A Taste of Paradise

On Rosh Hashana, the Jewish new year, my mother, like many other Jews, bakes her challah into coiled circles representing the cycle of life, the new year beginning, our next rotation around the sun…

After blessing the sweet cylindrical bread, Ima tears the loaf into pieces (avoiding the touch of a knife to the sacred loaves because these instruments also have the potential to harm). We eagerly reach for the best pieces – shiny golden on the outside and soft, fluffy dough on the inside – and passionately smear butter on our torn pieces of yeasty treasure. The required next step in this process is dripping the honey from our apple and honey ritual (another symbol of fertility, the round planet, the “head of the year”).  The final stage of this collective culinary experience is my father inevitably saying, year after year, “mmmmm…this is a taste of the garden of Eden.” The unofficial yet religiously practiced ritual is not complete without this statement.

And it is indeed the most heavenly combination filling your mouth – the creaminess of the butter, warm yeastiness of the fresh baked golden challah, and tart sweetness of the honey. You feel like you are glowing from the inside. If paradise can be imagined as a place of total harmony, simple goodness, and comfort, this is how it would taste.

I thought of this famous family idiom miles away from home while having possibly the most magical meal of my life at Al Paradiso, an elegant trattoria tucked into a cluster of old, partially crumbling stone buildings surrounded by cornfields in the Friulian countryside.

Federica, our host, had become famous in my household as the talented creator of Basil Liver Soup (a delightful translation slip-up that took place during an email exchange with my father as she generously shared the recipe for the simple, bright, silky soup my parents have now recreated and shared many times). My parents had waited and planned for ten years to bring us here, to share with us the magical culinary experience that had so deeply impacted them on their first voyage here.

Ima & Abba happily returned to their beloved trattoria,  Al Paradiso

We were seated on the terazza at a round table with white tablecloth and green velvet runner (velvet on the table felt like a generous dedication to beauty over concern for the risk of spillage). The centerpiece was a large glass vessel filled with water, and floating orange roses matching the orange stones delicately strewn around the table. Our view through the white curtains was bright blue and white hydrangea bushes and bright red geranium growing on a stone building with wooden shutters that must have been the restaurant’s wine cellar and storage. We sipped sparkling water out of delicate blown glass cups (no effort was spared in the details of this paradise) and were welcomed by Federica in a traditional medieval Friulian country dress perfectly coordinated with the colors of our table setting.  Since my parents met Federica years ago, she’s had two children, both of whom hovered around her while her mama and papa served our meal alongside her.

The context inspired Abba to play around with redefining fusion cooking – understanding it as a dining experience carefully cultivated to integrate and satisfy multiple senses and forms of enjoyment – the aesthetics of the table, the lighting, the sounds and smells, the texture and temperature of the foods, the relationship and interactions between those making and serving the food and those enjoying it, the libations and their origins and pairings, the history and energy of a place.

The amuse bouche was ravioli fritti ripieni con melanzane (fried ravioli stuffed with eggplant) with a wonderful red pepper sauce (something like romesco?). We then moved on to fiori du zucchine ripieni di ricotta (zucchini flowers stuffed with ricotta) served in a beautiful zucchine cream and crispy puff pastry with capriolo cheese perfumed with aromatic herbs.

The soup was prepared specifically for us in honor of our parents’ deep appreciation and excitement. It was, of course, the revered crema di basilico con sfoglia di polenta (meaning cream of basil soup with amazingly thin and crsipy polenta on the side). My parents were thrilled by the surprise addition of a tiny patate e carrote timbalo in the middle (a small, round-shaped mold of baked potato and carrot). Then we devoured the pacchetti pasta filled with marjoram and fonduta di montasio cheese and tomatoes. Seeing as this was a vegetarian meal sweetly prepared specifically for my family, the secondi in this epic banquet was gnocchi with patate and wild herbs topped with crumbled fried parmigiano. (Our carb-loving family was up for the traditional flow of an Italian meal involving pasta as a warm up for what in this meat free situation was yet another even bigger pasta!). Then there was also a poached egg (yeah!) atop al dente veggies (celery, carrots, kale) covered with potato creme.

