Monday, February 24, 2014

Buckwheat Hamantaschen with Sweet Cheese Filling

This is one of those kitchen experiments I entirely expected to fail. I was thinking about riffs on the delicious jam-filled hamantaschen, those three-cornered cookies baked up to celebrate Purim. Hamantaschen can be hard enough to get right on their own, especially if you want a rich, flaky, cream cheese-laden dough (and, trust me, you do). But, I decided, why not make things more difficult? So I gave my beloved rich dough a nutty edge with buckwheat flour, whose flavor I love, but with whom I am not acquainted in enough non-pancake contexts to really know how it would behave. And instead of jam, I made a soft sweet cheese filling. Flaky, nutty dough wrapped around a tender trembly filling? Sounds great, right? It also sounded like I could fully expect to open my oven and find a tray full of dough circles swimming in a gooey cheese bath.

But, lo, in a sort of of Ashkenazi Oven Miracle, this recipe worked out. And it worked out deliciously. Yes, it took a lot of fussing — sort of a Level II hamantaschen. The filling is too runny to just dollop on as you would jam — you've got to pinch a corner first to create some retaining walls, then spoon the filling in and fold in your remaining dough to keep it there. And then you've got to freeze them solid, so that they set in the oven before that filling comes cascading out. So yes, fuss. But worth it.

These hamantaschen mix old world grains and butterfat with new world sophistication. Grown-up little bites, they have an almost bitter-coffee edge and whole grain heft from the buckwheat, which pairs perfectly with a rich, sweet-yet-tangy filling. Of course it worked out — this combination seems meant to be.

And if you'd like another taste of Eastern European goodness (this one of a more traditional bent), you can check out my recent story on Weekend Edition. What do the Middle East, a Lithuanian shtetl, and a 1950s kitchen appliance have in common? Find out over at NPR!

Buckwheat Hamantaschen with Sweet Cheese Filling

yields ~30 cookies

1 stick butter (4 oz), softened to room temperature
4 oz cream cheese, softened to room temperature
zest of 1 orange, if desired (I'm still not sure how I come down on that one — I may prefer it without)
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon coarse salt
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 cup buckwheat flour
3/4 cup all-purpose flour

1/2 cup cottage cheese
1/4 cup cream cheese
1/4 cup sugar
squeeze lemon
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 egg yolk

To Finish:
egg wash of 1 egg lightly beaten with a splash of water
a few spoonfuls of sugar

To make the dough: Cream together the butter and cream cheese until well-combined and fluffy. Add the vanilla, salt, and sugar, beating until combined. Add the flours, and mix gently until the dough just comes together (try not to over-mix — a few streaks are okay). Form the dough into a chubby disc, wrap in plastic or waxed paper, and refrigerate for at least an hour (preferably at least two) and up to two days. Mix all of the filling ingredients in a blender or food processor until combined, and refrigerate. 

When the dough has chilled and relaxed, lightly flour a countertop and a few plates or a cookie tray (one that fits in your freezer), and have your egg wash and filling handy.

Roll the dough out on a lightly-floured surface until it is fairly thin — about 1/8-inch or so. Cut out circles with a 3" cutter (mine was slightly smaller), and brush the edges with the egg wash. I tend to do about half a dozen at a time, covering the remaining dough with a clean tea towel so it doesn't dry out. Pinch shut one corner of the dough to make one point of your hamantaschen triangle, then fill with a teaspoon or so of the cheese filling (after doing a few cookies, you'll get a sense of how much filling you can fit). Pinch shut the remaining edges, sort of pinwheeling them over each other in this fashion if you like, or just pinch them, leaving just a little dime-sized bit of filling peeping through in the center. Repeat with remaining dough and filling (any scraps can be mushed back together and re-rolled).

Place the shaped cookies on your prepared plate, and freeze until solid (at least a few hours, or overnight). Place the remaining egg wash back in the refrigerator.

When ready to bake, preheat the oven to 375° Fahrenheit. Line a few cookie sheets with parchment.

