All posts filed under: Food Musings

jam-filled plunderhörnchen

Is it a doughnut? A croissant? No, it’s a plunderhörnchen!

Plunderhörnchen or, to quote several German baking websites, “plunder croissant” or “plunder squirrel.” What better name for a treat that’s shaped like a croissant, glazed like a doughnut, tender like a roll, baked like bread and jam-filled like a croissant-shaped, doughnut-bread-roll. I would love to share a fascinating origin story for plunderhörnchen. However, all I have are basic facts. In Germany and Austria plunder is a yeast-leavened dough used in sweet baked goods. Unlike croissant dough, plunder contains eggs. It also has less fat in it than other pastry doughs. As for the designation “plunderhörnchen,” like whoopie pies, snickerdoodles and other unusually named treats, it remains a mystery. So, too, does the reason for calling it a ‘squirrel.’ What’s not a mystery is why I came across it so often while traveling in Germany. This pastry is light, portable, convenient and delicious. You can take it on the train, munch on it as you walk and never worry about crumbs, greasy fingers or sticky frosting. As with doughnuts, people generally eat this roll at breakfast. …

ven pongal

South Indian Ven Pongal. It’s Not Just for Breakfast.

I always feel a little sheepish about discussing Indian foods. Obviously, I am not Indian nor do I I have a long, rich history with this cuisine. Until a 2009 trip to Delhi and Rajasthan, my understanding came from the cookbooks of Madhur Jaffrey and local Indian restaurants. What I lack in background, though, I make up for with my passion for the country and its diverse, vegetarian-friendly cooking. Whenever I try an intriguing, new dish there, one that I may not find back in the States, I track down the recipe so that I can make it on my own. The latest of these at-home recreations is South Indian ven pongal. During a recent trip to Chennai Air India had offered a scoop of ven pongal as part of my in-flight, vegetarian meal. The hotel where I stayed also served it as part of its breakfast buffet. After trying and liking it on the plane, I made a beeline for it at the buffet table. For the next eight mornings I skipped the glazed, …

giant cast iron pan holding sauteed mushrooms

The Sautéed Mushrooms of Poland and Germany

Food is always on my mind but never more so than when I’m traveling. What local specialties can I try? What cool ingredients can I track down? What can I eat that won’t kill me or make me insanely ill? (It took only one meal in Delhi, after which I had an emergency doctor’s visit, IV drip and 3 days bedridden, to add that question to my list.) Since I’m a pescetarian, I also wonder whether I can order dishes without meat. On a recent trip to the meat-loving lands of Poland and Saxony Germany I found that last criteria surprisingly easy to meet. Along with bratwurst, kielbasa, pork knuckle and hunter’s stew, restaurants, bars and food stalls served sautéed mushrooms. Since at least the Middle Ages mushrooms have played a part in Poland’s cuisine. In the past people went out into the surrounding forests and gathered as many edible mushrooms as they could find. Once at home they brushed them off and started cooking. Mushrooms made their way into soups, sauces, dumplings and stuffed …

2016’s Books for Cooks

Yes, I’m squeezing in my seasonal list of books for cooks at the very last minute. This year I’ve got suggestions for readers, history lovers, bakers, spice fans, travel buffs and, of course, cooks. You won’t see any titles by social media darlings or celebrity chefs—if you read Kitchen Kat, you probably already know how to scramble an egg and you probably aren’t going to serve stuffed, roasted goat hearts at your next family gathering—but you will find a wealth of information, solid recipes and great gifts in this mix. Waste Free Kitchen Handbook by Dana Gunders (Chronicle Books, 2015) A scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council, Gunders offers tips for shopping smarter, eating more of what we purchase and throwing away less food. She also provides recipes for making the most of what we have on hand; this includes dishes such as Sautéed Lettuce and Broccoli Stalk Salad. My favorite sections don’t include recipes but instead focus on portion planning, food storage and uses for leftovers and food scraps. Spend less, waste less …

gluten-free cinnamon stars

Tips for Cut-Out Cookies and Austrian Cinnamon Stars

Whenever I make the gluten-free, cut-out cookies Austrian Cinnamon Stars, I think of my late father. Although he was neither an ardent cook nor baker, every holiday season he and I spent at least one night in the kitchen baking and decorating cut-out Christmas cookies. The tricks he employed to ensure beautiful holiday sweets are ones that I use to this day. If making the aforementioned Austrian cinnamon stars and any other cut-out cookies possessing a soft, sticky texture, I refrigerate the dough for at least 30 minutes before rolling it out. After mixing the ingredients for the cookie dough, I shape it into a ball, cover it with plastic wrap and refrigerate until firm, about 30 minutes. Depending on the size and tackiness of the dough, it may need to stay in the fridge for a little longer or shorter. No matter what, it shouldn’t get cold and stiff. If it reaches that stage, it’ll be difficult to roll and cut. Another trick that my father taught me was that, to stop cookie dough …

