Butternut Squash Latkes

One of the emails I received last week from The New York Times Cooking carried the heading, “The Veggie: Will It Latke?” This tickled my funny bone because it seems to be a play on a question I asked many years ago when I bought my first waffle iron. Will it Waffle was the title and subject of a creative little cookbook that challenged other foods, such as falafel, s’mores, spaghetti and pizza to become “waffled.” Personally, I love this idea because I like playing with my food, especially when it involves something unexpected. Here are a few things we have waffled at our house:


When it comes to latkes, however, there are a few limits to what can be turned into a latke, and this is largely based on the starch content of the ingredients you wish to “latke.” When you start leaning toward less starchy vegetables, you may run into trouble getting the well-composed patties and delicate, crispy edges that make latkes so irresistible— not only during Hanukkah (which started last evening), but anytime you get a hankering for tasty fried nuggets.

This post is the result of my experiment making latkes with butternut squash— botanically, it’s classified as a starchy vegetable, but clearly less so than a potato— and I’ll confess now that I did not follow a recipe from the email that raised this “will it latke” question. Rather, I decided to wing it, trusting my instincts and knowledge of starch and frying, plus my past experience with making my “regular” Classic Crispy Latkes.

I held firmly to the handful of immutable rules for making latkes, including making the “batter” as dry as possible so that the latkes hold together and fry up crispy, heating the oil to a fairly high temperature so the latkes don’t soak up too much of the oil, and seasoning the latkes the moment they emerge from the frying pan to make them even more delicious.

The rest of my effort was learn-as-you-go, and I’ll walk you through the lessons this experiment taught me, with a printable recipe at the end, laying out the roadmap to the best outcome. Ready to make these?

We served our butternut squash latkes with braised brisket and Les’s overnight applesauce!

First, I chose my flavor profile, and I kept it simple with onion— to keep them more savory than sweet, as squash tends to be— and smoked paprika for a little bit of spice without heat.

I bought my smoked paprika from a site called Bourbon Barrel Foods.

I fitted my food processor with the small hole shredder plate to shred up the onions, then pressed them through a fine mesh strainer to squeeze out every bit of juice. 


I knew that additional starch would be needed to make up for what the butternut squash lacked, and I went with a peeled russet potato (the starchiest variety), which I also shredded with the fine hole plate. Shredding it fine helped me to coax out as much starch as possible to aid in binding the squash shreds. I covered the russet shreds with ice water and let them soak for about 45 minutes. After soaking, I scooped the potato shreds out of the bowl and squeezed them dry in a clean towel. Then I carefully poured off the water, preserving the valuable starch that had settled to the bottom of the bowl. A quick, light blotting with a paper towel removed the remaining moisture without losing the starch.


If there was any doubt about whether the squash has enough of its own starch to make latkes, this next part of my experiment settled it. I switched to the large hole plate for shredding the squash and applied the same ice water trick I used on the russet. Unfortunately, this was futile— almost no starch was visible in the bowl, so I’m pretty sure this could have been skipped altogether. Next time, I’ll simply shred the squash and blot it dry on a clean towel. This will also save me from having to wash so many dishes; to this point, I had every large glass bowl in my kitchen involved in this latke project.


With everything shredded and prepped, I was finally ready to make the latkes! As with my regular recipe, I heated grapeseed oil (about 1-inch deep) in my large electric skillet. Figuring that the winter squash might take longer to cook than potatoes, I set the temperature at 350 rather than my usual 375. This turned out to be the wrong thing, as you’ll see in a moment. I mixed that beautiful, sticky russet potato starch with a beaten egg and blended it into the big bowl of squash, potato and onion shreds. The whole thing got a seasoning of salt and pepper, and with a quick test of the hot oil, I was in business.


My first batch didn’t sizzle much when the batter hit the oil (the first sign that it wasn’t hot enough), they were tricky to turn (a sign of poor binding), and sure enough, these first few latkes turned out really greasy (strike three)! The patties had soaked up so much oil they were unpleasant to eat.


I had a couple of problems to be solved, so I adjusted both my ingredients and my technique. For better binding, I sprinkled in a generous spoonful of potato flour to stiffen up the batter. I also turned up the temperature to 375 F, and they were better but still a bit fragile and difficult to turn.


With only a third of my batter remaining, I had time to make one more adjustment and it was a simple one. For easier turning, I made the latkes a little bit smaller. This turned out to be a game changer, and the final two batches of smaller latkes came out crispy outside, tender inside and flavorful through and through! 

From the left: Batch 1 (too greasy), Batch 2 (better but fragile), Batch 3 (smaller, crispy and just right!)

So this settles it— butternut squash does indeed make a delicious latke, and next time I want to make them, I’ll keep these simple takeaways in mind and I’ll follow the recipe below to make them right from the start!

Latke Lessons

  1. Incorporate extra potato starch to make up for what your alternate ingredients might be missing.
  2. Keep the oil temperature hot to ensure crispy edges and prevent greasy latkes.
  3. Make the latkes a bit smaller for easier turning and faster cooking.

Butternut Squash Latkes

  • Servings: 4 to 6
  • Difficulty: Intermediate
  • Print

I learned a few things along the way to making butternut squash latkes, and this recipe will help you get to success without all the lessons!


Ingredients

  • 1 large russet potato, peeled
  • 1 medium sweet onion, trimmed and peeled
  • 1 medium butternut squash, peeled and seeded (enough to measure 3 packed cups of shreds)
  • 1 egg
  • 1 tsp. kosher salt, plus extra for seasoning after frying
  • 1/2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
  • 3/4 tsp. smoked paprika (I used “bourbon smoked” from Bourbon Barrel Foods)
  • 1 Tbsp. potato flour (or potato starch or dried potato flakes)
  • Grapeseed oil for frying (enough to fill frying pan to 1-inch deep)

Salt draws moisture out of ingredients. For best results, have everything lined up in advance, and wait to add salt until just before you fry the latkes, so the batter doesn’t get liquidy.

Directions

  1. Grate onion with fine shred plate. Press shreds through a fine mesh strainer placed over a measuring cup. Discard onion juice or save it for another use (I usually add it to a meat marinade).
  2. Grate potato with fine shred plate. Transfer potato shreds to a medium sized bowl and cover with ice water. Set aside for 45 minutes, and then scoop out shreds and squeeze dry in a clean towel. Carefully pour off water, preserving the starch that settles to the bottom of the bowl.
  3. Grate butternut squash with large shred plate. Transfer squash to a clean towel and squeeze dry. Add squash shreds to a large bowl. Add potato and onion shreds. Sprinkle in smoked paprika and black pepper. Use a fork, tongs or your hands to mix everything evenly. Sprinkle on potato flour and mix again.
  4. Heat grapeseed oil to 375 F, with oil about 1-inch deep in a cast iron or electric skillet.
  5. Whisk the reserved potato starch and potato flour into the egg in a small bowl. Stir in salt.
  6. When the oil reaches temperature, blend the egg mixture into the squash and potato shreds. Shape the latke “batter” into small clumps approximately the size of walnuts. Shape one at a time and place them immediately into the hot oil. After about 1 minute, use the back of a flat metal spatula to lightly press the latkes flat.
  7. Turn the latkes to cook the other side after 3 to 4 minutes, when they are crispy and golden brown on the first side. Cook the second side until done to match, for a total of about 7 minutes for each batch.
  8. Transfer finished latkes to a paper towel-lined baking sheet or rack. Sprinkle them immediately with a pinch of salt.
  9. Repeat with remaining latke batter. Serve immediately.

Latkes don’t reheat particularly well, so it’s best to make only as many as you intend to eat right away.

A helpful word to the wise: the towels you use to squeeze the potato and squash dry will be starchy and/or stained. It’s best to rinse them right away before adding them to your laundry.


