Crostata di Ricotta

Crostata di Ricotta is a prized cheesecake from the Garfagna region of Tuscany. This post was supposed to have been ready ahead of the Festival of Shavuot, which commemorates the spring harvest and the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. It is customary to eat dairy meals during the holiday so I thought this wold be perfect. However, I’m afraid that I was only able to actually get it made in time for us to enjoy it for the holiday. So keep this in your pocket for next year.

But who am I kidding? This delicious cheesecake, permeated with raisins soaked in Marsala and redolent of the grated zest of an orange is perfect any time. The recipe comes from Carol Field’s book The Italian Baker. She got the recipe from Joyce Goldstein who was a chef at Cafe Chez Panisse. I know – two Jewish women and not an Italian name in sight!

But when you smell this tart with its buttery melt-in-your-mouth sweet crust and bite into the airy, custardy Marsala-scented filling, you will think you are in Tuscany. I was brought up on and love a really good New York cheesecake – so dense and rich that a fork could stand up in it. This Crostata di Ricotta isn’t that. So rid yourself of any preconceptions and enjoy this ricotta tart for what it is – amazing.

Making the Crostata di Ricotta isn’t difficult and it is one of those things where you can make the pastry the day before. I really urge you not to use bought pastry dough for this recipe. Yes, it’s a little more work but the result is so worth it. And if you have a food processor, it actually comes together in no time.

There are many different pastry doughs that would work here as long as they are a rich, sweet dough. I normally like to use a Pâte Sucrée with eggs, but since I was running low on eggs, I made a Pasta Frolla from The Italian Baker that didn’t require any. That is the recipe below. It was not a recipe like any I had made before, but it did come together easily. And while rolling it out proved to be a bit problematic, I was able to pat it into place with my hands and knuckles. The finished product is beautiful and delicious.

My husband and I LOVED this. The crust is fragrant and incredibly delicate – just melting in your mouth with every bite. It is so delicate that it seems to disappear before you even have time to swallow. Oh and let’s not forget the filling. Ahhhhhhhh, the filling. It’s like eating the most flavorful, custardy cloud you can imagine. I’m really not doing justice to how delicious this is. Many things I think are too fussy and not worth the effort. This is absolutely worth the effort.

Carol Field suggests eating the Crostata when still warm or at least the day it is baked. However, if you make it ahead and refrigerate it, she says that it can be warmed in a 350 degree F oven for 20 to 30 minutes. Truthfully, I’m not sure that I would like it warm, but it was amazing eaten a few hours after it had come out of the oven. And even eating it right from the fridge was still pretty great. But your first bites should be from the fresh tart.

Recipes

Yield: One 9.5-inch cheesecake; 8 to 10 servings

For the Pasta Frolla

Ingredients

1.5 cups (200 grams) all-purpose, unbleached flour

3/4 cup plus 1 Tablespoon (100 grams) potato starch

1/2 cup (100 grams) granulated sugar

Pinch of kosher or fine sea salt

1.75 sticks (200 grams) unsalted butter, at cool room temperature and just malleable

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Grated zest of 1 lemon

Grated zest of 1/2 navel orange (the other half will be used for the filling)

Directions

Place the flour, potato starch, sugar and salt in the bowl of a food processor fitted with the steel blade. Pulse once to mix.

Cut the butter into small chunks and scatter over the flour. Process with about 6 long pulses until the mixture resembles coarse meal. Add the vanilla and grated zest. Process until the dough just starts to come together but before it forms a ball. Knead the dough by hand very briefly until it comes together in a ball that is no longer sticky. I did not have to add any flour to my surface to do this, but if you must just add a small amount. Form a disc, wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least one hour or up to overnight.

When you are ready to roll out the dough, remove it from the fridge for about 10 minutes so you can work with it.

For the Crostata di Ricotta

You will need a deep-sided tart pan with a removable bottom that measures 9.5 inches across the top. Absent that, you could use a spring-form pan but it won’t be quite as pretty as if you have the fluted sides.

Ingredients

1/2 cup (80 grams) golden or other raisins

4 Tablespoons Marsala (I only had a very fine dry Marsala instead of a sweet Marsala. It worked out fine.)

1 pound (450 grams) whole milk ricotta

1/2 cup (100 grams) granulated sugar

1 Tablespoon unbleached, all-purpose flour

4 large eggs, separated, at room temperature

1/4 cup heavy or whipping cream (I only had half & half so used that)

1/4 cup sour cream (I actually only had creme fraiche which has a higher fat content than sour cream. I figured it made up for not having heavy cream.)

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Zest of 1/2 navel orange

1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt or kosher salt

Directions

Soak the raisins in the Marsala for at least 15 minutes (I did overnight). Drain and reserve the Marsala.

Roll out your dough (Mine kept breaking but it actually was quite malleable and I was able to work it with my hands into the pan with the end result being beautiful!) Refrigerate the pan with the dough until you are ready to fill it. This keeps the dough from shrinking.

Heat the oven to 350 degrees F.

Place the ricotta, heavy cream and sour cream (or creme fraiche) in the processor and pulse until smooth. Add the flour and sugar and pulse until mixed. Now add the egg yolks, reserved Marsala and vanilla. Pulse until well combined. Add the raisins and pulse once to mix through. Pour the mixture into a large bowl.

In a clean bowl, whip the egg whites with the salt until stiff peaks form. Stir 1/3 of the whites into the ricotta mixture and then gently fold through the remaining whites. Don’t overdo this. You don’t want to deflate the whites.

Remove the tart pan with the pastry from the fridge. Place the pan on a baking sheet or aluminum foil to catch any butter drips. Fill the pastry with the ricotta mixture and even out the top. Place in the oven and bake for 50 to 60 minutes or until the pastry is golden and the filling just barely wobbles. Turn off the oven and open the door part way. Leave the cake in the oven for 30 minutes to cool down slowly. This prevents too much cracking and allows the cake to fully set. After 30 minutes remove the cake to a wire rack.

