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!
 
 

Sfingi

It seems like every world cuisine has its own version of fried dough – Zeppole are Italy’s contender. You’ve probably seen them at street festivals or perhaps you were fortunate enough to have grown up watching your nonna make them as she confidentially disclosed her signature special ingredient, amore, which of course elevated hers above all others. They’re usually dusted with a sprinkle of powdered sugar but on occasion are dressed with a shot of pastry cream.

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These first cousins are sfingi (pronounced SFEEN-ji), Sicily’s answer to Neapolitan zeppole, although the two are not mutually exclusive. Sfingi are fried cream puffs filled with cannoli cream and can be found in Italian-American bakeries in celebration of Saint Joseph’s Day, March 19, honoring the husband of the Virgin Mary. (BTW, I’ve seen recipes that call for baking them, but….No.) This pair, chocolate on the left, bursting with ricotta-based, cinnamon-inflected, sweet cannoli cream shot through with mini chocolate bits, came from Court Pastry Shop, 298 Court St in Brooklyn.

The inside scoop:

Crunchy crispitude.


Puffy and floofy.
 
 

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. ❤️
 
 

Girasol Bakery

My cat’s favorite catnip mouse had been missing for over a week. Every night, Mercury (he answers to Murky) would select that one particular, very special mouse from his box of about twenty, deposit it just outside the bedroom door, and meow vociferously until I, in grateful appreciation of his gift, emerge to retrieve it and offer a kitty treat in exchange. Every Single Night. But now, that mouse was gone, and clearly, since Murky had been failing to keep his nightly appointment, there would be no substitute. I missed his bedtime visit just as he missed that mouse.

Well obviously, given the circumstances, there was only one thing I could do: scope out every pet shop within a four mile radius of my apartment until I could track down an identical replacement. By the end of that afternoon I was ready to give up. Only one store remained on my list but miraculously, there was one such mouse in stock – the last one they had.

Triumphant, I started for home, but a few storefronts away I spotted Girasol Bakery at 690 5th Avenue in Brooklyn’s South Slope neighborhood. Being on a diet (thanks a lot, COVID), I’ve been scrupulously avoiding bakeries, “but it can’t hurt to just peek in,” I thought. Famous Last Thoughts.

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I’m a fan of bread pudding even though some versions can be a little dry, practically begging to be paired in a duet with drizzle of sauce. But this one was so moist, so luscious looking, it was undoubtedly a soloist. I caved.


Its display case neighbor was the archetypal Mexican dessert, chocoflan, aka “impossible cake”. A dark layer of chocolate cake oozing richness topped with a golden layer of creamy flan (they separate during the baking process, hence the nickname) proved irresistible, so okay, one piece, please. They’ll keep; I don’t have to eat them both at once.


Another case nearby flaunted tempting tres leches cake, that transcendent dessert drenched in three kinds of milk (sweetened condensed, evaporated, and heavy cream). Makes you wonder if you should consume it with a fork or a spoon. Or perhaps a straw. The trio should last for three days at least, longer if I divvy them up.

I arrived home with my treats and Murky’s new BFF. As I was enjoying a prudently tiny taste of each of the three goodies, he brought me his new mouse and laid it at my feet – as if to say, “Thank you.” Awww, Murky!

But then, one prudently tiny taste later, he brought me his old mouse and laid it at my feet – as if to say, “Psych!”

Damn. The ignominy of being outfoxed by a cat. Well obviously, given the circumstances, there was only one thing I could do: polish off the rest of the people treats in stark exasperation then and there. Diet? What diet?
 
 
Stay safe, be well, and eat whatever it takes. ❤️
 
 

From Russia, With Plov

Originally published in 2013, but still fun.
 
KutyaChristmas day had come and gone, but not so its delicious spirit. It’s not a religious thing with me; it’s more of a celebration of the spectacular panorama of international holiday foods that surrounds us this time of year. The problem is, the season just doesn’t last long enough despite my best efforts to prolong it. One year, I valiantly managed to extend the holiday right though Valentine’s Day, ignoring the fact that the festive red and green department store window displays now sported only red trim, wondering where the chipmunks were hibernating when I boarded the elevators, and upon returning home, trying to fathom how the branches of even my artificial tree were becoming brown and sere.

I know I’m not entirely alone in this, even though my behavior may be a bit extreme. Ask almost anyone about their favorite holiday foods and they’ll go misty and begin to wax rhapsodic about childhood memories of treasured treats that their grandmother used to prepare. In every corner of the world, there are traditional Christmas dinner favorites: festively bedecked meats and generations-old recipes for vegetables and pasta, all manner of fish and fowl, not to mention countless renditions of roast pork and baked ham in all its porcine splendor – that singular, universal, culinary triumph of domestic chefs around the globe, translated into a hundred languages and embraced by as many cultures as uniquely and definitively their own.

