hamentashen

Dessert is bad for you, so if you’re going to eat it, I think it should taste really good. It should be worth the butter and sugar. So, when the Purim party planning committee at our temple suggested buying hamentashen (triangular, fruit-filled cookies) from a bakery, I cringed. Then, much to Anne’s frustration, I volunteered to bake about 150 cookies for the party. And, because I’m crazy and a perfectionist, I decided we’d make the filling from scratch too.

Hamentashen

The thing is, once you’ve eaten really good hamentashen, it’s hard to go back to those flavor-less, cardboard-y cookies with gooey, cornstarch-y fruit filling from the grocery store or local kosher bakery. What makes these hamentashen so yummy is the orange zest and juice in the dough. As one of my co-workers once told me, it was the first time (ever) that he’d eaten a hamentashen where the cookie part actually tasted good.

Solo Poppy Seed FillingTraditionally, hamentashen come with three fillings: apricot, prune and poppy seed. You can fill them with whatever you like, though. Some people will tell you to use jam to fill your hamentashen, but I have had bad results using jam. Because of the high sugar content, the filling tends to bubble out and burn in the hot oven. If you live in a neighborhood with a sizable Eastern European population, you can probably buy Solo brand filling in your local grocery store. It works very well, and you can also order it from the company’s website in many flavors. If you can’t get Solo filling (and you don’t want to make your own), you can use canned pie filling, but you should whiz it up in the food processor so it’s smooth.

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But if you’re getting out the food processor, you might as well make your own filling. It tastes so much brighter and fruitier than the canned stuff, and it’s totally easy. You combine dried apricots (or prunes) with equal parts water and sugar, cook it for ten minutes in the microwave, whiz it up in the processor and add lemon juice and almond extract. The recipe is in the Urban Feed archives, as part of the Danish braid recipe. To make prune filling (which is my favorite — it tastes so wonderful with the orange in the cookie), substitute prunes for the apricots in the recipe and replace the almond extract with vanilla extract.

The Best Hamentashen You Will Ever Eat
Adapted from the Molly Goldberg Jewish Cookbook, via Anne’s Grandma Mildred

¾ cup sugar
2 cups flour
2 tsp. baking powder
¼ tsp. salt
½ cup solid shortening, butter or margarine (at room temperature)
1 egg, beaten
2 tablespoons orange juice
1 teaspoon grated orange zest

1 recipe apricot or prune filling (the filling will keep in the refrigerator 2 weeks and leftovers can be frozen)

Hamentashen DoughSift flour, sugar, baking powder and salt into the bowl of a stand mixer. Add orange zest and stir. Add shortening or butter in tablespoon-sized pieces and combine with the paddle attachment until the dough has big crumbs. (If you don’t have a mixer, you can cut the shortening into the flour mixture with a pastry blender, two knives or a fork until dough looks like big crumbs, about the size of peas.)

Combine orange juice and beaten egg. Add these wet ingredients to the dough and mix until a dough is formed. Shape the dough into a disc, wrap in plastic and chill 2 hours or overnight, if possible.

Grease two cookie sheets (or line with Silpats or parchment paper). Position oven racks in the upper and lower middle positions and pre-heat oven to 400º. On a well-floured surface, roll dough out to about 1/8” thickness. (If you chilled the dough over-night, you’ll need to let the cold dough rest on the counter 5 – 10 minutes to warm up a bit). Using a 3” circular round cutter, cut dough into circles. Gather scraps together and re-roll until all the dough has been used. (If the dough gets too warm, re-chill it for 15 minutes). Place about 1 (scant) teaspoon of filling (use Solo filling, pie filling or make your own) in the center of each circle. Carefuly fold the circles into triangles. Place cookies on cookie sheets and bake 12 – 15 minutes, rotating top to bottom about half way through, until delicately browned on top. Let cool on sheets about 2 minutes then transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.

