A Holiday Meant for Guests

My parents always had a sukkah. It was large and wooden, and my sisters and I loved getting to decorate it before the holiday began. We always hung colorful paper chains and gourds, and sometimes strings of cranberries and popcorn. That was always kind of risky given the large squirrel population of Western Mass.

Be careful, Daddy. Don't fall. I gotchu.

Be careful Daddy. Don’t fall. I gotchu.

Their sukkah was always full of visitors, which is what you’re supposed to do when you have a sukkah. In fact, we are taught that each night we welcome ushpizin – characters from the Bible who each hold a mystical trait: Abraham the first night, who embodies love; Isaac the second night who offers discipline; and so on.

My parents usually had help building it from our handyman, Fitz, a retired firefighter, but one year my parents and another couple – David and John – built it on their own. Afterwards, as they toasted each other with Camparis they joked that only a hurricane could knock it down. Turns out they were right; Hurricane Gloria did, indeed, throw their sukkah across the deck and into the backyard.

crafting

Sukkot, like Passover, has two holy days at the beginning, four regular days in the middle, and two more holy days at the end. There was always a steady stream of people for the entire eight days. My mom always cooked a corned beef for the holy days and a large pot of chili with a side of corn bread for the rest. (Her special secret for moist cornbread: a can of creamed corn.)

By the time I was in college my parents realized how exhausted they were from hosting the world for more than two decades, so they downscaled the large wooden sukkah for a premade one with metal beams and canvas sides. And a few years ago they gave up on the sukkah altogether, deciding to just use the one in the synagogue every night. Sylvie and Miriam drove off with the pieces attached to the roof of their Subaru Outback, and now they put it up in their yard in DC.

This year Rich, Lilli and I were lucky enough to help decorate our friend Eric’s sukkah. You might remember him as the one from whom Lilli so brazenly stole food a few years ago. Eric’s sukkah is very large; he actually hosts a Sukkot barbeque every year for our synagogue. This year he had us over for the first night of the holiday. I brought a refreshing cucumber salad, a dish my mother always made to go with meat meals growing up. I also made a very peculiar sweet potato kugel (a recipe in progress) and for dessert, baked apples, something my mother always, always, always served for dessert at Sukkot.

I had worked out a recipe in my head but called my mom for things like oven temperature and baking time. “Oh, how funny,” she said. “I was just thinking about making baked apples for tonight.” Well, duh, it’s Sukkot. She actually had a Martha Stewart cookbook out, which has you preheat the oven to 375F. My mom and I both agreed that is a lie, kind of like when a recipe says to cook the onions until they’re translucent, “between five and seven minutes.” We both agreed the oven would have to be at least 400F to get anywhere close to a baked apple you can cut with a fork.

lulav

I poked around online and most recipes call for brown sugar which is supposed to caramelize in the oven. We’ve never used brown sugar. It is New England, so maple syrup all the way.

The apples I used are Fujis which are much sturdier in the oven than a Macintosh. Any hearty apple will do, but please, no Red Delicious. Make sure their bottoms are flat so that they stand upright in the pan and on your plate. I used a paring knife to start coring the apples and changed over to a rounded teaspoon to scrape away at the core. A melon baller or small ice cream scoop will also work.

I think walnuts work best here but check with your guests ahead of time to make sure no one is allergic to them. There was an incident at a potluck last weekend, and Sylvie had to get epi-penned and rushed to the hospital because of walnuts lurking in a veggie burger. I had currants around because I made this caponata for Rosh Hashana, but raisins will also work.

baked apple

These apples are parve and vegan, and are great for a dessert, a snack, or even a nice breakfast. I start the apple pan in a tented steam bath, kind of the way I roast my cauliflower.

I hope you get a chance to make these before Sukkot is over. It’s our harvest holiday, so extra points if you use apples you’ve personally picked from an orchard. Hopefully you’ll eat these after a meal where this butternut squash dish is served. That recipe is particularly fantastic.

