It's All About the FoodChristmas Baking with SusieJ

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How to bake Krautkuchen for your daughter

... Who is not actually the daughter of your blood, but the daughter of your heart, so of course you will make Krautkuchen for her and her love on their last night before they travel to New York City, and then back to Germany.

First, when she tells you the morning after she arrives that she wants to bake and eat Krautkuchen (and Zwetschgenkuchen, chili, and other house specialties), you remember that your aunt (who makes the best Krautkuchen you have ever eaten, and whose recipe you will be using) uses Schmalz from Speck to fry her Kraut. Although your daughter is practically vegetarian, she does still eat meat. When you make breakfast (buckwheat pancakes with bananas or blueberries, with bacon on the side), cook the bacon the only way your daughter likes bacon: in the oven like your other aunt (200C, on a rack over a rimmed baking sheet, 15 to 20 minutes) so that you can save the half cup of fat that will render from a pound of bacon.

Next, when you have returned from the new chocolate exhibit at the Academy of Natural Sciences, suggest drinking hot cocoa while the dough for the crust rises.

Now you need to make the dough.

Consider using your translation of the Salzteig recipe, throw out that idea, and work from the original German recipe. A double or single batch? Double, because it freezes well, and then it's ready for the next time you make Krautkuchen.

Realize that while the amount of flour is doubled four a double batch, the other measurements aren't, and that you are not quite sure if they should be. Decide to use the larger measure of all ingredients and fiddle until the dough feels right. The dough's never really seemed right before, so what's to be lost?

Measure 500 grams flour, 375 mL milk, 2 1/4 tsp. of dry yeast (one package), and 1 tsp. of sugar. The yeast measurement is a complete guess, because in Germany everyone uses fresh yeast, and your aunt used 40g of it. Make a well in the flour. Heat the milk to 40C (1 minute in the microwave on high), pour in the milk, add the yeast and sugar, and stir until a the yeast, sugar, and a bit of the flour have made a very thin batter. Leave this Vorteig to rise for 30 minutes in a warm place.

Make and drink hot cocoa.

Re-read recipe to discover you shouldn't have used all the milk in the sponge. Check sponge, conclude the yeast is happy. If the yeast is happy, you are happy.

Add 6 Tbs of canola oil (the recipe calls for three to four, but, hey, that could be for the half recipe) and 1 tsp of salt (your aunt wrote an Esslöffel, a tablespoon, but that can't be right). Turn on the mixer, and combine everything using the kneading hook of the mixer into a, well, honestly, a rather gloppy dough. Throw in another 50g or so of flour to make it less gloppy and actually come together. Cover, and sit on the oven, which you begin heating to 200C. Set a timer for 30 minutes.

Dice one white or yellow onion, and start frying it over medium heat in about 3 Tbs of the bacon fat you saved from breakfast last week. Shred finely half a small head of white cabbage. Eye it critically, shred another quarter of the cabbage. This should give you enough shredded cabbage to nearly fill a 3L bowl. When the onion is translucent and starts smelling like fried onions, add another tablespoon or two of bacon fat, then the cabbage. Stir to make sure the cabbage is coated in fat.

Pour a glass of wine.

Ask if anyone else wants a glass of wine. Your husband with the herniated disk will say he's taking a Vicodin that night. Your daughter who doesn't drink will decline, as will her love who is also not a big drinker. Consider drinking with the nine-year-old. Discard this idea. Drink the wine.

Keep stirring the cabbage while it cooks, and look for the other filling ingredients. Get out the old and new sour cream containers, and think it was unnecessary to buy another container. Open the old container, realize it was a good idea to get the new container, and measure out 200 mL of sour cream from the new container into a large bowl. Add 100 mL of heavy cream. Well, not heavy cream, because all the cream went into the biscuits that were breakfast. Use the half-and-half you bought for coffee in case your daughter's love drank coffee, but is unopened because no one drinks coffee. Add a heaping tablespoon flour. Remember that the family definition of "one tablespoon" is a heaping tablespoon, and add another for a total of about 50g flour. Estimate that half a teaspoon salt and quarter teaspoon pepper is sufficient for the filling. Stir until smooth. Stir cabbage and onions.

