Snowstorms and Squash

 

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Oy, 2016. There were many moments I (we? Most everyone?) would like to forget, although I am happy that this year brought me back to Western Mass. The last week of the year, for me, at least, was really lovely. My girls and I all had off from our schools so we spent the entire week together. When Beatrix wasn’t watching Frozen (“Elsa! Elsa!”) we squeezed in a few adventures.

We explored Great Barrington in the Berkshires (only about an hour from here) in search of the best grilled cheese in the Northeast. We had fun at Forbes Library, whose cookbook and media collection continues to impress me. (More on those in upcoming posts.) We made it to two children’s museums, including a New Year’s Eve Jr. celebration that allowed Bea endless rides on the carousel.

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One of Rich’s brothers gave us a gift card for Marshall’s/TJ Maxx/Home Goods for Christmas, and Lilli was quite pleased to find both dinosaur pasta and a cookie and cupcake decorating kit in the “Home” section. The design kit came in very handy during last week’s snowstorms, again between Frozen screenings.

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That decorating kit also brings us to today’s recipe. Because one cannot decorate cupcakes without frosting, and the only frosting worth making involves cream cheese. Which means I had cream cheese in the house, and that was the one ingredient I was missing to make this twice-baked butternut squash.

I knew it was a keeper as soon as I saw it, and, given its cheesiness, it was a good addition to our Chanukah table. I served it next to potato latkes, a salad of butter lettuce, dates, slivered red onion (soaked in ice cold water to take the snap out), sprinkles of blue cheese and a balsamic brown sugar dressing. Now that I think about it, there was also a lentil stew with rutabaga and kale to start things off.

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Grandparents, don’t panic. She got a haircut soon after this photo was taken.

The recipe actually calls for the squash to first get a steam in the microwave, so it moves the process along a bit quicker than if you did everything in the oven. Ditto with the sweet potatoes, which I know you can do in a microwave, as my old co-worker reminded me every day. I don’t own a 9×13 microwavable dish, so I used a glass pie pan and the squash ends hung over the sides. It still worked. I then transferred the squash halves to a large baking sheet.

This is not an everyday recipe, although it’s not as rich as the stuffed pumpkin that makes me giddy. I hope you’ll give it a shot. It’s actually very simple to make and tastes even better than you think it will.

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Learn from my mistakes. Don’t use parchment paper to bake and broil. It burns after a certain point.

Twice-Baked Butternut Squash from “Real Simple” December 2016

Ingredients

1 (3- to 3 ½-pound) butternut squash

¼ cup water

2 (8- to 9-ounce) sweet potatoes

3 ounces cream cheese, softened

5 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

1½ teaspoons table salt

¾ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

½ teaspoon black pepper

3 tablespoons shredded sharp Cheddar cheese

3 tablespoons grated fresh Parmesan cheese

1 tablespoon minced fresh chives (optional – I skipped it.)

Directions

Preheat oven to 375°F.

Cut squash in half lengthwise. Remove and discard seeds. Place squash halves, cut sides down, in a microwave-safe 13- x 9-inch baking dish and add ¼ cup water. Cover dish with plastic wrap and pierce 3 to 4 times with a knife. Microwave on HIGH 10 minutes. Carefully drain water out of dish. Turn squash halves over, and bake in preheated oven until tender, 35 to 40 minutes. Let stand about 5 minutes. Scoop flesh from squash, leaving a ¼-inch-thick shell and transfer to a medium bowl; reserve shells and return to baking dish.

Poke the sweet potatoes with a fork several times then microwave them on HIGH until tender, 6 to 8 minutes. Let stand until cool enough to handle, about 5 minutes. Peel potatoes and add flesh to bowl with squash along with cream cheese, butter, salt, nutmeg, and pepper; mash with a potato masher or a fork until mostly smooth.

Preheat broiler with oven rack 6 inches from heat. Scoop squash mixture into reserved squash shells and top with cheddar and Parmesan. Broil until golden brown, about 3 minutes. Sprinkle with chives.

