Sunday, February 21, 2010

Valentine Borscht

Borscht is a peasant soup popular in Central and Eastern Europe. The word comes from the Slavic word borshchevik which means hogweed, a vegetable once important to the Slavs. Today the defining ingredient in borscht is beet root although there are some versions that do not contain beets. For more information about beets read my post from last year about a summer beet salad.
In the Ukraine, where borscht is likely to have originated, it is the national soup and was sometimes eaten multiple times a day as a main meal. It is also served as the first course of a traditional Polish Christmas meal. In other places, it is generally consumed before the main meal.
There are two key types of borscht – hot and cold. The hot version is often chunky, made with potatoes, vegetables and sometimes beef. The cold version is sometimes strained before serving and thus has a thinner consistency (similar to gazpacho). Variations abound and recipes have been known to include dried mushrooms, parsley, dill, lovage, green onions, basil, beans, pickled apples, plums, cherries, eggplant, olives, prunes, ham, mint, ginger, leeks, tomatoes, bell peppers, tarragon, paprika, oregano and sausage.
Many versions require the addition of an acid to sour the – this can be achieved through the addition of lemon, vinegar or citric acid. Some recipes call for natural fermentation which requires the soup to be made several days in advance. Borscht is often served with sour cream, yogurt, cream or a local dairy equivalent.
In North American borscht is closely associated with Ashkenazi Jewish traditions. The term ‘Borscht Belt’ refers to the swath of summer resorts in upstate New York that were popular with New York City Jews between the 1920s and 1960s.
As a humble and quotidian dish, I’ve never heard of the soup in conjunction with Valentine’s Day. However, it seemed perfect as a bright red starter on a cold winter day. It freezes well but will stain plastic containers so we opted to use one gallon freezer bags.

Serves 10-14

4 tablespoons olive oil
2 large onions, chopped
1 1/2 pound russet potatoes (about 2), peeled, chopped into small cubes
1/2 lb carrots, sliced
small cabbage or half a medium cabbage, thinly chopped
6-8 cups vegetable (or meat-based) broth
15 ounces diced tomatoes
4 large beets, peeled and chopped into small cubes
5 bay leaves
4 tablespoons red wine vinegar (balsamic or other)
1 bunch of dill, finely chopped
salt and pepper
sour cream, for garnish (optional)

1. Heat olive oil in a large pot over medium-high heat. Add onions, potatoes, carrots and cabbage. Sauté for 10 minutes.
2. Add broth, tomatoes, beets and bay leaves. Bring soup to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for 15 minutes.
3. Add red wine vinegar and 1/2 dill. Continue cooking for another 15 minutes or until the vegetables are tender.
4. Flavor with salt and pepper to taste. Remove bay leaves.
5. Serve with a dollop of sour cream and remaining dill.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Linzer Muffins

On a recent trip to London, my friends Teresa and Kaspar took me to Princi, a Milanese bakery in SoHo. After a healthy salad, I stood indecisively over a vast counter of rustic pastries. I opted for a large slice of linzertorte – an almond-flavored cake spread with raspberry jam.

These muffins take their inspiration from linzertorte, a traditional Austro-Hungarian specialty now popular throughout central Europe. The torte is named after the Austrian city of Linz which was founded by the Romans and was famously home to Kepler, Bruckner, Hitler and Wittgenstein.

The earliest recipe for linzertorte dates back to the mid 17th century. Traditionally it consists of three layers – a bottom layer of pastry made largely with ground nuts (usually almonds, sometimes hazelnuts or pecans, and rarely walnuts), a middle layer of jam (traditionally black currant lekvar, though apricot and raspberry are also used), and a topping of dough strips arranged in a lattice pattern.

Linzertorte is especially popular during Christmas. In addition to cakes and muffin, the concept has been extended to cookies which I sometimes make for Christmas and Valentine’s Day. Watch this space for the recipe…

Makes 12 muffins


1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup almond meal
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1 large egg
6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) unsalted butter, melted and cooled
3/4 cup sugar
1 cup milk
1/2 teaspoon finely grated fresh lemon zest
1/2 teaspoon almond extract
1/2 cup raspberry jam
1/3 to 1/2 cup slivered almonds, untoasted, for garnish
confectioners sugar for dusting (optional)


1. Preheat the oven to 375F. Prepare a muffin pan with foil or paper liners. If using paper liners, spray them with cooking spray.

2. In a medium bowl, mix flour, almond meal, baking powder, salt and cinnamon. Set aside.

3. In another, large bowl, beat an egg. Then add butter and sugar. Mix well. Add milk, lemon zest and almond extract.

4. Add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients and mix until just combined. Do not overmix.

5. Distribute one heaping tablespoon of batter into each liner. Then add a teaspoon (or more) of jam. Fill liners with remaining batter.

6. Sprinkle each muffin with slivered almonds.

7. Bake for 20 minutes or until muffins are golden brown. Remove from the oven and cool muffins in their pan for 10 minutes.

8. These muffins can be served with a dusting of confectioner’s sugar.