Friday, 22 June 2012

Exploring my Roots: Challah

As a child, I distinctly remember the satisfaction I felt-- and the jealousy I inspired in other children-- when I told them that I celebrated both Christmas and Hannukah. Twice the presents. Twice the celebrations. Twice the holiday cheer. The reason for this is fairly simple: my mother was raised Anglican and my father is Jewish. Overwhelmingly Christian-- culturally, if not religiously-- the majority of my classmates and friends were unfamiliar with Jewish customs, holidays, or (most importantly!) food. Admittedly, I was and still am fairly unfamiliar with most aspects of Judaism, Hannukah and Passover being the only two holidays my family has consistently observed. But I had an appreciation of the food passed down from my father's Russian Ashkenazi family. Latkes, matzo ball soup, farfel pudding, charoset. Challah. These were foods from the comfort-cuisines of Eastern Europe, and I associated them with festive spirit and special meals. Candlelight. Laughter. Family. Quite simply, all the things holidays should be about.

I am not Jewish. Neither under Jewish law (because my mother is not Jewish) nor through observance or personal identification. I am not a religious person and would not feel justified in claiming a religious identity. Jewish culture, however, is something that I believe has played a role in my life and in shaping who I am. However inauthentic and limited it might have been, my experience of "being Jewish" is inextricably linked to my experiences of family and of food. As I see it, many Jewish holidays draw on the power of food and the collective meal as part of sharing the stories and collective history of the Jewish people. Specific foods and eating customs have symbolic significance, uniting the practices of Jews across national, ethnic, and linguistic lines. On the one hand, the springtime holiday of Passover is centered entirely around a long ritualistic meal, throughout which the story of Exodus and the birth of the Jewish people is retold. On the other hand, Yom Kippur, the day of atonement signifying the end of the year, entails complete fasting so that the individual may wholly focus on God.

To me, in my occasional experiences of Jewish custom and throughout life, food is a focal point for coming together with family and friends. Through cooking and eating together we cherish ourselves and one another, our bodies and our souls. There is something tender and loving in even the simplest of meals, served and eaten in the right frame of mind.

My own family never made a habit of baking challah, a slightly sweet, moist braided bread often eaten on the Jewish Sabbath, Shabbat. On Shabbat, we would often have a store bought loaf with our meal, gobbling up the scrumptious bread in large, fragrant chunks. Although the bread was always store-bought, I find that baking challah is still very evocative of family food experiences. The honey, yeasty aroma of the baking bread smells very homely and safe, comforting when most of my family is thousands of miles away.

In addition to being a cultural, familial, and therapeutic experience, baking this challah was also my first time baking any kind of bread! Whoot! Apart from pizzas and flat-bread, that is. But I don't feel they count. As I imagine most bread-making to be, this was a fairly lengthy process-- mostly spent in waiting-- and involved quite a bit of kneading. The dough was much softer and fluffier than I had expected, though, and the kneading was very little effort. It was so soft and squidgy, in fact, that I spent an unnecessary amount of time just poking the lump of dough, fascinated and very tempted to giggle at the strangely pleasant texture. I might even have forced other people to poke it. Possibly.

This was a first attempt so it was by no means perfect. The dough was a little sweeter than I would have liked, I'll probably decrease the honey next time. Also, both loaves burst a little near their bases while baking. Oops. Guess I'll knead a little more thoroughly next time! But, overall, the results were moist, fragrant, and delicious while still warm from the oven. I consumed several slices slathered in honey, butter, or raspberry jam, a big, satisfied grin on my face. This recipe is a great base for tweaking, adjusting the flavoring and adding extra little goodies (dried fruit, herbs, spices... the possibilities are endless!) At the risk of being too smug, as a first go at bread-making, I'd have to say "not bad!"

adapted from a recipe on

1 1/4 cups warm water
1/4 cup honey (use a little less if you want your challah less sweet)
2 1/4 teaspoons dried active yeast
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 eggs
5 cups flour
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 additional egg

Yields two medium-sized loaves.

In a large bowl, mix together the water, honey, and yeast and allow to rest until frothy. This means that the yeast has activated. Mine took about 20 minutes.

In a separate bowl, whisk together the salt and flour and set aside.

