A New Birthday Tradition

Lilli’s birthday is at the end of the month, but her Hebrew birthday, the 14th of the month of Shvat, is on Wednesday. It is also the day before the holiday of Tu B’Shvat, or Jewish Arbor Day. And in my kitchen, that means making dishes that celebrate the seven foods from Israel that the Bible praises: wheat, barley, figs, dates, pomegranates, olives, and grapes.

Lilli loves her new toy

Lilli loves her new toy

With Lilli’s birthday so close to the holiday, my goal each year is to celebrate her Hebrew birthday using at least some of these foods in a birthday dish. I found this recipe for white whole wheat fig muffins with goat cheese filling from Maria Speck’s Ancient Grains for Modern Meals a few weeks back, when I baked up a couple of artichoke-rosemary tarts with polenta crusts. Because Rich and I both have meetings after work on Wednesday, we celebrated Lilli’s birthday today with these muffins.

I ended up taking a few liberties with this recipe, and even consulted with Maria about an ingredient substitution. We met in person a few years back when her wonderful cookbook came out and she gave a lecture at Boston University. My friend Sara was my date that night, and she was definitely a little embarrassed when I used the opportunity to promote my favorite kitchen tool, the pressure cooker, as the ideal kitchen tool to cook up all those ancient grains. (My persistence has paid off, as Sara broke down a bought a pressure cooker this week. Victory!)

The main concern I had was with the two tablespoons of honey that are mixed with the goat cheese, lemon zest and vanilla. Doctors warn about not feeding honey to babies that are younger than one because of botulism fears, so I checked with my stepfather, a doctor, about feeding a 50-week-old honey. He said it was probably fine, but warned that the spores are not killed by baking. There are some moments when it is better to be safe than sorry, so honey was out of the picture. I thought of maybe using agave nectar or Golden Syrup from the United Kingdom, but Maria suggested maple syrup.

Cream cheese filling

A word about maple syrup: People will tell you how much better Grade B syrup is than Grade A, but since I buy my maple syrup at Ocean State Job Lot, I grab whatever is on the shelf. Of course, it was at this point that Sara sent me a link about how botulism is found in both maple syrup and high fructose corn syrup. But since the two things the pediatrician warned us against were honey and milk, I decided to move forward with the maple syrup.

When I went to double check to make sure I had all the ingredients in the house, I discovered that my white whole wheat flour canister had oat flour in it, so I decided to do a mixture of whole wheat and white flour. I also decided to use the leftover cream cheese from the rugelach instead of a market run for goat cheese.

Lilli and her muffin

Maria has some notes about measuring whole grain flour which I think are worth repeating, especially since I futzed with the recipe: Use a digital scale, regardless whether you use whole grain or regular flour. If you don’t yet have a scale, she suggests using the “spoon and level” method for measuring whole grains:

Unlike when you dig your cup into your flour jar, this method results in less flour in the measuring cup and thus lighter results. Here is how you do it: Fluff or stir the flour with a fork to aerate slightly. Spoon flour into your cup until it is overflowing. Do not pat down, shake, or bang the measuring cup on the counter, as this will compress the flour. Using a knife or a slim metal spatula, sweep across the top to level the cup.

Maria also suggests having an oven preheated for at least 20 minutes, something I will try and do more frequently for my projects. As for having room temperature eggs, a few weeks back I came across a Cook’s Illustrated suggestion for placing eggs in a warm bowl of water to speed up the process. I don’t have fine sea salt in the house, so I swapped out that half teaspoon with a pinch of kosher salt. We had buttermilk in the house for a breakfast dish that Rich made for us; buttermilk is just one of those things that survives because it’s already spoiled. But I predict these muffins won’t have a long life in this house. They’re really terrific. Just ask Lilli.

Fig Muffins with Cream Cheese Filling, adapted from Maria Speck’s Ancient Grains for Modern Meals

Filling

¾ cup (3 ounces) softened cream cheese

2 Tablespoons maple syrup

1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest

¼ teaspoon vanilla extract

Muffins

1 cup whole wheat flour

1 cup all-purpose flour

(If you’re using a scale, these two mixed flour will equal 8 ½ ounces.)

1 ½ teaspoons baking powder

½ teaspoon baking soda

Pinch kosher salt

3 large eggs, at room temperature

¾ cup packed dark or light brown sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/3 cup virgin olive oil

¾ cup buttermilk

1 cup chopped dry figs, stemmed

3 Tablespoons turbinado or granulated sugar, for sprinkling

Directions

Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 400F. Lightly butter a standard-size 12-cup muffin pan, preferably nonstick, or coat with cooking spray.

To make the filling, combine the cream cheese, maple syrup, lemon zest, and vanilla extract in a small bowl. Beat with a fork until smooth.

To make the muffins, whisk together the flours, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a large bowl. In a medium bowl, lightly whisk the eggs to blend. Gently whisk in the brown sugar and vanilla extract, and then the olive oil and buttermilk until smooth, about 1 minute. Add the egg mixture to the center of the flour mixture, and stir with a rubber spatula until just combined. Do not overmix; the batter should look lumpy. Fold in the dry figs.

