Dark Rye

In the winter of 1998, I was wading through the grass towards the gymnasium to attend the El Nino Dance-o. The ground under my feet was like pudding as my three-inch crocodile heels sunk two-and-a-half inches into the mud. The gym itself threatened to make a wobbly descent into the swamp. No downpour at that particular instant, but it was hard to tell since everything was perpetually drenched. It had been raining relentlessly for months, and by the time of the dance-o I mistakenly thought that we were nearing the end...the ground was saturated. There was not a dry spot in existence. Soggy people were wringing themselves out, submerged in gloom. It didn't seem there was room for any more water and there wasn't. But it kept on pouring, spilling over and flooding, gushing through streets and living rooms. We were to have 230%more rainfall than average before the very green spring arrived. It felt as though we were awaiting the rescue of that very green spring for a very long time.
Last week, when we had our first (and premature) rainstorm, an unnoticed (and suddenly very apparent) hole in my boots revealed how LA makes rain a distant memory. I was struck with fearful anticipation of saying a long farewell to the sun as I braced myself for drowning in darkness again. The old familiar rainy-day cravings returned after so many years of winter palm trees and flip-flops: tomato soup and grilled cheese, hot cocoa and buttered popcorn, dark bread and dark beer, building a fortress, holing up, folding in, and attempting to trust that the sun will eventually return to suck up the puddles. Of course, as soon as I made this bread it's been 70° -80° and sunny here.

Real pumpernickel or dark rye is made with coarse grain (suggesting an interesting etymology) and a sourdough starter. It's baked slowly in a special tin, achieving its darkness from caramelization of sugars and proteins. This is an American (i.e. easy) version. The color comes from cocoa, coffee and molasses, the ingredients are available and digestible, and you don't need a covered tin. I went with the wet dough technique from Artisan Bread in 5 Minutes a Day to make this an extremely easy loaf. It is sweet, aromatic and dense. It's excellent with lox, or as I've discovered, apples and sharp cheddar. I like the taste of whole grain, but you can sub regular flour for the whole wheat for a lighter loaf. I added orange zest for brightness and I'm heavy-handed with the caraway but you can opt out of these flavors, of course. I like to start with a sponge as a compromise for being too busy to deal with sourdough. Don't be put off by the sponge step--it adds complexity to the flavor and hardly takes any work.

Dark Rye Bread

Makes two 1-lb loaves (or one 2-lb loaf)

  • 1.5 C lukewarm water
  • 1 packet yeast
  • 1/2 C bread flour

  • 2 1/4 tsp salt
  • 2 T molasses
  • 1 T cocoa powder
  • 1 tsp instant coffee powder
  • 1 C rye flour
  • 1.5 C bread flour
  • 3/4 C whole wheat flour
  • 1 T caraway seeds
  • 1 tsp (give or take) orange zest

Make a sponge: Mix yeast, 1/2 C bread flour, and water in a large bowl. Let stand uncovered 15 min. to 1 hour. This gives you enough time to organize your ingredients and collect your thoughts.

Whisk the salt, molasses, cocoa, and coffee powder into the sponge. In another bowl, mix the flours together. Without kneading, add all of the flour, caraway, and zest to the sponge, and mix with a wooden spoon. You might have to use your hands at the end. The dough should look pretty slack. Cover and let rest in a draft free place for two hours.
You can use the dough now or refrigerate the dough at this point and use it within the next week or so. The flavor improves after a night in the fridge. Sprinkle cornmeal or wheat bran on a pizza peel (if you don't have a pizza peel, a flexible cutting board or lined piece of cardboard works). Pull off half the dough and reserve the rest for later. Wet your hands and quickly shape the dough into a ball by stretching the top down and tucking it under, working around the ball by turning it---this should take a matter of seconds.
Place the ball on the pizza peel, loosely cover, and let rise for 1 -2 hrs (if the dough was in the fridge it will take longer).
About half an hour before baking time, place a heavy covered pot (cast iron, enamel, ceramic) in the oven and preheat to 450 °. Alternately, you can use a pizza stone and pour a cup of boiling water in the broiler tray or a baking dish placed in the oven as soon as you put the bread in. Sprinkle the loaf with some more cornmeal or bran, slash it if you want to, then slide the loaf into the preheated covered pot. Reduce the oven to 400° and bake for 25 minutes covered (disregard this if you're using a stone--just let it bake for 35-40 min). Remove the lid and bake for another 10-20 minutes. Remove from oven. Let cool on a rack.

