March 23, 2014

I’ve been collecting them

On Friday, the first strawberries of the season arrived in my farm box, ushering in that mystical eight-month strawberry season that I always talk about. We ate them (with gusto if not a bit of trepidation at having something so sweet and summer-like on our tongues) with poppyseed-challah french toast. 

Then, I turned to the heap of citrus on my countertop, wondering what to make of the fifteen, maybe twenty?, navel oranges that have been coming in for weeks via my Friday delivery. At this point, it’s like I’ve been collecting them, waiting for a future moment in which I will come up with something brilliant to make… something other than juice, and something less involved than marmalade. That first strawberry signaled that this was the moment—in fact, it screamed to me, as fruit is wont to do, YOU ARE RUNNING OUT OF TIME. So, although it is finally spring (hooray!), and although I am anxious to move into the realm of rhubarb and artichokes and spring onions and favas and sweet, small berries of every variety, I offer you today an ode to citrus in the manner of a stovetop rice pudding, with whiskey-drunk orange supremes. We can all thank Apt. 2B Baking Co., and her party—her veritable brigade—of sweet, sunny, tart, ambrosial citrus ideas that I found when looking for help with my orange problem.

This pudding is a citrus party for your palette. You’ll use five oranges, which is a start, my friends. Then you can turn to David Tanis’s ambrosia to finish the job. After that, I would suggest an orange-cornmeal upside-down cake, which may be my next move. We’re going to need room on our countertops. 

Thank you, citrus, for making the winter sunny and pretty. Make way for spring. 

Orange-Scented Rice Pudding
Adapted from Apt. 2B Baking Co.

Notes: I think I cooked my pudding a bit too long and toward the end it curdled slightly, and the texture of the custard became less silken. It was still good, but if I make it again, I would do this: When you return the pudding to the saucepan after whisking it into the heavy cream, egg, and juice mixture, simmer on very low heat, and watch carefully, removing after about 8 minutes. It may look like there is too much liquid, but it will continue to thicken after it cools. Also, I think regular old citrus segments would work just fine here. In the future, I will skip the trouble of making the whiskey-drunk orange supremes below, and just segment some oranges, toss them with a little whiskey and honey and some of their zest, and call it a day. The crushed pistachios, however, while optional, are really a nice touch. 

1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 vanilla bean
1 orange
1 cup arborio rice
4 1/2 cups whole milk
Pinch of kosher salt
3/4 cups heavy cream
1 egg yolk
Handful of pistachios, chopped, for garnish

Place the sugar in a medium bowl. Scrap the seeds from the vanilla bean pod, and add to the sugar (reserve the pod). Zest the orange over the bowl. Combine sugar, zest, and vanilla seeds with your hands until thoroughly distributed. 

Peel the orange with a knife, removing first the top and bottom, and then slicing the skin off from top to bottom so the segments are revealed. Then segment the orange over a small, separate bowl. Squeeze the juice from the membrane, and reserve it in a measuring cup—you should have about 1/4 cup. 

In a medium saucepan, combine the rice, milk, vanilla bean pod, pinch of kosher salt, and sugar mixture. At a medium to low flame, bring the mixture to a simmer. Turn it down to low once it begins bubbling, and let it simmer, stirring occasionally, for about 30 minutes, until most of the liquid is absorbed and the rice is tender. Do not overcook. (As an aside, no one will notice if you sample the delicious, milky skin that forms on the surface of the pudding at this stage—it is reason alone to make this.)

While the rice is simmering, whisk together the egg yolk, cream, and reserved 1/4 cup of orange juice in a large bowl. 

When the rice mixture is ready, as described above, remove it from the heat. Fish out the vanilla bean pod, which can be rinsed and saved for another purpose. Then slowly whisk the rice mixture into the bowl with the whisked cream, egg, and juice. Start with a very small amount in a steady stream, to temper the egg so that it doesn’t scramble, then continue at a slow but steady pace, until fully incorporated, whisking constantly. 

Return the mixture to the saucepan, and cook it over very low heat for about 8 minutes. The rice pudding will have thickened slightly, but will still appear liquid-y. Take care not to let it go too long, or to come to a full boil, to prevent curdling. The pudding will continue to thicken as it cools.

Serve warm, at room temperature, or chilled, topped with chopped pistachios. 

Whiskey-Drunk Orange Supremes (optional):
As mentioned in the notes, I would skip this next time, favoring instead just a simple segmented orange, maybe with a splash of whiskey and a drizzle of honey, but this recipe is true to the original, and what I did. 