This makes about 24 hamentashen. The recipe doubles easily.

heaven on route 1

Karl's Sausage KitchenRoute 1 North from Boston is congested, tacky and, at times, terrifying. It runs up , close to the coast, through Chelsea and Saugus until it breaks west a bit to run alongside U.S. 95. The real estate along the road is stuffed to the gills with American commerce: a miniature golf course with a giant dinosaur, an Italian restaurant complete with 1/4 scale leaning tower of Pisa, and a steakhouse with an enormous, glowing cactus. On the right side, as you drive north and reach the end of the stretch of Route 1 that cuts through Saugus is Karl’s Sausage Kitchen, marked with a sign that looks straight out of 1962.

Karl’s is part German butcher, part specialty grocery. It’s the place to go if you are looking for any variety of Haribo gummy candy. They also have about 15 kinds of mustard. But the heart of Karl’s is the butcher shop. They make their own sausages, smoke their own bacon and pork chops, and carry several types of imported deli specialties (like ham, cured sausages, liverwursts, and cheese). My German neighbors tell me that Karl’s doesn’t really specialize in any one region of Germany, but offers up a kind of greatest hits of German charcuterie.

Karl's BaconWhen you go, you must get the bacon. It is amazing. You will never be able to eat grocery store bacon again, so you should buy at least 2 — 3 lbs (that’s as much as I can order without feeling totally embarrassed; otherwise, I would order more). You’ll freeze it and it will be gone before you know it. I also enjoy the house-made bologna — it’s meaty deliciousness without the greasy, gross feeling of the bologna of my youth. As for sausages, I love the fine bratwursts (made with — gulp — veal). Also excellent are the coarse bratwursts (these are a traditional mix of beef and pork) and the plump, red knockwursts. All of these work great in the following recipe, which is an excellent way to enjoy your Karl’s bounty.

Bratwurst & Sauerkraut

Bratwurst & Sauerkraut
Adapted from Cook’s Illustrated

1 tablespoon unsalted butter
6 — 8 bratwursts or knockwursts (about 4 oz. each), punctured several times with a skewer
1 small onion, halved and sliced thin
10 whole juniper berries*
1 medium carrot, peeled and grated on the large holes of a box grater
1lb sauerkraut, drained and well-rinsed
1 medium sweet-tart apple, peeled and grated
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1 cup chicken broth
salt and pepper

Heat the butter in a 12” skillet with a tight fitting lid over medium-high heat. When the foam subsides, add the wursts, and reduce heat to medium. Brown the wursts, turning after about 1 minute. Remove to a plate.

Add the sliced onion, grated carrot, juniper berries and about ½ teaspoon salt to the skillet. Cook, stirring frequently, until the onions are soft and begin to brown. Add the drained sauerkraut, grated apple, brown sugar and chicken broth to the pan, along with another ¼ to ½ teaspoon salt (depending on the saltiness of your broth). Increase heat to medium-high and bring the mixture to a simmer.

Return the wursts to the pan and nestle them in the sauerkraut. Cover the pan, reduce heat to low, and simmer for 30 minutes or until almost all the broth is evaporated. Taste the sauerkraut and adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper.

Serves 4 — 6. Serve with boiled potatoes or noodles and spicy mustard.

*If you’re around these parts, you can buy juniper berries (along with about any other spice you can think of) at Christina’s in Inman Square, Cambridge. And after you’re done shopping, you can go next door to the ice cream parlor for a scoop of burnt sugar, khulfi, pumpkin, fig, fresh mint or Mexican chocolate ice cream.

apologies, with recipe

So, here are all my excuses for the long absence: We were going on vacation, I had to wrap up stuff at work and pack. Then we went on vacation, which was very fun until I caught a miserable, debilitating cold which I carried back home with me. Then I had to recuperate, with a dull palate and a stuffed-up nose. For several days, all I ate was chicken soup.

Chicken Soup

At first, I was so dilapidated, I had to settle for the chicken soup from the Jewish deli around the corner that Anne would bring me in daily installments. Eventually, though, I found the energy to dump some chicken, water and vegetables into a pot and let it simmer for three hours while I watched a quarterlife marathon on Bravo. That is my way of telling you that this recipe takes practically no effort and even less skill. All you need is time.

