Monthly Archive for April, 2011

History Dinner: Poor Man’s Potage and Tomato Soup Cake

Tomato Soup Cake.  You’d never guess the secret ingredient. (it’s love!)

Last summer, I spent a week dining on recipes from MFK Fisher’s book How to Cook a Wolf. After I finished the project, there were two recipes I still wanted to try: Quick Potato Soup and Tomato Soup cake.  So I invited over a few friends and we dined.

Soup was first, served with buttered, fresh-baked bread:

Modern technology has made this recipe easier: instead of hand-grating a million potatoes, I used an immersion blender.  I softened then onions first, simmering them slowly in a whole stick of butter.  Delicious.  Then I added the potatoes, cubed but unpeeled, and about a quart of water.  I brought them to a boil and cooked the mixture until the potatoes were fork tender.  I heated a quart of whole milk on the stove while I used my blender to puree the soup.  I left it a little chunky, ’cause that’s how I roll.  I tasted the soup and added a generous quantity of salt and some pepper.

I used about 3/4 the amount of liquid that Fisher recommends; when I initially added the milk, the soup looked too thin.  But I let it bubble away on a low heat for about 30 minutes and it thickened up to a pleasant consistency.  This morning, the leftovers were souper thick, which is how I like it.

I served the soup topped with what I thought was flat leaf parsley, but was actually cilantro.  It didn’t matter, it was really tasty.  I also sprinkled parmesan cheese over top, which put a nice finish on the soup.  Simple ingredients, simple preparation, and simply delicious: the qualities that Fisher’s recipes are known for.

Potato and Onion Soup– one of the most perfect foods.

Dessert was Tomato Soup Cake:

The “soda” is baking soda and can be whisked in with the flour and spices.  I left out the clove, which I find to be an overpowering flavor, and used a very satisfactory blend of 1 tsp cinnamon, and a 1/2 tsp each nutmeg and ginger.  My “what you will” was one fuji apple and 3/4 cup chopped walnuts.  And yes: I added one can of Campbell’s “Soup at Hand” Classic Tomato Soup.

I didn’t make the frosting of “cream cheese and powdered sugar and a little rum” that Fisher recommends, although it sounds awesome.  I made a glaze with confectioner’s sugar and the juice and zest of a lemon.  Although the cake is great without frosting, too.

“This is a pleasant cake,” Fisher says, “which keeps well and puzzles people who ask what kind it is.”  I let my guests venture guesses as to the surprise ingredient.  They were nearly finished with their cake slices when someone finally said “Tomatoes?”  Initially, everyone dropped their cake in horror.  Then they found peace with the idea and wolfed the remainder down.

The cake was incredibly moist–shockingly most–without being heavy.  The spice blend was perfect.  Maybe you could taste tomatoes, but I’m not sure: I think it just added richness and depth to the other flavors.  And since the soup replaces milk and eggs, the cake is also vegan (as long as you use shortening, not butter).

I would absolutely, without a doubt make this cake again.

Coconut Cake Update

I’ve added the exciting conclusion to my coconut cake experiment.  Check it out.

The History Dish: My Grandma’s Coconut Cake

Orange and Almond Cake with Meringue Frosting and Fresh Coconut.

I have very few taste memories from my grandmother.  By the time I was born, most of what she cooked came from boxes and cans, and there was an endless supply of Twinkies in the cabinet.  But when my mother was a little girl, my grandmother would cook, and bake, from scratch.

My mother always talks about a cake that her mother made once a year, at Easter.  A coconut cake.  “It was so good,”  my mother said. “It tasted

Boyfriend Brian bangs the nut.


best right after the frosting went on and the coconut was sprinkled on top.  My mother made it from a real coconut.  We had to grate it by hand. It was horrible.

