Monthly Archives: April 2011

hot cross buns: it only sounds like they’re ticked-off

We were never one of those families that hunted for eggs out under the shrubbery on Easter morning.  Our Easter Bunny always hid our baskets somewhere inside the house.  Behind the long drapes in the living room or under the big chair with the scratchy plaid cushions or in back of the dining room hutch. The Easter Bunny took time on his long trek across the country to fill our baskets with plastic green grass into which he nestled jellybeans and Peeps and chocolate eggs and Cadbury Cream Eggs and those eggs with the chocolate-covered malt ball center and thin, pastel-colored candy coating and miniature stuffed animals such as Lamby the Lamb, for example, who still, as far as I know, lives in a box in my parents’ basement.

Like many American kids, we went to church on Easter morning wearing shoes with little buckles, and proudly hugging those brand-new stuffed animals to the busoms of our pretty pink and yellow Easter dresses with their bows and flowers.  As we got older, the Easter Bunny continued to drop by, but Lamby the Lamb and his ilk morphed into teen-appropriate lace-accented sleepwear and pastel-colored lingerie. (The Easter Bunny apparently shopped with some zeal at Victoria’s Secret when I was a teenager.)

We also never had one of those big green-bean-casserole-and-ham-centric dinners after the Easter service.  Our Easter Sunday food traditions were much simpler: green, blue, and pink-tinted egg salad sandwiches,  the creamy ears and tails and paws of the big chocolate bunnies sent by my grandparents, and cold glasses of milk.

During the pre-lingerie, Lamby the Lamb era-Easters which took place in the late 1970s and early ’80s, we did have one other Eastertime tradition.  As the holiday approached, my mother would bake hot cross buns – slightly sweet, yeasty rolls studded with raisins and decorated with thick crosses of white icing. She’d arrange several of the buns in baskets for my sister and me to give to our teachers.  It’s been many years since she’s made hot cross buns, so my memories of them have faded – or maybe just narrowed in the way old memories do to include only certain parts of the experience.  I remember, for example, the pleasure of licking off the icing crosses and the soft sweetness of biting into the raisins.  I remember leaving chunks of the bread itself uneaten, after the raisins and the icing were gone, because the bread is only mildly spiced with cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg, cloves, and/or cardamom, and it’s on the dry side – hot cross buns aren’t moist and dense.  They’re not cake-like.  They’re not very sweet and they go stale quickly. They have little in common with, for example, Cadbury Cream Eggs or chocolate bunnies.       

The origin of  bread marked with a cross pre-dates Christianity, although the “cross” on hot cross buns has come to symbolize the Crucifixion for modern Christians.  Ceremonial breads and cakes made with honey and spices were offered by the ancient Greeks, Romans, and Egytians to their gods.   The Egyptians marked theirs with the horns of an ox and gave them to the goddess of the moon.  In honor of Eostre, the  Anglo-Saxon goddess of light and spring, whose name is the origin of “Easter”, buns were marked with a cross meant to symbolize the four quarters of the moon and consumed during the spring festival. 

Today, hot cross buns are typically eaten during breakfast on Good Friday.  An English tradition persists of hanging one of the buns in the house and leaving it all year for good luck.   

I’d never made hot cross buns before.  My mother let the tradition slide as we got older, but I saw a recipe for them in a magazine she sent me recently and it sparked my memory.  The recipe I used isn’t my mom’s old recipe because she can’t remember where it is, but every recipe I found looked very similar to every other recipe, and the one I wound up using produced buns that are very similar to the ones I licked icing off of when I was a kid. 

Hot Cross Buns
(Makes 16)
Modified slightly from the recipe here.
This is a very sticky dough, so don’t despair if 1/2 a cup of flour doesn’t make you feel better.  I wouldn’t add more than that.  These buns also go stale quickly, so don’t make too many unless you’re going to eat them right away.  They can be eaten plain or toasted with butter.  Currants seem to be the more traditional addition to hot cross buns, according to many of the recipes I’ve come across, and many people add candied fruit or orange zest. My mom always just used plain old raisins, so I went with raisins.  You might want to add additional raisins, however, because 3/4 cup was, honestly, kind of sparse for my taste. And be sure to use plenty of icing. Remember, those are the best parts. 

