The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay , Michael Chabon
In October 1939, Josef Kavalier escaped with his life. Trained in his native Czechoslovakia in the use of picks and tiny torque wrenches – the tools of the escapist – Joe, as he is called, smuggles himself out of the country as the Nazis sweep in. Joe escapes concealed in a coffin he shares with a giant clay statue, the Golem, which was revered and protected by the Jews of Prague for centuries.
Joe first takes refuge in his aunt and uncle’s apartment in Brooklyn, New York, sharing a bed with his cousin Sammy, a boy who “dreams of flight and transformation and escape.” The cousins quickly discover their shared fascination for escape artists – especially Harry Houdini – and a love of comic books. Within a few years, they have created The Escapist, The Monitor, Luna Moth, and other superheroes, whose adventures find their way into almost every American boy’s bedroom.
The foods served in Michael Chabon’s novel reflect the diverse cultures of 1940s New York, a city teeming with immigrants, artists, and bohemians. Joe’s girlfriend, Rosa Saks, cooks “strange recipes that her father had acquired a taste for in his travels: tagine, mole, something green and slippery that she called sleek.” Sammy’s mother, Ethel, serves Sammy and his friend Tracy Bacon traditional Eastern European food – flanken (braised short ribs of beef), challah, and, for dessert, babka.
Babka, or baba, is a breadlike cake sweetened with various fillings, including cinnamon and sugar, fruit, or chocolate. Baba means “grandmother,” or “old woman,” in Ukrainian, where the rich bread was originally baked in vertical pans to resemble a standing woman. Babka, a diminutive form of the word, is now more commonly used because modern loaves are smaller and more delicate than the originals.
For the dough: 4 ½ teaspoons (2 packets) active dry yeast ½ teaspoon plus ½ cup sugar ¼ cup warm water 1 cup nondairy creamer ½ cup (I stick) unsalted margarine, softened 1 teaspoon salt 3 eggs, lightly beaten 5-5 ½ cups all-purpose flour
For the filling and topping: 1 cup sugar 1 cup finely chopped walnuts ½ cup raisins 2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder 1 tablespoon ground cinnamon 6 tablespoons unsalted margarine, melted 1 egg white, lightly beaten
1. To make the dough: Sprinkle yeast and ½ teaspoon sugar into warm water. Stir and set aside for 10 minutes, or until frothy. Grease and flour three 9 x 5-inch loaf pans.
2. Heat nondairy creamer to scalding and pour into large mixing bowl. Add margarine and stir to melt. Cool for 5 minutes. Add ½ cup sugar, salt, yeast mixture, and eggs. Gradually add enough flour to form a soft dough. Knead on floured surface 10 minutes, until shiny and elastic. Place in a greased bowl, turning to coat entire surface. Cover with a damp cloth and let rise in a warm place until doubled in size, about 1 ½ hours.
3. To make the filling and topping: In a small bowl, combine the sugar, nuts, raising, cocoa powder, and cinnamon.
4. Divide dough into 6 parts. Working with one part at a time, roll out on a lightly floured surface, forming a rectangle 8 inches wide and 1/8 inch thick. Brush some melted margarine over the dough. Sprinkle with 4-6 tablespoons nut mixture to cover three-quarters of the dough. Roll it up, tuck in the ends, and place the dough in a prepared loaf pan, seam side down. Repeat with a second part of dough and nut mixture, and tuck in alongside first roll.
5. Brush tops with egg white and sprinkle with about 2 tablespoons of nut mixture. Repeat for remaining dough. Cover lightly with a damp cloth and let rise until doubled in size, 1-1 ½ hours. Preheat oven to 350˚F.
6. Bake babka 40-45 minutes, until golden. Cool in pan for 10 minutes, then transfer to a wire rack. Serve warm.
Yield: 3 loaves, 18 to 34 servings.
