Making Perfect Pizza at Home

February 10th, 2011

Making Perfect Pizza at Home

Growing up near New Haven, Connecticut, we are spoiled when it comes to pizza.  In New Haven, Wooster Street is our Little Italy.  A half-mile long stretch of city block dedicated to the some of the most celebrated Italian restaurants in the northeast.  Pepe’s Pizzeria Napolitano and its cousin, Sally’s Pizzeria are some of the oldest pizza places in the country.  They are always high on everyone’s list of favs and people gladly wait the 2+ hours in line for one of their super thin, wood-fired tomato pies.  Tummies stuffed with pizza, no trek to Wooster St. is complete without an Italian ice and a cannoli from Libby’s.  Today, Modern Pizza and Roseland’s in Derby are worth the drive from anywhere.  Determining the best place in New Haven has been fuel for heated debate for the last 75 years.  But it all comes down to a matter of opinion.  For us, great pizza is in arms reach.

Unfortunately for most, Pizza is the good-old American go-to food.  It’s what we order when we don’t really care what we’re eating.  We just pick up the phone and call.  Then in just 30 minutes, it gets hand delivered to our door.  It’s quick. It’s cheap.  It’s easy and it’s dinner.  But it’s hardly Italian food.

On my first trip to Rome, I found out what real pizza was like.  When in Rome, do what the Romans do; drive to Naples to get the best Apizza Napolitano. (Actually Romans are quite proud of their pizza too…I just wanted to use the ‘When In Rome’ pun…)  In Naples, pizza isn’t just stomach filler.  Naples is where pizza is arguably perfected and they take it very seriously.  Here, as well as all over Italy, Italians balk over what Americans do to their beloved dish.  Order a pizza and you will not get a giant slab of cooked dough with toppings a mile high and enough to feed everyone at the table.   Pizza here is a source of pride.  For the typical Italian, it’s all about the freshest ingredients and the simplicity of design.  And there are rules…yes rules…for the construction of the perfect pizza.  The basics are this:  The dough.  The sauce.  The Cheese and Toppings.

The dough:   Fresh handmade dough, hand rolled thin to fit the plate of the individual diner.  Pizza is always an oh-solo-mio event.  For real Italian pizza, the dough is the most important part of the pizza.

The sauce:  Fresh crushed tomatoes lightly seasoned.   The sauce should be applied lightly.  You should be able to read a newspaper through it.  It should barely color the dough pink.  In Rome, the sauce is put on until about 1/2 inch from the crust.  In Naples, the sauce goes right to the end of the dough. 

Cheese:  Thin slices of Mozzarella or a sprinkling of parmesan.  Not too heavy handed.

Toppings:  The major rule about toppings is that they should NEVER be thicker than the crust.  While pizza in the US is all about the toppings, toppings on real Italian pizza are more about simplicity.

Back in the Netherlands, I went into a pizza withdrawal. Except for a very few exceptions (Renato’s in de Pijp section of Amsterdam is one of the best),   pizza here is varying shades of bad.  Undercooked pre-processed crust, terrible sauce and covered with *gasp* Dutch GOUDA cheese instead of mozzarella!  As with so many things here, if I was going to get good pizza, I was going to have to make it myself. 

Luckily, after remodeling my kitchen, my brand new Boretti oven came with a 90 cm pizza stone.  At the time I thought I would never use it.  But after 10 years, it’s one kitchen ‘gadget’ that gets more use than I thought.  Crank the heat up to the max and I can make pizza that can match some of the best.  A pizza peel is also a good gadget if you have a pizza stone.  Otherwise, cooking your pizza on a cookie sheet works just fine too. 

Keeping in mind that pizza is all about the crust, it’s actually quite easy to make authentic pizza yourself.  If you have dough leftover, you can freeze it.  To thaw,  put it in the microwave at 10% power for about 5-10 mins (depending on the size of your dough).  Check often so it doesn’t cook. 

 Here’s the recipe:

Pizza topped with mozz, marscapone, capers, parma ham and finished off with fresh rucola

 The Best Homemade Pizza

Dough Starter:

1 package (2 teaspoons)  dried yeast

¼ Cup warm water

¾ Cup flour

Dough:

1 Cup Water

1 teaspoon salt

2 ¼ Cup flour

Sauce:

5 peeled and crushed Roma tomatoes. (or a can of crushed tomatoes if you pressed for time)

1 crushed clove of garlic

1 teaspoons salt.

Toppings

Thinly sliced mozzarella cheese, Choose from:  grated parmesan, fresh chopped basil, thinly sliced mushrooms, an egg (raw – it cooks in the oven), sliced olives, Parma ham(put on pizza AFTER it comes out of the oven – YUM), mascarpone cheese, chopped garlic,  rucola, pine nuts, or whatever your heart desires..

Mix starter ingredients in a small-medium mixing bowl.  It will be rather stiff and crumbly.  Cover and let sit one hour. 

After an hour,  add the cup of water to the starter.  In a large bowl  of a mixer with a dough hook, mix flour and salt.  Add starter.  On a medium setting,  knead the dough  for about 3-5 minutes.  The dough will be very soft so it’s better with a mixer than by hand. 

Divide the dough in 4 pieces, shape into balls and put on a well floured plate or cookie sheet.  Cover and let stand until double (about an hour).  You can start this at about 4:00 to make pizza for a 6:30 dinner. 

Preheat your oven to 450-500F.  Place a pizza stone on the lowest level. To make crust, dredge a dough ball in flour and roll out dough on a floured surface.  Try to get it as close to a circle shape as possible.  It should be very thin, about ¼ inch or less.  Dusting with extra flour will make it easier to roll out.  Then, pre-cook the dough to keep the toppings from making the dough soggy. This also makes it easier to push the topped pizza in the oven.  Do this by, putting the dough on a peel and shove it in the oven for 2-3 minutes until a bit puffy but still white.  This is important because a home oven cannot even come close to the temperature of commercial ovens.  So pre-cooking the dough keeps your pizza crispy on the bottom with perfectly cooked toppings.  Repeat with the rest of the balls. 

For something fun,  I put one pre-made crust on everyone plate and let my guests put their own toppings on.  My oven can cook 2 pizzas at the same time.  Have your guests top their pizzas just before going into the oven.   If they are prepared too much in advance, they will be soggy. I always serve a salad so the people that are waiting will have something to do. They can eat their salad first. 

Pizzas take about 4-5 minutes each to cook.  I find that the oven has some recovery time between pizzas, so the later ones may take a few minutes longer. 

Buon Apetito!

Kiss and Tell

 What better way to introduce an early Valentine’s Day post than with one of the most interesting European customs.  How people greet each other.

 When Americans greet each other, it’s often with a hug.  Americans love to hug. Whether it’s a far-off cheek-hug from an acquaintance or a big bear hug from a long lost friend. One thing I miss about the US, are the big hearty hugs from friends and relatives. Europeans, however, don’t seem too keen on the full body contact.  

 In most European countries, many people greet each other with at least one slight kiss on the cheek.  First let me explain, these kisses are not full lip kisses but rather cheek-to-cheek grazes followed by an air-kiss.  Like the kind you see the ‘girls’ giving each other on Sex and The City episodes. Even though this custom seems fairly straight forward, it can be one of the most confusing rituals to outsiders. 

 It’s not uncommon to be confused.  How many kisses?  Which cheek do you start with?  Do men kiss other men?  Is kissing acceptable in business?  Can I just shake hands? Or what about hugging?  All are very valid questions. 

