Happy Saint Patrick’s Day! For years, I would bake Irish soda bread and read leprechaun stories with my young students. There is nothing like the smell of fresh-baked bread while listening to fanciful tales. We also used to make our own butter to go with the bread. I would put a little heavy cream in empty baby food jars. Each of my students had a jar to shake, shake, shake. The magic butter was their own to use and then bring home with a few extra slices of bread to share with their families.
Since COVID, we can’t bake at school anymore. I miss baking with children the most. I cannot wait till it is a legally sanctioned activity again. I hadn’t tried Irish soda bread at home because I have Celiac Disease and need to eat gluten-free. I thought there was no use in trying to make bread myself. I thought it would turn out terribly. I was wrong!
Happy Saint Patrick’s Day! Enjoy some soda bread and snuggle down with a good leprechaun legend.
Gluten-Free Irish Soda Bread
1 ½ cups buttermilk
1 large egg
4 tablespoons melted butter, divided
3 cups gluten-free all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
1/3 cup golden raisins
1/3 cup currants
1 Tablespoon caraway seeds
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
¾ teaspoon salt
Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.
Whisk buttermilk, egg and 3 tablespoons melted butter in a medium bowl.
Place flour, baking powder, baking soda, caraway seeds, currants, raisins, and salt in a large bowl. Mix on low speed to combine. Increase speed to medium and slowly add the buttermilk mixture until a soft dough forms. Let the dough rest for 10 minutes.
Brush the remaining 1 tablespoon butter over the base and sides of an 8-inch cast iron skillet.
Dust hands with flour and form the dough into a ball. Press the dough into the prepared pan.
Use a sharp knife to score a deep “X” in the top of the dough.
Bake until lightly browned and hollow-sounding when tapped on the bottom, 30 to 40 minutes.
Remove from the pan and let cool on a rack for at least 30 minutes.
Books to Celebrate St. Patrick’s Day
Jamie O’Rourke and the Big Potato by Tomie DePaola
Fiona’s Luck by Teresa Bateman
Patrick: Patron Saint of Ireland by Tomie DePaola
Tim O’Toole and the Wee Folk by Gerald McDermott
A Fine St. Patrick’s Day by Susan Wojciechowski
How to Catch a Leprechaun by Adam Wallace
That’s What Leprechauns Do by Emily Arnold McCully
This summer, not being able venture far away as I normally do, I have become very aware how important place is to my identity. My identity has been definitely shaped by being born, growing up, and aging in New Jersey. But it was also shaped by my travels throughout this country and abroad. The geography, natural resources, diverse people, food, and architecture have all impacted my sense of beauty and adventure. I’ve been missing that sense of adventure this summer, and so I’ve found that I have been traveling in my mind through reading books. For the past several weeks, I’ve been in Paris by way of Hemingway. First, I read his memoir of Paris in the 1920’s, Moveable Feast. After I finished the book, I was missing Paris so much that I found the novel, Paris Wife by Paula McLain, which is a fictionalized account of Hemingway’s time in Paris with his first wife, Hadley Richardson. What so intrigued me about this book is that the author describes the same events from Moveable Feast, but from Hadley’s perspective. It is clear that Paris in the 1920s shaped the identities of so many American writers and artists. As a young couple, Hem and Hadley moved to Paris so that Hem could concentrate on his writing. There, he met Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, and countless others. I traveled along with the Hemingways through the Boulevard de Montparnasse, past the many cafes they frequented: La Closerie des Lilas, Le Dôme, Le Select, La Coupole, La Rotonde, and The Dingo Bar. I envision their tiny tenement apartment on the rue Cardinale Lemoin. I can see the brown water of the Seine, I can hear the music of the dance halls, I can smell the sawdust of the nearby lumber mill.
When exploring cities, I love waking up early and taking long sensory walks, getting a feel for the people and culture. Camera in hand, I focus my lens on the shop windows, the man sweeping the sidewalks, the young woman setting out trays of bakery treats, the pigeons swooping down on small crumbs scattered at the curb. I go down side streets, trying to find the secret places, the soul of the city. Many times, I’m surprised by the treasures I’ve found: a tiny shop with skeins of bright colored wool in the window; the brightly striped awning of a café, which serves a fragrant and rich mochaccino; the young, homeless family walking in slippers down the street with their daughter in tow, who is holding a large conch shell to her ear, which her father had retrieved from the garbage. These discoveries are what sustain me. They are times of uncovering raw beauty that keeps me to connected to my place in the world. I travel with a poet’s heart, always observing, always seeking the essence of the place to express its truth in that very moment.
Paris at 13
When I was thirteen years old (1969), I was able to travel to Paris with my family. When looking back, I remember the food first and foremost. We stayed in a six-story narrow pensione, which served continental breakfast every day: loaves of warm, crusty bread wrapped in white linen, glass jars of homemade thick strawberry jam, and strong steaming tea. And some mornings we had eggs – deux oeufs frit – the first French words I learned to say.
