Sunday, March 23, 2014

Maple syrup: 3 facts

It's sugaring-off time.
The spiles are in the sugarbushes.
The sugar shacks are going full tilt.

Translation: In the spring, when their sap rises, sugar maple trees are tapped to gather the stored sugary liquid. Buckets of sap are taken to the sugar shack to be boiled down (in huge open kettles) to a syrup.
Three more facts:

1. A researcher at the University of Rhode Island has identified 20 potentially health-giving compounds in maple syrup, among them phenolics--a class of compounds known for their antioxidant powers (also found in berries, tea, and wine). The researcher is guessing that the tree may have produced the phenolics as a defense against having a metal tap driven through its bark. (Now don't go all anthropomorphic on me. I'm sure the tree is OK. Maybe the tree really likes it, like a dairy cow being milked.)

2. If you live in a cold climate (required for the trees to store up sugar in their roots over the winter) and happen to have Sugar, Black, Red, or Silver Maple trees, then you can make your own maple syrup. A website called Tap My Trees gives full instructions and sells the equipment you need. The starter kit ($140) includes three 16-quart buckets, lids, spiles (taps), and hooks. It also includes the 7/16" drill bit you need for the spiles and an instruction book on identifying trees and making maple syrup.

3. If you can't or don't want to make your own maple syrup, see if you can find maple syrup from Mount Cabot, a tiny producer in Lancaster, New Hampshire. The two guys (Biff and Carl) who own Mount Cabot make organic, "single-source, unblended" maple syrup. It is really delicious and has flavor nuances way beyond your everyday maple syrup. Read more about it here.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Signature Dish*: Mock Apple Pie

Read the drying apples entry from March 6, 2009, and you'll discover that crackers were used in earlier centuries to make "apple" pies when apples were either scarce, super expensive or nonexistent.

In fact, in 18th- and 19th-century cookbooks, crackers were used in lots of desserts. They were the basis for numerous baked puddings and were even used as a thickener instead of eggs in pumpkin pie.

Then along came the Ritz cracker in 1934. What set the Ritz cracker apart at the time was that it was round and buttery instead of square and austere. Three years after its introduction, it was the largest selling cracker in the world. (Wish we could still buy them at 1935 prices: 19 cents for a 1-pound box.)

Because using crackers in desserts was an American tradition of long standing, Nabisco began putting a recipe for a cracker pie on the Ritz cracker box, and this century's version of a mock apple pie was born.

Now, here's the thing. I tested the official mock apple pie recipe three times, and each time I got a filling that was gelatinous and solid and didn't look at all like apple slices. It finally dawned on me that perhaps I needed to increase the number of crackers in proportion to the sugar-lemon syrup that softens them. Perhaps the size of Ritz crackers had changed over the years and the original recipe had never been adjusted. I tested it with more crackers and finally got something that both tasted and looked like apple pie.

Several phone calls to Nabisco to ask them if their cracker size had changed since the 1930s were fruitless (get it?), because they insisted that the cracker size is the same and the recipe still works. I would say if you have any interest in the experiment, you can run down the original recipe from the Ritz cracker box. However, if you don't want to waste ingredients, I would try my version.

Mock Apple Pie
If you're concerned about the calorie count of a pie made with crackers, consider this: A serving of bread pudding (similar concept) has about 475 calories, and a slice of frosted cake (the same fundamental ingredients) can top 600 calories; a slice of this mock apple pie, however, has under 250.

3/4 cup water
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon cream of tartar
3 tablespoons lemon juice
2 tablespoons butter, cut into bits
3/4 teaspoon cinnamon
Pastry for two 9-inch crusts, store-bought or homemade
45 Ritz Crackers (5 ounces), broken in half

1. In a small saucepan, combine the water, sugar and cream of tartar. Bring to a boil over high heat, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Reduce to a high simmer and cook for 5 minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in the lemon juice and butter, stirring until the butter is melted. Sprinkle in the cinnamon and stir well. Let cool to warm (about 30 minutes).
2. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 425°F. Roll out the bottom crust and fit into a 9-inch pie plate.
3. Place the crackers in the crust and pour the warm lemon syrup over them (make sure they are all well doused because you want all the crackers to absorb the syrup). Roll out the top crust and place over the pie. Trim the edges and seal. Put three or four slits in the top of the crust to let steam escape.
4. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes, until the crust is crisp and golden. Let cool completely on a wire rack before serving.
Makes 10 servings
*Signature Dish was the title of an ongoing feature I wrote for Hallmark magazine. Each issue I focused on a recipe that was the hallmark (no pun intended) of an era, a place, or a person.