Once it is cool enough to easily handle, you can remove the tart from the baking ring. The easiest way is to place the tart pan over a large can. The outer tart ring falls off and the tart remains on the bottom. Be standing by to hold onto the Crostata. Then mangia!

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Chocolate Walnut Bourbon Pie

You don’t have to be from Kentucky to go nutty over this Chocolate Walnut Bourbon Pie. The Kentucky Derby is the most legendary of all American thoroughbred horse races. It takes place every year at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky, on the first Saturday in May – except for this year. Because of Covid-19, this year’s race has been rescheduled for September.

Dubbed The Run for the Roses, because of the blanket of roses draped over the winning horse, it is also known as the “The most exciting two minutes in sports.” The Kentucky Derby is the first of three races that make up the American Triple Crown Races. Traditions that have become indelibly linked to it: knockout hats for the women, much like the Ascot Races; mint juleps; betting; the singing of ‘My Old Kentucky Home’; and bourbon chocolate walnut pie.

Now you might be forgiven for thinking that I am a) a gambler; b) interested in horses and horse racing or c) from Kentucky. Actually, none of the above. But I do so love a good pie. And while Thanksgiving in my family just wouldn’t count without my wonderful Bourbon Pecan Pie, I was curious to see how this pie would stack up.

It’s REALLY good. I mean seriously good. Now like another Southern favorite, pecan pie, it is sweet, but the Bourbon and my use of a 70% cacao chocolate chip cut through that sweetness so it wasn’t cloying – just delicious. Tradition calls for the pie to be eaten straight, but I won’t tell if you want to add a little whipped cream or vanilla ice cream when serving.

I make my own crust but if you use store-bought crust, this pie comes together in no time at all. So don’t wait until September or next May for the Kentucky Derby. Make this scrumptious Chocolate Walnut Bourbon Pie this week.

The recipe for the original “Derby Pie” is a secret and the name is trademarked. However, I found the recipe for this delicious Kentucky Derby Chocolate Walnut Pie here.

Recipe

Yield: About 8 servings

Ingredients

  • 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 2 eggs (lightly beaten)
  • 1/2 cup unsalted butter (melted). Allow the butter to cool slightly.
  • 2 tablespoons Kentucky bourbon
  • 1 cup walnuts (chopped)
  • 1 1/4 cups semisweet chocolate chips
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • Pinch kosher or sea salt
  • 1 un-baked pie crust (for 9-inch pie)

Directions

Heat the oven to 350 degrees F.

Place your dough in a 9-inch pie plate and ideally refrigerate it until you are ready to fill it.

Combine the flour and sugar in a bowl and then add the eggs and melted butter and mix to combine.

Stir in the remaining ingredients.

Pour into the unbaked pie shell and bake for 65 to 75 minutes or until the filling is set and the pastry is a lovely brown.

Allow to cool before serving. If you eat it as soon as it cools, the filling will still be ooey gooey. By the next day, the filling is totally set and will make very clean cuts. You can’t go wrong either way. This is primarily a chocolate pie with walnuts. It doesn’t beat my Bourbon Pecan Pie, in my humble opinion, but it is another great Southern pie.

What I’m Buying Now

Root Vegetables | Co+op, welcome to the table

Like most of the world, my husband and I are confined to our apartment. And because we are in the vulnerable age category and I have asthma, we are being especially cautious. Therefore, we have not gone to a grocery store for a month and are relying on the brave individuals who will shop and deliver goods to us. And in order to cut down on the number of deliveries, I have to think very carefully about what I’m buying now.

Being an American of moderate means, I have been spoiled. We live in the land of plenty and I have never lacked for anything of importance. And I had become careless. Yes, I recycled before it became fashionable. But I also wasted food and used toilet paper without a thought. Covid19 has changed all of that. And hopefully, some of the rationing that I have been practicing will continue once we get past this epidemic. And I believe that we will, just as previous generations got past polio and the Great Flu Epidemic. Not unscathed. And not without tremendous and gut-wrenching loss. But this too will pass.

I’m fortunate in that I get to share my isolation with my husband and best friend. I simply can’t imagine what it would be like to go through this alone. But we are missing our first grandchild who was born in November and lives across the country. At this age, she changes daily. And while our son and daughter-in-law have been great at sharing photos and videos, it just isn’t the same as being there to hug and kiss her, read and sing to her. She’ll probably be walking by the time we get to see her in person again.

And like many of you, my husband and I have gotten a little scruffy around the edges. No trips to get haircuts. And I have given myself permission to dress in my favorite overalls and to wear my curly, fuzzy hair down with my dangly earrings. It will be difficult to return to taming my unruly locks and dressing like a respectable adult again.

So what do I do each day? Like many of you, I turn to hobbies and even prayer. I grocery shop and plan meals in my head and make adjustments according to my pantry and what’s actually available at the store when I place an order. Fresh produce has always filled my shopping cart, but I need to think of what foods will hold up well since I am trying to shop only once every 10 days. So what I’m buying now are loads of root vegetables: carrots, radishes, potatoes, turnips, parsnips and beets. Onions, shallots and garlic. And cabbages like kale (curly and lacinato), red cabbage, broccoli and kohlrabi. These are all great for soups, salads, pickles etc.

And while I always bought lots of fresh herbs (which I grow on my terrace in the summer) I was admittedly wasteful. Now, as soon as my parsley and cilantro or dill arrive, I wash the herbs in cold water and dry them well in my salad spinner before putting them away. The same goes for my kale, which I remove from the stems, chop up, wash and dry well. I am amazed at how long these all last now in my fridge and I have almost zero waste from rotting greens. With these in my fridge, and the spices in my pantry, I can make almost anything from plain rice to potatoes to pasta to pulses (lentils) taste delicious as well as being nutritious.

And don’t forget the lemons! Without the zest and bright, fresh juice life would definitely be a much duller place. Other citrus fruit is also good if you have it available.

The further challenge for this week is that it is Passover. And while certain of the rules around eating have relaxed over the years for many adherents, it still is not anything goes. I grew especially anxious when buying eggs became challenging. So many Passover desserts and special treats like matza balls and matza brei rely on eggs as the permissible leavening. And while I have developed a number of delicious vegan options over the years, it’s still a challenge.