A Visit From the Goon Squad , Jennifer Egan
A novel of interconnected stories, A Visit From the Goon Squad explores how time works to destroy some lives and redeem others. Bennie Salazar, an aging music producer, and Sasha, his troubled assistant, are at the center of the novels, around which the narratives of other characters – whose lives intersect with theirs – revolve. Time move backward and forward, even into the future, from one chapter to the next; the stories are set in varied locales, from New York City to Naples to the California desert, and emerge from a variety of voices (from first to third person) and in unusual formats, such as a chapter composed entirely of PowerPoint slides.
We first meet Sasha, a kleptomaniac, when she steals the wallet of a woman in a hotel restroom; Sasha’s checkered past as a teenager is subsequently revealed, along with scenes of her later married life, and her intervening years as Bennie’s assistant. Some characters, like Sasha, find a measure of peace, while others struggle with time’s ravages. La Doll, a former big-shot public relations executive whose career took a nosedive after she accidentally maimed her clients at a party, is reduced to taking work rehabilitating the image of a genocidal dictator. Lou, a coked-up music executive who cavorts with teenage girls, ages without grace. And Bennie’s childhood friend, Scotty Hausmann, falls down on his luck later in life, becoming an object of scorn when he brings Bennie a gift at his office: a freshly caught fish wrapped in newspaper. Egan’s characters are tied together by their search for authenticity in both themselves and in their relationship, and redemption from past shames. Time is the enemy of some (“Time’s a goon, right?” asks Bosco, a washed-up rock star about to embark on his “suicide tour”) and the friend of others, allowing renewal and fresh starts.
Throughout, Egan explores the interconnectedness – and discontinuity – of her characters’ lives, and employs music as a metaphor for life.
Jennifer Egan’s Oatmeal Fudge “Refrigerator” Cookies
“My grandmother, Elva Kernwein, used to make these cookies often when I was a child. She was a terrible cook (her recipe for spaghetti involved the addition of several slices of bread to the sauce!) but a spectacular baker, and I inherited both her sweet tooth and her love of baking. We made these cookies together when I would visit her and my grandfather in Rockford, Illinois, where my mother grew up. What I love most about them is their basic yet somehow unusual taste: an amalgam of fudge and oatmeal cookies, achieved without baking or refrigeration! They are, I would venture, genre-less cookies – a mix of sturdy elements that are tasty in themselves yet achieve a transcendent unity, even a kind of delicacy – in combination. I was going for that same effect in my novel, A Visit From the Goon Squad, which consists of thirteen chapters, all very different from each other, that work together to tell a much larger story. Like my grandmother’s cookies, their genre is unclear: story collection? Novel? While working on the book, I tended to think of it as a concept album, but perhaps I should simply have thought of it as a cookie!”
Note: You don’t bake these cookies, but you don’t actually put them in the refrigerator either.
2 cups sugar 2 cups quick-cooking rolled oats ½ cup unsweetened cocoa powder Dash of salt ½ cup chopped nuts and/or dried coconut flakes (sweetened or unsweetened) (optional, but I recommend adding these!) ½ cup whole milk 1 teaspoon vanilla extract ½ cup (1 stick)
1. Line several baking sheets with waxed paper. Combine sugar, oats, cocoa, salt and nuts and/or coconut in a large bowl. Set aside.
2. Place milk, vanilla, and butter in a saucepan and cook over medium –high heat until mixture comes to a rolling boil. Continue cooking for 2 minutes more.
3. Pour liquid mixture over the dry ingredients, and stir with a spoon only until the dry ingredients are saturated. Stir contents very little. Drop by heaping tablespoon(s) on prepared sheets, and flatten a bit. DO NOT BAKE.
4. Allow cookies to rest for an hour or so, then transfer to a cookie tin. The cookies must sit overnight before they attain the desired texture. They cannot be served same day! And do not refrigerate!
