Five holiday cookies from around the world

holiday cookiesI love good old American iced sugar cookies as much as the next person. Yet there’s a whole world of cookiedom out there, and the holdiays are the best excuse to do a little experimenting.

Whether you prefer your cookies buttery, spiced, crisp, or iced, there’s something to suit your…ahem, taste. Check out the following holiday favorites from around the world.

Springerle
These embossed, biscuit-like German cookies–usually flavored with anise–date back to the 14th century. They’re traditionally made using a wooden or ceramic mold (human figures are a common theme) or a rolling pin decorated with carved-out depressions. Think of them as edible art, especially if you have the talent and patience to ice them.

Shortbread
For butter sluts like me, few things beat a well-made piece of shortbread. True shortbread is Scottish in origin (the recipe we’re most familiar with today–flour, sugar, and butter–is attributed to Mary, Queen of Scots). Because the ingredients were considered luxury goods, shortbread became synonymous with festive occasions, including Christmas.

Shortbread has become ubiquitous throughout the UK, and similar (but inferior, in my humble opinion) cookies are found throughout Scandinavia. What makes good shortbread so special? The quality of the butter is paramount, but also the handling of the dough. Any baked good with a fat content that high is bound to be tasty, but overworking the dough–whether it’s rolled or patted out by hand–ensures a cookie the equivalent of a hockey puck. And I’m a purist: no crystallized sugar or fancy shapes for me, please. Just give me the cookie.

[Photo credits: Flickr user JeMaSiDi]holiday cookiesMa’amoul
These rich, Lebanese semolina cookie/pastry hybrids traditionally have their top half pressed into a decorative mold, while the bottom half is stuffed with a filling of chopped fruit and nuts such as dates, figs, walnuts, pistachios, walnuts, or almonds. Ma’amoul may be round or dome-shaped, or slightly flattened, and are categorically a form of shortbread due to their high fat (butter or shortening) content. They also contain rose and/or orange flower water, which gives them a subtle floral essence.

Ma’amoul are popular in the Levantine cuisine of the Eastern Mediterranean, as well as that of the Arab Persian Gulf states. They’re a frequent site during religious holidays an festivals, including Ramadan and Purim. In Jewish communities, date-filled ma’amoul are a favorite Hanukkah treat.

Mandelbrot
Some liken these twice-baked almond cookies to “Jewish” or “Askenazic” biscotti, and it’s a fairly accurate description. The name comes from the Yiddish for “almond bread.” Like biscotti, they’re shaped into a loaf, sliced, and baked twice to achieve a hard texture. They’re traditionally dunked in tea.

It’s believed that mandelbrot may have found it’s way to medieval Eastern Europe via the significant Jewish population residing in Northern Italy. According to food writer and Jewish cuisine expert Joan Nathan, the durability of the cookies made them a popular Sabbath dessert, because they traveled well via merchants and rabbis. Mandelbrot are also served at Hanukkah, because they’re parve (made with oil, instead of butter, aka dairy).

Melting Moments
holiday cookies
Although similar to Mexican Wedding cookies–those tender little shortbread domes dusted with powdered sugar–Melting Moments don’t contain ground nuts (the Latin versions–which have been traced back to medieval Arab culture–always contain ground almonds or other nuts, which were then a delicacy).

I first discovered Melting Moments, which rely upon the addition of cornstarch for their trademark disintegrating quality, while working for a Kiwi chef in London. Charmed by the name, I soon discovered that these Australian/Kiwi cookies are holiday favorites. They’re ridiculously easy to make, consisting primarily of butter, powdered sugar, and flour in addition to the aforementioned cornstarch (called “corn flour” in UK/Aussie recipes). They’re often made as sandwich cookies filled with icing (because you can never have too many Melting Moments).

There are literally dozens of other holiday cookies out there, ranging from the anise-fragranced wafers of the Nordic countries and soft amareti or macarons of Italy, to the spice cookies of Central Europe. An easy affordable gift idea: bake up a batch that correlate to your recipient’s ethnic heritage or favorite/dream vacation spot. Happy holidays!