Baked Apples

Ingredients

Five medium to large apples with flat bottoms

1/4 cup dried apricots, slivered

1/4 cup raisins or currants

1/4 cup chopped walnuts

1/4 cup maple syrup

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

Directions

Preheat oven to 425F

Mix the dried fruit, nuts, cinnamon and maple syrup in a small bowl. Set aside.

Carefully core the apples, making sure to stop about an inch from the bottom.

Using a small spoon, carefully ladle the fruit and nut mixture into each hole.

Stand the apples upright in a baking dish with sides. Pour enough water to cover the bottom of the dish. Cover with foil. Slide into the oven. At around the 20-minute mark, carefully remove the foil, then bake them for another 20 minutes, checking periodically. You will know they are done when they are very wrinkled. They will be soft enough to cut with a fork.

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The Cookie Thief

The Jewish ways of mourning are very precise in their thoughtfulness. Doors are left unlocked so there’s no need to ring a bell or knock, as this could startle a mourner. One doesn’t start a conversation with the mourner, but waits to be engaged; it’s entirely up to the griever if they want to talk or not. The visitors are there to show support. And, this is key: Since the mourner isn’t allowed to cook or do anything for himself, visitors always bring food. Of course, the food isn’t just for the mourner, but also for the visitors.

rugelach finished

I mention a few of these rules here because Rich and I made a shiva call – that’s the word to describe a sympathy visit, coming from the word “to sit” because that’s what a mourner does as a part of his bereavement process – for a very good friend of ours last week who just lost his mother. Baked goods are usually the way to go when making a shiva visit: They can be eaten in hand, with a napkin or a plate, and can be frozen for another time. We brought coffee rolls and muffins baked by Rich’s mom.

We sat with our friend, and I popped up to make him a plate of fruit, a few slices of different cakes and a handful of cookies. Lilli, who doesn’t know yet about all these rules (and hopefully won’t have to for many, many years) cruised her way over to our friend’s plate, grabbed a piece of melon and kept on going. Of course we were embarrassed that she’d taken food off the plate of the bereaved, but our friend smiled and said he’d never stop a child from eating fruit.

She must have felt emboldened by this allowance, because she then cruised over to our friend’s father’s plate, looked at the goods, grabbed a huge chocolate rugelach cookie and took a big bite. Rich and I were mortified, first because she’d taken a cookie off the plate of a man who’d just buried his wife of 61 years, and also because that bite was much too big for a wee one. Also, she’d never had a cookie before, let alone had seen rugelach. We grabbed the cookie from her little fist, apologized profusely to the mourner, and found a replacement for him.

making rugelach

I’d like to say I’ve done a good job of keeping Lilli away from sweets. The original plan was to keep her away from sugary things until her first birthday, but plans change when real life gets in the way. Sure, things started out innocently: We fed her pieces of homemade pumpkin and apple pies at a friend’s house this past fall. But by last week, our Saturday afternoon snack had turned into the two of us munching on halvah.

The rugelach Lilli had grabbed was not the best-looking cookie I’d ever seen, not by a long shot. I could see by its sheen it was a parve cookie, meaning it was made with shortening instead of dairy products. If you ask me what makes a good piece of rugelach, it’s one with a cream cheese dough. So when we got home, I ransacked both the baking and Jewish sections of my cookbook library. Most of the Jewish cookbooks had parve rugelach recipes, although Joan Nathan explained that rugelach is a traditional cookie at Chanukah because of the American addition of the cream cheese which celebrates the dairy aspect of the holiday.

All those recipes looked pretty complex, and, I have a bad back and a very active 11-month-old to watch. I found my solution in Dorie Greenspan’s Baking cookbook. Hers had a cream cheese dough, whipped up in a food processor in less than three minutes. The dough had to be chilled, allowing me do make the cookies in a series of steps. The closer I read the recipe, the easier I realized this cookie was to make.

So this morning, while Lilli took her morning nap, I finished the cookies. They really were a breeze to put together, making this cookie I thought was a bakery treat into something I can do in my own kitchen. In a few years, I’m sure Lilli will help me with the rolling of the sweets.

