Sourdough Borodinski Rye/ Borodinskiye Chleb

BorodinskiYield: Two 25 oz. (700g.) loaves

Borodinski, with its moist, open crumb and assertive coriander flavor, is arguably Russia’s best-known and best-loved rye bread. This wasn’t always so, however: in the 1920s and 1930s, Borodinski could only be had in Moscow, and those who had the choice preferred those made by Latvian bakers. With the great push toward industrialization in the 1930s, Soviet factory bakeries opened across Russia and introduced the bread nationwide.

Numerous recipes exist, some yeast-leavened, others built on a sponge. Some specify pan loaves, others hearth loaves. All, however, preserve the 80%-20% rye-wheat ratio and all use a scald containing roasted rye malt.

This recipe emphasizes the interplay between sour and coriander-infused sweetness. It takes time – nearly a full 24 hours – to bring together, but the results are well worth it.







⅓ cup Rye sour 2.10 60 8%
2 cups Medium rye flour 8.80 250 35%
1¾ cups Water 14.65 415 58%


¼ cup Malted rye (available at home brewing supply stores) 1.25 35 5%
1 Tbs. Coriander seed 0.15 4 1%
¾ cup Coarse rye meal 4.05 115 16%
1¼ cups Boiling water 10.60 300 42%


1⅔ cups Medium rye flour 7.40 210 29%
1 cup First clear or high-gluten flour, unsifted 4.95 140 20%
2 Tbs Unsulphured molasses 1.40 40 6%
1 Tbs Red rye malt (see Step 2.) 0.35 10 1%
1⅔ tsp Table salt 0.35 10 1%
1-2 tsp Coriander seed for garnish 0.05 2


  1. Mix together the sponge ingredients until well blended, cover loosely and let stand overnight.
  2. In a frying pan, roast the malted rye over medium heat until it turns a deep rose pink, about 3 minutes, and pulverize the red malt and coriander seed in a spice grinder or mortar and pestle. Add to the rye meal and boiling water, mix until smooth, cover with plastic wrap and let stand overnight.
  3. The next day, combine the sponge and scald in the bowl of a stand mixer, cover with plastic wrap and set aside to ferment for 5-6 hours, until the mass has roughly doubled in bulk. Add the dough ingredients, use the flat beater  to mix at low-medium (KA 3-4) speed until you have a soft, smooth dough the color of dark coffee. Cover and let stand 1 hour.
  4. Carefully spoon the dough into two well-greased 8½” x 4½” (21 cm x 11 cm) loaf pans. Use wet hands to distribute the dough evenly and smooth the tops. Add 1 Tbs/15 ml. of water to each pan to keep the dough moist, cover with plastic wrap and proof in a warm place until the tops of the loaves show holes, about 2 hours. Garnish with whole or coarsely crushed coriander seeds.
  5. Preheat your oven to 550°F/290°C, with the baking surface in the middle and a steam pan on a lower shelf. About 10 minutes before bake time, add 1 cup/225 ml. of boiling water to the steam pan, using a silicon oven mitt to avoid burns.
  6. Place the loaves in the oven and replenish the steam pan with another 1 cup/225 ml. of boiling water. After 10 minutes, reduce temp to 350°F/175°C and cover the loaves with aluminum foil. Bake an additional 50-60 minutes, remove the steam pan and unpan the loaves. Return them to the oven for 10-15 minutes to firm the crust. Let cool thoroughly before slicing.

Dresden-Style Christmas Stollen/Weihnachtsstollen Dresdner Art

stollen-crumbEurope has a long tradition of sweet breads fortified with whatever sweeteners and enrichments were on hand — usually honey or sugar, butter, eggs, nuts and/or dried fruit. These sweet breads represented both a change from the stultifying routine of a diet that, for most people, consisted of more than 80% bread and gruel, and a special treat honoring the observance of religious occasions.

In Germany, stollen is a longstanding Christmas tradition. And while each region has its own variations, Dresden stollen has emerged as the de facto standard. So herewith, a recipe that produces a traditional German stollen that’s impossible to stop nibbling.

Yield: Two 2½ lb. (1.15 kg.) loaves


Ingredient Ounces Grams


1 cup Milk 9.00 250 25%
2 Tbs Instant yeast 0.80 24 2%
1 Tbs Granulated sugar 0.35 10 1%
2 cups AP flour, unsifted 9.00 250 25%


