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The past two weeks have been rough. I shed tears of joy at the polls about the beauty of being able to vote for a female president and then wept at home as I stumbled into bed just before 2 am, unsure of how to make heads or tails of the world. I’m grateful for the privilege of my liberal arts education, where close reading and critical thinking were emphasized and practiced and are helping me make sense of the news swirling around, but even that doesn’t seem to be enough. My sister reminded me recently of the importance of listening to and respecting differing perspectives: “we have two ears and two eyes and one mouth for a reason,” she said.

There’s been a lot of ugliness leading up to the election and now there seems to be even more in its aftermath. I find myself more ornery than usual   I see reminders every day of the need for kindness – and mindfulness and that metta meditation come to me more urgently than in the past.

So my article in the Forward about Dorie Greenspan‘s newest (twelfth!) cookbook, Dorie’s Cookies seems particularly timely. I’ve pasted the entire piece below (it’s long, but filled with lots of great nuggets and references to my grandmother whom I always think of during Thanksgiving), and want to emphasize Dorie’s #cookiesandkindness campaign through which she’s encouraging people to bake cookies and share them.

The sharing is key, and it’s really central to Dorie’s general approach to the kitchen. I’ve written before about Dorie’s philosophy on baking, and here’s what she told me two years ago: “I love baking. I always return to it when I’m stressed out. It’s the process, the ingredients, getting dirty, everything under my nails. I love the magic of it… You cook for yourself and other people, but when you bake, you don’t bake for yourself, you bake to share. You bake for love and for people you love.”

Right now, it feels good to be in the kitchen, to show care for other people, and to also remember to take care of ourselves. We won’t have these cookies at my Thanksgiving table because we made a conscious decision to NOT go overboard this year and already have pies and fruit for dessert. But, no worries, I’ve got two cranberry sauces all packed up and ready to go. Those recipes coming just as soon as I can type them.

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Below is my article from The Forward, followed by Dorie’s recipe for Kerrin’s multigrain chocolate chip cookies.

***

My late grandmother used to keep a package of store-bought cookies in the glove compartment of her car. Whenever she drove through a tollbooth or stopped to fill up her tank, she’d offer the attendant a cookie, or three. I have no doubt that she’d have been friends with four-time James Beard Award-winning cookbook author Dorie Greenspan who has been baking cookies for as long as she can remember and who is waging a kindness war with cookies as ammunition.

“I’ve just been caught up in the news and the state of things and thinking that the world is a pretty wobbly place right now,” Greenspan told me over the phone a few weeks before the election – a wobbly time indeed – and about a month before Thanksgiving – a holiday that should give families and communities a chance to cook together and share food and thoughts around the table. “I realized how happy I am when I’m baking, how happy I am when I’m sharing what I bake, and how happy the recipient is. So I thought we need cookies now more than ever. I had this crazy idea to start a sweet revolution to get people to bake and to share what they bake. I call it the cookies and kindness project.”

Here’s how it works: bake cookies, share them with someone or several someones, post to Instagram or twitter or wherever else you’d like, tag with #cookiesandkindness and #doriescookies, and make the world a little sweeter. And it gets even better – read down a few more paragraphs.

Armed with the over 160 recipes in Greenspan’s latest cookbook Dorie’s Cookies, you can’t help but join the revolution. This book stretches the concept of what a cookie can be – there are bar cookies, savory cookies, ones that accompany cocktails, and even one that was inspired by a cocktail – and Greenspan told me she enjoyed figuring out how to “cookie-fy” anything.

If you’ve used any of Greenspan’s other books, you know that you’ll feel like there’s a little Dorie fairy flitting around your kitchen, anticipating any questions you might have and answering them before you even think to ask. This writing style Greenspan shares with the late Julia Child with whom she frequently collaborated.

She joked, “When Julia said, ‘I want you to write my book [Baking with Julia] because you write like me,” I asked, ‘You mean, because I write long recipes?’ and she said, ‘No, I mean detailed, detailed.’” With the repetition of the word “detailed,” Greenspan’s voice rose and warbled.

She recounted this story last month at the 92nd Street Y to Charlotte Druckman, author Sizzle Stir Bake: Recipes for your Cast-Iron Skillet and Skirt Steak: Women Chefs on Standing the Heat and Staying in the Kitchen. In front of a room packed with adoring fans clutching copies of the Greenspan’s purple-cloaked book, the two women, sporting nearly matching pixie haircuts and silk scarves – Druckman’s twisted around her wrist paying homage to Greenspan’s signature foulard – perched on stools and discussed baking, differences between French and American cookies, and general cookbookery.

There was talk of “mother doughs” – akin to the five mother sauces that are the essential building blocks for classic French cooking – and Greenspan pointed to her book’s vanilla and chocolate “do-almost-anything” recipes that she likens to a blank canvas or a dressmaker’s muslin. A description of the meticulous testing that Greenspan does for all her cookies, trying different types of ingredients, ovens (gas, electric, convection), baking times, and any other variables that could impact the outcome. A dialogue on how cookies palates and recipes have changed due to access to better cocoa and chocolate, an appreciation of vanilla as a flavor rather than mere flavoring, and the use of salt – now measured in teaspoons rather than pinches – as a seasoning for sweets. And a tongue-in-cheek exegesis on what a cookie is and can be.

Prompted by a question from the audience, Greenspan turned to a cause that enables her sweet revolution to have tangible and measurable impact on the world. From the back of the room, a woman waved her hand and asked, “Can you talk more about cookies for kindness and your involvement with Cookies for Kids’ Cancer?”

Earlier, Greenspan had provided me with some background on her connection with the non-profit that raises funds for research into cures for pediatric cancer. She has known co-founder Gretchen Witt for years, before she was married, before she had a son Liam, and before Liam was diagnosed at age 2 with neuroblastoma. Greenspan has been engaged with Cookies for Kids Cancer since the very beginning, doing what she does best: baking and creating community.

She told the crowd at the 92nd Street Y about a generous challenge grant given to Cookies for Kids’ Cancer: an anonymous donor will match contributions up to $250,000 in the months of November and December. And Greenspan has sweetened the pot. Donors of $1,000 will receive a signed copy of her latest book and those of $2,500 will be entered into a raffle to spend a day baking with her in her home. I’ve had this opportunity and I can personally tell you that it is not one to be missed.

You can also lend support with your own oven and a little social media: bake something from Dorie’s Cookies, post a picture on Instagram, hashtag it with #DoriesCookies and tag @cookies4kids (see example here) to automatically trigger a $5 contribution to Cookies for Kids’ Cancer. And then of course, don’t forget to share what you bake as part of #cookiesandkindness. If it seems like a lot of symbols and words and strung-together phrases, it is. But, hey, let’s call it a good excuse to join the funfetti generation and its successors without having to download snapchat or catch Pokémon.

Greenspan and I considered which cookies might be particularly meaningful for Forward readers to bake and share. For the holidays that just passed, there are apple bars and a half-dozen nibbles with honey in them. For Purim, hamantashen. For Passover, coco-almond thumbprints, pistachio-berry slims, and matzo morsels. For Thanksgiving next week, sweet potato pie bars (complete with broiled marshmallow topping), spiced pumpkin jammers, and cranberry-studded breakfast biscotti. And for this year’s true Christmukkah, when the first night of Hanukkah coincides with Christmas Eve, you can make your own fortune cookies.

