Gotham Writer's Workshop with NY Times writing samples

Kifla (Food Memoir & recipe)

As a child, I always awoke the morning after Thanksgiving to the clanking of pans and bowls. My mom, who had probably barely slept a wink for the entire preceding week as she prepared for Thanksgiving dinner, was starting a marathon baking session that would sometimes last two entire days and would result in a bounty of plump, sweet, nut and jelly filled loaves I grew up knowing as kifla.

Kifla is a yeast bread with its provenance in Eastern Europe where it is also known as kifli, roske, roscici or rogaliki, depending on your location. It was filtered through my family from my beloved grandmother, June, who learned it from her Romanian mother-in-law. The recipe, of course, was passed by word of mouth and never written down until it reached my mom. Thankfully she scratched it down an a 3x5 index card to ensure the recipe would be preserved.

On those Friday mornings my brother, sister and I would bound from our beds and dart to the kitchen so that we could watch as dad helped mom clamp a cast iron, hand-operated meat grinder to the countertop. As she would gather dry ingredients to one side and wet ingredients to the other, we would jockey for the best spoon-licking and scraping position. Our dream was to get that first taste of the fresh, sticky, butter-speckled dough.

We were allowed to take turns dropping fistfuls of walnut pieces from as far above the grinder as possible to avoid injury, but still get more nuts into the machine than on the floor. Mom turned the crank and out came a chunky river of nutmeats. We would shove our hands into loads of butter and smash it together with flour and eggs, kneading it lightly into crumbles and finally into a fat ball of dough. We would shake together a mixture of sugar, cinnamon and the ground nuts to create a filling. Dad was always checking in to sample our progress.

After we had our fun and covered ourselves in a layer of gooey ingredients, mom would shoo us all away so that she could finish the recipe properly. We would reluctantly retreat to our bedrooms or to the basement to play games. Dad would watch TV or tinker with something in the garage. Although we weren't in the kitchen the smell of baked cinnamon, toasted walnuts and fruity apricot jelly wafted to every corner of the house, making us all still feel a part of the process.

We waited patiently as we heard the oven door open and shut. Toasty brown loaves would emerge from the oven and taunt us from their cooling racks. After what felt like an eternity we were invited back into the kitchen to cut into a loaf and spread soft butter on the still steamy bread. We would savor that first sweet bite of apricot jelly on our tongues and the warm sugary crunch of the nuts as we would devour an entire loaf in a few quick seconds.

A kifla recipe from the memory of my grandmother, June Moldovan, passed on to her daughter and my mother Marla Blatner. I love you and miss you both. 

Dough
5 cups flour
½ cup sugar
½ lb. butter
1 tsp salt
1 tsp vanilla
1 large family size yeast (approx. 4 packages dry yeast) dissolved in ¾ cup warm water an 1 T sugar
1 cup milk
3 beaten egg yolks (with three drops yellow food coloring)



Filling
1 lb. nutmeats, ground
½ to 1 cup sugar
½ tsp cinnamon
1 large jar apricot preserves
3 slightly beaten egg whites

Mix butter and sugar. Add eggs. Add milk, yeast and vanilla. Add flour and salt slowly. Knead slightly. Place in lightly greased bowl, cover and refrigerate for up to 5 hours or overnight. Knead again. Cut into 6 equal portions. Roll out each portion into a rectangle approx. 12” long and 10” wide.

Grind nuts, ½ to 1 cup sugar and cinnamon until very fine.

Spread beaten egg whites over dough. Spread thin layer of apricot preserves over egg whites using a rubber spatula. Spread some of the nut mixture over the preserves.

Roll up from the long edge. Butter large jelly roll pan with ½” to 1” sides. Place loaves in pan, fitting them tightly. Cover with a towel and let rise for 1 hour or so.


Bake at 350 for 1 hour or until brown.





Homemade root beer syrup (Recipe with prelude)

As a child I always enjoyed a root beer from my grandpa's basement refrigerator. He worked for a small vending company and one of the perks of his job was a seemingly endless supply of soda and candy bars. On visits I would always reach for a root beer over any other soda in that fridge. The warm creamy flavor and the slight bite of spice on the front my tongue was what drew me to those cans of Dad's, Hires and A&W.