1 package (1/4 ounce) active dry yeast (about 2 1/2 teaspoons)
3/4 cup warm milk (between 100 and 110 degrees F)
3 1/4 to 3 1/2 cups all purpose flour
1/4 cup plus 1 teaspoon granulated white sugar
1/2 teaspoon cardamom
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon allspice
1/4 teaspoon cloves
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon salt
4 Tbsp butter, softened
2 eggs, room temperature
3/4 cup raisins

For glaze:
1 egg
1 Tbsp milk

For icing:
2 teaspoon milk
about a half cup  of powdered sugar (or enough to make a thick icing – add more if needed)

Stir together 1/4 cup of warm milk and one teaspoon of sugar. Sprinkle yeast over the milk and let sit for 5-10 minutes until foamy.

In a large bowl, whisk together 3 cups of the flour (reserving additional flour), salt, spices, and 1/4 cup of sugar.

Make a well in the flour and add the yeast mixture, softened butter, eggs, and the remaining milk. With a wooden spoon, mix the ingredients until well-incorporated. The mixture should be shaggy and very sticky. Stir in the raisins.

Knead in additional flour, a tablespoon at a time, kneading to incorporate after each addition, until the dough is still tacky but no longer completely sticking to your fingers when you work with it. It will still be very sticky even after 1/2 cup, but do not add more than that.   Form a ball of dough in the bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Let sit, covered, in a warm spot, for 2 hours or until the dough has doubled in size.

Preheat oven to 400°F.

Press down on the dough to gently deflate it. Roll the dough into a log shape and cut it into two halves. Place one half back in the bowl while you work with the other half. Cut or twist the half into eight segments. To do this, roll one half of the dough into a log, cut or twist it in half, then roll those pieces into logs, cut or twist them in half, and then repeat process until you have eight pieces.

Take the eight pieces and form them into rounded mounds, placing them 1 1/2 inches apart from each other on a baking sheet. Cover loosely with plastic wrap. Work the remaining dough into 8 equal pieces and place them on a baking sheet, also covering loosely with plastic wrap. Let the dough sit in a warm place about 30-40 minutes or until the mounds have doubled in volume.

Whisk together one egg and a tablespoon of milk and brush egg wash over buns after they have risen.

Place pans in the middle rack of the oven and cook for 10-16 minutes, until lightly browned. Remove from oven and let cool on the pan for a few minutes, then transfer the buns to a wire rack to cool completely before icing.

For the icing, whisk together milk and powdered sugar. Add more powdered sugar, if necessary, until the consistency is thick. Spoon icing into a plastic sandwich bag. Cut off a small bit of the corner of the bag and pipe an icing cross on each bun.

Read about Easter foods here.

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fish chowder for the chronically landlocked

My people are from New England, and although all the genealogies have wandered off for the time being, family lore suggests that we’ve been there since the Mayflower first pulled up to Plymouth Rock and everyone clambered stiffly off the boat for the  mother of all potty breaks.  Meaning that we never left. And also that we have learned a thing or two about making chowder over the years. 

Clam chowder may be the gold standard of chowders in some circles, but I’m a fish chowder kinda gal myself.  Back in the day, prior to the 19th century, chowder wasn’t all about clams the way it seems to be now. It was more about who had caught what fish and how could we prepare it in new and thought-provoking ways.  The first known printed version of a fish chowder recipe was published by the Boston Evening Post in 1751 and is in poem form. The first known printed recipe for clam chowder wasn’t published until about a hundred years later in a cookbook called The American Frugal Housewife.

Sometime during the 18th century, French Canadian fishermen began wandering across the border, lugging along big pots called chaudieres in which they whipped up fish stews and soups.  From the name of the cooking implement – chaudiere – we get the word chowder which eventually came to refer to the dish itself – originally a thick mixture of the catch of the day and the salt pork, potatoes, onions, and crackers (nee hard ship’s biscuits) that could be pulled from ships’ stores and have been constant elements of chowders since day one.  These fishermen’s meals were cooked with a little water and no milk. The eventual addition of milk and cream into the mix made for the soupier, greasier chowders we’re familiar with today.

Speaking of the Mayflower, for more than eighty years my grandparents lived in a small Massachusetts town only a hop, skip, and a jump through damp wooded areas and cranberry bogs to Plymouth. When we visited, Nana would pick up fresh haddock from the market and serve us big bowls of milky fish chowder with potato chips and sandwiches of deli cheese and meat.  She made her chowder by memory and hasn’t made it in a few years, so I was only able to get the vaguest of recipes from her. My mother knew of my quest, however, and recently found a recipe in a little New England cookbook she has in her kitchen in Ohio. Nana used evaporated milk, she told me, but other than that it looked pretty similar. I’ve been wanting to give it a shot for awhile, but it’s not easy to come across a fish chowder sort of day in Tucson.