As we scrolled through the index and flipped through the pages over the phone, Greenspan gasped, and I could hear her nearly leap out of her chair on the other end. “Kasha! Kasha to the rescue!”

She explained: “My friend Kerrin sent me this fabulous recipe from Switzerland – a multigrain chocolate chip cookie. And she included a note saying that she uses rye grits in it – she gets rye berries from the market and then they grind them for her to order. Well, I don’t have a market that sells rye grits, and I certainly don’t have anyone who would grind them for me. I was going to leave them out, but I knew that I’d be missing their great texture. I can’t remember why kasha came to mind. I think maybe because there was buckwheat flour in the recipe as well, or maybe I was wandering the kosher aisle of my grocery store. Once I added kasha though, I was like a little kid jumping up and down. I was so excited to find this perfect substitute for rye grits – the kasha nubbins give such a nutty crunch – that I wanted to use it in other recipes! So kasha’s also in the breakfast biscotti and the double chocolate double buckwheat cookie.”

Greenspan’s husband was also elated: “My husband Michael adores kasha and has always complained that I can’t prepare kasha varnishkes like his mother’s. With these cookies, I was vindicated. I said to Michael, ‘I haven’t learned to make a brisket as good as your mother’s, and I can’t bake your mother’s kasha, but there’s a new way of eating kasha, and it happens to be in cookie form.’” I doubt Michael complained again.

Inspired by this story, I baked a batch of Kerrin’s multigrain chocolate chip cookies on a moody gloomy day, made sure to shower the scooped dough with a good dose of flakey salt, and then shared. I shared them with my doorman, with some colleagues, with a neighbor. I shared them on Instagram. I tagged away. And the photo convinced a friend to make the recipe herself.

If my grandmother were still alive, she would have shared the cookies too – perhaps her mailman, the crossing guard, a bank teller. And if she had known Greenspan, I think she would have called her such a doll and said that she tickles her heart. I can’t agree more.

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Kerrin’s Multigrain Chocolate Chip Cookies

Reprinted with permission from Dorie’s Cookies.

My friend Kerrin Rousset has a wonderful, quirky way with food, mixing ingredients that you wouldn’t expect to be culinary classmates and always sneaking a smidgen of healthfulness into every tasty thing she makes. Here she found a way to use whole wheat and buckwheat flours, and I found a way to use kasha.

An American, Kerrin lives in Switzerland, and this recipe originally called for rye grits, which she buys in a local market where shopkeepers happily grind it to measure. When I couldn’t find rye grits (sometimes called cracked rye), I hit on the idea of using buckwheat groats, aka kasha. Be sure to use Wolff’s granulated kasha (100 percent buckwheat), which is readily available. (Medium-grain buckwheat from Bob’s Red Mill or the bins in your natural food market can’t be used for cookies; it’s too large and hard.) Wolff’s bakes into the cookies just as nuts would (and you can substitute nuts if you’d like). You get toastiness, full-grain flavor and crunch. And hold on to the leftover kasha to use in the Double-Buckwheat Double-Chocolate Cookies or Fruit and Four-Grain Biscotti.

A word on color and spreadability: Depending on your buckwheat, your cookies might be golden or mocha colored — however, they’ll always be good. And depending on how cold your dough is, your cookies might spread and be like saucers, or they might bake to be like pucks. Again, both are delicious.

Makes 25 cookies

½ cup (68 grams) all-purpose flour

½ cup (68 grams) whole wheat flour

½ cup (60 grams) buckwheat flour

½ teaspoon baking powder

½ teaspoon baking soda

7 tablespoons (3½ ounces; 99 grams) unsalted butter, cut into chunks, at room temperature

2⁄3 cup (134 grams) packed light brown sugar

½ cup (100 grams) sugar

1⁄8 teaspoon fine sea salt

1 large egg, at room temperature

1 large egg yolk, at room temperature

¼ cup (45 grams) kasha, preferably Wolff’s medium granulation (see headnote), or toasted nuts, finely chopped

6 ounces (170 grams) bittersweet chocolate, coarsely chopped

Maldon or other flake sea salt, for sprinkling

Whisk together the three flours, the baking powder and baking soda. Working with a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, or in a large

bowl with a hand mixer, beat together the butter, both sugars and the salt on medium speed for 5 minutes, scraping down the sides and bottom of the bowl a couple of times. Add the egg and beat for about 1 minute, then add the yolk and beat for 1 minute more. Turn the mixer off, add the dry ingredients all at once and pulse the mixer a few times to start blending them in. Working on low speed, mix only until most but not all of the dry ingredients are incorporated — you should still see streaks of flour. Add the kasha, and pulse a couple of times. Add the chocolate, pulse and then, if necessary, mix on low just until everything is blended. Or do this last bit of mixing by hand, with a sturdy flexible spatula. Scrape the dough out of the bowl, form it into a ball, wrap in plastic and refrigerate for 1 hour. (You can refrigerate the dough longer; your cookies will not spread as much.)

Getting ready to bake: Center a rack in the oven and preheat it to 375 degrees F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a silicone baking mat.

Remove the dough from the fridge. Using a medium cookie scoop, scoop out level portions of dough, or use a tablespoon to get rounded spoonfuls. Place the mounds of dough about 2 inches apart on the baking sheet. Sprinkle each mound with flake salt, making sure, as Kerrin advises, not to concentrate it only on the very center of the cookie.

Bake for 8 to 10 minutes, rotating the sheet at the midway mark, or just until the edges of the cookies start to brown. The cookies will be underbaked, and that’s the way they should be. Transfer the baking sheet to a rack and let the cookies rest for about 2 minutes, then, working very carefully with a wide metal spatula, transfer the cookies to a rack to cool until they are just warm (delicious) or they reach room temperature. The cookies will firm as they cool.

Repeat with the remaining dough, making certain that you always use a cool baking sheet.

Storing

The dough can be refrigerated for up to 2 days. If you’d like, you can freeze scooped-out balls of dough. Let them stand at room temperature while you preheat the oven; frozen dough may not spread as much. The baked cookies can be packed airtight and frozen for up to 2 months.

held its own

I’ve been spending a lot of time in the kitchen lately. Perhaps it’s that I’ve been working from home of late. Or that after the holidays, it’s nice to cook for one for a change. Or that sometimes it feels good to turn on a podcast (I alternate between these two right now, both on iTunes), turn off your brain, and let your hands, a good knife, a mandoline and some heat do all the work.

It’s been simple foods mainly: cucumber and radish salad; shakshuka (make a huge pot of spicy sauce for the week, then each morning ladle a few spoons into a pan, plop in two eggs, and into the oven); a tomato soup based on Marcella Hazan’s four-ingredient sauce; an obnoxious number of hard boiled eggs (slice ’em up with this guy, mix with mustard, capers, oil, and parsley, and you’ve dashed together a quick and dirty sauce gribiche to scoop up with green beans); coleslaw like this one with cabbage instead of delicate sprouts.