4 oranges, plus the segments reserved from the pudding recipe
2/3 cups sugar
3 tablespoons whiskey, honey whiskey, or bourbon

Zest the oranges into a shallow baking dish, then peel and segment them (see instructions in the pudding recipe above) directly into the same dish. Squeeze the juice from the membranes over both segments and zest. Sprinkle with the booze.

In a cold, dry pan, place the sugar and distribute it so it coats the bottom somewhat evenly. Place this over a medium-low flame, and allow it to cook, undisturbed, until the sugar begins to melt. When it starts to color in places, give it a stir with a wooden spoon, and then allow it to simmer gently until it is amber-colored and liquid. 

Pour the caramel over the oranges—it will immediately harden. Break up the hard bits as best you can with a spoon, and then cover and refrigerate for an hour. The caramel will have oozed into the juices by this point, becoming liquid. 

Serve chilled over the pudding. 

March 09, 2014

Keeps me coming back

It’s the cornbread that keeps me coming back. The corn cakes, to be precise, and then, as of my latest visit, the corn muffins dotted with marionberries in the manner of this berry-oozing scone

I’ve visited Sweedeedee as many times as I’ve spent days in Portland. It has consumed my Instagram feed and has taken hold of my mind in a way that no other restaurant has… at least, I should say, for a very long time. (There was that tiny hotel-restaurant in Gordes, where the courses came out unfettered by pretense and as ambitious as those seen in any world-class city anywhere, but better because of the circumstance; and where the cheeses came to the table on fig leaves and with provenance that stemmed to mere miles away from sheep and goats who could probably be named.) 

Sweedeedee is not exotic in any way, although that’s not quite right—what I mean to say is that it’s this same unfettered-ness, this same solid sensibility of origin and place, this same simplicity and untangled beauty that I found in Gordes that one time, and that is so hard to come by, that makes Sweedeedee remarkable. I go to Sweedeedee to eat, but also to see what kind of restaurant I would like to have, if I were to one day do so. 

On this last visit, I ate baked eggs with corn cakes and bacon, all sidled up next to a spoonful of braised greens (Day One); trout on rye (little toast points that were made of rye, yes, but also chewy, filled with nuts and seeds; then whipped cream cheese and house-smoked trout and an impressive array of pickled things—green beans, fennel, yellow carrots, a single yellow beet, and long strands of vinegar-soaked onions), and then those corn muffins I mentioned (Day Two). On a previous trip, there was the Breakfast Plate: baked eggs, thick-cut toast, homemade preserves (quince and vanilla bean), a hunk of aged white cheddar, bacon, and seasonal fruit. 

The baked eggs that accompany most breakfasts are sprinkled directly with Maldon sea salt, their yolks still wobbly and barely set. Dishes of this salt are scattered around the very small restaurant (there are, maybe, eight tables and a counter); small bowls of preserves line the tables; there is a self-service coffee station with honey water and cold cream; and plates and mugs and strewn-about vases stacked on shelves and bedecking tables that are either: vintage, found, or made by hand. Some are chipped, some are stamped with a previous restaurant’s insignia. There is also pie (salted honey, apple, marionberry, and cherry, on recent visits). 

The menus are handwritten, the tables and chairs are a mixed bunch; a record player spins in the background; vibrant green plants are hung from the creamy-white ceiling. You feelexcept for the foodthat you’ve stepped into someone’s living room. Someone whose light-filled home with warm and charming details everywhere makes you feel somewhat envious if it weren’t for the wonderful time you were having there. This is Sweedeedee.

That, down there, is a custard-filled cornbread. 

I came home from that trip to Portland with the memory of those muffins, and a craving for all things cornmeal. Specifically, cornmeal that you could really taste—with medium-ground bits that were pronounced and unabashed in every bite. It was a food craving that wouldn’t let go of me, so I dug around, eventually remembering the description of a type of cornbread that has a sliver of custard running through it. I found it in the pages of A Homemade Life first, then over at Sweet Amandine second, and then, at last, at the source, in Marion Cunningham’s The Breakfast Book

All three authors describe the magic of this particular baked good—the brilliant alchemy of a cake that transforms, as it bakes, into distinct yet harmonious layers of dense cornbread, light custard, and airy, corn-scented cake. I’ve used the term “magical” to describe the baking process on other instances, but I would venture that this is the most appropriate use of the term on this blog to date.

You start with an impossibly thin batter, and pour this into a buttered, preheated pan. Then you take a cup of cold heavy cream, and let it disappear, in a steady stream, directly into the center of the batter. It ripples and hiccups at first before taking hold and sinking straight down, dispersing somewhere beneath the top layer. The cornmeal, which is heavier, sinks to the bottom. The custard eventually finds its center. And a light, cake-like layer makes its way to the very top. You bake this for about an hour, and then you serve it, once it has cooled slightly, with a healthy drizzle of maple syrup. 

