Monday, April 18, 2011

Cookies of affliction, or how I finally made kichel

I have spent the last two weeks searching for the elusive Holy Grail of Passover recipes: egg kichel.

The humble holiday staple, at least where I grew up in the suburban wilds of New Jersey, made its grand appearance in every grocery store this time of year. Towering display of Manishewitz and Streits matzo, tins of macaroons and my beloved kichel filled me with a sense of happy expectation. The chocolate covered marshmallows and sugared jelly slices didn’t hurt, either.

Commercially prepared kichel has become a sad shadow of its former self. Those lovely light pillows of cookie, coated with a crackled sugar glaze and begging to be dunked in coffee – or Coffee Time, if you’re trying to get in touch with your inner shayna madela – appear to have come under the command of health freaks. What I found in stores this year, in much smaller and more expensive sani-wrapped boxes, were tiny salt- and sugar-free biscuits that look like they should be floated in soup. I feel sure even our dogs, Gimel and Olive (formally, Olive Bette), would sniff these and decline.

Feh, I thought as I wheeled my empty cart away. Better to have no kichel than those kichel.

As I wandered through the store, however, I started to think how easy it should be to make them yourself. They’re just airy puffs, after all. Some egg, oil and matzo meal, probably salt and definitely sugar. Easy, right?

Not so fast. After not finding recipes in any of my Joan Nathan or holiday recipe books, I did find a few online – but they were, well, weird. Some called for rolling the dough flat and cutting it into strips; others included up to a quarter-cup of poppy seeds.

“Poppy seeds?” said my brother Alan, an edge of horror in his voice. He’s both a Jewish doctor and a regular at his synagogue, so his disdain gets double points. “That I’ve never heard of.”

Next I sent pitiful, begging postings to any Jewish foodie I could think of on Facebook, and even tracked down several more from freelance articles posted in newspapers across the country. I felt confident and awaited a shower of recipes to fill my inbox, not unlike manna appearing just in time to sustain the Isrealites in the desert.

But lo, the majority of responses I received were on the order of “sorry, no, but great idea!” Adam Roberts of the amusing Amateur Gourmet had never heard of them and politely wondered if perhaps I meant kugel. Levana Kirshenbaum, who created a tantalizing chocolate-beet-coconut cake, got my hopes up when she referenced a terrific recipe in the Libuvitcher Cookbook – but she had no access to her copy. “Oy, so sorry,” she wrote. Grrrr.

When I typed that vague title into, it of course did not find her treasured book, which may well have been a Hadassah fundraiser. The search did produce a link to Amanda Hesser’s aptly-titled “Essential New York Times Cookbook.” I was proud to be among the first to snag a copy, but alas, even the venerable Times has lost interest in kichel.

Not surprisingly, though, Hesser wrote back promptly, recommending Food52’s “food pickle,” a terrific go-to resource for culinary stumpers. A regular there advised me to expand my search from kichel to kichlach, where I was assured there were multiple entries.

My excitement dimmed when I saw that nearly each entry was the same, literally – is it possible that there’s really just one Jewish grandmother left in the world? – and nearly all included the perplexing poppy seeds.

Alan had come to the rescue the previous week with a surprise kichel care package that truly ranged from the sublime (chocolate and cinnamon-sugar variations) to the ridiculous (salt- and sugar-free.) Amused to be part of the hunt, he is carrying the request to his cantor. In desperation, I decided to ask someone outside of the tribe.

I mentioned my efforts to a tech-savvy friend who suggested trying Google’s Canadian search engine. “They have a large Jewish community in Montreal,” observed Joey, a sometime Southern Baptist. “I was there once during Passover and they were really into it. Even the Coca-Cola was marked kosher for Passover.”

Joey was quite amused when he quickly found a kichel recipe credited to someone’s bubbie, and photos of another that really look like the real deal. “That took about two seconds,” he said, declaring his abiding faith in his phone’s 4G speed. “And I’m not even Jewish!”

The funny thing here is that the bubbie found by the Canadian search engine was from Nashville, Tenn., and a photo showing gluten-free kichel credited to Anshe Emeth Sisterhood Cookbook came from Mrs. Louis Kugelman of Youngstown, Ohio. Go figure. I’ve tweaked it a bit further, but here is the original link.