Address the Kümmel issue.

You dislike caraway seeds, but they are traditional, and should be added "to taste," like the salt and pepper. Hunt for the caraway seeds. Find three unlabeled bottles in the spice cabinet that could be caraway. Smell them all. One is certainly celery seed. One of the other two is very licorice. The other one in an old hexagonal honey jar is undefined. Worry the licorice is the anise. Check the baking cabinet for the anise, taste to compare. Come to no conclusions. Take the mystery spices to the family. On sight, daughter declares the anise-flavored one to be fennel. Make husband taste test. Husband declares the undefined one the caraway. And stale. Ask if anyone really wants caraway in the Krautkuchen. Daughter declares it up to you. Throw away caraway seed. Sip some wine. Save hexagonal jar. Stir the cabbage.

When the dough has risen, dust the counter (wait, wipe it off first) with flour. Cut dough in half. Knead one dough half with a few folds into a flat disk about a hand's-breadth wide, and dust the top with flour. Remember your favorite rolling pin is still dirty from biscuits. Get out the back-up rolling pin, and congratulate yourself on keeping two of everything. Quickly roll into a large circle. Get the 30cm springform pan from the cabinet. Drape the dough over it, and realize it's far too large, and thus will be too thin on the bottom. Try to get the dough to relax into a smaller shape. Fail. Stir the cabbage. Sip some wine. Decide to fold the dough back into a disk and re-roll. The dough is now too springy. Stir the cabbage. Sip some wine. Remember the other half of the dough. Re-dust the counter. Form the other half into a disk, re-roll into a smaller circle, drape into the pan. Sip some wine.

By now the cabbage has cooked far longer than the 10 minutes your aunt specified, has some nice brown spots, has reduced in volume, and is slightly translucent. The onions are fairly brown. Stir the cabbage into the sour-cream mixture until it is coated. Pour cabbage filling onto the crust. Fold crust edges over top of the filling, convincing yourself it looks "rustic." Bake for half an hour.

Sip some wine.

Set the table.

Make daughter happy.

[My borrowed daughter, Sarah, photographing Krautkuchen, copyright Susan J. Talbutt, 2014, all rights reserved]

My final go-to volumes for basic cakes are two textbooks from Le Cordon Bleu and The Culinary Institute of America given to me by my aunt-by-marriage, food writer Anne Mendelson. Both focus on basic technique and recipes &emdash; building blocks &emdash; rather than a specific dessert. Meant to be used in a retail or commercial bakery, the yields are usually triple a home recipe (six dozen cupcakes or six nine-inch cake layers). Very useful for wedding cakes, and other situations calling for insane amounts of cake.

Interestingly enough, they don't have the same recipes. From Gisslen's book, I bake the spice cake and angel food cake. From the CIA cookbook, I bake the lemon chiffon cake, creme anglaise, German buttercream, and cream cheese icing (which is equal weights of cream cheese and butter, and less powdered sugar). I refer to both for basic research when I need a new cake or sweet yeast bread recipe; they provide me with good ideas and point me in the direction to go.

From these basic recipes, both show how to build ever-more complex pastries up to architectural wonders.

If you don't want or need six dozen cupcakes (or you need twelve dozen, or four fifteen-inch layers), Professional Baking has a chart of how much batter to use for any size layer. Both teach scaling (how to increase and decrease a recipe for more or fewer servings) and basic recipe ratios. The also cover most baking ingredients, from all-purpose flour through lychees, and equipment from measuring spoons through steam-injection ovens.

