February 15, 2015

Floating over the past

It started in the baking aisle of the grocery store. A package of Bob's Red Mill poppy seeds: An aide-memoire, a coup de foudre, a sudden shock of recollection, and then a drifting, dreaming mind, floating over the past, landing on a specific memory and than a handful of fuzzier ones.

I was standing in a parking lot in the blazing heat, unfurling a twist tie and letting it drop to the ground, then pulling back the crinkly tight plastic that enclosed a sticky loaf of bread, little beads of condensation lining the inside of the bag, the loaf, sturdy and earthy-smelling and laced with black-as-night poppyseed filling.

I remember thinking that I couldn't believe that I had finally found one. That I actually held in my hands what I then thought of as a "poppy seed danish." It must not have been the first time, because I recall the sense of longing; the satisfaction of the surprise discovery; the memory triggers that shot through me. I think I was thirteen.

The romantic in me imagines that my first poppy seed sweet bread came from one of those charming old-world Eastern European bakeries on the lower east side of Manhattan. The ones that were warm and steamy against the cold winter, filled with familiar, heavenly aromas. Stewed fruits. Yeasted breads. Staggeringly sweet fondants. Butter and sugar and ground nuts. There is a little old lady behind the counter with dyed brown hair, a thick accent, and a gentle smile. She is Russian. Perhaps she asks me if I, too, am Russian, because my name is Vera.

I can construct this, and it must be drawn from some elements of truth, but I have no actual memory of the first poppy seed danish, which is odd, because my food memory is solid, whereas I mostly forget other things: family events, the names of my elementary school teachers, what I did yesterday.

For example, I remember the first palmier I ever ate, and the first meringue, and the first zabaglione, and the first time I saw the word "zabaglione," and the first apricot pastry (on the upper east side, from a fabulous, caricatured baker named Frederique). But the first poppy seed danish evades me.

Maybe it's not actually important if I remember it, though it does torture me just a little. I'd like to be able to trace this back, because I know it goes back a long way. I want to capture that part of myself that first tasted this unusual thing and was immediately transfixed.

But I am a better baker now than I was ever before, and so I can posses this thing today, in 2015, in my Oakland kitchen.

Let me describe it a little: It's a sturdy, yeasted bread, just slightly sweet. After rising and resting, the bread gets rolled out into a large rectangle, over which you spoon the most heavenly black mass—a paste of poppy seeds that have been ground together with nuts, honey, dates, and a little milk. You then roll this into a log, split the log lengthwise, twist the inverted pieces around each other, and nestle them into a loaf pan. You wait, you glaze with egg, you bake. What you get is an earthy, sticky, sweet bread filled with poppy seeds. It's the poppy seeds that make it. You will search out the dense crevices that deliver only a little dough and a mouthful of filling.

It's weird and completely wonderful.

It'll keep you going back for more slices, until the whole thing is reduced to a handful of crumbs. It'll make your kitchen smell like the most grounded and lovely place on earth. And it'll freeze great too, which allows you to be nice to your future self, some days off, if you can wait that long.

Poppy Seed Sweet Bread
Adapted from here and here

1/2 cup warm water
4 teaspoons active dry yeast
1/4 sugar (scant)
1/2 cup whole milk
1/2 stick unsalted butter
2 egg yolks
3/4 teaspoon salt
3 1/2 cups flour

1 cup poppy seeds
1/3 cup chopped dates
1/3 cup walnuts
1/2 cup whole milk
1/4 cup honey

Egg wash:
1 egg with 1 tablespoon water, beaten

Prepare the dough: In a small mixing bowl, combine the water, yeast, and sugar. Set aside. Pour the 1/2 cup of milk into a small saucepan and bring just to the simmer. Turn off the heat, add the butter, and stir until melted. Let it cool for five minutes. Whisk in the egg yolks and mix thoroughly. Place this mixture in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the dough hook, add the yeast mixture, and combine for a minute or so.

Add the flour and salt gradually, with the mixer on low, until combined. Mix for eight minutes on medium speed. It should become a smooth dough.

