Friday, April 15, 2022

Rabbits, Eggs, and Simnel Cake

In ancient times, Easter was celebrated in honor of the spring or vernal equinox, symbolizing the end of winter (death) and the rebirth of life, as well as the importance of fertility. The word Easter is believed to have originated from the Anglo-Saxon goddess of dawn, Eostre, from whom "east" (where the sun rises), "Easter," and even the female hormone "estrogen" got its name. Eostre's feast day was held on the first full moon following the vernal equinox. Eostre's two symbols were the hare (one with a particularly high libido) and the egg, which symbolizes the possibility of new life.

In European folklore, when wild hares abandoned their nests, they were sometimes taken over by plovers, who would lay their eggs in them. The locals would then find the eggs in the bunny nests. Further, in the 16th century, we see the appearance of the "Easter Bunny" in German writings. The legend said that if good children built a nest out of their caps or bonnets, they would be rewarded with colored eggs. The legend was then brought to America in the 18th century, by German immigrants.

And finally, I must mention the "Simnel Cake," eaten during Easter in the UK, Ireland, and other European countries. Simnel cake is a type of fruit cake, made with a layer of marzipan or almond paste baked in the middle of the cake, and topped off with a ring of eleven marzipan balls, said to represent the true disciples of Jesus (Judas is omitted), and sometimes a ball in the middle to represent Christ. I don't care for simnel cake, but I do have a sublime recipe for "Mascarpone-Filled Cake with Sherried Berries." This recipe from Shelley Wiseman is a light buttermilk cake, filled with a layer of mascarpone cream, and topped off with very sophisticated Sherry-spiked berries. I love this cake so much, it may be my absolute favorite! It makes the perfect ending to any Easter celebration!


Mascarpone-Filled Cake with Sherried Berries

Serves 8-12, (cake and cream can be made a day ahead, store cake covered at room temperature)

Ingredients:

For the cake
2 cups sifted cake flour (not self-rising), like Swans Down
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 stick unsalted butter, softened
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2 large eggs
1 cup well-shaken buttermilk

For the berries
1/2 cup Fino (dry) Sherry
1/2 cup sugar
4 cups mixed berries, cut if large

For the cream
8 ounces mascarpone (1 cup)
1 cup chilled heavy cream
1/4 cup sugar

Directions:

For the cake
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees with oven rack in the middle. Butter a 9" round cake pan (2 inches deep). Line the bottom with a round of parchment paper, then butter the parchment.

Sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt.

Beat together the butter and sugar in a large bowl with an electric mixer until pale and fluffy. Beat in vanilla. Add eggs 1 at a time, beating well after each addition. With mixer at low speed, beat in the buttermilk until just combined. Add flour mixture in 3 batches, mixing after each addition until just combined.

Spread batter in cake pan, smoothing top. Rap the pan on the counter several times.

Bake until golden and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, 35-40 minutes. Cool in pan on a rack 10 minutes. Run a knife around the edge of cake to loosen, then invert onto a plate. Discard the paper and reinvert cake onto rack to cool completely.

Macerate the berries
Bring Sherry and sugar to a boil in a small heavy saucepan, stirring until sugar has dissolved. Put berries in a bowl and pour hot syrup over them. gently tossing to coat. Let stand at least 15 minutes before serving.

Make cream and assemble cake
Beat mascarpone, cream, and sugar in a large bowl using cleaned beaters until mixture just holds stiff peaks.

Halve cake horizontally with a long serrated knife. Carefully remove top half and reserve. Put bottom half on a plate, then spread evenly with all of the cream and replace top half. Serve with berries. It's Fantastic!


Monday, February 28, 2022

Mardis Gras and the Best Jambalaya!

Mardis Gras (aka., Fat Tuesday, Shrove Tuesday) is March 1, marking the last day of fatty food indulgences before Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent. While some people around the world celebrate the day eating pancakes, I prefer a delicious bowl of jambalaya! I first acquired a taste for this spicy sausage and seafood-laden dish from a friend in college who made a batch along with freshly baked bread every Sunday. Although I think he used Zatarain's and a tube of Pillsbury, it was always a good time! Just like chili is in Texas, jambalaya is classic Louisiana party food, making it the perfect choice for Mardis Gras!

Jambalaya is a dish steeped in ambiguity. So much so, you can stir up heated discussions regarding just the root of the word "jambalaya!" One theory is that it comes from the Provencal word "jambalaia," meaning mishmash or mixture. Another theory is that it comes from the Spanish word "jamon," meaning ham, combined with "paella," the classic Spanish rice dish. The third theory is that it comes from the French "jambon," meaning ham, with a contraction of "a la" and "ya," the African word for rice. And finally, it might come from the Native American Atakapa tribe's saying, "Sham, pal ha! Ya!" meaning "Be full, not skinny! Eat up!" 

If that's not enough, contrary to popular misconceptions, jambalaya is not specifically a Creole dish. In fact, there are two kinds of jambalaya. Creole which contains tomatoes, and Cajun which does not. I prefer it with tomatoes. I also think the key to a really great jambalaya is tasso. Tasso is a highly seasoned smoked pork. I am lucky to find it locally, but you can order some from cajungrocer.com. Andouille sausage is also authentic; however, if you can't find it or don't want to add it to your Cajun Grocer order, you can substitute Spanish chorizo, not Mexican chorizo, which is not the same thing. Finally, I would be remiss not to mention "the holy trinity." Similar to mirepoix and sofrito, it is the base to most Louisiana cuisine. It consists of finely diced onion, celery, and green bell pepper. I use red bell pepper because I detest green bell peppers in any form. 

