Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Little House on the Prairie: Cooking with maple syrup

Okay, so I don't live in the woods. I am not a pioneer woman. I do not live on a farm. In fact, I grow NOTHING in my back yard and I can't seem to keep an herb plant alive for more than a few weeks. (I like to blame this on having grown up in NYC.) I do, however, have six children who, like the weeds in my "garden," are growing very fast. And I am home with them. All day. Yes, we homeschool, and so in a way, I feel a kind of connection with Laura Ingalls' mother, Caroline, and to her work: the home. Every afternoon during lunch, I read to the children from various books, and we are currently reading the "Little House" series. My eldest three (James, 9; Julia, 7; Lily,5) sit at their places transfixed by the stories of farm life--and food! Food, so glorious, and yet so simple! One of the aspects of these stories that strikes me is how seasonal their food is. In this (happy!) age of the supermarket, we can eat whatever we like, whenever. Strawberries in January? No problem! Pumpkin pie in July? You got it!

These stories, however, bring us back to a time when every food had its season, for example: in the spring and summer, berries were collected and made into pies and preserves; in the fall, the wheat was threshed and the harvest was brought in and meat was smoked and salted; in the winter, deer were hunted and maple syrup was made ready. And they blessed their food before every meal, recognizing the gift that it truly was. There was a real comfort in the rituals that every season brought, a comfort not dissimilar from what I believe our liturgical seasons and feast days bring us as Catholics. Certainly the food traditionally prepared to celebrate many feast days was chosen not only for its symbolism, but also for its seasonal availability. Think of all the fish eaten in Italy on Christmas Eve!

Although it is late January still, I am feeling the end of winter. It was 60 degrees just the other day! It was towards the end of the winter (admittedly a bit later than February in Wisconsin!) that Laura's family made their maple sugar candies from boiling maple syrup and pouring it over fresh SNOW. With no feast day in sight, I thought we might try a modern version of these pioneer candies. I have also included a recipe for maple sugar cookies, which I think are probably a bit tastier than the maple syrup cakes the Ingalls used to eat! You've got to love brown sugar!

Maple Sugar Candy
2 cups real maple syrup

1. Using a candy thermometer, in a sturdy saucepan with high sides,
bring the maple syrup to a boil.

2. Turn the heat to very low and allow the syrup to continue boiling without stirring until the thermometer reads 233F. Be careful that thesyrup doesn’t boil over - once maple syrup finally decides to boil, it really boils.

3. When the reduced syrup has reached 233F, remove it from the heat and allow to cool, still without stirring it, until the thermometer reads 110 F.

4. Now it’s time to beat the reduced syrup with a wooden spoon. Beat vigorously for several minutes. (It can help to sing when you do this.) You are making a transformation take place: As you beat, the syrup gradually turns a pale caramel color and it becomes stiff enough to hold a shape.

5. Place in candy molds or form into patties on a plate or baking sheet and allow to cool completely. Then unmold and enjoy.

Maple Sugar Cookies
1 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup white sugar2 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon maple extract
1/4 cup maple syrup
4 cups all-purpose flour
2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
Heavy cream

Sift the flour, baking powder and salt together. Thoroughly blend into
the butter mixture. Form into a disc, wrap in plastic wrap, and chill
for at least 4 hours.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.

Roll the dough out 1/4-inch thick. With a drinking glass, cut out
cookies and transfer to parchment lined baking sheet. Brush the
cookies with heavy cream. Bake for 8 to 10 minutes.

Meanwhile make the maple glaze. Mix all the ingredients in a saucepan.
Stir over medium heat until it just reaches the boiling point. Brush
or dip the tops of the cookies in the maple glaze while still hot. Let
cool. These taste better the next day.

