Strawberry Girl and the love muffins

My fearless photographer and I have been baking muffins together so that she can have a relatively healthful weekday breakfast on the go (very important for healthy eaters who school starts at the ungodly hour of 7:25).  This week’s recipe was made to order for a movie she’s making with friends for a school project. She wanted strawberries in the muffins since, she told me, “they have to be love muffins.”

with love paper photo by REG

with love paper
photo by REG

I wasn’t sure how strawberries would work in muffins and if we’d get the pop-of-red visuals so I went to my favorite boutique (Marshalls) and found some post-Valentines muffin liners to be on the safe side. But we still added the strawberries because my photographer is actually also my strawberry girl. As a little kid, she actually much preferred strawberries to any other snack and even refused cookies.

Love muffin photo and muffin by REG (aka Strawberry Girl II)

These days she eats other snacks as well, but still thinks strawberries are the best. Once, baking with strawberries would have scandalized her. She liked them plain and we used to shock her on our beach vacations by pointing out the chocolate dipped strawberries at the candy stores on the boardwalk; to her, these adulterated berries were an abomination.

Her love of strawberries actually led me to encourage her to read a childhood favorite of mine when her elementary school class had write a report on a Newberry Prize winner. I encouraged her to read Lois Lenski’s Strawberry Girl, first published in 1946. It’s the story of Birdie Sawyer and the hard life of her family of Florida “Crackers” (a term defined in the book not as derogatory but as descriptive). Talking about this brings out the mama bear in me, because the teacher took points off my daughter’s report for not describing the character’s growth over the course of the story; apparently the teacher didn’t realize that there was a time when even in Newberry Award winning books, no one thought the protagonist had to grow or learn a lesson. All that was needed was strong characters (some of whom might be Crackers), a good tale, and a trip to a fully realized world. And it didn’t hurt to add strawberries.


Great book from a time when even Newberry books did not have characters who grew or learned major life lesson and the only dystopian element was the fact that they happened in Florida & mean people uprooted strawberry plants which were a family’s livelihood.

Strawberry Love Muffins

1 cup buttermilk

2 large eggs

¼ cup canola oil

grated rind of 1 lemon

1 cup cornmeal

1 cup whole-wheat pastry flour

½ cup organic cane sugar

1 ½ teaspoons baking powder

½ teaspoon baking soda

¼ teaspoon salt

½ cup strawberries, cut into eighths (the strawberries should be cut into small pieces or they will make the muffins too soggy; if you use another berry, you will not need to cut them so small).

Preheat the oven to 400°. Line 12-cup muffin pan with muffin papers. Whisk buttermilk, egg, and oil together in a small bowl. Add lemon rind.

In a separate, larger bowl, add cornmeal, flour, brown sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Add berries and toss to coat thoroughly. Add buttermilk mixture and stir just until dry ingredients are moist and mixture is blended.

Spoon batter into prepared muffin pan. Bake 25 minutes—or until tester inserted in center of muffins comes out clean. Transfer muffins onto rack to cool. Let stand at least 15 minutes and serve.


Rafrefet, another gluten-free cake (better late than never?) and the best joke from Uncle Mikhail

We like to console ourselves with our failings by saying better late than never, but sometimes it’s just not the case and so most of my readers probably aren’t in the mood for a Passover dessert. My only excuse is that it took us a while to get the pictures together.

And to sweeten this post, I’ve added a joke if you keep reading; this dessert will work if you need a gluten-free showstopper; and there are a few good memories of some heretofore unmentioned family members: my dad’s aunts and uncle in Tel Aviv.

Every family has an aunt whose house is THE house you visit. In my dad’s family it was a little complicated because in the 1920s and 30s, 3 of of my grandmother’s siblings left Warsaw for Tel Aviv and 3 for New York. Aunt Lifsha married a cousin (it’s a long story, but a lot of my dad’s relatives married relatives because those were the only people whom they felt were worthy marital partners). Lifsha’s husband invested in Tel Aviv real estate and they had an enormous apartment in a building they built in grand Bauhaus style in the late 1940s. My sister always joked that our visits to this  large centrally located apartment (near Dizengoff Square) with its custom-made furniture gave us a totally skewed impression of how most Israelis lived.

A weekend at Aunt Lifsha’s included her standard meals that were pretty traditional, heavy kosher Lithuanian fare which I came to call the “8 carb Friday night special.” First up would be chicken soup with homemade noodles, AND matza balls (all year round, not just for Passover) AND a special knish-like object for the soup. If you’re keeping score, I’m not even counting the ritual challah bread, and we’re already at 3 carbs by the soup course.


Another specialty of the house was Aunt Lifsha’s cholent, which she served, of course, at Saturday lunch. One of my favorite things about visiting was the relationship that Aunt  Lifsha had with her brother Uncle Mikhail.  They shared so much love and affection and related to each other like affectionate teen siblings even in their 80s. In many ways, their lives were different: Lifsha’s family was religious. In fact, the only newspaper in her house was the organ of the National Religious Party, Hatzofe, while Uncle Mikhail was proudly secular Zionist and Socialist. Uncle Mikhail was a gentle and witty man and every time there was cholent he would tell the same joke, which remains one of my favorites:

“Did you hear the story about the Jew who said only 2 things remain of my Judaism? My love of cholent and my fear of dogs.”

Of course, no 8 carb meal was complete without a sponge cake and “rafrefet” which was a sort of sherbet made from strawberries, egg whites and sugar. Incidentally, Uncle Mikhail’s wife, Aunt Guta made her own version of all of these baked goods and if I visited Tel Aviv, I’d make the rounds after an 8 carb meal, and have tea and cake and eat Aunt Guta’s version as well. For the sake of full disclosure, all of the aunts baked the same things but Aunt Guta always had new recipes and her versions were always a little better.