It is ethereal, but also hearty. The cornmeal base satisfies your cornmeal craving, while the slippery custard adds a bit of decadence. Maple syrup provides the perfect dose of sweetness. I could eat this cornbread at any time of day or night, and because it keeps fairly well for a few days in the refrigerator, I was able to have it for breakfast and then as dessert, on alternating days. 

In my dream restaurant, I will serve this cornbread with a little hand-thrown pitcher of maple syrup. A steaming cup of coffee with warm milk and honey-water will be brought out alongside. On a separate dish, a few berries and several thick slices of Cara Cara orange will be scattered. In summer, there will be bowls of figs or yellow cherries on every table. The record player will hum a plucky bluegrass tune. Waiters will move around the tables casually. People will be chatting and leaning in eagerly to sample each other’s dishes. Outside, the world will move on in its hurried, hectic fashion. Inside, things will be calm and quiet, and we will feel good because we'll know that we will soon be sated. We will have put our phones away. Our worries and our fears will disappear momentarily—long enough to let us really taste what is in front of us. The food, which is of course not just food, but an environment, a sensibility, will provide warmth and comfort and a feeling of being cared for. Strangers, with their books and their notepads, will look up over their glasses, and greet each other. Strangers, every one of us, will look around and feel more connected and less strange. In this dream restaurant, I will be feeding my hungers. It will be a small utopia, this place that I imagine. 

Custard-filled cornbread is the first item on the menu.

p.s. Sweedeedee the song via my friend Skye.

Custard-Filled Cornbread

Adapted from A Homemade Life, Sweet Amandine, and The Breakfast Book by Marion Cunningham

2 eggs
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
2 cups milk
3 tablespoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 tablespoons white vinegar
1 cup all-purpose flour
3/4 cup yellow cornmeal, medium ground
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 cup heavy cream

Butter a 9-inch round cake pan generously, and place it into the oven. Preheat oven to 350 degrees, and allow the pan to warm while you prepare the batter.

Melt the butter and set aside to cool slightly. In a large mixing bowl, add the eggs and the melted butter and beat with a whisk until well blended. Add the milk, sugar, salt, and vinegar and whisk until incorporated.

In a medium mixing bowl, stir together the flour, cornmeal, baking powder, and baking soda. Add this to the wet ingredients. Mix until the batter is smooth and there are no lumps.

Pour the batter into the hot cake pan. Then, in a slow, steady stream, pour the cup of cold heavy cream directly into the center of the batter. Do not stir.

Bake for 1 hour, or until golden brown.

Allow to cool for 10–15 minutes before slicing. Serve warm with maple syrup.

February 08, 2014

No less hungry

I’ve made this cake before here, but under very different circumstances. Coming out of a bad breakup, I decided to make the single most romantic cake that I could think of. The answer was obvious: Julia Child’s Reine de Saba. I liked this cake because it was a series of contradictions, as I took the whole venture of love to be. It was not too sweet, nor was it particularly heady. It was complex enough to make your palette inquisitive, but easy enough to go down smooth, happy and unquestioning. I cited some poems in that entry, and then I ate my cake, one slice at a time, for a solid week. When I photographed it, I added an extra teacup to the tableau, for fear of depressing my readers. But in actuality, it was just me. Me and the reine (“queen”). 

This time, I made her with a particular person in mind; someone who you have not yet met on the blog—my guitar teacher, Marcelo. It’s been a good year-and-a-half or more that I’ve been taking lessons with Marcelo, and, although I rarely practice, he seems to put up with me, and more than that, is and has always been a fervent supporter of the blog. Marcelo, I have learned, appreciates good food. He loves to laugh and he loves music. He might not know this, but when I was going through the saddest of times, our lessons were often a grounding element for me. After a few short months, we were sharing stories with each other, and then, before I knew it, we had become friends. 

In all this time, though, that we’ve talked and laughed and looked at photographs of the food I was making for the blog, and in which he sent me links and shared ideas, I had never baked anything for Marcelo. The timing would always be off—something I made over the weekend would be gone by Monday, for the next lesson, or we’d have a break in the schedule, or I would simply forget, or any number of other reasons why we don’t do the things that we want to do, that we, for all intensive purposes, mean to do. I was determined to change this.

Knowing a bit about Marcelo, I settled on making him the Reine de Saba (or, as Marcelo calls it now “the reina.” This cake tends to be the thing that I make when someone is close to me and I want to, in my own way, celebrate them. I brought him half the cake, so as to not overwhelm him. As I was packing it, fitting it snuggly in its parchment-lined tupperware, I wondered if I should make a single cut—one discrete slice—so that he could try it immediately. I wondered for a moment, and then I got distracted and forgot. The cake got packed and so did my instrument and away we went. 

