Saturday, January 24, 2009

I'm a volunteer!

I just signed up to be a volunteer recipe tester for Cook's Country magazine, which I love. If I had to pick a favorite magazine, I'd have to say CC edges out even Cook's Illustrated in my affections, because of the 50's-ish retro production style, what with its ever-so pastel-cast color photos and lightly country elements.

Supposedly I'll be getting notifications of recipes to test every couple of weeks. I can try them or skip them as I please. After I prepare the dish, I send in my notes.

I get to give Cook's Country my two cents! And to think, I was just telling someone my dream job would be as a writer and tester in their kitchens.

Close enough for now!

Friday, January 9, 2009

Dan i Noć (Day and Night Serbian bar cookies)

I've always loved the name of these cookies – "Dan i Noć" (pro nounced "DAHN ee NOCH,") translates as "Day and Night." They show their sense in such a forthright way. Day and night: a light layer and a dark layer. What could be more sensible? The layer of apricot jam between the day and the night makes sense, too: a shimmering sunset – or perhaps a sunrise – of transluscent orange.

These cookies – or little cakes, as you might consider them – are generous and rich. The recipe includes a pound of butter, a dozen eggs, darn close to a half pound of chocolate, a whole jar of apricot preserves. Speaking of which, I recommend spending the extra couple of bucks to get really good apricot preserves. Look for apricots as the first ingredient, and real sugar as opposed to high-fructose corn syrup or other sweeteners. (Fruit-only sweetened is good, too.) If you buy more than one jar and do a side-by-side taste test at home, you will see how big a difference it really makes.

I remember having these at the home of my aunt and uncle when we would visit around Christmastime. it was one of the sitni kolaći (little cookies) specialties of my Grandaunt Naka (b. 1913), whom I shared more about here. Like Naka's Vanil Grancle, these feature apricots, that grow so well around her native town of Kikinda.

My cousin tells me Naka got the the recipe from her best friend, also from Kikinda. The best friend's family helped Naka's family in some way during the Nazi occupation of Yugoslavia, but I don't know the story beyond that.

Here's Ulysses in January 2008 (nearly four years old in this picture) enjoying a piece of Dan i Noć.

Shortly after this photo was taken, that laptop stopped working. Turned out it was plugged up with cookie crumbs.

I'm posting this today as a hat tip to my niece, Anne (she is the daughter of my cousin, and by the Serbian way of looking at family relations, that makes her more of a niece to me than anything else), 7. She loves Dan i Noć, and was sad to discover there wasn't any at the family get-together in Baltimore this year. My cousin wrote, "She was really, really bummed when she heard that no one made dan i noc. I remembered telling her to choose either gitar [another exceptional sitni kolacic in the family, I'll post that recipe too] or dan i noc as her favorite and she chose gitar so that's what i made but it seems i may have forgotten to tell her why i was asking. she got tears in her eyes, made me so sad!

"so this weekend we're making dan i noc. that works because i wouldn't have had time to make it with her before Bozic [Serbian Christmas] this time and making it together is just as important as having it for Bozic!"

Here's Anne last year (she was Annie then) enjoying the Dan i Noć she made with her mother for Božić 2008.

Recipe: Dan i Noć

1 jar apricot preserves

Noć (Night)
2 sticks unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup sugar
6 medium eggs (or 5 large)
6 squares (or 6 ounces chips) semisweet baking chocolate (each square is one ounce)
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup flour
1 teaspoon baking powder

Dan (Day)
Same ingredients as the Noć, but without the chocolate:
2 sticks unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup sugar
6 medium eggs (or 5 large)
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup flour
1 teaspoon baking powder

1. Melt chocolate
Melt the chocolate. Use low heat and stir often, so the chocolate won't seize or scorch. Use a heavy-bottomed pan, a flame tamer, or a double boiler if you have one. By the time you add the chocolate to other ingredients, it should be liquidy, but cool enough that it won't cause the eggs to cook on contact.

2. Soft-bake the Noć
Cream butter and sugar. Beat in eggs one at a time. Stir in the chocolate and vanilla.

Whisk together flour and baking powder. Mix these dry ingredients into the wet mixture. This will make a soupy batter.

Line a rectangular baking pan with parchment paper or aluminum foil. No greasing is needed. Pour in the batter. Shake sideways, or rap the pan sharply against your counter, to knock out extra air bubbles. You can see in my photos that I missed this step – see what happen?

Bake at 350 for about 30 minutes. It needs to be firm enough that you can spread jam over it, but not baked through, That is, at this point a toothpick inserted in it will not come out anywhere near clean.

