Oh My Darling

People prepare for babies in different ways. Some set up their nurseries and make sure their cribs are positioned for optimal natural light. Others spend the weeks leading up to the big day by pre-washing the little one’s wardrobe. Most everyone has their car seat installed at the local police or fire station.

Unrelated gratuitous baby photo

Unrelated gratuitous baby photo

I faced a dilemma: on the one hand, Jewish tradition frowns on bringing baby things into the house before there is an actual baby; on the other, hand I am an inveterate planner. Perhaps not surprisingly, I found my solution in the kitchen. I spent the weeks leading up to Lilli’s arrival cooking, baking and freezing foods to make the first few months less stressful.

Give the people what they want...

Give the people what they want…

“I need to serve something to our guests that come by for a visit,” I explained to Rich about the added hours I spent in our kitchen. “I’m pretty sure people are supposed to bring you the food, honey,” he replied. And it’s true, a nice meal train has been set up through our synagogue, although it has been somewhat derailed by snowstorms and flu season.

I was vindicated this weekend. We had Lilli’s baby naming on Presidents’ Day (no pressure, Lil). She already had her name, but this was a Jewish ceremony to announce her Hebrew name and explain the origins of her other names. It’s a rough analog of a bris, minus the delicate surgery. If you’re interested, you can watch the video of the service on YouTube:

It was really touching to see all the people who came to celebrate the occasion with us. My guess is around 80 people showed up on Monday morning.

One more, but that's it for now...

One more, but that’s it for now…

On the day before we hosted some of our out-of-town guests at our house: my Cousin David, his girlfriend Wendy and Brian Levinson, who made the drive up from Queens (commiserating about the Mets the entire way, no doubt), and Sylvie and Miriam who had flown up from DC. Suffice it to say, I was quite pleased with myself because I had defrosted this clementine cardamom pound cake I had baked, weeks in advance, for just such an occasion.

Boxes of clementines are pretty ubiquitous on kitchen counters this time of year. In the late stages of my pregnancy, I’d taken to eaten them to spur Lilli, who was an exceptionally quiet fetus, to give me a reassuring kick or two. It became such a thing that for about a week Clementine was a serious baby name candidate.

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Before I ate all of them, I thought it best to bake a cake with some of them. I hunted around the Internet and came up with a Nigella Lawson recipe that called for boiling, grinding and then adding nuts — not unlike this blood orange and pistachio cake Sara and I made last year (although I have a feeling ours was better). Too much work for the ninth month of pregnancy, even for me.

I finally found what I was looking for on Food52. All this recipe called for was zesting and juicing the fruit, and I loved the idea of the cardamom adding a spicy warmth to the cake. Although spices can get expensive, I’ve found bags for very cheap at the Armenian stores in Watertown. Also, one cardamom pod goes a long way, so even if you end up at Whole Foods, in the long run, the price isn’t bad at all.

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After I removed this cake out of the oven and it cooled down, I wrapped it in a few sheets of tin foil, labeled it and stuck it in the freezer. It defrosted beautifully in less than an hour just by unwrapping it and setting it out on the counter.

Clementine Cardamom Pound Cake by SavvyJulie on Food52

Ingredients

1 1/2 sticks butter, softened, plus more for the pan

1 3/4 cup all-purpose flour, plus more for the pan

2 Tablespoons olive oil

1 1/4 cup sugar

1/4 cup brown sugar

3 large eggs

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract or paste

1 teaspoon ground cardamom

1 Tablespoon clementine zest, from about 2 clementines

4 Tablespoons clementine juice, from about 2 clementines

1/4 cup milk

Directions

Heat the oven to 350F. Butter and flour a 9x5x3″ loaf pan.

Cream the butter, olive oil and sugars together until smooth.

Mix in the eggs, one at a time, until completely blended.

Stir in 1 cup of the flour, followed by the salt, vanilla, cardamom, clementine zest and juice.

Add the milk and the rest of the flour. Beat until the batter is smooth and consistent, but do not over-beat!

Scrape the cake batter into the prepared pan and smooth the top. Bake for about 1 hour and 15 minutes, until the edges are browned and just pulling away from the sides of the pan, and a cake tester inserted in the middle of the cake comes out clean.

