March 2011

Posted on March 31, 2011 in Archives

March 2011:  An Historical Dinner in Charleston and a Bulgarian Gathering in Washington

The Charleston Art & Antiques Forum invited me to come plan an historical menu as a fundraiser for the organization now in its 15th year. The meal was significant not only for being historically accurate (I planned it as a meal from the late Federal period, when Charleston was at its height of wealth and prosperity), but historical itself for being a recreation of a meal, with proper table settings, in one of the finest homes in America, the Miles Brewton House, whose restoration is said to be the finest of its kind. Several of the rooms have never been electrified. The room was lit by candlelight.

Here’s the menu card:

The dinner was for 24 people, including Tom Campbell, the Director and CEO of the Metropolitan Museum, whose keynote speech on the history of tapestry collecting in the United States was fascinating.(Photo of us two, below.)

We began downstairs with local caviar on rice wafers, served with a ratafia- and tea-infused Champagne punch The punch recipe appeared on the blog on February 27, 2009). I’m still working on the rice crackers, but here’s what I gave the caterer to use and they were quite nice — very crisp and bland so as not to distract from the caviar. Every bag of flour and batch of cooked rice will be different, so adjust the recipe if necessary.

Rice wafers

2 tablespoons milk + 2 tablespoons of water

1 tablespoon peanut oil

1 cup whole wheat flour, approximately

1 cup cooked rice

1 teaspoon salt

Combine the milk, water, and oil together in a small bowl.

Place a cup of flour, the rice, and salt in a food processor and process 2 to 3 seconds, or just until mixed. With the machine running, add the milk mixture and process just until the dough forms a cohesive mass. If necessary, add more water, but no more than a tablespoon. The dough will be sticky but should hold its shape when a small piece is pinched off. Form the dough into a ball, wrap it loosely in plastic wrap and set aside for at least 15 mintues.

Flour a clean work surface and rolling pin.  Pat the dough into an inch-thick rectangle,  then roll it to a 1/2-inch thickness. Let it rest 10 to 15 minutes, then roll it out again. Repeat the process two more times, rolling the dough thinner each time and dusting with flour if necessary. Let the dough rest between rollings.

Preheat the oven to 450°. Roll the dough out to a 10 x 9-inch rectangle about 1/8 inch thick. Using a ruler and a sharp knife, cut the dough into thirty 1 x 3-inch rectangles. Place the crackers 1/2 inch apart on a baking sheet and bake 20 minutes, or until crisp and golden.

Place the wafers on racks to cool and repeat with the remaining dough.

Makes 3 to 4 dozen.

After the caviar and punch, we moved upstairs and were seated at the elegant table set with fine china and silver, lit only by candelight. The first course was puff pastry filled with mushrooms cooked in a Madeira cream sauce and served with fresh local asparagus in a light beurre blanc and Charleston Sercial Madeira, a blend of several old vintages that was lighter than the heavier blends of northern cities. Everyone was pleasantly surprised at how delicious it was. The oyster sausage, though, was the first real hit of the evening. Two recipes — an authentic one and a very easy one –appeared on the blog on June 15, 2009. I don’t know why oyster sausages haven’t caught on the way shrimp and grits has. They’re easy to make and everyone loves them.

After the sausage (served on a bed of mixed salad greens which every Charleston kitchen garden had), rice bread came to the table and was praised continually throughout the remainder of the evening. There were dozens and dozens of versions of rice breads made in Charleston right up until the turn of the last century, but they have all disappeared, in spite of my efforts to revive them. When I first opened my shop in the 80s, I had a baker making it for me twice/week, and I had a few customers who fell in love with this delightfully moist bread that makes the best toast you have ever eaten. My baker lost her lease after Hurricane Hugo, however, and I never found anyone else who would make it for me. It’s a real winner.

Carolina Rice Bread from Hoppin’ John’s Lowcountry Cooking

This bread is easy to make, it keeps well, and it makes the most delicious toast you have ever eaten.Follow this recipe very carefully and respond to your own batch of dough as it demands. Every dough, every quart of water, the humidity of each day and each oven is different. But don’t be discouraged; you should have an excellent tasting bread that makes wonderful toast, even if you judge the rising incorrectly or bake it at a wrong temperature.