Maple Glaze:
1 cup confectioners' sugar
1/4 cup maple sugar
1 teaspoon maple extract
1/4 cup unsalted butter
In a medium bowl, cream the butter, then gradually add the sugar and
continue to beat. Add the eggs, vanilla extract, maple extract, and
maple syrup, and beat until light and fluffy.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Our Daily Bread: Banana Bread

Baking is one of my favorite things, and baking for someone gives it a wonderful sense of purpose. My husband, for instance, loves banana bread! Whenever he requests it for a weekday breakfast, or I have the chance to surprise him, I naturally think of him while I prepare the loaf. He has even told me that he feels loved when I make it for him…not because of the banana bread itself, but precisely because he knows I made it for him. What a higher purpose baking now takes on for me! It is a chance to love others.

I can only imagine the joy and delight that consumed Our Blessed Mother’s heart as she prepared meals for Jesus and St. Joseph. By the labor of her hands she was feeding, nourishing, and loving no less than God Himself!

We hope you enjoy this banana bread recipe from the Better Homes and Gardens cook book as much as my family does!

Banana Bread
2 cups all purpose flour
1 ½ teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
2 beaten eggs
1 ½ cups mashed bananas
1 cup sugar
½ cup melted butter
¼ cup chopped walnuts (I usually add up to ¾ of a cup to use for a heartier breakfast)

1. Preheat oven to 350. Grease the bottoms and side of one 9x5x3 inch loaf pan; set aside. Combine flour, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, nutmeg, and salt. Make a well in center of flour mixture; set aside.

2. In another bowl combine eggs, bananas, sugar and melted butter. Add egg mixture all at once to flour mixture. Stir just until moistened (batter should be lumpy). Fold in nuts. Spoon batter into prepared pan.

3. Bake 55-60 minutes or until a wooden toothpick inserted near center comes out clean. (If necessary, cover loosely with foil the last 15 minutes of baking to prevent over-browning.)

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Guilty Pleasures, God’s Hedonism, and Fasting

Not long ago (before the “Salt Files”), my mom posted on God’s hedonism—commenting on food and furthering some thoughts Lewis entertained in The Screwtape Letters. Monday’s gospel reading contained Christ’s commentary on his disciples having no need to fast while the bridegroom was with them, and those who have followed this week's gospel readings have heard a good bit of Jesus’s considerations on the Sabbath. Which brings me to the issue of fasting; not, quite frankly, one of my favorite things by instinct. Some recent recommendations to fast and donate the money saved to the suffering people of Haiti have brought the issue of fasting back to my mind (as has the awareness that Lent is really just around the corner!), and have reminded me of its purpose.
I spent my junior year of college abroad—in Florence, Italy. The food (not surprisingly) was extremely good (though I once joked to a friend, during a very active vacation, that it wasn’t that the food was so inherently great, it was that you were always so hungry when you ate it). Which brings me to the focus of today’s reflection: one of my most memorable and guiltiest food pleasures. One of the best meals I had the whole year I lived in Italy was on Good Friday. My friends and I had spent most of the day reflecting on the Lord’s Passion in a very engaged and active way: I was part of a choir that sang during a lengthy Via Crucis whose path went up the hills around Florence. After the Via Crucis was done, we raced back to our apartment to get our things since we were staying with my roommate Raffaella’s family in Rome for the Easter weekend. When we arrived at her parents’ Roman home a couple of hours later, her mother presented us with a wonderful Caprese salad of fresh mozzarella and tomatoes with basil leaves and good bread to go with it. Now, a Caprese salad is tasty on any day, but when you haven’t really eaten all day, it is *unbelievable*. I devoured that salad with an ecstasy that made me a little uncomfortable. But that very enjoyment I experienced reminded me that fasting is useful, even for hedonists. Abstaining from food for a period reminds us that we are not as dependent on eating as we think we are: we will survive a day without our usual three squares (or second breakfasts!). Fasting reminds us that our engagement with food is not purely instinctive: we have choices about what and how we eat: while food is necessary to our lives, we have a tremendous amount of flexibility in how we respond to that need—we’re not just animals. Fasting, in the end, serves many great purposes: 1) reminding us that our relationship with food is more than purely instinctive; 2) reminding us that we are more dependent on our God than we are on bread; and 3) reminding us just how tasty food really is!
None of this can be bad! And if we save some money to donate to the suffering, it's even greater!

