Going crackers: Absolutely worthwhile whole grain buttermilk cracker recipe

Well, yes. Since you asked. I am going crackers.  Why? Because I'm learning a lesson this week: If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, accept it.

While I chew on a craw full of hard-to-swallow immutable facts in an attempt to accept them, I am making crackers. The kind of crackers I am making are those that anyone who psychologically can commit to spending five or six dollars for fifteen crackers would buy in a box. Only much, much better. It’s not that I’m a cheapskate (well, maybe a little) but the fact is, I love crackers. I am the aficionado of crackerdom. Crackers are my comfort food. Weird, but in a good way.

If you’ve ever cringed at the taste of powdered garlic, onion and ‘other spices’ (read mystery ingredients) you will understand why I have chosen to do something about the cracker situation. Sometimes it’s best to just tackle the smaller problems, and let the bigger ones work themselves out. That’s what makes cooking so satisfying. So, I made these utterly addicting buttermilk crackers with olive oil. They’re not quite one hundred percent whole grain, but close enough. After I made them, I killed some more time making stuff to spread on them. Very therapeutic.

What I love about these thin crackers is that they are neutral without being bland. When you take the first crisp bite, you think, hmmm, nice texture, but not very….by the time you get to that point in your mental monologue, the olive oil and salt kick in. After that comes the je-ne-sais-quoi flavor (it’s buttermilk.) Now you are on your way to I-can’t-stop-eating-these.  I also love that you can make them at least seventeen different ways, depending on what you put on top.

One of my favorite versions is with sesame seeds and black Turkish salt, which I received as a gift from Mark Bitterman of The Meadow.  Thank you, Mark. I’ve been saving those samplers. And yes, I am also that person who saves her expensive new dress for a special occasion and then wears it only to observe the fashion police shake their heads in disgust. (They think I’m too out of it to notice, but I do.) Luckily, salt is not perishable and will never go out of style. If you have been hoarding some fancy salt, here’s your chance to use it. Other toppings you could use are seeds of all kinds—make them spicy or not. Toasted cumin seeds, coarsely crushed coriander, a bit of chili powder or red pepper pack some punch. You could also use caraway, fennel, celery seed, poppy seeds….you get the idea. Have some fun. I haven’t even scratched the surface with Parmesan or other cheeses.

This dough is easy to work with. Start by shaping it into a flat rectangle. It always makes sense to form dough into the same shape that you want the finished sheet of dough to be once it is rolled out. If you want wedges, shape the dough into flat rounds, and cut it like a pie. Let it rest in the refrigerator to allow it to completely hydrate (absorb the liquid) and to allow the gluten to relax. Roll it out as thin as you can. One-third of the dough, rolled evenly, will cover a half-sheet pan. Use the flat of your hands to push the dough around to stretch it if you need to. Press the seeds into the dough with a rolling pin to embed them. When you bake the crackers, be sure they are crisp all the way through before taking them out of the oven.

Absolutely worthwhile whole grain buttermilk cracker recipe
Makes 3 dozen thin crackers

1 1/2 cups (192g) whole wheat flour
1 cup (126g) all-purpose flour
1/2 cup (72g) brown  rice flour, plus more for rolling
1 1/2 tablespoons organic cane sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/3 cup olive oil, plus more for brushing on the dough
1 cup buttermilk
6 tablespoons seeds such as poppy seeds, sesame seeds, flax seeds, celery seeds, etc.
Flaky sea salt, such as Maldon salt

1. Whisk the whole wheat flour, all-purpose flour, brown rice flour, sugar, baking powder, and kosher salt in a bowl until combined. Make a well in the center and add the olive oil and buttermilk. Stir, gradually incorporating the flour into the olive oil mixture, until it forms a dough. It should be soft but not too sticky. Add additional buttermilk if it is dry.

2. Turn the dough out onto the countertop. Knead for about 20 seconds, until it is well mixed. Shape into a flat rectangle and wrap in plastic. Refrigerate for 1 hour, or as long as overnight.

3. Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Line 3 half sheet pans (approx 18 X 13 inches) with parchment.