With each course Federica spent time with us, telling us everything we wanted to know about every dish and its ingredients. She also carefully selected and presented a different wine with each course, the most ephemeral whites, an orange wine, dessert wines, all from the region.  Dessert was creme mille feuille with “coffee caviar”!

By this point I was happily floating in a dream-like state, induced by the quaint, fantastical surroundings, the sensuality of the food, Federica’s grace and wisdom, and, of course, the many bottles of bright, crisp, complex, smooth, and then ultimately sweet wines. (In Italy, local is a designation very precisely and carefully applied. Often I would ask if I could try a local wine and I would be pointed towards a wine with the apologetic disclaimer that it wasn’t local but it was made in the next town over and would that be okay?)

The only thing that tainted the blissful gift of this meal was Federica’s sadness, subtle and balanced by her graciousness, but still present. She was clearly feeling discouraged. When asked about where she sourced her eggs from, she complained about regulations that actually prevent her from obtaining fresh eggs from nearby farmers, providing a small and concrete example of the ways in which Italy’s food system is being industrialized and privileges large producers and agribusiness, while undermining small, local producers.  She expressed how difficult it is for her to run a restaurant, making the kind of food she believes in and the kind of environment she wants to create.

So as many Americans are (re)discovering food (kind of like how Columbus “discovered” America), and tend to romanticize Italian cuisine and its local and slow food tradition, our systems and corporations are undermining and poisoning it.

Sitting at Federica’s table was a joyous privilege. To borrow Tamasin Day-Lewis‘ description of a restaurant in England that had the same effect on her: “Everything was done properly with the finest ingredients from start to finish, without ever being too rich, too much, too pretentious…” It was one of the most elevated, gourmet meals I’ve ever had. Not a single detail of the evening was anything but perfect, and the experience was served to us with genuine glowing humility and grace. This Rosh Hashana, I will dedicate my first bite of buttered challah dripping with honey to Al Paradiso, a magical haven gifted to the world by a small family who knows how to serve food that gives you a taste of the Garden of Eden.

**Thankfully, my sister Shalva, the Diva of Details, took the pictures for this post and Ima diligently recorded every menu item, even making sure to ask Federica about the types of cheese in each dish. Otherwise, my compromised memory would not have been able to do this experience justice.  And speaking of my community-supported writing process, Naomi, my partner in crime, is responsible for this and most of my posts being readable and well-constructed.

The Good, The Bad, and The Bubbly

During the last week of April I joyfully drove to Jersey to pick up Ryvka from the airport. She was returning from a 6 month stay in Bethlehem where she was doing research on the tourism industry (stay tuned for more on the political, economic, discursive, and environmental battles Israel wages on Palestinians under the guise of eco-tourism).  I wanted Ryvka to feel good coming back to the holy land of Brooklyn and I knew that a big part of that was going to be assuring her that good, fresh dairy exists here (even if not as prevalent or accessible as in the Middle East).  Luckily, there happened to be that very evening an Edible Manhattan and Edible Brooklyn event entitled “Good Dairy.” After letting her nap for a bit, I escorted her directly to the most appropriate homecoming ever.

Stocking up on some delicious dairy goodies at Edible’s Good Dairy event.

Now one might assume that this is a post about dairy. That would be a fair assumption. However, this is actually about seltzer- a beverage that I’m not very passionate about but is very dear to the hearts of many of my loved ones. How are we making this transition? Well…upon arrival at the Good Dairy event, the first vendors we encountered were the charming gentlemen behind Brooklyn Gin. They were enthusiastic about their small batch locally distilled spirit and so were we. We thoroughly enjoyed the on-the-spot carbonated cocktail they were serving featuring their citrusy liquor. However, Ryvka pointed out to all of us that the origin of the seltzer maker they were using sadly was not such a pure or locally-based process. SodaStream, an Israeli company producing a do-it-yourself, countertop seltzer and soda maker, has been marketing its wares as a “green alternative” to soda cans and bottles. But SodaStream’s main production site is in Mishor Edomim, a settlement and industrial zone in the occupied West Bank, on confiscated Palestinian land. The company is participating in the theft of Palestinian land and exploits Palestinian labor while selling its product with a “Made in Israel” label.

