Miss Ginsu: About/Bio


A (Modern) Jazz Age Cocktail

"First you take a drink, then the drink takes a drink, then the drink takes you."
- F. Scott Fitzgerald

Jazz Age Dancers

Say you find yourself standing on an uninhabited island among gaily costumed picnickers with a cocktail in your hand, a dance floor and orchestra before you, a pie contest to your left and the Dorothy Parker Society just behind you.

Pie Contest Here

Never fear. You're probably not dreaming or in a time warp. In fact, I'm guessing you're simply getting in on what more and more New Yorkers are doing this year — spending an afternoon on Governor's Island.

Spiffy Cars

In case you're unfamiliar with the place, my use of the word "uninhabited" isn't a typo. Governor's Island is officially a public park space, having been vacated by the Coast Guard after 1996. The park service folks clear out all visitors each night (which is a shame, because I'd move there in a heartbeat).

And what a public space it is... 172 lush, tree- and rolling grass-covered acres full of strange, abandoned apartment complexes, gorgeous Civil War-Era buildings, a fort (complete with cannons), and as of recently, an archaeological dig and a Water Taxi Beach.

But I digress. You were holding a cocktail and watching the flappers dance the Charleston, weren't you?

Michael Arenella & His Dreamland Orchestra put on periodic Jazz Age Lawn Parties on Governor's Island. Fun, no?

The one produced just today was also sponsored by St-Germain, makers of tasty elderflower liqueur with which one might, if so inclined, make mighty strong cocktails the likes of which you see in this photo.

St-Germain Cocktail

Now technically the Jazz Age took place during the era of US prohibition, but we all know there was still plenty of drinking going on. And, as it turns out, The St-Germain isn't terribly far off the classic Gin Rickey said to be favored by Fitzgerald — one of the most recognized spokesmen of the Jazz Age.

Anyway, I found it tasty, so I'll pass on the recipe to you, dear reader. (I'm sure the company won't mind. Corporate marketing departments are generally pretty happy about spontaneous viral exposure.)

The St-Germain
2 shots Champagne (or Sauvignon Blanc)
1 1/2 shots St-Germain Liqueur
Top with 2 shots soda water or sparkling water
Mix in a tall, ice-filled glass and garnish with a lemon twist

And by the way, if you're local and interested in zany events of this kind, Gov Island tweets, so it's easy to keep up with all the wonder and weirdness they have on offer.

To see more Jazz Age Lawn Party photos (including Michael Cumella's lovely gramophone) click here.

Miss Ginsu

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Video Farm Trip II: The Antique Roadshow

One of the most interesting things I learned while visiting Garden of Eve Farm just recently is the way that small-scale organic veggie farmers like Chris and Eve are looking to the technology of yesterday to help them streamline their work today.

Farm Implements
All-Crop Combine in the back, New Holland (a seeder, I think) up in the front.

When you really think about it, this makes sense. It wasn't until after WWII that American farmers started using industrial pesticides and fertilizers.

That brave new world made greater yields possible, and US food prices dropped. There was much rejoicing, and the decades since that time have increasingly been devoted to developing equipment for a different kind of farm altogether: the large-scale commercial farm.

Celli Equipment
I believe this one is an old mechanical spader from Celli, an Italian company

So these days, looking to the farm equipment of the 1930s, 40s and 50s really does seem like smart a way to give small family farmers access to the height of technology in those years when "organic" farming practices were the norm.

In this video, Chris talks about how he tracked down his All-Crop Combine, a machine that's remarkable for its ability to harvest everything from large seeds like soybeans to even itty-bitty flower seeds.

And I must admit, Chris' All-Crop is a pretty cool machine. If you want to learn more about it, there are groups devoted to the admiration of old combines like this one. I particularly like the antique advertising displays at this site.

One last farm video on the way tomorrow!

Miss Ginsu

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Cinco de Mayo Whoopie Pies

When I started writing this particular post last October (yes, it's been bounding around the lobes of my brain for a while) I wondered whether Whoopie Pies were poised to be the new Cupcakes.

Back then, I wrote,
"I feel like I'm seeing whoopie pies everywhere I turn. And aren't cupcakes far too 2002 these days?"

But now that I've made a couple of batches of whoopie pies, I realize they're no match for the mighty cupcake. I've come to this conclusion for three key reasons:

1. The Cuteness Factor. Cupcakes are cute. Even scribbled drawings of cupcakes are cute. Whoopie pies are homely.

2. The Travel Factor Cupcakes are less portable than cookies, but whoopie pies are even worse. The filling tends to squish out inappropriately in transit.

3. The Fan Base Nobody puts Cupcake in a corner.

Gigantic Whoopie Pie
The new cupcake? I don't think so.

I do volunteer baking for the Craig's Kitchen Dessert Corps, which organizes a troop of oven-ready cooks to produce desserts for my local soup kitchen. It's a very cool endeavor.

The dessert assignment changes each week, so I've done everything from rice krispie treats to pumpkin cheesecake brownies and red velvet cake.

One of the recent assignments was to make whoopie pies, which seemed interesting and fun until the time came to actually do it and the weather was a random, record-setting 90° F. In April, for the luvvagod.

The hot oven heated my already overheated apartment. The filling drooped and melted. Each very tasty (but very goopy and sticky) whoopie pie was ultimately only barely contained by the individual zip-top sandwich bags into which I slipped them.

I tried to refrigerate the whole messy bunch of them, but delivery to the soup kitchen required they be okay at room temperature... and I'm afraid these little cookie sandwiches probably ended up being a bit too volatile to handle.

Picture the poor and luckless masses of my neighborhood struggling through exploding packs of marshmallow goo to dig out their chocolate whoopie cookies. Seemed like something just short of a dessert fiasco.

What then, would send me back to make more whoopie pies? Well, 1. leftover ingredients and 2. the kind of wisdom that only comes from sorry experience.

This time, I'll be making whoopie pies with a Cinco de Mayo twist (hooray for spiced chocolate!) and I'm not assembling them until I'm safely on location at the event. Then they can ooze and drip all they want.

I'm also making each "pie" into a much smaller affair. The whoopie pies I first baked up were based on a recipe that made enormous versions... 4 to 5 inches across, as you'll see in the photo above at the top of the page.

Whoopie Pie Platter

While my version is by no means bite-sized, you'll find my whoopies are a much more petite treat (more like 2.5 to 3 inches across), which is more than plenty. Those mega-whoopies are enough to feed two to three people, and honestly, who wants to share?
Mini Mexican Chocolate Whoopie Pies (Makes 12-13)
3 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cup cocoa powder
1 tsp salt
1 2/2 tsp baking soda
1 Tbsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp ground cayenne
1 1/3 cups buttermilk (or plain yogurt mixed with milk)
1 tsp vanilla extract
3/4 cup unsalted butter, softened
1 1/3 cups brown sugar
2 eggs

For the filling
1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened
1 cup powdered confectioner's sugar
2 cups marshmallow creme or marshmallow fluff
1 tsp vanilla extract

1. Heat the oven to 375°F and use a little oil or butter to grease two large baking sheets.
2. In a medium-sized mixing bowl, sift together the dry ingredients: flour, cocoa powder, salt, baking soda, cinnamon and cayenne.
3. In a separate, smaller bowl, blend the buttermilk and vanilla.
4. In a large mixing bowl, blend the butter and brown sugar until the mixture is light and fluffy. Whip in the eggs until well incorporated.
5. Into the butter mix, alternate adding the blended dry ingredients and the buttermilk mixture, starting and ending with the dry ingredients. The mix will be very sticky.
6. Drop 1/4 cup portions of the batter 2 inches apart on the greased baking sheets, place the sheets in the oven and bake for about 8 minutes. Allow to cool on the baking sheet for 3 minutes before moving the "cookies" to racks to cool fully.
7. To make the filling, blend together the butter, confectioner's sugar, marshmallow creme and vanilla extract.
8. Assemble the whoopie pies by slathering a few tablespoon's worth of the filling on the flat side of one of the cookies. Top the filling with the flat side of another cookie. Repeat this process with the rest of the cookies and filling.
9. Serve immediately, or chill until serving time to help firm up the filling.