[Photo credits: ma’amoul, Flickr user àlajulia;melting moment, Flicker user ohdarling]

Easy Gingerbread Men Cookie Recipe

Five sustainable alternatives to turkey this Thanksgiving or holiday season

thanksgiving turkeyIf you expected to see “Tofurkey” anywhere in this article, you clearly aren’t familiar with my work. Nope, no textured vegetable protein here.

As a kid–an obnoxiously picky eater, at that–turkey was on my lengthy list of foods to avoid. I suspect it was the notoriously dried-out birds of my youth that caused my aversion. Today, I like turkey, but it’s honestly not one of my favorite eating birds: I much prefer a good roast chicken or a game bird.

Game birds–both wild and farmed–are popular throughout much of Europe, especially in the UK, France, and Italy. Goose and duck are frequently seen in Asian cuisine, depending upon the country and region. And now, game birds are growing in popularity in the U.S.. Quail and duck aren’t difficult to find on menus, but there’s also squab, guinea hen, partridge, wood pigeon, etc.. Some birds, such as goose, heritage breed turkeys, or wild game birds may be seasonal or require order well in advance; just to give you an idea, the turkey farmer at my local market has people start signing up for Thanksgiving birds in March.

If you can’t find these birds at your local farmers market on butcher shop, you can order them online. The important thing is to ask or research how the animals are raised, and make sure it’s in a humane, ecologically responsible manner (see end of article for more information).

With the proliferation of farmed birds (mostly small-scale operations) in the U.S., I’m hard-pressed to recommend you shoot yourself some dinner (although I’m behind roadkill), but hunting is a discussion for another day. For the record, while I don’t participate in it myself, I support hunting wildlife as a means of population control, as long as the animal in question is fully utilized.

As for you city slickers, just be aware that wild birds are much stronger in flavor, less tender, and in most instances need to hang for a few days so the proteins can break down and render the meat edible. So put away your bird call and shotgun unless you have the experience and permits, and do your shopping locally or online. No muss, no fuss, and trust me, plucking birds is a serious pain in the ass. Farmed birds are bred for more tender meat, are usually hens (also more tender and mild), and a great choice even if you’ve never cooked anything beyond a chicken breast.

Do note that goose and duck, are very fatty (the extra padding helps keep these aquatic birds buoyant) and you’ll need to render the fat before you can cook the meat. The key to successfully preparing most birds, however, is to not overcook them. Your butcher or any number of cookbooks will be able to tell you how to prepare them. Some good resources: Nose to Tail Eating (Ecco) by Fergus Henderson, and River Cottage Meat Book (10 Speed Press) by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall.

Sourcing information for all of the following bird species can be found at the end of this article.

1. Goose
Goose was once a British Christmas dinner favorite (oddly, turkey is now the bird of choice), and it’s still popular in Germany. According to esteemed food writer Joan Nathan of Joan Nathan’s Jewish Holiday Cookbook (Random House), German Christians traditionally ate goose for Christmas, and Jews cooked it for Hannukah. In her book, she provides a lovely family recipe for roast goose stuffed with chestnuts and apples that would make any Thanksgiving table proud.

[Photo credit: Flickr user turtlemom4bacon]thanksgiving turkeyGoose is considerably more fatty than other birds, so it’s not a good choice if you’re watching your cholesterol or calories (stick with white meat turkey). But it’s that layer of fat that makes the meat so succulent and juicy. It’s very rich, so a little goes a long way; ideal if you’re feeding a crowd.

