Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Going Kosher

It was 1 in the morning and I was madly etching a letter B on every sheet pan. I'd already been through a long production shift and behind me the overnight bake was in full swing, but there I was, discovering my lack of Dremmel tool skills, and there I would be for a good hour. I had to be, there was no other time.

The rabbi was coming at 6 am, and he was bringing his blowtorch.

I think I had been at my job for a week when people had first started asking, "Are you going to be Kosher?"  Well, now, that was a good question.  There's a sizeable Jewish community in town.  There's a local organization dedicated to helping people make that happen. Oh yeah, and I'm making bagels.  The first problem, though, was where I was making them. A kitchen space that enjoys a wide range of clients including some serious pork people? Yeah, not so kosher.

But then we started planning out our own space - we were already getting too big to comfortably share the freezer, the walk-in and if we wanted to continue that growth, our best option was to get the space next to the kitchen and build a bakery. If we were going to do that, then, sure, why not go kosher?

So what did that mean, exactly? Well, first it meant that our Kosher certification representative came to visit the kitchen on the inevitable day there was a big pork photo shoot going on. Seriously. We're talking sides of pig laid out across three tables in all their glory. Because that's the way my life goes.  I respectfully did not offer to shake hands (Thank you, Dan, for teaching me this etiquette tidbit years ago!) we snagged my boss and went to sit somewhere pork-free.  Then, we learned what we needed to do.

One part was paperwork.  We'd already done quite a bit, chasing down Ks and circled Us on labels and considering substitutes where there were no symbols.  I heard about disreputable merchants who use false symbols and very reputable ones that don't see a need to go through the process. I learned why spice blends are more suspect than the spices themselves and how an initially Kosher product that gets repackaged by a food distributor means we better make sure the distributor is certified.  Better to go to the source. Also, all those crazy Asian ingredients in our Miso Soy Ginger bagel? Mostly not Kosher. We would have to make, boil and bake those in the other kitchen. We had to track down actual certificates for all of those products, and submit our formulas.  I wondered, briefly, if this meant that some rabbinical council had the formula for Kosher Coke somewhere. I bet they had to sign something.

Then there was equipment.  We have an advantage in having a separate kitchen, in that we can still make things for the shop with bacon and sausage (only the bagels are certified), but it meant we had to have absolute separation between all of our equipment - bowls, sheetpans, knives, bench scrapers - and the kitchen's tools. So I dremmeled my way through the wee hours.  In the morning the rabbi brought his blowtorch to cleanse the items that had been used before, and to get a complete list of all of our equipment to keep on record. They count the sheetpans. Seriously.

So, beginning just before the High Holidays, we became a Kosher bakery.  We get weekly inspections, usually during the wee hours.  I consider it a compliment that after the inspection they often ask for bagels.  I've had great conversations with some of my farmer's market friends who produce Kosher items. "Oh, did you work with Tuvia? Tuvia's great!" "Oh, we worked with Tuvia, too!"  We can't control for where knives in the shop have been, so our qualifying bagels are only certified kosher in their whole, uncut state which has caused some giggles from our customers.

In the end, was it worth the time, the expense? The little rules that we have to keep an eye on, the paperwork we need to process every time we buy bowls or want to add a new flavor?  For me it's not about their religion, or my lack of religion.  It's about wanting to bring this great stuff we make to as many people as possible.  We didn't have to change our recipes, just substitute one product for another and now there's a whole community of people who can try one of my pumpernickel bagels.  That makes it worth it for me.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The allure of shortbread

What is the perfect cookie? Simple, yes, but not dull. Adaptable. Something you would reach for again and again. A treat, in the truest sense of the word.

There we are, me and Mary, Queen of Scots. Well, I haven't been accused of plots to assassinate Elizabeth I (I'm pretty sure), and I haven't spent any time in exile recently but we totally could bond over cookies. Specifically the delicate, buttery, infinitely versatile shortbread.  Probably the easiest and most useful cookie dough on the planet. It's 3 am and I need a cookie? I'm making shortbread. I need a crust for a cream tart or cheesecake? Ground shortbread. Something different to top my cobbler? Bring on the shortbread dough. Just a little something crunchy to go with my scoop of sorbet? Something I can smear with ganache, or jam, or peanut butter, flavor with nuts or cocoa, or dip in whiskey? How about a recipe that is easily adaptable to things like adding oatmeal powder or rice flour? Endless variation from a simple ratio?