6 cups AP flour, unsifted 26.50 750 75%
⅔ cup Milk 5.30 150 15%
½ cup Granulated sugar 4.10 115 12%
2⅔ sticks Unsalted butter, room temp 10.60 300 30%
2 Large eggs, beaten 4.05 115 12%
½ tsp Table salt 0.10 3 0%
1 Tbs Rum 0.50 15 2%
1¼ cups Golden raisins 7.00 200 20%
½ cup Candied citron, diced 3.50 100 10%
½ cup Candied orange peel, diced 3.50 100 10%
1 cup Chopped blanched almonds 5.30 150 15%
1½ stick Melted butter, for topping 5.30 150 15%
2½ cups Powdered sugar for topping 10.50 300 30%
  1.  Heat the milk until warm to the touch, dissolve the yeast and sugar and add to the flour, hand mixing until smooth. Cover and let stand about 20 minutes, until very bubbly.
  2. In the bowl of a stand mixer, combine the sponge and all the dough ingredients, mix 6-8 minutes at low (KA 2) speed, using the dough hook. Turn the dough onto a well-floured work surface and knead in the fruit and nuts until evenly distributed throughout the dough.
  3. Form the dough into a ball and transfer it to an oiled bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and let rise until doubled in bulk, about 1 hour.stollen-dough
  4. Preheat your oven to 400°F. Turn the dough onto a lightly floured work surface, punch it down and divide it in two equal sized pieces. Form each piece into a long flat loaf and place on a parchment lined sheet pan. Let the stollen rest for 20-30 minutes.
  5. Put the stollen in the oven and bake for 12 minutes at 400°F, then lower the temperature to 350°F and continue baking for another 30-40 minutes, taking care not to let them get too brown.
  6. Remove the stollen from the oven and immediately brush them generously with melted butter, then use a sieve to give them a thick coating of powdered sugar. Repeat twice more and let the stollen cool in the pan.
  7. When cool, wrap them in aluminum foil or place them in an airtight container and let them rest, unrefrigerated, for 1-2 weeks before serving.

Stollen-finishedNOTE: Feel free to substitute various fruits and nuts for those called for in the recipe.  Prominent German baker-blogger Wolfgang Suepke, for example, recently posted a recipe for Cranberry-Walnut stollen, and is a huge booster of Thuringia-style stollen (he’s from Erfurt, in the heart of Thuringia). So enjoy and Season’s Greetings!


No Honey Cake This Year

strudelThis year, for the first time in a long time, I didn’t bake honey cake for Rosh Hashanah. Not because I don’t love it; I do. I love the sweet-sour spiciness of the fruity-sweet, slightly sour honey; the fragrant bite of cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger and cloves. I love the firm consistency that reminds me of a fruit cake, but without the fruit. I love the way the top crust of my rye-flour honey cake softens after a few days and turns into a caramel-like self-frosting that melts in my mouth and carries with it the concentrated essence of sugar and spice. And I love the idea that by baking a honey cake, I’m carrying on a tradition that has bound Jews together, across centuries and generations.

But no, I didn’t bake honey cake this year. Why? Because my wife and I wanted something different for Rosh Hashanah; something equally sweet and equally special, something equally evocative of the holiday and of our European roots. I baked an apple strudel.

We chose apple strudel for many reasons, some practical, some symbolic. On the practical side, stretching the strudel wrapper is an adventure akin to magic. I’m enthralled by the idea – and the reality – of transforming a few ounces of dough into a nearly transparent membrane the size of a kitchen table and filling it with fresh apples, sugar, raisins, walnuts and spices that have macerated for hours.

stretchstrudelThen there’s the wonder of rolling the strudel. Few baking experiences can compare to rolling a strudel, starting with the first fold over the filling, and then gently pulling and lifting the tablecloth on which I’ve stretched the dough so that the strudel rolls itself, like the body of a snowman, without the damaging interference of hands and fingers. The aroma of baking strudel  – the same honey-cake perfume of cinnamon, cloves, ginger and nutmeg, but with the added fruit-sweetness and subtle tang of cooking apples, brings its own aura of sweetness in the coming year.

On the symbolic side, this year’s baking united us with generations and traditions past. It brought me closer to my late grandmother, my bubbe, who came from a shtetl southeast of Warsaw and who, as my father recalled to me many years ago, rolled her strudel on a tablecloth in the kitchen I remember so well.

rollstrudelFor my wife, Sylvia, it brought back memories of her mother, Gertrude, who grew up in a town called Judendorf (Jew-town) just outside of Graz, in eastern Austria. My late father-in-law fled the Holocaust in 1938 and returned to his native Austria with the U.S. Army. There, he met and married Gertrude and brought her back to Philadelphia right after the war. She, too, baked strudel, stretching her dough thinner than paper, filling it, rolling it with a tablecloth.

I made the strudel for a family of close friends who came to celebrate the New Year us, and especially for the patriarch, Laszlo, whose family survived the Holocaust in Budapest and escaped to Canada following the Hungarian Uprising of 1956.