Our Daily Bread: Monastery Bread

My family enjoyed a recent visit with Papa Paul and Gwy (as Timmie is known to her grandchildren). I was thrilled to be apron-clad alongside my mother-in-law baking and breaking bread together.

Being an avid baker (something in my genes) I had yet to get over my irrational fear of baking with yeast. Silly I know, but the thought of working with something alive was rather daunting. Timmie rolled up her sleeves, insisted that we tackle the task together and assured me that both yeast and kneading were actually quite fun. I was in for a treat!

We opened A Continual Feast to page 247 and made Monastery Bread. It is a wonderfully simple recipe and therefore a particularly perfect first recipe for bread baking. If you have never tried to bake your own bread- this is a great start.

One cannot help but consider the opening of a yeast packet to be anti-climactic. Will those funny shaped brown specks really turn that bowl of flour into bread? Every time I prepare my bread dough I doubt, and every time the results excite and fascinate me.

What a glorious comparison Jesus makes in his parable of the leaven [Matthew (13:33-35) and Luke (13:20-21)]. The kingdom of heaven is like leaven, which a woman took and buried in three measures of flour, until all of it was leavened. What I particularly love about this passage is the hope and purpose it inspires in our own daily work. Our daily efforts are like those of the woman burying the leaven in the flour. Then God takes these efforts and -like the leaven- he can perform miracles from our seemingly mundane tasks. Our professional work (be it the work of a mother, a student, a doctor, a lawyer, a butcher, a baker or a candlestick maker) when united to God makes a powerful partnership. Through our daily efforts, we bury the leaven of our work and God makes it rise.

What a wonderful thought to consider while kneading our daily bread!

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Apple Crisp: Great fruit desserts for Ordinary Time

We are now in what is called "ordinary time"--we are poised between the festivities of the Christmas season and the austerities of Lent (which starts early this year, on February 17).

Let’s start exploring some delicious fruit desserts—they are great for ordinary or even extraordinary time! One of my little grand-daughters complained, "Fruit is a very boring dessert!" Actually, what she said (she is wobbly on her r’s) was "Fwoot is a vewy bowwing dessewt!" Many of us think that fresh fruit is in fact delicious—even for dessert. But we can all agree that baked fruit is wonderful. There is great recipe for Apple Crisp in A Continual Feast on p. 65, in the section titled "All the Days of our Lives." One little change though: my family loves lots of crust, so we often double the ingredients for the crust and bake the Apple Crisp in a large flat pan, to maximize the top surface. You can also add fresh or dried cranberries to the apples, for extra tang. Serve the Crisp a la mode to make it even more special.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

So what about the salt that is “good for nothing"?

Last post (probably!) on salt.
What about that salt that has lost its savor?--that is “good for nothing and can only be thrown out to be trampled under people’s feet”(Matthew 5:13). Jesus wasn’t just speaking figuratively: in biblical times they did with low-grade salt something like what we do today: they put it on the marble courtyards of the Temple after rain to make them less slippery. Indeed, trampled underfoot.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Salt: Do you love it too much? How to appease your taste buds if you have to cut back?

Back to salt! (I’ll stop soon, I promise.) We need it, crave it, love it—but we can love it too much. This is, alas, true of many good things: we can love them too much for our good.

If the doctor says you must cut back on your salt intake, what to do? You can’t really fool your taste buds—salt has a sharpness that nothing else can match—but you can stimulate them with other good tastes and delicious aromas. Look carefully at the ingredients in “salt-free seasonings” that are on the market. Among the key ingredients are dried onion and garlic, lemon and orange rind, paprika--sometimes red pepper--and parsley. To that, add basil, oregano, rosemary and thyme, depending on your tastes. You can include some or all of these seasonings in your cooking—and add more, to taste, at the end.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Salt: Why do we need it, crave it, love it?

