A Passover Dare

(Originally posted in April, 2019.)

(Click on any image to view it in high resolution.)

Previously on ethnojunkie.com, I did a springtime post that included a story about someone who dared me to come up with an ethnic fusion Passover menu. I wrote:

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!

It was all in good fun, of course, but it got me thinking about actually creating a Jewish-Mexican fusion recipe. It isn’t strictly Kosher for Passover, but I thought the concept was worth a try. So here is my latest crack at cross cultural cooking: Masa Brei!

Now you might know that Matzo Brei (literally “fried matzo”) is a truly tasty dish consisting of matzos broken into pieces that are soaked briefly in warm milk (some folks use water), drained, soaked in beaten eggs until soft, then fried in copious quantities of butter. Typically served with sour cream and applesauce, it’s heimische cooking, Jewish soul food, at its finest and it’s easy to do.

So I thought it might be worth a try to swap out the matzos for tostadas, the milk for horchata, the sour cream for crema, and the applesauce for homemade pineapple-jalapeño salsa. A sprinkle of tajín, a scatter of chopped cilantro – and it actually worked!

Happy Passover!
!חג פסח שמח
 
 

Purim 2022

The Jewish holiday Purim begins this year (it’s 5782 according to the Jewish calendar) on Wednesday evening, March 16, and ends on the following Thursday evening. Although the photos in this post were 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”.

(Click on any image to view it in high resolution.)

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 with four locations in Manhattan, covers the entire spectrum. On this plate, there’s sweet poppy seed, halva, chocolate, and apple 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. This year’s specialties are apple, apricot, poppy, chocolate, and pizza with walnut pesto.


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

Ukrainian Blintzes with a Twist

(Click on any image to view it in high resolution.)

Although I can’t know for certain whether my grandmother was Ukrainian, she did make memorable blintzes and she made them often. When I was a kid and just becoming aware of concepts like heritage, I asked her over lunch where she was born. Her responses typically consisted of a single word, in this case, “Brooklyn.”

I pressed on. “Then where were your parents from?”

“Brooklyn,” she replied, tersely.

“Then where…”

“Eat,” she interrupted, setting another plate of blintzes down in front of me figuring that I wouldn’t ask any more questions if my mouth was full. I never did learn about her roots.

Years later, I tried to extract her special recipe: “How much flour should I use?”

“Enough.”

You get the idea. Anyway, I reverse engineered it and I’ve been making them ever since. In a single word, “yum!”

But I told you that story so I could tell you this one: The other day when I was in Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach neighborhood developing a revised itinerary for the upcoming revival of my Little Odessa food tour, I spotted a pint-size deli container filled with an obviously store-made creamy white mass in the dairy case of one of my favorite markets. The home spun label read Sirkovaya Massa (likely a romanization of Сырковая Масса in the surprising absence of Cyrillic characters). I recognized the first syllable, Sir- (Сыр-), as the word for cheese; a closer inspection revealed a list of ingredients: cultured milk, vanilla, sugar, and raisins and I divined that this “Cheese Curd Mass” would probably taste like an Eastern European take on cannoli cream, but more cream cheesy than ricotta based. It was sweet, rich, and absolutely delicious. But what to do with it? Spread it on a bagel? Serve it with fresh fruit perhaps? And then it hit me: combine it with an equal part of farmer’s cheese and make blintzes with a twist! This is a photo of the result, decked out with blueberries, blueberry syrup and sour cream – note the blue and yellow theme. (Next time, I’m might try adding mini chocolate bits to it for a real cross-cultural treat.)


How were they? In a single (Ukrainian) word, “ням!” Grandma would approve.
 
 

Leftover Latkes

If you saw my last post, it pictured only a few of the potato latkes I had made, so there was a stack of leftovers to contend with the next day at lunchtime. They really don’t reheat well – I mean, who wants a soggy, limp latke? – so some culinary cogitation would be called for. My thought process:

• Latkes are primarily potatoes and onions.
• What do I have in the house that’s brunchish? Eggs, among other things.
• Potatoes pair well with eggs – think frittatas.
• Onions pair well with eggs – think Western omelets.

(Click on any image to view it in high resolution.)

The solution? A latke omelet! (Omeletke? Omelatke?)

So I cut up some latkes and sautéed the pieces to get them extra crispy. Western omelets usually contain onion and sweet pepper but since the latkes were pre-onioned, I just needed to add a little diced red bell pepper to the sauté. I spooned the mixture onto the slowly cooking beaten egg (enriched with a touch of heavy cream left over from my Thanksgiving sides), plated it, and left just enough peeking out to identify the contents; a dusting of Spanish paprika and a few cilantro leaves provided the garnish.

