The unassuming and humble materials for the table decor are all around us, even in the city. The sidewalk, the frozen over container vegetable garden, community garden, few supermarket chrysanthemums, usually dismissed in favor of flashier roses. This year, having just returned from the trip to the southern Poland, my inspiration was hiding in the photos.
Dried basil branches are standing in for the dreamy grasses, but bring the same earthiness and whimsy to the table, and the fragrance is just a bonus. I like the tone-on-tone assembly of linen tablecloth and napkins made from the same batch of fabric. This is just a quick afternoon project, that really pays off, visually. Color orange still makes the appearance, but as a subtle detail and reminds me of my favorite Polish woodland find in October – mushrooms called rydze.
The Thanksgiving table setting will be evolving until the last minute this year, because this is my favorite kind of storytelling…
Every year around third week of August the reality of summer ending soon seems to arrive with a bit of anxiety. How many times did we go camping this year? How many times did we go to the beach? While I can let the beach go, camping – not so much. For the single fact that I find no good substitute for an old fashioned campfire. In New England, we head north to the White Mountains National Forest. I hesitated to give away our favorite spot, but here it is: Russell Pond. Over years, and through experience, we made a decision to stay only in National Forest campgrounds, and not private, commercial campgrounds. This year, on a last weekend of August (even though the temperatures were positively screaming fall with 46F degrees at night), we headed north with barely any preparations. It was a mad dash out of town on a Friday afternoon, by the time we finished to stake the tent, it was dark. And there were stars everywhere, and 3 bundles of wood…
The next day’s hike was carefully tailored to the fact that I wanted maximum time cooking at the campsite. So off we hiked to Lonesome Lake, thinking we were in just for the views, but it turned out to be a ‘culinary experience’, too. Lonesome Lake hut is a stop on Appalachian Trail, staffed by AMC volunteers and served a fantastic fare for a modest price. Hence two bowls of the best spicy lentil soup for us. We circled around the bakery table, but resisted.
Back at the campground, it was time to soak the corn, dice the tomatoes we brought in from our own backyard, and the basil. This simple pasta dish lends itself perfectly to cooking by the campfire. We always carry camping stove to boil the water quickly for pasta or coffee, but the rest of the magic happens over the wood fire. Yes, I brought my own parmesan cheese, too. Suddenly, we were glamping…Some of us were even heating up Chinese takeout spicy fish and rice, but that will remain a secret.
For the longest time I could not make this desert ‘properly’, not because of its complicated recipe, or ingredient list, but simply because I did not have the right vessel for it. Custard glass cups from the supermarket just would not do it. My lucky break came earlier this summer at a small yard sale north of the city. I instantly scooped up a set of four. They remind me of much larger ones we had always used for desserts in my family. They still sit on the upper shelves in my parents’ pantry in my hometown in Poland. They don’t make appearance all that often now, everyone seems to gravitate to either ice cream or cake these days at the family gathering. But my heart is firmly with this simple jello dessert of my childhood.
The key is to use the ripest fruit that gets submerged and set in jello – raspberries and wild strawberries work particularly well. Once set for a couple of hours in refrigerator, out comes the topping. This should be done just before serving. No real rules here. I tend to add a dollop or two of homemade whip cream, shaved bitter chocolate, sometimes chopped hazelnuts, and always more fruit. Childhood treat that pleases children and adults alike!
Once a year, when the strawberry season is in full swing, we head to Cape Ann in Massachusetts, to our favorite pick-your-own farm. I confess, I only eat strawberries when in season, and when I pick them myself. The entire experience can sustain me for a year. I get the fix of all things strawberry by making the seasonal treats that childhood memories are made of: strawberry pierogies, strawberry sirup for winter tea, and this Polish dessert. Recipe below.
3 tablespoon flour
300g powdered sugar
250g unsalted butter
very ripe strawberries
2 packages ladyfinger cookies
Boil milk and completely cool. Beat eggs with flour and bit of milk. Place milk back on the stove and on low/med heat, pour the egg mixture slowly into milk, constantly stirring, until it boils. Let it cool completely.
Beat butter with powdered sugar in a mixer, and start adding, one spoon at a time, the cooled off egg mixture. Again, let it cool.
Arrange ladyfinger cookies on the bottom and sides of a springform, trimming as needed to fill the smaller gaps. I trim the ends of the side pieces by about and inch, so they stand up easy and evenly. Start filling the springform with above cream and strawberry layers. Decorate with strawberries. Chill for at least two hours to set initially, but it is best enjoyed at room temperature.
