Friday, July 17, 2009

Monastic Sweets in Barcelona

Spain isn’t the first place you think of when you contemplate dessert. Just why is a little unclear, the next-door Portuguese are dessert obsessed. Lisbon has more pastry shops than Paris, with a much smaller population. So why are the Spanish so lukewarm about dessert? Perhaps there isn’t really a place in it in the Spanish meal system. The Spanish eat a small breakfast but given the late meal times there is the national institution of snacking—tapas. You eat tapas at eleven to get you to lunch at 2 or 3 and you eat tapas in the early evening so you’re not starving by the time the 10 PM supper hour arrives. It’s hard to fit in a leisurely coffee and dessert somewhere in there. Perhaps equally important, the savory snacks end up doing the jobs of sweet snacks in places like Vienna and Brussels. Instead of a doughnut and coffee there is a slice of tortilla española and a glass of cava. Portugal, on the other hand, has much more of a coffee culture (the Portuguese seem to have as many words for coffee as the Inuit do for snow) so that a late morning snack will most likely be some sort of pastry washed down a sweet slug of caffeine. This is all theory mind you generated by a visit to Barcelona.
Barcelona is one of my favorite towns. It has the perfect location, right between the beach and mountains. It has wacky architecture. It has great food. Not only are there the ubiquitous tapas but the Spanish explosion of innovation is mostly centered here. The Boqueria is the world’s finest and largest covered market. But dessert? The pastry shops tend to be few and far between and vaguely French. The ice cream is expensive and either a pale imitation of Häagen Dazs or gelato. Still, there is at least one sweet spot worth seeking out. Located deep in the Barrio Gotíc, Caelum (c/De la Palla 8, tel. 933026993) specializes in serving and selling Spanish monastery sweets. You can taste them upstairs but it’s more fun to go to the downstairs cellar that once served as a Jewish baths. It’s all gloomy and candlelit in the best possible way. There are cakes of various kinds which seem just a little too homemade (and the ubiquitous brownies) but there is also a wide selection of packaged monastery sweets you can taste. Many seem to be based on some sort of almond paste which is fine by me. The lunitas, for example are a kind of half-moon of very thin pastry enclosing a moist marzipan-like filling. The pastel de piñon is much like an Italian pinoli cookie but somehow denser, chewier and more intense. Pestiños (also called borrachuelos on the package, presumably because they’re made with wine—borracho means drunk in Spanish), on the other hand resemble tiny doughnuts little bigger than a wedding band. There’s also something distinctly medieval about them, tasting, as they do, of honey and olive oil. The fourth monastery sweet I tasted was something called a polvoron, a kind of cookie that is the shape of a very large sugar cube. As you bite into it, it shatters into a powder (thus the name which comes from polvo—powder), it's barely sweet with perhaps just a hint of cinnamon. This is one of those cookies, like biscotti, that cries out for some hot chocolate, or perhaps a sweet monastic liqueur?

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Chicken Pudding

Every culture has its own taboos and rules about what is edible and inedible. There are also rules about what may or may not be combined: “thou shall not seethe a kid in his mother’s milk” in the Jewish tradition, Italians have a taboo about combining cheese and fish and most Europeans (with the huge exception of Spaniards) do not mix fish and meat. The great majority of the citizens of the EU also can’t abide meat that is sweet more than savory. The idea of dessert based on meat is fundamentally repugnant. Of course this was not always the case. In the UK mincemeat has traditionally been made with meat—though nowadays the only animal product it contains tends to be suet. Medieval Europe used to be obsessed with blancmange, a pudding typically made with chicken, almonds and sugar. Today, if you want to taste anything vaguely similar you’ll need to travel to Turkey.