Yield: 2 ½ dozen cookies
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn , Betty Smith
Smith’s bestselling novel chronicles the lives and struggles of the Nolan family. Uneducated and poor and the children of immigrants, Katie and Johnny marry and then struggle to raise their children, Francie and Neeley. Katie is self-reliant and proud (from a line of women “made of thin invisible steel”). As she scrubs floors and works odd jobs to keep her family afloat in the face of her husband’s bouts with alcoholism and unemployment, Katie is sustained by her dream of a better life for her children. Francie, a budding writer with a passion for reading, is at the center of the novel. Francie’s imagination provides an escape from the hardships of her life in Brooklyn: poverty, hunger, alcoholism, violence, prejudice, and the death of her beloved father. Through her wisdom and perseverance, she achievers her mother’s dream: success through education.
Smith vividly portrays the scarcity of food for the Nolan family. As the novel begins, Francie and Neeley scavenge the streets of Brooklyn for odds and ends to trade to the junk man for pennies, which they use to buy food. Most of their meals are derived from “amazing things” their resourceful mother could make with stale bread: bread pudding, fried bread, bread and meatballs.
Francie longs for fruits and sweets, but obeys her mother’s rule: “Don’t buy candy or cake if you have a penny.” When the Nolans had bread and potatoes too many times at home, Francie’s thoughts were of sour pickles, dripping with flavor. She would buy a large pickle from the Jewish pickle vendor, which she nibbled on throughout the day. “After a day of pickle, the bread and potatoes tasted good again,” says Francie.
“The neighborhood stores are an important part of a city child’s life,” writes Smith in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. “They are his contact with the supplies that keep life going; they hold the beauty that his soul longs for; they hold the unattainable that he can only dream and wish for.”
At the window of a bakery in her neighborhood, Francie likes to stop and admire “beautiful charlotte russes with red candied cherries on their whipped cream tops for those who were rich enough to buy.”
When Francie writes stories about her father and his shortcomings, her teacher Miss Gardner, suggests that Francie write about less “sordid” topics – that “poverty, starvation and drunkenness are ugly subjects to choose.” Francie crafts a new story featuring Sherry Nola, a “girl conceived, born and brought up in sweltering luxury.” In her story, Francie’s new heroine asks her maid what the cook is preparing for dinner. “I’d like to see a lot of simple desserts and choose my dinner from among them, please bring me a dozen charlotte russes, some strawberry shortcake and a quart of ice cream…” As Francie writes these words, a drop of water falls on her paper: “It was merely her mouth watering. She was very, very hungry.”
Finding sustenance in stale bread and coffee in her kitchen, Francie rereads the passage and discovers that she has written another story about being hungry, only “twisted in a round-about silly way,” and she destroys her new novel.
For Francie, a charlotte russe is an unattainable dessert, ogled through fancy bakery windows or served in elegant homes. Charlotte russe is made in a mold lined with liqueur-soaked lady-fingers and filled with Bavarian cream. According to Lyn Stallworth and Rod Kennedy, Jr., authors of The Brooklyn Cookbook, charlotte russe, “Brooklyn’s ambrosia,” was ubiquitous in Brooklyn during the early part of the twentieth century – sold from pushcarts on the corners as well as in bakeries. “To old time Brooklynites, a charlotte russe was a round of sponge cake stopped with sweetened whipped cream, chocolate sprinkles, and sometimes a maraschino cherry, surrounded by a frilled cardboard holder with a round of carboard on the bottom,” write Stallworth and Kennedy. Charlotte russe had a variety of pronunciations in Brooklyn, among them “charley roose” and “charlotte roosh.”
¼ cup kirsch (cherry brandy) 2 tablespoons juice from maraschino cherries 2 3-ounce packages ladyfingers 3 tablespoons instant coffee powder ½ cup boiling water 12 ounces semisweet chocolate 6 eggs, separated ½ cup sugar 1 teaspoon vanilla extract 1 teaspoon almond extract 1 ½ cups heavy cream Maraschino cherries for garnish Sweetened Whipped Cream for topping
1. Combine the kirsch and cherry juice in a small bowl, then brush the flat side of the ladyfingers with the mixture. Line the side of a 9-inch springform pan with ladyfingers, brushed side facing in. Line the bottom with the remaining ladyfingers, brushed side up (overlapping them if necessary).