Today I repeated one of my Rosh Hashanah menu items – the chicken dish that I added at the last minute on the off chance that someone didn’t want to eat meat.The plate returned to the kitchen with only lonely piece left, which means it more than held its own against the “Sultan’s Delight” short ribs.

It’s an Ottolenghi recipe (from his first book, which in the US was his third book) which is meant to be roasted on a sheet pan so that as many chicken edges  as possible can brown. I, of course, ignored those directions last month and made it in a disposable aluminum pan with high sides and the juice pooled around the chicken. I used a cut up chicken as well as boneless skinless chicken breasts because that’s what I had in the freezer and because that’s what  you do for an eleventh hour dish. The skin on the bone-in pieces got soggy and sad, but the naked breasts came out plump and juicy, infused with citrusy marinade.

This time, I just made two breasts – naked as I seem to prefer them – and halved the recipe. They marinated overnight in a mix of lemon and red onion slices, a crushed garlic clove, brightly sour sumac, warming cinnamon, and olive oil. I know raw chicken is supposed to be gross, but it looked so pretty going into the oven, sprinkled generously at the last moment with za’atar.

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40 minutes later, with just a few interruption for basting, dinner was done.

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Za’atar and lemon roasted chicken 

Adapted from Yotam Ottolenghi, as published in Bon Appetit. I used boneless skinless chicken breasts because I found they worked best in a deeper dish. If you’re going to make this on a sheet pan as the original recipe suggests, skin-on chicken should work well because the chicken should crisp up. I skipped the allspice, doubled the lemon, and didn’t bother to finish with pine nuts or parsley. After all, it’s weeknight dinner, folks. 

Serves 4

– 4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts or thighs

– 2 medium red onion, thinly sliced

– 2 garlic cloves, smashed

– 2 lemon, thinly sliced

– 1 tablespoon sumac

– 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

– 1 cup low-sodium chicken broth or water (I used water)

– 1/4 cup olive oil, plus more for drizzling

– 1 T kosher salt

– 2 tablespoons za’atar

Marinate. Toss chicken, onions, garlic, lemon, sumac, cinnamon, broth/water, oil, and salt in a large resealable plastic bag. Chill at least 2 hours or overnight.

Prep. Preheat oven to 400°.

Roast. Place chicken, onions, garlic, and lemon in a roasting pan, spooning any remaining marinade over and around chicken. Sprinkle with za’atar and roast chicken, dousing it with any pooled juices periodically, until browned and cooked through, 40–45 minutes. Check with the the tip of a sharp paring knife to make sure the meat isn’t pink anywhere (you can cover up any holes with a slice of lemon).

 

no time to sleep

A friend once told me that if you nap on Rosh Hashanah, you’ll sleep through the upcoming year. Bubbameister or not, it’s always bugged me as I’ve crawled onto the sofa for a post-services, post-lunch, pre-dinner schluff. Clearly it never bothered me enough, but it did always give me pause.

So a nap-free 5777 was a first. There was no afternoon curling up under a blanket, no slurping coffee and then resting my eyes for a few more minutes because synagogue will go until 1 or 2 so going late won’t make much of a difference, no reading on a hammock, its swaying lulling me to sleep.

This year, though, I started a new tradition. While I have in the past hosted my immediate family for Rosh Hashanah, this is the first time I’ve ever cooked for my extended family. It’s not a huge family – we had ten around my table on Sunday evening – but it felt monumental for me to add a new holiday to our biannual Thanksgiving-Passover gathering repertoire. I guess now it’s triannual. It made me feel like a real grownup.

It worked out that I was between projects, so I had the luxury of being able to plan, shop, and then cook for five days straight. Of course, my refrigerator stopped working, so in the middle of it all, a couple of repairmen breezed through my kitchen and came up with a temporary solution that required two visits. I’m still waiting for some parts to come in for a full repair. I can’t help but wonder whether the fact that I offered them cookies during their first visit resulted in their needing to return not once, but twice.

Most of the recipes were tried and true and straight from the blog. For the main event (i.e., the first night – Sunday), after the traditional challah (from Breads), apples and honey, and new fruit (dragon fruit one night, rambutan the next), we dipped into muhammarah, chopped liver, and eggplant tomato salad alongside a big dish of pickles. After making over eleven pounds of Ana Sortun’s tamarind-braised short ribs, I worried that someone might not want beef, so I threw together an Ottolenghi recipe for za’atar roast chicken that was demolished. As far as sides, we went with butternut squash with balsamic onions, green beans with hazelnut and orange, and arugula salad with pear and pomegranate (a variation on this one). Dessert? Fruit and then I went overboard and baked four sweets: honey cake, the easiest apple cake in the worldchocolate chip cookies, and pine nut and rosemary biscotti. More on those in a moment.

Lunch after synagogue was bagels and lox. Dinner Monday was at my friend Meira’s,  and my mom made Nach Waxman’s brisket and her matzah ball soup. Our final lunch was mushroom soup followed by leftovers.

There was no time to sleep between cooking and setting up and eating and cleaning up and going to synagogue and starting everything all over again, four times over two days. So, perhaps it’s a harbinger of the year to come, a busy one with lots to do and little time to nap.

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As for the recipe that was new to my table and blog: these biscotti. They’re from my friend Rachel Roddy‘s cookbook Five Quarters (the US version is My Kitchen in Rome) – she was one of the teachers at the food writing course I took at Anna Tasca Lanza in Sicily last year. They have pine nuts and rosemary, the combination of which feels just so Italian. And Rachel’s technique is so different from my mine whereby I whip the eggs and sugar until very aerated to prevent the cookies from being tooth-shattering.

Rachel’s directions are simple. Essentially, just use your hands. You mush everything together in one bowl, letting the dough squish between your fingers and lodge itself under your nails. It feels rustic, like a technique handed down from someone’s nonna’s nonna’s nonna. I was skeptical the first time I tried the recipe and made a bunch of modifications. I used my mixer. I added an extra egg because the dough seemed too dry. I added some flour and wrestled with the dough. And the biscotti came out great. The next time, I used water instead of egg to control the amount of liquid. I still needed to wrestle with the dough. And they came out great.

So finally, in the rush to get everything done and no time to waste second guessing myself, I did what I should have done the first time – I followed the recipe as it was written. And they came out great.

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Biscotti di mondorle e pinoli (Almond, pine nut, and rosemary biscotti)

Adapted from Rachel Roddy’s Five Quarters (the US version is My Kitchen in Rome). Rachel makes these with 1 teaspoon fennel seed, but I’m not a fan of licorice flavors, so I latched on to her suggestion to use fresh rosemary instead. The raw dough tastes a bit too sweet and floury when raw, and is a little squirrel-y when you’re trying to form it – don’t worry, dig your hands in to wrestle it into shape and it bakes up just fine. Well, better than fine. 

Makes about 3 dozen

– 2 C (250 g) all-purpose flour

– 1 C (250 g) sugar

– 1/2 t baking powder

– 1/2 t salt

– 1 t finely chopped fresh rosemary

– 1 C (100 g) sliced or slivered almonds

– 1/2 C (75 g) pine nuts

– 2 eggs, beaten

Prep. Preheat the oven to 350ºF. Line a baking sheet with parchment.

