Monthly Archive for February, 2012

Ancient Candy

At last night’s meeting of Masters of Social Gastronomy, we focused on CANDY, and I spoke on the origins of sweet treats.  Below, a few of the world’s oldest sugary snacks.

Sugar Cane

About 10,000 years ago, farmers in Papua New Guinea domesticated sugar cane.  It spread to the rest of Southeast Asia where, along with bananas, it was a staple food source.   Sugar Cane is about 17% sugar and is still eaten as a snack in the countries in which it is produced: there is something very satisfying about chomping down on a fibrous strip of sugar cane.  Sugarcane is sold, unprocessed, in many ethnic grocery stores.  I found these sugar cane strips at Kalustyan’s, a fantastic Middle Eastern and Indian food store in Manhattan.  You can also find them as “swizzle sticks” for cocktails; I first had a piece of sugar cane while enjoying Brazil’s national cocktail, the Caipirinha.

Jaggary / Gur

After sugar cane was domesticated in East Asia, it made its way to India.   The earliest method method of processing sugar was developed there: beating the cane to release the sweet liquid inside, then evaporating the water to produce crystallized sugar.  This primitive processing method produces jaggary, a brown sugar that still contain molasses.  It is still eaten in India, other parts of Asia, and the Caribbean.

It’s believed the some of the first desserts, which were largely milk-based, were developed in India.  Recorded references of sweets date back thousands of years; there are mentioned in the ancient epic the Ramayana as kheer, a type of rice pudding.

Rock Candy

From India, sugar traveled to the Middle East, where sugar production was refined.  Arab countries used sugar in both sweet and savory dishes and developed the first candy: rock candy.  To make it, sugar is dissolved in water, and then allowed to recrystallize.  It was flavored with rose or violet; above, is saffron rock candy from Kalustyan’s.

The word “candy” comes from the Arabic word for sugar, “qandi.”

Manus Christi

The Middle East was also the first place to develop candy syrups and confections, like Halvah.  After sugar spread to Europe, there was a greater understanding of the various properties of sugar cooked to different temperatures.  One of the candies developed at this time was called Manus Christi, which means Hand of Christ.  It was a stick or tablet of hard candy, flavored with rose or violet water, and blended with flecks of gold or ground up gemstones.  Rich people, like Henry the Eighth, took it like a vitamin.  Intense.

Much of my research came from the great book Sweets: A History of Candy.

Head over the Brooklyn Brainery’s blog to read some of my co-teacher Soma’s fascinating posts on candy science.

Events: MSG The Candy Lectures

Masters of Social Gastronomy: Candy!
Public Assembly, 70 North 6th Street in Williamsburg
When: Tuesday, February 28sth.  Doors at 7

We’re kicking off a new bar room lecture series all about food!  Each month, Sarah Lohman of Four Pounds Flour and Jonathan Soma of the Brooklyn Brainery will take on a curious food topic and break down the history, science, and stories behind it.

Sarah will talk about ancient candies with a connection to the present day: from the first sweet treats in Asia to the development of confections like Halvah, we’ll explore the story of candy from pre-history to Marshmallow Peeps.

Meanwhile, Soma will unravel the science behind all your favorite niche candy and show you how to whip up cunning imitations at home. From the explosive power of Pop Rocks and the spicy burn of Atomic Fireballs to the sour rush of Warheads and the soothing coolness of Orbit gum – it’s chemistry vs candy!

Help us help you by RSVPing on Facebook here.  It will ensure we bring enough candy.

If you have a candy-related question, leave it in the comments on this post.  Soma and I will answer them live on Tuesday.  If you live outside of New York, don’t fret: we’re going to begin podcasting these lectures, so you can listen from anywhere!

The History Dish: Seven Hour Eggs

Cooked at a long time for a low temperature, egg whites will turn brown!

We’ve all cooked a hard-boiled egg: simmer an egg eight to twelve minutes and you’re half way to an egg salad sandwich.  But what happens if you cook an egg for eight to twelve HOURS.  It’s possible and the results are spectacular.

The History

I came across the concept of “long-cooked eggs” while doing research on Sephardic cuisine for the Lower East Side Tenement Museum as part of a program called “Meet Victoria. ”  In this program, visitors get a chance to interact with a costumed interpreter playing the role of a 14-year-old immigrant who lived on the Lower East Side in 1916.  Victoria, the girl in question, is Sephardic Jewish: sephard meaning “of Spain,” which is where Victoria’s ancestors lived until the Spanish Inquisition of 1492.  After leaving Spain, Sephardic Jews settled all around the Mediterranean, but much of the population ended up in Turkey.

When it  comes to Jewish food, one of the aspects I find most interesting is Sabbath cooking.  One of the prohibitions on the Sabbath, the holy day of Saturday, is lighting any kind of flame (there are 38 others).  That makes providing a hot meal on Saturday a rather difficult thing, particularly in the 19th century.  But there were some clever loopholes: a fire lit on Friday, before the start of the Sabbath at sundown, could be allowed to burn until the next day.  As a result, Jewish cultures developed a  slow-cooked stew that could sit on the stove overnight: cholent for Ashkenazic Jews and hamin for Sephardim.  (side note: baked beans, which traditionally cook overnight, were developed for the same purpose in American Christian culture, to save work on Sundays).

