Sunday, March 25, 2007

final paper 2

روٹی (Urdū: “Roti” (“Bread”))

A survey of the baking traditions of the Middle East must begin with an understanding that civilization, as we consider it today, found its origins there. Between 10,000 and 2,000 bce humans underwent the greatest transition in their history, as man began to rely more sparingly on his prowess as hunter-gatherer, and learned instead to cultivate crops and domesticate animals. This period, coined the Neolithic Revolution by archaeologist Vere Gordon Childe in 1953, is widely accepted to have begun in the Middle East, specifically in that area known as the Fertile Crescent. This roughly California-sized swath of land is a historical region extending, in terms of modern geography, from Egypt and the Sinai Peninsula northwards along the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea, and then to the southeast across the entire length of both the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers to their deltas in the Persian Gulf. It was in this region that the earliest crops were planted and harvested, many of them ancestors of today’s crops: wheat, barley, oats, rye, grapes, apples, onions, lentils, vetch, garlic, dates, chickpeas, figs, pomegranates, and pistachios are believed to be among them. The concept of food supply as we know it today was born, and along with it, the ideas of settlement, dominion, politics, and commerce. These phenomena followed the spread of agriculture, from its origins, into Africa and eventually throughout Europe.

The Middle East and its great crescent, fertile in ways going far beyond the mineral content of its soil, was the ancient home to many great empires, including the Babylonian, Ottoman, Assyrian, and Persian empires. Today, the region is as multicolored in culture and tradition as it is in climate and politics, and it is commonly held to include Bahrain, Cyprus, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, The United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. Owing to their Islamic tradition, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and some North African countries are also included in the term “Middle East.” Clearly, to thoroughly depict the traditions of each of these present and historic nations, in even as specific an idiom as baking, would be impractical for any single document. However, from among the extraordinarily broad influences of the changes in the Middle East during the Neolithic Revolution, a single facet draws the baker’s attention: wheat was first cultivated. Emmer wheat (Triticum monococcum) and einkorn wheat (T. dicoccon) were among the first crops ever grown, and it is from these parent varieties, through centuries of evolution and breeding, that today’s common wheat (T. aestivum) is derived. It is therefore to a few Middle Eastern breads that we will turn our gaze, tasting merely a thin slice of the incredible past and present of this globally important food. There are fortunately many historical references to bread in the region of the Middle East, not the least of which can found in the Bible. Those of us not too awash in dogma to remember that Christ was Middle Eastern may find it particularly noteworthy that properly sanctified bread represents communion with His flesh to hundreds of millions of people around the world. There are countless other biblical references to bread, in both the Old and New Testaments. Many of the Old Testament’s examples of bread and its implications remain an important facet of Jewish culture today. There are also many mentions of and recipes for various breads in the medieval Kitab-al-Tabikh, an Arab cookbook dating from the 13th century and one of the oldest known texts on cooking.

Thinking about Middle Eastern bread today leads the average Westerner invariably to the pita, and perhaps not much further. This isn’t a bad starting point, though; flatbreads are ubiquitous in contemporary Middle Eastern cuisine and they certainly have been historically. It seems likely that early breads, out of necessity or simply lack of knowledge, were flat simply because they were unleavened. It is generally accepted that unleavened bread was the first type of bread, and physical evidence of it dates as far back as 4000 bce, from excavations of what is present-day central Iraq (then Babylon). It was also depicted around 3500 bce on the outsides of Egyptian tombs, with actual loaves often enclosed within them. The use of leavening in dough, however, was already occurring even then. Archaeologists have found that by 4000 bce, Egyptians had discovered that a dough left to its own devices would ferment and swell, and that it could subsequently be baked into leavened bread. Given fermentation’s crucial role in breadmaking, this was obviously the beginning of an era. From Egypt, the leavening of bread spread throughout the Middle East. Barley was first cultivated and fermented in the Euphrates River valley in Mesopotamia around five hundred years later. Apart from Arabia, whose warmer climate made wheat growing more difficult, bread both leavened and unleavened became a ubiquitous staple of the Middle East over the next few thousand years. The leavened bread of Cyprus was noted for having particular quality by the fourth century bce Athenian statesman Eubulus: ‘Tis a hard thing, beholding Cyprian loaves, to ride carelessly by, for like a magnet, they do attract the hungry passengers. Eventually, the concept of fermentation, of such paramount importance to bread, made its way eastward into Asia and northwest into Europe.

