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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.

Folding Step 1Folding Step 2Folding Step 3Folding Step 4

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.

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.

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.

bossy

If you are a kind and generous person, and your friend tells you that he loves fettucine alfredo, but no one ever makes it for him, and by the way, he’s coming over for dinner this week, what do you do? Clearly, you make fettucine alfredo, even if you find it to be a cloying, dull dish. But, if you’re bossy like me, and you think you know better than a seven-year-old about what to have for dinner, you make lemon pasta and say something idiotic like, “It’s just like fettucine alfredo, but with lemon.”

Lemon Pasta

I suspect that’s where I went wrong. If I’d just told Ellis we were having Anne’s favorite lemon pasta for dinner, I think it might have gone over better. Instead, I teased the poor kid with the promise of his most dreamed-about dish, only to let him down by tweaking it in a slightly adult way. As he said to me, his mouth half full of chicken sausage and a Patriots’ ski cap pulled down thugishly over his eyebrows, “It would have been better without the lemon.” But don’t let this disuade you. This lemon pasta is totally delicious, even if it’s a little adult. I know it looks like a fair amount of cream and butter, but somehow the lemon lifts the whole thing right off your tongue and makes the pasta taste bright. It is, very likely, the only creamy pasta dish I like to eat. But I fear there’s a classic fettucine alfredo in my future.

Lemon Pasta
Adapted From Tender at the Bone by Ruth Reichl

4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 cup heavy cream
3 tablespoons lemon juice
zest from 1 lemon
1 pound fresh or dried fettucine or linguini
salt and pepper to taste
½ cup Parmesan cheese
chopped chives, for garnish

In a large sauté pan with high sides, melt the butter over medium heat. Whisk in cream and lemon juice to combine and heat through. Cover pan and turn off heat while you cook the pasta. Once the pasta is al dente, remove it from the water, reserving some of the cooking liquid. Add the pasta to the cream sauce and toss to coat. Add the lemon zest, salt and pepper. If the sauce is too thick, thin it with a little of the pasta cooking water. Transfer the pasta to serving bowls and sprinkle with a tablespoon cheese and chopped chives. Serves 6 — 8 as a first course.

leverage

I always think of rice pudding as something you do with leftover rice. I know others disagree — for some, rice pudding is the main event. As rice pudding lacks chocolate, this is a position I don’t entirely understand.

But, apparently, the rice pudding lovers of the world are not alone. A recent scan of my cookbooks revealed a bevy of recipes that begin with measurements for dry, as opposed to cooked, rice, and then the directions for cooking the rice before adding the milk and cream. But let’s say you just made rice-stuffed peppers and now you have some leftover rice and a seven year-old is coming for dinner and his mother’s advice — “He’ll eat anything as long as dessert is in play,” — is ringing in your ears? What then? Then, this:

Rice Pudding With Spoon

Cherry Vanilla Rice Pudding

2 cups cooked rice
1 ¾ cups whole milk (really, you have to use whole milk)
1 ¾ cups half-and-half
1/3 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
½ a vanilla bean, split and seeds scraped
1/3 cup dried cherries

Rice PuddingIn a 3 quart pot, bring rice, milk, half-and-half, sugar, vanilla bean and seeds to a simmer over medium-high heat. Reduce heat to medium low (or lower, depending upon your burner) to maintain a gentle simmer. Cook, uncovered, stirring regularly until the mixture is thick, about 30 minutes. Reduce the heat to low, and cook, stirring occassionally, for about 15 more minutes until the mixture is quite thick. Remove from heat and stir in cherries. Pour into six custard cups. You can either eat it warm or cover the cups with plastic wrap, refrigerate and eat it chilled.

Serves 6.

reinforcements

Our friend Ellis has graciously agreed to have dinner with us once a week to help out with mission eat-down-the-freezer (sub-specialty: meat). Ellis is 7. I’ve known him for over five years and in that time we’ve eaten a lot of meals together. Most of those meals are festive, however, with a prescribed menu. So last night, I quizzed our dinner guest about his likes and dislikes.

