Eid al-Fitr – 2021

Eid al-Fitr, the Festival of Breaking the Fast, is the Muslim holiday that signifies the conclusion of month-long Ramadan; in 2021, it begins on the evening of May 12. Since I’ve recently been revisiting the neighborhoods we explore on ethnojunkets, this seemed like a good time to return to the Middle Eastern section of 5th Avenue in Brooklyn which I refer to fondly as Little Levant.

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Ma’amoul are shortbread cookies filled with a paste made from dried fruit, often dates but sometimes figs, or nuts, such as walnuts or pistachios; they’re frequently associated with Ramadan but fortunately are available year round. Paradise Sweets, the Middle Eastern bakery at 6739 5th Ave, was offering three kinds the day I stopped by: clockwise from left, pistachio, walnut and date.


Can a cookie actually melt in your mouth? These were wonderfully fragile, disintegrating into a crumbly powder like a Mexican polvoron: you’ll start with a bite, but you’ll want to finish with a spoon. For those who don’t care for uber-sugary cookies, the good news is that this version is not especially sweet; I discovered that the flavor seems to blossom in the company of a hot beverage – tea or Arabic coffee would be perfect.


Some of the smaller markets along the way were offering prepackaged ma’amoul like this one from Pâtisserie Safa, a Montreal based company. Its structural integrity was sturdier than the freshly baked specimens and the cookie was surprisingly tasty.


Both the dough and the filling were significantly sweeter than the locally crafted examples and I detected a welcome note of orange blossom water that enhanced its flavor profile.


Another survivor of the pandemic is the stalwart bakery Nablus Sweets at 6812 5th Ave. These are Qatayef (aka Atayef), made only during Ramadan and especially for Eid al-Fitr; they’re often sold by street vendors in the Middle East. They start out with a batter akin to that of pancakes but they’re griddled on only one side, then they’re filled with white cheese or nuts, folded into a crescent, fried or baked, and soaked in sweet rose water syrup. This pair enclosed a syrupy chopped nut filling.


They’re thicker and chewier than I anticipated – I was expecting a straight ahead, lighter pancake texture based on what I saw as they were being prepared:


Fresh off the griddle. Some folks buy them just like this, ready to be brought home to be filled with the family recipe (of course) of creamy cheese or walnuts, sugar and cinnamon.
 
 
More to come as I continue contemplating the resumption of ethnojunkets….
 
 

Orthodox Easter – Pascha and Kulich

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Most holidays come equipped with delectable, traditional foods and Orthodox Easter is no exception; it occurs on the Sunday following the first full moon that appears on or after the spring equinox – May 2, in 2021. As an Equal Opportunity Celebrant, I make it a practice to sample as many of these treats as possible around such festive occasions, not because of any personal porcine tendencies of course, but in order to altruistically share information with anyone who might be unfamiliar with these delicacies.

Yeah, right.

According to Wikipedia, the Eastern Orthodox Church, officially the Orthodox Catholic Church, is the second largest Christian church with approximately 220 million baptized members. The majority of Eastern Orthodox Christians live mainly in Southeast and Eastern Europe, Cyprus, Georgia and other communities in the Caucasus region, and in Siberia reaching the Russian Far East.

According to ethnojunkie, each region has its own distinctive, specialty baked goods that are prepared in celebration of the holiday. Many are sweet breads called pascha (or some variant), from Greek/Latin meaning Easter, and ultimately from Aramaic/Hebrew meaning Passover. Let’s check out two of them.


If you go out in search of pascha, you’ll discover vastly divergent varieties depending upon the heritage of the bakery you land on. Polish versions I’ve sampled are puffy, yeasty, a little sweet and are designed to be pulled apart and shared at the table. Some other Eastern European and Russian styles are more like a cheese-filled bread, with veins of sweet, white dairy goodness running throughout. This photo was taken surreptitiously in a Russian market. Shhh!


Shown here is Romanian pască. This particular example comes from Nita’s European Bakery at 4010 Greenpoint Ave, Sunnyside, Queens – look for the awning that reads Cofetaria Nita. It is unique (at least in my experience) and undeniably stellar. This dense delight, about nine inches in diameter, is actually a two-layered affair, with a rich topping/filling that is virtually a raisin-studded, hyper-creamy manifestation of cheesecake that sits atop a sweet cake-like bread; the religious theme is easily recognizable.


Here’s a view that reveals the layers. If you like sweet desserts, you’ll love this.