4. Divide the dough into thirds. Lightly flour the counter top with brown rice flour, and flour a rolling pin. Roll one piece of dough into a large sheet that is the same size as the sheet pan and approximately 1/16-inch thick (about the thickness of a quarter.) If necessary, lift the dough and sprinkle a sparing amount of flour underneath it to keep it from sticking. If the shape starts to go AWOL, place the flat of your hands on top of the dough to stretch it into a rectangular shape. Transfer it to the paper. Slip both hands under the paper and lift it onto the baking sheet.

5. Brush the dough with about 2 tablespoons olive oil. Sprinkle it with 2 tablespoons of the seeds and a little flaky salt. Place a piece of plastic wrap on top, and roll over the seeds with a rolling pin to embed them into the dough.  Peel off the plastic.

6. With a pizza cutter or sharp knife, cut the dough into thirds the long way.  Rotate the baking sheet and cut into 4 equal pieces crossways to make 12 crackers.   Trim the uneven outside edges with the pizza cutter. Leave the edges on the baking sheet. These are the cook’s taste testers. (You can cut the crackers any size you want; this cut will make large squares.) Repeat with remaining dough.

7. Bake for 18 to 23 minutes, or until the crackers are golden brown and crisp all the way through. Let cool on the pan and store in an airtight tin.

The stuff on top

Lemon flavored ricotta: Mix ricotta with some lemon zest (1/2 cup ricotta to half a lemon). Season with salt and pepper and a few drops of lemon juice. Top with thinly sliced radishes, some sliced sugar snap peas (raw or blanched), a few herbs, more salt and pepper. Eat for lunch.

Feta and honey. Mix ricotta and feta together to taste (about half and half). Spread on crackers. Drizzle with honey and sprinkle with black pepper.

Herby: Mix chopped fresh herbs (oregano, thyme, rosemary, tarragon, parsley, chives, whatever  strikes your fancy) into either of the above spreads. To make a molded cheese spread, line a small ramekin or bowl with plastic or cheesecloth, pack the cheese into the mold, and refrigerate. Unmold and cover with more chopped herbs.


Rites of spring: A trip to Brimfield and a spring onion soup recipe

Note to self: don’t go to Brimfield by yourself again.

It was one of those perfect New England days. A slight breeze, puffy clouds floating in deep blue, temperatures hovering in the low seventies. I was having breakfast with my friend Louis when he told me he had been to Brimfield earlier in the week with his new friend. Snap.

You should go. It’s still early, he insisted. Just get in the car and go.

But you went with him, I replied, feeling slightly miffed. I had forgotten all about Brimfield. I’m still living in March and we’re in the middle of May. That’s how life is right now. I count on Louis to remind me. It’s just something we usually do together in the spring.

Well, after all, it was a beautiful day, and my planned work involved paying bills and other secretarial duties in the interest of keeping this family on track. Blowing it off in a nano-second was a no-brainer. The trip takes about an hour, so I could easily be there by noon. Not. We’ve never encountered much traffic before, but the three-mile crawl from the main highway added an extra hour to the trip, so by the time I got there, I was hungry, thirsty, cranky.

I’ve learned a few things about trips to Brimfield with experience. I have seven rules.

1. Have no expectations.
2. Bring no more than $100.00 and when it’s gone, you’re done.
3. Eat as much junk food as you want, no guilt.
4. Bargain even though you hate to.
5. Go on the last day for the best prices. (I broke this rule.)
6. When in doubt, walk away. Bookmark the location in your head for later. Good luck.
7. Eat no more than two donuts. (This contradicts rule #3) (I broke this rule, too.)

I’m just here for the donuts.

I don’t even like cake donuts, but the donuts at Faddy’s stand at Brimfield….Let’s just say, I’m glad their donut shop is outside of Hartford (Connecticut), too long a drive for impulse donut consumption. I hesitate to talk about them or I will find myself in the car on my way to the last day of Brimfield five minutes from now. Luckily, I'm still in pajamas as I write this. By the time I change I will have reconsidered. 
The donuts are made with whole wheat pastry flour and apple cider. They’re small, so two donuts count as a normal portion size (rationalization here.) You can actually hear the crunch of sugar and crust as you slowly take the first bite. Inside is warm and soft, but not too soft, and not too sweet. The way a cake donut is supposed to be. Who knew? I have never eaten a cake donut before or since like a Faddy’s donut. Sometimes I bring them home for the family, but often they don’t make it there, unless I put them in the trunk of the car. Anyway, you can’t really replicate a warm donut just out of the fryer.