If I only had a jar of dulce de leche sitting around the house, I'd try to whip up a filling with that instead of the marshmallow creme (doesn't that sound decadent?) but I do believe these whoopies will have the same whoopie-inducing effect either way.

With that, I bid you a delightful Cinco de Mayo, and may your whooopie-making always be fun, gratifying and easy to clean up.

Happy Eating!
Miss Ginsu

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Bee Smart: 10 Things You Didn't Know About Honey

In honor of Earth Day this week, we'll be doing the Bee Sweet Bake Sale at work to benefit honey bee research.

With that in mind, I thought it might be fun to review some fascinating facts about our favorite bee-stuff: honey. Bet there's at least a couple you didn't know. (Unless you're a beekeeper, in which case I really hope you do know all ten.)

Bee Smart

1. There are four honey grades (Grade A = Good; Grade B = Reasonably Good; Grade C = Fairly Good; Substandard = Poor), and although the USDA sets up the standards, the way a beekeeper grades honey is completely subjective. So it may pay to give your honey an eyeball and grade it yourself before you buy.

Better yet, seek out and support your local beekeepers.

2. Untreated honey seems to have powers of preservation and protects against some kinds of foodborne pathogens.

3. Honey is an acid (with a between 3.2 and 4.5), which also helps prevent bacteria... yet another reason why you can keep it at room temperature in your cupboard.

4. Honey absorbs moisture and odors. So keep it sealed tightly and don't store it near smelly things.

5. Honey can be used in place of sugar in some recipes, but it's important to be careful with the quantities. According the the very useful guide on cooking with honey at the University of Minnesota, "if a recipe calls for 1/2-cup sugar or less, omit the sugar and use the same amount of honey instead." But be careful with larger substitutions. Honey brings both liquid and flavor to the recipe.

6. Research indicates that honey can be used to effectively treat minor to moderate burns, helping to bring healing up to four days earlier. That's good to know as sunburn season approaches...

7. Honey was used in ancient times to brew mead, a treat enjoyed across the ancient world from China through Scandinavia.

Here's an entertaining quote from The Theft of Thor's Hammer in World Mythology in which Viking god Thor, dressed in drag to pass as the goddess Freya, demonstrates an appetite worthy of an immortal:
"Evening arrived, and with it Thrym's beloved. The giants set a feast of food and ale before the bride. She quickly consumed all the sweet dainties that had been reserved for the women, plus a whole ox and eight large salmon. She drank more than three horns of mead."

8. Most of the world's honey is produced in... surprise! China.

9. Honey makes sweet guest appearances in the texts of the world's major religions. It's memorably mentioned in the Christian book of Exodus to describe the Promised Land as a place "flowing with milk and honey." It's key for Jewish celebrations at Rosh Hashanah, for Buddhists in the festival of Madhu Purnima and for followers of Islam, there is both mention of honey and also a chapter in the Qur'an called al-Nahl (the Bee).

10. Used in cosmetics since the time of Cleopatra (she was reported to bathe in honey and milk), honey continues to be a popular ingredient in skin and hair treatments.

The National Honey Board suggests you make like Cleo and add 1/4 cup honey to your bath water "for a fragrant, silky bath." Find more NHB beauty recipes at their Beauty Fact Sheet PDF.

Sweetly Yours,
Miss Ginsu

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Recession Proof: Rumsford's Soup

If you read much food writing, you may have encountered writer MFK Fisher's notes on thrifty cuisine.

In her 1942 recession-proof tome, How to Cook a Wolf she wrote of an inexpensive, nutritious meat-grain subsistence loaf (writer Jeffrey Steingarten later taste-tested that very recipe in The Man Who Ate Everything).

But far earlier than that, in the late 1700s, a remarkably multi-talented scientist/inventor named Benjamin Thompson (later known as Count von Rumford) was also interested in nutritious subsistence food, which led him to the creation of Rumford Soup.

Soup Bowl

The original Rumford Soup was composed of nothing more than pearl barley, yellow peas, potatoes, salt, old, sour beer and maybe a bit of vinegar. Cheap eats, indeed.

In today's prices, Rumford's recipe makes a meal for less than $1 per person, the most expensive ingredient being the beer.

This soup (as well as his efficient stove innovations) caught on in Europe and America and led to the establishment of the soup kitchens that nourished generations of the poor.

The traditional version of the recipe goes something like this:
Classic Rumford Soup (Serves 6)

1 cup pearl barley
1 cup dried yellow split peas
4 cups diced potatoes
1 tsp salt, or to taste
3 cups water
3 cups (2 12oz bottles) wheat beer (hefeweizen)
Malt or cider vinegar (to taste)

1. Put the barley, split peas, potato cubes, salt and water in a large stockpot. Slowly simmer the mixture for 1 to 2 hours, adding additional water, as necessary.
2. When the soup begins to thicken, add the beer and continue to simmer for 20 minutes.
3. Season to taste with a little vinegar and more salt, if needed. Serve with bread.

I think this recipe could be improved immensely by replacing the beer with some flavorful stock and adding some ground black pepper, a liberal sprinkling of grated Parmesan cheese and a sprinkle of fresh parsley... but all that would obviously add a few cents onto the per-person price.

I've come up with a revisited version of Rumsford's famous soup, which is a little more dolled up and comes out to about $2 per serving if you make your own stock.
The Rumsford Redux (Serves 6)
4 cups chicken, beef or vegetable stock
1 1/2 cups split yellow peas
2 medium potatoes, diced
2 Tbsp olive oil
1 large onion, diced
1 cup pearl barley
1 to 2 bay leaves
1 to 2 carrots, peeled and sliced (1/2")
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
Salt & ground black pepper, to taste

Soup Garnish (optional)
1 small red onion, minced
1 Tbsp chopped fresh parsley
Juice of 1 lemon

1. In a heavy-bottomed stock pot, combine the 4 cups broth with the peas and the potatoes.
2. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, then reduce the heat to a steady simmer. Covered and cook until the peas and potatoes are tender, about 45 minutes.
3. Meanwhile, heat a large skillet over medium heat. Saute the onion in the oil about 8 minutes. Remove from the heat and add to the potatoes and peas.
4. Add the barley and carrot and continue simmering until the barley is tender, about 40 minutes.
5. Prepare the garnish by combining the chopped onion, parsley and lemon in a small bowl.
6. Remove the soup from the heat, and if it seems a bit thin, add a little more water. Stir in the grated cheese, and season with salt and pepper. Serve with small spoonful of the garnish (if using) atop each portion.

Obviously, Rumsford's soup was vegan-friendly, and my modernized version can certainly be made vegetarian or vegan as well... just make sure the stock is veggie and skip the cheese.

AND as promised, here's the solution to yesterday's soup crossword.

Yours in tasty thrift,
Miss Ginsu

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Day 9: What Would Jesus Eat?

This post marks Day 9 of Miss Ginsu's 2008 Advent Calendar. To find other days and other projects, use the calendar page to navigate.

I find it really interesting that the Christmas season is supposed to be about the birth of Christ, and yet modern-era Christmas celebrations don't feature anything that calls to mind the early Christian-era foods... that is, the foods of the Middle East.

Rather than eating something like pita with hummus and baba ganoush or a Moroccan Stew or Spiced Ground Lamb, we feast on roasted turkey or baked hams for the holidays.

Nutted Halvah

To remedy this obvious oversight in our holiday celebrations, today's advent calendar features an ancient recipe.

Halvah, an earthy-sweet sesame treat, has been common in the Middle East through time immemorial, so I feel confident that Jesus himself must have encountered it at some point during his journeys.

In my own childhood, I knew only the marbled sesame halvah that my dad liked so much, but a little research revealed that people make halvah with a wide variety of nuts, fruits, roots and grains.

The buttery Indian pudding known as sooji ka halwa is a common halvah variation. In fact, halwa in Arabic simply indicates a sweet of some kind. Fascinating!

