As I write this, it is one week before Christmas Eve, 2021. COVID-19 is once again booming in New York City, and we are once again in “hunker down” mode. This year, we will have a quiet Christmas at home. For a few years now, we have been doing our own personal take on a traditional Polish Christmas Eve dinner, which is known as the Wigilia (from the Latin for vigil). The Wigilia is by tradition a pescetarian meal, which is perfect for us, and gives us an excuse to whip up some of our favorite Polish dishes, especially pierogi.
But the first course of a Wigilia, and in some ways, the centerpiece of the meal, is Barszcz, a clear, beautifully red, slightly sour, beet broth. The broth is served with uszki, or “little ears,” which are similar to small pierogi, but stuffed with fragrant dried Polish forest mushrooms. (The barszcz itself is typically vegan; the uszki typically have egg in the dough, but are otherwise vegetarian.) A few years ago, I got my Mom’s recipe, and it is in her customarily minimalist style:
1 pound beets, wash, cut in quarters
Apple cider vinegar, normal vinegar, or squeezed lemons
(All of my Mom’s recipes are like this. In order to make sense of them, you will have had to seen them prepared, and of course, tasted them many, many times. We’re fine on both counts.)
The hint of sourness is really the key to this dish. Since we are both fermented foods enthusiasts, two years ago we hit upon the idea of using one of our own ferments in place of vinegar. The prefect candidate was beet kvass, which is quite simply the brine from fermented beets. It gives the sour kick, delivered with an intense beet flavor. The recipe and method are pure simplicity.
Farmer’s market beets, topped & tailed, washed, not peeled
3.5% salt brine
Halve or quarter the beets, and fill a large mason jar. Fill the jar with the salt brine, ensuring all beets are under the brine. Cover with an air-tight lid, or airlock. Let ferment, checking periodically for pressure build up—opening the lid once or twice a day should be fine.
We took the lockdown in NYC seriously: From March 13, 2020 to April 28, 2021 we did not dine out once, and only rarely brought in takeout. No, we made our meals at home. We’re both enthusiastic home chefs, so used the opportunity raise the bar on our cooking skills.
We’d had that final pre-lockdown meal at Felidia, which, as luck would have it, was the nearest restaurant to our place—right around the corner, in fact. Over the years, Felidia evolved from a special-occasion treat to one of our top local favorites—we’d go at the drop of a hat, usually having dinner at the bar, along with a few other reliable regulars. During that time, we got to become friends with the general manager, Santiago Pesantez, and whenever we went, we’d have a good chat with him about restaurant news, wine, or whatever. It was a welcoming scene, and the food was marvelous!
Alas, Felidia was one of the first restaurant casualties of the lockdown—that March 13 meal was to be our last ever there. When the city began re-opening, chef Fortunato Nicotra (Dodo to his friends) landed at Babbo. Santiago joined a team opening a new restaurant, a buzz-worthy, celebrity-backed, art-decco-styled contemporary Indian restaurant on East 20th in Flatiron, called Sona. When at last we were fully-vaccinated, on April 28th, we began to cautiously visit some of our local haunts—in their outdoor dining areas, that is. But we knew that once we were ready to venture outside the neighborhood, Sona would be our first destination. We’re glad we did, too, because we had our favorite meal of 2021.
Location, location, location
Flatiron may well be the best restaurant neighborhood in NYC. And within the greater Flatiron, Gramercy Park, Union Square area, one could argue that there is a best block, and that would be East 20th Street, between Broadway and Park Avenue South. Let’s take a quick walk down that block, going from west to east. At no. 27, we have Rezdôra, an Italian restaurant that celebrates the food of Emilia Romagna, featuring house-made pastas. (If anyone has the scoop on how to get a table, please let us know, because it appears to be impossible!) At no. 28, there’s Teddy Roosevelt—no, not a restaurant but the birthplace of the former president. At no. 31, there’s La Pizza Fresca, an authentic Neapolitan pizzeria, certified and all, with a very serious wine list.
No. 43 East 20th has been home to some special places: from 1999 to 2013, it was the home of Veritas, the restaurant founded by chef Scott Bryan. (If you remember Anthony Bourdain’s book Kitchen Confidential, after spending most of the book detailing everything that is wrong about the restaurant industry, he turned to Bryan as an exemplar of everything that is right.)
After Veritas closed, no. 43 for a time was home to Élan, David Waltuck’s follow-up to his dearly departed TriBeCa classic, Chanterelle. Élan gave us all another chance to try Chanterelle classics, like the seafood sausage, as well as some new dishes like Sea Urchin guacamole! No. 43 is currently home to Il Mulino Prime, after exiting no. 36 across the street, where for a time, it ran Il Mulino Trattoria. More on no. 36 in a moment.
