Monday, May 28, 2012

Better in Hungarian

I made Turosgomboc yesterday. I had some homemade ricotta cheese that needed to get used before it went  bad and pot of just-boiling water on the stove and so I thought- I will make turosgomboc, even though I have never made them before.
Turosgomoc (pronounced turosh gumbo) are sweet Hungarian cheese dumplings. I got the recipe from my grandmother this past April. I don't know how we got on the subject of Hungarian cheese dumplings, but once it was broached my grandmother was determined to find her recipe for Turosgomboc. She sifted through her file box filled to the brim with yellowing newspaper clippings and little slips of paper decorated in her neat, shorthand cursive. She found her recipe for cocos and nokelach (spaetzle), but not for turosgomboc. So she gave it to me from memory.
It is for this reason that faced with a indeterminate amount of cheese (a  half a pound? a third of a pound? I don't know), I didn't feel so bad winging the recipe. I just sort guesstimated and hoped for the best. And indeed the best won out. Plop went the white batter off the spoon and into the water, sinking down only to rise lazily and swell into a pillowy ball. Once drained, they deflated a bit, becoming not dense, but smooth and creamy. My grandmother said that she used to reheat the dumplings by giving them a toss in a frying pan with some buttered breadcrumbs. Tommy, my friend from Hungary, said that in Hungary they eat them with jam. (Having tasted him mother's apricot jam, I am of the opinion that everything in Hungary should be eaten with jam.) I ate them unadorned. With cherries and olive oil gelato. And they were wonderful and slightly sweet and smooth and cool- everything you might want in a cheese dumpling

I am giving you two recipes for turosgomboc. Neither are precise. The first, which is the version I got from my grandmother, calls for a pound of farmer's cheese. I had fresh ricotta, not farmer's cheese, and I definitely didn't have a pound of it, so I just tried to adjust and tweak the recipe accordingly. It worked just fine.

My grandmother's Turosgomboc
1 pound farmer's cheese
2-3 eggs
Sugar (to taste)
1 scant cup of flour (or enough to hold the dough together)

1. Put a pot of water up to boil.  Mix together the ingredients until the dough just holds together. Form into walnut-sized balls.

2. Drop the batter into the boiling water, taking care not to crowd them (you may need to cook the dumplings in batches)  The balls will sink to the bottom of the pot and then swell and rise to the top. Cook 3-5 minutes until the dumplings have set. 

3. Remove with a slotted spoon and let drain on a paper towel-lined plate.

4. Melt some butter in a wide skillet. Add the breadcrumbs. They will turn a beautiful, dark brown and smell delicious. Toss the dumplings into the pan and move them around until they are coated in breadcrumbs and warmed through. Serve with or without jam.

My Turosgomboc

1/2-1/3 pound fresh ricotta, strained
1 egg
Sugar (to taste)
4-5 tablespoons flour
a drop of almond extract.

1. Put a pot of water up to boil. Mix together ingredients until the batter just holds together. It will be sticky. If it is too sticky to work with, let it firm up in the refrigerator for a half an hour or so.

2. Using a spoon drop walnut sized amounts of batter into the pot of boiling water. The uneven blobs will sink to the bottom of the pot and then swell and rise to the top. Cook 3-5 minutes until the dumplings have set.