Greenspan’s recipe calls for a brush of melted jam – I used marmalade this time, but I think I’d do the apricot or raspberry (seedless) next time round. (And there will be a next time since the recipe calls for 4 oz. of cream cheese and the package is sold in 8 oz.) Next came a sprinkling of cinnamon and sugar, followed by a scattering of chopped pecans, then currants (or chopped raisins if you can’t find them), and finally the mini-chocolate chips. Because the dough is halved into disks and you apply everything as you would to a pizza, I divided the nuts, dried fruit and chocolate into two sets so I wouldn’t have to guess when half of the goodies were used and there would automatically be the right amount for the second disk of dough.

lilli rugelach

Please don’t be intimated by the length of the recipe. It was very manageable, and remember, I have a very willful 11 month-old. Of course, after all this work, it turns out these were a little too complex for her palate. I’ll go simpler for her first birthday. More for Rich and my offices in the meantime!

Rugelach from Dorie Greenspan’s Baking

For the Dough

4 ounces cold cream cheese, cut into 4 pieces

1 stick (8 tablespoons) cold unsalted butter, cut into 4 pieces

¼ teaspoon salt

1 cup all-purpose flour

For the Filling

2/3 cup raspberry jam, apricot jam or marmalade

2 Tablespoons sugar

½ teaspoon ground cinnamon

¼ cup chopped nuts (I prefer pecans, but you can use walnuts or almonds)

¼ cup plump, moist dried currants

4 ounces bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped, or 2/3 cup store-bought mini chocolate chips

For the Glaze

1 large egg

1 teaspoon cold water

2 Tablespoons sugar, preferably decorating (coarse) sugar (I used Turbinado which I had in the pantry)

To Make the Dough

Let the cream cheese and butter rest on the counter for 10 minutes – you want them to be slightly softened but still cool.

Put the flour and salt in a food processor, scatter over the chunks of cream cheese and butter and pulse the machine 6 to 10 times. Then process, scraping down the sides of the bowl often, just until the dough forms large curds – don’t work it so long that it forms a ball on the blade.

Turn the dough out, gather it into a ball and divide it in half. Shape each half into a disk, wrap the disks in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 2 hours, or up to 1 day. (Wrapped airtight, the dough can be frozen for up to 2 months.)

To Make the Filling

Heat the jam in a saucepan over low heat, or do this in a microwave until it liquefies. (I did this in the microwave in 30 second intervals; it took about 2 minutes to do.) Mix the sugar and cinnamon together.

Line two baking sheets with parchment or silicone mats. (Silicone baking mats are great for rugelach.)

To Shape the Cookies

Pull one packet of dough from the refrigerator. It if is too firm to roll easily, either leave it on the counter for about 10 minutes or give it a few bashes with your rolling pin.

On a lightly floured surface, roll the dough into an 11-to-12-inch circle. Spoon (or brush) a thin gloss of jam over the dough, and sprinkle over half of the cinnamon sugar. Scatter over half the nuts, half of the currants and half of the chopped chocolate. Cover the filling with a piece of wax paper and gently press the filling into the dough, then remove the paper and save it for the next batch.

Using a pizza wheel or a sharp knife, cut the dough into 16 wedges, or triangles. (The easiest way to do this is to cut the dough into quarters, then to cut each quarter into 4 triangles.) Starting at the base of each triangle, roll the dough up so that each cookie becomes a little crescent. Arrange the roll-ups on one baking sheet, making sure the points are tucked under the cookies, and refrigerate. Repeat with the second packet of dough, and refrigerate the cookies for at least 30 minutes before baking. (The cookies can be covered and refrigerated overnight or frozen for up to 2 months; don’t defrost before baking, just add a couple of minutes to the baking time.

Getting Ready to Bake

Position the racks to divide the oven into thirds and preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

To Glaze

Stir the egg and water together, and brush a bit of this glaze over each rugelach. Sprinkle the cookies with the sugar.

