German Ragout for Pastetchen

I wasn’t lucky enough to grow up knowing most of my grandparents. By the time I was old enough to remember, there was only my father’s mother, my Oma. And unlike other kids whose grandparents were a car ride away, mine was a plane ride away — all the way across the Atlantic Ocean in Germany. My memories of her are limited; as I got older, so did she, and it wasn’t long before our relationship was limited to what remained in her long-term memory.

One of the memories I wish I’d gotten to have was cooking beside her. She was a solid German cook, making simple, hearty food that had little fuss. On the day we flew in, there was always a tasty broth-based soup waiting for us as lunch. (I still crave broth-based soups after a long plane ride). She also made delicious Christmas cookies, inventing recipes that my cousin Tina has passed down to me.

The other Christmas tradition that she did was make Pastetchen — pastry shells filled with a meat stew. It looks fancy, but it’s really peasant food. Tasty and very filling, my family still has it every year on Christmas Eve. Her recipe, written out in German, is above, written with her signature blue fountain pen. Below is my translation.

Quality Ragout for Pastry Shells.

Good-quality veal! (and neck when it’s not fatty) Let the butcher cut it into small pieces (smaller than for goulash). Brown it in half butter and half margarine with chopped onions. Dust with flour and lightly roast. Deglaze with white wine (cooking wine). Salt and some pepper, lemon juice, Worchester sauce [she means Worchestershire sauce]. Season to taste, and if it isn’t done yet, let it cook lightly a bit more.

Separately, prepare mushrooms in butter with onions (cut small), some parsley (chopped) as well and either mix it with the ragout and pour into the hot pastry shells, or serve on the plate next to the pastry shells (with the ragout). I find the latter better, as it looks better arranged on the plate. (A raw salad is good with this.)

——————

We make a few changes (beef instead of veal, and adding in peas and carrots), but for the most part, that’s the recipe we still use. And we do serve it with a big green salad!

Merry Christmas!

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Hungarian Mushroom Soup (Moosewood Cookbook)

Every year, my mother’s entire extended family descends on our home for the annual Channukah celebrations. We’re a big group—what originally began as “just” the descendents of my grandma Bubsy and my grandpa Nuit is now a gathering of over 50 people, including their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.

And like most Jewish holidays, the occasion is also an excuse for a feast: Whitefish, lox (which is not the same as smoked salmon), bagels (and all the fixings—which includes capers!), hummus, tabbouleh, and an enormous salad (with homemade dressing, of course). We used to do latkes, but we’ve abandoned them so that no one spends the whole day in front of the stove (and so the entire house doesn’t smell like a frying station).

Truth be told, I can do without the latkes—we all usually get our fix on one of the other eight nights. But there was one thing I do miss, that my mother used to make for years: A big batch of Mollie Katzen’s Hungarian Mushroom Soup. From The New Moosewood Cookbook, this is a beautiful soup that I crave during the winter months. It’s creamy and tangy, with a tiny bit of heat from the paprika. My mother used to make multiple batches of this recipe and then keep it warm on a hotplate during the parties.

The best, of course, was the day after the party. I would creep down to the fridge, ladle some of the glop into a bowl, and pop it into the microwave. Always better the next day.

Salad Dressing Secrets

A friend of mine asked me for my salad dressing recipe recently.  The truth is, there isn’t one. I’ve never once thought about tablespoons or teaspoons when making salad dressing—I just add the ingredients, taste, adjust, and eat.

If pasta sauce is the hand-me-down of Italian families, then salad dressing is the hand-me-down in mine. I watched my parents make salad dressing hundreds of times over the years, and then at some point, I started helping and learning.

It goes something like this:

  • good (or at least decent) quality olive oil
  • fresh lemon juice (must be fresh! bottled is decent but nowhere near as good.)
  • freshly pressed garlic (DO NOT USE THE STUFF THAT COMES FROM A JAR)
  • salt (we prefer kosher)
  • freshly ground pepper

Those are the basics. The ratio of olive oil to lemon juice is about 2:1. We use a minimum of 2 garlic cloves in each batch.

Variations include:

  • Balsamic vinegar instead of lemon juice. To this I’ll often add some Dijon mustard and honey. Then extra pepper. I love pepper! This variation is dark and savory. Yummy in the winter.
  • Rice vinegar instead of lemon juice. Add in soy sauce, reduce salt, and add some sesame oil for an Asian vinaigrette. You could even add some peanut butter or peanut oil instead of some of the olive oil.

My parents tend to be purists and just go with the original recipe, except they also have a little herb pot, so we often throw in a few sprigs of fresh thyme. To me, this is the taste of a delicious spring salad, usually arugula with shaved Parmesan and some fresh blueberries. Bright and delicious.

(And to all you garlic-phobics out there: Stop it right now. Garlic is amazing. Stop trying to resist and just accept it.)

Kaffee und Kuchen (Speyer, Germany)

There is something seriously wrong with this country: We don’t believe in kaffee und kuchen. We Americans indulge ourselves in a post-work happy hour drink, sharing a beer with our colleagues. But it’s not the same as the 4pm sit down that Germans have with a cup of strong coffee and a delicious piece of cake. It comes right at that “I wish I had something sweet…” time. Shopping and need a pick me up? Need a quick break from your work or studies? Looking for an excuse to sit down and chat in the middle of the day? Kaffee und kuchen is there for you to sit down and caffeinate up.