Anyway, back to rafrefet: Ideally, this would be made when strawberries were in high season and the outdoor market sold “b” quality strawberries that were cheaper. By tthe time you got home from the market, these b quality berries  really were already soft and too juicy to eat plain,  but they were great for rafrefet. I have a weakness for things like rafrefet and I don’t mind eating raw eggs.

As to  show-stopping cake, it’s kind of rafrefet plus. For years, I’ve been making a version of this Nigel Slater cake from the NY Times for Passover (without the rosewater and with matza cake meal instead of flour). I’m not sure what my great aunts would think of the extra fanciness of this. Maybe Aunt Guta would have gone to the trouble. Maybe. Or maybe all you really need is rafrefet  and a good sponge cake.

But to be honest, I still love cholent and am kind of scared of dogs.

Strawberry Pistachio cake

1 1/2 cups shelled unsalted pistachios (8 ounces)

3/4 cup sugar, divided

6 large eggs, at room temperature

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more for egg whites

For meringue topping:

1 cup strawberries—diced–

5 egg whites, at room temperature

1 1/2 teaspoon white vinegar

1 cup almond flour (4 ounces)

1 cup superfine sugar

1 tablespoon potato starch

Preheat oven to 325°F. Lightly brush a 9-inch springform pan with oil and line bottom with a round of parchment paper. Brush parchment with oil and set pan aside.

In a food processor, pulse pistachios with 1/4 cup sugar until finely ground (avoid overgrinding); set aside.

In two large bowls, separate eggs into yolks and whites, (you don’t need the sixth egg white for the cake—you can keep it for the meringue). Add 1/4 cup sugar, vanilla, and salt, to bowl with egg yolks and beat using an electric mixer until thick and pale yellow, about 2 minutes. Set egg yolk mixture aside and thoroughly clean and dry the beaters.

Add a pinch of salt to the bowl with the egg whites and beat using an electric mixer until soft peaks form. Gradually beat in remaining 1/4 cup sugar, and continue beating until stiff peaks form.

Add half of the whipped egg whites and all of the ground pistachios to the egg yolk mixture and fold until combined. Add the remaining egg whites and fold until batter is just combined. Pour batter into prepared pan and smooth top with a rubber spatula. Bake until beginning to brown and just barely set, 20–25 minutes.

While the cake is baking, make the meringue topping.

First, squeeze out as much liquid as possible from the strawberries. Squeeze them through a cheesecloth or coffee filter. They don’t have to be totally dried out, but you want to remove a lot of the juice. Then, process the strawberries in the food processor and strain them again. Whisk in almond flour and potato starch.

In a large bowl using an electric mixer, beat the egg whites and vinegar until soft peaks form, then gradually beat in the sugar and continue to whip until meringue is stiff and glossy and all the sugar has dissolved, 7–8 minutes. Gently fold almond mixture into meringue until just combined.

Remove cake from oven. Using an offset spatula or table knife, spread meringue mixture evenly over hot cake, starting from the outside and working your way into the center. Return cake to oven and bake until meringue is lightly browned and crisp, 25–30 minutes. Transfer pan to a wire rack to cool, and immediately run a knife around the edge of the cake to loosen it from the pan. Release and remove the side of the springform pan. Let cake cool at least 30 minutes before decorating.

To decorate the cake, slice fresh strawberries.

The cake can be made up to one day in advance.

Spring cleaning soup (and it’s vegan, too)

Chez Dot, I’m the cook and Mr. Dot cleans up.

But once I year, I go into some sort of tribal memory and clean my kitchen like crazy. Call it spring cleaning, call it cleaning for Passover—what I do goes beyond ritual requirements, I think. Come mid-March, like my mother, my grandmothers,  their mothers and so on, I go through the cupboards, take inventory and start cooking with what’s in the cupboards, getting creative about how to get rid of what I have.

While there is ritual justification for cleaning out the cupboards, since religious Jews do not own any leavened or wheat products during Passover, it would be permissible according to Jewish law to set some of these foods aside and “sell” them for the duration of the holiday. But I enjoy taking stock of what I have and cooking to get rid of what’s in my cupboard. I like taking inventory once a year. To be honest, I often shop with good intentions but then end up cooking the same old same old, so if I didn’t do the spring cleaning of my pantry, it would be possible that some day my future grandchildren would find 50 year old lentils in my cupboards. Or 5 different bags of bulgur wheat, each with subtly different levels of coarseness from a forgotten trip to a Middle Eastern market (fine, medium fine, medium coarse, semi-coarse, and coarse).

barley soup

I also love the creativity of going through the shelves and figuring out what I have and what I will do with something that I never used or that  i forgot was ever there. I end up surprising myself and making some foods that take me out of my  rut or comfort zone. Last week it was Barley Lentil Soup with Rainbow Chard, hitting the sweet spot of two forgotten pantry items (yes, I had both a bag and a box of barley and a bag of lentils) and some fresh seasonal vegetables. And it was delicious—as my kitchen cleaner (and this week’s photographer), Mr. Dot, agreed.

 Barley Lentil Soup with Rainbow Chard

1 tablespoon olive oil

2 leeks, chopped

1 ½ cups diced carrots

3 large cloves of garlic, minced

1 ½ tablespoons of ground cumin

5 cups of vegetable broth

2/3 cup pearl barley

1 14 ½ ounce can diced tomatoes in juice

2/3 cup orange lentils

4 cups packed rainbow chard (or any chard)

2 teaspoons dry dill

Heat oil in large pot over medium high heat. Add leeks and carrots. Sauté until leeks are golden, about 10 minutes. Add garlic and stir 1 minute. Add cumin and stir another 30 seconds. Add broth and add more water if you like and barley. Bring to boil. You may want to add as much as 5 more cups of water. Reduce heat, partially cover and simmer for 25 minutes. Stir in tomatoes with juice and lentils. Cover and simmer until barley and lentils are tender, around 30 minutes.