Bake the cookies for 20 to 25 minutes, rotating the sheets from top to bottom and front to back at the midway point, until they are puffed and golden. Transfer the cookies to racks to cool to just warm or to room temperature.

It Rises to the Top

In September, right around the time that my friend Gayle wrote to tell me about a hand-me-down cookie contest in Edible Boston, Nana Parr had a mild stroke. She’s OK, really she is, but she had to move into an assisted living center, which meant giving up her oven, and, with that, her cookies.

cream scones

I’m really thankful I baked with her last fall, and I guess Edible Boston was too, because Nana’s cookie recipe was one of the winners of the contest. I haven’t been able to get my hands on a physical copy that I can bring up to Nana, but we were able to track it down online for you all to see.

As delicious as those sugar cookies are — and I promise you, they really are something — they are a bit involved. There’s the pastry cloth and all the rolling, but they’re totally worth it, a crowd favorite since my husband brought them to kindergarten nearly 30 years ago.

But when I’m squeezed for time and still want to bring a pastry somewhere, I’ve been turning to these scones. I’m embarrassed to admit how simple they are. Let me put it this way: By the time I clean up the food processor and wipe down my counter, they are ready to come out of the oven. It’s a 20 minute recipe, from start to finish. You can keep it proper and use currants, like I did in the photo. I’ve also used chopped candied ginger and some lemon zest, and baked one batch with chopped dried cherries.

making scones

They were a hit at a baby shower I went to a few weeks ago. (Hi Lucas Lee Gideon! Can’t wait to meet you!) You don’t need a pastry cloth to make these, although a food processor does make this recipe a cinch. (And no, I still haven’t found the missing piece.) It’s an ancient recipe from Smitten Kitchen, who found it in The America’s Test Kitchen Cookbook. It’s become a go-to recipe of mine, and now it’s time to share it with you.

A couple notes: Because the recipe calls for chilled butter, I always cube mine and toss it in the freezer as I assemble all my other ingredients and preheat the oven. Also, if I know I’m bringing these for a crowd, I cut each scone in half an additional time so that I end up with 16 cute mini-scones.

Cream Scones

2 cups (10 ounces) unbleached all-purpose flour

1 Tablespoon baking powder
3 Tablespoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
5 Tablespoons chilled, unsalted butter, cut into 1/4-inch cubes
1/2 cup currants
1 cup heavy cream

Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 425°F.

Place flour, baking powder, sugar and salt in large bowl or work bowl of food processor fitted with steel blade. Whisk together or pulse six times.

If making by hand, use two knives, a pastry blender or your fingertips and quickly cut in butter until mixture resembles coarse meal, with a few slightly larger butter lumps. Stir in currants. If using food processor, remove cover and distribute butter evenly over dry ingredients. Cover and pulse 12 times, each pulse lasting 1 second. Add currants and pulse one more time. Transfer dough to large bowl.

Stir in heavy cream with a rubber spatula or fork until dough begins to form, about 30 seconds.

Transfer dough and all dry, floury bits to countertop and knead dough by hand just until it comes together into a rough, sticky ball, 5 to 10 seconds. Form scones by either a) pressing the dough into an 8-inch cake pan, then turning the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface, cutting the dough into 8 wedges with either a knife or bench scraper (the book’s suggestion) or b) patting the dough onto a lightly floured work surface into a 3/4-inch thick circle, cutting pieces with a biscuit cutter, and pressing remaining scraps back into another piece, and cutting until dough has been used up.

Place rounds or wedges on ungreased baking sheet and bake until scone tops are light brown, 12 to 15 minutes. Cool on wire rack for at least 10 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Spring Cleaning

The door of my fridge is home to at least two dozen condiments: Heinz ketchup, Hellman’s mayo, grainy mustard, soy sauce, sesame oil, sauerkraut, pickled sugar snap peas, sriracha, ghee, olives, Branston pickle, tamarind paste, and more. (Truth be told, the ketchup and mayo are the least used and are more on-hand for guests.) Six weeks ago I counted no less than three separate jars of capers.

