Milwaukee: Spice Mecca

My latest story for Edible Milwaukee is out in the world. Spices, just in time for the holidays! It’s also where I magically trace the European settlement of Wisconsin to the spice trade.

A teaser:

Few things conjure the spirit of the holidays better than the scent of cinnamon, cloves, vanilla and nutmeg. These flavors have long been popular with Milwaukeeans. In 1846, Water Street grocer Frederick Wardner announced in the Milwaukee Daily Courier that he had just returned with the largest stock of dry goods and groceries, with special note made of ginger, nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves and pepper, that “has ever been exhibited to the good people of Wisconsin.”

SpiceHouse-2There’s something mystical about the idea of spices, invoking images of brightly colored mounds of seeds, flowers, and bark in an Eastern bazaar. While the terms are sometimes used interchangeably in the kitchen, herbs and spices are different. Herbs are the leaves of plants, while spices come from the roots, bark and seeds. Some plants provide both herb and spice, like cilantro, the leaves and coriander, the seeds of the cilantro plant. Most spices originate in the tropics, growing 15 degrees above or below the equator. Herbs, on the other hand, can be more temperate.

Demand for trade goods from Asia, especially spices like cinnamon and pepper, was high in the Middle Ages. But the distance and number of middlemen involved made these goods too expensive for any but the wealthiest of Europeans in the 1300s and 1400s.

The secret behind the spice trade was simple: huge demand and a tightly-controlled supply. The drive for more (and cheaper) spices drove Europeans westward in search of an alternative sea route to Asia. Among the first was Christopher Columbus who aimed for India but bumped into the Americas instead. To appease his creditors for his failure, Columbus named the New World natives he met “Indians” and their chilies “pepper,” two names that have confused people ever since.

 

Read more about spices and so many more delicious things at Edible Milwaukee

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Easter Tastes Delicious: Breaking Fasts with Pastries

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From “Vintage Eats” in Edible Milwaukee (Spring 2014)

When the Easter season approaches, the yeasty aroma of freshly baked bread and sugary sweetness of flaky pastries and cakes fill kitchens as cooks prepare the foods associated with this important religious holiday. Easter is steeped in religious practices but also rich in food traditions that stretch back centuries: from the Last Supper, which in Christian theology is the day Jesus and his apostles shared a final meal, to today, when we still gather for festive meals on Easter Sunday.

Growing up in a traditional Polish Catholic home in Milwaukee, Peter Burzynski understood from a young age that Easter was the most important holiday of the year. His parents, both immigrants from Poland, opened Polonez Restaurant in 1983, where Burzynski now works as executive sous-chef.

“Polish Catholics have a unique tradition on Easter Saturday in which we go to church to receive a blessing of our food baskets,” Burzynski says. “The baskets usually feature a small sampling of what we have for the feast the following day.”

While many traditional foods grace the Easter table, baked goods, especially sweet and buttery breads, are essential to the meal. This is, in part, because of the deprivation that precedes it.

In the past, devout Christians observed a strict fast during Lent, the six or seven weeks before Easter, when they abstained from eating animal products of any kind, including red meat, milk, poultry, butter, cheese, and eggs, as a form of penitence. In some parts of Europe, sugar, honey, and olive oil were also forbidden. While few follow such strict fasts today, the tradition of feasting on special foods is still common.

These Lenten fasts make the Shrove Tuesday (or Fat Tuesday) preceding it and the Easter feast following it all the more indulgent.

The pastry Burzynski most closely associates with the season is one Poles eat the day before Ash Wednesday. It’s called a pączek, but is more commonly known in the U.S. by its plural form, pączki.

“The pronunciation is almost as tricky as getting your mouth around one of these huge doughnuts,” he says.

Burzynski says the correct pronunciation is closer to “pone-chykey,” not the “poonch-key” he so often hears in Milwaukee.

PaczkiCrispy on the outside but soft and yielding on the inside, pączki are made from an especially rich dough of lard, milk, and eggs that is fried and then filled. They were originally created to clear out pantries of fruit, sugar, and fat for Lent.

“We filled ours with either strawberry or prune filling and topped them with either powder sugar or a lemon and orange peel glaze,” he says. “If I’m going to eat a pączek, I’m going to go all the way to my daily caloric limit. That’s the only way to go.”

The earliest Wisconsinites adhered to Easter fasts. In 1661, Jesuit Father Rene Menard complained to his superiors in Quebec of harsh weather along Chequamegon Bay that limited the amount of fish so “those who wished to keep Lent suffered greatly.” Fortunately, the cold did not congeal his communion wine, and an abundance of moose after the holiday helped to refortify the supplicants. Baked goods were also likely off the table.