When it came time for dessert, we served the strudel warm, dusted with powdered sugar. We ate, our stomachs full and our eyelids heavy with wine and food. The dining room was filled with contented laughter and the sweet smell of apples and spices. Around us, as if borne on that fragrance, hovered the spirits of those we loved and had lost, enfolding us with their warmth and bestowing their blessings for a sweet and prosperous year.

Sour Notes

Wheat sour at 8 hours

Wheat sour at 8 hours

It never fails to amaze me how a lot of home bakers, especially newbies, turn their sourdough starters into objects of obsessive-compulsive desire. Recently, in fact, I was bemused to read a sourdough neophyte’s post in which he mentioned, with as dead a pan as Grant Wood ever painted, that he was feeding his established sour twice a day. Twice a day!!! And people wonder why their breads don’t get sour enough.

Or how about the endless debates on which flour is best for feeding a yeast culture – as if those cute little eternally hungry fungi care where their next meal is coming from, or whether it’s the carb equivalent of filet mignon or pâte de Dumpster.

And another thing: sours localize. After about the fifth or sixth feeding, that authentic SanFran culture – Saccharomyces sanfransiscensis, for all you yeast nerds out there – that you shelled out big bucks for has been completely replaced by your local wild yeast, which you could have gotten for nothing simply by building a starter from scratch (of which more in another post).

Wheat (top) and Rye (bottom) at 5 weeks. Note the absence of hooch.

Wheat (top) and Rye (bottom) unfed for 5 weeks. Note the absence of hooch.

I’ve always been of the opinion, and the facts bear me out (as you shall soon see) that those splendid wild yeasts and their lactobacillius symbiotes can take far rougher treatment than a lot of us give them credit for and still remain robust and ready to leaven at a moment’s – well, several hours’, actually – notice. After all, the airborne yeasts and bacteria in which we respirants swim have to survive not only warm weather, when naturally occurring carbs abound, but also the carb-famine cold months. Their survival is a testament to evolution and the vitality of the meanest and sourest.

As a case in point, take my sours (please!), one rye and one wheat, which I haven’t coddled, overfed, or even given cute names, as have some hardcore breadies. To me, they’re simply fungal-bacterial-enzymal ménages à trois, teeming with ever-ravenous microbes, that have found a home in my fridge. I feed them when I (a) want to bake sourdough, (b) remember to do so, or (c) when my conscience gets the best of me.

Rye (left) and Wheat (right) after feeding and ready for their nap.

Rye (left) and Wheat (right) after feeding and ready for their nap.

Nor do I agonize over their next meal. While I confess that my love of Jewish rye compels me to feed my rye sour with white rye flour only, I give my wheat sour whatever I have on hand, whether it’s first clear flour, bread flour, AP, or even (gasp!!!) cake flour. In fact, cake flour makes a pretty good nutrient for established sours, since it’s so rich in complex carbs (read = starches), which all those enzymes – maltase, amylase, diastase – will happily break down into the simple sugars that their yeasty roommates crave. The yeasts, in turn, throw off CO2 and alcohol, on which the lacto get high and return to the mix as lactic and acetic acid. The one thing I do pay attention to, though, is hydration, which I scrupulously maintain at 60% for the wheat and 80% for the rye.

After 3 hours.

After 3 hours.

A balanced and robust sour needs time to develop – not a huge amount; maybe a couple or three days. So to me, overfeeding not only is wasteful, it’s actually counterproductive. Rather, I want to give my microbial pals the chance to work their magic and send it around the food chain so that all of us can eat well, live long and prosper.

Refrigerating slows the process down, giving us an enormous amount of control over our sours.  Those little yeasty beasties are busiest at 80°F to 100°F (27°C to 38°C), and go into near-idle mode at refrigerator temps of 38°F (3°C) or so. At those same temperatures, the lactobacilli also doze off, but remain active enough to produce small amounts of acid: the longer my starters sit in the fridge, the sourer they become.

At 6 hours.

At 6 hours.

So there it is: call me a fungus abuser if you will, but I’ve found that those little guys do just fine as long as I keep their environment cool and moist and throw them a carbo-bone every once in a while. In the meantime, they sit patiently by in my fridge, waiting to play their critical role in my next batch of sourdough; and if I take more time between bakes than other bakers, they never complain. A nice feeding, given a day or two before I mix my dough, resuscitates them and keeps them happy as mushrooms on a rotting log.

My sours are loyal retainers who’ve never failed me: perhaps I should give them names after all – something endearing, like Popeye and Olive, or maybe just Wheat and Rye.

A Tale of Two Flours – Caputo 00 Pizzeria vs. Pivetti 00 “Mimosa” (4/5/2012)

When I started The New York Bakers ( a little over 2½ years ago, my goal was to offer home bakers the broadest range of non-bleached, non-bromated professional flours I could find.

