Amish shoo-fly cake

During my visit back home in the Midwest this summer, I decided to try baking a molasses cake with a crumb topping that my mom used to make when I was little. It was one of my very favorites back in the day, but I hadn’t had it for ages and wondered if my result would be true to my memories. Turned out, it was every bit as yummy as I remembered and the traditional recipe was even accidentally vegan (although some versions use butter instead of oil). I thought it would be a fun recipe to share with you all, especially since it’s somewhat uncommon.

Its name comes from the large amount of thick, gooey molasses that goes into it… so sweet that it attracts sugar-loving insects which must then be “shooed” away.

Amish people

In researching it, I discovered that it’s actually an Amish recipe.  I’ve always been fascinated by this unique culture, which you’ve probably heard of even if you’re not from North America. This group, most famous for rejecting modern technology, is made up of several distinct but related traditionalist Christian church fellowships with German and Swiss Anabaptist origins. Several hundred thousand of them live in rural parts of the US and Canada, and their best known settlements are in Pennsylvania. There are some in my home state of Wisconsin, but I’ve never encountered them anywhere but on the Amtrak – since they don’t drive or fly, trains are their main form of transportation when going long distances. I find it quite remarkable that they’ve managed to preserve their way of life and language (Pennsylvania German) all this time.

This British reality TV show provides an interesting glimpse into an Amish community that hosted a group of decidedly non-Amish teenagers from the UK. Other more traditional documentaries can also be found on YouTube.

Molasses is the star of this scrumptious moist dessert, which in my view can compete with the most decadent chocolate cake any day in terms of richness of flavor. It’s made by refining sugarcane and tastes something like a stronger and darker maple syrup with notes of gingerbread and honey. Molasses isn’t used so often today, but it was a very common sweetener in the Americas before the 1900s.

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Butterflies love sweet things too. Beatrix Potter made the above illustration for her book The Tale of Mrs Tittlemouse (1910).

Unlike white sugar, molasses contains nutrients. It’s an excellent source of vitamin B6 and key minerals including calcium, magnesium, iron and manganese (one tablespoon provides 20% the recommended daily amount of each).

Traditional versions of this cake call for a lot of sugar – one recipe I found actually calls for 3 cups of it (!) for 4 cups of flour. I read that the Amish view high-calorie food as a plus, since they do a lot of manual labor and need the energy. Fair enough, but being a sedentary city-dweller myself, I dialed the sugar back to just 1¼ cup, which was quite enough in combination with regular molasses. If you’re using the more bitter blackstrap molasses, you may want to add more sugar.

So… let’s make a cake!

Amish shoo-fly cake

Makes one 9 x 13 in. (22 x 33 cm) rectangular sheet cake

  • 4 cups (150 g) all-purpose flour
  • 1¼ cups, packed (300 g) brown sugar
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup (236 ml) neutral-flavored oil such as canola (in France, try huile de colza désodorisée)
  • 1 cup (236 ml) molasses
  • 2 cups (473 ml) boiling water
  • 2 teaspoons baking soda

Preheat your oven to 350°F (180°C). Start with the flour in a large mixing bowl. Add the brown sugar and salt and stir to combine.

Add the oil and stir to incorporate. You may need to knead it with your hands at some point to achieve a fully homogeneous result. The texture will be similar to moist sand.

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Reserve 1 cup of the crumb mixture to top the cake with just before baking. Set the large mixing bowl of dry mixture aside.

Take another large bowl for the wet mixture. Add the molasses, scraping the measuring cup thoroughly to get all of it out. Add the boiling water and stir to combine, then add the baking soda (the mixture will foam up, which is why it’s good to use a larger bowl).

Now incorporate the wet mixture into the bowl with the dry mixture. Stir to combine, being careful not to stir too much as this can make the cake texture tough (it’s okay if a few lumps remain). Pour into a greased baking dish.