3. Prep the Dan
While the Noć is in the oven, prepare the batter for the Dan. Cream butter and sugar, beat in eggs one at a time, beat in vanilla, whisk together flour and baking powder, stir dry mix into wet mix.

4. Apply the jam layer
Remove from oven. Spread the apricot preserves evenly over the dark Noć layer while still warm.

5. Add the Dan layer
Carefully pour the light batter evenly overtop the contents of the pan.

6. Final bake
Put the pan back in the oven for another 30 minutes, or until a knife (or cake pick) inserted in the center comes out clean. The instructions I received say to check the Dan, but I found that the Noć took longer to bake through, so make sure your Dan and your Noć are baked throughout.

The Dan will be beautifully golden brown on top. If the Dan is as browned as it needs to be, but the cake inside still needs more baking, cover the pan tightly with foil (or place a cookie sheet over it) so the top won't overbake.

7. Cool and cut
Let cool. Carefully lift the whole cake from the pan and transfer to a large cutting surface. Slice into rectangular pieces about the width and length of your index finger. Cut carefully and methodically so that your pieces are evenly sized, with straight sides and square corners. I used the patterns on my wooden cutting board as my guides.

The finger-sized pieces are lovely and make hearty portions of this rich dessert. However, after a while I cut some of them into thirds, and found this size makes a wonderful bite-sized treat.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Bozic - Serbian Christmas 2009

It was great taking a couple of days of work to putter in the kitchen and make these heritage meals. After work our friend Gigi came over, hooray, our Serbian holiday co-celebrant as I've said before. Especially great to have her here because we've missed her on the last couple of occasions.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Corba od Patlidzan - otherwise known as tomato soup

I pulled off the Badnje Vece meal more smoothly than ever this year! Not like the years that I would finally get everything (that I hadn't forgotten) on the table by 11 pm. I got eight courses set out before 7 pm, and I only spent the last hour working full throttle. I even made the kidney bean salad from a deeper scratch – dried beans that I soaked overnight, rather than a can. My testimonial: it's different, and it's even better. It has an ineffable homemade quality. The beans are a little grainier in texture, very nice.

Donald gave me props on the tomato soup. Since I threw it together without a recipe, just putting everything into the pot that I thought would be good to find in tomato soup, I figured I'd better write it down fast while I remember what I did.

Remember, it has to be animal-product free. So I had to stop myself from reaching for the butter and the homemade chicken stock!

Corba od patlidzan

(CHOR-ba od paht-LEE-jahn, with the "j" as in "Jack")

4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 large onion, diced
1 clove garlic, diced
1 stalk celery, diced
2 tablespoons AP flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
several fresh grindings black pepper
2 bay leaves
1-2 shakes red pepper flakes
4 tablespoons (approx) fresh or frozen fresh parsley
1 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes, juice and all

In a deep, heavy pot or Dutch oven, heat the oil. Add the onions and cook over medium heat until cleared and beginning to brown. Add the garlic and celery partway through this onion cooking process.

Add the flour and stir well. Let the flour cook in for a few minutes. Add salt, pepper, red pepper flakes, bay leaves, parsley and tomatoes. Fill the tomato can with water and add it to the pot.

Simmer, covered, about a half hour. Stir occasionally, making sure it doesn't stick and scorch on the bottom.

If you like, you can blend this smooth when you're done, or strain it. But I don't care so much for perfectly smooth soups, myself. I like it rustic.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Badnje Vece – Serbian Christmas Eve – Menu

Tomorrow, January 6, will be Serbian Christmas Eve. Technically, it's called Badnji Dan during the day, and in the evening Badnje Vece. If you guess that "Dan" means day and "Vece" evening from this, you'd be correct. But as I remember, we always just called it Badnje Vece, all day long, in my household growing up.

The photo shows my Badnje Vece table from 2005. Here's my blog post from that year.

I wrote a bunch about Serbian Christmas (Bozic) customs in an article several years ago. Here's a link to it on my online article archive:

Badnje Vece is a day of fasting from meat, fowl, dairy and egg products. But it's not a vegan day! The main course of the Badnje Vece dinner is fish.

The traditional menu for this meal is extensive. And, meat and dairy or no, it is as filling a repast as any I've experienced. In the early 1990s, my mother, who was born in 1920 in Ruma, a town in Srem, near Belgrade, described the Badne Vece meals she remembered from her youth. I wrote it down in my recipe notebook. Here's what she told me.