Just like cioppino, it's hard to make a bad jambalaya. Jambalaya is very adaptable and can contain shredded chicken, venison, oysters, etc. Feel free to add what you have on hand, or prefer, to make it your own! If it gets too thick, just add some water! So celebrate Mardis Gras this year with a delicious bowl of jambalaya, lots of crusty bread, cold beer, and a bottle of Tabasco (or Crystal) hot sauce. Beads optional!


Sausage and Shrimp Jambalaya

Serves 8

Ingredients:
1/2 cup tasso (or chopped ham), 1/4-inch dice
14 ounces Andouille (or Spanish chorizo, or other smoked sausage), 1/2-inch slices
1/2 cup onions, chopped
1/2 cup celery, chopped
1/2 cup red bell pepper (or green), chopped
1 large garlic clove, minced
28-ounce can whole peeled tomatoes
2 cups chicken stock
1 teaspoon Cajun seasoning 
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
1/4 teaspoon cayenne, or more to taste
1 teaspoon salt
2 bay leaves
1 cup long grain rice
1 pound raw shrimp, peeled and deveined
Italian parsley, chopped for garnish


Directions:
In a large pot or dutch oven, brown the sausage on each side in batches, set aside. Add the tasso, onions, celery, and bell pepper to the pot and saute until tender. Add the garlic and cook one minute. Add the tomatoes (with can juice), stir and break up with a wooden spoon. (An old-fashioned potato masher works great too!) Add the stock, browned sausage, Cajun seasoning, thyme, cayenne, salt, and bay leaves. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, cover and simmer 30 minutes. Remove the cover and raise heat to a boil. Add the rice, stir, cover and reduce heat to a simmer for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. (Taste the rice to make sure it's done!) Remove the lid and add the shrimp. Cook for 5 minutes or until the shrimp are cooked through. Remove the bay leaves and serve with a garnish of parsley. Add hot sauce to taste at the table, along with crusty bread.

Saturday, January 29, 2022

The Swedish Chef



Swedish meatballs (kottbullar) are a traditional dish consisting of seasoned beef, pork, and/or veal meatballs covered in a brown gravy and are one of the best-known and loved Swedish dishes. The first recipe appeared in print in Cajsa Warg's Swedish cookbook in 1754. Before the invention of meatgrinders in 1845 by German Baron Karl Drais, Swedish meatballs were truly a labor of love and considered a luxury item served at traditional smorgasbords and other special occasions. Swedish meatballs also have deep roots in America's upper Midwest, brought by Scandinavian immigrants with the peak of their migration between 1870-1900. They were also featured at the 1939 New York World's Fair at the Swedish Pavilion's Three Crowns Restaurant, explaining their popularity in the early 20th century with a resurgence in the 1950s and 60s. Swedish meatballs are traditionally served with brown gravy, mashed or boiled potatoes, lingonberry jam or sauce, and pickled (or pressed) cucumbers. 

This recipe, that I found at The Spice Garden, is adapted from Irma Rombauer's The Joy of Cooking and is the best I've ever tasted! The meatballs are exceedingly tender and moist, and the creamy sauce has just the right tang thanks to the addition of sour cream. One tip to remember when incorporating sour cream to a warm sauce is to stir in 1/2 cup of the gravy, 1/4 cup at a time, into the sour cream, whisking very well until incorporated before adding it to the gravy. If you don't do this, more than likely the sour cream will curdle and leave clumps in your gravy. Eek! I like to serve my Swedish meatballs with buttered egg noodles and if you can't find lingonberry jam, cranberry jam makes a decent substitute. So stop buying them at IKEA and make them yourself! They are way better, "bork, bork, bork!"


Swedish Meatballs

Serves 4-6 as an entree.

Ingredients:

For the Meatballs
1, 1" thick slice of bread
Milk to soak the bread
1 1/2 lb ground meat (1/2 lb beef, 1/2 lb pork, 1/2 lb veal, or a combination) (I used 3/4 lb beef and 3/4 lb pork)
2 eggs
3 tablespoons butter
1/4 cup finely chopped onion
3 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
1 1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon paprika
1/2 teaspoon lemon zest
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon allspice
2 cups beef stock

For the Gravy
1 cup sour cream
1/4 cup flour
2 teaspoons chopped fresh dill
2 tablespoons dry Sherry
Salt and white pepper, to taste
Chopped parsley, for garnish

Directions:
For the Meatballs
Soak the bread in enough milk to saturate it and let it soak a few minutes. While the bread soaks, melt 1 tablespoon of butter in a frying pan over medium heat. Add the onions and saute until translucent. Set aside and allow to cool slightly.

Wring the liquid from the bread (discard the milk) and add it along with the remaining meatball ingredients (except for the remaining 2 tablespoons butter and the 2 cups beef stock) in a large bowl or stand mixer and mix with your hands or mixer until the ingredients are well incorporated. Shape the meatballs into approximately 1" balls, and place on a large plate or baking sheet. (The meatballs can be made ahead and refrigerated until ready to cook.) 

Melt the remaining 2 tablespoons butter in a deep saute pan over medium/medium-high heat. Drop the meatballs into the bubbling butter and brown them on all sides. (Do not overcrowd! You should brown them in batches, setting them aside on a plate until all the meatballs are browned.) When all the meatballs are browned, return them to the pan and add the 2 cups beef stock, reduce heat, cover and simmer for 15 minutes. When done, remove the meatballs with a slotted spoon and place them on a warm baking sheet and hold in a warm oven.

For the Gravy
Mix the sour cream, flour, dill, and Sherry in a medium bowl. Whisk in 1/2 cup of the stock, 1/4 cup at a time, until fully incorporated. Make sure there are no lumps! Mix the sour cream mixture into the stock and continue to stir until thickened, just a few minutes. Taste and season with salt (if needed) and white pepper, to taste.

To serve, add the meatballs to the gravy and transfer to a platter or serving bowl. Garnish with the chopped parsley.