Easter dinner looked better in the 1830s. General Albert G. Ellis recalled American settlers, army officers, and Christianized Indians strictly observing a Lenten fast. “They ceased gormandizing ducks, venison, and porcupine, only to feast in more epicurean style on trout, sturgeon, and wild rice,” Ellis wrote. When Easter arrived, “the most joyous of the calendar,” they all gathered in the woods amidst the sugarbush to feast on roasted chicken, eggs, and fresh maple syrup.

Easter is a colorful patchwork of customs drawn from pagan and Christian traditions. Celebrations of the spring equinox were common in pre-Christian times. Early Church leaders recognized that eliminating all pagan customs and replacing them with religious ones might devastate the progress of the faith. So Christianity absorbed some of the old traditions as the custom of welcoming spring merged with the Christian celebration of Christ’s resurrection. The name of the holiday itself comes from the Anglo-Saxon goddess of light and spring, Eostre.

This convergence of traditions is perhaps most apparent in the changing date of Easter. Rather than a fixed holiday, Easter is instead governed by the phases of the moon. At the First Council of Nicaea in 325 CE, Christian bishops set Easter as the first Sunday after the first full moon following the March equinox.

Mesopotamian Christians were the first to adopt eggs as Easter food, though eggs had a long symbolic history as representations of rebirth and rejuvenation. Eggs were often exchanged as part of the celebration of spring. Christians were the first to dye the eggs red to represent Christ’s blood and resurrection. These red eggs, traditionally dyed with the skins of red onions, are often nestled in Easter breads, like Armenian choreg.

“It’s the singular pastry of an Armenian Easter,” says Terry Peterson, describing choreg, a triple-braided egg bread.

Her grandparents emigrated to Milwaukee from Armenia in the 1920s. Only minimally sweet, choreg is flavored with mahleb, the ground pits of St. Lucy’s cherry, that give the bread its distinctive flavor. The mahleb is ground so fine that Peterson says it something you can taste rather than see. “And it must be there because it doesn’t taste right otherwise,” she says.

KolaczkiAlthough choreg is exclusively an Easter pastry, it isn’t the only one to appear on the Armenian table. Both Terry and her brother Armen Hadjinian say that Easter is when you “make every pastry you know how to make.”

Both siblings love katah, a flaky layered biscuit similar to a croissant common at most holidays.

“It’s loaded with butter and delicious,” says Hadjinian, chuckling.

Although Peterson grew up steeped in her Armenian heritage, she didn’t learn how to bake these traditional foods until she helped to organize cooking classes with some elderly women at Holy Resurrection Church in South Milwaukee.

“They all had their grandmothers’ recipes and wanted to pass on their knowledge,” Peterson says. “Breads like choreg are fairly labor intensive so it could be a lost art without someone sharing and passing on these recipes.”

Armenian breads are rolled out with special rolling pins called grdnak, a kind of fat dowel roughly three feet in length. Women customarily received their own rolling pin when they became engaged, along with a copy of the 1950s cookbook Treasured Armenian Recipes.

“It’s a rite of passage. It’s how you know you’ve arrived!” Peterson says, with a laugh.

Like a treasured chef’s knife, everyone brings their own rolling pin to the cooking classes. Peterson uses the one that belonged to her grandmother. The tradition of baking bread as a religious offering dates back to antiquity. The ancient Egyptians offered small round cakes to the goddess of the moon, each marked with her symbol, the horns of an ox.

The three braids of the Armenian choreg and other bread shapes aren’t just beautiful; they are meaningful. Three strands represent the Holy Trinity. Wreath and ring-shaped breads represent Christ’s crown of thorns while also harking back to pagan fertility symbols. Round breads represent the life-giving sun, rebirth, and resurrection.

The most famous of the round breads may be the British hot-cross buns. Baked on Good Friday, these slightly sweet circular buns often have dried fruit and chopped fruit peel in the dough. The bread gets its name from the cross cut in the top of each bun before baking.

Superstitions regarding bread baked on Good Friday date back centuries. In England particularly, many people believed that Good Friday bread would never mold, so a bun was hung in the house to keep away bad luck for the year ahead. Grebe’s Bakery in Jackson Park and Regina’s Bay Bakery in Whitefish Bay are among the Milwaukee area bakeries to make hot-cross buns.

Greeks celebrate Easter with the sweet braids of tsoureki.

“It’s a sacred, holy bread. The smell of it baking warms you inside and lets you know the holidays are coming,” says Eleni Katrantzis, daughter of Aleka Tsioulos of the eponymous Aleka’s Kitchen in Sheboygan.