Continuing eastward, at no. 42 is Danny Meyer’s Gramercy Tavern, which in many ways epitomizes New York City fine dining. And anchoring the block’s eastern corner, at 250 Park Avenue South, a large space that currently houses Barbounia. Twenty years ago, when I worked at a dotcom called clickradio across the street, that space was home to Patria, one of our favorites at the time, and where we first learned about Nuevo Latino cuisine.
So yes, there’s a lot going on on that block, and when you add in the nearby standouts—Cosme, ABC Kitchen, Craft, Union Square Café in its new digs—and countless other local charmers, that adds weight to the argument for Flatiron as the best locale. (I also think it serves as a kind of Manhattan neutral territory for downtown, midtown and uptown types.)
Out on the town
We had run into our friend Tom Dillon earlier in the day; we hadn’t seen each other in person since you-know-when. Tom tends bar at La Grenouille during the lunch shift; we became friends at, and are now fellow diaspora members of Le Veau D’Or. He’s a long-time Gramercy resident, and when we told him where we were going for dinner, we arranged to meet inside Gramercy Park to catch up. As we wound up our chat in the park—which, with its high security, is like a lovely, lush prison yard—we made arrangements for dinner in a few weeks at The Bluebell Café, one of those local charmers I mentioned.
Sona, at 36 East 20th is just steps away from the park. We arrived right at the opening of the dinner service. Santiago is right there at the door. Big hugs—we are glad to see each other. (Years from now, people will begin to forget just how emotional these moments of reunion were.) Chef Hari Nayak is right there too, and we get to say hello.
This will be about all we see of the restaurant’s interior. It looks great. Priyanka Chopra Jonas is the celebrity backer, and muse for the restaurant. She worked with designer Melissa Bowers to create a 1930’s Mumbai Art Decco style. When things finally go back to normal, I look forward to dining in that room, and the bar looks gorgeous too. It was apparently Priyanka’s husband, Nick Jonas, who suggested the name Sona, which means gold in Hindi. (It dawned on me only later, that if you add the letter ‘J,’ it’s also an anagram for ‘Jonas.’)
We were shown to our table in the outdoor dining structure. As these go, it’s nice. We catch up with Santiago, where did everyone from Felida wind up, Flatiron as a restaurant neighborhood, everything else under the sun. Small details like the dinnerware and flatware are all on point. We order cocktails, and peruse the menus—which are on our phones, via a QR code. Our server helps us navigate. Santiago had created the wine list—which I knew, the moment I saw a few bottles of orange wine—and helped us pick a bottle. It’s a really good list, with nothing too over the top.
The cocktails are designed by mixologist Johnny Swet, and they’re quite good. Nora chose from the list of Elevated Gin Tonics. N°1 Hendricks gin, Kaffir lime, celery, coriander and Fever Tree Tonic ($19). Lovely, and as they say, very Instagramable. I went with ‘Our Old Fashioned,’ which had Old Grandad bonded Bourbon, plantation pineapple rum, cardamon bitters, twists, Luxardo cherry, ice glacier ($18). Also very good.
We were excited about the appetizers. We began with ‘Crab Puri and Caviar’ with butter garlic crab and Kaluga amber caviar ($24). This is rumored to be Chopra Jonas’ favorite, and it was one of ours too. Really delicious and tangy, and beautiful to behold. Next, we had the ‘Rock Shrimp Koliwada’ popcorn style fritters, mango pickle aioli ($24). Another hit. Just a little bit of heat, lovely texture, and frankly, addictive. (I can see ordering this at the bar when we make our way inside.) We also had the ‘Buckwheat Bhel’ fenugreek sprouts, raw mango, pomegranate, puffed buckwheat tossed in a citrusy chili honey dressing ($16). Also delicious and with some nice contrasting textures. We are already Hari Nayak fans at this point.
Midway through our meal, we got to meet Sona’s restaurateur, Maneesh K. Goyal. He’s fairly bursting with pride at his and his team’s creation. We also have a nice chat about the restaurant’s location, and he tells us he has had this block in mind from the very beginning. I mention my history with the block and how we used to see Julia Roberts often in those days. Well, she popped in the other night. On another recent night, Danny Meyer walked in and asked if he could have dinner. He had the table next to ours, but faced west so he didn’t have to see what was transpiring down the block at Gramercy Tavern.
Our main courses arrive—we are over-ordering, because we want to try everything! Something I knew I had to try as soon as I saw it on the menu: ‘Gruyère Cheese Dosa’ edamame arbi mash, coconut and roasted tomato chutney ($22). I was wondering not so much ‘if’ it would work, as ‘how’ it would work. I think the main thing is the Gruyère is not over-applied, it adds just a bit of unexpected, but welcome, flavor and the tiniest bit of gooey texture. Man. I ordered Floyd’s Goan Fish Curry with coconut seafood broth, kokum, and red rice ($34). This dish is in honor of Floyd Cardoz, who had been chef at nearby Tabla, and tragically died of COVID-19 in March of 2020. Nora went with Green Pepper Halibut: banana leaf wrapped fillet, fresh turmeric reduction, cassava ($38). Both were delicious and perfectly cooked. At the suggestion of our server, we had some roomali roti ($8) to help ensure we got every bit of the sauces.