Mix. Sift the flour into a large bowl and add the rest of the ingredients except the eggs. Mix well. Add the beaten eggs and use your hands to bring the ingredients together into a ball of firm dough, making sure the nuts are well distributed.

Shape. Cut the ball of dough in half. Shape both halves into sausages about 1 1/2 inches in diameter and place them on the baking tray. If the dough is a bit crumbly, squish it together as best you can and then wet your hands and smooth out the top.

Bake. Bake for 20-25 minutes, by which time the dough will she spread out and should still be soft in the middle, but firm enough to cut into slim slices.

Slice. Take the rolls out of the oven and reduce the temperature to 325ºF. Let the rolls cool a little, then carefully lift or slide them to a chopping board. Using a sharp, serrated knife, cut them on a slight diagonal into slices about 1/3 inch wide.

Bake again. Put the slices back on the baking tray, and cook for another 15 minutes, or until dry, firm, and crisp.

Cool. Cool on a wire rack, then store them in an airtight tin.

 

 

 

cheese burekas

Fall is the season for baking cookbooks. Between the chill in the air and the upcoming holidays, people are ready to rev up their ovens. This year is no exception and I’ll be discussing a bunch of them for The Forward.

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First up, Breaking Breads. Written by Uri Scheft, co-owner of Breads in New York and Lehamim in Israel, this cookbook offers bakery specialties like the best chocolate babka in New York and beautiful (and tasty) challah that graced my Rosh Hashanah table this year. There are tons of recipes that reflect Uri’s Israeli and Danish heritage and his wife’s Yemenite and Moroccan background, including strudel, kubaneh, several marzipan pastries, krembo, and different salads and dips.

I first met Uri at Union Square Cafe, where he used to eat a late lunch at the bar. The restaurant was across the street from Breads, and the bakery supplied the sesame crusted Jerusalem baguette (recipe in the book) that filled the bread baskets and were my usual mid-shift break-time snack. No surprise that I was also in Breads a few times a week and I really miss working nearby.

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For my article for The Forward, I made Uri’s cheese burekas because stuffed food is traditional for Sukkot. I baked them on Sunday morning, stuffed three in my mouth straight from the oven, got a few pictures in, and then brought the rest to my friend’s: her four-year old sons loved them. You might be tempted to skip the nigella seeds because they’re not as easy to find as sesame seeds, but it would be a mistake (and they’re really inexpensive at Whole Foods). Their flavor is hard to describe – it’s a little bit like burnt onion, but in a good way, and it really complements the cheese mix (feta, cream cheese, and sour cream).

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Breads Bakery’s Cheese Burekas

Recipe by Uri Scheft from Breaking Breads. I used Dufour brand all-butter puff pastry, which comes in packages of 14 ounces, but Uri notes that this is close enough to a pound for the recipe to work. Even though my unbaked burekas looked a bit of a mess, by the time the pastry puffed browned and the cheese melted, they came out pretty nicely. If you want,  you can fill and fold the burekas and them freeze them so you can have a fresh burekas whenever you want – they might just need a few extra minutes in the oven. 

Makes 8 burekas

2/3 cup (135 grams) cream cheese (at room temperature)
3/4 cup (30 grams) feta cheese, crumbled
1/3 cup (70 grams) sour cream
2 large eggs
2 tablespoons (25 grams) all-purpose flour, plus extra for rolling and shaping
1 pound (455 grams) store-bought puff pastry, thawed if frozen
1 teaspoon water
Pinch fine salt
1/3 cup (50 grams) sesame seeds
1/3 cup (50 grams) nigella seeds

1) Place the cream cheese and feta cheese in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment and beat on medium-low speed until smooth. Add the sour cream and mix until well combined. Add 1 egg and beat to combine, scraping down the sides and bottom of the bowl as necessary. Add the flour and mix until combined.

2) Set the puff pastry on a lightly floured work surface and roll it into a rectangle approximately 8½ by 16½ inches and about 1/8 inch thick. Trim the edges so you have a nice, clean rectangle, then divide the dough into eight 4-inch squares. In a small bowl, whisk the remaining egg with the water and salt; brush some of this egg wash over 2 adjacent edges of each square. Reserve the remaining egg wash.

3) Place about 3 tablespoons of the cheese filling in the center of each square and fold the non-egg-washed side of the dough over to meet the egg-washed edge—but do not press the edges to seal. Instead, lightly tap the sides together about 1/8 inch in from the edge; then use your finger to press down and seal the triangle along this line (this is so the edges puff when baked, letting you see the layers of the pastry at the edge of the burekas).

4) Set the burekas on a parchment paper-lined sheet pan and refrigerate for at least 20 minutes and up to 24 hours (if refrigerating them longer than 1 hour, cover the sheet pan with plastic wrap).

5) Preheat the oven to 400° F.

6) Remove the burekas from the refrigerator and brush the top of each one with the remaining egg wash. Stir the sesame seeds and nigella seeds together in a small bowl, and sprinkle each bureka generously with the seed mixture. Bake the burekas until they are puffed and golden brown, about 25 minutes. Try to cool the burekas slightly before eating—if you have the willpower!

 

eggplant bacon

I made an E(ggplant)BLT. You can read about it here.

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The eggplant bacon – essentially spiced and smoked (with liquid smoke) eggplant chips – may not taste naughty, but the combo of juicy tomato, crisp lettuce, creamy mayo, and smoky salty crispy strips between lightly toasted pullman slices made me feel a little sacrilegious.

While the recipe says that the bacon loses its crispness quickly, I found that it kept well in an airtight container and was delicious the next day crumbled over a salad with chicken for a faux cobb.

PS – please ignore my reflection in the photo of the colander!

Eggplant Bacon for an EBLT

Recipe by Raquel Pelzel in Eggplant.

The key to making thin strips of eggplant crisp like bacon is time. First, salt the eggplant and let it sit for at least an hour so it lets go of all of the excess water. Then marinate it with high-octane stuff like maple syrup and liquid smoke (just a little won’t kill you, I swear) overnight. Then slowly bake it in a barely warm oven. The result is kind of like smoky-sweet eggplant chips, and yes, they can totally stand in for bacon in a BLT or even for chips with baba ghanouj.

2 medium eggplants (about 1 pound total)
1 tablespoon puls ½ teaspoon kosher salt, divided
¼ cup apple cider
3 tablespoons pure maple syrup
2 tablespoons soy sauce
½ teaspoon liquid smoke (optional, but c’mon, just do it)
1 teaspoon finely chopped rosemary
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
Nonstick cooking spray or oil for greasing the rack

1) Cut the ends off of the eggplants, then slice a sliver off of one side lengthwise so the eggplant doesn’t roll around when you slice it. Cut each eggplant into think planks, about 1/8- to ¼-inch thick (use a mandoline if you have one), so you have at least 20 slices (some will break). Place the eggplant in a colander and toss with 1 tablespoon of the salt, then set the colander in the sink and let it drain for about 1 hour. Pat the eggplant slices dry with paper towel.