Tsoureki is an eggy bread seasoned with mahlepi (the Greek version of mahleb) and mastic, the hardened resin of the mastic tree from the Greek island of Chios, the only place in the world where the tree exudes its aromatic, piney resin. The addition and type of other spices and flavors in the tsoureki varies by region and family. As does the adornment atop the freshly baked tsoureki.

Like choreg, bright red eggs nestle in the braided strands of tsoureki, symbolizing Christ’s blood.

“The red eggs are central to the Greek Easter,” explains Katrantzis. “At midnight, after the Easter service, everyone is given a red egg for a celebratory cracking. You crack one end against the end of another person’s egg, trying to crack their egg.”

The person who successfully cracks both ends of the egg belonging to the other player is said to have good luck for the year. Katrantzis and her sister Demitra Tsioulos grew up in Sheboygan, a town with a strong German, not Greek, heritage. They recall feeling out of place when they stepped out the front door of the home that their Greek immigrant parents had so immersed in the smells, tastes, and perspectives of their home country. Their mom, Aleka, was eager to share her heritage, though, and frequently invited non-Greek guests over to eat.

Cake and kolaczkiBoth women remember helping their mom in the kitchen as children. She usually gave them the mundane tasks, like “stirring milk for 40 minutes without stopping to make a custard,” laughs Tsioulos.

But these monotonous, detailed tasks gave them a deep appreciation of their culture.

“Greek pastries are complicated and require patience to master,” says Tsioulos. “The details make it authentic.”

While tsoureki is the central Easter pastry, it isn’t the only sweet treat on the Greek Easter table. Shortbread-like cookies known as kourabiedes, made with almond paste and covered in powdered sugar, are common at nearly all Greek holidays. Galaktoboureko, a creamy and sweet custard pie baked in phyllo and drenched in lemon and honey is another indulgent favorite of Tsioulos and Katrantzis.

Baking stirs memories and connections to family, culture, and home.

“These pastries have more than ingredients in them,” says Tsioulos. “They are filled with stories passed down through the generations.

Lutefisk, Torsk and other Seafood Traditions Abound

Forget turkey, ham, or even the traditional goose. For many families, the holiday season is not complete without lye-soaked cod drenched in melted butter. Every December diners decked in colorful patterned Nordic sweaters line up at St. Olaf’s Lutheran Church in the Town of Ashippun, one of the oldest Norwegian Lutheran churches in the state, to indulge in the annual lutefisk feast.

Lutefisk is far from the only holiday fish dish. On Christmas Eve, southern Italians celebrate the Feast of Seven Fishes; Poles consume a meatless Wigilia of fish, soup, sauerkraut, pierogi, and noodles; carp and herring often appear on German tables; and many Mexicans and Spaniards eat the salted cod known as bacalao. These holiday fish feasts are products of both faith and geography.

Read the rest of my story in the new issue of Edible Milwaukee.

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For the Love of Custard

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When you live in Wisconsin, it’s easy to take frozen custard for granted. Those outside the Midwest may think of custard as simply soft serve, a lie promulgated by a national ice cream chain that shall remain unnamed. It’s true that custard comes from a machine like soft serve but that’s where the similarities end. Custard is smooth, rich, and dense with the addition of egg yolks and the subtraction of air – spoons stand straight at attention, just like those commercials for Dennison’s chili from my childhood proclaimed. Custard makers work hard to keep the percentage of air in their product low to make for a dense dessert that more extrudes rather than releases from the machine valve. It’s even regulated by law – the FDA requires custard to contain 10% butterfat and 1.4% egg yolks. That might not sound like many yolks but many ice creams contain no yolks – the yolks are crucial to custard’s satiny finish. Most places offer vanilla and chocolate with a rotating daily flavor or two. Custard is expensive and time-consuming to make, which is why you won’t find dozens of flavors.

Custard machine

Custard machine

On a mission, we set out for Milwaukee to taste some of the state’s finest. While I wouldn’t ordinarily consider temperatures hovering around 50 to be ice cream weather, when it’s been so cold for so long (below 0 on the first day of spring, friends), 50 degrees feels like 80 and you can happily stand in the parking lot of Leon’s Frozen Custard licking your cone. (Vanilla for me and the featured flavor, maple nut, for my husband, in case you wondered.) An added bonus: Leon’s supposedly inspired the drive-in concept for the TV show “Happy Days,” one of my favorites.

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Truth be told, we did not confine ourselves to custard alone – we also had ice cream for our two cone lunch – but being in America’s Dairyland, we figured we still did Wisconsin proud.

