All the babka in my life

Babka and I go way back, starting with my Jewish husband. He loved a good, dry cake. Both Don and his father Frank were of that persuasion.  Cake was best when it was dry,  crumbly like desert sands and bought at a deli bakery, of course.

The deli in West Palm Beach sold Don’s ultimate babka. We would stand in early bird lineups at 5 p.m. with my in-laws, demoralized to be part of what we jokingly referred to as “the blue rinse hour” for dinner.  

My mother-in-law Ethel wasn’t a cake eater.  Diabetic, she approached eating with cautious deliberation.  

“I like it bland,” she often said.    

Needless to say, food didn’t play a pivotal role in the Nausbaum family as it might in many other Jewish households. Celebrations were also kept minimal. Ethel used to mail Don a modest birthday check or a boxed shirt from Target.  One year she uncharacteristically asked her adult son what he would like to receive for his birthday and Don didn’t miss a beat.

“I want a babka from your deli, Ma.  It’s too good to be true.”

“What? A babka. That’s ridiculous, Don.”

“Ma, I want a babka. I want a babka from your deli. Fed Ex it to me.” 

I’m not sure what bothered Ethel more, the price of an overnight courier from West Palm Beach to Toronto or her son’s unbridled decadence. But she caved.  He was her only son (and a charmer, to boot).   

“How was the babka? Did it arrive?  Did you like it?” she asked on his birthday.  

“Did I like it?” he scoffed, “Ma, this babka is unfriggin’ believable. I’m going to get another slice right now and eat it while we talk long distance.”  

“Don’t. I can’t stand listening to you eat and talk at the same time.”

“But it’s my birthday!”

Don chuckled,  his mouth crammed full of babka. The crumbly streusel topping sprinkled all over his goatee. He’d already given up on a knife and was ripping the cinnamon-scented, cakey interior apart, moaning in appreciation and smacking his lips loudly.  

“You like it too much,” Ethel said. She was disgusted.  “I’ll never ever Fed Ex you a babka again!” 

She kept to her word and Don’s babka delivery landed squarely in my lap. But I was a Canadian goy who knew nothing about babka baking. Sure, I had done a little food research, happily trailing alongside Don to  Jewish delis in Florida, Long Island and the Lower East Side of Manhattan but not once had I set eyes on a Toronto babka until Don brought home a specimen from the Harbord Bakery. 

He ate one slice, winced, then threw the remainder out.

“It’s up to you, Mado,” he sighed.

Earlier in our marriage, I’d attempted chicken liver spread and was defeated.  Before that, it was the world’s oily-est latkes. Now I had to bake some dry, tasteless coffee cake?  I turned to one of the first cookbooks dedicated to Jewish baking and made a listless facsimile. 

“Inedible” said Don after the first bite.

So babka became a family joke.  A reverie about Ethel and  a guffaw over the Seinfelt segment where Constanza sweats bullets tugging a stolen babka into his apartment window with a rope and pulley.

Then, as beloved things often do, babka came back. Don passed away and left a big piece of babka in his son’s pulsing heart. It helped, too, that Nick’s stepsister Emma is a gourmet sleuth. She found (not a Sahara version) but a sinfully sweet and gooey chocolate babka at Toronto’s Pusateri’s bakery. Somehow she knew that Nick would want that for his birthday. In no time at all, babka was forefront on our mother-son baking list and Rosha Shanna 2020  seemed an apt moment to create Don’s cake.  

When Nick and I bake, I always learn something.  I start off as Mom Expert and he quietly models a better alternative. Like parchment paper. Babka demands it and I was eager to try cookbook author Mairlyn Smith’s technique: Cut a large swath, run it under water, scrunch it up, wring it dry and fit it into the pan. Yes, this technique moulds around the insides of a loaf pan but Nick’s idea was better – cut vertical and horizontal panels to fit the pans. Not only does  it look more professional, but if you allow for a few inches of overhang, you’ve got handles to lift out your cake effortlessly.     