This past weekend I added to the collection working on a review of a healthy Passover cookbook for Jewish Boston.com. One recipe I tested called for two tablespoons of light sour cream, and a second recipe called for ¼ cup of apricot jam. Having neither of these products in my kitchen meant I had to pick them up, and so onto the fridge door they went. This is usually not a problem, and in the big picture it really isn’t, but Passover is two weeks away and I have same major purging to do.

We’ve also been working our way through the flours and grains in the pantry as best we can. The whole wheat and saffron waffles from Maria Speck’s Ancient Grains for Modern Meals cookbookwere glorious but barely put a dent in the flour. It was pretty clear by Sunday morning my fate would involve a day of baking, and so, with a very pleasurable Prairie Home Companion that kind of made me miss New York City in the background, I got to work.

I found an apricot bar recipe from my ancient Common Ground Dessert Cookbookthat called for whole wheat flour, oats and maple syrup. Instead of making the apricot jam by soaking dried apricots the way these granola bars had me do, I took the liberty of using most of the new apricot jam for the filling. But I’d feel so lame if I gave you a granola bar recipe so soon after that one, like in November when I shared Jacque’s Pepin’s apple galette, Joanne Chang’s pear and cranberry crostata and then my own take on the pastry. (And don’t even mention the dueling banana breads.)

Coffee cake was a natural first use for the sour cream, but then I found this recipe for sour cream spice cake. The cookbook included a “sweet tip”: “This cake is tasty with a little warm apricot or cherry jam. Some have been known to eat it toasted and spread with butter.” Sold.

The recipe is from a cookbook written by two local women – sisters, actually. Marilyn and Sheila Brass live in Cambridge and wrote this cookbook a few years ago. They both worked at WGBH when Rich was there, and he was lucky enough to enjoy their goodies as they tweaked the recipes they’d written and other ones they’d discovered in family journals and were testing. The station also produced a really lovely cooking show with the sisters where the viewer journeyed with them to their local butcher, cheese monger, and into their kitchen and dining room.

Whenever I think about this cookbook, I always smile at the memory of one very stressful time during the layoff. As I left for work one morning, I asked Rich if he could find a zucchini bread recipe in one of my cookbooks, in hopes of saving the three squash in the fridge. I came home to find a very proud Rich putting the final glaze on a Mexican Devil’s Food Cake with Butter-Fried Pine Nuts. (Yes, there was a half pound of zucchini in there, too.) Not at all what I was expecting, but was surprised and delighted with the offering. Never a slacker, my husband, even when he was without a job.

According to the sisters, this recipe is from the 1950s and was “a favorite of The Harmony Club, the select group of women from the Sisterhood at Temple Tiferith Abraham who made up their mother’s bridge group. The twelve women met frequently to play bridge, lend each other support, and go on educational field trips. Unfortunately, The Harmony Club later broke up because the members couldn’t get along!”

Sour Cream Spice Cake from Heirloom Baking with the Brass Sisters

Ingredients

2 cups flour, divided

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1 teaspoon nutmeg

1 teaspoon cloves

1 teaspoon allspice

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 cup raisins

1 cup sugar

1 egg

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 cup sour cream

Directions

Set the oven rack in the middle position. Preheat the oven to 350F. Line the bottom and ends of a 9-inch by 5-inch by 3-inch loaf pan with a single strip of wax paper. Coat the pan and wax paper liner with vegetable spray. Dust pan with flour and tap out the excess.

Sift together 1 ¾ cups of the flour, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, allspice, and baking soda. Toss remaining ¼ cup flour with raisins.

Place butter and sugar in the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Cream until soft and fluffy. Add egg and vanilla and mix well. Add sifted dry ingredients alternately with sour cream. Fold in raisins.

Pour batter into loaf pan. Bake approximately 1 hour, or until tester inserted into center of cake comes out clean. Cool on a rack 20 minutes before removing from pan. Store loosely covered with wax paper in the refrigerator.