The pink stuff? Western omelets also often contain ham. All I had in the house was “turkey pastrami” – which tastes nothing like turkey and even less like pastrami, but that’s what there was in the fridge. (Don’t ask.) I wanted the omelet to be latke-centric, so I decided to use the faux ham as an accompaniment. Sliced and sautéed it to get some crispy brown edges (crispy brown fixes everything), hit it with some cracked black pepper and fanned out the result beside the omelet.

Anything else? Perhaps round it out with some kind of veggie so I could pretend that it’s a balanced meal, so I cobbled together a quick shredded carrot and currant salad spiked with cumin, cinnamon and a sprinkle of hot paprika plus fresh lemon juice to bring it together.


The inner workings. Note the yummy crispy bits.

I actually might have enjoyed this more than just the plain latkes – and I’m feeling a little guilty about it.

Given the provenance, I guess it stands to reason.
 
 

A Chanukah Miracle in Brooklyn

The Jewish holiday of Chanukah commemorates the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem after its destruction in the second century B.C. The ceremony involved the lighting of a menorah, an oil lamp, but there was only enough oil to last for a single day. By a miracle, the menorah glowed for eight which is why Chanukah, the Festival of Lights, is celebrated for as many days. In Jewish households, a nine branched menorah is used; a single candle is lit on the first night and an additional candle is added each consecutive night, with the ninth position reserved for the shamash, a helper candle used to kindle the others.

Since the Chanukah miracle revolves around oil, tradition involves eating oil-centric fried foods. Sufganiot, jelly doughnuts, are the go-to sweet treat in Israel while Eastern Europe brings latkes to the table, potato pancakes customarily served with sour cream and apple sauce; here, we happily indulge in both.

(Click on any image to view it in high resolution.)

My homemade latkes: shredded potatoes, minced onion, beaten eggs, baking powder, S&P, plus a binder like flour or matzo meal, shaped and fried in plenty of peanut oil and/or schmaltz (chicken fat) if you’re the decadent type 🙋‍♂️; they’re plated here with the requisite sour cream alongside chunky apple-strawberry sauce topped with sweet crystallized ginger. (You know me: I hadda be different.)


The recipe calls for salting and draining the potatoes; I simply set up a colander in the sink, squeezing out the liquids from time to time. But this year, I noticed something I had never witnessed before: the intricate patterns made by the drained, wet potato starch were as beautiful and mesmerizing as snowflakes! A present day Chanukah miracle!


The photo enlarged.

Now, look very, very closely and you can see a tiny, perfect Chanukah menorah in the pattern. Go ahead, keep searching. Stay focused. Take your time. Don’t pay any attention to me. I’ll just, um, finish off these latkes while you’re trying to find it….
 
 
!חַג חֲנוּכָּה שַׂמֵחַ
Happy Chanukah!
 
 

A Passover Dare

(Originally posted on April 20, 2019, in better times.)

(Click on any image to view it in high resolution.)

Previously on ethnojunkie.com, I did a springtime post that included a story about someone who dared me to come up with an ethnic fusion Passover menu. I wrote:

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!

It was all in good fun, of course, but it got me thinking about actually creating a Jewish-Mexican fusion recipe. It isn’t strictly Kosher for Passover, but I thought the concept was worth a try. So here is my latest crack at cross cultural cooking: Masa Brei!

Now you might know that Matzo Brei (literally “fried matzo”) is a truly tasty dish consisting of matzos broken into pieces that are soaked briefly in warm milk (some folks use water), drained, soaked in beaten eggs until soft, then fried in copious quantities of butter. Typically served with sour cream and applesauce, it’s heimische cooking, Jewish soul food, at its finest and it’s easy to do.

So I thought it might be worth a try to swap out the matzos for tostadas, the milk for horchata, the sour cream for crema, and the applesauce for homemade pineapple-jalapeño salsa. A sprinkle of tajín, a scatter of chopped cilantro – and it actually worked!

Happy Passover!
!חג פסח שמח
 
 

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”.

(Click on any image to view it in high resolution.)

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.
 
 

Macaroons and Macarons: So Close and Yet So Far

The following post is presented as a public service. 😉

There seems to be some confusion regarding these two very dissimilar cookies with very similar names, but oh, what a difference an O makes. Let’s get the pronunciations out of the way first: macaroon rhymes with “black balloon” and if you honk the final syllable of macaron through your nez, you’ll nail the proper French pronunciation of that one.

Were the two cookies once a single biscuit that bifurcated due to some culinary tectonic shift? In search of the proto-macaroon, I consulted my copy of Larousse Gastronomique. There was a macaroon (their spelling) based on almond meal that has been made in a French monastery in Cormery since 791 (no, that’s not a typo) that’s not too different from one half of today’s macaron. I say half because the definition of a French macaron is that it comprises two almond flour cookies joined back to back by a sticky filling like jam or ganache. The seemingly infinite variety of flavors (more about that later) derives from the filling alone, and the coloring is just that: coloring. In my experience, they require the patience of a saint (or perhaps a monk) to produce competently.

