The Eleventh Plague

Time to get serious folks: Passover is coming.

I wanted to give you a minute to either let you totally freak out because you haven’t really started thinking about it yet or else be really confused about why this would be a big deal.

Passover’s imminent arrival means that Jews everywhere are cleaning out cupboards, using up the last of whatever flours, rices, and beans they have sitting around, and pulling out the boxes of passover dishes. Not to mention stocking up on things like matzoh, matzah, and matzo–otherwise known as the Eleventh Plague (I swear I didn’t just make that up…OK maybe I did…a little).

Our house is no exception. It’s got sort of a slow build up and then one night (a week ago Sunday for me) you are laying in bed just on the edge of sleep and suddenly it stikes you: you have to clean your house and convert it for passover in a little under 2 weeks. This is when the panic can sink in if you aren’t accustomed to it.

If you aren’t familiar with the inner workings of a Passover kitchen, this might seem like much ado about nothing. But, I can assure you it is not. Some might compare Passover to Lent, since it involves giving up something in order to be a more spiritual person–better connected with the soul and your ancestors, less concerned with the day to day and the material. There are similarities, but Passover is much stricter and in my own experience, much much harder. For Lent you aren’t required to give up several entire classes of foods, nor are you required to enact a physical change over your dwelling space to ensure that those forbidden foods do not come in contact with your person. And though Lent lasts far longer, each person is at liberty to choose what they will give up, so it can be easier to exercise will power over this extended period.

Passover is meant to be a time to reflect deeply on ones roots–the ancestors of the Jews who were exiled from their homeland of ancient Israel, instead serving as slaves to despotic and racist Egyptian pharaohs. We are asked to place ourselves in the shoes of these ancestors, for good and bad. We give up leavened bread (and lots, lots more) and humble ourselves so that we can imagine what it was like as slaves fleeing our captors. And then, we celebrate the exodus from Egypt as if we ourselves had been there and were set free. But there is lamenting also, for ourselves in the desert, and for the Egyptians who were the victims of the Ten Plagues.

For me, Passover is also a way to discover how I came to be where I am. There are some who believe that when G-d handed down the 10 commandments to Moses all those many years ago in the desert, every single soul of every single Jew who ever existed or ever would exist was in attendance, hovering around to see that historical moment. Sort of mind boggling to be sure, but it is heartwarming to think that even a humble convert like me was actually intended to be Jewish–that somewhere deep inside me was a seed of this spirituality, nurtured into existence by my life experiences up to the point of contact with the Jewish world, when it then came into full bloom.

I have mentioned before that I was not born into Judaism. When I met my now husband, Joe, I was not a religious person–I still don’t consider myself to be. I was raised by parents who had respect for others’ spiritual practices, but none of their own beyond pretty much just being. My parents were, and for the most part still are, total hippies. They taught me to question anything that seemed outwardly authoritarian and religion was included in that group. I went to church occasionally with friends, and even had some friends who were Jewish, but I didn’t have a sense of what that meant.

As I started getting serious with Joe I realized that I needed to learn more about what it was he was doing with his spiritual self or I would never be able to truly connect with him. And since he kept kosher, I needed to learn something about that so that we could share meals together, especially ones that I had prepared. I realize now that this was my diving board into Judaism. I already had a passion for food, which I was building on by going to pastry school, so it was fitting that this was a way I could connect with him. Plus, you know. The way to a man’s heart is totally through his stomach. Whoever said that was not lying.

When I eventually chose to become a Jew there were a lot of elements at play. What it came down to was the spirituality that being a Jew can imbue into the everyday experience. Even beyond praying (which to be perfectly honest, I still have a hard time with), daily activities–and in some cases, restrictions–are meant to elevate the Jew beyond the physical world. And to me, food was the culmination of these ideas. Keeping Kosher is about treating things right: our G-d given bodies, the bodies of the animals who give their lives to nourish us, and the earth that houses us all. It’s about using food as a tool to connect you to the being that is G-d.

So, like that time Joe and I were dining out in a restaurant for one of the very first times and he wouldn’t share a bowl of measly clam chowder with me because he didn’t “eat shellfish,” I now find myself answering questions about how I won’t eat this or that, or why this or that dish isn’t something you will find in my repertoire. I still have a hard time with some things–nobody is prefect and it is incredibly hard to be a newly converted kosher foodie–but I do my best and I occasionally rededicate myself to “keeping Kosher” in the home and out. There are some modern rules for keeping kosher that I continue to have a hard time understanding, like why you aren’t supposed to mix poultry and dairy, even though chickens don’t make milk (and it’s therefore impossible to cook a chicken in it’s mother’s milk).

