Archive for December, 2011

December 29, 2011

My Grandma Clea on How-To Make Raviolis

by Jen Wanous

Ah, the holidays. It’s a time like none other to come together with relatives and chosen friend families alike. We risk our cozy comfort zones for the promise of the magic we find in connecting with others. There is so much hope (and quite a lot of pressure, too). There is the gift-giving, the long travel days, the money issues, the inevitable tensions and, of course, the self-medication (food, alcohol, shopping, TV-watching, Xanax, you name it). Congratulations, you have survived!

Through all of the stress that surrounds holidays, perfect moments peek out. So many times I’ve wished I had a camera in my hand to capture these moments: my niece growing from a toddler into a Justin Beber-obsessed girl, for instance, or my mom recounting stories of my family’s history. In 2004 I spent the last Christmas with my grandmother and happened to record one such moment. We made our traditional raviolis for Christmas Eve dinner. In the video, my grandmother explains how to make the pasta and (with some prying) the filling—as well as how not to dry out the “noodle dough.”

As the oldest of two in a first-generation Italian family in New York City, my Grandma Clea thrived, survived her many bumps in life’s road, and still managed to answer the phone with a cheery, “Good afternoon!” As a career seamstress and master chef she took homemaking to a professional level. After she moved to Florida, I visited her in the summer months and we spent time mapping out road trips, exploring new places, and visiting friends and family. If I was lucky, we would stop and get Reese’s peanut butter cup sundaes at Friendly’s. We packed lunches with plums and nectarines wrapped in paper towels. We made homemade ice cream with rock salt. And the special treat for breakfast was always French toast.

Multiple sclerosis slowly claimed her active life. I was so blessed to be with her the day she passed in the 84th year of her life. I miss the times when I would call her to ask how to make a meatloaf or other times just to hear about how she was feeling. My grandma Clea is my greatest culinary inspiration and her raviolis are perfection stuffed into a pocket of pasta, memories of which will always fill me.

My grandma Clea would always bring people together with her food and it’s her spirit of culinary adventure and culinary love that continues to inspire me on my path.

December 15, 2011

That’s the Way the Cookie Crumbles

by Jen Wanous

She took a bite and her face crumbled. “I know my cookies and these are not my cookies.” I took a deep breath, searching for a solution.  “Throw them all away.” I braced myself in disbelief. One hundred pounds of cookie dough, a day’s work: trash. I stared at the mounds of chocolate studded dough, baffled. Although the taste was still fine, the little cookies were fluffier than they should have been and for the owner of this cookie company, that was unacceptable.

I arrived at Hope’s kitchen early in the morning, eager to work. My job was to make cookie dough in preparation for her busy holiday season. She handed me a recipe and showed me where things were. I started by weighing out the sugars, flour and other ingredients to the ounce, carefully taking out a teaspoon of flour if needed. I leveled the cup measurements to ensure everything would be exact. Each egg I cracked, I made sure to catch any stray shell fragments.

The one little word I failed to read correctly was “soda.” Instead, I thought, “powder.” You see, in my experience, when baking most cookie recipes, one always needs baking powder because of the lack of acidic ingredients. The chemical in baking soda will not activate fully unless there is an acid introduced. Come to find out, (through writing this post!), the molasses in brown sugar is acidic and activates the baking soda.

Here is a breakdown of how it works:

Baking Soda

– It is used in recipes that contain an acidic ingredient (e.g. vinegar, citrus juice, sour cream, yogurt, buttermilk, chocolate, cocoa (not Dutch-processed), honey, molasses (also brown sugar), fruits and maple syrup).

– Is four times as strong as baking powder.

– Baking soda starts to react and releases carbon dioxide gas as soon as it is added to the batter and moistened.

Baking Powder

– Has baking soda and one or more powder acid (cream of tartar and/or sodium aluminum sulfate)

– Most baking powder is double-acting which means it reacts to liquid and heat, in two stages. The first reaction takes place when you add the baking powder to the batter and it is moistened. The other acid reacts with the baking soda and produces carbon dioxide gas. The second reaction takes place when the batter is placed in the oven.

