January 28, 2013
Excited for Sunday’s Super Bowl? Learn more about this Baltimore delicacy from Bonny Wolf, writer for AmericanFoodRoots.com, where this story was originally published.
What the madeleine was to Proust, the Berger cookie is to Baltimoreans. When the French author’s narrator dips his shell-shaped cookie into a cup of tea, he is flooded with 3,000 pages of childhood memories.
So it is with the Berger cookie. (The company is called Bergers but to most Baltimoreans, when discussing the cookie, the ‘s’ is silent.”)
For nearly 200 years, this cake-bottomed cookie topped with a generous hand-dipped mound of dark fudge icing has sparked home-town memories for Charm City natives. For a very long time, the cookies were unknown outside the city.
“It was a great little business,” says Charlie DeBaufre, who has worked at the company for much of his life and became the owner in 1994. Customer demand and word of mouth led to incremental growth over the last 15 years. “We had two trucks,” DeBaufre says, “and then some of the major supermarkets said, ‘We wouldn’t mind selling your cookies.’ ”
People aged and retired or moved outside Baltimore, but they still wanted their Berger cookies. Those who moved to Maryland’s Eastern Shore didn’t want to cross the Chesapeake Bay Bridge to get their cookies, says DeBaufre. So he sent his trucks across the bridge with the goods. Then they got requests from northern Virginia, southern Pennsylvania and Frederick, Maryland. Now DeBaufre has seven trucks. He tried using brokers but, “They don’t care like you care,” he says. “I like having my own trucks and drivers. I like having more control over what’s going into the store.”
What’s going into the stores is an “unusual product,” says DeBaufre. “New Yorkers talk about their black and whites and it’s not a bad cookie, but it’s nothing like mine.”
The cookie is made using nearly the same recipe Henry Berger developed when he opened a bakery in East Baltimore in 1835. There have been a few modifications, according to DeBaufre. For example, vegetable oil has replaced lard in the recipe, reducing the saturated fat content considerably. “Some people say the cookie is just there to hold the chocolate,” says DeBaufre. “They eat the chocolate and throw the cookie away.” Bergers has even been asked to put together a Berger cookie wedding cake, which DeBaufre describes as a stack of cookies with a bride and groom on top.
Berger, a German immigrant, was a baker by trade and his three sons followed him into the business. The cookies were sold from stalls in the city’s public markets. Today, there still are Bergers’ cookie stands in Baltimore’s Lexington and Cross Street markets.
As they have been since the beginning, Berger cookies are hand dipped. Four employees dip them all – 36,000 cookies a day. DeBaufre says he’s considered new equipment but has resisted. “I have to keep the integrity of the cookie,” he says. Yes, they have trouble keeping up with demand and often run out. But he doesn’t do it just to make money, he says. “I take pride in what I do. When you tell me they’re good cookies, I’m proud.”
After World War I, George Russell, a young man who worked for the Bergers, bought the bakery. The DeBaufres – who had worked for the Russells – bought the business in 1969. In addition to expanding distribution outside Baltimore, Bergers cookies are shipped all over the country. DeBaufre says a woman from Baltimore who lives in California sent holiday tins of cookies this year to her clients – 20th Century Fox, Paramount Pictures and Steven Spielberg. “She wanted them to have something they wouldn’t have had before,” says DeBaufre.
Read more stories from the 50 States’ best culinary traditions at American Food Roots.
January 3, 2013
For years I thought it was just because the Spanish like a good party that they dragged their Christmas celebrations out until the night of January 5, when they had another round of parades and gift giving for Los Reyes Magos, the coming of the Three Kings, also known as Tres Reyes, or simply Reyes. It’s only recently that it clicked that, actually, they got it right. While the rest of us are waiting for Santa to deliver his celebratory gifts for Christmas, Jesus didn’t actually get any until 12 days later, when Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthazar finally showed up with their gold, frankincense and myrrh.
Christmas is a bit of a Johnny-come-lately in Spain and many Latin American countries, and it’s only a couple of decades since it really wasn’t much of a celebration at all. Navidad has become more important these days, and while most families gather together for a large meal on Christmas Eve, usually beginning with a fish soup followed by seafood, jamón serrano, cheeses and various cold cuts, there isn’t really any traditional food specific to the occasion. For the day of Tres Reyes, though, when the kids have opened the presents they found in a shoe placed under the Christmas tree the night before, no home would be complete without a Roscón de Reyes, or Rosca de Reyes if you live in Mexico or Puerto Rico, the two Western Hemisphere countries most likely to celebrate Tres Reyes. The Spaniards brought the tradition of celebrating the Epiphany and sharing the Rosca to the New World.