PizzaTipo00_1I didn’t know what I was in for: there are dozens of professional flours out there. Despite all that apparent clutter, most commercial flours are variations on four main classes– high-gluten (14% protein), bread (12½%), pastry (9½%) and cake flour (8%). I also discovered that the vast majority are produced by a handful of mega-millers – think General Mills, ConAgra (which also produces for marketers like King Arthur, Giusto’s and Capitol) – and an equally small number of mid-tier mills, like Bay State and Pendleton Flour Mills. And then there are the small mills, like Heartland and Central Milling, that produce premium flours for artisan bakers.

One category that I really wanted to carry was imported Italian Tipo 00 pizza flour – and, of course, the flour I wanted was Caputo, which everything I read described as the ultimate pizza flour, straight from Naples, the epicenter of the Vera Pizza Napoletana (VPN) universe. So out I went to locate a distributor.

caputo00-2I found one in LA (despite our name, we’re in San Diego) – actually a bit south of LA proper in Vernon, which is completely industrial: no one actually lives there. So I phoned them and talked to one of their sales folks, who said, “Yeah, no problem. We have the Caputo, so come on over and pick it up.”

So into my car for the 2-hour (optimistically) trek on the SoCal freeways up to Vernon. I have to admit, I was really excited. After all, everything I’d read told me that Caputo was the Holy Grail of pizza flours. So imagine my shock and disappointment when the warehouse guy comes back with several red, white and blue bags that said “Pivetti” where “Caputo” should have been.

“No worries,” said the sales guy when I went back to the office to talk to him. “They’re virtually indentical. Besides, we have lots of customers who love the Pivetti.”

What was I to do? I took the Pivetti, drove back down to San Diego and changed my product lineup to read “Pivetti.”

pivettiThen I did some research and learned that the Pivetti mill, which has been owned and operated by the same family for over 130 years, is in Modena, in northern Italy, well away from Bella Napoli, and a city best known for its balsamic vinegar, sausage-stuffed pig feet called zampone (not to be confused with the hockey ice machine), and native son Luciano Pavarotti. “Drat,” I thought to myself, “what do those northern Italians know about pizza?”

Of course, I hadn’t tried the stuff yet – in fact, I’d never used any authentic Tipo 00 flour – so I proceeded to do so. I used the classic formula for VPN, which was 58% water, 2% salt, 0.3% fresh yeast, no bulk fermentation and cold retardation of 12-18 hours.

Well, I was blown away. I had been using high-gluten flour, mainly GM All Trumps at 75% hydration and with 5% olive oil, for my pizza doughs, and constantly found myself struggling with tearing. The Pivetti was pure pleasure, even at that low hydration level. The gluten was well-developed, but the most extensible I’d ever worked with: when I stretched it, it stayed stretched, and I could get a 16-inch pizza out of 10oz/280g of dough. I could literally read a newspaper through that crust. So I was a happy camper.

But I couldn’t stop thinking about the Caputo. One of my customers in Arizona found a distributor there and started using the stuff. She told me that it was more elastic than the Pivetti, and held its shape better. I was tantalized, like the kid at a store window filled with imagined candy.

Finally, a couple of months ago, my supplier told me that he had the real-deal Caputo in stock and would I be interested. I think I broke the speed limit on my way back up to LA, loaded up the car with several bags of the Caputo, plus a couple of Pivettis, and tore back home so I could try out my newfound treasure.

It wasn’t what I expected. Where the Pivetti is white and fine, the Caputo was more yellow and has what felt like a slightly coarser grind. Where I expected the same degree of extensibility, I found instead greater elasticity, comparable to a mild bread flour like GM Harvest King (12% protein) or King Arthur Bread Flour (12.7%). The Caputo formed beautiful round crusts, with a well-defined edge, but the gluten was really evident.

Here’s how they compared in my test bake:

Raw flour: The Pivetti flour is a very pale yellow, nearly white, with a very fine grain. The Caputo has a somewhat coarser grain (although still fine, since 00 refers to the grain size and not protein/ash content), and a definite beige/ light brown color.

Mixing: The Caputo is definitely thirstier than the Pivetti. At 58% hydration, the Caputo formed a much stiffer dough — to the point where my KA Pro was laboring on the dough hook. Not so with the Pivetti, which produced a smooth, fairly slack dough.

Benching:  I rested both doughs for 20 minutes before dividing it into 280g  boules and put each into a lightly oiled plastic sandwich bag.  The dough then went into my wine cooler for 10 hours.  The Pivetti dough increased in size more than the Caputo and was slightly softer to the touch.

Throwing the pizza: Both doughs rested at room temp for 2 hours.  My technique was the same for both doughs: cutting the sandwich bag away so as not to disturb the dough, flouring both sides and using my fingertips to stretch the middle, then shaping the pizza by putting the rim over my knuckles and stretching it to about 16″ in diameter – thin enough to see light through the center.  I then put the dough onto a floured peel, dressed the pizza and baked at 550F for about 6 minutes.