Still more thoughts on salt. Why do we need it? Salt is in fact absolutely necessary to our survival; it is a vital biological mineral--an electroylye--that our bodies must have. Without adequate salt in our diet, we die. (Too much salt is bad for us too; I’ll come aback to that another time.)

But the fact that our bodies need salt doesn’t explain why we crave it. The fact that we should eat or drink or do something wouldn’t automatically guarantee that we would want to do so--or indeed that we would actively enjoy doing it.

Let me go back to Screwtape’s point (discussed in my last post) that God is a hedonist. God not only made things, and made so many of them beautiful, in some intrinsic sense--he also made us capable of recognizing and enjoying that beauty. God could easily have made things so that he alone saw and appreciated their beauty--but he also gave us pleasure in them.

He made us needing salt—and he made us craving and desiring salt, and then he even made it taste very good to us.

How very--well, I guess the word is--gracious of God to do it this way. And hedonistic.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Wedding Feasts, Party Savers, and Superheroes…

The other day my girls (ages 6, 4, and 2) decided they wanted to play superheroes. So—true to the form—they tied towels around their necks and went zipping around, announcing the great saving actions they were in the midst of executing. My personal favorite (which I suspect is not very familiar to boy superheroes around town) was the following, “There is a party without a cake! Superheroes to the rescue!!” I had to laugh at the sweetness and the sense of urgency that the girls felt in rescuing this otherwise-doomed birthday celebration. Somehow I got to thinking, though—was it really so much stranger than the wedding feast at Cana? Having grown up on stories of Jesus’ first sign and the importance it had as the beginning of his public ministry, I hadn’t given much thought to the actual substance of Christ’s first miracle. But then I thought—restocking the wine at a party? *This* is the first thing that Jesus does that reveals who He is? It could almost seem absurd; it is certainly singular, as we never hear of another miracle like it. It definitely suggests the truthfulness of the Gospels—for who would make up a story like that? The more I thought about it, though, the more it suggested something bigger: a tenderness on Christ’s part towards some of the basic realities of our human social reality; a concern for the awkwardness that sometimes surrounds party preparations; an awareness of human financial and personal limitations in putting on a great feast; and a recognition of the real importance that a wedding has in the lives of many people. Jesus wasn’t just saving a party, he was revealing who He was--but part of that was, also, saving a party! And, as we know, when Jesus saved a party—He did it right: the wine was better than the wine the hosts had served before. His grace is always greater than the need it answers. Which should make us feel better about leftovers of all kinds…(note that leftovers are also prominently featured in the miracle of the loaves and fishes).

While Christ (as far as we know) never felt moved to replicate the miracle He performed at Cana, His intervention in this social situation can also serve to remind us that attentiveness to the social and practical needs of others—especially when it comes to major events—was (and is) something meaningful to the Lord and His mother. When we bring food to one another, or prepare something for a gathering, or help a host with his duties, it’s worth remembering that what we’re doing is for Christ.

On all the pleasures of food and drink—and life: Screwtape complains, "God is a hedonist!"

In The Screwtape Letters by the great C.S. Lewis, the devil Screwtape gets very cross and, in a letter to his apprentice, Wormwood, he complains about God: "He's a hedonist at heart. All those fasts and vigils and stakes and crosses are only a fa├žade. Or only like foam on the sea shore. Out at sea, out in His sea, there is pleasure, and more pleasure. He makes no secret of it; at His right hand are "pleasures for evermore." Ugh! I don't think He has the least inkling of that high and austere mystery to which we rise in the Miserific Vision. He's vulgar, Wormwood. He has a bourgeois mind. He has filled His world full of pleasures. There are things for humans to do all day long without His minding in the least: sleeping, washing, eating, drinking, making love, playing, praying, working, Everything has to be twisted before it's any use to us. We fight under cruel disadvantages. Nothing is naturally on our side."

So true, Screwtape.

(PS Thanks to my son Mike who reminded me of this great quote!)

Thursday, January 14, 2010

More thoughts on salt: What did Jesus mean?

I keep coming back to salt, in my thoughts these days. What did Jesus mean when he said (Matthew 5:13) that we are the “salt of the earth”? What does salt do?