2. Dissolve the instant coffee in the boiling water. Set aside. Melt the chocolate in the top of a double boiler and set aside.
3. Beat the egg yolks with an electric mixer at high speed until foamy, then add the sugar gradually, beating until thick. Reduce the speed and add the vanilla and almond extracts, coffee, and melted chocolate.
4. In a large mixing bowl, beat the egg whites until they form stiff peaks. Stir 1 cup of egg whites into the chocolate mixture, then fold in the remaining whites.
5. In another bowl, whip the heavy cream until soft peaks form, and fold it into chocolate mixture.
6. Pour the mixture on top of the ladyfingers in the prepared pan. Freeze until firm, 4-6 hours. Before serving, garnish with a ring of maraschino cherries. Serve each piece with a dollop of lightly sweetened whipping cream.
Yield: 10 servings.
Motherless Brooklyn , Jonathan Lethem
In contemporary Brooklyn, Lionel Essrog, an orphan with Tourette’s syndrome, contends with his tics, uncontrollable verbal outbursts, and obsessive-compulsive behavior. Lionel is one of the “Minna men” – four orphans recruited as teenagers from St. Vincent’s Home for Boys for employment by small-time criminal Frank Minna. Minna has a soft spot for Lionel, affectionately calls him Freakshow, and tries to help him understand his neurological affliction… When Minna is murdered, the boys are devastated and set out to find his killer.
Lionel presents an intimate, poignant, and humorous portrait of Tourette’s syndrome. His mistreatment at the hands of some and the compassion and kindness shown him by others are at the center of this unconventional detective story.
Food “mellows” Lionel, and sandwiches are his obsession. Stakeouts are “gastronomic occasions” – opportunities to devour sandwiches, with knees tucked under the dashboard, “elbows jammed against the steering wheel, chest serving as a table, my shirt as a tablecloth.”
Even Lionel’s eating habits are guided by his compulsions. He chooses quantities by lucky numbers – six White Castle burgers, fixe Papaya Czar hot dogs – and he counts how many bites he takes of each.
Hot dogs and hamburgers will do when he has the “itch for something between two slices of bread,” but what Lionel really yearns for are sandwiches from Zeod’s, the fictional night market on Brooklyn’s Smith Street, where he can indulge his fantasies of turkey and Thousand Island dressing on a Kaiser roll, pepperoncini and provolone heroes, and horseradish and roast beef on rye. At Zeod’s, the meat is sliced “extraordinarily thin” and draped to make a sandwich with the “fluffy compressibility” he craves. Ultimately, it is a Zeod’s sandwich order that provides Lionel with a clue to the mystery of Frank’s death.
In the novel’s final pages, Lionel admits he doesn’t mind driving customers to the International Terminal and Kennedy Airport for one of the “great secret sandwiches of New York,” chicken shwarma from an Israeli food stand, “carved fresh off the roasting pin, stuffed into pita, and slathered in grilled peppers, onions and tahini.” He recommends it highly, “if you’re ever out that way.”
Naturally, Jonathan Lethem suggested a sandwich recipe to pair with Motherless Brooklyn and contributed his thoughts on sandwiches to The Book Club Cookbook in a short essay, “Books are Sandwiches:”
“Books are sandwiches. Between their bready boards lies a filling of information-dense leaves nestled together, an accumulation of layers for cumulative effect. Ratio is everything. Proportion. Too many slices of either meat or cheese can wreck a sandwich’s middle passages, the overused fundamental creating a bricky, discursive dry spot in what ought to have been a moist sequence. Too much aioli or chutney or roasted red pepper (always use those soaked in olive oil, never water) can gush, drench bread, run down the hand, and destroy a wristwatch. Yet other sandwiches, the tours-de-force, thrive on excess, disunity, a pepperoncino or cherry tomato bursting through the door like a character with a gun in his hand, a rant of watercress or filibuster of Brie, an unexpected chapter of flaked oregano inserted like a flashback or dream in italics.