Add the vegetable oil and eggs to the yeast mixture, blending thoroughly.

Now begin adding the flour/salt mixture to the wet ingredients, about a cupful at a time, stirring with a wooden spoon. As you add the flour, the dough should eventually lose enough of its stickiness that you can knead it (though you might have to add more flour before you get to this stage!) Once the dough is workable, turn it out onto a floured surface and begin kneading, adding more flour as kneaded to keep it from sticking to your hands or the surface. Knead until the dough is smooth (a few minutes) and then leave it to rise for 1 1/2 hours (until it has doubled in size) in a lightly floured bowl, covered with a damp cloth.

Once the dough has risen, remove it from the bowl and knead it again on a floured surface. Because I made two smallish loaves, I divided the dough in half and kneaded each half separately. You could, instead, make one large loaf and knead the whole lump together.

After 2-5 minutes of kneading (with liberal applications of flour as needed!) the dough should be ready to braid. Divide each chunk into thirds and roll the thirds out into thick ropes, about 1 1/2 inches thick. Firmly pinch the three ropes together at one end and gently braid them together, the way you would hair. Weird, chunky, abnormal hair. Try not to pull the dough logs as you're braiding them, simply drape them over one another. You want them to puff up and maintain their distinct shapes when you bake them so that the braid shape is still apparent. When I got to the ends of each braid, I tucked the ends underneath to round off the end of the loaf.

Transfer the loaves to a greased baking tray (if you're making one large loaf, it might be a bit unwieldy so you can braid it directly on the baking tray, avoiding potential challah disasters!)  Brush the loaves with an egg wash, simply beat the additional egg until whites and yolk are combined and then lightly brush it on your loaves, using a pastry brush or your fingertips. This will give the challah a pretty shine when they bake.

Bake in a preheated oven at 190 C (375 F) for about 40 minutes. After the first 20 minutes, cover them with foil to prevent them getting too brown.

After they've baked, remove the loaves to a cooling rack allow them to cool for at least an hour before cutting them (so, so hard, believe me!)

Shalom aleichem!

Saturday, 16 June 2012

More Spring Cleaning: No Butter Chocolate Chip Cookies

I've begun organizing my belongings in preparation for moving out (ah, the transiency of young adulthood!) In addition to navigating the world of shipping options and coming face-to-face with the amount of unnecessary stuff I own, this has necessitated a lot of recycling and throwing out. Some late spring cleaning, you could say. There's something immensely liberating about disposing of a stack of school notebooks, the contents of which I will never need. I feel refreshed!

Assessing my belongings (and their individual futures) brought me back to the original driving force behind my recent cooking: using up the edible contents of my kitchen. My cornmeal and dashi powder are not notebooks. They have a culinary purpose and they deserve a chance to fill it.

On the theme of using up the goodies in my kitchen cupboards in preparation for moving out, I realized (rather belatedly) that even the basic, everyday ingredients, like cooking oil, will have to be used up a little more quickly. A very large and frankly imposing bottle of the stuff has in fact been sitting on my kitchen counter, silently questioning my decision to purchase it so soon before leaving. But cooking oil is so vital! It casually slips into innumerable dishes, a necessity that slips under the radar. We were running low, so I bought some more. Without a second thought.

I have decided not to regret that decision. Or rather, that spur of the moment lapse of judgement. Instead, dear Mr. Vegetable Oil will inspire me to cook in different ways. I've been using too much butter lately anyway (blasphemy, I know!)

My first thought regarding vegetable oil consumption was cookies. Sure, butter gives cookies that lovely crispness, a rich, almost creamy, crunchiness. But butter is not the only way. Surely oil is a valid addition to the cookie-baker's pantry. I started with the basics: chocolate chip cookies. As it turns out, the internet is full of chocolate chip cookie recipes using vegetable oil instead of butter. Many of them seem very anxious to assure us would-be bakers that the lack of butter will not hinder the taste or texture. I choose to believe and have faith.