Add chopped chard to soup and simmer until chard is tender, about 5 minutes. Stir in dill. Season soup with salt and pepper, to taste. Thin with more water, if desired.

Serve hot. With bread, this hearty soup can be a meal in and of itself unless you have more things in your pantry you want to get rid of.

Crumbles: old friends, vegan friends and even gluten-free friends

One of those posts with an old recipe and an updated version so make sure to read both

I have always loved crumbles and their cousins, buckles and cobblers (yeah, carbs and sweet fruit, I know, I know, what’s not to like).

For many these are classic American foods that have been around forever but we were introduced to the crumble in the 1970s by my late mother’s dear friend, Shani Weiner, of blessed memory. Lately, I’ve been more nostalgic than ever both for the foods of my childhood AND for the special friends who made up my parent inner circle when I was growing up in Brookline, Mass. in the 1960s and 1970s.

My mother and Shani shared recipes and so much more. What springs to mind at once (even many years after Shani’s untimely passing) are the many laughs, the barbecues in Onset, Mass,  their lively intelligence and intellectual curiosity, penchant for shopping  and always finding the best bargains (I can picture them in the Weiner’s beautiful living room upon their return from an annual pilgrimage to the Filenes basement $45 suit sale), their elegant, brunette good looks (another memory now: someone coming up to me and Shani’s daughter Beth in synagogue saying “one of your mother’s wants you—I don’t know which). They were fun, elegant, and incredible hostesses, with a strong devotion to communal service, to their families and to hospitality.

The Weiners & my parents on a Boston Harbor cruise (and yes, I blurred out some unidentified friends).

The Weiners & my parents on a Boston Harbor cruise (and yes, I blurred out some unidentified friends). It makes sense to see them at the beach, but I’m a little surprised that I couldn’t find any pictures from Onset.

In 2015 the apple crumb cake may seem old-hat but somehow, it was new to us (or at least to me) in the ’70s. I have to confess, though, that it has seemed odd to me that in the cookbook my mom wrote, she  included this “quickie dessert” (as mom called it) from Shani, because I always think of the elaborate day-long projects Shani would undertake. But this 1970s treat is delicious and these days we’d consider it healthful—if you substituted oats or nuts or whole-wheat flour for some of the flour. The recipe has always represented another quality of Shani’s to me: along with all the above attributes, she was also incredibly practical. There were times when it makes sense to have a quickie dessert and I smile when I make it and think of her ability to entertain so beautifully and seemingly  effortlessly.

Before I write the crumble recipe, I feel that I haven’t fully (in this short blog post) captured Shani. So one more sentence to say that she lit up every room: t was always more fun when she was around and you couldn’t keep your eyes off of her. So this may be a practical and simple crumb cake and I’d like to think that  like Shani it has that extra something that comes through in a pinch and is the real deal.

Beth's 5th birthday--Red Riding Hood theme with the kind of panache that only Shani could pull off

Beth’s 5th birthday–Red Riding Hood theme with the kind of panache that only Shani could pull off

Shani’s Apple Crumb Cake

 4-5 cups sliced apples sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar

3 cups flour

½ cup sugar

½ teaspoon baking soda

½ oil

1 egg

Sift flour. Add sugar and baking soda. Add oil and slightly beaten egg. Mix with fork until mealy. Press dough on the bottom and sides of a 9” pan, reserving 1 cup of dough.

Place apples on crust. Crumble remaining 1 cup of dough over apples. Bake at 350° for 45 minutes.

Serve warm. Can be served with ice cream or whipped cream.

Lately, I’ve been serving an updated version of the crumble–especially when I have vegan company. I also make a versiont to accommodate gluten-free company. It’s based on a Mark Bittman recipe but I’ve made some changes. Whenever I change a Bittman recipe, I think that that’s exactly what Bittman would want me to do and I feel like a good student who is getting a gold star from the teacher.

Just the right level of done-ness--beginning to brown.  Photo by REG.

Just the right level of done-ness–beginning to brown. Photo by REG.

Vegan Blueberry Crumble

4 tablespoons margarine/shortening plus more for greasing the pan

4 – 6 cups fresh or frozen blueberries

1 cup pine nuts

½ cup sugar

½ cup whole-wheat flour (or –for the gluten-free—nut flour)

½ teaspoon cardamom

Pinch of salt

Grated zest of one lemon

Heat the oven to 375° F. Grease a 9” square pan. If you’re using frozen berries, set them in a colander to thaw while you prepare the crust.

Put ¾ cup of the pine nuts in a food processor along with the butter and sugar. Let the machine run until the nuts are finely ground and the mixture is creamy and fluffy.

Transfer the mixture to a bowl and add the whole pine nuts, flour (whole wheat or nut, as the case may be), and salt, and stir with a fork until crumbly. This can all be done for up to 3 days in advance.

Spread the blueberries in the prepared pan and sprinkle with lemon zest. Crumble the topping over. Bake until the filling is bubbling and crust is just beginning to brown—30-40 minutes. Serve immediately or while still warm. This too can be served with whipped cream or ice cream (real or vegan) but it’s not necessary.

And while both of these are incredible warm, they’re also great cold or room temperature.  Sometimes you have to be practical.