I've seen recipes that include flour, which sounds pretty unappealing. I decided to go with a simple multi-nut halvah recipe made with milk and honey (synonymous with ancient luxury) for maximum holiday decadence.

Depending on your preferences, you could surely substitute other nuts or skip them altogether.

I'm also using a little vanilla here, but if you want to go crazy with authenticity, just omit it.
Pistachio-Almond Halvah (Makes a 9" x 3" slab)
1 cup sesame paste (tahini)
1/3 cup honey
1/2 Tbsp vanilla (optional)
1 1/4 cups powdered milk
1/2 cup toasted almonds, chopped
1/2 cup pistachios, chopped

1. Combine the tahini, honey, vanilla and powdered milk until well blended. The mixture should be very dry.
2. Fold in the almonds and pistachios.
3. Pack the mixture very firmly into an 9" by 3" cake pan, or a pan of similar size.
4. Use knife to loosen the edges of the halvah, and turn the slab onto a tray or platter. Refrigerate until firm (at least 2 hours) before cutting into thin slices to serve.

Jesus probably would've had wine mixed with water or maybe an infusion of herbs alongside his halvah, but thanks to the wonders of global trade, we can enjoy ours with coffee or tea.

Happy Eating!
Miss Ginsu

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Egg Cream: No Egg, No Cream. Still Good.

"When I was a young man, no bigger than this
A chocolate egg cream was not to be missed
Some U-Bet's Chocolate Syrup, seltzer water mixed with milk
Stir it up into a heady fro', tasted just like silk
You scream, I scream, We all want Egg Cream"
— Lou Reed from Egg Cream

If you ever move to New York — and lots of folks do just that each year — you are bound to encounter the classic beverage that goes by the name Egg Cream.

My coworkers graciously provided egg cream-makin' supplies for my birthday fest. Ain't they sweet?

If you don't see the egg cream in some ironic "deconstructed" form at a schmantzy bar, you'll meet it at a luncheonette or deli (the 2nd Avenue Deli makes theirs in a dairy-free version). Or maybe you'll try one at the Lower East Side Egg Rolls & Egg Creams Festival that the Museum at Eldridge Street puts on every summer. No matter. You'll find it.

Of course, you could always cut out the middle-man and make your own. They're mighty tasty. And as Lou Reed reveals, it's truly simple process: all you'll need is a glass, a spoon, chocolate syrup, milk and seltzer water.

But first, what's the deal with the misleading name? An egg cream does taste creamy, so that part of the term isn't much of a stretch. But as it turns out, there's some contention about the "egg" in an egg cream.

It's possible that the "egg" came from the Yiddish word "echt" (good), as in "good cream," and that's a popular theory — but knowing how common raw eggs used to be in cocktails and in the drinks at soda fountains, I suspect that original versions of the egg cream used creamy, frothy eggs in the raw... Rocky Balboa style.

I can almost hear the vigilant souls at the New York Health Department shudder as I type that.

But the modern egg cream has not a drop of egg, so relax and follow the authentic directions conveniently provided by Fox's on every bottle of their famed U-Bet Chocolate Syrup:

* Take a tall, chilled, straight-sided, 8oz. glass
* Spoon 1 inch of U-bet Chocolate syrup into glass
* Add 1 inch whole milk
* Tilt the glass and spray seltzer (from a pressurized cylinder only) off a spoon, to make a big chocolate head
* Stir, Drink, Enjoy

Miss Ginsu

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Old Mr. Boston's Bronx Cheer

Flipping through my Old Mr. Boston De Luxe Official Bartender's Guide (1960 edition, naturally...), I was struck by how many random place names pop up in the cocktails.


There's the Alaska and Alabama cocktails, but with no explanation, Old Mr. Boston gives no such honor to Arizona or Arkansas.

Baltimore represents in the form of both the Baltimore Bracer and the Baltimore Eggnog, but is there a Brooklyn? No. Sadly, there's not. No cocktail for you, Brooklyn.

New York rates two drinks, of course Manhattan gets its own (quite famous) cocktail, and even Fifth Avenue rates a drink, but strangely, of the boroughs Mr. Boston had available for cocktail honors, did he crown Queens? (That'd be a no.) Or stop by Staten Island? (That'd be a hell, no.)

Folks, Old Mr. Boston had it going for The Bronx.

Five cocktail listings for ye olde Bronck's Land. And why is that, anyway? A nod to the thicket of bootleggers and gangs that thrived there during the prohibition era? Does it go even further back to even seedier activities? Only Mr. Boston knows.

And, well, yes... Wikipedia also knows. (Or at least it sorta knows.) Apparently the Bronx Cocktail was the toast of 1934, devised either by Bronx restaurateur Joe Sormani, or perhaps whipped up on a whim in Philly and named for The Bronx's famed zoo. Aw!

Whatever the true origin story, we can appreciate the simple beauty of The Borough's namesake cocktail. All five variations focus on gin with various measures of vermouth, citrus juice and garnish. Easy to make, easy to drink.

I'll list out my two favorites — the straight-up Bronx Cocktail, and the evocatively named Bronx Terrace... where I envision 1934's newly retired bootleggers laid back, sippin' on gin and juice in the really, really old-school Bronx style.
Bronx Cocktail

1 oz dry gin
1/2 oz sweet vermouth
1/2 oz dry vermouth
Juice of 1/4 orange

Shake well with cracked ice and strain into a 3-ounce cocktail glass. Serve with a slice of orange.

Bronx Terrace Cocktail

1 1/2 oz dry gin
1 1/2 oz dry vermouth
Juice of 1/2 lime

Shake well with cracked ice and strain into a 3-ounce cocktail glass. Garnish with a cherry.

(Bronx) Cheers,
Miss Ginsu

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Sipping Italy's Cups of Gold

Based around its fresh, local ingredients, Italy clearly boasts one of the world's greatest cuisines.

That said, it's not difficult for a hungry traveler to find a soggy slice of pizza, a vile vino or a poorly treated plate of pasta. Having just returned from a week in the regions of Lazio and Abruzzo, I can attest to a wide range of quality on offer.

Cup of Gold
Tazza d'Oro... a cup of gold

But Italian coffee is a different story altogether. Espresso on every corner. Freshly ground beans in every tiny village. Lattes, cappuccinos and macchiatos sipped by members of every social strata.

In Italy, superlative coffee isn't reserved for the well-born. It's drink of the people.

But why Italy? Coffee beans don't grow there. Wouldn't it make sense for the modern-day center of coffee culture be a little closer to the source of the beans? Like, say... Ethiopia, from whence the coffee bean is supposed to have originated?

Coffee Bags
Coffee bags from Crop to Cup

As it turns out, Italy may not be a source of coffee beans, but the country's been an enthusiastic importer for centuries.

The port city of Venice, Italy, sucked up goods of all kinds from North Africa, the Middle East and beyond. Coffee beans made their appearance there in the 1500s, and by 1645, the first European coffee house had opened (by this time the Turks were already old hands at the bean-slinging business, having opened Constantinople's Kiva Han, their first official coffee house, in 1471).

But clearly, this dark, bitter drink from foreign lands must have been the work of the devil. That's precisely what priests who petitioned Pope Clement VIII tried to claim in 1600.

Fortunately for coffee junkies everywhere, the Pope tried a cup and proclaimed it “so delicious that it would be a pity to let the infidels have exclusive use of it.”

He determined to “cheat Satan by baptizing it,” and a bloom of European coffee house openings followed. Caffè Florian, in Venice, was established in 1720 and remains one of the oldest houses still in operation.

Caffe Machhiato
Caffè Macchiato

That said, I'm told that Captain John Smith, one of the founders of the colony of Virginia, brought coffee to Jamestown in 1607, and I know that The Boston Tea Party the New York Stock Exchange and the Bank of New York were all conceived in the New World's early coffee houses, so why do I still find weak, insipid coffee as I travel these United States?

I have no firm answers, but my best theory is this: we expect less.

When cloth sacks of green coffee beans sailed into Venetian ports all those centuries ago, they were probably a just few weeks old. By the time those beans traveled through Europe and overseas to the colonies, months had passed. They'd grown older, less nuanced and all the more expensive.

