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Chestnut Flour Quick, Chestnut Flour Slow

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chestnutWith so many bakers exploring gluten-free options, here’s one to try: chestnut flour.  When this traditional Italian ingredient turned up in local markets recently (fall is the best season for the new crop of chestnut flour), it seemed an interesting alternative for cookies or pastries, like the crescents (a.k.a. Russian tea cookies, Mexican wedding cookies) in which chestnut pieces substitute so gloriously for pecans or walnuts.  (A note: we’re not talking about water chestnut flour here. That’s a totally differet animal).

So, admittedly, chestnut flour’s gluten-free properties weren’t even a factor until the idea of incorporating it into a yeast bread came to mind. Paleo bread recipes, common across the Internet, weren’t the ticket;  the search was on for a more rustic recipe in the Italian tradition.  Chestnut trees were once so  common in Italy that the flour was considered a downmarket ingredient, used in pasta, polenta, cakes and breads to cut the more precious wheat flour.

img_9527-chestnut-flourThat’s how it’s used in this recipe for Chestnut-Walnut Bread which needs some regular flour to develop the gluten, and thus structure. Chestnut flour’s naturally nutty, somewhat sweet character gives gives the bread an alluringly distinctive taste  in a loaf that bakes up with a tender, finely textured crumb —  denser than a typical wheat flour loaf, but not heavy.

On the other hand, chestnut flour’s natural properties make it a more a natural fit for quick breads, like this Chestnut-Chocolate Tea Bread that bakes up beautifully moist and tender.

Flipping the Bird

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For some oddball reason, we managed to roast the Thanksgiving turkey upside down, without anyone even noticing until the master carver of the house, preparing to slice up the bird, asked why it was placed breast down on the presentation platter.

We still can’t explain that one, but the surprise result was a turkey that yielded exquisitely moist white meat. True, it could be thanks also to the dry brine it underwent in the days leading up to the holiday, or the liberal rubdown with Porchetta-Spiced butter it received just prior to cooking.  But the accidental upside-down roast method got us to thinking; maybe we were on to something, by pure happenstance.

A little cookbook sleuthing finds it may be so. Research and experiments into how to roast the perfect turkey, detailed by the editors of Cook’s Illustrated in The Best Recipe (1999, Boston Common Press), reference James Beard’s technique for achieving equal temperatures in the white and dark meat – turning the bird as it roasts, starting with the breast side down on a rack, turning onto each side during the cooking time, and finishing with the breast side up.  The Cook’s Illustrated editors concluded: “Brining, turning, and basting are work, yes, but the combination produces the best turkey we’ve ever had.”

Funny, it was the exact same thing we’d theorized, standing over the upside-down bird on its decorative holiday platter. That’s the tried-and-true method for roasting a chicken that we learned from Julia Child.  Although in truth, turning a searing-hot chicken is work enough, so the next time the turkey may be started breast side down, and flipped once. That’s probably what Kate was aiming for in the first place, having used the L.A. Times method for how to dry brine. The big flip just got lost somewhere in the dinner hustle-bustle.  Because we also tend to follow the advice offered by The New York Times on how to stop freaking out about the turkey: “Remember, it’s just a big chicken.”

Bonus tip: Because this Porchetta-Spiced Turkey recipe includes fennel seed in the dry rub, we added some fresh fennel to the dressing. It lends a clean, fresh note to the traditional celery, onion and sage combination, while echoing the seasonings in the turkey and resulting gravy. 

Ah, the Forbidden Fruit

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Pomelos were prevalent in local markets during the winter. And so, after seeing them in Chinatown groceries over the years, and hearing that they were something like a less-acidic grapefruit, I finally got around to picking up a couple.

V0042686 Pummelo or Pamplemousse (Citrus maxima (Burm.) Merr.): floweLooking much like an overgrown grapefruit, the pomelo is indeed like a milder version of that citrus. A little research on the fruit and its uses turned up that it is native to South Asia (hence its regular appearance in Chinatown), is available in white- and pink-fleshed varieties, has a remarkably thick skin and layer of pith, is also known as the shaddock or pamplemousse – and, that it was the base of Forbidden Fruit, a mysterious, long-vanished liqueur, and a key ingredient of the Dorchester Cocktail.