A beautiful babka means whirls of marbled dough, twisting and turning before your hungry eyes. To achieve this, challah dough is rolled out into a rectangle and spread with a yummy interior of melted butter, dark chocolate and a LOT of freshly ground cinnamon. You roll it up as tightly as possible, take a deep breath and do the unthinkable: cleanly cut this pliable, warm, puffy roll of dough in half, lengthwise. I was certain a serrated knife would do the trick but no sooner did I execute this cut then it caught, pulled and messed up the chocolate spread’s definition. 

Nick used a metal bench scraper and cut it in three clean swoops. Do like Nick does and let this babka become someone you love’s birthday cake, too.

THREE CHOCOLATE CINNAMON BABKAS

A batch baker by trade, I won’t develop a recipe for less than 2 loaves. This one comes with a  bonus babka! Not dry at all, these glossy beauties are made moist by a special ending in which you lavishly baste with a sweet, wet syrup as soon as they come out of the oven — an unthinkable flourish to Don and his father Frank. Makes 3 loaves.

Challah Dough

2 1/4 cups   milk, warmed in microwave (at high, 1 min)

1 TBS   instant yeast

3   eggs

5 TBS   vegetable oil

4 TBS   honey

1 TBS   vanilla extract (we used a vanilla bean, sliced it lengthwise and scraped the seeds in)

8 cups/ 2 lbs 6 oz   organic unbleached bread flour

.6 oz   salt

Put warmed milk, yeast, eggs, oil, honey and vanilla in mixing bowl and blend with whisk attachment until frothy.

Add flour and salt into mixing bowl and knead with dough hook for 8 min. or until the dough pulls away from the bowl and creates a smooth ball. This is a sticky, enriched dough.  If it pools around the bottom of the bowl it may need extra tablespoons of flour during the last two minutes of the mix to ensure the dough pulls away from the bowl.

Place in a large plastic, oiled tub or covered bowl and let it rise until doubled at room temp, aprox 2 ½ hrs. (Or simply refrigerate immediately and leave to rise overnight or up to 48 hrs)

Babka filling

4 1/2 ounces (130 grams)     dark chocolate, Callebaut, 55%

1/2 cup (120 grams) one stick        unsalted butter, cold is fine

Put in a glass bowl and heat in microwave (1 – 1 1/2 min.)

1/2 cup (50 grams)       icing sugar

1/4 cup (30 grams)       ground cinnamon

Add to melted chocolate.

Line loaf pans with parchment, like Nick does.

Divide dough into 3 pieces.

Roll one piece out on a well-floured counter to about a 10-inch width (the side closest to you) and as long in length (away from you) as you can when rolling it thin, likely 10 to 12 inches.

Spread one-third of chocolate mixture evenly over the dough, leaving a 1/2-inch border all around. Brush the end farthest away from you with water. Roll the dough up with the filling into a long, tight cigar. Seal the dampened end onto the log.

Cut the log in half lengthwise with a metal bench scraper, like Nick does.  Lay one piece over the other, cut sides up, at the mid-line, creating an “X” then gently twist the ends. Gently place the twist into a loaf pan, doubling it over itself if necessary. Repeat 2 more times. Cover all the pans with oiled plastic or a towel. Let rise until doubled, about one hour.

Heat oven to 375°F 30 minutes before the bake. Beat an egg in a small bowl. Baste babkas with egg just before baking. Place loaves in the middle of the oven and bake 30 minutes. 

While babkas are baking, make syrup,

1/3 cup water
6 tablespoons (75 grams) granulated sugar

Heat in microwave

As soon as the babkas leave the oven, brush with syrup. Use it all up, as this creates a glossy, moist finish.  Let cool about halfway in pans, then transfer to a cooling rack.

 

 

 

Cardamom Biscotti

Sometimes it just has to go cardamom in my kitchen.  I start dreaming about flavour swaps and find my hands magically clutching a baggie of army-green pods from that crazy mishmash called my spice drawer. I hold the bag and … sigh.

