March 31, 2012

Eating Cherries in Winter

Well, here we are. It’s Saturday. I woke up very early this morning to a still house and a dark sky. Why was I up this early on a Saturday, I lay there wondering to myself?

Within a couple of hours it had begun to rain. It’s now pouring. But “raining” and even “pouring” are too delicate to describe what is really happening out there. Droplets of water are being heaved from the sky haphazardly. The wind is tearing the branches out of a neighboring shrub and hurling them into my window. And the neon pink flowers on the camellia bush to the left of my bedroom are drooping and swaying, drooping and swaying, in ironic, uncharacteristic gestures.

This is what people mean when they talk about the rainy season in San Francisco. We’re getting it a bit late this year. I read there is even a “surf advisory” today—a phrase that hadn’t entered my vocabulary until very recently.

The real point here is that my trip to the farmer’s market, during which I planned to buy armfuls of blood oranges, hopefully some fennel, green garlic, salad greens with nasturtiums, breakfast radishes, and German butterball potatoes, is now but a mere fantasy. I’ll be honest with you: at the moment, I don’t even own a proper umbrella (mine broke for good during last week’s deluge). And, a raincoat, you ask? Something that I imagine those “prepared” people might have, those with “appropriate” clothing, who tend to think ahead, even when the sun is shining and it seems, for all intensive purposes, that the rainy season, this time, is finally over. Alas. Here we are.

So I’m trapped for the moment. It won’t be long. Eventually, I’ll wrap a scarf around my head and brave it to the corner store where I’ll buy a $4 umbrella, which will carry me through for the next week or so.

But in the meantime, I thought that this might just be the perfect opportunity to tell you about something that I’ve been holding on to for a while, waiting patiently for the right moment to write about—a moment, I imagined, when we (or at least I) needed something homey; something homey but also bright and cheerful. That’s what this is: It’s oatmeal, people, but it’s topped with warm cherries, toasted almonds, and demerara sugar. It’s what you want to eat when you’re trapped inside and it’s too early, or too rainy, to go anywhere.

If you haven’t discovered the pleasures of frozen cherries, now is the time to start. Picture this: It’s the dead of winter, you’re snowed in, you’re nutrient deprived because the only fresh thing that you can lay your hands on is shriveled supermarket citrus. You open your freezer door, and there, in that dark, buried corner of your icebox, is a little pink package—inside of this package are organic cherries, frozen at the peak of their ripeness, waiting to be simmered gently and then plunked on top of your oats, or your warm chocolate pudding, or your bowl of ricotta, or your tubful of Greek yogurt…

The possibilities, really, are potentially endless.

I know this isn’t seasonal eating, but it’s close. The cherries, in an ideal scenario, were picked when perfectly ripe and then frozen, their summer sweetness locked away under layers of ice, to be preserved for a later time—a time when, unlike summer, your options are few and your cravings are many.

I had this for the first time on a weekday morning a month or so ago. It was worth the time that it took—longer than it takes to make a piece of toast, but much shorter than the sort of time that you would need to make pancakes.

First, put the oats in a pot with water, milk, and a pinch of salt, and set this to a low simmer. In a few short minutes, they will be bubbly and milky, steaming and sputtering. While the oats simmer, place a handful of frozen cherries in a small saucepan, and turn the heat on low. The cherries will need a few minutes to lose their chill and become warm and steamy. Don’t cook them too much, though—it is ideal when they are still round and firm, rather than stewed and dilapidated (you want the whole fruit, not a compote). In a dry sauté pan, toast the slivered, blanched almonds until they are just lightly browned and fragrant.

Now you can set yourself up with a bowl—hopefully your coffee is at the ready, hopefully your neighbor has stopped doing Jazzercise next door (!!!). Spoon the hot oatmeal into your bowl, ladle the cherries and a tiny bit of their warm juices over the oatmeal, gently toss onto this your toasted almonds, and then sprinkle the whole thing with a teaspoon or so of demerara sugar (regular sugar, brown sugar, or even maple syrup would also be lovely here). Add a little drizzle of milk or cream, and you’ve achieved, after just a few short minutes, breakfast.

You’ll also have achieved the satisfaction of eating cherries in winter, which is a rare treat indeed, even if it isn’t pouring down rain just beyond your window.