Some Passover Options for Vegan and Non-

I am not a rabbinical authority and depending on where your family is from and the traditions you follow, some of the vegan desserts may not be permissible. Options are presented that are now allowed by many who follow the Reform and Conservative Movements and/or Sephardic traditions. It is up to you to decide whether they fit into your permissible Passover foods. And depending on the ingredient that you may be missing, don’t stress. Get creative and use what you do have on hand.

Death by Chocolate Vegan Passover Cake

Passover Sephardic Wine Cookies

Chocolate Chip Vegan Meringue Buttons for Passover

Passover Almond Coconut Macaroons

Passover Florentine Cookies

Passover Orange Ginger Spice Cookies

Moroccan Beet Salad – Barba

Orange and Radish Salad

Roasted Asparagus and Bell Peppers

Parsley Soup

Yemenite Chicken Soup

Aromatic Chicken and Vegetable Soup (Koli)

Garlicky Beet Spread

Moroccan Beet and Orange Salad with Pistachios

Beet Caviar

Vegan Stuffed Vegetables Mediterranean Style

Chicken Thighs with Garlic and Olives and Kale Salad with Lemon Anchovy Dressing

Chicken Thighs with Mushrooms, Eggplant and Tomatoes

Roasted Chicken Thighs with Fennel & Lemon

Nigella Lawson’s Sheet Pan Chicken, Leeks and Peas

Roasted Chicken with Clementines and Arak

Harissa Chicken with Leeks, Potatoes and Yogurt

Chicken Legs with Wine and Yams

Crock Pot Short Ribs

No matter what traditions or religion you observe (or even don’t), we are in this together. So please make smart choices, think of others, especially those less fortunate, and stay healthy. Be generous to those who are helping to make our lives safer and to those families and individuals who have lost their jobs, their loved ones and their sense of security. Remember to call those who are older or alone. Keeping in touch by phone, email or video chatting has never been more important – or easier. It is especially difficult for those who are celebrating holidays this year without their friends and family. Stay connected. And find a way to laugh every day.

Hamantaschen and Purim

It’s almost Purim! Bring on the noisemakers, costumes and treats! And Purim wouldn’t be a celebration without Hamantaschen. Imagine a flavorful dough, shaped like a triangle and stuffed with all kinds of delicious fillings. Traditionally, these sweet treats were filled with poppy seeds or lekvar (prune paste). But now, anything goes. Growing up, my son’s favorite filling was (and remains) Nutella. I also love apricot, almond paste, or even blueberry with lemon zest. Whatever you choose to fill your hamantaschen with, just enjoy them.

I’m not usually boastful, but these are simply THE BEST Hamantaschen that you will ever eat.

Why Hamantaschen?

The name, Hamantaschen, which is Yiddish, translates as Haman’s Pockets. It’s not really known why these treats came to be associated with Purim. But one story is that Hamantaschen resemble the tri-cornered hat Haman wore. Or maybe his pockets filled with bribes to spies. In Hebrew these delectable sweets are referred to as Haman’s “Ears.” But who was Haman and why do we remember him? The evil Haman was the royal vizier in the court of the Persian King Ahasuerus. He was out to exterminate the Jewish People.

When Do We Celebrate Purim?

Purim is celebrated according to the Hebrew calendar on the 14th day of the Hebrew month of Adar (this year on March 9-10). This is the day following our deliverance from the evil decree. It is a time of merriment and satire much like April Fool’s Day. There is often a carnival and both adults and children dress up in costumes and swing noisemakers to scare off our enemies. In addition, the Book of Esther (Megillah) is recited publicly and we all boo every time Haman’s name is mentioned.

The Purim Story in Brief

Why does the Purim story resonate today? The Megillah is perhaps, the first written story about classic anti-Semitism. In the 4th century B.C.E., Ahasuerus, chooses the beautiful and brave Esther, a Jew, for his wife and queen. Haman, arrogant and egotistical, starts whispering in the king’s ear that because the Jews are different, they must be suspect and should be killed. Thankfully, Haman’s plans are foiled by Mordecai, an advisor to the king and Esther‘s cousin and adopted father. The day of deliverance was celebrated with a day of feasting and rejoicing for Jews.

So in addition to eating many special treats and reading the Megillah, Jews are commanded (Esther 9:18) to send out gifts of food or drink, and to make gifts to charity. 

While my son never wanted to dress up for Halloween, he always donned costumes for Purim as did I. And like so many Jewish girls, I always wanted to be Queen Esther, the brave and smart savior of our people.

Relevance today

Unfortunately, anti-Semitism was not wiped out along with Haman. Even after 6 million Jews were butchered during the Shoah, our enemies are still whispering lies and committing acts of violence and hatred against our people. So while Jews everywhere will celebrate Purim this year, we will also remain vigilant against the Hamans of this world.

Recipe

I always look first to Gloria Kaufer Greene for my Jewish Holiday recipes. I have tweaked the original recipe and those changes are reflected below.

Yield: About 2 dozen (Can be doubled)

Ingredients

1/2 cup butter or non-dairy buttery sticks, softened

1/2 cup granulated sugar

2 large eggs

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/4 teaspoon kosher salt

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

Zest and juice of one medium navel orange (Up to 3 Tablespoons of juice, as needed)

1.5 cups unbleached, all-purpose flour

Do-Ahead

Cream the butter (non-dairy sticks) with the sugar using a food processor or electric mixer until light and fluffy. Beat in the eggs, zest and vanilla until well combined.

Add the flour, salt, baking powder and baking sugar and mix until mixed through. Add orange juice, as needed. (If the dough seems really dry and won’t form, I add the juice to get a smooth dough.)

Form the dough into a thick disk, wrap in waxed paper or plastic wrap and refrigerate for several hours. (You can make the dough up to 3 days ahead.)