Well, salt has two great properties.
First, of course, salt gives flavor to things. To cook with salt and to add salt to dishes just plain make them taste good! Without the addition of salt, meat and pasta and rice and vegetables and salads--even bread and many pastries--taste bland and insipid. We have to add salt to make these dishes taste good. Obvious!

But what is surely less obvious is the idea that that the world needs the salt that we provide—that the world is insipid and lacking in tastiness without the salt that we bring to it. Somewhat counter to most people’s thoughts on the deliciousness of the world, no? (Do most people believe they need Christ's truth for their life to seem tasty?) So why does the world need our salt to taste really good? The flavor and goodness that Christ’s salt (delivered by us) brings are clearly of a higher order than ordinary NaCl. Christ's salt gives a certain, well, bite! This shift to a higher order of meaning when Christ is speaking of food and drink is also very clear in his use of words such as water, wine, yeast and bread.

But this higher order savor of salt also brings us to its other great property—one which was particularly important in the past: salt purifies, protects, and preserves from corruption. This preservative function is of course why so many kinds of meat and fish were salted, before people routinely had access to refrigeration. Just think of bacon and salt pork, jerky, salted fish (such as bacalao), and so on. Meat and fish must still be salted and/or dried in many parts of the world.

But to move back up to the higher level of meaning: salt’s preservative quality is why it was a major element or "ingredient" in the offerings to God in the Old Testament and in the temple sacrifices--and why it is still important in the liturgies of baptism and the anointing of the sick. Salt is one of the symbols of eternal life: the soul is saved from corruption and death.

So, let’s keep adding the salt, literally and spiritually. We—and the world—all need it.

Sometime soon, some further thoughts on salt. (It is still on my mind.)

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Can salt really lose its savor, its saltiness?

You recall that Jesus says: “You are the salt of the earth. But if salt loses its taste, what can make it salty again? If is good for nothing, and can only be thrown out to be trampled under people’s feet.” (Matthew 5:13)

I do understand the point that he is making. But—forgive my literal-mindedness—I have always wondered, can salt really—literally—lose its savor? (This is one of those dumb questions that have nagged at me--inveterate cook and foodie that I am!--for years.)

It turns out that certain kinds of salt can in fact lose their savor—their saltiness. This is the case of impure rock salt and of salt that has been formed by the evaporation of sea water, such as at the Dead Sea. These forms of salt--which are not pure sodium chloride (NaCl) but are mixed with other minerals--can lose their saline taste as they deteriorate.

Thought you’d like to know. (It put my mind at rest. Or rather, now I just have to try to do it--to be the right kind of salt.)

Saturday, January 9, 2010

The Baptism of Jesus—and food in the Christian tradition

January 10 is the feast of the Baptism of the Lord. This is essentially part of Epiphany: another of the major manifestations of Christ’s divinity—the final one in the Christmas season. “A voice came from heaven: ‘You are my son, the Beloved, my favour rests on you.’”; Luke, 3: 21-2. (This important scene is also narrated in Matthew, chapter 3; and Mark, chapter 1.)

This whole period, from the Nativity through the Baptism, is an extremely ancient period of celebration, dating back to the early Church in the region around the Holy Land.

This feast contains many rich themes—but from the point of view of food and drink a few themes are of particular interest.

First, is the emphasis on holy water: according to several of the great Fathers of the Church, at his baptism Jesus was not sanctified or purified by the water of the Jordan—rather, he blessed and sanctified it: he made the water of the Jordan holy.

This was a frequent season for baptisms. It was also a time when people asked the priest to come bless their homes with holy water, or they brought home holy water to bless each room.

Here is a beautiful quote on this and related traditions from a valuable older cookbook that focuses on Christian (Catholic and Eastern Orthodox) food customs in Syria and Lebanon, The Art of Syrian Cookery, by Helen Corey (this book is still available on Amazon and elsewhere). This quote brings in the theme of holy water--as well as the themes of baptism, pure leaven, sweetness, and eternal life.

