Tag Archives: heritage

From the recipe files: Lebanese Baklawa

Every year we attend the Master’s Swim Team holiday party and every year I wonder what to bring to a gathering of healthy eaters looking to treat themselves after a year of nutritious meals and regular exercise. This year we’re bringing my friend Leesa’s mother’s Lebanese baklawa. I learned this recipe in her kitchen and have never written it out. It had been handed down through oral tradition in her family and she had me repeat the steps back to her as we worked – rapping me gently on the hand with a wooden spoon when I stumbled over the details.

Baklawa baclava

If you’ve made “baclava” from the package directions on the box of phyllo dough this version is going to be so much easier! On the other hand, Leesa’s mom was adamant about a few things:

  • If you’re thinking about using anything but walnuts stop right there. Pistachios are fine, pecans are delicious, but they don’t make baklawa – only walnuts will do.
  • Ditto adding chocolate, dried fruit, coffee, or hazelnut liqueur; just say no.
  • Don’t skimp on the butter. Limit yourself to just one piece of the finished product if you must, but use the amount specified. Angels in heaven will be lining up for the leftovers.

Ingredients: a 10 x 13 pan, 1 package phyllo dough; Filling: 3 C walnuts, 1/2 C sugar, 1 C butter: Syrup: 1 C sugar, 1 C honey, 1/2 C water, 1 Tbs lemon juice, 1 tsp rose water

rosewater, honey, butter, phyllo

The phyllo layers are probably in your grocer’s freezer. They need to be fully defrosted for this recipe so leave them in the refrigerator for a day if you have time. If not, open the box and remove the two plastic-sealed rolls of dough and leave them out on the counter. In a warm kitchen they should be thawed in an hour. Don’t open the plastic until right before you need them; the dough dries out very quickly.

Melt the butter over a low flame and keep warm once melted. Preheat the oven to 350.

Make the syrup by boiling the water, honey, and 1 C of sugar together until the sugar melts and the honey is thoroughly combined, about 10 minutes at a simmer. When cool, add the lemon juice and rosewater. Orange blossom water will do in a pinch, but rosewater does add a characteristic flavor; you could try a little vanilla as a substitute.

While the syrup is cooking, toast the walnuts. I like to do this in an uncovered skillet on top of the stove, but you could spread them on a cookie sheet and put them in the preheating oven. Keep an eye on them – a little burnt is fine but blackened is not. Leesa’s mom liked them quite toasty and said it gave the dish a “grown-up” flavor. Allow them to cool just a bit and then put them in a food processor with the 1/2 cup sugar. Pulse about 10 times to get them finely chopped – big pieces will interfere with cutting the fragile dough layers into serving pieces, but you don’t want to go too far and make walnut butter either.

Now we’re ready to construct the baklawa, and here’s where the Lebanese method diverges from the traditional Greek dish. Brush your 10 x 13 pan with butter. Dampen a dish towel and have it ready. Open one plastic packet of phyllo and unroll it on the plastic it’s wrapped in, then immediately drape the towel over it to prevent drying. Lay two leaves in the bottom of the pan. Are they a little too long? If so, cut a strip off the leaves that are still under the towel with kitchen shears (you can ignore the layers already in the pan).

Pick up about half the remaining layers (still working with only one of the plastic rolls of phyllo) and lay them in the pan. There’s no need to be precise about how many layers are in each step. Brush with butter and spread half the walnut mixture on top. Drape the remaining stack of phyllo from that first package over the nuts, brush with butter, and add the rest of the walnuts. Open the other roll of phyllo, cut to fit if necessary, and drape the whole thing over the nut layer.

Now take your sharpest, most evil kitchen knife, and cut four times lengthwise down the pan. You can (gently) hold down the down with one hand as you go, and try your best to get through all the layers to the bottom without disturbing the top layer too much. This is how the rest of the butter, and eventually the honey and rosewater syrup, are going to travel through every single delicious nook and cranny (مكان إختباء). Now cut through on the diagonal until the entire pan is criss-crossed into rough diamond shaped pieces.

Check the pan of butter to be sure it is still liquid and heat it up again if a firm surface has formed. Pour the butter evenly over the dish, making sure the edges are filled in. Place the pan in the middle of the preheated oven and bake for 50 to 60 minutes until browned.

Place the pan on a cooling rack or trivet and pour the syrup over it, trying to distribute it over the whole surface. Don’t worry about this too much – it’s going to spread through the layers by itself. Let the pan sit and soak, uncovered or loosely covered with waxed paper, for several hours or overnight. There will be a few small, oddly shaped pieces around the edges – those are for the cook and their assistants.

baklawa backlava

It’s traditional to cut the pieces out of the pan and place them in small, individual paper servers. I use cupcake liners. Arrange them in a starburst pattern on a large platter and you’re ready for the potluck. This recipe makes about 30 pieces.

