Humans are the only creatures who tell stories, and for many of us, we tell stories with the food we make and share. Rigó Jancsi, otherwise known as Hungarian chocolate cake, is a dessert that tells a beautiful story of late 19th century romance, passion, and adventure. But it also tells another story for me, personally — of my Grandma Betty, her baking, and the love of an artform she passed on to me.
In 1896, violinist and Hungarian gypsy Rigó Jancsi performed in a Parisian restaurant, where Prince Joseph de Caraman Chimay and his wife Clara Ward, the Princess de Caraman Chimay were dining. Story has it that Clara was seduced by the talented violinist, fell in love, and left the Belgian prince to be with him. Some sources claim the dessert is named after Rigó Jancsi because he worked with a pastry chef to create it to surprise Clara, while others state that the pastry chef named the cake after the violinist following his purchase of it for Clara.
Less than 40 years later, Betty Ward, née Elizabet Hamvas, traveled with her family from Hungary to the U.S. in 1930 at the age of six. And while I don’t remember growing up with many traditions from her home country, or even learning the story of the debonair Hungarian violinist until I was in my late twenties, I will never forget her Hungarian chocolate cake. MORE
It’s easy to get swarmed by the flavors of fall. From baked goods and main dishes to coffee and even beer, it seems like everywhere you turn is apple-cinnamon this or pumpkin-spice that. Fall is my favorite season, so I’ll admit that I’m guilty of embracing all of it (as I sit here in my room with my cinnamon pumpkin wall plug-in). And the amount of apple pies, tarts, butters, and strudels I make can get a little obsessive.
It’s important to remember that the season brings so much more than just apples and pumpkins. Take pears, for example. They’re in season beginning in late August, meaning that right now they are hitting their peak. I myself, being an equal opportunist, am putting a hold on my apple-fest and shifting my dessert focus to pears.
Why have pears become fall’s forgotten fruit? In many ways, a pear can be used in the same ways apples are. Like an apple, pears have a thin, but tough outer skin with a crisp and juicy center. These tender, yet firm fruits lend themselves to a variety of uses. You can enjoy them whole, diced into a salad, juiced, pureed, and even baked. That’s one of pears’ little secrets: They are just as wonderful for baked goods such as pies, tarts, and cakes as the fall favorite, apples. MORE
What does the word “hazelnut” bring to mind? Do you automatically recall the famed stick-to-the-roof-of-your-mouth chocolate and hazelnut spread?
You’re not alone. Most people think of Nutella — the popular chocolate and hazelnut spread — when hazelnuts are mentioned. That, or in my case, the Ferrero Rocher chocolate candies my mother always received in her Christmas stocking from my grandmother, despite not caring for the confection. This treat consists of a whole roasted hazelnut with a hazelnut cream, dipped in milk chocolate and chopped hazelnuts and wrapped individually in gold paper. Decadent much? MORE
As summer begins to make way for the cooler months ahead, many bakers aren’t just looking forward to autumn, the time of all things pumpkin and cinnamon-sprinkled. We also know that precious figs are in their prime in September, finding their way to farmers markets and into our kitchens.
For those of us who can summon the willpower to not devour each and every fig we bring home — and truly, eating a fresh fig in the peak of the season is possibly best way to taste the warm, sweet days of summer — we can reward ourselves with the next best thing: baking with figs. MORE
When you think of the famous, history-changing Supreme Court cases, what comes to mind? Brown v. Board of Education? Roe v. Wade? Miranda v. Arizona? How about Nix v. Hedden? Instead of debating over segregation, freeedom of choice, or the due process of law, this particular case was over the issue of tomatoes being a vegetable or fruit. The Nix v. Hedden case, the most heated battle of the Supreme Court in 1883, was between a tomato importer — Nix — and the New York Import Authority, Hedden. Nix was suing Hedden for taxing his tomatoes as vegetables. He argued that they were really fruits (which were, conveniently, tariff-free), and, therefore, were exempt from taxation.
Of course, unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve probably already been told that tomatoes are actually fruits. But what makes the tomato a fruit and not a vegetable? Botanically speaking, fruits are the mature ovary (flowering structure) of plants. Fruits are designed to house and protect the seeds of the plant. Vegetables, on the other hand, are the edible portion of a plant. They are classified into different groups based on their structure like roots (carrots), bulbs (onions), or leaves (lettuce). Therefore, a plump, seedy tomato is really a fruit, but technically, so are pumpkins, peppers, and squash. MORE
Friends and family know me as the friendly baker. I bring cupcakes to graduation parties, bake miniature cakes for birthdays, and send cookies across the country for Christmas every year. But the people at the Collingswood Farmer’s Market know me as someone else: a highly competitive baker, a woman who has a stash of first, second and third place ribbons in her kitchen work table drawer.
Last October, at the annual Apple Pie Baking Contest, I had a market coordinator come up to me after I set my caramel apple pecan praline pie, topped with a handcut squirrel top crust, on the judging table.
