Flavorings, Toppings and Fillings
|Chocolate||Fruit & Nuts|
|Onions||Seeds & Spices|
OVER THE CENTURIES, bakers have added a rich array of flavorings to their doughs - savory herbs and spices, dried and fresh fruits, sausage, cheeses - limited only by imagination. The Jewish bakers of Eastern Europe were constrained not just by the availability of ingredients, but equally important, by poverty and dietary laws that prohibited certain common ingredients, such as lard, as well as strict rules on what kinds of foods could be baked together and under what circumstances.
America broadened their repertoire. Foods that had been rare or unknown in Europe - citrus and coconut, pineapple and pecans, for example - were readily available in the goldene medina, the Golden Land.
Who doesn't love chocolate? Volumes have been written about the universality of this extraordinary food and its mystical effects on the human mind, body and spirit. Except for the wealthy and urban, few shtetl Jews even heard of chocolate, let alone tasted it; it was only after the great immigration to America that it entered into the baking repertoire.
During the Golden Age of Jewish baking, chocolate was - and remains, in the handful of surviving Jewish bakeries - everywhere. Melted and tempered, it enrobed rainbow cookies, seven-layer cakes and checkerboard cakes. Swirls of it marbled wonder cakes. Drops of it decorated the centers of French cookies. Coatings of it graced the ends of sandwich cookies and almond horns. Melted and unsweetened, it is the focal point of chocolate cakes. Shaved, it forms the filling for chocolate babka, schnecken and rugelach. Dried into powder, it performs its magic on butter creams and simple icings.
Types of Chocolate
The bakers used chocolate in three main forms:
- Chocolate liquor is the refined, unsweetened chocolate that comes directly from ground roasted cacao beans. It consists of about 53% cocoa butter and 47% solids, and is most commonly available in liquid form. For home bakers, its closest equivalent is unsweetened baking chocolate.
- Block chocolate is exactly what it says it is - chocolate liquor to which additional cocoa butter has been added to solidify it at room temperature. Block chocolate is available in several strengths, depending on the amount of cocoa butter and sugar added. According to FDA standards, bittersweet and semisweet chocolate must contain at least 35% chocolate liquor, while milk chocolate must contain only 10% chocolate liquor and at least 12% milk solids.
- For home bakers, block chocolate is available in small sizes, typically up to 1lb/454g, and also as chocolate chips, which are specially formulated to hold their shape, even at melting temperature.
- Cocoa powder is chocolate liquor with about 75% of the cocoa butter removed and comes in two forms:
- Natural cocoa powder contains acids that give the cocoa a deep flavor with acidic bitter notes, and is used in products that call for a strong chocolate presence, such as chocolate cakes and simple icings. Recipes containing natural cocoa generally call for baking soda, with interacts with the acids to leaven the product.
- Dutch process cocoa is treated with alkali to neutralize the acids, giving it a rounder, mellower and less assertive taste. Because of the absence of acid, recipes containing Dutch process cocoa always require baking powder.
Chocolate Coating (Couverture)
One of the great challenges home bakers face is get an even, glossy coating of chocolate on their cakes, cookies and pastries. The pros have perfected the art of tempering chocolate, while most home bakers find it easier to use non-tempering chocolates like Wilton or Merkens candy melts. However, if you do decide to temper your own chocolate, here are a few facts that might help.
- First, cocoa butter molecules can join together - that is, combine with cocoa solids and solidify - in a variety of ways, six to be exact. Solid chocolate in its normal state is a mishmosh (Yiddish for mishmash) all six kinds of bonds, but only one of them, Type 5, will produce the smooth, glossy look we're after.
- So the key to successful tempering is to reduce or eliminate all the other bonds but Type 5. Fortunately, that's easier than it sounds because each type has a different melting point: Types 1 - 4 melt between 63.1°F/17.3°C and 81.1°F/27.3°C. Type 5 melts at 92.8°F/33.8°C, and Type 6 at 97.7°F /36.3°C.
