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Friday, April 22, 2011

The Bread Guy Presents: Matzah

Hello again.

It's The Bread Guy.

Aaron asked me to put in another appearance, so I thought I'd tell you about my latest foray into the world of dough. As some of you may know, it's Passover, which gave us the opportunity to get together with the family to celebrate the Seder. This ritual has many symbolic components, recounting the history of the liberation of the Israelites from slavery in ancient Egypt. So, how does this relate to The Bread Guy? Well, there's special bread, which is part of the Passover meal—matzah. The biblical narrative tells of the haste of the flight of the Israelites, such that they could not even wait for their bread to rise, resulting in an unleavened flatbread or cracker that we know as matza. It symbolizes freedom and redemption, but as the "poor man's bread," it is also a reminder of the humility of servitude.

So why does this interest The Bread Guy? Well, my recent bread baking efforts have explored the enrichment of flavor that various methods of pre-fermentation add to breads. (You remember the 12 to 16 hour poolish used in the Pain Rustique.) And in particular, how these techniques can be applied to whole grain loaves. Well, matzoh is the complete antithesis. The religious elders determined that the time it takes for wild yeast to start its fermentation action is 18 minutes. During Passover, eating chametz (any food which is leavened) is forbidden. So, for matse to be kosher for Passover, it needs to be prepared in less than these 18 minutes. That is from the time the water is mixed in with the flour until the dough is baked in the oven.

Well, I considered this a challenge and decided I'd try my hand at preparing the matso for the family, and I have to say, I was able to modify the recipe that I used and meet the time limit. Actually, it worked quite well, the matzho that was baking was done just as the next batch was ready to put in.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Passover—The Feast of Unleavened Bread, part 1

Jews making a Passover sacrifice; represented
in a 15th-century art piece.
(Wikimedia Commons)

Holidays sneak up on you, if you're not careful. In Christian tradition, they're mostly predictable; after all, our modern calendar is a Christian one, and therefore Easter is somewhat more predictable (or at least marked on more calendars.) Being (culturally) a Jew, I am not much on Easter celebrations, but I do celebrate passover with my family every year. Passover has a varying date, much more variable than Easter (though the dates are somewhat linked,) as the Jewish calendar is a lunar cycle-based calendar and doesn't always match up quite so nicely with the Gregorian calendar that most countries use to mark their time.

Passover is  holiday with great cultural significance for Jews. Simply, it is a commemoration of the flight of the Jews from slavery in Egypt sometime between 1550 and 1203 BCE. (These dates are cited on Wikipedia, and represent such a vast time period that most estimates are encompassed.) As a festival celebrating freedom, however, Passover contains much more than just a simple remembrance. Primary amongst these traditions is a meal rich with symbolism, possibly the most symbolic feast of any in Jewish canon; many holidays in Judaism have associated foods—I have previously discussed the use of oil during Hanukkah—but Passover is somewhat unique in that it has foods that are inherently part of the celebration of the holiday. (Think of it thus: Most holidays in Judaism have foods associated with them in the way that a nice big ham is associated with Easter dinner: It's mostly to do with tradition, and less to do with the actual religious aspect of the holiday—though there are notable exceptions—; Passover's foods are more like the wafers and wine involved in communion: they are actively part of the holiday's basic meaning.)
A 19th-century illustration of Ukranian Jews at a seder.
(Wikimedia Commons)
The Torah (the Jewish bible) says in Exodus 12:14-17:
And this day shall become a memorial for you, and you shall observe it as a festival for the lord, for your generations, as an eternal decree shall you observe it. For seven days you shall eat unleavened bread, but on the first day you shall remove the leaven from your homes ... you shall guard the unleavened bread, because on this very day I will take you out of the land of Egypt; you shall observe this day for your generations as an eternal decree.
Biblically, we are commanded about our food choices for the holiday—but the food traditions do not stop with unleavened bread, and the meanings are manifold.

So what are these foods? What are the meanings? Read on.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Maghreb Meatballs and Garlic-Sumac Sauce

I think I've mentioned the Phoenix Café before; it's a local art and gathering space that hosts a monthly steampunk gathering, small but enjoyable, that centers on music controlled by a gentleman called Tommy Toony. He's a DJ with many years of experience, who's somewhat new to the Steampunk scene. Therefore, the music is often a mix of typical steampunk music, strange things from Vaudeville and other historical music sources, and modern dance music that our crowd enjoys. (The Time Warp makes frequent appearances.)