“I hear you’re the baker to beat.”
Yes, I bake cupcakes. Lots of them.
Until a few years ago, this wasn’t a controversial hobby. I’ve been a baker for as long as I can remember, graduating from watching my Grandma Betty make chocolate chip cookies in her sunny upstate New York kitchen to writing my own cake recipes and starting a baking blog.
Before becoming the dessert to hunt after — or sneer at, depending on your tastes — cupcakes were the kind of thing your mom threw together the night before you needed to bring a treat to share at kindergarten. A box of mix, a plastic tub of frosting, and maybe even some rainbow sprinkles. Cupcakes were made for church bake sales and baby showers, or really any event where it makes life easier when you can simply hand someone their portion in a tidy wrapper.
But my, how times have changed. Ever since Sprinkles Cupcakes opened in Beverly Hills in 2005, and we all watched Carrie lovingly bite into a Magnolia cupcake on Sex in the City, cupcakes have watched their star rise high. And for many, it has risen too high.
I like to think that most grandmothers spend their free time playing bingo or Mah Jong with their friends, but not mine. My grandmother’s idea of a good time was meeting her girlfriends at the local blueberry farm to sit and pick berries while chatting under the summer sun. After a few good hours of blueberry-picking, my grandmother would swing by our house to drop off some extra pounds of blueberries she managed to pick while getting lost in conversation. Her donations, combined with our own family trips to the blueberry farm and my father’s all-day hiking trips through our wooded backyard to pick wild berries eventually led to a blueberry overload summer after summer.
Come mid-summer, both fridge and freezer would be bursting at the seams with blueberries, though no one ever complained. July was always an uncomfortably hot month, but its saving grace was that it ushered in blueberry season. I would get excited after Independence Day rolled by, knowing that, soon, the house would be littered with the small indigo berries. In no time, our blueberry stockpile would grow, and then the rest of the summer was marked by us trying to find ways to eat them all. We would dump them into our morning cereal, make smoothies, pies, muffins, turnovers, or just eat them plain — fresh or frozen (which to me, tastes almost as good as ice cream). Our kitchen has gone through its fair share of blue-stained wooden spoons, and the freezer always had a ready-to-bake pie tucked in the back for a special occasion later in the year.
Let me preface this by saying: I love remembering Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the Super Mario Brothers Super Show, and Lady Lovely Locks.
See? I can be nostalgic.
But too much nostalgia is a dangerous thing. How many comedians have you seen, listicles have you read, or TV shows have you watched that don’t make jokes or have a point, but just reference things from your childhood? People use nostalgia as a shortcut to good feelings, a little lever we experimental-rat humans can push to get fed pellets of pleasant memories.
That’s why, when I heard that the Northeast-concentrated chain Dunkin‘ Donuts was coming to Southern California,* my response was a simple “meh.”
See, I grew up in northern New Hampshire, in a small town where Dunkin‘ defined donuts for me – in a good way. I fondly remember the tactical challenge of eating a jelly donut, trying to keep the messy explosion of powdered sugar and jelly from going anywhere other than my mouth. And Munchkins! Those wonderful little boxes of donut holes that, because they were small, allowed you to eat several different flavors of donuts without feeling like you were going to ralph.
But my current home, Los Angeles, is arguably the best place in America to eat donuts, which is why it makes me cringe every time my northeast brethren say they’re so excited Dunkin‘ is comin‘ to town. Because guys, I gotta tell you, I’ve eaten donuts as an adult, and Dunkin’s donuts taste weird. My boyfriend encouraged me to say that Dunkin’s offerings have a “signature flavor.” Well, their signature flavor would best described as “kinda off,” and they also have a signature mouthfeel – a weird coating feeling similar to what you get when you eat McDonald’s fries.
When it comes to eggs, it seems that white is becoming the new black. Possibly in response to the obesity-epidemic or as a result of required calorie-counts on menus, many fast-food chains are now serving “lighter option” egg white products. McDonalds, Dunkin’ Donuts, Subway, Jack-in-the-box, Starbucks, and Sonic have all started supplying their stores with egg white menu items. Even the frozen food section is now showcasing frozen egg white breakfast sandwiches from major producers like Hillshire Farm and Kelloggs.
With all these big name food companies using egg whites it should be no surprise that we have hit an egg white crisis. Since 2013, egg white prices have soared to record-breaking highs of over $8 per lb. Dried egg white stocks have also been reported to be at startling lows, which leaves farmers and egg suppliers to “force molt” chickens in order to keep up with the demand.
But as a health conscious cook, I’m at a stand-still. It’s nice to see these healthier options available, but even I’m starting to grow tired of the high protein/low carb trend. Like a second coming of the Atkins diet, protein is becoming the macronutrient of choice for most dieters once again. Although it is true that egg whites are high in protein and contain zero fat and cholesterol, I’m a yolk kind of girl. Cholesterol-raising irrationalities aside, egg yolks are extremely nutritious – in my opinion, more so than egg whites. Egg yolks do contain fat, but it is vitamin-packed fat. Protein in no way, shape, or form is lacking from the American diet, but many fat-soluble vitamins, essential fatty acids, and other vital micronutrients are. Not to mention egg yolks taste way better.