The dish keeps for a week, loosely covered, at room temperature. I’ve never had it around long enough to see if it kept well refrigerated.

 

Happy Grandma’s Birthday, everyone!

My grandmother, Martha Louise Miller, was born in Avon, Connecticut on August 3, 1900. Traditionally we have wonderful weather to celebrate her birth and today was no exception: bright and sunny with a cooling breeze; good for cutting hay or picking green beans, and remember to wear your bonnet!

I went looking for a photograph to share on her day and found this being used as a bookmark in Psalms in a family bible. Here she is, on the left, about six years old with her two older sisters all wearing warm and stylish hats.

Snow sisters

And the verso, in her daughter’s handwriting:

mlb-photo-verso

Pysanka

pysanka with chicken

Connie T., who lives a half mile further down our road, has a flock of chickens which lay beautiful blue, tan, and stark white eggs. I know this because occasionally I come home to a box of these beauties on the doorstep – what a treat! She also makes Pysanky, the beautiful Easter eggs that that have been made in Russia and the Ukraine since prehistoric times. No actual eggshells from that time exist, but ceramic replicas have been found from all the way back to the 3rd millennium BC. Legend says that pysanky keep the Serpent at bay, and that as long as sufficient numbers are made each spring the horrible monster will stay chained to a cliff in the Underworld. Thanks, Connie, for making the world a safer place!

easter-egg-front easter-egg-border easter-egg-verso

Handicrafts edition

I’ve inherited numerous boxes, folders, bags, and piles of well, assorted stuff, from family members over the years. It’s a busy life, though, so sometimes they sit around unopened and mysterious for years while I parse things that have more urgency, or are simply closer to the top of the pile. I unwrapped a box from a long-closed department store in Hartford last night, and found two lovely sewing bags. Here are some photos, before they are wrapped away in acid-free tissue paper, pending their final destination.

antique sewing bags

 

Below is a detail of the “H” on the black bag, done in gold thread in a wheat-ear stitch with French knots.

fancy-bags-H-detail

 

And another detail, of the interior of the figured bag with sewing pad (the soft white wool is a little moth-eaten) and ivory needle.

fancy-bags-work-detail

 

Irish Soda Bread

Next Sunday is St. Patrick’s Day, and in keeping with the season I’ve made a huge round loaf of Irish Soda Bread. Note the sorrel leaves just popping up to the right of the bread – early in this year of no winter.

Soda bread and sorrel leaves

There are probably as many variations of this recipe as there are descendants of Old Eire. My mother’s Irish Soda Bread was dry and crumbly and very, very white. Mine is tan (1 C of whole wheat flour) and quite moist; my mother’s recipe didn’t list any butter and mine requires 1/2 a cup -more if you’re feeling celebratory. I’m sure Great-great grandmother Bell’s differed from both of ours, back in Co. Cork.

All versions have a few items in common: raisins, caraway seeds, buttermilk and baking (or bread) soda. Something else – most of these recipes call for 5 C of flour and a cup of sugar. That’s a big batch of quick bread! I use a 12″ cast iron fricasse pot with 4″ sides and you’ll need something like that unless you divide the dough into two parts, which will bake nicely in nine or ten inch pie plates.

4 cups all purpose flour and 1 cup whole wheat flour
1 cup sugar
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted (see below)
2 1/2 cups raisins, 1/2 C orange juice, 3 Tbs whiskey
2 tablespoons caraway seeds
2 1/2 cups buttermilk
1 large egg

Preheat oven to 350°F. Use a heavy ovenproof 10- to 12-inch-diameter skillet with at least 2- to 2 1/2-inch-high sides. Melt the butter in the skillet and then turn the heat off (this butters the skillet nicely while providing melted butter for the recipe).

Put the raisins in a small sauce pan with the orange juice and whiskey (optional, but very nice). Bring the mixture to a boil then turn off the heat and let them soak while you make the dough.

In a large bowl, whisk first 5 ingredients to blend. Stir in the butter, using fingertips, rub in until coarse crumbs form. Stir in raisins and caraway seeds. Whisk buttermilk and egg in medium bowl to blend. Add to dough; using wooden spoon, stir just until well incorporated.

d'oh

Transfer dough to prepared skillet; smooth top, mounding slightly in center.  Bake until bread is cooked through and tester inserted into center comes out clean, about 1 hour. Cool bread in skillet 10 minutes. Turn out onto rack and cool completely.

This bread is wonderful fresh from the oven with butter, as a side for beef stew, and even better the next day toasted with Dundee marmalade.

The 7% solution

Did you know that only 7% of us in the US don’t use an electrical appliance to dry  our laundry?