Our survey will comprise itself of a brief glance at a few unleavened flatbreads, and a deeper examination of leavened flatbreads. Some confusion arises regarding leavening in the context of flatbreads. Simply because a bread is flat should not imply a lack of leavening. Leavened bread is in fact vastly more common than unleavened bread in the Middle East, but “loaves” as we know them are scarce. Leavened breads take on a flat shape, and are very often baked in tandoors. Also common in India, a tandoor is a large, clay oven, shaped somewhat like a beehive, and it is used throughout the Middle East. The baker reaches into the oven via the large hole at one end and sticks a round of flattened dough directly to the inside wall, the glowing coals at the bottom providing heat. There are other baking methods throughout the region, some of them very unique, and we shall examine these methods as we encounter them in the context of each particular bread. One thread common to all these techniques, though, is that they are all very traditional methods. The baker is seen as an artisan the world over, but the concept of bread itself as artisanal is a very American idea. Such ideals do not need to exist in lands where mechanization has not replaced doing things in the traditional way; in the case of bread, by hand. Even as the world continues to embrace technology, the Middle East paints a vivid, living picture of history for us when we examine their breads.

Unleavened Flatbreads
Unleavened breads are generally crisp or cracker-like. They are thin by definition, and are usually baked to a relatively dry state very quickly. Their low moisture content was originally an attractive characteristic because it greatly prolonged the life of the bread. It is easy to imagine that the first breads needed a long “shelf” life, since, at their dawn, man was not yet fully detached from his historically nomadic lifestyle.

The unleavened flatbread most familiar in the West is the traditional Jewish Matzo. This bread is made using only flour and water, and it is not allowed to ferment before baking. This observance of Jewish tradition dates back to the fifteenth century bce. In the Old Testament book of Exodus, the Israelites do not wait for their dough to leaven, being a bit pressed for time in fleeing Egypt. Though certainly not the advent of unleavened bread, it remains an important facet of Jewish religious observance and an example of an ancient tradition that is still maintained.

Also fairly common to the world outside the Middle East is chapatti. This Pakistani (and Indian) flatbread is made from a dough of whole grain durum wheat flour, or atta, water, and salt. It is rolled into discs and baked on a very hot, flat surface, after which it is placed over a direct flame. The steam this creates causes characteristic blisters to form on the surface of the bread. Chapattis are not as crisp and dry as other unleavened flatbreads, their consistency being somewhat akin to a thick flour tortilla. Their high gluten content makes them sturdy utensils for picking up bites of thick soups and stewed dishes.

Yufka is an unleavened Turkish flatbread which is either eaten dry or used as phyllo dough in the creation of pastries. It is a very basic dough which is rolled very thin, and baked on a smooth, hot surface. It has a very low moisture content and therefore a long shelf life. Very often, a disc of it is misted with water and allowed to hydrate for use as a sandwich wrap or in the creation of multi-layered pastries. Alternately, pieces of it are further crisped and eaten plain.

Leavened Flatbreads
It is understandably confusing at first glance to consider that a flatbread may be leavened, and while there are a number of unleavened flatbreads, they are far outnumbered by their yeasted cousins. As in most geographic regions, each individual country in the Middle East has its own distinct baking traditions. However, a couple of breads stand out as somewhat universal among Middle Eastern countries, and it is those which we will examine first.

