Thursday, June 30, 2011


                                         Photo by Jake Olson, January 1, 1980,
                                         Picnic at Ataturk Park

Why go on picnics? Why go to the work of taking perfectly good food, boxing it up, going somewhere that’s not home, and then pulling it out and eating it? The ants want some, the wind keeps blowing the napkins around, and the mosquitoes think that they are honored guests. A picnic is an event during with which someone prepares or buys three times as much as needed for a meal, packages it to avoid spoilage and marauders, and goes to the work of taking it some place else.

Picnics, defined as special meals out of doors, have a long history, from the ancient Greece symposia to medieval hunting feasts to aristocrats’ eighteenth century picnics with china, silver, tables and linen clothes in romantically pastoral settings. In Egypt, people celebrate the arrival of spring with picnics, a tradition echoed in the Japanese cherry blossom viewing feasts. Their descendants, tailgate picnics before football games are culturally far removed, but serve the same needs – camaraderie, celebration, and the alchemy by which ordinary baked beans are turned to exotic food by being transported to a different location.
Fading pictures in photo albums testify to the fact that both of my grandmothers were fond of having their husbands and kids set up long tables and folding chairs in the backyard. They laid out tablecloths, and set out potato salads, fried chicken, deviled eggs, sliced ham, egg salad, Jell-O salads, three-bean salads, white-bread dinner rolls, and relish plates. When everyone had feasted to their hearts’ content, the dishes were cleared away, and the homemade pies and cakes came out. All the relatives, and mostly only relatives came, and dozens of adults and kids shared the yard with croquet  wickets off to the side.

My mother’s more modest picnics gave her a reason to get the seven kids out of the house on the long summer days, and ran more to peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and celery and carrot sticks. Someone carried the jug of Kool-Aid, and someone hauled the picnic blanket and off we went to the frog pond or just the back yard. The kids loved it just as much as Mother did. It was all finger food, so manners weren’t mentioned and cleanup was minimal. The ants got the crumbs and you could watch them carry them away down their sandy ant holes.

Whether bread and cheese on a bench in an ancient European square, or sandwiches consumed while looking out on the Pacific like Cortez in Keats’s sonnet, or s’ mores capping off an evening bonfire with kids chasing fireflies, picnics appeal to the Dionysian. They enhance both food and place, together making a space of timelessness out of those two ingredients. Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin says, “ . . . Seated on the green turf they eat, the corks fly; they gossip, laugh, and are merry in perfect freedom, for the universe is their drawing-room, and the sun their lamp" (Physiologie du goût,  pp. 152–153) []. 

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Three flat breads

June 27, 2011

Take flour and water, mix and knead. Rest. Roll into a ball, flatten, cook quickly. That’s the basic recipe for flatbreads and has been for thousands of years. The reasons why chapatis from India are different from Israeli matzoh or Italian carta di musica lie in the choice of semolina or whole wheat flour, or the proportions of water to flour. And their cooking differs as well, from the deliberate flattening of the matzoh to the purposeful steam-puffing of carta di musica. Here are recipes for three flatbreads, made from ground wheat flour and water.

Each starts with mixing flour and water to make a dough. Each calls for kneading the dough to help the gluten protein develop so that the bread will hold together as it cooks. Then the dough (except matzoh) rests, which lets the gluten “relax” so that it’s easier to make the flat thin circles.

Once the dough is worked, then rested, it must be shaped. Chapatis and matzoh are rolled on a floured surface. But the carta di musica recipe asks to be rolled on an oiled surface, the better to make the breads thin.

All of them cook fast, at high heat, whether on top of the stove or in the oven. Chapatis and carta di musica are expected to puff up using the steam trapped in the dough. Matzoh is most emphatically not supposed to puff up. The holes poked in the dough before it goes into the oven allow the steam to escape. 


Matzoh is the most basic of flatbreads in some ways, calling for only wheat flour and water. Because it is important for religious reasons that the matzoh not rise, the instructions emphasize all the actions that must be taken to make sure that it stays flat and unleavened. And that in turn demonstrates the fact that perhaps it is more natural for bread to be lightened, whether by steam or trapped gases, than to stay flat. 