Colonists in what would eventually become the United States grew accustomed to a weaker cup.

That's what they made, and that's what generations thereafter recognized as coffee. The drip machine in the break room. The diner pot resting on the hot plate. We milk it and sugar it. And why not? We usually can't taste the coffee bean's more delicate flavors anyway.

Some claim the Caffè Americano (espresso with extra water added) was created as a more palatable beverage for American soldiers who marched en masse through Italy during World War II. It's probably an apocryphal story, but it sticks around because it illustrates an important point.

Drinks at Cafe Grumpy
Cortado and Cappuccino at Cafe Grumpy, Brooklyn

Though at least 54% of Americans sip coffee every day, the drip pot still reigns supreme. We don't need our morning cup of joe to have delicate flavor. It's about the caffeine.

But in the wake of the Seattle coffee revolution of the '70s, espresso-based drinks are far more widely recognized and consumed in the States. That seems like good news. As a nation, we're learning more about the bean, where it comes from and the subtlety it can show.

And who knows? With any luck, in a few more decades, we might begin to find proper espresso machines posted in all the truck stops and diners of rural America. Four hundred years after good coffee became working-class in Italy, everyone from miners to meter maids might regularly enjoy all that a fresh, well-treated bean has to offer.

Hey, a junkie can dream, right?


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April Fish!

I love-love-love the tale behind the poisson d'avril, aka the April fish. And to think! I went my whole life not knowing this slippery story until last year when J filled me in, bless him!

If you already know, just skip ahead to the recipe. If not, allow me to unwind this kinky yarn:

Waaay back in the day, Charles IX decreed that January 1 would officially be the new New Year's Day in France. Now, personally, I resent that decision because the holidays get so bunched up in late December that I'm never ready for another one on January 1. It just seems overcrowded. I've had more than enough hors d'oeuvres and cocktails by the end of Christmas, thank you very much.

It seems the good people of 1564 felt similarly. They'd been whooping it up on April 1 for pretty much... forever (doesn't late winter / early spring seem a perfectly reasonable time of year to whoop it up?), and they were none too thrilled with stupid old Charlie IX.

Plenty of other people didn't hear about the change of dates at all. Boy howdy! Didn't they look stupid kicking up their crazy yellow tights and crimson doublets, clowning around and celebrating the new year on April 1st when everyone else was calmly calculating the results of their first fiscal quarter.

It became a common prank in France to attempt to sneak a dead fish into the clothing of one's friends. (A dangerous liaison, indeed!) Sticking a paper fish to friends and loved ones has become the more modern (and far less stanky) version of this bizarre ritual.

Trout Duxelles

While I may try to sneak a paper fish or two onto some of my co-workers (not that they'd have any idea what I was on about...), I'd much prefer to receive my April fish in the form of dinner.

Thanks to a pair of whole, fresh rainbow trout, brussels sprouts, some herbs, a shallot and a handful of mushrooms, it's easy to whip up a schmantzy dinner in no time flat. (No foolin'!)

A duxelles (dook-SEHL) sounds challenging (that's French for you), but it's just sauteéed mushrooms and onions (or shallots) with a little thyme and some parsley. Divide the mixture between two cleaned and trimmed trout, rub on a little olive oil and roast. And that's about all there is to it.

Trout Duxelles with Roasted Brussels Sprouts
Trout Duxelles (Serves 2)

1 Tbsp unsalted butter
1 large or 2 medium-sized shallots, sliced thin
1 lb button mushrooms, chopped
Salt and pepper to taste
3 Tbsp red wine or sherry
1/2 tsp thyme
2 Tbsp chopped parsley
2 rainbow trout, cleaned and trimmed
Olive oil (to coat the trout)

1. Preheat oven to 400°F.

2. Melt the butter in a skillet over medium heat and add the shallots. Sauté until fragrant, about 2 to 3 minutes.

3. Add the mushrooms to the pan with a dash of salt and pepper. Stir frequently to avoid uneven cooking.

4. After 15 minutes or so, the mushrooms should have shrunken considerably and should be apt to stick to the pan a bit. Add the wine or sherry to the pan to deglaze. (Take this opportunity to work any stuck bits off the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon.)

5. Add herbs and simmer until the alcohol has reduced. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

6. Place trout on a baking sheet and rub exterior with a little olive oil.

7. Divide the duxelles and spoon into the body cavity of each trout. Bake for about 20 minutes, or until trout flesh is white and opaque. Serve with a good ale and a crisp salad, a nice rice pilaf or roasted vegetables.

Happy eating!

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Diet & Exercise, Circa 1900

By now, I think most of us who pay attention to food trends know Michael Pollan's succinct mantra, as stated in the New York Times last year: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants."

This weekend, J ran across a little gem on Google's online and out-of-copyright book collection that reminded me of Pollan's levelheaded, simply stated health advice.

It's a book on training by a boxer who was perhaps the biggest badass of the late 19th Century: Robert Fitzsimmons, AKA The Freckled Wonder.

Though the word choices are antiquated, I love how well his simple statements have held up over time. A few updates to the prose and Fitzsimmons could be addressing the denizens of cubicle-land today...

Rock Climbing in Central Park


A Simple Diet and Easy Indoor Exercise

HERE is some advice for the business man, the lawyer, doctor, broker, clerk, salesman: any man, in fact, who is kept indoors much of the time.

Most men of this class take on weight. They become big and fat: uncomfortably so.

This advice will show them how they can keep in fairly good trim, notwithstanding the fact that they have practically no available time at their disposal for exercise of any description.

Take the business man who, having reached middle age, is beginning to get stout. Owing to this increase in weight he begins to have aches and pains. His muscles are not trained to support the extra weight which he is taking on.

Here is your diet, and you must adhere to it if you want to obtain proper results.

Abstain from the use of all fatty and starchy food. Eat all kinds of meat except pork. Eat all varieties of green vegetables, fruits, and dry toast, and drink your tea without sugar. Do not eat potatoes, butter, fresh bread, or sugar.

Years before the Atkins plan or modern nutritional research, Fitzsimmons' advice sounds a little South Beach Diet-y, doesn't it? As my mum says, "There's nothing new under the sun..."

At this point The Freckled Wonder prescribes a daily regimen consisting of two exercises to be done in both the morning and evening: paired leg lifts (20 reps) and basic push-ups (ten reps).

My favorite part of this chapter is what comes next: A smart little pep-talk on the power of persistence.
Above all things you must be regular, and do not look for too speedy results.

You cannot hope to stick to this diet and these exercises for two or three mornings and then jump on the scales and find that you have dropped five or ten pounds.

It will be at least two or three weeks before you commence to lose weight. Then you will drop from two to five pounds a week.

You must impress it upon your mind, how ever, that there must be no weakening on the tasks that you have laid down for yourself.

Some cold mornings you will get up, possibly after a hard night, feeling languid and unrefreshed. Instead of taking your cold bath, rub down, and exercises, you may be tempted to say, "Oh! I’ll just skip it this once, and jump into my clothes."

Such weakness is fatal. Persevere!

Yes, dear readers! January resolutions may, by now, have smashed to bits upon the rocks of passing weeks, and a sodden February lull may have taken up their place in your mind, but Perservere! You, too, will find your way to successful harbors.

In the same way that Michael Pollan slimmed down his voluminous dining advice for easy consumption, Fitzsimmons can probably be trimmed thusly:

Avoid simple carbohydrates. Do basic calisthenics daily. Keep at it.

Good advice in 1901. Good advice more than a century later.

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A Quick Bite of 1946, Anyone?

I think most of us have played the "would you rather" game. It's usually a contest of bad and worse. Would you rather be turned into a zombie or an oompah-loompah? Would you rather give up your firstborn child to Britney Spears or a tribe of cannibals? Would you rather eat a kitten or a puppy?

The wacky world of Foods 1946 presents us with this conundrum:

Would you rather spend more time in the kitchen and eat a sustainable, locally sourced, home-cooked meal of ham & pureed vegetable soup, roast goose with roasted vegetables and a side of applesauce, mashed potatoes and turnips, fresh-baked corn muffins and then plum pudding and fresh-ground coffee to finish, a'la 1846. (Click into the image for the larger view.)