This recipe is fairly basic-- just about what you'd expect in a choc chip cookie recipe, minus the butter. The use of walnuts particularly appealed to me because the recipe noted that the nutty flavoring made up for the lack of butter flavor. The comparison between nutty richness and that of butter sounded somehow just right and turned out to work perfectly. To be honest, I wasn't sure I liked the taste of these cookies when they first came out of the oven. But after cooling and having some time to rest, they proved to have a lovely rich flavor from the walnuts, enhancing what might otherwise have been a somewhat dull taste.

I didn't have any chocolate chips so I just chopped up a bar of baking chocolate-- not the best quality, but I have to use it up sometime...

Here it is: using up my kitchen basics, one batch of cookies at a time!

No Butter Chocolate Chip Cookies
recipe from

1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup light brown sugar
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1 egg
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup roughly chopped chocolate (200 grams)
1/2 cup toasted chopped walnuts

This is a pretty simple, two-bowl recipe, pretty common in cookie baking. You mix the dry ingredients and the wet ingredients separately, then combine them. Additions-- the chocolate and the walnuts, for example-- are usually added last, once the basic dough has been thoroughly combined.

Preheat the oven to 180° C (350°F)

In one bowl, sift or whisk the flour, baking soda, and salt and set aside.

In a second, large bowl, combine the sugars, oil, egg, and vanilla. Gradually stir in the flour mixture. Finally, add the chocolate and walnuts. Because this recipe uses oil, not butter, I found that the chocolate chunks didn't stick well to the slightly greasy dough, falling to the bottom of the bowl. When I spooned out the dough, I simply stuck extra chunks in the middles and tops of each scoop (keeping them off the bottoms of each scoop as much as possible helps to avoid chocolate chunks sticking to the baking tray and getting left behind when the baked cookies are removed).

Spoon the dough in heaped tablespoon-sized scoops onto an ungreased baking tray, spaced about two inches apart.

Bake for about 10 minutes (until very lightly browned). Allow to rest on the baking tray for a couple minutes before removing to a cooling rack using a spatula. Let these cookies rest a while before eating them (such a struggle, I know!) because the flavor really comes into its own after a while. It will be worth it. Honest.

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Butternut Squash Ravioli with Sage Brown Butter Sauce

The other day, I made a huge mistake. I was lounging in my living room, having a leisurely browse through various food blogs and recipe sites when I thought, "just go for it! Make some homemade pasta." I've been toying with the idea for a while, ever since I saw how it's done: making a well of flour on the counter-top and cracking eggs in as if it was a bowl. Getting your fingers all goopy and floury as you mix the dough right there on the counter. Everything about that scenario appealed to me. It's so hands on and no nonsense, harking back to kindergarten craft projects and mud pies but resulting in tasty, tasty goodness. Which makes it sophisticated, adult, mud pie-making!

Also, I love pasta. Love it. It's a vehicle for so much yumminess: cheese sauces, tomato, lasagna, fillings, soups. It's versatile, slightly chewy, and leaves you comfortingly full.

Therein lies the problem: I love pasta and I just effectively ruined myself for the store-bought stuff for the foreseeable future. I mean it. Homemade is just that good. The starchy, thick noodles from a plastic package just won't do it for me anymore. I've had fresh pasta from the store before-- the kind that screams at you to cook it the day you buy it-- so I had some warning of what was coming. Fresh pasta is definitely a very different kettle of fish from its dried out, cupboard-friendly cousin.

On my first attempt, I made a couple mistakes. First of all, I didn't properly cover the bits of dough I wasn't actively working on and so they got a tiny bit dry. By no means disastrous, simply something to learn from. More problematic was my lack of patience when it came to rolling out the sheets to adequate thinness. I have to confess to a certain degree of impatience, possibly even poor time management. I know, I decided to make pasta from scratch. Patience and plenty of time should have been at the top of my ingredient list! Sadly, I thought it would be a good idea to take a crack at it a couple hours before I had to leave the house. The challenge did not improve my results. Fat, chewy noodles that look like worms are not the most appetizing of meals, no matter how you dress them up in garlicky cheese sauce.

The second attempt went much better. No rushing. A little TLC for the dough. It was much more relaxing and the result was worlds better. Worlds. In fact, I took a bit of my first ravioli, lightly coated in sage-y butter sauce, and had to just pause as the delicate flavors layered, one on top the other, thinking "wow, I made this". Delicious.

