Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Russian Caravan

"Twenty kilometers to Leningrad!" barked the conductor, smacking me on the side. I rubbed the sore spot, lifted my head from the pillow, and looked down. He was setting a tray of tea glasses, each encased in a fanciful metalwork holder, on the little fold-out table between our berths. A delectable fragrance was rising.

"Annushka, u nas goryachii chai!" said my Russian teacher. Anna dear, we have hot tea. 

The night train from Moscow to Leningrad (or St. Petersburg) was, of course, the scene of another Anna's awakening. Count Vronsky declared his passion for Anna Karenina when she disembarked for a bit of fresh air along the way. When Anna got to Petersburg, all she could think about was how large her husband's ears seemed to have grown since she saw him last. Perhaps if the conductor had smacked her one as the train approached the city, things might have turned out differently.

Of such incongruities is Russian life made. Russian culture seems to this outsider always to be teetering between barbarism and warm hospitality. Brutally repressive tsars also stood in their palaces for hours at Eastertime, kissing each guest---the reception lines were thousands long---three times. The cruelty of love is a literary cliche, but Russian writers also have cause to speak of the love of cruelty. When they juxtapose historical drama with private drama, the results are, of course, worthy of cable television.

Characters in Russian literature are always gathering for tea---not the abomination falsely bandied about in 1960's cookbooks as "Russian Tea," but real, freshly brewed black tea, often from a samovar. A samovar (the word means "self-boiler") is such a potent symbol of Russian hospitality that even though it is perfectly possible to make great tea without one, people cherish them, collect them, and sometimes even buy them new. That's what Diner #1 did for me one fabulous birthday. My samovar, a Beem (of German manufacture), is a great way to serve tea to a crowd: You make an extremely strong brew called "zavarka" in the top pot and dilute it with hot water to taste from the spigot.

Copyright (c) 2016 Anna Bendiksen

(From time to time I've considered making up stories about a great-great-grandmother bringing this only possession, her cherished samovar, over on the boat, but the thick electric cord betrays me.)

Even in my days as a student in Moscow, tea was valued and served with great ceremony (though not often with lemon slices, since these were a rare luxury, and sugar was rationed). I often brought tins of Twinings from the hard-currency store as presents for my Russian friends. My favorites were Blackcurrant and Russian Caravan. Twinings Blackcurrant loose-leaf, in a distinctive tin of shocking magenta, was discontinued years ago. The Blackcurrant flavor is still available in tea bags through Twinings, and other companies sell a loose-leaf blackcurrant, but these alternatives don't do it for me.

Twinings Russian Caravan has also been discontinued, but blending Keemun with a bit of Lapsang Souchong does the trick. My favorite source is Adagio Tea. There is nothing like it to brighten the gloom of late winter.


How to Make Great Russian-Style Tea without a Samovar

You will need a kettle to boil water and a teapot as well as a strainer. Don't even think about heating your water in the microwave for this; you cannot keep an eye on it, which is important.

Fill the kettle with fresh, cold water and put it on to boil. When the water is very hot but not boiling, fill the teapot with it; this warms the pot. When the kettle water is almost at a boil, dump out the water in the teapot. Add to the teapot one generous spoonful of loose-leaf black tea per guest plus one for the pot.

When the water boils, bring the teapot to it and fill it. The tea will taste better if the water has not boiled for very long at this point. Some commentators who were not paying attention in chemistry class warn against "boiling out all the oxygen," but I won't. Stir the tea, cover, and allow to steep for three to five minutes. Bring it to the table, keeping the kettle hot on the stove.

The first cup is never any good, so reserve it for your garden. The second, third, and beyond, poured through the strainer into cups, are guaranteed to cure toska, the Russian word for melancholic longing. If your teatime becomes lengthy and the tea strong, do as you would with samovar tea: add a bit of the tea to a cup, then dilute it with hot water from the kettle. Offer sugar, slices of lemon, and milk. In our family, if anyone asks for the last two together, he risks being teased, "Surely you're joking, Mr. Bendiksen!"