When I arrived bearing cake, we were both happy. Marcelo immediately looked for a knife, or a fork, or any implement at all, so that he could taste it. I scoured my purse in case a previously stowed plastic utensil could be recovered. He went to the front desk and inquired. There was nothing. “How am I going to wait?” he wondered out loud. (THIS, I decided, is the kind of compliment a cook lives for.) We managed to turn back to the lesson, the reina just sitting there, on the piano in the practice room, without an eater. We played Dylan’s “Moonshiner” and talked about my difficulty with the F-chord (still, really, after 10 years). As the lesson ended, back on the hunt for a utensil, I asked Marcelo how long he was going to have to wait. When would he be home so that he could try it?! It was going to be at least two more hours, which we both decided was much too long. And then Marcelo looked at me and said something that endeared him to me even more, something that spoke to me on levels unknown and unuttered: “How can I say this…” he sighed. “I have the soul of a fat boy.” 

Sometimes Marcelo and I are very much alike.

The phrase rung in my ears for several hours, because, as I said, it spoke to something true in me (however funny). We are hungry, and that is why we bake and cook and prepare and eat and share and break bread and toast one other. Some of us are hungrier than others. Most of us are hungry in our souls, and food and love and warmth and friendship all become one. M.F.K Fisher famously expressed this sentiment in words that are so perfect they deserve to be quoted in full: 

“People ask me: Why do you write about food, and eating and drinking? […] The easiest answer is to say that, like most other humans, I am hungry. But there is more than that. It seems to me that our three basic needs, for food and security and love, are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others. So it happens that when I write of hunger, I am really writing about love and the hunger for it… and then warmth and the love of it and the hunger for it… and then the warmth and richness and fine reality of hunger satisfied… and it is all one. […] There is food in the bowl, and more often than not, because of what honesty I have, there is nourishment in the heart, to feed the wilder, more insistent hungers. We must eat. If, in the face of that dread fact, we can find other nourishment, and tolerance and compassion for it, we’ll be no less full of human dignity.”

To talk about hunger in the soul, of insatiable hunger, or of a hunger that is metaphoric and persistent, is to brush against this fact. M.F.K. Fisher wrote in times of war. We write and think about food in a supposed era of plenty. Yet, we are no less hungry. 

I feel fuller when I share cake. 

Reine de Saba 
(Slightly altered from my previous version, with some important, quality-retaining shortcuts.)

For the cake:

2/3 cup semisweet chocolate morsels
1 tablespoon instant espresso dissolved into 2 tablespoons boiling water
1 stick (4 ounces) unsalted butter, softened
2/3 cup sugar, plus 2 tablespoons
3 large eggs, separated
Scant 1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
Pinch of kosher salt
1/3 cups sliced almonds (with or without skins), ground fine
1/4 teaspoon almond extract
3/4 cups all-purpose flour, stirred through briefly with a fork

For the icing:

1/2 cup semisweet chocolate morsels
1 1/2 tablespoons strongly brewed instant espresso
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened

Notes: Julia Child's original recipe calls for blanched almonds (without their skins), as well as sifted cake flour. I have altered both of those ingredients in this recipe, and found the cake to be just as delicious as when I have stayed true to the original. I used sliced almonds with skins attached, as well as regular all-purpose flour that I did not sift. Instead, run a fork swiftly through the flour before you measure it, to simulate sifting. Another interesting adjustment to note: When I baked this, being still in the middle of a move and unable to find my measuring spoons, I approximated the teaspoon and tablespoon measurements called for here. It was, amazingly, and contrary to what we think we know about baking, totally ok. 

Set a rack in the middle of the oven, and preheat to 350 degrees. Butter and flour an 8-inch round cake pan, tapping out excess. Line the cake pan with parchment across the middle, allowing it to overlap on two "sides." Don't worry about covering the bottom completely.

Place the chocolate morsels in a small saucepan with 2 tablespoons of espresso. Fill another pan with an inch of water and bring it to a simmer. Turn off the heat, and place the smaller saucepan in the hot water. Give it one stir, and then set aside. 

In a large mixing bowl, cream the butter and sugar together until soft and fluffy. Beat in the 3 egg yolks. 

In a medium mixing bowl, whip the egg whites: first beat them until they begin to foam, then add the cream of tartar and a pinch of kosher salt and continue beating, either by hand or with an electric mixer, until they form a soft mass. Beat in 2 tablespoons of sugar, and continue beating until soft peaks form. They should hold their shape in peaks that drop off and fold over themselves slightly when lifted with a spatula. 