Shortbread. You know that's right.

That's the thing about recipes that stand the test of time - they tend to be easy, with ingredients that are often just lying around, and they also tend to be good. If shortbread sucked, we would have stopped making them in the 12th century. Mary would have to have had something else sprinkled with caraway seeds (which, as it happens, I haven't tried yet but will have by the end of today) and I would be one of those people constantly searching for something but having no idea what that thing was.

The basic ratio for shortbread is simple: 3 parts of flours, 2 parts butter, 1 part sugar. I say flours because I like to use all purpose with a bit of cornstarch for crunch, but I have worked with rice flour, buckwheat, and my grandmother loved to make oatmeal shortbread. The butter is your key flavor so for the love of Sweet Potato, use good stuff. Some folks like to use salted butter, but I like to control the salt more, and go unsalted and add to my taste. If you want to play with sugars, try brown sugar (my favorite) or vanilla sugar. Add spice if you like, vanilla if you like.

As far as baking goes, I like to get good color on my shortbread, so I slice my cookies a little thinner, and let them bake a little longer, but once the edges are golden, pull them whenever they look good to you. Just make it the cookie you want exactly at that moment. And if you just want a recipe, here's my 3 am batch:

I Just Need a Cookie Shortbread:

125 g flour
10 g cornstarch
4 g salt
90 g cool unsalted butter, cut in small chunks
45 g brown sugar
white or raw sugar

Cram all the ingredients together with your hands in a bowl. It's three am, you really want to wash anything extra? Roll into a log, and press the white or raw sugar on the outside of the log. Slice into as many cookies as you need right now, plus two, just because. Place on a parchment lined baking sheet, and bake at 350 at least until the edges are golden brown. Wrap any remaining dough in plastic and freeze for the next cookie emergency. Try not to eat all the cookies until they have cooled a bit. Will store for a week in an airtight container if you aren't me.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Demon's Farts and Other Legacies

So, I have a new job. Actually I've had this job for a smidge over a month now, but I'm just starting to get a finger and toe hold of an idea of what my life will be like on this train I am currently riding. It's been a fun, crazy, breathless time, and somehow in there I managed to learn something about pumpernickel.

 Me and pumpernickel, we go way back. I know it appeared for sandwiches (pastrami was probably my gateway to pumpernickel) but mostly I remember the bread dip. It was a recipe from my aunt, and it was creamy and full of dill and always served in a bowl of pumpernickel bread. On such occasions as this dip would appear, I would happily eat what was left of the bowl, with its thin layer of remaining dip, delighting in the flavors and textures. Those loaves even had the occasional raisin in them. I have no idea what made that baker put raisins in the pumpernickel, but it's probably the reason I like raisins, especially in savory items.

When faced with the prospect of making my own pumpernickel, it was that pumpernickel of my memories I wanted to recreate. Like so many other cooks before me, I found the task daunting, frustrating and perplexing. True pumpernickel is not what most Americans eat. The name refers to a sourdough rye bread that was baked low and long to get its dark color and was considered so indigestible that the name describes what the consumer was to experience later as a result of eating it. I'm not quite sure what demon's farts are supposed to be like, but it sounds really awful. So I'm mostly glad that the recipe in America was lightened up and enhanced, even if the name stuck. My sticking point was the enhancements. Pumpernickel color makes a nice dark loaf, but it is really just food coloring. Bleh. Pumpernickel flour, when checking the label, turns out to be dark rye flour with a variation that existed only on the price tag. Phooey. And everyone who loves pumpernickel has their own absolute list of what can and cannot appear: caraway or no, onions or no, coffee, chocolate, etc, etc, etc.