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2) In a large bowl, mix together the apple cider, maple syrup, soy sauce, liquid smoke (if using), rosemary, smoked paprika, cayenne and the remaining ½ teaspoon of salt. Add the eggplant and toss to combine, then transfer to an airtight container and refrigerate overnight, shaking the container (make sure that lid is on tight!) every now and then.

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3) Preheat the oven to 225° F. Lightly coat a wire rack with nonstick cooking spray (or brush with a little oil) and set inside a rimmed baking sheet. Lay the eggplant slices on the rack and bake until they’re dry, crisp and golden brown, about 1½ hours.

Note: The eggplant bacon loses its crispness quickly, so eat it up tout suite.

good sentences

American poet Jane Kenyon once gave a lecture entitled “Everything I Know About Writing Poetry,” the notes from which I have learned were published posthumously in A Hundred White Daffodils. In her notes, she wrote:

“Be a good steward of your gifts. Protect your time. Feed your inner life. Avoid too much noise. Read good books, have good sentences in your ears. Be by yourself as often as you can. Walk. Take the phone off the hook. Work regular hours.”

Author and writing professor Dani Shapiro shared these words – she tacks them above her desk – during a workshop I attended at Kripalu two weekends ago. It was called “The Stories We Carry.” I couldn’t remember the name of the course the entire time I was at the yoga retreat center (even though once the workshop was over I realized how perfect of a title it was) and when people asked me what program I was on, I mumbled something about writing and meditation.

I started to meditate a little over a year ago, taking a course at the JCC led by Bernice Todres and have continued attending monthly refresher courses. I can’t say I’ve really perfected my practice, but I try. Or I try to try. And I guess that’s why they call it a practice, right? The fact that I’ve even considered meditation is a big deal – see how far I’ve come from this article back in 2011.

Anyway, one of the first meditations that Dani led us through our first day was what she called a metta (which I of course heard as meta, which led to some confusing roundabout logic in my mind). Metta, which I looked it up, means loving-kindness and is apparently a Buddhist practice offering heartfelt wishes for the well-being of oneself and others.

We sat on the floor, on chairs, on these things called backjacks, legs crossed or not, posture straight or not, eyes closed. Dani started: May I be safe. May I be happy. May I be strong. May I live with ease. Now think of someone in your life. May you be safe. May you be happy. May you be strong. May you live with ease. Think of someone you have difficulty with. May you be safe. May you be happy. May you be strong. May you live with ease. Think of a known stranger, someone you see every day, but do not really know. May you be safe. May you be happy. May you be strong. May you live with ease.

As the first day drew to a close, she suggested that we continue our evening in quiet and that we go to sleep with good sentences in our ears.

I went back to my room, cocooned in my blanket, and picked up the novel that I would carry around with me everywhere, a safety blanket of sorts as I decided how much to engage in the weekend. I finished a chapter entitled “Fifteen Days of Five Thousand Years” – a staccato chronology of a (fake) natural disaster in the Middle East that leads to political unrest, told through news reports, politician statements, and war declarations – and had to close the book because it was so draining.

Have good sentences in your ears.

I recited the Shema prayer that I used to sing with my Bubbie when I stayed at her house in Philadelphia. I couldn’t fall asleep.

Have good sentences in your ears.

May I be safe. May I be happy. May I be strong. May I live with ease. May you be safe. May you be happy. May you be strong. May you live with ease. Safe. Happy. Strong. Ease.

The weekend was one of fitful nights, failed naps, skipped yoga classes, yet it was punctuated by spurts of inspiration. I shared my writing, connected with strangers, and sat quietly.

I then went home and started a flurry of preparations for Rosh  Hashanah. More on that in the next post.

Last night, I stuck a card in the business book I’ve been plodding through, and picked up Molly on the Range. I wanted good sentences in my ears. And, my god, does Molly deliver! I slept better than I have in weeks, and woke up with a vision of Israeli breakfast.

I had everything in house thanks to some holiday leftovers, a trip to the green market yesterday, the #fridayfairy, and spices sent from my friend‘s restaurant.

Fueled by an iced coffee (well, maybe two), I chopped and fried and swooshed and sliced and spread and sprinkled.

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And I ate at the table, the moody sky trying to poke through the window.

I sat down to write and for the first time in a long time, the words flowed easily. I refueled with some French toast. And I hit “publish.”

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Israeli breakfast

Inspired by Molly on the Range and Molly herself. 

Make Israeli salad: Chop a tomato or two, removing the seeds that you can easily scoop out  and drain in a sieve while you take care of the rest. Here are the other diced vegetables I added: cucumber, radish, and red onion soaked in a little salt and vinegar. Mix with lemon juice, olive oil, and salt and pepper. Sprinkle with flat-leaf parsley, za’atar, cumin, and sumac.

Fry an egg.

Scoop plain Greek yogurt on one side of a plate. Drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with spices and salt. Slide the egg on one side and pile Israeli salad on the other. Add a slice of challah and keep a jar of tahini nearby for spreading, drizzling, and slurping. Don’t forget the coffee, if you have any left over after all that chopping.

Challah French toast

In a shallow bowl, use a fork to combine an egg, a splash of milk, and a dash of orange blossom water or vanilla (and if you want to be all fancy, a little orange zest). Soak two slices of challah in the mixture until saturated. Melt butter in a pan over medium-high heat. Toast both sides of the challah and serve with dark maple syrup.

place and time

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As August drew to a close, I escaped the city and spent a week in Bermuda for a change of scenery to help reignite my creativity. One of my goals was to find a place where water and a hammock were always within reach, and I accomplished that expertly. I packed more bathing suits than t-shirts.

The first half of my trip I spent at an historic old estate on two acres of land, which sounds like a lot and indeed is a lot on an island smaller than Manhattan. Sharing this land, along with the home’s owners and a honeymooning couple, were three dogs, a goat named Billy, a goose, and an egg-laying hen. Across the road lolled a small bay filled with bobbing boats, the water salty enough to make it difficult to swim but easy to float.

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The sliver of a beach was small to begin with – perhaps three towels wide, maybe only two – and as the days drew to a close, the tide came in and the beach disappeared. I waded through ankle deep water to grab my shoes and coverup and silently thanked myself for the gift that was this vacation.

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I ate most lunches in restaurants and used that time to explore a tiny bit of the island, while my mornings and evenings were lazy and filled with sun and sea and pool and books and writing and music. The rest of my meals came from the kitchenette in my room, which meant lots of coffee and yogurt and fruit. This was by design – not an effort to keep costs down, but an effort to keep effort down.

About an hour after landing, I eagerly agreed when my taxi taxi driver offered to stop to pick up some food before dropping me off at my home for a few days “What produce is local?” I asked innocently. The driver chuckled as as he eased down the narrow winding roads, tooting his horn at other drivers, waving at pedestrians. “The only thing we export is our smiles; everything else we import.” The produce aisle looked eerily similar to the ones at home, just double or triple the price.

One of the best meals of the week was sourced from the neighbors. First, fish. A red hind caught that morning and filleted before my eyes by Pete whose boat I could swim to from my beach. Next, the rest. The honeymooners in the other suite and I pooled our fridge contents. Dinner was cobbled together by the pool, with lemon-drenched grilled fish, a cheese omelette, sautéed cauliflower, and margarine-rubbed rolls. It was eclectic and bizarre and we ate it as it rained.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAphoto-sep-01-2-30-31-pm-crOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMidway through my trip, I took a ferry to St. George. The fact that everyone recommended the same two restaurants was less a statement on how good they were than on the size of the town and its food options.