2. Pheasant
The Common Pheasant is native to Asia, but there are over 30 subspecies that have been introduced all over the world as a game bird; it’s naturalized in Europe. In the U.S., we’re most familiar with ring-necked pheasant: the males are striking, with emerald- and crimson-colored heads. Farmed pheasant is growing in popularity on menus, and is similar to dark chicken meat in flavor

3. Quail
While tiny and full of bones (imagine gnawing on a giant hummingbird drumstick), quail is a great choice if you’re having a small gathering because you can serve one bird per person. They’re very dainty and require simple preparation. Just butterfly them, thread on skewers and toss on the grill, or pan-fry. Quail meat is dark, juicy, and non-gamey; it pairs beautifully with dried fruit such as figs, dates, or cherries. Toss grilled quail atop some bitter greens dressed with a bacon vinaigrette, add some plumped dried fruit, and let the cooking juices wilt the greens. Dinner is served.

4. Duck
Duck is commonplace on fine-dining menus nationwide. While technically white meat (as is goose), it’s similar to red meat: rich, rosy, and juicy with burnished, crackling skin. Many people are intimidated by cooking duck, but it’s one of the easiest alterna-birds to work with, especially if you just use breast, thigh, or leg meat. Breasts will have a thick layer of fat beneath the skin; you’ll need to score the skin in a cross-hatch pattern to help the fat render (Don’t throw it out! Store it in a clean, sealed jar, and use it to fry potatoes or other foods for extra crispy goodness). Grill or saute breasts; legs take well to braising or confit.

There are three main breeds of duck sold commercially: Pekin, Muscovy, and Moulard. Pekin are the most tender and mild, while Muscovy are large, meaty, and stronger in flavor. Moulard are a Pekin/Muscovy cross; they’re larger, more fatty, and stronger in flavor than Pekin, and are usually raised for foie gras.

5. Squab
A more civilized term for pigeon, these aren’t your standard “rats-with-wings” variety. Squab are eating pigeons, and the meat is similar to duck–very juicy and rosy in color, with an almost livery flavor. Think of it as a smaller duck in terms of cooking technique.

Speaking of park pigeon, when I lived in the Bay Area, there was a semi-factitious activist group advocating the consumption of the out-of-control resident pigeon population (something I’d be completely behind if these birds weren’t such carriers of disease). To prove their point, they cooked up a bunch of captured birds in a San Francisco park one day and had a well-documented pigeon picnic. I’ve always found that hilarious.
thanksgiving turkey
Sourcing

Even if you decide to just stick with turkey or switch to chicken this holiday season, the most important thing–besides technique–is to start with a great bird. It’s worth the extra expense to get a pasture-raised animal that’s been supplemented with exercise, sunshine, plant matter, and foraged bugs. You’ll taste the difference, but it goes beyond just flavor.

Industrially-raised poultry (i.e. chicken and turkey) are the taste equivalent of Styrofoam with bland, watery meat plumped with saline solution; their feed is often supplemented with arsenic to produce pinker meat and act as a growth promotant and antiparasitic. They’re hybridized to grow quickly and possess outrageously oversized breasts (because that’s the part most people prefer to eat). Factory farming is also an inhumane, environmentally devastating industry with far-reaching impacts upon human health (Click here for more information on sustainable-vs-industrial turkey farming).

Sonoma County Poultry sells Liberty Ducks (actually a strain of Pekin ducks adapted to a slower, less stressful growing process) ships nationwide. Grimaud Farms of California’s San Joaquin Valley sells Muscovy duck and guinea fowl online

D’Artagnan is a well-regarded purveyor of specialty foods. They have a strong focus on sustainability and humane poultry and game bird production and procurement, and sell farmed quail, pheasant, quail, goose, squab, poussin (technically, young chicken, although sometimes game hens are sold under this name); capon (castrated rooster, which makes for flavorful, tender meat); guinea hen, and wild Scottish wood pigeon, grouse, pheasant, and Red-legged partridge online

Mad Hatcher Poultry
in eastern Washington produces quail, squab, poissin, and quail (heritage turkey and rabbit, too).

[Photo credits: roast goose, Flickr user Herman Saksono; cook, Laurel Miller]

How to Buy and Cook Duck Legs

Bizarre foods: European “delicacies,” by country

European foodsWhat constitutes “food” is relative, depending upon what part of the world you call home. In Asia, pretty much anything on no (snakes), two, four, six, or eight legs is up for grabs. Europe, however, has its own culinary oddities, as detailed below. Got maggots?