Sprinkle the reserved crumb topping over the the batter, taking care to ensure the coverage is even. Place in your pre-heated oven and bake for 45 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.

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Remove from oven and let cool completely before attempting to cut into it, otherwise the squares may not keep their shape.

Cover the baking dish with plastic wrap or transfer leftover slices to a Tupperware container so the cake doesn’t dry out.

I hope you enjoy this one-of-a-kind cake! Who knows, it may just become one of your favorites, too.


Where to find ingredients…

In North America: Molasses and brown sugar can be found at most grocery stores with a wide range of products.

In France: Molasses (mélasse) and brown sugar (sucre semoule) can be found at organic food shops but not always at mainstream grocery stores. Note that sucre semoule is a very specific moist sugar that’s different from sucre roux and sucre complet (also known as rapadura), which are dry sugars. Then moistness comes from the presence of molasses, so if you’re in a bind, you can actually make brown sugar yourself. Still, it’s better/safer to get prepared brown sugar if you can. Baking soda (bicarbonate de soude alimentaire) is not as common a baking ingredient in France as in the US, but you should be able to find it at most grocery stores if you look around enough. This is something I stock up on whenever I make a trip back home. Be sure the label says alimentaire or that it’s otherwise safe to use in baking, as you might find it in a cleaning-product form with non-edible chemicals added.

sucre semoule mélasse

I heart New York

When you last heard from me, I was explaining why it took me so long to make my first visit to New York City and showing you my nostalgia-fueled journey there on the Amtrak. But did I like it there? As the title of this post suggests, yes, yes and yes! Let’s take a look at the highlights.

invader-ny_157.jpgFirst, I had the good fortune to be hosted on the Lower East Side of Manhattan by an old friend and former roommate from my undergrad days. Being roommates again was a high point of my stay, reminiscing about the good old days and learning about this new-to-me city from someone who’d already explored it a fair amount.

Right from the start, on my first day walking around, I discovered that one of the ideas I’d had about the city was wrong. In the US, New York City has a reputation for being unfriendly. People there, I’d always heard, were constantly in a hurry, invariably gruff and surly and probably planning to rob you. Even Sesame Street made sure we knew what a tough city it was.

So although I knew stereotypes don’t always reflect reality, thank heavens, on some level I’d mentally braced myself. “Do your worst,” I told the city. “I live in Paris!” Nothing could faze me after 10 years in the French capital.

Doughnut PlantBut it turned out that while the reputation Paris has is (generally) well deserved, New York City’s isn’t. Throughout my entire stay, I consistently heard Excuse me, Sorry and Thank you, and on several occasions people spontaneously offered me help when I looked like I needed it. On my way into the city, loaded down with a heavy suitcase, I was looking at a flight of subway stairs in dismay when a passing woman volunteered that there was an escalator a bit further down the hall. Another time, I was sitting on a bench applying band-aids to my blistered heels when another passerby offered to supply me with more band-aids should I need them. And on the train to the airport on my last day, my fellow travelers (who could see from my luggage where I was going) helped me figure out what to do when the train service was temporarily halted, without my even having to ask.

So perhaps most New Yorkers are only “rude” in comparison with, for example, invasively friendly Midwesterners. In small-town Wisconsin, strangers actually get a bit too much into your business sometimes, so I can imagine rural folk who haven’t traveled much being disappointed by city-dwellers who don’t always have time to chat with you.

IMG_1133But on several occasions, locals actually did strike up a conversation. One afternoon, taking a break from a street art expedition in Brooklyn, I sat down in a café with a matcha latte and pulled Orlando out of my bag. The middle-aged gentleman working on a laptop at the table next to mine took his headphones off to remark on a coincidence: he was in the middle of writing an opera based on another of Virginia Woolf’s books! We spoke for a few minutes about the smallness of the world and the difficulties of adapting stream-of-consciousness literature to a musical form. When I asked when he expected to finish the piece, he chuckled and said sometime in the next decade. We each went back to our respective occupation and, making a mental note to pay more attention to operas, I wondered if he were somebody famous.