On my recent peregrination through Brooklyn’s Little Odessa on Brighton Beach Avenue where Russian and Former Soviet Union shops abound, it seemed that every market was selling kulich, a Russian/Slavic Orthodox Easter bread. Look closely behind the eggs in the first photo and you’ll see an array of them. (Look even more closely behind the kulichi and the sign for яйца and you’ll see packages of the Italian Christmas treat, panettone. Pretty much every market was offering them as well. In terms of taste, they’re pretty close although panettone is a little richer, however I have yet to determine why both are sold in this neighborhood during Orthodox Easter. But I digress.)

Not as sweet as pascha, the cylindrical kulich is often baked at home in a coffee can to achieve the characteristic shape; this diminutive example stands only about five inches high. The Ukranian legend reads куліч (cake) пасхальний (paschal) and around the beltline з великоднем (Happy Easter) христос воскрес (Christ is risen).


It’s somewhere along the bread <-> coffeecake continuum, shot through with raisins, and always dressed with a snow-white sugar-glazed cap and colorful sprinkles.

з великоднем!
 
 

La Colomba di Pasqua

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Two notable celebrations of the season, Easter and Passover, are concurrent this year. It’s no coincidence that the Italian word for Easter (pasqua) and the Hebrew word for Passover (pesach) are closely related, although culinarily the holidays couldn’t be more disparate. During this time of year, Jewish families are expunging their homes of even the most minuscule crumb of anything leavened, and Italians are baking Easter breads like they’re going out of style.

Italy’s traditional seasonal bread is La Colomba di Pasqua (“The Easter Dove”), and it is essentially Lombardy’s Eastertime answer to Milan’s Christmastime panettone. These deliciously sweet, cakey breads, in some ways Italy’s gift to coffeecake but so much better, are fundamentally the same except for two significant distinctions: the colomba is baked in the shape of the iconic dove that symbolizes both the resurrection and peace, and the recipes diverge with the colomba’s dense topping of almonds and crunchy pearl sugar glaze. Traditionally, a colomba lacks raisins, favoring only candied orange or citron peel, but as with panettone, fanciful flavors (including some with raisins) proliferate.

The first photo shows a colomba in all its avian splendor. Frankly, I think it’s a leap of faith to discern a dove in there, but if you can detect one, you may have just performed your own miracle.


Hard pressed to see the dove? Fret not, for this photo has the cake turned upside down so the columbine form is somewhat more evident.


And a version that features bits of chocolate and dried peaches within and crunchy crushed amaretto cookies atop.

Just wondering: There’s no debate that American kids bite the ears off their chocolate Easter bunnies first. Do you suppose that Italian children start with the head, tail, or wings of the colomba?
 
 

Sanguinaccio Dolce

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An equal opportunity celebrant, I’m always keen to learn about traditional foods that are associated with religious holidays. Lent, the forty day period that begins with Ash Wednesday and ends just before Easter Sunday, is celebrated in southern Italy with an unusual delicacy called Sanguinaccio Dolce, a sweet (“dolce”) dessert pudding made with pig’s blood (“sangue”) although some bakeries around these parts opt for beef blood. (For the faint of heart <groan> bloodless versions can be found.)

Now don’t go running off: if you follow me you know that I wrote a piece for Edible Queens last year suggesting that durian pizza is the gateway drug for durian, the much maligned tropical fruit. I propose that sanguinaccio dolce fulfills the same role for food crafted with blood as an ingredient. Numerous cultures are at home with it – blood rice cakes in China, blood pancakes in Sweden, dinuguan in the Philippines, as well as sausages in Great Britain and Ireland, morcilla in Spanish speaking countries worldwide, boudin in France, and so many more in Northern and Eastern Europe. Pretty much everywhere actually. And you also know that I only recommend truly tasty food; I have never been one to embrace the sensationalism of “Look what gross thing I just ate!” No. This is genuinely delicious.

An expertly crafted version tastes like a rich, dense, dark chocolate pudding that carries notes of cinnamon and bits of candied orange peel, pine nuts and sliced almonds. There is no hint of minerally blood flavor. It’s often served with savoiardi, crisp ladyfingers, but a spoon will suffice. The pasticciotto sports a tender shortbread crust with a kiss of lemon and is filled with sanguinaccio. These two examples came from Morrone Pastry Shop at 2349 Arthur Ave in the Bronx last year but it can be found at other hardcore Italian bakeries as well.