– You should replace your baking powder every 6-12 months as it loses its effectiveness.

Both are chemical leavening agents that give rise to baked goods.

When the mistake was realized, instead of losing my shit, I thought back to my culinary training: baking powder has baking soda in it. I could just add three times more baking soda to equal the chemical amount that was in the recipe. I was panicking inside, but still thought it could be pulled off.

Hope suggested I test bake a tray to see if they would still rise. Great idea! I popped a few rows on a cookie sheet and patiently waited the 10 minutes it took to bake. Through the hot glass window of the tall industrial oven, I saw the little cookies rise up and when I took them out of the oven, I thought, “Thank god, they look good!” Then I showed them to Hope, she took one bite and said they had to go in the trash. I tried and it tasted like a dang good cookie to me. Apparently, they had risen too much for Hope’s taste (because of the additional acid that was in the baking powder.)

It felt like a rash decision to throw them all away, but I understood it too.  She is a business owner, with a product brand to protect. On top of that, she had the stress of a ton of holiday orders and some serious lack of sleep. It was simply a nuance of fluffiness that sealed the fate of these cookies. Through her frustration, Hope was reasonable saying that she should have stepped through the first batch with me and she even offered to pay me—which I quickly refused.

As I walked back to the predestined cookie dough before me, I fought off tears. A boisterous New Yorker named Gloria, who also baked in the shared kitchen space, came over, grabbed a pinch of the dough and said, “Ooh, I’ll use some of this! My customers aren’t that picky!” Then a fellow cookie maker named Gael came over and gave me a hug, saying not to worry, that it happens to the best of us. You could tell that she had royally f*ed up a batch or two in her day too. These two women were the type of good graces that you can only hope for in a time like this.

It pained me to actually throw away perfectly delicious chocolate chip cookie dough—and in the middle of December—so with the remaining 50 pounds strapped in my bike basket, I took it home. I have now become Jonny Cookieseed, spreading holiday cheer in the form of cookies galore. I’ve baked dozens, the first batch going to my local bar. They love me there. It promises to be a chocolate-studded Christmas this year!

December 8, 2011

Sweetening the Deal – How to integrate natural sugars and why

by Jen Wanous

The other night, I was perusing (desperately searching) the isles of Trader Joe’s for a sweet treat. This was not a time when an apple or any other non-crack-like sugar would do. I went for the dark chocolate covered marshmallows…seasonally peppermint, of course. I proceeded to eat nearly the entire box. I say “nearly” because I offered a few to friends, who just had one or two, and I left two, so that I didn’t eat the entire box.  Dizzy and crashing hard soon after, I realized (yet again) that this needed to stop.

Sugar is so addictive! I’ve been struggling with regulating my sugar intake for years. It’s a vicious cycle that feeds into itself: starting with just a piece of pie and then, before you know it, you’re in a dark ally looking to score a Twix hit. To wean myself off, I usually tell myself no chocolate for one week, no refined sugar for one week and then usually I’m back on track and not totally obsessed.

In culinary school, we learned the origins of sugar and its effects on the body. Refined white sugar is the extracted juice of sugar cane or beet sugar. It goes through an intense series of high-heat filtration processes that strips it of all color and most nutrients. The product is then pure sucrose, which is a simple carbohydrate and can easily throw your body’s balance out of whack. Here is an explanation from the founder of my school, Annemarie Colbin in her book, Food and Healing:

To metabolize refined sugar, [the body] draws the missing companion nutrients (needed in the digestive process) from other sources. These sources can be either other foods present in the same meal or the body’s own tissues. for that reason, when we consume straight white sugar, we lose B vitamins, calcium, iron and other nutrients directly from our own reserves. This siphoning effect of sugar is also what lies behind the gnawing hunger it can produce in some people; since the hunger is for the missing elements- fiber, vitamins, minerals, protein, water-it can provoke great binges as the sugar eater searches to satisfy it.

One way to help your body out is to eat sweeteners that are closer to their natural state. These sweeteners below have more of their natural vitamins, mineral and fiber intact – they are also more flavorful. I have also included some technical baking information on how to use the sweeteners as a substitute for white sugar. Most of the liquid sweeteners, you need less of and you need to increase the baking powder. This information is from the baking master: Chef Elliot at the Natural Gourmet Institute.