All over Holland, the rules are this:  Greet with three kisses, starting from the right cheek. Unless you are related or gay, men typically don’t kiss other men.  In business it is acceptable to shake hands unless you know the person very well.  If you do, then a kiss-trio won’t raise any eyebrows.  

In some other countries, the rules are not so clear.  Take France for instance, where ‘une  bise’ customs vary from 1 to 5 kisses (yes

Kissing Map of France

 5!) depending which part of France you are in.

When in Paris,  2 kisses are the norm and even hetero men kiss other men.  In Normandy, you can’t get away with less than 4 and on some islands, you’ll be kissing all day! And there, men never kiss other men unless their related.  How confusing is that??  How on earth is one to know?  To the right is a kissing map of France stating local customs by area.

 

 

So folks,  as a public service,  when travelling to Europe,  please check with the local Kissing Customs to avoid embarrassing moments.  Happy travelling and pucker up! 

Croquembouche

For this post,    I’m going to give you all one of the simplest but most impressive techniques in French cooking…How to make Choux Pasty.  Choux Pasty is probably named because the finished products look like little cabbages. (Choux means cabbage in French) If you don’t know,  Choux Pastry what is used to make Cream Puff shells.  And WHO doesn’t LOVE creampuffs??  This particular pastry, as simple as it is to prepare,  is also the base of some of the most impressive desserts of all time. Here in the Netherlands, tiny crispy filled choux balls are filled with cream and covered with caramel or chocolate to make Profiteroles.  In France,  it is considered so luxurious, that a ‘Croquembouche’ or tall tower of tiny cream filled cream puffs swathed in an ethereal cloud of spun caramelized sugar is the traditional French wedding cake. 

Today’s recipe uses Choux Paste as a base.  This recipe was named after a famous bicycle race that is overshadowed by the more famous Tour de France.  Paris-Brest-Paris or (PBP) occurs every 4 years.  For a perfect Valentine’s Day dessert, make a Paris-Brest in heart form.

Paris-Brest

Paris Brest Pastry

Choux Pastry:

1 cup (135 grams) all purpose flour or bread flour

1 teaspoon granulated white sugar

1/4 teaspoon salt

6 tablespoons) (85 grams) unsalted butter

1 cup (240 ml) water

4 large eggs lightly beaten

 Glaze:

1 egg beaten

1/2 cup (50 grams) shaved almonds

 Whipped Cream:

1 cup (240 ml) heavy whipping cream

1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

1 tablespoon (14 grams) granulated white sugar

2 tablespoons cocoa, nutella, or Hazelnut flavored “International Coffees” powder

 Garnish:

Powdered (Confectioners or icing) sugar.

 Basic Preparation of Choux Paste: 

Gently heat the water, milk and butter together until it just begins to boil.  Remove the pan from the heat and beat in the flour immediately until you have a thick smooth paste. Add the eggs a little at a time beating well until the mixture becomes a shiny paste.

 Note: This is the base for tons of great recipes. For savory dishes and hors d’ourves, leave out the sugar. See below for ideas)

 Heat the oven to 350F (175C). Grease a cookie sheet. Put the warm paste in a piping bag, or use a large spoon. Form the paste thickly into a circle. Don’t be afraid to pile it high, about 3 inches.  Brush lightly with beaten egg. Sprinkle with shaved almonds. Bake about 30 minutes until crisp and dry.  Cool completely.

Meanwhile, in a med-large bowl, beat the cream, vanilla, sugar, cocoa (nutella or hazelnut powder) until still peaks form.  

Just before serving, slice the circle carefully lengthwise in half.  Remove top of circle. Fill with cream mixture. Replace top of circle.  Dust with powdered sugar.  

Tips:  For interesting hor d’ourves,  form choux pastry in small piles (about 1 tablespoon of paste).  When cooled, slice open the top and fill with your favorite salad (tuna, chicken,egg, etc…) .  Replace top. 

Baked, unfilled Choux pastries, freeze well.  Make a bunch and keep in the freezer.

The Fat-Pants Experiment

January 18th, 2011

The Fat-Pants Experiment

Living abroad has been a great experience for me.  I love learning about the cultural differences and, more importantly, the similarities of people around the world.  One thing that I learned is that life is really not so different wherever you live.  People all over the world have the same basic concerns: gainful employment, a safe and dry place to raise a family, food on the table, clothes on their backs, a little entertainment from time to time, and so on. Not so much different from life in the US.     

 What can be very different are the details.  Take baking, for instance. Besides the obvious metric distinctions, there is a vast difference in how Americans and Europeans bake.  In America, we bake using volume.  This means we measure using cups and teaspoons.  Virtually every recipe in America is written in volume measures.

 Here in Europe, dry ingredients are almost universally measured by weight. Only liquid is measured in volume. This was somewhat of a culture shock to me since it wasn’t what I was used to.  So on my next foray back to the US, a brand new set of measuring cups and spoons got a one way trip to Holland.  Since most of my favorite recipes are of American decent, I still faithfully use them.  When some unsuspecting person asks me for a recipe, I can literally feel their disappointment when they scan the recipe only to find that it is not only in English, but also in volume to boot.  Can you translate this to Dutch?  How many grams are in a stick of butter?   How much does 1 ¾ Cups of flour weigh?   Now-a-days, as a public service to my fellow Dutchmen (and -women) I spend a decent amount of my time weighing out my recipes.  While I was doing my translations, I came across a few things:

 – A cup of flour does not weigh the same as a cup of sugar, nor does a cup of lead or a cup of feathers for that matter.

– The weight of a cup of flour can differ greatly depending on how you packed it, type of flour, humidity, etc…

I’ll tell you, it took me a while to get the hang of using weight as measures.  But now that I’ve got it down pat, I am totally convinced that using weight gives more consistent results to the finished product.  Another benefit is that recipes scale better.  If I wanted to half a recipe that calls for ¾ cup of flour, I’d have to rely on my 5th grade fractions lesson…and chances are I don’t have a measuring cup for that amount and end up estimating anyway.  Using weight measures, halving a recipe for 75 grams of flour is quite easy using 3rd grade division.  75 divided by 2 = 37.5.   Easy Peasy.

Still not convinced?  Let’s do a few experiments.  Let’s use your favorite pair of jeans as an example.  I don’t know about you, but after the holidays, my jeans were fitting a bit snugly.  The decision on whether to take your fat pants out of the mothballs is a ‘volume’ measure.  In this case, your volume has exceeded the content of your ‘skinny’ jeans.   Now at this point, we suspect the additional volume that is imposed on our jeans is caused by a few extra pounds of weight gain (or we can just use the excuse that they shrunk in the wash ;-)) However, if we want to know exactly how much the damage was, the most accurate measure is by getting on the scale.  Thus concluding, that the most accurate and consistent measure is weight. 

Let’s try another experiment that doesn’t require you to gain 10 pounds.  Take a bag of flour, a measuring cup (1 Cup measure) and a food scale.  Yes, even that old Weight Watchers scale that you got in the 70’s will do. First, scoop the cup into the bag of flour and then level with a knife.  Weigh the cup. Mark the weight and empty the cup.  Do it again.  Do you notice any differences in the weight?  I’ll bet you do.   Next, using a tablespoon, spoon flour into the cup and then level off with a knife. Again, weigh the filled cup, marking the weight.  I’ll bet this method of filling the cup weighs less than the scoop and level method. 