People who love food, who live to eat, who search a city or a country for the best whatever often obsess over "authenticity" and "provenance." They will tell you the roll for a hoagie must be made with Philadelphia water, or Cheez Whiz is an acceptable cheese for a cheesesteak. For nearly a decade, following such an obsession off and on, food writer Mimi Sheraton searched the world for bialys, or Bialystocker kuchen as they are known in Yiddish, and almost found them.

Bialys are made from a lean dough (flour, water, salt, and yeast), shaped into four-inch rounds, covered in chopped onions and, ideally, poppyseeds, with a depression — but not a hole! — in the middle. They are a variation (but distinct from) pletzl, which Sheraton describes as larger, without the central depression. Before World War II, they were made only in the city of Bialystock, Poland, and were eaten with or for almost every meal by the Jews there.

The closest she came was in Israel, where one baker in the whole country would bake special orders of hundreds of bialys for one friend, former Bialystoker Lipa Avinadov, who shared them with Sheraton. But, as he described them, the bialys were only "95 percent like those I bought for my mother in Bialy stock when I was a child."

Not surprisingly, her quest started in New York, at Kossar's Bialy Bakery, which she had already determined to have the best bialys in the five boroughs, and took her to bialy bakeries in Florida, California, Texas and Arizona. Kossar's crown remained unchallenged, especially because the bakeries outside New York were catering to younger clientele, accustomed to toasted cinnamon bagels, who had never tasted a bialy. (Sheraton's own comment on that: "Toasting is as antithetical to the true spirit of the bialy as it is to the bagel, and belongs more to the aesthetics of the English muffin.")

She travelled to Paris, Argentina and Bialystok itself, meeting many Bialystokers who had survived the Nazis and the anti-Semitism of pre-war Poland, or whose parents had fled before the war. All of them said the bialys they could find, often from New York, were close, but not what they had enjoyed as children in Poland.

The Bialy Eaters is a powerful book that shows, through such a small subject, how much was lost to the world.

M.F.K. Fisher: How to Cook a Wolf

M.F.K. Fisher published How to Cook a Wolf in 1942, "when wartime shortages were at there worst," according to the publishers' note to the 1951 edition. It is as much a treatise on the fall of Europe and civilization during the war as a cookbook of can-do spirit. It is my favorite of her books that I have read.

Fisher writes as much of spiritual nourishment as of physical. In a later note on a daily menu proposed by an anonymous group of dieticians: "It is a shocking example of gastronomical panic, and if it were heeded would soon reduce us to malnourished as well as spiritually weakened creatures, past much harm from bursting atoms." She turns to the lessons from British housewives, learned as their country endured years of the Blitz. The comfort of (a properly blacked-out) home outweighs most danger. Don't forget the bathrooms and to account for drinkable water.

Fisher writes as much of spiritual nourishment as of physical. In a later note on a daily menu proposed by an anonymous group of dieticians: "It is a shocking example of gastronomical panic, and if it were heeded would soon reduce us to malnourished as well as spiritually weakened creatures, past much harm from bursting atoms." She turns to the lessons from British housewives, learned as their country endured years of the Blitz. The comfort of (a properly blacked-out) home outweighs most danger. Don't forget the bathrooms and to account for drinkable water.

The recipes try to preserve (not re-create) as much of the luxury and normalcy (its own luxury) from before the war. She devotes an entire chapter, "How to Drink to the Wolf," on drinking on a wartime budget: buying by the gallon or case, where to find good quality spirits, which spirits to fall back upon as a last resort as money grows ever tighter. Drinking is necessary for mental health: as a quick way of relaxing, and to preserving traditions from a less fearful time.

Wolf has a lesson that seems forgotten by many today: eating does not satisfy only a basic need, it is "part of the ancient religious solemnity of the Breaking of Bread, the Sharing of Salt." She wrote to comfort and advise an entire country facing privation. Joy, especially in food was as much a human necessity to Fisher as clean drinking water or sanitation. This is clearly something our society has forgotten, as we ask whether our fellow citizens really deserve to afford nourishing, tasty food and visits to the doctor. I think Fisher would say yes, and I do too.