Here on Kernels and Seeds, I reflect this in subtle ways: many of the recipes are in a kosher category, and I try very hard to make sure they are all at least kosher style. The recipe I’m sharing today is kosher too. Yes, even for Passover. But it’s not really a recipe so much as an idea. I mean, you should be able to bake a potato and do whatever you want with it–but sometimes you just need a little inspiration.  I’ve been loving these potatoes and I will continue to do so all the way through passover–they don’t even require you to bring the Eleventh Plague upon your house.

The earthiness of the potatoes is a natural partner for tangy, buttery blue cheese and sweet roasted leeks. Pair it with a big green salad for lunch and you’ve got yourself a matzah free meal that even the pharaohs would have had trouble turning down.

Baked Potato with Roasted Leeks and Blue Cheese
serves 4 for lunch or a light supper

4 medium sized organic russet potatoes
olive oil
4 oz good quality blue cheese, crumbled
1/4 cup sour cream
1 lb of skinny young leeks, or one larger leek per potato
milk or buttermilk, just a splash or two
salt and pepper to taste

Bake the potatoes however you normally would. I do this in a 375 F oven. Take your potatoes and really scrub them, then lightly coat in olive or canola oil. Rub in a tiny bit of salt and poke it all over with a fork. Place directly on the rack, with a baking sheet on another rack just below the potatoes to catch any drippings. They’ll bake anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour or more, depending on how big they are and how many you are baking.

While the potatoes are baking, you also want to bake the leeks. Slice each leek in half and soak in cold water to remove any grit that is hiding in between the leaves. You might have to gently rub the layers to work any remaining grit out. Remove the darkest green parts–you just want the whites and palest green leaves as they are the most tender. Place the leeks on a baking sheet and coat in a light splash of olive oil. Sprinkle just a small pinch of salt over. Toss to coat. Place the baking sheet in the oven with the potatoes and let them roast until they are tender all the way through and starting to get crispy. When they’re done, let them cool a bit and then chop them roughly, place them in a bowl. Cover with foil and set them aside.

While the potatoes and leeks are in the oven, prepare the blue cheese topping. Crumble the cheese into a bowl and stir in the sour cream, kind of smashing it all together as you go. Add milk or buttermilk until it’s a consistency you’re happy with. It will thicken a bit more as it sits, so you can add more later if it thickens too much. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

When the potatoes are done, slice each one almost through into quarters or sixths, and let each person top their own potato with leeks and blue cheese. Serve with more salt and pepper if need be.

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Those Neglected Things

December can be rough. It can be busy and lonely and hectic and joyful and forgetful and cold and dark and rainy and bright and sunny and ecstatic all at the same time. Without even trying.

It’s this way for me, at least.

I got into the swing of things and was all full of holiday cheer for the most part, but it meant that some things fell by the wayside. There were posts I started to write that never went anywhere. Pictures I took for posts that will probably never even get started, and post ideas that never got pictures.

There was also the small matter of relicensing my small business, Infamous Pastries. I was *supposed* to do this before the deadline of December 31, or else have to pay an extra fee for doing it late. When I remembered that I still hadn’t done this last night just as I was falling asleep, I wept. The tears were tears of both sadness and relief. 

I’m going to be honest here when I say that I don’t think I am cut out to run a business as a self-starter. I am an incredibly hard working person, and I could run a business probably without many hitches if I’d been going down that path for a while with the same job. But I am not an entrepreneur, it turns out. 

I love what I do. I’m a pastry pro at heart. I love the chemistry, I love flavor, and I love pushing the limits of both. I do pretty good with trial and error. I work incredibly well under pressure and even though I generally dislike working with the public at large I seem to be pretty good at it when it comes to helping brides choose wedding cake flavors, etc. I’m bossy enough to get people to do what they need to do, and nice enough that they still like me later. I love to eat and to share that sweet little something with others. I love baking.