Copyright (c) 2016 Anna Bendiksen

Friday, January 22, 2016

Biscuits



One of the pleasures of cooking is that one is free to tinker and to call the results whatever one likes. In British English, of course, a "biscuit" is what speakers of American English call a "cookie," whereas an American "biscuit" is a quick bread. Ever so slightly crusty on the outside, tender on the inside, biscuits on this side of the pond are surrounded by a certain mystique. They are notorious for being the quick bread that takes a minute to learn and a lifetime to master.

Diner #2 has loved American biscuits since he was old enough to eat them. Once, as a toddler, he tried to negotiate his way down a flight of stairs with a biscuit in one hand. CRASH! My sister-in-law heard him screaming bloody murder and rushed to help.

"It's OK," she said. "It's going to be OK." But it wasn't.

"BIS-CUIT!" he yelled, pointing to a pile of crumbs.

Such devotion from the Diners keeps me trying to improve. Biscuits are not the first thing I ever baked, but they are the first thing that I was required to bake as a seventh-grader in home-economics class, and as such serve as a benchmark. On days when my biscuits don't come out, I can think, well, they weren't nearly this good in 1982.

Home ec in our Midwestern town was serious business in those days. Girls, and only girls, took home ec; boys, and only boys, took shop. The pristine home-ec classroom, the size of all the science classrooms combined, had multiple cooking stations, each with an oven white as a prairie blizzard. The fluorescent lights glared at our every insecurity. We learned how to sit on the ground should it become necessary, never crossing our legs but tucking them gracefully to one side. The teacher wanted our seams sewn at exactly 5/8 of an inch, no more, no less. She also wanted our biscuits perfect.

"Help, Mrs. ___, my biscuits came out funny."

"Let's see," she would say, and walk over to peer at a pan full of lumps. "Hmmm. Are you sure that you measured exactly?"

"Uhhh..."

"Girls," she would say, turning to address the gathering crowd, "you must always measure exactly, otherwise your biscuits will not come out right."

I was later to learn that this, like so much else that one is told when one is growing up, was not true. An experienced cook can, of course, make biscuits, as well as a great many other things, without always measuring exactly. Now that I think about it, it was when I stopped measuring exactly that I started finding a sense of freedom and joy in the kitchen. However, even if my teacher had been of the same opinion, it would have been unwise of her to tell us so, not only because the words "freedom" and "joy" make any self-respecting Midwesterner think of sex, but also because our biscuits would have been inedible.

During my eighth-grade year, there was a small revolution. We were informed by the principal at an all-school assembly that a change in policy was at hand. It would now be assumed that girls would take home ec and boys would take shop. However, if one (how clearly the words ring in my memory) "wished to deviate," one might do so. Boys would for the first time be allowed to take home ec. Girls would for the first time be allowed to take shop.

I was thrilled, immediately signed up, and in no time at all established for myself, the lone girl, a solid reputation as the worst student in the class. There was baffling talk of corporations, products, supply and demand. The wood shop was full of machinery even more terrifying than those spanking-clean stoves; I was so afraid of the blades that our kind and observant teacher wound up finishing my final project for me. Meanwhile, the grapevine had it that a friend of mine who had also Wished to Deviate was making delicious biscuits, behaving with courtly manners to his adoring classmates, sewing perfectly gorgeous seams, and generally knocking expectations out of the ballpark. He remains an inspiration to me to this day.

The beauty of biscuits is that they are made quickly, with common, inexpensive ingredients, and yet satisfy the need for daily bread. Having buttermilk around helps, though I've also made them successfully with what my grandmothers would have called "sweet" (i.e. regular cow's) milk. In my home-ec days, our biscuit recipe called for Crisco shortening. Today I prefer a mixture of Crisco and butter for flakiness and flavor respectively. A light kneading improves texture, and an oven at 415 degrees Fahrenheit is ideal, though if your oven doesn't allow for such precision, 400 will work too.

