February 26, 2012

Last Night (and a Morning Pancake)

Last night, unfortunately, brought more disappointment in the heartache department. And this morning, up at 5 am as I was, contemplating love, and life, and the meaning of the universe (I can figure this stuff out by 10 am, right?), I feel, sadly, that the orange-ricotta-pancake high that I was on since yesterday is now but a dim wave, lapping lazily against my ocean’s floor.

But, oh!, look at those photos… billowy stacks flecked with the zest of an orange, bites of airy ricotta, swirling in a puddle of maple syrup and melted butter on my ever-so-slightly-warmed plate! Surely one cannot truly despair when visions of orange and ricotta whipped majestically into a sort of “cake” made in a “pan” are before them? Surely…

It takes a lot of courage to get up in the morning sometimes and to face the computer screen and to think, in one’s solitary state, I can begin again; there will be many more mornings, better than this one; they will be orange-and-ricotta scented; there will be happiness—and in fact, as they always say (those optimistic types), it won’t always be this way, things will get better. And it would all be true. I just know it somehow; perhaps it’s the cook in me—she’s optimistic by nature, she knows somehow that when your first pancake has burned and your butter is a browned, greasy mess in the middle of your too-small pan, that you can scrape it clean and start again. You can find a masculine, nonstick griddle who needs but a little heat (no grease!) to get things sizzling… but I’m mixing metaphors here.

Alas, it was this way with the pancakes. The first batch was a total flop. But it seemed so promising!, I thought wistfully to myself. And it was, in fact, promising and more than that, once I saddled my determination—got the hunger in me to twist itself out of defeatism—and began again, with a new pan and a new strategy that felt, how should I say this?, more like me.

The recipe is promising and delicious and all of the things that you want out of a Saturday morning when you have a bit of time on your hands (just a bit) and the need for something warm and sizzling to perfume your entire kitchen and the neighbor’s hallway. As I learned from Nigel Slater, from whom this recipe derives, it’s also an excellent afternoon snack, to be taken, preferably, with a good friend, accompanied by a nice chat, some new ideas kicked around, a few hearty sarcastic cracks at the whole enterprise of love, and tea, of course. That was how it was for me. I ate these twice in one day. Once alone, a stack of three warm cakes on the plate, a generous pat of butter, and a drizzle of maple syrup, with my coffee; and then again, later, with my good friend S., with tea and syrup and a bit of Greek yogurt on the side.

Both times were good, for different reasons.

You begin by mixing together ricotta cheese, sugar, egg yolks, and orange zest. Then you mix into that some flour, an impossibly small amount, and then gently fold into this mixture egg whites that have been whipped into peaks. The whole thing at this point is nothing if not luscious—light and fragrant and simply beaming—it will transport you. 

If you succeed at folding in the whites without utterly deflating them, you will also feel proud, as I did (if you didn’t, don’t worry!, you can start again!, no one can see you in there, in the privacy of your own kitchen). You will look at your light-as-air mixture, and you will think, ha! look what I did!

Nigel suggests cooking these in large tablespoonfuls in a nonstick pan with melted butter. Maybe this works for him—I’m sure his pancakes are divine, and I’m sure I would gladly eat them at his kitchen counter any day—but the method didn’t work for me. I tried it, but my heart wasn’t in it from the start. I’ve never much liked pancakes that have been cooked in butter—I prefer the thin crust that forms when you cook them in nothing whatsoever except for the heat of the griddle, warmed until a drop of water dances chaotically across the surface. So that’s what I did, after the first batch came out all manner of burned and blackened and too greasy for anyone’s good.

At first it seemed that the griddle technique wouldn’t work—the pancakes seemed to be sticking… I was beside myself with grief. But I just tried to be patient. I waited, and waited. I waited until the edges of each little cake became slowly outlined in a light brown and until little, discrete bubbles seemed to open, ever so slightly, onto each surface. Then I turned them. And I won’t conceal the fact that I was utterly pleased with myself when I did.