Oatmeal with Warm Cherries and Almonds

For one serving:
1/2 cup rolled oats
3/4 cup water
1/4 cup milk
1/2 cup (or so) frozen cherries
A handful of blanched, slivered almonds
1–2 teaspoons demerara sugar (Turbinado, regular, or brown sugar also works, as does maple syrup)
Milk or cream for drizzling

In a medium saucepan, combine the oats, water, 1/4 cup milk, and a pinch of salt. Put a lid on the pot, and turn the heat on low. Simmer for 5 minutes.

While the oatmeal simmers, place the frozen cherries in a small saucepan and cook over low heat for 3–4 minutes, until they are warm and steamy, but still firm and round. Set aside.

Turn the heat on under a dry sauté pan (about medium-low), and add the blanched, slivered almonds. Shake them around in the pan, tossing once or twice, until lightly toasted and fragrant (about 2 minutes).

Put the oatmeal in a bowl, and top with the cherries and almonds. Sprinkle the sugar over top, and drizzle with milk or cream.

P.S. A poem about being in summer in winter. 

March 24, 2012

A Chocolate Cake, Perfect for Wooing

(This is a sad story. But it ends with chocolate.)

I’ve been thinking a lot about love lately, or the loss of love—what shifts when a relationship comes to an end, how this idea, of an end, is even possible where there has been love. I’ve done some research, to see what the authorities have to say on the topic. I’ve learned that love is not supposed to alter (“Love is not love / Which alters when it alteration finds,” Shakespeare), or if it alters it should be of a positive nature (“Never again would birds’ song be the same. / And to do that to birds was why she came,” Frost), it should be monumental and encompassing (“Your presence here is like the city, / like quiet Kiev wrapped in sultry sunbeams… ,” Pasternak), it has the effect of both illuminating and annihilating (“If the moon smiled, she would resemble you. / You leave the same impression / Of something beautiful, but annihilating. / Both of you are great light borrowers,” Plath), and it should long to be memorialized (“You, and only you, I shall glorify in my poems, / As a woman has never been able to do,” Akhmatova).

I also learned that there is a lot of disagreement on the subject, and that the topic of love covers a lot of ground. Love is supposed to do many things, and it’s supposed to do them all at once. It’s supposed to make you weep and it’s also supposed to give you a happiness that is beyond bliss. (I think I’ve been in both of these states in my life, the latter being the more desirable, for obvious reasons.) It is supposed to give you the expansiveness of a whole world contained within a room, between two people, and it can also make you as small as a microcosm, reduced to some diminished version of a former self. In short, love is full of contradictions. It is not as simple as one hopes and imagines that it will be. But it is also, and at the same time, more simple, I think, than can even be described.

If you read between the lines of this entry, and also here and here, you can figure out what’s happened of late, and why love has been on my mind in the way that it has. The story is a sad one and, like all sad stories, deeply personal. It begins with happiness and ends with something else, if an end there be. It rises and falls and twists and turns and heaves in tumult and hope. It is full of contradictions. And there is no one authority on the subject that can really make sense of it (however much I would like to believe that the answers to all of life’s mysteries lie in the pages of Akhmatova). It is fraught and it is also hopeful.

I’m learning a lot.

There is one thing that is constant in all of this. And it’s to do with my kitchen. No matter what, and above all else, the kitchen soothes—it turns out results that are playful and unexpected, and consistently good, even when they’re somewhat bad, because there is only so much that can go wrong when a handful of good ingredients is involved.

And if there was a single culinary project that was going to speak to love, I think it would be this one. It’s a “she” by nature; it’s regal and elegant, but also simple and understated. It’s dark and moody but also luscious and tender—as the best love stories often are. It’s full of contradictions—light and dark, moist and firm, dense and ethereal. And I think it would be pretty safe to say that it would be the perfect thing for wooing, if you were in the market for such a thing.

It’s Julia Child’s Reine de Saba (Queen of Sheba). It’s a cake that’s also like a love story.

I’m not sure what possessed me to make such a cake at a time like this. Maybe it’s that optimistic thing that keeps haunting me in irritating ways. But I devoted last weekend to the project. I told friends (and strangers) about it (this made me accountable to myself). I worked through the recipe in my mind. I imagined the bowls of ingredients spread out, and I thought I could, at one point, taste the delicate nuances of the glaze. I lived through it in an imaginary capacity first, and then I took on the project in real life.