When it was time for desert, we also got to meet the pastry chef, a rising star and Eleven Madison Park alum, Grason Klaes. We went with ‘Coconut Kheer’ pickled strawberries, sesame lace, darjeeling tea granita ($14)–delicious, and rice pudding has always been one of Nora’s favorites—and ‘Sona Chocolate Gateaux’ cashew praline, caramelized bananas, jaggery banana kulfi ($14). A lovely way to end our meal. Around that time, David Schwimmer arrived and took up a spot at the bar. But for us, it was time to make our exit.
The bottom line
Exquisite food, fine cocktails, a terrific wine list, very pleasant service, a beautiful room, lots of buzz but not exclusive-feeling, pricey, but nowhere near gougy. We had our favorite meal of the year so far, and I expect this will be one of our top meals of 2021, if not the top. We will be back.
You may think of potato pancakes as latkes, but for me, growing
up in a Polish household, they were “placki” (‘plah-tski), something that my
Mom would whip up from scratch if we were home for lunch, or as a snack. She
would grate the potatoes and onions by hand, using a box grater. They were
always topped with a big dollop of sour cream. (Sour cream was part of the
weekly grocery list, we were never without it.) I started making them myself
some years ago, partly out of nostalgia, partly out of the realization that
they can become downright exquisite with the right toppings—how about smoked
sablefish, crème fraiche, and caviar, paired with a little glass of ice-cold
I don’t recall ever having zucchini pancakes growing up, but I’ve noticed that they seem to be another Polish staple. We got a couple of really nice zucchini in our farm box last week, and we have been very into savory fried pancakes lately, so we thought we would give them a try for lunch today. They turned out beautifully, and our method for making potato pancakes translated quite well. Bon appétit, or as they say in Polish, smacznego!
1 spring onion
1 tbsp whole wheat flour
1 tsp salt
1 tsp pepper
1 tsp smoked paprika
4 tbsp olive oil
Yogurt or sour cream to top
Prepare the zucchinis for grating, just top and tail them if
using a box grater, chop into manageable pieces if using the food processor. Prep
the bulb of the onion for grating. Chop the green parts of the onion and set
aside for topping the pancakes. Grate the zucchinis and onions together and set
into a large mixing bowl. Cover the mixing bowl with a tea towel. Invert the bowl
so that its contents go into the tea towel, gathering the towel together like a
giant teabag. Over the sink, squeeze as much liquid out of the grated
vegetables as possible. Return the vegetables back to the mixing bowl. Add the
flour, salt, pepper, paprika, egg, and mix together.
To form the pancakes, I use a 1/3 cup measuring cup. Grab a
heaping 1/3 cup of the mixture and form it into a ball with the palms of both
hands. Over the sink, again squeeze out liquid as you form the balls. Let them
rest on a cutting board as you portion out all of the mixture. I made seven
balls out of these two large zucchini and one smallish onion.
To fry, I use either a cast iron or stainless
steel pan. I do these with a generous shallow fry of olive oil. Today the pan
was at about 360F. When the oil is hot, add a ball to the pan, and flatten it
into a disk with a spatula. Add as many as your pan will hold without crowding.
Watch for doneness on the bottom and then flip them. When done, let them rest
on paper towels. To serve, top with a dollop of yogurt or sour cream, and add
the chopped onion greens.
Thanks to COVID-19 era food shopping, we are finding ourselves with huge amounts of certain ingredients. Right now we have about five bunches of celery! We saw a great idea for Sichuan celery on Ruth Reichl’s Instagram. That made me think of one of our current favorite recipes, which is Diana Kuan’s Vegetarian Mapo Tofu. I improvised a bit with Kuan’s recipe and came up with this recipe for the celery stir fry. It was amazing!
12 dried shiitake mushrooms
1 cup warm water
2 tbsp fermented black beans
2 tbsp olive oil
3 scallions, sliced, white and green parts separated
2 tsp minced ginger
6 stalks celery, trimmed and chopped
For the sauce
2 tbsp gochujang
1 tbsp aji mirin
2 tsp soy sauce
2 tsp sesame oil
1 tsp ground Sichuan pepper
Soak the shiitakes in the warm water for 15 minutes. Retain the soaking liquid for the sauce. Stem and mince the shiitakes (retain the stems for stock). Rinse the fermented black beans, and mash them with the back of a spoon. In a small bowl, mix together the sauce ingredients, adding a few tbsp of the shiitake soaking liquid, set aside. Heat the oil to medium high. Add in the white parts of the scallions and the ginger. Stir fry for one minute. Add in the minced mushrooms and fermented black beans. Stir fry for two minutes. Add in the celery and stir fry for a few minutes. When the celery is close to done, stir in the sauce. Set heat to high until the sauce begins to boil. Lower heat and reduce sauce. Serve in a bowl covered with the green parts of the scallions.