A Winter Meal of 1846


Would you rather spend less time in the kitchen and enjoy a meal composed of packaged foods: split pea soup (from a mix), canned ham, minute rice, canned asparagus tips, canned artichoke heart salad, corn muffins from a mix and a last course of strawberry shortcake (from frozen strawberries and a biscuit mix) served with instant coffee, a'la 1946.

A Winter Meal of 1946

Granted, I could go for some strawberry shortcake right about now, but I think you see what I'm getting at here.

The world of 1946 was so sure that your answer to this "would you rather" query would favor speed and cheap processed foods, they'd most certainly be floored to hear that 2007 voted "locavore" as the word of the year, that people around the globe ware increasingly more interested in Slow Food or that Community Supported Agriculture programs were thriving and growing.

Oh, 1946! Everything was so plain, so clear and so logical for you, wasn't it?

Tomorrow, just a little more fun from Foods 1946.

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The Long Tail of 1946

Yesterday I introduced the weird, wild, wonderful world of Foods 1946, but to really understand where 1946 was going, it's important to take a quick look at 1945.

Our friends at Wikipedia tell us that 1945 "was a common year starting on Monday. It is most widely known for being the end of World War II. It is also known as the beginning of the Information Age."

But just scan down a very brief list of events that 1945 contained...

America's President up and dies
Hitler and Goebbels kill themselves
Berlin falls
The UN is founded
We see the first atomic bomb testing (quickly followed by the first horrible, horrible atomic bomb usage)
The second World War ends
The first ballpoint pen is sold (for $12.50... ouch!)
Ghandi shouts down the British Empire
We see the dawn of the cold war
The Nuremberg Trials begin
The Cubs are actually in the World Series

... 1945 was HUGE, people.

Frozen meals testing
Hot dog! Frozen meals are promised soon!

With all that in mind, the crazy investment optimism put forth in Foods 1946 seems well-founded. America had survived so much by the time 1946 rolled around. 1945 was dramatic and terrifying. Who wouldn't be tempted to dip into some good, reliable, long-storage processed American food to welcome better days in 1946?

That's why Foods 1946 is actually a love letter to a young, optimistic processed foods industry. The good people of 1946 were looking to America's food industry to offer good, cheap, easy canned, frozen and otherwise manipulated foods to attack the very real monster gnawing at the periphery: famine.

Have a look at the following chart from Foods 1946 of average global caloric consumption as measured in the summer of 1945. (Click into the image for a closer view.)

charting calories consumed, globally, as of summer 1945

You'll notice two things:

1. Half the listed world is starving (creating a handy market for American foods)
2. Americans are averaging waaay more calories than they need*

Is it any wonder that most of the processed food companies featured in Foods 1946 are now international food processing behemoths?

And it any surprise that we're currently dealing with a national obesity crisis? America started gaining weight in 1945 and hasn't stopped in over 60 years.

Tomorrow we'll explore yet more interesting discoveries contained in Foods 1946

(*Nutritionists generally recommend about 1500-2500 calories per person day, depending on the subject's weight and activity.)

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What 1946 Hath Wrought

"The world today looks to the American farmer—To all the American People—for the very means of life. It is a challenge and an opportunity that we shall not shirk."
-Foods 1946

On a recent foraging tour in my new favorite junk shop, Puntaverde Brooklyn's own The Thing (they have a popular myspace page, natch), I came across this irresistible bit of history:

Foods 1946

It's a 1946 edition food processing securities brochure, courtesy of Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Beane. It's essentially profiles and financial information on the major food processing companies of the day: Archer-Daniels Midland, Wesson Oil, Sunshine Biscuits, General Foods, John Morrell & Company, Pillsbury Mills, Inc., and dozens more.

Though that initially might sound as exciting as a sink full of dirty dishes, I can assure you — treasures await.

I picked it up thinking I'd have some fun clip art for the site. There was no way I could resist the proud visage of the post-war American farmer gazing on the face of global famine... and global opportunity. But let me just step aside and let Foods 1946 speak for itself:

"For thousands of years food was raised and eaten in the same community. Famines forced some migration and spices from the East permitted some improvement in food preservation, but generally, our ancestors spent most of their time seeking something to eat and if they did not find it they starved. Food was coarse and plain, there was seldom an abundance and when there was, very little could be kept.

In the past fifty years there has been a world revolution in food."


So this week, I'll guide you through the wonderful world of 1946. We might just discover revealing things about the present. It's a crazy thought. But one never knows...

Tune in tomorrow. Same bat time, same bat channel.

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The World's Lunchboxes

You may be aware that today marks Boxing Day, a tradition that's commonly celebrated in the UK and several of its former colonies.

Dating back to the middle ages, the day after Christmas has traditionally been marked by the giving of gifts (boxed, of course) to employees and the poor.

Boxing day also means post-Christmas sales (hooray!) and the start of a handful of sporting events. (Though, interestingly, boxing doesn't seem to be among them...)

Boy Scouts boxing
A cigarette collectors' card (published ca. 1903-1917), featuring boxing Boy Scouts.*

One of the etymological explanations for Boxing Day roots in a tradition that had servants boxing up Christmas feast leftovers for their home visits and their masters eating boxed meals while the help was away.

For me, all this brings to mind the great diversity of food boxes across the world. Just for a little Boxing Day fun, I'll illustrate a few solutions to the lunch-toting issue herein.

Star Wars Lunchbox
The Star Wars lunch box... a classic!

In the modern U.S., the simple brown bag, the more deluxe insulated cooler bag and the metal or plastic lunch box are popular food transport solutions, though in a bygone era, people would have brought their food with them in baskets, pails or knotted kerchiefs.

The interrupted picnic
A detail from The Interrupted Picnic.*

Pupils at Lunch, 1927, Tinela, Ala
Pupils at Lunch with their lunch pails. Tinela, AL, 1927*

In Japan, bento boxes, those cute, convenient multi-compartmental trays, were traditionally made with durable, beautiful woods and metals and wrapped for travel in a furoshiki cloth, which acted as a dual bag/place mat. Modern bento boxes are often made of disposable materials.

Black Bento Box
Black lacquered bento box from Pearl River

Similar to the bento, the Indian tiffen-boxes (also called dabbas) are a multi-chambered lunch system, but while bentos are horizontally divided, tiffens are tiered.

In India, tiffins/dabbas are carried by tiffin wallahs or dabbawalas, a crack team of heavyweight lunch-luggers, each toting loads averaging 175-200 lb.

Blue Tiffen Box
Multicolored plastic tiffin box via Pearl River

It works this way: wives, servants or caterers pack tasty lunches into tiffins and give them to the wallahs, who transport them the hungry workers. What's really stunning is their accuracy rate — apparently, they average one mistake in every 16,000,000 deliveries.

Honestly, I'd quite like a wallah. The food delivery culture is mighty in New York, but it's sure not like a lunch packed with homemade love.

Anyone know of other lunch transport methods? Jars on heads? Fish in slings? If you know, I'd love to hear about 'em. If you've got anything, throw it down in the comments... in the meantime, a very happy Boxing Day to you!

*Found via the superb NYPL.

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Day 12: What, me bitter?

This post marks Day 12 of Miss Ginsu's 2007 Advent Calendar. To click into other days and other projects, use the calendar page to navigate.

The dank, dark days of December are famously crowded with cocktail parties. Cocktails and latkes for Hanukkah parties, cocktails and pigs in blankets for Christmas parties, cocktails and blini for New Year's Eve.

Aside from the sleek glassware and ostentatious garnishes, my favorite aspect of the cocktail is the stories that follow in the wake of every highball, martini, gimlet and toddy out there. To follow the history of cocktails is to dive down a fascinating rabbit warren of nooks, crannies, characters and concoctions.

My obsession of the moment is with bitters. Having recently discovered that Marlow & Sons, my local shop of culinary wonders was making their own bitters, my mind opened to a new world of possibility.

You can make bitters? Like, not buy them but make them? At home? Without a still? What an adventure!