Now, take an empty bowl put it on the scale and turn it on.  The scale should read zero.  Spoon out 100 grams of flour.  Empty the bowl and do it again.  You see, its 100 grams EVERY TIME!  Ok, so maybe you didn’t need to do this last test, it was just for effect anyway. 

As you see, now, I am a total weight convert.

 This recipe is not only a good manner of using your new-found skills. It also has a bit of a story.  Johan Ludvig Runeberg (1804 – 1877) was a famous poet from Finland and considered Finland’s National Poet.  In honor of his birthday, on Feb 5th, his wife allegedly created  these muffin-like creations for his special day.  According to legend, Runeberg enjoyed one of these tarts with Swedish punch liquor) on every breakfast. Runeberg’s tarts are typically eaten only in Finland and are generally available from the beginning of January to Runeberg’s birthday on February 5.

I know, I know.  This recipe is a bit all over the place when it comes to weight versus volume measures.  But it’s an authentic recipe.  Be prepared to use quite a few bowls for this one.  But it creates a unique looking item that’s a nice change from muffins or cupcakes.

 Runeberg Tarts

1 egg
25 ml sugar  ( 1/8 C)
50 brown sugar (firmly packed)  (1/4 C)
100 g butter
¼ C  cream
150 grams flour
1 tsp baking powder
50 grams ground almonds
50 ml ground or finely chopped walnuts or hazelnuts or ground dark sugar cookies)
1 tsp
vanilla extract
½ tsp almond essence
(a dash of almond liqueur  — 
eg “Amaretto”)

Sugar syrup:

100 ml sugar
50 ml water
1 – 2 tbsp (or to taste) Swedish
punch, rum or cognac

1/4 C Raspberry jam

Sugar icing:

Icing sugar
water
dash of almond essence

Melt the butter and let it cool slightly. Whip the cream until soft peaks form. Beat the egg and sugars until fluffy, add almond essence (and liqueur), melted butter and whipped cream.

Mix together the dry ingredients. (If you do not have walnuts, hazelnuts or sugar cookies at hand, you can omit them or replace them with ground or chopped almonds.) Gently fold the dry ingredients into the batter.

Lightly butter six cups from a standard muffin pan and spoon the batter into them, leveling the batter.  It will not rise very much. Bake the cakes at 375°C   (175 °C) for 15 – 20 minutes or when a cake tester/toothpick inserted in the middle of them comes out clean.

Meanwhile, prepare the sugar syrup. Place the sugar, water and the alcohol of your choice into a small saucepan. Bring the mixture to the boil, so that the sugar melts and alcohol evaporates. Remove from heat and set aside.

Take the hot cakes out of the oven, prick them with a toothpick, and drizzle the warm sugar syrup on top of them. Use all of the syrup. Let the cakes absorb the syrup for half an hour or longer. When the cakes seem thoroughly moist, gently remove them from the moulds and flip them over.

If the bottoms of the cakes are uneven, cut them flat carefully, using a serrated knife, so that the cakes will stand straight. This is most easily done while the cakes are still inside the moulds. Cut by moving the knife along the rim of the mould.

Cut a small round hole on the top of cakes using a small teaspoon (see picture below). Fill the holes with raspberry topping and let it set in refrigerator.

Meanwhile, prepare a very thick sugar icing by mixing a dash or water with icing sugar. Flavor the icing with a dash of almond essence. Pipe the icing around the raspberry topping on top of cakes (see picture above). Let the sugar icing set and serve the cakes with coffee or tea.
Makes about 6 cakes.

A Tart is Born!

(BTW Everyone,  Follow Pancake Mondays on Facebook:  “Pancake Mondays Blog”:  http://www.facebook.com/?ref=home#!/home.php?sk=group_188672231159823&ap=1)

Every so often we all get into a rut.  One day looks like the other.  We have the same routine day after day; Get up, go to work, come home.  Weekends all look the same.  We seem to have the same conversations with the same people.  “Hey Mom, How are you feeling?  Good?  Great!   How’s the weather over there? …” .   While some people find routine comforting, I find it blaringly nerve racking.   However, lately I find myself in a sort of cooking rut.  I seem to have a tried and true repertoire of recipes that I keep going to time and time again.  If it wasn’t for Marko doing the mid-week kitchen duties, I’m sure I’d be putting out things from my kitchen that you could set your watch by:  Monday: Meatloaf, Tuesday: Chicken, Wednesday: Spaghetti…

Take this weekend for instance, I’ve been honorably asked by a Slow Food colleague, Henk, to bake cakes and make hors d’ourves for his 60th birthday reception.   “Lisa, you are the best baker I know and I want you to make my birthday cake.”  Wow, I am totally honored!  Henk is a consummate foodie and knows many a good professional baker and chef.  For him to ask a hobby-baker like myself to make his birthday cake is something big for me.   Henk made a few requests that I make my Raspberry-Chocolate Linzer tort and jalapeno-poppers but the rest is up to me. 

My mind starts wandering to what else I can make…Cheesecake, Black Forest cake, brownies, etc.  I go on a few days with these in mind, mentally making a shopping list of supplies.  Then suddenly it hits me.  I ALWAYS make these things.  I made these things for our LAST party.  They’re my standard go-to recipes.  Sure, I can make them in advance, they freeze like a dream, but they are ooh-soo-standard as far as I’m concerned.  If I’m going to make my mark as a Pastry Chef, then I need to be a bit more creative.  I need to make something new. 

Now I really hate to go into a party with something experimental, but I’m going to think up something special.  To play it a bit on the safe side, I’m going to try variations on a theme.  I just love the combination of lemon and poppy seeds, so why don’t try a lemon-poppy tart?   A spicy cookie crust laced heavily with poppy seeds and a creamy lemony filling.  Yeah, it’s worth a try. 

So I take my standard Linzer torte crust recipe and I substitute poppy seeds for the ground almonds.  Then I make a filling using 3 egg yolks, ½ cup lemon juice, 3 tablespoons of lemonciello (lemon liquor) and a can of sweetened condensed milk.    The filling doesn’t seem enough to fill the crust.  (I’m using a 20cm glass tart pan rather than a standard pie plate).    I debate with myself on whether to fold the edges in or let them stand straight up.  Hmm, I don’t know how much the filling will puff up.

I opt for straight up.  I bake it for 30 mins at 325F.   So far, so good.  The filling didn’t puff up at all.  Now I need to decide on a topping.  Meringue is the obvious choice and it’s been ages since I’ve had lemon meringue pie.    In the meantime, the pie cools and gets put in the freezer.  The party is still a week away.  Introducing Lemon-Poppy Tart.   A tart in born.

The verdicts of the Lemon-Poppy tart are in, folks!!  And the result was a REAL WINNER!!   I topped with soft-peaked meringue (3 egg whites, 3/4 cups sugar, 1/4 teaspoon cream of tarter)  that I beat to the consistancy of marshmellow fluff and topped the tart from end to end.  Made decorative peaks.  Bake at 400 for 10-15 mins until dry on top and the peaks are nicely browned. Watch Carefully!!   Cool Completely.

Even though I made other cakes and pies,  this one had people actually FIGHTING over it.  The contrast of lemon with a hint of alcohol, with creamy meringue atop the crunchy poppy seed crust was divine!  Really!  4 people fighting over the last piece.  The fight was resolved by 1 plate and 4 forks.