Our new Brooklyn Gin friends were shocked to hear about the oppressive system of production behind their seltzer maker and were really receptive to Ryvka’s suggestion that they find another way to make their cocktails that aligns more with their vision for quality on all levels (taste and process).

Ryvka, being the thorough lady that she is, followed up with an email just the other day. She was excited to discover that there is an alternative to SodaStream that matches the local pride of Brooklyn Gin- Gomberg Seltzer Works in Canarsie, Brooklyn! Gomberg Seltzer Works is the last remaining seltzer factory in NYC and Ronny Beberman is the Brooklyn Seltzer Man. He’s 63 years old and still drives a wooden slatted truck full of vintage glass bottles. You can watch “Seltzer Works,” a documentary film about Gomberg Seltzer, at Rooftop Films on July 17th, and you can read a brief and entertaining write-up of this old school seltzer making and delivering operation here: http://reclaimedhome.com/2010/07/01/brooklyn-seltzer-delivery-how-old-school-is-that/

So…getting into Gomberg Seltzer Works is a way to divest from the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land and invest in the traditional liquid culture of Brooklyn.

Speaking of tradition, liquid culture, and seltzer…while I was home in Cincinnati celebrating the 20th anniversary of my father being the rabbi of his synagogue, I made up a little summer spritzer cocktail to loosen us up before diving into the 600 person dinner (at which the CEO of SodaStream was a surprise performer, being a dear friend of my family’s and the high holiday cantor of our shul. Oh the complexity of the universe). I don’t remember exact measurements but here’s the gist of it:

The Roaring Twentieth

1 oz Cointreau

1 oz fresh squeezed lemon juice

1 generous bar spoon of mixed berry preserves

2-3 oz Sauvignon Blanc (or any available dry-ish white wine)

top off with seltzer

Shake all of the ingredients (except for the seltzer) with ice in a cocktail shaker. Then strain into a chilled wine or champagne glass and top with seltzer. Garnish with a lemon or lime twist. Then clink glasses and toast all to the people fighting the good fight to make food and drink not just delicious but ethical! L’chaim!

Guys, PEACH PIE!!!!

Please forgive me Pie Eaters for missing my assigned Monday post. I hope my offering of Honey Bourbon Caramel Peach Pie makes up for it! I was in Ohio visiting the fam and Monday just rolled by like a tumble weed. But guys, this pie is AMAZING!! I accidentally made it with whole wheat flour and it turned out pretty darn tasty! In this post I wanted to tell you all about wheat and flour and the Midwest and blah blah blah but, alas, I just got home from the airport and I’m due in the hospital (to work) in just a few hours, so short and sweet is what’s on the menu. What I will say is that, while spending time in Ohio, I had the honor of talking to two women over 90 years of age about pie (one being my granny and one being my sweetie’s great aunt) and it was a hoot! Old ladies and pie might be tied in first place on my “favorite things” list! Okay, kisses to you all and I’ll see you next week!

Sunshine Pie

Hello Pie Eaters!!! I just woke up on this blustery and soggy Sunday morning and ate a piece of Stone Fruit Pie for breakfast and, let me tell you what, I’m never going back to cereal!