Sourdough Challah Round

The Jewish High Holy Days are upon us, and that means it’s time for me to share one of my favorite breads. Regardless of your religious background or practices, you have probably heard of, seen or tasted this classic Jewish bread, which is rich with eggs, oil and honey. Challah is a mainstay of Jewish life, and is served weekly at Shabbat services and especially during holidays—or, at least, the ones in which leavened bread is allowed. Rosh Hashanah is a perfect time to enjoy this round version of challah, and there’s no doubt every last crumb will be gone before the fasting of Yom Kippur begins next Tuesday.

The great thing about challah, besides the fact that it is a sweet, soft and tasty bread, is that you don’t have to be Jewish to enjoy it or to make it (I’m proof of both points). From the time I became seriously involved with my husband, Les, I have been very interested in learning the foods of his Jewish heritage, and challah has become a favorite in our rotation. My sourdough version is a bit sturdier than a yeasted loaf, thanks to the higher protein bread flour that ensures a good oven rise. But the texture is still airy and it makes excellent toast, French toast and bread pudding.

There are two main challenges I’ve faced in making sourdough challah, but both can be resolved with time and practice. The first is the challenge of getting this dough to rise; any bread dough with a high volume of sugar (or honey, in this case) struggles against the yeast action, and challah is even more so because it contains so much heavy oil. The best way to win this battle is simply to give it more time. From start to finish, this bread takes almost a full day, but most of that time is spent just waiting—for the pre-ferment to be ready, for the dough to double in size (which it hardly ever does), and for it to rise for baking. Make it on a day that you have lots of other things going on at home so you aren’t tempted to stand and watch it, which I have learned the hard way doesn’t make it happen any faster.

The second challenge with making challah (sourdough or otherwise) is creating the beautiful, braided shapes. This is not nearly as complicated as you might think, and I’ll share my own technique for doing this, whether you want to try making a basket-weave round (as in the featured photo) or a simpler straight braid, which is no more difficult than braiding a kid’s hair. For Rosh Hashanah, I like to make challah in a round, as its shape is a symbol for coming full circle into a new spiritual year.

For extra flair and flavor, I use orange- or lemon-infused olive oil in my dough because I love the aroma of the challah in the oven and the intoxicating citrus scent in the finished loaf. Extra virgin olive oil does impart a slightly stronger flavor to the challah, but I find it delicious. Also, I frequently add dried fruit to the dough as it is rolled up for braiding, but the photos I’ll share are mainly without it. If you do choose to add dried fruit, such as raisins or cranberries, don’t concern yourself with rehydrating it first; it bakes up beautifully straight from the package, and for your effort, you’ll be rewarded with beautifully studded slices. Did I mention that it is amazing in French toast? 🙂

This is an old photo of a loaf I made before our kitchen remodel last year. The braids are stuffed with dried cranberries and oranges.

This bread requires a ripe sourdough starter, an intermediate overnight feeding, about 3 hours to ferment on baking day, and up to 5 hours for final rise after shaping, so plan accordingly. Don’t let this lengthy process alarm you; if you make the starter the night before, you only need about an hour of hands-on time for making the dough and about half an hour to shape it for proofing. As I said, there’s a lot of waiting. All my measurements are metric, so please depend on a digital scale for getting your ingredients right.

You’ll begin the night before you plan to bake, with creation of a firm starter, which is essentially an in-between feeding that bridges the basic wet starter and the final dough. This type of starter, also called “levain,” uses less water than a wet starter, and it concentrates the rising power of the culture in your final dough. Begin with a slight amount of ripe wet starter, stirring in water to make a slurry and then flour and mixing it together until no dry flour remains. The firm starter must ferment several hours, so it’s easiest to do this the night before and leave the bowl covered at room temperature, then bake the next day. If you wish, you can make the firm starter farther ahead and then refrigerate it for up to one day.


The next morning, measure out your flour and get all the other ingredients lined up, including your firm starter, which should be cut into pieces for easy introduction to the final dough. Most of the moisture in this dough comes from oil and eggs, so there is very little water to measure for the final dough. In this picture, my honey is stirred together with the small amount of water, but I usually measure the oil first and then measure the honey in the same cup—it slides right out without sticking. You’ll have an easier time mixing the eggs into the dough if they are closer to room temperature, so give them a few extra minutes on the counter before you begin.

Challah ingredients, clockwise from the top: honey and water, salt (I like to use mineral-rich pink salt), whole large eggs, flour (I use a blend of high-protein bread flour and white whole wheat) and olive oil (mine is blood orange-infused extra virgin).

In the bowl of a stand mixer (or in a really large mixing bowl, if you don’t mind mixing by hand), combine the eggs, oil, honey and water and whisk until even. Add the flour all at once. Mix until all flour is completely incorporated, about two minutes in a mixer. Sprinkle the salt over the dough, cover the bowl and let it rest for about 30 minutes. This gives the flour time to absorb the moisture, and kneading is easier at that point.


After the rest time, the salt will have begun to dissolve. Knead on medium speed to fully incorporate the salt, which should take 3 to 4 minutes. Transfer the dough to the counter or kneading board and press several pieces of the firm starter all over it. Fold the dough into thirds (like a letter) and press in the remaining pieces of firm starter. Move the dough back into the mixing bowl and knead on medium speed for 6 minutes, long enough to evenly blend the firm starter into the dough and also to get the gluten development going. Transfer the dough to a large bowl, cover and let rest at room temperature for at least 3 hours to ferment.


When the dough has fermented (you’ll know because it won’t spring back from a good finger poke), turn it out onto the counter and divide it into halves. This recipe makes two loaves; return one half of the dough to the bowl while you shape the first. Depending on how adventurous you want to be with braiding, divide the first dough section into either 3 or 4 equal-sized pieces. A 3-strand challah is made the easy way, as you would braid a child’s hair. To make the basket-weave round challah, you need 4 pieces.


Stretch each section of dough out into an imperfect rectangle shape, and then use a rolling pin to roll it into a long, oval shape. The dough will be very thin on the counter, and that’s good. Use spray oil to keep it from sticking, or dust the counter with a very light amount of flour. Roll up the oval into a long rope shape, keeping it tight as you roll and pinching the seam to secure it. Roll it out firmly to stretch the rope into an 18″ length, with the ends somewhat tapered from the fuller, center part of the rope. Repeat with the other three pieces and arrange them in a tic-tac-toe shape, with the centers fairly close together (but not tight) and long strands extended in all four directions. Notice the over-under pattern, as this is the important starting position for braiding a round.


One important thing to note is that you do not want the dough strands to be too tightly crossed, either at the start or after braiding. You should be able to wiggle a finger between strands after braiding, and this is important because the dough needs room to expand during proofing; otherwise, it will expand into one large blob and you’ll lose the beautiful pattern.

Shaping the dough is probably best learned through pictures, but I’ll try to describe it here. Take any long strand that is under the piece that crosses it, and sweep it over the piece parallel to it so that its new position is parallel to the cross piece. Repeat with the other four strands. Next, reverse direction but do the same thing, taking the underneath pieces and cross over to make them parallel to the piece next door. Repeat with the other four. Continue this pattern of reverse-crossing until the strands are too small to cross over. At that point, twist and pinch together the ends you would otherwise cross so that the dough doesn’t unravel. Tuck the twisted ends underneath and transfer the bread to a parchment-lined baking sheet.


Repeat with the second batch of dough and lightly spray or brush the loaves with olive oil and secure a couple of layers of plastic wrap over them. Keep the plastic somewhat loose, allowing room for rising, but not so much that air can dry out your loaves.