Baking

When you are ready to bake, preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Then roll out the chilled dough on a lightly floured surface until it is about 1/8-inch thick. (I like to roll out 1/2 of the dough at a time to make it easier to handle.)

Cut out circles that are 3-inches in diameter. You can use a clean, empty tuna can or a glass if you don’t have a cookie cutter. Re-use scraps until almost all of the dough is used up. I wouldn’t re-roll more than once.

Scoop a generous teaspoon of whatever filling you are using into the center of each circle. (I like to set things up like an assembly line, with my fillings all lined up and ready to go to make this go more quickly.)

Fold up the edges of each circle in thirds to form an open triangle with some of the filling showing. Using my finger and some cold water, I then “paint” the pinched edges both to seal them and to smooth them. You don’t want your hamantaschen opening up in the oven. They may taste fine, but the look will be disappointing.

Place the hamantaschen on baking sheet lined with a silicon baking sheet or parchment paper. Bake for about 15 minutes or until lightly browned. Allow to cool on a wire rack.

Fillings

I am happy to use bought fillings which I then add special touches to. You want a filling that is thick enough to hold up to baking without running all over. I like to use either Solo brand or Love N’ Bake. Some of my favorite fillings are Nutella, apricot pastry filling, almond pastry filling and Lekvar or prune filling.

I always add a bit of orange zest to my apricot and prune filling and place a few sliced almonds on top of the almond filling. Nutella needs nothing added, but on occasion I have been known to add a few mini-chocolate chips.

Below is a wonderful poppy seed filling, which I will make from scratch. Obviously, if you are using multiple fillings, you will either have left-over filling or gee, I dunno, you may need to make additional batches to hand out to lucky friends and family! (Left-over filling can be used in yeast-based pastries or in little tarts.)

Best Poppy Seed Filling – Ever

1 cup (About 5 ounces poppy seeds

1/2 cup dairy or non-dairy milk

1/2 cup honey or agave

1/4 cup dark raisins

1 Tablespoon butter or non-dairy buttery sticks

2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice

Directions

  1. Grind the poppy seeds using a coffee or spice grinder. You can do this with a mortar and pestle, but it will be more work.
  2. Place the ground poppy seeds into a small saucepan with the remaining ingredients.
  3. Cook over medium heat, stirring frequently for about 10 minutes or until the mixture is very thick and almost all of the liquid has been absorbed.
  4. Remove the filling from the heat and allow it to cool slightly. Chill the filling before using for best results. This can be made up to 3 days ahead as well.

Valentine’s Day Cake

Celebrate your love with this deceptively simple yet extravagant Valentine’s Day Cake. Once you have tasted this luscious cake made with dessert wine and olive oil, you will forget all about chocolate.

I’ve been married for over 35 years. And during that time, my husband a and I send each other love notes and texts daily. So I tend not to get too worked up about Valentine’s Day, if I’m being honest. We usually buy or make cards for each other and maybe I’ll make a special dinner or dessert. If I’m in the mood.

However, when I came cross this recipe in the Wall Street Journal by Aleksandra Crapanzano a few weeks ago, I knew that it was going to be my Valentine’s Day Cake this year. It’s everything that I love in a cake. It uses top ingredients but there is nothing fancy or precious about it. There are no sprinkles or cloyingly sweet, artery-clogging frostings. This is a cake for adults. And best of all, it comes together quickly!

Dessert Wines

I became a fan of dessert wines when I was introduced to them on a cruise throughout the Mediterranean years ago. They still haven’t taken hold in the United States the way they have in Europe and that’s a shame. While some can be very pricey, there are lovely and affordable ice wines, Tokaji and Muscat wines. The worst are overly sweet and syrupy, but the best are as light as a kiss on a summer’s breeze.

For this cake, don’t choose a dessert wine that is too light in flavor. You want something that is lovely and fruity. So if you are unfamiliar with dessert wines, ask your local wine store for suggestions. While delicious immediately, the flavors of the wine and the citrus will develop even further if you make this a day ahead of serving.

Moments of Perfection

So go ahead and take a bite. Then just close your eyes for a moment and inhale the amazing flavors and wonderful moist texture. Remember, if your dessert is wonderful, it’s okay if the rest of the meal isn’t perfection.

If you simply cannot imagine Valentine’s Day without chocolate, however, try this Chocolate Cake with Chocolate Glaze or this Chocolate Amaretti Torte.

Cupid Cutout Image #1

Recipe

Yield: About 6 Servings

Ingredients

For the cake:

2 cups flour

1 tablespoon baking powder

¼ teaspoon fine sea salt

1¼ cups sugar

3 large eggs

¾ cup mild extra-virgin olive oil (I actually used an orange EVOO to bump up the orange flavor)

½ cup Sauternes, ice wine, Tokaji or Muscat de Beaumes de Venise (I used Beaumes de Venise)

¾ cup whole milk

Zest of 1 lemon, preferably organic

Zest of 1 orange, preferably organic

For the syrup: SEE NOTE

½ cup sugar

½ cup Sauternes or alternative

For topping:

1 cup heavy cream

1 cup crème fraîche OR 1 additional cup of heavy cream

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Splash of Sauternes

1 to 2 Tablespoons of Confectioner’s sugar (to taste)

Directions

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees (325 for convection). Grease a 9-inch springform pan and line with parchment. Sift together flour, baking powder and salt.

2. Use an electric mixer to beat together sugar and eggs until pale yellow, about 5 minutes. Add oil, wine, milk and zests, and beat to combine, 1-2 minutes. Then add sifted ingredients and beat until just combined, about 1 minute. Pour batter into prepared pan. Bake until a knife emerges clean, 35-45 minutes. After 12 minutes open the springform and remove the outer ring. Allow the cake to cool completely on a wire rack before inverting onto a cake plate.

3. Make the syrup: In a small pot over low heat, dissolve sugar completely with a few spoonfuls water. Bring syrup to a simmer and cook until almost golden. Resist the urge to stir the syrup! You are trying to lightly caramelize the sugar and that simply won’t happen if you stir. Immediately remove the pan from the heat and stir in the wine.