My cake turned out to be like those late winter season snow storms. Messy, slushy, part exhilarating, part frustrating, part sentimental. Both bring memories of happy and carefree childhood moments: the anticipation, the ‘free’ feeling, like you want to scream into the howling wind on the top of your lungs, and grab a slice of cake into palm of your hand, before anyone says you should use a plate and a fork. American-style cakes are certainly a culinary experiment for me, I am not fully sold on the taste, or the amount of sugar you have to use for baking! Sugary, white frosting, virtually unknown in Polish kitchen, being the biggest offender. But Red Velvet cake manages to bridge the American and Continental culinary world for me. The white vanilla frosting reminds me of the cream layer of Polish “Ptasie mleczko”, translated as “Bird’s milk”, but right there we enter into the realm of fairytales and the reality blurs with fantasy, heavily influenced by one’s emotional childhood baggage.
This cake production, a second in my series, is made from the Flour Bakery cookbook. I adore it for the generous amount of the Dutch cacao, although the food coloring, instead of red, turned it just richer brown. But such is the trade off when you want to use natural coloring only. The frosting reminded me of a lace table cloth stashed away for years, and an impromptu styling session followed…
Carnival, or Mardi Gras, is a perfect occasion to test a recipe for a “Yellow Birthday Cake” from Flour cookbook. Just like the festivities, it is rich, exuberant, and a little bit on the showy side. No less then 12 oz of chocolate go into the light, fluffy frosting. These are the days to indulge, at least for some of us, in Italian zeppole, Polish chrusty and paczki, or…freshly baked yellow cake. The cake has been already heralded in this household as the best ever made. Thankfully, it freezes well is seems, so crisis averted as the carnival ends at midnight today, sharp!
This Valentines’s day is all about chocolate and fresh raspberries, both rather rare in this household. Never been much into chocolate, with the exception maybe of a good Polish milk and whole hazelnuts chocolate from Wedel. Also, I never buy fruit out of season, raspberries usually make appearance in mid July, we stuff ourselves with them for a couple of weeks and then we say goodbye for a year, except for the pick-your-own leftovers in the freezer. But this year, since I ruthlessly pulled Marie Kondo on my home studio and that includes books, I was left with a handful of only favorites, and that included Sweet Paul’s Eat and Make, and that brought me joy as Marie would say.
This is the first time I used a real melted chocolate in addition to unsweetened cocoa, and the result was …stunning. The most creamy on the inside and slightly crispier on the edges ganache. The raspberries kept their shape but softened gorgeously, and all that was left to do was to clean some space in the freezer, because if you start eating this for breakfast you are in trouble, it is so rich! Happy Valentine’s Day!
Some quiet moments captured this season…Wishing everyone peaceful, joyous, and wonder filled Christmas.
As much as anything “sugar” seems to be falling out of favor these days, and mostly for a good reason, I cannot let go into oblivion handful of my most cherished recipes. This particular one comes from my Grandmother Felicja. Simple sugar cookies, perfect combination of crunchy on the outside and flaky on the inside. It downed on me looking at the ingredient list how simple and accessible they where. Everything came from the farm: the eggs, butter, sour cream, even flour those days. The only thing she would have to get was vinegar and sugar, really just staples from the small village kiosk. This is the simplicity I am hoping to preserve, even if it contains sugar! My holiday upgrade this year was using Demerara sugar instead of plain white sugar.
45o grams flour
250 grams butter
1 cup sour cream
2 egg yolks
3 table spoons white vinegar
Mix everything with a knife, and make the dough quickly by hand. Roll out to the thickness of 1/4″ and cut out small circles. Dip one side in egg white and then sugar. Bake in temp. 395F until holden.
This is for any of the weary souls during the holiday season, tea and cake is good for you. If you light a candle because the days are already oh-so-short, and if you bake the cake yourself, it becomes this slow living ritual that unlocks the creativity, connect you with the person next to you, and allows you to take a deep breath.
I see this recipe every time I rummage through my “best of” folder. I keep here all my Mom’s recipes she has been sending me in letters for years, those dictated to me we while I visit, those copied from fabulous 1960 and 70 Polish cookbooks. This particular one, I know very well from experience…We call it a “TV cake” or “placek-torcik telewizyjny” in Polish, for the simple reason that we used to eat it while watching movies together as a family, still warm, not because the recipe comes from a TV show! There is also a canned peach version, but apple was usually easier, considering the orchard surrounding my childhood home.
For the table decor, I did not venture any further than neighboring street and an empty house waiting for remodel, but covered to the roof with vines with orange berries. Added some dried Thai basil sprigs (still very fragrant!), and few dried rose petals from my “May Flowers” rose, and done. The making of a small afternoon ritual…