Badnje Vece menu

  • Kolac on the table, but not eaten until Bozic proper
  • Fruit – cooked prunes
  • Posna pogaca (flatbread)
  • Corba od patlidjan (tomato soup)
  • Pasulj (kidney bean and onion salad)
  • Rezanci c makom (noodles with ground poppy seed)
  • Rezanci c badem (noodles with almonds)
  • Riba (fish)

In addition, a friend told me that apples with nuts and honey are also traditional. Just slice the apples and put out a little bowl of ground walnuts and a little bowl of honey. These are put together on the fly, one at a time, by the eater – like chips and salsa. You pick up an apple slice and dip the end into the honey. Then you dip the honeyed, sticky end into the walnuts. Presto: you've prepared yourself one lovely bite of apple with nuts and honey.

The beans are delicious, and so easy to make. Here's the recipe my mother gave me. I doubt her household had canned beans in the 1920s, but it's possible, as her grandparents owned a general store. If there were commercial canned beans at that time, that's where they would be, after all.

(Kidney bean salad)

one can light red kidney beans, including the liquid
one small onion, diced (about 1/3 cup)
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/8 teaspoon salt
several grindings of pepper
1/2 tablespoon white vinegar
1/2 tablespoon lemon juice

Mix all in a bowl.

Chill at least a few hours, or overnight.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Happy new year!

(Scroll down to get to a fabulous recipe for Hoppin' John!)

For the first time in years, New Year's Day was a relaxing vacation day at home -- paid time off, to boot. The past two years, I went to my job on Jan. 1. The year before that, I don't remember -- I guess I stayed home along with most other co-workers. Before that, though, when Don and I were driving cab, Jan. 1 was a day to recover from the most grueling, busy night of a cabbie's year.

But this was the first that I recall devoting Jan. 1 to a leisurely day off. It was a great way to start the year.

On and off during the day I puttered in the kitchen, making New Year's Day foods that are traditional either for me and Don personally or for a larger audience. Here's what we had.

Deviled Eggs

This is a tradition Don and I started the first New Year's we spent together, when 1992 became 1993. The two of us were together in our little basement apartment on Gorham Street, and as the clock wound down, I let out that I regretted we hadn't planned anything, we didn't have anything special lined up to happen at the stroke of midnight. Don sprang into action. He pulled out his old Slovak Cookbook that he'd gotten from his grandmother and found some fast, fun, festive recipes – cheese puffs and deviled eggs -- and made both happen in the 40 minutes remaining. Since then, we've made deviled eggs every year and cheese puffs some years. The eggs, especially, make perfect sense as a new year's tradition. Eggs and birth and newness and all that.

Beaten Biscuits

Egg Nog

Made by cooking egg yolks in milk over a gentle flame until slightly thickened and appealingly creamy, with the addition of a little sugar and vanilla. This is really a potable custard -- a like baked custard, except you can drink it. I love custard. And with egg nog, you can add rum.

Hopping John (Hoppin' John)

Black-eyed peas with smoked pork and rice is a traditional New Year's dish in the South, and, as Wikipedia tells me, throughout the Carribbean also. It's said to bring good luck in the coming year.

Flouting recipes we've read, we do not cook the rice with the beans. The cooking times of rice and beans are incompatible, and if you don't want mush rice (or pebble beans), it's neater to cook them separately and plate individual composites. This makes starch control easier too; I can get just a taste of rice with my pork and beans if I choose.

It's not strictly necessary to soak dry black-eyed peas overnight, but we do it routinely. Soaking any kind of whole seed wakes up the life force and makes it more nourishing. Soaking and rinsing beans washes away potentially toxic compounds. This latter reasoning is less new-agey than the former; our friend landed in the hospital after making a habit of cooking unsoaked, unrinsed beans. He very nearly died. Please soak and rinse all dry beans! (Do I need to mention that this does not apply to canned beans?)

Hopping John recipe

2 cups black-eyed peas, soaked overnight and rinsed thoroughly
8 to 16 ounces smoked pork jowl, cut in 1/2" to 1" chunks
1 t0 2 tablespoons bacon fat (reserved from cooking bacon) or any oil or fat you choose
1 onion, diced
1 stalk celery (plus half the leaves from the core of the celery, if you have them), sliced
2 cups stock, heated
1 teaspoon salt

Heat fat in a Dutch oven or any heavy pot or saucepan of at least three quarts capacity. Over medium heat, cook onions and celery until softened. Add pork jowl and cook together for a few minutes.

Add the beans. Add the hot stock. Add the salt. Simmer over low heat for about one hour, or until the beans are soft.

Serve over rice.