Using a soup spoon, fill each muffin nearly half full. Add a bit more than 1 teaspoon of the cream cheese filling to the center of each muffin, gently pressing in. Top with the remaining butter. (The filling should not be visible.) Generously sprinkle the muffins with the turbinado sugar.

Bake until muffins are nicely domed, the edges start to brown, and the tops spring back when gently pressed, about 13 minutes. Transfer the pan to a wire rack to cool for 5 minutes before gently twisting the muffins out of the pan. Cool them completely on the rack, or eat warm.

The muffins cane be baked 1 day ahead and stored in an airtight container at room temperature, or frozen for up to 1 month.

Advertisements

An Eight-Dollar Salad

“Let me tell you about this $8 salad I made,” has been sister-speak with Sylvie and me for years. I asked her this week how long we’d been using that term, and we realized that those were long-distance calls we were making to talk about our salads. (I know, I can almost taste the irony.) This was before everyone could take photos with their phones, or post it to Facebook. Heck there was no Facebook, and people rarely had cellphones. These were landline phone calls. And even the price of the salad is an indication of how long ago it was. The idea of a salad costing $8 gave us pause and sounded as absurd as a year of private college costing $55,000 a year, or paying a babysitter $20 for an hour of work.

And last week, when I made this $8 salad, I almost took a photo on my new Android phone and sent it to her, Facebook, and the Twitter universe. But I stopped myself and decided to share this salad with you for Tu B’Shvat which is on Wednesday, February 8th this year.

It is quite common for people to hold a Tu B’Shvat seder, which is kind of like the seder we have on Passover, but not exactly. Sure, there four cups of wine drunk at both, but a Tu B’Shvat seder is kabbalistic in nature, meaning it’s mystical in its origins and philosophy. (Although I honestly don’t know if Madonna goes to a Tu B’Shvat seder. She probably does, come to think of it.) At Passover we discuss God liberating us from being slaves in Egypt and the Exodus. We have a seder plate full of symbolic foods that help us tell the story of our Exodus, and eat reclining as free people would.  At Tu B’Shvat we talk about God’s metaphoric relationship to the spiritual and physical worlds. And we try to eat the seven species of foods from Israel that the Bible praises: wheat, barley, figs, dates, pomegranates, olives, and grapes. Almonds are also commonly eaten as almond tree blossoms are a harbinger of spring, and since Tu B’Shvat is the new year for the tree, it makes perfect sense. (Also, who doesn’t love marzipan or a nice piece of mandelbroit?)

Tu B’Shvat is also the new year for the trees, and the seder usually touches on the ecological aspects of Judaism. The concept of ecology, Jewish thought and food will be explored much more deeply in the first ever Boston Jewish Food Conference which is being held on  April 22 — Earth Day — at Hebrew College. I’m running the workshop on the Healthy Jewish Diet. (End of shameless plug. Let’s continue, shall we?)

This salad uses dates that have been sautéed in butter that I first read about here, although we discovered it makes much more sense to remove the pits before you sauté the dates. If you swap out the butter with a mild olive oil, you not only make this dish vegan, but you also end up using another one of the seven Tu B’Shvat foods. The grapes are roasted with rosemary and balsamic vinegar, turning their acidic bite warm and mellow. I use walnuts, but if you’re deathly allergic to them like Sylvie is, it might be better to use almonds. Although I use a brown sugar balsamic dressing for this salad, my friend Sara whipped up a tangy pomegranate molasses dressing last week which would incorporate yet another species into the salad,

A composed salad for Tu B’Shvat

Ingredients

1 head of wintry lettuce, cleaned and ripped into bite-sized pieces

1 roasted beet, the pieces should be cubed to about the size of a grape

1 cup red seedless grapes, washed and dried

1 teaspoon rosemary, chopped

1 Tablespoon balsamic vinegar

¼ cup walnuts

6 dates

1 Tablespoon butter

Directions

Preheat toaster oven 350. Prep the toaster oven tray with foil and toast the walnuts for 7 to 8 minutes.

While the walnuts are toasting, in a small bowl toss together the grapes, rosemary, balsamic vinegar and a glug of olive oil. Once the walnuts have finished toasting, raise the toaster oven to 400 degrees and bake the grape and rosemary concoction for approximately 20 minutes.

While the grapes are roasting, melt about a tablespoon of butter in a small pan over medium heat, slit open the dates and remove their pits. Add the dates to the pan. Cook for about 1 minute, then flip and cook the other side. They should get nicely caramelized.  Remove from pan. Quarter the fruit on a cutting board. (I actually have a separate fruit cutting board so the taste of garlic or onions will never interfere with a sweet piece of fruit.)

Place the lettuce on a large platter, and assemble the beets, grapes, walnuts and dates on top.

Dressing

In a small jar, place:

1/8 or so teaspoon mustard

2 Tablespoons balsamic vinegar

Teensy pinch of salt

1 teaspoon brown sugar

1 very very very small garlic clove, minced.

Then add 4 Tablespoons olive oil

Give a shake and taste. Is it very puckery? Then add another half teaspoon of brown sugar. You want it to be a soft balsamic dressing with the acid cut by the sweet.