Thursday, April 21, 2011

Memories, Traditions, Nostalgia

Lately I've become enamored of the Cake Duchess , and not just because she has some yummilicious sweets - she also married an Italian, has Italian in laws, is Italian, and loves to cook Italian.  And I love all things Italian (Perhaps I lived in Italy in a past life).  Montepulciano is on my bucket list, as well as Florence and Venice.  Rome, I could care less about.  One of her last posts spoke about how she and her mother in law love to bake.  She also mentioned they were going to make Easter Bread.  That triggered memories for me.

My mother's side of the family is Estonian.  If you don't know where Estonia is, you are most likely in a majority, since it's been taken over numerous times by numerous countries (including Denmark, Sweden and twice by Russia) yet they still maintain their fierce sense of independence and language.   I've never been there, but I would like to see Tallinn the capital city, that's where my grandmother was born.  My nana (as I called her) was a beautiful woman - even in her 80s she barely had a wrinkle on her face.  When she was younger, she was gorgeous with a head of auburn hair.  My grandfather was blonde and blue eyed.  I never met him - he died when my mom was in college.  Here is a passport photo of them - pretty cool!
(*note* "Lapsed" is Estonian for "Children" - it's pronounced "lap-sehd")  My nana was 23 when she came here, my grandfather was 37.  They came over on the RMS "Homeric" which sailed out of Southhampton, England, and landed in NYC.  If you want to know what you got as a meal - here you go:

And here is a picture of the happy couple taken in Estonia.
What this is all leading to is my nana's "mamu saia" (mahmoo SIGH yah) (Estonian for "raisin loaf").  This was the only bread she had in her house.  We ate it for breakfast, lunch, dinner...sometimes it had raisins, sometimes it didn't.  I remember she kept it wrapped in a piece of foil, and would slice off whatever she needed - whether it was toast at breakfast, a big slab with butter and cinnamon sugar to take to the beach,  or a piece to eat with some stew at dinner.  I loved that bread, and  I always associate it with my nana.  At Christmas it would be shaped in a wreath and sprinkled with sugar and ground almonds; at Easter it would get the same transformation - sometimes even some hard boiled eggs would decorate the top.

When I take a bite of that bread,  I'm 4 years old again sitting at Nana's kitchen table eating mamu saia while Nana and my mom chatter in Estonian.  Do you have any food that triggers memories for you?

I want to share the recipe with you.  It's not difficult to make, especially with the rapid rise yeast.  The proportions on the flour are not EXACT - however, you can't really muck it up :)  The main thing to remember with bread NOT make the water too warm, or the bread won't rise.  Err on the side of tepid really.  70 degrees is not that warm.

So here you go - make some for Easter!  I hope you enjoy it as much as I do, and I hope it will start bringing YOU some happy memories as well.  Printable recipe is HERE

Nana's Mamu Saia (Estonian raisin bread)

Scald: 1 1/2 cups of milk.  Let it COOL down (This is one part where you can mess it up.  If the milk is too hot when you add it to the yeast, the yeast will NOT rise.)
Add: 1 tsp. salt, 1 tsp. cardamom seed crushed, 1 pkg of yeast you dissolved in 1/4 cup warm water (again, this should be lukewarm, not anywhere near the temperature of say...water you wash your hands or dishes with)
Add:  Enough flour to make a pancake-like batter. (about 2 cups) Cover the bowl and let rise in a warm place until bubbles form, about an hour.

Cream butter (about 3/4 cup) to which the grated rind of 1 lemon has been added.  Beat in 1 egg and about 6 tbs. of sugar.

Your yeast batter should now look like this:
bubbles! yeast is working! :)

Kneading dough
Stir the yeast batter down, add the butter/egg mixture, then sufficient flour to make a pliable dough.  For me it was about 3 cups.  Don't worry if the dough sticks to your hands - just flour them, or add flour by the handful to the dough until the dough no longer sticks to your hands.  Now knead it!  You can't over knead the bread - get out your aggressions, slam it on the table - BAM!!!! that's for whoever left all those dirty dishes in the sink - BAM!!!! that's for the jerk that cut me off on I-95 - fold the dough, punch it down, and the more you do it, the more you will notice it getting not so sticky, and smooth and elastic.