“I think my mom would have used the recipe for yellow cake and white mountain frosting (I think it’s also called 7-minute frosting) from the Settlement Cookbook.  Preparing a coconut is a bitch. I’m sure you’ll find directions on the Food Network website.  Basically, you puncture the eyes with a hammer and nail, and then bake the whole coconut in the oven (I don’t know at what temperature and for how long) until the shell cracks, and then you wrap it in a towel and hit it with a hammer until it breaks in pieces, and then you pry the shell off the pieces, and then you peel the tough outer skin off the coconut meat, and then you grate it.  I would have (roommate) Jeff do all that!

“The coconut goes on while the frosting is wet (she kind of swirled the frosting on). And you have to do it pretty fast because the frosting crusts over quickly.  The cake lasts a long time, but the frosting starts to–I don’t know–dissolve after a couple of days.”

One day, a coconut just appeared on the kitchen table in my apartment.  I asked Roommate Jeff where it came from. “I dunno. I found it.” was his response.

I took it as a sign: coconut cake would happen this Easter.

I started tonight, by attacking the coconut.  Mom was right, directions can be found on the Food Network website here (Thanks, Alton Brown!).  Preparing the coconut was somehow both extremely laborious and not as difficult as I has expected.  It took about three hours and tasted no different that pre-shredded coconut from a bag.

I have my grandmother’s copy of  the Settlement Cookbook (the way to a man’s heart!), and I paged through it, unable to find a yellow cake recipe, unsure if this was the right book at all.  I stumbled upon a recipe for coconut layer cake that suggested using the white cake recipe on page 424.  On 424, I found this:

That’s my grandmother’s handwriting.  I love little notations in the margins of cookbooks–marks of personal preference and improved recipes.  But usually I find these notes amongst the books and recipes of strangers, unearthed at flea markets and garage sales.  Never had I seen such a cherished notation in my grandmother’s hand.

Who did she write it for? Surely she could remember that she preferred orange zest, not lemon.  Did she write it for my mom?  For the future? For me?

I zested an orange.  I beat the egg whites to soft peaks and set them aside, then sifted together Swan Cake Flour (a very old brand, still available) and baking powder, and set it aside, too.  I creamed butter and sugar; then, with the mixer on low, I added the flour and milk, alternating between the two.  I mixed until the batter was smooth, then added the almond flavoring and the orange zest; last, I folded in the egg whites.

My mother distinctly remembers this cake being baked in a plain square pan.  My grandmother would frost it right there in the pan; simple, easy and delicious.  I realized too late that I needed to double the recipe for my square pan; so instead, I baked it in a round, 9-inch pan. 375 degrees, for 20-25 minutes.  It came out of the oven looking perfect, despite the fact that I was tired and forgot to set a timer.

Here’s the frosting:

I made the frosting a little different: I cooked the first four ingredients in a metal mixing bowl over a double boiler until the sugar was dissolved and the liquid was hot to the touch.  Then I removed it from the heat and used my upright mixer to whip it until stiff peaks formed.  I gently mixed in the vanilla last.  After you frost the cake, sprinkle it with coconut immediately, before the frosting firms up.

The cake was a huge hit: despite the bounty of our Easter potluck, everyone managed to find room to cram in a slice of cake.  It was fluffy and not too sweet and the orange and the almond was a great flavor combo.  Guests were eating leftover frosting by the spoonful it was so good. The coconut was fine.  Get it from a bag.


Events: Tavern Drinks and Diversions

I’m doing a cocktail event in early May at the Mount Vernon Hotel and Museum. They have an incredible 1830s fully-restored bar; so we’re going to be serving authentic 1830s drink, food, and playing games all in an authentic setting!  Come drink and have a generally good time.  More info below, and buy tickets here.


Tavern Drinks and Diversions: An evening of 19th century carousing

Thursday, May 12 at 6:30 PM
The Mount Vernon Hotel Museum & Garden
421 East 61st St., New York, NY

$35 Adults, $30 Members. Buy tickets here.