3. Remove with a slotted spoon and let drain on a paper towel-lined plate.

4. Eat with or without jam, with cherries and olive oil gelato.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

The trials and tribulations of cheesecake

I am a cheesecake purist. I want my cheesecake to be nade cream cheese, eggs, sugar, vanilla and maybe a little bit of lemon zest- nothing more and nothing less. I don't believe in cream or soft white cheese or gelatin or, heaven fore-fend, pudding mix. My cheese cake shouldn't taste of chocolate or caramel or passion-fruit. It should be dense. It should be creamy. It should taste pure, with a bit of tang. It should require a cup of coffee- because there is nothing better in this world than a slice of cheesecake and a cup of coffee. On this we can all agree.
Loving cheesecake as I do makes living in Israel difficult sometimes. Israelis like their cheesecake to taste like air. They are enamored of no-bake cheese cakes and light and fluffy things made with everything but cream cheese. These things are abominations. And here's the worst of it, even if say, you wanted to make a proper cheesecake all of your own it nigh near impossible. Israeli cream cheese, just isn't...right. It's not dense and it has too much tang and not enough smoothness. It is not proper cheesecake making material and is only marginally acceptable when eaten on a bagel (with or without lox-your call). Good old American cream cheese (of the Philadelphia variety) can be found, but it is prohibitively expensive. 8 ounces of the stuff runs about 20.00 shekel (about 5 dollars). That's at least 40 shekels worth of cream cheese per cheesecake.
My cheesecake-less situation has been a sore subject for all the years I have live here. But, last  year I began to hear rumors that one could make their own cream cheese with nothing but a cheesecloth and some time. I was intrigued and this year I decided to give it a try. The various Israeli blogs and resources that I looked at recommended straining שמנת חמוצה- what passes for sour cream-overnight. I had nothing to lose.  A small 200 gram carton of sour cream costs 2 shekels. Worse comes to worse, I would be down a couple of bucks. So, feeling very cool and DIY-y, I dumped my sour cream into a clean cotton towel (since cheesecloth also doesn't really happen around here) tied it up and hung it from shelf to strain overnight. When I opened my nifty white bundle in the morning I was delighted to find that what I had created did indeed have the texture of cream cheese. But when I tasted it my face fell. It tasted like Israeli sour cream, just denser, which I suppose is to be expected when you strain Israeli sour cream. But, having nothing else to do with the cheese, I made it into a cheesecake anyway, using the recipe for the classic cheesecake that I make for my family every Passover. And.... it was ok, I guess. It didn't taste horrible, but it wasn't the cheesecake I know and love. It was light and slightly watery even and strangely enough, given the acidity of Israeli sour cream, it was too sweet. Plus, it was damn ugly. It puffed up in the oven like a great cheese puff, but when I turned the oven off, it fell mightly and unevenly, giving it a wrinkled look-kinda like a topographical map. I talked it over with a friend of mine, who said that her mother-in-law successfully makes her "American" cheesecakes using her own cream cheese that she makes from strained soft white cheese, which sounds like it could work. But at this point, I have neither the time, nor patience to play with cheese again. Shavuot is almost upon us and there is much to do. (Like, you know, finish this big massive copy-edit of a 600 page book by the end of the month).
 So, I leave it to you, oh intrepid readers, to take the following cheesecake recipe and run with it. If you are in America, use it. It's as simple as anything and it's one of the best damn cheesecakes I know. If you are in Israel, you have a few choices 1) weep and resign yourself to sub-par cheesecake 2) splurge on really expensive cream cheese 3) discover the secret to making your own cream cheese and then REPORT BACK TO ME IMMEDIATELY. Happy cheesecake making.

Our Family Cheesecake
(Source unknown. Possibly Ella)

For the crust:
 1/4 stick butter (2 oz, 55 grams)
 2.5 ounces (about 70 grams) graham crackers, or tea biscuits,crushed
 1/4 cup sugar
 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
For the filling
 2 8oz (225 grams)  pkg. cream cheese
  1/2 cup sugar
  2 eggs
  1 tablespoon vanilla 
  Zest of one lemon (optional)

1. Preheat the oven to 350. Mix the crust ingredients together, shmushing the crumbs and sugar into the butter. Press the mixture into the bottom of a 8 inch round pan.

2. Beat the filling ingredients until smooth. (Can be done by electric mixer or by hand). Pour over the crust.

3. Bake for 40-60* minutes until the top has browned and feels like it has set. 

* The original recipe calls for a baking time of 40 minutes. In all the years I have made this cake, I have never had it take less than 50-60 minutes.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Simple Things

