Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Happy Paczki Day!

For most of us, today is Fat Tuesday; the day before Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent. But, for a small portion of folks, mostly located around the Great Lakes where at the end of the 19th Century Polish immigrants settled to work in steel mills and copper/iron ore mines, today is better known as Paczki Day (pronounced PUNCH-key or PONCH-key depending on which part of the Lakes in which you grew up) .

Paczki are to the Polish what King Cakes are to native New Orleanians. They are a sinfully sweet treat only made before Lent. They are eaten as a last indulgence before the sacrifices of the Lenten season. A good paczki is NOT just a jelly filled donut like so many grocery stores all over are starting to promote. A good paczki is a very sweet, flaky and buttery bun that is traditionally filled with cooked prunes and then either coated with a slightly almond tasting glaze or dusted lightly with powdered sugar. In more recent years you can find paczkis with lemon or cherry filling. But I prefer the traditional prune filled as there is a slightly bittersweet taste to the filling that offsets the sometimes over-powering sweetness of the bun.

I remember as a little girl anxiously awaiting the arrival of Paczki Day. Very early, before anyone else in the house was awake, my dad would drive to a Polish bakery in the next town over to pick up freshly made paczkis. When my brother and I would wake up to go to school, next to our lunch bags would be one paczki my mother would set out for us to munch on in the cold while waiting for the bus. My brother's would be gone before we got to the end of the driveway but I would take little nibbles to savor the treat; knowing it would be a full year before I would have another. I would make mine last until at least morning recess or if I was really stingy with my bites until lunch.

Many years ago, when I was home for a visit around Paczki Day, I did the honors and drove to the bakery for the paczkis. I arrived at the bakery at 4:30am to make sure I was near the front of the line when the bakery opened at 5:00am. I stood outside with about twenty other people; stamping my feet to stave off frostbite and sipping hot chocolate in a styrofoam cup from a thermos someone was passing around . This must have been part of the reason my dad always got up and drove forty-five minutes in the dark cold northern Michigan early morning as it was a feeling of camaraderie. Two years ago, in the middle of a summer visit home, I was introduced to the lady who had purchased that little Polish bakery that spring. The owners had decided to retire and their only requirement for the new owners was that they continue the tradition of opening early on Paczki Day and bake the paczkis in the traditional manner following the same recipe used for over forty years. This lady has become a dear family friend and last year, when I told her that all I could find in Boston were fake jelly filled donuts masquerading as paczki, she gave me the recipe. I had good intentions of making these this year to take into work but time ran out on me over the weekend. So sharing the recipe with you will have to suffice.

Happy Packzi Day!!

Note: I've reduced this recipe as the original given to me made twenty large or forty small packzi. I couldn't be tempted ;-)

1 1/2 packages active dry yeast
10 egg yolks
1/3 cup sugar
3/4 ounce rum or whiskey
1/4 cup lukewarm milk
1/2 cup melted butter
3 1/4 cups all purpose flour
1 1/2 cups canned prune filling or cherry jam
(Note: you can substitute any flavoured jam to your liking, just be careful to avoid the really sweet ones as they will be overpowering. Some recipes I've found also use poppy seed paste)
1/2 cup milk, scalded & cooled
1 teaspoon salt
powdered sugar

Step 1: Make the sponge

Activate the yeast by dissolving in the 1/4 cup lukewarm milk( milk will become slightly bubbly and frothy in about 5-10 minutes). Scald the 1/2 cup milk while waiting for the yeast to become activated and gradually add the flour into the scalded milk (I sift my flour before adding it to the scalded milk). Add the yeast mixture and stir until smooth. Cover and let rise until very bubbly (about 1/2 hour)

Step 2: Make the dough

Beat the salt into the egg yolks. Then add the sponge to the egg yolks and salt. Mix very well until smooth. Add the sugar and rum again mixing well. Knead in the bowl until a nice smooth dough ball forms. Next, form a well and pour in the melted butter and combine with your hands until thoroughly mixed. Place in a greased bowl, coat with nonstick cooking spray, cover with plastic wrap and let rise until doubled (about 1 - 1 1/2 hours). When dough is doubled, punch it down and let rise until double or triple (about 2 hours).