Here’s another favorite recipe–and a real crowd-pleaser–that I’ve been riffing on for the past few years. If you’re just getting into sourdough baking, this one is much more approachable than the full-on sourdough bread recipe I posted earlier. In fact, this one is so straightforward that I always make the dough as a side-project while I’m making sourdough bread.
What makes this recipe so simple? A few things. There’s no stretching and folding during bulk fermentation. The shaping is minimal, so even though the dough is very slack, there’s less risk of disaster. And since you’re baking on well-oiled parchment-paper-lined sheet pans, it’s even easier than making pizza.
630 g water at 87 F
20 g salt
200 g levain (sourdough starter) 50/50 whole wheat/unbleached all-purpose at 100% hydration
100 g rye flour
100 g whole wheat flour
700 g unbleached all-purpose flour
Vessel for mixing, bulk fermentation. We use a Cambro 6 qt round polypropylene food storage container.
Digital food scale, large format for weighing flour, dough, etc.
Small digital scale for weighing precise amounts of small ingredients, e.g., salt
2 Half sheet pans for baking, parchment paper
Preparing the levain
Autolyse – 30 minutes
Bulk fermentation – 3-4 hours
Shaping and proofing – 48-hour proof
Baking – 20 minutes at 475 F
Start with your mixing vessel and add the 630 g water. Add the salt and mix. Add the levain and mix. Add the flour and mix to combine. Leave for a 30-minute autolyse. After the autolyse, it’s time to mix the dough. You can turn it out onto a floured work surface, but I do this step inside the Cambro. Mix the dough well, using a combination of kneading, stretching, folding. This will take about five minutes. Make sure all the flour is well incorporated and there are no dry spots. Top with a brushing of olive oil, covering the entire dough mass. Cover the mixing vessel and leave it for 3-4 hours of bulk fermentation. I keep the dough at 80-81 F.
Once bulk fermentation is done, dust a work surface with flour. Turn out the dough and divide in half. Using four ¼ turns, shape each half into a boule. Lightly flour a platter, place the boules, and cover with cling wrap. Place in the fridge for a 48-hour proof.
To bake, cover your sheet pans with parchment paper. King Arthur Flour makes pre-cut parchment paper that I love to use. Lightly coach the parchment paper with olive oil. Turn out the dough onto each sheet pan. Some tips: let gravity do some of the work to get your dough into rectangles. The dough will be very cold and will want to snap back into its previous shape. Give it some time. Start with a rough rectangle and let it sit for 10 minutes. Then it will be easy to shape it the rest of the way. For the classic focaccia texture, dimple the dough with your fingers.
Top each focaccia as you like. See below for some ideas. Bake at 475 F for 10 minutes, turn and swap the pans, and bake for another 10 minutes until done. Depending on your toppings, you may want a quick 3 minutes under the broiler. Check to make sure the bottom is done, if you have a pizza stone, 3 minutes directly on the stone may be helpful.
Place on a cooling rack for 10 minutes. Unlike the sourdough bread, if you really, really want to eat this before cooling, that’s OK. I like it better after it has cooled a bit.
Dried herbs, olive oil, salt
Anchovies, olives, cheese
Cheese, cheese, cheese, & cheese
One of our favorites: Pissaladière-style, with caramelized onions and anchovies
I got into bread baking about four years ago. Before venturing into sourdough, I baked many of the loaves in Ken Forkish’s great bread book, Flour, Water, Salt, Yeast. Once I got into sourdough I spent the next couple of years essentially making the same loaf over and over again. This was the country bread from Chad Robertson’s Tartine Bread. Eventually, I was practiced enough to feel comfortable riffing on the method. This recipe is for my current favorite, which is a blend of rye, whole wheat, and white flour.
750 g water at 87 F
200 g levain (sourdough starter) 50/50 whole wheat/unbleached all-purpose at 100% hydration
200 g rye flour
300 g whole wheat flour
500 g unbleached all-purpose flour
20 g salt
50 g water at 87 F
Rice flour for dusting
Vessel for mixing, bulk fermentation. We use a Cambro 12 qt round polypropylene food storage container.
Digital food scale, large format for weighing flour, dough, etc.
Small digital scale for weighing precise amounts of small ingredients, e.g., salt
Lame, or razor blade, or other sharp knife for scoring
2 banneton proofing baskets
2 cast iron dutch ovens. We use Lodge black cast iron 4 qt.
Preparing the levain
First shaping and bench rest
Shaping and proofing
The Method in Detail
Preparing the Levain
This is one of the most crucial elements in the entire process, since the levain is the heart and soul of this bread. Ideally, you will be feeding your levain every day, so it’s always in great shape. For us, this is not the case. I don’t bake every week, so doing a daily feed is wasteful. If I know it will be more than a week before I bake, I will keep my levain in the fridge. You then really do need to plan ahead.