Remove the cookies from the freezer, and place on the lined cookie sheets. Brush the top sides of the dough with the egg wash, and sprinkle lightly with sugar. Bake until set, ~20-30 minutes (the buckwheat flour makes it difficult to see color changes, but they should be beginning to turn golden on the edges. Let cool on a rack, and enjoy. These are best served the day they're made, but leftovers can be stored in the freezer to good effect.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014


I tend to have a fairly predictable reaction to the food stories I cover, especially those with an emotional component. Namely, they make me hungry. When I recorded elderly women talking about their memories of Jewish food, I immediately went home and baked up a tearful batch of rugelach. And last week, when I recorded a family making a long-cooked, hearty Eastern European meal (more on that soon), and not too long after finishing a story on Russian drinking snacks, I went home, browned some onions, and made some pierogies.

Pierogies are one of those dishes that I generally buy rather than make (usually from the kind ladies at the local Ukrainian church). They were also one of my cheap post-collegiate meals, usually found at the Polish butchers (or corner bodegas) in my old Brooklyn neighborhood. But there's something lovely about taking the time to caramelize up some onions (and it does take time), and turn the cheapest of pantry staples into the same comforting dish that people have made for generations. These are dishes you want to keep alive, whether on the radio, or in the kitchen.


adapted from Oma & Bella — speaking of keeping stories alive....
yields ~30 pierogies (I used a smaller cutter, so I had more), ~4 servings

1/2 cup vegetable or other neutral oil
2 large yellow onions, finely diced
1 1/2 pounds starchy potatoes (~3 medium-sized ones)
salt and pepper to taste

1/2 cup water
2 large eggs
hefty pinch salt
3 cups (380 grams) flour

scallions or chives, thinly sliced
sour cream

Heat the oil in a heavy-bottomed skillet over a medium-low heat. Add the onions and fry, stirring and adjusting the heat as needed, until they color evenly a rich, dark brown, ~1 hour.

While the onions are caramelizing, peel the potatoes and simmer them in salted water until quite tender, ~25 minutes. Drain, then return to the pot and mash (the residual heat in the pot will help dry them out). When the onions are caramelized, transfer them to the potato pot with a slotted spoon, and mash them in as well (you can add enough of the fry oil as needed to make a smooth mixture, reserving any additional oil for frying the finished pierogies). Season to taste with salt and pepper.

To make the dough, mix together the water, eggs, salt and flour, and knead until a smooth dough forms (like pasta dough, this is fairly stiff, and easiest done in a mixer with a dough hook, of which our Eastern European matriarchs would approve).  Let sit covered at room temperature for 30 minutes to relax.

When the dough is relaxed, lightly flour a countertop, and gather up a biscuit cutter (or glass with a 3-inch diameter), lightly floured cookie sheet, and small dish of water.

Roll out to the dough make a nice, thin sheet — you don't need it as thin as a sheet of pasta, but a thin dough makes for a deliciously delicate pierogie. If it fights you and shrinks back, let it sit covered for another few minutes to relax further. Take a biscuit cutter, or a glass with about  3-inch diameter, and cut out circles. Dip your finger in the water and moisten the edges of the circles, then fill them with a spoonful of filling (as you work, you'll get a sense of how much filling each pierogie can take). Fold the dough around the filling to form a half-circle, and pinch shut the moistened edges. Transfer the filled dumpling to your floured cookie sheet, and repeat with the remaining dough and filling. Scraps of dough can be mushed back together into a ball, and, after relaxing, re-rolled.

When all of the pierogies are shaped, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Transfer the pierogies to the water, stirring once or twice at first to make sure they don't stick, and simmer until they float to the surface (this should just take a few minutes). Drain in a colander, giving a shake now and then so that they don't stick to each other.

Heat the reserved onion oil (or, if you don't have enough, additional oil) in a skillet over a medium-high heat. Fry the cooked pierogies until they brown, just a minute or two per side. Serve warm, with scallions/chives and sour cream.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Pineapple, Avocado and Sweet Potato Salad

Preparing a vegan dish can feel like enough of a challenge for some cooks. But vegan and gluten-free? Oh, and also toddler-friendly? Facing these restrictions at a recent potluck dinner party, I contemplated some sort of plate full of tofu. It works, right? But instead, I decided upon this salad.

For the record, I happen to really like a plate full of tofu. But I also really, really like this salad. This is not a dish that screams out I meet a rigorous listing of dietary restrictions! It's a dish that says Hello! Would you like some tropical pineapple, broiled into caramelized sweetness? How about a buttery chunk of avocado? 