They’re not as light or as crispy as I remember, but for cookies of affliction, they’re pretty damn good.

Passover Egg Kichel

6 whole eggs, separated
9 tbsp. sugar, divided
½ tsp. salt
½ to ¾ cup canola oil
1 cup matzo meal
½ cup potato starch
½ tsp. lemon extract
½ tsp. almond extract
1 tbsp. cocoa powder
2 tbsp. sliced almonds
zest of one lemon

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Zest lemon and set aside in small bowl with 1½ tsp sugar. Add almond and 1½ tsp. sugar to mini-processor or chop finely.
Sift dry ingredients. Beat eggs yolks until light in color; add oil and salt, mix well. Add matzo meal and potato starch, stirring until just combined.

Beat egg whites until foamy and soft peaks begin to form; add sugar gradually and beat until fully incorporated. Add about 1/3 egg whites to mixture, folding in to lighten batter, then fold in the remainder.

Divide batter among two bowls. In one, add lemon extract and stir. In the other, add almond extract and cocoa powder, blend well.

Drop from a teaspoon about an inch apart onto a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper. Sprinkle lemon cookies with zest-sugar and the chocolate ones with almond-sugar. Bake for 20 minutes and then reduce the heat to 300° F for an additional 15 minutes.

Cool on a rack and store in an air-tight container, if they last that long. By the time I got to the kitchen to box them, most were gone.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

bittycakes are big on flavor

When Kim Hammer decided to stop dabbling in baking and open her own business, her goals were small. Literally.

“I’ve always loved making cupcakes, so bittycakes was the perfect concept,” she said over coffee at Café Helios, where regulars enjoy her handmade, seasonal and cleverly-named baked goods. “People here are really into good food and local ingredients, so I can be really creative – even in winter when all I can think about is fresh strawberries.”

To answer a challenge from the Raleigh Downtowner, Hammer dipped into her stash of frozen local strawberries to create a Passover-friendly treat. She used them to whip up her signature buttercream frosting, which top flawless flourless chocolate cupcakes.

“I called a friend in New York for advice because she has a sweet tooth and always tells me how hard it is to find something really delicious during Passover,” said Hammer, who may well qualify for honorary member-of-the-tribe status for her efforts. “It’s not really kosher, and I was fighting my inner Slow-Food Movement to use frozen berries, but it’s as close as I could get.”

Though they would not pass rabbinical review, these delights are sure to satisfy moderately observant Jews and anyone else who swoons to think about the luscious marriage of chocolate and strawberries. While she graciously provided her recipe, she warned that they are technically tricky and a bit costly, given the fine chocolate and other ingredients.

“I enjoy making these, and we’ll have them at Helios during Passover,” she said. “But for just $3 a cupcake, honestly, it’s easier to just stop by and get some.”

The Raleigh native, who bears an old-school heart tattoo that proclaims her love of butter on one shoulder and a lush trail of strawberries on the other, is not a product of culinary school. Her innate love of baking was little more than a hobby before the arrival eight years ago of her son, Max.

“I started thinking about every bite of food I fed him, and it completely changed the way I look at things,” she said earnestly. “If realized that if I really wanted to feed him all natural, seasonal food, I had to do it myself.

“Also, baking is my Zen. It teaches me patience,” she added. “There’s something about the quiet simpleness of it all. If more than a day goes by and I don’t bake, my hands get itchy. I’m miserable.”

With the help of a small business loan, Hammer created bittycakes and started selling her baked goods four years ago at the Carrboro Farmer’s Market. Max practically grew up there, she said, and she still relies of many growers for her organic ingredients.

bittycakes originally focused exclusively on, well, itty-bitty cakes, but Hammer said customers having been trending toward pie, scones and other confections. “I love pie, so that’s fine with me,” said she, noting her Nutty-as-Your-Ex-Sweet-as-Your-Grandma Pecan Pie is among her most requested slices.

“The only ones who are sad about pie are my kids, because I can’t deliver a pie missing a slice,” she said, adding that 3-year-old Evie Jo has mastered turning her sweet face into a mask of pity when she learns mom is baking for work. “Their favorite, and mine, really, are Whoopie Pies. I always make a few extra for them.”