Both doughs were quite extensible, the Pivetti moreso because its protein content is clearly lower than the Caputo, which almost felt rubbery and very firm. That said, both doughs threw very nicely, with a nod in the direction of the Caputo for ease of forming a more uniform circle.

The crust: The Caputo crust was denser, chewier and more flavorful than the Pivetti, which sprang nicely in the oven, leaving big air pockets in the rim.  Both crusts were thin and crisp, and biting off a piece of the Caputo pie took more effort than the Pivetti. At the same time, the Caputo didn’t seem to hold up under the weight of the toppings as well as the Pivetti, so there was more sag when we picked up the slices. That said, both crusts had distinctive personalities and were excellent in their own way,

Verdict: If you like a chewy crust, not unlike good American pizza (emphasis on good), the Caputo wins hands down. My family and I prefer a crisper, less chewy crust, and the unanimous winner in my house was Pivetti.

Fortunately, you can find both at

What is a Jewish Bakery? (12/15/2011)

Not too long ago, during a radio interview centered on “Inside the Jewish Bakery,” the host asked me, “What is a Jewish bakery?” I have to confess, I was stunned: no one had ever asked me that question, nor, indeed, had I ever asked it of myself. In my world, everyone knows what a Jewish bakery is – a bakery that sells Jewish baked goods.

BakeryCounter1940sBut here’s where it gets complicated. What exactly are “Jewish baked goods?” The ones that come first to mind – bagels, rugelach, onion rolls, challah – appear to be no-brainers, but in fact all can be traced back through their Yiddish forebears to the gentile Central and Eastern European societies in which the Jews found themselves living at various times.

Take bagels, for instance.  In America, we think of them as a Jewish food that made good, rising to the pinnacle of the American mainstream and assimilating away their “Jewishness”. But boiled/baked ring breads made of double-helix dough strands, called obwarzanki are the signature street food of Kraków, Poland, and have been for centuries.  And lest anyone argue that “Jewish” bagels don’t feature that ropelike twist, I would point out that a 1936 photo in the collection of the New York Public Library shows a Jewish New York City bagel peddler selling what clearly are twisted obwarzanki. At the same time, a 1938 photo in the YIVO collection shows a bagel seller in Lithuania selling the untwisted bagels we’re all familiar with. Go figure.

So how about challah? Nothing more Jewish than that, right? Well, although the term “challah” is derived from the Torah, the bread itself was a loan from 14th and 15th century German Christians, who honored their Sabbath with braided loaves, according to Jewish foodways historian John Cooper. On top of that (and on top of the loaves), the custom of decorating breads with symbols of faith such as birds, hands, keys and ladders – also often thought of as uniquely Jewish – also can be traced back to the Christians of Central Europe. Even the term “koyletch,” an alternative name for challah throughout Yiddish Europe, is of Slavic origin. And to bring things full circle, a braided, egg-glazed sweet bread called chałka is a staple offering in the bakeries of today’s Poland.

Behind the counterThe same is true of knishes, babkas, rolls (bulkes), rye breads – you name it and the gentile host cultures had it before the Jews. Even most modern favorites come from someplace else, most obviously rainbow cookies, whose horizontal layers of red, yellow and green reprise the Italian flag and trumpet their origin.

So if everything in the Jewish bakery came from someplace else, what, after all is a “Jewish bakery?”

In my view, nothing less than the history of a people’s wanderings from place to place – from Eretz Yisrael to the Roman Empire, from Rome northward into the Rhine Valley, then west into France and England and east into Austria, Hungary, Bohemia, Lithuania, Poland and Russia. At every stop, the Jews found the foods of their gentile neighbors and adapted them to the laws of Kashrus. And when it came time to move again, they took those foods with them and added to their repertoire the foods of their next home, again adapted to Kashrus.

And so the Jewish bakery is really a time capsule, a distillation of a thousand years of Diaspora, come to rest in a row of glass-fronted display cases and shelves full of bread and rolls behind the counter. Every bread and roll, every pastry, cake and cookie, reflects a specific time and place in our communal history and connects us tangibly (and edibly) to our shared experience. And you thought it was only a bakery!

Today, the world’s food culture is rapidly homogenizing. You can find U.S. fast-food franchises in Tokyo, Beijing and Moscow;  Japanese ramen-chain outlets in New York, Los Angeles and London. And bagels are everywhere. TV food porn, as my daughter likes to call it, has universalized once-obscure ingredients and globalized technique and plating to the point where cooking has morphed from the deepest, most visceral (pun intended) expression of a culture rooted in time and place to a media-driven vehicle for individual creativity.