Proof the loaves at warm room temperature for up to 5 hours, until they have at least doubled in size. They will be quite “poofy” when they are ready. Preheat the oven, brush all over with egg wash (get into every nook and cranny) and bake until they are deep golden brown all over, with internal temperature at 200° F.


Transfer to cooling racks and cool completely before slicing or wrapping.

Sourdough Challah Round

  • Servings: 2 medium round loaves
  • Difficulty: Advanced
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The braiding technique is the easiest thing about these loaves, which are enriched with eggs, citrus-scented olive oil and sweet honey. The recipe takes time, but the reward is as sweet as my wish for you in the Jewish New Year.


Ingredients

  • 35g recently fed sourdough starter
  • 80g room temperature water
  • 130g bread flour

Mix the firm starter ingredients together, cover and let stand at room temperature overnight. Or, refrigerate after 8 hours fermentation and remove from fridge one hour before proceeding.

Ingredients

  • 65g warm water
  • 65g honey
  • 3 large eggs, room temperature
  • 55g olive oil
  • 300g bread flour
  • 100g white whole wheat flour
  • 1 1/2 tsp. fine sea salt
  • all of the firm starter (above)
  • 1 large egg, mixed with a tablespoon of water (for egg wash)

Directions

  1. In the bowl of a stand mixer, combine the water, honey, eggs and oil. Whisk together until fully blended. Add flour ingredients and mix with the dough hook until all flour is incorporated.
  2. Remove dough from hook, sprinkle with salt and cover. Rest the dough for about 30 minutes, as this will make kneading easier. Rinse all dough bits from the hook so it’s ready for the next kneading step.
  3. Turn the fermented firm starter out onto a floured countertop. Use a bench scraper to cut the dough into several pieces, toss them in the flour to coat, and then cover with plastic wrap or a clean towel to keep it from drying out.
  4. After resting, the salt on top of the dough will have dissolved a bit. Knead with the dough hook for a few minutes to fully incorporate the salt, then transfer the dough to a lightly floured countertop.
  5. Spread the challah dough out to enlarge it, and then press several pieces of the firm starter into it. Fold it up in thirds, like a letter, and press the remaining pieces of firm starter into it. Return the dough to the mixing bowl and knead with the dough hook for several minutes. You should not see any streaks of starter, and the dough should be dense, smooth and shiny. Transfer it to a large, oiled bowl and cover. Let it ferment at room temperature for about 3 hours. It likely will not double in size, but it will expand somewhat.
  6. Turn the dough out onto a clean counter and use a bench scraper to divide it in half. Return one half to the bowl and cover to prevent drying while you shape the first loaf.
  7. Cut the first dough portion into equal parts for braiding, either 3 or 4 pieces. Flatten into rough rectangle/oval shapes and roll up tightly into ropes, pinching to seal the edges. Roll out with the flat part of your palms to stretch the ropes to 18″, with ends that are tapered a bit.
  8. 8, Arrange the dough ropes for braiding, following visual instructions in this post. Place braided loaves on parchment-lined baking sheets and cover with lightly oiled plastic wrap. Proofing time will be anywhere from 3 to 5 hours, depending on the temperature of your kitchen, humidity and moon cycle. Just kidding on that last one, but honestly, the time needed for proof can vary broadly, so my best advice is to begin checking after 3 hours. Dough will double or nearly triple in size, and it is ready to egg wash and bake when it refuses to bounce back after a finger poke.
  9. Preheat oven to 350° F. Gently brush egg wash all over every visible surface of the challah loaves. Bake for approximately 35 minutes, until bread is deep golden brown all over. Internal temperature should be about 200° F. Transfer to a cooling rack and cool completely before slicing or wrapping.


From the CDJ archive, here’s another way you can achieve a “round” challah, if you aren’t feeling the love for the basket-weave design. Divide your dough for one of the loaves into three equal segments and braid them like a hair braid, and then curl it around, tucking and pinching to seal the ends together. It’s more of a wreath than a round, but still has the circle symbolism. This was an experimental sourdough pumpkin challah, filled with Trader Joe’s “golden berry blend” dried fruit, and it was nothing short of fabulous. 🙂



Matzo Brei Florentine

Make something off limits, and that’ll be exactly what you crave, right? We only started Passover on Friday evening, and I can’t stop thinking about wanting a big, fat sandwich. To be clear, my husband does not expect me to adhere strictly to this Jewish custom of his—heck, he’s the first to admit that he is not religious himself about this requirement when he is out and about—but he does not eat bread at home during the Passover week. His choice is not about strict religious mandates, but tradition that helps him feel connection with his ancestors, and especially his late father. I am not Jewish myself, but I respect the tradition and so I am making an effort to accommodate this food called matzo.

Iconic, yes. But matzo needs a whole lot of help to become flavorful or interesting.

If you have never had the anti-joy of eating matzo, allow me to describe it for you— try to remember the driest, most bland, and perhaps even stalest, saltine cracker you’ve ever eaten. It may have been a cellophane-wrapped packet that a diner waitress fished out of her apron pocket for your bowl of chili in 1974. Maybe you got stuck in traffic on the interstate during a blizzard and had to resort to eating whatever random things you found in the glove compartment. Or perhaps you found some old takeout crackers in the back of your desk drawer when you finally made it back to the office after two years of COVID shutdown. Whatever memory you conjured, hang onto that for a moment and try to remember the taste. Yep, matzo is like that. But not as good. And without salt.

You could search the entire world and not find a less interesting cracker. Or is it considered bread? The Jewish people developed matzo as a reference to the unleavened bread their ancestors were forced to eat when they fled Egypt in a hurry. There was no time for the bread to rise, so they baked the dough as it was and took it on the run. Whatever category you put matzo in (bread or crackers), this stuff is undeniably boring, but a common sight in my home now—at least during Passover. My goal, as the primary meal maker, is to find ways to make matzo more palatable because eating it from the box can only be described as “choking it down.” And I won’t even mention what it does to the digestive system (it ain’t pretty).

Thank goodness for the New York Times Cooking e-letter, which is always brimming with menu ideas, including a classic, basic version of this dish, called matzo brei. According to Melissa Clark, the author of the recipe, brei rhymes with “fry,” which is exactly what you do with the matzo before scrambling it into eggs. As written, the recipe sounded dull, but as I started working at the stove, I asked Les if there was any reason that I couldn’t jazz up this humble dish just a bit—maybe with addition of onions and some spinach? Sure, was his response, and this was the result.

My first attempt at matzo brei got my gears turning about other possible flavor twists. What do you think would be good?

I liked this dish! Spinach is nothing new with eggs at our house, as I incorporate it often into omelets. Onions were a no-brainer, and some matzo is even onion-flavored, though that variety is not usually considered kosher for Passover. And the matzo pieces, fried in butter and mingled throughout the scrambled egg mixture, reminded me a little bit of a baked pasta, especially for the crispy, buttered edges. I don’t know what prompted me to top the dish with sour cream, but it was a good call, and the fresh dill I had picked up at the market was a perfect finish for this savory, ready-in-15-minutes breakfast. As Les and I scarfed down our matzo brei with spinach (Florentine, if you will), we began brainstorming other flavor combinations— maybe peppers and mushrooms, or feta and asparagus. Wait, how many days of Passover do we have left?

The recipe was not without challenges, despite its simplicity. I messed up the beginning of the recipe by commencing to fry the matzo in butter straight from the box, and it wasn’t until my common sense began to question the technique that I noticed in the recipe’s steps that I was supposed to rinse and soak the matzo first. Why it was not listed as such in the ingredients, I’ll never know, but I’ll add the oversight to my list of what I call the problem with recipes. The ingredients of the NYT Cooking recipe did not include water, so it didn’t occur to me until it was (almost) too late.