The pita is undoubtedly the one bread people associate with the Middle East, and for good reason. A tribute to its ubiquitousness, the origin of the pita is somewhat unclear, but the word itself was seen as early as 200 ce, as a reference to bread in general in the Babylonian Talmud. Since that time, it has been a dietary staple of many of the Middle East’s constituent cultures, being used as a scoop for sauces and dips or a wrapper for sandwiches. During its baking on the surface of a very hot oven, the disc of dough puffs up into a balloon-like ball, creating a hollow center which remains separated when the bread cools and deflates. The resultant pocket is a characteristic unique to the pita. It is often filled and eaten as a sandwich. The pita has only been known in the United States for about the past thirty years, but having spread from its origins in the Middle East, it has long been widely popular in Greece and Eastern Europe.

Another bread that can be considered to be somewhat universally Middle Eastern is lavash. This flatbread is very common in Iranian and Turkish cuisine, as well as Armenian. Its origins are unclear; some sources consider it to be Armenian in nature, while others claim a Persian heritage. It is easy to imagine that it did originate in the Fertile Crescent, however, as it is also considered to be among the most ancient breads. Like the majority of Middle Eastern breads, it is made with just flour, water, and salt. It is allowed to ferment, and then baked on a flat surface in extremely thin pieces. Used when flexible and hot, it can enclose sandwich fillings. When cool, lavash is very dry and brittle.

When considering Egypt, it is invariably to Ancient Egypt that our minds go. Among the extensive history of our kind that we have gleaned from excavation of Egypt’s ancient ruins, bread is an aspect of daily life that turns up repeatedly. References to bread – and its liquid cousin, beer – have appeared in hieroglyph on sarcophagi and in tombs, and actual loaves of many shapes and sizes have been found within them. It has been determined that the grain most commonly used was emmer wheat, and the loaves that have been excavated range in texture from thick and dense to risen and airy. Ta, the Egyptian word for bread, is referenced frequently in hieroglyphics, and examples of writing which mention it include “mulberry bread,” “sacrificial bread,” “toasted bread presented as an offering,” “the bread incorruptible eaten by the blessed,” “bread of the moon,” “field bread,” “bread made of fine flour,” “bread of the
celestials,” and many others. Pesen bread is a type of round, flat loaf in evidence both physically and in hieroglyph, and it is similar to the common bread available in Egypt today. Another flatbread in modern Egyptian society is Aish Merahrah. Diverging from the traditional wheats used for breadmaking in the ancient and modern Middle East, this bread contains maize flour. However, it keeps with tradition as well: the dough is leavened with a sourdough starter; fitting, considering that the earliest evidence yet discovered of fermentation comes from Egypt of 6,000 years ago, and it is widely believed that they held over parts of their dough for use in future preparations. Aish Merahrah is unique, also, in that it contains ground fenugreek seeds. This not only adds only shelf life and vital protein, but also fiber, making it a well-balanced and important staple.

Iran, once known in the West as Persia, has been the seat of numerous empires. Near the capital city, Tehran, lies Rhages, Iran’s most ancient city. It was a major port of call along the Silk Road, the route by which the ancient East traded with Europe. Consequently the cuisine of Iran employs a broad use of herbs, a Silk Road commodity. Alongside the plate of fresh herbs served at a traditional Iranian meal will always be found a supply of bread. A common variety in Iran is Barbari bread. Inhabitants of the eastern border region of Iran, the Barbars brought this white-flour bread to Tehran, but only within the last three hundred years. These flat, oblong loaves are thick and sturdy, and they are baked very briefly in a brick oven on a flat deck. The more traditional Iranian bread, Sangak, is made with whole wheat flour, and it is baked in a long, blanket-like shape. It is unique in that it is not baked on a flat surface, but rather on a bed of hot stones (“sang” means stone in Persian). Its mottled texture, an imprint of the stones on which it bakes, is a distinctive facet of Sangak, and its appearance is unmistakable. This ancient bread has always been baked on heated stones, and to consider it is to look back to the very dawn of the Neolithic era, when French deck ovens hadn’t exactly made the rounds.