So I made my own list, and did what anyone experimenting with food should do - I played until it tasted right. I know without a shadow of a doubt that there are those who will tell me how wrong I am doing it, but this is mine. Yes, dammit, there is caraway.  And despite the naysayers, there are those out there who have told me, "Hey, this is really good pumpernickel." I'm glad they like my memories.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

A love letter to my kitchen

I went to fill the bird feeder yesterday and somehow, an hour later, I was standing in front of my stove with a toothpick cleaning out crevices and muttering darkly about ill fitting drip pans. I'm not quite sure how that came to happen, but the bird feeder did get filled. Eventually.

What I realized while I was doing this mad cleaning was that I spend more time cleaning my kitchen than any other room in my house. More time wiping, soaping, sweeping and clearing space in a room that has the same footprint as one armchair from the living room.

If I had to describe the kitchen, I would say small. My sweetheart goes to get a drink from the fridge and I stop moving because otherwise something will go horribly awry. I would then add comments about cabinet doors that don't close true anymore, especially in the rain. The single cabinet wide enough to hold my pans. Burner coils that only half work, and don't stay level. The fridge light has never worked properly. Two oddly placed outlets, total.

And yet, that tiny space is home. When I need comfort, I go there. When I want to celebrate, I go there. To bring together friends and neighbors, to find peace in solitude, that is the part of our house where I can make the world, for a little while, be what I wish it to be.

And really, that is why I cook for a living. Not because I love the craft of it, which I do. Not because I love the result, which without question is true. It's because that world that exists in my kitchen is a good world. If I move to a larger kitchen, then that good world I've created becomes larger, as well. If the people in that larger kitchen share their good world with mine, that good world becomes even larger. "Trying to make the world a better place" is trite and cliche to me. There is no try. When I cook, the world is better to me. I just want to get everyone else in on the action.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

penuche, panoche

I have this thing about fudge. I don't know if it is a New England thing, a childhood thing, or what, I just know that when I was a kid, and it was summer, at some point there would be fudge. Miraculous stuff, made on marble slabs, creamy, rich and never, ever found at home. I suppose it had something to do with recipe cards that warned against making the stuff in cold weather, warm weather, humid weather, on a day that ended in the letter Y and any time between noon and four am, or something like that. whatever the reason, real fudge (not anything made with Fluff) was only found in shops, and sometimes those shops had Penuche.

Penuche originally referred to a coarse brown sugar, usually from Mexico. Around the turn of the 20th century, right around the same time that chocolate fudge was "invented", a brown sugar confection of similar texture to chocolate fudge started appearing under the name penuche. (Who knew the OED is an excellent food reference?) I found a recipe from 1919 from the book My Candy Secrets by Mary Elisabeth Evans for something called Mexican Penuchi that was made like fudge and contained three ingredients: brown sugar, molasses and water. The result tastes almost like it contains maple syrup, but the thing I wanted was the kind that my grandfather loved: buttery, creamy, a hint of vanilla, nuts. So I went forward two years and found a recipe for Panocha in a cookery textbook (yes, textbook) from 1921 that had exactly what I was looking for.

A note on fudge: seriously, if you are going old school and don't want to make fudge that contains corn syrup or marshmallow, you need a thermometer. It's going to be the closest you can get to an insurance policy. That being said, bad fudge that crumbles from overheating? Still tasty. I won't tell if you put it on top of your morning Cream of Wheat.

Penuche (adapted from Foods and Cookery by Mary Lockwood Matthews, 1921)

200 g brown sugar
200 g sugar
120 g milk
15 g butter
5 g vanilla
4 g salt
50 g toasted chopped nuts (pecans are common, I used hazelnuts)

1. Put sugars and milk in a large pot and stir briefly to combine. Boil to 238 degrees F and remove from heat.

2. Put butter, salt and vanilla on top of sugar mixture and DO NOT MIX. Leave it alone until the temperature drops to 110 F. This will help ensure small microcrystals rather than coarse crystals that taste gritty. In the mean time, warm your nuts a bit.

3. Add nuts and stir until your arm is about to fall off. The fudge will go from being shiny and glossy to dull and flat. Pour out on to a parchment lined sheet and mark for cutting. When cool, store in an airtight container

4. Fun Fact! Fudge is actually at its best the day after it is made, but those crystals do wonky things after that day, so better eat quickly!