Learn the fine art of toasting (and roasting) while enjoying historic cocktails with “historic gastronomist” and artist Sarah Lohman of the Four Pounds Flour blog.  Guests can enjoy three different 1830s imbibements in the Museum’s fully restored tavern room and period appropriate bar, including the original Cock-Tail and a glass of Punch made with rum, citrus, and green tea.
A light tavern supper will be available, including cold meats, game, and fresh bread with butter, served with homemade pickled walnuts and mushroom ketchup.
Ms. Lohman will also lead participants in parlour games sure to delight all that are assembled. Space is limited, so Buy Tickets Now!


The Gallery: Economic, Sanitary, Attractive, Appetizing

Take a moment to read the above advertisement for “Better Butter,” c 1914.

I’m becoming convinced that the terms “Hygienic” and “Sanitary” were the “All-Natural” and “Organic” of the 19teens: buzzwords that not only reflected the culture of a time, but were also important tools for advertising.

In a way, it’s not a surprise.  For decades children had died of swill milk;  germ theory was slowly being accepted by the turn of the century; and, without antibiotics, there was still not a cure for most contagious illnesses.  There was a focus on the best preventative medicine: good hygiene.

An article on the history of Washing DC’s bread factories, Bread For The City: Shaw’s Historic Bakeries, has more to say on the topic:

“At the beginning of the twentieth century, food sanitation had become a nationwide obsession, culminating in Upton Sinclair’s famous The Jungle, about the horrors of the meatpacking industry. Bread-making was also a topic of concern. An article in the New York Times in 1896 excoriated small traditional bakeries in that city (‘The walls and floors are covered with vermin, spiders hang from the rafters, and cats, dogs, and chickens are running around in the refuse…’) and asserted that ‘the cause of this trouble is that small bakeries are owned by ignorant persons. The large bakeries are conducted in an exemplary manner.’

It seems to have been part of a campaign to get people to buy all their bread from large factories. An 1893 article in theEvening Starobserved that ‘Home-made bread is a back number. Machine-made bread takes the cake. The twentieth century bakery is a thing of beauty and the up-to-date baker is a joy forever.’ At the popular Pure Food Show at the Washington Convention Hall in 1909, D.C. bakeries put on a massive exhibit that filled the K Street end of the hall. Visitors could observe machines doing the work in a modern factory setting; dirty human hands never touched the bread. In that same vein, a 1919 advertisement for Dorsch’s in The Washington Times urged consumers to give up their old-fashioned reliance on the corner store: ‘Why buy bread at the grocer’s, fresh for each meal, when it is possible to get goodwholesome, and fresh bread that tastes as good at the last bite as it did when you first cut into the warm loaf?'”

The shift from stuff made at home = bad and stuff from a factory = economic, sanitary, attractive, appetizing is interesting to think about.  I understand why it happened: to be able to buy a gallon of milk, a pat of butter, or a loaf of bread in the grocery store that is clean and consistent is a beautiful thing.  But, I think society’s shift back to a love of the homemade has provided a much needed balance.

Going Kosher Day 3: Babka and Shabbos


Fresh Fruit
Bread & Butter


Roast Meat


Beans (Baked by Mrs. Paley)

Mrs. Paley, if you’re curious, was the head of the Ellis Island Kosher Kitchen, although I was unable to find her original baked beans recipe.

Getting out the breakfast dishes on my last day made me a little bit sad.  I had quickly grown used to ritual and the relaxed breakfast my boyfriend and I shared over the kitchen table.  It was somehow different over hurried bowls of cereal.

However, if you think I was excited to have sardines for breakfast, you are wrong.  I must admit, they tasted better than they smelled: the flavor was much like a very mild tuna.  However, I’m also not accustomed to having tuna for breakfast.

For lunch and supper, I wanted to change the menu up a little bit.  This menu is actually for a Wednesday in the Ellis Island Kosher Kitchen and I wanted to keep closer to tradition.  Friday is a special day–sundown marks the start of shabbat.