Cover the dough (in the bowl) with a dishtowel and allow it to rise for one hour, or until it has doubled in size.

While the dough rises, make the filling: Place the poppy seeds, dates, and honey in a blender (or food processor, or mortal and pestle) and process until the nuts are ground, the poppy seeds are somewhat crushed, and the dates bring the two together as a paste. Place this mixture in a small saucepan, and add the milk and honey. Simmer over low heat until it thickens, about 20 minutes, stirring intermittently.

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Prepare the egg wash. Prepare the loaf pan, by lining with parchment.

After the dough has risen for one hour, punch it down, and turn it out onto a lightly floured work surface. Using a rolling pin, roll it into a rectangle, roughly 10 x 20 inches and 1/2–3/4 inches thick (it doesn't have to be precise). Spread the poppyseed filling over the rolled dough, leaving a half-inch border all around. Brush the exposed edges with the egg wash.

Roll the dough tightly into a log, starting at one of the short ends, as if making a jelly roll. Cut the log lengthwise down the center, so you have two halves that expose the interior filling. Twist these two halves together, keeping the filling facing out, and then arrange it in the prepared loaf pan.

Brush the surface of the bread with the egg wash, cover with plastic wrap, and let it rise again for 1 hour to 1 hour and a half.

After this second rise, remove the plastic wrap, brush it with egg wash again, and bake the bread at 325 degrees for about 1 hour, or until the top is deeply brown and glossy (begin checking it at 45 minutes).

Allow the bread to cool in the pan for about 10 minutes, and then continue cooling on a rack. It is wonderful warm and equally good at room temperature. To freeze the bread, slice the loaf and then place the slices in a freezer bag. I ended up defrosting mine after only one week, but I imagine it would keep longer than that (maybe a month?). Defrost by warming in the toaster.

December 31, 2014

It's rolling

Phew, it’s been a while. 2015 is around the corner, and it’s time we did some catching up, don’t you think? 

I’ve been busy offline doing something that Im almost afraid to utter out loud just in case, when I do, it will—poof!—disappear into the ether. I’ve been (unofficially) launching a business, friends. It’s a small offshoot of The Moon in My Kitchen that, going by the same name, does pop-ups and special orders and deliveries of baked goods to your (Bay Area) door. It’s in that “beta” phase that you hear a lot about when you live in the tech capital of the world. Right, something like that. 

My dear friend Carissa made me business cards, and then before I even really knew what I was doing—before I had the chance to talk myself out of it—I was popping up at art studios and salons, peddling pies and cookies all over San Francisco. It’s been wild. The craziest thing: Even though it’s exhausting (and I mean 18-hours-on-your-feet, no-sleep exhausting), I absolutely love it. I LOVE IT. That deserves some emphasis. Because we strive and we try and we hope that something will stick that we really love; that we could do for more than one minute before getting bored. 

In the meanwhile, I still have a lot of work to do to get things going. I need a commercial space (anyone have any ideas about that?). I need some time (I still have a full-time job: NBD). And of course, I need those ever-elusive financial resources to really do this thing (also, NBD!) But I love that it’s rolling, in however small a way.

Since we are almost at the new year, I thought I would do something a little different here. Something in the manner of ye old “resolutions,” but resolutions that we can really get behind. Recipe Resolutions: a list of recipes that I have been longing to make that I will vow, right here and now, to make in 2015. 

Away we go!

Recipe Resolutions for 2015

Panetonne: By next Christmas, I swear, I won’t need to stock up at Trader Joe’s.

Kouign Amann: I think I'll be stuffing mine with walnuts, apples, and brown sugar.

While I'm at it, I might as well try my hand at Homemade Croissants.

Homemade Pasta, too, because apparently the phrase “I don’t have a pasta maker” is not an excuse.

Everything that Emiko makes, but especially this Neapolitan Easter Cake.

At long last, Ricotta. It can go in that aforementioned Easter Cake. 