Biscuits are a good companion to soups, stews, or just about any breakfast. They are particularly tasty with eggs. Often I'll see the Diners exchanging a particular look on a weekend morning and I know that I am about to be asked, "Any chance of biscuits?" Having mastered, since my middle-school days, the principle of supply and demand, I know not to answer in the affirmative too often.

---

Biscuits

Sift together into a large mixing bowl:

2 and 1/2 c. all-purpose flour
1 T. baking powder
2 t. salt
1 t. baking soda
1 t. sugar

Cut in with a pastry blender or your fingers:

1/4 c. cold unsalted butter
1/4 c. Crisco

until the mixture resembles fine bread crumbs. At this point, the mixture may be refrigerated overnight.

Heat oven to 415 degrees Fahrenheit. Make a well in the flour mixture and pour in:

about 1 c. buttermilk

Stir with a fork until just blended, adding more buttermilk if necessary.

Turn dough out onto a well-floured board and sprinkle generously with flour. Knead lightly three times. Sprinkle with flour again and roll out, then cut into rounds. Place on an ungreased cookie sheet and bake 10-12 minutes, or until barely golden at the edges. Serve immediately.


                                                                                         Yield: 1 dozen biscuits


                                                                                                               Copyright (c) 2016 Anna Bendiksen






Monday, July 20, 2015

The Fruit Plate: Peaches

 Do I dare to eat a peach?

                                                 ---T.S. Eliot, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock


Peach season has begun here in the Northeast. There is a peach tree just down the street from me that blossoms profusely year after year and goes on to produce beautiful peaches. It does all this without any attention from its owners. The ripe peaches fall and are eaten by wildlife.

My own relationship with peach trees is considerably more intense. When we lived in Hamden, Connecticut, I planted a white peach tree in front of our house. I watered, fertilized, weeded, sprayed. It was happy to bear and soon was showing lots of tiny green peaches the size of marbles. I slept blissfully, dreaming of the harvest.

One morning I went out to inspect the tree and the little green peaches were gone. A few telltale leaves lay on the ground. Squirrels. The peach, I was forced to conclude, is at the pinnacle of the garden, and everyone wants a piece of the action.

Truly ripe peaches do make fantastic raw eating. The trick is in knowing how to buy them. A white peach, like a Puccini heroine, is a refined and beautiful thing that responds very poorly to the least hint of change. You move a ripe white peach a millimeter on the kitchen counter and before you know it there's a big ugly bruise crying "Signore, ascolta!" Rather than risk being accused of such cruelty, many grocery stores sell white peaches when they are rock-hard, so that the ripening happens on someone else's time. The problem with this is that peaches tend to become mealy under such conditions. If you can find white peaches with a bit of give, buy them and eat them straight away; they have an exquisite flavor, with overtones of raspberry and rose.

Yellow peaches, easy to find and to ripen at home, are even better, in my opinion, a little overripe, when the skin has begun to shrivel and the sugars beneath the skin concentrate. At this point, the weather is so hot that you don't want to fuss with complicated desserts that involve heating the oven, and you don't need to. Just slice a yellow peach into your wineglass.


Copyright (c) 2016 Anna Bendiksen

Saturday, May 9, 2015

The Decadent Craft

It's spring and I'm craving pickles.

Wait, let me rephrase that.

It's spring, and my heart, awakened by the promise of produce, is turning lightly to thoughts of pickling.

To whether my stock of white sugar and pickling spice and cider vinegar (5% guaranteed acidity) is adequate. To the clouds of pungent steam that arise from heating these three things together. To the spirits of departed relatives arising with said steam, relatives whose pickling talents are the stuff of family legend.

I'm talking about "fresh" pickling, as opposed to the high cult of fermented pickling, which relies not on added vinegar and sugar, but on salt and the naturally produced acids that result. Temples of fermented pickling include the Pickle Guys store on New York's Lower East Side, the sauerkraut-making regions of Germany, and the Kimchi Museum in Seoul, South Korea. I am a novice in that cult; I've done decent batches of sauerkraut, but the Diners can tell stories of experiments gone disgustingly wrong. Fresh pickling, the results of which I grew up eating, is much easier and takes less time---and there are no fresh pickles quite as outrageous as my late uncle Kib's sweet watermelon-rind pickles.