Stir the chocolate. If it is not completely melted, turn the heat back on under the larger saucepan, and heat over the double boiler until the chocolate is silky and no lumps remain. 

Stir the chocolate into the butter and eggs. Then stir in the almonds, almond extract, and the flour.

With a rubber spatula or a wooden spoon, gently stir in one fourth of the beaten egg whites. The batter will lighten in color and texture. Add the remaining egg whites on top of the chocolate mixture, and fold them in swiftly but gently, until fully incorporated. 

Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and bake for 25–30 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted 2 inches from the edge of the pan comes out clean. The center should still be somewhat soft and just set.

Cool on a rack in the pan for 15 minutes, then turn the cake onto a plate and allow it to cool completely before icing (about 2 hours).

When the cake has completely cooled, melt the chocolate with the espresso in a small saucepan over a double boiler. Remove it from the heat. Beat in the butter, one tablespoon at a time, until completely smooth. Continue beating the mixture over a bowl of cold water until it becomes a spreadable consistency. Ice your cake. You may choose to decorate the sides of the cake with sliced almonds, or leave it as it is, as I have this time. 

January 22, 2014

Only the suggestion

It’s in a section of a book called, “How to Have Balance,” this recipe that I am going to tell you about. Balance—something that exists for me, in large part, only in concept. It is an elusive concept, somewhat taunting. It’s mentioned in my “about” section as something I’m trying to “shift,” though I’ve never been good at it, really. I’ve always been much better at dramatically hurdling myself into or against whatever thing might have captured my interest or disgust at that very moment. 

Luckily for me, this section about balance has more to do with eating armfuls of bread—stale bread, bread ends, pieces of neglected crusts, squishy insides that have turned rigid and unbending—than it does with “balancing” in grander philosophical terms. It starts with the ethos put forward by M.F.K Fisher in How to Cook a Wolf: “Balance the day, not each meal in the day.” This gives us more flexibility in our notion of balance—we have more time to get there. It also gives us permission to eat meals solely of one ingredient, or primarily of one ingredient. It allows us to focus, more than it asks us to balance. The scales don’t have to weigh evenly at the same moment—they can even out over time. Bread, then, doesn’t have to be taken as an aside, and it also doesn’t have to be banished entirely from our culinary repertoires. Bread can find it’s place in the meal, as the meal. It can come back to us, transformed, in a new molten expression of its prior self. It can, interestingly, become soup. 

Bread soup as a concept is immediately intriguing on a textural level, because it requires, to conceive of it, a sense of transformation that is whole and complete. I don’t really like the idea of balance, but I do really like the idea of transformation. Unlike balance, transformation doesn’t ask for a firm ending; nor does it, I think, want a clear beginning. As Tamar Adler writes in her introduction to An Everlasting Meal, which I mentioned last week, and from which this section on balance comes: 
“Great meals rarely start at points that all look like beginnings. They usually pick up where something else leaves off. This is how most of the best things are made—imagine if the world had to begin from scratch each dawn: a tree would never grow, nor would we ever get to see the etchings of gentle rings on a clamshell.”
This sentiment makes the task of beginning much more manageable—that we will begin not to finish, but so that we can continue later; that things will lead one to the other and elapse over time; that, cumulatively, we will reach a point which, in its apparent finality, asks to be another beginning, or a happily unresolved end. We won’t have to start from scratch, because nothing ever does. 

This makes it acceptable to start something again or to pick it up where you left off. It makes leaving off or setting aside a perfectly reasonable thing to do. It allows you to gather the scraps of old bread that, hard as stone, were doomed for the compost, and to simmer them until they melt, in a warm sputtering tangle of leeks and onions and garlic and stock and parmesan rind, yielding soup. Soup that your ancestors would be proud of for its economy, and that your loved ones will lap up heartily for its richness. 

The recipe for this soup is a very short paragraph in Tamar Adler’s book that contains no measurements, and only the suggestion of a rough timeframe. I will give you something more precise, but I can guarantee that you won’t need it. You will do much better if you cook this simply trusting yourself every step of the way. How much rosemary will make the soup taste medicinal? Is there enough bread? Should I add more oil? More salt? Will fennel work in place of celery?

Smell and feel your way toward these questions, because, quite simply, you’re not going to screw it up. Also because, significantly, it’s just stale bread. When you work with ingredients that are not precious, you immediately have permission to experiment and approach your task lightly. You will learn more about cooking this way, or at least I have, then if you were locked into a recipe whose precision makes you terrified to lift a spoon or to alter a proportion. I don’t like to cook under such rigid circumstances. It makes me feel estranged from my food and from the act of cooking itself—something that, at its best, is an intimate proposal for community. 