It started with the purchase of a new 8-inch round cake pan and a hurried trip to the grocery store, in the rain. It ended in my kitchen, sipping coffee and licking the glaze off a butter knife. Still later it carried me to a friend’s studio (where we swapped cakes), and then to work, where I relished sharing it with my colleagues, and now, at last, to here—to this little internet space that I have carved out for myself.

The cake begins simply, as all cakes do, with the creaming together of butter and sugar. If you do this by hand, as I did, this is also great tension relief. The mixture becomes paler and paler in color the longer you work it, and it takes on a lightness that you won’t think possible when you begin (particularly if it’s just you and your wooden spoon in there, creaming away). To this, you add egg yolks. Then you mix in chocolate that has been melted in strong coffee or espresso, ground almonds, almond extract, and flour (sifted flour if you, unlike me, are capable of attentively following directions). You then gently fold in egg whites that have been whipped to soft peaks. This is the only leavening that the cake requires.

Once baked and cooled, the cake is then glazed with Glaçage au Chocolat (translated by Julia, somewhat unromantically, as Chocolate-Butter Icing). It’s not an icing, it’s really more of a glaze that can be spread with a knife rather than poured. Most importantly, it is fragrant with coffee; and even more importantly than this, it enrobes a cake that is moist and soft in the center, and that yields toward the edges to a fine, nutty crumb—complex and also perfectly simple.

The key to this cake is to try not to over-bake it. In fact, you should lean toward taking it out before you are really sure that it is finished. The middle will jiggle very slightly while the outer edges will be set and beginning to crack on the surface. This is the kind of contradiction you are looking for here.

I recommend having this with a small cup of coffee or espresso. If you have a candle on your table, light it. And it wouldn’t hurt to think about a loved one either—be they near, far, or in some previous chapter of your story.

Reine de Saba (adapted from Julia Child’s The French Chef Cookbook)
(Chocolate, Espresso, and Almond Cake)
Makes one 8-inch cake

To make the cake:

1 stick (4 oz.) softened, unsalted butter; plus 1 teaspoon (for greasing the pan)
2/3 cup semisweet chocolate (chopped from a bar or as chocolate morsels)
1 tablespoon instant espresso dissolved in 2 tablespoons boiling water
2/3 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
3 large eggs, separated
1/4 (scant) teaspoon cream of tartar
Pinch of salt
1/3 cup ground almonds (from blanched almonds, without their skins); grind the almonds the day you plan to use them
1/4 teaspoon almond extract
3/4 cup all-purpose flour, sifted directly into measuring cups (not packed down), plus 2 tablespoons (for preparing the pan)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees, with a rack in the middle. Butter generously and then flour an 8-inch round cake pan, tapping out excess flour. Set aside.

Dissolve 1 tablespoon of instant espresso (I used Medaglia D’Oro) in 2 tablespoons of boiling water. Place the chocolate in a small saucepan and pour the hot instant espresso over it. Heat 1-2 inches of water in a medium saucepan until just simmering, and then place the small saucepan inside of it. Stir the chocolate and the coffee until the chocolate begins to melt, and then set aside. It will be completely melted by the time you return to it.

Measure out all of the ingredients for the cake at this stage, before you begin the steps for the batter.

By hand or with an electric mixer, cream together the butter and the sugar until the mixture is fluffy and has lightened in color. Beat in the 3 egg yolks.

In a separate bowl, beat the egg whites until they begin to foam; then add the scant 1/4 teaspoon of cream of tartar and a pinch of salt and continue to beat until the egg whites begin to “hold their shape in a soft mass”; as soon as this happens, beat in the 2 tablespoons of sugar and continue beating until the whites form soft peaks (Julia suggests that you will know they are done when “you can lift a bit with a rubber spatula and they hold their shape, dropping off into a little point with a curling tip”).

Return to the chocolate, and stir it to make sure that is it smooth and completely melted. If it is not, return it to the double boiler (bringing the water back up to a simmer) and stir until just melted (but not very hot).

Add the chocolate to the butter, sugar, and egg yolk mixture, and stir to combine. Add the ground almonds, almond extract, and flour.

March 10, 2012

Ode to Anis Plätzchen

There they are. The last three.