This is my favorite chicken stock recipe; it’s the one I make every year at Passover (often, a triple batch) and fill with matzo balls (recipe to come in April). It’s a bit of a pain because of the two-day process, but it has the best flavor and golden color of any chicken stock recipe I’ve ever tried. I think the vegetables and aromatics give it a nice balance. Using chicken wings is key — the cartilage and bone in the wings give the soup more body and a very chicken-y flavor.

Once you’ve made the stock, you can use it however you like. If you’re going to freeze it all and use it in other soups and recipes, leave out the salt. When I want a basic chicken soup, I add cooked pasta (like shells or alphabet noodles) and sliced carrots. It’s also nice sprinkled with a bit of fresh dill. At Passover, I make a triple batch and fill it with matzo balls. Whether you’re sick or not, there’s really nothing like homemade chicken soup.

Chicken Stock for When You’ve Got Time
Adapted from Sara Moulton via Cooking Live

5 lbs chicken wings
4 quarts water
2 medium onions, peeled and quartered
1 carrot, scrubbed and halved
1 parsnip, scrubbed and halved
1 celery stalk, quartered
1 bay leaf
1 teaspoon dried thyme
8 sprigs fresh parsley
8 whole black peppercorns
salt to taste

Chicken StockIn a large stockpot with a tight-fitting lid, combine the chicken wings and the water and bring to a boil, skimming off the scum that rises to the surface. Simmer for 20 minutes, skimming. Add the remaining ingredients (except salt) and simmer for 2 – 3 hours, stirring occasionally to make sure nothing sticks to the bottom of the pot. Remove stock from heat and strain into a large, clean pot. Let the stock cool to room temperature, cover and chill overnight. This will allow the fat to harden on top.

Remove FatRemove stock from refrigerator. Using a large, flat spoon, remove the layer of fat. (If you’re making matzo balls, you can save this fat, depending on what your matzo ball recipe calls for.) The cold stock is going to look like chicken jelly, and you will fear I have somehow tricked you into making aspic. Don’t worry. All good stock should look like jelly when it’s cold; once you heat it up, it will return to liquid state. Return the stock to the stove, bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer, uncovered, for about 25 – 30 minutes to reduce the volume of the stock and concentrate the flavor. Taste the stock after about 20 minutes and continue simmering and tasting until the stock reaches desired intensity. The way I like to do this (because, remember, the stock doesn’t have any salt in it yet) is to pour a little stock into a small, custard cup, salt it lightly, and then taste. Once you’ve got a flavor you like, you can add salt to taste to the whole batch, or you can leave it unsalted if you plan to use it in other recipes.

Makes about 2 quarts.

mac n’ cheese, please

Macaroni and cheese is a little like chocolate — often it’s ordinary, sometimes it’s sublime, but either way it’s tasty. I will admit that I have been guilty of coming home, tired and hungry, after a long day at work and opening a box of shells and powdered cheese. With enough black pepper, I find this a totally comforting, one bowl dinner. But it always makes me feel sad, because with just a little more energy and not much more time, I could have eaten something wonderful.

Mac n' Cheese

Anne, of course, is a big fan of macaroni and cheese (the woman subsists, essentially, on complex carbohydrates and cheese). So having a recipe for homemade mac n’ cheese that I can put together on a week night with stuff we almost always have on hand is essential to my marriage. I like to bake this version in a low gratin dish because you get a larger surface area for covering with breadcrumbs that get all toasty and crusty when fused with cheese in the oven. The interior, though, is creamy with a significant bite from the cheese. If you enlist a partner to grate the cheese while you boil the pasta and whisk the sauce, you can have the whole thing assembled and in the oven in 25 minutes.