NOTE: Okay, full disclosure. I had a terrible time with this syrup and I have caramelized LOTS of sugar. As soon as I added the wine, the sugar formed into the ball stage and I had to rewarm the mixture to dissolve the sugar crystals. It also spattered everywhere, burning me slightly in the process. SO BE CAREFUL! Honestly, I thought the cake was delicious on its own with just the whipped cream, but after eating it with the syrup, it puts things over the top.

4. Before serving, whip cream(s) until billowy with a heaping tablespoon or two of confectioner’s sugar, vanilla and a splash of Sauternes. Sprinkle cake with confectioner’s sugar, if using. Serve slices with a generous drizzle of syrup and a dollop of whipped cream.

FURTHER NOTE: While this cake is wonderful as set forth, it would also be great with some sort of stewed or roasted fruit or with some fresh berries.

Lisa’s Challah Revisited

When the Good Angel Visits

I’ve decided to take another look at some of my recipes and this week it is Lisa’s Challah Revisited. It isn’t always about blogging something new, but instead, it’s reminding people just how good a recipe is. Shabbat may come every week, but it still is the most important holiday in the Jewish calendar after Yom Kippur. It is an island in time where we don’t answer the phones or watch TV. No matter how busy and hectic the week was, we always sit down as a family, to a table set with our best glasses and dishes and a lovely meal. We light the Sabbath candles, sing songs and b’rachot (blessings) and take the time to really be present for one another.

When my son was little he would help me clean up and prepare the table. Like all children, he would sometimes balk. So I told him the story about how two angels would come to our house each week – a good angel and a bad angel. If the bad angel saw us fighting and the house not ready to welcome Shabbat, he would tell the good angel that he had won control and that our family would have a bad Shabbat and following week. But if our house was in order, the table set and we were into the spirit of Shabbat, including giving tzedekah for those less fortunate then she would turn to the bad angel and say that she had won control. Our house and family would be blessed with a peaceful Shabbat and a good week. Not surprisingly, the good angel won more times than not. These are precious memories and traditions that we built and ones that our son now continues with his family.

So why am I revisiting my challah recipe if I had made it for decades? Well for a long time now I was only making my Vegan Challah. We would celebrate Shabbat with my niece’s family and since her son is deathly allergic to eggs I developed a challah recipe that everyone could enjoy. I never wanted my great-nephew and godson to miss out on anything because of his allergies. If you are vegan or have a food allergy, this is a great recipe. However, as good as that recipe is, it simply is not the same as traditional egg challah. Now that my niece has moved away and we have our first grandchild, I wanted to ensure that she would grow up with the absolute best traditional challah. Lisa’s Challah Revisited delivers. It is everything an eggy, tender, sweet challah should be.

So Why the Need for a New Recipe?

I returned to my original challah recipe that I had developed over two decades. The only problem was that it no longer worked for me. I couldn’t put my finger on the problem, but after several less than stellar attempts, I decided to go back to the drawing board and start from scratch. Thus Lisa’s Challah Revisited. My husband and I now make this every week. We recently returned from visiting our beautiful granddaughter in San Francisco and we passed on this improved version to our son, who is the challah maker in his family.

Making Challah When You Work

Clearly it is easier to bake bread when you are at home all day. But there still are ways to enjoy homemade challah even if you work outside the home. You can start it the night before and then refrigerate the dough to slow down the rising process, completing the last rising and baking after you return home. I used to prepare my dough before I left for work and then brought a sealed plastic bucket of dough with me to the office where I could punch it down as needed until I was able to leave for the day. Bread can be pretty forgiving and an extra rising will just make for a finer crumb. Of course the first time I did this my supervisor came into my office and asked if I had been drinking beer! The yeasty smell had permeated the office. After that, though, my co-workers used to like to come into my office to check out the dough and even to punch it down on occasion. So if you don’t work from home, you can still bake your own challah. Nothing gets me in the mood for Shabbat quite like the smell and taste of fresh baked challah. If you can’t do it every week (and the bread can be frozen as well so you can make a big batch) at least make it for a special Shabbat or holiday.

I believe that welcoming and observing Shabbat is the most beautiful tradition we Jews have. And in this crazy world we live in it is actually a necessity for keeping our sanity and bringing families and loved ones together. But the truth is, you don’t have to be Jewish to enjoy this bread.

Tradition

A word about tradition. When it comes to food, I am all about tradition. I understand that with the plethora of food blogs and bloggers out there, everyone is looking for the new “it” recipe to fill space and gain new followers. Over time, I have even tried many of these recipes and rarely do I find that they are an improvement. New is not necessarily better, especially when it comes to food. So you can take your stuffed challah and challah using all kinds of different grains and strange ingredients. For my money and my family, Lisa’s Challah is the one that will stand the test of time. The only tweaks that I will allow are whether to use raisins or not (my husband loves them; my son – not so much) and to add sesame or poppy seeds to the glaze or to leave it plain. Okay, I did once make my vegan challah using chocolate chips instead of raisins as a special treat for the children.

The Pupil Surpasses the Teacher

And while this recipe and method is mine, I will happily admit that the student has surpassed the teacher. My husband retired a few years ago and has taken an interest in doing some cooking. And after 35 years of preparing three meals a day, I’m very happy for him to occasionally cook a meal for us. He started helping me to bake bread when the arthritis in my hands got bad and now he has become the challah maker every week. Our son also is making his family’s challah and I couldn’t be prouder. And while I am always on hand to give advice and check the dough, I have to give credit where it is due. My husband is way better at braiding than I ever was and he creates a beautiful and consistent challah week after week.