 

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It’s a Brooklyn Thing

Well, we are two for two with baking times being totally off with cake recipes from The Mile End Cookbook. But, like the honey cake for Rosh Hashana, I’m still sharing this olive oil cake with you in time for Chanukah because the result was that delicious. It’s soft and fluffy and lemony. Pillowy, even.

olive oil cake

Lilli and I put this together when we got home tonight. The recipe, as written, says it should bake for about 40 minutes, and there’s something about a thermometer which I found useless since the cake was near-liquid 35 minutes in. In total, this took about 75 minutes to bake. While we waited, Lilli and I did some coloring and enjoyed some halva my mom gifted me for Chanukah. (Rich would like me to note that she’s not a chatty one, but actually said “halva” tonight in between popping sweet bites into her mouth. This is actually a really big deal considering she has yet to say her own name.) She was already asleep by the time the cake was cool enough to cut. Sorry about that, kiddo.

The authors describe this cake as not a “traditional Jewish thing, or even a Montreal thing. It’s a Brooklyn thing – it’s based on cakes you’ll find at some of the old Italian bakeries in Carroll Gardens…” They say the cake is still good for up to a week after it’s been made, but it would be a miracle if it lasted to the eighth day.

Olive Oil Cake

Ingredients

3 large eggs

Zest of one lemon

3 cups sugar

1 ½ cups olive oil (or substitute 1 cup canola oil and ½ cup olive oil)

1 ½ cups whole milk

2 ½ cups all-purpose flour

½ teaspoon baking powder

½ teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon kosher salt

Powdered sugar, extra-virgin olive oil, fresh berries, and crème fraiche (optional), for serving

Directions

Preheat the oven to 350F.

Place the eggs and lemon zest in the bowl of a stand mixer and mix on medium speed for a few seconds. While the mixer is running, add 1 ¼ cups of the sugar and mix until it’s dissolved, 10 to 15 seconds. Keep the mixer running and add the oil in a slow, steady stream. Continue mixing for another minute, and then add the milk in a slow, steady stream. Mix for another few seconds.

Stop the mixer and add the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt and remaining 1 ¾ cups of sugar to the bowl; mix on low speed for a few seconds to bring the ingredients together, then on medium speed for about 3 minutes, stopping a few times to scrape down the sides of the bowl, until you have a smooth and fairly thin batter.

Line a 12-inch round cake pan with a circle of parchment paper trimmed to fit snugly in the bottom of the pan; grease the lined pan with a light film of oil or cooking spray. (I used a 12-inch spring-form pan for easy removal.)

Pour the batter into the pan and bake for approximately 75 minutes, rotating the pan 180 degrees halfway through cooking, until the top has split and become a deep golden brown and a thin metal insert comes out clean.

Let the cake cool, and then turn it out onto a serving plate. Garnish with a dusting of powdered sugar and drizzle of good extra-virgin olive oil, and serve with fresh berries and crème fraiche, if you like.

Regifting, Sort of.

Recently, someone on our floor at work went to a far off land and brought back a box of dates. (You’ll remember that the boxes of Turkish Delight are brought directly to my desk.) After watching them go untouched for a few days, I took it upon myself to bring them home for a baking project. The result was a date nut bread, which my boss told me it was “the best one she’d ever had”. The New York Times apparently agreed; the title of the recipe is “An Incredible Date Nut Bread”.

a package for marilyn

The recipe calls for pouring boiling water over baking soda, and then pouring the mixture onto the pile of chopped dates and raisins. When The Essential New York Times Cookbook editor Amanda Hesser found this recipe, she wrote food scientist Harold McGee to get his take. He replied: “My guess is that the baking soda step is a quick way of hydrating and softening the fruit, and probably turns the date bits into mush, which would help moisten the cake more than discrete pieces.” McGee also thought the baking soda would help make the cake brown, and indeed, as Hesser puts it, “the cake emerges from the oven dark and tawny.” And I can report that it smelled even better than it looked; at one point the scent of the loaf baking in the oven literally stopped me in my tracks.

steeping the dried fruit

Over Thanksgiving we had a visit with Sylvie and her wife Miriam at Mir’s parents place up in Maine. I had wanted to bring a loaf up as a thank you to our hosts but Syl is deathly allergic to walnuts. As it turns out, so are half of her in-laws, so I think I made the right move. But Mir’s mom said she loved date nut bread, so, using the rest of the purloined dates, I baked her a loaf and sent it to her for Chanukah. It was only after I took it out of the oven that I noticed the title of the December 1977 article from which the recipe came: “Food Gifts You Can Make at Home.”