Finally, today when I woke, it was raining, cold, and Saturday all wrapped up into one perfect April morning. So I got out of bed and headed for the fish counter at Safeway.

A cold, rainy, fish chowder kind of day in the desert.

The chowder smelled amazing as it simmered, and sure enough, we  loved it. Raphael’s first bite reminded him inexplicably of the holidays, and he made a spur-of-the-moment decision that this will be our New Year’s Eve meal from now on. Lila’s first bite reminded her that there’s not nearly enough salt pork in her diet. My first bite reminded me of those family meals in my grandparents’ house in Massachusetts, when yellow lamplight spilled from the windows out of the house into the night and we squeezed around the table in Nana’s little wood-paneled dining room and spooned chunks of fresh fish from the hot milky broth and soaked it up with sandwiches and potato chips. The amount of salt pork in the dog’s diet may be non-negotiable, but I’m convinced that this chowder would be fine way to ring in the new year in the desert.

 New England Fish Chowder

This is a relatively thin, soupy chowder made by layering ingredients in a big pot. The layering of ingredients in older recipes prevented the salt pork from burning and possibly insured that the hard biscuits once layered into chowder would soften. I don’t know if the layering is strictly necessary in this version since the pork is removed from the pot before simmering and the biscuits long ago morphed into oyster crackers. I did it anyway and it came out well, so I won’t tell you not to. Since this is not my grandmother’s exact recipe, I took the liberty of combining a couple elements from different recipes I’ve found. The thyme, bay leaves, and butter are mine. If you live in Tucson, by the way, I found packages of sliced salt pork at Safeway over by the kielbasa.

1/4 lb salt pork, diced
2 lb fish fillets such as cod or haddock, cut into 1-inch pieces
3 med potatoes thinly sliced, about 1/3 inch thick
1 large onion thinly sliced
several sprigs of thyme, leaves removed from stems
three bay leaves
2 c water
1 Tblspn unsalted butter
2 c whole milk
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp pepper

Fry pork in a large pot until crisp.  Remove pork and leave drippings in pot.

Place half the fish in the pot with the drippings and cover with half of the potatoes and half of the onions.  Add bay leaves and thyme.  Repeat layers of fish, potatoes, and onions.  Add water, top with a tablespoon of butter, and bring to boil.  Reduce heat and simmer, covered, until potatoes are tender (I forgot to look at the clock – it might have taken 25 to 35 minutes).  Add milk, salt and pepper, and crispy pork bits.  Heat slowly until hot but do not boil.


a history of chowder

apolitical and relatively non-violent thoughts on coffee (or, How I Spent My Christmas Break That One Year)

In Guatemala – I’m not even kidding – people grow coffee in their backyards. I’m sure not all people do this, but I haven’t crept into too many Guatemalan backyards in my lifetime, so I can’t be definitive about it. The point is that if you live in Guatemala, you may have the potential to grow coffee in your backyard should you want to pursue it as an option. 

Coffee.  Yet another topic that has filled books and books.  In fact, I’m presently skimming along the chapter on coffee in just such a book.  This is a disturbingly heavy tome called A History of Food by Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat that you could use to kill a tarantula if this was the type of spider you typically found lurking around the bathtub at your place.  (Please note that I don’t actually condone killing any spiders, most especially tarantulas.  Trapping in Tupperware and releasing into the wild, yes.  Killing, no.)  It’s also apparently a 24-year-old classic that I only just discovered this past weekend while hanging around at an archaeology conference where, frankly, the bigger the book, the cooler you are.  Or something similar. 

The words sticking to my brain during the course of all this non-committal skimming so far include “violence”, “dangerous poison”, and “mud which is good for nothing but the very dregs of people”.  So we’ll certainly be revisiting the topic of coffee in future posts as it clearly has the potential to be a frightening and politically challenging subject. Today, however, I’ll try to be brief; tomorrow I’ll start reading and looking up the big words.

Back in January, we cracked the subject open with a thing about Cuban coffee.  Not long after discovering Cafe Cubano, I read Maggie’s description of an Ethiopian coffee ceremony in her travel blog GirlVentures.  And not too long after that, I remembered that I’d personally witnessed coffee berries growing in Raphael’s aunt’s yard in lovely Antigua, Guatemala, and taken a walk through a shady finca – or coffee plantation – not far from her house.  And finally, all this thinking and reading and remembering led me to the realization that we in fact have a jar of raw coffee beans in our kitchen cabinet given to us by one of Raphael’s brothers who recently bought a small finca in Guatemala.  Because you can do that in Guatemala.  Buy a finca.  Just like that.