Allow to cool for 10 minutes in the pan. Run a knife or spatula around the edges of the cake to release it from the pan, and flip onto a wire rack to cool completely before slicing and serving.

Worth the Wait

Writing this blog, I sometimes feels like an air traffic controller: clearing some recipes I like for a safe landing, putting others in a holding pattern while I tinker with them, and turning away others altogether. I sift through magazines, cookbooks, food blogs and the hundreds of recipes that are emailed to me in hopes to bring you something good. Sometimes I can’t tell by reading it if it’s going to work, and the only thing to do is to give it a shot. I can report that celery root and vanilla soup tastes as peculiar as it sounds, so I’ll spare you that one.

I try to keep my recipes seasonal, meaning sometimes I’ll have to flag recipes and remember them months later. That’s what happened with this recipe for spiced kumquats, which I came across in November when I reviewed The New Complete International Jewish Cookbook for JewishBoston.com. The recipe I tested at the time, a butternut squash soup with lime and ginger, was very good, but I had to, had to, bookmark a recipe that described the unpeeled fruit as becoming “translucent and tender. The flavour is superb.”

This particular cookbook is 632 pages long, and I read every word of it. This was the only time the author described a dish as “superb.” So I bookmarked the recipe for December, when kumquats would be everywhere, and made the recipe then, and stuck the jar in the back of my fridge and let the spicing begin.

Turns out Ms. Rose was correct; the flavour is indeed superb. In this instance, I navigated and translated this British recipe. Since most American spice cabinets don’t have mace, I learned that nutmeg is grown on the same tree as mace, and have substituted a few scrapes of it instead.

Spiced Kumquats from The New Complete International Jewish Cookbook by Evelyn Rose

This recipe halves beautifully.

You need to make this at least 3 weeks before serving, and they keep in the fridge for at least 3 months.

Ingredients 

2 lb. fresh kumquats

2 1/2 cups sugar

1 stick cinnamon

6 cloves

1/8 teaspoon nutmeg

2 cardamom pods

1 cup cider vinegar
Directions

Place the kumquats in a saucepan, barely cover with water and simmer covered for 10 minutes. Meanwhile, dissolve the sugar with the spices in the vinegar. Bring to boil and cook for 5 minutes.

Drain the kumquats and reserve the cooking liquid. Place them in the spiced syrup and, if necessary, add some of the reserved liquid so that the fruit is barely covered. Simmer, covered, for 30 minutes. Remove from the heat and leave uncovered for 24 hours, turning in the syrup once or twice.

The next day bring it back to a boil, drain the fruit and pack in jars prepped for jamming. Bring the syrup back to boil and boil it hard to thicken slightly. Pour over the kumquats with the spices. Cover and refrigerate.

Bean Counter

I don’t know how and I don’t know why, but a few months ago I was invited to a liquor tasting. Although I do enjoy a nice gin and tonic — Hendrick’s with a muddled cucumber, thank you very much — I am really not much of a drinker, and especially not now with the reflux. But the sound of a night of free alcohol and free appetizers was too good to turn away, so on a random Tuesday night I found myself in a function room at the Hotel Commonwealth in Kenmore Square.

I honestly don’t remember names of any of the liquors I tried: I gave my card to a woman sampling a beet infused alcohol and talked tattoos with a man from a whiskey distillery in Brooklyn.  There were lamb sliders, and chicken wings the girl next to me described as “the best” she’d ever had, and there was a great cheese platter. If memory serves, it was from Formaggio Kitchen, and it had some really nice examples of American cheeses: Humboldt Fog goat, Maytag Blue – you get the picture, good cheese. Someone accidentally forgot to put spoons in the dishes for the local honey and candied nuts that were placed on the side of the cheese – and when I told this story later to Rich, he was a little embarrassed that I’d actually asked for them to track down the spoons. I personally think it would have been a shame if the food they’d meant to serve got tossed in a wastebasket at the end of the night, but that’s just me.

Now, there are two things common at these free events: attractive women doling out samples of the free product, and lots of fun swag given away that has been labeled with the name of their good.  The Icelandic vodka company had messenger bags; I scored a salmon pashmina (yes, pashmina!) scarf from the Italian orange-flavored liqueur. (I just want to make clear that I am not not saying the names of the alcohols because I don’t advertise products on Cheap Beets, but because I honestly don’t know what I was drinking that night.)