Moroccan Style Sardines Stuffed with Dates

So far on my New Year's list, I've done : Apples, Beets, Black-Eyed Peas, Carrots, Challah, Grains (did rice and bulgur instead of fenugreek), Honey, Pomegranate.
I still have fish (heads), dates, pumpkin, and quince. Almost there and better late than never...

I keep sitting down to write this post to find that I have so much to say about fish that I don't know where to start. Since I was little, these creatures tend to appear in my emotionally-laden nightdreams, they turn in to symbols or stand-ins in my artwork, and are also my among favorite thing to eat. I'm having a hard time not conflating it all....on the other hand, my "symbolic New Year's food" list is all about conflation.

The other night I was listening to house music and drinking cocktails in the company of eels, jellyfish, and seahorses, as well as the young, hip and beautiful of San Francisco. Incredible scenery. And the pulsating energy in the air was both that of a dream and of unquenchable, overflowing life.

Two things crossed my mind as I was preparing these sardines; One, how long it had been since I've cooked fish because, even though one of my favorite foods, it was just hard to do on my grad student budget. Second, how rare it is that I (or most people) cook something with a recognizable face (I'm not counting mussel faces as recognizable.) As I was tenderly cradling each sardine in one hand while scooping its insides into the sink with the other, it was hard not be struck with image of it swimming out in Monterey, surrounded by a ton of friends and family, silver scales glinting in the sunlight. While being reminded of food having a previous existence as a living creature can be extremely challenging for me, the visual of alive, happy and plentiful fish is invigorating for some reason---I guess there is some surreal translation of the image of a fish to an image of myself flitting weightlessly through vast expanses of water.

So, this dish seemed like a perfect one to make for my list because
A) It's lucky to eat fish heads (or at least have them on the table) when we are at the "head" of the year. They are supposed to remind us to be leaders in upcoming year. Fish, besides their heads, are also symbolic of prosperity and fertility.

B) Dates, in addition to being very very sweet,
are a "lucky" food because the word for dates "tamri" also suggest to "consume"-- we hope that our enemies/obstacles
will be consumed or destroyed.

C) Just like on Thanksgiving, stuffed dishes are traditional in their implication of abundance.

Fresh sardines are totally better than those from a can! As far as fish go, sardines are pretty environmentally friendly and contain all those healthy Omega-3s. Supposedly they are making a comeback. It also helps that they are very affordable here :)

Moroccan Style Sardines Stuffed with Dates (adapted from Diana Henry)

  • 1.5 lbs of fresh whole sardines
  • olive oil
  • salt & pepper
  • 1/2 tsp ginger
  • 1/2 tsp cinnamon

  • 1/2 onion, finely chopped
  • 1 T olive oil
  • 10 dates, pitted and chopped
  • 1/4 C slivered almonds, toasted
  • 1 T mint leaves. chopped
  • zest from 1/2 lemon and 1/2 orange
  • juice from 1/2 lemon
  • 1/2 tsp ginger
  • 1/4 tsp saffron threads
  • 1/4 tsp harissa
  • 1 T butter, diced

  • 1 orange, thinly sliced
  • cilantro and harissa for serving

For the stuffing:
Saute the onion in the oil until translucent. Transfer to a bowl and add the chopped dates. Partially crush the almonds so you have some smaller and larger pieces. Add the almonds to the mixture, along with the other stuffing ingredients, saving the butter for last. Add the diced butter and bring the stuffing into a ball.

Preheat the oven to 350 °. Drizzle some olive oil in a baking dish.