For me, it takes several days of regular feeding to get the levain where it needs to be. My regular daily feed is to take 50 g from the previous day and add 100 g of 50/50 flour and 100 g of water. I always keep my levain at 100% hydration. For the final feeding before a bake, I up the amounts to 150 g of flour and 150 g of water.
With practice, you will get a feel for when your levain is ready for a bake. For me, it is a combination of the activity level and the aroma. The target aroma is a little hard to describe–yeasty, sweet, a touch of funk.
Autolyse – 30 Minutes
The purpose of the autolyse is to allow the water to integrate with the flour and begin to form the gluten structure of the dough. My typical autolyse time is 30-40 minutes. I have experimented with longer times, but for this recipe, 30 minutes is fine. The general guidance for an autolyse greater than 60 minutes is to leave out the levain. For a 30-minute autolyse, you can leave the levain in.
In your mixing vessel, begin by adding 750 g of water at 87 F
Add 200 g of levain
Stir with a flour whisk to disperse the levain into the water
Add the rye, whole wheat, and unbleached all-purpose flour
Whisk the flour, levain, and water together
Cover and let sit for 30 minutes
Bulk Fermentation – 3 Hours
As the name implies, the dough will do much of its rise during this period. In this method, the dough is not kneaded in the traditional way. Instead, the dough develops structure through a series of stretches and folds. I aim for a constant dough temperature of around 80 F. If the dough gets too cold, between folds I will leave it in an oven that has been warmed to 100 F then turned off.
Add 20 g of salt
Add remaining 50 g of water at 87 F
Use your hands to thoroughly mix the dough, incorporating the salt and added water
Perform the first stretch and fold: grab a piece of dough, pull it up as far as it will stretch without breaking, then fold it back on itself, turn the vessel and continue until you have gone all the way around
For the next three hours, perform a stretch and fold every 30 minutes, for a total of six
At the end of three hours, the dough will has risen by around 30%, and will be very smooth and slack, and will pass the ‘window pane test’
First Shaping and Bench Rest – 20 Minutes
This is where things can get a little tricky, especially if you are not experienced with handling a very slack dough. All I can say is, you need to use the “Carnegie Hall” method: practice, practice, practice. We are making two boules, so the first step is to divide the dough. Then we will shape the two halves into boules and let them rest before the next step.
Lightly flour your workspace
Lightly flour the top and edges of the dough
Turn the dough out onto the workspace
Using your bench scraper, shape the dough mass into a circle, this will allow you to eyeball where to divide the dough into two equal halves
Use your bench scraper to divide the dough
Add some flour to the dough where you divided it
Weigh each piece to see how close you came to equal, if necessary, add dough from one piece to another
Shape the first boule: grab a piece of dough, stretch and fold, turn 90 degrees and repeat for a total of four folds
Slide your bench scraper beneath the boule and flip it over
Shape the boule by dragging it across the workspace; this will develop a smooth ‘skin’ on the top of the boule
When the boule is shaped, let it rest and repeat with the second dough mass
Let both boules rest for 20 minutes
Shaping and Proofing – 6-12 Hours
This is where the dough takes on its characteristic shape and finished fermenting. I use unlined banneton proofing baskets, this is where that swirly pattern comes from on the final bread. I now always do my proofing in the fridge. This allows for a longer fermentation, and I also find makes the process of scoring and transferring the bread much easier.
For each boule, repeat the shaping process from the previous step
Prepare the banneton baskets by dusting them liberally with flour; use rice flour to get the characteristic white swirl pattern
Use your bench scraper to flip each boule into a banneton basket, what was the top of the boule is now on the bottom of the basket
Cover each basket, we found specialty covers that are made for this, prior to that, we used cling wrap
Let the boules proof in the fridge
The purpose of scoring is to split the top of the boule to enable a strong rise in the oven. Some people take this to an artistic extreme, but I tend to be a little more utilitarian. It is worth investing in a lame. Before I had one, I tried to score the boules with a knife, and the results were disappointing.
PLEASE NOTE: for the next two steps, you are going to be dealing with an extremely hot oven, and two extremely hot dutch ovens. You need to have proper hand protection. I use silicone gloves.
Place the two dutch ovens, lids on, near the bottom of your oven
Pre-heat to 500 F for at least 30 minutes
Take the first dutch oven out and remove the lid
Quickly invert the first boule onto a lightly floured cutting board or pizza peel
Use your lame to score the boule
Carefully lift the boule and place it into the dutch oven (remember, it is 500 F, you will burn yourself badly if you touch it with bare hands or fingers)
Place the lid on the dutch oven and return it to the oven
Repeat with the second boule
The purpose of baking in the dutch ovens with the lids on for the first part of the bake is to replicate the dose of steam that the boules would get in a commercial oven. The second part of the bake is with the lids off, to finish and caramelize the crust. Part of the fun of this method is the element of surprise when you take the lids off. That’s the moment you see how much oven spring you got, what kind of ‘ears’ you have developed and so on.