OK, that part got our attention. Delicious as the pomelo fruit is all on its own, dripping with the taste of honeyed grapefruit, its connection to the Golden Age of cocktails made it even more alluring. The whims of the 20th-century pomelo market probably brought about the demise of Forbidden Fruit liqueur, which was made by the same producer as Chambord, and was even sold in the same globe-shaped, gold-capped bottle. Even London’s Dorchester Hotel is left to wonder what might have been for its signature drink.

Pomelos are still a rarity in most markets, but apparently California growers have been experimenting with the crop. Its emergence in this country dovetails with the craft cocktail movement, and mixologists have set their sights on recreating Forbidden Fruit. Collectors have been seeking old bottle of the commercial product on eBay, hoping to coax out a few remaining drops or vapors to analyze. Cobbling together some of those efforts, we blended a batch by steeping the juice and peels of pink pomelos and blood oranges, plus cardamom, coriander and vanilla bean, in cognac, then straining off the solids and adding orange blossom honey.

The resulting liqueur has am amber color and nectar-like fragrance of early spring blossoms, touched with jasmine, vanilla and honey, tempered by a back note of spice. It’s beautiful to sip on its own, and the classic Dorchester Cocktail, which employs gin, rum and Forbidden Fruit, is a lovely martini variant. Cocktail lovers, take note. Everyone else, just cut into a pomelo to understand this enchanting forbidden fruit. 

Forbidden Fruit LiqueurTry the recipe: Forbidden Fruit Liqueur 

Then try the cocktail:

The Dorchester

2 ounces gin, preferably a London dry

1 ounce rum

1 ounce Forbidden Fruit liqueur

Stir with ice, strain into a chilled cocktail glass and top with a twist of lemon. 

Little Jewels

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We were dubbed The Macaroon Gang by one of the husbands of our little group, incredulous as he was that his wife and her food-obsessed buddies would devote an entire day to tracking down macaroons on the Lower East Side. But by then we had our route plotted out, starting at the little shop that stocked barrels of fresh, moist, densely sweet coconut macaroons for Passover —  in plain, chocolate-dipped, chocolate chip, and chocolate dipped in chocolate —  then heading down the street to the kosher pastry shop, the dried fruit and nut store, the matzoh factory, and the pickle man, for fresh horseradish (grated into a barrel by a guy on the sidewalk wearing a gas mask). It mattered little that only one of us was Jewish and actually needed some of the items for her Seder dinner. We’d fallen in love with those coconut macaroons from the LES and brought back bags full.

Alas, all of those iconic little LES shops have disappeared, their scuffed and worn storefronts turned into glass-box boutiques and coffee houses of a now thoroughly gentrified area. Coconut macaroons, on the other hand, remain a staple around Passover in New York. They’re likely produced by the same companies, although shed of the requisite trek to the old neighborhood, they’ve somehow lost their magic.

So this year, thoughts have turned to another macaroon variant for Passover, made with ground almonds and walnuts instead of coconut, and topped with bit of jam to make the cookies glisten like little jewels. This recipe, courtesy of cookbook author Joan Nathan in The New York Times, puts a Baghdad spin on things, with cardamom as the main spice, and a touch of rosewater in the finish. The only other ingredients are sugar and egg, just like basic coconut macaroons (not to be confused with the trendy French macarons), and they can be, in fact, should be, mixed in one bowl by hand. The process: incredibly simple. The results; hauntingly aromatic. 

Tip: Be careful on the baking time, as these cookies can quickly become too brown and dry. Remove from the oven when they still look slightly underdone, and they will stay tender and chewy. 

 Almond-Walnut Thumbprint Macaroons 


Spice Island

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Zanzibar spice nursery

Fresh from a rare side sojourn to Zanzibar—pinch me, Zanzibar!—after a work trip to Tanzania, I can still almost feel the hot East African sun on my face and taste the delectable Swahili delicacies that I could not try fast enough when I was there. Oh, but for more hours in the day—or for the wisdom to take vacation time when I travel.

