Petee’s Pie

Instagram Post 4/2/2018

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🥧 > 🍰 IMHO and Petee’s Pie Company at 61 Delancey Street in Manhattan dishes up some of the best I’ve ever tasted, but making the decision about which of the delightful daily selections to choose is neither as easy as pie nor is it a piece of cake. Of course they have wonderful fruit pies, nut pies, and custard pies, but their chess pies are always first to grab my attention.

Chess pie occupies (ahem) the middle ground between cheesecake and custard pie. Devoid of cheese and generally with a little more body than custard pie (often due to the addition of cornmeal) they are incredibly rich and, unsurprisingly, hail from America’s South.

Folktales about the genesis of its name are plentiful. One has it that chess pie is so sweet, it needs no refrigeration and could therefore be kept in the kitchen pie chest ➡️ pie ches’ ➡️ chess pie. Another speculation involves a tangled explanation involving English curd pies (think lemon curd as opposed to cheese curd and therefore sans cheese) and an American corruption of the British pronunciation of “cheese pie” – a long way around if you ask me. I favor the simpler, homespun tale that goes, “That pie smells incredible! What kind is it?” to which the modest Southern baker’s humble response was, “It’s jes’ pie.”

This amazing black bottom Almond Chess Pie served with housemade vanilla ice cream was the capper on a day so packed with pigging out that we wondered if we would have room, but it was so delicious that it wasn’t a stretch. (Not so my belly, however.)
 
 

Allan’s Quality Bakery

Instagram Post 3/16/2018

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Unquestionably and quite simply the very best Trinidadian currant rolls and coconut rolls I have ever tasted in my life; these are definitive and the real deal. What’s more, I’m told they often have CHOCOLATE currant rolls (!) and white chocolate coconut rolls as well. Head to Allan’s Quality Bakery at 1109 Nostrand Avenue, Prospect Lefferts Gardens, Brooklyn for some amazing Caribbean baked goods and a guaranteed smile on your face.
 
 

Los Helados de Salcedo

Instagram Post 3/8/2018

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Thought you might need a palate cleanser after all that rich food I continually post! While wandering around Jackson Heights, a sign in the window of a little shop featuring goods from Ecuador caught my eye. Upon entering Ecuador Records Variedades at 92-11 37th Ave and making my way past piles of hand crafted clay pots and other charming imports, I headed straight to the freezer case and selected the ice cream pop depicted on the sign that sported distinct colorful layers of “mora, naranjilla y taxo con centro liquido de jalea de mora, guyaba”.

The Ecuadorian frozen confection sold under the name “Los Helados de Salcedo” (after the city, I suspect) was surprisingly good. Not only was it sweet and refreshing, but the flavors were distinct and richer than I anticipated.

Translation: Helados = ice creams. Mora = blackberry. Naranjilla, literally “little orange”, although unrelated (I’ve seen it as naranjillo and frequently as lulo), is a fruit with a tart, tropical, quasi-citrusy flavor that can be found locally either canned, jarred, or frozen. Taxo is also known as banana passionfruit; it’s the oblong shaped fruit pictured on the wrapper. Guyaba = guava. I’m not certain that I really detected the liquid center of blackberry jelly; greedily consuming the delectable pop, I may not have given it a fair chance.
 
 

Panettone! Pannetone! Pannettone!

One of these things is not like the others, or so the song goes. In this case, the outlier is the first Panettone, the only orthographically correct version of the subject of this post. To tell the truth, the two imposters share the spotlight only by way of capitulation to less-than-forgiving search engines (and not as a sly reference to the 90s R&B/soul group) because it is my mission to ensure that everyone falls in love with this gift to the culinary arts as deeply, passionately, and yes, obsessively as I have.

You’re all familiar with panettone, right? That Italian (Milanese, specifically) sweet, fruity, fluffy cake that’s usually consumed for the holidays (Christmas, specifically) but can be enjoyed year-round by ardent aficionados (me, specifically).

Fanciful spellings aside, you’ll find panettone in most markets around Christmastime and in Italian specialty shops year round (fortunately for us). A little digging uproots an extended family tree including pandoro, pandolce, panforte, panpepato, and pangiallo. The last four differ radically from the subject of our discourse so for the sake of completeness, let’s dispatch them straightaway:

• Pandolce, “sweet bread”, hails from Genoa, and unlike gossamer panettone is dense and somewhat crumbly like a cookie.
• Panforte, “strong bread”, is neither breadlike nor cakey; it’s more of a dense, chewy fruit paste, spicy and sweet. I sometimes serve it as an accompaniment to a cheese plate.
• Panpepato, “peppered bread”, is a subset of panforte, gingery, nutty, and covered with chocolate.
• Pangiallo, “yellow bread”, is Rome’s challenger. Sometimes saffron infused, often laden with chocolate and always dense with dried fruit, I know this one only by repute.