Milk and Honey

Last week I went outside to Rich who was busy working on his bicycle. “Honey, right now I’m cooking some wheat berries in the pressure cooker. They should be done in about 15 minutes.” “Um, OK…” Rich responded. I could hear the skepticism in his voice.

“But I’ve realized that the dish I had in mind would instead be a perfect dish for Shavuot,” “Jewish Pentecost?” he asked, making sure he was thinking of the right holiday.  “Yup!” I said. “So tonight, we’re having macaroni and cheese,” then I paused, “from a box!” (There weren’t a lot of kosher mac and cheese options growing up, so it’s a totally foreign dish to me.) “Yippee!” Rich replied with a genuine enthusiasm for a true dish of his childhood.

Let me unpack this a little, starting with the wheat berries. A few months back, I went a little wild in the bulk bin aisle. I had come across some new recipes, and was so excited by them that I filled up my sack with all sorts of goodies. Along with wheat berries, I now have containers of mung beans, Kamut and other grains lining the shelves of my pantry.

But excited as I was with my bounty, I quickly remembered that I wasn’t going to be the only one enjoying the new dishes. Rich, of course, would be dining with me, and as willing as he is to try something new, quite often something completely foreign to him, I realize that sometimes I’m asking a lot of him. I took a good look at the small, round green mung beans and asked myself, Am I really going to feed my husband mung beans?

You see, Rich comes from a world of meat and potatoes, with a strong dose of dessert (cake and ice cream, not fruit). I, as you can probably gather from the blog, was brought up kosher and with a vegetarian streak. Our childhood palates are only the least of our different beginnings. When I first met Rich, I could have never imagined him ever being my husband. And how could I? He was raised in a very traditional Catholic household – an altar boy until 18, no less.  And I was raised in an equally if not more traditional Jewish household, with years of Jewish day school and a degree from Jewish seminary to boot.

So when we first got together, I asked myself the same question that I did looking at those mung beans: Is this really going to work?  And it’s been challenging at times, but my husband has proven to be a very capable student of Judaism. And he’s taught me about Christianity, especially where the New Testament has borrowed from the Old. More importantly, being in a relationship with Rich has taught me tolerance and acceptance of the unknown.

Next up: Shavuot. It’s the day the Jewish people celebrate the receiving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai. We actually count down the days from the second day of Passover, when the Children of Israel left Egypt, to their arrival at Mt. Sinai — in total, a seven-week journey. As Rich put it after I explained it to him: “So that’s where we got Pentecost from.”

Shavuot is also one of the three harvest festivals on the Jewish calendar, marking the end of the spring barley harvest and the beginning of the summer wheat harvest. There are more customs than laws for this holiday. Some observant Jews mark the occasion by staying up all night studying Torah. Reading the Book of Ruth, the story of the righteous convert which takes place during the barley harvest, is another popular tradition.

Jews eat dairy on the holiday. There are many explanations to this one, but most focus on the Children of Israel receiving the Torah at Mt. Sinai. And with the Torah, they also received the kosher laws and discovered that their pots and pans, and even their meat itself, would not pass muster.  Eating dairy, even today, is considered the easiest way to circumvent these issues.

This recipe is all of three ingredients, but each one touches on a Shavuot tradition. The Ricotta cheese is straight-up dairy, and the wheat berries pick up on the harvest theme. Finally, the whole thing is mixed with honey – as in “the land of milk and.” But most importantly, it’s an accessible dish for my husband, who’s still impressing me with his openness to my religion and cuisine.

Wheat Berries with Ricotta and Honey from The Italian Country Table by Lynn Rossetto Casper

This dish has its origins in southern Italy, where it is eaten for lunch, dinner or a snack. In the United States, it’s viewed as more appropriate for brunch or dessert. I cook my wheat berries for 18 minutes in the pressure cooker.