The yeast should be fresh, not dried. Make sure it is fresh: it should smell sweetly, not sourly, of yeast, and be moist and uniformly smooth. Take it home and divide it into one- and two-ounce portions, wrap them well in plastic wrap, then wrap them again in aluminum foil and freeze them for  use later. They will last two months or longer. When making rice bread, I remove a two-ounce portion from the freezer before beginning, so that it has time to defrost. The salt that you use should also be free of yeast-destroying chemicals. Use a pure salt such as Kosher, pickling, or sea salt.

The first time you make this recipe, I advise using high-gluten (bread) flour and long grain white rice. You may wish to add some whole-wheat flour or wheat germ to the dough, or use a different rice. The more flavorful the rice you use, the more flavorful your bread will be. If you use a brown rice, increase the amount of water accordingly, as it will absorb more water than white rice.

This recipe makes three loaves in standard bread pans. Half of the recipe makes a big round loaf which you can bake on a baking stone or under an overturned flower pot. It will weigh about four pounds. You may make a smaller batch than called for  in the recipe, but I don’t recommend a larger one, simply because it is too big to handle. You will need a very large bowl, about the size of an antique wash basin. Weigh the rice, the yeast, and the flour before beginning.

1 pound rice

2 quarts well or spring water (or more, if using a brown rice)

3 tablespoons sea, pickling, or Kosher salt (pure salt)

2 ounces fresh compressed yeast

4 pounds unbleached bread flour

Add the salt and the rice to the water and boil until all the liquid is absorbed and the rice is quite soft. Place the rice in a very large bowl. Set aside to cool.

When the rice is cool enough to handle, it should be about right for the yeast (below 120o). Add the yeast and mix into the rice, then work in the flour, kneading and folding it all together in the bowl until you have a smooth, elastic loaf. It will take very nearly all the flour and about ten minutes of your time. (Note: you will only get out of a loaf of bread what you put into it. Put on a favorite record and get into a good mood while you knead the loaf. If you try instead to take out your anger at someone on the dough, you will end up with a knotty, uneven bread.)

Wipe the rim of the bowl clean, then cover the entire bowl tightly with plastic wrap. If your bowl is not large enough to allow the bread to double in size, you may want to lightly brush the top of the dough with oil or butter to keep it from sticking to the plastic. Now cover the entire bowl with a towel or blanket and set in a warm, draft-free place to rise. It may take a couple of hours or it may take all day or night (“warm” is relative), depending on many factors; but I find that it is usually ready in my kitchen — which stays very warm, even in winter — in about two hours.

Grease three bread loaf tins and set aside. When the dough has doubled, punch it down, knead it lightly so that it is evenly textured again, divide it into three parts, and roll each part into a log that fits nicely in each pan, with all edges on the bottom, and only the smooth top showing. Cover the three pans with the plastic again, and the towel or blanket, and place on top of the stove while the oven preheats to 450o.  The loaves need only rise halfway again this time — say, to the tops of the tins. Check them at about a half-hour. I find that they are often ready then, and the oven should be well heated.

Bake the loaves in a classic “falling” oven, simulating the gradually falling temperatures of a wood-fired stove. 15 minutes at 450 degrees, then turn the oven down to 400 degrees and bake another 15 minutes. (You might peek to see that the loaves are baking evenly. Sometimes ovens have “hot spots”: if so, rotate the loaves.) After 30 minutes (total) of baking, take the loaves out of the pans and return them naked to the oven. If, at this point, you think that the oven is baking them too quickly, turn it down to 350 ; otherwise, leave it at 400 .

From this point you must watch them, turning them on their sides so that they brown evenly all over, and waiting for that special moment when a thump on the bottom of the loaves gives a reassuring, resounding report that they are done. A dull thud sends them back to cook more. Do not, however, be so constantly in  the oven that it stays fired — it should be hovering at the  lower temperature at this point. It will take anywhere from 15 to 25 minutes for the loaves to finish cooking. When they are done, remove them to racks to cool, and resist the temptation to cut them while they are hot.