And then there was the vanilla-tinged scotch. I was schmoozing with the beautiful woman doling out samples when a couple of people approached the table and asked if they could help themselves to free t-shirts. “Of course!” she replied. “Help yourself.” Now, I hadn’t noticed the t-shirts on the table, but what I had noticed was the display the company had her set up. I was standing in front of a glass jar brimming, and I mean brimming, with whole vanilla beans. There must have been at least 50 standing in front of me, and so I asked her if maybe I could have a few of the beans. (Yes, Rich was even more mortified by this part of the story.) She was a bit surprised by the question – I guess she was more used to getting asked for her phone number than baking ingredients – and I explained that vanilla beans are quite expensive and her bosses might not be happy if they were to disappear. She winked and said she’d look the other away; I grabbed not one but two beans and tucked them in my purse.

I actually forgot about the beans until the next day, when I was waiting for the bus and kept thinking someone was smoking a pipe nearby. The beans rested by my phone, so I had a gorgeous sniff of vanilla every time I got a call. They were still in my purse when I had my class that night. I showed my booty to my classmate the professional baker Joyce (she of the fudge cookie fame). She examined them and gave a sniff, and announced they were actually very good quality. She told me I could wrap them in foil and freeze them until I found a use for them, but she also suggested I make my own extract by sticking them in a small glass jar of vodka and forgetting about them for six months.

But what, I implored, should I bake with them? “Oh no,” Joyce shook her head, “baking with vanilla beans is a waste.” She explained that the only time vanilla beans should be used is in cold dishes. In almost every instance that a baking recipe calls for fresh vanilla beans, a teaspoon or two of extract can be used instead. “But don’t use that chemically fake stuff they sell cheap the grocery store!” she warned. “Always look for real vanilla extract from places like Madagascar and Tahiti.” Joyce said she actually buys hers by the gallon, which fluctuates wildly in price; she’s bought it for a low of $75 to a high of $124. It all depends on the hurricanes and stormy weather. The past few years have been brutal on the baking industry due to the astronomic price of vanilla extract. Who knew?

So the recipe I have for today – creamy rice pudding – can be made with a fresh vanilla bean, but why waste it on something that’s been cooked in a crock pot for hours? This recipe takes leftover rice and makes it into a sweet and creamy dessert. Quick tip: You can freeze leftover rice (or quinoa); it defrosts and heats up in a breeze. I tossed in a few cardamom pods and a scrape of nutmeg — mild spices that won’t upset the reflux. I always have dried cherries in the house from Ocean State Job Lot, but you can replace their appearance with more golden raisins. If you do still insist on using a vanilla bean for your baking, they sell whole vanilla beans in the gourmet section of Home Goods for a few dollars less than you’d pay at the store. My friend Sara takes a note from Mark Bittman and buys hers in bulk off of Amazon. But really, just use the extract.

And one last thing before I get to the recipe: I had mentioned a few posts ago I had some exciting news about a project I was working on. Well, I am pleased to announce my new column “The Four Questions” on JewishBoston.com. Each week I’ll be asking a Jew around town doing interesting things four questions (Passover joke, get it?). In the next few weeks you’ll see interviews with the Globe’s advice columnist, a politico, an ethnomusicologist and a personal chef. Please feel free to drop me a line if you know someone I should be interviewing.

Crock Pot Rice Pudding

Ingredients

2 2/3 cups milk

2 eggs, beaten

4 whole cardamom pods

1 teaspoon vanilla

½ cinnamon stick

1/8 teaspoon fresh nutmeg

½ cup white sugar

½ cup brown sugar

1/3 cup golden raisins

1/3 cup dried cherries

2 cups cooked rice

Directions

Combine all ingredients except for the dried cherries and golden raisins in crockpot. Add rice. Stir.

Cook in crockpot on high for one hour, stirring intermittently. After one hour, add the dried fruit, turn crockpot to low and cook for one more hour, continuing to stir intermittently. Enjoy!

All About Aleza Eve

When I was in college, I took some time off and moved to Jerusalem. I lived at the top of a very high hill, on a street lined with jasmine trees that perfumed my daily walks. A hammock was strung between two loquat trees in the backyard, upon which I read all the English books I could get my hands on at Steimansky’s book store.