When I was upstate a few weeks ago I ate a lot of peaches and plums and, folks, when you get your mouth on a good stone fruit it really is like eating sunshine. I was so enamored
with the juicy goodness…then my sweetie’s mom, Lori, told me about a stone fruit pie recipe in this month’s Bon Appetit and I said, HOT DAMN sign me up! This recipe was really fun to make and when the fruit was all cut up in the bowl it looked like a sunset. The recipe has you add sugar to the fruit, let it sit for an hour and then drain off the juice. This is a really helpful step if you want to have a non-runny filling. As a little pre-pie treat I added the extra fruit drippings to my iced tea and it was bangin’! I was feeling a little nervous about the lattice top but then I just looked the lattice top in the eye and said, “I will master you!”…and that’s just what I did, Pie Eaters. I used this helpful video as a little Lattice Top 101 and went for it. It wasn’t so hard! If you have been wanting to try a lattice top, now is the time!

So I don’t know if you have been picking up on all of my sun references in this post but it was a little foreshadowing for this week’s geeky science lesson on PHOTOSYNTHESIS! Don’t be afraid, I’m gonna break it down real simple-like. Photosynthesis is the bomb! It’s the process where plants take CO2 (carbon dioxide – the stuff we breathe out as waste), water and sunlight, and turn those things into sugar! Now if that’s not magic, people, please tell me what is. So when you bite into a fresh-picked nectarine or peach that is literally made from sunlight and still warm from the sunshine, and the juice fills your mouth and drips down your chin, it’s like you are tasting the sun. Then that fruit becomes a part of you as your body breaks it down, and in that process the sun becomes a part of you too. Do you see how lucky we are? This might not be how a scientist who believes in science would explain it, but I’m a scientist who believes in magic and that’s how I see it.

I also want to tell you that in the process of photosynthesis the light is absorbed into the plant mostly by way of a pigment called chlorophyll. It is present mostly in the leaves of plants and is what gives them their green color. Chlorophyll is best at absorbing light from the blue portion of the light spectrum, followed by the red portion. However, chlorophyll does not use the green portion of the light spectrum very well and that is why the color green is reflected from the leaves. Doesn’t that blow your mind?! The leaves absorb all the colors of the light spectrum but green, so that is what color the leaves seem to us. We associate green with life and health, but really it’s the least useful part of the color spectrum as far as our food source is concerned. Nature! You win!

See you next week, Pie Eaters!

p.s. Thanks Molly for taking the wheel while I was out! Your pies looked yummy! Wish I could have had a piece!

p.p.s. Thanks Olivia for the photos. You made the pie feel famous!

The Art of Improvisational Desserts (aka winging it and hoping for the best)

If I had a cookie for every time a great cook has told me they don’t/can’t/won’t bake desserts because they “don’t like to follow recipes,” or they “like to improvise,” or they “can’t be precise” (or some other reason along these lines), I’d be set for life.

I’ve never really understood the apprehension cooks have about desserts.  Cooking and dessert-making have always seemed connected to me.  Perhaps that’s because I have a huge sweet tooth and started baking before I ever started cooking anything too interesting, but nevertheless…

In today’s post, I’m going to share a dessert-making story from this week that will hopefully debunk some of the myths about dessert-making being strict and rigid (while perhaps reinforcing them too. You’ll see what I mean shortly).

I just returned from a month of touring with my band Red Baraat, so I’ve been excited to have more time to get down in the kitchen and enjoy the summer’s bounty now that I’m home.  By my second day back, I had a few projects lined up.  One was making a banana pudding for a friend who cat-sat for me while I was out of town, and the other was making a dessert for a small gathering that evening.  With my puddingy reputation, I figured I’d go pudding all around, hoping to pull off a blueberry pudding pie with fresh mint.  I felt confident in my pudding abilities, so I winged it.  I made a double recipe of vanilla pudding (using the seeds from a vanilla bean), saved half for the banana pudding, and then added a puree of a handful of New Jersey blueberries and a sprig of mint from my fire escape (the only food I can manage to grow with my touring schedule) to the other half.

Suddenly my beautiful, creamy vanilla pudding looked like a blueish liquidy disappointment.  I stuck it in the fridge with the hopes that it might set, but I was feeling pessimistic.  Something about the little bit of blueberry puree seemed to undermine the thickening properties of the cornstarch (other hypotheses are welcomed).  Sure enough it was soon clear that the blueberry pudding was a failure, and I needed to rethink my strategy.  I had already been to the grocery store once and didn’t want to go again (and didn’t really have time either).

