s almost spring and you can’t hide fat under a coat anymore. 

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Close-up of the top.

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Sliced when warm.

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Cut up and ready for bento (yes, even more cross-cultural inappropriateness). The other half of the egg and a piece of lettuce kept the curried yogurt-mustard-honey dip from getting all over the place. The spanakopita’s a little darker on top in this picture because I toasted it (already sliced) before packing it.

charoses – mortar of champions

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For Pesach, I observe the rules for Ashkenazi Jews with respect to kitniyot – no legumes, no rice, no most of what I eat every day – but when it comes to the seder and the charoses, I am more than happy to go do as the Sephardim do.

Charoses, used to symbolize the mortar that bound the bricks the Israelites were forced to labor over, is usually just apple and honey and nuts and a good glug of Manischewitz if you’re Ashkenazi. To this I add dates, raisins, cinnamon, and cardamom and I usually have to make it by the quart because it goes fast.

This is best made in advance so the flavors have time to meld and the dried fruit has time to dissolve. I usually do it the night before and adjust the morning of.

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Two Macintoshes and a Gala…

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… this was a good year in that I remembered to dice the apples small the first time and didn’t have to go a second round.

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The dates and raisins should be chopped, but you don’t have to go crazy with it, especially if you’re making it far enough in advance that the dried fruit will break down.

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I still hate shelling cardamom, but it’s really what makes the difference here. I always worry that I’ll go over or under – I’ve done both – but since too much is really too much, err on the side of caution and then see how it tastes in a few hours. I didn’t use all of this. I think I went with… three? Five?

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The finished product, immediately after. I didn’t take a photo of it the next evening before packing it up for the seder, but the dried fruit had macerated enough that there was a nice, thick, glossy brown sauce that worked well to hold everything together (like the mortar it’s supposed to be). It sort of looked like very thick pie filling, actually.