Who’s Lena?

It’s been a year of dinners for two or four, maybe more if you have a large household. But the days of virtual celebrations due to COVID-19 will eventually end, and we will entertain again.
    When I think of my “company dishes,” the ones I roll out holiday after holiday, those reliable, not-too-labor-intensive dishes that feed a lot of people and allow me to enjoy my guests, at the top of the list is Sheila Lukins’ Chicken Marbella, a dish that swept the country beginning in 1982 with the publication of “The Silver Palate Cookbook” (Workman) which Lukins co-authored with Julee Rosse.
    Riding the adventurous, trendy food wave of the 80s, the pair opened the Silver Palate, a gourmet food shop on New York’s Upper West Side, in 1977, and by the publication of “The Silver Palate Cookbook” in 1982, the transformation was complete.
     Cooking had morphed from a drudgery endured by stay-at-home wives who couldn’t afford help into a fine art cultivated by a newly emerging army of educated working women–and, yes, even men.
    Lukins, who died in 2009, helped change the way Americans cook by offering easy ways to prepare restaurant-quality food, featuring interesting flavor combinations, using accessible ingredients and minimum skill.
   “I believe the most memorable celebrations take place at home,” Lukins wrote in “Celebrate!” (Workman, $19.95). “In mine, all celebrations begin in the kitchen, and part of the fun is deciding what to prepare, creating a menu with appeal, start to finish.”
    Ask any lover of “The Silver Palate” for a favorite dish, and most will note the by now iconic Chicken Marbella. Sometimes I make it with skinless, boneless chicken breasts. Sometimes I use chicken wings and serve it as an appetizer. Sometimes I substitute apricots for the prunes. And always I get raves.
   I had the pleasure of interviewing Lukins on the publication of “The Silver Palate 25th Anniversary Edition” (Workman, $24.95), and I asked her what it is about that recipe that had made it a favorite for 25 years.
    “When you’re entertaining there’s a lot of cooking to do,” she said. “The Marbella is so delicious and easy to prepare ahead of time. It’s very unusual that Americans would like those flavors of prunes and olives, and the garlic and oregano–they just connect. The brown sugar and wine pull it all together when it bakes. And because you baste it, it just shines when it comes out of the oven.”
    What follows is my version of the ”Silver Palate” classic. Because my family can live without prunes and capers–although I do not share that view– I substitute apricots and sun-dried tomatoes.
    When I was writing “Cooking Jewish,” my Aunt Sally, the real cooking maven in the family, loaned me her handwritten recipe book. When I came to Lena’s Nut Cake, I asked her, “Who’s Lena?” “Tanta Esther Gittel’s husband’s second wife” was her answer. That recipe gave me more trouble–I had to test four times to get it right.
    My mother suggested, “Why don’t you just leave that cake out?” I couldn’t. With a name like “Tanta Esther Gittel’s Husband’s Second Wife Lena’s Nut Cake,” that recipe was going in!
    The toasted hazelnuts give this moist, dense cake a lovely earthy flavor, playing nicely against a delicate accent of orange. It is smashing with a chocolate glaze dripping down the sides for a special occasion, but is excellent on its own for snacking, tea or more informal gatherings.

Tanta Esther Gittel’s Husband’s Second Wife Lena’s Nut Cake

One of my favorite company cakes for a dairy meal. Lena just called for “nuts,” so feel free to substitute your favorite, although I find that hazelnuts combined with citrus is a perfect partnership. The toasted hazelnuts give this moist, dense cake a lovely earthy flavor, playing nicely against a delicate accent of orange.

Unsalted butter or unflavored vegetable cooking spray, for greasing the pan

1½ cups sugar

1½ pound (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature

4 large eggs, separated

1½ teaspoons pure vanilla extract

1 teaspoon pure orange extract

Finely grated zest of 1 orange

1½ cups all-purpose flour, plus extra for dusting the pan

1½ cups chopped hazelnuts, toasted

1½ teaspoons baking powder

¼ teaspoon salt

½ cup whole milk

  Preheat oven to 350°F. Grease a 9-cup Bundt pan, dust with flour, and tap out excess.