Gut the sardines and rinse the bitterness out from their insides. Break or snip the spine at head and by the tail, and gently remove the spine and bones. Dry them thoroughly. Sprinkle their insides with salt and pepper. Fill each with some stuffing and lay them in the dish. Rub their outsides with the ginger and cinnamon and drizzle with olive oil. Half the orange slices and arrange them between the fish. Bake them for about 20 minutes. Serve with chopped cilantro and harissa.

Chocolate Praline Earthquake Cake

I'm going to shift plates here for a minute and take a break from my new year's list to celebrate something else--the anniversary of the Loma Prieta earthquake that rocked us 20 years ago. I'm sure anybody that experienced it would agree that it feels more like it happened last week than two decades ago. Everyone can remember exactly where they were, who they called first, the first thought that ran through their heads.
20 years ago I was lying on my belly in the living room, taking a plastic horse toy for a trot around the carpet. My mom had company for an afternoon dessert outside in our sukkah. The guests had left and she and my toddler brother were sitting on the deck just about to put away the coffee. Then the carpet turned into a rolling ocean and I ran outside through the open (and probably sliding) sliding glass door and ducked under the patio table with my mom and brother, still clutching the toy horse. I don't remember being scared during the quake as much as amazed at how the earth could move like that and at how 15 seconds of rumbling seemed like an eternity. The scary part didn't happen until afterwards, after the power went out. We went out into the street and heard on our neighbor's battery-radio that a bridge had collapsed. I knew my dad had to cross a bridge to get home and I was hoping that it wasn't that one. I was imagining the terror of all those people in cars plummeting into the Bay (in actuality, there was only one casualty on the bridge.) It took my dad forever to get home. This was pre-cellphones and I remember being terrified about not knowing what apocalyptic mess he might be facing on the road. We spent the evening with candles or flashlights and slept (or tried to sleep) under the dining room table, wrapped in an avocado green sheet. I remember lying awake, anticipating each aftershock. I was trying to prevent even an inch of my brother or myself from peeking out from the shelter of the table for fear that the chandelier would take the appearance of child-flesh as an opportunity to plunge down on us. At some point, I loosened my grip on the plastic horse and it disappeared. We must have slept under that table for a week, waiting for the next one. We're still waiting. And I bet there's some serious shaking building up under the surface by now.
Even though by now we've lived through plenty of other earthquakes and much more turbulent events, the memory of the '89 quake still stands crystal clear. Amusing how so many people come here and pay an enormous sum of money to put a house down on a bit of earth that threatens to crack open and swallow it up. But I guess that's California.
This is Earthquake Cake because the top looks like the San Andreas if the San Andreas were made of cake and cream cheese. Usually Earthquake Cake is made like a speedy deconstructed upside-down German chocolate cake. It didn't seem appropriate to try to force a simple, potluck-type sheet cake into being gourmet, but I decided to up the richness a notch and give it a a chocolatey-er cake and a praline bottom (I figured that gooey praline is closer to replicating the asthenosphere than the scattered "boulders" of loose coconut and nuts.) So, there's not much upscale here. This is a cake that's sweet--nearly to a fault. And it's from a box, which I figured was fitting since when the "big one" hits, I'll be living on our stores of canned green beans and Passover brownie mix.

Earthquake Cake

  • 1 C light brown sugar, packed
  • 1/4 C cream
  • 4 oz butter
  • 1 C pecan pieces

  • 1 box Devil's Food cake mix
  • 2/3 C buttermilk
  • 2/3 C water (or 1/3 water, 1/3 bourbon)
  • 1/4 C oil + 1/4 melted butter (or 1/2 C oil)
  • 3 eggs
  • 2 T cocoa powder

  • 1 lb (4 C) powdered sugar
  • 8 oz cream cheese
  • 4 oz butter, softened

Melt the brown sugar, cream, and 4 oz butter in a small heavy saucepan over low heat, stirring for a few minutes until sugar dissolves. Pour over the bottom of a 9 x 13 " baking pan. Sprinkle with nuts.

Put the cake mix, cocoa, water/bourbon, milk, oil/melted butter, and eggs in a bowl. Beat with a mixer on medium speed for a minute, scrape down the sides and then beat for 2-3 minutes more. Pour into pan, on top of the praline layer.