I am also an artist. I have been painting and creating art since I was very small, and I even went to art school for a brief time. Turns out, art school didn’t suit me very well (too commercial for me, ironically) so I came home and found a way to create and express that I never really connected to being creative and expressive before. Through food. I went to pastry school and I loved it. I would go back in a heartbeat.  I love the 3 dimensional aspect of a cake as sculpture, and I love to get the flavors just right, layered they way paint is layered on a canvas. 

But artists are notoriously bad self-starters and have for the most part terrible PR skills. That’s why there are so many artists who make no money doing what they love. And I guess I am doomed to fall into that category for now.

Reflecting back on 2011, it was like December on crack. It was every possible emotion and then some. I started a business and decided subconsciously to let it flounder when I found a way to express myself that matched my lifestyle better and came more naturally (blogging). I watched a baby grow into a little girl and grow even larger in my heart as a result. I fell even more in love with Joe, while still feeling like I was somehow growing apart from him because of the things going on in our lives. 

I hope I haven’t neglected too many other important things this past year that were important, because I had a lot of other things to do. Go for walks in the rain with a toddler, make pies for people I love and laugh out loud at silly things. 

I know that there is one thing for sure I didn’t and then did neglect: these marshmallows. When they were in the house we kept nibbling them before I could even give any away, and I had to hide the rest to stop us from finishing them all up. I finally gave some away, then I forgot about them because there were cookies and tarts and cakes. There are a few still hiding in the back of a cupboard somewhere. 

They are simple to make if you have the right tools and you can add pretty much any flavoring you want, so long as you don’t add too much liquid. I had a girlfriend over to make them and we made three batches, all different flavors. We had a blast, and she was glad to do it with me because “I got her through” chemistry class, or so she claims, and wasn’t sure she would have been able to do it without me. They’re easy to make, but I did give her a lot of info that she wouldn’t have learned just making them out of the book. Don’t be frightened of candy making–it’s not even as hard as just plain living.
Basic Marshmallows
Adapted from The Professional Pastry Chef, by Bo Friberg (best textbook I ever bought)
Makes one 9×12 pan, about 3/4″ thick, or spread into a high sided sheet pan for thinner mallows

You kinda need a candy thermometer for this recipe. It’s not a big deal, I promise. 

Cornstarch or powdered sugar
3 Tbsp (18g) unflavored gelatin powder
1 cup cold water, divided
1 lb granulated sugar
2 ounces light corn syrup
4 egg whites (about 1/2 cup)
optional flavorings

Prepare the pan you will put the finished marshmallows in by lining it with parchment paper and dusting lightly with either the cornstarch or the powdered sugar. 

Sprinkle the gelatin in a wide bottomed metal or glass bowl and pour 1/2 cup cold water over it. Stir it with a chopstick to make sure all the gelatin gets moistened, and set aside to soften. Once it’s all softened, put it over a pan of simmering water so that it gets warm and leave it there until you need it at the end. You need it to return to the liquid state of water, but you don’t want it to be too hot.

Place the egg whites in the bowl of your stand mixer with the whip attachment.

Combine the sugar, corn syrup and remaining 1/2 cup of water in a heavy bottomed saucepan over medium heat. This is where the thermometer comes in handy. You are going to boil the sugar to 245ºF. But wait! Once it reaches about 230ºF, you should turn the mixer on high and start your egg whites. They need to be whipped to stiff peaks. Watch closely because the sugar will get very hot very fast starting now. When it reaches 245ºF, turn off the heat and lower the mixer speed to about medium. Very slowly and in a thin, steady stream down the side of the bowl (not over the whip or the syrup will fly out!) very carefully pour the sugar syrup. Once the egg whites start to look pretty glossy and there is a lot of steam rising out of the bowl, you can pour a little faster but do not just dump it in there or it will not be pretty. (Just take my word for it.) After you’ve got all the syrup in there, and with the mixer still mixing, pour in the gelatin, making sure to scrape out all the last bits of it with a spatula. Mix it for a second and then turn the mixer back to high speed. Let it whip until it’s got a nice fluffy texture and smells amazing. 

Add a little (tsp or so) vanilla or other extract now if you want and whip for a second longer. You can also fold in crushed just about anything, like we did with candy canes in one batch and Daim candies in another. About 1/2-3/4 cup per batch should do you right.

Pour it out into the prepared pan, spread with an offset spatula or the back of a clean spoon and sift more powdered whatever you chose over the top. Let set completely before cutting out of the pan. With a knife dipped in hot water, slice cleanly around the edges of the pan. Invert it onto a cutting board or other clean surface, and cut into desired sizes. You should dip your knife and wipe it on a clean cloth each time you make a new cut, for the best results.