If, like me, you appreciate the concept of snout-to-tail cooking and decry food waste, you should look into this. But if you just want to sample the richest, most delicious Italian dark chocolate pudding you’ve ever tasted, you need to give this a chance. Unless of course you just don’t like chocolate pudding at all, in which case move along, nothing to eat here.

#bloodydelicious (couldn’t resist 😉)
 
 

Holi Mubarak!

(Originally published on Holi in 2019.)

The Equal Opportunity Celebrant strikes again, eating my way through Holi today, the Hindu festival of spring and colors celebrated predominantly in India and Nepal. Prowling around the Indian neighborhood in Jackson Heights yesterday in search of traditional Holi treats, I enjoyed watching children choosing packets of powder in every color of the rainbow to sparge at anything in their path, thus producing a glorious festive mess. The holiday recounts the heartwarming legend of Krishna coloring his face for Radha, his love, and heralds the arrival of spring.

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Jalebi are one of the most widely available Indian mithai (you can read about my addiction to them here); they’re made from chickpea or wheat flour batter, usually orange but occasionally yellow (no difference in flavor, just a color preference) which is drizzled into hot oil in coil shapes. The resulting deep fried confections look like pretzels; they’re crispy when they come out of the oil, then they’re soaked in super sweet syrup so you get the best of both worlds. For Holi, however, jalebi get the royal treatment; this one is about 7 inches in diameter and generously adorned with edible silver foil, sliced almonds and pistachios. Because this sticky jumbo jalebi (jalumbi? jalembo?) is larger and thicker than the standard issue version, it provides more crunch and holds more syrup in each bite so it’s even more over the top, if such a thing is possible.


This is gujiya (you might see gujia), a classic Holi sweet, half-moon shaped and similar to a deep-fried samosa. Crunchy outside and soft within, it’s filled with sweetened khoa (milk solids), ground nuts, grated coconut, whole fruits and nuts (raisins and cashews in this one), cumin seeds, and a bit of suji (semolina) for texture.

These Holi day treats came from Maharaja Sweets, 73-10 37th Ave, Jackson Heights, Queens.

Holi Mubarak! Have a blessed Holi!
 
 

Brown Sugar Boba Ice Cream

I still haven’t been back to Flushing because of the damndemic but I do manage to make it to Manhattan’s Chinatown for my idea of essential provisions. On a recent shopping spree, I picked up a package of frozen Brown Sugar Boba Ice Cream Bars.

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It transported me back to the day in May, 2019 when the Taiwanese chain, Tiger Sugar Bubble Tea, first opened its window at 40-12 Main Street in Flushing. We all stood patiently outside in the seemingly interminable, glacially slow moving line to get our first taste of this refreshing treat – refreshing indeed because IIRC temperatures were pushing 90°; on subsequent visits when it was pouring rain, the management handed out loaner umbrellas to keep us dry and happy as we waited.

The popular milk drink with its Instaworthy tiger stripes of dark brown sugar syrup was an instant success spawning multiple competitors like this excellent version from nearby Yi Fang Fruit Tea.

Its sweet syrup and melt-in-your-mouth boba were warm and flavorful and contrasted harmoniously with the ice cold milk. Before long, an enterprising challenger, With Sugar and Tea, opened up next door to Tiger Sugar featuring a drink with a snazzy cap…

…that tasted like White Rabbit taffy, one of the first Chinese candies I ever sampled decades ago.

Like Cream Mousse options elsewhere, this one sported Cream Cake topping, the thick foam enhancing its signature White Rabbitude. Alas, I understand that they’re no longer in business. Tiger Sugar went on to open multiple locations and the competition from legitimate contenders and a host of knock-offs hasn’t subsided.

But I digress. As usual.

Here are a couple of pix of the frozen confection incarnation of the now ubiquitous drink.



 
 
And a reminder: New York City boasts at least six Chinatowns and perhaps a few more depending upon your definition of what constitutes a Chinatown; just pick one and go! Now, more than ever, please SUPPORT CHINATOWN!
 
 

Pi Day – Petee’s Pie Company

From a visit to the amazing Petee’s Pie Company in Manhattan back in April, 2018.

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Pi Day is upon us! The official day that celebrates the astonishing discovery in 1988 that the first three digits of the mathematical constant pi (π≅3.14) correspond to the calendar date using the month/day format (3/14).