Beat the last 4 oz butter, cream cheese, and powdered sugar on low speed for a minute, until smooth. Drop 12 globs on top of the cake batter (don't mix it in).

Bake in a preheated 350° oven for 40-45 minutes, until mostly set but still slightly wobbly in the center--it firms as it cools. Cool in pan on a rack for 30 minutes. Serve pieces inverted. or not.

I hope the "big one" comes complete with these hairdos and poor editing:

"Earthquake" (1974)

My Apple Cake

"Sustain me with raisin-cakes, comfort* me with apples; For I am sick with love."

*to spread (a bed); to refresh, to make (a bed.)

-Song of Solomon, 2:5

I'm getting close to being done with my New Year's list. Just three more items after this one. I'm wondering why I didn't start here, with apples.

Coming back to my hometown this year has been a show of constants and unknowns. The sound of the early morning train used to be a lullaby to me. It was a reminder to make the best of those last few hours of sleep before I had to crawl out of the warm sheets to go to school. Even in recent years when I'd visit and stay in my old bed, the sound would still soothe me to sleep. Now the train noise seems relentless. I'm struggling to accept that things change and people change them for you--even little things like how I hear trains. The long freighters that pass slowly in the night rattle in my bones; the 5AM train seems so loud that it raises the hair on my arms. It's also in that gray early morning light that the tiny fracture in my heart starts acting up and pulling me out of my dreams into the day, to lie with a pillow over my head, contemplating the loss of my goldfish and remembering the summer I returned from a trip to find a shriveled tomato plant that a friend neglected to water in my absence. But eventually, as always, the sun rises, and eventually the haze burns off, and the radio station still plays Bollywood songs on Wednesday mornings.
Nothing is particularly unique about this apple cake except that I make it every year. I'm not even sure where the recipe came from--I've had it written in bubbly girl-handwriting in a recipe box I made in 5th grade, along with all the other sweet things my friends and I used to bake during sleep-overs. I've been upping the spices for probably 15 years or so, but besides that, the cake has stayed the same.
There's a comfort in making something very familiar--the feeling of winding the peeler around each apple to try to get one long spiral of green skin, the crunch of plunging down the corer, and the sweet, spicy smell of baking autumn--like recreating an edible chunk of a less-complicated time (when I slept better.)
I've found a few explanations of why apples are the iconic fruits eaten on Rosh Hashanah. In Genesis, a blind Isaac remarks that his son, Jacob, gives off the fragrance of a blessed field of apples (Eden). Isaac then gives Jacob a blessing (lengthy explanation is found here.) I guess we're supposed to hope that we, too, will be given a blessing of Eden this year. Mostly, I love the idea that a person could give off the scent of apples. Of course they are also sweet, and are a marker that fall has arrived.

Arielle's Apple Cake

  • 4 C tart apples, peeled, cored and sliced
  • 2 C sugar
  • 1/2 C oil
  • 2 beaten eggs
  • 2 tsp vanilla
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 generous tsp cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp each: clove, nutmeg, allspice
  • 2 C flour
  • 1 tsp baking soda

Preheat the oven to 350°. Grease and flour a bundt pan.
Don't use a mixer--this is a wooden spoon cake. Mix apple slices and sugar, until apples are coated. Add oil, eggs, vanilla. In a separate bowl, mix flour, baking soda, salt and spices. Add the dries to the wets and mix just until combined. Turn into pan and bake until a toothpick comes out clean, for about an hour.

I make an icing with powdered sugar, a shake of spice (optional), a drop of lemon juice, and a few spoons of milk.