In order for you to make the lemon version…you’re going to have to get the original.  Here it is:

Chocolate- Raspberry Linzer Torte

Ingredients

1 1/2  sticks butter
1/2 cup sugar
1 tablespoon honey
1 tablespoon orange zest
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon Chinese Five Spice

1 egg
5 ounces of almonds, toasted and ground
1 3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
Pinch salt

½ Cup chopped chocolate (milk or bittersweet), melted
1 cup raspberry jam (or your favorite type of jam)

Directions

In an electric mixer, cream together the butter and sugar on medium speed for 2 to 3 minutes. Add honey, orange zest, cinnamon and spices. Continue mixing for one more minute. Add egg. Mix until well blended

Sift the dry ingredients together. Mix the sifted dry ingredients to the butter mixture until a dough is formed.

Wrap in plastic film and refrigerate for about 2 hours.
Grease the bottom and sides of a torte pan. Line the bottom
of the pan with wax or parchment paper. Remove dough from the
refrigerator and divide in two. Sprinkle the work surface with flour and roll out the dough to 1/4-inch thick, forming a 15-inch circle. For the second half of dough, roll it to 1/4-inch thick to create a 9-by-12-inch rectangle. Refrigerate both the top and bottom for about 20 minutes.

Line the bottom and sides of the prepared torte pan with the circle

For the second half of dough, roll it to 1/4-inch thick to create a 9-by-12-inch rectangle. Refrigerate both the top and bottom for about 20 minutes.

Mix the raspberry jam with the melted chocolate.

Remove from refrigerator and fill bottom half with raspberry jam/ chocolate mixture.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Create a lattice with the
rectangular piece of dough by cutting 12 9-inch strips.

Fold the edges of the dough up and over the top of the torte.

Bake in oven for 30 to 35 minutes until golden brown.

Sunshine, Moonbeams and Snowflakes  (Lots of Snowflakes!)

I promised myself I wouldn’t do a clichéd begin-of-the-year post about what I plan to change over the next year.  Sure, we all are busy thinking about our New Years Resolutions; losing weight, getting a new job; being a better person, blah, blah, blah…But this time it’s just circumstance and a good case of good timing that brings me to this post.  You see, I need to catch you all up on some things that have been happening lately.  I was going to bring them up rather subtly, painstakingly alluding to these happenings over a series of posts.  But it’s just too exciting to hold back.  So I’m just going to let you all have it at once.  So hang on tight!

As you all know, I’m pretty miserable in my job and I need a change. I could draw out the thought process on how I came to my life’s passion but I think you can already figure that one out yourselves.  Over the last few months, I’ve decided to log out of my job as an IT Consultant and to dish up a new career in the Culinary arts, Pastry Arts in particular. I know it’s not a big shock to any of you, but for me, it’s was an epiphany.  It was a ray of sunshine.   I ran it by Marko. For years, I’ve always (semi-) joked with him that my life’s ambition was to be the “Cookie Queen of the Netherlands”, so the news that I wanted to re-invent myself to be a Pastry Chef did not side swipe him at all.   The only big shock would come financially. It would be a huge cut in salary for me. Making cookies is not nearly as lucrative as putting together bits and bytes.  Figuring it out, I’d have to sell an extra 35,000 cookies a year to make up the difference!  That’s about 100 cookies extra per day! 

When I told my sister about my decision, we immediately began daydreaming about opening our own restaurant, just like we did when we were teenagers.  Let me tell you a bit about my sister. She is going to totally hate me for writing this but in short, my sister, Dr. Christine, is my idol.  She is the most dedicated and driven person I know.  When she was 11, she was diagnosed with juvenile diabetes, an affliction that haunts her to this day.  After High School, using her natural talent for cooking, she attended and graduated from Johnson and Wales University in Providence Rhode Island with a degree in Culinary arts.  A few years later, she decided that she needed to make a bigger impact on the world and enrolled in a medical program to become a doctor.  Even though she was severely plagued with health problems, she pushed herself through the punishing Internship and Residency programs.  At over 100 hours per week, these programs are challenging even for a healthy person. But she not only made it through, she excelled with top grades!   Currently she is the Director and Chief Physician of the Veterans Clinic in Littleton in upstate New Hampshire.  That is definitely quite an accomplishment for a recent graduate. I couldn’t be prouder of my sister! 

 In late October of last year, I get a call from her. She found this lovely little café nestled at the foot of Mt. Washington that is for sale about an hour drive from her. It’s The Moonbeam Café. She wants to buy it.  “What do you think?” she asks me. Personally, I didn’t think it was such a good idea; after all, she works 6 days a week at the clinic.  I’m 3500 miles away.  How can she swing it alone?  “Aren’t you afraid of this?”  I asked her.  “Lisa,” she explains, “It’s my dream. I don’t have time to be afraid.  I don’t know how much longer I have.  It could be 4 years, it could be 40.  I just don’t know.  I need to make every minute count.”.  Brave girl she is.  It could be so easy to be afraid and take the easy route.  But that just wouldn’t be her.  

 Suddenly the pieces are falling into place.  The café has a full bakery in the back that’s not being used. “It’s all yours if you want it”, she says.  I can hardly believe my ears.  My own bakery!  The only caveat is that I have to be in Gorham. This isn’t something that I can do remotely.  No telecommuting for me.  That would mean moving my family from the over-crowded Netherlands to the sparsely populated mountains of New Hampshire.  I can already feel Marko going into culture shock.   I’m never going to sell it to him sight unseen.

The next step is to pay a visit.  While we are in the states for our yearly Christmas vacation, we’d spend a bit of time getting The Moonbeam ready for inspection and opening day.  “Don’t forget,” my sister says, “Winter is WINTER here.  Cold and harsh, but stunningly beautiful.”  So we make our plans to be there the 26th through the 29th of December.

 Ok, Mother Nature.  It’s show time!  I need to dazzle and impress Marko. I’m putting in my order for perfect sunny skies and bejewelled snow capped mountains. Unfortunately, that wasn’t to be.  On the exact day we going to leave, Mother Nature decided to pitch a doozy of a fit… now affectionately known as “The Christmas Blizzard of 2010” that crippled the east coast for days. No, dear Readers, we didn’t get stuck in the snow.  We left on the road early in the morning and were at my sister’s in plenty of time before the storm.  But when it hit, it hit hard! 

 The following morning, we experienced just how professional New Hampshire is about snow removal and I got my wish.  A perfect glittering Winter Wonderland!  Thanks Mother Nature. 

The Moonbeam Café is located on Exchange Street in Gorham, NH and will be open on her birthday, January 4th 2011.  Those in the area, is sure to stop in for some great eats and to wish her a Happy Birthday!  Congratulations and Best Wishes, Dr. Chris!

 This weeks recipe is another jelly recipe that I developed just for The Moonbeam’s  grand opening.  It also makes a very impressive gift.

 White Zinfandel Jelly

 1 ½ Cups White Zinfandel Wine

2 ½ Cups white sugar

2 tablespoons lemon juice

1 pouch of liquid Certo pectin

Over med-high heat, bring wine, sugar and lemon juice to a boil.  Add pectin.  Boil for about 5 minutes or until able to set.  To test if the jelly is set, put a tablespoon or so on a saucer and put it in the freezer for about 3 minutes. If it’s not runny and looks like jelly, it’s done.  If not, boil another few minutes.  Pour in sterilized jars. Seal tightly and process in a water bath for 10 mins.  Makes about 1 quart.

The Time Capsule

December 15th, 2010

The Time Capsule

“The more you celebrate your life, the more there is in life to celebrate.”

WOW!  Christmas is less than two weeks away.  Where did this year go?  It’s been so busy this year; I hardly noticed it whooshing by.  I guess its right what they say, that time seems to go exponentially faster when you have kids.  Lately my life seems like a runaway train and that I’m chasing behind it like Yosemite Sam on a hand powered cart. 