All’s well that ends well, and I’ll describe in my recipe notes how I recovered from my mistake (it was easy). Regardless of whether I ever make matzo brei again, I discovered for sure that I always want to have sour cream and fresh dill on my scrambled eggs now. And with five days of Passover left to go, we are least down two more sheets of matzo.


Ingredients (serves 2)

2 sheets plain matzo, rinsed under warm water and set aside to soften* (see notes)

3 Tbsp. salted butter

1/4 cup chopped sweet onion

Good handful fresh baby spinach, rough-chopped

Kosher salt and ground black pepper (to taste)

3 eggs*, room temperature, beaten with a splash of water or milk

A hefty dollop of sour cream (for serving)

1 Tbsp. chopped fresh dill (for garnish)


*Notes

My mistake led me to an alternate method of softening the matzo. Since I had missed the step of rinsing and resting the matzo ahead of time, I simply poured about 1/4 cup warm water from my tea kettle right into the skillet with the butter and matzo pieces. The dry matzo soaked up the water and fried in the butter with no issues. This may truly be a better method than the original because I didn’t have to wash an extra “soaking” dish or clean up a soggy matzo mess from the counter. Do what works for you!

The original recipe that inspired me suggested using four eggs, but I followed my instinct and used three, as I always do for an omelet-for-two. If you have an extra hearty appetite, go with four eggs.


Instructions

I’ll walk you through it in pictures, and keep scrolling to find it ready to print or save for your recipe files!



F.R.O.G. Jam Rugelach

Sometimes, saying your goals out loud is enough to cement them into reality, and this has been true for my quest to have a calmer, more peaceful Christmas season. Letting go of expectations for a “perfect” holiday has given me the freedom to enjoy it more, regardless of how things unfold. One thing I really wanted to do this year (for the first time in a long time) was settle in to making Christmas cookies, and I am on a roll—figuratively and literally—with these sweet little rugelach. They are my first cookies of the season and making them satisfies not only my desire for a pretty holiday treat, but also another item on my culinary bucket list.

As much as I love to bake bread and rolls, I hardly ever bake sweet things, such as cakes, pies or cookies. I’m not sure why, because I do like them, and I have fond memories of doing that kind of baking in my grandmother’s kitchen. The holidays are a perfect time for baking sweets, and so far, I am loving it.

Rugelach (which is pronounced in such a way that it might seem you are gargling with a feather in your throat) is a treat that originated in Poland and is popular in Jewish culture, and it has been on my bucket list for a couple of years. My husband, Les, remembers them from childhood, not only because he is of Polish-Jewish descent, but also from the bakeries and pastry shops all over New York, where he was raised.

It’s a perfect, little two-bite cookie.

The cookies are tiny, which makes them perfect for gift-giving or tucking into an extra little space on a dessert platter. My rugelach dough is made of butter, cream cheese and flour, with only a slight hint of powdered sugar. The rest of the sweetness comes from the layers of filling and the large crystals of sugar sprinkled on top before baking. Given the variety of flavors I have seen, you can put almost anything in rugelach, and the gears of my mind are already spinning ideas for my next batch. This time, I used a jar of jam we spotted while waiting in line to purchase our fancy Christmas tree stand.

No frogs were harmed in the making of these cookies. 🙂

The fruity filling in these bite-sized little rollups is F.R.O.G. jam, with the letters representing the flavors of fig, raspberry, orange peel and ginger. That’s a whole lot of holiday flavor happening in one spoonful, and though Les is not particularly fond of ginger, he likes the other flavors and said my addition of cinnamon sugar and chopped pecans rounded these out nicely for him. The cookies are made in stages, including a significant amount of time chilling the dough, and then the cookies before baking, so plan accordingly.

As always, I learned a few things along the way to making these, and I’ll share those discoveries throughout the instructions below.


Ingredients

4 oz. full-fat cream cheese (this is half a brick package)

1 stick cold unsalted butter

3/4 cup all-purpose flour* (see notes)

1/4 cup whole wheat pastry flour*

1 Tbsp. powdered sugar

1/4 tsp. kosher salt

2/3 cup jam, preserves or marmalade

2 Tbsp. organic cane sugar

1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon

1/4 cup chopped, toasted pecans

Egg wash and coarse sugar sprinkles, for baking


*Notes

For best results, measure flour using the fluff, sprinkle, level method. If you dunk your scoop directly into the flour bag, you will compact the flour and end up with heavy cookies.

I always sub in a portion of whole grain into everything I bake, but if you do not have whole wheat pastry flour (I like Bob’s Red Mill) or white whole wheat (King Arthur is a great choice), it is fine to use a full cup of all-purpose flour. I personally like the flavor boost of the whole wheat, and it helps me justify eating an extra cookie. 😉


Instructions

Combine flour, powdered sugar and salt in the bowl of a food processor and pulse a couple of times to blend them evenly. Add cold pieces of butter and cream cheese. Pulse a few times to cut the fats into the dough, then run the processor continuously just barely long enough to see it come together but not long enough for it to clump in a ball around the blades.

Scrape the dough out onto plastic wrap. Divide it into two equal pieces and shape them into disks about the size of hockey pucks. Wrap them tightly in the plastic wrap and refrigerate a few hours to overnight.

The rolling out and rolling up stage of this recipe moves quickly, so I encourage reading through it completely before beginning. As with any butter-based dough, you want to try to keep it as cold as possible so that it remains flaky during baking. Get all your filling ingredients measured, lined up and ready. Warm the preserves in a small saucepan until they loosen up to spreadable consistency, then remove from heat. Divide the cinnamon sugar and toasted pecans so that you have equal amounts for each dough disk. Set up two baking sheets, lined with parchment, and arrange enough space in the fridge to chill them for an hour or two.

Roll the dough out on a lightly floured countertop, until it is about 1/8” thick and roughly 12” in diameter. Working from the edges inward, brush half of the melted preserves onto the dough round. You should see quite a lot of dough through the preserves and try to keep the glaze light in the center of the dough round, which will ultimately be the tips of each rugelach.

Sprinkle the cinnamon sugar all over the glazed dough, and then scatter the toasted pecan bits evenly over the sugar. Lay a piece of parchment or waxed paper over the dough round and gently press to secure the pecan bits into the dough. Carefully peel the paper away and set it aside for the second batch.

Using a pizza wheel, cut the dough into 16 equal triangles, with tips at the center of the dough round. The easiest way to do this is to cut it into fourths, then cut the fourths into eighths and finally the eighths into sixteenths. This will make sense to you when you begin cutting. Some of the pecan pieces will fall off or come loose; just press them back onto the dough.

Beginning with one of the triangles, start rolling from the outer, wide end toward the center, as if rolling up a crescent roll. Keep it tight as you go and place the cookie on the parchment-lined baking sheet. I found it easier, once I had about three of the triangles rolled, to use my bench scraper to loosen a triangle away from the round before rolling. The far-away side of the dough round was the trickiest, and next time I may try rolling it on parchment paper that can be moved around for the rolling step.

When all 16 cookies have been rolled, cover the baking sheet with plastic wrap and place it in the fridge. Repeat with the second dough disk. Chill the cookies for at least an hour before baking.

Toward the end of chill time, pre-heat the oven to 350° F, with the oven rack in the center position. I baked only one sheet at a time, but if you wish to bake both at once, arrange the racks with enough room for both and plan to rotate the pans halfway through baking time.

Prepare an egg wash (beaten egg with a teaspoon of cold water) and lightly brush the chilled cookies. Sprinkle them with a pinch of sugar. You can use decorative sugar or (as I did with my second batch) a pinch of natural turbinado sugar.

Bake for about 25 minutes, until cookies are puffed up a bit and golden brown in color. Cool on the pan for about 5 minutes, then use a spatula to transfer them to a cooling rack.


