Chinese New Year is time to honor the Kitchen God

Year of the Ox

Year of the Ox

Chinese New Year is a very colorful time in Chinese households. And a very busy time. Houses are cleaned, fences mended, debts are paid, and the color red, representing wealth and happiness, features prominently in clothing and celebratory decorations placed throughout the house. Gifts of flowers, citrus fruits, candy and of course TEA  figure prominently in the holiday.

In the spirit of happiness and wealth, red envelopes containing money are given to children ( or the unmarried ) by  parents and elders. Colorful dragon parades bring crowds of Chinese and non-Chinese revelers into Chinese communities from New York to San Francisco. New Year parades feature lion dancers and large paper dragons that slither through the streets to the sounds of drums, bells and chimes. A host of fireworks and an ocean of bobbing lanterns ( meant to scare away the evil spirits )  keep the crowd cheering happily and adds to the festive occasion.

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 Special celebratory menus are offered in restauants, most of whom chalk up their busiest days of the year during the 15 days of Chinese New Year. In homes, families plan elaborate multi-coursed banquet meals for loved ones and friends. Foods are selected for their ability to bring good luck, propserity and longevity in the New Year.

But before the new year festivities can begin, the house must be cleaned and homage must be paid to the Kitchen God  or Stove God ( known as Zao Jun or Zao Shen ) a guardian deity who evolved  from Zhu Rong, the ancient Fire God, once  stoves became commonplace in Chinese kitchens.

image of the Kitchen God

image of the Kitchen God

Traditional Chinese families live by a complex religiuos belief system, and in order to fare well in this life, they enlist the help of  various deities and guardian figures.

The Kitchen God oversees every Chinese kitchen. His role is to protect the family in a variety of ways – a paper image of him resides near the back of every stove, and a small altar is made for seasonal food offerings, burning incense and candles.

Each year, about one week before the start of the New Year celebrations, the image of the Kitchen God is taken down and burned. By doing this, the spirit of the Kitchen God is released from the earth to make his annual ascent to Heaven to report to the Jade Emperor on the conduct of the family during the past year

Once in Heaven, the words of the Kitchen God influences the amount of prosperity and abundance that each family will have bestowed on them in the new year.  In order to ensure that the Kitchen God speaks sweetly of the family, offerings of incense and bowls of ‘sweet treats’ such as ripe melons, honey, glutinous cakes, and sugar candies are presented for his delight before his image is burned and his journey begins.

Gold and silver ‘ingots’ fashioned from paper are also offered, and little paper-mache sedan chairs are sometimes provided to offer comfort on the journey to Heaven.

To welcome the return of the Kitchen God to the family for the new year, a fresh paper image of him is hung where the old one had been. Each family hopes for the same thing from the Kitchen God – abundant food, good harvests and good health. In Heaven good deeds are reported, on earth their safety is ensured.

On our recent trip to San Francisco, Bob and I combed Chinatown looking for a Kitchen God for our kitchen. To be honest, we did not know exactly what he should look like, or what we would find to purchase. perhaps, we wondered, if a Kitchen God was something that one inherited, and not something simply purchased.

So we began asking in all of the shops we stopped in. To our surprise, many of the  people in the shops did not know where we could purchase a Kitchen God.  But finally, someone directed us to a shop on Pacific Avenue ( turn right off  Grant and head for the housewares-looking place down on the left. ) This seemed an unlikely place to us, but a helpful clerk steered us to a section of the store where they stocked numerous packets to cover all of life’s needs. We scooped up a few Kitchen Gods to give to friends and for good luck we grabbed a Interior Door God and a House God, too.

Back home, we carefully opened our Kitchen God packet and were amazed at how many pieces of paper it contained. Most of the sheets were printed with Chinese characters, symbols and figures. We had large yellow sheets, medium-sized red sheets, long red strips, gold printed squares, streamers, paper-cut banners, candles and stick incense, and a little paper bowl to fill with dry rice grains. Stand the candles and incense sticks up in this bowl and one has an instant alter.

But nowhere was there the image of the Kitchen God that we were expecting to find  – manybe one needs a more expensive kit – but we had fun looking at everything and trying to piece it together. We did find this:

simple paper Kitchen God plaque

simple paper Kitchen God plaque

which we think is a simple plaque that says ‘ Kitchen God. ‘ So we hung our plaque, made the alter, and hope that our humble attempt to please the Kitchen God brings us a new year of good luck and prosperity !