Bread soup, as Tamar writes, is “somewhere between soup and solid.” I will also add that it is thick and moderately gelatinous; shimmering with olive oil and flecked full of herbs. The quality of your bread will contribute to the overall quality of the soup—I used a country levain which gave the soup depth and body from the sour, chewy loaf. A parmesan rind, thrown in to simmer with the rest, lends nuttiness. Fresh herbs balance the whole thing. Optionally, you can also whiz together in the blender a quick parsley sauce to drizzle over top. You know when the soup is finished when, as Tamar writes, it “thwart[s] attempts to classify as one [bread] or the other [soup] and, instead of trying, take it off the heat when it tastes good.” 

She’s right. You will just know. And it will taste good. 

Bread Soup with Herbs (Adapted from An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace)

1/2 cup olive oil
2 leeks, washed well, bulb end trimmed, cut in half lengthwise, white and pale green parts thinly sliced, the rest reserved for stock
1/2 small, yellow onion, halved again and thinly sliced
3 garlic cloves, smashed with salt against the blade of a chef’s knife on your cutting board
1/2 fennel bulb, thinly sliced (the original recipe calls for celery, if you have it)
4 cups stale bread, crusts removed, cut into large cubes (you can save the crust for croutons)
4 cups chicken stock (or any other kind of broth or stock you may have)
1/2 cup Italian parsley, chopped
2 small sprigs rosemary, leaves taken off the stem, and then chopped
Parmesan rind (any size piece you may have)

Heat the olive oil in a large soup pot, and add the leeks, onions, garlic, and fennel. Salt the vegetables right away, so they soften rather than brown. Cook until tender, about 10 minutes. Add the herbs and bread. Give it a good stir and then add the stock and the parmesan rind. Season with salt and pepper. Cover, turn the heat down to medium-low, and cook the soup for 25–30 minutes, or until the bread is completely broken down and transformed. It should no longer resemble bread, nor should it look entirely like soup. Add water or other cooking liquid if the contents stick.

Taste the soup for seasoning, and remove the parmesan rind just before serving. Drizzle with olive oil, top with grated parmesan and cracked black pepper. Or drizzle with parsley sauce, parmesan, and pepper. The original recipe states that leftover bread soup can be formed into patties and fried in olive oil. We ate it the next morning for brunch with fried eggs on top. 

Parsley Sauce (Adapted from An Everlasting Meal)
This sauce was excellent on the bread soup, and then incredible the next day when we brought it on an oyster-eating excursion. To have it on oysters, thin the original with a couple tablespoons red or rice wine vinegar and lemon juice.

1 bunch Italian parsley
1 garlic clove
Olive oil

Crush the garlic clove against the side of a chef’s knife with kosher salt until it forms a paste. Put the garlic in a blender or food processor with the parsley, another pinch of salt, a squeeze of lemon juice, and a hefty pour of olive oil, about 1/4 to 1/2 cup. Blend until mostly smooth. 

January 09, 2014

So far, so good

Happy 2014. 

It’s been a good one so far, friends. You? I had a great holiday with family in New York, and now, in the new year itself—all nine days of it—I have managed to bake pfeffernüsse, drink several bloody mary’s (helloooooo, new year, new me!), and MOVE—into a lovely little house in Bernal Heights, San Francisco, with a beautiful garden, a fully equipped kitchen (with a dishwasher!, and a kitchen island!, and a white marble table that is going to be just perfect for rolling out all of the pie doughs in this book! (resolution number 1?)), and a cat named Girard who purrs like he’s twice his size and sleeps cuddled up in an achingly tight spoon, and a someone special, too. So far, so good, 2014.

With all of the changes, there have also been some adjustments. I am confronting a newly domesticated version of my former self—one who likes to bake banana bread at 10 o’clock at night and roast pumpkin and squash seeds as she simmers soup on the stove and who wakes up the whole house with the fragrance of spicy cookies being tossed around in confectioner’s sugar. (Yup, that’s me.) 

Maybe it’s because this new house is actually a house, tricked out with all of the promises of domestic bliss in every amenity and around every corner. (I have to live up to it.) Or maybe it’s me—settling out of single life and into something that, perhaps, has always made more sense: trying to live and love well, with someone who makes life that much better; sharing meals each night; and sharing our lives. It’s good. And it really is that simple. 

There’s been cooking, as I mentioned, and a lot of reading, too. As I plunge headlong into another year, I want to do even more of both of those things. 