Uncle Kib was born on a farm in central Illinois (by now you're beginning to think, who wasn't?) and went on to become a chemical engineer. He is known in family lore for his financial acumen and his cooking wizardry. He didn't invent the notion of pickling watermelon rinds, but he did refine it such that, well, people are blogging about it years after his passing---and even trying to improve upon it.

Neither my mother nor I can find Uncle Kib's written recipe, but the method is seared into our memories. You start, of course, with watermelon rind. A medium watermelon will yield about 8 cups, or 2 quarts, of rind. You scrub the outside of the watermelon---yes, with soap and hot water, rinsing thoroughly. Then you cut the rind away from the pink flesh, remove the green peel (this is best done not with a peeler, but a paring knife), and cut the rind up into chunks. You boil it in a nonreactive pot with vinegar, white sugar, cinnamon, and cloves. You drain off the liquid and boil that with more sugar before adding it back to the pickles.

You repeat this last step every day for two weeks.

The final total of sugar is four cups for every cup of rind.

The decadent quality of home pickling has the Diners baffled. So much sugar, so much time and effort lavished on something with so little nutritional value! And why would anyone make pickles at home when Stop and Shop has a perfectly good pickle section? Yes, I admit it: I have spent hours, days, weeks of cooking energy on something that the Diners won't eat. When I told my mother that I was blogging about these pickles, however, there was an awed silence on the other end of the phone. Then my mother swallowed audibly and said, "Well, if they won't eat them, I certainly will."

Since I can't bring myself to use that much sugar and since I like pickles crunchy rather than gelatinous (for such was Uncle Kib's finished product), I've taken liberties. My version of his recipe calls for somewhat less sugar, a limewater bath, a much more diverse pickling-spice mixture, and far less time. Here is how I make them.

You will need a nonreactive container big enough to hold the watermelon rind and limewater. Aluminum will not do; the best containers are stainless steel, glass, or glazed earthenware. I like to use the earthenware crocks that I found at the Korean supermarket Super H Mart. The big one (which is not the biggest available by a long shot) is very good for sauerkraut and big batches of pickles. The smaller one works well for smaller pickle batches, hot sauce, and so forth.




You'll also need about 1/2 cup of pickling spice. You can buy this, of course, or mix your own:




My homemade mix, the one I generally use for sweet-and-sour pickles such as these, contains the following, in no particular order. Play with the proportions to suit your taste.

Cinnamon sticks, coarsely crushed. In my opinion, cinnamon is overused, so I add only a little.

Peppercorns of all flavors. You can even throw in a few Szechuan peppercorns (which aren't really peppercorns at all) if you have them.

Whole dried red peppers to taste, which may be none, but I really like their heat in this watermelon-rind recipe.

Celery seed. This spice is so tiny that it will sneak out of your spice bag and into the pickle. Don't worry. This is visual reassurance that your pickles were not made in a factory.

Caraway seed. This is another spice of which I'm not a huge fan, but a little is good.

Fennel seed
Dill seed
Coriander seed
Aniseed or star anise
Mustard seed (both brown and yellow)
Cardamom seed (not the green pods but the interior brown seed)
Bay leaves
Whole cloves
Whole allspice

You'll also need pickling lime. This is available (the packaging looks different than on my somewhat older container, below) at CanningPantry.com.


 

Here I have cleaned, peeled, and cut up 2 quarts (8 cups) of watermelon rind:


Next, the rind gets an overnight soak in 2 quarts of water mixed with a scant 1/4 cup of pickling lime.


The next morning, I drain the rind, rinse it, and soak it for an hour in clean, cold water, then drain that off and soak it in more clean, cold water.