I still had half a pint of blueberries that I was determined to use and a couple of limes in the fridge.  Then it dawned on me.  Perhaps I could adapt my go-to (key) lime pie recipe!  I didn’t have enough limes, but I did have some bottled organic lemon juice (for emergencies like this one) and a carton of OJ.  So, I zested and juiced my two limes, and added lemon juice and a little orange juice for the remaining liquid, and made a mixed citrus pie filling.  I stirred in the whole blueberries before pouring it all into a vanilla wafer pie crust (I bought the vanilla wafers for the banana pudding) and baked it.

I was a little nervous, but when I took it out of the oven it looked beautiful, and the crowd was quite pleased with the results.  I failed to take any pictures, so you’ll have to take my word for it – it was a success in improvisational baking!

creamy blueberry mint ice pop

As for the aforementioned failure, there is a silver lining.  I bought popsicle molds a couple of weeks ago (inspired by the ridiculous heat wave), into which I poured the liquidy pudding. I apprehensively tried the makeshift pops the next day and was pleased by the creamy texture and refreshing blueberry-mint flavor. Disaster averted!

So the take-home message here is you CAN freestyle, change recipes, and experiment creatively in your dessert-making (just like you do in your cooking), but practice will show you what does and doesn’t work – which is also a lot like cooking, right?  I’m sure we’ve all had some failed attempts at creativity in our savory cooking (that would be a fun post – worst cooking experiments ever?), so there’s really no need for baking anxiety.

Without further delay, here is how I made the Citrus Pie with Blueberries. I encourage you to change the recipe.

Ingredients

For crust:
35-40 vanilla wafer cookies (or ginger snaps or graham crackers)
Half a stick of butter

For filling:
Half a pint of fresh blueberries
3/4 cup of citrus juice (mine was mostly lime and lemon juices with a little orange)
the zest of 2 limes (the more zest the more limey, or lemony)
1 can of sweetened condensed milk
2 eggs

For topping:
Fresh whipped cream

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Crush the cookies in a food processor, blender or by hand.  Incorporate the melted butter.  Press buttery crumbs into a pie dish with your hands, using the bottom of a glass to help you smush it down and up on the sides of the pie dish nicely.  Bake the crust for about 8-10 minutes until it begins to brown.

While the crust is baking whisk together the eggs, and add the condensed milk, citrus juice, and zest until smooth and creamy.  Gently stir in the blueberries.  Pour the filling into the crust and bake for about 20 minutes until set.  Cool completely in the fridge and serve with a dollop of lightly sweetened (or unsweetened) whipped cream.

Cool as a cucumber

As you know, this week we are celebrating the birth of Ryvka, who in turn helped birth The Big Ceci.  (Yes – if you are paying attention you will be wondering exactly how long a week is with these people. The answer is: as long as it needs to be. Time is flexible and expansive around here.)

So today, I am toasting Ryvka with my recipe for a refreshing summer pitcher cocktail: The Cucumber Cooler.


Why this beverage? Because…

* Ryvka loves cucumbers – they are cool and refreshing like her.

*Ryvka loves people – this is a pitcher cocktail that serves many at a time (unlike many classic cocktail recipes that you have to make one by one, consuming the host’s attention for most of the evening).

* Ryvka loves me – she is my partner in life since the age of 11 and whenever I make something up like this she tastes things so deliberately and gushes with appreciation and pride in a way that makes me feel like a superstar.

Cucumber Cooler – a pitcher cocktail for the summertime

(Thanks to my co-pilot Naomi for lending her tendencies towards precision to the process of nailing this down. I think this is pretty close to what we decided…?)