Yes, Virginia, you can whip up your own homemade bitters. As it turns out, that's what our ancestors used to do. Bitters were common among the herbal tinctures and tonics of an ancient age. And though they're rarely used in cocktails today, bitters preceded the first cock-tails and were, by definition, a necessary component of the earliest cocktail mixes.

The second known printed reference to cocktails comes in the May 13, 1806, edition of the Balance and Columbian Repository of Hudson, New York:
"Cocktail is a stimulating liquor composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters — it is vulgarly called a bittered sling and is supposed to be an excellent electioneering potion, inasmuch as it renders the heart stout and bold, at the same time that it fuddles the head. It is said, also to be of great use to a Democratic candidate: because a person, having swallowed a glass of it, is ready to swallow anything else."

Hardy har har.

In all seriousness, the bitters-making process is embarrassingly easy and endlessly adjustable, based on your own tastes.

There's heaps of ancient recipes out there, calling for everything from obscure botanicals like columbo root, gentian and Virginia snake root to better-known additives like chamomile, cherry bark, cardamom and caraway.

I'm going with lemon, ginger and common household spices for mine. Look how pretty my steeping bitters look!


DIY Citrus Bitters

1/2 cup raisins
2-3 cinnamon sticks
1" piece fresh ginger, sliced
2 lemons, sliced
1 Tbsp whole cloves
1 Tbsp whole allspice
750 ml whiskey, rum or vodka (highest proof you can find)

1. Combine spices, citrus and liquor.
2. Cover, refrigerate and soak for 1-4 weeks.
3. Strain into a clean jar of your choice.

Make bitters now, and they'll be ready for your Christmas and New Year's cocktails.

Toss aside your Angostura and your Campari and imagine how clever you'll look when you whip out your very own home-brewed bitters at your next party.

Or be generous... Make custom labels and give bottles away as gifts.

How will you use your newfound skill in making bitters? Glad you asked! I've included three quick recipes below. Just keep in mind: bitters are not meant for straight-up sipping. Add to cocktails with a light hand, as you would use a seasoning or garnish.
1. Hot Mulled Wine
You may notice some similarity between this recipe and the Hot Mulled Apple Cider recipe from last week. I think they work well in tandem at parties. Offer Mulled Cider to the kids and teetotalers, Mulled Wine to your favorite boozehounds.

1 750-ml bottle red wine
1 cup water
1 tsp DIY Citrus Bitters
1/3 cup honey
2 cinnamon sticks
3 allspice berries
2 star anise
Zest of 1 orange, removed with a vegetable peeler

1. Pour the wine, water, honey and bitters into a large saucepan.
2. Wrap the spices and orange slices in a square of cheesecloth and tie with kitchen string (or simply use a strainer to remove spices and slices the at the end of simmering).
3. Add the spice bag to the pan and heat the wine, uncovered, over very low heat until hot, about 30 minutes.
4. Remove the spice bag (or strain out the spices and oranges), and serve hot, garnished with cinnamon sticks.

2. Citrus Bitters & Soda
Cool and refreshing on a hot summer day.

6 oz DIY Citrus Bitters
6 oz soda water

1. Half-fill a highball glass with ice.
2. Pour in bitters.
3. Fill the rest of the glass with soda water.
4. Top with a twist of citrus. Serve immediately.

3. The Gin Bitter
A cocktail classic. Substitute rum or whiskey for the gin, if you prefer.

2 jiggers gin
2 dashes DIY Citrus Bitters

1. Half-fill an old fashioned glass with cracked ice.
2. Shake gin and bitters with 1/2 cup cracked ice.
3. Pour into prepared glass.
4. Top with a twist of citrus and/or a thin slice of cucumber. Serve immediately.

Happy adventuring, all! Cheers!

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Day 7: Pain, Protection and the Pomander

This post marks Day 7 of Miss Ginsu's 2007 Advent Calendar. To click into other days and other projects, use the calendar page to navigate.

Delightful to smell, dead easy to make and ubiquitous around the holidays, I'd grown up believing the clove-studded orange pomander was the one true thing.

Pomander Progress

As it turns out, pomanders weren't initially citrus-based at all. They were expensive aroma plus precious metals, cherished as the ancient things of queens and kings. The pomanders of old were fancy perfume carriers.

Apparently, the name comes from the French pomme dambre, i.e. "apple of amber." The amber to which they refer is actually the time-tested perfume agent ambergris. And you may, as I do, remember ambergris from your elementary-school cetacean studies as expensive whale vomit. (Darn it, don't you just love etymology?)

In any case, it seems our stinky European forebears used pomanders to ward off the personal and public effluvia that pervaded their stuffy lives. Back in the day, there was widespread belief that airborne funk carried plague, cholera, etc., so a sweet-smelling pomander was seen as a tool of protection.

Pomander Detail
Detail from a painting of an unknown lady holding a pomander on a chain. Pieter Janz. Pourbus

Somehow, pomanders became associated with the holidays. I have a hunch that's a function of the December citrus season connection.

Though our modern lives feature far less stench, I think we still appreciate little things that smell pretty.

Finished pomanders dry, shrink and make excellent holiday decorations. Keep in mind, too, that you can use whichever citrus you prefer or happen to have on hand. I think lemon or lime pomanders would be just as lively.

As I was pushing cloves into an orange recently, my fingers started to hurt a bit. I wimped out and only made a very basic pomander, figuring that fewer cloves gave it a clean and spartan look. Some people go the distance with their pomanders, pushing in dozens of cloves, devising complicated patterns, tying on ribbons and rolling the thing in a mixture of warm spices, like ground cinnamon, ginger, allspice, nutmeg and orris root — a natural preservative.

Later on, I did a little pomander research and realized that most people use a skewer or toothpick to poke holes in the orange before inserting the cloves. Ah, well... Bruised fingertips are a small price for such a merry scent.

J picked up my sparely poked pomander the next morning and compared it to Cenobite villain Pinhead of Clive Barker's Hellraiser series.

Pomander Pinhead
Maybe Clive Barker was really into pomanders...

Accurate maybe, but that's not exactly the look I was going for. So much for simple and clean. Maybe next time I'll use an intricate spiral pattern and spring for some ribbons.

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The Cookies of the Dead

Much as I love Halloween, I think the Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) is far cooler.

A couple of hundred years ago, Halloween held a solid position in the autumn calendar as a religious event. These days, I'd bet a lot of people don't even realize that the "Eve of All Hallows" is supposed to be followed by All Saints' Day on November 1st and All Souls' Day on the 2nd.

Similarly, the Day of the Dead (sometimes called the Día de los Fieles Difuntos) is observed in Mexico from November 1-2. Annual rituals involve activities like cleaning and decorating loved ones' graves and building altars or small shrines that include supremely amusing little skeleton figurines made from paper mache, photos of deceased relatives, crosses, orange marigolds, candles, liquor and food, such as the pan de muerto (bread of the dead).

Dia de los Muertos Altar

While our modern Halloween has lightened its dark roots in favor of overflowing candy buckets for the little ones and sexy cop, nurse, shepherdess, fairy, zombie, etc. costumes for the adults, the Day of the Dead really can't help but remain conscious of the tenuous barrier between life and death. It's right there in the name. More than that, it's rooted in a culture that's apparently more strongly linked to remembrance than candy and costume. And because remembrance is such a personal process, the Day of the Dead necessarily demonstrates a more handmade and individual texture.

Dia de los Muertos Parade

A while back, I visited Tulum and Playa del Carmen on the Yucatán Peninsula during the Día de los Muertos celebrations. Different towns have different celebrations, of course, but Playa del Carmen went all out with an elaborate parade sponsored by the local culture center. It was a stunning carnival of fire and fireworks, undead musicians and jugglers, whirling dancers, springing acrobats and skeletons (both tall and tiny).

Dia de los Muertos Children

Homespun, heart-filled and gorgeous, that celebration was rich with reminders of death, and it made me love life all the more.