No, I start cussing, wondering aloud if I have the cooking mojo in me to ferret out their cache.  Will my cold, stiff fingers find the fortitude to single out each and every one of these tiny seeds that bear an uncanny resemblance to mouse turds?

Cardamom pods aren’t like those happy, smiling pistachio nuts, each cracked and cooperative. These babies are sealed shut like an exotic, perfumed temptress.

Thus, they bring out the pounder in me.

I’ve tried crushing them under my chef’s knife like garlic cloves –  but lo, they slide and slither.  I’ve grabbed a sheet of wax paper and hammered a rolling pin over them a few times, to absolutely no avail, except for a heap of shredded wax paper.

Luckily, an adorable silver mortar and pestle comes to my rescue.

I throw a handful of pods in the bowl and happily clunk the silver pestle down until I hear crunch after satisfying crunch, splitting and cracking, dispersing their wealth.

The very first pod reaps a clump of tar-black seeds.  I can hear my East Indian cooking teacher intoning “Only the black ones are good” as I crack open pod after pod that she’d obviously throw out.  A sliver fuzzy membrane is scattered among my largely brown, verging on beige collection. I drop it all into my spice grinder and grimace, again, because fifteen minutes of finicky fine motor work hasn’t even covered my spice grinder’s blade!

Despite this ominous beginning, the seeds whirl into a satisfying silvery and soft powder that trails up into my waiting nostrils with an explosion of menthol and sweet, peppery perfume that is unmistakably cardamom.

Why don’t I just throw up a white flag and buy it ground?

Because I want flavour. Whole spices that are crushed or ground right before use, release essential oils full of oomph.  And oomph is what I have planned for this special little biscotti  packed with toasted almonds and pumpkin seeds, filled with organic flours, eggs, sugar and vanilla then made perfect thanks to cardamom in the batter. I finish each and every log of biscotti dough with a sparkle of cardamom sugar.

Just a pinch will do it.

 

Cardamom Biscotti

I really can’t live in a house without biscotti. They are my go-to cookie and a welcome gift to friends and family . Thanks to the double bake, they store for weeks, even months in a closed glass container and travel well on airplanes and road trips.

Biscotti Batter:

1 cup whole, raw almonds

½ cup pumpkin seeds

1 ¼ cup organic all purpose flour

1 ¼ cup organic soft whole wheat flour

1 1/4 cups organic granulated sugar

2 tsp baking powder

1 tsp ground cardamom

1/2 tsp salt

4 large eggs

3 tsp vanilla

The Finishing Touches:

1-3 tbsp flour (for rolling out logs)

½ tsp ground cardamom

1 tbsp organic granulated

Preheat oven to 350 ° F.

To toast almonds, arrange on a baking sheet and bake for 5 minutes. Add pumpkin seeds to the sheet and bake another 5 minutes. Allow nuts and seeds to cool completely.

In a large bowl, combine flours, sugar, baking powder, cardamom and salt. Use a whisk to mix thoroughly.

Whisk eggs and vanilla in bowl of an electric mixer until frothy. Use the paddle attachment to mix in flour and sugar mixture.  As soon as the dough clumps around the paddle, add toasted almonds and pumpkin seeds and mix until just combined.

Dust countertop with flour. Line two large baking sheets with parchment paper.

Spoon out one quarter of the sticky dough, dust lightly with flour and working quickly, roll into a 8-10 inch log. Transfer log to baking sheet. Repeat 3 times.

In a small bowl, mix sugar and cardamom.  Sprinkle over logs with pinched fingers.

Bake for 30 minutes or until biscotti logs are golden and firm. Completely cool logs on a rack for at least 30 min.  Using a serrated knife, cut crosswise into 3/4 inch wide slices.  Arrange cut side down on baking sheets and return to 350 oven for 10-15 minutes or until golden-brown and crisp.