  Remove 2 tablespoons of the sugar and set it aside. Cream butter and remaining sugar with electric mixer on medium speed, scraping bowl several times, until light and fluffy, 3 to 4 minutes. Add egg yolks, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Then beat in extracts and  orange zest.

Combine ½ cup of the flour and the hazelnuts in food processor and process until nuts are very finely ground, about 45 seconds. Transfer to a bowl and stir in remaining 1 cup flour, the baking powder, and the salt. With mixer on low speed, add flour mixture in three additions, alternating with milk in two additions, beginning and ending with flour. Transfer batter to a large bowl.
Using a clean, dry bowl and beaters, beat egg whites on medium-high speed until soft peaks form. Add reserved 2 tablespoons sugar, a tablespoon at a time, beating for 10 seconds after each addition. Then raise speed to high and beat until stiff peaks form, about 2½ minutes total. Stir one fourth of beaten egg whites into batter to lighten it. Then add remaining whites in three additions, folding them in until incorporated.
Scrape batter into prepared Bundt pan and smooth top. Bake on center oven rack until top is golden brown, cake springs back when lightly touched, and cake tester comes out clean, 55 to 65 minutes. Let cake cool in pan set on wire rack for 15 minutes. Then run a knife around center and edge of cake, and turn it out on rack to cool completely. Cut into slices, and serve.
Chocolate Glaze
When melting chocolate, don’t overdo it. Remove the pan from the heat when the chocolate is not quite fully melted, and then stir it off the heat until smooth.

6 ounces semisweet or bittersweet chocolate, chopped

½ cup heavy (whipping) cream

1 teaspoon light corn syrup

  Combine the chopped chocolate, cream, and corn syrup in the top of a double boiler set over simmering water. Stir frequently until the chocolate has almost melted (about 120°F). Do not overheat.
Remove the pan from the heat and stir gently with a spatula until the glaze is completely smooth. Do not whisk or beat. Allow it to cool slightly (to 90° to 92°F) before glazing the cake.
Source: Cooking Jewish (Workman) by Judy Bart Kancigor

My Chicken Marabella

Yield: 12 to 18 servings

For the marinade

1 head garlic, cloves separated and crushed

2 jars (6.5 ounces each) marinated artichoke hearts, drained

½ cup drained oil-packed sun-dried tomatoes, cut into julienne strips

½ cup red wine vinegar

½ cup olive oil

1½ cups dried apricots, larger ones snipped in half

1 tablespoon dried basil

1 tablespoon dried oregano

6 bay leaves

2 teaspoons kosher (coarse) salt, or to taste

Freshly ground black pepper to taste

For the Chicken

12 to 18 (5½ to 6½ pounds) boneless, skinless chicken breast halves, rinsed and patted dry

1 cup (packed) dark brown sugar

1 cup dry white wine

¼ cup cilantro or flat-leaf parsley leaves, finely chopped

  Combine all the marinade ingredients in a bowl and stir well.

  Place the chicken breasts in a very large nonreactive bowl or dish, and pour the marinade over them. Marinate, covered, in the refrigerator overnight.
Preheat the oven to 350°F.
  Arrange the chicken breasts in a single layer in a 17 x 11-inch baking pan, and spoon the marinade over them. Sprinkle the brown sugar over the chicken breasts and pour the wine around them. Bake, uncovered, basting frequently, until the chicken is cooked through, about 45 minutes.
  Sprinkle with the cilantro, and serve.

Jlife Food Editor Judy Bart Kancigor is the author of “Cooking Jewish” (Workman) and “The Perfect Passover Cookbook” (an e-book short from Workman), a columnist and feature writer for the Orange County Register and other publications and can be found on the web at www.cookingjewish.com.




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