At this point, you could knead in some raisins if you want.  1/2 - 3/4 of a cup, depending on how much you love raisins.  My son Ben, stated he didn't "like" raisins, so I omitted them.  I made 1 HUGE loaf, but you could make two normal size loaves.  I divided the dough into 3 pieces, rolled them out, and braided them.

I then shaped it into a large loaf, covered it once more with a dish towel, and let it rise again for about half an hour.  Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
After rising with egg wash
Once it rises (almost doubles size) brush the loaf with the yolk of an egg, and then (if you want) sprinkle some ground almonds and turbinado sugar on top - or just plain granulated sugar.  Now put that bad boy in the oven, and immediately turn the heat down to 350 degrees.  Bake for 30-45 minutes, or until the bread is browned, and sounds a bit hollow when tapped.  It should look something like this:

You can remove to a rack to cool, or dig in and slather a piece with some butter and enjoy!  This bread keeps quite well simply wrapped in a piece of aluminum foil.

*Note on Cardamom*
If you want the most aromatic flavor, please buy the pods and grind the seeds yourself.  If you don't have a mortar and pestle, you can do this easily with the back of a soup spoon on a piece of waxed paper.  The scent and flavor it gives to the bread is so much better than the stuff that's already ground.  It's a little pricey, but if you like to cook Scandinavian or Indian food, you'll use it up.  Here's what the seed pods look like :

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Sweet potatoes done right....

 I realize most of you are hooked on those sweet potatoes aka yams you get every Thanksgiving - you know...the ones covered in marshmallows or brown sugar, or some other confectionary concoction that all but drowns out the real taste of sweet potatoes and gives you a sugar high that only copious amounts of Thanksgiving turkey ingested to the point of gluttony can bring you down into a comatose post-prandial lump on the couch.  OK...maybe I exaggerated JUST a little, but I never liked sweet potatoes, most likely for that very reason - if Mother Nature was kind enough to give us a sweet vegetable, WHY THE HECK DO YOU WANT TO PUT MORE SUGAR ON THEM??!! what is the point? No offense to those yam aficianados that really love marshmallow sweets, but HOW does that make them "better"?

Oh...and FYI - Sweet potatoes and yams = same thing - just depends on what side of the tracks you come from - North or South :-)

When I joined my local CSA, Breezy Willow Farm, I got a lot of sweet potatoes.  My daughter immediately pounced on them and pronounced them delish.  This is the same daughter mind you, that for about 18 years I couldn't get even the faintest bit of interest in cooking, other than to make a batch of boxed brownies.  Once she hit 19 though, the cooking gene must have kicked in, because she is turning into quite the accomplished cook.  It makes a mom proud :)  I was happy to give her my sweets, because I didn't "like" them (you see where this is going, don't you)  One day she sent me a recipe she had Stumbled Upon, "Crash Hot Sweet Potatoes" and they sounded like they would be really, really good.  They were savory - oh yeah, there was the obligatory brown sugar, but that was only to put a nice carmelized coating on them and to lull you into a false sense of security until you bit into them and an explosion of spice assailed your senses.  I had to try them.  I made them, popped them in the oven, and thus began my love for sweet potatoes. good as they were, I did have to peel, cut, parboil, smush, brush, sprinkle, turn, brush, sprinkle, etc...and sometimes that's just too much work.  So, I decided to do something different.  Easier.  Much easier.

I peeled the sweet potatoes and diced them up.

Put them on parchment paper (I am now addicted to using parchment paper - SO easy to clean up , and nothing sticks) drizzle with some olive oil - toss.

Now, mix all the brown sugar/spices the recipes tells you to mix up (I call it a 'rub') and take that spice rub and sprinkle liberally over the potatoes.  Here are the ingredients, but I urge you to visit Donalyn 's blog and look at the original recipe, plus all the other neat stuff she has!