Happy Christmukkah!


Classic Crispy Latkes

Crispy outside, soft and chewy inside. A hint of onion and just enough salt. That’s what you want in a classic latke, the delightfully simple, traditional food of Hanukkah. Getting them just right takes practice, and what I lack in personal heritage, I hope to make up for in effort. When I started dating my husband in 2015, I found myself intrigued by the foods that are central to the Jewish holidays, and latkes have been on the menu every year since then. Let’s review:


My recipe has evolved, as has my technique. I’m not sure what I was thinking in my first couple of efforts, except that I wasn’t giving enough attention to the oil. And that means I was missing the point, because Hanukkah is all about the oil.

Hanukkah, nicknamed the “festival of lights,” is an eight-day observance of an ancient miracle. The story is multi-layered and, frankly, hard for me to fully understand, let alone explain. But the gist of the story is that God came through for the faithful, and a small jar of oil that was only enough for one night’s lighting of the eternal lamps at the Temple, somehow (miraculously) lasted for eight nights.

In observant Jewish homes, families still mark the occasion by lighting candles on a menorah for eight nights during Hanukkah, and foods are fried in oil in remembrance of the miracle. Traditional fried foods served during this eight-night celebration include jelly-filled doughnuts and, of course, latkes!

Those crispy, golden latkes make me wish Hanukkah lasted for more than eight nights!

The secret is in the starch

The key to crispy latkes is removing the excess liquid from the shredded potatoes, while simultaneously preserving the starches that aid in holding those shreds together. After you shred the potatoes, which you can do either by hand on a box grater or (the easy way) in a food processor, simply soak them in ice water long enough to draw the starch out of the shreds. Next, squeeze as much moisture as possible out of the shredded potatoes, then reunite them with the sticky starch that has settled at the bottom of the soaking bowl. Add in some shredded onions (also squeezed dry), a beaten egg and a few sprinkles of flour, and you’re good to go!


The miracle of the oil

Frying latkes is the traditional way, and I don’t recommend trying to fry them in a thin film of oil as I did those first couple of years. You may get a nice crispness on the outside, but the inside won’t be done. You need about a half-inch of oil in a hot skillet to make a crispy latke, and the type of oil can make a difference as well. As much as I love and rely on unfiltered, extra virgin olive oil for most of my cooking, its smoke point is about the same temperature as you need for frying the latkes, so it is not the best choice. For this kind of frying, I’ve chosen grapeseed oil, which has a higher smoke point and produces a nice crispy exterior with a neutral flavor.

Grapeseed oil is a good bet for frying at high temperature. I’m pretty sure this bottle will last well beyond the eight nights of Hanukkah!

Enjoy latkes your own way

Not all latkes are the crisp-textured, straw-colored wafers that I am sharing today. Some cooks make their latkes with a soft, almost mashed potato-like texture, and those are delicious also. Onions are usually included in the mix for flavor, but I have seen latke recipes that lean toward the sweet side and there are plenty of other vegetables that can be substituted for potatoes, if you don’t mind a less-than-traditional treat.


Not all spuds are created equal

Although it is true that you can use different ingredients to make latkes, it’s important to recognize the strengths and weaknesses of certain potatoes. For best results and crispy latkes, choose a starchy potato, such as russet or Yukon gold. Potatoes that are described as “waxy,” such as red potatoes, are higher in moisture and lower in starch. That isn’t to say you can’t use them, but you would need to give extra attention to the step of moisture reduction and supplement the starch a bit to hold them together. Also, be prepared for a slightly less crispy latke when using waxy potatoes, or any other substitute that doesn’t measure up in the starch department.

Use starchy potatoes for best results, such as russet and Yukon gold. It isn’t necessary to peel them, but I usually do for presentation sake.

What to serve with latkes

Traditionally, latkes are served with applesauce and sour cream, and therefore I asked Les to cook up a batch of his mouthwatering overnight applesauce for Thanksgiving. With Hanukkah falling so close behind this year, I hoped to carry over some of that delicious, chunky applesauce as a side for what has turned out to be one of my best batches of latkes to date.


Ingredients

2 pounds potatoes (I used a combination of russet and Yukon gold)

1 smallish sweet onion

1 egg

2 Tbsp. all-purpose flour

Kosher salt and black pepper

A few shakes ground cumin (if you are not keeping strict kosher)

Grapeseed oil (or other neutral cooking oil with high smoke point, such as canola)

Sour cream, and Les’s 3-Variety Overnight Applesauce, for serving


Instructions

  1. Peel and rinse the potatoes. Shred them by whatever means is easiest for you and transfer the shreds immediately to a bowl filled with ice water. Allow them to soak for about 45 minutes.
  2. Trim, peel and shred the onion. Use paper towels to wick away the excess moisture from the onions.
  3. Beat the egg lightly in a measuring cup. Add the shredded onion and mix to combine evenly. I have found this easier for even mixing of the onion into the potato mixture.
  4. Pour enough grapeseed oil into a large skillet or electric frying pan to measure about 1/2″ deep. Heat oil to 375° F.
  5. Use your hands to carefully scoop the soaked potatoes from the bowl and onto a clean kitchen towel. Try to avoid stirring up the starch from the bottom of the bowl. Spread the potato shreds out over the towel. Roll up the towel and twist to extract as much moisture as possible from the potatoes. Empty the shreds into a large, new bowl.
  6. Sprinkle the cumin and flour over the shreds and toss with your hands to evenly distribute.
  7. Pour out the water from the soaking bowl, and take it slow enough to keep the powdery white starch in the bottom of the bowl. Scoop the starch into the bowl with the dried potato shreds and toss again with your hands to combine. Finally, add the egg-onion mixture and toss until evenly combined.
  8. Form a clump of potato mixture in the palm of your hand, pressing to shape it as best you can into a flattened ball. Do not try to shape it as a disc at this point. Carefully lay the ball of potato mixture into the hot oil and repeat until you have three or four clumps in the oil. When the edges begin to turn golden, use the back of a small spatula to gently flatten the balls of mixture into more of a disc shape. Turn the latkes after all edges (and the bottom) are golden brown. Fry the second side until golden. Transfer to a rack over layers of paper towel and repeat until all latkes are fried. Season the latkes with kosher salt as soon as they come out of the hot oil.


Pierogi with Potato, Leek and Spinach Filling

One of the most satisfying cooking achievements is striking an item off my culinary “bucket list.” I started my running list a couple of years ago as a way to challenge myself in the kitchen, and my late-night Pinterest surfing (which, unfortunately, coincides with midlife insomnia) is making it longer. Occasionally, I might see a Pinterest recipe I want to try as it is, but more often, I see something that inspires me in a different direction. Either way, you don’t have to be good at math to recognize that my habit (plus my imagination) can only grow the bucket list, so moving an item over to the “made it” column feels like a major accomplishment. Today’s dish has been on the bucket list for at least a year. It’s time!

These pierogi—yes, that is the plural—will be coming up again in rapid rotation, because they were delicious and filling, but also easier to make than I expected. In the big picture of comfort foods, these Polish dumplings are about as far as you can go—tender dough stuffed with potatoes, onions, vegetables or whatever else you like, then boiled and fried in a skillet. With butter! What’s not to love? The arrival of fall seems like the perfect time to tackle them, too. The challenge for me in trying a classic dish for the first time is choosing which recipe to use, and that’s what I’m really sharing today.

An internet search for “best pierogi” will yield at least two pages worth of results that declare to be the original, the best, the most authentic, etc. One person’s “perfect” pierogi dough will fully contradict the next, and here’s the deal on that—everyone had a grandma, and everyone’s grandma made dishes that were “original” for their family, and so that was the best for them. But my grandma was Scandinavian, so how do I know from a cultural standpoint what is truly authentic—at least when it comes to pierogi?