Here I stayed in an apartment immaculately staged as the old sea captain’s quarters that it had been way back when. Wide plank floors. A dark wooden table surrounded by studded leather chairs. A telescope and a mariner’s spinning globe.

Perched high above town and overlooking the harbor, I waited out a storm my first morning.

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In his September newsletter, David Leibovitz wrote about “a vacation where you work,” and that’s what this trip was for me. Sure, I’m back to making my living in healthcare, but I’m still writing for myself and writing for The Forward and with so many new cookbooks out this fall, I had a lot of catching up to do.

I sat by the pool, on the porch, by the blasting A/C and I wrote.

I had conducted some interviews in the days before I left so I spent a good few hours listening and transcribing. As a result, I replayed in my mind a story that Elissa Altman shared when discussing her most recent memoir Treyf. Her grandmother’s brisket, an “elemental” dish of  just meat and onions, had seemed lost for years. The scrawled recipe referenced adding a glass of water, and she and her cousins had started with shot glasses and worked their way up to try to reproduce it. It was only when Altman was living in her late grandmother’s apartment, rummaging through her drawers, finding a five pound cleaver that her great grandmother had schlepped from Czernowitz, cooking on her stove in a kitchen tinged with schmaltz, that she looked up from the sink to discover an empty yahrtzeit glass. A perfect ten ounces, it yielded the brisket of her memory.

Altman told me this story to illustrate why in a memoir where food was featured so prominently, she didn’t include recipes. As a cookbook editor, she gets the need for precision and exacting measurements. But she felt that the food in Treyf was tied to place and time: “Food and the act of cooking is live, it’s organic, it’s ever-changing. And we actually have to take it at more than just face value, which is why when everyone asked whether I was going to put recipes in Treyf, I said no, there’s lots of food in it, but I don’t want to think about the food in the book that way.”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASoon after returning from Bermuda, I saw a photo Altman posted of dinner one night. She described it: “pan-roasted corn and zucchini with red chile and local sheep feta.” We then had the following exchange:

Me: I pretty much have all these ingredients – I think I know what tomorrow’s lunch will be!

Altman: Sauté the corn first, remove, add the zucchini, brown it, then add the corn back……
Me: Oh, thanks for the advice! Can’t wait to try it out…
Altman: and then squeeze lime (not lemon) over it.
Me: Lime….interesting…now, that I don’t have, but would be great with that corn. Might just pop over to my corner fruit guy in the morning…
Altman: think Mexican: squash, corn, queso fresco, lime

This dish, one that I’ve repeated several times since and will continue to churn out as long as zucchini and corn are in season, doesn’t need a recipe. It captures place and time, a return to my own kitchen while eking out the last days of summer.

 

 

My mother keeps packets of Gulden’s spicy brown mustard in her purse.

There used to be a kosher grocery store in Maryland that my parents frequented and, in the front of the store was a hot dog stand. The stand only provided bright yellow mustard, but my dad likes his mustard deli-style spicy. So he would slip a jar of mustard from the store into my mom’s cart to squirt on the one dog that he’d eat. After this happened a few times, my mom got smart. Even thought the store and the hot dog stand are no longer around, she still stashes my dad’s favorite mustard for hot dog emergencies.

It shouldn’t come as such a surprise that I homed in on the recipe for spicy whole-grain mustard in The Gefilte Manifesto: New Recipes for Old World Jewish Foods. I spoke to co- authors and Gefilteria co-founders Jeffrey Yoskowitz and Liz Alpern last month, and you can find our discussion over on The Forward. The conversation and article is peppered with words like gospel and ambassador, and this book gives even more evidence that these two are leading the next generation of Jewish food historians, champions, makers, and fressers.

Their approach to recipe development is as deliberate as their philosophy and, if you wanted, you could buy the book just for the instructions (but why would you?). As someone who has reviewed my fair share of cookbooks, it was clear to me that the recipes were double, triple, quadruple tested and the abundant notes and variations make the book approachable to anyone. That’s not to say that the dishes are quick and easy – in fact, many of them are quite involved – but you can rest assured that if you read the recipes all the way through (beware of long fermentation, soaking, and rising times), you’re in safe hands.

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Before we get to the recipe, a few notes. This mustard is sinus-clearingly intense, and I’ll be giving a jar to my parents over Rosh Hashanah. The recipe requires an overnight soak and then two days to mellow, so prepare for that. If you want to lower the heat, I’ve done a little research and think that substituting milder yellow mustard seeds for brown will help; Jeffrey also suggested upping the honey or trying a more delicate vinegar.

Spicy whole-grain mustard

Reprinted from The Gefilte Manifesto: New Recipes for Old World Jewish Foods

Mustard is a key player in Ashkenazi cooking. The mustard plant, a member of the Brassica family, has some pretty important relatives in cabbage and horseradish. Can you imagine eastern European Jewish cooking without them? Probably not. And you also probably can’t imagine a hot deli pastrami sandwich without spicy ground mustard. Personally, I can’t fathom life without a hot deli pastrami sandwich.

Why make your own mustard? Some store-bought mustard contains thickeners and unnamed “spices.” But more important, homemade mustard is just really good. Liz and I cooked a four-course pop-up dinner one January night at Barjot, a restaurant in Seattle. We made almost everything ourselves, from the schmaltz to the pastries. But we didn’t make mustard because Barjot makes its own. After the meal, a guest pulled me aside and said, “Everything was great, but the mustard is out of this world.” Oof. It was time for us to make our own. This recipe is inspired by Barjot’s.

Ashkenazi mustard should have bite and texture. Smear it on Home-Cured Pastrami (page 210) and Home-Cured Corned Beef (page 207), eat it with savory Roasted Garlic Potato Knishes (see page 195), and use it for salad dressings.

1 cup whole brown mustard seeds

1¼ cups apple cider vinegar

¼ cup mustard powder

2½ tablespoons honey

½ teaspoon kosher salt

1. Place the mustard seeds and vinegar in an airtight glass container and let sit at room temperature until the seeds absorb the vinegar and plump up, at least overnight or up to 24 hours.

2. Pour the seed mixture into a food processor and add the mustard powder, honey, and salt. Process for a minute or two until a paste forms.

3. Scoop the mustard into a glass jar, seal, and refrigerate for about 2 days to allow the flavor to mellow out. Don’t be alarmed if the initial smell is rather pungent. The mustard will keep in the refrigerator for 4 to 6 months.

new surroundings

I went back to Buvette last week where I ordered the carottes râpées and croque forestière, a grilled mushroom sandwich wrapped in gruyere. As you may recall, I do have a thing for carrot salads from France.

This time, the date showed up but he asked to split the bill. So we’re on to the next one.

Then I spent the weekend downtown, cat sitting or a friend, and took advantage of the new surroundings and colorful cookware to try out a recipe. Buvette’s carrots were on the menu and even though most of my meals took place in restaurants (my parents were in town), I managed to squeeze in a salad and a few fun shots.