What to Eat at European Christmas Markets

My mother used to claim that I inherited my wanderlust from her late father, a civil and mining engineer who worked and traveled throughout Latin America. If he was to blame for my “itchy feet,” that unceasing desire to roam the globe, then she bore responsibility for my passion for European Christmas markets. As a kid, I spent countless Saturdays following her through crowded church Christmas bazaars. Which faith sponsored the event never mattered. As long as it featured homemade pizzelles, kolaches, stollen or fruitcake, we’d be there. A curious kid, I wondered how my hometown’s holiday bazaars stacked up against those in people’s homelands. If I visited Germany’s Striezelmarkt, would ladies jostle and push for the last few loaves of nut-studded stollen? If I went to Poland, would people nibble on onion- and potato-filled pierogis as they shopped? What did people eat at European Christmas markets? For that matter, did they even have these seasonal fairs? Turns out that Europe is chocked full of cheery, outdoor, holiday markets. Along with decorations, crafts and jewelry, …

New Zealand’s Passion for Pavlova

At one time I thought of New Zealand as the land of extreme sports, flightless birds, Flight of the Conchords, magnificent scenery, Maoris, fine wine and the films of Peter Jackson and Lord of the Rings. Then I spent last month in this island nation and learned of our shared passion for the meringue-based dessert pavlova. All pavlovas begin with a crisp-on-the-outside, chewy-on-the-inside meringue. The addition of vinegar or lemon juice helps the meringue to achieve its chewiness. So, too, does low, slow baking. Once the meringue has cooled to room temperature, lightly whipped cream and fresh fruit are heaped on top of it. Although berries, kiwi and mango are popular options, the traditional filling is passion fruit. Meringue, cream and fruit. That’s it. That’s all there is to “the pav.” It sounds like such a simple, uncontroversial dessert. Yet it’s not. For almost a century debate has raged over whether New Zealand or Australia invented the pav. Australians claim that Perth chef Herbert Sachse made the first at the Esplanade Hotel in 1935. Kiwis …

Eating Breakfast in Australia

Travel can sound so appealing. Historic sites. Unusual wildlife. Exotic cultures, customs and cuisines. There is a less glamorous side, one that gets glossed over by pretty photos and exciting tales. It involves doing what you’d do back at home but with far less understanding or finesse. I’m talking about the day-to-day things such as grocery shopping and eating. On any trip I spend a ridiculous amount of time thinking about what, when and where I’ll eat. The meal over which I obsess the most, the one where I try my hardest to eat as I think the locals do is “the most important meal of the day.” Yes, I’m talking about breakfast and, at present, breakfast in Australia. After two weeks in Australia I’ve sampled a range of local breakfast specialties. Although meat products remain absent from my menu, I have added pikelets to the morning repertoire. No, these are not little fish cakes as fans of pike might assume. Ever had dollar pancakes? Then you’ve had a fluffier, syrup-soaked version of pikelets. Sprinkled …

Czech Strawberry Dumplings

With strawberry season right around the corner, it seems like a good time to talk about Czech strawberry dumplings. Until two years ago, whenever I heard the phrase “dessert dumpling,” I imagined a cinnamon- and sugar-dusted apple bundled into a buttery pastry and baked until golden brown. The thought of a whole strawberry boiled inside a casing of cheese-laced dough never occurred to me. Then I made several trips to the Czech Republic and learned how to make jahoda knedlíky or strawberry dumplings. After that I forgot all about those apple pie-like treats. It’s been said that no traditional Czech dinner is complete without the inclusion of a dumpling or two. A staple since the Middle Ages, the plump, round dumpling can be either sweet or savory. The latter tends to use potatoes and potato flour as its base while the former features flour and/or breadcrumbs and a filling of whole, locally grown fruit such as strawberries, plums or cherries. Shaped into balls, both types of dumpling are boiled, drained, sliced in half with a …

Pad Thai in Thailand

Pad Thai was my gateway into Thai cuisine. In my early 20s and unsure of what to order at a new, neighborhood, Southeast Asian restaurant, I opted for a simple noodle dish that promised complex flavors, interesting textures and a touch of the exotic. With hints of piquant tamarind, crunchy peanuts and salty fish sauce pad Thai delivered on its word. After that first satisfying encounter it became my go-to meal when dining or ordering out. After 15 years of sampling this specialty on American soil, I wanted it to be the first thing that I ate in Thailand. I’d tried countless Western interpretations of this stir fry. It was time to experience the real deal. This proved surprisingly easy for you can find noodle carts, shops and restaurants serving phàt Thai on almost every street in Bangkok. The same holds true in Northern Thailand. Popular with locals as well as food-obsessed tourists, this dish has a lot going for it. For starters, it’s inexpensive. Depending on where you buy it in Thailand, you can …