Iceland
Hákarl: Fermented, dried Greenland or basking shark. This tasty treat is prepared by burying the beheaded and gutted shark in a shallow hole in the ground for six to 12 weeks. Unsurprisingly, the end result is considered noxious to pretty much everyone on the planet aside from Icelanders.

Norway
Smalahove: Boiled lamb’s head, traditionally served at Christmas. The brain is removed, and the head salted and dried before boiling. Because they’re the fattiest bits, the ear and eye are eaten first. More fun than a wishbone.

Sardinia (yes, it’s in Italy, but this one deserved its own listing)
Casu marzu: This sheep’s milk cheese has maggots added to it during ripening, because their digestive action creates an “advanced level” of fermentation (also known as “decomposition”). Some people prefer to eat the soupy results sans critters, while the stout of heart go for the whole package. Be forewarned: according to Wikipedia, irate maggots can propel themselves for distances up to six inches. Here’s fly in your eye.

Northern Sweden or Finland
Lappkok: This charmingly-named concoction consists of blodpalt–a dumpling made with reindeer blood and wheat or rye flour–served with reindeer bone marrow. Well, Santa’s herd had to retire sometime.

[Photo credit: Flickr user fjords]

European foodsSweden
Lutefisk: This dried whitefish treated with lye is beloved by Scandinavians and their American Midwestern ancestors (let’s just say it’s an acquired taste). It’s traditionally served with potatoes or other root vegetables, gravy or white sauce, and akvavit.

Scotland
Haggis: Who doesn’t love a cooked sheep’s stomach stuffed with its lungs, heart, and liver, combined with oatmeal?

Poland
Nozki: Literally “cold feet,” this dish of jellied pig’s trotters isn’t as repulsive as it sounds. The meat is simmered with herbs and spices until falling off the bone, and set in gelatin. Think of how much fun this would be as a Jello shooter.

Ukraine
Salo: The cured fatback of pork is actually quite delicious, and similar to Italian lardo when seasoned. It’s chopped and used as a condiment, or eaten straight-up on bread. Plan your angioplasty accordingly.
European foods
England/Ireland
Black (or blood) pudding: Technically a sausage, this mixture of animal blood (usually pork), spices, fat, and oatmeal or other grains is surprisingly good. It’s served uncooked, fried, grilled, or boiled. Sound bad? At least it’s not called Spotted Dick.

Italy
Stracotto d’asino: A northern Italian donkey stew, often served as a pasta sauce. Donkey and horse are eaten throughout Italy, but this particular dish is a specialty of Veneto, and Mantua, in Lombardy.

France
Tête de veau: You have to love that the venerable French culinary bible, Larousse Gastronomique, describes this dish of boiled calf’s head as, “a gelatinous variety of white offal.” Mmm. While there are many different preparations for the classical dish, it was traditionally served with cocks’ combs and kidneys, calves sweetbreads, and mushrooms.

Eastern Europe
P’tcha: A calves’ foot jelly enjoyed by Ashkenazi Jews throughout this part of Europe. It’s uh, high in protein.

Germany
Zungenwurst: This sausage is made of pork blood and rind; pickled ox tongue, and a grain filler, such as barley. It’s available dried, or can be browned in butter or bacon fat before eating. And bacon makes everything better.European foods

Netherlands
Paardenrookvlees: Culinarily-speaking, the Dutch usually cop grief for their proclivity for pickled herring and eating mayonnaise on their french fries. That’s because most Americans don’t know this smoked horse meat is a popular sandwich filling. Trust me: Seabiscuit tastes pretty good.

Greece
Kokoretsi: Lamb or goat intestines wrapped around seasoned offal (lungs, hearts, sweetbreads, kidneys), threaded onto a skewer, and cooked on a spit. You know what’s good with grilled meat? Meat.

[Photo credits: black pudding, Flickr user quimby;lutefisk, Flickr user adam_d_; kokoretsi, Flickr user Georgio Karamanis]