Simple—I research it.

I dig deeper to learn where a dish comes from, who were the people who created it, what was their life and what foods were common to their everyday diet. All of these background notes help me arrive at my own approach to the dish. The central and eastern Europeans who created this dish were likely Jewish peasants, and so they would have used simple, inexpensive ingredients. Over time, the dish caught on with other classes, and sweet, fruit-filled versions evolved, but I’ve decided to keep them savory for my first run-through.

Next, I consult trusted recipe resources, whether that is cookbooks I already own or internet sites such as AllRecipes.com that provide multiple recipes for a particular food. I do not select a single recipe and give it a go. Rather, I look for commonality among the recipes, and then I trust my own cooking instinct as I dive in to create it.

I’ve trusted this book, The Gefilte Manifesto, for the dough portion of the pierogi recipe, primarily because their ingredients and technique are very similar to Italian pasta dough, which is in my wheelhouse so I have a bit of confidence going into this. I’ll save the cream cheese-based dough for another time. For the filling, I followed early tradition and made a potato-cheese-onion mixture. And I’ve added sauteed fresh spinach because my half-Polish, all-Jewish husband (whose family, unfortunately, never made him pierogi) can’t get enough of it, so I always have spinach on hand.

Here we go!


Dough Ingredients

(adapted from The Gefilte Manifesto)

1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour

1/2 cup spelt flour

1 1/2 tsp kosher salt

2 eggs

3 Tbsp. warm water

The original recipe made a very large batch of pierogi, and in hindsight, I wish I had gone that way because they turned out so delicious. But I halved the ingredients, as I often do when I make something for the first time. The original used only AP flour (which I never follow on anything), so I’ve adjusted for some whole spelt flour so that we can have some amount of whole grain. The original recipe said 3 eggs, but chickens don’t lay eggs in halves, so I used 2 and cut back on the suggested amount of water. I suppose I could’ve whisked three eggs together and divvied out half by weight, but that seemed overkill, and the eggs add richness and protein. I followed my instinct and made the dough the same way I make pasta dough but with less kneading, and set it aside to rest while I made the filling.

Unlike pasta dough, this pierogi dough was only kneaded enough to be fully mixed.

Filling Ingredients

4 medium Yukon gold potatoes, peeled and boiled until fork-tender

1 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil

1 leek, white and light green parts, split lengthwise and sliced thin

2 handfuls fresh baby spinach

1/3 cup small curd cottage cheese

1/2 tsp. freshly grated nutmeg

2 oz. finely shredded white cheddar cheese

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste.

For frying (optional): 2 Tbsp. unsalted butter, 2 sprigs fresh thyme leaves.

Some of the suggested filling recipes I considered mentioned addition of an egg, but I didn’t feel this was important, given that the Yukon gold potatoes already had a creamy quality. I decided the cheddar and cottage cheeses provided enough binder. I put the mixture in the fridge to chill while I rolled and cut the dough into circles.


Putting it all together

Rolling out the dough proved more time consuming than I expected, given that I hadn’t kneaded it much. It was surprisingly strong, which means gluten strands had formed during the rest time. Again, I followed my instinct from experience with pasta, and covered the dough a few minutes to relax those strands, then continued rolling, until the dough was about 1/8” thickness. I did this in two batches.

All the recipes I found suggested cutting about 3 1/2” circles, and the only thing I had that size was a little ice cream bowl. Note to self: buy a biscuit cutter already!

On to the fun part—shaping the pierogi! I spooned about 1 1/2 teaspoons of filling mixture onto the center of each dough round, then I dipped a finger into a small dish of water and wet the outer edge of the rounds to help seal the dough. This is important, because a good seal prevents the filling seeping out during boiling. Anything oily along the edge of the dough will cause the edges to separate, so I was also careful to keep the filling right in the center of the rounds as I closed them. I cupped the dough round in one palm, and used my other hand to seal the edges tight, stretching the dough as needed to fully envelop the filling. Once the rounds were sealed up into half moon shapes, I crimped the edges with a floured fork and let them rest while the water came to boil.


Boiling and Pan-frying

As with pasta water, I used a generous amount of salt. Don’t skimp on this out of fear of sodium—remember that most of the salt will stay in the water, and the pierogi (like pasta) will take up just enough to season it well. Various recipes I’d seen suggested that the dumplings would initially sink but eventually float, and I followed the recommendation to cook them about 4 minutes from the float stage. They cooked at a gentle boil, just above a simmer. I scooped them out onto parchment paper, and though they could have been served exactly like that, I pressed on with the pan frying to give them some extra texture—and, of course, the browned butter. 😊

This half-batch of pierogi fed us for dinner twice, and I ended up with enough leftover to freeze for later. I laid the (un-boiled) individual dumplings out on a parchment-lined sheet, covered loosely with another sheet of parchment and frozen overnight, then I transferred them to a zip top bag for cooking later.

Ready for a quick weeknight meal later this fall! Boil them straight from the freezer.

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These turned out so comforting and delicious, I wish I had made them sooner, but I’m glad to get them off my bucket list! 🙂 Here is a sampling of my remaining “someday” recipes, and I hope that sharing this glimpse with you will give me the accountability I need to get cooking:

Porchetta (an Italian specialty made with pork belly wrapped around pork tenderloin)
Why I haven’t made it: It looks fussy and complicated, and that scares me a little.

Black-and-white cookies (one of Les’s favorite NYC classic treats)
Why I haven’t made them: He loves them so much, I’m worried I’ll mess them up (crazy, I know).

Barbacoa (slow cooked spicy beef, which I love, thanks to Chipotle chain)
Why I haven’t made it: I’m committed to only using grass-fed beef in my recipes, and our city doesn’t have the best options for grass-fed, so I need to venture out to a market in a nearby city.

Hold me to it, dear friends! Those dishes deserve a shot in my kitchen. What foods are on your bucket list, either to cook or just to try?


“Beer” Can Honey Roasted Heirloom Chicken

We are a few days into the Jewish New Year, and I’m taking a new approach to roasting an heirloom chicken in my favorite blend of flavors—honey, garlic and rosemary. Honey is a big deal during Rosh Hashanah, as it represents the hope for a sweet new year. Any kind of honey is appropriate, but I am fond of a local unfiltered sourwood honey, and I just picked up a new jar a few weeks ago. Despite its name, it is sweet with a rich and earthy flavor, and it is strong enough to stand up to the plentiful garlic and aromatic rosemary.

For a special occasion such as Rosh Hashanah, I didn’t want to go too casual with beer, so for this recipe, I’ve emptied the beer from the can and filled it with white wine. Oh, and to shake things up a bit, we’re also roasting this wine-filled, beer-can chicken in the oven—not on the grill. The liquid inside the beer can contributes to the juiciest, most tender chicken, and this effort did not disappoint.

This heirloom chicken smelled sooo good as it roasted, and because it involves more love and care, plus a few hours, it qualifies for Sunday Supper status. Alongside this mouthwatering chicken, we plated some of Les’s garlic-parm mashed potatoes (which are pretty amazing, even as leftovers) and fresh Brussels sprouts, roasted with sliced shallots and tossed in a glaze of lemon-infused olive oil and pomegranate-flavored balsamic. Pomegranate, like honey, is also symbolic at Rosh Hashanah, and the hope is that our blessings in the new year will be as numerous as the arils (seeds) in the pomegranate. We are hoping that for you as well. 🙂

The lemon oil and pomegranate balsamic was a great combination for Rosh Hashanah. This recipe would also be terrific at Thanksgiving.