After I took these pictures of Mike and his donuts, he handed me another one. I guess three donuts are lunch. I didn't mind that they crowded out the other junk food I was anticipating on my long, slow drive. I missed Louis’s company and his keen eye for good stuff, so different from my own. I did find a few small treasures, but the pickings were slimmer than usual, or else I just found it hard to focus without a companion to keep me on track. It was worth it just for the donuts, though. And when I came home, I had some spring onion soup waiting for me, an excellent no-fuss light meal, not to mention, the perfect antidote to over-consumption of junk food.

If you want to go: Brimfield is a huge antique fair located in Brimfield MA. 
Upcoming dates for 2012: July 10-15; September 4-9

About spring onions:

So what is a spring onion, exactly? The nomenclature is confusing, but a spring onion is not, as one might presume, a scallion. Rather, spring onions are simply regular onions that are pulled in the spring (April and May) to thin out onion beds. They look like large scallions with fat bulbs that are one to two inches across. If left in the ground, the bulbs grow large and round, the ideal size for storing over the winter. Spring onions, like other spring vegetables, are sweet and mild. After the fairly dead season of late winter produce, you can really get excited about cooking with them. That is, if you are the sort of person who gets excited about vegetables. And I am that sort of person (smiley face here).

That said, I was disappointed when I returned for more of them at the market last week. But we cooks must learn to improvise, so I picked up a couple of large leeks instead. (Note, leeks must be scrupulously cleaned in abundant water since sand often lurks deep in the layers.) The tough green stalks of both vegetables should be removed. Slice them and tuck them away in the freezer in a plastic bag to use for stock. They’ll keep for about 3 months.

Spring onion soup recipe
Serves 4

2 tablespoons unsalted butter or olive oil
3 spring onions OR 2 large leeks, white part only, sliced
2 stalks celery, sliced
1 bunch scallions, sliced
3 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced
Salt and pepper, to taste
1 small zucchini, sliced
10 ounces (2 cups) fresh or frozen peas
4 cups light vegetable stock or water
1 large handful baby spinach leaves
1 handful parsley leaves (about 1 cup packed)
Finely grated zest 1 lemon
Juice of 1/2 lemon
Salt and pepper, to taste
Suggested garnishes: thinly sliced radishes, chopped chives and/or crème fraiche

1. Melt the butter over medium heat in a soup pot. Add the onions or leeks, celery, scallions, garlic, and salt and pepper to taste. Cook gently, stirring now and then, for 7 to 9 minutes, or until soft but not brown.

2. Add the zucchini and stock, and bring to a boil. Lower the heat to a simmer, and cook for 2 minutes. Add the peas and cook for 3 minutes longer. Taste and season with more salt and pepper. Turn off the heat and add the spinach leaves, stirring for about 30 seconds, or until they wilt. Stir in the parsley.

3. Puree the soup in a blender, half at a time, until fairly smooth; you are aiming for a slightly nubbly texture. Return the soup to a clean pot, and stir in the lemon zest and juice. Heat, and taste again. Season with more salt and pepper if you like. Serve garnished with one or all of these: a few thin slices of radish, a spoonful of crème fraiche, some chopped chives.


Cooking 101: Vegetable Stock

Cooking 101: Vegetable Stock

Time passes. Thing change. Like it or not, we grow…. older. And so do our kids.

Just a few years ago I was crying in my soup (pun intended) because my one and only child was heading off to college. It wasn’t quite as horrible as I imagined. I had done most of my carrying on, worrying and grieving beforehand. So much so, that it came close to being a non-event. But that’s my style. Fear forward. If you can catastrophize ahead of time, go for it. Get the worst over with before it even happens. I don’t recommend that approach. And maybe, just maybe, this time I’ve learned my lesson. As it is turning out, Homer Simpson was right. It’s all good.

Although I have reckoned with my redundancy in the job of parenting, I still have some mopping up to do. For instance, College Boy, with one more year to go, still doesn’t know how to cook.  And I can safely say, many of his friends do not either. That is why I am introducing some fundamental recipes on this blog. They may not be over-the-top exciting, but they are necessary. If you want over-the-top exciting—of course you do if you’re in your twenties—you still have to know the basics.

