Ba Bao Cai

Instagram Post 2/21/2018

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More of my home cooking, this time from China 🇨🇳 by way of Brooklyn 🇺🇸!

One of the dishes I like to make for Chinese New Year is Bā Bao Cài (Eight Treasure Vegetables) 八宝菜. By way of identification, the object that looks a slice of potato in this photo is arrowhead (sometimes called Chinese arrowroot), easy to find in Chinatown this time of year; behind it is a chunk of gluten (seitan) – it soaks up sauce like a sponge; a bean curd knot – you can buy these fresh, frozen, or dried and they’re adorable; up near the chopsticks is a piece of sweet & spicy prepared bean curd; peanuts; and less obvious in this photo are dried lily buds, an indispensable ingredient in Moo Shu Pork; dried bean curd skin; smoked tofu; dried shiitake mushrooms; and wood ear (black fungus). Trust me, they’re in there; dig for buried treasures if you like. You could almost play Where’s Waldo with it! Lots of seasonings went into the savory sauce, too many to list here. (You think I’m gonna give away my recipe?! 😉)

So there’s my spin on Eight Treasure Vegetables. Oh wait. That’s ten treasures, not eight. So I guess I made Shí Bao Cài!

恭喜發財!
 
 

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!

 

Note: I’ve learned that Nicola’s Specialty Foods has gone out of business so now I need to find a new “dealer”, as it were! 😉

 
 

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.
🎅🎄☃️❄️
 
 

Homemade Pumpkin Pie

Instagram Post 10/13/2017

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More of my home cooking!
🎃
It’s pumpkin season and I’m preparing my perennial parade of peak-of-perfection pumpkin pies! I’m pleased as punch and proud (okay, enough with the p’s) that there’s so much 💖 for these babies; I seriously did go through countless iterations developing my recipe until I got it to exactly my idea of what the ultimate pumpkin pie should be. (One of the tricks is to use only fresh pumpkin – none of this canned stuff.) That’s homemade pecan brittle adorning the top and real honest to goodness snow on the plate. (Okay, I lied about the snow – it’s powdered sugar – but the rest is gospel!)
 
 

Chinese Mooncakes Demystified

Or, The Equal Opportunity Celebrant – Part 2

 

A visit to any Chinatown bakery this time of year will reveal a befuddling assemblage of mooncakes (yue bing) in a seemingly infinite variety of shapes, sizes, ornamentation, and fillings, all begging to be enjoyed in observance of the Mid-Autumn Festival. Also known as the Autumn Moon Festival, this important holiday occurs on the fifteenth day of the eighth lunar month (around mid-September or early October on the Gregorian calendar) when the moon looms large and bright – the perfect time to celebrate summer’s bounteous harvest. They’re sold either individually or in eye-catching gift boxes or tins since it’s customary to offer gifts of mooncakes to friends and family (or lovers!) for the holiday. Since I pursue culinary details doggedly (2018 is the year of the same), I felt compelled to purchase an assortment of these delicacies in order to learn about their similarities and differences and to shed some light (moonlight, of course) on their intricacies.

The first point to note is that various regions of China have their own distinct versions of mooncakes. A quick survey of the interwebs revealed styles hailing from Beijing, Suzhou, Guangdong (Canton), Chaoshan, Ningbo, Yunnan, and Hong Kong, not to mention Taiwan and Malaysia. They’re distinguished by the types of dough, appearance, and fillings, some sweet and some more savory. In my experience, Chinese bakeries in Manhattan, Brooklyn (Sunset Park), and Queens (Flushing) favor the Cantonese style, but Fujianese mooncakes are easy to find along stoop line stands outside of markets in neighborhoods where there’s a concentration of folks from Fujian.
jinhua-hammoon-cake-mold
You’ll commonly find mooncakes with doughy crusts (golden brown, soft, somewhere between cakey and piecrusty, often with an egg wash sheen) as well as those with white, paper thin flaky layers that betray lard as an important ingredient; chewy glutinous rice skins (these aren’t baked); and gelatinous casings (jelly, agar, or konjak), the most difficult to find in the city. Golden-baked, elegantly decorated Cantonese versions are round (moon shaped, get it?) or square, are fluted around the perimeter, and have been created using molds made of intricately carved wood to provide the ornate design or an inscription describing what’s inside (see photo).