Ideally situated for anyone from the Middle East who wishes to trade with Greece, the island of Cyprus is a crossroads of sorts when it comes to bread. We already know from Eubulus that Cypriot loaves were tempting, and his mention of it is an example of the beneficial attention Cyprus received as a necessary stop along the way. Pliny the Elder was more specific about their bread when he mentioned in the first century ce that “The wheat of Cyprus is swarthy and produces a dark bread, for which reason it is generally mixed with the white wheat of Alexandria” – lest we think the madness for white bread is a modern one! Today, the most commonly found bread in Cyprus is called arkatena: flat, crunchy rusks of bread which undergo not only long mixing but extended time in the oven, even after they are done baking. The exact history of this bread is uncertain but it is said that the recipe was demonstrated to the women of a Cypriot village by a woman who had moved there from the Turkish city of İzmir (then Smyrna). Perhaps in an outbranching of Greek Orthodoxy, Cyprus follows a very thorough
Christian tradition, and bread has long played an important role in it, being offered to both guest and God at services, baptisms, and weddings.

Nan-i-Afghani, the national bread of Afghanistan, is very similar to the saj, or markook, of Saudi Arabia. One of the major differences is that the Afghan variety is baked in a tandoor, while the Saudi saj is baked on a dome-shaped griddle that bears the same name. They are similar in composition: very plain breads which are often given the additional flavor of a sprinkling of cumin or caraway seeds. These breads do not serve an accompanying role in their meals, but rather a functional one. They are used as utensils, small chunks of the bread being torn off and used to pinch and pick up pieces of food and mouthfuls of stew. (According to Bedouin tradition, this is performed only with the right hand.) In Jordan, the popular dish mansaf uses this type of bread as a base, topped liberally with rice, jameed (dried yogurt), and lamb, and garnished with pine nuts or almonds. Again, no utensils other than the bread itself are used. Another Jordanian food, similar to mansaf, is manakish (the latter also widely available in Turkey and Israel). A small round of flattened dough is topped with za’atar, a mixture of herbs and spices including wild oregano, savory, hyssop, thyme, cumin, white sesame, and salt. In the 1990s, Jordan saw repeated outbreaks of rioting due solely to increases in bread prices as the country struggled financially. Even as bread is demonized by certain diet fads in the West, Jordan reminds us that bread is still a global dietary staple; not merely a luxury to be excised from the diet, but a basic and essential food, the availability of which predicates the very survival of entire peoples.

The people of Turkey have a vast cuisine, their Ottoman heritage giving them a range of ingredients and techniques that represents a fusion of culinary elements from neighboring regions: areas as close as Greece, Persia, and Eastern Europe, as well as further regions, the Arab Peninsula, India, and middle Asia. It was at the ancient Ottoman capital, Constantinople – now Istanbul – that the foundations of Turkish cuisine were refined and organized. In the famed kitchens of Topkapi Palace, many culinary experiments took place, resulting in new and creative dishes which eventually trickled down to the commoners. Many interesting and important concepts were born from the cuisine the Ottomans developed, from idea of the Imperial Food Taster, or chesnidjibashi, to yufka. The grains that have contributed to their breadmaking over the centuries include the ubiquitous wheat, as well as barley and corn. They employ heavy use of pitas, as throughout the rest of the Middle East, filling them with döner kebap, which has gained popularity throughout much of the Western world. From their tandoors, they can be seen pulling their unique tandir ekmegi, a flat, leavened bread made from durum flour, which they sometimes spread with biber salçasi, a red pepper paste. Another bread found in Turkey is the simit. Varying in texture from region to region, these ring-shaped breads are topped with sesame seeds before baking and therefore always have a degree of crispness to the crust. Simits are commonly sold by street vendors throughout the country. Akin to the mansaf of their neighbor Jordan, the Turkish people make lahmacun, topping flat rounds of bread with minced lamb. Lahmacun, however, omits the rice and adds not only lemon juice but also pickles, tomatoes, onions, and peppers.