Sephardic Jews also developed another snack for Saturday:  huevos haminados.

Harold McGee and Long-Cooked Eggs

I stumbled across an essay by kitchen scientist Harold McGee on long-cooked eggs.  He offered a great paragraph on the cultural origins of the dish:

In his Sephardic Cooking, Copeland Marks reports having eaten ‘Jewish eggs’ among Calcutta Baghdadies, in Morocco, Tunisia, Turkey and Greece.  He gives a Spanish version via Salonica, huevos haminados, that calls for tea leaves, coffee grounds, and onion skins in the cooking water, as well as a bit of oil and vinegar.  The eggs are brought to a boil, then cooked over a low heat ‘for at least 5 hours, preferable 6’.  Marks notes that ‘…The longer one cooks them at a very low heat, the softer they become instead of the reverse….’The whites acquired a soft beige color…and the yolks are very cream and pale yellow.  The flavor is delicate and excitingly different from eggs cooked in any other way.’

And in his seminal work On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen, McGee adds this:

During prolonged heating in alkaline conditions, the quarter-gram of glucose sugar in the white reacts with albumen protein to generate flavors and pigments typical of browned foods (see the explanation of the Maillard reaction). The white will be very tender and the yolk creamy if the cooking temperature is kept in a very narrow range, between 160 and 165ºF/71–74ºC.

Scienceey.  I didn’t have the capabilities, or frankly the patience, to test this recipe as throughly as McGee did.  But I was curious what would happen if I dumped a half-dozen eggs into my slow cooker.

The Recipe: Huevos Haminados (Seven Hour Eggs)

Gently places six eggs into a slow cooker.  Cover with water.  Set cooker on “low” for seven hours.

When seven hours is over, remove eggs from water with a slotted spoon.  Run cold water over them until they are cool enough to handle; I like to use a colander for this job.  Crack, peel, and serve warm.

The Results

McGee tested the eggs at several temperatures and with different additives in the water.  He found that the whites of the eggs always turned a brownish color, whether or not they were cooked in plain water, or in water with other additives.  The egg proteins develop a nutty flavor and the egg itself because creamy.  Coffee and olive oil penetrate the egg-shell during cooking and increase the nutty flavor of the egg and also dye the outer shell, while onion peels only dye the shell but don not affect the flavor.

The moment I cracked my slow-cooked eggs, my mind was blown.  The whites had turned a distinctly brown color.  My reaction may have been our of proportion with the event (I think I kept screaming at my roommate “It’s brown! It’s brown! It really worked!) but it really seemed like a magic trick of nature.  I had made magic.

I took a bite: meat.  The egg tasted like a pot roast.  Closer to the yolk, I encountered the distinct, nutty flavor I had read about in McGee’s article.  Like hazelnuts and walnuts. My egg didn’t have a creamy texture, but I suspect they were a tad overcooked.

Brown. Meat. Egg.  Who would have expected that?

The Gallery: Peep Show

In honor of the talk on candy I’m giving next week (for more info, go here) and the fact that Marshmallow Peeps will soon start appearing on store shelves, I’ve busted out this little piece of ephemera from 2006.  I hosted a party at my home at which I made a dozen different types of marshmallows.  Inspired by my love of Peeps, I decided to try out some “new” potential peep flavors.

I invited a panel of my friends over and had them vote on their favorites: they used a scale from one to five, with one being the worst and five being the best.  This above participant was rather kind; on other ballots Saffron and Curry peeps didn’t fare so well, while Honey, Maple and Rosewater scored consistently high.


The History Dish: Peanut and Cottage Cheese Sandwiches

Peanut Butter and Cottage Cheese: a non-threatening sandwich.

On Fridays and Saturdays, the Lower East Side Tenement Museum runs a fantastic tour: Foods of the Lower East Side.  It’s an exploration of immigration history through taste and flavor.

I am one of the many guides for this tour;  my favorite part is when I get to show visitors this school lunch menu from c. 1920:

Source: 97 Orchard: An Edible History of Five Immigrant Families in One New York Tenement, by Jane Ziegelman.

So what do you think of this menu?  How would you describe it?  What stands out to you?  In comparison, what do you remember eating at lunch in school, or what are you children’s favorite school lunch meals today?

The school lunch program started in schools in the Lower East Side.  At its inception, the program had two purposes.  Primarily, the school board wanted to provide children a healthy, balanced meal for a few cents.  Up until the lunch program was initiated, children were given money by their parents to buy their own lunch from the shops and pushcarts on the Lower East Side.  If you were a kid with money to burn, what would you buy? Candy.

However, critics believed the school lunch was designed to Americanize the children of immigrants  The thought was if we Americanize the dinner table, we’ll Americanize the immigrant.  The kids will like the “American” lunches and start asking for the same foods at home.