We dislike instinctively those who turn a sandwich and gnaw vertically, against the grain, wrecking the spine and architecture of a sandwich. Their disregard for narrative sequence is as violent as spoiling the plot of a book by gossiping in advance of the outcome. In each sandwich inheres an intrinsic eating speed, shameful to violate. Eating more and understanding less? Slow down!
Hors d’oeuvres on tiny crackers are poem, always seeking perfection in elusive gestures, annoying to try to make a meal of. Hot dogs, ice cream sandwiches, and Oreo cookies are like children’s picture books, bright and goonish, drawing the eater’s eye like a magpie’s to something glinting – the clowns of sandwiches. Hamburgers are clowns too, anonymous clowns that pile out of cars, frequently dwarves. Despite the propensity to make hamburgers even bigger, to boast of ounces, the default hamburger is a White Castle – as Wimpy knows, burgers are eaten in serial, like mystery novels, eye always on the last page, and the burger to follow.
Sandwiches are too often served in public. In fact the reader of sandwiches is essentially engaged in a private act, and becomes steadily irritable at our scrutiny. The Earl of Sandwich may have been a pool player, but the reader of sandwiches has no time for us or the ringing telephone, and only one hand free – for a book.”
Zaytoons’s Chicken Shwarma
Ahmad Samhan and Faried Assad, both Palestinian-Americans, are co-owners of Zaytoons, a popular Middle Eastern restaurant with two locations in Brooklyn, one on Smith Street, the location of the fictional Zeod’s market in Motherless Brooklyn. Samhan says the chicken shwarma, from a recipe passed on by a Syrian friend, is their number-one bestseller: Zaytoons sells 140 pounds of the sandwiches daily.
While Zaytoons prepares rotisserie chicken for their shwarma and serves the sandwich with homemade tahini in freshly baked pita bread, Samhan says you can easily make a delicious version with baked chicken and store-bought pita bread and tahini sauce. Samhan adds, “As Grandma always says, ‘Sahtein,” meaning, “Eat in good health.” We think Lionel would go out of his way for a taste of Zaytoons’s shwarma, a perfect companion for Motherless Brooklyn.
For the marinated chicken: 2 pounds boned, skinned chicken breasts 1 tablespoon kosher salt ½ cup white vinegar ½ cup vegetable oil 1 ½ teaspoons oregano 1 ½ teaspoons ground black pepper 1 ½ teaspoons paprika 1 teaspoon ground cardamom 1 teaspoon ground cumin 5 teaspoons minced garlic
For the sandwiches: 4 large (10-inch) rounds pita bread ½ – ¾ cup tahini, hummus, or baba ghanoush Salt 2 medium tomatoes, sliced 1 small red onion, sliced Middle Eastern pickles
1. To marinate the chicken: Trim the chicken to remove any excess fat. Moisten the chicken slightly with water and rub well on all sides with kosher salt. Wash the salt off thoroughly with hot water. Pat the chicken dry.
2. In a large bowl, whisk together the vinegar and oil. Add spices and blend. Add the chicken and turn to coat. Cover, refrigerate, and let marinate for at least 6 hours, preferably overnight.
3. To prepare the sandwiches: Remove the chicken from the refrigerator 1 hour before cooking. Preheat oven to 350˚F. Arrange the chicken breasts in a single layer in a baking dish. Pour in enough marinade to half cover the chicken. Bake until cooked through, about 25 minutes. Baste frequently with additional marinate to keep top of chicken moist.
4. Slice each pita round in half to form 2 pockets. Spread the inside of the pockets with 2-3 tablespoons tahini, hummus, or baba ghanoush. Slice the warm chicken as thinly as possible and fill sandwiches (about one-half breast or ½ pound, of chicken per round). Sprinkle with salt to taste, and add the tomatoes, onion, and pickles.