So, welcome twenty-somethings  and your parents who are still fuzzy on the details (it’s never too late).  Please ask questions or send me requests. I hope to make it easy for you to learn to cook something satisfying to sustain you through the times ahead. Whatever roller coaster you ride, and you will be on one, you gotta eat.

I recently noticed that many cookbooks, even the tsunami of new vegetarian cookbooks, do not have recipes for vegetable stock. Mysterious. It is convenient to opt for vegetable stock in cans or boxes from the market (and that must be the assumption behind the mystery), but I maintain you should save your money and either skip it (use water and vegetables in your soup if you’re vegetarian) or make your own. Do you use pre-fabbed vegetable stock? I’d love to hear your thoughts and recommendations. I think it’s awful. Disagree? Convince me.

Left front, light stock made with mushrooms; right, rich stock


Pistachio almond cake with candied kumquats (or dried apricots) recipe

Click on any photo to see a slideshow
Kumquat. Kumquat. Kumquat.

I was eight years old and held a basket of the exotic sounding fruit in my lap. The strange new word spun around in my head. As we rolled through Georgia with the windows down, I marveled at each specimen, no larger than a peanut shell from the fields we passed on our way home to New Jersey from Florida. My young taste buds cringed when I took a bite. The sweet, intense orange of the rind hit first, but the bitter pith followed; along with it came the pucker-inducing aftermath of the interior. I really, really wanted to like them. They were so cute! The name thrilled me. I didn’t want to disappoint my dad. But his enthusiasm as he handed me the box was lost on me when I sampled them, and now I understand. Sweet tarts are for children, but bitterness is an acquired, adult taste.

Recently I saw baskets of kumquats at the grocery store, marking the tail end of the citrus season. My hand impulsively reached for them, propelled by subliminal memories of those long drives with Dad. Before I knew it there were three baskets in my cart. They’re good to munch on in the middle of a late afternoon slump, to snap you out of the lethargy that hits at about four o’clock. And I wanted to bake with them, but how?

Now we come to the crux of this post: how does a recipe evolve?  (This might bore you, in which case, just skip to the recipe) Let’s take it in clichés.

1) There’s a bee in my bonnet!

The idea: A faint buzzing began years ago. Back then I had a conversation about Nigella Lawson’s boiled orange cake from her new book How to Eat with my friend Ken at The Garum Factory. When Ken and Jody posted their recipe for pistachio blood orange cake recently (citing Lawson’s cake as the inspiration) I was reminded of our conversation and the buzz got louder. The day after I took home my haul of fruit, I discovered an olive oil pistachio cake with berries at a local Middle Eastern café and bakery. Hmmm (bees flying around up there,) I wanted to make a cake with my kumquats.

2) Like a dog with a bone.

Refine and execute the idea: I was thinking about an olive oil one-bowl cake that wouldn’t be too sweet, something you could make easily and enjoy with breakfast or afternoon tea. The pull: olive oil + pistachios + orange flavors + maybe some rose water = romantic, fragrant, Mediterranean. I wanted a casual cake, nothing fancy. A cake you could cut into squares. I started by editing an olive oil cake from my recipe box. I thought I’d put the kumquats on top, but they’d need to be candied first. Candying the kumquats was easy, much like candying orange peel, but a lot faster and a lot less work. When I put them on top of the cake, the baked result looked sad and unappealing. Also, they were hard to cut nicely once they were candied whole. Back to the drawing board. The next time I put the kumquats in the cake and used whole wheat pastry flour. I was getting warm, but I wasn’t home yet.

3) Go the extra mile, that’s why they pay you the big bucks.

Tweak until you can tweak no more: Okay, this is free content. But no self-respecting cook stops at pretty good. I tweaked the kumquat recipe to make it even easier, and then added some butter with the olive oil to the cake. Bingo! I was happy with the result: a fragrant, slightly crumbly cake with the texture of corn bread. I could have kept going. If I had ground the nuts a little more or used nut flours the cake might have had a finer crumb, but I liked the coarse, nutty texture. I also loved the individual kick of the candied kumquats. If you want to skip that step (or when kumquats are out of season) substitute apricots softened briefly in boiling water and drained.

4) Now I have my cake, and I’m eating it too.