Macaroni & Cheese

½ lb elbows or penne
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, plus more for greasing the dish
2 tablespoons AP flour
2 cups milk
salt and pepper to taste
1 teaspoon ground mustard
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
½ teaspoon paprika
½ teaspoon onion powder (I know, I know – so sue me…)
pinch of nutmeg
10 oz. shredded cheese (I use 6 – 8 oz. sharp cheddar and gruyere for the rest)
1 cup Panko bread crumbs

Pre-heat oven to 350º and butter a 2 quart gratin dish. Cook pasta in a large pot of salted, boiling water for about 1 minute less than the package directions for al dente. Drain and set aside. Meanwhile, in a 2 quart saucepan, melt 2 tablespoons of butter over medium heat until foaming subsides. Dump in flour, all at once, and whisk vigorously until the flour is incorporated but the mixture is still pale gold. Slowly whisk in milk and simmer, stirring frequently, over medium low heat until the sauce is thick, about 15 minutes.*

Cream SauceOnce the sauce is thickened, add salt and pepper to taste (about 1 teaspoon kosher salt and ½ teaspoon black pepper) and remaining spices, whisking until thoroughly combined. Remove the sauce from the heat and add the 2/3 of the grated cheese by handfuls, whisking to incorporate after each addition. Taste the sauce at this point to see if it needs more salt or pepper. Pour sauce over the cooked pasta and stir to combine.

Pour half the pasta and cheese sauce mixture into the prepared gratin dish. Sprinkle on half the remaining grated cheese. Add the rest of the pasta mixture and sprinkle with remaining cheese. In a small bowl, melt remaining tablespoon of butter and mix with bread crumbs. Sprinkle buttered bread crumbs on top of macaroni and cheese and bake about 30 minutes until hot and bubbling. If your bread crumbs aren’t brown enough for your liking, put the dish under the broiler for 2 – 3 minutes.

Mac n' Cheese on Plate

Serves 4 for dinner, 6 — 8 as a side dish.

* If you want to speed up the sauce, you can warm the milk in the microwave (or on the stove) before adding it to the roux.

overcoming irrational fears

In a comment, Kiki, a regular reader of Urbanfeed, gave a ringing endorsement of the black bean soup recipe from Cook’s Illustrated. It’s from the January 2005 issue, and for three years, I’ve contemplated trying it. I love black bean soup, and Black HamI don’t have a good recipe for making it at home. But something was standing in my way: black ham. Cook’s has you simmer the beans with 4 oz of ham steak, to give the beans and broth a nice porky flavor. This makes sense. For most of us, a ham steak is easier to find than a ham hock, and then you have some nice bits of salty meat floating around in your soup. The thing is, the beans turn the exterior of the ham black. It just looks weird.

But Kiki is a trustworthy source, and things have been a little crazy around the Urbanfeed homestead. I needed a batch of soup I could just re-heat throughout the week for a quick lunch or dinner. So I set my fear of black ham aside, and tried it two weekends ago. Not surprisingly, Kiki was totally right. The soup is delicious. It has a great texture — a little thick (but not muddy) with some whole beans still floating around. I know it looks like a lot of cumin, but it’s really perfect. And, of course, the best part of black bean soup is the accoutrements — a little chopped cilantro, diced avocado, sliced scallions, sour cream and, clearly, cheese. I like Monterey Jack diced up super tiny. The little cheese cubes sink into the soup and get all melty. It’s great.

Black Bean Soup

Don’t be afraid of black ham — it’s delicious. Seriously, I ate this soup almost every day for a week, and was only sorry when it was all gone.

Black Bean Soup
From Cook’s Illustrated, Jan/Feb. 2005

For the Beans:
1 lb dried black beans, rinsed and picked over
4 oz. ham steak, trimmed of rind and excess fat
2 dried bay leaves
5 cups water
1/8 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt

For the Soup:
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 large onions, chopped fine
1 large carrot, chopped fine
3 medium celery ribs, chopped fine
½ teaspoon salt
5 – 6 garlic cloves, minced or pressed
½ teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 ½ tablespoons ground cumin
6 cups chicken broth
2 tablespoons cornstarch
2 tablespoons water
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice (1 – 2 limes)

Chopped HamPlace the beans, ham, bay leaves, water and baking soda in a large pot with a lid. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat; using a large spoon, skim scum as it rises to the surface. Stir in salt, reduce heat to low, cover, and simmer briskly until the beans are tender, 1 ¼ — 1 ½ hours. (It may be necessary to add about 1 cup additional water if the beans begin to dry out before they get tender.) Discard bay leaves. Remove ham steak, cut into ¼” dice and set aside. DO NOT DRAIN BEANS.