The inspiration for this salad comes from a Cuban recipe, all sweet pineapple, smooth avocado, and snappy greens. I kept the basic format, but also added some wedges of sweet potato and a handful of beans, to make it more of a meal. And it's a good one. Topped with sweet-yet-healthy bites that toddlers will happily grab onto, sans animal products and gluten, and full of delicious.

Pineapple, Avocado and Sweet Potato Salad

adapted from Gran Cocina Latina: The Food of Latin America
serves ~4-6

3 small white or orange sweet potatoes, scrubbed & woody end bits trimmed off as needed
1 good-sized pineapple, peeled, cored, and cut into 1-inch thick slices
1 tablespoon sugar
1/4 cup olive oil, plus additional for sweet potatoes
1 clove garlic, pressed
2 tablespoons lime juice
hefty pinch salt
1 bunch arugula, washed and torn into bite-sized pieces
1 large buttery avocado, cut into cubes
1/2 red onion, thinly sliced
1/2 cup cooked black beans (optional)

Set the sweet potatoes in a large pot of water, and bring to a boil. Let simmer until just fork-tender, ~15 minutes, and remove from the pot and let cool slightly.

While the sweet potatoes are cooking, preheat your broiler. Place the pineapple slices on a baking pan, and sprinkle with the sugar. Broil until caramelized to a golden brown, ~5-10 minutes (broilers can incinerate things quite easily, so check often!). Remove from the oven and set aside to cool.

Turn your oven from broil to 450° Fahrenheit. Cut the par-baked sweet potatoes into wedges, and place them on a baking pan. Drizzle lightly with oil, and sprinkle with salt. Roast until they are butter soft and starting to become golden on the edges, ~20 minutes, turning once. Remove, and let cool.

To make the dressing, place the olive oil, garlic, lime juice, and salt in a covered jar, and shake to emulsify. Taste, and adjust as needed.

To assemble the salad, place the arugula in a large bowl, and top with the avocado, red onions, black beans, and reserved pineapple and sweet potato wedges. Top with the dressing, toss (if desired), and serve.

Tuesday, February 04, 2014

One-Pot Chocolate Pudding

I've said this before, but it bears repeating: Nobody should ever buy pudding mix. Because making pudding is so, so easy. Like ridiculously easy. There are definitely things, occasionally learned the hard way, that are best left to professionals. But pudding? It's just a wee bit of measuring, some heating and stirring. It takes one pot. And it tastes fantastic.

This pudding has simple pantry ingredients (cornstarch, sugar, and chocolate), stirred up gently with some regular old milk. Why, that's nearly healthy! Because it gets its thickness from both the cornstarch and solid chocolate (vs cornstarch and cocoa), it has a lovely, slippery-yet-spoon-clingingly-rich texture. You can fancy everything up with a dollop of barely-sweetened whipped cream and a some shavings of chocolate, but really it's not even necessary. You mix it up, you spoon out the rich-yet-light creaminess, and you wonder why it's been so long. And who convinced you that you needed those packets in the first place.

One-Pot Chocolate Pudding

Serves 6 
adapted from Essence of Chocolate: Recipes for Baking and Cooking with Fine Chocolate, via Smitten Kitchen

1/4 cup (30 grams) cornstarch
1/2 cup (100 grams) sugar
1/4 teaspoon coarse salt
3 cups whole milk
6 ounces (170 grams) semi- or bittersweet chocolate, coarsely chopped, or 1 cup chocolate chips
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 tablespoons (28 grams, 1/2 ounce) unsalted butter, cut into pats
lightly sweetened whipped cream and shaved chocolate for serving (optional)

Combine the cornstarch, sugar and salt in a medium saucepan, Slowly whisk in the milk, in a thin stream at first so that lumps don’t form, then more quickly once the cornstarch mixture is smoothly incorporated. Place over medium-low heat and stir occasionally, scraping the bottom and sides. Whisk occasionally. Have 6 little dishes at the ready.

As the mixture heats (it'll take over 10 minutes, but that's fine), it should begin to thicken. Whisk more frequently at this point. When it thickens enough to coat the back of a wooden spoon (it'll be a bit steamy at this point), add the chocolate. Stir for another 2 to 4 minutes, until chocolate is fully melted and mixture is even thicker.

Remove from heat, and add the vanilla and butter. Let sit a moment for the butter to soften, then stir to incorporate. Pour mixture into dishes, and chill until cool and set (about 2 to 3 hours). If desired, top with whipped cream and chocolate before serving