I want to spatchcock a bird without being afraid of spreading salmonella all over my kitchen. 

Noelle's bread makes me swoon. I think I'll try this No-Knead Oat Bread.

Cheese Straws!

These Apple Cider Cakes might help me with my annual longing for Apple Cider Donuts that hits in the fall, and they're prettier than donuts. 

Something delicious to do with the figs when they come raining down on us again in late summer. 

And finally, a Majestic Honey Cake, because someone just sent me 5 pounds of honey from his very own bees in upstate New York! (Lucky me.)

Happy New Year, my friends. It means the world to me to have you as readers, in the Instagram community, as email buddies who trade recipes, and so much more. Lots of love. 

Extra special thanks as I send off 2014 to Carissa, who always tells me she believes in me (and really does). And to Rob, for being there during all of my baking meltdowns. I love you to the moon and back. 


Photo Credit: The incomparably talented Michelle Ramin.

September 28, 2014

No such thing as perfect

A few weeks ago, I wrote about this little ricotta cake—it was stout and petite and rather heavy with cheese. Immediately after making it, possibly even the next day, I made another ricotta cake (see above). I told people that night at dinner, slightly embarrassed, cake in tow, “I’m trying to find the perfect ricotta cake recipe.” My friend Josh—who spent a year baking a batch of chocolate chip cookies every morning (and I mean, every morning) in search of the perfect recipe—wisely said something to the effect of: “Quit while you’re ahead. There’s no such thing as perfect.” 

So, shall I call myself an expert after two tries, and declare this version the shining victor? 

Is that a giant cop-out? 

Does it matter? 
Not really. 

Whether or not I keep going, you still get this recipe, all nestled with Italian prune plums—those dusty, almond-shaped, little specimens, the color of a bruise, that you can only find for a couple weeks in early Autumn. You get those airy, glistening-with-olive-oil pockets of cake as your fork spears the powdered-sugar surface. You get mouthfuls infused with orange zest, the baked plums like spoonfuls of jam. You get all of this—so many things!—and I only had to give it two goes. 

There is the even more dire imperative of needing to get this recipe into your hands before prune plums disappear from the markets. I recommend buying these plums by the bushel. I guarantee you will always find something to do with them. They bake incredibly well, making easy stove-top jam in no time, reducing quickly to an earthy-sweet compote for pork, or eating out of hand, cold and beaded with condensation from the refrigerator. They are so small and tear-drop shaped that you usually want to eat more than one in a sitting. They are a perfectly simple dessert, all on their own.  

We used to buy these plums from a roadside stand in the summertime in upstate New York from a farmer, was his name Walt?, who had a disfigured tongue from a sledding accident. He had a permanent lisp as a result. I think his shining moment was showing the kids who passed by his stand his deformity and gauging reactions. I had never before encountered a tongue injury… but I wasn’t from the country, and there wasn’t much sledding in New York City.

But enough with tongue injuries. 

You know what would be great for your tongue? 
Eating this cake. 

You’ll have to make it first, of course. But you only need a couple of hours for that. I dare say you could even drop figs into this batter, if you wanted to shake things up a bit. 

Speaking of which, I’ll be back soon with more fig recipes. For now, happy Sunday, folks. 

Ricotta Cake with Italian Prune Plums
Adapted from Smitten Kitchen via Food52

Butter for cake pan
1 cup fresh ricotta, such as Bellweather or Belfiore
1/3 cup olive oil
1 tablespoon orange zest (organic, since you are using the rind)
1 cup (scant) granulated sugar
2 large eggs
1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
8 Italian prune plums, or other small plums
Confectioner's sugar (for dusting)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 9-inch round cake pan, line with parchment, and butter the parchment. Halve the plums, remove the pits, and set the halved plums aside.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the ricotta, olive oil, orange zest, and granulated sugar. Whisk in the eggs, one at a time. Sift the flour, baking soda, baking powder, and salt into the bowl with the ricotta, oil, and eggs. Fold wet and dry ingredients together gently until just combined.