A History of the Apple Ten Objects: Red Delicious

Red Delicious
Source: A Daily Apple

Apologies to all Red Delicious lovers, but the Red Delicious is not a very delicious apple – at least to me. Even so, it’s one of the most popularly grown apples in America. Its characteristic profile – long with five prominent bumps at the base – has been immortalized as the logo of Washington-grown apples since the 1960s. It really is a perfect looking apple. Unfortunately, though, its bland, cottony flavor belies those sharp looks. It wasn’t always this way, though.

The original Red Delicious was found growing on Jesse Hiatt’s farm near Peru, Iowa. Hiatt had tried to kill the tree several times, but each year the root sent up new shoots so he finally gave up and let it grow. When the tree finally bore its first fruit in 1872, he fell in love with its sweet flavor and perfume-y aroma. The apples weren’t the deep, uniformly red color we know today but rather streaked with shades of red and yellow. Hiatt named his new find “Hawkeye.”

In the 1890s, Hiatt entered his apple in a contest sponsored by the Stark Brothers Nursery of Missouri to find the best new apple. Clarence Stark loved the Hawkeye and declared it the best in the country. He purchased the rights to propagate the Hawkeye, renamed it Delicious (the Yellow Delicious would not be found until the early 20th century so no color distinction was yet necessary), and spent nearly a million dollars promoting it to apple growers and eaters. By World War II, the Red Delicious had become America’s favorite apple.

But popularity has its downsides in the fruit world. As production and breeding of the apple increased, the Red Delicious began to change as taste took a backseat to durability and appearance in the global apple market. The apple became more symbolic of perfection rather than perfection itself, which has, perhaps, contributed to its decline in popularity in recent years.

 

 

History of the Apple in 10 Objects: Cider Press

Cider press in Madley, Herefordshire, UK
Source: mira66

Apples taste delicious. But they make an even better drink. Squish them up, enough to release the juice, and they quickly turn into a bubbly fermenting brew. Humans have made alcoholic apple cider for hundreds of years. It was thought to be a nutritious and healthful beverage as well as a good way to preserve what could otherwise be an overwhelming apple harvest. Cider was also one step on the path to cider vinegar, a fantastic preservative for foods for the winter months.

In Britain, nearly every farm had a few apple trees for eating and drinking. This tradition came to North America with the colonists where cider served as an important medium of exchange. Colonists paid for school and goods with barrels of cider. Everyone – children, too – drank cider.

 

A Christmas Orange

Did you get an orange in the toe of your stocking for Christmas? Despite the piles of glistening oranges tempting us year ’round at the grocery store, winter really is citrus season. And oranges, like all citrus fruits, used to be a rare and precious treat – hence the fruit’s appearance in Christmas stockings. Even after oranges became more widely and regularly available in the mid-20th century, my parents still threw a few in my stocking each year (though it may have been an effort to counterbalance my all  – Christmas cookie diet of the preceding week).

Oranges are believed to be natives of China. In some languages, the word for ‘orange’ actually means Chinese apple – apfelsein in German and sinaasappel in Dutch, for example. The ‘apple’ name got tossed around a lot in fruit history as many round, brightly colored edibles got tagged with the name before finally getting their own unique identifier.

Despite being linked to apples by name, oranges didn’t travel overland to colonize Asia and Europe like the apple. As Waverley Root notes in Food, “there were no oranges in the hanging gardens of Babylon, they are not mentioned in the Bible, and it is questionable whether the ancient Greeks knew them.” Oranges, instead, came by sea, carried to Europe by Arab traders and explorers. The Romans grew them but they were rare and expensive so they didn’t gain the cult following of the apple, which the Romans cultivated at least 24 varieties. Oranges mostly disappeared with the fall of Rome.

The Moors revived the orange in Europe, conquering Spain and covering the region from Granada to Seville in citrus orchards that remain prevalent to this day. The streets of both cities, but especially Seville, are lined with orange trees that sag under the weight of the fruit in the winter. I made the mistake of eating one of the oranges on a tree in Seville, not realizing they were the bitter, Seville orange that is the principle component of what I only half-jokingly refer to as my mortal food enemy: marmalade. It now made sense why the Spaniards just walked by the free food hanging above their heads.

The bitter oranges of Seville

Christopher Columbus brought oranges to the New World, one of the rare instances of a European explorer bringing something good along with them. Columbus planted them on Hispaniola in 1493, and the climate of the West Indies proved so conducive to the fruit that the islands were soon covered with orange groves.

Hernando de Soto is on record as bringing the first oranges to what is now the United States, though he may not have been the first.  Either way, oranges were growing in abundance in Florida by the late 16th century, and the state remains the country’s leading producer of oranges. And the leading producer of Christmas oranges.