Brown Rice Syrup – is half as sweet as white sugar

  • Baked goods made with rice syrup tend to be hard or very crisp. Use in cookies, crisps, granola, pies and puddings. Substitute 1 1/3 cups for every one-cup of white sugar. Per cup of rice syrup, reduce liquid by ¼ cup and add ¼ teaspoon baking soda.

Date Sugar – ground, dehydrated dates

  • Can substitute like amounts for white sugar. Can use in crisps, some baked goods and sprinkled as a topping. Careful as it tends to burn easily.

Natural Cane Sugars – Sucanat (pure dehydrated cane sugar) and Rapadura

  • Relatively low cost; Use one for one of white sugar. Replace ¼ teaspoon baking soda per cup Sucanat.

Honey – 20% – 60% sweeter than sugar

  • Can use in all baked goods. Use ½ the amount called for in white sugar. For each ½ cup of honey used, reduce liquid by ¼ cup but if there is no liquid, add 3-4 tablespoons of flour. Also add 1/8 teaspoon of baking soda and reduce the oven temperature by 25°.

Maple Sugar – is from dehydrated maple syrup. Con is that it’s very expensive.

  • Can use in all baked goods. Use one for one for white or brown sugar. Per cup of maple sugar, add 1/8 teaspoon of baking soda.

Maple Syrup – it takes 40 gallons of maple sap to produce one gallon of maple syrup (that’s why it’s so expensive!)

  • Can use in all baked goods. Substitute 2/3 to 3/4 cup of maple syrup per cup of white sugar. Per cup of maple syrup: reduce liquid by 3 tablespoons and add ¼ teaspoon of baking soda.

Other alternative sweeteners include: agave(preferably low-heat processed), coconut sugar and stevia.

Sweeteners to Avoid:

-Artificial sweeteners like: Splenda, Equal and Sweet’n Low

-Brown sugar (is just white sugar with molasses added back in)

-White granulated sugar

-High-fructose corn syrup

‘Tis the season to cut down on refined sugar! Not likely, but here are a couple non-refined sugar cookie recipes that you can add to your mix this year.

Peanut Butter Balls

These couldn’t be easier to make: no baking required! It’s fun for little helpers to make too. Yields about 20 balls.


1 cup natural peanut butter (creamy or chunky, your choice)

1/3 cup honey

¼ – ½ teaspoon salt (depending on your taste and weather or not your PB is salted already)

1 cup crisp rice cereal (I used “Koala Crisp”)

Coco powder or powdered sugar for sprinkling (hey, it’s only a little bit. ;)


1. Add the salt to the honey then, in a large bowl, combine with the peanut butter. Add the rice cereal at the end.

2. Using a tablespoon or mini ice cream scooper, scoop out batter and roll in the palm of your hand.

3. Using a fine mesh strainer, add coco powder or powder sugar, holding above the balls and tap the side of the strainer gently until they are covered.


Almond Cranberry Cookies

Yield 20 cookies.


1 ¼ cup whole wheat pastry flour (can use regular flour too)

¾ teaspoon baking powder

½ teaspoon salt

½ cup butter, room temp

1 cup sucanat

1 egg

1 teaspoon almond extract

zest of one tangerine or clementine or orange

¼ cup dried cranberries

1/3 cup slivered almonds


1. Preheat the oven to 350°. Lightly grease two cookie sheets, or line with parchment paper.

2. In a medium bowl, combine the flour, baking soda and salt, set aside.

3. In a large bowl or stand mixer, cream the butter and sucant until fluffy (about 5 mins). Add the egg and beat for one more minute. Add the almond extract and zest. Next, on medium speed, add the dry ingredients, gradually, doing 1/3 at a time. Once combine, manually stir in the cranberries and almonds (so you keep their shape intact).

4. On your prepared cookie sheet, place about 2 tablespoons of dough. Bake for 8-10 minutes until light brown. Remove from the cookie sheet and place on a cooling rack.