Lisa’s Challah Revisited

I am including this recipe exactly as my husband has written it down. Since he was a complete novice at bread baking, he needed to have the recipe make sense for him. If he could learn to make THE best challah, you can too. We enjoy this bread every shabbat and all week long. Left-overs make great toast with butter and cinnamon or honey or french toast. You can also make next week’s dessert using left-over challah for the best bread pudding. This recipe makes one large loaf. It can be doubled or divided into two small loaves. If you do the latter, you will have to reduce your baking time by about 12 to 15 minutes,

Recipe

Yield: 1 large loaf

Ingredients

2.25 teaspoons active dried yeast

1/3 cup warm water (It should feel warm to your finger, but not burning)

2 teaspoons granulated sugar

½ cup warm water

2 X-tra large eggs, at room temperature

1.5 teaspoons kosher salt

¼ cup canola oil

1/8 cup honey

3+ cups flour – either all-purpose, unbleached flour or bread flour (I prefer to use bread flour, but all-purpose will work too)

1/3 cup raisins, tossed with ¼ tsp. all-purpose unbleached flour (Optional)

1/3 cup of granulated sugar

1 egg, beaten for the glaze

Directions

  1. Place yeast, 2 teaspoons of sugar and 1/3 cup warm (to the touch) water in a large bowl and mix well. Allow the yeast to proof for 8 to 10 minutes.
  2. Once the yeast is bubbly, add the remaining 1/2 cup warm water, eggs, salt, oil, honey and 1 cup of flour. Using a wooden spoon, stir the mixture for 100 strokes.
  3. Add 1 more cup of flour and the raisins and stir through.
  4. Add 1/3 cup of granulated sugar and one more cup of flour and mix using a wooden spoon or a dough scraper until there are no more visible shreds of dough. If the dough still looks wet, add another 1/4 to 1/3 cup of flour and stir or knead to incorporate. Cover the bowl with a tea towel or plastic wrap and allow it to rest for 12 minutes. (This allows the gluten to begin to form and prevents you from adding more flour than is needed, which would make for a heavier bread.)
  5. Turn the dough out onto a floured surface and knead it for about 10 minutes, adding flour by the tablespoonful only as needed to keep the dough from sticking (usually about 1/4 cup). You want to use as little as possible to produce a supple, unsticky dough. You know you have kneaded enough when you poke two holes in the dough with your fingers and it springs back quickly.
  6. Form the dough into a tight ball and place back in the bowl which has been coated with about 1 to 2 teaspoons of canola oil. Roll the dough in the oil to coat and then cover the bowl. I use a towel, but plastic wrap also works.
  7. Place the dough in a draft-free spot like the microwave and allow it to rise for about 1.5 to 2 hours. The dough will have doubled and you know it is ready when you poke two fingers into the dough and the holes remain.
  8. Punch down the dough, removing any air bubbles. Turn out onto a clean surface and pat the dough into a rectangle. Using your dough scraper or a knife, cut the dough in half lengthwise and then cut each half lengthwise in half again until you have 4 mostly equal strands. Try not to stretch the strands too much.
  9. Lay the strands lengthwise next to, but not touching one another. Place the top ends of the strands together.

Braiding the Challah

There are many videos and instructions out there on how to braid challah using 3, 4, 5 and 6 strands. Find one that works for you and go with it. My husband followed this video and so far it has consistently produced a beautiful 4-strand braid.

We now have four strands of dough. The left-most is in position 1, the next one is in position 2, the next is in position 3, and the right-most is in position 4. When we say “pick up strand 1 and move it to position 3” we mean that you should pick up the left-most strand (at position 1), move it to the right –  jumping over two strands – and then put it down.  The strands you jumped over are now in positions 1 and 2, your strand is now in position 3, and the right-most strand is in position 4.

  1. Without pulling (just lift) pick up strand 1 and move it to position 3. Then pick up strand 4 and move it to position 2. Finally, pick up strand 3 and move it to position 2. Keep repeating this pattern until you come to the bottom.
  2. If it starts to narrow too much, simply fold the dough underneath.
  3. Press the bottom strands together. Press the top strands together. Carefully move the braid (using the dough scraper to help) onto a baking sheet covered with parchment or a silicon mat. Spray lightly with cooking spray, cover with a tented piece of waxed paper and allow to rise for 45 minutes to 1 hour.
  4. While the bread is rising, heat your oven to 350 degrees F. Beat the remaining egg.
  5. When the dough has risen, paint it several times with the egg mixture. If you are adding sesame or poppy seeds, sprinkle them across the painted dough. Then carefully paint them one more time to be sure they adhere as much as possible. Discard any remaining egg. Place the dough in the oven and bake for about 45 minutes, turning halfway if your oven is uneven like mine. Bake until the bread is a beautiful brown and sounds hollow when tapped with your knuckles or a wooden spoon. Remove the bread to a cooling rack.

Garlicky Beet Spread

This Garlicky Beet Spread has attitude! The small amount of horseradish lends a delightful piquancy without punching you in the face. Great as a dip and perfect with vegetable fritters or latkes (a crispy oniony potato pancake eaten on Hanukkah). And it’s sooooo pretty! You can whip this up in minutes, especially if you use prepared beets. And let’s face it, why make more work for yourself when there are perfectly good time-savers available?

I LOVE beets in just about any form. In fact, when I was pregnant the only craving I had in nine months was for pickled beets. So when I saw this recipe by Melissa Clark, I knew that I was going to try it. Since I happened to be cooking salmon for my Shabbat dinner, I was able to use this dip as an accompaniment. It did not disappoint. I made a few minor tweaks, both to clarify and suit it to our tastes. With Hanukkah almost here, I just might use this as an alternative to sour cream and applesauce with my latkes. Then again, why mess with tradition!

For other great beet recipes, check these out:

Moroccan Beet and Orange Salad with Pistachios

Beet and Chickpea Quinoa Salad

Moroccan Beet Salad (Barba)

Beet Caviar

And for a dessert option with beets

Fudgy Brownies with Beets and Walnuts

Recipe

Yield: About 2 cups

Ingredients

About 8 to 9 ounces of prepared beets (roasted and peeled)

2 Tablespoons EVOO

1/2 cup of lightly toasted walnuts (See note on toasting)

1 very large clove of garlic or its equivalent

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1 cup of Greek-style yogurt (Use one that is at least 2% fat)

2 Tablespoons of fresh-squeezed lemon juice (1/2 of a juicy lemon)

1 Tablespoon of fresh dill plus more for garnish

1.5 teaspoons of prepared fresh horseradish (I happened to use beet horseradish which only enhanced the color of the dip)

Directions

Using a food processor, grind the walnuts, garlic and salt until very fine. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and add all of the remaining ingredients. Pulse until mostly smooth. Taste for seasoning and add more lemon or salt, if needed.

