You know all those seasonal stories in magazines are researched a year ahead of time. This is one of those. Here, as we launch into the season of frantic gift-buying, may we at Winslow Place tell you an inspirational story about the perils of late-night advertising?
One day in deep winter, we received a package. We weren’t expecting anything…
OK, now…if you have a television, and you watch it late at night, you by now probably know what this box is. We don’t, so we were very, very puzzled about this assortment of foods and objects all in the same package. We also had no idea who had sent it to us. So we just kept unpacking.
Our slightly demented friend Dan was responsible. His card said, roughly, “I’ve watched these ads so many times, I’ve always been curious about this. But I didn’t really want to try it myself.”
I think it must’ve been an ad along these lines, but more tailored for insomniacs. And Dan was probably imagining our unpacking it would go something like this.
We live in a kind of special little food bubble here. It was odd to read the brochures touting the “grain-fed beef,” and we spent a lot of time squinting at the ingredients on that stuffed sole. And the brochures were like the kind I haven’t seen since I was a kid, when we’d get them tucked in the Parade magazine. By moving to New York, I guess I thought bragging-about-grain-fed beef and life-insurance ads in fake old-computer font just stopped existing…but they’re out there, of course, and now they were in our kitchen.
We ate it all. The beef was delicious. Good little reminder about why people started feeding cows grain in the first place. The stuffed sole was just fine, and the stuffed baked potatoes were really good. The only thing that was gross were the “gourmet franks”–yes, the only thing I’d been excited to see in the box when we unpacked it. Apparently, “gourmet” means “squishy, with no snappy skin.” Shudder.
But, bottom line, even after we’d eaten everything, the best thing in the box was what we found in the very bottom.
We can genuinely say thank you, Dan, for this strange and wondrous gift pack that provided such entertainment in the dreariest time of year. We just might not wholeheartedly recommend it to others.
Like I said, I was having a little trouble grasping what Denmark was all about. But then I met up with my friend S—, who helped it seem like a real, distinct place to me.
“Tonight we’re going to have a typical Danish dinner,” she said. “It’s what everyone eats for Christmas, and of course when very important guests come!”
S— knows me well. She’d held off on shopping so that I could go to the supermarket and gawk at everything. The first thing she pointed out to me were these little crumbly things you put on top of pate for a smorrebrod.
“Next to that,” she said, “is pork fat. Also for bread.”
And then she pointed out the pork cracklings. “But these are the bad ones. We need the fresh ones.”
And then she bought the dinner: a giant pork loin-and-rib roast, with the skin still on and sliced thin–imagine a loaf of bread that has only been sliced down for the top inch.
So, it appeared that the No. 1 way in which Denmark distinguishes itself from its neighbors is through its love of pork. Right on.
After we got a bottle of wine from the very cheerful man running wine tastings–in the supermarket, in his handsome leather butcher’s apron…
…we headed back home. Side dishes for the pork roast were red cabbage (sweetened with red-currant syrup) and potatoes. For dessert, a kind of cake that S—‘s son described as something only old ladies–and he–made.
Now, I’m going to tell you about this roast in detail, so that I don’t forget. I swear I will coerce a butcher into getting me such a roast at home, but it’s tricky, as they typically have already cut the skin off.
The key thing, S— says, is to salt the skin and fat very well, and to rub the salt down in between the fat slices.
Then you stick it in the oven on high heat, and after about 15 minutes, you start giving it the eye. You don’t want the cracklings to burn.
As soon as the skin properly crackles–it’s hard and a little bubbly–you cover it in foil and let the roast finish cooking.
If the crackling hasn’t behaved properly and crackled, but you had to cover it anyway because it was getting too dark, you can stick it up under the broiler at the end. This is what we did. Last-ditch effort, S— says, is to slice the fat and skin off and do it in the broiler separately, but no one really wants that.
Then you whip up a little gravy–or, as S— is wise to do, a lot of gravy, using all the juices from the roasting pan. And you boil the potatoes. And you uncover the cabbage that’s been simmering there with its currant syrup, vinegar and a pinch of sugar that you maybe stole from the coffee joint earlier in the day.
And then you slice up the roast and eat it.
And then, after you’ve been coerced into eating more of the crackling than is rational, because, as S— warns, it’s no good the next day, and you will be very, very sad if you try to eat it the next day and know you should’ve just eaten it the night before when it was still hot and crispy…
After all that, you somehow manage to eat a slice of the kiksekage, the old-lady cake that’s just a genius kind of ice-box cake using crispy vanilla biscuits and chocolate ganache.
And then you roll into bed. And just as S— promises, you sweat quite a bit, due to your body working hard to digest all the fat. Presto–you wake up feeling Danish. And ready for a breakfast of chocolate slabs on poppyseed bread.
I haven’t written about my home cooking in many months, and probably won’t again for a while (since I won’t be home till January, but that’s another story). But as you’ll see, this doughnut thing—I need to write about it for closure.
Years ago, I wrote a couple of posts about how I learned to cook (here and here), and had always meant to write a third one about Cook’s Illustrated.
Cook’s Illustrated is the world’s most boring magazine. But damn, its plodding, exhaustive articles have taught me so much. I first subscribed in 1996, when I was in grad school. And except for a couple years in the middle when I got disgusted by how low-brow the recipes had gotten (school-lunch-style tacos), the magazine has shown up at my door every two months since.