Yield: 4 sandwiches
Freedom , Jonathan Franzen
Walter and Patty Berglund, well educated, well intentioned, and earnest, are the vanguard of a new generation gentrifying their up-and-coming St. Paul neighborhood. Patty is a self-anointed, overbearing guardian of environmental and neighborly correctness; Walter is an environmental lawyer, commuter cyclist, and devoted family man. Yet when their teenage son, Joey, smitten with Connie, the eager-to-please girl next door, moves in with Connie and her right-wing family, the Berglunds’ lives are only just beginning to come unglued, as Patty enters a downward spiral of depression and self-hatred that will eventually tear their marriage apart.
Dorothy’s Famous Christmas Toffee
Walter rarely saw his father’s domesticated side except at Christmastime – candy making season for Walter’s family when he was growing up. Gene and Dorothy, Walter’s parents, had been gifting the same candy – fudge and toffee – since they were first married. The Berglunds would spend entire weekends delivering their special holiday confections to friends and family near and far.
Candy making took most of December, and producing Dorothy’s Famous Christmas Toffee involved heavy equipment, such as “iron cauldrons and racks, heavy aluminum nut-processing devices,” and large quantities of ingredients, including “several cubic feet of unsweetened butter.” Gene had the thankless job of cutting the toffee, made especially difficult because his antiquated thermometers would show no temperature at all, and then suddenly would register “temperature at which fudge burned and toffee hardened like epoxy.”
Note: The toffee should be 1/8 – ¼ inch thick (so you can bite into a piece). Use a candy thermometer to have an accurate temperature reading throughout the cooking process. The toffee will darken quickly as the temperature increases. It should be a golden amber color when removed from heat. The liquid and fats in toffee can separate during cooking or when spread onto the pan, leaving a buttery layer on the surface of the toffee. Typically when this occurs, the liquid in the mixture has evaporated too quickly, or the mixture was stirred too quickly. To avoid separation, stir slowly and continuously.
2 cups (4 stick) unsalted butter 2 cups sugar 1 cup water, plus additional for dissolving sugar 1 cup chopped raw almonds 8 ounces semisweet or milk chocolate for dipping (optional) 1. Spray a jelly-roll pan or a baking pan (with at least 1-inch sides) with cooking spray. Place a small bowl with additional water next to the stove.
2. Combine butter, sugar, and water in a large saucepan and cook over medium-high heat (you don’t want it too high or it will scorch the pan), stirring with a wooden spoon. Use a silicone brush with extra water as needed to wash down any crystallized sugar on the sides. (You can also put a lid on the pan to steam when mixture begins to boil, to dissolve sugar that accumulates on the sides.) Using a candy thermometer, cook until mixture reaches 240˚F. Add almonds and stir.
3. Continue cooking, stirring slowly and constantly, until mixture reaches 300˚F. Remove from heat immediately. Pour mixture onto greased cookie sheet. Spread candy to 1/8 to ¼ inch even thickness with a metal or silicone spatula. After toffee has set for 1-2 minutes and is still warm, lightly score with a knife or a pizza cutter into desired shapes (small rectangles or squares). Allow toffee to cool completely (when cool to the touch).
4. Break into pieces, and coat with chocolate if desired. To coat with chocolate: Cover a baking sheet with aluminum foil. Break the chocolate into small pieces. Place chocolate in a small, microwave-safe bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Heat in microwave at high power for 30-second intervals, stirring after each interval, until melted, about 1-1 ½ minutes total. Set aside to cool. The chocolate should be slightly warm, almost cool to the touch before dipping. Alternate method: Place chocolate in a small, heat-resistant bowl and place over saucepan containing an inch or two of boiling water. Remove saucepan from heat, and stir chocolate occasionally until melted.
5. Dip each piece of toffee in the chocolate (coating halfway or covering completely in chocolate, using tongs). Remove the toffee from the chocolate and place candy on baking sheet until chocolate hardens.
6. If toffee is not dipped, place in cellophane bag. Store dipped toffee in a tin. It should keep for a few months, stored in a cool spot.
Yield: About 1 ½ pounds toffee