joyful-lotus-seed-pastejoyful-lotus-seed-paste-inside
Fillings among the Cantonese types are dense and sweet and include lotus seed paste, white lotus seed paste, red bean paste, and mung bean paste, sometimes with one or two salted duck egg yolks (representing the harvest moon) snuggled within. In addition, there are five-nut (or -kernel or -seed) versions, packed with chopped peanuts, walnuts, almonds, pumpkin seeds, and watermelon seeds as well as a variety made with Jinhua ham, dried winter melon, and other fruits buried among the nuts; its flavor was a little herby, not unlike rosemary, but I couldn’t quite identify it. These last two were particularly tasty. All are about 3 inches wide and 1½ inches high and sell for about $4.50–$6; mini-versions are available as well. A visit to Flushing exhibited all of these as well as some outstanding fruity varieties including pineapple, lychee, and pandan; these can be best described as translucent fruit pastes and are perfect for the novitiate – a gateway mooncake if ever there was one.
five-seed-pastepineapple-lychee-pandan

In another market, I found a white, flaky pastry version, Shanghai style, I believe; the filling was like a very dense cake with a modicum of nuts and fruits providing some contrast and crunch – certainly tasty.

durian-with-bean-paste-snowy-moon-cakeicy-moon-cake-boxes
chocolate-icy-moon-cakechocolate-icy-moon-cake-with-cream-cheesechocolate-pearls-in-pandan-flavored-bean-paste
Then there are trendy versions that hail from Hong Kong all of which are equally accessible and delicious. Think mooncake meets mochi: rather than dough-based and baked, the skins are almost like the sweet Japanese glutinous rice cake, but not quite as chewy. These snowy and icy mooncakes must be kept chilled. The snowy flavors are contemporary: strawberry, mango, orange, pineapple, honeydew, peach, peanut, taro, chestnut, green tea and red bean; one version featured durian flavored sweet bean paste with bits of the fruit and enveloped by a skin of sweet, almost almond paste texture and flavor. Icy mooncakes come two to a box (they’re smaller, about 2 inches by ¾ inch) with imaginative flavors like pandan bean paste with chocolate pearls (tiny crispy, candy bits, crunchy like malted milk balls, but probably puffed rice), dark chocolate bean paste (the skin is like mochi with chocolatey paste on the inside and a piece of dark chocolate or a bit of cream cheese nestled within), durian, mango, blueberry, custard, chestnut, black sesame, strawberry, and cherry. Prices range from $6–$9.50 each or for a box.

Even the Häagen-Dazs in Flushing’s New World Mall was touting sets of ice cream mooncakes!

fujianese-moon-cake-3-stampsfujianese-moon-cake-insidePerhaps the most unusual are the mooncakes found in Fujianese neighborhoods, particularly along East Broadway in Manhattan’s Chinatown. These round behemoths (about 8½ inches in diameter and an inch or so thick) are simple in appearance. Wrapped in a single flaky layer covering a more substantial crust (a mixture of rice and wheat flours) with red food coloring stamps on top to delineate varieties, they are an embarrassment of lard and sugar with the addition of chopped peanuts, dried red dates (jujubes), bits of candied winter melon and other nuts and fruits supported by sesame seed encrusted bottoms. I’m wary about cautioning you that these might be an acquired taste as they are certainly unlike anything you might find in Western cuisine and I don’t want to put you off; some friends liked them immediately, others had to think about it. In any event, the flavors will grow on you regardless of your starting point. These hefty disks exemplify the phrase “a little goes a long way” and a cup of tea nearby helps cut the oiliness. Cost is about $10 each.

I have to admit that I hit a wall in my attempt to decipher the inscriptions on the Fujianese mooncakes. Most bore a number of red sunburst shaped identifiers and were stamped, once, twice, three times or four. I was hard pressed to taste the difference between the single and double stamped versions; they were the simplest of the lot – sweet, lardy, and a little fruity perhaps. By the same token, the three-stamp and four-stamp versions were similar to each other and boasted the addition of sweet jujubes and other fruits – more interesting and better in my opinion, certainly sweeter because of the jujubes, but I couldn’t tease out the distinction between the two. Alas, there were other stamps as well – words, I suspect – but the color had run so they were undifferentiable to me. I have friends who can handle Mandarin and Cantonese, but not the Fujianese dialect, and none of the vendors had a word of English, so my questions were fruitless (unlike the 4-stamp mooncake). I’m not going to let this go, though, so keep an eye out for an update to this post.

