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Friday
Oct242014

Cooking with Schmaltz

Many people think of schmaltz as the Jewish version of bacon fat. But in many ways, it reminds me much more of butter. Judiciously used, bacon fat can add richness to sauteed dishes (like these brussel sprouts). But in my view, it is too heavy to cook or bake with. Schmaltz, on the other hand, is much lighter and has a more subtle taste -- which makes it an ideal fat to use in both traditional and contemporary dishes. Here are a few examples:

Matzo Ball Soup 

Despite the fact that I have lived in NYC for over 25 years, I have never had (nor made) a matzo ball. But after making schmaltz, I was determined to change that. 

For the uninitiated, matzo balls are dumplings which are traditionally served in chicken soup. As the name implies, they are made with matzo meal (as opposed to flour) which makes them an ideal choice for Passover -- when the eating of chametz is strictly forbidden under Jewish law.

Matzo balls typically fall into 2 categories: "floaters" or "sinkers". Floaters are matzo balls which are typically made with some kind of chemical leavening, to produce a light dumpling. Sinkers typically are made without levening and tend to be more dense.  This recipe recipe definitely falls into the former camp.

It is astounishing how much the dumplings expand when cooked. The matzo balls above started out the size of golf balls, and expanded as they were simmered in stock.  After the dumplings are cooked, they can be used immediately or stored for later use. (Just cool them and individually wrap each one in a piece of plastic wrap.) I have also read that they freeze well, but I can't vouch for it! 

Potato Pancakes {Latkes}

Growing up with a Polish grandmother, I am no stranger to delicious potato pancakes. But I have to confess, potato pancakes cooked in schmaltz are in a league of their own. 

I am not sure why, but potatoes cooked in poultry fat crisp up beautifully. They also do not have the unpleasant heavy, after-taste that foods fried in shortening often have.

This recipe differs from my grandmothers, in so far as it uses matzo meal and an egg to bind the pancake batter. Matzo meal? Yes, Matzo meal. Although I was initially skeptical, the batter does not get pasty with the matzo (which can sometimes happen with flour) and it makes the pancakes exceptionally crispy.  And in case you are wondering, the taste of the matzo is indiscernible.

Parisienne Gnocchi with Spinach, Onion and Poached Eggs

Dear readers, you have just stumbled upon the perfect brunch dish.

This recipe is riff on Thomas Keller's herbed gnocchi, which is served at Bouchon Bakery. Not to be confused with Italian gnocchi (which have a potato base), these gnocchi are made from pâte à choux -- the same dough used to make gourgeres, cream puffs and eclairs!

As advertised, the gnocchi are made with schmaltz . But by all means, feel free to substitute butter. Either way, the gnocchi will be amazing.

This recipe makes a lot of gnocchi, which can be made ahead and frozen. They also stay well in the refrigerator for a few days; just be sure to put some schmaltz, butter or oil on them, so that they don't stick together. 

Friday
Oct242014

Schmaltz 

Make no bones about it. Michael Ruhlman loves animal fat. So it was almost inevitable that one day, he would tackle the subject of schmaltz, or rendered chicken fat. Ruhlman navigates the subject with the help of his friend and neighbor, Louis Baron, who guides him through the historical, cultural and culinary significance of this nearly forgotten, but highly versatile, cooking fat.

Up until a couple of months ago, I had never tasted schmaltz. In fact, I only had a vague idea of what it was. But over the years, I have heard many people reminisce about eating schmaltz as children -- often recalling that they "smeared it on rye bread", like one would eat butter.

For the uninitiated, Schmaltz is rendered chicken fat which is flavored with onion. A by-product of making schmaltz is Gribenes, which are crispy/caramelized pieces of chicken skin and onions -- often added to dishes for additional flavor.

The tradition of making schmaltz originated in Eastern/Northwestern Europe, where it was the fat of choice amongst Ashkenazi Jews. In many ways, it was both a practical and necessary choice for Kosher households. Poultry was plentiful, easy to raise and very versatile.  Moreover, other forms of fat (such as lard and butter) could not be used to cook meat in a Kosher kitchen. 

 

Cooking with schmaltz gradually fell out of favor in the US, due to health concerns (which are now largely disputed) and the availability of cheap vegetable oils. But in my view, schmaltz was also the victim of a changing American food culture, which increasingly relied on fast, highly processed food "products" and eschewed cooking with whole foods.

In an interview, Lois Baron noted that "Schmaltz is not easy, because you can't go into a store and by authentic schmaltz, like you buy olive oil.  You have to make it".  I guess I would counter by saying that schmaltz is actually quite easy to make. However, it takes time and some patience -- not unlike making chicken stock or cooking brisket.

When all was said and done, I was really amazed at how lovely the rendered fat was. Unlike bacon fat or lard, schmaltz is light -- almost delicate. The flavor is recognizably chicken, but there is also a hint of the caramelized onion in the mix.

Schmaltz is a very versatile fat, which in many ways is interchangeable with butter. I particularly love to fry potato pancakes with it, as they crisp up like a charm. It is also the fat of choice in many traditional recipes such as matzo balls, as well as contemporary dishes like Parisienne Gnocchi. Read on for some recipes (and inspiration) here.