And while I do apkroyt_borschtpreciate the pure sensual pleasures of sculpturally composed, artfully conceived and executed coups de table, I’m also very much aware that even the best of them lack the authentic Yiddish tam of my grandmother’s kroyt borscht, a long-simmeredsoup – a stew, really – made from beef flanken and an abundance of winter vegetables – cabbage, beets, turnips, carrots, potatoes and onions.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum, the mass-market processed food industry is wreaking its own Holocaust on family-run, made-from-scratch restaurants and bakeries, and in the process, severing the connection between people and their personal and communal histories. And sadly, as those restaurants and bakeries die, so too, dies a piece of our cultural history that most of us barely recognize, let alone miss, until it’s gone.
Photos courtesy of Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives, Tamiment Library, New York University

From Scratch (12/17/2011)

One of my pet peeves is the veritable deluge of prepared foods and “meal assembly” emporia that has overtaken America and seem to be spreading like a stain across the rest of the world. Walk into any store selling food, and there they sit – ready-to-heat main courses and side of every imaginable ethnicity and ingredient, indistinguishable, or so the labels claim, from home-cooked (and, of course, priced at a hefty premium over the cost of the ingredients themselves). Nor is it only the mains and sides:to see how pervasive the ready-tos have become, take a walk down the aisles of any supermarket and keep mental notes of all the things you can eat right out of the container, or that pre-mix key ingredients (think cake mixes).

Even as recently as 20 years ago or so, an industrial food takeover on this scale was inconceivable, yet very much in the cards. I forget the context, but remember well reading an article in the ’90s that spoke about seasoning mixes that would enable butchers to reap higher profits from value-added, ready-to-cook steaks, roasts and poultry. At around that same time, during my stint on Wall Street, I worked with the CEO of a company, now defunct, that pioneered treatments for cut fruits and vegetables that all but eliminated discoloration. One has only to look at the proliferation of pre-bagged cut produce to see how visionary the idea was.

What’s behind it? Obviously, from the food processors’ perspective, it’s about profits. Anything you do to an ingredient changes it from commodity to unique product, and in so doing, lowers its vulnerability to the pure-price nature of the commodity markets, taking it instead to a higher realm, where branding and marketing operate to keep prices and profits high. Never mind that the bulk of industrial food processing is based on water and sugar (including fructose sweeteners), the cheapest of additives that also offer processors the advantage of an ultra-low-cost way to increase weight – both the product’s and the consumer’s (hah!).

There’s a second important financial consideration for the producers as well: labor. From-scratch food preparation requires skilled workers who can command premium wages. The workers needed to cook from mixes and industrial ready-to-heats can be had for minimum wage. Even better, machines don’t get sick or have hangovers, and a retailer can always be certain of having enough product because his distributors will have warehouses full. Once again, technology and industrial production trump competence and experience.

From the consumer’s point of view, those dishes represent savings of time and energy, but at the very dear cost of control and competence. The time issues are understandable. When I was growing up in the ’50s, moms and grandmas stayed at home and had time to shop and cook; today’s economically stressed world puts far more pressure on everyone to go out and find ways to earn money. The simple act of preparing and serving a meal has gone from pleasure to chore, and my grandmother’s pride in feeding her family has given way to a sigh of relief at not having to cook, without the guilt of having failed at this most basic of family responsibilities.

That guilt also is the driving rationale behind the “meal assembly” stores, where people can go to assemble a week’s worth of their own ready-to-heat dinners. Everything is there, pre-cooked and portion-controlled, ready to mix and match  into microwaveable containers. It’s exactly the same mindset that built the cake-mix business and propelled bread machines into the appliance mainstream: here’s a way to produce a Rembrandt – or at least an acceptable reproduction – without having to learn how to paint, let alone draw.

At what cost? Monetary, certainly: the ready-tos are substantially more expensive than the sum cost of their ingredients. But more troubling, in my view, is the personal cost. I want to be able to control what goes into the things my family and friends eat. I don’t want chemical life-extenders, mold inhibitors or potentially hazardous additives (think potassium bromate and genetically engineered ingredients) in my food. I want to decide how my food tastes, and not leave it to some food chemist who’s motivated by corporate profitability targets and focus-group driven consensus. I want to know how to make the things that please my senses and those of the people I care about, so that I can encourage others to value their own competence.

My wife and I often engage in a revealing dialogue when we go food shopping together. She’ll see a ready-to that she finds appealing and say, “Ooh, let’s try that.” I’ll look at it and say, “Why? I can make it better and cheaper at home.” Sometimes we buy it, sometimes we don’t, and more often than not, when we do, it’s either too sweet, too salty, or both for our tastes (mine, certainly, since she has a far bigger sweet tooth than I). But at least we have the ability to make that choice and still have what we want.