I remember the Paris attractions: the Eiffel Tower, The Arc de Triomphe, the Pantheon. I can see myself climbing the steps of Notre-Dame and Sacre-Coeur. I was astonished to see the Mona Lisa at the Louvre. It was exquisite – small and dark. And I remember the walking through the Tuileries, down the Champs-Élysées, through the neighborhoods and narrow winding cobblestone streets. I was mesmerized, walking slowly behind my family taking it all in like it was some lovely misty dream. I loved stopping into all the cafés: the long elaborate bars, the marble tabletops, the waiters in crisp white aprons, the blackboards with the daily menus etched in chalk. I tried everything – croissants, raclette, croque monsieur, coq au vin, pot-au-feu, and even escargot. But it was the simple meals that made a lasting impression. On our last night in Paris, we stopped at a small café, and I ordered jambon aux épinards, which was a small plate of cheesy creamed spinach with a paper-thin slice of ham on top. It was the most sumptuous thing I ever tasted. I could have eaten two more platefuls. I vowed to come back to Paris one day when I was all grown up. I have yet to go back. But I know that the Paris today cannot compare with the Paris of my memory.
Paris in Montreal
Though I have yet to return to Paris, my husband and I have ventured to Montreal every summer for the last six years. It was the place we also honeymooned thirty-six years ago. Montreal is our North American Paris. We have spent many a summer day walking the cobblestone streets of Old Montreal taking photographs, window shopping, and stopping to rest at sidewalk cafés. My favorite patisserie is Cookies Stefanie because all their treats are gluten-free, which means I can sample pain au chocolat, apple and maple muffins, and rich gâteaux, worry free. Another favorite spot on Rue Saint Sulpice is a lovely teahouse call Ming Tao, where the busy street life fades away with every steaming cup of tea.
One night, my husband and I stopped into a café on Rue McGill, and I coaxed him to try something new on the menu – halloumi, which we thought was fish and were surprised when the waitress set down our plates of farm-fresh sautéed vegetables topped with a firm square of grilled white cheese. We both had a good laugh together about that!
One of my favorite places to photograph is Jean Talon Farmer’s Market in Montreal’s Little Italy. It is filled with fresh produce, honey, cheeses, bread, and pastries. It also has a creperie, which I must indulge in every time we visit.
Memory is hunger. When I read this recently, I paused, I underlined it, I wrote notes beside it in pencil. I’ve been concentrating on Hemingway this summer, and this quote came from his memoir, A Moveable Feast, about his time in Paris in the 1920s with his first wife, Hadley. It is Hadley who says these words as they reminisce about shared experiences: “There are so many sorts of hunger. In the spring there are more. But that’s gone now. Memory is hunger.”
This summer, during this COVID crisis, my sister, cousin, and aunt often have running text dialogues that start in the morning and span into the afternoon, since we have not seen each other in months. These conversations always begin with a memory. Often about our childhoods. Often about my grandfather, Charlie. The memory starts simply with one of us stating, “I remember thus and so.” Then each of us takes turns filling in details. Most of the time, I read their descriptions one after the other, after the other, responding last. Being the youngest, I find that their memories trigger my own, and I’m able to paint a more sumptuous picture of those times with him.
Charlie had a large yard with a huge cherry tree, a grape arbor, a small garden, and several fig trees. As with everything, he took meticulous care of these treasures. Often when I’d visit in the summer, Charlie would be sitting in the shade. A low table would be set before him with a fat watermelon, a platter, and a knife. He would cut thick wedges and offer them to us as we sat to join him and talk. Cherries, concord grapes, fresh figs, melons – all these remind me of Charlie and influence the way I cook and eat. All of these bring me comfort. Summer would not be summer without these.
Indeed, both of my grandfathers kept gardens. My Grandpa Tony had an amazing green thumb. He had an apple tree on which he grafted a pear branch so that he could have two fruits on one tree. I always thought he was magic. On his postage stamp-sized garden, he grew corn, tomatoes, squash, beans, cucumbers, spinach, lettuce, and all manner of herbs: rosemary, mint, oregano, and basil. It is the basil that triggers the most memories for me. Every time I smell basil, Tony’s face comes into my mind. The smell of basil makes me smile, and I am home again. Ah…Tony! There he is bending to pick the ripest tomatoes, snapping off some long beans, taking a basil leaf and rubbing it gently, holding his hand up to my nose. “Smell,” he commands, and it all comes flooding back.