I’ve been recently engrossed in Tamar Adler's book, which seems to have taught me more about cooking with economy and grace in its lucidly metaphoric prose than an itemized recipe probably ever has. With sentences like this—that are about so much more than cooking, but which reach toward its symbolic potential with intelligence and beauty—it’s hard not to be immediately drawn in: 
“When we cook things, we transform them. And any small acts of transformation are among the most human things we do. Whether it’s nudging dried leaves around a patch of cement, or salting a tomato, we feel, when we exert any tiny bits of our human preference in the universe, more alive.”
And, if you haven’t read it, it’s based somewhat (in structure, and a bit in tone) on M.F.K Fisher's classic work, which I loved even before cracking open the front cover. (How to Cook a Wolf is, perhaps, one of the best titles to ever grace the literary world.)

Also on my list, particularly now that I live with a pie-loving man, is the aforementioned stunner, The Four & Twenty Blackbirds Pie Book, which is pleasingly organized by season, and which reads, for someone who loves pie and food and ingredients in general, like a really good novel. 

On the literary front, I’m planning to read this fictional work. The painting that the book is loosely based on stopped me in my tracks when I saw it in New York this past trip (a small, very simple painting). It’s one of the few remaining pieces by Fabritius (only about a dozen survive), whose works were nearly all lost in the Delft Thunderclap explosion (a fact that makes The Goldfinch all the more potent).

Rebecca Solnit's The Faraway Nearby has also been on my list for a while and was recently leant to me by a friend (which means I’m likely to get to it even faster than if left to my own devices). I’m looking forward to delving into her storytelling.

Lastly, I’m trying to work up the courage to read this book—the review of which, alone, left me sort of breathless. 

In terms of food, I’ll be back soon with an experiment in cooking with economy, à la Tamar Adler, that should be enough to chase away the polar vortex that a good portion of you are currently being enveloped by (a spoiler alert: this will not be for those of you who are newly sworn off of gluten, but I do think it will be somewhat healthy—in that doused in olive oil, vegetable-based, Mediterranean, sort of way). 

For now, here’s a recipe for that banana bread I mentioned, which came out of my oven late one night this week. As has been uttered by many a blogger before me, the world does not need another banana bread recipe. And yet, it’s something that we all should have in our culinary arsenals, for when nothing other than the most simple, unpretentious food item will do. (I’ve been making this one for a decade now.) It will also be there, importantly, when you have a cluster of overripe bananas melting into shadowy puddles on your counter, as bananas are wont to do. 

Simplest Banana Bread
Adapted from Martha Stewart

1 stick unsalted butter (at room temperature), plus extra for pan
1 cup sugar
2 eggs (preferably at room temperature)
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 cup mashed, very ripe banana (about 3)
1/2 cup sour cream (preferably at room temperature)
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/2 cup walnuts, chopped

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a loaf pan with butter and line it with parchment, if desired (this makes removing the bread effortless). 

Cream the butter and sugar in a large bowl with a wooden spoon, until fluffy and incorporated. Add the eggs and beat until well blended.

In a medium bowl, whisk the flour, butter, and salt together lightly. Add this mixture to the butter, sugar, and eggs, and stir until just combined. Add the remaining ingredients—banana, sour cream, vanilla, and nuts—and stir until combined. 

Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake at 350 degrees for approximately 1 hr 10 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center of the bread comes out mostly clean. Let cool in pan for 10 minutes or so, and then lift the bread out of the pan with the parchment, and allow it to finish cooling on a rack. 

Serve warm or cold, with extra butter for slathering. 

November 26, 2013

Salted caramel apple pie (not a moment too soon)

This is important.

I know we are all busy right now, but there is something that needs to be communicated immediately, and I know of no better channel: Salted Caramel Apple Pie, people. Salted Caramel Apple Pie!

Are you making an apple pie for Thanksgiving? Good. Me too. Now, slowly back away from that age-old, standard recipe that lies tattered on your countertop, ready to go. (It’s hard, I know. It’s going to be okay, I promise. Your grandmother will eventually forgive you.) Replace it instead with that one, down there. The one in that not-at-all romantic, not-even-a-little-bit-nostalgic hyperlink. (Gah! It’s like I don’t even know myself anymore.)

I was reluctant at first, too. It’s hard to let go of a favorite recipe. And this new recipe, well, it seems too fancy in a way. It seems like it will most certainly be a letdown—especially for those of us who like our apple pies and our fruit desserts simple, the way they used to be. Well, this recipe might change things for you. And it’s worth a try—just once—to do something a little different. It is a holiday, after all.