Challah (round) with Saffron and Raisins

Now that we're eating again, back to my list....
I have a memory so old that it is melted with dreams and play-fantasies (Mommy, you can verify.) My mom and I were in our kitchen making challah with saffron. I remember having my arms above my head to reach the bowl. I think I was on a stool but not quite tall enough to see everything. I remember her showing me how to touch the dough and apply the egg wash, but mostly I remember the smell of saffron. I smelled it as we braided the loaf and again when I went upstairs to have a bath while the baking bread filled the house with the scent. In the image in my mind, I am looking in at myself in a cross-section of our house. Our house was split down the center like a dollhouse, the setting sun was a yellow circle of cardboard, and the stars emerged like holes poked through a cloth with a flashlight behind it. I remember my mom rubbing me with baby oil after my bath and then I was lying on the floor upstairs, entirely relaxed and content waiting for dinner. As the upstairs grew dark, the light and the smells from the kitchen downstairs were wafting up. Regardless of how blurry my recollection is, it's one of the warmest memories I have. The smell of saffron still has the power to whirl me back into that babyhood moment of candlelight and warm towels and encompassing calm. The connection between that scent and the memory is so strong that I can barely open the jar of red threads without having to pause what I'm doing and close my eyes. Even a whiff off my yellow stained fingers hours after crumbling a pinch into something will send me out of this world for a minute or two.
I almost never make my own challah now because it takes all day. However, it is such a treat when I can take the whole day and let the egg-cracking, kneading, waiting, braiding,waiting, and glazing be a journey into a deep sense of "home." For Rosh Hashanah, the challah is traditionally round, studded with raisins, and dipped in honey to symbolize a sweet and perfect year ahead. This recipe, because of the proportion of oil, makes a challah that has a crumb closer to a brioche than to a sweet, eggy bread. I'll give another variation at some point, hopefully.

Challah with Raisins and Saffron (adapted from A Blessing of Bread)

  • 1 envelope instant yeast
  • 500 g bread flour
  • 3/4 C warm water
  • 2 good pinches saffron
  • 1/3-1 C mixed raisins, rinsed and plumped in hot water
  • 3 large eggs, one for the glaze
  • 1/2 C vegetable oil
  • scant 1.5 tsp salt
  • 1/4 C granulated sugar

Toast saffron gently in a small dry pan until slightly darker. Crumble either with fingers or mortar and pestle and dissolve in 1/4 of the water. Mix yeast and 100 g (~3/4C) of flour in a bowl. Add the saffron water, then fill the same measuring cup with the other 1/2 C of water (to get all the saffrony goodness) and add that to the slurry. Mix well and let sit uncovered for 20 minutes until bubbly.

Whisk 2 eggs, oil, sugar, and salt into the yeast slurry until blended and dissolved. Then, using a wooden spoon add all the flour at once and mix until incorporated. Knead in a mixer with a dough hook for about 4 minutes (level 4 on a KitchenAid) or oil your hands, turn out onto a work surface and knead by hand for 10 minutes max. The dough should be soft and smooth and should not be sticking to your surface. Add a T of water or flour if it seems too dry or wet. Knead in the raisins.

Place the dough into a clean, warm bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Let rise until doubled, about 2 hours.

Prepare baking sheets by lining them with parchment/silpat or oiling them. Turn the dough out onto your work surface and divide into four pieces. Three pieces will be rolled into long ropes, and the fourth will make rolls. For the ropes, gently flatten the pieces into long rectangles and then fold into thirds lengthwise to make a rope. Or simply roll them into snakes. Starting with the center, coil the rope into a spiral, winding it tightly around itself, and adding the two other ropes as you go along. Tuck the last end under tigthly, leaving a little tension. This will make a high rising spiral.
*Alternately, you can spiral the ropes loosely to make a flat spiral. Or divide the dough into two (rather than four) and make two braided loaves.
The fourth piece of dough can be shaped into three little rolls.
Cover the loaves with plastic wrap and proof until tripled in size, about 1.5 hours.
Half an hour before baking time, preheat the oven to 350°. If using two baking sheets, arrange the racks in the upper and lower third of the oven. If using just one, position the rack in the upper third.

Brush the loaves with egg glaze. I like to sprinkle just a pinch of sugar on top. Bake for about 30-35 minutes (less for smaller loaves), turning the baking sheet after 20 minutes, until nice and golden. If "golden" is happening too fast, make a foil tent over the top of the loaf. Let cool on a rack. Make french toast if you have left after a couple days.