Heat olive oil in an 8 quart Dutch oven over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add onions, carrot, celery and salt and cook, stirring occasionally, until vegetables are soft and beginning to brown, about 12 – 15 minutes. Reduce heat to medium, add garlic, red pepper flakes and cumin. Cook, stirring constantly, about 3 minutes. Stir in the beans, bean cooking liquid and chicken broth. Increase heat to medium-high and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low and simmer, uncovered, stirring occasionally, for about 30 minutes.

Ladle 1 ½ cups beans and 2 cups liquid into a food processor or blender and process until smooth. Return mixture to pot. (You can also ladle the mixture into a 4 cup Pyrex measuring cup and puree with an immersion blender.) In a small bowl, combine cornstarch and water. Gradually stir about half this mixture into the soup and bring the soup to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring, to thicken. If the soup is still thinner than desired, add the remaining cornstarch mixture and return the soup to the boil to thicken. Off heat, stir lime juice into the soup and serve with garnishes of your choice – lime wedges, minced cilantro leaves, finely diced red onion, sliced scallions, diced avocado, sour cream, finely diced or shredded Monterey jack cheese.

pig skin

Last year, I wanted to make ham for Thanksgiving. I was out-voted (we had a turkey). The thing is, how many occasions does one have, other than Thanksgiving, to roast a large piece of meat knowing there will be plenty of folks around to help you eat it?

Ham, Gravy, Cracklings

When I received a fresh ham in my meat pick-up last month, I immediately called my friend Allison, a fellow ham-lover (but also a turkey for Turkey Day purist). When I suggested Sunday, February 3rd for ham dinner, it was only with very mild exasperation that she reminded me that February 3rd was Super Bowl Sunday. Not a problem — ham should be eaten in the late afternoon, before money-hungry networks televise long-awaited sporting events, forcing small children to stay up past their bedtimes.

A fresh ham is essentially a large piece of roasted pork. It has none of the smoky, salty flavor of the ham most of us eat regularly. It’s more like roast pork loin — sweet and clean tasting. This recipe, from the Gourmet Cookbook, ups the ante with a killer gravy and homemade cracklings. That’s right: gravy and crisp, roasted pig skin.

Beer Basted Fresh Ham With Cracklings and Pan Gravy

Adapted from Epicurious

For the Ham:

8 – 10 lb fresh ham
Vegetable oil for rubbing
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1⁄2 teaspoon dried thyme, crumbled
1⁄2 teaspoon dried sage, crumbled
1⁄2 teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon English-style dry mustard
12 oz. beer (not dark)

For the Gravy:

2 tablespoons AP flour
1 cup beef broth
1⁄2 teaspoon English-style dry mustard
1⁄4 teaspoon dried sage, crumbled
1/8 teaspoon dried thyme, crumbled
1⁄4 teaspoon sugar
2 teaspoons cider vinegar

Ham with RubPre-heat oven to 500°. With a small, very sharp knife, prick the ham skin all over. Make four parallel, ½” deep incisions through the skin, running the entire length of the ham. Rub the ham lightly with oil all over. In a small bowl, combine salt, thyme, sage, pepper and mustard and rub the mixture over the entire ham. Place the ham on a roasting rack in a roasting pan. Place ham in oven and immediately reduce the temperature to 325°. Roast for 1 hour. Pour half the beer over the ham and roast for 30 minutes more. Pour remaining beer over the ham and roast for 2 – 2 ½ hours more, until the pork registers 150° on an instant-read thermometer.* (If the drippings appear to be burning, add some water to the bottom of the pan while cooking.)