Cabbages and Things (or more warm soup transforming leftovers into gold)

Sometimes the food fads happen so quickly I don’t even know a food is out and then I hear it’s in again. That’s what happened recently when I heard that cauliflower is the new kale.

Didn’t cauliflower have to be out before it became the new kale? It’s questions like this that keep me awake and watching Law & Order reruns at 2 a.m.

When kale became  an in food, I’d only seen it at the farmer’s market and really didn’t know what to do with it other than I supposed stir fry it. Then I had an amazing kale salad at a New York restaurant and before I knew it I was living a cliché. For about two or three years, I thought my friends and I were so clever to be eating kale salads after lovingly massaging each leaf and then marinating them in lemon juice so that we could enjoy all the benefits of a (very flavorful)  superfood. Then one day, I discovered that Costco sells a pre-made raw chopped kale salad and, happy as I was, I knew that the fad was over.  (I tried to link to this salad on line but they don’t sell it online. All I could think was “Good. More for me. Sorry. Not sorry).

I love my kale salad so much that I won’t let myself be bullied by the fact that it’s no longer chic, I’ll share the “recipe” such as it is but it’s actually not a recipe but more of an embarrassing admission: I buy bags of Costco’s Sweet Kale salad which has chopped kale, brussels sprouts, cabbage, and chicory. The package also includes Poppy Seed Dressing which I throw out because it’s the kind of mayonnaise-y concoction I can’t stand and would never use.The salad also comes with mixed pumpkin seeds and dried cranberries that I put aside for when I make tossed green salads for company. I like pumpkin seeds and craisins just not in my cabbagy lunch salad.

Actually the folks at Trader Joes have just come with a version of the cruciferous salad that doesn’t come with dressing and seeds that mean you don’t have to throw anything out, and that works, too. Of course, if you go the Trader Joes route, you will need another source for your pumpkin seeds and craisins.  Conveniently, dried fruit and seed mixes are just the sort of thing TJs has always sold.

I suppose some clever readers will tell me that it is also possible to just buy some cruciferous vegetables and chop them; that is true but then it wouldn’t be my simple, one-person-quick-lunch-thrown-together-at-home. And by the way, this is not the recipe part of this blog post. This is glimpse into my life part of this blog post.  Anyway, back to  lunch. I add fresh pomegranate seeds, salted peanuts and (in my case vegetarian) fish sauce. Voila, a salty/sweet, fiber-filled lunch for one. It satisfies cravings , fills me, and, in case you’re counting, is not a lot of Weight Watchers points. (Yup, total honesty here: I devised this lunch to meet my Weight Watchers needs and to consume as few points as possible before dinner time. But I really, really like and managed to crave it for more days in a row than you can imagine).

Now that we’ve got all that out of the way, we’ve come to the recipe part of the blog post. The recipe I really wanted to focus on in this blog post does not have that now passé superfood kale and instead has the newly avant garde member of the cabbage family: my beloved cauliflower, appearing here in a gingery Indian soup.

Since I started working mostly at home not only do I eat my out-of-date kale salad for lunch, I’ve also become much better about checking the inventory in the fridge and using up leftovers. Once upon a time, we wasted leftovers here. Mr. Dot (who generally does the cleaning up) would want to throw things away and I would try to convince him that I really would use them. In the old days, before I was a consultant, we’d find stuff in tupperware  weeks later and it did not look too appetizing. Now that I’m around and spend a lot less time commuting, I’m much better at planning our meals to use up leftovers while at the same time repurposing the food so that we don’t feel like we’re always eating the same thing.

Thick, gingery, not totally pureed cauliflower soup in foreground with penguin SCUBA salt and pepper shakers in background.  Any similarities between salt shaker on the left likes to dress and someone who would throw away perfectly good leftovers are purely coincidental.  Photo taken by REG

Thick, gingery, not totally pureed cauliflower soup in foreground with penguin SCUBA salt and pepper shakers in background. Any similarities between the salt shaker on the left is dressed and the way someone who would throw away perfectly good leftovers would like to dress are purely coincidental. Photo taken by REG

One of my favorite ways to use leftovers is this cauliflower soup, an adaptation of an Indian recipe. I start out with cauliflower, which, chez Dot, has usually been roasted for a previous meal (though it could also be steamed or boiled and the soup would still be great). This, like other Indian dishes of mine, cooks up pretty quickly but has a lot of flavor thanks to all the spices.

Ginger Indian Cauliflower Soup

3 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 leek, chopped

1 inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and grated

4 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped

1 teaspoon ground cumin

2 teaspoons ground coriander

¼ teaspoon ground turmeric

¼ teaspoon ground cayenne pepper

2 medium potatoes cut into rough 1/3 inch dice

1 cup cooked cauliflower (I generally roast it in olive oil but it really doesn’t matter how you cook it)

5 cups vegetable stock (I usually use store bought vegetarian no-chicken stock)

Salt to taste

Optional 2/3 cup half and half (if you don’t use it, it will be vegan and it will still be pretty creamy)

Set the oil in a medium high heat in a good size saucepan. When the oil is hot, put in leek, ginger and garlic. Stir and fry for about 4 minutes or until onion is somewhat browned. Put in cumin, coriander, turmeric and cayenne pepper. Stir once and put in potatoes and stock. Stir and bring to a boil. Cover, turn the hit to low and simmer gently for 10 minutes until potatoes are tender. Add cauliflower and cook for a few more minutes. Taste for salt and add as necessary.

Blend with immersion blender or add to blender in two batches. I like this with some lumps. This does not have to be a thin soup. Add cream and reheat and serve.