Pour batter into cake pan. Smooth the surface lightly with a wooden spoon. Place the plum halves, cut side down, onto the batter.

Bake for 40–45 minutes, or until the cake is golden brown, and a toothpick inserting into the center (avoiding the fruit) comes out clean.

Cool in the pan for 15 minutes, then remove the cake from the pan, using the parchment to pull it out gently, and finish cooling completely on a wire rack.

Dust with confectioner's sugar (by placing a couple tablespoons of confectioner's sugar into a sifter, and tapping it against your palm over the cake) right before serving.

September 20, 2014

Quite the show

In the country, when I was young, there was an apple tree that had been planted by a family member now long gone. It was gnarled and old and it produced very little. From my bedroom, I could see the branches outlined in the night sky. I never thought much about it. It was a part of the background, but it was still “the” apple tree. It’s presence was singular. I remember the silvery bark, crackled all over the surface of the tree trunk—this was where the light caught. 

One year my father trimmed it back so stiffly that we were assured it would soon die. Another season passed, and it survived and made new leaves. 

Where I live now, there is a young tree. It’s apples are large and round and green. They are mild—not particularly crisp—but pleasantly tart. They are no macoun apple—that tart, snappy New York variety that I always considered a favorite. These young apples are beautifully round and bright with mottled brown patches over their skin. 

I remember now this image from Woolf’s book The Waves of an apple tree. It took on epic proportion in the mind of a character—I can’t remember which—when encountered in the middle of the night, lit by the moon. I googled The Waves and “tree” and came up with no fewer than 175 mentions of the word in a digital version of the book. Woolf alternates in her discussion between elm trees and apple trees, but the tree as implacable and unwavering is what appears each time. 
There were the floating, pale-grey clouds; and the immitigable tree; the implacable tree with its greaved silver bark. The ripple of my life was unavailing. I was unable to pass by. There was an obstacle. ‘I cannot surmount this unintelligible obstacle,’ I said. And the others passed on. But we are doomed, all of us, by the apple trees, by the immitigable tree which we cannot pass.
The tree alone resisted our eternal flux. For I changed and changed.
The tree did, I suppose, resist us. It remains gnarled and un-producing. Still, in the spring, it puts on quite the show. Blossoms and bees cover it and the tree almost hums and vibrates. 
I wonder what stories I will tell one day of this new tree, in a place 3,000 miles away with no family history. It is more neatly manicured. It is resigned to a small corner, next to a fence. I don’t have any close associations with it yet; only the moment of pulling the first apple, and cutting off three slices, sharing it between Carissa and Rob and me. 
When the apples started to fall, I collected enough to make a pie—one that was mounded in the center and latticed and fragrant with rose and pink peppercorn. Roses share the yard with the apple tree, so this seemed right. The crust was perfumed with apple cider vinegar. We ate it with friends in the course of one night. It was buttery and sweet and slightly spiced and very gentle for a pie. The fragrance of the rose lifted us away. The apples were grounding, homey, and familiar. 

It is a different thing to bake with something that you picked, though I am not responsible for the tree, or for the apples that it makes. Still, there is a sense of place that somehow—maybe only to me—comes through.

Whether or not you have a tree, or some Virginia Woolf, or even some rose water—it is almost fall, and there should be pie. 

Apple Rose Pie with Pink Peppercorn
Adapted from The Four & Twenty Blackbirds Pie Book
Note: This recipe has been updated. It is better than ever, and it was really good before.

2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
2 sticks cold butter, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
7 ice cubes (a handful), plus enough cold water to make 1 cup total with the ice
2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar

2 meyer lemons (or regular lemons)
8–9 apples 
1/3 cup plus 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
Scant 1/3 cup light brown sugar
2 tablespoons flour
1/4 teaspoon cardamom
1/4 teaspoon allspice
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon 
2 pinches finely crushed pink peppercorn
1/2 teaspoon Maldon sea salt
2 1/2 tablespoons rose water
2 dashes angostura bitters

Egg wash (1 egg whisked with a pinch of salt and 1 teaspoon water or cream)
Raw or demerara sugar for sprinkling

Make the crust:
Gently combine the flour, sugar, and salt in a large bowl. Add the butter pieces, tossing briefly in the flour to coat. Next, using a pastry cutter, cut the butter into the flour mixture until it is mostly combined (there should be pieces of butter the size of large peas throughout). Do not over-mix.