Mark Kurlansky: The Food of a Younger Land

During the Great Depression, the US government's Works Progress Administration, which I know best for building so many still-standing bridges in the Philly suburbs, included the Federal Writers' Project to employ writers and journalists. The first writers' project was a series of unexpectedly successful guidebooks to the country and its territories. A later, uncompleted project was to chronicle the foodways of the nation.

Seventy years later, food writer Mark Kurlansky found the raw manuscripts for America Eats in the Library of Congress. He's selected "not always the best but the most interesting pieces" for The Food of a Younger Land, to give a better view of how America ate before highways and refrigeration.

The introductory essay gives context to the Works Progress Administration and Federal Writers' Project, and the state of 1940s industrialization and how it influenced American eating habits and regionalism.

The writing from the project has been left unedited and is a mixed bag, rather like a random collection of blog articles. There is a snippet from Zora Neale Hurston, who wrote for the Florida Writers' Project; an anonymous listing of "New York Soda-Luncheonette Jargon and Language"; an essay on Mississippi food by Eudora Welty. There are multiple regional chowders from New England, Lutefisk in Wisconson and Minnesota, possum in the South and beaver tail in the North West. My favorite might be "An Oregon Protest Against Mashed Potatoes." There are recipes, essays, and reporting on festivals and rituals.

Shirley Corriher: Cookwise

Shirley Corriher first came to America's attention (and captured my baking heart) on Alton Brown's show, Good Eats. She was chipper, knowledgable and fun. She explained food chemistry so that the home cook, one who had fallen asleep once in high school chemistry perhaps, could understand the reactions that make cooked food delicious.

Cookwise was the first book I read that really made me understand cooking. Michael Ruhlman's Ratio explains what works; Cookwise explains why it works and how changes will affect the dish.

If I had to pick a favorite dish from the book, it would be the quiche, with a nice, straightforward ratio of eggs to milk, and what each part of the recipe does, along with variations.

There are still so many recipes I still want to try: grated sweet potato pudding, buerre rouge, golden tomato bake and chicken with wild dried mushrooms and wine. (Really, could I just quit my job and cook?) Thus, it passes the very first test of a cookbook: does it inspire?

When the microwave stopped working a week ago, I really believed we didn't use it very often, would not miss it, and could perhaps reclaim the counter space.

(Similarly, when half a tree fell on our only car during Superstorm Sandy, I thought, "The kid goes to school across the street and we both walk or bike to the train station. Who needs a car?" Anyone who needs groceries in the suburbs. And to go to karate lessons in the 'burbs. And doctor's appointments. And has elderly parents who live in different suburbs and have doctor's appointments. And. And. And.)

I don't cook with my microwave. No one cooks with their microwave. Bacon doesn't count. Heating a Hot Pocket is not cooking, and we don't even do that. The chicken nuggets go into the oven. (Well, actually, I do have a great recipe from Jean Anderson for microwave mushroom risotto that's very yummy.) The microwave does see a lot of defrosting action, but that can be mitigated with proper planning. Ignore the fact that if I could plan properly to begin with, I wouldn't be defrosting chicken breast and Italian sausage in the microwave at 5:55 each night.

Where the microwave has insidiously gripped the throat of my modern life with it's sticky, grippy tentacles is in reheating leftovers. Without a microwave, how would you re-heat a leftover bowl of chili and rice? Or salmon with peas and farfalle? Or half a pack of cooked breakfast sausage links? Or steamed broccoli? No wonder the cookbooks of the previous generation abounded with recipes for leftover noodles, rice, vegetables and meat.