Butternut squash and sage are a classic (and very tasty) combination and my ravioli searches on the Internets suggested that brown butter and sage were the way to go. Who am I to question to the wisdom of the masses? I've never actually browned butter before. I've seen innumerable mentions of the technique in the blogosphere, referring to its nutty qualities and depth of flavor. Oh lord were they right! Browning the butter brings out layers of flavor, entirely unlike its usual simple, creamy richness. Laced with sage and garnished with Parmesan, the brown butter sauce accompanied the lightly-spiced sweetness of the butternut squash to perfection. Pause-and-rapturously-contemplate-what-you-just-put-in-your-mouth perfection. I daresay there are worse ways I could have ruined myself for dried pasta.

Make this. Coax the dough into perfect smoothness and thinness. Give it care and attention. Love it. You won't be sorry.


Butternut squash filling
1 small butternut squash
salt and pepper for seasoning
pinch of nutmeg
2 teaspoons creme fraiche

Cut the squash in half lengthwise and remove the seeds. Place the halves in a baking dish and season with salt and pepper. Roast for about 40 minutes at 200° C (390° F), or until soft (you'll be able to tell by stabbing it with a knife/fork to test its doneness, you want it to be soft enough to mash without too much effort). Allow the cooked squash to cool and then peel/scrape out the insides. I mashed the cooked squash by hand, using a fork, because I don't have a food processor or anything equally fancy. Using one would result in a much smoother filling, definitely a plus. But, even if I did have one, I have a feeling I wouldn't have used it because there's so little squash involved and the clean-up would be a hassle!

Add the nutmeg and creme fraiche and mix thoroughly. If you feel it needs more salt (or anything else, for that matter) go ahead and add it. Be sure to taste!

You can make this in advance and refrigerate it. I imagine it would last a couple days, but I probably wouldn't leave it for much longer.

Egg Pasta Dough
from this recipe

1 2/3 cups all-purpose flour (the ideal is to use "00" flour but I do not possess such fancy ingredients and it turned out that all-purpose worked pretty darn well!)
2 eggs
1 tablespoon olive oil
pinch of salt

Yields about 20 ravioli (and can be used for all your other pasta needs!)

Sift the flour (or whisk some air into it in a bowl) and tip it out onto a clean surface. Form a well in the flour using your fists and crack in the eggs and add the olive oil and salt. My well was a little too small on my first attempt so the mixing process got a tad messy. Not the end of the world, but a bit annoying.

Start mixing the dough by gently stirring the eggs with your fingers tips, gradually mixing in the flour until it's firm enough to start kneading. This will take some time and it will get messy. You have been warned.

The dough gets pretty stiff as you add all the flour, but you have to keep kneading for several (2-5) minutes in order to thoroughly incorporate all the ingredients. Once you've kneaded long enough, the dough will no longer be dry and grainy but have a smoother, uniform texture. When it's reached this state, brush the dough with olive oil, place it in a plastic bag or cling film, and set aside for at least 30 minutes. I won't even begin to claim expertise in the realm of pasta-making, but my limited research on The Google suggests that letting the dough rest is vital in pasta-making because it allows the gluten in the flour to relax, making the dough more elastic. That's how I understand it, anyway!

Rolling out the dough can go one of two ways depending on if you have a fancy-and-only-slightly-pricey item of kitchen equipment: the Pasta Machine. If you do, rolling out an evenly paper-thin sheet of pasta-- and even slicing it into perfectly uniform ribbons if you want-- is as easy as a dream. I do not own a pasta machine. I have a rolling pin. The good news is, apart from the need for a little more time and effort, it doesn't really matter. Surely Italian mammas made do without fancy equipment for generations of home pasta-making. And so can I.

To start with, you roll the dough out a few times on a very lightly floured surface to knead it, ensuring a smoother pasta texture. Simply start by rolling it out thickly, folding it into thirds, and rolling it out again. Repeat this process a few time. You should start to get a semi rectangular chunk of dough (though mine was pretty misshapen due to my clumsiness!)