In a liquid measuring cup, combine the ice, water, and vinegar. Sprinkle two tablespoons of this liquid mixture over the flour mixture and toss it together gently with the pastry cutter. Add the liquid one tablespoon at a time and gently work the liquid into the dough until it comes together in a ball, using the pastry cutter and your hands. Only add as much liquid as you need for the ball to come together, and take care not to allow the dough to become too warm from the heat of your hands. Divide the dough in half, and shape each half into a disc. Wrap each disc in plastic wrap, and chill for at least 1 hour.

When the dough has chilled, prepare your top and bottom crust. For the bottom crust, roll one of the disks out on a lightly floured surface to a thickness of about 1/8–1/4 inch. It should be 12–13 inches in diameter. Fold the dough in half, and then in half again (folding the second time in the opposite direction), and then place in one quadrant of the pie dish. Unfold the dough and center it in the dish, so it hangs over on all sides. Trim the dough so there is about 1 1/2 inches of overhang, measuring from the outer rim of the dish. Cover with plastic wrap, and return to the refrigerator.

Roll out the second disk to the same thickness and diameter. Using a pizza cutter or a sharp knife, cut the dough into 6–7 large strips—this will be used to make the lattice. Transfer the strips to a parchment-lined baking sheet, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate.

Make the filling:
Juice the meyer lemons and pour the juice into a large mixing bowl. Peel the apples and slice them thinly. Add the slices to the lemon juice as you work to prevent them from browning. Once they are all added, toss them in the juice to coat as much as possible. Sprinkle with 2 tablespoons sugar, toss gently, and set aside for 30 minutes. 

In a separate large bowl combine the remaining dry ingredients: 1/3 cup granulated sugar, brown sugar, flour, cardamom, allspice, cinnamon, pink peppercorn, and salt. Drain the apples of the liquid that has accumulated, and add them to the dry ingredients. Toss them together, and then add the bitters and the rose water, tossing gently once more. 

Mound the apples in the prepared pie dish. Arrange the large pastry strips so they overlay asymmetrically to create a rustic, modern lattice. Fold the overhanging pastry from the bottom crust over the lattice strips, pressing them together, and then crimp all around to seal the pie. Chill the prepared pie for 15 minutes.

Place baking sheet on the bottom rack of the oven, and preheat the oven to 425 degrees. 

Whisk together the egg wash—1 egg with 1 teaspoon water (or cream) and a pinch of salt. Brush the egg wash over the lattice and sprinkle heavily with raw sugar. 

Place the pie on the baking sheet on the bottom rack and bake for 20–25 minutes. The pastry will have begun to brown. Lower the oven temperature to 375 degrees and move the pie to the center rack. Bake for 35–40 minutes longer until the filling is bubbling and the pastry is a deep golden.

Serve at room temperature. It will keep well in the refrigerator, and makes an excellent breakfast chilled. 

August 10, 2014

You may feel differently

Helloooooo, friends. Just popping in to talk to you about a little cake that is very short and very sweet and very full of cheese. It sounds weird and strange, I know. But when I tell you that the cheese is ricotta and the sweetness is powdered sugar and the shortness translates to perfectly portioned, creamy mouthfuls, you may feel differently.

I made this cake in a hurry when I was having a what-do-I-make-for-the-blog, I'll-never-have-readers-again, I'm-a-failure-of-a-cook panic—(no biggie)—which, in case you haven't already guessed, is not the best of circumstances for beginning a project. Nevertheless, the cake could not be pulled into this madness, and baking, however forcefully I pushed it onto myself, helped quell this torturous mess of self-doubt. (I wonder how many of you out there encounter this sort of thing with your creative work? Because I have been trying to shush that chorus for years, and it seems to dim at times, but never fully retreat...)