So far we have:

  • used the 8-quart metal mixing bowl as an impromptu double boiler for the salmon farfalle (the 3-quart Pyrex bowl was too good an insulator); wow, that took a long time
  • placed a plate on top of the pot of boiling water and covered my son's salmon and peas because god forbid his food should be mixed together like normal people
  • wrapped the sausage in a tin foil packet and popped it into a toaster oven
  • chili on the stove over medium heat not to burn, add or pour over cold rice
  • re-boiled the rigatoni while heating the sausage and onions over a double boiler; son said they pasta tasted like eggs (perhaps the texture)
  • stared at the broccoli and moved on (yes, quiche, sigh)

We have bought a new microwave, and returned it the next day, because when we used it, the food remained cold, but the machine got a hot spot. Right now the parts are on order to fix the old microwave (not the old-old microwave, which mind you still works with one minor mechanical glitch, but that's used for photographic chemicals now).

Maybe I will pull out my grandmother's cookbooks.

Microwave Risotto


  • 2 Tbsp. butter
  • 2 Tbsp. olive oil
  • 1 cup chopped onions
  • 1 cup arborio rice
  • 3 cups chicken broth
  • 8 oz. sliced mushrooms
  • 1/2 cup grated asiago (or romano) cheese

[All of this should be done UNCOVERED, on high.]

Put 2 T butter and 2 T olive oil in 2" deep 8-10" quiche dish. Microwave for 3 minutes (on high).

Add 1 cup chopped onions and microwave for 4 minutes.


Add 1 cup of arborio rice and microwave for 4 minutes.


Add 3 cups of chicken broth and 1 container (8 oz.) of mushrooms. Microwave for 9 minutes.


Microwave 9 minutes.

My friend Dominus, who gave me this recipe, noted he often needed anther 9 minutes cooking time, as do I. I have (had) 600-Watt oven,

Add 1/2 cup grated romano, asiago, or similar cheese. Salt and pepper to taste. Stir.

Abacus: Year of the Horse

1551 S Valley Forge Rd, Lansdale, Penna.

Hiding in the corner of an aging strip mall 45 minutes outside Philadelphia, Abacus has been one of the best Chinese restaurants in the Philly area for decades. Four years ago, though, owner Joe Chen sold a part interest, and the Yelp reviews show it. All was not lost, as the contract stated the parties could re-negotiate after four years. Joe resumed control of the restaurant with two weeks before Chinese New Year. He called me and other former regulars a week before.

Clearly, this was the best Valentine's Day gift I could give my husband, who has had loved the restaurant since he was a teen metalhead who was still treated with respect by Joe and the staff. Since then, we've been to many Chinese New Year celebrations, and even had lunch the day I was in labor

Of course, the night of our reservation was the same night the ice storm hit the mid-Atlantic coast, and I had a cold.

Chinese New Year 2014, Copyright Susan J. Talbutt, all rights reserved
Let's get started!

Chinese New Year 2014, Copyright Susan J. Talbutt, all rights reserved
Prosperity soup with lobster

Chinese New Year 2014, Copyright Susan J. Talbutt, all rights reserved
Two purses: chicken curry dumpling and baby bok choi. I nearly asked the staff to bring other diners' uneaten bok choi to me. Horse illustration in sauce by Joe's daughter.

Chinese New Year 2014, Copyright Susan J. Talbutt, all rights reserved
Stone crab claw dumplings with long beans. Note the horseshoes in sauce!

Chinese New Year 2014, Copyright Susan J. Talbutt, all rights reserved
Fried prawns with orange sauce. The fried rice was the most delicate I've every had: a definite fried taste, but no heavy soy flavor. I am trying ver unsuccessfully to emulate in my own fried rice.

Chinese New Year 2014, Copyright Susan J. Talbutt, all rights reserved
Red braised pork shank, long-cooked Chinese radish, seasonal snow pea greens.

Chinese New Year 2014, Copyright Susan J. Talbutt, all rights reserved
Molten chocolate cake. Forced myself through it.

Chinese New Year 2014, Copyright Susan J. Talbutt, all rights reserved
Joe and family back at Abacus!

Worth the trip through the storm!

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