This is a truth I have come to learn about myself: sometimes I freak out. Sometimes I freak out and that freakout is entirely unwarranted. Take, for example, last weekend. Last weekend I hosted lunch, as I am occasionally wont to do. No reason for a freakout, right? Well. To begin with I was out of mine comfort zone- my comfort zone being animal protein, carbohydrate, salad, salad, salad- as I was feeding a pescatarian and a non-fish eater, which meant that the meal would be straight up vegetarian. Now, mind you until about 5 years ago the kitchen in my home was entirely vegetarian kitchen for one reason or another (for the most part, vegetarian roommates) so this shouldn't have thrown me. And it didn't throw me really, it just made me think more about how the sum of the meal's parts was going to coalesce into a whole. What threw me was the guest list. I had invited some good friends, but I had also invited some more acquaintance type people- people who I had met a time or two and a little voice inside my head said, "I think I like you. Let's be friends." This meal was my way of saying that aloud. So I was nervous. I mean, what if nobody got along? What if there were these long awkward silences that I would (awkwardly) have to fill? What if the conversation turned to politics (shudder)? What if I bake a cake and don't taste it before I serve it because after all it is a cake, and then after having served it to all my guests I take a bite and realize it is inedibly salty (cuz that's never happened. Oh wait, it has) and then I will want to do nothing but crawl under the table and die of embarrassment? Adding to my worries was the fact that one of those very lovely acquaintances is a fellow feeder of people and I was feeling just a little bit like I really needed to bring my A game.
Unfortunately my first attempts at bringing my A game failed miserably. The first dessert I made was inedible (I made this. Don't know what went wrong, but something did. Horribly so. At least I tasted before I served). Then, I dumped my pastry crust into the sink and didn't have enough butter, or time, to make another. And all through this I heard a nagging voice in my head saying, you don't have enough food. That voice stayed with me all through Friday afternoon and dinner and into Saturday until the moment we all sat down at the table.
But here are a few things I should have known 1) There is always enough food 2) Many of my dishes came from my beloved Ottolenghi cookbook and one need never fear with Ottolenghi at their side 3) Wine. Wine. And more wine 4) Sometimes it's the simple things. It was a lovely meal with lovely food and lovely people who lingered and talked well into the afternoon. At some point, woozy and happy with wine, I looked at my guests all chatting and eating and I thought to myself, this? This is what you were freaking out about? You are a crazy person. What could be simpler or more self-evident than this? You sit down. You eat. You drink. You talk. Acquaintances become friends. Friends become closer. It's the most natural thing in the world.

All the dishes I served at the meal were good. Especially the Ottolenghi ones. But I have to say that the only one that was entirely finished by the end of the meal came from no cookbook and involved all of 5 ingredients (counting salt and pepper). A few weeks ago I walked into my house and was hit with the musty smell of a ripe melon. The melon sitting in my fruit bowl was at that stage where it was ripe to the point where it was about to get sweetly putrid. It needed to eaten. I looked at the melon and then at the bright red tomatoes, also begging to be eaten, sitting on my counter and this salad was born. It is nothing but melon, tomatoes, olive oil, salt, pepper and some fresh basil. Nothing more, nothing less. And it is wonderful. The tomatoes are warm and savory, but the melon is cool and sweet and the fruity acid tinge of the olive oil ties it all together. It is a bowl of summer- all  juicy and sticky running down your arms. It will talk you down from a freakout. It will say, hey girl, slow down. What's there to get all excited about? Life' s a summer day; a book at the beach; a circle of friends.

Tomato-Melon Salad

The tomatoes and melons used for this salad need to be in season and they need to be really ripe for this dish to work. (Which might mean that folks in the U.S. won't be able to make this dish for another few months). I used the ubiquitous Israeli green melon which I guess is sort of a cross between a cantaloupe and a honeydew. Either type of melon could work.

1 small-medium melon
4-5 ripe vine-grown tomatoes
5-6 basil leaves, chiffonaded
good, fruity olive oil

Chop the melon and tomatoes into bite size chunks. Drizzle with a good amount of olive and sprinkle with salt and grind of pepper. Let sit for a few minutes so that the flavors meld a bit. Mix in the basil. Serve.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