Apart from the flaky, tender crust (perfumed with the slightest whiff of apple cider vinegar), and the tart apples that have been baking in autumn spices, oozing down to a sublime version of their former selves, the thing that really clinches this, as you may have gathered from the title, is the salted caramel. Caramel that you make on the stovetop as a separate step; that you sprinkle with Maldon sea salt; that becomes amber and beautiful and that makes your whole house smell like sugar and cream. You take this caramel and you drizzle about half of it over the apples in the pie. Then you make your lattice. The other half of the caramel? Well, that you warm up later and drizzle over each slice as you serve it. Extra props if you’ve had the wherewithal to also make some whipped cream—it will glide over your warm pie into a lovely, creamy, caramel-specked puddle.

The real benefit here is that this pie actually improves with age. It was leaps and bounds better after it’d had 12 hours in the fridge to mellow. Heat it up a bit before serving, and let the caramel do the talking. Your guests will do that incredibly gratifying thing of being totally quiet—hushed by the delicious food that is before them. Focused eating. Quiet, happy, focused eating.

That’s my plan for Thursday.

Happy Thanksgiving, friends.

Salted Caramel Apple Pie
The recipe comes from the newly released Four & Twenty Blackbirds Pie Book

Find it, in very unromantic form, here. (I’m waiting for my actual copy in the mail.)

Really helpful tips on how to make a lattice (effortlessly) via the Kitchn.

Some notes to guide you through: This pie is very lemony, especially the first day. If you prefer something a little less tart, I would cut the amount of lemon juice in half. Next, I prepared the apples before I rolled out the dough (not what the recipe suggests, but it worked great). For the caramel: The recipe linked above provides no reference on how long it will take to achieve caramel; mine took about 20 minutes. The trick is to watch it closely and to wait for it to become a deep amber color. Be careful as you stir the caramel mixture—it will be scalding hot. To achieve total pie perfection, give the pie at least 12 hours to mellow in the fridge (24 or more is ok, too). Lastly, although this is not detailed in the recipe, I strongly recommend using the extra caramel to drizzle over each slice of pie that is served. This simple action completes it. 

September 15, 2013

Inner adjustments

When I don’t write here for a long time, the entries begin to take on increasingly daunting proportions. I spend weeks mulling over a particular angle, or trying to find the right turn of phrase, when probably, all along, what I really need to do is to just sit down and try to write. There is never a correct angle, or a precise turn of phrase, that comes from time spent dwelling on the immensity of the task—tell that to my self of three weeks ago.  

I have tried, even, in the past few weeks, to read about writing as a way to break through all this. I didn’t find this entirely helpful (although, here I am), but I did come across some really good writing—Joan Didion’s “On Keeping a Notebook,” for example, and the essay that follows “On Self-Respect” in the collection Slouching Towards Bethlehem. It is hard to describe what it feels like to read something in the precise moment that you need to read it, when some sort of inner adjustment is taking place—an adjustment that, barely perceptible, will be carrying you through to the next stage—but these essays had that mysterious and profound effect on me.

I identified with the early “presentiment of loss” that Didion describes as afflicting “keepers of private notebooks”; with the desire to—in contrast to recording factual events—“remember what it was to be me” at a particular time and place, during a particular stage. Didion writes about how this has the effect of creating “lies”—the writing often having little resemblance to the actual events that are described, dealing instead with how something “felt” to the author.  

I wish I had written down, as a sort of “fact,” what I was feeling on July 12, 2006, when rockets were being exchanged across the Israel-Lebanon border, and I was hearing news of it only very peripherally. I do remember standing on the deck of my small house in upstate New York, wondering what it meant for our family vacation to Lebanon, scheduled to begin in just a couple short weeks. I remember the light being very bright and dappled on that particular day. I was pacing, I think, as I talked on the phone; I may have leaned against the banister occasionally, looking down to the grass below. 

We had planned the trip to Lebanon for the month of August, for one simple reason: August is when the figs would be at their prime. We considered July, tossing around the various possibilities, but we always returned to August because of the figs. This was how we narrowly missed dramatic U.S.-military-led evacuations (to say the least) during a five-week war that killed thousands and paralyzed the country’s air and ground transportation. My father told me, when I visited Lebanon in 2009, that all of the bridges in the country had been bombed during this war. I don’t know how accurate this is, but the metaphoric weight of the idea—of all of the bridges in ruins—stuck with me.

Hence, any writing or thinking about figs, any fig consumption thereafter, conjures recollection of this moment—what turned out to be a harried several weeks wrought with fear and concern, but not physical danger—the “what it was to be me” in the form of smell, touch, and taste, but not words. How to get from there—from the fruit itself, to the baked good, to the memory of what it was to stand on the deck that day, in the harsh dappled light—to the here and now of writing about this fig galette is not, I would say, a straightforward endeavor.

But writing never is.