I set out to research homemade root beer recipes and come up with a mixture that would bring me back to grandpa's cool basement on a hot summer day. There are endless numbers of recipes in books and on the internet with a wide array of ingredients. I selected some of the more popular ingredients and thought of some of the flavors I felt were necessary for a flavorful tonic and came up with the following recipe.

Makes 2 quarts

3 ounces sassafras root bark
1 ounce burdock root bark
1 whole clove
1 whole star anise
2 sticks cinnamon (3 inch pieces)
1 vanilla bean (split and scraped)
1 teaspoon whole coriander seeds
6 Cups water
¼ Cup molasses
4 drops of wintergreen extract (peppermint extract can be used if wintergreen is not available)
6 Cups of raw sugar (regular table sugar can be used)

Place sassafras root through coriander seeds in a large saucepan and cover with water. Place cover on saucepan and bring to a light rolling boil. Allow to simmer for 15 minutes

Add molasses and stir until well combined with water.

Turn off the heat and add wintergreen/peppermint extract. Place cover back on and allow to cool.

When cool strain tea through a cheesecloth over a large bowl to remove bark and spices.

Return the tea to the pot and add sugar over medium heat. Stir until sugar is dissolved. Bring to a light boil and allow to simmer for 5 minutes, uncovered.

Cool mixture and pour into mason jars or other glass containers and seal. Syrup will keep for up to a year in the refrigerator.

To make root beer soda combine 1 Tablespoon of syrup with 1 pint of unsweetened seltzer water. Adjust the strength of the soda to your taste by adding more syrup a ½ teaspoon at a time.




Pizza (Food Memoir & Essay)
Memoir

I always looked forward to Friday nights during my grammar school days. Not because the weekend was ready to begin or that I would be free from the stiff oxford shirt and navy blue pants of my catholic school uniform. Friday nights were special because it was homemade pizza night.

On the morning walk to the bus stop I would begin daydreaming about my recipe: roll the dough into a square, a slather of sauce down the middle, a mound of mozzarella on the left, cheddar on the right, topped off with pepperoni slices and a few shakes of dried oregano. As the day dragged on I would think of toppings to add or delete. I scribbled pictures of my pending creation on the back of my brown paper bag textbook covers. By the time I was on the bus ride home I had tweaked my recipe a dozen or more times.

Charging off the bus, I galloped home and made a beeline to the kitchen in search of the ingredients mom was offering that night. I would survey the refrigerator shelf and make any necessary adjustments to my plan.

As soon as dad pulled into the driveway after work, my brother, sister and I would dart to the kitchen to begin unloading the pizza toppings onto the countertop. We would hastily assemble our masterpieces, laughing and making faces at one another over the unconventional toppings or arrangement of ingredients on our canvases of dough. We would then hand them off to dad to place in the oven. 

The smell of burnt bits of cheese that had fallen to the bottom of the oven mixed with the wafting baked bread and the spicy scent of pepperoni to create the aroma of our very own pizza place.

Misshapen puffy pizzas emerged twenty minutes later. The final product never really living up to what I had pictured in my daydreams. However, those moments together in the kitchen were enough to make those pies taste as good as any pizzeria. 

Pizza
Essay

The perfect pizza goes by the name Margherita. It is said to have originated in 1889 when Italy's Queen Margherita was served the pizza during a visit to Naples. The pizzaiolo created the pie as a tribute to the colors of the new Italian flag: red tomato sauce, white mozzarella di buffalo and green basil leaves. These ingredients topped a thin disc of dough that was baked by the intense heat of a wood fire. This intense heat created an outer crisp on the crust with a slightly chewy texture underneath. The Queen enjoyed it so much the style was named for her.

It is simple in appearance but complex in flavor. When fresh ingredients are used and is baked quickly under blistering heat there is no better example of pizza. The sweet melted cheese creates creamy pools that absorb the tang of the tomatoes and is infused with the pungent flavor of the basil. Upon biting into the crust it cracks slightly and then gives a tug back, attempting to keep itself intact.

This combination of flavors and texture cannot be matched by massive floppy slices that need to be wrestled to fit into your mouth or two-inch thick crust that requires a fork and knife to eat. Simply put, the most basic of ingredients creates the most pleasurable form of a food that has morphed into such a variety of styles worldwide.