Ingredients

3 cloves garlic, minced

1 Tbsp. fresh rosemary leaves, finely chopped

2 Tbsp. honey* (see notes)

Juice of 1/2 lemon

2 Tbsp. dry white wine*

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

1 tsp. kosher salt

Freshly ground black pepper

4 pound heirloom chicken*


For the beer can:

3 additional cloves garlic, crushed

1 sprig fresh rosemary

3/4 cup dry white wine


*Notes

Any flavor of honey will work, but I’ve used sourwood honey, which is a liquid form of honey. Solid or crystallized honeys are not recommended here.

“Dry” wine means wine that is not sweet, but it can still be confusing to know which kind of wine will work best for a recipe. Aim for a “neutral” flavor of white wine, such as pinot grigio, rather than an oaky wine as Chardonnay. I used a white blend of chenin blanc and viognier, which has a soft and delicate floral essence, and it worked out great.

An “heirloom” chicken is a specialty item, usually an older or heritage breed of chicken, and raised in an ethical manner. Birds raised this way will be more expensive, but well worth it. My chicken also happened to be quite large—it weighed in at a little over 4.5 pounds!

This may have been the largest chicken I’ve ever roasted.


Instructions

  1. Combine all marinade ingredients in a large bowl and whisk until smooth.
  2. Pat chicken dry with paper towels and season all over with kosher salt and black pepper. Place the chicken in the bowl with the marinade and turn several times to evenly coat the bird. Allow chicken to rest 30 minutes.
  3. Remove all oven racks, except for the lowest. Preheat the oven to 450° F. Note in step 6 that this is not the final roasting temperature, just the beginning.
  4. Empty the beer can (don’t worry—I poured it into a frosty pint glass for my sous chef-husband), and replace it with the wine, crushed garlic and rosemary sprig.
  5. Center the beer can on a rimmed baking sheet (we used the base part of our broiler pan). Carefully place the chicken over top of the can, so that it is nearly fully inside the bird. The wine and aromatics will season the bird from the inside and will keep the chicken moist. Pour remaining marinade all over the bird.
  6. Cover the top of the chicken loosely with a piece of foil, to protect it from burning in the oven. Transfer the chicken on the baking sheet to the lower rack of the oven.
  7. Roast for only 10 minutes at 450°, then reduce oven temperature to 325° and roast about one hour, or until juices run clear when a thigh is pierced with the tip of a knife. The time may vary based on the chicken’s weight. For best results, use a thermometer to confirm the temperature in the thickest part of the thigh is 165° F.
  8. Remove chicken and rest for 15 minutes.
  9. Return oven temperature to 400° F, and roast the Brussels sprouts.
Just hanging out while the brussels sprouts get their roast on.

Ingredients for Brussels Sprouts

1 pound Brussels sprouts, trimmed and halved lengthwise

Drizzle of extra virgin olive oil

Salt and pepper

1 shallot, sliced

4 tsp. lemon-infused olive oil (or regular oil + juice of 1/2 lemon)

4 tsp. pomegranate-flavored balsamic vinegar

Look at the caramelization on those brussels sprouts! The balsamic-oil dressing was tossed on them only for the last few minutes of roasting.

Instructions

  1. Spread sprouts onto a parchment-lined baking sheet and drizzle with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Toss to coat, and arrange sprouts, cut-side down.
  2. Roast for 15 minutes. Whisk together the infused oil and flavored vinegar. Scatter the sliced shallots onto the roasted Brussels sprouts, and then toss the vegetables with the oil-vinegar blend. Roast an additional 5 minutes, then remove and serve.
Dinner is served!

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Sourdough Pumpkin Challah (a bread maker’s journey)

When I set out in 2011 to learn the terrifying skill of bread making, my primary goal was to have the welcoming aroma waft out of my oven and throughout the house. Who doesn’t love the smell of freshly baked bread? My first few attempts were pretty confused, with some downright inedible, but also with a couple of winners that were probably accidental. I finally got good at making the simplest bread of all time, the English muffin loaf, a minimal ingredient recipe which requires no kneading and is really hard to screw up. And then, me being me, I decided to go ahead and up my game without first mastering the basics of real kneaded bread. It’s just what I do, setting the bar very high for myself. Perhaps the result of being raised by a perfectionist father and impossible-to-please mother? That is a motive I’ll leave to my therapist for analysis.

“I’ll make artisan loaves,” I declared, having absolutely no idea what I was getting into. When I had my first successful artisan boule (a bread nerd’s term for a round crusty bread made without a loaf pan), I charged forward with another idea—that I would henceforth make only sourdough bread. As I have mentioned in a previous post, “sourdough” is commonly (though incorrectly) assumed to be a flavor of bread, but it is more accurately understood as a leavening method. The process begins with creation of a culture that you feed regularly, only flour and water and nothing else, and the culture replaces commercial yeast. For me, this began in early 2016.

My sourdough culture does the same work as the recognizable yellow yeast packets, but in twice the time (you have to be patient, which means it’s been a learning experience for me) and resulting in five times the flavor of bread that is produced with commercial yeast. Sourdough is a fussy thing to learn (with lots of math involved), but once the light bulb goes off and you understand how to relate to it, there’s no going back. This is exactly the thing I’ve wanted my whole life—a relationship that is so solid, there’s no going back. Thank you, God.

Somewhere along the way of making sourdough bread, however, I lost a bit of my gumption and started playing it safe—making only a few “safe” sourdough breads, or the ones that worked out just right every time. The potato onion sourdough loaf that is easy to shape because you do it while the dough is cold, and it stays so soft and is perfect for my husband’s beloved tuna salad sandwiches. The sourdough rye loaf that seems to work backward from all the other loaves, in that the sponge (nerd speak for “wet starter”) contains the full amount of water for the recipe, but somehow the bread comes out perfect every time. The “basic” sourdough loaf from my Peter Reinhart book that is supposed to emerge from the oven with a crackling crust, but mine only did so on my very first try, giving me a confidence that I hadn’t yet earned. And the sourdough challah, which many experienced bread makers have doubted is even possible, given that challah dough is sweetened with a good deal of honey, which tends to put the whole process into even slower motion than sourdough already does. But I’ve made sourdough challah successfully for two years, though only for celebration of the big Jewish holidays that allow leavened bread: Rosh Hashanah and Hanukkah.

Still, I wanted to push it further and make a pumpkin challah, for which there are plenty of recipes on the internet. Except none were made by way of sourdough, and so that became the new high bar for me. For two years, I kept this challenge off in the distance, lest I be disappointed in the outcome. If you’ve ever baked with pumpkin, it was probably muffins or quick bread or something that is intended to be soft and kind of crumbly in texture. I’ve tried making chocolate chip cookies with pumpkin, and they were tasty, but cake-y and more like muffin tops than cookies (let’s not discuss what they did to my own muffin top). I made a successful sourdough pumpkin artisan boule a couple years ago, and it was delicious, but dense. I really, really wanted a sourdough pumpkin challah.

Fast forward to this week, and this gorgeous, swirly slice of sourdough perfection.

All that pumpkin! And swirls of maple sugar and warm autumn spices.

Introducing pumpkin to the mix is complicated for several reasons. First, I had to speculate how much moisture vs. bulk to account for in the pumpkin puree, because I had to create my own recipe and formula. Secondly, the fibrous nature of pumpkin puree contradicts the stretchy gluten structure of bread; the puree is wet, but it isn’t liquid. Challah is made with several eggs and oil—in its classic form, it should be light and soft inside, with a delicately chewy crust. With so much adjustment, coupled with long ferment times, I was sure that I’d fail in this venture. I hate to fail. But if failure is inevitable, I will go down in flames. Dramatic? Welcome to my mind.

The trouble is, I didn’t fail. No, I definitely did not.