Note on toasting nuts

Heat your oven to 350 degrees F. Place the nuts on a sheet pan and toast in the oven for about 12 minutes or until you just begin to smell the nuts. You can shake the pan once during the cooking. Alternatively, you can toast nuts in a dry pan on your stove. Watch them carefully, jiggling every few minutes. Nothing will happen until it does. The second you smell the nuts, remove them from the heat. These methods work with just about any nut. I always toast more than I need and use up extras in salads or for munching.

Carrot Halwa (Gajar ka halwa)

Indian Cuisine

To say that I have been doing some Indian cooking lately is like saying that I picked up a granule of sand on the beach. Indian cuisine dates back over 5000 years and each region has its own traditions, religions and culture that influence its food. Hindus tend to be vegetarian and Muslims tend to have meat dishes, although pork is forbidden. Indian food has been influenced by Mongolian, Persian and Chinese cuisine, among others. It is rich and varied and I love it.

While I have done some Indian cooking before, I had only made Kheer as a dessert. I was intrigued by what I had read about Halwa – not to be confused with the Middle Eastern halva.

Like semolina cakes in the Middle East, there is no one single recipe for making Halwa. They all share the same basic ingredients of carrots, ghee, sugar, cardamom and a dairy milk, but the quantities, cooking times and additions make each one unique. And probably each Indian family believes that their version is the best. One thing that they all have in common is patience.

This is not a difficult recipe but like Indian rice pudding (Kheer), it takes time and almost constant stirring to end up with an amazingly velvety, fragrant and utterly satisfying treat. Make this when someone is around that you want to share a nice long chat with while you stir. It is so worth it.

While I think this is a perfect dessert anytime of the year, in India, it is especially relished during Diwali and the colder, wetter months. It is the perfect comfort food.

In order to come up with this version, I read at least 4 different recipes from Indian and vegetarian cookbooks and watched over 6 YouTube videos. Some versions were made with sweetened condensed milk and others were cooked down to form almost a cake-like consistency that was cut into little diamond shapes. I’m sure that they are all wonderful and I’d be happy to eat any of them. However, this version is my amalgam of what I believe to be the best halwa and one that made my husband incredibly happy. Okay, it made ME incredibly happy too! It won’t disappoint.

Recipe

Yield: About 8 servings

Ingredients

6 cups peeled and finely shredded slim carrots (DO NOT use large, thick woody carrots. They are fine for soup and feeding horses, but will not have the sweetness and tenderness needed here.)

3-4 Tablespoons ghee or unsalted butter

3/4 cup raw or granulated sugar

About 1.25 cups of whole milk (Exact amounts are not essential. Pour in enough to almost but not quite cover the carrots. You can always cook this longer if you added a bit more than you had intended.)

1/4 cup half and half (or additional whole milk) mixed with about 1/8 teaspoon of saffron threads

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground green cardamom

2 Tablespoons coarsely chopped blanched almonds

2 Tablespoons coarsely chopped pistachios

2 Tablespoons coarsely chopped cashews

3 Tablespoons raisins (preferably golden/Sultanas)

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground green cardamom

Directions

In a large, preferably non-stick skillet, melt 2 Tablespoons of the ghee. Add all of the carrots and mix through. Add up to an additional Tablespoon of ghee, if needed to coat the carrots.

Cook over a low heat, stirring FREQUENTLY for 40-45 minutes. This is tedious but necessary to prevent burning and to get the carrots to a velvety texture.

Now add the milk and half & half mixture and stir through. Add the 1/2 teaspoon of cardamom and mix through. Cover the pan and on low heat, cook the carrots for 20-25 minutes more. Stir OCCASIONALLY. You want to cook until the milk is just absorbed but the carrots are not dried out

While the carrots cook, melt the remaining ghee in a small skillet and lightly cook the nuts, raisins and remaining cardamom. You just want the raisins to swell and the nuts to release their oils. Set aside.

Uncover and add the sugar and mix through. Now add the nuts and raisin mixture and stir through. Continue cooking for about 5 minutes more. The resulting mixture is incredibly moist, velvety and unctuous. It can be eaten warm or at room temperature. This is quite rich and satisfying and 3-5 ounces per person is more than enough. While the halwa does not need any garnish, you can add a little lightly sweetened whipped cream for serving.

Mina de Carne (Meat-Potato Matzah “Pie”)

The In-Between

So we are now in the in-between days of the Passover holiday, which lasts eight days in the Diaspora and seven days in Israel. I could simply broil or roast some meat or fish, make a salad and potatoes and call it a day. However, I like to make the holiday special and there are certain dishes that I only make during Passover even if I could serve them at other times.


Flexibility

This Sephardic dish is wonderful because it is so flexible. The simplest version of it is ground beef or lamb, mashed potatoes, matzah and eggs with a bit of seasoning. But with a little bit of imagination and time this dish can become something really special. And a little bit of meat will feed a family. I guess you could say that it is a Sephardic Shepard’s Pie.

If you are not feeling ambitious at all, then just use the basic technique that is given and season it to suit your tastes.

Recipe

Yield: 4-6 dinner servings or more if used as part of a multi-course meal

Ingredients

1 roasted eggplant* (optional)

1 pound lean ground beef or lamb

1.5 pounds Yukon Gold or “new” potatoes (They are the smallish red ones)

3 sheets of square plain matzah (NOT EGG Matzah)

Non-dairy “buttery” sticks (margarine)

2-3 Tablespoons olive or other oil, divided

1 medium onion, peeled and chopped

2-3 cloves of garlic, peeled and chopped

2-3 Tablespoons chopped fresh herbs like parsley, cilantro or dill

2 rounded teaspoons hawayij or ras el hanout or other spice mix (Make your own or they can be purchased online and through spice shops). You could even use Garam Masala for an Indian twist.