But enough ranting. This cake is the opposite of all of the above. It is so simple and unassuming, so grandmother- and farmhouse-inflected, that when you eat it, the chorus of panic will become a soft hum, barely a whisper, easy enough to push aside, as you reach for a second piece. The cake comes from someone named Louisa, who lives in Castellina in Italy, and who seems to, by all accounts, be able to throw culinary masterpieces together without a recipe. (I aspire to your greatness, Louisa.) I am particularly attuned to all things Italian since taking up with a Pugliese—especially all the cake-like Italian things—so I rushed toward this recipe.

The ingredients' list is remarkably short, and will come mostly from your pantry, with the exception of, perhaps, the fresh ricotta, possibly the apple, and, if you are unfortunate enough to live without a lemon tree (my heart goes out to you), maybe the lemon, too. The rest of the ingredients can be counted on one hand, and in roughly half an hour, you will be in nonna heaven: sifting powdered sugar all around, garnishing with currants, listening to your hungry stomach growl.

Because this comes together so quickly, you will have plenty of time left in the day for brooding, which comes as a relief, really, after all that happy cake time.

Louisa's Cake
Adapted from Food52

1 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
9 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
3 eggs, at room temperature
1 1/4 cups flour
Pinch of salt
1 cup fresh ricotta, such as Belfiore
Zest of a lemon
1 apple
1 tablespoon baking powder
Powdered sugar

Butter a 9-inch-round cake pan. Line with parchment once across, and then butter the parchment. Set aside.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

With a wooden spoon (or a stand mixer), cream the butter and sugar until fluffy. Beat in the eggs, one at a time, until fully incorporated.

Peel the apple, and then grate it using the widest holes of a box grater. Into the egg mixture, add the flour, salt, ricotta, lemon zest, grated apple, and baking powder. Stir until just combined—do not over mix.

Spoon the batter into the prepared pan, and bake for 30–35 minutes, or until the cake is pleasantly golden and pulling away from the sides of the pan.

Cool for 10 minutes in the pan, then pull out using the parchment, and continue cooling on a wire rack.

Sift powdered sugar on top, and serve with seasonal berries, such as currants and strawberries.

July 14, 2014

On and on to infinity

I wake up in the morning and collect two from the brick patio floor. In the afternoon, if I’m home, there will likely be four more. By evening, another four. EVERY DAY. It continues like this.  

Baskets and baskets of figs. 

The tree gives them to me. I collect them like an obliging servant, dutifully, every morning. Sometimes the birds get there first, but they can’t eat as fast as I can. 

So for the most part, the figs are all mine. I get to eat ALL OF THE FIGS.

I don’t of course. I give them away, as if they’re a nuisance. Hey, friend, please take some of the figs… we have too many, sigh, whimper. It’s ridiculous. It’s completely stupid. It’s the reason why people live in California. Why people (I mean me) move to Oakland, to a little house with a fig tree! There’s also a persimmon tree, an apple tree, two Meyer lemons, and an orange tree. (Don’t kill me.)

I’ll soften the blow by stating this out loud, on the Internet—I’ve been a complete emotional wreck with this move. A bundle of nerves. A panicked, anxiety-ridden mess who could hardly, until very recently, taste the beauty of the figs, of the place. Change will do that to me. I like my routines. I like things to be settled, not in an utter upheaval of boxes and movers and wailing cats and too-long commutes and fights about paint colors and on and on and on to infinity. 