Sweet and Sour (12/15/2011)

In my grandparents’ homes, as in the shtetlach from whence they came, the food was sweet and sour – just as life itself was sweet and sour. For me, a grandchild of immigrants growing up between two worlds in 1950s America, sweet and sour came to symbolize both the contrasts and convergences of my multifaceted existence.

Sour was during the week. It was school and afternoon cheder for me, jobs that took my father and grandfather away from before I woke up until after I had my supper; and for my mother and grandmothers, shopping, cleaning, child-rearing and all the other things stay-at-home wives did back then.

Sour was a pickle or sour tomato for a snack, a piece of sour rye bread slathered with schmaltz and topped with a slice of onion, a lunch of sour cream, farmer cheese and chopped radish, scallion and cucumber; or maybe a glass of ruby red borscht and sour cream, or shchav (sorrel soup) with a raw egg stirred in and chopped scallions on top. Sour was Grandma Annie stirring a spoonful of sour cream into a pot of warm milk, then pouring it into a tray full of patterned yortzeit glasses and leaving it to sour over the pilot light on her white enamel stove.

Sour was the taste of the shtetl, where a piece of sour black rye bread, a bowl of the fermented beet water called rosl and perhaps a dollop of sour cream was a day’s nourishment.  After all, what could be cheaper, easier and more provident for the inevitable times of scarcity than a crock filled with sliced beets, left to ferment by the wild yeasts that fill the air? Sour was the sum of their existence.

Weekends were sweet, and so were our holidays. Sweet was the saucer of honey, the sweet-sticky teyglach and cloves-fragrant carrot tsimmes at Rosh Hashanah, and the sweet gefilte fish and oloptzes (stuffed cabbage), for Shabbes. The challah was sweet and pale yellow, with a shiny brown crust that crackled when Grandpa cut it; the prune and apricot compote was sweet (but with a touch of lemon, to remind us of the week past and the week yet to come).  Sour held no place of honor at my grandma’s Shabbes table.

Sweet was spending Saturday and Sunday with my parents and extended family, cookies and rugelach from Grandma and Bubbie, cracking pecans and hazelnuts with my cousins after a big holiday meal, visits to the bakery with my father and bringing home cookies and pastries in white cardboard boxes tied with string striped like a barber pole. Sweet was going to the Saturday matinee (20 cents for a double feature, serial, newsreel and 5 color cartoons 5) with my best friend Richie and eating Black Crows, Jujubes and Sugar Daddy bars. Sweet was being allowed to stay up late so my brother and I could sit in front of the TV with our parents, watching Uncle Miltie, Sid Caesar, Groucho Marx and Dragnet.

As I grew older, my life grew sweeter, more American. Instead of a giant sour pickle bought for a nickel out of a barrel of brine, my afternoon snack morphed into a stack of cookies and a glass of milk. Living in the suburbs, away from my grandmothers, we succumbed to the enticements of the mainstream and there we chose to spend our lives, eating sweet and eschewing sour, except as an occasional culinary grace note. Weeks and weekends merged into unremitting sweetness.

Now, in my 60s, I’ve come back to sour with a deeper appreciation of both its taste and meaning. Still, there is one dish, one taste memory, that haunts me: my bubbie’s marnat – chilled sweet and sour whitefish, simmered slow and long with slices of carrot and onion in a peppery-vinegary-sugary marinade that congealed into an aspic and overwhelmed my taste buds even as the fish dissolved in my mouth.  Whenever I went to see her in her Brooklyn brownstone, that was the dish I always asked her to make.  And to this day, try as I might, I’ve never come close to duplicating it, perhaps because I will never truly know, as all my grandparents knew, the sorrows and joys of sweet-and sour.

Me and Chocolate (11/22/2011)

When I was a kid, back in the 40s and 50s, chocolate was for special occasions and taken in small doses – a square of Hershey’s milk chocolate from the bar my grandma kept squirreled away in her purse, a candy bar at the Saturday matinee (double feature, assorted shorts and 5 color cartoons 5) at the Benson, and the crowning moments when I got to choose one or two pieces (usually the cherry cordials or butter toffees) from the oblong black box of Barton’s kosher chocolates that was put out at holiday meals or when company was coming.

SONY DSCAs I got older and my family moved up the economic and social ladder, chocolate became less of a novelty.  It was always around, and as a teenager I was one of those kids who could work his way through an entire box of Mallomars, carefully picking the chocolate coating off of each one and savoring it flake by flake before chomping down on the now-naked marshmallow and vanilla wafer in anticipation of the next cookie in the box.

The bakeries raised chocolate to a whole new existential plane.  Chocolate-enrobed rainbow cookies, chocolate filled lace cookies, almond-fragrant french cookies which a thick dot of chocolate in the center in place of the usual glacé cherry – not to mention Ebinger’s blackout cake, a double chocolate high-ratio layer cake filled with chocolate pudding and frosted with chocolate fondant and covered in chocolate cake crumbs. It was to die for – at least until I discovered overdose vehicles like Death by Chocolate, chocolate mousse cake and chocolate lava cake.