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Speaking of new surroundings, I’m actually traveling right now. At the last minute, I booked what I’m calling a creative retreat to Bermuda. I’ve wanted to come here since my friends and I were subjected to a emergency landing on the island, trapped for several hours in the airport with only one vending machine, and tortured with a view of pink houses. I know it may seem extravagant given that I’ve just returned from Iceland. And yet, a bunch of projects over the past month have made it nearly impossible to catch up on a pile of writing – both here and over at the Forward. With the Jewish holidays and several upcoming cookbook releases on the horizon, I wanted to dedicate a little time to my “craft.” I’ve also brought my real camera and hope to play around with photographing things that aren’t food.

You can follow my travels over on Instagram. Today, there were bus rides (including an impromptu sunbathing session sitting on a stone wall at the bus stop, my feet mere inches from the cars, trucks, and bikes – but no bus for nearly an hour – winding their way towards me), reading on a beach that slowly disappeared as the tide came in, and a massage by the pool while the sun set. When I finish posting this, I’m taking a night swim.

And now, before y’all hate me, the recipe.

Buvette’s carottes râpées with pistachios and coriander vinaigrette

Adapted from Buvette: The Pleasure of Good Food. Jody Williams calls this vinaigrette “an assertive lemon dressing” and it’s bracing in its acidity on its own, but mixed with sweet carrots and salty pistachios, it works. This makes a little more dressing than you’ll need. You can use a food processor to grate the carrots, but I prefer to use a julienne peeler for longer, thicker pieces. 

– ¼ C freshly squeezed lemon juice (my lemons were a little sad, so I needed 4; typically you can get ¼ cup juice from 2 lemons)

– ½ C extra virgin olive oil

– 1 medium garlic clove, grated on a Microplane (or finely minced)

– Large pinch sea salt

– Large pinch red chili flakes

– 1 t coriander seeds, toasted

– 4 C grated carrots (approximately 6 carrots hand grated)

– ½ C shelled pistachios (I used roasted salted nuts)

– Handful fresh cilantro leaves

Whisk. Whisk together the lemon juice, oil, garlic, salt, and chili flakes. 

Crush. With a mortar and pestle (I used the other end of a wooden spoon) or the flat side of a knife blade, gently crush the coriander seeds and add them to the dressing.

Marinate. Pour the dressing over the carrots, pistachios, and cilantro. Allow to sit for at least half an hour before serving.

Chill. The salad will keep, well covered, in the refrigerator for a few days.

“When you live in Iceland,” our taxi driver told us, “you have to know how to live. Our winters are so long and so dark that we have to appreciate every hour of sun we can get.”

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Natasha, my friend since high school, and I were en route to Vesturbæjarlaug, a sundlaug (community pool) recommended by our city tour guide the day before. It’s a twenty-minute walk from downtown Reykjavik and we might have made the trek by foot had we not gone horseback riding that morning. What we thought was going to be a one-hour stroll turned into a three-hour rambling tölta gait specific to Icelandic horses that’s supposed to be very smooth but I’m not sure that our tushes would agree.

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Before getting into the pools, we stripped down and washed off the horse farm thoroughly. Very thoroughly.

In addition to a lap pool complete with red twisty slide was a series of heated tubs. We entered the largest tentatively, securing empty spots on a bench, and quickly found a powerful jet for for an aquatic shoulder and neck massage. An older gentleman struck up a conversation and when we told him we had been horse back riding, he laughed: “You should be using the jet on your ass!”

Surrounded by murmurs and laughter among groups – families, friends, neighbors – our muscles relaxed as we each found comfortable positions, leaning on the walls, heads back, sun shining. We followed a circuit of hot pots and I eventually and gingerly made my way into the hottest – a literally steaming 111ºF.

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No, that’s not one of the pools – it’s Strokker geyser, silly!

The communal feel continued for the next hour and a half, as one silver-haired green-suited woman encouraged me to plunge from the heat into the polar (get it?) opposite pool at a frigid 8ºC. Yes, yes, it’s 46ºF, but gosh, doesn’t it sound chillier in celsius?

My first numbing dip was to my knees, second to my belly button, third past my shoulders, punctuated by visits to progressively hotter hot spots. The final time, stopping just short of my chin, I glanced up to see my cheerleader give me a thumbs up. As I rushed out, she smiled: “It takes me three tries also!”

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Afternoon turned to evening but the sky barely changed. As our fingers and toes wrinkled beyond recognition, we took one last pass at the jets and then joined a bevy of teens stretched out in a warm shallow pool. Half-immersed in the one-foot deep water, we turned our heads skyward, suntanning.

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***

Natasha and Gayle’s guide to Reykjavik, Iceland

Eat and drink

Icelandic food is on the heavier side – while there’s a lot of fish, local produce seems to be largely limited to root vegetables and some berries. It did pay to seek out a few nicer places for dinner that had interesting takes of traditional fare. The restaurants never rush you, and you have to ask for your check. We ate dinner late every night because we had pretty full days and making reservations the day before or the day of usually meant that 9 pm was the only available time. That said, it’s light until around midnight, so eating at 9 pm didn’t feel late.

Breakfast, lunch, and coffee

Sandholt. Great bakery on the “main strip” – Laugavegur. We ate our first (breakfast) and last (lunch) meals there and this was a prefect way to bookend our trip. Amazing breads and other baked goods – we should have eaten more! Ask for lemon curd with your skyr – you won’t be sorry.

Gló. When you’re jonesing for some fresh, raw vegetables, head to gló. The entrees are served with a selection of salads and you could probably get by with just the salads for a light lunch.

Reykjavik Roasters. I got my daily morning fix here as it was across from my hotel and they take their coffee very seriously. The baristas are nice (and cute) and the cafe has an eclectic living room feel, complete with wooden trunk turned table in front of lounge-y couch. It’s a little off the beaten path, but if you’re in the neighborhood, it’s worth checking out. And if the coffee doesn’t get you, the avocado toast will.

Kaffislippur. Another coffee place (with decent pastries) that’s in an industrial area near the marina. It’s inside one of the coolest hotels I’ve ever seen (see below).

Dinners (in order of preference)

Matur go Drykkur.  This was one of our favorite dinners and we had tasting menus (they even have a vegetarian one!) which included two desserts, including twisted kleina doughnuts with whey caramel (!!! – I found a recipe if you want to try your hand at making yogurt and then using the whey) and, surprise surprise, skyr with strawberries and green strawberry granita. I had one of the most gorgeous (and tasty) cocktails made with chervil (which I kept mispronouncing as chevril). The restaurante has an open kitchen and is cute inside, but it’s a storefront in the middle of a parking lot and the entrance is through a hotel. Do make a reservation – we made one the night before and only 9 pm was available, and they were turning parties away at the door.

Fiskelagid. Despite the uninspiring name (it means Fish Company), this place served another favorite dinner of ours. The restaurant is down a flight of stairs and the indoor seating is subterranean and a little cave-like, but it works. We opted to skip the tasting menus, and our skyr dessert featured a caramelized blondie, lemony sorrel crystals (ahem, granita) and merengue, and hazelnut gelato. Again, a reservation is probably a good idea – we made ours at the last minute, and like almost every other night, the only time we were able to eat was at 9 pm.