A and J at the bungalow, S. Portland, 1992

After thinking about it, I couldn’t say that 7% of us technically use a “clothesline” because I can only hang laundry outside for 1/3 of the year. When it’s cold and damp (easily 2/3 of the year) we have an Amish “finger” contraption that hangs on the wall by the woodstove. Growing up my son referred to it as the “clothes toaster” which is fairly apt – when the tiny woodstove is going full bore it only takes about 20 minutes to dry a rack of laundry.

I love it when I can hang a full load of laundry (or two, or three) outside on the line. Yes, the texture of line-dried towels is a little rough, but soon enough the dryer version begins to feel a little slimy. I have nothing but sympathy for folks who have no place to string a line indoors or out but for the rest of us – get with the new program! Your clothes will last longer, and so will the ozone layer.

There’s even a handy website (when is there not?) to get started with facts and hints: Project Laundry List. See you out in the yard on the next nice day!

Time travel souvenir

I was never here, but I have pictures.

Your mother would know, your mother would know.

Occasionally I use this blog to keep track of information that passes through my hands, and this house. Much as I’d like to sometimes, I can’t keep everything – I can’t even keep track of everything.

My brother would like a few family pictures for his son’s room and I’m sending him this photo of our great-grandparent’s house in central Connecticut when it was newly built. I have several copies of the photo, but this one has details written in my mother’s small, lefty handwriting on the back:

House was Dark Aqua on top with a gray bottom and cream trim, built around 1900 by Louis Harrison Barnard on the “V” corner of Bloomfield and Tunxis Avenues in Bloomfield, Ct., across the street from his “Wintonbury Farm”.

Raymond Barnard married Martha Louise Miller, and they moved into the house in 1938 after Louis died. They had previously lived in the “little house” across the street with their four children (including my mother, Phillip’s grandmother).

Hope Phillip likes the photo!

Boxty

Spring is in the cold, damp air, the temperature hovers around the freezing mark, it’s light until 6:30 pm, the moss is bright green under the snow – time for boxty.

I had always thought of boxty as Irish latkes – and then I went to Yonkers and had actual crispy, delicious latkes made of dry grated potato, matzoh meal and sea salt. Boxty, on the other hand, always start with mashed potatoes. Most people add a grated raw potato but I never learned that method – mine are just mashed potatoes with a leeks, little flour, baking powder, salt, buttermilk and perhaps an egg if the mashers are very dry. Somewhere, an Irishwoman is wailing about me using baking powder. Or buttermilk. Or something – I’ve read recipes for boxty and included bacon, whiskey, corn meal, and parsley and they’re all right for somebody, just not for me.

First, go out to the raised beds and get some leeks. The snow has melted off enough to dig the knife down and get to the pristine white roots. Leave the upper leaves on the bed for compost.

Boil two or three potatoes. I don’t have any of ours left in the cellar, but Hannafords had some nice Maine Corollas. Mash the potatoes and add 1 C flour, 1 tsp baking powder, 1 tsp sea salt, 1/2 C chopped leeks (raw). Mix that up and add enough buttermilk to make it “cohesive” – add an egg if it looks too dry.  Put a little canola oil in a frying pan, add 1 Tbs butter and fry the potato mixture until browned – about 3 minutes on a side.

Serve with applesauce, sour cream, and salad.

Boxty on the griddle,
And Boxty on the pan;
The wee one in the middle
Is for Mary Ann.
Boxty on the griddle,
boxty on the pan,
If you can’t bake boxty
sure you’ll never get a man.
Boxty on the griddle,
Boxty on the pan,
If you don’t eat boxty,
You’ll never get a man.

Molasses crinkles

My grandmother, Martha Louise Miller Barnard Snyder, was born left-handed and forced to use her right hand at school. I have always been fascinated by her handwriting: studied and careful, almost childlike and without any of the affectations that usually accumulate over a lifetime of repetitive movement. There’s nothing very personal about her marks except the sheer impersonality of the textbook isolation of each nicely formed letter. Her teachers might have been able to force her to write with the wrong hand, but she wasn’t going to cave and accept it.

Grandma’s molasses crinkles are wonderful – perfect for making the house smell warmly of spices on a frigid Sunday afternoon. Here is the recipe in her handwriting:

The arrow points to a note that her right-handed daughter, Cynthia wrote on the other side. Cynthia has a school-based hand, too – familiar to anyone who went to school more than 20 years ago in New England.

A note from me, too: leave them ball shaped, don’t flatten into discs. They are very delicate and will spread out on their own while baking. I add a Tbs of sour cream to the shortening, sugar, molasses mixture to help out the baking soda.

Now I’m off to get a cup of tea and a cookie.

Merry, Happy

Tonight there were stuffed tortillas with roasted pumpkin-seed sauce and great conversation – it’s so nice to have the Boy home! Tomorrow there will be Anglo roast beast and Saxon Yule Log, with some Armenian dried fruit and Yankee parsnips. A merry End tonight, and a Beginning tomorrow to all, wherever you may be!