I spent that spring studying Jewish texts at a co-educational, non-denominational yeshiva, something that’s still of a bit of an anomaly.  The traditional Rabbinic approach to learning is to study a shared text with discussion and debate. My partner was named Aleza, and we really were a pair that year. We spent nearly every day together, in and outside of school. From Cairo to the shuk, we were partners. I remember bumping into classmates at the market and being asked where Aleza was. “Oh, she’s in the dairy section,” I answered. We were inseparable.

When you’re in Israel, everyone tells you how great Purim is, like no other celebration you’ve ever seen. Brazil might have Carnival, and New Orleans has Mardi Gras, but Jerusalem has Purim. The night of the megillah reading, I wore the homemade wings my friend Jonathan fashioned for me out of wire and white muslin. I ended up getting a terrible migraine that night, so I fluttered home and crawled into bed.

The next day Aleza and I hosted a Persian-inspired meal full of saffron and nuts. I don’t remember for certain everything we cooked, but I do remember that I mistook the salt for the sugar in a potato dish. It was dreadful. The next month, my 21st birthday coincided with a visit from Aleza’s father, and she cooked us a wonderful vegetarian feast with bright curries and pestos. Truly magnificent.

Without a doubt, Aleza remains my favorite home chef, and the recipe I have here is her inspiration. She actually told me about one of these hamentashen fillings last year. Hamentashen, the tri-cornered cookie typically filled with jam, is a Purim must. I’ve been taught that the three corners of the cookie represent the hat that the evil Haman wore. I’ve also heard that these are Haman’s pockets, and another source calls them his ears. Whatever body part or article of clothing, this year’s hamentashen have been coopted as part of my cardamom jag.

The cookie recipe is from Spice and Spirit: The Complete Kosher Jewish Cookbook. This is a terrific cookbook, put together by a guild of Lubavitch women. It’s a wonderful source for those interested in learning more about kashrut, and all the recipes in it are pitch perfect. I have never had a better latke than the one from this book. I actually found my copy of “the purple book” in a second hand bookstore. I was so worried someone would snatch it from me that I hid it under my shirt as I ran to the register.

I’m offering a mix of sweet and savory fillings. The pistachio, cardamom and honey one is pure Aleza, while the toasted pine nuts, honey and thyme is definitely a holiday treat. Pine nuts are not cheap, so I am only suggesting to use 2 tablespoons worth. You should still get about 8 cookies from just those two tablespoons. And please don’t use cheap pine nuts. The ones from China are sketchy and will leave a terrible metallic taste in your mouth that won’t leave for about two weeks. The rest of the cookies I baked were the standard jams — this year it was apricot and mixed berry.

I will be perfectly honest and admit that most of my hamentashen would not win any beauty contests. A fair number of the cookies’ bellies burst open, spilling their sweet insides all over my baking sheets. I’m not worried though. I guarantee there won’t be a cookie remaining by the end of this weekend.

Fillings (these are my recipes)

Pistachio, Cardamom and Honey

Combine in a bowl:

1/4 cup pistachios

2 tablespoons honey

1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom

Pine Nuts, Honey and Thyme

Combine in a bowl:

2 tablespoons toasted pine nuts (I roasted mine stovetop in a small pan, carefully watching to make sure they didn’t burn. Toasted pine nuts are delicious. Burnt pine nuts are garbage.)

1 tablespoon honey

1 teaspoon thyme

The rest of the cookies are up to you. You can never go wrong with the traditional prune butter (lekvar) and poppy seeds (mohn). I’ve read about Nutella ones this year. Sadly, we had none in the house.

Hamentashen

4 eggs

1 cup sugar

1/2 cup oil

Rind of 1 lemon, grated

Juice of 1 lemon

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

5 cups flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

To Make The Cookies

Preheat oven to 350

Grease cookie sheet.

Beat eggs and sugar. Add remaining ingredients and mix well. Divide into four parts.

On a floured board roll out each portion to about 1/8 inch thick. Using a round biscuit or cookie cutter cut 3-inch circles.  (Please note: I have never used either of these things in my entire life. Always, always, always have I used a drinking glass turned upside down for this step.)

Place 1/2 to 2/3 teaspoon of desired filling in the middle of each circle.