Bake at 500 F for 20 minutes with the lids on
Reduce temperature to 450 F and bake for a further 10 minutes
Remove the lids, and bake for a further 20 minutes, until crust is deeply caramelized
This is also an essential part of the process. Of course, you will be tempted to tear into the bread as soon as it is cool enough to handle. And you should try that at least once. Grab a big piece and just slather some butter on it. It’s amazing! But it’s not really done yet. The crust hasn’t finished hardening. And the crumb is soft and custardy. In fact, it will be a bit difficult to cut the bread into a well-formed slice at this point. Wait at least an hour. Better yet, if you are doing a night bake—which is my current preference—let it cool overnight. It will be perfect in the morning.
Carefully turn each boule out onto a wire cooling rack and let cool at least an hour
Some thoughts on this bread
If you are not familiar with this style of bread, it may cause you to rethink some of your bread assumptions. First off, the notion of ‘freshness’ and avoiding ‘day old’ bread. This bread actually keeps getting better and better. The flavor continues to develop and starts to peak after about the third day. We were at a book event with Appolonia Poilâne from the famous French bakery, and she told a story of a vacation with friends. She had brought one of Poilâne’s famous miche breads, and she and her friends ate that one bread for over 12 days, using it in ways best suited to its characteristics on each subsequent day.
There’s just two of us, and this is a substantial amount of bread. We will usually eat the first boule over about three days. At that point, we will slice up the second boule and pop it into a one gallon freezer bag and freeze it. That will usually keep us going for another few days.
Because of COVID-19, people around the world are sheltering in place. Here in NYC, most people are hunkered down, and that includes us. We are only venturing outside for essentials, and to go for an occasional run or cautious birding trip to Central Park. Otherwise, we are at home cooking up a storm!
We’re thrilled to see so many people take up breadmaking during this time, and sourdough bread making in particular. As we mentioned last week in our post on easy sourdough kimchi pancakes, the sourdough starter process can generate a good deal of discarded starter (read, discarded flour) and now that feels more wasteful than ever.
But there are things that you can make with starter that you would otherwise be tossing. The pancakes are one favorite of ours, and these sourdough crackers are another. The pancakes are dead simple to make, these are maybe a little trickier, but by no means as difficult as making a good quality sourdough boule.
We started out with the King Arthur Flour sourdough cracker recipe and have been riffing on it ever since. It’s a simple recipe at heart. Make a dough with equal parts spent sourdough starter (100% hydration, which means 50/50 flour and water) and unbleached all purpose flour, plus ¼ part butter. Season it however you like it. Roll it out thin. Top it how you like it. Cut into cracker shapes, bake it, and there you go!
For the dough
1 cup sourdough starter (100% hydration)
1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
¼ cup melted butter, cooled
½ tsp salt
2 tbsp grated parmesan (or dried herbs, or combination)
For the topping
The sourdough starter should be unfed, let’s say 24 hours or maybe a bit longer. Not what you would use to make bread, we want it to have a pronounced tang. (A 100% white flour starter, combined with white flour will make the most addictive, quasi-junkfood version of these crackers. I usually do one batch with our 100% white, and one batch with our 50/50.) Combine the dough ingredients in a bowl until it comes together. You don’t need to overwork it, you’re not making bread. Split in half. Wrap each half in cling wrap, and store in the fridge for at least 30 minutes. This step is crucial, just like you are making pasta dough. If you try to skip it, you will be very unhappy!
Prepare two parchment papers to fit two ½ sheet pans. Take one of the doughs and roll it out onto the parchment paper. You have some leeway with the thickness. If you make it really thin, you will get a nice crisp cracker. The most important thing is to make the thickness consistent, or else you will have an uneven bake.
Before you cut the dough, go over it lightly with the tines of a fork to create dimples. Add your toppings. Salt, paprika (I use smoked hot) and parmesan. Now, you can use a pizza cutter to make into cracker shapes. I usually go the long way first, then across the width. They do not need to completely separate now, they will do that during and after the bake. Once that’s done, lift the parchment paper into the sheet pan. Now you can repeat the process with the second dough and a second sheet pan.
For the bake, you can do both pans at once. 350 F for about 20 minutes. Turn and swap the pans midway through. This is the really tricky part. Depending on how evenly you rolled out the dough, the edges may get to done before the middles. Do lots of testing, often. Under baked, they won’t be satisfyingly crisp. But then they can start to get burnt in an instant. You should probably do the “Great British Baking Show crouch” for the last few minutes.
Once they are done, take them out and cool them on a wire rack. You can break apart any crackers that haven’t separated yet. Now you can do some more “quality control,” but remember to leave some for later. They will store in an airtight container for longer than it will take for you to eat them. Our friend Kathy found this Star Wars pencil crayon tin for us at a thrift fair in Queens. That’s where we keep ours!