We’ve Had This Jar for some time now.  Possibly for as long as a year.  Probably.  I don’t know how long raw coffee beans retain their integrity.  Do they lose their oils after a year?  I haven’t yet looked this up on Wikipedia and furthermore decided a couple of weeks ago that it didn’t matter.  Regardless of the viability of our coffee beans, I would attempt to roast them in the spirit of adventure and see where it took me.   Raphael’s brother had shown him how to roast coffee beans in the oven, but I didn’t go that route.  Having just read Maggie’s account of her experience, I decided to go the Ethiopian coffee ceremony route.  This method includes a metal plate, aromatic grasses, and some coals, as well as, I’m sure, other things such as, for example, not a charcoal grill purchased for  $7.00 from a thrift store back in 2001.  I, however, went with the charcoal grill which was readily available and skipped the grass, as grass is generally not as available in my desert backyard. 

Suffice to say, my first three attempts produced a metal griddle full of blackened and cracked coffee beans.  And I haven’t yet made the fourth attempt which will involve either cooler coals or a stove and I’m not sure which yet, but you will, of course, be involved.

In the meantime, let’s return to the part where we talk about how coffee grows in Raphael’s aunt’s backyard.  I’m not entirely sure why I’m so enamored of this idea that a person could grow coffee in their backyard in places other than Tucson.  After all, coffee plants have pretty red berries and glossy leaves, and it’s not uncommon to find them used as an ornamental shrubs in Central America. But I have an idea that it’s because I’m relatively easily stirred (emotionally speaking – no creamer jokes, please) by things I find unfamiliar, unexpected, and beautiful.

Antigua, Guatemala. Aurora’s house is not shown in this picture, but it’s not too far from here.

Plot Be Damned, here’s my story on the subject:  Raphael’s Tia Aurora – his aunt – lives in the Spanish Colonial city of Antigua, in a beautiful old house with a front façade of crumpled and age-darkened gold paint.  Her gold house is one bright block in a long row of connected rainbow-colored houses whose front doors all open right onto the cobblestone street. 

The last time we visited, it was Christmastime, and so a blue enamel bucket of tamales wrapped neatly in glossy, dark green packets of banana leaves sat on the kitchen floor and more cooked in a big black, leaf-lined pot in the yard over a pile of ashy coals.  Aurora is known for her tamales; Raphael’s mother makes special trips to her sister’s house from Guatemala City to pick up tamales for the holiday meals her family shares in those dark first hours of Christmas Day and New Year’s Day. 

While Raphael and his aunt sat at the dining room table – in a three-walled dining room open on the fourth side to the elements – I wandered around the walled-in yard that stretches away from the house and overflowed at that time, even in the dry season, with verdant growth.  I examined the tamale-cooking system and passed through the long, narrow yard along a shadowed dirt path littered with pale dropped petals.  Sun-dappled ferns and tough fringed leaves as long as my legs, browned and fraying at the tips, extended from a tangle of growth into the space carved through the vegetation by the path. 

That yard burst with ruffled, exotic-looking plants, and I touched and smelled and photographed it all – the illuminated complexity of pink and coral roses tucked into bushes taller than me; slender-petaled orange bird-of-paradise flowers with spiky purple hearts nearly translucent in the light.  There were rubbery, yellow-tipped combs of brilliant red heliconia; thin, papery fuchsia bougainvillea; long scarlet clusters of wild poinsettias with imperfectly spaced, fluttering, knife-like petals.  When I returned to the porch, Raphael and his aunt told me the names of the things I didn’t recognize. 

At the back of the yard, Aurora had put in plants with clusters of firm, dusky red and green berries clinging to willowy branches.   Once I found out what they were – coffee plants, of course – it struck me like a quick, quiet little miracle how fortunate I was to be in place where color hangs off the trees all year long; where poinsettias – those holiday things that come packaged in foil-wrapped pots in the stores – grow wild and lanky; where houses are lavender and teal and orange and rose and old; where the dining room is open to the luxurious, drenching rain when it comes; and where someone can plant coffee trees in the yard just because they’re beautiful.

How to keep your own pot of coffee...plant.