The round braided loaf has a maple-spice swirl, and the braided wreath is filled with a blend of dried fruits: cranberries, golden raisins, blueberries and cherries.

This first attempt at making a naturally leavened pumpkin challah had me on pins and needles from start to finish, but these two loaves far exceeded my expectations. And, just in time for Rosh Hashahah! My loaves are round in shape to symbolize the new year, and coming around full circle. I cannot wait to make French toast this weekend. Imagine the bread pudding possibilities! I feel like a proud mama, showing off pictures of a new grandbaby.

“Do I smell pumpkin?”

I’m so excited, I want to run to the market and buy every can of pumpkin puree on the shelves. The next round of sourdough pumpkin challah for everyone is on me! Wait, maybe I’ll grow the pumpkins and cook them myself—that may become the next high bar? No, perhaps I shall make it again a few more times to be sure my formula is correct. And though I know that most of my followers here will not ever roll up their sleeves and make this bread (except my fellow sourdough nerds, for whom I’ve presented my formula and notes in PDF at the end), for now, I am delighted to show you the pictures of my journey. Thank you for looking. 😀

Happy fall, everyone, and “shanah tovah!”

For bread nerd eyes only 🙂


Shakshuka (shiksa style)

We are inching toward a special day—and time of year—in Jewish tradition. Rosh Hashanah, in the simplest of terms, is the onset of the “High Holidays,” a 10-day celebration that concludes with Yom Kippur. The whole event is a spiritual reset button of sorts, a time for personal introspection leading to atonement. When I became engaged to my husband, Les, in 2016, I joined him for High Holidays services, and though I likely will not ever convert to Judaism, I love learning about this sacred part of my husband’s heritage. Going through the Hebrew readings and stages of reflection is something Jesus would have done as a regular practice (he was Jewish, remember?), and I have found that it gives me richer insight into my own Christian faith.

The fact that I am not Jewish, regardless of my stance on Jesus, earns me the unenviable title of “shiksa,” a Yiddish word politely translated as “a non-Jewish woman.” Some other definitions are less diplomatic and even derogatory, meaning something along the line of “sketchy non-Jewish woman who has taken romantic interest in a good, upstanding Jewish guy.” Yep, I’m guilty of all that! I take no offense, and our religious differences have never presented a conflict for Les and me. On the contrary, we find that it makes our relationship more interesting.

During our preparation for marriage, Les and I met a few times with Rabbi Mark, whom we had asked to officiate our small and informal ceremony. Over lunch, I mentioned how much I was enjoying exploration of the traditions, especially the foods. I had already learned to make latkes, one of the most recognizable Jewish foods (which I’ll share more about when we get closer to Hanukkah). Rabbi Mark made a recommendation for a next recipe to try—shakshuka. It’s fun to say (shock-SHOO-ka), and not the same as shiksa. 😀

I’d never heard of this, and neither had Les, so it was immediately placed at the top of the bucket list. Our first shakshuka turned out terrific, and when Les posted this picture of it to his Facebook page, he got an immediate thumbs-up from Cousin Caryn in Israel—“that is SO Jewish!”

Not a bad first effort in 2017!

Shakshuka is typically served at breakfast, so I’m counting it as part of my “better breakfast month” series, and it’s remarkably simple to make and flexible to accommodate a variety of ingredients. It usually begins with a thick tomato sauce base, though I’ve seen some interesting “green” shakshuka recipes on Pinterest. Any other favorite vegetables or ingredients can be incorporated, including cauliflower, eggplant, spinach, kale, peppers, onions, squash, chickpeas, or nearly anything else you have on hand. You stew it all together with Mediterranean spices in a cast-iron skillet, then you crack raw eggs directly into the sauce and simmer until they’re cooked to your liking, or (as I often do) slide it into the oven to finish.

It’s great for breakfast, or breakfast for dinner!

The result is a savory blend of nutrition and flavor, hearty enough to satisfy your morning hunger, or for “breaking the fast,” because after the 24 hours of fasting and prayer at Yom Kippur, you’re gonna get pretty hungry!

The cool thing about shakshuka (as if the flavor and flexibility aren’t cool enough) is that you do not have to be Jewish to enjoy it! You may have seen a similar dish from Italy called “eggs in purgatory,” featuring the same stewed tomato foundation. Both dishes are likely drawn from nearby North Africa during the Ottoman Empire, and during that time, meat (not tomatoes) was the original main ingredient.

My produce and pantry inventory included everything I needed for a hearty shakshuka, and it landed on our table last night as breakfast for dinner on Meatless Monday. I couldn’t resist serving this with the soft pita breads that have become such a staple in our home.

The soft pita is perfect for sopping up this rich tomato stew.

Basic Ingredients

Extra virgin olive oil (how much depends on what you’re adding)

1/2 medium onion, chopped

3 cloves garlic, chopped

1 28 oz. can whole peeled tomatoes in puree*

4 eggs

Optional Ingredients

Depending on your taste, and your inventory, consider adding any of these ingredients. It’s your kitchen, and you can make your shakshuka as chunky or saucy as you’d like. For the most authentic experience of this dish, I’d recommend keeping with ingredients that are common to the Middle East, where shakshuka was born.

Up to 1 cup other vegetables, such as fresh cauliflower, fresh cubed eggplant, fresh chopped bell peppers

Up to 1 cup canned chickpeas or cooked lentils, or 1/2 cup in combination with your favorite vegetables (above)

Up to 2 cups fresh greens, chopped (they will cook down to small amount, so be generous)

Other flavor enhancers, such as olives, capers, spices, tomato paste, chile peppers

There’s so much tangy, rich sauce in this dish, you’ll want to have some kind of bread nearby for sopping. Pita is a great option, or any other kind of soft bread is just right.

*Notes

I’ve never made the same shakshuka combination twice, but I tend to steer toward more body and texture when we are having it for dinner. And it always depends on what I find in the fridge. For this post, I used the basic ingredients, then reached into the fridge for some add-ins. Les made his fabulous pimiento cheese last weekend, and a half can of spicy Rotel tomatoes and a half jar of pimientos were still in the fridge. In they went, along with about a cup of chopped fresh cauliflower, 1/2 can garbanzo beans, a fat handful of chopped kale leaves, some briny olives and capers, tomato paste to thicken and harissa to add flavor and heat.

Harissa is a spicy paste-like seasoning that has origin in Northern Africa. It has hot chiles and garlic, plus what I call the three “C spices”—cumin, coriander and caraway. Harissa is common to Moroccan cuisine, and lends wonderful depth of flavor to stewed dishes like shakshuka.

Instructions

  1. Place a cast-iron skillet over medium heat. Swirl in olive oil and sauté onions, cauliflower and any other firm vegetables until lightly caramelized.
  2. Add garlic, canned tomatoes, tomato paste, and any other add-ins that strike your fancy. Season to taste with salt and pepper. For my recipe, I also added a little smoked paprika and ground cumin. Stir to combine ingredients evenly and cook over medium low heat for about 20 minutes so that the tomatoes lose the “canned” flavor and mixture begins to thicken like a stew.
  3. Use the back of a large spoon to create slight depressions to hold the eggs. Crack eggs, one at a time, into a custard cup and transfer them into the dents you’ve made, sprinkle them with salt and pepper, cover the skillet and simmer until eggs are set to your liking. Alternatively, you can slide the skillet into a 350° F oven and bake about 15 minutes, or until eggs reach your desired doneness.
  4. Garnish with fresh chopped parsley or oregano and serve with soft pita breads or other bread for sopping all the shakshuka sauce.
Oh, yes, some crumbled feta on top!

So easy, even a shiksa can make it! Shakshuka is delicious, easy and economical. Serve it family style, and let everyone scoop out their own portion into a bowl.

Want to print this recipe?