- To maximize the proportion of Type 5 bonds in a pot of chocolate, i.e., temper it, you have to first take it to between 83°F/28°C and 90°F/32°C, so that only the Type 5 and 6 bonds have solidified. Your chocolate is now tempered and ready to use.
Fruit and Nuts
Fresh & Dried Fruit
Fruit figures prominently in Jewish cookies, cakes and pastries. Fresh berries and stone fruits - peaches, plums, cherries and apricots - went into buns, turnovers and Danish; fresh apples into apple cakes. Stewed in syrup and thickened, they became fillings for pastries and toppings for cheesecakes. In winter, when fresh fruit wasn't available, the bakers used dried apricots, prunes and raisins, which they boiled with sugar and mashed into a smooth puree.
Citrus zest, oil and extract
Citrus zest is the outermost colored portion of citrus peel - pomerantz in Yiddish - attached to the bitter white pith, which contains a wealth of intensely flavored essential oils and esters (the organic compounds that are responsible for taste and aroma). In cakes and pastries, they add a citrus tang and sharp, pleasant aroma that contrasts nicely with the sweetness of the sugar and the rounder, softer fragrance of vanilla.
Citrus oil is the liquid pressed from the zest; according to one manufacturer, it takes almost 50 oranges, 65 lemons and 80 limes to produce one ounce/28ml of oil, making pure citrus oils very expensive. To bring the price down, many manufacturers simply dilute the oil with alcohol to produce extract, which may contain only 20% oil.
Although the pros prefer to use citrus oils for reasons of convenience, shelf life and ease of measurement, we recommend zest, since the cost of one or two small bottles of extract will buy you a microplane zester that will last a lifetime.
Likewise, nuts offer a welcome addition to cakes, cookies and pastry. Rich in oils, fragrant - especially when toasted - and crunchy, nuts add flavor, aroma and texture to any baked goods that contain them.
- Almonds, sliced, slivered or blanched are used extensively as toppings, fillings and signature flavor ingredients.
- Almond extract, which is made from the oil pressed from almond kernels and diluted with alcohol, is used widely in cakes and cookies.
- Hazelnuts, toasted and ground, were the main ingredient in linzer cookies and nut tortes.
- Chopped walnuts added richness to rugelach and mini-schnecken; ground and boiled in syrup, they became the filling for makosh, walnut roll.
- In America, pecans became an important part of the baker's repertoire, figuring prominently in coffee rings and Danish, as well as wherever else nuts were used.
- And lastly, coconut quickly gained acceptance as the main ingredient in macaroons and as a topping.
Nut paste generally refers to either almond paste, which is made of finely ground almonds, sugar and water, or macaroon paste, which is almond paste with ground apricot kernels added. Both add a subtle sweetness to pastries, cakes and cookies in doughs, batters and fillings. The main difference between the two is that macaroon paste has a more aggressive almond flavor than pure almond paste, along with a slightly bitter finish that some people prefer against the sweetness of the sugar. Marzipan consists of either almond paste or macaroon paste, mixed with additional sugar and egg whites.
As a major food crop throughout Eastern Europe, onions are used extensively in Yiddish baking as a filling and topping for bialys, pletslach and onion rolls, and as the main flavoring ingredient in onion rye bread, pumpernickel and savories like onion kichel. In the bakeries, dehydrated chopped onions were more common than fresh, since they posed fewer storage and spoilage problems. Soaked in boiling water, the onions not only were milder and less moisture-laden than fresh, but the soaking liquid also was used to acidify rye sours and as an addition to onion roll and bialy dough.
Seeds and Spices
Seeds and spices add zest and texture to baked goods: What can compare to the crackle of poppy or sesame seeds on a fresh bagel, or the mellow astringency of caraway against the complex sweet-sour taste of an authentic corn rye, or the perfume of vanilla, cinnamon and cardamom filling the room as the bakba, danish and coffee cakes bake?
