I’m lucky to have friends who honor their family’s culinary traditions. We are still nibbling on the few remaining Polvorones made by Madeline Dominiani for Christmas this year. Madeline is the true keeper of her mother’s culinary history. Hailing from Gilbratar, Madeline’s mom would first soak Spanish almonds in warm water and then laboriously slip off their skins one by one. The blanched almonds would then be lightly toasted in the oven. While the almonds were set aside to cool, flour would be carefully browned in the oven as well. The toasted almonds would be ground to a crumbly paste in a mortar with a pestle and then mixed with the golden flour. Madeline now grinds the almonds in a coffee grinder kept for just this purpose, the mortar and pestle left behind as historical artifact. In goes sugar and lard, and the dough is then shaped into thick discs that beautifully hold their shape in the oven. The finished cookie tastes steeped with history, the lard gives an indefinable depth, and all of the toasting just elevates the simple flavors.
My favorite tradition of the Polvorones is the first thing you see when Madeline presents these treats. Each cookie is neatly swathed in white tissue paper, twisted at the ends, and the ends are trimmed into fringes. The unwrapping of every one is like a delicious and festive gift. The making of Polvorones is an honored custom in Madeline’s household, and it has been taught to the succeeding generations. I am the lucky recipient of these morsels at the Christmas season, and hope to be for years to come.
Every year at the holidays, my cozy kitchen looks like a bakery. I make cannoli, cookies and lots of different candies in the week leading up to Christmas. First on my list is the treat that keeps the longest, the Chocolate Covered Almonds. I started last night with a one pound batch of nuts, working through the first steps and expecting to dress them in their chocolate coats over the weekend. I parked the tray on the counter corner and went to bed. This morning as I left the house, I noticed that the almonds were half gone, nibbled away by my family while I slept. It made me smile, knowing that sneaking a taste, or a little more, is one of the things that makes the season so special for my kids. On my way to Trader Joe’s planning my next batch of almonds, I realized that leaving the chocolate coating off the nuts creates a crunchy, caramelized sweet that is just as yummy as those that are fully prepared. Here is the simplified version of our recipe from In A Nutshell. Leaving off the chocolate outside is a break with tradition for us, but my family seems to love them just they way they are.
3/4 cup granulated sugar
3 tablespoons water
1 pound natural almonds
Equipment: 1 baling sheet, lined with a silcone sheet, or lined with parchment paper
1. Place the sugar and water in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Bring it to a boil, . Add the almonds and stir constantly. The sugar will begin to whiten and crystallize. Continue cooking and stirring until the sugar begins to remelt and caramelize on the almonds. When almost all of the sugar is melted (as shown n the picture), you will begin to hear the almonds popping slightly. Transfer them to the prepared pan. Spread in a single layer and cool. Break apart with a spatula if they stick together.
This yellow hued shortbread is great in the fall. We serve it along side crumbly cheeses and autumnal fruit. Its main ingredients, cornmeal and pumpkin seeds, are both native foods of the Americas. Together we believe they make the perfect Thanksgiving Day nosh. Make the dough days ahead, and slice and bake them before the turkey goes in the oven. They are just spicy enough to whet your appetite for the magnificent meal to come.come.
1 ¼ cups all purpose flour
1 ¼ cups stone ground cornmeal
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper
1 teaspoon sugar
¾ cup roughly chopped pumpkin seeds
6 ounces (1 ½ sticks) unsalted butter, cut into ½ inch pieces
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
2 rimmed cookie sheets, lined with parchment paper
In a medium bowl, stir together flour, cornmeal, salt, pepper, sugar and pumpkin seeds.
Using your finger tips, rub the butter into the dry ingredients, until no chunks of butter remain, and the mixture has the texture of sand.
Add the eggs, and stir until the dough holds together. This may take just a little squeezing,
Cut dough in half, and using 2 sheets of parchment paper, wrap each piece into a cylinder, about 1 inch in diameter and 7 inches long. Twist the ends tight to hold the shape of the cylinder. Refrigerate for at least 2 hours or until dough is firm enough to slice. Freeze for longer storage.
