The Actual Best Challah

Much as it pains my snobby little heart to admit it, there are some foods that are better purchased than made from scratch. Pumpkin purée, for instance, is a huge pain in the ass to make yourself, and the stringy, wet pulp you end up with likely won’t match the best canned stuff in taste or texture. I’ve never had great success with homemade pickles, which I can’t seem to get quite as snappy or deeply flavored as the best full-sours from Shelsky’s or Katz’s. And though I’ve baked billions (rough estimate) of loaves of bread over the past few years, I’ve never quite managed to craft a sandwich loaf that perfectly apes the best store-bought stuff—springy and tender and sturdy enough to stand up to a mountain of toppings, all at once.

But challah? As someone who’s made, purchased, and eaten countless versions over the course of the past nearly 30 (gulp) years, I can say with great confidence that the recipe I’m about to describe actually is the best one out there—better than your mom’s, better than your bakery’s, and certainly better than the sad, shrink-wrapped kind they serve at your local oneg. Continue reading

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Banana Fritters and Vanilla Sauce

I don’t have an emotional attachment to sufganiyot, the Israeli jelly doughnuts that are traditionally served on Hanukkah. Maybe that’s why I’ve never attempted to make jelly doughnuts myself—or maybe it’s more that I’ve always had a fear of frying. Remember, the miracle of Hanukkah is all about burning-hot fuel—and I’m accident-prone enough even when there’s no 370-degree oil in the vicinity.

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Fish en Papillote and Herbed Carrots

Here are a few reasons fish (and carrots!) en papillote (or en aluminum foil, a la Nonnie) should be in your regular meal rotation, particularly this time of year:

  1. Preparing food en papillote, or inside a little sealed package, is an exceedingly easy, quick, and largely mess-free way to cook protein (and vegetables), making it ideal when you want to make dinner on the only weeknight you have free in between awards season screenings and holiday parties. (I know, I’m playing the world’s tiniest violin for myself.)
  2. But it also feels very fancy, mostly because it’s got a tres sophisticated French name, hohn hohn hohn.
  3. Plus, every time you slice into a little foil package with delicious things inside, you’ll feel like you’re opening a present you gave yourself—and after all, ’tis the season.

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Shrimp Puffs

The canon of weirdo Gentile party foods I grew up blissfully unaware of—ambrosia; grape jelly meatballs; anything involving, dear God, gelatin—would not be complete without shrimp puffs, a delightfully ’50s canapé comprised of crappy supermarket sandwich bread that’s toasted, then topped with a mixture of shrimp, mayo, and cheese, then broiled to an appealing golden brown.

Despite its final coloring—especially when the toasts are, say, left to sit in a hot oven a bit longer than they should, thanks to a negligent and slightly tipsy hostess juggling too many things at her own housewarming party—this may in fact be the whitest food in history, culturally speaking. Though I guess hotdish, a Midwestern casserole that combines canned cream of mushroom soup with canned vegetables and hamburger meat and tops the whole thing off with frozen tater tots, might have a bone to pick with that appellation.

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Liptauer Spread

I learned to cook in the summer of 2010, partially out of necessity—I didn’t want to eat takeout every night, especially since I was earning a whopping $8.25 an hour at my impressive-sounding, mind-numbingly-boring internship—and largely out of loneliness. (I was living in D.C., a four-hour bus ride away from basically all of my friends, and because I was fairly certain I’d be returning to New York once the internship was over, I didn’t try very hard to make new ones.)

There were two people who made me feel a little less lonely as I stumbled my way from ratatouille to zucchini bread to spaghetti carbonara, the first dish I made that felt like real culinary alchemy: Mark Bittman, who taught me the basics of how to cook everything in his aptly-named beginner’s classic, and Deb Perelman, who won me over with her chatty prose long before I learned that nearly everything she cooked at Smitten Kitchen was both picture-perfect and delicious. (I’m saying “nearly” only because I was afraid of cooking meat until I made her Thai-style chicken legs… and then they turned out so inedibly salty that I avoided making chicken myself again for like, a year.)  Continue reading

Waldorf Salad

Isn’t it funny how notions of sophistication change dramatically from decade to decade? In the ’90s, high-end restaurants fell hard for chocolate lava cake. In the ’70s, suburbanites thrilled to tiny skewers, melted cheese, and wife-swapping. In the ’60s, pre-Friedan-era housewives thought that drinking Heineken with dinner would fill the yawning chasm in their souls, or so Mad Men has led me to believe.

And in the late 1890s, a Swiss maître d’ named Oscar Tschirky won over a room of Gilded Age socialites and robber barons with a cutting-edge appetizer that was, essentially, just chicken salad without the chicken. (Tschirky also may have invented Thousand Island Dressing and Eggs Benedict, which mostly makes me think that he was in the pocket of Big Mayonnaise.)

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