Then you need to combine 3 cups of apple-cider vinegar with 4 cups of white sugar and 1 tablespoon salt and bring the mixture to a boil in a large stainless-steel pot. Add a spice bag containing 1/2 cup of pickling spice and several slices of fresh ginger. Then add the rind, stir, and bring again to a boil. Reduce the heat so that the mixture simmers for about 30 minutes. At the end of this time, the rind should be partly translucent.


Cover the pot and allow the rind to sit in this mixture overnight.

Remove the spice bag and discard it; with a slotted spoon, remove the rind to a bowl. Then add another 1/2 cup of sugar to the liquid and bring to a boil. Turn off the heat and put the rind back into the pot. Allow to sit overnight.

The next morning is a good time to begin tasting.





Sometimes I am happy with the pickle at this point and sometimes I give in to the temptation to repeat the boiling-the-liquid-with-more-sugar step. Personal judgment is key, don't you know, when one is immersed in decadence.

This pickle can be chopped finely and used as a chutney. It is excellent with any kind of roasted or grilled meat.

Or perhaps you may prefer to do as a friend did when presented with a jar of these pickles and simply eat them all.

At once.


Copyright (c) 2016 Anna Bendiksen



Sunday, January 25, 2015

Anna's Glogg

This lovely hot drink, a Scandinavian Christmas treat that is perfect for an impending blizzard such as the one we've got coming at the time of this writing, traditionally contains aquavit, a vodka-like liquor that neither Diner #1 nor I can stand. I prefer to add Grand Marnier. You will need to get hold of several spices in whole form. Do not use them pre-ground; the glogg will be bitter.

Pour into a nonreactive pot:

2 bottles Cabernet Sauvignon---this winter we used Mendoza, $3.99 at Total Wine

Crush with either a mortar and pestle or in a heavy plastic bag with a rolling pin:

1 stick cinnamon
1/4 c. green cardamom pods
1 T. whole allspice
1 t. whole cloves
1 whole nutmeg

Add to the wine along with

1/2 c. coarsely sliced fresh ginger
1 c. sugar
Peel of 1 large orange
Peel of 1 lemon (Meyer if possible)

Allow to sit for 1 hour (I have done so overnight with great results), then heat to a simmer. Do not allow to simmer very long; you do not want to boil off all the alcohol. Add:

1 c. Grand Marnier

Taste and add more sugar if desired. Strain and serve.

                                                                About 10 servings


Copyright (c) 2016 Anna Bendiksen

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The Time of My Life with "Foods of the World"

I met the great love of my reading life innocuously enough, through a piece of junk mail. Time-Life Books knew to target our household because we had bought from them in the past (the "World War Two" series fascinated my brother and me; we turned to it on rainy days and were never disappointed). I had seen the Foods of the World series before in the library, but the possibility of owning all 27 volumes had not occurred to me until this well-timed and colorful piece of marketing showed up. I was thirteen years old and had recently moved from the Midwest to Brighton, a suburb of Rochester, New York. I didn't know what I wanted out of life yet, but I loved to cook, and I loved foreign languages. Yes, I thought, looking at Time-Life's glossy pitch. Yes, this is for me.

The volumes, with their matching spiral-bound recipe books, came one at a time, every other month or so, in a sturdy cardboard envelope. The first to arrive was "The Cooking of India." Soon I was seeking out fresh coriander for chutney (this was 1983, and Wegmans, bless its expansive heart, was the only store in Rochester carrying fresh coriander in sufficient quantities), measuring spices for curried shrimp, making homemade cheese for mattar paneer (the dish by which I judge Indian restaurants today) and devising a mean homemade garam masala. Something in me changed because of that book. Cooking had become more than a pleasant pastime; it was now a way of connecting myself to other people.

When I had received perhaps six or seven such books, disaster struck: Time-Life put the series out of print. It was, they said, far too expensive to continue producing a full-color 27-volume set of cookbooks with accompanying recipe books. (These are the same people who encouraged me to cook with real saffron, to use copper pots, to assess different grades of caviar.) That meant that I would have to seek out the rest of the set in used bookstores. Hunting them down would prove to be an especially keen pleasure. Over the next few years, I assembled the complete set, and now it has pride of place on my cookbook shelves.