Peeling off Ham SkinLet the pork cool on the rack in the pan for 15 minutes. Carefully pull the crisp, brown skin off the ham, leaving the fat behind. With scissors, cut the skin into small pieces, arrange on a baking sheet, sprinkle with salt and roast at 350° for 15 – 20 minutes, stirring occasionally, until crisp and brown on both sides. Transfer cracklings to a paper towel lined plate to drain.

Remove the remaining fat from the ham with a sharp knife. Tent the ham with foil and let rest while you make the gravy. Skim the fat off the juices in the roasting pan. Add one cup water to the pan and deglaze the pan over moderate heat, scraping up the brown bits. Transfer the drippings to a saucepan. In a small bowl, whisk together flour and ¼ cup of the broth until the mixture is smooth. Whisk the flour mixture into the pan with the drippings, along with the remaining broth and the remaining gravy ingredients. Simmer the gravy, whisking, for 5 minutes.

Slice the meat thinly and across the grain. Arrange on a platter with the cracklings. Serves 8 with leftovers. I think the leftovers would make awesome Cuban sandwiches, but I haven’t had a chance to try it out yet.

*The original recipe said to roast until the ham reached 170° — that is way too long. Trust me, my ham was cooked throughout with nary a trace of pink — I think I could have taken it out five degrees sooner. I’m also very curious to know how brining would have affected the texture of the ham and I might try that next time.

breakfast for dinner

Maybe my parents were delinquent, but we had pancakes all the time growing up. Sometimes, we even had them for dinner. To Ellis, this was a radical but welcome concept. After two weeks of mediocre reviews (3/4 of a thumbs up; better without the lemon), I decided I needed a sure thing. Dinner tonight received a “gooooood!”

Pancakes

When I moved into my first apartment, I spent a lot of weekends trying to figure out pancakes. They seem so simple, but bad pancakes are really terrible — burnt on the outside, raw on the middle, flavorless, soggy, sodden, spongy. I ate some real losers. The recipe of choice in our house growing up was from the brown, crumbling edition of Fanny Farmer my mother had probably received as a wedding gift. But when I tried it, the pancakes came out flavorless and kind of gooey inside. Gross.

Pancakes on GriddleIf you still haven’t found a reliable pancake recipe to guide you through bleak times (like, a late night at work and a seven-year old coming over for dinner), let me offer this one. It’s from the folks at Cook’s Illustrated, so, of course, it’s slightly fussy (you have to separate an egg, and then say a little spell and add the parts of the egg to the buttermilk and melted butter in a very particular order), but it’s worth it. These come out great every time; crispy on the outside with a light and fluffy interior. And here are two other tips for pancake making. First, use a griddle. You can make almost the whole batch of these at one time on the griddle, the cakes are easier to flip, and it is easier to maintain the heat when you add the batter. Second, fry some bacon first. Bacon fat gives the most deliciously salty, naughty flavor to the crisp edges of the pancake.

Light & Fluffy Pancakes
Adapted from The Best Recipe by the folks at Cook’s Illustrated

1 cup AP flour
2 teaspoons sugar
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon baking soda
¾ cup buttermilk, at room temperature
¼ cup milk, at room temperature
1 large egg, separated and at room temperature
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled
vegetable oil or bacon fat for greasing the griddle

Pancake MiseWhisk dry ingredients together in medium bowl. Combine buttermilk and milk in a 2-cup measuring cup. Whisk egg white into milk mixture. Stir egg yolk into melted butter then pour butter mixture into milk mixture. Pour wet ingredients into dry ingredients and whisk lightly and quickly, just until combined.

Heat a griddle over medium-high heat (or, if you’ve been frying up a bunch of bacon on your griddle over low heat, increase your heat to medium-high). Generously grease the griddle with vegetable oil (or bacon fat – yum!). Ladle batter, about ¼ cup at a time, onto griddle. Do not over-crowd the pancakes.

When the first side is brown and little air bubbles have begun to form on the surface (2 –3 minutes), flip pancakes and cook second side (1 –2 minutes longer). Serve immediately with butter, maple syrup or jam.

Serves 2 – 3 pancake lovers.