Macaroons, in contrast, are quintessentially American; a mounded cookie consisting of shredded coconut, sugar, egg whites and sometimes sweetened condensed milk that in its rudimentary form is so uncomplicated as to make it a good candidate for a child’s first baking experience.

Etymologically, the word “macaron” makes a brief appearance in the writing of Rabelais in 1552. It stems from the Italian word “maccherone” meaning a “fine paste” (consider how the combined ingredients appear before baking) and yes, the word macaroni shares the same root (consider pasta/paste while you’re at it). Subsequently, it shows up in an English language recipe from 1611 that spells it “macaroon” and identifies the word as having been derived from the French “macaron”. So the words diverge centuries before the cookies do and the conflation conflagration begins.

The Renaissance version of the cookie itself was pretty well defined as a “small, round cookie, crunchy outside and soft inside, made with ground almonds, sugar and beaten egg whites” folded together, essentially what we think of as Italian amaretti. And so these macarons/macaroons prevailed for many years – there’s a recipe in Martha Washington’s Booke of Cookery – until just before the 20th century when two events occurred that altered the course of cookie history.

At that time, coconut palms were introduced to and cultivated in Florida and their fruit became the darling of the American kitchen. In 1871, Esther Levy published the first Jewish cookbook; it featured a recipe for macaroons in which grated coconut replaced the traditional almond flour. Because the dietary restrictions of the Jewish holiday Passover prohibit the consumption of leavened baked goods, coconut macaroons handily filled the dessert bill and they caught on.

A few years later, the Parisian bakery and tea salon, Ladurée, began selling almond flour macarons in pairs, flat sides back to back, with sweet fillings like ganache to hold them together. So at that juncture, we formally have two different cookies, each with its own proper name.

These days, French style macarons are quite trendy and can be found everywhere from fancy pâtisseries to bakery chains in Chinatown, although obviously the quality varies from venue to venue. This cutaway view shows the fillings inside a couple of macarons and the lack thereof in the standard issue macaroon. (The photo also serves to illustrate the way the cookie crumbles.)

Macarons come in several sizes but are always paired and share the classical puck-like shape. The sheer number of flavors to be found borders on the ridiculous and precludes any attempt at a comprehensive list, but you’ll see fruit flavors like cherry, banana, peach, pineapple, pomegranate, honeydew, coconut, papaya, passionfruit – actually pretty much every fruit you can name; what I’ll call “roasted bean” like coffee, latte, mocha, dark chocolate, milk chocolate, white chocolate; nuts like walnut, almond, pistachio; boozy specimens like Grand Marnier, Jack Daniels, Baileys Irish Cream, mojito; other dessert interlopers like crème brûlée, salted caramel, praline, Nutella, cotton candy, Oreo cookie (a cookie that’s designed to taste like another cookie?); Asian influences like pandan, durian, candied ginger, thai tea, red bean, mung bean, matcha tea, taro; floral/herbal flavors like lavender, mint, rose; and just plain brazen contenders like fois gras, wasabi, maple syrup & bacon, cheeseburger, bubblegum, Cheetos, and Vegemite. Mon dieu!

Then there are the double combinations like raspberry almond, blueberry cheesecake, lavender honey, white chocolate mint, strawberry kiwi, rhubarb cilantro and the like, not to mention triples like s’mores – you mathletes out there could calculate the permutations and combinations if only the flavor list weren’t infinitely long.

Not to be left out, popular brands of Passover macaroons including Manischewitz, Streit’s and Gefen have entered the fray but with somewhat less rebellious flavors like almond, chocolate chip hazelnut, red velvet, cookies & creme, pistachio orange, carrot cake, cappuccino, toffee crunch, chocolate mint, and purely coconut – again, a list that’s far from exhaustive.

I kind of like the fact that you can get almond macaroons and coconut macarons. Seems right somehow.

Beyond the popular brands of macaroons often sold in cans, I’m also seeing some serious bespoke examples at upscale bakeries. These second generation macaroons, if you will, turned up at the incredible 2018 World’s Fare in Queens and were crafted by Danny Macaroons: original coconut, peanut butter chocolate, salted caramel, and pineapple-guava filled.

Dedicated holidays cement the distinction: National Macaroon Day is celebrated on May 31; International Macaron Day appears to be tied to the first day of spring, around March 20. (There’s even a Chocolate Macaroon Day on June 3rd but it seems to embrace both macaroons and macarons.)

So armed with this fresh batch of information about the difference between macarons and macaroons, you can officially consider yourself one smart cookie. If you’re anything like me, you’re a fan of both!
 
 
(Note: Not to be confused with Emmanuel Macron, President of France. No relation.)