The Bible

I find the Bible quite fascinating to read, as literature. Please don’t stone me for saying that. I grew up Catholic and I have utmost respect for people’s beliefs. But for me, The Bible, from my earliest memories of reading a made-for-kids version with lots of cool pictures that my dad bought me from some door-to-door salesman  (probably to shut me up) has always been about the stories. Adam and Eve and the serpent in the Garden of Eden, Noah and the Great Flood and the rainbow, Samson’s epic strength and being brought low by Delilah, Salome dancing before Herod with the head of John the Baptist on a silver platter, David glimpsing Bathsheba on a nearby rooftop and falling madly in love with her, the sibling rivalry of Jacob and Esau, the battle of David and Goliath, the story of Job and his many tribulations, and of course, the epic story of the life, death, and resurrection of, Jesus of Nazareth.

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Jesus is quite the individual, as anyone who’s read the Bible can attest. Again, despite your religious beliefs, there is no doubt he was arguably the pivotal human being in the history of humankind. I doubt there is anyone in this world, even in the most remote corners, who does not know the name and the story of Jesus Christ. He is one historical figure I would love to have met and conversed with. There are so many stories of his life, yet none told from his viewpoint or indeed, from actual contemporaries of his. Wouldn’t it be amazing to have had the story of Jesus told from his own POV?

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As a grown-up, however, I have to admit I love the parts in the Bible about drinking wine the most, because hey, if they drank wine in the Bible, that means I am following a great historical and spiritual tradition! Ta-dah! It’s really the only reason I drink wine, you know.

Stay me with flagons, comfort me with apples: for I am sick of love. (Song of Solomon 2:5)
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And it came to pass, that on the morrow Moses went into the tabernacle of witness; and, behold, the rod of Aaron for the house of Levi was budded, and brought forth buds, and bloomed blossoms, and yielded almonds. (Numbers 17:8)2016-03-25 12.30.19_resized

I love apples, I love almonds, and what better homage can be paid to this cornerstone of Judeo-Christian theology, religion and culture than to create a culinary work of art that combines these two elements. This apple-almond cake is Jewish in origin, which is fitting considering the precursor of Good Friday was Passover. I found a recipe in one of my favorite cookbooks, “Nigella Feast,” in the section with Passover recipes, and adoring the beautiful Nigella Lawson as I do, I am honored to recreate it, with a few tweaks, here.
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This is the method that worked for me.
INGREDIENTS
3 1/2 green apples, Granny Smith or any sharp variety
1 tablespoon lemon juice, from a bottle or a generous squeeze of a real lemon
1/2 tablespoon sugar
8 eggs
3 1/2 cups ground almonds (this will act as the flour binder)
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1 1/2 cups sugar
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 cup slivered almonds
METHOD
Preheat the oven to 360 F. Peel 3 of the apples, core them and chop roughly. Peel the other half-apple, chop it into very fine pieces and set aside. Cook the three peeled apple chunks in a small saucepan, covered, with the 1 tbsp lemon juice and the 1/2 tbsp sugar, until the apples are mushy. Leave to cool.
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In a large bowl, combine the eggs, the ground almonds, the rest of the sugar and lemon juice, the cinnamon, vanilla and nutmeg. When the apple pieces are cool, puree them in a food processor, and add to the other bowlful of ingredients. You can smell the apple and lemon and cinnamon and vanilla and it is sooooooooo delectable! Add the other half-apple, chopped finely, to the batter and stir again to incorporate. I’ve found adding pieces of fresh apple adds to the tartness and freshness of this cake.
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Mix together well using a large wooden spoon and then a whisk, to get some air into the batter. Oil or butter a round cake pan, and scrape in the wet batter mixture. It will be very liquidy, but that’s what you want. Without the flour to bind it, it loses some of that dryness that a flour cake has, but the almonds do a wonderful job of holding everything together AND give it such a wonderful nutty flavor. Did I mention this cake is gluten-free? If you care about such things, which I personally don’t. But there you go.
Add the slivered almonds to the top of the cake batter, so it will bake with these nutty nuggets on top. Place the filled cake pan onto a baking tray, in case of drippage (yes, that’s a word, I just invented it) and put into the oven for about 45 minutes. You may see little bubbles forming on the top of your cake at the end of the baking, but that’s fine. It means it’s cooking. Remove from the oven and allow to cool. It truly does look so amazing, brown and nutty and just so enticing.
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“Go then, eat your bread in happiness and drink your wine with a cheerful heart; for God has already approved your works.” (Ecclesiastes 9:7)