1 & 1/2 tablespoons light brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon New Mexico chili powder
1/2 teaspoon smoked sweet paprika
1/4 teaspoon onion powder (I didn't have any of this, so I just used 1/2 tsp. garlic powder)
1/4 teaspoon chipotle chili powder
1/8 teaspoon granulated garlic

 Roast in a 400 degree oven for 10 minutes, then toss them around a bit to turn, sprinkle a little more rub over them, cook them for about 15 minutes more and THIS is what you wind up with after about 20-25 minutes:

Absolutely amazing.  I had them for lunch three days in a row :-)  Much less time than the original, no extra pots to clean- I love the original don't get me wrong, but I love this version more :-)   I didn't have onion powder the recipe called for, so I used garlic powder instead.  Don't be afraid to experiment.  Buy the smoked paprika - it's a nice staple to have.  If it's pouring rain or the dead of winter and you want that smoky grill flavor, sprinkle some on the burgers you are frying in a pan.  Put some on some corn you just roasted on the BBQ, throw it in chili.  Same with the Chipotle chili powder.  You can find that in the spice aisle of your local supermarket, and I happen to *love* chipotle.  It's nothing more than a smoked jalapeno, but you get a sweet, smoky hotness that is smoother than the original.  Buy it.  You won't be disappointed.  You can use any chili powder you have if you don't have some from New Mexico.  I was lucky enough to have gone to Santa Fe in October and I brought back some mild green chili powder (which is probably normal here - in Santa Fe if you order anything that's "mild" - it has a kick - they KNOW hot peppers) Here is the link to El Potrero Trading Post.(aka Vigil Store)  You can get a half POUND of chili powder for only $4.50.  Email them for prices for shipping - they will ship in flat rate boxes.  Be warned though - the "mild" chipotle chili powder is HOT so I am sure the hot is nuclear.  I tried a bit on my pinky finger and I swear a few beads of sweat broke between my brows and my mouth burned for about five minutes.  That's just the way they roll in New Mexico :).
(This wonderful photo is from Kit's flikr page )
So...give these roasted sweet potatoes a try.  If you don't have all the ingredients don't be afraid to use what's in your spice cabinet.  Store the leftover "rub" in a baggie - it keeps well.  I made up double the recipe just so I could have enough to last me for a while.  Adjust the spices to the heat you want - if you want more heat, use a hotter chili pepper...more smokiness, up the chipotle (heat and smoke) or the smoked paprika.  I don't know what spices Meg has in her cabinet, but I can tell you, there isn't much LOL, yet these potatoes still came out yummy and savory.


Saturday, April 9, 2011

Ok yeah, so I took a break - I return bearing COOKIES! :)

Somehow life got busy, the CSA ended for the season, and I was forced to go to the grocery store to try and find SOMETHING that bears a resemblance to a tasty vegetable.  Even the organic wasn't the same.  My CSA has an "early bird" that goes from March - May, then we get only a week's break before the June - November one starts, so like Persephone, I have emerged from the Hades of GM seeds and CAFO meats, and come back into the light of organic and IPM...which has nothing to do with my blog post today, because it's all about cookies.  (must be my ADD kicking in)

YEARS ago "BK" (before kids) I lived in NJ in an apartment in Weehawken.  I was literally 2 minutes from the Lincoln Tunnel, which if driven through, will dump you downtown in NYC.  This was an easy escape route for us after the bars closed and a late night meal was warranted.  We'd head into Chinatown and hit up Wo Hop's, a  Chinatown icon.  Cheap food, surly waiters, family style dining (shared tables) downstairs.  Still the best and freshest chinese food I've ever had.  Afterwards we'd walk down Mott Street, where everything stays open to all hours of the night.

Sometimes we'd stop at one of the Chinese bakeries for dessert.  They had a whole bunch of stuff - moon cakes, bean cakes, and a couple of things I would usually alternate - a sort of rice krispie cake, but made with crispy noodles and honey and sesame...and a large golden, crumbly, chewy, melt-in-your-mouth cookie that I simply called a "dot" cookie.