Step 3: Form the paczki:

Divide dough in half, set one half aside in covered bowl so it doesn't dry out. Roll out the half you are working into a rectangle that is about 1/4 inch thick. Using a biscuit cutter or the mouth of a glass (2" or larger) cut as many rounds as possible. Place a about 3 tsp of filling in the center of one round. Brush edge of round with egg white and cover the filling with another round. Seal edges very well so filling won't leak out and rounds won't separate during last rise. Place the filled paczki greased baking sheets. Leave about 4 inches of room between each paczki to allow for rising. Repeat the process until all the dough is used (this recipe will make between 10 - 12 good sized paczki depending on amount of dough). Lightly cover with greased plastic wrap and let the paczki rise until doubled (about 1 hour).

Step 4: Fry the paczki
(note: if you have a deep fryer, make sure you change the oil if you have fried anything other than pastries)

Pour a neutral tasting oil into a deep fryer or deep pan (about 7 inches if you are using deep pan ). Heat the oil until it is about 360 to 370 degrees. Deep fry the paczki for about 3 minutes per side or until golden brown on both sides and it floats to the top. Let drain on cooling rack covered with paper towel to absorb any excess oil (flip over after about 2 minutes or so) Dust with powdered sugar when slightly warm. Let cool completely before serving as filling will be very hot otherwise.

3/1 Update: My adopted hometown newpaper ran a front page picture of paczi's coming off the cooling racks today! Oh yum!

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Weekend Cookbook Challenge #3: A Very Orange Meal

I am pretty sure I have the late winter blahs. This blue feeling is not being helped by the fact that today it snowed some more and with the wind chill was a balmy 10 degrees. So, this morning while sipping a latte at the bookstore cafe, I decided what better way to get myself out of my funk than cooking up a storm. After MBH and I returned home, I sat down to decide on my selection for the Weekend Cookbook Challenge #3. This month's theme was very challenging: to cook foods that are orange.

For the longest time, the only thing I could think of "cooking" for this WCBC was a molded orange jello salad with shredded carrots from a 1950's Woman's Day cookbook I own. It wasn't until I was reorganizing my cookbook collection a few days ago to make room for a few new cookbooks that I rediscovered Simply Delicious Cooking by Ron Kalenuik. A friend had given me this cookbook for Christmas several years ago. I remember thinking when I received it that the recipes were rather fussy. As I started flipping through the cookbook, gazing at all the lovely photographs, I noticed most the pictures contained quite a bit of orange. In fact, I found enough recipes to create a whole meal of orange food. The recipes in the cookbook were quite easy to follow and turned out wonderful. Also, I'm not sure if my palate has matured with age or if I am more confident in my cooking skills but I didn't find the recipes to be as fussy as I remembered. The cookbook is no longer in print, but if you can find a copy I would recommend that you add it to your collection. If for nothing else for the wonderful food photography.

The menu for our Very Orange Meal

Appetizer: cheese platter of English Stilton with Mango and Apricots, Extra Sharp New York Cheddar, wine crackers, and orange slices

Main Course: Orange Roughy Meuniere served on a bed of wild rice and Orange Brandy Carrots

Dessert: Individual Grand Marnier Peach Cobblers

Wine: Bonny Doon Pacific Rim 2004 Reisling; a wonderful crisp wine with orange blossom and apricot overtones

Recipes from Simply Delicious Cooking by Ron Kalenuik

Orange Roughy Meuniere

Six 6oz orange roughy fillets
1/2 Cup butter
1 Tbsp lemon juice
2 Tbsp fresh chopped parsley

Place fillets on a baking sheet. Heat butter in a small sauce pan and brush fillets with melted butter. Bake in a preheated 375 degree oven for 10 minutes. While fillets bake, continue to cook the butter over low heat until it turns a hazelnut colour. Add the lemon juice and parsley. Remove fish from oven, place on serving plates and pour butter sauce over fillets. Serve.

Orange Brandy Carrots
note: the recipe in the book calls for asparagus but the sauce worked fabulous on carrots!