Baking Notes: I’ve been experimenting with flours lately, and the loaf I sent to Mir’s parents was made with white whole wheat flour. I was a little nervous it would be too dry, but the feedback I’ve received has been very positive. The flour choice is entirely up to you.

An Incredible Date-Nut Bread

Ingredients

1 cup diced pitted dates

¾ cup raisins

¼ cup golden raisins

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 cup boiling water

8 Tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened

1 cup sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 large egg

1 1/3 cup sifted all-purpose flour

¾ cup walnuts, broken into small pieces

  1. Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 9x5x3-inch loaf pan. Line the bottom with a rectangle of wax paper. Butter the rectangle and sprinkle with flour; shake out the excess flour.
  2. Put the dates and raisins in a medium bowl. Dissolve the baking soda in the boiling water and pour it over the date mixture.
  3. Cream together the butter and sugar in a large bowl. Beat in the vanilla and egg. Add the flour and mix well. Add the date mixture, including the liquid. Add the walnuts.
  4. Pour the mixture into the prepared pan and smooth the top. Place in the oven and bake for 50 to 70 minutes, or until the top of the cake is dark brown and a knife inserted in the center comes out clean. Let cool for about 3 to 5 minutes, then unmold onto a rack, remove the paper, and let cool.

Mac(abee) and Cheese

I am completely at ease with my age. I am not at all embarrassed to admit I just skipped my 15 year high school reunion. ($30 a ticket when Facebook is free? Pfft!) I’ll admit, it’s weird to remember things from 25 years ago so easily, but as Aleza pointed out last week, it’s pretty neat to remember history and be a part of it at the same time.

My body, however, is a different story. Things creak and crack, weight seems extremely easy to gain and much harder to lose. Last week when I bent down to pick up a boot, I pulled something in my back. I spent the work week Googling words like “lumbar support” and “yogic stretches at a desk.” I rode my bike some days, but didn’t want to push it too hard. Thursday night, after I stood by the stove frying celery root and carrot latkes, and stirring my butter and flour to make a roux for my chipotle mac and cheese, I felt it a few hours later when I was whimpering in pain at 1AM. I needed a heating pad after yesterday’s hard wooden pew at Christmas Mass, and I’m writing this not from my usual perch on the red couch, but in a chair with my own personal heating pad.

I honestly didn’t even know if I’d get up a post this week, but someone wrote me saying that she’d never fried a latke before and was surprised I didn’t have a recipe posted on Cheap Beets. Not one to leave anyone in a food-related lurch, I immediately e-mailed her my favorite go-to potato latke recipe. But I’m so mortified I’d let that important food detail slip, that I’m offering up two holiday-related recipes as penitence.

The first, a latke fried in oil, is to remind us of the miracle of the menorah. Briefly, in the 2nd century BCE, the tyrannical Greek King of Syria, Antiochus, outlawed Judaism and took over the Holy Temple of Jerusalem. A Jewish rebellion ensued, led by the Maccabees, and against all odds, the Jews reclaimed the Temple from the Greeks. The Jews had to repair and purify the Temple, but they only had one night’s supply of oil for lighting their holy menorah. Miraculously, that small amount of oil burned for eight consecutive nights, giving them just enough time to replenish their olive oil supply.

For Eastern European Jews, the potato latke is the most common fried recipe. (Israeli Jews eat sufganiyot, fried jelly doughnuts.) Now, the latke I have for you is made not with potato but with celery root and carrot. My friend Russ, who likes to keep it real and old school for the holiday, always goes potato, but hear me out. First, potatoes are a soggy drag. You have to squeeze and squeeze all the excess water out, and you’re always left with a brown puddle at the bottom of your mixing bowl. Second, how old school is it, really? Potatoes are a New World vegetable, so it looks like the potato latke tradition is only a few hundred years old, at best.

I went with carrot and celery root because my co-worker’s wife gave us another of her CSA celery root rejects on Thursday morning and I thought they’d team well with some of the remaining CSA carrots I still had in the crisper. I paired those with a dollop of cilantro and garlic yogurt, because, well, why not?

The second dish I have is to celebrate a lesser-known, but possibly even more awesome Chanukah food: cheese. The custom of cheese for Chanukah dates back to the Middle Ages, when the Book of Judith played an important role in the Chanukah narrative. Judith was a celebrated Jewish heroine who saved her village from an invading Assyrian army. Judith, a beautiful widow, plied the Assyrian army’s general with wine and salty cheese. When the general passed out drunk, Judith beheaded him with his own sword. The Israelites launched a surprise attack on the leaderless Assyrian army and emerged victorious.