A Caribbean native, allspice earned its name because the Englishmen who first encountered it thought that its was a combination of cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves. And like those three, allspice too is best used in fillings or chemically leavened products because of its antifungal properties.
Crescent-shaped and astringent, the essential oils in caraway seeds - kimmel in Yiddish -- add a strongly astringent flavor and aroma to rye breads and salt sticks. Interestingly, rye breads made with caraway are denser than those without because one of its oils, limonene, is a yeast-killer.
One of the world's most expensive spices, this strongly aromatic member of the ginger family has a pungent taste reminiscent of both ginger and citrus. Originating in Southeast Asia and India, cardamom is widely used in Middle Eastern cooking and throughout Europe. Of the two varieties, green and white - named for the paperlike pods that contain the seeds - green is the more intense (and expensive). Fortunately, a little goes a long way, and because the seeds lose their potency quickly, it's best to buy whole pods and keep them in an airtight container until you need them.
Chernushka (nigella) seed
Also known as black caraway and kalonji, chernushka seeds are deep black and angular, with a unique bitter-astringent taste. Cultivated in the Ukraine and Georgia, they often take the place of caraway seeds in Russian rye breads.
The second most widely used spice in Yiddish baking is cinnamon, or tsimering, which is made from the bark of a tree native to Sir Lanka. Because of its high price, however, a lot of what's sold as cinnamon - especially in the U.S. - is actually ground cassia bark, which is similar in taste and aroma, but which has a peppery aftertaste, as opposed to true cinnamon, which tastes sweet. Mixed with sugar, both spices are used as fillings for pastries of all kinds, from rugelach and elephant ears to coffee cake and Danish rings.
Note, however, that cinnamaldehyde, one of its primary flavoring agents, is a powerful fungicide, making it an extremely efficient yeast-killer, which is why bakers only use cinnamon in fillings and not as a flavoring that's added directly to yeast doughs.
Called gevirtz and neygelach ("nails") in Yiddish, cloves are the dried flower buds of a tree belonging to the myrtle family. Because they are very potent, cloves, used sparingly, add a sweet and strongly astringent smell and taste to baked goods. However, like cinnamon, cloves are only used in fillings, since they also contain a pair of powerful antifungal agents, carvarcol and thymol, which are fatal to yeast.
Like cloves, nutmeg comes from a member of the myrtle family, but unlike cloves, which are the dried flower buds, nutmeg is the seed of the tree. (Mace, which is similar in taste to nutmeg, is the covering of the seed, making the nutmeg tree the only plant to produce two different spices). Nutmeg has a wide range of European culinary applications, from seasoning potatotes and cream sauces to lending its sweet, peppery, citrusy taste to a variety of baked goods. Unlike cinnamon and cloves, however, nutmeg is only selectively antifungal, and can be used as a dough flavoring, rather than just a filling.
The tiny, dark, nutty and slightly bitter seeds of the opium poppy have been used as food for thousands of years. In Yiddish cooking, you can find them as a topping for breads and rolls, an ingredient in cakes and cookies, and, boiled with sugar and honey, as a filling for homentashen, cookies and pastry.
Saffron is the world's most expensive spice because it takes over 200,000 of these fine, orange-tipped-red threads from Crocus sativus flowers - each one of which must be harvested by hand. Fortunately, a very little goes a very long way: half a dozen threads, steeped for an hour in boiling water, will give your challah a beautiful yellow color, as well as imparting a subtle earthy flavor and aroma. Because of its value, counterfeit saffron - either safflower threads, which have a similar red color, or other dyed fibers - is not unknown. Although powdered saffron is also available, we like the threads because they're virtually impossible to fake.
Sesame seeds, which are rich in fragrant oil and have a distinctive sweet-nutty flavor, originated in North Africa and the Middle East and were not a meaningful part of the European Yiddish cooking repertoire. In America, where the seeds are common and plentiful, they're widely used on challahs, rolls and especially bagels, adding both crunch and flavor.