In a cocktail shaker add:

  • 2 parts vodka
  • 1.5 parts apple juice (I used Fuji Apple Juice made by Red Jacket Orchards)
  • 1 part fresh lemon sour*
  • 2 parts cucumber puree
  • a dash of simple syrup*
  • ice

Shake vigorously then pour into a pitcher. Do this until the pitcher is full.  Stir it up and taste it. Mess around with the proportions if it isn’t sweet enough, strong enough, or cucumbery enough for your liking. Then place large ice cubes in the pitcher and a long bar spoon for stirring when people need refills. Note: larger ice cubes have less surface area so they melt slower, thus keeping the drink cool without diluting it as fast.

Place two regular ice cubes in each person’s glass and garnish with mint after the drink is poured in (mine is chocolate mint from my garden!).

* Simple syrup is aptly named. Just take 1 cup raw sugar and 1 cup water and in a medium saucepan combine sugar and water. Bring to a boil, stirring, until sugar has dissolved. Allow to cool.

* Lemon sour is also very simple: Combine 1 cup fresh lemon juice and 1 cup simple syrup in a large jar with a lid. Cover and keep refrigerated.

So Ryvka! Here’s to you! May the deep love, radical visions, and creative comraderie you offer the rest of us be returned to you a thousand-fold. I raise my glass (or whole pitcher) to you – thank you for finding ways to enjoy this broken beautiful world completely while not being content with the way things are.

Meet Una – member of The Big Ceci family & a big fan of Ryvka.

Sweet Cherry Pie

Pie eaters, when you wake up grouchy and feel like listening to Cat Steven’s “Oh Very Young,” making a sweet cherry pie can feel like an impossible task. However, because I’m working on a deadline (and the thought of eating cold buttery crust dough made me feel like getting out of bed) I forged through. The hand pitting of the cherries felt meditative but the grouchies followed me into the process of rolling out the dough, and when it ripped halfway through I almost cried. It wasn’t until I pulled the finished pie out of the oven to cool that I remembered that pie making is a creative process, not an exercise in perfection. The pie was delicious, beautiful and a joy to share with everyone at the party I took it to.

With this pie, I made the dough the day before so it could sit in the fridge over night. I’m still having a confusing time trying to figure out how long to let the dough warm up after it’s chilled before rolling it. Anyone out there in Pieland have any suggestions? When I watch videos of Martha rolling out dough I mostly feel like punching her and then I have a hard time focusing on what she is doing (OK, I don’t really want to punch her but I would like to be the one to reveal to the world that she is actually a robot). I’m wondering if anyone out there would like to barter a crust making tutorial in exchange for some nursey skill I could offer, like assessing the functioning of your cranial nerves (actually don’t watch the link, it’s really boring).

Moving on, for this post folks, instead of discussing the hard science of botany, I would like to turn your attention to the flimsy science of the US Farm Bill. I wanted to include this because we talk a lot about food here at Pie Time, but I think it’s also really important that we talk about farmers and farmland, as without them, there would be no pie. I’m not gonna lie people, the government-agricultural complex is super complicated. As an example from my personal life, my family’s farm in Ohio is subsidized by the government through the Farm Bill. A few years ago, my younger brother and I were talking about starting a vegetable garden on a part of the farm that had not been in cultivation for 40 years. My father told us if we planted crops for human consumption on that land, we would lose our farm subsidy. The crops that grow on our 100 acres currently (corn and soybean) are for cow feed only. If we started growing food that we could eat, the government would no longer subsidize us. Am I the only one that thinks this is WAY sketchy? I found this really helpful article about the subsidy conundrum, if my story has created an itch that you would like to scratch. The article had some really good suggestions about changing farm subsidies that made me rub my hands together really fast! (Something I do when I get excited.) So, if you want a similar feeling you know where to go.

p.s. Dear Reader, this week’s Pie Time post is in honor of my good friend Ryvka. I heard through the pie-loving community that she might enjoy a cherry pie on her birthday and, though I could not share a piece with her as she is currently north of the border, this pie was made with lots of love for you, Ryvka.

p.p.s. Mondays are official Pie Time Post Days so watch out!!!!