Pistachio cake with candied kumquats (or apricots)
Makes 1 (9-by-12-inch) cake (12 small squares)

I used a full 2 tablespoons of Cortas brand rose water for this cake. It had been around for a while. I recommend you adjust the amount according to the strength of the particular rose water you are using (give it a sniff test) because there can be a wide variation in the potency depending on the brand. You will find it in markets that sell Indian or Middle Eastern food. It also makes a wonderful addition to ice cream if you happen to make that at home.  I even put it in rhubarb when I make a rhubarb dessert. Once you have it in your pantry you will surely find many uses for it in baking.

This isn’t quite a one- bowl cake, but it’s close. You have to grind the nuts in a food processor and then add the remaining ingredients, but the fruit needs to be folded in by hand so it stays in big pieces.

1/2 cup pistachios
1/2 cup whole almonds, blanched or unblanched
3/4 cup blonde cane sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 to 2 tablespoons rose water
1/2 teaspoon pure almond extract
6 tablespoons room temperature unsalted butter, cut in slices
3 eggs
1/3 cup mild flavored olive oil
1 1/3 cups whole wheat  pastry flour
1 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 cup milk
Candied kumquats (about 1 cup), drained (recipe below) or 1 cup softened apricots, quartered
3 tablespoons chopped pistachios
Confectioner’s sugar, for dusting

1. Set a rack in the middle of the oven.  Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter the bottom and sides of a 9 by 12-inch baking pan. Dust with flour and tap out the excess.

2. Place the pistachios, almonds, sugar and salt in the bowl of a food processor. Process until the nuts are finely ground. Add the rose water,  almond extract, and butter slices. Pulse the machine to mix. Add the eggs, olive oil, and milk. Pulse to mix. Add the flour and baking powder. Pulse until well combined. Scrape batter into a bowl.

3. Fold kumquats into batter and scrape into baking pan. Smooth with the back of a spoon and sprinkle with chopped pistachios.Bake for 30 to 35 minutes, or until top is golden, and a toothpick pushed into the center of the cake comes out clean.

4. Set the cake pan on a rack to cool. When completely cool, sprinkle with confectioner’s sugar and cut the cake into 12 squares.

Candied kumquats
Makes about 1 cup

Leftover kumquat syrup is excellent in lemonade, iced coffee, or even cocktails (try it in a French 75, the very first cocktail I sipped when I reached drinking legal age, at the Carlyle Café in New York!)

1 pint kumquats, halved crosswise
1 cup sugar

1. Place the kumquats in a small (2 quart) saucepan, cover with cold water, and add a pinch of salt. Set the pan over medium-high heat and bring to a rolling boil. Boil for 10 seconds. Drain and discard the water.  Rinse under cold water and repeat, adding fresh cold water and salt. Drain and rinse under cold water. Drain again.
2. Return the kumquats to the saucepan. Add the sugar and 3/4 cup water. Cook over medium heat, stirring often, until the sugar dissolves and the syrup comes to a boil. Stop stirring and continue to cook, without stirring, for 10 to 12 minutes, or until the kumquats are translucent and the syrup measures 220 degrees on a thermometer.  If sugar crystals form on the sides of the pan, wash them down with a pastry brush dipped in water.

3. Pour kumquats and syrup into a shallow pan and let cool for 30 minutes or longer. If not using right away, refrigerate kumquats in syrup in a glass jar.

How to candy kumquats (tutorial)

Combine halved, twice-boiled kumquats with sugar and water in a small saucepan. Don't worry about the pits. You can pick out stray pits when the kumquats cool and the rest are small enough to ignore.

Bring to a boil over medium heat. The bubbles will look light, large, and uneven. Foam will rise to the top and the pot may boil over if you don't watch it, so pay attention and adjust the heat.

After about 8 minutes, the bubbles will be more even and the syrup will be thicker (more like thin real maple syrup, not like corn syrup.)

After 10 to 12 minutes, the fruit will have softened and become translucent. If you have a thermometer, it should register 220 degrees. Otherwise, you can just eyeball it.

Pour the kumquats and syrup into a flat pan to cool. After about 30 minutes, they will be ready to use. Drain and save syrup  in the refrigerator for sweetening drinks, or for anything that calls for simple syrup. If not using right away, store fruit and syrup in a glass jar in the refrigerator.

See Jody and Ken’s fabulous (gluten free) pistachio orange cake here.