Its home on the southern end of the Arabian Peninsula affords Yemen an exchange of influences not only with the peninsula itself, but with its close neighbors Africa and India. As with the injera of Ethiopia and elsewhere throughout the region, the Yemeni people use flatbread itself as a utensil. There are however a number of breads that are very distinctive to Yemen, one being kubaneh. This bread is baked overnight in a large round pot, many small balls of dough baking together into a large, flat, round loaf, which is pulled apart for breakfast in the morning. Malooga is similar to many Middle Eastern flatbreads on first glance, but its flakiness and layered texture would quickly give away the fact that it is a laminated dough; rounds of dough are stretched thin, spread with ghee (clarified butter), and folded. This process is repeated a few times, the dough is rounded and rested, and finally baked on the inside wall of a round oven, a common practice as we have seen. A very popular condiment for breads in Yemeni homes is a fenugreek relish, an obvious indication of the relation of their cuisine to that of India. The basic, everyday bread found in Yemen and in the surrounding areas is khubz. This bread, very similar to Indian naan, is particularly popular in Bahrain, many villages having numerous khubz bakeries.

The obvious common thread in terms of Middle Eastern baking is leavened flatbreads. When we begin to search for answers as to why that may be, several theories emerge. To start at the very beginning, let us turn our gaze to emmer wheat, widely considered to have been the very first cultivated crop, and without a doubt one of the earliest grains used in breadmaking. The balance between glutenin and gliadin – the two gluten-forming proteins –in emmer wheat is different than that of the Triticum aestivum with which the world is nearly universally familiar today. The balance between these two proteins, one allowing extensibility and the other providing elasticity, is vital to the success of what we consider today to be the risen loaf. Any other proportion of them would result in a different quality of gluten, and a different rising action. Hence, it is possible that simply because the grains available early in man’s history did not trap gases and stretch with them, a trend for flatter breads emerged. As long as the topic of microbiology is at hand, it should be mentioned that leavening is not something that is “done to” the breads of the Middle East; yeast as an added ingredient is less common than the wild yeast spores which grow on wheat and other grains, and there certainly wasn’t punch-packing commercial yeast available when most of these breads were first conceived. This natural leavening method, the basis of sourdough, results in a much slower rise, and so it is also conceivable that the height we look for today was unachievable, particularly in combination with gluten of a different quality.

There are of course sociological reasons for Middle Eastern breads to have developed the way they did. The people of the entire Middle East have been nomadic throughout history. It is not difficult to imagine the appeal for a nomadic people of bread that is quick to bake as well as easy to stack and transport. Another aspect better suited to the wandering lifestyle is the baking itself. A simple clay tandoor would have been far more practical to erect at each new settlement than an oven with a deck or other flat surface on which to place a high-rising loaf. The warm climate of the region undoubtedly contributed to the concept as well. Lacking natural refrigeration, it was probably discovered millennia ago that a thin, dry food product will keep much longer than a thick, moist one. It is also easy to imagine that, in desert or near-desert climes, bread bakers would have preferred something which necessitated less time at the oven. As bread is used throughout the Middle East as a utensil, we can again see why a flatter variety would be preferable. Scooping up a mouthful of stew with a fluffy piece of brioche seems improbable.

Technology has not crept into every aspect of life in the Middle East, as it has in even rural America. There has not been a reason to vary with tradition, and the breadmaking techniques that have existed there for century upon century have remained intact. Some of these traditional methods are finally succumbing to the capitalistic allure of technology, but only in a pale imitation of the way they have spun so wildly out of control in the West. The last twenty years in America have seen a movement toward Old World bread – bread that is nutritious and flavorful and real, bread that doesn’t have mysterious ingredients simply to make plaintive children less offended by crust, or to add twelve hours to the shelf life. The last six thousand years in the Middle East have blessedly lacked the need for such a trend.