The Three Kings Bread is a sweet loaf baked in a ring – think fat, circular panettone decorated with dried figs, quince, cherries, candied fruits to symbolise the precious stones in a crown, and with thrombosis levels of white sugar scattered on top, and there you have it. Some recipes call for dates and honey to be used, but these are considered mere folderols added to the recipe by upstarts who can’t realise that some good things don’t need improving. Sound familiar? The New Orleans tradition of the King Cake comes from this same tradition.
Just as no resident of Valencia can ever agree on where to eat the best paella, everyone swears absolutely that they know the best Roscón baker in their city, never mind in their own barrio. A proper Roscón needs to be freshly baked, or at the very least out of the oven in the last twelve hours. On the evening of Tres Reyes lines form outside bakeries late in the evening as devotees collect their pre-ordered cake, and if you don’t have your Roscón booked by mid-November, forget it. You will be reduced to the ignominy of buying one from the supermarket shelves. If you are really lucky, your baker will open for a couple of hours on the morning of the big day so you can enjoy it fresh from the oven with a cup of chocolate so thick the spoon stands upright in it. (In Mexico the Rosca forms part of the evening celebration and is usually accompanied by corn tamales.)
The shape of the Roscón is round, to signify a king’s crown, although these days you can also find it baked as an oval. According to one wit at my local bakery, they are baked that way because baker’s ovens aren’t usually big enough to make huge family-size versions, particularly the size of the families the Spanish gather together for their celebratory fiestas.
Traditionally each person cuts his own slice, carefully inspecting it for one of two things, a small figure of Jesus or a faba bean. The idea of the figurine hidden in the cake is to symbolise being hidden away from the wrath of King Herod, after he had ordered all male infants recently born in Bethlehem to be put to the sword when he heard that the rightful King of the Jews was about to be born. As Jesus was born in a stable and not in an inn as would have been expected, he was saved, effectively hidden from view, as is the figure in the cake. Whoever finds him is King for the day, and has to host a party on the Dia de la Candelaria (Candlemas Day) which takes place on February 2. Yet another excuse for extending the party. Unfortunately for the person who finds the faba bean, he has to pay for next year’s roscón.
Derek Workman is a guest blogger for Food and Think. He writes about Spain and Morocco at spainuncovered.net
December 18, 2012
This year, I made an extra effort to knock out my Christmas shopping as soon as I could. I enjoy gift exchanges—at least to the extent that it’s a way to show I appreciate the people nearest and dearest to me and that I’m keeping them in my thoughts. Frankly, I’d much rather spend the month of December baking (and sharing the resultant wealth of goodies) and being social. But some years, I’m completely strapped for ideas and find myself—days before Christmas—manically browsing shopping websites or, as a last-ditch effort when sanity has completely escaped me, venture out to the shopping malls in hopes that I’ll find the perfect gift. For those of you finding yourselves in said situation, here are a few last minute gift ideas for the foodie who made it onto your “nice” list this year.
Books: The Village Voice‘s Fork in the Road blog recently pointed out 18 books released in 2012. On that list, I’ll personally vouch for two titles. In Vintage Cakes, author Julie Richardson takes a trove of classic recipes—some dating back to the 1920s—and updates them for the modern American palate. Keeping in mind that the tools and techniques of previous generations are not the same as our own, the amount of sleuthing it took to reconstruct these cakes is amazing. Paired with tips and techniques, historical backgrounds on each of the cakes and fabulous photography, it’s a book that works well in your kitchen and on the coffee table. I need to try her version of Texas Sheet Cake to see how well it stacks up against my grandmother’s.
I’d also heartily recommend giving a gift subscription to Lucky Peach, a cross between a literary journal and food magazine that, wrapped together, makes for a magnificent piece of candy for the eye and the mind. Launched in July 2011, each themed issue pairs photography lush illustrations with fabulous writing in delectable ways. (Contributors have included the likes of Ruth Reichl and Anthony Bourdain.) If you subscribe now, the person you’re giving this to won’t receive their first issue in the mail until February 2013; however, you can also buy the current issue on newsstands so you can have something under the tree.
There are also the old standbys that always make for good gifts. I’m a big fan of The Better Homes and Gardens New Cookbook, which is a great cookbook for someone to learn on and contains recipes that are easy to pull together. One year for Christmas I received a copy of The New Basics, and this book has since become my go-to resource for those occasions when I’m having company over and need to lay my table with something a little more impressive than my everyday cooking.
