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myMEGusta

Named for things that please me (“me gusta” in Spanish) and rhymes with balabusta (Yiddish for “good homemaker”).

Archive for the month “December, 2015”

Buche de Noel

What does a hunk of wood have to do with an elegant French patisserie?

Buche de Noel

Buche de Noel

Buche de Noel

Buche de Noel

It’s the notorious Buche de Noel, inspired by the ancient Yule Log tradition.
The traditional burning of a Yule Log – simply a chunk of a which had been treated with aromatics like pine cones or sometimes even wine or salt – at the winter solstice goes back to the Middle Ages. At some point, (between the 17th and 19th centuries, depending on who you believe) a creative cook started decorating her cake rolls to look like the logs, and the tradition spread.
Like the Christmas tree, the Buche de Noel has nothing to do with the religious holiday for which it is named other than being an accoutrement to the festive winter celebrations.

Red Velvet Cake Roll

Red Velvet Cake Roll

 

Yodels!

Yodels!

A Buche de Noel is basically a rolled sponge cake, really a glorified Drake’s Yodel, which often looks a lot better than it tastes, so very important to make a flavorful sponge cake, delicious filling and icing, and decorations that actually taste like something.
It can be very elaborate, including branches, or can be simple but delicious.

If you can make a cake roll, you can make a Buche de Noel. Ambitious cooks can create marshmallow “mushrooms”, make piped frosting flowers and other fancy garnishes, all great if you have the interest/time/skill. But, you can also decorate simply, e.g. with beautiful red raspberries or nuts.

Buche de Noel

Buche de Noel

A relative, with no historical connection but also a special occasion dessert, is the Philippine Brazo de Mercedes, a rolled cake confection that is wildly popular, and even shows up on cruise ships whose staff enjoy this as a taste of home.

So, don’t wait 12 months until next Christmas to have some fun!

Brazo de Mercedes

Brazo de Mercedes

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The Codfish Quandary

When December rolls around, many gourmands’ thoughts turn to codfish, especially salted codfish, to be exact. Also known as bacalao, it is a staple of many a southern European Christmas menu. And, fresh cod, mild-flavored and meaty, is a favorite of fish lovers everywhere.

Bacaloe Stew

Bacalao Stew

Teeming schools of cod used to populate the Atlantic, so much so that this fish was one of Europe’s most important sources of protein. In Pre-Colombian days, the fish was caught in the North, preserved in salt, and then shipped throughout Europe, particularly to Portugal, Italy and Spain.

Salted Cod

Salted Cod

This massive trade is one reason salt was so valuable in those days, even serving as currency before refrigeration and other modern methods of food preservation. [For a fascinating look at the role of salt over time, as well as its role in Old World economics, read Salt: A World History by Mark Kurlansky (Penguin Books).]

After the discovery of America, fishing fleets from Europe moved westward to ply the American waters, sending their catch home, salted, although some of them, particularly the Portuguese, settled into places like New Bedford and Gloucester, MA.

The Sacred Cod

The Sacred Cod

Cod eventually became so important to the Massachusetts economy that a wooden sculpture, “The Sacred Cod”, hangs in the Massachusetts State House.

Codfish was also a cheap, plentiful staple for generations of New Englanders, with cod cakes, cod chowder, baked cod, and such wildly popular then, and still today.

Codfish Cakes

Codfish Cakes

And, herein lies the problem.

The fishery was robust, but not strong enough to withstand overfishing. Cod has been depleted faster than it can replace itself, and this has led to limits on allowable catches, jeopardizing the livelihoods of fisherman in New England and Canada alike.

But people want to buy it, and the shortages create a Truth in Menu problem when consumers demand a fish that is either very expensive at wholesale or not available at all. Similar fish are often substituted for cod, both at the market and on menus, and most people cannot tell the difference, particularly when the fish has been chopped or shredded.

Cod with Garlic

Cod with Garlic

Seafood Watch, affiliated with the Monterey Bay Aquarium, puts out of list of stable, recommended species, as well as those which are recommended to AVOID, and some North Atlantic Cod is prominent on the AVOID list. http://www.seafoodwatch.org/-/m/sfw/pdf/guides/mba-seafoodwatch-northeast-guide.pdf?la=en But, it gets confusing, because North Atlantic Cod caught in certain ways, is perfectly okay, according to their list.

So, what’s a good eater to do?

One important movement afoot among many New England fishermen/suppliers is to encourage restaurants to promote “fish of the day”, rather than listing cod on the menu at all, thus increasing the demand for equally tasty and more sustainable fish while reducing the stress on the cod fishery. Haddock, hake and pollack are all good substitutes, as are numerous other lesser known white fish which are delicious but not as well known. In fact, haddock has long been openly substituted for “baby cod” in “scrod” dishes.

So, look for alternatives the next time you’re in a restaurant, and don’t be afraid to try something new when the server says “it tastes like cod”.

And, when at the fish market, just ask if that pretty little cod fillet was sustainably fished; if they don’t know what you’re talking about, you need a new place to shop!

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