Every year, Marko and I argue over when to put out the Christmas decorations.   Me, like any other red-blooded American, wants to put them out the day after Thanksgiving.  However, he is steadfast in saying that they should not be put out until after Sinter Klaas (December 5th).   So we usually meet in the middle and I end up putting out some non-obtrusive Christmas decorations here and there the last week in November and then properly decking the halls December 6th.   Usually every December 7th, my house looks like Santa’s workshop exploded with decorations everywhere. 

I don’t know what’s wrong with me this year, but I realized just yesterday that I don’t have any decorations up except for the sparse notions that I put up at the end of November.   Am I so busy that I don’t have time to haul out the holly this year?  It’s time for a remedy.  Rallying the kids together, we trudge to the attic and drag down boxes of decorations.  

Excitedly, the kids begin unpacking as if it were their own Christmas presents, inspecting every item and asking details about every one of them.  “Gee, Mom, I never saw this one”, says my youngest daughter, Lara, as she holds up a ceramic snowman.  “That was given to me years ago by my Aunt Luci.  You never met her but she passed away this year.” I explain to her as I suddenly remember my dearly departed aunt.  Understanding, she takes the snowman carefully between her two hands and puts it in a place of honor on the shelf.  Our reverence is broken by a squeal from Rebecca, “This is mine!” she says as she holds up a brass rocking horse ornament with her name on it. “Baby’s First Christmas 2001” is inscribed on it.  Yes, it is.  It’s hard to believe that it was 9 years ago already that we celebrated her very first Christmas. I remember that time, her at 6 weeks old, the first grandchild, being passed around between family members and friends, all gazing at her with admiration. I think of how our family has changed since then.  I feel thankful for my loved ones still on this earth and suddenly miss those no longer with us. 

This year, unwrapping our Christmas decorations was like opening up a time capsule.  Mere trinkets of nearly no monetary value offering invaluable memories that I can share with my own children.  Gifts from treasured people in our lives and reminders that marked special occasions.  Even an ancient box of faded and cracked ornaments left to us years ago had its own stories to tell.  Each piece wrapped in the local newspaper  from 1977.  Smoothing the crumpled paper, I  scan the news of that day. Even though the news is hardly noteworthy,  I think of how fun it is to read about what happened  33 years ago.  A spot in time. 

I’m content to have spent this time reminiscing with my kids.  I think it will be a tradition for us from now on.  It will be a time for us to stop and remember.  It all goes by so fast.

This weeks recipe is the favorite Christmas cookie of my mom. 

Sonia Henie (Thumbprints) Cookies

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/2 cup packed light or dark brown sugar
2 large eggs, separated
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cups (6 ounces) walnuts, chopped
1/4 cup granulated sugar
Pinch of salt
2/3 cup fruit preserves, such as raspberry or apricot

1. Position the racks in the top and bottom thirds of the oven and preheat to 350°F.

2. In a large bowl, using an electric mixer on medium-high speed, beat the butter until creamy. Add the brown sugar and beat until light in color and textur. Beat in the egg yolks and vanilla. Using a wooden spoon, gradually mix in the flour to make a soft dough. Chill dough for 1 hour. Using a scant tablespoon, roll the dough into 1-inch balls.  
4. In a small bowl, beat the egg whites with the pinch of salt until foamy. Pour about one-third of the chopped walnut mixture into a shallow bowl. Dip each ball of dough in the egg whites, roll in the walnut mixture to coat, and place 1 inch apart on nonstick cookie sheets. Press an indent about ½ inch and about 1/4 inch deep. Repeat with the rest of the balls.  Spoon about ½ teaspoon of preserves into the indent. You can also use maraschino cherries instead. 
5. Bake until the cookies are set and slightly browned, about 12-15 minutes. Cool on the baking sheets for 2 minutes. Transfer to wire cooling racks to cool completely. The cookies can be prepared up to 1 week ahead, stored in an airtight container at room temperature. Can be frozen too. 

 Happy Holidays with Love from the Hoven Family!

Zen and the Art of French Baking

Scenes from my last post:  Alas we see our heroine (played by me) confronting her fears and, with a bit of careful instruction, succeeding in deboning a turkey.  To tell you the truth, this task was never really more than a bit of drama then an actual fear.  I actually looked forward to learning how to skilfully fillet that beast, preparing by carefully sharpening my knives like a serial killer with an evil grin on my face.  No, this was no fear. I enjoyed it waayy too much.

 Over the years, I’ve taken on many culinary challenges with equal zeal; Baguettes, croissant lacquered dough, soufflés, home made cheese, etc… except one. 

 This summer, we celebrated our 10th wedding anniversary in the Alsace region of France.  Anyone lucky enough to visit this region will be greeted by its famous steely white wines and hearty cuisine. One Saturday afternoon while walking through the medieval streets of Colmar, we come to Patisserie Gilg.  In its modern interior every sugared creation was showcased on its own special pedestal, some even with dramatic lighting.  It looked more like the Museum of Modern Edible Art than a pastry shop, all works too intricate and artsy to actually eat.   Marko and I walked studiously around the store admiring each piece; a few steps back, pondering, while thoughtfully rubbing our chins.   “This cake has influences of Mondriaan.  Yes, I am seeing a bit of Frank Lloyd Wright in that one.” we joke to each other. 

Actually, I consider myself a baker, but I would never try to replicate any of these creations.  They are way too fussy for me. I prefer things that people will actually eat not wear as a hat. So my admiration is justified but I’m just not intrigued.   As we walk around, we come to a refrigerated case.  In this case, glowing under its own special lighting, I see my next obsession.  Perfect little buttons in a bevy of vivid colors and flavors, each filled with its own special genache and encircled by little lacy collars: French Macarons. 

Now I must try these!  Bite-sized bits in the most intriguing flavors like ‘Pommes d’Amore’.  Translated this means ‘Apples of Love’.  How romantic is that?  When I get home, I search to find that this is what the French call those red cinnamon candy apples.  I love the French! They can even make a sickly sweet carnival treat sound like food of the Gods.  I decide to try two flavors:  Chocolate and Caramel.  After I express my selection to the handsome young man behind the counter, he does something completely unexpected.  Instead of grabbing a pair of tongs and sticking them in a bag like every other bakery on earth would, he ceremoniously dons a pair of white cotton gloves and carefully slides each cookie in their own tiny clear plastic bag and packs them together in a small white box.  WOW! A cookie that gets the white-glove-treatment!!  Suddenly, I begin to feel intimidated.  How difficult can these be?  At a-euro-fifty apiece for an inch and a half cookie, they better be good though!! 

And they are. Marko and I find a café and order coffees.  When our coffees arrive, I gingerly place the box between us. With a deep breath, I open the box and remove the bag with the caramel cookie inside.  Let’s start with the one with the lightest flavour, I said as if we were at a wine tasting. Taking the cookie between my two fingers, I take the ever-so-slightest nibble. “And? And?”, Marko asks.  Sweet, almondy, with a distinct taste of caramelized sugar. Their extra fine texture as light as air with their filling giving them substance. Yes.  I HAVE to make these.

When we get home, I google to find to the recipe only to discover that these are some uber-trendy rage at the moment.  RAGE!?  Have I been living under a rock or something?  I’ve never seen or even heard of these until just last week?  Am I a day late and a dollar short on this one?   I always consider myself on-top of the latest culinary trends. Maybe I’m just too close to the fire here. 