Some Like it Hot

Lately I’ve written about some of my favorite foods from my mother’s Hungarian inflected kitchen, but I’m also fascinated by how the Hungarian palate has influenced some of my other food choices. We grew up eating spicy foods. My mother was a great cook and a great hostess but there were times when I thought she should issue warnings to her guests about the spice levels in the food. At the very least, as a snarky teenager, I suggested that she should offer each guest a personal pitcher of ice water. In fact, there was one year when she accidentally put hot peppers in the chicken soup she made for the meal that we ate just before the Yom Kippur fast. I’m sure that some of those  guests still remember that  very spicy soup 35 years later. That was an occasion when the personal pitcher of ice water would have been a necessity and not just optional.

This love of spicy food has carried over into  my current family (especially Ms. Dot Jr. and me) and our love of spicy Asian cuisines. We would be happy to eat Asian food all the time, especially since I’m including Southeast Asian and Middle Eastern which gives us a lot of great flavors–and spice to work with.  To be totally honest, Mr. Dot needs his pasta like any boy who grew up in North Jersey. He may not be Italian but he eats like one. That’s a whole other story and a blog post for another day.

If you’ve read  (and tried) some of my other recipes, you know that in addition to heat, I love coconut and other flavors found in Asian cuisine.  In this recipe, spicy heat and coconut and some other great flavors come together with leftover chicken for a Thai inspired chicken noodle soup.

I hope I’ve already sold you on how delicious this Thai inspired soup is.  The other reason to make it is that it’s incredibly easy AND it will help you use up leftovers. I love repurposing my leftovers.  I (and the rest of the Dot family) get fed up with leftover chicken as plain old reheated chicken, Even if we loved this chicken  last night or two nights ago, it’s less fun when it makes its appearance as leftovers. This soup recipe requires very little  work, but it totally transforms the leftovers into something new, delicious, Thai-ish, hot and (on a cold winter night) soothing.  To be fair, it might not be the last thing you want to eat before you fast on Yom Kippur–or if you do make it before a fast, you might want to leave out the ginger, chili, and fish sauce.

Mr. Dot is served (his personal pitcher of ice water is just out of range of the picture which was taken by REG).

Mr. Dot is served (his personal pitcher of ice water is just out of range of the picture which was taken by REG).

If you have home-made chicken broth to use, it will be super, extra wonderful. It is easy to have broth on hand and store it in small containers in the freezer. But if you just use regular old store-bought broth, it will also be good. I like the broth that you can buy in boxes and frankly I have no brand loyalty,  although I generally have some low-sodium no-chicken broth on hand for throwing together various quick meals.

Thai-Style Chicken Noodle Soup

1 quart chicken broth

6 ounces thin rice noodles or cellophane noodles

14 ounce can coconut milk

1 ½ “ of ginger root—grated

2 tablespoons fish sauce

1 fresh red or green Thai chili—seeded and cut into strips

1 teaspoon turmeric

1 teaspoon tamarind paste

1 teaspoon light brown sugar

2 tablespoons lime juice

2 cups shredded chicken

1 leek—sliced

1/3 cup sugar snap peas

1/4 sliced carrots

½ cup bean sprouts

2-3 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro

We need to super-size the turmeric around here, thanks to the way our Hungarian palates have adapted to Asian and middle-Eastern foods. Thank goodness for Yekta and other local markets.

We need to super-size the turmeric around here, thanks to the way our Hungarian palates have adapted to Asian and middle-Eastern foods. Thank goodness for Yekta and other local markets.

Place noodles in a large, heat proof bowl and pour boiling water over noodles and let stand while soup cooks. This should cook the noodles. Alternatively, follow instructions on noodle package.

Heat chicken broth in large saucepan.  Add remaining ingredients except snap peas, carrots, bean sprouts and cilantro to the pan and bring to a boil. When the chicken is piping hot, add peas, carrots, and sprouts. After a few minutes, add the drained noodles.

Serve in bowls, topping each bowl with chopped fresh cilantro. This actually isn’t so spicy that you will need individual ice-water pitchers for each guest, but if you like extra spice, knock yourself out and add some extra chili.

Truth in Advertising or at Least in Coconut Cakes

You know that feeling when you finally have decided that you will splurge on a great dessert and then it isn’t so great. After suffering some trauma about this, I’m here to solve that problem for my readers. I’m still smarting about a disappointing encounter with a coconut cake that was not all it seemed almost 20 years ago.

Shortly after I moved to Los Angeles to join my honey, Mr. Dot, I found myself in Santa Monica’s shopaholic-paradise Montana Ave. where I was doing some pre-wedding shopping. It’s kind of mind boggling that I was considering any dessert treat because it was pretty clear that none of the boutiques on Montana Ave. carried the insanely large (by LA standards) dress size that I wore at the time—American size 8. At that time (1998), the sizes you could buy on Montana Ave were 0, 2, 4 and maybe 6 (which sometimes worked on me). They hadn’t invented the 00 yet but there were some good tailors if you needed them to take in your clothes. For the record, the average American woman wears a size 14. She probably loves coconut cake.

In any event, that Santa Monica coconut layer cake looked so delicious back in 1998. It had two tall layers and lots of frosting and some very seductive large coconut curls. I went ahead and ordered a slice.

And then I found out how all those women in LA stay so slim. Actually this beautiful looking cake was a metaphor for LA. Joan Didion or maybe James Ellroy should have written about this cake. It wasn’t a coconut cake. It was a vanilla cake with some beautiful looking coconut swirls outside and inside, bland, bland, bland. It was a foul lie. Hmmm. Maybe the movie Chinatown is the best way to describe this cake—the whole thing was based on a big lie.