Sunday
Sep212014

Pumpkin Pecan Gingersnap Ice Cream

NYC food blogger Deb Pearlman (Smitten Kitchen) always makes a point of saying that a small kitchen should never be an excuse for not cooking. Given my own experience cooking in a tiny urban kitchen, I would  agree. But I would also add that having limited storage and counter space comes with its own set of challenges and frustrations.....like having no room for single-use appliances.

One solution to my limited counter/storage space has been to limit the number of small appliances I own. And whenever possible, I opt for multi-functions items, like my KitchenAide Standing Mixer. So it goes without saying that I broke all of my own rules when I purchased an electric ice cream maker a few months ago.

Space considerations aside, I wondered if I would get much use out of it? But I have to say, this machine has been getting a work-out -- especially when company calls and I don't have time to bake anything for dessert.  

It couldn't be easier. I make the custard the night before, and let the machine whirl while I am in the shower the next morning. Then into the freezer it goes to cure, and voila, dessert is served. 

I made this ice cream with Thanksgiving in mind. It is like eating a slice of frozen pumpkin cheesecake --except the "crust" (i.e. the ginger snap cookie crumbs and pecans) is swirled throughout.

In a pinch, you can use store-bought ginger snap cookies. But for an added treat, I would recommend making the cookies from scratch. This recipe has just the right amount of spice, and the cookies have a nice snap due to an ample amount of baking soda. I just served the last of the crumbs over vanilla bean ice cream this week!

Looking ahead, eggnog and peppermint ice cream are only a stone's throw away. Stay tuned. 

The printable recipe is here.

Sunday
Sep212014

Happy New Year {Rosh Hashana 2014}

It is hard to believe that another year has past, and soon it will be the Jewish High Holidays.....quickly followed by Sukkot. In honor of Rosh Hashana, I wanted to braise lamb shanks. But per usual, life's responsibilities took precedence over cooking and blogging.

With that said, brisket and lamb shanks are not the only dishes that grace the Rosh Hashana table. In fact, there are many other dishes, both traditional and contemporary, which families can enjoy during the holidays.

To this end, I thought that I would share some recipes which I hope will inspire and delight. Happy New Year! 

What would a holiday (or Shabbot for that matter) be like without Matzo Ball Soup? This recipe is very special, as the matzo balls are made from schmaltz which I rendered myself. The homemade stock is also dotted with gribenes, carrots and parsley flakes to add both color and texture.

And just in case you are wondering, these matzo balls are definitely "floaters" (not "sinkers") despite their size! 

On Thursday, Lakir and Faye Levy wrote a lovely piece in the LA Times food section about the significance of fish on the Rosh Hashana table:

According to tradition, having fish on the table is an omen for blessings in the year to come. When the fish is served, observant Jews recite a prayer expressing the wish "that we be fruitful and multiply like fish." 

Not surprisingly, this recipe for Salmon Rosettes with Pistachio-Mint Pesto was one of the most popular blog posts on my site this week -- with most of the traffic coming from an online forum for frum (i.e. religiously observant) Jewish women.

This recipe might not be the perfect Rosh Hashana fish dish, but it comes close. Because the recipe contains neither butter nor cream (which are dairy), the fish can be served with a meat course in a Kosher home. It is also a very practical recipe, as the pesto and salmon rosettes can be made in advance. I typically serve the fish warm from the oven, but it would work equally well to serve it at room temperature.

Entering into the realm of non-traditional dishes: this Mushroom Lasagna is a lovely vegetarian alternative for guests that do not eat meat.

I typically use a combination of wild mushrooms from the farmer's market, which imparts an earthy, toothsome quality to the dish. If you do not like mushrooms (or don't have access to them), feel free to substitute any vegetable you like. Artichokes, spinach or kale would all work well. 

But whatever you do, be sure to make a big pan. Everyone raves about this lasagna.

David Ruhlman's Parisienne Gnocchi with Spinach, Onion and Poached Eggs is the perfect dish for a holiday luncheon or brunch.

This dish is a riff on Thomas Keller's herbed gnocchi at Bouchon Bakery. Not to be confused with Italian gnocchi (which have a potato base), these gnocchi are made from pâte à choux -- the same dough used to make gourgeres, cream puffs and eclairs!

Ruhlman uses schmaltz in this recipe, but feel free to substitute butter. The gnocchi will be equally as good.

This recipe makes a lot of gnocchi, which can be made ahead and frozen. They also stay well in the refrigerator for a few days; just be sure to put some schmaltz, butter or oil on them, so that they don't stick together. 

Just as berries and stone fruit became a lingering memory, pears and apples appear to usher in fall and the holiday season.

I have previously written about this Spiced Pear Cake, which is a moist, lightly spiced cake with a cream cheese frosting. As you can see, the cake is very substantial and will easily feed a large crowd.

Left-overs can be stored in the refrigerator for up to a week. Just be sure to bring the cake back to room temperature before you serve it. 

And finally! Just in case you want a little something to hold you over, with a cup of coffee or tea, look no further than this Apple and Sour Cream Coffee Cake.

This coffee cake has a lovely oatmeal crumb topping, and is chock full of apples and nuts. The batter can be baked in two large loaf pans (as above) or in a large 14 cup bundt pan. Either way, the coffee cake keeps well in the refrigerator for several days and the second loaf can be conveniently frozen for later use.

Enjoy!