Music: I’m a big fan of the husband and wife duo that writes Turntable Kitchen, a blog that, in addition to expanding your culinary horizons, cultivates your sonic palate. Kasey writes about food, Matthew tackles music—using the language of food and flavor to describe sounds—and together they find tunes and nibbles that complement each other. What’s more is that these internet-based explorations of new flavors and sounds can be taken into our humble, analog realm by way of the Pairings Box. Each month, you get a bundle of music, recipes, suggested pairings and a few ingredients to play with. Unfortunately, the Pairings Box ships out mid-month, so unless you’re OK giving someone a nice card letting them know what goodies will soon be arriving—or do holiday visiting in January— you’ll need a more immediate option. In this situation, try The Recipe Project, which takes recipes from today’s most famous chefs and turns them into songs. (E.g., Mario Batali’s recipe for spaghetti with sweet tomatoes.) This book/CD package can be found at your local bookseller.
Toys: If you know someone culinary aspirations, encourage them to build up the relationship they have with their kitchen. If they are just starting out, giving the gift of standard pieces of equipment are always great. I was thrilled to get a good set of pots and pans when I was in college. Another year I received a slow cooker and a food processor, and for the single working professional, those pieces of equipment made my life in the kitchen so much easier. In the event that you have the budget to splurge on knives, your budding chef will be eternally grateful. There’s nothing worse than bad cutlery. When I finally came into a set of really good knives, it made a world of difference in how I work in the kitchen.
For the established chef, you can add to their collection of kitchen gadgetry. Personally, I’m not a fan of uni-tasker appliances, but if you know someone who enjoys specific foods, find the toys to let them indulge their interests. I highly recommend browsing America’s Test Kitchen Feed’s gadget reviews for handy tools—and whether or not the latest kitchen toys are really the greatest. While not the most aesthetically pleasing, their review of this heavy-duty steel nutcracker has me contemplating a splurge purchase. When you consider how much less expensive nuts are when bought in the shell, it’s a great gift—especially if you give it with a bag of oh, say, chestnuts to roast over an open fire. For sheer whimsy, check out the Foodigity blog’s online shop where you can find dinosaur-shaped tea infusers, unicorn corn holders and ice cream sandwich body pillows. You need to place orders by Friday, December 21 to ensure delivery by the 24th.
Food: Giving the gift of food itself is always a good idea. I’ve yet to hear complaints from anyone who is well-fed. There are a few ways to work within this idea, perhaps the most obvious tack to take being a food basket, be it one you cobbled together yourself or one you purchased prefab. Or if there are seasonal goodies you like to make, attractively package them and give them as gifts. This year a friend gave me some of her homemade fudge, which she wrapped in cellophane and topped with a felt Christmas ornament she also made herself. The presentation—and the food—were equally delightful.
Another tack to take on this theme is to look to your local food bank. These charitable organizations do what they can to ease hunger in the community, and they rely on monetary and edible donations to continue their mission. Some food banks will also let you donate on behalf of another person—so for someone who would rather see money go to charity than to buying them a gift, this is a great way to go. Contact your local food bank to ask if you can give in this way.
December 4, 2012
I love decorating my apartment for the holidays. The day after Thanksgiving, the tree goes up and it—along with windows and tables and other flat surfaces I can do without for the next four to six weeks—are festooned with whatever seasonal odds and ends I’ve amassed over the years. Not sure what it is, but when I walk into my home at night and am greeted by scads of novelty lighting, I suddenly feel at peace with the world. In recent years, I’ve indulged my love for shabby chic (or maybe just campy) decor by making beer can reindeer, which I’m currently using to decorate the living room shelf used to house bottles of my preferred adult beverages. (It’s a theme. I’ll work it for all it’s worth.) But as I began to look at the decorations in my apartment, and ponder how the halls were decked in past Christmases, it occurred to me that there are lots of ways to use goods in the pantry to make your digs a little merrier. Here are a few ideas for the foodie who has yet to trim their home:
Popcorn and/or Cranberries: When I think of garland, my mind immediately gravitates to the metallic boas used to wrap around bannisters and trees—maybe even a younger sibling. But you can also make your own—and from products that will actually biodegrade. One option is to make a garland out of popcorn: buy yourself a bag of popcorn (not the kind you microwave), prepare and, using a needle threaded with waxed dental floss, string on as many fluffy white kernels as your heart desires. When you’re through with the garland, set it outside for the birds. You can also use fresh cranberries. The fruit should dry nicely on the tree and keep for a few weeks; however, be careful about placing fruited garlands on surfaces that might stain. Alternate cranberries and popcorn, or, as Better Homes and Gardens suggests, add slices of lime for a festive splash of green. Some people spray their garlands with shellac so they can be used a little longer; however, if you do, please do not leave these outside for the animals to eat.