Helios customers can follow her at to get advance notice of what she’s baking for delivery to the shop. Fans also can place catering or special orders there.

Hammer credits the time she spent living in New York City for opening her eyes to extraordinary flavors and fueling her commitment to use only the best ingredients.

“One month I chose to not pay my phone bill because I just had to have this lobster sandwich,” she said, a dreamy look in her eye. “It was $35 and worth every bite.”

Hammer applies this same logic to the ingredients she bakes with today. About the only exception to her requirement of locally-sourced, just-picked goods is her treasured 10-pound slabs of Valrhona chocolate.

“A lot of bakers bend the rule for Valrhona,” she said. “It’s the only thing I’d consider for something as chocolate-dependent as a flourless chocolate cupcake.”

bittycakes flourless chocolate cupcakes

Makes one dozen

12 tbsp. butter (1½ sticks)
5 oz. bittersweet chocolate, at least 60% dark
4 egg yolks
5 egg whites
Pinch of cream of tartar
¾ cup sugar
2 tbp. Dutch-process cocoa powder, sifted
1 tbsp. coffee liqueur
1/3 cup almond flour, or ½ cup blanched almonds

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Place paper baking cups in muffin pan. If using blanched almonds instead of flour, use a food processor to grind them to a powder; set aside. Combined the butter and chocolate in a double boiler, or stainless steel bowl set over a saucepan of simmering water. Stir until the mixture has almost completely melted, remove from the heat and stir until smooth. Set aside to cool.

Using a standing mixer with whisk attachment, beat the egg yolks and ¼ cup of sugar on high speed for about 8 minutes. The eggs should become paler in color and build to about four times their original size. With a rubber spatula, gently fold the egg yolk mixture into the chocolate mixture. Once these are incorporated, slowly fold in the cocoa and coffee liqueur until combined smoothly. Next, sprinkle almond flour (or ground almonds) over the mixture and again slowly fold in until fully incorporated.

Using a clean bowl in your standing mixer, beat egg whites with cream of tartar for about one minute, or until soft peaks form. Add the remaining ½ cup sugar and beat for one minute more until medium peaks form. Stir 1/3 of egg white mixture into chocolate mixture to lighten the batter. Then fold in the remainder of egg whites until just barely incorporated. Do not over-mix.

Spoon the batter into cups. Bake for 20 minutes, rotating once, after 15 minutes. These cupcakes will be loose in the middle when hot, so a toothpick inserted in the middle to check doneness will not come out clean. Let cupcakes cool in pan for 10 minutes, then remove and allow to cool completely on a rack.

This cake can be topped with buttercream frosting, but is also delicious simply dusted with powdered sugar, cocoa or a dollop of whipped cream.

Passover recalls the tastes, smells of home

Even amid the glories of spring in the Carolinas, there are few things that make transplanted Jews miss their hometown more than the arrival of Passover. No matter how cosmopolitan our grocery chains and privately-operated eateries may be, the faith-based culinary restrictions of the holiday remain a sharp reminder of the tastes and smells missed even by those of us who make no effort to keep a kosher kitchen.

A native New Yorker, Judy Katzin moved to Raleigh as a bride in 1958. “Talk about culture shock,” she said. “No Jewish delis; no kosher butcher. It took years before I found a decent bagel.”

In an attempt to feed her soul, Katzin started buying pre-packaged Lender's bagels, which she found in the refrigerator case of her local grocery store. “I’ll never forget, one day when I was buying some I looked up and saw someone wearing a Brooklyn College sweatshirt looking back at me,” she said. “He asked me, ‘Are they any good?’ I answered, ‘It depends on how long you’ve been living here.’”

Things have changed, of course, but today there is not a single kosher restaurant in Raleigh. Jewish-style delis arrive with fanfare and promises of overstuffed pastrami sandwiches and real knishes only to vanish weeks later like yet another diaspora.

Even stalwarts like Katzin are considering hanging up their aprons. “I love it, but it’s a lot of work,” said the grandmother of four, who typically prepares a seder feast for about 30 friends and family. “Who knows? We’ll see what next year brings.”