An ode to damson plums

Many, many, moons ago, my friend Nora suggested damson plum jam.  I’d never heard of damson and didn’t know where I’d find them.  I was a novice canner, having put up my first batch of Seville marmalade sometime after all those Millennials were born.

There was a crew of us cooking ladies, back then, crowded in my steamy kitchen with my blue enamel canning pot frothing on the back burner. As dozens of Bernardin jars jiggled and clanked through sterilization, we peeled off Seville skins, arguing over the presence of white pith or not, before piling the peels on top of each other, slicing them into teensy strips no wider than a toothpick. Someone measured cup after cup of granulated white sugar, while the bossiest among us stirred circles of hot, sputtering, bubbling orange fruitiness.

We were kitchen warriors and we all agreed on everything except something:  The Gelling Point. The conversation grew even more heated when damson came into play.

But first, I had to find the little gems and naturally, I called Tony at The Harvest Wagon on Yonge Street, deep in the heart of fine food shopping La La Land.

IMG_6115Tony and I were on a first name basis ever since I interviewed him for a newspaper column and he revealed that his Rosedale customers didn’t really care about price (!)  All they wanted, he claimed, were tidy piles of the best looking bounty from every corner of the globe.

“Check in weekly,” he said cheerily before we hung up.

It was early September and all the other plums — yellow, green gage, Italian prune — had come and gone.  I was doubtful that this alien called damson would be found.

“Not many people request it,” he’d said earlier in our call. “But I’ve got a supplier in Quebec.”

Tony never let me down. A week later, I walked out of his store with a million dollars’ worth of the sour little gems in their dark purple suits. Nora and I set to work. After two hours of hard labour, we were at that crucial juncture that stops any jam purist from hyperventilating and pulling out a box of commercial pectin.

It’s called the gelling point but should be called pointless, since all the indicators leading to it – heat, natural pectin content, flavour and consistency – meld into one big messy, sugary fruit concoction stirred by a bossy broad who makes the call, erroneously, again and again.

That, my dear readers, is little old me.

I have this thing with jams and jellies. I always want to make them but get burnt out at the eleventh hour and make a totally impatient miscall on the gelling point.

Nora knows not to listen to my pectin theories anymore.  Like any sensible cooking partner, she calmly looks the other way when I hold up a jam-dripping wooden spoon, perilously close to her snout, and screech out “It’s sheeting!”. She just laughs when I open my freezer and yank out a little frozen plate. She snorts when I plonk a test blob of cooking jam on the frozen surface and claim that it’s “rippling just like the cookbook says” before our very eyes.

Nora doesn’t take any of my gel guff anymore. She makes the call. But when she’s not by my side to slap me into gel sanity, things go wonky.

It’s why my sister and I have made a tradition of basting Easter lamb with my secret Seville sauce that annually never quite gels into marmalade.  It’s why David found himself penning Blum Sauce on a recent Herd Road batch in my desperation to distract BC gel-sniffers.

I know few will believe me, but my most recent foray into the damson plum realm rewarded my tenaciousness with two crowning glories: a damson jam that neatly gelled without added pectin and a cake that is simply Plum Easy.

Plus, I didn’t have to call Tony, my uh, supplier.

I simply turned on Google Map and made my way to Sheila’s house in Mill Bay where a box of fresh-picked damson plums sat near her back door. Sheila had recently helped her friend denude a backyard tree of these little wonders and asked me after a Pilates class if I knew what to do with damson.

IMG_6113Did I know?

Memories of Nora’s knowing, raised eyebrows filled this cook’s heart with glee as David and I poured the purple mountain of Sheila’s picked damsons into a bag. We hurried them back to my new fancy kitchen where I started to measure and conjure up culinary fun times.  I had 9 lbs 3 oz of the little orbs to hand pit and was ready to go into a coma after the first dozen when I  developed a brilliant sleight of hand.  I dug my fingernails into each plum’s belly, eviscerated it,  separated pit from parent, netting 8 lbs 6 oz.  of readied product in just under an hour.