Coconut to the Core Cupcakes  photo and cupcakes by REG

Coconut to the Core Cupcakes
photo and cupcakes by REG

This was not the kind of cake that Ms. Dot Jr. (also known as my fearless photographer) was going to make for her best friends’ birthday (the apostrophe is in the right place—the best friends are twins). Every year, Ms. Dot Jr. bakes a cake for their Christmas birthday and she decided on coconut this year. Chez Dot, when we say coconut cake, we mean coconut IN the cake and coconut IN the frosting. And it was so great, Ms. Dot Jr. ended up creating coconut cupcakes, too.

Too many of those great Truth in Advertising Truly Coconut to the Core Cupcakes and you may not be able to find a store that carries your size on Montana Ave, but as Joan Didion said (perhaps after having a real coconut cupcake, though probably not  since from pictures she seems like she probably buys size 00 and then goes to the seamstress to have her clothes made smaller): “Self-respect is a question of recognizing that anything worth having, has a price.”

Baked, conceptualized, decorated and photographed in honor of the birthday of the fearless photographer's best friends' birthday on the eve of their trip to le France.

Baked, conceptualized, decorated and photographed in honor of the anniversaries of les amies of the  fearless photographer on the eve of their trip to le France.

Truth In Advertising Truly  Coconut to the Core Cupcakes

Cake Ingredients:

7 ounces of butter, softened

2 cups of white sugar (or more accurately 11 ounces)

1 teaspoon coconut essence

3 large eggs

4 ounces unsweetened grated coconut

2 2/3 cups self-rising flour (or more accurately 12 ounces) (yes, this is that flour that comes with the leavening in it—that’s what we get for having first found this cake in a British cookbook—but it’s worth it and these days any American supermarket carries self-rising four)

12 ounces buttermilk

Frosting Ingredients:

1 14 ounce can coconut milk

1 cup (16 ounces butter) softened

2 ½ cups confectioners sugar

1 ½ teaspoon vanilla extract

½ cup grated unsweetened coconut

1/8 teaspoon salt

Directions for baking the cake

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Line a cupcake tin with cupcake liners or if your more free form and adventurous, with parchment paper. Beat the butter, sugar and coconut essence until light and fluffy. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition.

Fold in the coconut and flour alternately with the buttermilk.

Spoon the mixture into the cupcake tin and smooth the surface. Do not fill too high because you want cupcakes and not muffins (unless you don’t plan on frosting these and you do want muffins!). Bake for 35 minutes—testing for done-ness. These should be golden on the top and a skewer should come out clean.

Leave in the pan for 5 minutes and then turn on a wire rack to cool. When cool, they are ready to frost.

Frosting directions

Reduce coconut milk by boiling it in a large deep saucepan over medium-high heat (it will boil up high in the pan). Reduce heat to medium-low. Boil until reduced by half, around 25 – 30 minutes. Remove from heat and let cool. This can be done up to 2 days ahead.

Using electric mixer, beat butter until smooth. Add sugar, ½ cup reduced coconut milk, vanilla and salt. Continue to beat on medium low until blended, scraping sides and then add coconut and beat further until light and fluffy.

Using pastry bag or offset spatula, frost the cupcakes. For a simple and quick way to frost (as we did) you can use a small baggie and snip off the corner. Not the fanciest, but they look nice.

To be honest, before we served them, I wasn’t sure if every one loved coconut as much as we do—but then when people had seconds and thirds, I realized that people do love coconut and it’s worth the splurge.

Authentic Hungarian Potato Casserole—With a 1960s Kosher Kitchen Layover

Recently I had a craving for one of my favorite dishes from my mother’s suburban mid-century kitchen. I’d always believed her Hungarian cauliflower casserole was an authentic dish. It seemed the perfect thing to eat on a winter night when I was having people over for a Chanukah meal and I couldn’t look at another latke and someone else was making the ponchkes. Yes, Chanukah means fried food and I was all fried-out.

It occurred to me that mom’s cauliflower dish would be a nod to tradition and also a sort of deconstructed latke .  It would  also, like every Hungarian vegetable dish I’d ever had (heavy on the butter and sour cream)  line our stomachs. To me it always seemed the ultimate winter comfort food. Even as a kid,  I sort of knew that it wasn’t totally authentic. I remembered mom telling me that the cauliflower was a later addition. Later, a post-college roommate who also had Hungarian heritage  made it with veggie sausage (she, too, only ate kosher) and when I checked with mom, she told me that indeed this was really a potato and sausage dish.

Recently I consulted the Bible of Hungarian cooking, George Lang’s The Cuisine of Hungary.

My mother's copy of Lang's Cuisine of Hungary (1971 edition) with original Paperback Booksmith bookmark and her illegible notes which may refer to butter

My mother’s copy of Lang’s Cuisine of Hungary (1971 edition) with original Paperback Booksmith bookmark and her illegible notes which may refer to butter

I have my mother’ copy from 1971 and on the same day that I went to check out Lang’s book, I came across a post on my Facebook feed from Food and Wine magazine in which Chef Nicolaus Balla of Bar Tartine in San Francisco calls it the Ultimate Hungarian Cook book. You’ll see that Lang’s recipe for Rakott Krumpli (which is what mom called it but in her kitchen  Hungarian I never would have guessed that that is how it was spelled or even that it was two words) would not have worked in a kosher kitchen. Here is Lang’s recipe:

George Lang’s Rakott Krumpli

3 pounds potatoes (small if possible)

1 ½ tablespoons salt

6 hard-boiled eggs

¼ pound butter

¼ pound boiled ham, sliced

¼ pound fresh sausage, sliced

1 cup sour cream

1 tablespoon paprika

Preheat oven to 350. Drop potatoes in their skins in water to cover with 1 tablespoon salt. Cook until tender.