Ingredients

1 cup (5 ounces) hard wheat kernels (wheat berries)

Water

½ teaspoon salt

1 ½ cups high-quality creamy ricotta

Honey to taste

½ cup currants or raisins

Generous pinch of ground cinnamon (optional)

  1. Soak the wheat in cold water to cover overnight in the refrigerator
  2. Drain and place in a 3-quart saucepan along with the salt and enough water to cover by 2 or 3 inches. Cook at a slow simmer, partially covered, about 1 hour, or until tender. The kernels will open up slightly.
  3. Drain the wheat and combine it with the ricotta. Blend in honey to taste and the currants or raisins. Turn into a deep serving bowl and dust with cinnamon, if desired. Serve warm or at room temperature in small bowls.

Belle of the Ball

Today’s recipe doesn’t come with a story, just a warning: If you make this eggplant caponata this weekend for a barbeque, or maybe a picnic, or maybe even a college reunion get-together, people will flock to you. You’ll be surrounded, inundated by compliments. It can get embarrassing, and I just want to give you fair warning.

You’ll start getting e-mails from people you didn’t even know you’d met at the party. Maybe they’ll find you through Facebook, maybe they’ll look you up in a Student Directory or Google you. I don’t know how they’re going to find you, but they will. At a certain point, you’ll just keep this recipe on your desktop, or just embed it into your email so you can just send it out without thinking about it.

With great power comes great responsibility, and I feel I’d be setting you up without the warning.

I have Mario Batali to thank for this recipe. It’s his take on the Sicilian eggplant classic caponata. He makes his with an entire tablespoon of hot red pepper flakes, which is much too much for most people. I usually stick to a teaspoon, maybe a second if I’m feeling bold. The last time I made the dish, I accidentally made it with the tablespoon, but saved it by melting about 1/3 cup of chocolate chips into a hot spot in the pan. The chocolate danced perfectly with the cocoa and cinnamon; if you’re curious, I say go for it.

This is one of those dishes whose flavors need to date for a while and get to know each other. If you want to make this for a party on Sunday, I’d suggest making it Saturday, or even Friday night. Like a nice wine or Ray Allen, it just gets better with age.

Every time I cook this, I wonder what it would be like if I steamed the eggplant first. If you do end up steaming yours, please let me know how it turned out. I cook it for much longer than Mario suggests, softening things as much as I can. He calls for ¾ cup of basic tomato sauce; I’ve discovered that a box of Pomi marinara sauce works perfectly.

Eggplant Caponata (Caponata di Melanzane) Adapted from Mario Batali’s Molto Italiano

½ cup extra virgin olive oil

1 large Spanish onion, cut into ½ inch dice

2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced

3 tablespoons pine nuts

3 tablespoons dried currants

Up to 1 tablespoon hot red pepper flakes

1 medium eggplant, peeled and cut into ½ inch cubes (I salt the eggplant to remove the bitterness while I scurry around the kitchen prepping the onion and gathering my spices. Be sure to rinse the salt off before cooking.)

1 tablespoon sugar

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

½ teaspoon unsweetened cocoa powder

2 teaspoons fresh thyme or ½ teaspoon dried thyme

¾ cup basic tomato sauce, or 1 box Pomi marinara sauce

1/3 cup balsamic vinegar

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

  1. In a 10-to-12 inch sauté pan, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat until almost smoking. Add the onion, garlic, pine nuts, currants and red pepper flakes and cook until the onion is softened and translucent, around 15 minutes.
  2. Add the eggplant, sugar, cinnamon, and cocoa and cook until the eggplant has softened. Sometimes it takes as much as 20 minutes for it to lose its firmness. Just keep on stirring it to make sure it doesn’t stick and brown.
  3. Add the thyme, tomato sauce, and vinegar and bring to a boil.
  4. Lower the heat and simmer for 10 minutes.
  5. Remove from the heat and let cool to room temperature.

Bring to room temperature before serving.

When you bring it to the party, serve it on crostini, or some slices of baguette. I also enjoy tossing it with some pasta and making it into a meal.