“It’s the Water” and Other Bagel Fictions

bagelbasketOver the past year, while I was doing personal appearances to promote my IACP award winning book, Inside the Jewish Bakery – a great read, by the way, and worth every penny – I learned that I could count on being asked two questions: “What ever happened to corn bread, aka corn rye?” and “Is it true that New York bagels are better because of the water?”

Of corn rye, more in a future post, perhaps (my list of to-do topics is growing larger). As for the water, the first time I answered it, I did so with a vehemence that surprised even me, and I can be a pretty vehement guy. But here it is, vehemence and all.

Let’s talk about water. Admittedly, there are wide swings in the taste and quality of municipal water supplies. New York City, for example, where I grew up, has water that’s sweet and drinkable right from the tap, with no off-tastes or chlorine.  Nor does it scale the teakettle. Madison, Wisconsin, on the other hand, where I spent many years earning a PhD and avoiding an involuntary trip to Vietnam, had (and presumably still has), hard-as-nails water that tasted of limestone and sulfur, and which instantly coated the bottom of every pot I owned with a hard white crust. Southern California, where I live now, is somewhere in the middle: the water isn’t nearly as sweet as New York water,  and the scale it deposits is negligible compared to what I contended with in the Upper Midwest.

DSC02562That being said – and all else equal – water, as a primary ingredient in bagels, is going to contribute to a bagel’s taste, while the mineral content may also affect the baking characteristics of the dough. On the other hand, the question then becomes, “If all else isn’t equal, what else can contribute to the wretched quality of those Wonder Bread doughnuts that continue to besmirch the bagel’s name?”

In a word (actually three) lots of things. So let’s start by deconstructing the New York water bagel. At its core, the traditional bagel recipe consists of five ingredients: high-gluten flour (100%), water (50%), salt (2%), malt (2%) and yeast (0.5% for fresh, half that for dry).  Mix it up, let the dough sit for 20-30 minutes, shape the bagels and then chill them for at least 12 hours. When you’re ready to bake, boil them in water, plus a tablespoon or so of malt, right out of the fridge, and bake them at 460°F (238°C) for about 15 minutes, flipping them after 3 minutes if you’re into that sort of thing.

Those are the basics and those were the bagels I and others of a certain vintage grew up with and remember so fondly.

DSC02563The compromises started when Daniel Thompson began marketing his father, Meyer’s, bagel-forming machine (first customer: Murray Lender), which, like the steam drill and John Henry, put the hand-rollers of New York’s Local 338 out of business. But to make the machine work properly, the water had to be increased from around 50% to more like 65%, so that the dense crumb became softer and more bread-like. Then, of course, the softer, stickier dough began to gum things up, so the steam drill guys added oil, which softened the crumb even further. So now, what once was a bagel now was becoming more like circular white bread. But the machines made mass production not only possible, but financially desirable. Enter the corporations.

BagelBoilAt that point, of course, the finance guys took over. Chilling takes time and costs money, in the form of energy and cooling equipment. Why not just add dough conditioners to speed gluten formation and some sugar (another crumb-softener) to give the yeast an added kick? And what about boiling, which gelatinizes the bagel’s surface starch and forms that shiny skin? Well, let’s bake them in steam-injected ovens, said the bean-counters. That way, we can save even more on the labor and equipment needed to dump the bagels into giant vats of malt-water, scoop them out, and rearrange them on boards or pans or whatever. Flipping? Nah, those schmucks out there won’t know the difference, but our shareholders will love us for cutting costs (at the price of quality, but when did that ever matter?) and giving profits a nice bump.

Which brings me back to the idea of “all else equal,” because in the bagel world, all else is not equal.  Dunkin’ Donuts, the world’s largest bagel manufacturer, Einstein Bros./Noah’s, Bruegger, and all those Korean-owned mom-and-pop bagelries have gone over to the dark side, substituting size for quality and factory flavors like strawberry, cinnamon, blueberry and jalapeño for time, labor, and the natural action of enzymes on complex carbs.

BagelBoards1When I make bagels, I do it the same way the Local 338 guys did, hand-rolling, chilling, boiling and flipping on burlap-covered cedar boards. Even with that so-so Southern California water, I’ll put my bagels up against anyone’s, anywhere in the world. And I guarantee you, I’ll prevail 99.999% of the time – that 0.001% being when I go up against a properly made bagel using New York water.

So does the water make a difference? Of course — if you’re eating one of those 0.001% New York bagels and one of mine. But most of the time, it’s just an excuse for incompetence.


Guest Blog: Temps Gone Wild

Paul McCool is a baker and teacher from Lawrence, Kansas, who’s been a long-time voice of reason on my favorite (well, second-favorite) bread site, thefreshloaf.com. Recently, he sent me this tale of what can happen (and indeed, has happened to me more than once) when one loses their focus during bake time. Fortunately, this cautionary tale also contains its own redemption. Lemonade, anyone? And many thanks, Paul.

You’ll probably enjoy this.  I have been preparing for another rye breads class this Friday which includes the Rustic Pumpernickel from Inside the Jewish Bakery.  Since the class runs from 10:00-3:30, lunch is provided for the students.  What I do is bake a batch of each of the breads being taught (this class also includes a Vort Limpa and Eric’s Fave Rye) in advance.  This lets me give the students a visual of the finished breads and plenty of material for lunch-time sandwiches.