Gingerbread: How could you complain about edible ornaments for your tree? Martha Stewart has recipes for gingerbread that will be strong enough to be used as decoration, but not so tough that you can’t enjoy the fruits of your labors. Roll out a tray of gingerbread people, remembering to make a hole so you can string through a length of ribbon. Bake, decorate and hang. The cookies need to set up overnight, but I also wouldn’t let them stay on the tree but for so long. Stored in airtight containers, they keep for a week—so when out in the open, you have a much more limited time frame to eat them. This might be something you want to do a day or two before Christmas. What could be nicer than waking up on the 25th, gathering around the tree and having cookies to dunk in your coffee? You can also make a gingerbread house, which some people eat at the end of the season, but others spray it with a coat of shellac and use it for several years.
Dough: Another classic option is to whip up a batch of ornament dough. Nothing but flour, salt and water, I suppose this is technically edible while raw (not that I’d recommend that), but because you can make it with items you can find in your kitchen, I’m including it on this list. Roll out the dough and make festive cutouts, bake off and decorate with paints, glitter and any other craft trimmings you like. If you’re a Michelangelo in training, sculpt figures—but remember that the back side is going to be resting on a baking sheet and will be completely flat. You can back those ornaments with colored felt to pretty up the undecorated side after they’re baked and cooled. And before baking, don’t forget to make a hole where you want your ornament hanger to go.
Cinnamon: If you have an abundance of cinnamon sticks in your pantry and you’ve no idea how to use them, I strongly suggest making yourself cinnamon stick Santas. Aside from the cinnamon, you just need some acrylic paint to render the facial features and a product called Sno-Tex (also sold under the name snow paint) to create a textured white beard. Attach a ribbon and hang on your tree.
Peppermint: I love wreaths. Between the splash of color and, if you’re using live botanicals, an invitingly aromatic way to greet your holiday visitors at the door. You can also greet your guests at the door with food by crafting a wreath using star mints. For this, you need a coat hanger or metal hoop, bags of mints or other hard candy with the cellophane tails, and embroidery thread. If using a coat hanger, shape the hanger into a circle and begin tying candies onto your wreath form until you have a full wreath. Top with a bow, and you’re good to go. If you’re using candies with cellophane tails on both ends, your guests will have a tail to tug on to get at a holiday treat. If you’re using hard candies with a tail on just one end, consider attaching a small pair of scissors to your wreath with a strand of ribbon or yarn so your guests can easily snip off their candy.
As our regular readers may know, we like our “five ways” posts so I’m cutting it off here. But I’m sure there are lots more ways to work food into holiday home decor. Let us know in the comments section below how you get crafty with food to make the season a little brighter in your home.
Read more articles about the holidays with our Smithsonian Holiday Guide here
November 21, 2012
When Schwan’s Consumer Brands North America, Inc. asked the public in 2008, who makes the best pie, “mom” earned 27 percent in favor with store-bought brands following close behind at 26 percent. Poor “grandma” only got 17 percent of the vote. But the correct answer, according to the American Pie Council’s 2012 Championships, is Jennifer Nystrom. At least, in the category of amateur sweet potato pies.
Nystrom’s original recipe for her maple pecan sweet potato pie took home first place in April. Though she’s been competing at the event for almost a decade, it was the baking enthusiast’s first entry in the sweet potato category.
“Every year I do some kind of apple,” says Nystrom, who also usually enters four or five different categories each year. “I like doing apple, I like doing the berry pies.” In truth, she says, fruit pies are her favorite but she remembered trying a sweet potato casserole with a pecan topping and thought, “I like all of those flavors and I like them together so it would be good in a pie.”
The championships, which accept only original recipes, are held each spring in Orlando, Florida and coincide with the Great American Pie Festival in the nearby town of Celebration, in case competitors haven’t had their fill of pie for the weekend. “We have all our pie friends,” says Nystrom. “It’s like going to summer camp every year.”
After learning about the weekend on the Food Network, Nystrom and her sister decided to give it a try. No novice to the competitive baking scene, Nystrom entered her first contest around age 30. “I entered a cookie recipe contest and I won the grand prize of $10,000 and so I was hooked.”
For what has now become a sort of sisters’ weekend, Nystrom and her sister rent a place with a kitchen so they can cook the pies when they arrive (some people choose to bring the pies already made, but Nystrom says the journey from Morrow, Ohio, is a bit too far for that). Nystrom remembers her first year at the contest; “We went not knowing what we were doing at all. We just were going for the fun of it.” But the judges were impressed. Her first year out, she won third place in the amateur apple pie category. “I thought I had won the lottery or something,” says Nystrom. “It was great.”