You can imagine how ecstatic I was when I found an Alice Medrich recipe for Day of the Dead Cookies in her excellent Chocolate Holidays cookbook. A whole stack of chocolate-vanilla skulls. The accompanying photo was both cute and creepy. I was instantly sold.

When I actually baked them, I discovered that this cookie is little complicated to make and it has about a 50% success rate. By that I mean: Only about half of the cookies are recognizable as skulls. I was initially a little crushed, but then I reconsidered. Even the rejects were delicious and the skulls that work are pretty cute.

Here's my recommendation: Make the cookies and separate them into two piles. Label the rejects, "Chocolate-Vanilla Crinkle Cookies." They're crispy, tasty and excellent with a cup of coffee. Take them to work and give them to your hungry coworkers. The other pile with the more successful skulls are your "Day of the Dead Cookies," and they're cute and crispy and tasty (and also good with coffee). Revel in the fact that they're delicious and imperfectly homemade, much like the Día de los Muertos itself.

Dia de los Muertos Cookies
Spooky, scary or just plain dumb. A gang of tasty skull cookies.

Maya's Day of the Dead Cookies
from Chocolate Holidays by Alice Medrich
(Makes about 3 dozen. About half of them will look like skulls.)

Vanilla Dough:
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
1 cup sugar
1 egg
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract

Chocolate Dough:
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder, Dutch process or natural
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/8 teaspoon salt
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
1/2 cup (packed) brown sugar, lump free
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 egg
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Baking sheets lined with parchment paper

1. To make the vanilla dough, mix the flour, baking powder and salt together thoroughly with a whisk or a fork. Set aside.

2. In a large mixing bowl, beat the butter and sugar with an electric mixer until light and fluffy, 3 to 4 minutes. Beat in the egg and vanilla. On low speed, beat in the flour until just incorporated. Form the dough into a log about 2 inches in diameter. Set aside.

3. To make the chocolate dough, in a medium bowl, mix the flour, cocoa, baking soda, baking powder, and salt together thoroughly with a whisk or fork. Set aside.

4. In a large mixing bowl, beat the butter, brown sugar and granulated sugar with the back of a spoon or an electric mixer until smooth and creamy but not fluffy (less than 1 1/2 minutes with an electric mixer). Beat in the egg and vanilla. On low speed, beat in the flour until just incorporated. Form the dough into a log the same length as the vanilla log. If the dough is too soft and sticky to handle, place it in the freezer to firm up.

5. To shape the skulls, reshape each log of dough so that it is skull-shaped rather than round: Make one side of the skull narrow for the chin and jaw and leave the other side wide for the cranium. Wrap and refrigerate the chocolate dough. Form features in the vanilla dough, using the handle of a wooden spoon to poke holes for eyes through the entire length of the log. Form the nose with a skewer, poking two holes for nostrils. Form the mouth by inserting a narrow table knife and wiggling it back and forth gently to lengthen and widen the opening. Don't try for perfection: irregular holes make the best and weirdest skulls. Wrap and refrigerate the vanilla dough. Chill both doughs at least two hours, preferably overnight.

6. Position racks in the upper and lower thirds of the oven. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Cut the chocolate dough into 1/8-inch slices and place them at least 1 1/2 inches apart on the lined baking sheets. Cut the vanilla dough into 1/8-inch slices and place 1 slice on top of each chocolate slice. Bake until pale golden at the edges, 12 minutes, rotating the baking sheets from top to bottom and front to back halfway through the baking. Slide parchment liners directly from the baking sheets to the rack with a metal pancake turner, waiting 1 to 2 minutes if necessary to let the cookies form up before moving them. Cool cookies completely before stacking or storing. Cookies keep at least 1 week in an airtight container.

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Fig Quote Friday: Platina


"Some figs are called Chian from a place, taking the name from a city in Syria. I think the African fig is so-called from that province. The anxious Cato brought its fruit into the Senate when he was seeking a third Punic War and badgering the senators, especially those who did not think it at all the stuff of Roman virtue that Carthage be destroyed. As soon as he said, 'How long do you think this fruit has been picked from its own tree? Since all agree that it is fresh, know that it was picked not three days ago at Carthage, so close is our enemy,' at once the Third Punic War was launched, by which Carthage, once the rival of the Roman Empire, was destroyed."

— Platina from On Right Pleasure and Good Health, 1465

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Food Quote Friday: Ulysses S. Grant

shallot gone wild

"I will not move my army without onions."

- Ulysses S. Grant (1822 -1885)

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Bizarre Cookbooks: Weman's Cook Book

Weman's Cook Book
An ad for Weman's Cook Book

I really wish I could share a recipe from this cookbook. After all, Mr. Weman claims to produce "noteworthy features entirely distinct from any heretofore published." Tantalizing!

Unfortunately, what I have in my hands here is not a cookbook. Rather, it's a crumbling ad scanned from the back of a decaying book of Irish song lyrics found in my grandmother's estate (seems as though they weren't big on acid-free pages back in the day...). A Google search turns up nothing on the book or on Mr. Weman himself.

I find I'm fascinated by antique advertisements (and recipes) because they hold so much information about the psychology of the era to which they belonged. I feel as though I'm able to capture through them some inkling of the desires and values of certain groups... in this case, early American homemakers.

I love the way the woman in the image hangs in the background, watching the man. Meanwhile, he seems to have a confident mastery of his tasks. Though she was probably trained through a lifetime of household toil, she's merely an apprentice to the genius of this clever gentleman (whom my mind imagines as the talented Mr. Weman).

I've transcribed the text below. I love the random capitalization and the fact that you can purchase the book with stamps "same as cash." See if you, too, don't get a sense of the vastly different world our forefathers (or, more probably foremothers) inhabited as you read along:
This work on Cookery has several noteworthy features entirely distinct from any heretofore published. It is arranged so that the Housewife can tell at a glance the time necessary to Cook any Dish or Article of Diet. It also gives some practical hints and suggestions for selecting the various meats, vegetables, fish, etc., as well as directions for Preserving, Storing, and Keeping them. Special attention is paid to economy, and an effort is made to remove the reproach which justly clings to American Cookery, of being extravagant and wasteful without being palatable and healthful. Full instructions are given to prepare all kinds of Pies Puddings, Cakes, Jellies, etc., as well as preparing and cooking all kinds of Meats, Soups, Gravies, Fish, Vegetables, etc. in an economical and appetizing manner. It also contains considerable miscellaneous information pertaining to the household, such as Removing Kitchen Odors, Grease Spots, Iron Stains, Ink Spots in Books, Cleaning, Scouring, Receipts for Washing, etc. and a variety of others equally useful and necessary to the Housekeeper or Cook. These features make this work the best, most practical and Popular Cook Book ever issued. This book will be sent to any address, postpaid, on receipt of 25 cents. Special.—Five Books for One Dollar. U.S. Postage Stamps taken in payment same as cash.
More cookbook oddities found here in the archives...

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Sugarplums contain no plums


It's true. That sugarplum vision dancing in your head may not necessarily contain any plum. Mark another tally into the book of mythology and misdirection. If there wasn't egg in the eggnog and fruit in the fruitcake, I might lose all faith in tradition.

That said, a sugarplum in the right hands is not prohibited from contact with plums. It just so happens that the word "sugarplum" has changed from a sugary little fruit to a sugary little treat.

Here's the recipe you see in the photo above.
Sugarplums! (Makes about 20 sugarplums)

Chopping the almonds and fruits beforehand won't be necessary if you have a food processor. These treats keep well in a tin or a pretty box lined with parchment or wax paper and make a nice gift. They might last up to a month, but you shouldn't need to find out, since they're tasty and tend to disappear...

1/2 cup toasted almonds, chopped
6 oz dried figs (or dried prunes), roughly chopped
1/2 tsp cinnamon
3 Tbsp unsweetened cocoa powder
1 Tbsp honey
1 Tbsp grated orange zest
1/2 tsp almond extract
about 1/2-3/4 cup turbanado sugar (for rolling)

Combine toasted almonds, chopped fruits, cinnamon, cocoa and almonds in a food processor or mash with a mortar and pestle. Mix until blended and paste-like. Add the honey, orange zest and extract. Pulse or stir until well mixed. Pour the sugar in a small bowl (cereal bowls and soup dishes work well). Scoop teaspoons of the fig paste and roll in your hands to form 1-inch balls. Roll balls in sugar.