The recipe below assumes that all of the kosher requirements for cleaning utensils and equipment  have been followed if the matzoh is to be used for religious purposes. If the matzoh is for religious purposes, the timing is critical, and the directions that follow incorporate those considerations. The dough must be assembled, rolled, prepared and into the oven in 18 minutes or fewer, so everything has to be ready for the work, with no stopping halfway through to flour the rolling pin, or forgetting to get the oven heated well ahead of time.

Carta di musica 

The name is Italian, meaning, “paper of music.” The breads are very thin – perhaps having the crispness of paper, and the music of crackling, or perhaps so that a person could read music through the thin dough. The recipe itself is considered Mediterranean or Italian or Sardinian, depending on which cook is consulted.

Like the matzoh, carta di musica is baked in a very hot oven. It uses only flour and water, with just enough salt to add flavor. To get the most height, it’s essential to use semolina flour, which also gives more texture and taste. Likewise, all-purpose flour works better than 100% whole wheat to give a softer texture and greater puff. Kneading the dough for a few minutes distributes the liquid evenly, which softens the flour and permitting its starches and proteins to bind the dough together. Resting the dough after kneading lets the strands of gluten protein that were formed by kneading  “relax,” making it easier to roll out the dough. The oven is not quite as hot as for matzoh, and the bread bakes a little more slowly. It is turned once during the baking, and bubbles up, because the steam that is created as the dough is heated quickly is not allowed to escape as it can in the fork-pricked matzoh.


The traditional bread of India, chapatis are made fresh for each meal. When ready to eat, they will be browned, a bit puffy, and soft. Like carta di musica, the recipe includes a little salt, and is usually made with two different kinds of flour to give the right texture. The most important difference is that chapatis are cooked on top of the stove rather than in the even heat of an oven. The direct contact with the hot pan cooks them more quickly. They are kept between towels to keep them from getting crisp, whereas the carta di musica and matzoh are expected to be crisp.

Matzoh recipe [adapted from]

1 cup cold water from the tap
3 cups kosher matzoh flour (called Kemach Shel Matza Shamura), plus extra flour for the rolling out and the baking pans

Collect together measuring cups, a large bowl, a rolling pin, a large fork and a bread peel or a sheet pan with no side lip for sliding the bread into the oven and taking the bread out. Heat the oven to the highest temperature, but do not use broil.

Flour the work surface lightly and evenly, covering an area two feet in diameter. Spread small amounts of flour on the rolling pin and the bread peel or sheet pan used to move the bread in and out of the oven, and set them aside.

Once everything is prepared, measure 3 cups of matzoh flour into the bowl. Then set a timer for 18 minutes, but don’t start it yet. Measure one cup of water. Start the timer as you are pouring the water into the flour. Mix flour and water until smooth.

Turn the dough onto the work surface and knead it into a firm ball. If it is too sticky, add a small amount of flour. Roll the dough flat to 1/8 to 14 inch thin.

Using a fork, prick holes all over the dough. Move the dough onto the bread peel or sheet pan and transfer it into the oven. Use care so that it does not fold or tear. 

Bake for 2 to 3 minutes, until it is crisp. Then use the peel or sheet pan to transfer the bread to a plate to cool.

Carta di Musica recipe  [adapted from]

Preheat the oven to 450°F, with a pizza stone in the middle or lower part (not top) of the oven. Or preheat a baking sheet in the oven for about 10 minutes before placing breads on it to bake.

2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 cup semolina flour (semolina is coarsely ground durum wheat, which the hardest of the types of wheat commonly used)
1 1/4 teaspoons salt
1 cup water

Mix the flours, water and salt until the dough comes together. Knead for about 7 minutes, until the dough is smooth and stretchy. Divide into 12 pieces and roll them into balls. Cover them with plastic wrap or other cover and let rest for at least 15 minutes.

Oil the work surface with vegetable oil. Stretch a ball into a 3 to 4 inch circle, then roll it to 8 or 9 inches – it will shrink back to about 7 inches.

Put it onto the preheated stone or baking pan in the oven. It will start to brown in about 2 minutes, and be ready to turn over in about 4 minutes (ovens vary, as do outside conditions, and these variations might change the time needed for the bread to brown. Keep an eye on it). Use tongs to turn the breads over. Cool on a rack outside the oven. 