The proprietors of the establishment have been kind enough to let me prepare food for these gatherings, so I take the opportunity to make simple but delicious items. The baozi made their premiere there, and last month (the night after the Irish Feast) I served a very quickly made (but delicious) beef stew. Last Friday, the 15th, we celebrated Tax Day by drinking, carousing, and staying out late... and I made food, of course.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Majadara Kagashi

Auguste Escoffier, master of Classical French Cuisine, had a habit of naming his dishes after people. It's not immediately clear whether these names were chosen because the dishes were inspired by the people named, created for the people named, or merely associated with them by Escoffier to make a splash on his menu: the likely answer is a combination of the three, though during his tenure as head chef at the Savoy, Ritz, and Carlton hotels (as well as nominally overseeing many other kitchens, directly or indirectly,) he most certainly did serve food to many of the people included in his Guide Culinaire.

In the grand tradition established by the king of chefs, I have named this dish in honor of my good friend Miss Kagashi, author of The Steamer's Trunk (Multiculturalism for Steampunk.) She posted the recipe I used for the base of this plate; of it, she writes:
Majadara is a Levantine dish, dating back thousands of years. By its definition, it is a simple pilaf of rice and lentils topped with caramelized onions and was primarily eaten as "poor man's" or "working man's" food. As with most staple Middle Eastern and Mediterranean dishes, there's some squabble over where it actually originated[...], but the recipes differ country to country so it could actually be considered several separate dishes. In some places the rice is switched out for bulgar wheat, in Lebanon pine nuts and garlic yogurt are sometimes companions, and sometimes the recipe alternative between red or green lentils.

Considering what you use and the final yield, this is a fantastically cheap recipe that can be dressed up a couple of ways in good times or just eaten as is in less than fortunate ones.
As good as majadara is on its own, I chose to combine it with a few other dishes from the Mediterranean region, to create a dish delightful in its own right, and more along the lines of my typical presentation than a simple pilaf.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Brian Bóru's Delight

The dessert I call "Brian Bóru's Delight" is a simple one, especially compared to the Victorian Tea Trifecta. It is a combination of two simple, old-fashioned desserts: a bread pudding, and a fool.

What is a fool, you ask? It doesn't sound familiar to most modern diners—in fact, my pastry instructor in culinary school didn't immediately know how to explain the Fool to my class. A fool, simply put, is a fruit-flavored whipped cream. It's sort of a precursor to the modern churned ice cream, as it is light, airy, and sweet, but not frozen (as churn-freezing ice cream is a relatively recent development.) Heavy cream is whipped to stiff peaks, and then a purée of fruit, often sweetened, is added in by folding gently. In this recipe, I replaced the purée with fruit preserves, because it's hard to find blackcurrant purée (or indeed, much of anything from blackcurrants) here in Michigan.

Bread pudding is a more familiar item, and in this case I've used a simple white bread, good quality butter, and raisins with a little twist suggested by my friend Brian over at The Boychik Balabusta (a blog you ought to read)—soaking the raisins in Irish Breakfast Tea and whiskey.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Colcannon, Champ, and the Potato

Sometimes, the best things in life are the simplest. A delightful meal with friends, a beautiful snowstorm, the sunset at the end of a summer's day, or the potato.

Seriously—the potato is simply wonderful, useful in a variety of manners, able to be prepared into any number of dishes—from appetizer to dessert—in any number of ways. Think of the pervasiveness of the potato: we eat them in myriad manners, from potato breads and biscuits to chips (crisps) and fries (chips.) We bake them, roast them, boil them, cook them sous vide, sauté them, simmer them, and make them into confit; we smash them, eat them whole, peel them, save the skins and serve with bacon and sour cream, and cover them in mayonnaise or hot bacon dressing. I use potatoes to thicken the occasional item, like my garlic sauce, and can put them in soups for a similar effect—not to mention the ever-popular loaded potato soup, and their presence in chowders.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Beef, Carrot, and Stout Casserole with Barley

Irish food has a reputation of being a conglomeration of boiled things. The fact that one of the more well-known items is "Boiled Breakfast"—an item lauded in songs like "Boil the Breakfast Early" by the Chieftains—doesn't help in the least to dispel this rumor; nor does the fact that Irish Stew is the one of most commonly prepared items from the Irish kitchen.

Beef Chuck is an excellent cut to make into stew; it's generally somewhat tough, and contains a great deal of connective tissue—this is what makes it a good candidate for long, slow, moist cooking. This method creates a tender, well-textured meat in a velvety stew.

Stew is a hearty dish, a belly-warming dish, something that can keep you going for a hard day's work, or a hard night's drinking. Served with colcannon, this stew is a consummately Irish meal.