Sure, the tale is hidden in the Apocrypha, but I like celebrating a strong female leader – and cheese. I actually was able to use wine in this dish too, from the same small bottle I used for our stuffed pumpkin in the fall. (What can I say, we’re not big wine drinkers.) I add chipotle to mine, riffing off an episode of Gilmore Girls I once saw where Sookie cooked up a pan of jalapeno mac and cheese for a kid’s birthday party. The kids hated it, but I kind of sat up and went “oh?” And thus, chipotle mac and cheese was born.

Celery Root and Carrot Latkes

Ingredients

1 celery root, washed and peeled

2 medium-sized carrots, peeled

½ red onion

3 eggs

1/3 cup flour

¼ teaspoon cumin

Pinch of salt

Oil to fry

Directions

Shred, with a box grater or food processor, first three ingredients. Place into a large mixing bowl, and add the next four. Heat approximately 1/3 cup oil in a large skillet (I prefer a non-stick skillet, and actually have two going at the same time for this step.) Lower the flame and space out as many tablespoons of batter as you can fit without them touching. Fry on one side for approximately four minutes until golden brown. Turn over and fry on other side for three minutes. (Uncharacteristically, I actually employ a timer for this task.)

Remove from pan and place on paper towels to drain excess oil. Continue with remaining batter, adding more oil when necessary.

Serve with the following yogurt.

Cilantro Yogurt

In a small bowl, mix together:

¾ cup Greek yogurt (I used whole-fat, but I know a reduced-fat would work well, considering all the flavor boosters in this sauce.)

½ cup chopped, fresh cilantro

1 small clove garlic, minced

Squeeze of lemon

2 teaspoons olive oil

Pinch of salt

I ended up with leftovers of this dip, and mixed it with some chickpeas I had in the fridge the next day for lunch. It was terrific.

Chipotle Macaroni and Cheese

Ingredients

2 ¼ cups macaroni (really, any small pasta will work well for this)

¼ cup butter

½ cup flour

3 cups milk

½ cup dry white wine

10 oz. (1 ¼ cups) shredded cheddar cheese

1 chipotle in its adobe sauce, chopped

Directions

Preheat the oven to 350F. Cook the pasta according to the instructions on the package.

Meanwhile, gently melt the butter in a medium saucepan, add the flour and chipotle and cook, stirring, 1-2 minutes. (This brownish paste is called a roux, by the way.) Add the milk a little at a time, whisking vigorously after each addition. Stir in the white wine. Bring to boil. Cook, stirring continuously, until the sauce thickens, then remove from the heat.

Let's talk about the roux, just for a sec.

Add the ¾ of the cheese to the sauce. Stir well to mix in the cheeses, then taste for seasoning and add salt and pepper if necessary.

Add your well-drained pasta into the sauce, then pour everything into a 13”x9” or 2 quart baking dish. Sprinkle the remaining cheese over the top. Bake for 25 – 30 minutes or until golden brown. Serve hot.

Oy, Tannenbaum

There’s a Christmas tree in my dining room. You can’t see it from the street, or even when you walk into the house, but you can smell it. In less than two weeks, that woodsy pine scent will be covered by the scent of fried latkes; perhaps we’ll do parsnip ones this year.

I put up a fight over the tree. I was worried the strings of lights would out-shine my Shabbos candles, turn the kiddush wine to eggnog and the challah into gingerbread. I wasn’t exactly on board with having one the first year we were together, even though we had agreed to share things we loved from our religions with each other. (Rich dances a very good hakafa, by the way.) But then December came. I flinched, I argued, I put up the good fight. But I wasn’t doing the sharing that we had agreed to.

I worried about my future children. Could they be good American Jews if there was a tree in the house? And what about Santa? I don’t know if I would call myself cynical about the jolly old elf, but if you asked a seven year-old me if Santa existed, I would probably have rolled my eyes. If you had asked me if it was possible for one drop of oil to last for eight days, I would have been as certain about its existence as my husband was about Kris Kringle. Not yet sure how we’re going to tackle that one, but Rich has pointed out that our children will have very well-behaved Catholic cousins who will certainly believe in Santa, and we will teach them nothing to the contrary.