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The Golem and The Jinni by Helene Wecker

This book, The Golem and The Jinni, is the literary equivalent of being in an opium dream. Strange creatures, lyrical and unusual prose, mad leaps of logic, fantasy oases in the desert, and food descriptions that are so real you can almost smell the scent of cinnamon and yogurt and herbs.

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The premise, a woman named Chava who was created to be the perfect mate and formed out of earth and water – the clay golem of ancient Jewish tradition – and a jinni – an Arabic creature imprisoned for 1000 years in a brass jar, calling himself Ahmad and made of desert fire – cross paths in 1890s New York City. Both are immortal creatures created from the elements – fire and earth – and both completely out of their elements. The novel is fascinating in its details of turn-of-the-century industrial New York, and clearly delineates the class differences, as well as the strong clash of culture, religion and ethnicity that defined this era, and still does define us, to this day. It makes a powerful political statement as well, given the current state of affairs between modern-day  Jews and Arabs, and indeed the current state of affairs in American politics, as well as the fact that I found myself reading it during Lent. With all that, it seemed very appropriate given the Judeo-Christian-Arabic-centric world that we seem to live in these days.

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What I liked is the hope inherent in the book. The hope that, no matter what, our differences can all be overcome because we are all the same in our hearts. We seek knowledge, we seek companionship, we seek self-improvement, and we seek love. Perhaps we worship our god or gods differently, perhaps we see the world in a certain way, perhaps how we were raised to view the world around us strongly colors how we perceive ourselves and each other. But, and I truly believe this in my heart and soul, we all are the same under the skin. We are all human, we all want and desire and need and strive for the same things. This book demonstrates that, even with two main characters who are not human. But their wants and needs and desires mirror those of the humans around them, and their subsequent actions make them far more human than many real human beings. The language is lyrical and dreamlike, yet grounded in the harsh reality that was 1890s New York City -and that reality that is probably similar today.

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Chava’s master dies on the ship that brings them to America, and she is found and taken in by Rabbi Avram Meyer, who instantly sees what she is. She doesn’t sleep, doesn’t eat, yet is a creature of industry, so he gives her (in one of the cutest passages of the book) a copy of The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book and instructs her to learn to cook, but doesn’t specify that she doesn’t need to make lobster or vichyssoise or or gnocchi a la Romaine. She is just told to cook, and boy, does she! Mountains of cake, pastries, bread. muffins and cookies soon pile up on his counter and the Rabbi tells her instead to bake him a simple coffee-cake. Chava, being what she is, of course bakes him the most marvelous coffee-cake ever in the world, and it’s the description of her sheer pleasure in the baking process, inspired me to try it.

“She baked the coffee cake, following the directions with fervent exactitude, and was successful in her first attempt. She was pleasantly surprised at the ease of the chore, and at the almost magical way that the oven transformed the thick batter into something else entirely, something solid, warm, and fragrant. The Rabbi ate two slices with his morning tea and declared it one of the best cakes he’d ever tasted.”

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For the record, I don’t like baking. I hate following the rules, as anyone who knows me can attest to. Screw the rules and do your own thing, is my motto. You can do that with cooking, toss in some spices here, salt there, herbs here, olive oil over there. You generally end up with something quite good. But holy hell…….baking. Kill me now. If you get crazy with the baking soda or add in one too many eggs, you have a mess. Possibly a delicious-tasting mess, or perhaps a lovely-looking and horrible-tasting mess……but you still have a mess. I don’t like mess, but I love coffee-cake and so wanted to make this dish, so I researched, read and said a few rosaries, then I set my hand to baking a coffee cake with walnuts and cinnamon, because there is nothing that cinnamon doesn’t make better. Essentially what I did is tweak my grandmother’s plain old cake recipe, used brown sugar in place of white, used my round springform baking pan, and a few other interesting little things, which I detail below.