It is fascinating, but moreover informing, to stare into the picture of ancient man that is painted by the breads of the Middle East. To examine living examples of traditions as old as our very species is to gain a more intimate understanding of ourselves.

“let me live upon bread and barley of white my ale made of grain red”

McGee, H. On Food And Cooking. New York, NY: Scribner, 1984, 2004.

The Ryrie Study Bible. Chicago, IL: The Moody Bible Institute, 1985.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Pastry & Baking Module 1 Final Project

Produce Market Visit

I am fortunate to have a market near my home that sells high-quality produce, year-round, at reasonable prices. “The Garden Gourmet,” in the Bronx, recently changed ownership, which resulted in the disappearance of a small number of obscure, excellent food products from their shelves. However, their selection of meats and cheeses has expanded tremendously, and the produce department has also grown while maintaining its usual high level of quality. This small supermarket is located on Broadway, between 233rd and 234th Sts.

Like many supermarkets, The Garden Gourmet imports out-of-season produce from South America, but it’s to their credit that much of what they sell is reasonably local in origin when in season; for instance, the New Jersey peaches they carried last July. On my most recent visit, in early January, I was not surprised to find cherries and peaches from Chile. The fruits that really stood out, however, were apples and pears, which store well and whose season extends into the autumn. Also stellar was the selection of citrus, whose season begins in fall or early winter. Ten fruits which caught my attention in terms of quality, variety, or novelty were apples, oranges, grapefruits, pears, peaches, persimmons, cherries, pineapples, mangoes, and grapes.

The variety of apples available was quite impressive – I ended up purchasing some Jonagolds grown sixty miles from my hometown in Upstate New York. In addition to this delightful cross between the Jonathan and Golden Delicious, I also found Fuji, Crispin, Granny Smith, Rome, Pink Lady, Gala, Macoun, Macintosh, Lady, Cortland, and Red and Golden Delicious. In the northeastern United States, apple season runs from late summer to late fall, depending on variety. Fruits can be expected to be ripe when the proper skin color for the variety in question has developed, and the blossom-end of the fruit is sweetly aromatic (although like most fruits, aroma is less noticeable when the fruit is cold). Overripe fruit, which tends to be mealy and has very little appeal for eating out-of-hand, can be avoided by selecting fruits which appear fully developed and whose flesh and skin are firm and crisp under gentle pressure. Another quality, dependant upon variety but fairly common to apples in general, is that they store very well if kept under the proper conditions. Apples will keep longer than most fruits at temperatures almost as low as freezing. Below freezing, however, ice crystals will form and damage the cell walls, resulting in a mealy or mushy texture. (If apples have frozen but are otherwise undamaged, applesauce is a fine use for them.) For long-term storage, apples must be kept near freezing, and no fruit should be touching another. In terms of commercial availability, apples generally come in boxes of either single bushels or forty pounds. If the apples are lower in quality, they will be packed together in boxes, usually one bushel, with no padding or other shipping materials. Those of higher quality are placed on trays with depressions for each individual fruit and stacked in layers in boxes.

Winter is high season for citrus, so it wasn’t surprising to discover that oranges and orange hybrids were also available in wide variety. Navel and Valencia (“juice”) oranges are available nearly everywhere. The Garden Gourmet supplements these commonly found varieties with Cara-Cara or Red Navel oranges, Minneola Tangelos (a Tangerine-Grapefruit hybrid), Tangerines and Clementines – both varieties of Mandarin– and actual Mandarin oranges themselves, which were listed as “California Mandarins” (although the boxes they sat in had Chinese writing on them). Oranges, like all citrus, do not ripen after harvest, so selection of properly ripe fruits is of keen importance. They should be firm and aromatic, and feel heavy for their size. Fortunately for those of us whose homes are far from the citrus groves of the south, the citrus family’s thick, tough skins provides the fruit with a high resistance to physical damage, so they can be shipped when fully ripe. Since ripening does not continue after picking, they store well, and should be kept cool, around 45°F. They are generally purchased in bags of one-quarter bushel (one peck), with the smaller fruits, such as those of the Mandarin family, in 18- to 20-pound boxes. Pricing generally increases with the size of the individual fruits.