For some reason a hankering for the said "dot" cookie reared its ugly head, so I decided to google a recipe - surely SOMEONE knows how to bake these gems?  Hrm...I did find something close in flavor and texture, but not color.  I guess I'll have to experiment a bit more and post my results *grins* difficult, I know, but someone has to do it.

These are pretty easy to make.  I took a recipe I found and altered it (since when have you known me to *ever* make a recipe exactly the way it's written?)  I used half shortening and half butter, because a) I couldn't stand the thought of all that Crisco going right to my butt which is ever expanding since I hit the big 5-0, and b) I wanted the butter flavor.  This was a wise decision :).  I also used equal parts of cake flour and whole wheat pastry flour, because I wanted the cookies to have that tender, melt in your mouth texture.  If you are wondering about the differences between all these flours (who knew there were so many?) here is a good LINK that will make you a more informed baker.

I don't usually bake.  My mom loves to bake.  To me it's more of a chore than "fun".  I haven't yet learned all the nuances of baking, which is definitely more of an art form than simply cooking a meal.  Perhaps "art" isn't a good descriptive term - "scientific"  might be more appropriate.  If everything is not in the correct proportions, you could have disastrous results.  Feel like leaving out the egg in that cake batter? don't try it.  Want to omit baking powder and use baking soda instead? better not sub it out teaspoon for teaspoon or you may wind up with matzoh instead of sheet cake.  That being said, let me present my version of these yummy cookies...I didn't mess with the dangerous stuff :)
I had enough cake flour to use in this recipe, but I thought the Whole Wheat pastry flour would give an added texture (crumbly, tender) that I was looking for.  I think it did.  Please forgive the lack of pictures, but this recipe really is pretty straightforward.  The hard part is keeping them around.  I had to ration myself to one a day and put the container out of sight in the dining room.

So I give you the recipe, printable as always,  HERE:

Chinese Dot Cookies - Yields about 24
inspired by Vicki's recipe on

3/4 cup Crisco (please do not omit this - needed for texture - I know the thought of putting pure lard in your cookies grosses you out, but sometimes it's a good thing - trust me)
3/4 cup butter, softened
1 1/2 cups white sugar
1 egg
1 tsp. vanilla
1 3/4 cups of cake flour
1 3/4 cups whole wheat pastry flour
1 1/4 tsp baking soda
3/4 tsp salt
1/4 cup ground walnuts
can of fudge frosting (freeze the leftovers)


1.  Cream butter and sugar together until light and fluffy.  Don't be afraid to beat it a few minutes.  Add the egg and vanilla, beating again til' well combined and fluffy.

2.  Add the flours, baking soda, salt and stir into creamed mixture.  The dough will be a bit sticky, you can add a bit more flour, but not too much.  Best is to coat your hands, lift the dough out of the bowl, and gently form into a log about 15 inches long.  Put a piece of saran wrap on the counter the length of the log plus a few inches.  Sprinkle the walnuts on the wrap, and roll the log around until coated, then roll up in saran wrap and place in fridge for an hour. (or more if you have stuff to do)

3.  Preheat oven to 350 and lay some parchment paper down on your cookie sheets.

4.  Unwrap the dough, slice about 1/2" thick, place 1 1/2 inches apart on cookie sheet and bake for 10-15 minutes.  They should be slightly golden around the edges and appear dry, not wet.  Allow to cool for a minute or two before removing to cooling rack.

5.  When cool, place a dollop of icing in the center of each cookie.  I didn't melt the icing, but next time I think I will to see if I can get a smoother texture rather than the hand made swirls on mine.  Just be sure to allow them to dry.  Store covered at room temperature.

The original recipe stated serves 12, but these cookies are large, and I got two trays which is closed to 30+ cookies.

The cookies are absolutely yummy.  Crumbly, tender, yet with a chewy bite - hint of butter, not too sweet, and fudgy goodness in the center.  What more could you ask for? :)