“Following church services, the priests visit the homes of their parishioners and bless the corners of all the rooms of the house with holy water… My mother told me of her activities in Syria … when she helped her mother prepare Zalabee (doughnuts; recipe below) and Awam (spoon doughnuts). These doughnut-shaped cakes were fried in olive oil, and when cooked, they were sprinkled with sugar to signify sweet and everlasting life. Although today the method of making these cakes has been simplified, at one time the dough used for the cakes was the result of being ‘baptized.’ The ceremony for the baptizing of the dough began with dying the dough in a white cloth. It was then carried to a fountain, immersed in the name of the Holy Trinity, and the baptismal chant repeated. The dough in the white cloth hung in the tree for three days, then was taken to the house. The dough rose without yeast. This new leaven, miraculously raised, provided the yeast for the next year. From this dough, small crosses were made and placed wherever food was stored in the dwelling.” Very interesting and moving! (What she is describing is a natural fermentation process--the creation of yeast--produced under the holiest of conditions.)

Recipe for Zalabee, or doughnut cakes, adapted from The Art of Syrian Cookery.
½ package dry yeast
1 ½ cup lukewarm water
4 cups flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 Tablespoon oil (olive oil or vegetable oil)
Granulated sugar
Optional: cinnamon
Olive oil or vegetable oil for frying

Dissolve the yeast in the lukewarm water. Let it sit for 5 minutes, then stir.
Sift the flour with the salt into a large bowl.
Stir the yeast and the oil gradually into the flour.
Knead briefly until the dough is well mixed and smooth.
Let the dough sit, lightly covered, for 45 minutes to an hour—until the dough has risen.
Roll the dough out to about 1/4 inch, and cut into strips about 2 inches wide and 7 inches long.
Fry the strips in a frying pan in about 1/2 to 3/4 inch of hot oil until they are golden brown.
Drain on paper towels.
Sprinkle the zalabee with sugar and (optional) cinnamon while they are hot.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Epiphany--and a king's cake, or "galette des rois"

Epiphany—from the Greek, “manifestation” or “showing forth.” This is the feast of the manifestation of Christ to the Magi, who symbolically represent the world of the Gentiles—the entire world; this is why the Magi are shown representing the different races, all come to adore Christ. Epiphany is a very ancient feast—older than Christmas itself—dating back to 3rd century Egypt. This year Epiphany is celebrated officially in the US on January 3; the actual date of the feast is January 6.

When my six children were young, each year we put on an Epiphany procession—with the Magi carrying jewelry boxes (emptied for the occasion!), and the Holy Family awaiting their arrival. (I must confess that sometimes the Christ Child wasn’t as quiet and holy as we might have liked.) It was great—and very memorable to them.

A Continual Feast contains several recipes for Epiphany cakes and drink (pp. 165-167) but let me give the recipe for a delicious, traditional French “king’s cake” here. The person who finds the bean in the cake is king for that day (this is a very old custom).

(Note: "Galette des rois" is pronounced gah-lette day rwa)
1 cup finely ground blanched almonds
2 1/3 cups sifted flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup sugar
4 egg yolks
8 tablespoons butter, cut into little pieces
About 6 tablespoons cold water
1 egg yolk, lightly beaten with a little water
A bean or dried pea


Mix the almonds thoroughly with the flour, mix in the salt and sugar. Add the egg yolks, the butter, and water as needed to make a firm dough. Work the paste gently with your fingertips.
Form it into a ball, and let it rest in the refrigerator about about 1 hour.
Preheat the oven to 425 F. Lightly grease a baking sheet.
On a lightly floured surface, roll the paste out into a galette (a circle about 3/4 inch thick). Insert a ban in the bottom surface of the galette. Cut the edges with a knife to make a perfect circle, with straight sides. With a sharp knife decorate the top with lozenge (diamond) shaped cuts or with arabesques.
Place the galette on the baking sheet. Brush with egg yolk, lightly beaten with a little water.
Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, or until the galette is golden brown.