We absolutely love homemade sourdough bread, and we’ve been making
it for close to four years now. For all that time, we have had two sourdough
starters going. One of our starters is 50/50 whole wheat/white flour, his name
is Charlie Driggs, named for the character played by Jeff Daniels in the 1986
Jonathan Demme film, Something Wild. The other starter is 100% white flour, and
his name is Charlie Watts. Collectively, we call them “The Charlies.”
To keep the Charlies happy, we need to feed them every day. A
feeding goes like this:
Toss out 80% of the starter, leaving 20% behind
To the remainder, add 100 g of flour
Add 100 g of 87F water
During ordinary maintenance, the Charlies are happy with a
daily feeding. But when I’m getting ready to do a bake, I will do the last
couple of feedings closer together, for example, every 12 or even 8 hours. This
leaves a conundrum, what to do with all the discarded starter? Just tossing it
out seems like a waste.
Well, it turns out that there are a few great things you can
make with the starter that you would otherwise be tossing. We have made
sourdough crackers, which are amazing, and sourdough tortillas. But today, we’re
doing our favorite recipe, which is also the simplest: sourdough kimchi
The beauty of it is that sourdough starter is, on its own,
already pretty close to a perfect pancake batter. I have made all sorts of sourdough
pancakes, both savory and sweet, and found that a minimalist treatment works
just fine. Some olive oil, an egg (or no egg for a vegan version that works out
fine), a pinch of salt (unless adding other savory ingredients, like kimchi), a
pinch of sugar (also optional). I’ve made them with and without baking powder,
and usually leave it out.
Since we always have some of Nora’s vegan kimchi on hand, kimchi pancakes are a weekend favorite. I can get these whipped up in under thirty minutes. I usually make the first two for Nora, then two for me, and then Nora is usually kind enough to make the last two while I eat my first two. It’s teamwork! I like mine with a side of homemade fermented hot sauce and some soy sauce. (I’d like to make it clear that these are not going to be an authentic South Korean kimchi pancake. They are delicious, but I doubt they will evoke a taste of home for South Koreans.)
190 g white flour sourdough starter
190 g 50/50 whole wheat/white sourdough starter
2 tbsp olive oil
1 egg (optional)
2 tsp sugar (optional)
1 cup kimchi, roughly chopped
Mix ingredients in your vintage yellow Pyrex bowl. All the usual notes to making pancakes apply: don’t overmix the batter. Make sure your pan is very hot: when water droplets dance across the pan, it’s hot enough. We love our cast iron pan for this. Some olive oil in the pan will make nicely crisp pancakes. Flip when the pancakes are done around the edges, look for the tiny bubbles. This recipe will make six pancakes using 1/3 cup of batter per pancake.
A young woman walks across the crowded diner floor, hands the
manager an envelope and says, “I have a present for you.” The manager hugs her
and replies, “You’re my present!” An older trio open the front doors,
struggling a bit against the windy day, and a server walks over to them, gives
them hugs, and they all exchange sad expressions. Variations on this theme
played out many times during our visit, our final visit to Burger Heaven over
the lunch hour.
The place is packed, more packed in fact than I have ever seen any of their locations. We had to wait ten minutes for a table, also a first. Everyone found out yesterday, as reported in the Times and in Eater, that this Friday would be the last day for Burger Heaven, the family-owned mini chain founded in 1943.
This was not a total surprise, since my favorite location, on East 53rd Street had already closed in December. That location, per the Times, was where Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis ate with her son, JFK Jr. (Legend has it, they also frequented P.J. Clarke’s, another of our Midtown East favorites.) I started going to 53rd Street in the early aughts. Nora used to work across the Street at HarperCollins, but it wasn’t part of her routine. For me, it began as a reliable place for a veggie burger and fries for lunch.
Later on, Burger Heaven on 53rd became my go-to work breakfast. I flew most weeks, usually coming home late on Thursdays. Fridays, when I was back in the office at Avenue of the Americas and 54th, whenever I needed a substantial 10:30 a.m. breakfast, that’s where I would go. A few things always impressed me: the omelets were good, they were served up super fast, they buttered the toast for you (thus offering an excuse to over indulge) and the people working the counter were always so damned nice.
You get this touristy notion of gruff service people in New York, but the real story is that the city is filled with warm, friendly, funny people—if you know where to go, and especially if you become a regular. That counter was also a good place to people-watch and eavesdrop. On one of my last visits, a guy was having a work breakfast with a hedge fund manager he had just hired, “We’re gonna start you with a small position of 15 million and see what you can do with it.” Earlier that morning, we strolled past Willem Defoe walking solo along Park Avenue.
So today, we went to our closest branch, the only one still open, at Lex and 62nd. Nora ordered her diner standard: Whiskey Radio Down (tuna on rye toast) with coleslaw, and I went for a tuna melt and fries. Did we want any dessert? Yes, a chocolate shake and an egg cream. A few minutes later, our server came back and apologized, they were all out of shakes and egg creams because of the closing.