Turns out I could’ve quit early on, because the March/April 1997 issue has been the single handiest one ever. It covered Irish soda bread, corned beef, chicken and dumplings, crepes and quick-braised lamb shoulder chops. This last thing I lived on, with endless variations, for the first few years of freelancing in New York, and the general techniques behind all of these recipes have been essential.
Oh, and it has a killer recipe for key lime pie. I use it to this day. As you can see from the nasty stickiness all over the pages.
The one thing in the issue I have never cooked is the buttermilk doughnuts. Every year or so I have occasion to pick up this issue, and I always pass the doughnut article with regret. Sure, I could whip up 15 doughnuts in 45 minutes—but when would I ever have occasion to do that? I’m not shy about deep-frying, but it has to be a special occasion, and there are pretty much never special occasions before noon in my life.
But then we got this weather. Hurricane Irene, hell-bent on the eastern seaboard, and Peter and I housebound for the whole weekend. Our friend Katie had just come back from Maine with two enormous tubs of wild blueberries she’d harvested. We froze one and devoured the other almost, and there were about two handfuls of berries that needed to be eaten, stat.
And our fridge happened to be full of lard that needed to be kicked before we left. Who leaves a housesitter with a quart of lard and nothing else?
I was going to try to avoid saying this, but what the hell: It was the perfect storm of downtime, odd special occasion and ingredients just begging to be used.
As promised, the recipe was indeed easy. I made half the quantity, because it wasn’t special occasion enough to make myself violently ill by eating 10 doughnuts or so by myself, which I just might, given the opportunity. We got a yield of about eight doughnuts, which was fine by us.
They fried up beautifully and popped to the surface of the fat, just like they’re supposed to. We fried in lard, despite Cook’s Illustrated‘s warnings: Its panel decided lard’s flavor was “too meaty”—killjoys! This article was from 1997, remember, so the Cook’s Ill crew unapologetically embraced Crisco as the optimal frying medium, while sneering at lard for its unhealthiness as well.
(Let the record show that I have been on the side of lard since 1972.)
In fact, lard worked wonderfully, and the abstractly meaty flavor made these the perfect brunch doughnut, solving that timeless dilemma of sweet or savory.
I also made up a little glaze—milk and cornstarch—and drizzled it over. The problem with this glaze is that
1) I have not seen the Krispy Kreme glaze waterfall with my own eyes in years, so I couldn’t remember what viscosity I was shooting for, and
2) to get the proper crunch with the glaze, you have to give it time to harden up.
But there was no time! These doughnuts had to be rushed to our mouths instantly! My god—how could that glaze not understand?
I think all we ate that day until about 9pm, when the hurricane was pretty thoroughly gone and the sun had set in churning orange clouds, was blueberry doughnuts.
During the hurricane, our power didn’t go out, our basement didn’t flood, no trees fell down on our house. In fact, we slept right through the storm. Frankly, it was a tiny bit of a letdown—but these doughnuts made the day special.
Blueberry Buttermilk Doughnuts to Weather a Storm
Adapted from Cook’s Illustrated Makes about 8 doughnuts
I used cake flour because that’s all we had, but I think this made the doughnuts actually a little too tender and cakey. If you’re not making a glaze, then add more sugar to the recipe–it’s not a very sweet doughnut.
1 3/4 cups flour (2 cups if you’re using cake flour)
Large handful wild (small) blueberries)
1/2 cup sugar
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp fresh grated nutmeg
Zest from one lemon
1/3 cup buttermilk*
2 T butter, melted
Lard for frying
Toss the blueberries with a couple of tablespoons of flour just to coat; set aside. Mix all the remaining dry ingredients together.
Mix egg, buttermilk and melted butter together, then pour this into the dry ingredients and mix well. You’ll end up with this very gloopy batter. You might have to add some more flour to get something you can cut into doughnut shapes.
Very heavily flour a cutting board or counter, then lay the batter/dough out. Scatter flour over the top. Gently nudge it into a round about half an inch thick. (Cook’s Ill says to use a rolling pin, but I can’t see how this wouldn’t end in tears, with all the dough stuck to it.) Use a glass with a floured rim to cut out rounds, then use something extra-small to cut out the holes.
Heat up your lard to about 375, and then carefully slide your little doughnuts into the hot fat. Flip once, after a bit less than a minute. They pop to the surface very nicely when cooked through. Fish them out and lay them on paper towels to dry.
For the glaze, combine confectioners sugar and milk till you have a reasonably thick but pourable mix. Drizzle this over the doughnuts, and wait for it to harden if you can. Or just go with cinnamon sugar–this would go nicely with the lemon zest and the blueberries.
*You know the fake buttermilk trick, right? Squeeze about a teaspoon of lemon juice in regular milk, and then let it sit for about 10 minutes, until the mixture thickens up.
Tamara and I are going to be on the New York episode of this show, to air in Britain September 15. Spread the word to your mates across the pond!
And we haven’t seen the final cut of what we taped, so who knows how we come across? All I’ve been told is that I get to say, “I fucking hate restaurants.” Which means this will never air in the US, alas.