For lunch, we had Streit’s Mushroom Barley Soup, a kosher, dry soup mix.   It was easy to make, incredibly cheap ($1 a serving) and really delicious.  Who knew?  I am definitely going to make it again.

I needed to measure four cups of water to add to the soup mix.  My metal, two-cup measuring cup was treif, meaning I had used it with both meat and dairy, so I dunked it in boiling water.  Certain materials can be cleaned for kosher: glass needs a thorough scrub with good hot water; a metal fork or knife that has become treif can be cleaned in boiling water.  More porous materials, like porcelain, enamel, and wood, cannot be cleaned if kitchen mistakes are made.  And kitchen mistakes are made: today, while cleaning the lid to my meat pot, I carelessly grabbed the everyday kitchen sponge, not the meat sponge.  One touch to the pot lid and it was ruined.  Luckily, it’s made of glass and metal: a dunk in boiling water, and we’re in good shape again.

For dessert, I busted out our only real sweet treat of the past three days: Babka. I bought a slice of cake from a kosher bakery on a stretch of Grand street that is an island of Jewish tradition.  I walked into the shop, cakes behind glass displays calling my name.  A round woman with jet black hair wrapped in a hair net asked if she could help me.

“What’s this one?” I asked, pointing to a glossy brown cake covered in walnuts.

Babka! Walnuts, raisins, cinnamon.”

I thought it over. “Hm.  I need a couple of slices of something delicious.”

“This is very delicious!” She responded.  And it was.


Friday night supper is very important.  When the sun sets tonight, I’m lighting the candles and keeping shabbos: the day of rest that lasts from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday.  Sunset is at 7:28; so the candles will be lit at 7:10.  Before the candles are lit, dinner must be ready.  And what is more appropriate for the Sabbath then a hot bowl of chicken soup?  The recipe I’ll be cooking from comes from the first kosher Jewish cookbook published in America, Jewish Cookery Book by Mrs. Esther Levy (1871), “A cookery book properly explained, and in accordance with the rules of the Jewish religion.”

There’s 39 categories of things I am not allowed to do on shabbat (although I may employ Roommate Jeff as a shabbes goy).  The list includes cooking, tidying, plowing, weaving, writing two or more letters, building, demolishing, extinguishing a fire, kindling a fire, putting the finishing touch on an object and transporting an object between the private domain and the public domain.  It’s all based around preventing one from doing work and encouraging one to rest.

Tonight, we will turn off the lights, the computers, the cellphones and the tv.  We’ll read by candlelight, rest, and attend to certain other encouraged activities.

Tomorrow, I’ll break sabbath by getting up, getting on the train, and going to work.  When I step out the door, I’m shedding the rituals a life that is not mine; but I’m leaving with a much better understanding of what it entails.

Going Kosher: Day 2

Breakfast: Bread & Butter, Cheese, Fruit, Coffee


Fresh Fruit
American Cheese
Bread & Butter


Vegetable Soup
Pot Roast


Dill Pickles
Stewed Fruit

While Boyfriend Brian made the coffee, I carefully got out the dairy dishes and silverware for breakfast.  I realized that I had begun to like the ritual of choosing the dishes and setting them on the table; there was something very orderly and satisfying about it.  We dug in to oranges, buttered bread, and hunks of cheddar cheese.

The cheese was more difficult to find than one would expect.  We spent a solid fifteen minutes in the dairy aisle examing packages of American single slices.  I don’t actually know what “American Cheese” would entail in 1914; was it the packaged cheese product that we know today? (I think I’ll be expanding this question into a full post on the origins of the grilled cheese sandwich).  Most American cheese seems to be made with Rennet, an animal enzyme that makes Kraft Singles decidedly not kosher.  In a fit of frustration, I grabbed a log of McCadam’s Cheddar Cheese and checked the back of the package:  both Kosher and Hallal, and prominently marked.  It was a suitable substitution.

Chicken Fricassee: Tastes less beige than it looks.