We chatted with our server over the check. “Do you know where you’re going after this?” “No,” she replied. I told her, “I used to go to 53rd Street and I never go the chance to say goodbye!” “I don’t want to cry!” she said, as she gave us a little hug. But she did, a bit, anyway.
NYC winters are not exactly the worst. (We both grew up in Canada.) Nevertheless, we usually try to find someplace warm and sunny to find some respite. This year, we chose Miami Beach. I had been there years ago for “work”, but Nora—gasp—had never been to Florida, apart from a layover. Our friends John and Sarah have been raving for years about The Standard in Miami Beach, so we decided to give it a try. Just what the doctor ordered! And although the food at The Standard was good, for a hotel, we knew that we would need at least one great non-beach dinner.
For that, we chose L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon Miami. We are big fans of the late great chef, and love the concept of the restaurant, which was early-in on the counter-seating-open-kitchen approach. We had a super memorable meal at the old Atelier in NYC, which was at the Four Seasons on 57th Street. We loved how the friendly, approachable service complemented the exquisite food. That night, we kept asking for recommendations, they kept on suggesting vegetarian plates which seemed uninspiring on the menu, but were all mini flavor explosions. The counter seating creates a very chatty vibe, and we ended up going out for drinks afterward with the couple seated next to us, art industry folks visiting from Vancouver.
My next visit to L’Atelier was in London, which has alas since closed. I was solo on a business trip, but Nora’s sister Emma was living there at the time. The counter seating section was closed for renovation, so we ended up seated elsewhere in the multi-storied restaurant. In fact, we began with a cocktail in a lovely dimly-lit room in the basement, and then moved up a couple of floors for the main courses. I was telling Emma about the apple-themed counter service, and the staff gave us a mini tour of that room so that Emma could see it for herself.
All of which is to say, we had some very high expectations
for L’Atelier in Miami! As we settled into our seats at the counter, it was
clear that all the folks around us were old hats at the Robuchon game. The
couple to our right were New Yorkers (I have just heard that Miami is the ‘sixth
boro’), who seemed to be on a first-name basis with the staff. Both couples to
our left were younger locals, who chatted about all the other Ateliers they had
The Wine List
Settling down with an aperitif, Plymouth Martini (no onions for my preferred Gibson) for me, a glass of Rosé Champagne for Nora, the first step was to tackle the wine list. A somm appears, unprompted. Ideally for a meal like this, I’m looking for a red burgundy with some bottle age, something like a 2006 Gevrey-Chambertin would be perfect. I notice that the New Yorker couple has a 1998 Le Vieux Donjon sitting in front of them. I don’t see it on the list; I ask, and yes, they brought it from home. Must be some 1998 in the air, because the Somm guides us to a 1998 Vallet Frères Morey-Saint-Denis. It was very good! The Somm, who was French, advised against decanting, which I would have done, so he took care pouring it.
Even though we were on an escape from winter, we ordered from the ‘aux saveurs d’hiver’ four-course menu. I started with caviar and crab, Nora with the beet salad. Both were delicious. Next course, we both had gnocchi with black truffle. Good, but I have some caveats. First, I am a gnocchi monster, so having a few on a small plate is not going to scratch the itch. Second, same goes for truffles–if you can count the number of truffle shavings on a dish (three), it can be a little underwhelming–“un peu, mais pas assez!” Third, pasta should be either piping hot, or chilled I guess, and this was luke-warm. As we know from basic thermodynamics, a small body is going to radiate out all its heat much more quickly than a large body: a huge plate of pasta will stay hot, a tiny bowl will not.
For our main course, we both had the Icelandic cod with caviar, baby leek, and Champagne sauce. Hello, we are back in Robuchon country! When the younger couple saw that dish come out, they ordered one for themselves. I have to admit, I think Champagne sauce is from Heaven. It reminded me of the sauce that comes with the Quenelle de Brochet at Le Coucou. I should also state that this dish came with a side of chef Robuchon’s famous mashed potatoes, which it is safe to assume are 50/50 potatoes and butter.
We still had plenty of wine left at this point (the New Yorker couple was smartly taking a leisurely pace through dinner, enjoying their wine, instructing the team when to fire the next course), so we added a cheese course. I haven’t mentioned L’Atelier’s bread yet, and it’s worth mentioning! In addition to the expected mini baguettes, they offered bread with Comté cheese baked in, as well as little snail-shaped croissants—all so good that we needed another round with the cheese.
The desserts were also both very good: Nora had Le Calamansi with a glass of 2005 Chateau d’Yquem, and I had Le Chocolat Sensation, with a vintage port. All in all, it was a lovely meal with my best gal. The next night? Valentine’s Day, and we know better than to brave that one, so we opted instead for pizza in Miami Beach, at Lucali.