When ready to bake, preheat the oven to 350° F
Slice the crackers in to 3/8 inches disks, and place on the prepared sheets one inch apart.
Bake 10 to 12 minutes until the crackers are slightly golden brown around the edges. They will firm as they cool on the pan on the rack.
The subject of nuts for a cookbook always evokes questions. How did you get interested in that? Why nuts and seeds? How did you chose them? And the most commonly asked one, what about nut allergies, and the people with them?
When we began our research for the book we addressed this question. We spoke to experts , scoured the literature for information. And our decision to not address allergies in any way came clear.
Nut allergies are serious and the lives of individuals with these allergies could be threatened by making any recipe in our book. There are no substitutions for nuts here. Sadly, those with nut allergies need to skip the book all together.
As nuts have ascended to culinary stardom they also have been demonized, sometimes with good reason. Since we have been on the road promoting the book countless people have told us that they would love to have us come and speak, the book is beautiful the say, but they work in a nut free facility. We understand the abundance of caution, respect the nut free facilities, and steer clear.
On this most recent trip to California I checked into my hotel and was greeted at the front desk with a warm chocolate chip cookie nestled in a paper bag. On the front was an emblem, not dissimilar to the bold no smoking signs we are so used to. It stated…”Warning: contains walnuts”. I was happy to find them in my cookie, and I’m relieved that an early warning system keeps those with allergies safe.
I pulled in to in the supermarket lot, parked, and swung over to the long line of shopping carts. Flipping down an infant seat, and dropping in my overfilled shabby bag, the ad at the far end of the cart caught my eye. Nutella topping a waffle. A few berries scattered artfully on top. And it was only yesterday that we were making hazelnut sour cream waffles with a schmear of homemade chocolate hazelnut goodness, spreading the love at a cooking demonstration designed to introduce and promote our book, In A Nutshell: Cooking and Baking with Nuts and Seeds.
Homemade Nutella is a snap to make, deceptively easy. Just whiz 5 ingredients (Dutch process cocoa, confectioner’s sugar, chopped hazelnuts, vanilla extract and canola oil) together in a food processor or a Vita Mix blender, as we did in our demo. It keeps for a week or even longer tightly closed in the refrigerator. The flavor is massive in comparison to the commercial stuff. Sandy in texture, dark in color and deeply rich in flavor, we love to eat it many ways. The two best ways come quickly to mind. First is licked right off of a spoon. Next is how we prepared it at the demo, same as the advertisement I spied in the supermarket cart: spread on a piping hot waffle.
We made waffles of substance to pair with the spread. The Hazelnut Sour Cream waffles are both dense and crunchy. Made in a Belgian waffle maker, they have deep cavities that are easily filled to their brims with the spread. Both hazelnut flour and chopped pieces of hazelnut keep the texture just right: light yet firm with a little golden crust on the outside. The combo is Hazelnut Heaven. We hope for the day that many folks exchange their trips to the frozen food isle with dusting off their waffle irons and whirring up their blenders. Our Hazelnut Sour Cream waffles with homemade chocolate hazelnut spread make an easy to prepare breakfast or snack that outshines the commercial combination in every way.
Two slices freshly peeled ginger, about ¼-inch wide
4 cups pecan halves
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 tablespoons sugar
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ tsp ground ginger
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
Preheat the oven to 300° F
In a small saucepan, mix together the 4 tablespoons sugar, water, oil, cinnamon sticks, cloves and ginger. Bring to a boil over medium heat. Cook until the sugar is fully melted about 2 minutes. Set aside and allow it to steep for about 10 minutes.
Place the pecans in a large bowl. Strain the syrup over the pecans to remove the cinnamon, cloves and ginger. Toss to coat the nuts completely.