Many area supermarkets feature displays of Passover products, notably matzo, macaroons and candies. Personally, I pine for egg kichel, those airy, dry little rounds perfect for coffee dunking that were crowned with a glaze of crackled sugar. Not unlike the polar ice cap, the icing got thinner over time and the cookies got smaller – and now, at least locally, the mere mention of them stumps even the most customer-friendly grocers. (The link above, from Amazon, sadly invites shoppers to sign up for possible availability.)

Observant Jews know – and those likely to feed them should be on the lookout – that many commercially-prepared baked goods and sweets that look the same probably aren’t this time of year. That innocent box of Tam-Tam crackers left over from bridge club? Not unless it’s specially marked as kosher for Passover.

Products not labeled kosher for Passover may contain hamtez, leavened “impurities” that are OK other times of the year but not during this period of reflection on the hasty escape from bondage in ancient Egypt. If you look closely, you’ll find a whole range of unexpected products marked this way, including Coca-Cola and mini-marshmallows.

Passover-approved recipes sometimes do not compare favorably to everyday choices. When my brothers and I balked at taking matzo sandwiches to school, my mother baked unleavened rolls by the dozens. When they were fresh out of the oven, their steamy goodness fragranced the kitchen. The next day in the lunch room, stuffed with tuna salad, not so much.

You can find an abundance of Passover recipes online – Joan Nathan is an ideal source – but Raleigh Downtowner readers are lucky that Katzin has share her most-requested seder dessert: Chocolate Sponge Cake, developed by her own mother some 70 years ago.

We also persuaded Kim Hammer, the wonderful baker at Café Helios and owner of bittycakes, to share her flourless chocolate cupcake (see related story). It’s not truly hametz-free, given that they are produced alongside other sweets with Passover-forbidden ingredients, but it’s close enough for those who take consolation in a Lender’s bagel when they really crave a New York classic.


8 eggs, separated
11 tbsp. sugar, divided
8 tbsp. matzo cake meal (available seasonally at local grocers or online)
1 tsp. vanilla
3 tbsp. cocoa powder
1 cup bittersweet chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

Beat egg yolks with 8 tbsp. sugar until they change in color from golden to buttery yellow, then add vanilla. Add matzo cake flour, folding lightly until just blended.

Beat egg whites until stiff peaks form, about 5 minutes. Add about one-third of egg white to egg-flour mix, folding in to lighten. Then fold in the rest of the egg whites, taking care to not over mix.

Pour about 80% of the batter into a well-greased heavy bundt pan.

Into the remaining batter, add 3 tbsp. sugar and 3 tbsp. cocoa. Blend well, then pour in a ring centered over the original batter. Using a spatula, poke chocolate layer to tuck into plain batter, creating a tunnel of chocolate.

Bake for about 40 minutes (check after 35 minutes) or until toothpick comes out clean. Cool completely in pan over a wire rack.

When cool, invert onto a serving plate. Set a glass bowl over a pot of barely simmering water, making sure the bowl does not touch the water. Place chocolate chips and a few spoonfuls of water in the bowl. Melt and stir until a thin stream trickles from a spoon, then drizzle over top of cake.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Getting the perfect grill marks

As with most of her suburban New Jersey friends, my mother had her hair set and starched every Saturday morning. I went sometimes, skipping cartoons for the chance to sit in the foot space under the mirrored counter and watch in wonder as women got their hair curled and teased and lacquered for the week ahead.

What made it worth missing Mr. Peabody and The Jetsons was those special days when she or others put on moon hats and the smocked beauticians painfully plucked strands of hair with a crotchet hook before plastering them with bleach. It was fascinating, but the fumes could singe the insides of your nostrils. I didn’t mind, though, so long as I got my own congratulatory crown of Aquanet for having been well behaved.

That wasn’t the best part of going to the beauty parlor, though. That came when we’d walk just a few doors down to where a heady aroma greeted you before your hand even touched the door. Our local deli was owned by the son of one of my mother’s friends. She was greeted there with queenly flourish and, usually, a complimentary tub of sour dill pickles.