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This is the method that worked for me.

INGREDIENTS

For the streusel layer and topping:
1/2 cup brown sugar
2 tablespoons ground cinnamon
1 cup chopped walnuts

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For the batter:
3 cups flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 tablespoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup butter, preferably unsalted and softened
1 1/2 cup brown sugar
3 eggs, at room temperature
1 cup plain Greek yogurt
1/2 cup milk or half-and-half
2 tablespoons vanilla

METHOD

Pre-heat your oven to 350F. In a small bowl, combine the streusel ingredients, mix together well, and set aside while you assemble your batter.

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In a separate bowl, combine the 3 cups of flour, baking soda, baking powder and salt, and mix together well with a wooden spoon.

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In yet another bowl (did I mention you’ll be washing a lot of dishes after this cake is done?), combine the 1 1/2 cups of brown sugar and the butter. Make sure your butter is softened, because you’ll get funky little lumps that you’ll need to mush out with your fingers and that just makes more of a mess. (Not that this happened, I’m just SAYING it could happen if your butter isn’t sufficiently soft.) Once the butter/sugar mix is combined and creamy, add 1 egg at a time and mix. Don’t put in all three egss at once, or you’ll get a big lump of batter, instead of a smooth, creamy, mocha-colored texture. Like this.

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Once your wet ingredients have been amalgamated into a nice, smooth, creamy ointment, gradually add in your bowl of dry ingredients, stirring at intervals to incorporate. Alternate the dry ingredients with the Greek yogurt, the half-and-half, and the vanilla. Stir together with a wooden spoon. It may take a few minutes, and your batter might get stiff and seize up as you add the flour mixture, so keep stirring steadily and as you add in the yogurt, half-and-half, and vanilla, you’ll see it loosen up again. The final batter will be rather thick, like this. But it’s supposed to be that way…….I think.

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Add the cake batter to a buttered cake pan. I know a coffee cake should be made in a ring shape, with a hole in the center, but I don’t have a ring cake mold, so I used my tried-and-true springform round pan, lining it with a parchment round of paper, buttering the sides and then adding the half the batter and spreading it around the base and a bit up the sides.

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Sprinkle half of the walnut-brown sugar-cinnamon mixture over the batter, then add the remaining batter across the top and the rest of the nut/sugar/cinnamon. Put the springform pan onto a rectangular baking sheet in case of any drips (I learned this tip from the domestic goddess Nigella Lawson, who I want to be when I grow up), and put into the oven. Bake for 45 minutes, then remove from the oven and let cool. Serve with a strong cup of coffee or tea, as the mood suits you.

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I must be honest and ‘fess up that my cake was somewhat dry, though it did taste very good. Well, I am not called the Baking Goddess for a reason. I think baking at high altitude requires adjustments, so going forward, I would use 2 1/2 cups of flour, increase the Greek yogurt to 1 1/2 cups, a half-cup of milk, and increase the butter to a full cup. It is still very good, but with these adjustments, hopefully will be excellent next time!

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Maybe, she thought as she fastened her cloak, there was some middle ground to be had, a resting place between passion and practicality…….Any path they chose would not be an easy one. But perhaps she could allow herself to hope.

 

The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

To say this book is my ultimate favorite is an understatement. I first read it in my 20s and was enthralled at the mixture of philosophy, medieval history, and the detective story at the heart of The Name of the Rose. Much like the labyrinth library navigated by Brother William of Baskerville and Adso of Melk, the two main characters, the tale twists and turns upon itself and wends off into unexpected directions, dark corners and the occasional literary “red herring.” It takes a truly talented writer to make a 500+ novel about medieval monks, and didactic history of the medieval Catholic Church, into something compulsively readable.