* I made a chai version here, and to do that I steeped 2 chai tea bags in one cup of boiling water and then let it cool before using it in the marshmallows. At the end I added about 1/2 tsp of allspice and 1 tsp of ginger. It was awesome, and they are really amazing in homemade chai lattes. Just saying. 

A Latke Primer

I don’t really know anything when it comes to most “Jewish” food. I don’t do gefilte, I dislike both pickled herring and lox, and I’ve never made most of your Bubbie’s famous dishes. But give me a frying pan and some potatoes and I’ll make you a latke to write home about. 

We got a piano for Hanukah!
Two nights down…



















Since there are still a few days left of Hanukah, and I’ve heard from a couple of people that they can’t ever get their latkes quite right, I decided to pass on my humble knowledge of this famous fried food. I’ve also had Joe tell me he thinks I was born with a Jewish soul simply based on how well I cook traditionally cultural Jewish food even when I’ve never made it before, but I guess that’s just his opinion.


There’s really nothing worse than a mushy, soggy latke. Or one that falls apart in the pan and then just ends up in a million burnt shreds. Or one that’s too dry because the potatoes were grated too fine.


In other words, there’s a lot of ways to get them wrong. But I’m going to help you get them right, at least the way I do it. Your Bubbie may or may not approve.

Breaking my own rules: not enough onion 😦



There are a couple of key steps:


Grate the onion first. The juices from the onion will help keep the potato from browning as you grate it. I usually grate about 1/4 of a medium largish onion per 3 potatoes or so. And every 2-3 potatoes I mix the onion and potato shreds together to coat them all with that onion juice. Don’t grate everything too fine or too big either, or your’ll end up either with mush or with latkes that don’t hold together at all. 

Don’t do your nails fancy before this: the fancy won’t survive.



Add the salt before draining. This helps release any excess juices from the potatoes, allowing you to really drain them well. This leads to the next step which is:



Drain the mix for longer than you think is really necessary, over a bowl. Start early, and let your shredded onions and potatoes drain over the bowl you will mix everything in for at least an hour. Every 20 minutes or so, go over there and really press the mix down into your colander to squeeze out that juice. Do it again right before you mix up the batter.

Dump off all the juice but leave the starch! At the bottom of the bowl that you have been letting your potatoes drain into, there will be a slime of potato starch. Leave it there and mix everything else into it. This extra starch really helps to bind together the rest of the ingredients. And speaking of starch:

It doesn’t look pretty right now, but whatev.

I use flour instead of matzoh, but either one is fine. Finer starch will absorb the excess liquid more quickly.  A couple of Tbsp for every couple of potatoes is a good rule of thumb.


Ditch the egg whites. They don’t help bind all that much, and they have a lot of extra water content, which you just spent an hour getting rid of. Keep your whites though, to make meringues or for egg white omelets if that’s your thing. Use two egg yolks when your recipe calls for one whole egg, or for every 3-4 potatoes. 



Add extra stuff if you want, just keep the ratio of potato:onion:starch:eggs in mind. I like to add green onions, a little cheese, sometimes celeriac or apples, carrots or sweet potatoes. Mix it up and add different spices too. I’ve seen good recipes for samosa style latkes and dessert latkes, and even greek inspired ones served with tzatziki. 


Get the oil good and hot before you start cooking, and don’t be afraid to use quite a bit. If your pan starts to look dry between batches, add a bit more and reheat before adding more latkes.



Get messy. It’s better if you can hand form your latkes: they’ll be thinner and crispier than if you just drop a big glob in the pan. I take about a palmful of batter and form it into a disk, then drop it into the oil. After I’ve filled the pan (but not too many! You don’t want them to be crowded or they’ll just steam.) I go back and lightly press them down with my spatula.


Cook until golden brown and then flip, just once. If they start to burn before you think they’re getting done inside turn the heat down a touch. But don’t worry too much about raw insides because you can always finish them in the oven. If you flip them too many times they’ll start to fall apart no matter how good your batter is.


Drain as you go, onto a paper towel lined sheet pan in a warm oven. They’ll stay nice and crispy for long enough to fry up all the batter so everyone can sit down together.

Sweet Potato Latkes with Cardamom Applesauce and Mascarpone