Update as promised: Never one to be satisfied with “…and the rest” (as the theme from television’s Gilligan’s Island once crooned – but only for the first season), I had no choice but to return to East Broadway in Manhattan’s Chinatown where I had first tapped into the motherlode of Fujianese mooncakes.

On that visit, I had spotted one that displayed somewhat illegible writing rather than a mini-constellation of stamps but I had already purchased a surfeit of mooncakes that day and decided that I didn’t really need to buy one of each. Silly me; I should know better by now. So since that particular mooncake was eating at me (instead of the other way around), I hazarded $12 to try and solve the mystery.

This time the writing on the mystery mooncake was clear, but I’m still unsure about what it said. I see the character for “plus” over the one for “work”; if they were next to each other, it would mean “processing” (in addition to lots of other translations). In any event, it’s by far the best of any of that ilk that I’ve tried because of the ample addition of black sesame seeds and a plentitude of peanuts, so if you encounter it, that’s the one to get.

I’ve cobbled together a mini-glossary to help you decipher a few characters on some of the more popular fillings found in Cantonese mooncakes:

月                 moon
月餅             mooncake
白                 white
蓮蓉             lotus seed paste
紅豆             red bean
旦黃             single yolk
雙黃             double yolk
冰                 ice
冰皮             snowy
伍                 five
仁                 nut, seed, kernel, (benevolence)
金華火腿     Jinhua ham
棗                 jujube (red date)

Armed with these keys, you can combine phrases and discover the secrets hiding within. For example:

雙黃白蓮蓉 = double yolk white lotus seed
冰皮月餅 = snowy mooncake

So head to your nearest Chinese bakery and sample some of these autumn delights! If you can pronounce pinyin, say “zhōngqiū kuàilè” (which sounds like jong chew kwai luh). But in any language, here’s wishing you a Happy Mid-Autumn Festival!

中秋节快乐!

 
 

The Equal Opportunity Celebrant – Part 1

Spring is upon us! You can tell because a few days ago the high was in the 40s and then the day after, it was in the 70s, and the next day we were back to the 40s and…well, you get the idea. I’ve come to accept this convulsive oscillation of the daily temperature as typical of New York City’s signature overture to both Spring and Fall. As a matter of fact, I suspect that if you didn’t actually know the month, you’d be hard pressed to guess which one it was. Over the years, I’ve noticed that we generally unflappable New Yorkers are at sixes and sevens when it comes to determining how to dress on any given day during this period. Recently, while waiting for a particularly recalcitrant traffic light to change, I observed that the individual on my right was decked out in jeans and a fur-collared, heavy leather jacket garnished with a scarf, cap, and gloves while the person on my left was wearing shorts and a tee-shirt. (Both had the foresight to don sunglasses.) Even the flora in tree pits seem confused.

No matter. As the first season of the year, it heralds a procession of traditional holiday treats that is only enhanced by embracing ethnic foodways from around the world. You may have read some of my stories (check out “The Case of the Uncrackable Case”
and “From Russia with Plov”) and know that I’m a self-described equal opportunity celebrant who lives in hungry anticipation from one delectable holiday to the next.

You may also know that I’m a cookin’ fool and love to put my own spin on holiday dishes. Here, for example, is how I do deviled eggs for Easter.

Deviled Easter Eggs

Anyway, a while back, somebody dared me to come up with an ethnic fusion Passover menu. Well, far be it from me to dodge a culinary challenge! So although obviously inauthentic, but certainly fun and yummy, here’s to a Sazón Pesach!

Picante Gefilte Pescado
Masa Ball Posole
Brisket Mole
Poblano Potato Kugel
Maple Chipotle Carrot Tzimmes
Guacamole spiked with Horseradish
Charoset with Pepitas and Tamarindo

And, of course, the ever popular Manischewitz Sangria!

Hmmm. Wonder if I can make tortillas out of matzo meal? 😉