Funny thing is, I never thought of myself as a chocoholic, since my cravings are infrequent and no longer excessive – thinking back to the time I finished almost 2 pounds of extra dark block chocolate in the space of an hour and paid for it with severe shakes and tachycardia for the rest of the day. That was 25 years ago, and it was my last true binge.

But of course, having written a baking book it was impossible to stay away from chocolate for very long, especially since the stuff figures so prominently in so many of our recipes. During the testing, I reacquainted myself with goodies I hadn’t tasted in years – wonder cake, made with almond paste and marbled with thick veins of pure dark chocolate;  chocolate-dipped sandwich cookies and almond horns; and checkerboard cake made with both yellow and chocolate high-ratio cakes, plus lots of chocolate buttercream and dark chocolate enrobing. It was a tough job, but somebody had to do it.

One of the added pleasures of having written the book was learning more about chocolate’s history and idiosyncrasies.

I was amazed to learn that the connection between Jews and chocolate goes back to at least the mid-1600s, when Sephardic Jewish merchants from Holland came to the New World to engage in the sugar trade – which in itself is an interesting counterpoint to the pivotal role Jews played in the Eastern European beet sugar industry. But more interestingly, those same Sephardi also were instrumental in laying the foundations of the Dutch chocolate industry when they imported Venezuelan cacao into Holland – and then spread the chocolate gospel into northern France, and, a century later, into England. Fascinating stuff.

I also learned a lot about the chemical and physical mysteries of chocolate, and why it exerts such a powerful hold on those who work with it. I have  to confess, the idea of tempering chocolate intimidated me – and I’m not someone who intimidates easily – but the idea of controlling temperatures that carefully was really pretty daunting.

It didn’t get any easier – although it did get much more interesting – when I discovered that chocolate forms six different kinds of structures, depending on its temperature at the time of application, and that only one of them – Type 5 – produces the smooth, shiny finish we associate with the highest-quality baked goods.  But Type 5 molecules only predominate between 93°F and 97.7° F – equating to 27.3°C to 33.8°C – which is a very narrow band, especially if, like me, you melt your chocolate in a double boiler and not one of those classy, expensive tempering pots they use on the cooking shows.

So I figured it out: Bring the chocolate up above 125° F (52°C), and then drop in chunks of unmelted chocolate and stir it in until the mixture gets to within that Type 5 band – then apply it as quickly as possible, putting it back onto the double boiler as soon as the temp reaches the lower limit. Annoying? Tedious? Yes. Worth the effort? Absolutely.

So that, in a nutshell, is all about me and chocolate, and in closing I’d just leave you with this paragraph that, sadly, never found its way into Inside the Jewish Bakery:

During the Golden Age of Jewish baking, chocolate was – and remains, in the handful of surviving Jewish bakeries – everywhere.  Melted and tempered, it enrobed rainbow cookies, seven-layer cakes and checkerboard cakes.  Swirls of it marbled wonder cakes.  Drops of it decorated the centers of French cookies.  Coatings of it graced the ends of sandwich cookies and almond horns.  Melted and unsweetened, it is the focal point of chocolate cakes.  Shaved, it forms the filling for chocolate babka, schnecken and rugelach.  Dried into powder, it performs its magic on butter creams and simple icings.

So what’s not to like?

Cousin Helmut’s Styrian Pumpkinseed Cake (Kurbiskernoel Gugelhupf – 9/27/2012)

Last week, my wife’s cousins from Styria, in eastern Austria, came to stay with us and brought us some dark green pumpkinseed oil, which is a regional specialty. They also brought a recipe for a chiffon cake made with the oil. The recipe couldn’t be simpler (and it’s also an amazing accompaniment to a good lager, such as a hefeweizen or witbier):

1. Grease and flour a bundt or gugelhupf pan and sprinkle the bottom with toasted pumpkinseeds.
2. In a bowl combine 4 egg yolks, 10kernoel_gugelhupf0ml of water, 100ml of pumpkinseed oil, 100g of vanilla sugar, 150g of powdered sugar and beat for at least one minute until fully emulsified.
3. Combine 100g of granulated sugar with the 4 egg whites and whip to soft peaks. Add about 1/3 of the eggwhites to the oil mixture and stir gently until blended.
4. Sift together 250g of all-purpose flour and 5g of baking powder and add slowly to the oil mixture, stirring gently until smooth, then fold in the remaining eggwhites.
5. Bake at 350F/170C for 55-60 minutes, until a tester comes out clean.

The oil isn’t easy to come by, but it’s absolutely a great find when you do. It’s also fantastic believe it or not) on vanilla ice cream!