Little encounters such as these add a nice human touch to one’s existence, I find. This dimension of city life is something I’ve talked about on this blog before, and my stay in New York City only reinforced the fact that I truly miss it.

As for the city itself, one of the things I was most interested in was its background. I’d already learned about its Dutch roots at museums in Amsterdam and was curious to know more about other ethnic groups, like Jews and Italians, that don’t have so much of a presence in the region I’m from.

The Lower East Side, as it happens, is an ideal starting point to learn about the city’s history of immigration. Just a few blocks from my friend’s apartment, I discovered and fell in love with the Tenement Museum, a learning center that explores the uniquely American story of immigration and the rich, diverse landscape it continues to create. For me, an immigrant myself, this topic has special resonance. Founded in 1988, the museum is made up of two former Orchard Street tenement buildings, each featuring several apartments restored to the way they would have looked at different points in history. The museum offers different guided tours designed to focus on particular themes telling the stories of actual families who lived in the buildings. I opted for the Sweatshop Workers tour, which takes you through the cramped living spaces of two Jewish families, the Levines (c. 1892), who operated a small garment factory in their sitting room and kitchen, and the Rogarshevskys (c. 1908), who worked at apparel factories outside the home and therefore had different living circumstances.

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Orchard Street in 1898. This area was once the most densely populated place on Earth.

On this tour, and also a separate Tenement Museum walking tour that I joined, I learned that Orchard Street and surrounding areas were once the beating heart of the nation’s garment industry, with most families doing piecework in their homes for long hours six or seven days of the week. Walking down the street, you could have looked up and seen someone bent over their sewing at just about each window and heard the whirring of sewing machines from all sides. It was also a street clogged with pushcarts since itinerant vendors were a convenient source of groceries in the day.

IMG_1717The district has been home to various ethnic groups that arrived and dominated, population-wise, in waves. In the 1840s, so many settlers from the German states had come that the area became known as Klein Deutschland. Next were Italians and Eastern European Jews, and by around 1920 the Lower East Side had the largest community of Jews in the entire world. After World War II, Puerto Ricans and African-Americans began to appear in greater numbers. Today there’s a prominent Chinese presence, but a mix of other ethnic groups live there too.

To learn more about New York City’s immigrant history, check out the Tenement Museum’s podcast, How To Be American.

To take a peek inside 97 Orchard Street, watch the video below. If you look around YouTube a bit, you may also find a funny Saturday Night Live tribute to the museum.

And for a deeper dive into the immigrant experience, I highly recommend Betty Smith’s semi-autobiographical novel A Tree Grows in Brooklyn focusing on an Irish-Austrian family living in the Williamsburg slums in the early 20th century. Titles of other fiction and non-fiction works about immigrants in NYC are listed in the museum’s shop.

A vestige of the Lower East Side’s Jewish days can be seen in the beautiful and painstakingly restored 1887 synagogue now known as The Museum at Eldridge Street. Below are a few glimpses into its interior.

The two other museums I saw on this trip were the Guggenheim – the building was the main attraction for me since Frank Lloyd Wright (a Wisconsin native!) is my favorite architect – and a museum devoted to Japanese-American sculptor Isamu Noguchi.

Other art can be seen on the city’s walls for free. There are quite a few impressive murals by Brazilian street artist Kobra, and Invader has quite a few pieces there too. I also saw some pieces by Stik and Frank Ape.

And what about the vegan food scene? It was, of course, amazing! Much like in London, you can find decent vegan items on the menu of just about any mainstream restaurant, and there are many fantastic all-vegan places. Within a three-block radius of my friend’s apartment, I counted three places to get vegan ice cream. Just down the street from the Tenement Museum is Orchard Grocer, a little food shop and delicatessen with a range of delicious made-to-order vegan sandwiches. I was very impressed by their Bowery breakfast sandwich and their Edith bagel with cashew cream cheese and carrot lox that could easily be mistaken for smoked salmon. Adjoining this shop is Moo Shoes, which has a nice selection of vegan footwear, bags and T-shirts.