Lunch was vegetable soup from a can, both Kosher and Parve.  I heated it and served it with half a bialy while I worked on the meat dish.   I couldn’t find kosher beef at the store; instead, I had a sectioned chicken.  To find a good recipe, I decided to turn to one of my standby cookbooks: The Settlement Cookbook: The Way to a Man’s Heart.

The Settlement Cookbook was published by a settlement house in Milwaukee, an organization run by the children and grandchildren of German Jewish immigrants who arrived in the mid-19th century.  The turn of the century wave of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe struck these now “American” Jews as too foriegn, too orthodox, too strange; as a result, there was a huge movement to “Americanize” them.  This book, a mix of midwestern American cuisine and traditional German Jewish fare, is one of the by-products.

I looked up the recipe for Chicken Fricasee, an American dinner table staple since sometime in the 18th century:

I didn’t have a red pepper on hand, so I threw a teaspoon of paprika in with the simmering onion, celery stalk and garlic clove.  I salted and peppered two bone-in chicken breasts, and placed them skin side down in the hot pot.  I let them brown, then covered the whole thing over with water.  I added two bay leaves and a large, cubed potato before I covered the pot and let it simmer.

When the potatoes were tender, the chicken was done, too.  It was really easy to throw together.  In fact, everything I’ve cooked for lunch has been super simple but flavorful.  I did *not* make the cream sauce the recipe suggests serving the chicken with.

Both Brian and I wanted juice to drink instead of water; while trying to determine if our carton of Tropicana was kosher, Brian came across OK Kosher Certification, a website that lets you search retail products to see if they have a kosher certification.  This discovery is going to simplify this entire process.

The day came to an end with rolls of all-beef Hebrew National bologna, dill pickles from The Pickle Guys, and a bowl of hot stewed apples: Gala apples sliced and cooked slowly with water, raw sugar, and cinnamon.

Supper: Beef Bologna, Pickles, Stewed Fruit, Bread.

Going Kosher: Eating Day 1

Breakfast: Two Boiled Eggs, Bread & Butter, and Coffee.

My day began with breakfast at the kitchen table with my boyfriend.  We had hard boiled eggs, which he hates; and coffee, which I hate.  I smeared a slice of bread with butter; my boyfriend paused, looked at me and said: “Is that butter kosher?”

I sighed. “I don’t…it’s fine…arrrgh, let me check.”

I grabbed the Breakstone’s box out of the fridge.  We had spent a better part of the previous evening in the grocery store, having to scrutinize every box for the Kosher symbol.  Breakstone’s made my day:

Usually, the kosher symbol is not so obvious.

I left my boyfriend with a list of what to eat and headed into work.  At lunch, I dazzled my coworkers with my multiple Tupperwares, my bialy from Kossar’s and my bag of pickled vegetables from The Pickles Guys: cauliflower, carrots, peppers, and celery.  The Pickle Guys are the last pickle purveyors on the Lower East Side, a community that long ago had a barrel of pickles for sale on every street corner.  The day I went, I saw another ghost from the past: a horseradish grinder, filling orders for the upcoming Passover holiday.  I had heard a story (from Jane Ziegelman) that the horseradish grinders of the last century were easily recognizable even after their daily toil was done: the fumes from the pungent root would cause their eyes to inflame and water all day.  This modern-day grinder donned a gas mask to avoid that unpleasant side affect.

The horseradish grinder.

The potato soup was perfect, the sweet-and-sour goulash was delicious.  Lunch was filling and satisfying.

Hungarian goulash, served with noodles; how I remember it from my childhood.

Dinner was late: at the end of the long day, I sat at the kitchen table again.  I split a buttered bialy with my man and we cracked open a take-out container from Russ & Daughters, one of those unstoppable Lower East Side institutions that started as a pushcart a century ago.  The first store to use “& Daughters,” it’s motto is “Appetizing since 1914.”