Kaffee und kuchen is most common on Saturdays or Sundays, but if you walk into, say, Cafe Hindenburg on a Tuesday afternoon, you will find it packed with little old ladies sharing cake, coffee, and gossip.

And this is not your saccharin, achingly sweet cake that you get in the US. This is not the boring dry iced stuff you get at the grocery store or, god forbid, at a wedding reception. This is CAKE. It is serious. It is large. It is amazing. On this particular day, the three of us had a chocolate cake, a berry torte, and a cheese cake. They were all delicious.

kaffee und kuchen cafe hindenburg speyer germany

cafe hindenburg speyer germany

Eggplant Tragedy

We get eggplants almost weekly in our CSA share. To my great delight, the folks we split the share with don’t care for eggplant, so we get to take it. Lovely.

Except this past week, I opened the veggie drawer to see that there were two eggplants in a sad state. One was so brown it was no longer purple, and the other was beginning to show similar signs of age. I resolved to cook it immediately, and sauteed it with some sesame oil, ginger, and soy sauce.

Alas, when I sat down to eat it, it was… off. I couldn’t swallow it.

Let this be a lesson to all of you: Eat your eggplants while they’re purple.

Warning: Contents are Extremely Delicious

Many months ago, I came across a website that claimed something so outlandish and crazy, I knew it had to be true. This website, this heretical blog, claimed that chocolate cake could be made in a microwave. In three minutes.

Knowing that playing with knowledge like this would be like playing with fire, I stored the link safely away in my toolbar, where I could observe it from afar. Periodically, I checked on it. The post was full of comments, with things like, “No no no, cachocolatey desserts arent supposed to be this easy. You have thrown off the natural order of things.” I knew this was confirmed dangerous stuff.

So one Sunday, sitting around with little to do and a sweet tooth hollering for some peace, I decided to risk it. I armed myself with my household’s largest coffee mug. I mixed the ingredients. I brazenly substituted applesauce for eggs and soy milk for regular milk. (Hey, it was a Sunday, okay? I was low on ingredients.) And I mixed. Slowly, the cup went from looking like a oily mess to… a cake batter mess. I tasted the batter—it was a bit appley, but okay. I stuck it in the microwave, set the timer to 3 minutes, and left the room, lest it explode.

Approximately 2 minutes and 55 seconds later, I heard a beep. It was done. For a moment, I was too frightened to go in the kitchen and see what had happened. Could it be possible that a microwave could really yield such amazingness? In three minutes?! What would it mean for the world, the universe, and my caloric intake, never mind things like my dentist bills?

I took a deep breath and opened the microwave. No carnage was to be seen. I picked up the mug and looked inside. Why, it looked just like chocolate cake! I dumped it out onto a plate. Its mostly-cylindrical form was moist and smelled sweet. I took a bite. It was good. Not amazing, I mean, you could tell the substitutions, but pretty damn good. Would’ve been excellent with vanilla ice cream. And maybe some chocolate mini-chips added to the batter. And a darker, richer, cocoa powder.

All of a sudden, it struck me: It had worked. And now nothing would ever be the same. I’m tempted to make comparisons to the discovery of the structure of DNA, or penicillin, or the lightbulb, or the telephone. I mean, it’s not like Edison got stellar in-room reception on his first call… but it got better. Once the first breakthrough was achieved, a new chapter in history was begun.

And so, my friends, I give you: The Most Dangerous Chocolate Cake Recipe. Go forth and zap your way to chocolatey bliss.

Ye Old Chomping Grounds

Yes, I’ll admit it. I grew up in New Jersey. Why the shame, you ask? Because there is typically a gritty pride assigned to those of us raised in the state often referred to as “the armpit of America.” But I don’t get to take part in that. Because I grew up in Princeton.

Princeton is a little enclave of anti-Jersey. Everything is beautiful and clean. Instead of malls and mega stores, there is a carefully manicured downtown, full of locally owned stores and products that cater to the kind of clientele that would think twice before going grocery shopping in their gym clothes. Spillover of students, faculty, and staff from Princeton University means that most of downtown is brushed with a sheen of academic snobbery and Ivy League pride. Here and there, you can find pockets of alternative life, in the famed-yet-still-grubby Princeton Record Exchange, for instance, or the on-the-verge-of-another-health-code-violation-but-still-irresistible Hoagie Haven, but generally most stores and eateries in Princeton are picture-perfect.

And while yes, it is a rather bougie place, with its oh-so-trendy-yet-earthy local microroaster/cafe Small World Coffee, its new versus traditional ice cream cafes, and its hip-and-tasty brewery, at least you have the chance to eat well. And eat well I did. On weekend mornings, while average New Jerseyans might have whipped up some pancakes, my European-transplant father would often go out and pick up something from our nearby bougie food store. Baguettes, croissants, bread—we had a love of European carbohydrates in my family, and Princeton was always there for us.

So was it a surprise when I read on Serious Eats that the best croissants were in Princeton? Mais, non! But I was surprised at the store commended for its flaky, buttery, crafts of perfection—The Little Chef. A tiny store that only arrived after I’d moved away, they apparently make the absolute best croissants ever. Not just in Princeton, but apparently in all of New Jersey. In fact, they’re apparently so good that they beat out all the best croissants in The City. (Apparently, they may be America’s Best Croissants, but honestly? Once you’ve beat out The City, nothing else matters.)

Perhaps it’s time to visit the old chomping grounds again.