In Istanbul, I had arranged to meet Mary Isin in front of Haci Bakir, the city’s most famous confectioner. Mary has written a book on Turkish sweets and like every good Brit (she has lived in Turkey for ages but still…) she adores a good custard. Haci Bekir is renowned for it’s Turkish delight but there’s nowhere to sit down, and no custard, so Mary dragged me across the street to Hafiz Mustafa Şekerlemeleri (Hamidiye Caddesi 84-86), a café that dates back to the 19th century. After a brief conversation with the owner her face lit up with a triumphant smile and she dragged me upstairs to the pastry maker’s café, a low-raftered affair—so low that the beams are covered with foam to prevent the customers from inevitable concussions. What she had been after arrived in a few moments. Tavuk Göğsü is about the closest thing to medieval blancmange. It is a milk-based pudding, thickened with rice starch and chicken. Yes chicken and plenty of sugar. As you bite into it, it has a texture that is oddly both chewy and smooth with little shreds of chicken breast in it. When the pudding is made, the bottom is caramelized to give it that contrasting bitter dimension. It’s very good, really. And if you don’t like it there’s always baklava on the menu.

Monday, June 1, 2009

All in the Name of Science

So I thought I would test out the hypothesis whether you could make a Sacher Torte in 1832, or at least whether the chocolate was up to snuff. The first trick, of course was to get chocolate that would have been made the same way it was back then. Mexican chocolate is, sort of, though the brands typically available have cinnamon and sometimes almonds added to them. Luckily Taza Chocolate in Somerville, MA is making a stone-ground chocolate that is made, as best as I can figure out, much the way Baker’s and other companies would have made their chocolate a couple of hundred years ago.

I spoke briefly to one of the Taza owners, Alex Whitmore, and he explained how the chocolate is ground, mixed with sugar and then passed through granite rollers to smooth out the texture. No conching. And that’s critical because it is the invention of conching that created the really smooth texture we’re all used to now. Alex describes conching as a little like a long (mechanical) process of kneading the chocolate base which, rather than making the particles of cocoa smaller, smoothes their edges. It also mellows the flavor—you apparently loose the sour edge that chocolate naturally has. I have to say that I find the sour, almost spoilt milk flavor, of Taza off-putting. But then I grew up on Lindt and its likes. Americans who grew up on Hershey’s—which most European chocolatiers criticize for exactly this sour milk flavor profile—would probably like it. It is gritty though.

At any rate, if there is a chocolate that resembles the chocolate circa 1830, this is probably it. And how did it work on the Sacher torte, or more specifically the glaze? I can report that it did just fine. It melted a little more unevenly than normal but otherwise it behaved perfectly adequately. The resulting glaze was shiny and smooth, just as it should be. (I did overcook the glaze a little—I find it hard to get right when I’m making just a little glaze—but it still worked.)

The recipe I used was loosely adapted from Rick Rodger’s Kafeehaus, probably the best Viennese dessert book in English. His history is shaky but the recipes work. I wanted to make a 7-inch cake so I beat 6 tablespoons butter until smooth, beat in 2 3/4 ounces of bittersweet chocolate and 4 room yolks. Then I beat 4 whites until semi-stiff, beat in 7 tablespoons sugar until meringuish. This I folded into the yolk mixture, then folded in a half cup flour. That was baked in a (buttered and floured) 7-inch springform for about 45 minutes at 350°F. This was chilled to room temperature and flipped up-side down. Then there was the apricot glaze made by boiling down apricot preserves until thick and syrupy (make sure you buy preserves made with sugar not corn syrup!) then strained and brushed all over the cake. Finally I took a 3-ounce bar of Taza 60% Stone Ground Chocolate, combined it with 3/4 cup sugar and about a third cup water. This was simmered until glaze consistency. Rick says to cook it to 234°F which is all very well, but try getting an accurate measurement from a half-cup of glaze! I usually test it by dropping a few drops on a frozen ceramic plate. You want the consistency of fudge, more or less. Finally, I spooned the glaze over the cooled apricot glaze. Incidentally, the cake shouldn’t be refrigerated. It will keep fine, covered, for a couple of weeks. In a sense that’s the whole point of it. And yeah, you have to serve it with Schlag—whipped cream. Did the 15-year-old Sacher really invent this on the spot? My guess is that it took some years to get it right. But there is no reason to think that he couldn’t have due to the ingredients on hand at the time.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The Sacher Story

I returned recently from a quick weekend trip to Vienna—a few too many tortes for two days—not that I’m complaining. But between bites I had a conversation with Ingrid Haslinger which got me thinking about stories and history, or at least about the kind of tales that are told about food.