As a child, the turning of the calendar page to June meant that a visit to see my grandmother and aunt in LaFayette, NY would be around the corner. My mother and I would pack a suitcase, wave to my father and German Shepherd Sasha as we pulled out of our driveway in southeastern Virginia, and began what seemed like the longest car ride ever up north, peppered with Phil Collins cassette tapes and quick fast food meals eaten in the car.
The reward at the end of the 9-hour drive, thankfully, would be my grandmother’s strawberry shortcake. She would pick the berries in the morning while we were driving up and bake the subtly sweet biscuits in the afternoon. We would arrive shortly before dinnertime, and after having a light meal, she would step away to make fresh whipped cream. Then the shortcakes would be served.
The summer of 1982, when I was 12, I did not do “quite as many things as I did the last” according to the annual report my parents made me write before school started again. But “I did a lot of fun small things.” One of those fun small things, I noted, was bake a cake with my grandmother. I recall it as the first real cake I ever made — no box of mix or mom measuring the flour while I stirred.
My grandmother lived in Pennsylvania, far across the country from us in California. We rarely saw her, or any extended family for that matter, and I always liked it when she visited. On this occasion, she was babysitting while my parents traveled to Northern Italy, Budapest, and Vienna (according to my handy summer report, which I found recently in a filing cabinet in my parents’ house).
The idea to bake the cake was certainly hers. She’d probably planned to make it herself, as something nice to serve my parents after their long flight home. But, perhaps tiring of me reading romance novels and floating in the swimming pool every day, she gave me the task. Grandma was hard-working and restless, and she couldn’t appreciate reading novels and sunbathing.
Towards the end of our foraging journey, there was a flurry of excitement. Someone had spotted a lone morel mushroom growing on the side of our trail. This sought-after fungus, for which connoisseurs will pay up to $35 per pound, was the most valuable find of our entire trek, but no one ventured to pick the specimen — perhaps because of its neighbors. The cone-shaped mushroom grew right next to a leaky-looking battery and just steps away from a rusty razor blade.
We weren’t foraging in a beautiful park or someone’s woodsy backyard. No, on this Sunday morning, we were looking for edible and useful plant life in “The Cut” — an abandoned, four-track-wide section of Philadelphia’s abandoned Reading Viaduct railroad, sunk some 40 feet below street level. We entered, somewhat ironically, through a chain link fence separating the encroaching wilderness from the employee parking lot of a Whole Foods market. A few members of the tour took the opportunity to forage for some coffee inside before signing the requisite waiver form and venturing down the parking ramp and into the unknown. After circumnavigating a moderately sized pile of general trash, it quickly became clear that this little section of abandoned city space was home to more than just weeds and rats (and a few vagrants). Tall grasses, sprawling bushes, and full sized trees had spent the previous few decades reclaiming The Cut and creating an impromptu slice of nature.
Everyone has a pet peeve. Some people are sticklers for grammar, while others can’t bear their food touching. These minor aggravations seem silly, but we all know how infuriating a pet peeve can be. I, too, have a pet peeve, but mine is serious. I’m confronted by it so often — almost on a daily basis — that I’m close to my breaking point. From my neighborhood coffee shop to the supermarket, I can’t escape it: the muffcake. Like when someone uses the wrong “there” or slurps their soup, my blood boils when I see a cupcake being advertised as a muffin.
Allow me to fill you in on a little secret: the muffin at your coffee spot is probably a cupcake. The dozen you can buy at the grocery store? Yeah, those are cupcakes, too. In my opinion, there are probably few muffins in this world that aren’t actually cupcakes.
When the Atkins Diet crashed upon America’s shores with its wave of red meat and energy bars, I thought I was too smart to believe anything it claimed. After all, I don’t even believe in dieting per se — just that you should try to eat healthy foods and consume fat, sugary, and processed foods in moderation. But even now, when the Atkins wave has long receded, and Paleo is hopefully on the wane, I was surprised to find that a bit of its flash-in-the-pan advice had stuck in my head: I should avoid carbohydrates. Wait, I’m sorry: carbs.
Now, logically I know this isn’t true. After all, six ounces of steak is never going to be healthier than six ounces of brown rice. But still, every time I want to eat a bread product, something tugs at me: Isn’t this bad for me? That’s why, when I do eat bread products, I always try to do two things — eat something that’s made with whole wheat flour, and make it myself.
That’s the primary reason why I make my own bagels: I feel like if I put the effort into making them, they’re better for me. But homemade bagels are also pretty damn delicious. How delicious, exactly? Well, not too long ago, my roommate’s boyfriend came into my room clutching the last bits of a bagel I had just made. “This made me fall in love with you,” he said.