All my obsessions start with a bit of research.  I have to warn anyone doing research for a French recipe, it’s just as intimidating as French cooking itself.  I found all kinds of warnings, and signals and techniques as to what temperature the ingredients must be and how to whip the egg whites just so. Do you let the formed buttons sit overnight to get a shiny crust or just wack ‘em in the oven?  What do you have to do to get those nice collars on the bottom?.…failure and success stories abound.  UGH!  I don’t want to have to make these 20 times!  I just want to try them once maybe twice.  Geez, I totally psyched myself out now. 

After settling on a recipe from  Pure Gourmandise, a French site with recipes for all kinds of macarons (check out the McAron,  a cookie that looks like a hamburger.  Oh so cute) ,  I cut and paste the entire recipe into a French to English translator. The ingredients are simple enough; egg whites, ground almonds, sugar and some flavouring.  Viola!  I’m going to follow this to the letter.

About two months ago, I prepared the dry ingredients in full hopes of trying this. To this day, I still hadn’t tried it.  Besides a small drop of intimidation,  I don’t know,  maybe the mood wasn’t right.  I just wasn’t in the right place mentally.   There was always something; too rushed, not in the mood, something else to make.  Me, the recipe, and the ingredients just weren’t at ‘one’.   Today, I’m forcing myself in a bit of a state of Zen.  All the ingredients are laid out before me. The translated recipe taped to the wall in front of the counter where I’ll be working.   Ommmm, Be the cookie, Ommmm

 As I follow the recipe, I realize that it is much simpler than I expected. It really is just a lesson in how to beat egg whites to the correct consistency. Many of the warnings/ recommendations  are actually  unnecessary and that by following a few simple principles and a bit of luck, you will have a reasonable chance of success.  

These principles are:

  1. Make sure your utensils and bowls are absolutely fat free. 
  2. Make sure all your ingredients are room temperature.
  3. Make sure your oven is exactly 350F (175C).  Test your oven with a good thermometer. 
  4. For inch and a half (3cm) buttons, bake the buttons for exactly 11 minutes. 

 Macarons au Chocolate

Adapted from Pure Gourmandaise

 3 Egg whites
200g (1 Cup) regular white sugar
125g Almond powder (made by putting blanched almonds through a food processor, then a fine sieve)
15g cocoa powder
30g Powdered/Confectioner’s sugar

To make genache:

120g  Dark(pure) chocolate
80g Butter  (I used salted butter)
30g Heavy cream

 Hardware

3 identical baking sheets, a food processor, a mixer with a whip attachment, a sieve, a measuring cup, household scale, parchment paper, a pastry bag with a wide, round tip, spatula

Instructions:

The dark chocolate ganache

1. Melt chocolate, butter and cream over low heat (or microwave). Mix well and smooth. Cool.  It will become a thick paste.
 

Chocolate macaroons

Preheat oven to 350F/175C

2. Mix cocoa with powdered sugar and almond powder in a food processor until fine. Sift through a sieve.

3. Add a small pinch of salt to the egg whites and beat  until stiff,  adding a spoonful of sugar when the whisk leaves a mark, then putting in the rest and whisking at full speed until it reaches a soft-peak stage.  This is when you lift the beaters (or whisk) you will see peaks that will fall slightly over after a few seconds. The eggs will be bright white and glossy. It will look like cake frosting.   

4. Sprinkle the powder mixture gradually  into the whites and mix with the  spatula. The mixture should be shiny, smooth, and form a ribbon when falling back into the bowl.  It will look like cake batter.

5. Prepare a sheet of parchment on a baking sheet.  I pre-drew 3cm circles with a pen before starting.

6. Put the batter in a pastry bag and form small 3cm domes onto the parchment on a cookie sheet.

 7.  While it is recommended to wait 20 minutes or even overnight before baking, I just put them in the oven right away…and the earth continued to revolve.   Apparently waiting a bit also helps in removing from the parchment.  Mine stuck a bit but nothing serious. 

8.  This is going to sound weird but it really works in order to get that classic lace collar:  Stack the cookie sheet on two other  identical cookie sheets (yes, you will have a stack of 3 cookie sheets) . Bake for 11 minutes at 175 ° C. (13 to 17 minutes for larger buttons).

Assembly

9. Let the buttons cool a few minutes on a wire rack, then take off the buttons from the parchment. If cooked properly, they should come off easily, if not bake a minute or two more.

10. Paste the buttons in pairs with a dollop of chocolate ganache in between.

Storing

To be the best tasting, it is advisable to let them cool in the refrigerator at least a day before. Of course, this is not always easy to resist the temptation …

It can also be frozen and they thaw very well at room temperature. But remember that they can be thawed then refrozen!

 AHHH….The stars are all aligned and I am at one once again with the culinary universe.

Passion, Commitment and Support

 It was a typical Wednesday night.  The kids were in bed.  Marko was out for his weekly meet-up with his friends and I had the whole house to myself.   AHHH….the remote is MINE! ALL MINE!!   A nice hot mug of tea in one hand and the remote in the other, I snuggle up on the sofa in front of our large flat screen, relishing the fact that I’m completely free to choose my visual entertainment for the night.  YESSSSS.  No cartoons. No actions films.  No CSI Alien Spy Shape-shifting Profilers…just my choice.  What I want is a good old-fashioned chick-flick!  You know the kind where we women sit teary-eyed on the edge of our seats while our male counterparts roll their eyes and hand us tissues.   Yes.  That’s what I want.  As I scroll through our vast collection of feature films, I come across the 2009 movie ‘Julie & Julia’.   No, I still hadn’t seen it yet!  How could I have missed it?  It’s a food film!  It has Meryl Streep, the queen of chick flicks!  A double-click and the screen comes alive.  I am totally looking forward to the next two hours of mindless entertainment.  

Quickly, the main characters are summed up; Julia Child began as a bored yet inspired housewife living in Paris in the 1940’s and, current day Julie Powell, a talented but struggling writer with a passion for food and hopelessly stuck in a soul-sucking job.  Both women are looking for a way to turn their passion into something fulfilling.    Yeah, I relate totally to the Julie Powell character. A quick tally of similarities; Crazy Passion for Food:  Check.   Soul-Sucking Job:  Check.  Desperate Need for Change: Check.  Ever Patient Spouse tired of hearing me complain:  Check.    Then it hit me.  The catalyst to make change …PASSION! 

The movie then continues, demonstrating what both women do to reach their goals; Julia with her undying commitment to create a French cookbook in English for Americans and, Julie with her sometimes insane commitment to get through every single recipe in Mrs. Child’s now iconic cookbook in one year.  There it is, another magic word:  COMMITMENT.  

The movie then concludes with both women celebrating their respective victories and proclaiming their unending gratitude for the support given by their spouses.  Another key word revealed:  SUPPORT. 

Passion enough to make change.
Undying Commitment to make it happen.
Loving Support from those around us.  

Is this the recipe of success?   Maybe, but it’s definitely not fool-proof.  I think about my last attempt at pumpkin gnocchi.  I followed that recipe to a T.  I used all the best ingredients and still they came out too soft.   However, as any good cook knows, if you start with good ingredients, you’re chances of success improve.   We all know that life holds no guarantees.    

 “Passion, Commitment, Support.”  It’s become my mantra.