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The author, Umberto Eco, died on Feb. 19, 2016, and left a huge void in the academic and literary worlds. It felt like a personal loss as well, hearing of his passing and realizing his witty prose and semiotic thought process are now gone from this world. If a writer can make a reader question her worldview and analyze things around her that she normally wouldn’t even think of, Eco has done that in my life with this book. A book about books, about libraries, about labyrinths and puzzles, about the history of the Catholic Church, and about the qualities of human nature that do not change over time. Love, desire, betrayal, greed, and that attitude of imposing your beliefs onto the world weave like fine golden strands throughout the pages of this book.

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This gem of a novel was the inspiration for my (still unfinished) graduate thesis – a semiotic analysis of The Name of The Rose itself. It was, I thought, a clever turning of Eco’s philosophy back onto him, but it turns out I bit off way more than I could chew. Never take on the master unless you know you can beat him. I could never hope to come close to Eco, but I wrote 90% of the thesis as a love letter to his philosophy. It remains incomplete, but occasionally I add to it in my head. I’m no academic, but perhaps one day I will go back and write the damn thesis in honor of Eco and my love for this amazing book. Or maybe I’ll just cook in Eco’s honor, instead.

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One of the more colorful characters is the monk Salvatore, a porcine-featured man who speaks a polyglot of tongues and languages, a linguistic mish-mash of Spanish, Latin, French, Italian and who knows what else. The result is a bizarrely entertaining vernacular of his own. The passage where he offers to make fried cheese for Adso and Brother William exemplifies this.

I put an end to his talk and told him that this evening my master wanted to read certain books in his cell and wished to eat up there. “I will do,” he said. “I will do cheese in batter.” “How is that made?” “Facilis. You take the cheese before it is too antiquum, without too much salis, and cut into cubes or sicut you like. And postea you put a bit of butierro or lardo to rechauffer over the embers. And in it you put two pieces of cheese, and when it becomes tenero, zucharum et cinnamon supra positurum du bis. And immediately take to table because it must be ate caldo caldo.”

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If you have any understanding of basic English and the romance languages of Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian, Catalan or Romanian, you can completely understand what he is saying. I’ve always found the language of Salvatore a charming example of Eco’s facility with languages and symbolism.

Now, I don’t know about you, but eating melted cheese with sugar and cinnamon doesn’t exactly make my taste buds go “yippee!” So I poked around my kitchen and came up with this version, which is based on the luscious-sounding mozzarella in carozza recipe detailed by Luca Marchiori on his heavenly blog Chestnuts and Truffles.I did, obviously, omit the bread, but the idea is the same – cheese dusted in flour and fried – cheese in batter! As Luca is Italian himself, and this recipe is in honor of his fellow countryman, I thought it quite fitting to tweak it and cook it here. Grazie, Luca!

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This is the method that worked for me.

Ingredients

1 egg, room temperature
2 tablespoonfuls of flour
1 tablespoon Italian breadcrumbs
1-2 teaspoons ground thyme
1-2 teaspoons garlic powder
Mozzarella cheese
Camembert cheese
Parmesan cheese
Olive oil for frying

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Method

Crack your egg into a ramekin. Add your flour and breadcrumbs into another ramekin. Add the thyme and garlic powder into another large bowl, then start chopping up your cheeses into small pieces.

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Mix the cheeses and herbs together with your hands, and roll into small balls. Yes, I said balls.

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Return your happy little cheese balls to the bowl, and refrigerate for about 30-45 minutes.

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Add olive oil to a large, shallow pan and heat until the oil is shimmering.

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Dip the cheese balls into the beaten egg, then into the flour and breadcrumb mixture, then add it to the hot oil in the pan. Yes, I’m a sloppy cook and I don’t care.

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Add 3 or 4 flour-dusted cheese balls and fry until brown on one side, then flip and fry on the other side until browned. Don’t cook more than 4 minutes on either side, because the cheese will start melting out of the flour and egg.

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Dab off the excess olive oil and nosh away. Nom nom nom!

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“Stat rosa pristina nomine, nomina nuda tenemus.”