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Election Cake

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Before the patriotic act of rebellion known as the Boston Tea Party ( which was followed a few short years later by the American Revolutionary War against England ) colonial farmers could look forward to being called up once a year to participate in military practices known as ‘mustering.’  Men arrived at designated towns in droves for the mustering practice, and the locals were required to provide shelter and copious amounts food for the men. Capitalistic-minded townsfolk cooked and baked for the new arrivals, using this opportunity to do good while earning a little extra cash.

One such treat baked for these gatherings was a generously-sized, fruited cake that became known as a Muster Cake. It is most likely that the idea of baking a large, celebratory cake that could feed a crowd came from England and the practice of baking Great Cakes in the 17th and 18th centuries.

At that time, it was uncommon for families in England to indulge in baked desserts. Many households did not have ovens, and fuel was expensive. Ingredients for baking were luxury items and not something the average family could readily afford. On the occasion that an after dinner treat was in order, fuits, nuts and cheeses were taken at the end of a meal. Great Cakes were made from expensive ingredients such as sugar, eggs, butter, spices, wine and dried fuits, and appeared only at large family and village gatherings that celebrated important events such as weddings or births.

After the war of independence with England granted freedom to the new Colony, Muster Days turned into ‘Election Days. ‘ Men continued to make the journey once a year to the same old gathering towns but now it was to participate in the new ‘electioneering’ process of deciding on candidates and voting. The Muster Cake became known as Election Cake, and it became a symbol of polical change and new power, and it was served up in small slices whenever voting was to take place.

The first American cookbook was written by Amelia Simmons ( cover pictured above ) and published in 1796. The second edition of this book  featured the first printed recipe for  Election Cake, and it called for ( among other ingredients ) ” 30 quarts of flour, 14 pounds of sugar, and 3 dozen eggs. ”

During the early days of our fledgling nation, Hartford, CT was a wealthy, politically important  town. As early as the 1660’s, several of the English colonies, Connecticut among them, were allowed to elect their own governors. There appears to be a history of a cake known as Election Cake associated with that election process that dates even earlier than the national Election Cake.

But as time went on and our country developed new towns and cities, polling places multiplied and the need to travel long distances to vote disappeared. The large, patriotic gatherings of the past faded away, as did the taste and need for heavy Election Cakes.

The advent of chemical leaveners made smaller, lighter cakes feasible and fashionable, and by the early 1900’s, election day festivities were reinvented into celebrations and trips that only required a trip to the local voting polls.

Nevertheless, in this election year of new hope, opportunity and historic firsts, it is perhaps time to revive the idea of an Election Cake for Inauguration Day. I love the idea of every citizen raising a fork-full of cake toward a bright future for our country.

Hartford Election Cake with Sugar Crackle Topping
from American Home Cooking
by Bill & Cheryl Jamison

Bakes 2 cakes/ Servings: 12

1 cup raisins, preferably half light and half dark

3 tablespoons dark rum

1 package active dry yeast

1 1/2 cups lukewarm milk

1 1/4 cups packed light brown sugar

31/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened

2 large eggs

1 tablespoon orange-flower water (see Ingredient Tip)

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 teaspoon ground coriander

3/4 teaspoon ground allspice

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon minced orange or lemon zest

1 1/2 cups chopped walnuts

SUGAR CRACKLE TOPPING:

3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

6 tablespoons sugar

Butter and flour two 8-inch x 4-inch loaf pans. Combine the raisins and rum in a small bowl.

Dissolve the yeast in the warm milk in a large mixing bowl. With an electric mixer, beat in the brown sugar, 13/4 cup of the flour, and then the butter, eggs, and orange-flower water. When combined, mix in the remaining 13/4 cup of flour and beat for 3 minutes. Cover the bowl with a clean dishtowel and set it in a warm, draft-free spot until doubled in size, about 11/2 hours. The batter will be sticky, with the consistency of a soft, moist dough.

When doubled in size, stir down the batter. Mix into it the spices and salt, followed by the zest, walnuts, and raisins with any remaining rum. Divide the batter between the two pans, smoothing it so that it is mounded on the top. Cover the pans and let the batter rest again in a warm, draft-free spot until risen to the top of the pans, about 1 additional hour. Near the end of the rising time, preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

Top the cakes with the sugar crackle. Pour the butter evenly over the dough and sprinkle it thickly with sugar.