Laekjarbrekka. We had a very good dinner here on our fist night, perhaps a bit less innovative than the first two restaurants I mentioned and with an older, mostly local clientele. I had arctic char with a hollandaise sauce – a bit of an odd combination but the fish was great. This is the place that started our skyr obsession, served with a scoop of blueberry sorbet and oatmeal crumbles – the inspiration for the recipe in my next post.

Loki. Right across from Hallgrimskirkja church, this casual spot serves homey traditional food and the super dense, moist rye bread – similar to Boston brown bread – that steams overnight in a geothermally-heated dirt “oven.”

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CityWalk tour. This free two-ish hour walking tour of Reykjavik was a great way to get to know the city and I recommend trying to do it on your first day. Our guide was a grad student in art history, knowledgable, and, like my coffee dude, cute to boot. After the tour, he sent us a list of suggested places to visit, eat, drink, etc. We had originally booked a walking tour with Kex Hostel but after paying and arriving, we were told that the tour not offered and should have never been available on the website. The tour coordinator there told us about the CityWalk tour and, after a little bit of coaxing, cheerfully drove us to the starting point.

Eldhestar. Combination horse farm and hotel. They have a variety of horseback riding options through their rustic fields and creeks, and seem to cater to a lot of experience levels. We went with the newby crowd and were able to try the famous tölt gait. If you ride Kria, beware the shifting saddle. Included in our tour (horses and puffins) was a simple lunch at the hotel – they have soup every day and a basic sandwich bar that included some welcome vegetable, nothing fancy but enough to tide us over. Our ride was notably longer than the 1.5-2 hour advertised. They will lend you boots and rain jumpsuits which we foolishly declined and both ended up throwing out our sneakers and jeans (the horses seem to delight in wiping their grass- and snot-covered nostrils on our legs). Try to get a fly net for your face, otherwise you may end up eating a few insects. The farm  picked us up at our hotel.

Puffins! Our one hour puffin tour was led by Special Tours. The boat ride was a fun way to see the adorable little birds (they have powerful binoculars onboard for anyone to use) and catch a different view of the city.

Golden circle. This is the bare minimum of nature-based touring that anyone visiting Iceland must do. It includes the geysers of Haukadalur (Geysir is the original geyser, though it’s not as active as it once was, so we saw Strokker instead which erupts every 5-10 minutes), Gulfoss Falls, and Þingvellir National Park (where the North American and European tectonic plates meet). We booked our trip with Reykjavik Excursions which was good – we opted for the later departure (10 am) highlights-only trip, because jet lag.

Harpa. Meaning “harp,” this concert hall and performance center is a stunner from outside and in. It’s won a bunch of architecture awards and was apparently built to demonstrate that Iceland was coming out of its financial difficulties. We saw a funny, cheesy one-man show that was a good tongue-in-cheek introduction to Icelandic culture.

Reykjavik 871 +/-2: The Settlement Exhibition. This small museum is at the site of an archeological dig of what is thought to be one of the first houses in Iceland from the time when the island was settled (in 871 CE). We serendipitously caught a tour and the whole thing took about an hour including some wandering time. They have a bunch of games and interactive exhibits for kids and, well, kids like us.

Hallgrimskirkja. Tall church and national monument that apparently has great views. We didn’t make it up. Apparently they have a mediation with organ on Thursdays from 12:00 – 12:30 which I would have liked to go to, but we ran out of time.

Dip

Go to as many geothermal and community pools as you can. Enough said.

Blue Lagoon. Super touristy and you should go anyway. This is a natural geothermal pool – it sinks of sulfur, but you get used to it pretty quickly. Do the silica mud mask, pay a few dollars for the algae mask as well. Let them take your photo – they’ll make you look pretty, and email the picture to you. There’s a restaurant inside – LAVA – that’s supposed to be very good but we weren’t in the mood for a fancy sit-down lunch. You need a reservation for the lagoon (we booked the comfort package which includes a towel) and any tour company can schedule it for you along with transportation. Many people go straight there from the airport since it’s so close, but I’m not quite sure about the luggage storage situation. Even with a reservation, the line to get in took at least 15 minutes, but once inside everything runs really smoothly. If you want to get a massage or other spa service, you need to book in advance. Unlike other pools, the shower here have doors if you’re squeamish about that sort of thing.

Vesturbæjarlaug. This is a community pool recommended by our walking tour guide. He said it’s a 20 minute walk from City Hall (near the bottom of Laugavegur) where our tour ended, but we took a taxi from our hotel. This is the real deal if you want to feel like part of the neighborhood. The multiple pools are chlorinated and at various temperatures. The majority seem to be in the 36º-38ºC range while there are a few “hot pots” reaching up to 44CºC and a cold bath for quick dips (or, if you’re a native, a nice long soak). Be prepared to shower and wash in your birthday suit in a single-sex room.

Buy

Woolens. I picked up a blanket and hat at Nordic Store (where Laugavegur dead-ends onto Lækjargata). Prices and brands seemed pretty consistent across stores.

Salt.  There is a wide variety of locally harvested salt. Norður is a flaky sea salt – think of it as the Maldon of Iceland. Saltver also makes a fleur-de-sel like product,  but I opted their interestingly flavored more chunky salts (about the consistency of Diamond kosher salt) and picked up a pretty jar of birch-smoked in a 10-11 convenience store (think 7-Eleven) which had a much lower price than tourist or grocery (Bónus) stores. I also bought no-name black lava salt in a souvenir shop.

Blue Lagoon skin care products. We hemmed and hawed when we saw the price of the silica mud mask but on the last day of our trip, we broke down and each bought a tube. I’ve used it since the trip and I’m happy I ended up splurging – the mask just feels so good! If you don’t pick anything up at the lagoon itself, there’s a store on Laugavegur and one in the airport. Prices are the same everywhere.

ChocolateOmnom is a loved the salted almond. I even tried the licorice chocolate bar by accident and I did not hate it. Definitely buy at the grocery store and there happened to be a pretty good deal at dutyfree in the airport. Apparently they have a factory tour – next time, definitely next time. Nói Síríus is the oldest and largest chocolate manufacturer in Iceland and they make an addictive milk chocolate bar with toffee bits.

Licorice (“lakkrís”) everything. Ok, not for me but it’s everywhere and in everything.

Sleep

Hotel Klettur. We booked this in a deal with our flight and were very happy with it. The hotel is located about two blocks from the top of Laugavegur, so it was quiet and peaceful and still really convenient. We had a fairly basic room with a view of the water and the all-important blackout curtains. A breakfast buffet was included – it was decent and held  us over, though I did get my coffee across the street at Reykjavik Roasters.

Icelandair Hotel, Reykjavik Marina. We didn’t stay here, but we had coffee at Kaffislippur, and wandered around the funkiest hotel common spaces I’ve ever seen: musical instruments hanging over a stairwell, a library, screening room with loungers, gym with a climbing wall, and who knows what else. There’s also a lot of public art around the hotel.

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Thanks to LizKathyLizzie, and Natasha’s friend David for sharing your recommendations and experiences in Iceland, and helping us have an amazing adventure!

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