Everything was going spectacularly well with the Rustic Pumpernickel this weekend.  Fermentation, shaping, final rise, docking, steaming; I had it all together.  Everything, that is, until I opened the oven to check the loaf’s temperature before calling it done.  At that point I realized that I had missed the step which says to turn the oven temperature down from 470 to 300 after the final steaming.  Oops!  It spent the entire bake at 470!  The loaf is a deep mahogany brown, with just the tiniest bit of charring along the edge of a natural ear where the top of the loaf fissured from oven spring.

Instead of panicking, I brushed the loaf with a generous amount of boiling water, let it cool, then wrapped it in a towel for the next 30 hours or so, then bagged it in plastic.  All the while I was kicking myself for having made such a bonehead mistake.  Finally, I resolved to bake another but take this one along as an object lesson.

Just for grins, I cut into the loaf last evening.  The crust had softened from being in the plastic bag.  The interior was moist and cool.  The flavor!  Oh, the flavor!  It’s as good a rye as I have made in a long time.  Lots of that weirdly good earthy/spicy combination inherent in the rye, a gently assertive tang (mostly lactic but some suggestion of acetic, too), hints of citrus.  This is seriously good bread, in spite of my screw-up.  Norm would probably give me a whack for messing up the bake but I think that he would love it, too.  So, in case you or your students ever make the same mistake, know that all is not lost.

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.

Chocolate Porter Bread

PorterBreadAfter 25 years of hobby brewing, a friend of mine opened a brewery of his own. Lightning has since become one of the best in San Diego county, which is known far and wide as a hotbed of world-class craft beer. Jim focuses on European-style beers — everything from crisp, beautiful lagers and German-style wheat beers to French farmhouse ales and the deepest of deep dark porters (some of which he’s barrel-aged for even more texture). I love everything he makes, and we’ve spent hours discussing the finer points of yeast, grain, enzymes and the idiosyncrasies of lacto- and acetobacillus.

A while back, after weeks of thinking about it, I took a stab at using one of his beers, Black Lightning porter, to make bread. The beer itself is very, very rich, with layers of malt, chocolate, hops and toast. The result was a wonderfully sweet and malty loaf with a moist crumb and luscious finish that had a distinctly hoppy edge.

The formula:

16oz of porter (boiled to remove the CO2 and kill the beer yeast, then cooled to room temp)
4oz water
12oz unbleached bread flour
10oz stone ground whole wheat flour
3oz unsulphured molasses
1 oz honey
3/4 oz fresh compressed yeast
1/2 oz salt.

Combine all the ingredients in a mixer, knead 5-6 minutes at low (KA 2) speed.
Ferment 60 min ferment, shape into loaves and proof another 45min
Bake with steam on a stone preheated to 500F for 10 min, steaming again after 3 min, then reduce to 450F for another 12-15 min.
The loaves will be done when they reach an internal temp of 205F and sound hollow when tapped gently.

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

When I started The New York Bakers (www.nybakers.com) 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 www.nybakers.com

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?

Bakebook Chronicles III (2/13/2011)

It’s been a good while since I last chronicled our adventures and misadventures in the world of publishing, and a lot has happened in the interim.

IJBcoverMany of you know that our publisher wasn’t entirely happy with our original title — The New York Bakers Jewish Bakery Book — and so after putting out several suggestions for informal feedback, we finally settled on Inside the Jewish Bakery: Recipes and Memories from the Golden Age of Jewish Baking. Looking back at it, Norm and I both agree (as does the publisher) that this title is much more indicative of the contents of the book and leaves a lot more room for Norm’s stories and reminiscences of how it was back in the day.

It’s also amazing how content inflation works: originally, our contract called for a 70,000 word book, which translates into about 250 pages. In September, when the manuscript was due, it came to about 90,000 words, but the publisher didn’t make an issue of it. With additions — more Norm stories and a whole section on Passover baking — and revisions, we suddenly found that we had 100,000 words — about 350 pages — and the publisher freaked.

Someone once asked Ernest Hemingway to name toe most important quality of great writing, and he answered, “a willingness to murder your children.” And so I murdered about 28,000 of my kids and got the book down to around 72,500 words — which probably isn’t a bad thing, since the discipline of self-editing made me think about what was really essential — the must-includes versus the nice to includes. So basically, most of the background info in ingredients, techniques and equipment went bye-bye, along with redundant recipes and those that people can find elsewhere.

I expect that a lot of the cut material will end up on the NYB website at some point. Norm suggested that we try to sell it as Volume 2 — The Lost Chapters. We’ll see ….

Also, it looks at this point like the pub date will be more like July than the March-April timeframe Camino Books was thinking about before … understandable, given the complexities of editing, design, marketing, etc etc.

And speaking of marketing, one of the things we’re also learning is that being an author is different from being a writer. Writers write and get paid for it; authors become public personas and have to go out and do signings, shows, media, etc etc. More than that, if you’re an unknown at a small publishing house, you have to pay for it yourself. Fortunately, we found this terrific publicist who not only has done a bunch of cookbook work, but whose father owned a Jewish bakery in West LA in the 50s and 60s. So not only did we get a great professional; we also got a member of the family, so to speak … and we even got a great photo of her dad rolling bagels that’s gonna appear in the book.

So okay, that’s where we stand coming into Valentine’s Day weekend. Stay tuned!