Kosher salt and fresh cracked black pepper to taste

3 large eggs

Paprika for sprinkling (optional)

Directions

If using the roasted eggplant, make this first and set aside to cool. Chop it coarsely.

I don’t bother to peel my potatoes. The skins not only have nutrients, but they are relatively thin and add extra flavor, in my opinion. Simply cut each potato into quarters and then each quarter into half so you en up with eight pieces. Place them in a 3 quart saucepan with water to cover. Bring to a boil and then reduce the heat to simmer. Cook them uncovered for 20 minutes or until quite tender. Drain the potatoes well and then mash them with a potato masher or a fork. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Set the potatoes aside to cool.

Place some warm tap water into a deep 9-inch square baking dish and then add the whole squares of matzah. Allow them to soak for about 1+ minutes. You want them flexible but not falling apart.

Carefully lift each sheet of matzah out of the water and place it flat on paper or a tea towel to drain. Then dry the baking dish and grease it well with the margarine and then 1-2 Tablespoons of the oil. If you only use the oil the matzah won’t crisp up and it will stick. Set the pan aside.

In a large skillet over medium high heat, add one Tablespoon of the oil and brown the ground meat, chopped, roasted eggplant, if using, the onions and the garlic. Break up the meat as you brown it. I used a very lean meat so I did not have any extra fat or liquid to pour off. Add your spices, about 1 teaspoon of salt and some cracked black pepper. Add the chopped fresh herbs and mix everything through.

Lightly beat 2 of the eggs and add it to the mashed potatoes. Stir about 1/2 cup of the potato mixture into the ground beef mixture to bind it together.

Heat the oven to 375 degrees F.

Beat the remaining egg and pour it into a platter with a slightly raised edge. Coat both sides of one softened matzah sheet lightly with the egg. Lift it out carefully and allow any excess egg to drip back into the platter. Place the matzah in the bottom of the prepared pan. Use part of a second slice of matzah, if necessary, to cover any gaps so that the bottom is completely covered. Repeat with a second layer of matzah. Reserve any left-over egg. (I didn’t have any.)

Spread the meat mixture on top of the matzah in the dish. Spoon the potato mixture over the to and spread it evenly. Pour any left-over egg onto the potato mixture. Sprinkle with some paprika.

Bake the Mina for about 40 minutes or until the top is browned and the filling is firm. Remove the Mina from the oven and allow it to rest for 5 minutes before serving. Cut it into large squares. I serve mine with a large tossed salad.

Gefilte Fish Loaf

It is traditional in Ashkenazi Jewish homes to eat gefilte fish as a first course for Shabbat and most other holidays, including Passover. While it may be heresy, I never was a huge fan of this dish, even when I had it homemade rather than from a jar.

Gefilte literally means “stuffed.” The fish mixture was stuffed back into the skin of the whole fish. It was a great way for thrifty – and often poor – families to enjoy this delicacy. Because the fish was mixed with other inexpensive ingredients like onions and eggs, a little bit of fish could feed an entire family.

It later became popular to make the equivalent of individual fish quenelles. So although the fish was no longer stuffed, the name stuck.

For several years now, I have made Egyptian Fish Balls in a savory tomato sauce. This year, however, I am making both! The Sephardic fish balls for the first Seder and the gefilte fish loaf for the second Seder. My recipe comes from two wonderful cookbooks: The Gefilte Manifesto by Jeffrey Yoskowitz and Liz Alpern and The New Jewish Holiday Cookbook by Gloria Kaufer Greene.

As long as you start out with good quality, fresh fish, you can’t go wrong with either of these recipes. If you didn’t see this in time for the Seder, remember that there will always be Shabbat!

Recipe

Yield: One 8 x 4-inch loaf (About 8 slices)

Ingredients

1 smallish onion, coarsely chopped

1 medium carrot

1 pound (net) whitefish fillet, skin and large bones removed [Any light-colored fish such as cod, pike, carp or haddock can be used.]

1 Tablespoon vegetable or grapeseed oil

1 large egg

About 3 Tablespoons, coarsely chopped fresh watercress or baby spinach

2 Tablespoons coarsely chopped fresh dill

3/4 teaspoons kosher salt

2 Tablespoons water

1/4 cup matza meal

1/4 teaspoon ground white pepper or fresh cracked black pepper

1 Tablespoon granulated cane sugar

For Garnish

1/2 red, orange, yellow or green pepper (or a mix)

1 small carrot, peeled and cut crosswise into thin circles

Directions

Heat your oven to 350 degrees F.

Oil an 8 x 4-inch loaf pan. Line the bottom of the pan with a rectangle of waxed paper, cut to fit. Then oil the paper.

Using the pepper strips and the carrot circles, create a simple and attractive design on top of the waxed paper in the prepared pan. The design will be inverted when the loaf is turned out of the pan.

Use a food grinder or a food processor fitted with the steel blade to to chop the fish, onion and carrot until they are finely minced. Add the egg, oil, water, matza meal, watercress or baby spinach, dill, salt and pepper. Process until everything is very well combined.

Gently spoon some of the fish mixture around and over the decorative vegetables in the pan, being careful not to disturb the design. Using the back of a spoon or your hands, press the mixture into place, leaving no air spaces. Then add the remaining fish mixture to the pan, spreading it evenly.

Cover the fish mixture with another rectangle of waxed paper that has been oiled on the side that will touch the fish.

Bake the loaf for about 50 minutes or until firm. Remove the pan from the oven and allow it to rest for 10 minutes. Carefully peel off the waxed paper from the top of the loaf. Then run a knife around the sides of the loaf to loosen it. Invert the loaf onto a serving dish and lift off the pan. If the second piece of waxed paper is still attached to the loaf, carefully peel it off and throw it away.

The loaf can be served warm, at room temperature or chilled. Cut into 1-inch thick slices. Serve with prepared horseradish or wasabi sauce.