Eat the flatbreads as they come from the oven, or brush with oil and sprinkle with salt. [Note – a recipe by Mark Bittman in the NYT, March 24, 2010, adds 1/3 cup of olive oil to the recipe above.]

Chapati recipe  [adapted from,164,142178-254193,00.html]

2 cups whole wheat flour, or 1 cup each whole wheat and white unbleached
3/4 cup water
1 teaspoon salt

Mix the ingredients. The dough will be stiff to start with; knead it until it is stretchy, about five to seven minutes. Wrap in plastic wrap or a greased paper and let it rest in a warm (75 to 85 degrees F.) for 30 minutes.

Shape it on a floured board into a long roll, and cut 12 equal slices. Roll them as thin as possible. 

Heat a heavy frying pan until very hot. Cook the chapatis without oil for about a minute on both sides. Cool between paper or cloth towels. Serve quickly.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Miss Marie's Poor Man's Cake

Miss Marie’s Poor Man’s Cake

June 27, 2011

Early in the Depression years, Marie Toscano’s father died suddenly, leaving her mother with little money and three children. Marie was five, her siblings much older. Desserts were rare because money was tight, and the recipe that she gave me seventy years later for “Poor Man’s Cake” reflected the thrift with which they lived.

Good Italians, they made their pasta weekly, cut it into strips, and spread it on sheets on the beds to dry. Tomatoes harvested from their small garden in Providence, Rhode Island and canned kept them through the winter. If her older brother had earned a little extra money he might bring home meat for the Sunday table, and they could afford a cake. 

Marie’s Poor Man’s Cake, or Depression Cake, used only flour, water, sugar, and oil with baking powder for leavening. When she gave me the recipe, exactly as shown below, she didn’t feel the need to add instructions for mixing or preparing the pans. She assumed that I would know all of those things. I haven’t made the cake, but note that most of the more recent recipes I’ve found use a bit of vinegar in addition to baking powder or soda, to increase the leavening effect. They all add spices, or chocolate, or other flavorings, and often dried fruit, especially raisins.

Poor Man’s Cake
From Marie Toscano, March 28, 2005

“baking powder 2 ½ tsps
flour 2 cups
oil 1/3 cup
sugar ½ cup
water 3/4 cup

375 degrees

25 minutes
Tastes better if you can add raisins.”

Depression cakes stayed popular because they are moist, quick to mix, and freeze well. That simplicity makes them an excellent base for experimentation – curious cooks can play with liqueurs, fruits and nuts, or try different sugars, flours, and oils or shortening. Marie’s Italian delight in the sensual shows in her comment, “Tastes better if you can add raisins.” She would approve of the creativity others use to enhance the frugal ingredients.

Recipes for poor man’s and depression cakes abound. My 1956 Betty Crocker’s Picture Cook Book (p. 142) called this an “inexpensive fruit cake,” and said “. . . our staff likes this moist cake from the first World War. . .” The January 1967 copy of Joy of Cooking (Irma and Marion Rombauer, page 637) characterized it as “Eggless, Milkless Spice Cake,” (good for people with allergies) and used a raisin base and spices. The recipe also suggested substituting beer for the water that appears in most versions. By 1997, the same Joy of Cooking cake had become “Dairy-free Chocolate Cake (Vegan)” or “Ultra-Orange Cake (Vegan),” both of which omitted the raisins and (alas) the beer. The changes reflected the cultural alterations over the years, both in eating styles and health considerations.

Internet versions of depression cakes or poor man’s cakes can be found at [this is very like the 1997 Joy of Cooking recipe]; [a recipe that uses coffee for the liquid, and raisins]; [a recipe that uses brown sugar and raisins]; and [A vegan version that substitutes soymilk for the liquids used in other recipes to increase the nutrition]. 

Note: We met Marie Toscano when our younger daughter became a student at her Montessori preschool, hence the “Miss Marie.” She came to Alaska as a Jesuit Volunteer when she was in her mid-30s, and spent many years teaching in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta villages. In 1975, she came to Anchorage and opened the preschool, taking only twenty children a year. She became a close family friend, who could often be persuaded to tell us stories of her early years in Rhode Island and her days in the remote Yupik towns. When she died in January 2010, people came from all over Alaska to remember her warmth and great contributions to their lives and those of their children.