Peel and slice potatoes. Do the same with the hard-boiled eggs.

Butter a heatproof glass dish well. Arrange a layer of sliced potatoes neatly on the bottom of the dish. Season with salt.

Melt the butter in the top part of a double boiler. Sprinkle a little on top of potatoes. Cover this layer with ham slices and top with another layer of sliced potatoes. Again season with salt and sprinkle with melted butter. Arrange egg slices and sausage slices on top. Finish with a final layer of potatoes.

Pour any remaining butter on top. Spread sour cream over all and sprinkle with paprika. Bake in the pre-heated oven for 30 minutes.

One of the great points that Lang makes in the first part of his book which is a treatise on Hungarian food  is that there is no one great version of a classic Hungarian dish. Each Hungarian cook had her own version of a classic dish.  Your grandma’s dobos torte might not have been like my grandma’s dobos torte and that’s fine.

In any event, there are some essential elements of Lang’s potato dish that exist in my mother’s dish (which presumably came from my grandmother and her mother and so on) which I would not and do not change—even though some are at odds with current food trends and also it is likely that all those sour-cream and butter-dousing vegetable eaters in the old days in Hungary may have spent more time on manual labor burning off some more calories than we do. Lang points out that Hungarians never served plain vegetable dishes and wouldn’t have known what to make of a plain boiled vegetable served alone.

cauliflower casserole in foreground (with pomegranate tofu and leek patties) photo by REG)

cauliflower casserole in foreground (with pomegranate tofu and leek patties–in my mother’s tradition of worrying that there would not be enough food) (photo by REG)

To sum up,  what mom’s dish has in commons with Lang’s and what I won’t give up (at least the 2 times a year that I make my mother’s cauliflower casserole): potatoes boiled in jackets: check. Boiled eggs: check. Butter: check (as I think Julia Child said, it gives things flavor); Sour cream: I actually have found I can get away with no fat sour cream.

Another old-timey feature of mom’s dish is boiling the cauliflower. I love roasted cauliflower in general, but in this dish, I’m all about boiling, then roasting, then covering with butter, sour cream, and this leads to my last digression . . .

Before Passover last year, my nephew  and his wife (to whom I swear I am about to send mom’s first edition copy of Lang’s book) requested mom’s cauliflower casserole recipe, demonstrating that this is a beloved family recipe through the generations. It was interesting to me that he sees this as a Passover recipe, which it is only if you eliminate what I consider one of its essential ingredients: cornflake crumbs. Now some of my readers may quibble and point out that it’s possible that there no cornflake crumbs in early 20th century Hungary or even before that. This may be true. I’ll leave that question those persnickety food historian types who will point out the Mr. Kellogg didn’t even invent whole corn flakes until the late 19th century in Michigan–and who knows when people got the idea of crumbling them and using them instead of breadcrumbs? But to me, along with the cauliflower, they are the soul of this dish and that is why I love my mother’s casserole as the quintessential blend of Budapest and Levittown.

Hungarian Cauliflower Casserole a la Rachelle

 6 medium sized potatoes boiled in jackets

4 hard-boiled eggs

1 cup sour cream (low fat or fat free is fine)

corn flake crumbs

salt and pepper to taste

around ¼ lb. butter (use to butter pan—melt remainder in the microwave)

One medium – large head of boiled cauliflower

Preheat oven to 350.

Butter a 2-quart Pyrex casserole (round or oblong) generously. Sprinkle bottom and sides with cornflake crumbs. Peel potatoes and eggs and slice each into slices around 1/8 inch thick. Alternate layers of potatoes, cauliflower, eggs, sour cream, and sprinkle liberally with salt and pepper. Begin an end with a layer of potatoes. Pour melted butter all over top layer. Sprinkle top with more cornflake crumbs, just like they would have done in Hungary—and then more butter—which I’m sure they did in Hungary.

This is not a delicate casserole, so there’s no need to worry about getting the proportions right or not. As long as you use the right amount of corn flake crumbs (and mom’s recipe does not indicate what that is), it will be great.

Bake for 45 minutes.

We usually served this hot out of the oven, but leftovers can be eaten hot or as mom at her most suburban notes: “cold leftovers make a unique potato salad.” That’s true without the ham–I can only imagine that this even better with the ham.  One of my readers will have to let me know.

Holiday leftovers

pot pieMr. Dot is easy to please when it comes to food. As long as I make Turkey Curry Pot Pie every year, he’s a happy man. Actually, he seems to think the pie is a big deal and he thinks that we would get rich if I would sell it. I know that it’s kind of easy and I’m happy to share the recipe.

I discovered the recipe in Sheila Lukins’s USA cookbook, which I bought when I returned to the USA after living in Israel for 14 years. I don’t know if the curry pie can really be considered traditional US food but in any event, it has become a Thanksgiving weekend standard around here. On Thursday of Thanksgiving, I make a large enough turkey to have leftovers for the pie (and maybe a turkey sandwich or two).

This year, I took the leftovers one step further. We had our pot pie on Sunday night after Thanksgiving, marking our Thanksgiving weekend as officially over. But I was left with puff pastry which I had defrosted and I’d only needed half the package for the pie. There’s nothing that Ms. Dot junior (aka my fearless photographer) loves more than something in puff pastry. For example, she loves “pigs in a blanket” and a local store sells hotdogs in puff pastry and she loves that version, too.