Dr. Haslinger is a food historian and probably the most knowledgeable person in Austria (or elsewhere for that matter) on the culinary habits of the Hapsburg court. She’s written books about it and if you visit the jaw-dropping collection of Imperial Silver (the so called Silberkammer) in the old imperial palace (the Hofburg) she’s the one who wrote the labels that explaining what’s what.

At any rate we got to talking about the story of the Sacher Torte. The legend—as it is told in repeated retellings —is that the young Franz Sacher was once in the employ of Prince Metternich. (This was the string-pulling, reactionary chief minister of Austria in the early 1800s, the guy who is generally credited with setting up the post-Napoleonic European order. ) One day, the prince had a few of his chums over for dinner for which the fifteen-year old Sacher whipped up the first Sacher Torte. The noble-blooded diners applauded and the world’s most famous cake was born.

You have to admire the narrative: the adolescent wunderkind struck with the spark of genius, recognized immediately by the savvy old diplomat and his cronies. It’s a great story. The only trouble is, it’s probably not true. At least that’s Dr. Haslinger’s very credible hypothesis. Other than the rather incredible age of the young Sacher there is the date when this was all supposed to happen: 1832. The Sacher is a chocolate cake which is coated with apricot preserves and then a fudgy chocolate glaze. The problem is that chocolate smooth enough to form the glaze hadn’t been invented yet—that would come in 1879 when Lindt developed a way of making chocolate super smooth by processing it with a conching machine. But the other bit of damning evidence comes from an interview with the old Sacher himself that appeared in 1906 where he says he came up with the cake in 1840s. So what about the Metternich story? It may well originate with his son Eduard who recounted it in a issue of the Wiener Zeitung in 1888 (or supposedly did according to Franz Maier-Bruck's Das grosse Sacher-Kochbuch—I haven't been able to find the article in the actual newspaper). Did Eduard misunderstand something his father might have told him or did he simply put two and two together and get five? Hard to say. He had run a hotel since 1876 and a little publicity probably couldn’t hurt. It's interesting to note that the first recipe for it appears two years later though!

Let’s say for the sake of argument that the Metternich story is inaccurate. Isn’t it still of enormous interest, especially to a food historian? Certainly that it was widely circulated gave the cake inestimably more cachet than the more probable story that Sacher invented something like this cake (even if the glaze was later refined) in the 1840s to use in his catering business for ships on the Danube. If it was indeed first promulgated in the 1870s, the Mettenich origin myth tells something about the era of increasing industrialization and the PR potential of a good story in an era of increasing mass media. Dr. Haslinger tells me that we Americans are too prone to overemphasize the role of public relations in the history of food. Perhaps. But I would make the argument that the fable has had a greater influence popularizing the torte than any real history. Stories matter.

Sunday, May 17, 2009


After long resisting Vienna's Oberlaa chain (how could they be good if they have so many branches?) I succumbed. You see I had coffee with the founder yesterday and he is/was by all accounts altogether brilliant when comes to pastry.
The Neumarkt branch spills out into the square, packed with a mixture of locals and a smattering of foreigners on a sunny Sunday afternoon. Oberlaa is probably the least traditional of the best known Viennese Konditerei. True to their reputation, the table menu features the "neu, new, nuovo, Mango-Schokolade Torte:" think layers of flourless almond cake (with a little praline perhaps?), Pariser Creme (chocolate mousse) and mango puree. And, oh yes, a thin layer of whipped cream. It's light and fruity, a nice balance of creamy chocolate and bright, tropical intensity.
There's a bit of Paris there in the mango—maybe even a little Guadelope—but it works. Perhaps because the chocolate isn't too strident.

Their chocolates are good too if a little sweet for my taste. A little like a Whitman sampler but one that actually tastes good.