Saturday, December 13, 2008

Fat’s Chance: If Not Now, When?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA         There are those of us who never left. Loyal and devoted, we continued to eat our butter and bacon, and to bake with our lard, while others, let’s face it, not only denied themselves but probably harmed themselves by eating hydrogenated oils in the form of cheap margarine. I was fortunate to grow up with a father who refused to have the stuff in the house. He was an engineer who loved new technologies, except when it came to his food: that was taking science too far. So we had two forms of butter on the table, hard salted and soft unsalted, to satisfy our varied preferences when it came to the best way to eat a fresh Kaiser roll or bagel.

Like butter, pork fat has been out of favor for decades except in pockets of New England and the South. I’ve known people to react with disgust when I say that my pie crust or biscuits are made with lard, or that I fry my chicken or chiles rellenos in lard. A friend even once refused a freshly made glazed doughnut because it had been fried in lard. Insane, I know. Needless to say, I generally remain silent on the matter of using goose or duck fat to oven-brown my potatoes.

The tides are turning back, however. We now know (as my father always knew) that margarine is suspect. Butter is better for you than the margarine you grew up on. We know that pure lard is better than Crisco, and better yet than butter. We know that “fat-free” as a way of life may actually be life-threatening. People are talking about fat in a good way again, and we are even starting to celebrate its inimitable fatness. Last year the truly beautiful book, Pork & Sons, exalted all things pig; recently, another attractive paean has been published, called, simply, Fat. It’s subtitle, An Appreciation of A Misunderstood Ingredient, with Recipes, aims to change the misguided mind on the subject.

This all makes us happy in New England, where salt pork remains a fat of choice for traditional cooking, and lard retains the blue ribbon for the flakiest crust (see photo above left…). There’s nothing like the holidays to get people to digress from their habits—some of them, such as wholesale denial of the pleasures of good eating, irrational if not downright self-destructive. Christmas is fat’s chance; take advantage of it.

LCM Pork Cake

Pork cake is a very old New England favorite. It may look a bit like fruitcake, but it is considerably different and, I think, much better. The recipe lends itself to adjustment according to personal taste or on-hand convenience. You can use glacé fruit in this cake, especially citron or citrus peels, dates or apricots (very good), raisins (traditional), and other kinds of nuts (or none). Some more “modern” recipes contain eggs; mine, like most of the old ones, does not. Adjust spices too, to taste, as long as they are very fresh. Makes one loaf or 3 mini loafs.

½ cup currants
½ cup best-quality dried cherries (not from the supermarket)
2 T muscatel (or sherry or port)

1 lb fat-only salt pork, to obtain 1 cup (see Note)
1 cup boiling water or coffee

½ cup molasses
½ cup dark brown sugar
1 cup sugar

½ tea baking soda
1 tea ground cinnamon, preferably Vietnamese
½ tea freshly grated nutmeg
½ tea ground cardamom
¼ tea ground allspice
¼ tea ground cloves

Preheat oven to 300 F.

Put the currants and cherries into a small bowl with the muscatel and set aside.

Working carefully with a sharp, thin knife such as a slicer, and holding the salt pork horizontally on a board, remove the skin and discard. For safety, wash your hands and the knife frequently. If the fat is coated with salt, rinse it well and pat dry with paper towels. Put the pork fat into a food processor with the metal blade and process until it is well-ground and beginning to look creamy. Pack well into a 1-cup measure; use some of the leftover to grease a full-size bread pan or 3 mini bread pans, and freeze the rest.

Put the cup of fat into a large bowl and pour the boiling water over it; stir. When it is cool, stir in the molasses and the brown and white sugars. Sift 1 cup of the flour with the spices over the fruit and mix well. Sift the remaining flour and the baking soda into the fat-sugar mixture, then fold in the floured/seasoned fruit. Let it stand for an hour or so if you have the time.

Fill the pan(s) about ¾ full (do not overfill) and bake in the low oven, about 1 hour 15 minutes for the small pans, or 1 ½ hours for the large, or until a toothpick comes out clean. Let cool in the pans on a rack before turning out.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA         This is delicious as is, but can be iced with a simple butter glaze or buttercream if you like. It keeps, wrapped, very well.