Other places I loved included Riverdel inside Essex Market, which offers a wide range of gourmet vegan cheeses plus hot and cold sandwiches (their hot breakfast sandwich was divine!), Beyond SushiDun-Well Doughnuts and Van Leeuwen ice cream. There were some spots I didn’t manage to get to, like Isa Chandra Moskowitz’s Modern Love in Brooklyn, so those will just have to wait for my next visit!

So there, in a rather long-winded nutshell, you have my first visit to New York City, a place I strangely felt at home in right away. Maybe because it combines the things I like about Paris (a major international city filled with people from all over the world and lots of art and culture) with the things I like about the US (friendliness, the ability to chat with strangers, greater acceptance of veganism and a wide availability of vegan food) and of course the fact that I blend in and don’t have to be an ambassador for my country.

10/10 would visit again! I have to, anyway, since I still have so many more things to see there.

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Have you been to New York City, and how did you like it?

 

Chunky Monkey un-granola

As a freelance translator with most of my clients based in France, I normally have very quiet Augusts due to the fact that every French person leaves on vacation for the entire month, reducing Paris to a ghost town of sorts populated largely by tourists and a skeleton crew of hoteliers and restaurateurs. But this year, just before leaving, a few of my clients decided to send me huge files to translate by the end of the month. That suited me as I’d already done a bit of traveling in July (to the Netherlands and England) and wanted to make some money.

When accepting these large files, I assumed that I wouldn’t be getting much of the usual work (smaller files with shorter deadlines), but it turned out that several of my regular clients had not completely closed up shop for August and still needed some things translated, and specifically by me. So I ended up having a very busy August indeed. At times such as these, my energy and patience for making elaborate recipes just isn’t there, and I find myself eating bowl after bowl of the same basic pasta with random vegetables thrown in.

One morning, fairly short on groceries and wondering what to have for breakfast, I noticed a box of rolled oats I’d bought to make muffins with and decided to put some of that in a bowl with some soy milk. Rooting around my kitchen a bit more, I found some walnuts and added them too. It turned out I also had a banana. After then, wanting to have an interesting photo for Instagram, I put some of the chocolate sprinkles I’d bought in Rotterdam on top.

I realized that what I’d made was basically un-granola.

Although it may sound strange, dry uncooked rolled oats with soy milk is actually not bad. If you give it a minute or two, the soy milk absorbs into the oats a bit, softening them, so there isn’t strictly any need to cook them. Oats in this form are also healthier than granola—if you’ve ever tried making your own granola at home, you know how much sugar and oil goes into getting the oats and things to stick together and be crunchy. And of course, plain rolled oats are much less expensive than granola of any kind, store-bought or homemade.

This particular un-granola also reminded me of something. Walnuts, banana, chocolate… where had I seen that combination before? Of course, in Ben & Jerry’s Chunky Monkey ice cream! Which to my great delight had recently come to Paris in the new dairy-free version. It’s a great combination of flavors, and what could be better than eating Chunky Monkey (of sorts) for breakfast?

I also put some chia seeds into this un-granola, not for their gelling property—although you could easily make this into overnight oats if you, unlike me, have the presence of mind to get started the night before—but for their amazing health benefits. Walnuts too are bursting with good things. Even the chocolate provides magnesium and protein, so this is a breakfast nobody can argue with.

Of all the recipes I’ve posted on this blog, this is by far the easiest. It’s not really even a recipe at all but a suggestion for things to put into a bowl and eat. I’ve provided approximate amounts below, but you can really just combine these things without measuring. Just use whatever amount of each thing that seems good to you.