Now, for the final rolling out, divide the dough in half. These will be the top and bottom sheets of your ravioli (with all this rambling about gluten and rolling, I almost forgot what the recipe is for!) Wrap one half in a damp dishtowel while you work with the other so that it doesn't dry out. The rolling part is pretty self explanatory. Use long strokes, pushing outward from the center and try to get a uniform thickness (you can hold the sheet up to the light to get a proper sense of variations in thickness or just how thin it is in general). To be honest, I'm not sure exactly how thin my pasta sheet was. About 1/8" perhaps. I judged more on how much the light came through when I held it up. Once there were no longer any dark shadows revealing thicker sections, I decided it was thin enough. Keep in mind that this is for ravioli so the dough will be sandwiched, and therefor twice as thick, when you cook it. You don't want fat, flabby ravioli. The thinner the better! Roll the second half to the same thickness (keeping the rolled out sheet covered by the damp towel)

To form the ravioli, place spoonfuls of filling on the bottom sheet, about an inch and half apart.  The amount of filling and the spacing depends on how big you want your ravioli, and how much edging you want around the centers. I was a little haphazard with my placement so I had to cut very carefully around each ravioli and trim some edges. The most tidy way is probably to place the dollops in rows and columns so cutting them will be simple and uniform.

Now carefully lay the second sheet of pasta over the first. Press down around each dollop of filling, pressing out the air and sealing the pasta layers around them. Once you've done this with each ravioli-to-be, carefully cut them out with a knife or a pizza roller. As a final touch, I pressed all the edges of my ravioli with a fork. They were a little uneven and sloppy looking so I thought this covered up some of their deficiencies. When I have a round cookie cutter, my ravioli will be prettier!

To cook the ravioli, bring a large pot of heavily salted water to a boil and add the pasta. Cook them for several minutes, stirring occasionally so they don't stick. Cook time obviously depends on the size/thickness of the ravioli. Mine took about 7 minutes. I tested one by trimming a bit off the edge and tasting it. Once they were no longer crunchy/too firm in the center, the noodles were done.

If you're not adding them to sauce or serving them immediately, let the ravioli dry on a damp dishtowel. You can refrigerate them once they've dried and cooled. Obviously, they're best served immediately after cooking but we all know that meals don't always work out that way!

Brown Butter and Sage Sauce
2 tablespoons butter
3/4 teaspoon dried sage (I confess to using dried, not fresh herbs for this, shameful, I know! Fresh would doubtless be much better!)
1/2 teaspoon salt

This is really more of a drizzle or a dressing than a sauce. It just needs to coat each ravioli, not form a buttery puddle on your plate!

Brown the butter in a hot pan at a medium heat, stirring occasionally and keeping an eye on it so it doesn't burn. Sprinkle in the dried sage and salt and blend thoroughly. Let the sage soak up the butter and the flavors to settle, off the heat.

When you're ready to add the pasta, slowly reheat and put the just-cooked pasta in the pan with the sauce, thoroughly coat, and turn out on a plate. Sprinkle some Parmesan shavings on top and serve!

Sunday, 3 June 2012

Slow Food, Polish Style: Pierogi

I first made pierogi several years ago with a friend who's very proud of his Polish ancestry and has a commendable appreciation of the cooking (and eating) of food. The perogi in question were part of a Polish feast we were making at another friend's apartment, two newbies serving as sous chefs to the Polish Expert. We made obscene amounts of food that afternoon, liberally dosed with butter, sour cream, and cheese, but what really blew me away was the addictively delicious pierogi filling. Obviously, cheese, sour cream, butter, and onions are four of Nature's most generous gifts to mankind (gifts which, with the exception of onions, should be used in moderation or in conjunction with hard physical labor). But it wasn't until I found myself huddled with my fellow chefs, spoons in hand, around the bowl of cheese and potato filling that I realized exactly how stunning such ostensibly simple food can be. Despite the fact that we were preparing a Feast, and would soon be partaking of it, the three of us lingered over the bowl, unable to tear ourselves away from the taste perfection.

Today, as I chopped and mashed, fried and stirred, and as I kneaded sticky dough and rolled it out thin I felt the calm satisfaction of cooking a myriad of components. The meditative pleasure of balancing elements and gradually working through a series of processes until it all comes together. I started early. I didn't want to rush through the cutting or filling stages and lose the joy of it all in a blur of stress and frazzled nerves.