Late breaking note: Leslie Harpold's excellent Advent Calendar also included a bit on sugarplums yesterday. Sugarplum Zeitgeist!

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Spiedie Delivery

Down the road apiece, folks might go in for the steak rolls or the hero buns, but in Susquehanna, PA, there's only one bread to use for spiedies.

"You got the Felix Roma?"

The round-faced butcher gestures to a sliced white loaf that — to my eye — is virtually indistinguishable from every other sliced white loaf of other every other packaged brand.

"You gotta have the Felix Roma if you're making spiedies."

Spiedie Ingredients

Spiedie Grill

Spiedie Sandwich

Best known in the area around Binghamton, NY, and the far northeast corner of Pennsylvania (Binghamton even hosts an annual Spiedie Fest and Balloon Rally!), the spiedie is regional identity. The spiedie is folk art. The spiedie is culinary history.

Composed of lemony, marinated, grilled meat chunks (most often chicken or pork these days, but historically the meat of choice was lamb) mounted inside a buttered bun or two slices of sandwich bread (with or without hot sauce... your choice), the spiedie is said to have traveled with Italian immigrants.

Curiously, the sandwich seems to have migrated all the way from Italy to Broome County... and stopped. Web searches indicate that the most passionate spiedie fans now exist within the spiedie's petite home turf and in pockets of those warm-climate areas (Florida, Texas, Arizona) to which native spiediphiles relocate.

From all reports, it would seem as though these transplants order spiedie marinade by the case and convert neighbors with missionary zeal. (Makes me wonder why they don't save some time and money by printing out a recipe from here or here.)

Does the sandwich live up to the hype? Check the Roadfood Forum on spiedies for everything from frothing fanatical praise to lukewarm "eh, they're okay" reviews.

Personally, I don't think they really approach food ecstasy, so I'd probably fall in with the latter camp.

Maybe enthusiasm would run hotter if I had something closer to the lamb-based Italian originals... or if I'd gone with the Binghamton-style steak roll over the Susquehanna-mandated Felix Roma.

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Wooden Rooster

hot clams

Lobsters, chickens and clams! Oh, my!

Born in the late 1800s in forges, foundries and rail-yards, Newark, New Jersey's Ironbound district is now lined with Portuguese and Brazilian salons, fish markets, pastry shops, churrascarias and sporting goods stores brimming with football gear.

On a beautiful Sunday afternoon, we wandered, pointed, peered and purchased olive oil and dried salt cod for later experimentation.

Hungry and tired, we landed at Sagres Bar & Grill (44 Prospect St.), wooed by the promise of beer and sidewalk seating. Unfortunately, beer and sidewalk seating is about all the place has to offer. With a draught beer list mournfully lacking in charm, I settled on the Sam Adams.

We ordered a seafood soup, the clams in cilantro and garlic and the bacalao in peppers, potatoes and onions. The clams and soup were good, if salty. Sadly, the potatoes and onions turned out to be more interesting than the bacalao.

The kitchen's impulse to fling fresh herbs (parsley and cilantro) was a good move, but across the board, the cooks seemed to rely on a one-two punch of chicken stock and salt in place of more carefully nurtured flavor.

The comp breadbasket turned out to be the winner here, full of hearty, chewy slices that enjoyed a good dunk in the seasoned clam juices.

After further reflection and research, I think perhaps Forno's of Spain, Spanish Sangria or Fernandes might have been better choices. Any fellow travelers have good luck in the district? Leave a comment!

Bon appetit!

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Little Red Zombies

Now that cherry season is in full swing, let's take a gander at this fruit's twisted doppleganger... the unnaturally red, uniformly flavored maraschino.

Like tiny Stepford Wives, maraschino cherries begin life as juicy tree fruits but are turned soulless through a process of bleaching, dying and sweetening. Creepy, right?

Fresh Sour Cherries

A little background:
"Maraschino cherries, the kind most often used in drinks and on ice cream sundaes, are made from sweet cherries. The maraschino cherry originated in Yugoslavia and northern Italy where merchants added a liqueur to a local cherry called the 'Marasca.' This cherry product was imported to the United States in the 1890s as a delicacy to be used in the country's finest restaurants and hotels.

In 1896 U.S. cherry processors began experimenting, using a domestic sweet cherry called the Royal Anne. Less liqueur was used in processing and almond oil was substituted for some of the liqueur. Finally, the liqueur was eliminated altogether. By 1920, the American maraschino cherry was so popular that it had replaced the foreign variety in the United States."

Taking a cue from ancient instructions at Uncle Phaedrus, a self-anointed "finder of lost recipes," I've revamped an version of do-it-yourself maraschinos for a smaller batch that suits the modern kitchen.

As it turns out, maraschino-making is very much like pickling, but instead of brine, we use a sweet, colored syrup as the preservative vehicle. I imagine if you're opposed to dyes, you could just leave out the coloring altogether. You'll simply end up with preserved cherries that have a (far more natural) rust-colored hue.
Homemade Maraschino Cherries
For the brine
1/2 quart water
2 tsp kosher salt
1/2 tsp alum

For the cherries
1 lb sugar
1 Tbsp lemon juice
3/4 cup water
1 lb pitted cherries
1/2 Tbsp almond extract
1/2 Tbsp red food coloring

1. In a saucepan, mix the water, salt and alum and bring to a boil. Remove from heat and soak cherries overnight in this brine.

2. Drain the cherries the following day and rinse them in cold water. Pack in sterilized, sealable jars.

3. In a saucepan, combine the sugar, lemon juice and water. Bring to a boil and add the almond extract and red food coloring. Remove from heat and pour the mixture into the jars of cherries.

4. If you want your cherries to be shelf-stable, seal in a water bath (about 20 minutes for pints or 25 minutes for quarts). Or simply seal, chill and store in your refrigerator.

Use to garnish your own homespun sundaes, killer cocktails or crazy-good banana splits.


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Now That's a Cool Tool...

To counterbalance all the dreck and drivel out there on the wild wild web, it's great to run across something that makes you wonder how you ever got along without the internet.

1846 Menu
One of my own fun finds... a suggested winter menu from 1846

Everyone's got their own favorite things, of course, but easy access to an archive of over 5,000 menus dating back to 1856 (via TMN) from the terribly helpful and efficient folks at foodtimeline.org sure does the trick for me.

Check 'em out... it's a great time capsule.

And if you've got resources or tools (web-based or reality based) near and dear to your own heart (or stomach), be a peach and drop me a line!

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Didja Hear the One About the Avocado?

Testicles, avocados and lawyers. This is why I'm in love with etymology:

"The history of avocado takes us back to the Aztecs and their language, Nahuatl, which contained the word ahuacatl meaning both 'fruit of the avocado tree' and 'testicle.' The word ahuacatl was compounded with others, as in ahuacamolli, meaning 'avocado soup or sauce,' from which the Spanish-Mexican word guacamole derives.

Mexicali Avocado

"In trying to pronounce ahuacatl, the Spanish who found the fruit and its Nahuatl name in Mexico came up with aguacate, but other Spanish speakers substituted the form avocado for the Nahuatl word because ahuacatl sounded like the early Spanish word avocado (now abogado), meaning 'lawyer.' In borrowing the Spanish avocado, first recorded in English in 1697 in the compound avogato pear (with a spelling that probably reflects Spanish pronunciation), we have lost some traces of the more interesting Nahuatl word."


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Hot Lovin'

Hot and cold and sweet all over. My precious. My love. The one that's never done me wrong. My hot fudge sundae.

The HFS has been around (since 1906). He's been been there (born at C.C. Browns, a Hollywood Boulevard ice cream parlor on in Los Angeles); he's done that (Kellogg's introduced Hot Fudge Sundae Frozen Pop Tarts July 8... consider me extremely skeptical).

Make mine the classic. Dress him up with crushed nuts and hold the cherry, please.

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