 Today’s recipe is more of a process than a recipe.  In the movie, Julie’s last recipe was to debone a duck.  It was the recipe she most feared.  This past Sunday, we celebrated Thanksgiving. (We don’t have the Thursday off here in the Netherlands so we make due with Sunday)  To face my fears, I was instructed by my Slow Food colleague, Melle, on how to debone a 15 pound turkey.  Let me tell you, if you want to have the feeling of achievement in less than an hour, then do this.  You’ll feel like you’ve just climbed Mount Everest or cured a disease.  Sorry for the lack of pictures.  My camera didn’t take too well to being covered with turkey slime.  Next time I do this, I’ll document this better and post pictures. 

"No bones about it" Turkey

How To Debone A Turkey

Step 1:   Preparation:  Cover your kitchen table with plastic.  I used an old plastic picnic tablecloth (yes, a red and white checked one).
              –  Sharpen 2 knives:  an 8 inch carving knife and a 5 inch paring knife.
              –  Have a pair of kitchen scissors on hand.
              –  Kitchen string and a needle big enough to thread it. (an upholstery needle works great)
               – Your favourite stuffing recipe.

Step 2:   Prepare bird.  Thaw if necessary. Remove from packaging and remove giblets.  Wash with warm water. 

Step 3:   Place bird on its belly, tail side toward you.

Step 4:   Being careful not to puncture or cut the skin, start the operation.
            –  With the paring knife, make a long incision from the top of the neck, all the way down the spine, to the beginning of the tail. Cut through the skin to the bone. (Do not cut the tail in half)
            –  Starting from one side, using the tip of the knife, gently cut under the skin and the small bits of meat close to the backbone. Getting as close to the bone as possible. Patience is the key here.
           –  Making very small slices, cut very close to the bone, follow the ribcage.�
–  There are 2 areas of concern:  The shoulder blade and the hip bone.

                To get around the shoulder blade:  gently scrape the meat off the bone until the joint at the top of the wing is revealed.  Scrape a bit more and using the scissors cut the ligaments until the bone comes free.  Gentle prodding may be necessary.

                To free the hip bone:  Scrape the bone until the joint is clearly visible.  Cut the ligaments with a scissors or knife.  The ligaments on the side farthest from you will be the most difficult.  Resist the urge to just crack it off.  This risks ripping the skin.  Cutting and gentle prying works the best. 

            –  Continue cutting around the ribcage until the sternum is reached.  This is very close to the skin so be careful.
            –   Remove thigh bones:  Starting from the hip, gently scrape the meat from the bone until the knee joint is revealed.  Cut the ligaments and remove the bone.
            –   Remove the first wing joint.  Scrape the bone and cut the ligaments.  CAREFUL:  the skin is very thin here.  This is as far as you can go with this side.
            –  Do the same to the other side of the bird.
            –  Removing the sternum:  At the center of the breast, the skin is very close to the bone and attached by a membrane.  Using the scissors gently cut the membrane close to the pointed bone of the sternum, freeing the bone. 

DONE!   Breath Deep.  Dance the Rocky dance to ‘Eye of the Tiger’

Step 5:  Lay the bird out flat (spread eagle) and season with salt and pepper. 

Step 6:   Fill with your favourite stuffing.  I used the ‘New England Sausage, Apple, and cranberry’ stuffing recipe from Epicurious.  It was delicious. 

Step 7:  Pile the stuffing on top of the turkey.  Call your spouse, friend, or partner to hold the bird together wile you sew the back with the cooking string and needle.
            –  Turn the bird over and sew the neck area and the crotch area closed. 

Step 8:  Arrange on a very large baking pan.  Arrange the wings and legs in a natural position. 

Step 9:  Generously grease with softened butter.  Salt and pepper generously.
            –  Add about 2 cups of water to the pan.
            –  Cover tightly with aluminium foil.
            – Bake at 325F (150C) until the internal stuffing temp is 170F) For a 15lb bird, it took 3 hours.
            –  cool for about an hour.
            –  Get your camera ready. Accept rave reviews

Sinter Klaas Kapootje

November 19th, 2010

SINTER KLAAS KAPOONTE

It’s holiday time in Holland and as an introduction to this post, I kindly present a segment from one of my favorite holiday movies:  Miracle on 34th Street:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bOJXyqdF3uY

One of the things that always interested me is how other parts of the world celebrate holidays.  Living in Europe has given me an up-close-and-personal view of traditions that some people only read about.  With my birthday in December, I particularly find traditions that revolve around Christmas most intriguing. What I find fascinating, aside from the obvious food festivities, are the main characters of the celebration. To much confusion, many countries celebrate the birth of Christ and the feast of Saint Nicholas on the same day. This often results in heated secular debates, hilarious comedy (South Park’s ‘Spirit of Christmas’ pilot comes to mind) and hypothetical inquiries about the mish-mash of traditions as to which tradition goes with which celebration.  Hmm, what does a Christmas tree have to do with the birth of Christ anyway or Saint Nicholas for that matter?   To prevent confusion, some European countries hold separate and distinct celebrations. While traditions in countries vary greatly, the feast of Saint Nicholas or Sint Nicolaas as he is known here is mostly held on December 5th.  This is the alleged birthday of the 14th century Turkish cardinal (hence the red suit and mitre) known for giving all his worldly wealth to the poor before becoming a priest. Sinter Klaas, as he is more commonly known, is not the jolly fat man that Santa is (Santa’s modern-day image had been well defined by a Coca Cola ad campaign in the 1940’s) but a thin, old, stoic priest, dressed in a pointed hat, long white beard and red cardinal’s cape. December 5th is known as Pakjes-Avond or ‘package night’ and is the traditional day of gift giving. Unlike Christmas, this day is unfortunately not an official day off.  This often causes Pakjes Avond to be celebrated on the nearest weekend.


As the Dutch tradition goes, sometime in mid- November, Sint arrives in Holland by steamboat from Spain where he ‘summers’ in Madrid.  This is a nationally televised event that has every believing child glued to their TV or if they have access, standing outside waiting impatiently at designated docks for the steamboat to gloriously arrive.  With much pomp and circumstance, Sint disembarks his steamboat and is escorted to his gilded chair to give his welcoming speech.  Then with the same miracle that Santa is simultaneously at every department store in the US, everyone welcomes Sint as he mounts his faithful horse, Amerigo, and rides through every town.

He is accompanied by his entourage of black Moorish sidekicks, all named ‘Zwarte Piet’ or Black Pete.  Since actual Moors are difficult to come by in the predominately white Netherlands, the roles of the Zwarte Piets are played out by normally white Dutch people dancing around in black-face, wigs, and gaudy court jester costumes. At first glance, it doesn’t seem very P.C., in the same way that seeing an old film of the white Al Jolson in black-face singing ‘Mammie’ is.  In the ‘80s there was a movement of sorts to be non-discriminating, so instead of Black Pete, there was Pink Pete, Green Pete, Blue Pete, etc… It just got out of hand, so now the Dutch have their beloved Zwarte Piet back.  Now back to Sint’s journey. 

Along the route, the streets are filled with yet more children, each hoping to get a handful of sweets and tiny gingerbread cookies named pepernoten from the ‘Piets’ as they dance by.  Sint en Piet(s) will remain in cold, rainy Holland until after his birthday on December 5th. After that he will again board his steamboat, turn it around and return, exhausted, to sunny Spain. 

During the time that Sint and Piet(s) are in town, children may set out their shoe.  The concept is very similar to setting out your stocking except that kids can do this at any time.  Children set their shoes out with cookies for Sint and Piet and water, straw, carrots, and/or apples for Amerigo before getting off to bed.  They also add their wish-list.   While they set out their shoes, children are encouraged by their parents to sing loudly, loud enough for Sint to hear.  The next morning they will wake to find their shoes filled with small presents, pepernoten, and marzipan figures, and/or a letter made out of chocolate. 