Note: On the November 12, 2007 blog, I explained how to simulate a classic brick oven, giving a recipe for a standard yeast loaf in boule form. The photo at left of me with Fran McCullough was taken in 1989 on Edisto Island. Fran was my editor at Bantam, where she edited my frist two books. The overturned clay pot in the background is what I used to simulate a classic cloche in my oven, where I baked the finished rice bread loaf (in boule form).

The daube was cooked in and served with Château Cambon La Pelouse 2003. This classic Haut-Médoc wine was chosen because the vineyard has been in business for hundreds of years and was in full swing at the first of the 19th century, where we placed our meal. At the time, Monsieur Cambon, who had acquired the vineyard during the French Revolution, was shipping 400 casks to England each year. It was one of the first wines I ever heard called a “fruit bomb,” but it does not have the in-your-face fruitiness nor too much alcohol the way so many so-called “international style” wines do today. It was in fact perfect. (I knew what types of wines I wanted with each course, but my wine guru, Debbie Marlowe, of The Wine Shop of Charleston, chose the specific bottles for us.) She turned me on to the delicious Drappier Carte D’Or Brut Champagne, which Hugh Johnson has called “hedonistic.” The cellar was founded in 1802 and has probably been coming into to Charleston ever since. Drappier is a small grower-producer which finely crafts these wines from the southernmost part of the region, rich with pinot noir. Debbie insisted we use it in the punch as well, and it was delicious.

After the daube desserts were passed — trifles and gingerbread and shortbread and macaroons and lemon curd tarts and fresh strawberries and Charlotte Russe.(photo at right)

Many of the recipes are in my lowcountry book. After dessert, we retired downstairs for dried fruits and nuts, Jordan almonds, and Port, and, for some of us, more Champagne, claret, and/or Madeira. The Port was Warre’s Warrior Reserve. We chose Warre’s because it was founded the same year as Charleston — 1670.

It was a truly historic evening!

Upon returning to Washington, I attended a Bulgarian feast. I offered to bring vishnev shtrudel — Bulgarian style sour cherry strudel. I still have lots of my canned sour cherries (for recipes and techniques, see June 2008 and June 2010). I had never made it before. Here I am rolling out the dough.

Vishnev Shtrudel (Bulgarian Sour Cherry Tart) 

This recipe makes twice the amount of dough you’ll need. I put the remainder in the freezer and will let you know if it still tastes good the second time around.

For the dough:

10 tablespoons butter

1/2 cup warm water

1 large egg, beaten

3 cups all-purpose flour

For the filling:

1/2 cup walnuts, coarsely chopped

3/4 cup sugar

1-1/2 pounds sour cherries, pitted, or 2 pints (preferably home-canned) preserved pitted sour cherries, drained

3/4 cup breadcrumbs

Melt the butter and mix 1/2 cup of it with the water and egg. In a the large bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the dough hook, add the butter liquid to the flour and mix until you have a smooth dough. Wrap loosely and set aside for at least a half hour.

Place a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 400o. In another bowl, combine the nuts, sugar, cherries, and breadcrumbs and set aside.

Place a large tea towel dusted with flour on a work surface and roll out the dough as thin as possible. If the tea towel has designs on it, you should be able to see them through the dough. Cut a rectangle measuring 16 by 24 inches from the dough. Wrap and freeze the remaining dough for use later.

Lightly paint with water a 1″ border along the outer edges of the dough. Spread the filling onto the dough, leaving the border on all sides.

Using the tea towel to help lift the dough, fold the sides in, then fold in the bottom and continue rolling the shtrudel away from you, forming a fat log. Push the last damp border of dough down and carefully transfer the shtrudel onto a parchment- or silicone-lined baking sheet. Bent the ends of the shtrudel around to form the traditional Bulgarian horseshoe shape. Brush liberally with the remaining melted butter.

Bake for 30 to 40 minutes or until lightly browned. Dust with confectioners sugar and serve warm or at room temperature.

Makes 4 to 12 servings.

Photos of strudel making by Mikel Herrington.

Photos of Tom Campbell and the groaning board of desserts by Blair Halford.