When I was in the grips of my first-world fig problem, I found myself spiraling in an inter-web black hole of fig recipes. There were chutneys, galettes, scones, salads, tarts, cookies, tapenades, jams, savouries, and so much more. This research introduced me to a concept that was totally new and somewhat astounding—you don’t have to just eat figs whole and raw and dripping with honeyed liquid; you can, in fact, use them as you would almost any other edible thing—as an ingredient

Prior to my relationship with the fig tree, figs always seemed too rare a commodity to make this approach acceptable. (At my latest appraisal, a pint of figs was a whopping $8 at Whole Foods. If youre lucky, a pint will get you six, maybe seven, figs—hardly enough for a tart, and certainly not enough for a chutney or jam.) To cook with them seemed almost sacrilege—a pity. But now I’m in a different position entirely. I’m in a veritable race against time to eat and share the figs. Everyday we have a couple for breakfast, and then I place the extras on the kitchen counter, where they slowly accumulate. In one sad moment, I composted about a dozen that we couldn’t get to or give away in time. (This may have kicked off the research to begin with.) I felt that I was letting the tree down.

Enter the savory fig tart using a previously unconscionable sixteen figs (!), along with heavy drizzles of reduced balsamic, honey, blue cheese, scattered rosemary, and thickly sprinkled Maldon sea salt. It comes together in no time and results in something sweet and savory, sticky and salty, crisp and soft, pleasantly crumbling under every bite. 

In other words, completely worth its weight in figs. 

In all of the excitement, I took only a couple of photos on my phone of the thing. Regardless, I hope you will try this tart, even if you have to spend $20 on ingredients. (You could also call me up, and I will donate a few figs to your cause.) 

The tart is best eaten—now I’m really being extravagant—with a cold glass of crisp champagne, which is something that people bring you when you move into a new house. (The perks are just endless.) Before long, Im sure my sardonic, gloomy, New York–inflected tone will be back (in life, if not here on this blog). But for now, I feel like the luckiest. 

Fig and Blue Cheese Tart 
Adapted from Dash and Bella via Food52

1 sheet puff pastry, defrosted but cold
2 tablespoons olive oil
1–2 sprigs rosemary
16–18 figs
Flaky salt (such as Maldon)
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar, simmered until reduced by half
1–2 tablespoons honey
Blue cheese or gorgonzola

Set out one sheet of puff pastry to defrost (I used Pepperidge Farm brand, found in the freezer aisle). In a small saucepan, simmer the balsamic vinegar for 5 to 10 minutes, until it has reduced by about half. It will have thickened.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

Place the rosemary sprigs in a mortar and pestle, add 2 tablespoons olive oil, and crush to bruise the rosemary and release some of its oils into the olive oil.

When the puff pastry is defrosted, but still cool to the touch, roll it out on a lightly floured surface to achieve a rectangle roughly 8 by 14 inches, and 1/8 inches thick. Fold over 1/2 an inch on all sides to make a loose border. (The tart should look rustic, so don’t worry about the shape too much.)

Stem the figs and cut them all in half. Arrange them on the tart shell in haphazard rows, seed-side up. Brush the rosemary-infused olive oil over each halved fig. Sprinkle all over with flaky salt, then drizzle with the reduced balsamic and honey. Crumble the blue cheese over, to taste. (I do not skimp on this step.) Remove the rosemary from the oil and tear it over the tart.

Bake for 30–40 minutes, or until the figs are caramelized and the pastry is golden brown.

Let cool slightly, and serve warm or at room temperature. This is best the day it is made.

June 05, 2014

The rhubarb train

I'm still on the rhubarb train
And, although we are just now gliding into June, it remains possible, I tell you, to find rhubarb at your grocery store or local farmer’s market. Soon it will be gone, though, I'm sad to say. We are, as I type these very words, running out of time. 

In light of all of this, I bring you today a collection of rhubarb recipes in tandem with one very delicious, seasonal, cake-pie-crumble-hybrid-dessert thing. Yes, that is what we have here, officially. 