Bake the cakes in the center of the oven. Cook for 50 to 55 minutes, until the tops are golden and a toothpick inserted in the center of each comes out clean. Cool the cakes in the pans for 10 minutes, then unmold and cool for at least 15 additional minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature. Leftovers can be toasted and slathered with sweet butter.

INGREDIENT TIP:
Our common use of vanilla extract to flavor baked goods is largely a twentieth-century development. Before then, cooks scented their dishes with lemon and perfumy distillations of orange and rose blossoms. Look for fragrant rose water and orange-flower water in our our store, Cooks Shop Here or large grocery stores and Middle Eastern or Asian markets. In election cake, orange-flower water gives a lighter, more flowery complexity than vanilla.

Gourmand World Cookbook Awards 2008

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We just received news that our book, The Story of Tea A Cultural History and Drinking Guide ( Ten Speed Press, 2007 ) has been nominated for the second tier judging in the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards 2008. We were notified that we were named the Best Tea Book in the USA 2008. This means that our book will go on to compete for the title of Best Tea Book in the World 2008.

The organization behind this prestigous competition is headquartered in Madrid, Spain and the competition is the largest cookbook awards in the world. It is international in scope, which means that our book will now be competiting against other tea books ( in all languages ) from Chinese, Japanese, Malaysian and European authors.

This is the information posted by Edouard Cointreau, President, on the Gourmand World Cookbook website: “This year 102 countries participated, with 101 countries for cookbooks and 43 for drinks books. We have received approximately 15% more books than last year. We are most impressed by the worldwide increase in quality. We have 88% cookbooks, and 12% drinks books.”

We are thrilled and honored to have our book so recognized, but will have to wait until May to find out if we have won the title of Best Tea Book in the World 2008Ole !

Polenta

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When Columbus brought corn from the New World to Italy it became an immediate hit. Corn was ground into flour and eventually it replaced earlier grain mixtures of millet, spelt and chickpeas. Roman soldiers and peasants cooked a sustaining mean of hot gruel known as pulmentum from these grains, and heralded the arrival of corn as an opportunity to add diversity to this simple meal.

Corn flourished in the climate of northern Italy and it eventually became the dominant grain used for making pulmentum or polenta. Today, polenta remains one of the favorite dishes of northern Italy. The best polenta ( which can refer to to the cut of the corn as well as the dish, although the word polenta can also mean a dish that is made from farro or buckwheat flour as well ) comes from the Lombardia region, particularly the area of Bergamo north of Milan, where ancient trains of corn are selectively bred and grown. Polenta runs the gamut from fine cut to medium and coarse cut.

Italian chefs have devised many delicious recipes featuring polenta, and in addition, there are numerous thoughts on how to cook the best polenta. Some recipes use just water or stock and cornmeal, others incorporate eggs and cheese or heavy cream. Polenta can be served hot and creamy or left to firm up, the cut into squares and sautéed in butter in a hot skillet. And of course, entire books have been written about what to ladle over or serve alongside of polenta: a wild mushroom ragu, an assortment of grilled meats, spicy tomato sauce, a medley of seasonal vegetables, and even sweet toppings such as a cooked fruit stew.

We sell two distinctively different polentas which are both extremely tasty and extremely popular. ( Remember….. while all polents is cornmeal, not all cornmeal has the substance, structure or proper cut to make a good polenta.)

• Moretti Bramata Polenta: coarse ground yellow polenta from the Moretti family in Bergamo who have been growing corn and grinding it for polenta since 1922. Carefully selected varieties of corn are air-dried in open barns until hardened. The kernels are stone ground and packed in air-tight seal bricks to retain their natural freshness and superior flavor.

Tenuta Castello Artisan Stone-ground Organic Polenta: a flecked yellow polenta made from three heritage varieties of corn –Marano, Astice and Quattro File. The Vercellone family have been cultivating grains for over 100 years in the heart of the Po Delta near Vercelli, Italy. Their grains are processed in traditional mills that leave much of each grain’s kernel intact without polishing.

Polenta is incredibly versatile and easy to prepare. Here is a recipe from Chef Joel Robuchon from his new book, The Complete Robuchon, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2009.