Still, I did have the presence of mind to sign up for a tour of one of the spice plantations just outside of Stone Town. And I skedaddled home with a glorious trove of ingredients to recreate my Africa experience as well as energize some of the dishes on regular rotation here.

Over the coming weeks, I will be pulling out the stops with fresh nutmeg, cinnamon bark, lemon grass, curry blends, saffron and other lovely flavors as I channel inspiration from one of the world’s original fusion cuisines: Swahili. (First up: prawn curry.) But for now, here’s a little visual tour.

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Chocolate Kissed by a Rose

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Morning scents.8.7.14

The signboard outside a neighborhood sweets shop offered the enticing promise of rose-flavored hot chocolate. A promise that, as is so often is the case with rose-flavored/scented foods, did not quite stand up in the bargain. The Valrhona hot chocolate was indeed luscious and lovingly prepared, but a bit heavy-handed in the addition of rose flavoring. It’s a problem encountered a lot in recipes that attempt to incorporate a lovely hint of rose, but instead leave a lingering sense of having ingested perfume, or soap.

It transported me back to the first recipe I ever encountered that called for rose water. Many moons ago, when the Three Points Cooks first got together in the kitchen,  Bon Appetit magazine published an over-the-top recipe for brownies that called for both semi-sweet and milk chocolate, coconut, whipped egg whites, rum, Amaretto, and rose water. And that made it irresistible. Who knows where we even located a bottle of rose water in those days before gourmet markets became a fixture on every corner, but whipping up a batch of those lovelies forever changed my perception of how food and fragrance could combine to elevate commonplace ingredients. Just a touch of rose water takes chocolate to a whole other place.  It’s hard to pinpoint how exactly — maybe some magical mix of serotonin-releasing elements and sense memories – but rose water enhances the very chocolaty-ness of chocolate, with an injection of ethereal freshness.

That discovery sent me off in search of other chocolate and rose dessert combinations, which remain relatively uncommon even now, years down the road, when all our taste buds have become more accustomed to the addition of herbs to sweets and floral notes to savories. Perhaps it’s because so many of them fall into the trap of a soapy overdose of rose. The idea is for the rose essence to be barely noticeable, a subtle whisper, an alluring perfume. That’s always been the beauty of this particular recipe to me. Tasters who are pretty sure they know what they’re getting with a brownie will raise an eyebrow in surprise and ask about the secret ingredient. Is it brandy? Marzipan? A particular kind of chocolate? They pick up on something, but can’t quite place it.

Rose water can be tricky, to be sure. Different brands seem to have different levels of strength, and it’s easy to overdo. Think of it as an extract, starting with a portion of the amount called for in any recipe, and taste for balance.

Try the recipe here: Chocolate-Coconut Brownies

Corn Bread vs. Cornbread

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Corn bread or cornbread?
Corn bread or cornbread?

Over the years a vendor at the local farmer’s market has occasionally offered a corn bread. Not a cornbread, the often sweet quick bread, but a yeast bread with some cornmeal added to the dough that was baked into a round loaf. During the summer it made a marvelous BLT. But its appearance was sporadic, and I hadn’t seen it in quite awhile. Or thought much about it. Until a trip to Slovenia, where, lo and behold, a yeast-raised corn bread was part of the bread basket wherever we went. Toasted, it was fabulous for breakfast, with a drizzle of honey.

Sure, cornbread, that American staple, is a great option to accompany chili, stews and other hearty winter fare. But you really ought to give corn bread a try. 

Two favorites for a Corn Bread/Cornbread Throwdown: 

Maple Cornbread: Via King Arthur Flour, a ,moist easy-as-pie recipe that smells heavenly when baking, thanks to a touch of maple syrup.

Rhode Island Corn Bread: From the Sundays at Moosewood Restaurant cookbook. The name says New England, but this recipe captures the taste of those wonderful Slovenian bread baskets.