Provided, that is, that you don’t use the MM-DD format with its leading zeros. Or that you’re literally anywhere in the world outside of the United States where, intuitively, DD-MM-YYYY puts the numbers in order of significance. Or that you’re not enamored of the eminently more logical and sortable YYYY-MM-DD format.

But I digress.

IMHO 🥧 > 🍰 and Petee’s Pie Company at 61 Delancey St in Manhattan and 505 Myrtle Ave in Brooklyn 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 incredible black bottom Almond Chess Pie infused with amaretto, topped with toasted almonds, resting on a layer of chocolate ganache and 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.)
 
 
Visit Petee’s Pie Company on the web to check out their complete menu.
 
 

Purim 2021

The Jewish holiday Purim begins this year (it’s 5781 according to the Jewish calendar) on Thursday evening, February 25, and ends on the following Friday evening. Although this post was originally published a year ago, some things never change. Tradition!

The story of Purim memorializes the time in ancient Jewish history when Haman, royal vizier to King Ahasuerus of Persia, had been plotting to exterminate all the Jews in the empire. His plan was thwarted by Mordecai and Queen Esther, his adopted daughter, and the deliverance is one of joyful celebration, steeped in traditional ceremonies and festivities. Among the many icons of the holiday, one of the most renowned is the hamantasch, literally “Haman’s pocket”.

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Hamantaschen are delicious triangular baked pastries conventionally filled with thick prune jam (lekvar) or ground poppy seeds (muhn), but these days creative cookery presents some serious competition. Happily, the always mind-blowing Breads Bakery, 18 E 16th St in Manhattan, covers the entire spectrum. On this plate, there’s sweet Poppy Seed, Halva, Chocolate, and Apple (their signature flavors) along with a pair of savory challengers, Purple Haze and Pizza. The former, covered in sesame and nigella seeds, holds sauerkraut – a little sweetish and worth a bite even if you don’t care for sauerkraut. The latter is filled with a blend of tomato paste, mozzarella and parmesan cheeses, basil, garlic, and olive oil and tastes exactly like what you’d expect with that set of ingredients; try warming this one up. Fusion food for sure.


Sometimes a change of focus helps to make a point – or six.
 
 

Open Heart Sugary – or, the Anatomy of a Valentine Cookie

👨‍🍳 Cooking in the Time of COVID 👨‍🍳

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These are Red Currant Raspberry Linzer Cookies, first cousins of Austria’s Linzer Tart – traditionally, I do stars for Christmas and hearts for Valentine’s Day. This particular batch began months earlier with the acquisition of red currants and raspberries when they were in season followed by a little time spent prepping and cooking them up. It’s a lot easier than you’d expect and the filling keeps for quite a while in the fridge while you’re procrastinating doing the fussy part. If you’re not a fanatic, however, I can recommend Hero Red Currant Premium Fruit Spread; I’ve had pretty good luck with it – it just needs a bit of finessing via the addition of some red raspberry jam to achieve the degree of sweetness you’re after plus some straining.


The dough calls for flour, sugar, and butter, of course, plus finely ground blanched almonds, almond extract, and lemon zest. Start by baking equal numbers of fronts and backs. Occasionally a front or back will fracture which then perforce spells doom for its perfectly intact intended mate, but sadly, I’ve never found an effective way to repair a broken heart. Sometimes, you just have to eat your losses. This is an example of how culinary art reflects life. But hey, that’s the way the cookie crumbles.


Look closely at the finished cookies in the first photo and you’ll see that the powdered sugar blankets only the outer section of the heart while the inner red lifeblood of this classic treat shines through unobstructed. Now, examine the above photo and follow along to see how I do it:

Bottom rows:
Starting with solid backs, use a plastic squeeze bottle to add preserves around the perimeter but not in the center. (Neatness doesn’t count.) Match tops to bottoms.

Top rows:
Let it snow, let it snow, etc. Note the unfilled but sugary centers. Next, squirt a blob of preserves into the cutout thereby hiding the powdered sugar.

Now, here’s the painstakingly obsessive step (why do I do these things?): then and only then, for each cookie, carefully use a toothpick to smooth out any less than perfect curves of the inner heart, et voilà! Your cookies will look like those in the first photo. Maybe better. (Why can’t they make Photoshop for food?)
 
 
When the cookies are complete and have been packed away, your workspace will look like this one, post-sugaring and pre-cleanup, an exercise in negative space.

And the beat goes on.
 
 
Stay safe, be well, and eat whatever it takes. ❤️