This summer, my 94-year-old father (Tony’s son) and I have weekly phone conversations. We talk about his health, bad news, good books, but it is food that dominates our conversations. My father does not keep a garden, but he still lives by himself and cooks his own meals. In fact, he cooks for his housekeeper, his guitar teacher, and his young neighbors. As much as he loves to read and write, I think he loves cooking more. He is always inventing new recipes. Some of my most joyous memories of my father are our conversations about food. I want to write a cookbook with him where we start with basic ingredients like chickpeas and black olives. Then each of us would make recipes from these simple ingredients and see how diverse and inventive our meals could be.
Usually, my summers consist of traveling north to New England and Canada. Always, they consist of finding and trying new foods. Last summer in Montreal, I found so many wonderful places: gluten free bakeries, cafes, and tea shops (The Art of Cookies and Ming Tao Xuan). I miss traveling and making new food discoveries. So besides concentrating on Hemingway, I have been concentrating on many memorable meals for myself and my husband – always starting with simple, fresh ingredients. Here are three recipes inspired by three simple summer fruits: figs, watermelon, and apricots.
Fresh Fig, Ricotta, & Honey Toast
4 slices of your favorite bread
½ cup part-skim ricotta cheese
2 fresh figs sliced lengthwise
2 teaspoons honey
Spread ricotta cheese on toasted bread.
Top with sliced figs.
Drizzle with honey.
Note: The figs I use in this recipe and which are the most popular where I shop are Brown Turkey figs. They are brownish-purple in color. Choose soft, plump fig with bent stems.
Watermelon Summer Salad
¼ cup fresh Basil
4 cups Watermelon, scooped into 1-inch balls
¼ cup olive oil
2 teaspoons lime juice
1 cup Ricotta Salata, crumbled
1 ½ tsp salt
With a melon baller scoop watermelon into 1-inch balls.
Place basil leaves on top of each other and roll tightly into a log. Slice lengthwise into thin ribbons.
Combine basil slices and watermelon in a large bowl.
Mix lime juice, olive oil and salt together in a small bowl
Pour over watermelon and basil. Toss to combine.
Chill salad before serving, at least 30 minutes.
Note: Ricotta Salata differs from ricotta in that it is a hard cheese from Sicily. It has the consistency of feta cheese, but with a milder, creamy texture and a nutty taste.
4 cups apricots, coarsely chopped
2 Tbsp granulated sugar
¾ cup light brown sugar
1 tsp cinnamon
¾ cup old fashioned oats
¾ cup almond flour
½ cup sliced almonds
½ cup cold unsalted butter, diced into small cubes
pinch of salt
Preheat oven to 350°. Butter square baking dish.
In a mixing bowl, add chopped apricots and granulated sugar. Stir to combine, then transfer to prepared baking dish.
In a separate mixing bowl, add topping ingredients (brown sugar, cinnamon, oats, almond flour, sliced almonds, salt, and diced cold butter). Use a pastry cutter to cut the butter into the oat mixture.
Spread topping over apricots in baking dish, and gently pat to even it out.
Bake 40-50 minutes, until golden brown and bubbly.
Serve warm, top with ice cream if desired, and enjoy!
Note: One summer in Rome, while staying with friends, I took total advantage of their apricot tree, which happily supplied me with a surfeit of this golden fruit.
For our 30th anniversary five years ago, my husband and I returned to our honeymoon site – Montreal. Since that time, we make sure we return to Montreal every summer, sometimes twice a summer. My husband found a wonderful boutique hotel in Old Montreal – Georges Marciano’s L’Hotel. Marciano, the founder and designer of Guess? Jeans, created this lovely hotel, which houses some of his vast collection of Modern art.
The first time we arrived at L’Hotel, to our delight, we noticed a cafe right next door – Cookies Stefanie. Since I am a foodie with Celiac, Cookie Stefanie was an amazing find for me because it is an exclusively Gluten Free bakery and cafe. In the past five years, I think I have sampled almost every item they have to offer: cakes, cupcakes, cookies, muffins, all kinds of grilled cheese sandwiches, savory soups, tartines, and fresh salads. There are also biscotti ice cream sandwiches, pan chocolate, and carrot cake. Each are so delicious that I cannot tell you what is my favorite one. However, they do make a tiny treat, which I favored this summer. It’s a chocolate covered cherry. The cherry is surrounded in a moist chocolate cake and then wrapped in a creamy chocolate ganache. It is small, so I don’t feel too guilty, and it is so rich that it definitely satisfies my sweet tooth. Many an afternoon I could be found retreating to Cookie Stefanie for a cup of tea and a delectable treat. I cannot describe well enough the happiness I feel when I enter this gleaming white and pretty pink cafe. My eyes feast on all the glorious desserts and because they are gluten free. I can have my pick!
Here are some other wonderful eateries in Montreal, which I have enjoyed. I cannot wait to return next summer to seek out more sumptuous treasures!