Now that we’ve dispelled any confusion regarding the distant cugini, we can focus on the object of our affection. Our goal is to determine which style and brand you like the best. We’ll start with style; the two you’re most likely to encounter are panettone, the pride of Milan and pandoro, Verona’s answer to it.

The story of how panettone gets its name is the stuff of which legend is made but I frankly don’t find any of the fables particularly convincing. One tale recounts that in 15th century Milan, a delicious bread was crafted that incorporated yeast, an ingredient so dear in that era that it earned the moniker “pane di tono”, literally “luxury cake” – feasible, except that every Italian dictionary I own or found on the interwebs fails to suggest “luxury” as a definition for tono. But I suppose Italian was different back then.

Another more linguistically stringent contender avers that since pane means bread or cake, adding the diminutive suffix -etto turns it into a small loaf cake and then appending the augmentative suffix -one renders it large, thus describing a “large small loaf cake”. Really? But I suppose whimsy was different back then.

Yet another narrative tells of the Duke of Milan’s cook who having prepared an otherwise sumptuous repast disastrously burned the dessert. Fortunately, the young kitchen apprentice, Toni, proposed that they serve the sweet cake he had made for his own breakfast. Delighted, the Duke requested the name of the delicious cake, the cook replied “il pane di Toni”, and the rest is history. I don’t know about you, but if I had concocted so splendid a treat for my breakfast, none would have been kicking around the kitchen come dinnertime – not to mention the fact that the preparation of panettone is a time consuming, arduous process and not something one hastily throws together for breakfast like a bagel with a schmear. But I suppose panettone was different back then.

Less about folklore and more about traditional religious ritual, the people of Milan save a piece of their Christmas panettone, have it blessed and eat it on February 3, the morning after Candlemas which for them heralds the end of the Christmas season. Known as the Feast of San Biagio, it celebrates the saga of St. Blaise as he saved the life of a boy who was choking on a fish bone by feeding him bread in order to dislodge the bone. Eating panettone for breakfast that day therefore pays homage to the “protector of the throat”, patron saint of throats and noses, and ensures that his followers will be safeguarded against colds and sore throats in the upcoming year. Who needs a flu shot when you have such a delicious excuse to enjoy more panettone?

Enough history; what’s it like? The shape is that of a domed, squat cylinder, about 5–6 inches high, 8–9 inches in diameter, typically baked in a pan lined with a ring of corrugated, often brown, paper. Based on a sweet risen dough, it’s airy, eggy, buttery, moist and so light that it practically floats; it pulls apart almost like cotton candy although you’ll want to slice it with a serrated knife. The classic version is stippled with candied citron and raisins and often sports an almond or hazelnut glaze.

Many other less traditional but still delicious flavors abound including pistachio, sour cherry, mixed berry, pineapple, peach, apricot, pear, bits of chocolate, moscato wine, limoncello, zuppa inglese, tiramisu, crema pasticcera (custard), and combinations thereof including varieties without candied fruit.

I’ve seen numerous recipes with recommendations for what to do with leftover panettone. “Leftover panettone” is an oxymoron and bears no further discussion here. I will admit, albeit grudgingly, that you can freeze it, but only if it’s wrapped extremely well.

Like so many cultural dichotomies such as Coke vs Pepsi, the Beatles vs the Stones, the Addams Family vs the Munsters, and Mary Ann vs Ginger, there are those who champion Verona’s pandoro (“golden bread”) over Milan’s panettone. The texture of pandoro is a little denser than that of panettone but not as dense as pound cake. Also sweet and buttery, touched with vanilla, they are customarily devoid of candied fruit or decadent chocolate and creamy fillings; on occasion, you might detect a delicate whisper of other flavorings like anisette or lemon zest. Picture a two-dimensional eight-pointed star, extruded upwards conically into three dimensions and taller than a panettone; it is often presented with nothing more than a sprinkling of powdered sugar to resemble the snow-covered Alps in winter. If you insist on inventing more complex dishes using “leftover” Italian Christmas breads, the more modest pandoro lends itself better than panettone to the addition of crème fraîche, mascarpone, whipped cream, custard and fresh fruits, or the likes of Nutella (since panettone is, after all, perfection straight out of its wrapper – in my not so humble opinion, of course 😉).