In any event, I knew that if I made something in puff pastry, it would be a hit chez Dot. I wasn’t in the mood to fuss so I was thrilled when I came across a recipe that I only tinkered with a bit and came up with my fearless photographer’s new favorite: spinach puffs. I was surprised by how easy and how delicious they are. You could use them as an appetizer (they look beautiful for company) or eat a couple with salad for a meal, as we did. As the next round of holidays approaches, I think you’ll find that this ones a keeper.


Spinach puffs

10 ounces fresh baby spinach package

1 leek, sliced.

1 tablespoon olive oil

2 teaspoon chopped dill

1 teaspoon minced garlic

1/2 cup crumbled feta

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

3 large eggs (2 for filling, one for egg wash)

1 sheet frozen puff pastry (from a 17.3-ounces package), thawed, rolled out to a 12″ square

Cook spinach in microwave for 3 minutes. Add with leeks to food processor and pulse a few times until chopped. Add olive oil, dill and garlic to processor and pulse one more time. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Add 2eggs and feta a mix.

Cut puff pastry into 3 equal strips. Cut each remaining strips into 3 squares for a total of 9. Spray muffin pan (I used silicone muffin pans) with nonstick spray. Place a square in each muffin cup, pressing into bottom and up sides and leaving corners pointing up. Divide filling among cups. Fold pastry over filling, pressing corners together to meet in center.

Preheat oven to 400°F. Beat remaining egg to blend in a small bowl. Brush pastry with egg wash. Bake until pastry is golden brown and puffed, about 25 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack; let puffs cool in pan for 5 minutes, then remove and serve.

Uncle Garbage Pail and Cocoa Pecan Pie

When I was a little girl, if I left food on my plate, I handed it over to my dad to finish, saying I had something for “Uncle Garbage Pail.” This nickname, I later learned, had been lifted from Herman Wouk’s Marjorie Morningstar. Even now, at age 92 and 7 months and 2 weeks and 3 days, Dad has an appetite to rival his teenage grandsons’.

But I’ve discovered something now that I cook more for Dad than I did while Mom was alive: even though he is pretty easygoing in general, Dad reserves his enthusiasm for his favorites. I realized that when I knocked myself out to make some really special fish or chicken dish, he’d eat it but not really say anything. I finally figured out that he’s just eating those dishes out of politeness or duty. If I make a brisket, on the other hand—even a really simple brisket that I did nothing to but cook on the stovetop a la Mom’s pot roast style—then he’s happy and I hear endless praise.

Eventually, I learned that when he visits us (which is happening less and less often since he’s in NYC and I’m in Maryland and the trip is getting to be too much for him), he’s happy if I make lots of beef and his two favorite desserts, pumpkin pie and pecan pie. In fact, last year, I bought a cheap and enormous pumpkin pie at Costco that we had for days and he was thrilled to eat it even when it kept showing up again (it was really big).

This year's cocoa pecan pie photographed by someone who does love it--REG

This year’s cocoa pecan pie photographed by someone who does love it–REG

As to the pecan pie—I’ve always used my mother’s recipe for cocoa pecan pie (although I’ve updated the recipe a bit with almond milk rather than nondairy creamer and couple of other tweaks). When Dad last visited my family, I made two pies and wanted to give him some to take home. Well, imagine my surprise when he told me that he doesn’t really like chocolate and prefers a plain pecan pie. It turns out that he is a nut person and not a chocolate person—something I seemed to have missed during the Uncle Garbage Pail years.

So I won’t be making cocoa pecan pie for Dad—but I am making it for Thanksgiving and am sharing the recipe now in case you want to add it to your holiday repertoire.

Cocoa Pecan Pie

Crust (for 2 pies)

2 2/3 cups all-purpose flour

scant ½ cup confectioner’s sugar

¼ teaspoon salt

¾ cup unsalted butter, cut into small cubes (can use margarine)

1 egg yolk

2 tbsp cold water

Put the flour, confectioners sugar, and salt in a bowl and add the butter, using the paddle attachment on the mixer (or use your hands or the food processor). Mix until the dough is the consistency of coarse bread crumbs.

Add the yolk and water and mix until the dough just comes together. Do not over mix. Add more water by drops if necessary.

Shape the dough with your hands into 2 disks. Wrap in plastic wrap and chill until ready to use. Remove from the refrigerator around half an hour before you are ready to use.

Roll out dough on a floured board into a 10 inch round.  Place it carefully in pie plate or tart pan. While this isn’t Mom’s recipe, I’ll share her comment since it can apply here as well: “. . . crust still looks like a map of Asia, but . . . once it’s tucked and baked —nobody knows!”  Prick with a fork

Cocoa Pecan Pie filling (for one pie—but I usually double this)

1 cup sugar

1/3 cup cocoa

3 eggs

¾ cup corn syrup (either light or dark)

1 tsp vanilla

¼ cup sifted all-purpose flour

½ tsp. salt

¼ cup melted butter (or margarine)

¾ cup unflavored unsweetened almond milk

1 1/3 cup pecan halves (1/2 cup should be chopped, ½ should be whole, but don’t have to be perfect and the final 1/3 cup are for the surface of the pie, so you want nice, decorative halves, not ones that are nicked)

Preheat oven to 325.

Sift together sugar, flour, cocoa, salt.

Beat eggs for several minutes. Add melted butter, corn syrup, almond milk and vanilla.

Add dry ingredients to mix and stir until smooth. Blend in 1 cup of nuts (both the chopped and whole but not necessarily perfect nuts). Pour into unbaked pie shell.

Bake for 5 minutes and then remove and add decorative pecans. I begin with 3 pecans in the center and fan out into circles from there. My mom would just spread the nuts out haphazardly. Return the pies to the oven and bake for an additional 55 minutes.