Polenta
Serves 6-8 as a side dish

1 quart milk
6 tablespoons cold butter
2 cloves garlic, peeled
2/3 teaspoon salt
2 pinches grated nutmeg
generous pinch of pepper

1 & 1/3 cups medium or coarse-ground polenta
2 eggs plus 3 egg yolks
½ cup grated parmesan cheese
½ cup grated gruyere cheese
oil for greasing the pan
butter for sautéing cooked polenta squares

1. Rinse a saucepan under running water but do not dry it off. Add the milk, butter, garlic, 2/3 teaspoon salt, grated nutmeg, and pepper. Bring to a boil over high heat. When the butter has melted, lower the heat and gradually shower the polenta into the liquid, stirring with a wooden spoon. Cook for 8 minutes over medium-low heat, stirring constantly.
2. Mix the eggs and yolks together in a bowl. After 8 minutes, take the saucepan off the heat, add the eggs slowly to the polenta, stirring vigorously, and cook 3-4 minutes more over lower heat.
3. Remove the pot from the heat, remove the garlic cloves and stir in the parmesan and gruyere cheese. Taste for salt and pepper and adjust if needed.
4. Grease a rimmed sheet pan with oil using a pastry brush and pour the hot polenta into the pan. Smooth with the spoon into an even 1-inch layer. Refrigerate for 2 hours.
5. Cut the polenta into squares and sauté in 1 tablespoon butter in a skillet over high heat. Brown the squares on each side and top each with a little of the melted butter.

The White House Executive Chef

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While speculation runs rampant about nearly everything that our new incoming President may or may not do during his first weeks in office, one of the more lightweight bits of fodder for discussion ( along with topics such as fashion, choice of schools, dinner patterns, etc ) regards who it will be that will be appointed White House Executive Chef. Some say that Executive Chef Cristeta Comerford, the current holder of that title, should remain in the position.

Ms. Comerford was born in the Phillippines and was appointed to her post by First Lady Laura Bush in 2005. She is the first women to hold that position, so she, like Mr. Obama, has made history.

Others would like to see a celebrity chef or TV chef in that role, but those in the know regarding the demanding nature of the job do not agree that this is the right type of personality for the job. Former White house executive pastry chef Roland Mesnier ( responsible for 25 years of fanastic Christmas Gingerbread houses and showstopper desserts for countless state dinners ) was quoted as saying with typical Gaillic confidence: ” Celebrity chefs, in my book, are not chefs. They are entertainers- all of these TV people – forget it ! ”

I for one think that this job would be nothing short of overwhelming, albeit a  rare opportunity for an exceptional someone to rise to the most challenging job of their lifetime. This job requires someone not motivated by celebrity ( no offense, but celebrities are not celebrities because they wish to remain unknown or be second-in-command ) and in fact, most of us tax payers never know who the White House Executive Chef is or what their credentials are or how they came by the job.

The position of White House Executive Chef requires someone who has the drive to perform ‘duty and service to country’ by running the most important kitchen and dinner room in the nation with grace and style. And by serving delicious, exquisitely cooked food to heads of state and other important guests of the White House. Let’s face us – many world leaders and dignitaries visiting the White House hail from countries much more food obsessed than we are, so this is not place to cost-cut in the White House.

Accordingly, the White House chef is also responsible for creating the menus for all state dinners, holiday functions, receptions and official luncheons. Which means having a firm grasp on seasonal dishes, food sourcing, the basic elements of many foreign cuisines, and the food likes and dislikes of important guests. The job also requires feeding and tending to the First Family, which only lends another layer of complexity to all that must be juggled.

Some have suggested that there be a different high-profile chef hired for each state dinner. Can you imagine the chaos that would ensue if a different personality was inserted into the well-oiled mechanics of the White House kitchen on a regular basis ? It’s a fun idea, but hardly a practical one.  (For those who like that idea, let me point out that this is the forte of the James Beard House in NYC. Here, celebrity chefs from around the country fly in with their particular regional foods and ingredients and their entourage of chefs ( and at their own expense ) to cook dinners for a priviledged small group of diners nearly evey night of the year. Seating is open to members and non-members of the James Beard House and the experience is sheer foodie-heaven. Visit www.jamesbeard.org for more details. )

It will be interesting to see who will carry the exhaulted title of Executive Chef into the new administration. I am rooting for Cristeta Comerford to remain in the job. My wish for her is that she has the opportunity to stay on in an Obama White House and that it will be a time for national pride in showcasing the best of American meats, cheeses, wines and regional dishes.

May she, like the President Elect, bring an extra sparkle to the elegant, well-appointed White House dinner tables.