Here is some of what I learned: He hates potatoes (who doesn’t like potatoes?). The only time he eats cooked carrots is when they appear in the school lunch. (This shocks me; the chaos of an elementary school cafeteria seems easy cover for ditching your vegetables.) Bacon was once the only breakfast meat he ate, but he recently had sausage at a friend’s house and was quickly won over. Also, Ellis absolutely loves fettucine alfredo, but claims it is rarely served to him. (Remember the days before you had your own kitchen and could reach the stove? Those were hard times, man.)

Stuffed Peppers

Last night we had stuffed peppers and a Caesar salad, which I described as salad with ranch dressing and cheese because Ellis claims he only eats salad with ranch dressing. (He ate the salad. Some day I will tell him the truth — maybe for his bar mitzvah.) I made the peppers because the filling contains three things I know Ellis likes: ground beef, sausage and mozzarella cheese. And, let’s be honest, because I’ve got a problem with freezer capacity, exacerbated since Anne decided to horde half of her birthday turnovers for a rainy day.

It was love at first sight for me and Ellis. After we met, he told his mom he liked my hair. I am unreasonably vain about my hair. To paraphrase Vicki (the crazy, drunk one) from The Real Housewives of Orange County, I pay a lot of money to be blond, not yellow. Ellis is a blond too. We understand each other. He gave the peppers three-quarters of a thumbs-up. I take his honesty as a sign of the strength of our bond.

Stuffed Pepper on PlateI think they’re yummy. The red peppers get all sweet and roasted in the hot oven, and the interior — full of cheese, parsley and tomatoes — is savory, bright and satisfying. And did I mention that there is sausage inside? Plus, you keep them in your freezer, folks, and then just cook up as many as you want whenever you want. So smaht, as they say around here.

Stuffed Peppers
From Cook’s Country (the red-headed step-child of Cook’s Illustrated)

Peppers and Stuffing
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped
8 oz. 85% lean ground beef
4 oz. Italian sausage, casings removed
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 cups cooked, long-grain rice
1 can (14 ½ oz) diced tomatoes, drained
1 cup shredded mozzarella
½ cup grated Parmesan cheese
3 tablespoons chopped parsley
4 medium red bell peppers

Cut the peppers in half through the stem end, but leave the stem intact. Remove seeds and core and set aside. Heat olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Cook onion until softened and beginning to brown, about 5 minutes. Increase heat to medium-high and add the beef and sausage, ½ teaspoon salt and ¼ teaspoon pepper. Cook, breaking the meat up with a wooden spoon, until meat begins to brown, 6 – 8 minutes. Add garlic and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Place mixture in colander and drain for 1 minute.

In a large bowl, combine meat mixture, rice, tomatoes, mozzarella, Parmesan, parsley, ½ teaspoon salt and ¼ teaspoon pepper. Refrigerate until well chilled, about half an hour.

Filling Ingredients

Spoon filling evenly into pepper halves. Wrap each pepper in two layers of plastic wrap and one layer of tin foil. Place in zip lock bags and freeze up to two months.

For Serving:
2 tablespoons olive oil
salt and pepper to taste
1 cup shredded mozzarella

Bamboo Skewering PepperPreheat oven to 450º. Cut as many pieces of foil as peppers you’ll be cooking; the squares of foil should be just large enough to cover the stuffing in the peppers. Spray the foil with non-stick cooking spray (or brush with oil). Unwrap peppers and cover filling with the foil squares. Using a bamboo skewer, poke several holes in the filling.

Place the peppers, foil side down, on a broiler pan. Brush the backs of the peppers with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Bake for 30 – 35 minutes, until peppers are spotty brown. Remove pan from oven. Flip peppers over and remove foil. Sprinkle with mozzarella cheese, return to oven and bake 5 minutes more, until cheese is melted.