The first year we had the tree, I refused to have anything to do with it. I told Rich it was entirely up to him to find it, bring it back to the house and decorate it on his own. But when I came home from work to find a tree covered in blue, silver and white tinsel, I let out a gasp. “It’s the colors of Israel!” Rich explained. “I thought you’d be happy.” Tinsel is not my style, and so, as I do with most things, I took over. Looking back, I realize I was being ungrateful, but oh Lordy, that was an ugly tree.

I was secretly happy when we skipped having a tree during Rich’s lay-off, and the next year I decided not to bring it up. Rich didn’t either, but by early February he let out a sigh and said he wished we’d had one. My good friend Shira put things in perspective: “Your husband can’t even have bacon in his own house. The Christmas tree makes him happy and reminds him of happy moments in his childhood. He needs the tree.” So this November, I found a sparkly bacon-shaped ornament and brought it home for Rich after a particularly hard week at work. “Does this mean we are having a tree?” he asked, wide-eyed. “Yes.” “Does this mean I can make bacon?” “Don’t push it.”

I told some of my friends a few weeks back that we were gearing up for our tree, and they all said the same thing: “Oh, I always wanted to trim a tree. It looks like so much fun.” And so I decided to start a new tradition: My Jews-only tree trimming party. I invited about a dozen friends, all frequent Shabbos dinner guests. (Rich was allowed one gentile guest, as if it were a birthday party for one of his younger brothers.) They were all thrilled to come, except one who explained he had no problem with a tree but didn’t like the idea of Jews feeling they missed out on something.

I plotted and planned my party. Rich was in charge of the drinks – eggnog, coffee, mulled cider and holiday beer — and I would take care of the cookies. I made whole wheat chocolate chip cookies, pumpkin whoopee pies, peanut brittle, popcorn, and some ginger snaps. I was going to make a macaroon from a recipe I found in last month’s Food and Wine, but when I ran the recipe by my classmate Joyce who is a professional baker, she shook her head. “Not enough egg whites to make a decent macaroon. They are going to be like lead.” I ended up making Molly’s macaroons – which translates to a great Pesach recipe, by the way – and Joyce gave me this recipe for fudgy cookies to use up the can of sweetened condensed milk I had purchased. (Side Note: If you’re as worried as I am about BPA, you can make your own sweetened condensed milk from scratch.) Because these cookies were so fudgy I left the ganache off the macaroons.

Our guests started trickling in after 8 last Saturday night. The table was covered in cookies. As our friend Sarah put it when she walked into the dining room: “This is the platonic ideal of what a tree trimming is supposed to be.” I smiled, happy to know I had achieved what I set out to do. Friends brought their own ornaments: Some had made their own. One friend brought a fancy glass ornament of Yoda holding a light saber. One friend brought me an ornament with a striking likeness to our cat. There was a Barack Obama ornament — “soon to be a collector’s item” Rich quipped.

One friend brought his new girlfriend who joked she thought she was going to a melavah malka – a special gathering on Saturday nights to escort the Shabbos Queen on her way out, which usually involves singing, dancing and tasty bites. We drank eggnog, and strung popcorn and cranberries. By the time everyone left, the most perfect Christmas tree that ever was stood in our dining room. Each ornament was perfectly placed, every rope of popcorn and cranberries was evenly hung.

Fudge Cookies

I actually halved this recipe and had great success with it.

Ingredients

24 oz. bittersweet chocolate

4 oz. butter

2 – 14oz. cans of sweetened condensed milk

2 tsp. vanilla (optional- could use mint or orange for the holidays)

2 cups flour

1 pound of nuts, chopped (optional as well).

Directions

Fill a saucepan halfway with water and bring to a simmer. Place a metal bowl on top, making sure the bowl does not touch the water, to create a double boiler. Melt the butter and chocolate and remove from heat. Stir in milk and flavoring, then flour and nuts. Using a small scoop, drop onto a parchment-lined baking sheet. Bake at 350F for 7-8 minutes.

Cookies will not look done, but take them out any way. Let cool before removing from sheet. They should be like a ball of fudge when you bite them.You can freeze these cookies for up to 3-4 months with good results, otherwise keep in air tight container.

Enjoy!