This love of mine has a touch of the irrational to it. The series has many virtues, but it also has definite faults. There are eight volumes on American cooking, two on French, one on Italian and one on Chinese cooking, which in retrospect looks terribly ignorant. Greece is confined to one chapter in the book on Middle Eastern cooking. Korea is left out completely. On the other hand, the authors were among the great food writers of the 20th century: M.F.K. Fisher, Craig Claiborne, and Joseph Wechsberg, to name a few.

The series began to be issued in 1968 and was completed in 1973, and it shows. Although the world was on fire, the tone of the books is often relentlessly perky, as if the Time-Life printing presses had been operating to the tune of "It's a Small World After All." "One hopes that the war there will be over soon," chirps the author of the Vietnam chapter before moving on to the weightier matters of spring rolls and cucumber salad.

This retro optimism has its charms. Whenever I see one of the volumes, or even the whole set, for sale, I feel a surge of interest all over again. I have had dreams about browsing used bookstores and finding more volumes with titles like The Cooking of Nova Scotia or Burmese Cooking or The Cooking of the Arctic Peoples. Time-Life is no longer in the book-publishing business, but hope springs eternal. I wonder how many other foodie readers are out there, waiting for the moment when the good people at Time-Life come to their senses and publish an updated edition of the greatest cookbook series in history. On the other hand, the world seems even less innocent now than it was in 1968. Who today would be up to the task, so confidently tackled by the Foods of the World editorial team, of finding global peace in a cookbook series? Perhaps there really is nothing like first love.



Copyright (c) 2016 Anna Bendiksen




Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Anna's Christmas Cake

There are two secrets to this recipe, which I avoid calling "fruitcake" because of the negative connotations. First is to use home-candied orange peel. It really is not worth buying the waxy, gummy, noxious substance that is marketed as "candied peel" by supermarkets; small wonder fruitcake has a bad reputation! For years I fussed with various methods of candying peel until I discovered Julia Child's recipe in Mastering the Art of French Cooking, which produces a truly delicious result. 

The second is to give the cake enough time to mature if you are planning to baste it with liquor. For consuming at Christmas, I try to start the cakes in September; when I have managed to do so, the results have been spectacular. My basting liquor of choice is a combination of Grand Marnier and Amaretto. If you don't wish to use the liquor, the cake will still be good, but its keeping time will need to be counted in days rather than months.

If you wish, you can cover the finished cake with marzipan and/or white icing, as is often done in the UK. The cake itself is based on my Swiss German great-grandmother Anna Klein Mueri's recipe, which did not contain fruit, nuts, or liquor.

On the evening before baking the cake, combine in a nonreactive large bowl:

2 c. golden raisins
2 c. candied orange peel, preferably homemade, chopped 
2 T. Amaretto
2 T. Grand Marnier

Cover and set aside at room temperature. The next day, preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Cream together:

1 c. softened butter
2 c. granulated sugar
2 t. each vanilla and almond extract
2 eggs

In a separate bowl, mix:

4 c. all-purpose flour
1 T. pumpkin-pie spice

Mix in a measuring pitcher:

2 and 1/4 c. whole milk
2 and 1/2 t. baking soda

Add flour mixture and milk mixture alternately to butter mixture, scraping down the sides of the bowl. Beat 3 minutes to aerate and develop the cake's structure.

Mix in:

The raisin-peel mixture with liquor
1 c. sliced almonds

Butter and flour a large Gugelhopf or angel-food cake pan very thoroughly. Pour in the batter and smooth level. Bake for about 1 hour and 15 minutes, or until a cake tester comes out clean. Remove from oven and cool on a rack for 15 minutes, then unmold onto a rimmed, non-reactive platter to cool completely. Baste with:

1 T. each Amaretto and Grand Marnier

once a day until Christmas. You may poke holes in the cake to facilitate soaking. Some people wrap the cake in cheesecloth, then in foil. Store in a cool place. Cake's flavor most definitely improves with aging.



Copyright (c) 2016 Anna Bendiksen