Stabilizing a cutting board

There's nothing more annoying (or potentially dangerous) than a cutting board that slides all over the counter when you're wielding a sharp knife. Some cutting boards come with nonskid feet, but what if you have a perfectly fine collection of other random cutting boards--as I do--with no nonskid bottoms?

Well, if you do a Google search on the topic, you'll get tips on using a wet towel underneath the board. Or if you've ever been to a professional food shoot, you'll have seen food stylists use stacks of wet paper towels under their boards.

Both of these ideas work just fine, but not as well as my personal favorite: nonslip shelf and drawer liner. You can find rolls of this webby material in any hardware store. It costs from $3-6 for a roll 12 inches wide by 5 feet long. You can cut out pieces that match any one of your cutting boards, and it works like a charm.

If you can't find it locally, you can do a search on Contact brand drawer liners, or check out the Aubuchon hardware website.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Homemade soda

My sister Megan has a cool seltzer-making machine called a Penguin (you can read more about it on the Sodastream website). I admire it deeply, but with limited counter space I'm currently content to go to her house and drink her homemade sparkling water.

However, I did stumble across this cute little gadget called U-Fizz. It's really more a mini science experiment for kids than a serious way to make sparkling beverages, but it's only $9 (from Scientifics), so what the heck?

To make a sparkling drink with U-Fizz, you put the juice or water to be carbonated in one bottle and screw the cap on. Then in a second bottle, you combine vinegar and baking soda and screw that cap on. The chemical reaction of the baking soda and vinegar produce carbon dioxide, which escapes through a tube into the awaiting juice/water.

And if you go to the U-Fizz website, there's a recipe for carbonated Jell-O!!

Wednesday, January 22, 2014


I confess that I like using devices for cutting bagels. Some people of my acquaintance consider this wussy behavior. ("What? Not willing to hold a bagel in your hand as you slice toward your palm with a really sharp knife? Sheesh.")

I currently use a wooden thingie that looks sort of like a paper napkin holder, but it has seen many years of service and I've been looking for a replacement. This is how I stumbled across the Bagelpod. I have resisted writing about it because I've never actually used one. However, the engineer dude who invented this is so incredibly earnest and detailed about the process he went through to create this bagel-cutting device that I just had to pass it along.

The Bagelpod sells for $40 from Amazon.

Here's a (maddeningly soundless) video of a person I suspect to be the inventor demonstrating the use of the Bagelpod.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Linguistic bloviation

There's got to be a term that describes words that evolve through the linguistic game of telephone. Here's an example of what I mean. In France, back in the day, if you wanted to let a girl know you liked her you would give her a flower, or donner une fleur à. This evolved into the verb fleurter (to flower). The English language picked this up and changed it to flirt. In modernday French, the verb for flirting is flirter and comes directly from the English word flirt. So, game of telephone.

This brings me to the parfait. In France, the word parfait means perfect, but it also refers to a frozen dessert. In this country, round about the turn of the 20th century, we adopted the word parfait and used it to mean ice cream layered with other ingredients (like syrups or fruit) in a tall soda-fountain-style glass. The concept then evolved to mean anything that was served in layers in a tall glass (object being, of course, to show off the layers).

Flash forward to now: For the past couple of years, chi-chi caterers and restaurants in this country have adopted this cool, new presentation idea from France: the verrine. It's layered ingredients presented in a glass so you can see the layers. Hmmmm, wait, that sounds familiar...

So again, language has moved on. To try your hand at parfa....verrines, you could check out Terrines & Verrines from chef Franck Pontais.