And then there are the international desserts: panettone, stollen, bûche de Noël, plum pudding, cookies, pastries, cakes, and candies of every stripe – the list is endless. Recently, a Swedish friend excitedly told me about risgrynsgröt. Her eyes practically lit up as she described the Christmas rice pudding served with thick, sweet fruit sauce (she said grape, I’ve read raspberry and red currant, but I can’t help but think lingonberry would nail it) that she so cherished.

In any event, in an attempt to maintain the culinary holiday momentum, I decided to venture into Brooklyn’s Little Odessa in Brighton Beach to see what Russian goodies I could find. Christmas hadn’t yet arrived there, so I was just in time for the festivities.

(Russians celebrate Christmas? Indeed they do, every January 7th. The Russian Orthodox Church still uses the old Julian calendar, therefore its Christmas celebration falls thirteen days behind that of the West. A little history: In the 17th century, Peter the Great brought Christmas to Russia, but after the revolution in 1917, religion was outlawed. Not about to give up their joyous tradition, Russians continued to decorate their trees in secret, until finally in 1935 the Soviet government gave in and sanctioned the practice – but as part of a New Year celebration! Call it what you will, Russians happily trimmed their “New Year Trees” until 1992, when it was again permissible to celebrate Christmas openly and Grandfather Frost and his granddaughter, Snow Maiden, could freely distribute presents to delighted children all across Russia.)

So off I went to Brighton Beach Avenue in search of holiday fare. There are two ways to spot Russian markets in that part of Brooklyn. The first is by their prominent signage touting “International Food” on the awning. Not “Russian Food”, not “Eastern European Food”, not “Ukrainian Food” or the like. Nope. Always “International Food”, as if hiding in plain sight. The second way, of course, is that everything is written in Russian with almost no English to be found. Russian is easy to identify as it is written using the Cyrillic alphabet. Essentially, when you look at Russian printing, you think that if only you had a mirror to hold up to it, you could probably read it.

Now, being a dedicated ethnojunkie, I dabble in a bunch of languages, “dabble” being the operative – and even then, rather generously applied – word. But I dabble mostly in food words in those languages. That means that I have vocabularies rich in nouns with precious few verbs to indicate what I want to do with them. For example, I can point to some stuffed dumpling temptation and say, “Что это? Мясо? Сыр?” (“What’s this? Meat? Cheese?”) Invariably, of course, that begets a rapid fire description of the tidbit in Russian which is my cue to gesture that I’d like one of each, please, and hightail it out of the store before any further inquisitions are levied upon me. I have just enough of a language to get into trouble, but not enough to get out of it.

Wandering into the prepared food department of one store, I spied a pint-sized plastic container of an unfamiliar grayish, soupy substance. Naturally, I was compelled to inquire.

“Что это?” I tried.

“Кутя,” came the response.

“Koot-YAH?” I echoed back.

“Да,” she nodded in the affirmative.

At this point, I realized that my reach had far exceeded my grasp. My Russian is as broken as a set of nesting matryoshka dolls missing two bodies and a head. Futilely, I retreated to English.

“What’s in it?”

The patient, smiling woman behind the counter tore off a piece of butcher paper and wrote out “пшеница” for me. I read the letters slowly trying to pronounce the word. “Pshenitsa?” I asked. Detecting my curiosity, an even more helpful staffer went out of her way to grab a bag of wheat berries so she could point to the English word “wheat” to help me understand.

Needless to say, I bought a pint of the stuff and quickly took it home to do a little research and a lot of tasting. I learned that kutya is one of the most important dishes in Russian Christmas eve’s family feast. Best described as a porridge, it’s made from wheat berries, poppy seeds, honey, and customarily includes chopped walnuts and raisins. The wheat berries symbolize immortality and hope, the honey and poppy seeds represent happiness, tranquility, and success. It is eaten from a single shared bowl to connote unity, and a ceremonial blessing of the home often takes place. There’s a tradition among some families that involves flinging a spoonful of kutya up to the ceiling. Legend has it that if it sticks, this year’s honey harvest will be bountiful. (Kids, don’t try this at home!)

Most of the markets along Brighton Beach Avenue have their own recipe for kutya, each a little different from the last and all delicious, but never really straying from the main ingredients. The four that I’ve tried (ahem!) can be characterized as having a gruel-like, soupy texture, not as integrated as oatmeal, but almost thick enough to eat with a fork. They’re sweet from the honey and raisins, crunchy from the wheat berries and nuts, and distinctive and delectable from the poppy seeds. Kutya can be eaten warm or cold and is now one of my must-haves for the holiday season.

Personally, I think it makes a righteous breakfast. That is, when I’m not devouring the last of the panettone!

С Новым Годом!