Now on to brand. Like everything in the food world, it should always be about what you like personally and individually, not about what somebody tells you you should like. Each brand has its own flavor and texture, let alone unique varieties. Over the years I’ve eaten my way through mountains (think Alps) of these treats and I’ve found what I consider to be the very best: Albertengo brand Panettone Tradizionale Glassato (traditional glazed) – but they’re almost impossible to find in New York. So I wrote to the nice folks at Albertengo in Italy in buoyant English and foundering Italian and they turned me on to the one place in the city that stocks the stuff: Nicola’s Specialty Foods at 997 First Avenue in Manhattan. The photo at the top of the page shows this morning’s breakfast: Albertengo Tradizionale Glassato – la colazione dei campioni!

I consider myself fortunate to be a regular attendee at the Specialty Food Association’s Fancy Food Show every year here in New York City. Featuring thousands of new products from the US and internationally, they’re considered North America’s hottest place to catch the latest in specialty foods. Needless to report, at the 2017 show, I spent a good deal of discerning time in Italy’s pavilion checking out the panettoni both for flavor and to determine where retail outlets will be. After all, when I find a winner, you need to know how to score some!

 

Linzer Cookies

Instagram Post 12/15/2017

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Homemade Christmas Cookies – Day 5
🍪🍪🍪🍪🍪
Linzer Stars. Finely ground almonds figure into in the sweet, tender dough; the filling is made from red currants that I bought when they were in season and preserved in anticipation of this maniacal operation. Why maniacal? Look closely and you’ll see that the powdered sugar blankets only the outer section of the star, yet the inner red star shines snow-free. Follow along to see how I do it:
(1) Start with solid backs.
(2) Add preserves around the perimeter but not in the center. (Neatness doesn’t count.)
(3) Match tops to bottoms.
(4) Let it snow, let it snow, etc.
(5) Squirt a blob of preserves into the cutout.
(6) Now here comes the maniacal part: For each cookie, use a toothpick to draw out the five points of the star.
(7) Et voilà!
(8) The cookies are complete and packed up. Here’s the negative space that was left behind!
⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
HAPPY HOLIDAYS!!!
🎅🎄☃️❄️
 
 

Marzipan Cookies

Instagram Post 12/14/2017

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Homemade Christmas Cookies – Day 4
🍪🍪🍪🍪
Marzipan Cookies. Crispy toasted almonds and a double chocolate grid (white and 60% cacao) grace the tops of the chewy marzipan base. Final decorating stage shown here. Stay tuned: more cookies to come!
🎅🎄☃️❄️
 
 

Chocolate Pecan Whiskey Balls

Instagram Post 12/13/2017

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Homemade Christmas Cookies – Day 3
🍪🍪🍪
Chocolate Pecan Whiskey Balls. Named for the chocolate and toasted pecans in them, but especially for the pecan whiskey (yes, it’s a thing). Sparkling sugar adds a crunchy, festive touch. Stay tuned: more cookies to come!
🎅🎄☃️❄️
 
 

Biscotti

Instagram Post 12/12/2017

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Homemade Christmas Cookies – Day 2
🍪🍪
Biscotti! These twice-cooked treats (aka cantuccini) are laden with toasted almonds and dried cherries that I simmered in Amaretto. Delicious dunked in coffee for breakfast, wine for dessert (as they do in Italy), or cocoa for snowstorms. Stay tuned: more cookies to come!
🎅🎄☃️❄️
 
 

Identity Crisis Cookies

Instagram Post 12/8/2017

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Homemade Christmas Cookies – Day 1
🍪
Identity Crisis Cookies – so named because I couldn’t decide whether to make chocolate chip or oatmeal raisin or toasted coconut pecan and since I had all of those on hand…well, you get the picture.
🎅🎄☃️❄️
 
 

Panettone

Instagram Post 11/20/2017

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You all know about panettone, right? That Italian (Milanese, specifically) sweet, fruity, fluffy cake that’s usually consumed for the holidays (Christmas, specifically) but can be enjoyed year-round by ardent aficionados (me, specifically). And Thanksgiving isn’t too soon to buy the first one of the season, amirite? The trick is to determine which brand and style you like the best.
🇮🇹
Over the years I’ve eaten my way through a considerable assortment of these treats (watch for my story on ethnojunkie.com) and I’ve found what I consider to be the very best: Albertengo brand Panettone Tradizionale Glassato (traditional glazed) – but they’re almost impossible to find in New York. So I wrote to the nice folks at Albertengo in Italy in buoyant English and foundering Italian and they turned me on to the one place in the city that stocks the stuff: Nicola’s Specialty Foods at 997 First Avenue in Manhattan.
🇮🇹
So having bought one (for starters 😉), I thought I’d share a photo of today’s breakfast: la colazione dei campioni!

Please read my passionate paean to panettone for more information and folklore about this extraordinary contribution to the culinary arts.