The recipe comes from the pages of Nigel Slater’s brilliant tome Ripe: A Cook in the Orchard. As suggested by the title, Ripe is a book about a cook and his homegrown fruit. It is a delectable and delightful collection of recipes, nestled among tender photos of Nigel’s garden and the wonderful and varied things that he is able to make from it. His section on rhubarb is formidable. It includes a rundown of the many heirloom varieties (with names such as Muriel, Cutbush’s Seedling, and The Streeter), a brief history, and a starry-eyed ode that speaks volumes to his love of the stalky, poison-leafed plant. 
“How could anyone not love something known as the pie plant—or indeed, anything whose stems offer such vibrant color at a time of the year when most of our fruit is sleeping?” Nigel begins. “Yet rhubarb has never found the broad audience enjoyed by the raspberry or the apple. Instead, it has a loyal, almost cultish following, happy to indulge in its piercing crimson sharpness.”
I don’t think a more beautiful description of rhubarb has ever appeared in print than “piercing crimson sharpness.” 

Rhubarb inspires those who love it to inhabit a certain madness. We might surreptitiously pull a stalk from a neighbor’s yard. We might howl at the heavens shaking a mighty fistful. We might write book chapters about the plant that read like proper odes to a long-lost friend. Such is the cultish following that rhubarb enjoys. 

To accompany the recipe for this cake—which, by the way, is so delicious; crunchy, hearty, sweet, and tart all at once—I give you a list of of thirteen more things to do with rhubarb. I am hoping to make this a regular practice on the site, once per month or so, to compile a list of recipes exploring a particular fruit, vegetable, or food category. I will learn some things in the process, I hope, about vinegars, or homemade ricotta, or cherries, or peas, or yeasted doughs. And, in its own way, this blog may become something of a resource for us cooks, gardeners, and rhubarb-chasers alike. 

So, go forth with your fistfuls of crimson sharpness! Let's enjoy it while it lasts. 
Rhubarb-Raspberry Cornmeal Cake
Adapted from Ripe

Notes: The most significant modification I made to this recipe was to add raspberries. You could easily omit them, and I'm sure the cake would be delicious. Alternately, I would guess that strawberries could also be tossed in at the last second. For a summer version of this cake, I would try it with nectarines or plums. The original recipe calls for golden baker's sugar. I substituted a combination of light brown sugar and granulated in the crust, and light brown only for the fruit.

1 pound rhubarb
1/4 cup light brown sugar
4 tablespoons water
3 ounces (3/4 cups) raspberries

3/4 cups coarse polenta or cornmeal
1 1/2 cups plus 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
Generous pinch of cinnamon
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup light brown sugar
Zest of one organic orange, finely grated
10 tablespoons butter, chilled
1 egg
2 tablespoons milk
1 tablespoon demerara or Turbinado sugar

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Place a baking sheet inside the oven. Butter a 9-inch round cake pan; line with parchment once across, and butter the parchment.

Trim the ends of the rhubarb, and cut each stalk into roughly 2-inch pieces. Place in a large baking dish, adding the sugar and water on top. Roast for 30 minutes, or until the rhubarb is soft, but still has some shape. Drain the rhubarb, reserving the juice. (You can pause at this point; the roasted rhubarb will keep for a day or so in the fridge. The cake can then be assembled quickly the day you plan to serve it.)

In a large bowl, combine the polenta, flour, baking powder, cinnamon, and sugars with a wooden spoon. Cut the butter into smallish cubes and add it to the flour mixture. Add the orange zest. Use a pastry blender to cut the butter into the flour mixture, until the mixture resembles a coarse meal. There should still be some pea-sized pieces of butter.

In a small bowl, whisk together the egg and the milk. Pour it into the flour mixture, and use your hands to blend the crust together. Stop as soon as the mixture comes together being careful not to overmix. The dough should be somewhat sticky. If it is not, add 1–2 tablespoons more milk.

Scoop out two-thirds of the dough, and press it into the prepared pan with your fingers. It should go up the sides about half an inch higher than the dough that forms the base. Toss the rhubarb across the surface of the dough, and then scatter the raspberries over. Crumble the remaining dough over the fruit, and sprinkle with the demarara sugar to finish.

Bake for 1 hour, on the preheated baking sheet, or until the crust is a rich golden brown. Serve with the reserved juice from the rhubarb drizzled on top.