An intoxicating mist of vinegar and garlic hung over the place and pint-sized regulars like me knew to stand near the bread slicer, where you’d soon be handed the heel of a still-hot loaf. There always was a long line after Saturday morning services, but it was the only place my mother would buy my father’s Depression-era favorite, boiled tongue. I vividly recall feeling faint when I realized it was an actual cow tongue that landed with a thunk when tossed onto the slicer. I still cringe at the thought, but one bite of that pink meat, piled onto warm rye bread with a bracing slice of raw onion and a smear of spicy brown mustard, brought a beatific smile to his face.

No, what I wanted was the other house specialty: perfectly grilled kosher hot dogs, tucked into toasted rolls and stuffed with steaming house-made sauerkraut. They’d be tightly wrapped in foil, along with fragrant knishes, and placed in a large brown paper bag for the ride home.

As soon as we hit the car, the begging started: Can I have mine now? No. Pleeeeease? No. I won’t spill. No.

Delicious? Yes. Fun? No.

On the rare occasions I indulge in a hot dog today, I still insist on a kosher dog – typically a Hebrew National, which as you might recall answers not to the government but the dietary laws of a Higher Authority. Inspired by a jar of Boar’s Head Sweet Vidalia Onion Sauce, we had some just last weekend.

I mentioned this to a co-worker, a lifelong aficionado of those red hot dogs that have been banned from most of the civilized world but are still popular in the South. When he mentioned fixing his in the toaster oven, I could have blown Dr. Brown’s Black Cherry Soda through my nose.

"I thought that was normal. That’s how you get those nice grill marks,” he protested. “You cook yours on the grill? Huh. It didn't occur to me to cook hot dogs on the grill."

Since it is a blessing to protect the innocent, let’s call my colleague J.

J added that using a toaster oven is energy efficient. “Plus, it’s great if you want a grilled cheese sandwich, too,” he said. “What? That’s also weird?”

Not surprisingly, J has a time-tested technique for toaster-oven grilling hot dogs. “Preheat to 350 degrees and make sure the bars are hot enough to impart authentic-looking grill marks,” he advised. "I always wipe it down before I cook hot dogs, of course, because I don't want them coming out tasting like pizza."

After preheating, hot dogs will be sizzlingly ready in about five minutes, give or take. "I just put them in and walk away until I smell them," he said. "Another sign is the sound. When they're ready, they kind of go 'pssssst'."

J, who says he has sworn off red hot dogs in favor of kosher ones – “I like knowing what's in my food; at least, sometimes" – acknowledges that they’d be simple to prepare at work, but wrong.

"Easy as it would be, I don’t think that’s a good idea,” he said. “You know, I never thought this was odd, but now I feel kind of bad about making fun of inmates who make grilled cheese with an iron."

J expressed one last bit of praise for his toaster oven, which he also swears by for baking potatoes.

"My toaster is a culinary miracle. Seriously, it has completely changed my life," he said, pausing as the words hung in the air, than snapping back into the moment. "That is, as a single person. Who is not old."

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Mrs. Baum's Apple Cake

More than 20 years ago, when I was pregnant with Graham and eager for delivery, another friend who was pregnant with her late-arriving daughter called me with news. "I heard that eating hot and spicy Thai food will bring on labor," she said. Suffice it to say, we were soon in the car and heading out to meet them for dinner.

Before midnight, her water broke and their daughter soon followed. I went into labor that day and Graham arrived early the next morning.

I have shared this story with many women who, while excited to finally meet their baby, looked miserable at the prospect of having to carry it for even one more day. I told my next-door neighbor about the hot-and-spicy Thai trick a few years ago when she was a few days past due. Her mother excitedly shared the news the next day that it had worked. It also worked for with her next arrival.

I feel sure there are other things at play here, but the scientific weight of my theory led me to share this tip with another new neighbor a week or so ago. They were rounding the corner for home after walking their dog and, with hand on heavy belly, she declared they were going out for dinner. As soon as possible.

Days went by and we saw no banners or balloons. Tim heard today that their son had indeed joined the family, so I decided this time to offer something I'm certain works: Mrs. Baum's Apple Cake, from Anita Pritchard's Back-to-Basics American Cooking (Putnam, 1983). As you can see from years of splotches, it's something I've made many times. It's easy, delicious and often can be made from just pantry ingredients, which was the case today.

Once cooled, Tim delivered it and learned that little William Carter arrived last Saturday -- which, come to think of it, might have been right around the time they went out for Thai dinner...