No other flavoring agent is as pervasive in baking as vanilla, and with good reason. This essence of orchid adds a degree of depth and richness to sweet goods that is unmatched by any other ingredient, and despite the best efforts of food scientists who have devoted years to finding a synthetic substitute, none has come close.
Vanilla most commonly is available in three forms:
- Vanilla beans are the seed pods of the orchid that have been steamed, sun-dried and cured for several months. To use vanilla bean, split the pod lengthwise and scrape out the seeds, which are used in the recipe.
- Vanilla sugar is granulated sugar in which opened or spent pods have been buried to for 2-3 weeks. Use vanilla sugar as a topping for cookies and pastries, or, sparingly, in recipes that call for both sugar and vanilla.
- Vanilla extract is most often made by soaking the pods for several months in a solution of alcohol and water. For ease of use and uniform quality we recommend using vanilla extract labeled "pure," and not "imitation." Pure vanilla extract must meet minimum FDA requirements and contain no synthetic or other flavor additives. Imitation is not subject to such regulations.
Starch derived from corn, potatoes, tropical rhizomes and other grains and vegetables have a variety of uses in baking. First and foremost, it's used to thicken fruit fillings and custards, which prevents them from running during baking and keeps them together when the product is cut and served. Secondly, cornstarch in particular can substitute for flour ounce-for-ounce, gram-for-gram, up to 10% - 15% of flour weight when you want to reduce gluten content in order to get a lighter angel food or chiffon cake, for example.
Each type of food starch behaves differently, depending on how it's used.
- Cornstarch will thicken upon its first heating, but will break down on reheating, freezing, or when combined with acidic foods such as fresh fruit, making it ideal for cheesecakes, cold custards; and puff pastry shells that are filled after baking, but a poor choice when a cooked filling is baked or in most kinds of fruit pie.
- Arrowroot, made from the rhizome of a tropical plant, is the most taste-neutral thickener and has several advantages over cornstarch. For one thing, it works very well with acidic ingredients. For another, it doesn't break down either on reheating or freezing, making it ideal for cooked fruit fillings and toppings. On the downside, arrowroot isn't suited to dairy applications, since it develops a slimy texture.
- ClearJel® is a modified cornstarch that has all of the advantages of its parent and few of the disadvantages. It works well as a cooked thickener with acidic ingredients, and won't break down on reheating. However, it doesn't thicken during cooking but upon cooling, making it difficult to know whether your recipe is sufficiently thick. Also ClearJel ® doesn't tolerate freezing and thawing. It's also significantly more expensive than either cornstarch or arrowroot.
- Instant ClearJel® is modified cornstarch that thickens without cooking, making it great for uncooked fruit fillings that use frozen and thawed fruit or fresh fruit cut very small, such as apple turnover filling. Its disadvantages include breaking down on a second heating, low tolerance of freezing, and high cost. One caution: Instant ClearJel® thickens so quickly that it's necessary to mix it thoroughly with sugar before adding it to any liquid; otherwise, it congeals into unsightly white specks that are all but impossible to get rid of.
- Potato starch is virtually interchangeable with cornstarch, with the added advantage that it's kosher for Passover, which cornstarch isn't. Other than that, it shares the same pros and cons as its above-ground cousin, with the one added downside that it will break down on boiling, even during the first heating.
- Non-instant tapioca flour is the finely ground starch of the cassava root, and is, in many ways, the ideal thickener. It doesn't break down on reheating or freezing; it works equally well with dairy and acid foods, and imparts a beautiful gloss to toppings and fillings.
- Instant tapioca, which has been precooked, works almost as well as its non-instant sibling, except for its tendency to form small starchy globules - unnoticeable in most fillings, but more noticeable in toppings, such as on cheesecakes or open pastries.