The way Sinter Klaas gives gifts is not as gentle as with Santa. With Santa, if you are good -you get presents. If you are bad – you get coal.  If little Dutch kids are bad, Sint puts them in a sack and takes them to Spain. This rarely does any good as a threat, since most Dutch families spend 3 weeks vacation in Spain during the summer. But anyway, December 5 is the day to exchange gifts. However these aren’t ‘real’ gifts, per se, but are gentle criticisms from the past year. This often home-made gift is mostly accompanied by a poem that subtly points out those nasty character flaws of the recipient. An example is by getting grandma a bell since whenever grandma needs anything done, like hanging pictures or fixing the door lock. She will never call anyone to do it but gives gentle hints whenever someone visits. So, when she wants something done…ring the bell!

The poem would go like this:
Dear Grandma,
Sint knows that sometimes we can all use a hand.
Using tools and ladders are things for a man.         (Sint is a chauvinist too).
If you tried this yourself, I’d hate it if you fell.
The next time you want something done, please ring this bell.�
Sincerely,
Sint and Piet

For a simply hilarious take on this Dutch tradition, and if you have 20 minutes to spare, then give a listen to David Sedaris 3 part commentary named ‘6 to 8 Black Men’.  Enjoy.  

Part 1: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sbJpRLhaSqs&feature=related

Part 2: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vU1D1HKTDCY&feature=related

Part 3:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g17Pl7MFMco&feature=related

The following is a recipe for Dutch Pepernoten.  Tiny Dutch gingerbread cookies.  Great for baking with the kids. 

Pepernoten

  • 100 GRAM SELF RAISING FLOUR
  • 50 GRAM BUTTER
  • 50 GRAM BROWN SUGAR
  • 2 TBSP MILK
  • 1 TBSP PUMPKIN PIE SPICE

Mix all the ingredients well to a dough and form about 100 balls. Put these on a greased baking tray and bake 12 minutes at 350 degrees.

The Cosmic Checklist

November 14th, 2010

The Cosmic Checklist

A few months ago I started yet another new job and as many employers do, I was asked to write about myself for the company newsletter.   As I stare at the blank word document page before me, I found myself at a total loss to answer the simple question:  “Who am I? “

Who am I?  That is a very good question nowadays.   Sure, I could write about my personal metadata: woman, middle-aged, American, married, kids, yadda, yadda.  But that all just seems doesn’t seem to answer the question. It’s just the information that seems to dance around me but not who I am.  The same thing with my work.  I could spend several paragraphs quoting my resume.  Any of this stuff can be read off of any number of social networks.  Besides, my work does not define me.  It simply keeps the roof over our heads.   To tell you the truth, I have no passion for my profession in IT, so I can’t possibly bore people with that information. 

 Who am I?  The question frightened me.  You’d think at 45 years old, I’d at least be able to answer THAT question.  As I think more closely about it, I’m just not the same person I was 20, 10, 5 years ago.  But who am I now?   

You see, I’m sitting at a cross point in my life.   I’ve already accomplished everything that society asked me to.  My ‘Cosmic Checklist’ is nearly complete. 

“What is this Cosmic Checklist?” you ask.  Well,   as a member of this society, we are expected to get educated, get a career, get married and have our 2.5  kids.    We do it because society says it’s what we should do to be ‘successful’.  Yes, sir, society has it all figured out for us.  However, at a certain point, usually around the age of 40, our cosmic checklist is nearly complete.  The only things  remaining won’t happen until much later in life:  grandchildren, retirement and we all know how it’s going to end.  At this point in our lives,  we stare into the gaping abyss of the next 20-30 years of our working life and ask universally:  “Now What?”

I’m sure there are many out there that can sympathize with me but I just don’t understand why is it that I find myself even more confused about life than I was 25 years ago?  I’m 45 years old!  I have kids!  I did everything  asked of me!  I should be on top of the world right now.  Why do I feel like I am constantly  fighting between the ideals I had when I was younger and apathy from the fact that I’ve strayed so far from them. Why do I feel that like I ‘lost’ myself along the way? 

“You’re in Mid-Life Crisis, my dear”,  said one good friend to me.  “What?  Me??!!  Mid Life-Crisis??!!”,  I shrilled at her with an embarrassed chuckle.  Suddenly, I visualized myself on a Harley riding through the Swiss Alps. (Ahhh, lets pause here for a minute and savor this thought)  Then I realized she was absolutely right.  Hmmm, I have been doing things to try to find myself again.  I spend crazy amounts of time in my kitchen.  I blog.  I’m desperately trying to change my career.  I even take electric guitar lessons.  Still something just doesn’t sit right.  There!  I have my diagnosis:  A raging state of Mid-Life Crisis.

 Hmmm, I find this phenomenon quite perplexing.  Why is it that  the mere mention of the term  ‘Mid-Life Crisis’ conjures up clichéd images of middle-aged husbands running off with their children’s babysitters, buying a Harley Davidson and getting hair plugs? Why does it have to be looked  at something weak, clichéd or scandalous?   Why can’t it be something that we embrace and celebrate? 

Think about it. When we are young, we go through all kinds of ‘Rights of Passage’.  We go to school. We survive puberty. We learn to drive.  We can drink alcohol legally. We choose a career.  We get married, have kids.  All of this happens at a relatively young age and at every one of these points we are rewarded by accolades from our family and friends .  How can we possibly expect that the choices we made when we were  mere  teenagers to be valid for the rest of our lives?   After all, people are living well into their 80’s these days. 

 For me, the biggest source of my discontent comes from a career choice that I have absolutely no passion for.  Twenty-five years in information technology has left me feeling like my soul was ripped out and given to charity.  After changing jobs 6 times in the last 5 years, I realize that I have taken this as far as I can go.  Apathy is no option. I simply must change.   But how?  

So now…the plan.  I have a feeling that the next year is going to be a wild ride for me and my family.  It’ll be painful, wonderful, frightening and I hope so worth it.  Mid-life crisis or not; I am going to enjoy this time.  It’s the chance that I get to re-define myself on my own terms with the people that I love!   What’s not to celebrate??!!

Today’s recipe is one that is a big hit with my wine certification class. Try it on a warm or room temperature brie and a slice of the baguette from my previous post. Add a good glass of wine and it’ll be pure mid-life heaven. 

Fig Jam with cognac and pine nuts

1 pound of fresh figs  (or dried figs steeped in hot water)

1 Cup sugar

½ Cup cognac

3 tablespoons pine nuts.

3 hot sterilized canning jars and lids

Put fresh figs  and sugar in a food processor and pulverize until a puree.  Place the puree in medium saucepan and bring to a boil, adding a bit of water if needed.  When boiling, add cognac and reduce heat to low.  Simmer for about 30 minutes,  stirring often.  Test jam by stirring the jam with a metal spoon.  Run your finger across the hot jam (careful not to burn yourself).  If the mark you left with your fingers stays, then it’s done.  Give a taste.  It should be balanced sweet and acidic.  If it tastes overly sweet, add more cognac.  If not sweet enough, add more sugar.  Cook for another 5 minutes to incorporate.  Add pine nuts  and pour into prepared jars, leaving a small bit of headroom.  Wipe rims clean and lid.  Boil 10 minutes in a water bath.  Store in a cool dark place.