There's a lot that goes into these seemingly innocent little dumplings. The dough has to be mixed and kneaded. The various elements of the filling must be cooked and then blended, carefully tasted and seasoned. The dough has to be rolled out, thin and a touch sticky, and cut into rounds. Then these must be filled with tiny spoonfuls of filling and then folded and sealed into little adorable parcels. Then they are cooked. Twice. First boiled to cook the raw dough and then fried, in a generous puddle of butter, until they're light brown, mouth-watering, and crispy.

This is comfort home-cooking at its finest. Food that should be cooked and consumed in the company of family or close friends. Food that makes you take your time.

I might possibly have bitten off a bit more than I could chew. I decided to attempt three different fillings. I had a sweet potato to use up and a few handfuls of spinach, so it seemed only logical to try something a little different this time. It went without saying that the traditional cheese and potato filling was still on the menu. If my experimental new fillings went disastrously wrong I still wanted my reliable go-to to fall back on! The other two fillings sort of came together in the kitchen, a pinch of this and a grating of that. That's generally my cooking style of choice, tasting and seasoning as I go, rather than strictly following a recipe or plan. That isn't exactly suited for writing down my recipe after the fact, however, so I tried to pay attention to what I was throwing in and wrote down some approximate amounts afterwards. This is one great thing I discovered about pierogis: they are a great spring-board for all sorts of flavor combinations. They can be as complicated or as simple as you want, filled with whatever takes your fancy, to suit your own tastes and cravings.


2 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 egg (lightly beaten)
1/2 cup sour cream
1/4 cup butter, softened (57 grams)

Cheese and potato filling:
1 medium-sized potato, cooked and mashed
1 tablespoon butter
2 tablespoons sour cream
grated cheddar cheese to taste
pinch of white pepper
couple pinches of salt
about 2 tablespoons of finely chopped, sauteed onions

Sweet potato filling:
1 sweet potato
1 tablespoon butter
salt to taste
a pinch of cheddar cheese
1 tablespoon sour cream

Spinach and cheese filling:
a couple handfuls of spinach, cooked and drained of excess water
1/4 cup grated Parmesan
pinch of garlic powder
pinch of salt
pinch of white pepper

Sift together the flour and salt. Then, with a wooden spoon, stir in the beaten egg, sour cream, and finally the butter. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface. It might still be pretty crumbly and not combined but once you start kneading it should come together pretty quickly. Knead the dough for a few minutes until its texture is uniformly elastic and a bit sticky. Cover and chill in the fridge for at least fifteen minutes (or you can make the dough in advance and chill over-night)

When you're ready to use to the dough, roll it out on a lightly flour surface (with a lightly floured rolling pin!) to to about a 1/8" thickness and use a round cookie cutter or class to cut out rounds. If you've chilled the dough for a longer amount of time, it will be fairly firm at this point, so let it rest out of the fridge for about ten minutes before you try to work with it. I found that I had a bit too much dough to roll it all out at once on my tiny kitchen counter, so I divided it into two balls and did them one at a time. I also found that, as I worked the dough, it got softer and warmed, making it a little harder to work with. Next time, I'll probably chill one half of the dough as I'm working with the other, to make sure it stays stiff.

Fill each dough round with a small spoonful of filling (make sure not to overfill them or they won't seal, it's always less than you think!) Each of mine only took about a teaspoon of filling. To seal them, fold the dough into a half-moon shape and gently but firmly press the edges together around the filling, pressing out extra air. For extra sealing (and to make them pretty!) you can crimp the edges with a fork.

For the first cooking stage, fill a medium-to-large sized pot with water and bring to a boil. Cook the pierogi a few at a time (don't overcrowd them but they don't need tons of space). They should take a few minutes to cook and they'll float to the surface when they're done. Dry them off (I let them rest on a clean dishtowel) before setting them aside.

The second stage of cooking should wait until shortly before you serve them, so that they're nice and hot and crispy. Melt a healthy (well, maybe the wrong choice of word...) nub of butter in a hot frying pan and fry the pierogi at a medium-high heat, a few minutes on each side, until they're lightly browned. Frying them with sauteed onions adds another tasty element (and the more onions the better, right?)