One for sorrow

Over the Passover holiday, C's sister suffered a brain aneurysm and fell into a coma. I've met her sister. She seemed quite and stolid; someone you would lean on. C. told me this news when I returned to the kitchen from my travels and her eyes were filled with sorrow and pain. When I arrived for my next shift in the kitchen, C wasn't there. Her absence had nothing to do with her sister's condition but even so, every time I turned around and didn't see C, it was reminder of the fact that there was a tear in the fabric of C's life that filled her days with worry and kept her from sleep.
That day I worked with B, a young woman, newly married, who had started working in the kitchen a few months before. We worked quickly,wanting to  keep the kitchen clear for M, who was using the kitchen to prepare a traditional meal in commemoration of the one year anniversary of her mother's death. When M, who is slight to begin with, did arrive she seemed slighter than ever, withdrawn and distracted. We kept having to redirect her, reminding her that she was feeding 200 friends and family members that night.
But these things are background. They are the set pieces. This is the plot. I had worked with B once before. At first she seemed lovely, but young. I tried not to be disturbed when she mentioned something about "those Arabs". Unfortunately, casual racism happens in the kitchen. Otherwise wonderful people say horrible things. I try my hardest to breathe deep, and to put things in a context; to weigh a person's words against the way they actually interact with the people around them. For the most part, I have found that while I find the statements uttered by my kitchen-mates disconcerting and disturbing, to say the absolute least, I have never once had reason to believe that they treat their fellow human beings with anything but respect.
We feed quite a few Arabs from our kitchen; the sheltered workshop employs any number of Israeli Arabs with special needs. Additionally, there A. and his boys. A is the handyman. He, and the young men who work with him fix what need to be fixed and maintain what needs to be maintained. I don't know him well- thank goodness the kitchen doesn't need fixing that often-but I quite like him. He always seems to have a twinkle in his eyes and I can't really imagine anyone having anything to dislike him for. Nor have I found that anyone does dislike him. Then again, he once extracted me from a malfunctioning elevator. I may be a bit prejudiced in my fondness for him.
Oh, but B, B couldn't. That day, standing next to me at service, she saw A and his boys coming, and her face twisted and she backed a way and she said to me: "I can't. I can't feed those Arabs." So I pushed her back and I said, "I'll do it". Why should they have to face her? But she was drawn forward as if by some horrible impulse, and a litany of hate came from her lips. "I want to poison them". She was almost shaking. I pushed her back again. A. was coming closer still. I didn't want him to hear. I didn't want him to know. I plastered my biggest brightest smile on my face, and turned to greet him. Now I was the one who was shaking. As cheerily as I could said, "What can I get you?" And still, B. hissed over my shoulder. "Don't talk to them why do you need to talk to them?"  I fed A and his two assistants. I gave them double portions. I don't know what they heard and what they didn't.  Then they left, and I thought it was done. But B turned to me and said, "I can't stand these people who come here with negative opinions, who hate this country, why would they come? They should just go home. We don't need them here." And then her eyes widened, realizing perhaps, that I was one of "those people", and she said, "I don't mean that personally, God forbid." I walked away. There was nothing else I could think of to do. What could I even say?
 The rest of the day passed heavy and tired. I had expected to feel outraged; incensed. Instead, I was just deeply and profoundly sad. Almost unbearably so. For the first time, I looked around our shabby little kitchen and then out into the dining room at people whose lives I couldn't fathom, and I felt as if all the world's sorrow's- all the loss and the hate-were pressed and crammed into those small rooms. C's sister, M's mother and this black animus- all these were laden and imminent and the air was thick with disappointment and sadness. My kitchen was filled with broken things
I finished my shift. I even stayed late a bit to help M with a few things. Then I trudged home. Numbly, I sat myself down in front of my computer with a bowl of ice cream like the girl in the movies whose boyfriend dumped her for the cheerleader; like I was heartbroken. And maybe I was heartbroken. After all, what could be more heartbreaking than to witness someone so consumed by hate that they are unable to feed a hungry person standing right in front of them; that they cannot even allow someone else to politely do so; than to stand shoulder to shoulder with someone and not be able to find one word to heal? Food connects. It is an acknowledgment of our shared humanity. And that is what we do, those of us who feed people- we are the facilitators of one common human story. Hunger. Food. It's as simple as that. What happened that day was the breakdown of everything the kitchen should be.

The ice cream was sweet on my tongue. My heart remains heavy.

 Coffee Ice Cream, for Sorrow

From The Art of Simple Food by Alice Waters

6 egg yolks, lightly whisked
1 1/2 cups half and half
2/3 cup sugar
a pinch of salt
3/4 cup coffee beans
1 1/2 cups heavy cream

1) Pour the half and half, sugar, salt and coffee into a saucepan. Gently warm until steaming. Remove from heat and allow to steep for 15 minutes. After 15 minutes, strain the mixture and return it to the pot.

2) Reheat the half and half until warm again. Whisk a little of the mixture into the egg yolks to temper them and then pour the yolks into the hot half and half. Cook over medium heat, stirring, until the mixture becomes thick and coats the back of a spoon.

3. Remove from heat and stir in the heavy cream. Cover and refrigerate until chilled through.

4. Freeze in an ice cream maker according to the manufacturer's instructions. When frozen, transfer to a container and store in the freezer.