I was about to wrap up all those pits in a cheesecloth bag and add them to my jam session until my wiser-self asked Dr. Google a thing or two. I learned those plum pits weren’t going to improve my gelling odds, were devoid of natural pectin and might come in handy as pie weights. I washed, dried and bottled up 2 cups of the almond-like babies.

Then I made My Best Ever Damson Jam spiked with homegrown hot peppers which I present to you now, knowing that you’re unlikely to make it, but might not resist the second very easy recipe offered below.

IMG_6122

My Best Ever Damson Jam Spiked with Chillies

  • Servings: 7-8 250 mL jars
  • Print

Okay, you’ve read my story but ask Nora how good damson jam is. We may not agree on gelling point but we are both bedazzled by damson plums’ puckering, rich flesh and sweet skins that shrivel into dark magical ribbons when served on a toasted slice of home baked levain.

3 1/2 lbs pitted damson

5 cups granulated white sugar

3 tbsp fresh lemon juice

1 1/2 tbsp lemon zest

1 1/2 tsp coarsely ground dried red hot peppers

Preheat oven to 400 F.

Bake damson plums in a large baking pan, covered with aluminum foil for 30 min.

Transfer cooked damson into a large, wide-rimmed pot, add sugar, lemon juice, zest and ground chillies bring to a rapid bowl, stirring for 10 minutes until the magical gelling point occurs.

Ladle jam into sterilized jars leaving ¼ inch headspace and process for 10 min. 

IMG_6128

Plum Easy Cake

Sheila alerted me to this famous find, originally published by the New York Times and authored by Marion Burrows as “Original Plum Torte”.  Phooey.  This isn’t a torte, it’s a dead easy cake that you can pile upon its spooned batter a ton of ripe cut fruit, sugar and spice.  Here’s my over-the-top version with Damson.

¾ cup granulated sugar

½ cup unsalted butter, softened

2 eggs

1/2 cup unbleached white flour

½ cup spelt, kamut or whole wheat

1 tsp baking powder

Pinch of salt

2 cups pitted and halved Damson plums

¼ granulated sugar

2 tbsp lemon juice

1 tsp cinnamon

Preheat oven to 350 F. Butter a 9-inch springform pan, line the bottom with parchment paper.

Whisk together sugar and butter in a mixing bowl until light and fluffy. Beat in eggs.

In a small bowl, combine flours, baking powder and salt.  Fold dry ingredients into wet to create a stiff batter.

In a medium bowl, combine plums, sugar, lemon juice and cinnamon.

Spoon batter into pan, level with a spatula and top with fruit.

Bake 1 hour or until the top is golden brown and a cake tester comes out clean.  Remove from oven, allow to cool for 10 minutes, trace a butter knife around the edges of the pan and de-pan.

Serve warm or at room temperature.

IMG_6131

 

 

Memoir of a muffin

When I tasted my first bran muffin at the corner of College and Bathurst at The Mars, it was a revelation. I was 19, wore a peasant skirt over Kodiak boots and rolled my own cigarettes with Drum tobacco. I thought myself street-wise but was anything but … Just incredibly curious and always, always hungry. Thus, that first ravenous bite into a Mars bran muffin – dark with molasses and dense like black forest cake – is pure gold in my food memory bank.

My boyfriend Bob was also a revelation. Nothing about him resembled where I came from. He hadn’t grown up in North Toronto or gone to Upper Canada College (like my brother, father or grandfather) but he sure knew enough about betting to pique my father’s gambling instincts  and instill a gin rummy playing camaraderie between them.

One summer evening at a family cottage dinner, my stately grandmother innocently asked “And what is it that you do, my dear?” while passing Bob the gravy boat.

“I’m a bookie,” chirped Bob grinning like a cherub, thrilled to make this reveal. Nonnie promptly cleared her throat and my grandfather mumbled “Holy sailor” but no one else asked another word, quickly sweeping this unpleasant news under the nearest carpet.