Like the orange, the grapefruit is a descendant of the pummelo – this became particularly obvious to me when I saw the nearly cantaloupe-sized Jumbo variety on the shelves. Pink and White, the two standard varieties, were also available. The grapefruit is also best when harvested and shipped during the winter months, although its season starts in October, up to two months earlier than many orange varieties. The criteria for judging ripeness are the same as for oranges, but grapefruit can be stored in warmer temperatures, around 55 degrees. Grapefruits are also shipped in bags.

In terms of harvest, storage, and shipping, pears are very much the opposite of citrus. I was able to find Comice, Bartlett, D’anjou, Forelle, and Bosc pears, as well as Asian pears. Asian pear varieties are picked ripe and shipped in 18- to 20-pound boxes, individually wrapped in foam, and placed on trays with depressions for each fruit. Other, “European” varieties of pear, however, hold the distinction of being one of the few fruits that is truly “climacteric,” or capable of developing improvements in taste, texture, and aroma after ripening. To facilitate shipping, they are nearly always harvested while fully developed but still firm and unripe, while much of their starch has not yet converted to sugar. Choosing a ripe fruit is therefore of utmost importance, but fortunately quite simple. Perfectly ripe pear flesh will yield fairly easily under gentle pressure, and the skin will be pliable. Also, the fruit should smell sweet and moderately floral, divulging its membership in the rose family. The development of these conditions can be delayed by refrigeration near freezing temperatures, but once fully ripe, the pear should be used as soon as possible. Since they can be shipped hard, they are usually purchased by the one-bushel box, with only light paper packing inside. Pear harvest in the northeastern United States occurs in September and October, so with their maximum storage capability at around four months, we can expect to see a decline in the varieties available by the end of February.

Peaches, of which only one variety was available at the market, certainly caught my attention. This fruit, for me, is at the very center of the concept of using local produce when it is in season. While the peach will soften and its aroma will improve after harvest, its sweetness will stop developing when it is removed from the tree. Therefore, choosing a ripe peach can be very trying. A ripe peach is sweetly aromatic and the flesh should be soft when pressed, but unless it has become at least partly sweet on the tree, it will be pallid in flavor. For this reason, it seems most prudent to purchase them from the nearest farm stand during their peak, late summer, whenever possible. Supermarket peaches, which arrive in one-bushel boxes on dimpled trays, must be hard enough to withstand the rigors of shipment, and therefore, are rarely ripe. Ripe, juicy peaches are best stored near freezing temperatures to discourage both fermentation due to their high sugar content, as well as excessive softening due to enzyme activity.

The persimmon is similar to the peach in that it is incapable of developing improved flavor after harvest. There are two basic types of persimmon, the Fuyu and the Hachiya, both of which were available at The Garden Gourmet. The Hachiya variety is abundant in tannins which make it extremely unpalatable and astringent except when perfectly ripe. If it is found at a market and has undergone long shipping, chances are that it is underripe in flavor, even if it has the extremely soft, almost jelly-like flesh and sweet aroma characteristic to a ripe one; both of these traits continue to develop after picking. The Fuyu also stop ripening once picked; however, they are palatable even when underripe. Additionally, since their flesh is firmer when fully ripe than the Hachiya’s, they are more liable to be picked at a later stage of ripeness, and a better buy at market. Requiring both plentiful rain and sun to flourish, the persimmon is often grown in Hawaii and sub-tropical regions of Japan, and shipped in trays, in shallow boxes of eight to ten pounds.