Chunky Monkey un-granola

Feeds one hungry translator (or other type of person).

  • 3/4 cup (75 g) dry uncooked rolled oats (small oats if possible)
  • 1 tablespoon dry chia seeds (optional)
  • 1 cup (236 ml) soy milk (or other milk of choice)
  • handful (approx. 1/3 cup) walnuts
  • half of a banana
  • 1-2 teaspoons dark chocolate sprinkles/mini-chips

 

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Let’s get started!

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Combine the oats and chia seeds in your cereal bowl.

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Add the milk and give everything a good stir. You’ll see that the milk gets absorbed into the oats after a few minutes, so you may want to add a bit more milk later.

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Break the walnut halves with your hands (or roughly chop them with a knife if you want to be fancy) and slice some banana over the top.

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Finally, add your chocolate sprinkles. If you don’t have or can’t find sprinkles, mini-chocolate chips will do, or you can even roughly chop up some squares from a bar of dark chocolate.

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You’re all set! After enjoying this hearty, healthful and delicious un-granola, you’ll be ready to seize the day.

Variations: If you’re not as exhausted or busy as I was when I came up with this recipe, you may want to take the time to actually cook the oats and make this into a warm oatmeal. Alternatively, as suggested above, you can stir the oats, chia seeds (not optional in this case) and soy milk together and put them in the fridge overnight to make overnight oats. And you can always experiment with different nuts, different fruit, or different milks (vanilla-flavored rice milk for example, which is naturally sweet) for different results.

Waldorf salad

“What is a waldorf, anyway? A walnut that’s gone off?”

For many people, it’s impossible to think of Waldorf salad without remembering the Fawlty Towers episode of the same name, which sees neurotic English hotelier Basil Fawlty (John Cleese) confronted with an impatient and shouty American guest who demands a salad he has never heard of.

After Basil’s first attempt to dodge the request, claiming the kitchen is fresh out of waldorfs, the guest and his wife inform him of the recipe, shouting “celery, apple, walnuts, grapes—in a mayonnaise sauce!” in his direction several times when he is slow to produce the salad. When Basil fails to find all the ingredients and goes to unreasonable lengths to put the blame on his (absent) chef, the guest becomes more and more enraged and, as often happens when Basil is involved, the situation degenerates into a public shouting match. Try to find the episode if you haven’t seen it, and discover how it happens that Basil himself orders the elusive salad by the end.

As Basil’s wife informs him during the episode, the salad is named for a hotel—more specifically, the Waldorf-Astoria hotel in New York City, where maître d’hôtel Oscar Tschirky invented the dish in 1896 for a charity ball.

Now you can join in on the fun and make a Waldorf salad of your own! It’s a salad that everyone always likes and also the perfect dish to bring to a picnic or potluck Easter brunch, as I confirmed a few weeks ago. And the shouting match is optional.

Waldorf salad

Serves 4 to 6 people

  • 3 red-skinned apples, cored and chopped
  • 2 cups red seedless grapes, sliced in half
  • 2 cups celery, thinly sliced
  • 2 cups chopped, slightly toasted walnuts
  • Lettuce, for serving (optional)
  • 3/4 cup vegan mayonnaise
  • 2 tablespoons lemon juice
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt

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Begin by cutting the apple, celery and grapes into bite-sized pieces. Combine together in a large salad bowl.

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Next, toast your walnuts, allow to cool, and then roughly chop.

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Now prepare the sauce by mixing the mayonnaise with the lemon juice and salt.

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Add the walnuts to the salad bowl, spoon the sauce over the top and stir until evenly coated.

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Serve individual portions on fresh lettuce leaves, if you like.

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And there you have it! A Waldorf salad that will satisfy even the most demanding American that visits your hotel. 🙂

Variations: substitute raisins for the grapes (or use in addition), experiment with different types of nuts, use plain yogurt in place of the mayonnaise.