IMG_2896But back to the muffin. The Mars muffin. It was big, filling and dotted with plump, fat raisins. They were served hot from the oven, sliced in half with a large pat of cold butter wedged inside and fully melted in seconds. Diners, breakfast eggs, take-out baklava and percolated coffee played large in my coming of culinary age. These gigantic muffins were new to diners in the 70s and customers would line up in front of the cash register hoping to leave with half a dozen of these towering –no, glistening – babies stuffed inside a Mars embossed, white cardboard box.

Near that same cash register, along the long, white Formica diner bar, were stools occupied by inner-city characters of dubious distinction. Bob seemed to know them all. They had nicknames like Baldy, Joe the Dipper or Car Fare. Some came “packing” and others had Mafia affiliations following them like shadows.

Bob, being Bob, liked to break away pieces of my W.A.S.P. veneer by unexpectedly pushing me in front of one of these cigar smoking men at the Mars saying, “Hey Dukey, meet my girlfriend Lynn.  She’s a Haver-girl.” I seethed at these embarrassments…  but they didn’t stop me from moving to New York with Bob a year later and attending an Ivy League college while he worked as a bouncer at Studio 54.

IMG_2898But back to the muffins.  I made some today in my West coast kitchen as the rain pelted across a gray, foggy horizon in a day-long deluge. I searched through my baking boxes and pulled out a bag of wheat bran, which now looks oddly old school next to newer fibrous fads like chia, flax or hemp. I found some spelt which adds such friendly nuttiness to any baking equation.

I mixed the dry and wet ingredients in two separate bowls. Quick breads and muffins all like this preparatory segregation with just minimal combining prior to the bake. Crosby’s molasses is a necessary must if you want real tasting bran muffins. And remember to measure the oil in the measuring cup first as prep for the molasses, which will slide out of the measuring cup effortlessly if you do.

Unlike the Mars bran muffin, these ones are good for you: moist, satisfying and rich. I’m willing to place a double-or-nothing bet on Crisco as the trans-fat source of those yesteryear muffins. Yet still, I savour that muffin’s nostalgia and happily munched on all these memories when creating, baking and eating my latest version.

IMG_2899

Banana Bran Muffins

Healthy, fibre-full muffins with a rich, moist texture and just a hint of banana or apple flavour.

Dry Ingredients:

1 ½ cups          wheat bran

¾ cup               all purpose flour

¾ cup               spelt

¾ cup               raisins or chopped dates

1 tsp                 cinnamon

1 tsp                 baking soda

1 tsp                 baking powder

½ tsp                salt

Wet ingredients

2 eggs              mixed

1 cup               mashed, really ripe bananas (about 2 ½) OR unsweetened apple sauce

¾ cup              plain yogurt

½ cup              milk

1/3 cup            molasses

¼ cup              vegetable oil

Preheat oven to 400 F

Mix dry and wet ingredients separately in large bowl.  Combine until just mixed. Use a ¼ cup measure to dollop into large paper muffin cups. Bake 20 minutes.  Makes 12 large muffins.

 

When a danish goes Swedish

I’ve got a really great book club.  Sure, we like to read the odd book but what we’re really about is food.

This month our pick was The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.  We chose it because it met two of our essential requirements. The story was set in Sweden offering a new cuisine for our food laden meeting and heck, Swedish  meatballs were on our minds

I offered to make dessert but couldn’t come up with a single Swedish idea, let alone recipe name. So I opened up my two-inch thick, 10 pound heavy copy of The Professional Pastry Chef by Bo Friberg and found two measly entries: Swedish Lenten Buns (which fellow member Jann had already snagged) and Swedish Apple Tart. Besides, both of these recipes were incredibly complicated (duh, it’s for pros)!

So I made a simple geographical jump, reasoning that those southern neighbours of Sweden had a good thing going on.

In other words, a Danish could go Swedish. Continue reading “When a danish goes Swedish”