Nystrom has been a bit of a baking queen since she got her first Easy Bake Oven as a kid. “I like to experiment,” she says of her constant forays into new flavor combinations. She jokes, “My husband, he just is so upset that he always has to taste these pies.”
Aside from the spring championship that she prepares for all year, holiday season is her favorite time of the year. With three grown kids, a son and daughter who live nearby and another son currently serving in Afghanistan, her house is the place to be for Thanksgiving. “My oldest son, he’s so funny. He was inviting one of his friends,” says Nystrom, “and he said, ‘You know this is my mom’s Super Bowl.’ And that’s kind of the way I look at it.”
Having spent years perfecting her pies, Nystrom says her best advice is to just not worry too much. She says, “The pie crust can be funky but I’ve learned, if it turns out looking kind of icky just call it rustic and you’re good to go.” There are a couple tricks that help, though. Nystrom stresses that ingredients for the pie crust should all be -just-out-of-the-fridge cold. She even uses ice water when recipes call for the liquid. And she adds a bit of vinegar (a couple teaspoons) to her ice water to help keep the crust flaky. “Then after I roll out the pie crust, if I have time, I prefer to put the rolled out crust in the pie tin back in the fridge for a few minutes before I fill it,” she says.
As for the filling, Nystrom says it’s all about your personal taste. For her first-place pie, she preferred canned sweet potatoes over roasting them herself. “It was a lot easier,” she says, “but you could also measure what you have more easily.”
Nystrom says they’ll be sticking with the traditional apple, pumpkin and pecan–her husband’s favorite–pies for her Thanksgiving table this year. Every now and then, she’ll throw in a new recipe, but, she says, “We’re pretty traditional. We just like the traditional stuff.”
3 cups all purpose flour
1 teaspoon table salt
3/4 cup vegetable shortening
1/2 cup butter (not margarine)
1 egg, slightly beaten
1/3 cup cold water
1 tablespoon cider vinegar
Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
In a large bowl, mix together the flour and the salt. With a pastry blender, cut in shortening until flour resembles cornmeal. Cut in butter until it resembles small peas.
In a small bowl, beat egg with a fork. Beat in water and vinegar. Quickly mix egg mixture in with the flour until flour just begins to hold together. Depending on the humidity, you may have to add up to an extra 1/4 cup flour. Separate dough into halves and form each half into a disk. Wrap each disk tightly with plastic wrap and let rest in refrigerate for at least an hour and up to two days.
Take one disk of prepared and refrigerated dough and roll it out and place in a 9 inch deep dish pie plate that has been sprayed with cooking spray.
40 oz can sweet potatoes, drained
14 oz can sweetened condensed milk
1/2 cup pure maple syrup
1/2 cup cream
1 tablespoon pumpkin pie spice
1 teaspoon cinnamon
2 large eggs
In a food processor, place drained sweet potatoes and process until smooth, about 20 seconds. Add maple syrup, sweetened condensed milk, cream, pumpkin pie spice, cinnamon, and eggs. Process until well incorporated and smooth, about 10 more seconds. Pour mixture into prepared pie pan. Cover edge with foil or pie shield. Bake at 425 degrees for 15 minutes. While pie is baking, prepare topping.
1/4 cup packed brown sugar
1/4 cup quick oats
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup chopped pecans
1/4 cup butter, melted
To prepare topping, in a medium sized bowl, mix the brown sugar, oats, flour, and pecans until combined. Stir in melted butter until very well incorporated. Set aside until ready to use.
When pie has baked for 15 minutes, take out of the oven and remove pie shield. Turn the oven down to 375 degrees. Sprinkle topping over the top of the pie, spreading evenly. Replace pie shield and cover top very loosely with a piece of foil so topping does not burn. Put the pie back in the oven and bake an additional 45 – 60 minutes at 375 degrees. Check pie after 45 minutes. If a knife inserted in the center comes out clean (or almost clean), the pie is done. If not, return to the oven for another 10 – 15 minutes and check again.
3 tablespoons heavy cream
Scant 1/2 teaspoon maple extract
1 cup powdered sugar
While pie is baking, make the drizzle by mixing the maple extract with the cream then adding to the powdered sugar. With a fork, mix thoroughly until drizzle is smooth. Set aside.
When pie is done, remove to a wire rack and let cool completely. After pie is completely cooled, put the drizzle in a small zip top plastic bag. Snip off a very small corner of the bag. Squeeze drizzle over the pie.
Refrigerate for at least one hour before serving.
Read more articles about the holidays with our Smithsonian Holiday Guide here