1 lb petite sweet carrots (peeled)
2 tsp cornstarch
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 1/2 cups orange juice
1/2 cup Grand Marnier liqueur
2 tsp grated orange rind
1 1/2 Tbsp butter

Steam the carrots until just tender. Blend cornstarch with sugar. Heat the orange juice and liqueur to boiling. Stir in the sugar/cornstarch mixture, reduce heat and simmer until thick. Remove from heat and stir in orange rind and butter. Place carrots to a serving dish and pour sauce over. Serve at once.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Changing of the seasons of one's life

I've been procrastinating on posting this past week. I'm not sure why since I have what feels like a zillion draft posts from the last two weeks in various stages of being complete. But somehow, until today, I just couldn't bring myself to post. Then, after having a lovely morning lingering with many cups of coffee, several weeks of New York Times, and with MBH followed by a fun filled lunch over oriental noodles with Ardent Eden it became clear why I've been so reluctant to publish a post. I was trying to hang on to the last vestiges of high summer. Yes, you read that right high summer. You know that time of summer in late July/early August when spring feels like an eternity before but you can't imagine that fall will arrive any time soon. Of course I know it is mid February here in Boston. Afterall it was only 25 degrees today and we've had snow flurries on and off all afternoon. I am speaking metaphorically. You see, last week the seasons of my life began to change and frankly, I wasn't even looking to see that summer was about over. Now, there are signs that fall is right around the corner.

My mom had a heart attack two weeks ago. It wasn't a severe heart attack but none the less it was a heart attack. She had it on Tuesday evening and didn't tell anyone until Friday night. Her reason? She didn't have her lesson plans for the week done and didn't want to saddle a substitute teacher with a class of unruly 2nd Graders and no lesson plans. So she finished the week out and THEN told my dad. My dad, thinking he would unduly worry me called and left a cryptic message on my cellphone that night. "Hi honey. It's your dad. Hope you are well. Call me when you get a second. Love you." Nothing about an emergency. Nothing about my mom being stubborn and not wanting him to take her to the hospital until AFTER she had next week's lesson plans done. No sense of urgency. Just a typical message from my dad. So, I blissfully listened to the message and not knowing that 1100 miles away he was wanting me to call to convince my mom that she needed to go to the hospital decided to wait to return the call until Sunday evening. After all, it was summer and I had fields of wild flowers to play in and sun baked roads to wander.

On Sunday evening, it turned decidedly fall like when my dad called to tell me my mom was in the hospital and he wanted me to come home. It was too late to hop a plane to Northern Michigan. The closest I could get was Detroit and as it was Super Bowl Sunday. The game was being held in the Motor City and there wasn't a hotel room for hundreds of miles around. So, I tossed and turned for twelve hours in Cambridge with MBH my rock and pillar. I was on the first flight out of Boston Monday morning, not knowing what I would find but starting to see the wooly caterpillar that signals a change of season is coming. Six hours later, while landing at the airport about an hour south of my folk's house and from the hospital where my mom was in cardiac intensive care felt surreal. Thirty-five mile per hour winds buffeted the plane but the knot in the pit of my stomach wasn't from fear of crashing but from the fear that when I stepped off the plane the look on my dad's face would tell me that my mom had taken a bad turn or worse. Luckily, it was neither just relief that I had come home despite my mother's urgings that she was ok and I shouldn't worry.

When do we start to parent our parents? And when do we realise that our parents really won't be here forever? I guess we fool ourselves into thinking that time stands still when we reach the middle of our lives. Just like we fool ourselves into thinking summer will never end. But summer does come to an end and time slowly marches on; neither stopping regardless of our attempts to make them do so. Now, not unlike when I see the first hints of fall on the maple trees or the blooming of my favourite wild flower, Queen Anne's Lace, I know summer is coming to a slow but steady end. Fall will be here soon and I had better not waste a precious moment of this summer's sun.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Friday..um...Saturday Random 10

I've been absent for a while. I'll tell all about it next week when I'm back home. Let's just say that in the Upper Pennisula of Michigan on the shores of Lake Superior where my folks live that trying to post at 19.6 - 36kbs dial-up isn't the easiest thing to do. They live way out in the sticks and we had a party line until 1982 when the advent of 911 in the community required the phone company to install phone lines to each house. The phone company hasn't upgraded the phone lines since then and well, I get all excited when I see 28.8kbs pop up on my modem properties. Funny thing is I remember when I thought that was fast!