Cherries are a fruit whose distinctive and delightful flavor is best within the first few hours after harvest, which in the United States is typically during the month of July. The market had both sweet and sour varieties available. The cherry is vivid in color when ripe, whether the bright yellow and red of a sour cherry or the dark purple of a sweet one. Additionally, its flesh is fairly firm when picked, so it is possible to ship them from destinations where they are capable of ripening, such as those I found from Chile, as long as they are packed properly. They are purchased commercially in tray-like crates – formerly wooden, but now cardboard – of eleven, fifteen, or twenty pounds, the ends of which allow them to stack, and therefore prevent the contents from becoming compressed and damaged. Like other stone fruits, such as peaches, apricots, and plums, cherries will fare best when stored at temperatures near freezing.

Winter seems an odd time for the sugary warmth of a pineapple, but even though their true season runs from March through July, they are available year-round. The only variety I found was the commercially successful, if somewhat standard-issue, Del Monte Gold. Despite all the tricks people have for determining ripeness, thumping, pulling out leaves and such, the pineapple tells us it’s ripe similarly to other fruits. A ripe one will display firm, bright skin on each “eye,” the stem end will yield slightly under moderate pressure, and the fruit will be heavy for its size. When ripe, pineapples also give off a distinctly sweet aroma, more so than most other fruits. Ideally, they are harvested when fully ripe; they will not improve in sweetness, aroma, or texture after picking, so choosing a ripe one is crucial. If stored at fairly cool temperatures – around 45°F – pineapples can be held for a reasonable length of time. A cooler environment slows, but does not stop, the action of the pineapple’s enzymes, as well as its sugars, which would ferment quite happily if left to their own devices. They are shipped in large boxes of eighteen to twenty pounds, protected by their durable skin and built-in padding, in the form of the leafy crown.

A staple of the Indian and Latin American diet, Mangoes are in season May through August. Production in the tropics enables them to be available year round, although the variety more likely to be found in winter is the Mexican Mango, as I did on my market visit. Mangoes are another of those rare fruits that are truly climacteric in nature; they improve in sweetness, aroma, and texture after harvesting. As such, it’s imperative that overripe fruit be avoided, as the fruit’s high sugar content can induce fermentation. Ripe fruits are firm and heavy, with flesh that is supple under gentle pressure, and a sweet aroma. Fruits that are underripe tend to be very hard and fibrous, but, as long as fully developed when harvested, they should ripen favorably in a storage environment around 55°F. They are shipped in cardboard boxes of ten to thirteen fruits, presumably still hard enough to withstand shipping, and then allowed to ripen fully once received.

Grapes, like peaches, are a good platform for the person defending local, seasonal produce in its debate with industrially enabled availability. The Concord, Niagara (or White Concord), and Muscat varieties, which appear at my local market during their late summer and autumn season, are spicily fragrant and bursting with sweet, pulpy juice, wrapped with tart skins that seem barely able to contain them. They are so aromatic that only the wary and brave actually buy any, as bees are equally drawn to them. White and red seedless grapes, the only ones available there in winter, have a perfectly even, uniform, and unremarkable flavor, which render them fine for snacking or inclusion in basic fruit salads, but not for much else. Like their more versatile and perfumed cousins, they must be picked ripe, in large bunches of tight-skinned, colorful fruit. The prime season for such grapes is any time of year when electricity and running water are available in the area where they’re produced. Shipping is much simpler for bunches of these firmer varieties, traveling in perforated bags inside larger boxes of eighteen pounds. Grapes fare best when kept at temperatures near freezing.

A survey of the availability of fruit in early January yields interesting and informing results. Choosing which fruits to use, from among the enormous variety on the market, is simplified by an understanding of which fruits will yield the best results at any given time of year. There are obvious staples on a pastry menu, and of course we must meet the expectations of our customers. However, highlighting particular fruits, when their flavors and aromas are at their peak, results in end products of greater depth and better quality. Awareness of seasons and the ability to determine ripeness are of paramount importance for the Pastry Chef.


McGee, H. On Food and Cooking. New York: Scribner, 1984, 2004.

Steingarten, J. The Man Who Ate Everything. New York: Vintage, 1997.