Transfer the pecans to a rimmed baking sheet lined with parchment and lightly coated with non-stick spray. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes until they begin to brown. During the baking, take them out of the oven 2 or 3 times to stir so they bake evenly.
While the pecans are baking, mix the salt, 1 tablespoon of sugar, cinnamon, ginger and cloves together, and set aside until ready to use.
Remove the pecans from the oven and immediately toss them with the spice mixture. Cool the nuts completely in the pan on a wire rack. The pecans can be stored in an airtight container for up to 1 week.
In the fall, we are always looking for tasty ways to use our abundance of freshly picked apples. Sliced and dipped in our Creamy Crunchy Nut Butter Dip, our crisp apples make a great breakfast, mid day snack, or night time treat.
2 cups reduced fat Greek yogurt
1 cup natural nut butter, almond, peanut or cashew (or any you prefer)
4 tablespoons maple syrup or honey
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
½ cup chopped nuts (almonds peanuts or cashews)
Serve with sliced crisp apples
Combine the yogurt and the nut butter in a small mixing bowl and stir well to mix.
Mix in the maple syrup, vanilla and nuts (reserving a few to sprinkle on top)
Colorful bottles of nut oils lined up on a store shelf make us want to go home and cook. Open the top and the essence of the nut is with you, as if you have cracked open a shell. But cooking with nut oils is not the same as cooking with the nuts and seeds themselves. Here is why:
Nut oils are fragrant delicate liquids that don’t hold up to much heat. We prefer the ones that are labelled cold pressed, because they have been created with care. When heat is added to the oil production process it denigrates the inherent flavors a tiny bit. Cold pressing extracts just the fats without heat harming the oil, and it’s name ” cold pressed” is as descriptive as can be. When people first gathered nuts and seeds to eat they soon learned that crushing them would release their oils, creating another useful product from the wonders around them. Now nut and seed oils are made in industrial settings with big steel rollers doing the work, no longer crushed between 2 stones as in times long ago. It may be quicker and therefore less expensive to apply heat, but cold pressed oils have flavors that are the essences of the nuts, truer and brighter than the warmed commercial alternatives.
The best use of most nut oils is in finishing a recipe, when no further heat is applied. We drizzle them on top of soups about to be served or whisk them in to salad dressings. A little goes a long way, their flavors are intense. We buy them in the smallest possible quantities because their shelf lives are limited, and we don’t want to waste a drop by spoilage. Keep them closed, cool and dry, and once opened, inside the refrigerator is the place to store them. We pair the flavor of oil with the same nut when we can. The oil elevates the nut’s inherent flavor, underscoring it’s best fragrant qualities.
I’m in San Diego giving a book talk. The Jewish Community Center of La Jolla has invited me to speak at their Succoth festivities, and at this time of year it seems like the perfect spot to celebrate nature’s mother lode of nuts and seeds. The Jewish holiday of Succoth is time to acknowledge a bountiful harvest. An open lattice of boughs and fruits top a temporary wooden structure that observant Jews erect in their backyards, balconies, or even on their fire escapes as my father did when a child in 1920’s New York. The open nature of the “roof” allows all those who eat in the Succah, as is customary, to look up at the stars, and contemplate the passing of another year on the Jewish calendar. It is a symbolic, ethereal structure that underscores the nomadic history of the Jewish people. And as nomads, the ancient Jews of the Middle East would surely have scooped up the fallen bounty of almonds, sesame seeds and whatever other morsels they found as they wandered through the desert. Before cultivation and the rise of settled agriculture, Jews gathered what was plentiful, and as their culture and cuisine evolved, integrated these resources into their daily sustenance.
I’m delighted to celebrate in a San Diego Succah. I’ll be demonstrating our chocolate hazelnut spread from the book,made with almonds instead of hazelnuts. The group chose to use almonds because they are a local and plentiful California resource, a sentiment that resounds with the spirit of the holiday. We will spread it on the fruits of the season and enjoy. I will look up at the sky, and be grateful for another bountiful year.