Orange and ricotta pancakes—you and me are back on.

Orange and Ricotta Pancakes (adapted from Nigel Slater’s The Kitchen Diaries)

I should say that The Kitchen Diaries: A Year in the Kitchen with Nigel Slater is a beautiful book; if you like simple ingredients lists and honest, elegant prose, this book is for you.

1 cup ricotta cheese (store-bought ricotta works great)
4 tablespoons sugar
3 large eggs, separated
1 orange, the zest of which has been finely grated, avoiding the pith
1/2 cup of all-purpose flour
Butter, syrup, and orange wedges for serving

Combine the sugar, ricotta, egg yolks, and orange zest in a large mixing bowl. You can grate the orange zest directly into the bowl, no need to make this a separate step. Stir in the flour. Beat the egg whites in a bowl until semi-stiff peaks form (see the photo), and then gently fold this into the ricotta mixture. Nigel recommends a “surely but gently” method that I found was a good way to think about this folding process.

Warm a griddle. When a drop of water dances madly over the surface, bringing a smile to your face, begin dropping heaping tablespoonfuls of batter onto the griddle. I got four pancakes on at once. I felt that it helped to delicately smooth the batter into a circle, using a very light touch. You are not looking for perfection here, just rustic beauty. Cook the pancakes 1-2 minutes, until the edges begin to brown and a faint bubble or two cracks open on the surface, then flip them. Continue cooking until the bottom of each pancake is nicely browned and the pancakes are puffed.

Serve them while they are hot—I recommend a pat of sweet butter and a drizzle of cold syrup; Nigel likes a little melted apricot jam and some confectioners’ sugar.

Just eat them how you like them. And marvel at how nourished you feel with each delicate, cheesy crumb.

Notes: I cut the sugar by 1 tablespoon from the original; in the batch I made, I used 4 1/2 tablespoons rather than the recommended 5, but I still felt that it was a bit too sweet, so I’ve cut it further to 4 tbsp. in the recipe above. Use your judgment based on your own taste for sweet things—I prefer desserts and breakfasts to not be too sweet in general, but you may feel differently. These reheat beautifully if consumed later in the day, and I would imagine the next day as well. I heated them on a parchment-lined baking tray in a 350 degree oven.

February 18, 2012

Fennel Love (à la San Valentin)

Cooking soothes heartache, it is widely known. Though it is easy to forget this when one is in the grips of such heartache, or malaise, or depression, or any variation of the above. There’s something about measuring, stirring, follow directions, fussing over culinary details—fennel fronds, or fennel fronds and a bit of parsley? perhaps I should halve the rosemary? is it brown enough yet?—that takes you out of yourself, if only momentarily.

It takes you out of yourself just long enough to be able to find yourself again, somewhat refreshed and renewed, reassured of your ability to care for yourself, to be nourished. These are not small things, such reminders. As—when one is sad—it can be hard to remember such quotidian necessities: to eat, sleep well, stay hydrated, etc. The basics.
Cooking brings you back to those primordial necessities. It also adds necessary touches of luxury.

Enter the Fennel al Forno.

Enter David Tanis, master of simple elegance; master of the unfussy, but remarkable, culinary creation.

I stumbled upon this recipe in the NY Times on Valentine’s Day, of all times—you know that cheery holiday where we herald San Valentin and all of his little cupid hearts and arrows? Yes, that one.

But I stumbled across this recipe and felt a determination rise within me—to celebrate this Valentine’s Day with the nurturing of my appetite. A worthy cause, I think. I left work at 5 pm, as usual, and rushed to the grocery store, printed newspaper recipe in tow. Never before had it occurred to me to roast fennel, in the manner of a gratin, but now that I have been eating it this way all week, I am having trouble thinking of any other way to consume this pert, crispy vegetable—will I look at the raw shavings in my salad forever after and think only of the need for breadcrumbs and rosemary oil?