Note: If you cannot find all-fat salt pork, buy a larger amount of regular salt pork and cut off the lean, reserving for another use. You may also be able to find salted fat back, now being made as a kind of substitute for all-fat salt pork, which is disappearing rapidly (traditionally, fatback is unsalted).

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Saturday, December 6, 2008

Molasses: Spice up the Holidays

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA         New England is one of the probably two places in the country (the other being the South) where molasses is still used in everyday cooking and baking, not just for the occasional batch of gingerbread or cut-out holiday cookie. These, of course, are very good, and gingerbread with whipped cream and a thin chocolate sauce is a favorite winter dessert of mine. But New Englanders eat molasses, to borrow a phrase from Dickens, all the year ‘round, in baked beans, Indian pudding, a portfolio of steamed puddings (including, of course, plum pudding), Boston Brown Bread, date nut bread, buckwheat pancakes, and loads of other traditional dishes.

It’s interesting that molasses has remained so popular despite its high price and the wide availability of a local sweetener, maple syrup (now expensive, but until recent decades quite cheap) and, of course, the ubiquitous white cane sugar (now cheap, but once expensive). Price is not the point, but rather, flavor. Sugar is just sweet; maple syrup is, well, maple-y and a tad delicate, requiring quite a lot to make an impression. Molasses is intense, robust, viscous like honey, and has an open-hearted affinity for spice. It works where other sweeteners don’t, and has great cross-over applicability in hearty, savory dishes such as stews and chilis, and as a color-enhancing glaze for meat and poultry. It is also a fine addition to cocktails and breads (including the famous Anadama). OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Like brown sugar and maple syrup, molasses is available in grades of flavor or refinement. Generally available are two, a light and a dark (sometimes called robust  or full-flavor); a third and the most intense and bitter-edged of all, blackstrap, is more difficult to find. If you are going to have only one on hand—although molasses keeps well without loss of flavor in your pantry—it should probably be the dark. A by-product of sugar-making—each grade is produced from stages of boiling, similar to the process by which grades of maple syrup are produced—molasses may be either sulphured or unsulphured, depending on the age of the sugarcane used in manufacture. For best quality and and flavor, look for unsulphured molasses.

Molasses has the added benefits of being a good source of calcium and minerals, such as potassium, magnesium, and copper. It is high in iron (blackstrap being the highest), second only to beef liver, and does not lose any nutrient power in baking. Cookie? Calf’s liver? You choose. My choice is clear.

Soft Molasses-Spice Cookie-Jar Cookies

This is an adaptation of a recipe I cut out of a magazine 25 years ago or so; I long since transferred it to a card, and don't remember where it originally came from (it's not from the vintage Brer Rabbit cookbook shown in the picture). I have fooled around with it a bit, adding the vinegar and cardamom, increasing the ginger, and, I seem to recall, increasing the egg. Adjust the spice to your own taste; these are strongly spiced, according to mine. Be sure your spices are very fresh. These are excellent out of the oven, and are even better after a little aging in the freezer. Makes about 4 dozen.

½ cup unsalted butter, softened  OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
1 ½ cups sugar
½ cup dark molasses
2 tea cider vinegar
½ tea salt
2 large eggs
2 ½ tea baking soda
1 T ginger
1 ½ tea cloves
1 ½ tea cinnamon
½ tea cardamom
4 cups a-p flour

1/3 cup additional sugar for rolling

Preheat oven to 350 F.

In the bowl of a standing mixer, cream the butter thoroughly, then add the sugar, beating til fluffy, followed by the molasses and vinegar and salt. Add the eggs one at a time, beating after each. Mix the spices in on low. Sift the flour into the dough about a cup at a time, folding in at low speed and stopping when all has been incorporated.

Put the additional 1/3 cup sugar on a sheet of wax paper. With sugared hands, form the dough into balls of about 1 ½” in diameter, and roll them in the sugar. Place them about 2” apart on baking sheets, about 12 to a sheet, and bake for 13-14 minutes, until the cookies have spread into perfect rounds and the tops are nicely cracked. Do not overbake. While the first batch is baking, you can form the second batch, but do not roll them in sugar until you are ready to put them in the oven, or the sugar will melt and the cookies will not get their nicely cracked top.