When I present this menu on my tour, the menu item that visitors comment on the most is Tuesday’s “Peanut and Cottage Cheese Sandwich.”  It strikes guests as so bizarre, particularly on a menu that’s supposed to be American.  So I promised everyone that I would give it a try.

I checked my early 20th century cookbooks for “peanut and cottage cheese sandwiches” without any luck.  I couldn’t decide if it was chopped peanuts, or peanut butter, mixed with the cottage cheese.  And then I found this:

This recipe comes from Money Saving Main Dishes published in 1948 by the Bureau of Human Nutrition and Home Economics. T his recipe was taste-tested on the adorable blog The Mid-Century Menu.  You can read her full pickle-peanut butter post here.

I figured this mid-century recipe would be a good guide for me, so I mixed it up, sans pickles.  I mashed together peanut butter and cottage cheese,  spread it over bread,  and fried it like a grilled cheese.  The result? A warm peanut butter sandwich.  It didn’t taste like much of anything, not even peanut butter. Even the texture was unassuming: cottage cheese doesn’t melt, so it didn’t add anything.  The sandwich was Beige Food, going into my mouth, giving me calories. Non-threatening and neutral.

I know there was some concern at the turn of the century that spicy, highly flavored food prevented proper assimilation to American culture.  I’m not sure if that was widely believed, or a theory presented by a loud-mouthed few.  I certainly don’t feel more American after eating that sandwich.


Travelogue: Four Hours in New Orleans

Bacon Bloody Mary at Bar Tonique. Mmm.

Just before Christmas, I got the unique opportunity to travel to the South. Although much of Kentucky, Tennessee and Alabama passed by the car windows at 75 mph, I got to spend some leisure time catfishin’ in Mississippi and I spent about four hours in New Orleans.

I asked my friends what I should see on my first visit, and turned to Cocktail Virgin Slut for boozing advice. Here’s where my adventures led me!


This is Bar Tonique, an exceptional cocktail experience. It’s not too far from the main tourist drags of the city, but a world apart. Quiet, calm and friendly, it was an ideal drinking spot in the late afternoon.


The menu at Bar Tonique. Their specialities are classic and historic cocktails; on the menu, they include the date the cocktail was created (if known). Notice the hot Tom & Jerry! You can see their full cocktail menu here.


I settled on the hot buttered rum, mixed fast and fresh by our cheery, tattooed bartender. The fat floated on top until you stirred it with the rum and hot water, creating a whirlpool of wintry spices. Every sip was smooth and silken, warming all the way down to the pit of your stomach and the cockles of your heart. It kept out the chill on a cool NOLA evening.


After cocktail hour, we headed over to Cafe Du Monde, a coffee ‘stand’ which was established in 1862. The stand is now a giant, open-air restaurant that primarily serves two things: coffee and beignets, the New Orleans-style deep-fried donut. Each order of beignets is accompanied by a snow drift of powdered sugar.

Cafe du Monde has a unique operating system: each server is essentially an independent business. They take orders at the tables and then head inside the cafe, picking up the food from a cafeteria-style line.


Then, each server pays for his order. It gives the impression that anyone from the street could walk in and start serving at du Monde, which is probably true: the service is severely lacking. The restaurant was very crowded and the lack of managerial organization showed. After being seated, we waited 30-45 minutes to get served. We flagged down several servers, but no one would claim our section, or help us to get a server that would server us. It was shenanigans.


The beignets, on the other hand, lacked nothing. Fried dough and powdered sugar; I thought I been there before. But nothing could beat the lightness and perfections of a beignets in a place that only cooks one thing: beignets. Worth the wait!


What should I do the next time I’m in New Orleans??


Where to Buy Exotic Game Meats

“A happy hunter. Bear hunting is an important recreational sport on the refuge”
 11 May 1957 US Fish and Wildlife Service, National Digital Library
Exotic game meats were once  much more commonly available in New York City than they are today.  Below, a few suggestions on where to get your own hands on a serving of bear, moose, or beaver (although you won’t be able to find moose mouffle anywhere).
Go  hunting.  New Jersey has a five-day hunting season for black bear, which usually falls in early December.  The Division of Fish and Wildlife posts on it annually here.  Read tips on how to cook the bear once you’ve bagged it here.
A whole raccoon, cooked by the the French Culinary Insitute blog.

Order from Czimer’s Butcher Shop, in Illinois.  I found out about this place from Cooking Issues: the French Culinary Insitute blog who ordered up and cooked beaver,  yak, a whole raccoon, some bear, and a lion steak.   We both went “bonkers” for beaver; read my write-up on eating beaver here.

Dinner at Henry’s EndElk chop, venison sausage, and wild boar belly.

Dine at Henry’s End, a restaurant in Brooklyn Heights, who have an annual winter “Wild Game Festival.”  The menu is generally available October through early spring and currently includes Turtle Soup, Elk Chops, Wild Boar Ragout, Buffalo Hangar Steak, and Kangaroo.  I’ve eaten there; read about it here.

All game meats sold in shops and restaurants in the United States is farmed, not wild.  Wild meats do not comply with FDA regulations.  I find store bought meat to be generally milder than the real wild stuff, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Does anyone know any other game meat resources?