So, I'll make this short and sweet with a belated Random 10.

Enjoy. Now, out to shovel the 6" of fluffy lake effect that fell last night...

Friday Random 10

You know the game. Pull out your Ipod, put it on shuffle and write down the first 10 songs that pop up. No cheating to look cool or not look like a dork. No links this week to listen along. You can't even IMAGINE how long it takes to load a page on Amazon with 26kbs dial-up.

1. Your Love - Jim Brickman
2. Vivaldi's Love - Michael Franks
3. Black and White - Sarah McLachlan
4. C-Jam Blues - David Grusin
5. Cello Random Wanderings - Yo Yo Ma
6. Dream - Roy Orbison
7. Heart of the Matter - Don Henley
8. Let Me Let Go - Faith Hill
9. Somewhere in the Middle - Nine Sky Wonder
10. What it Is - Mark Knopfler

Friday, February 03, 2006

Calling Click and Clack

It has been a trying week. On Monday, while driving a client to our office in Western Massachusetts, MBH's car decided to have transmission trouble on the Mass Turnpike. The car wouldn't shift out of first gear. So, for 10 long minutes I drove on the shoulder with the emergency flashers on until I came to an exit that would take me off the turnpike (Sidebar: The Mass Turnpike Authority is the only assistance allowed on the Mass Turnpike. The last time I had a break down on the turnpike it took 5 hours for someone to actually assist me). Finding myself less than 3 miles from our repairshop, I nursed the car to the garage. The mechanics at the garage are getting used to seeing me coast MBH's car into the drive on a wing and a prayer. In July, in a span of 3 weeks MBH's car had a brake job, had a new radiator and all the associated hoses, and we replaced the alternator. In August, it was an oil pan gasket and a headlight. Now, this. I love MBH's car. It is one of those lovely diesel Mercedes from the 80s/90s. It gets over 400 miles to a tank of gas and is very fuel efficent not to mention I'm kind of fond of the leather seats and the sun roof. Normally it hasn't caused us a bit of trouble but the past six months it has eaten us out of house and home because as you can imagine, repairs are not inexpensive.

It isn't that we don't have a second car, but rather we don't have a second car that is road worthy for my long commute. My car is ok for driving to the vet and the occassional grocery store run, but is in great need for some TLC as well to the tune of new exhaust system. Not ideal for winter driving as driving with the windows down to combat carbon monoxide poisoning is a bit, well, cold. This was the main reason I found myself driving a sporty red 2005 Chevy Cobalt fully loaded including seat warmers and stereo controls on the steering wheel. I also found myself falling in love with a subcompact car. I've never really thought of myself as a subcompact kind of gal. I'm not an SUV type of gal mind you but I do like having a bit of room in my cars and my past experience with subcompact cars has been less than pleasant. I mean, I actually like to be able to push the driver's seat back far enough for my knees not to be under my chin. Boy, they have changed the leg room in subcompacts the past few years. The Cobalt had quite a bit of room, made good gas milage, had enough space in the trunk should I decide to haul a dead body or two there would be no trouble, and did I mention it had seat warmers??!!

I think I just test drove my next car. I wonder what the guys on Car Talk have to say about the Cobalt.

Friday Random 10

Well, thank goodness it is Friday and time to play the Random 10 game. Take out your Ipod and put it on shuffle. Record the first ten songs that pop up. No cheating to make yourself look cool. Links for you listen along.

1. Beautiful - Mandalay
2. Angel Treads - Keaggy, King, Dente
3. A Different Kind of Freedom - Acoustic Alchemy
4. Mermaid - Sade
5. Constant Craving - K.D.Lang
6. Crystal Ball - Styx
7. Hymme L' Amour - Edith Piaf
8. Tricycle - Flim and the BB's
9. LaValse Des Monstres - Soundtrack from Amelie
10. Somehow Our Love Survives - Michael Franks

Oh, yea. No fear being cool here.

2/4 Update on car situation: MBH's car isn't fixed. The mechanics couldn't find a problem but it still won't shift out of first gear. Means new transmission (OUCH!). It will be parked for the forseeable future. My car is at the shop to be repaired as it was cheaper to fix. Let's hope the rental place has the Cobalt available today when we go to pick up a car for another week.