To shape the triangle, lift up right and left sides, leaving the bottom down, and bring both sides to meet at the center about the filling.

Bring the top flap down to the center to meet the two sides. Pinch edges together.

Place on greased cookie sheets 1 inch apart and bake in 350 preheated oven for 20 minutes.

While the first batch of cookies are baking, gather up the remains of the dough, and roll it back out and start cutting out new circles.

Cardamom Jag

We once had a roommate who went on food jags. One month, he ate a thick bowl of oatmeal every day for dinner.  Another month, there were endless waffles drizzled with syrup. He was very full after the month of Hungry Man dinners, and he swore to never eat another bite of buffalo chicken anything after his month of binging on the spicy wings.

I am in the throes of my own food spree right now: I am full-on in a cardamom jag. Today I’m offering up two recipes with cardamom, next week there will be a third. I hope by then the urge to sniff and savor this woody, floral spice will be out of my system.

My affair with the green pods started innocently enough; in fact, it caught me by surprise. (Isn’t that always the way with life’s great romances, though?) Last week we went to a ginger party, where guests were invited to bring a ginger-spiced dish to share with the group. There was ginger tea, maki rolls made with pear and candied ginger, cucumbers quick-pickled with rice vinegar and ginger, and sundry ginger-flecked baked goods. I used a Ming Tsai recipe I had bookmarked a few months earlier. It was his version of a fruit cake, East/West-style, with molasses, candied ginger and an array of spices. It was decent enough. I mean, it was cake, and, as a general rule, cake is good. But it was really the whipped cream that was served atop the cake that was the best part. Freshly whipped with cardamom and brown sugar, I may have licked the entire Kitchen Aid Mixer bowl and whisk before even letting Rich know what we were bringing to the party.  (I actually just walked into the kitchen in time to see Rich flat out dipping his entire hand into the  mixer to scoop up a fist full of cream. For reals.)

The next morning I gchatted with my sister-in-law, who informed me that they were drinking the world’s best hot chocolate. The secret? Cardamom. Oh no, I argued, the world’s best hot chocolate could only be the world’s best if it was topped with the fresh cardamom whipped cream from last night. A perfect drink was born.

Some might argue that cardamom is not a cheap spice, but I beg to differ. You can pick up a hefty bag for a couple bucks at the  Armenian stores in Watertown. What you want are the black seeds inside the fibrous pods. For this dish, I slit open the pods, shook out the black seeds, and ground them up until I had the right amount.

(Today I used my spice grinder — a coffee grinder I picked up at Ocean State Job Lot for $15 last year. Ordinarily, I might have used my mortar and pestle that rests on the counter, but Rich borrowed it last week and lost the pestle. Not to worry, he finally found the pestle on Friday morning. It was in the garbage disposal. Rich owes me a new mortar and pestle.)

You can always buy cardamom already ground, but it will not last quite as long as using the seeds from the pod. It’s a good idea to have the pods on-hand if you’re interested in exploring Indian dishes. It’s cardamom you’re tasting in an Indian restaurant’s rice; a few pods tossed in while the rice is simmering is what beckons a Bombay banquet.

Cardamom Hot Chocolate

Serves one

1 1/2 Tablespoons unsweetened cocoa (I used Ghiradelli because that’s what I have in my cupboard. I am sure any brand will be great.)

1 1/2 Tablespoons sugar

1 cup milk

1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom

A sprinkle of cinnamon

Directions

Mix cocoa, sugar and spices in a small dish. Pour milk into a small pan, add the cocoa mixture and stir. Heat, while stirring, until steaming.

Top with…

Cardamom Whipped Cream with help from Blue Ginger: East Meets West Cooking with Ming Tsai

1 cup heavy cream

1/4 cup brown sugar

1 teaspoon ground cardamom

In a chilled bowl (I put the bowl of my mixer in the freezer for about a half hour the first time I did this recipe, the second time, I didn’t bother), combine the cream, brown sugar and cardamom until stiff peaks form.

To assemble, find the biggest mug in your kitchen — trust me, you’ll want as much of this as possible — and fill it about 3/4 of the way full with the hot chocolate. Then, fill the rest of the mug with the whipped cream.

There’s enough whipped cream for several servings. I’m not sure how many. My guess would be four or five. But the amount will correspond directly with the will-power of those assembled. I make no promises.