When I stopped in the other day, their candy counter was stocked with tempting towers of nuts and macaroons for Passover.  I needed pickled herring for dinner and I choose one with a modern twist: a herring done up in a delicious curry sauce, topped off with a stack of pickled onions.

Neither my boyfriend or I eat much fish,  but we both agreed that this herring was probably really good herring.  Mostly, we piled our bread high with onions and delicious curry sauce.  We finished with a few pieces of fresh fruit and cups of hot, black tea.

Pickled herring in curry sauce, from Russ & Daughters; a bialy from Kossar’s.

Going Kosher: Day 1


Boiled Eggs (2)
Bread and Butter

Dinner (Lunch):

Potato Soup
Hungarian Goulash


Pickled Herring
Fresh Fruit
Bread & Butter

I worked yesterday, so I did all of my meal prep the night before, carefully labeling Tupperware “M” and “D”  to take with me, organizing food in the fridge for my boyfriend.

As I cooked dishes for lunch, I kept encountering problems. I went for the vegetable peeler, then remembered that it was not kosher: it had been washed 100 times with sponges that had touched both meat and dairy.  My good knives and my cutting board were in the same boat, so I mangled vegetables with a butter knife over paper towels.

I only had one pot I could use for meat, so I could only cook one dish at a time:  the eggs for breakfast first, then the potato soup with chicken stock, then noodles for the Hungarian goulash, then the meat.

The potato soup recipe was a simple one I knew by heart: one stalk celery, one carrot, one onion.  Softened in Canola Oil, although I wished I had schmaltz, the more period appropriate, tastier cooking oil.  Then, salt and pepper, two large potatoes, and chicken stock bought from the kosher aisle at Gristede’s. Simmered until the potatoes are done; delicious.

For the Hungarian Goulash, I referenced an historic recipe from The Neighborhood Cook Book (1912):

I had difficulty finding kosher beef.  I wandered the Lower East Side, caught in a freezing rainstorm with a broken umbrella.  I searched for kosher butcher shops Google said still existed, but were either long closed or somehow hidden from my goy eyes.  I began to find myself on streets where the only writing was in Yiddish, on some forgotten corner that didn’t know the Jewish population had moved on fifty years ago.  I asked around.  I was told to go to Brooklyn.  But something stopped me from crossing the bridge in to Williamsburg: there, you can find the Lower East Side of 100 years ago.  There I was too different, too foreign.  I was too scared to find what I needed there.

So, shivering and soaked with rain, I ducked into a grocery store that I knew would have a kosher section in the back.  Next to a shelf of Hebrew National salamis were a few rows of chicken and turkey labeled “kosher.”  I settled on ground turkey for my goulash instead of beef.

I followed the recipe, tasting it after it has been simmering a time with the tomato.  It was bland and terrible and lacking the deep red color that I know goulash should have.  I have attachments and memories of this dish from my childhood: the Catholics that ended up in my hometown of Cleveland came from the same parts of the word as the Jews that stayed in New York.  I tripled the paprika.  Then, I remembered a common theme of eastern-European cooking: sweet and sour.  I threw in a tablespoon of vinegar and a packet of Sugar in the Raw, and let it simmer over low.

Stirring my pot of goulash, I felt like a jewish housewife.  All the steps, the careful cleaning.  Meat sponge for the knife that cut the onion for the soup.  Dairy sponge for the knife that buttered the Bialy for dinner. So careful. So thoughtful.

How did it all taste?  More on that later today.

Going Kosher: Koshering the Dishes

Yesterday was spent in prep.  Dishes that I’ve set aside for months, new and unused, are finally fulfilling their destinies.  Everything cleaned and separated for meat and dairy.

My boyfriend decided to join me in my experiment.  Both of our brains are in Kosher mode.  He texted me from Starbucks: Sugar in the Raw is Parve.  Stealing us some.

We spent an hour that night at the grocery store, examining packages for the necessary “K” for Kosher.

The full story of Day 1 tomorrow.