The bag of cookies has been with me for weeks now—at least a month. They’ve kept rather well, never losing their crisp exterior, never letting diminish their anise-oil scent. I served them to a friend over tea. I ate them in bed out of a little turquoise ramekin. I dunked them in my coffee at various times of the day. Once I even lost half a cookie to the bottom of my cup in this way.

They’re Anis Plätzchen. And I’m at the bottom of the bag.

I’m sure it seems a little strange to read an “ode” to these cookies, or to any cookies at all for that matter. But I can’t help it. If I were on the other side of that screen, I’d want to know about them. It seemed wrong to keep it a secret.

If you live in Germany, these are probably not a secret whatsoever. I imagine they might even be the kind of thing you’d find in every grocery store, on every corner; not a specialty item—ubiquitous and boring perhaps; the kind of cookie that you buy in a rush when you’ve no time to bake and your toddler is screaming. That sort of thing. They may even, for all I know, be some sort of junk food. They have all of the trappings—brightly colored, crackly, plastic exterior; corporate branding; ingredients’ lists in four languages. This is not your local, seasonal item. This one’s made in a factory.

But I love them.

And I suspect, if you’re anything like me, and you like delicate, crunchy, light cookies that can stand up to a swift dunk in your cup of tea, that you will, too.

I discovered them at this great restaurant, here in San Francisco. The place where I also learned about the delights of Nürnberger minis (a type of sausage), and where I mused over a lovely little box of chocolates covered with pictures of kittens (called, somewhat shockingly, Katzenzungen, or “cats’ tongues”). I’ve had great dinners with friends at this restaurant. It’s dark and moody, with wafting aromas of homemade sauerkraut and grilled meats, an exhaustive array of beers, and homemade Nussecken for dessert, if you can make it that far. They also carry several shelves worth of German food imports. I think of it as a lovely place to unwind and have a casual meal with friends; one that typically starts with the rapid consumption of a house-baked pretzel. Now, I also think of it as the place that once carried these cookies. I hope they keep them in stock. I’ll find out when I go back in a day or two.

I’ll finish the last three tonight after dinner. I don’t know if they’ll be easy to find again.

So here we are, faced with the last of something—I treasure them all the more because of it.

P.S. I’ll be back soon with something homemade, most likely with chocolate.

P.P.S. A pretzel recipe, for the brave.

March 04, 2012

Everything that Rises Must Converge*

I guess you could say that I’m on a pancake streak. I can’t help myself. Or maybe it’s a citrus streak. I’m learning that I love citrus desserts—and citrus desserts that double as breakfast, or the other way around.

I have this old issue of Gourmet that’s been lying around my apartment. I shift it to various stacks, but I never quite let it out of my sight. It has a photograph of a strawberry tart on its cover. It’s from April 2009. Inside this magazine there is an article titled “Transformers” about the magical things that a cook can do with three eggs and two lemons (and a few other pantry staples). It’s better than it sounds. It’s better than I’m able to describe here. There is a simple lemon glazed butter cake, an airy and elegant Pavlova, a light-as-air snow pudding (a remarkable concept for a dessert—something like my favorite île flottant, I imagine), a pudding cake, and then today’s star: the Dutch baby with lemon sugar. What on earth is a Dutch baby, I asked myself? It looks a little like a large crêpe, but its edges are puffed and browned, it is crinkly in the center, and it’s made in the oven, in a hot skillet or Dutch oven. It’s a pancake that is also like a popover; it’s a simple breakfast that would also be a most elegant, romantic dessert.

I was intrigued. The magazine has been spread open to this page for weeks now. It began to take on epic proportions in the mind—will it live up to my fantasy of it, I wondered? Or will it fall flat, be much different in real life, much smaller, less perfectly imperfect, less lovingly browned, with less crisp turned-over edges? This is how it can be with reproductions—they enter the mind and then they, sometimes, collide unpleasantly with the real thing, leaving one in all manner of disappointment and malcontent (a bit like heartbreak).

I decided to give it a try nevertheless. It’s thanks to you, really, dear blog, and dear few reader friends that I have. I thought to myself, this crew won’t mind if I fail and perhaps, then, neither will I.

I rose early this morning. I went through the methodical preparations of readying the kitchen for baking—utensils spread out on a just-wiped kitchen table, measuring implements stacked, dirty dishes cleaned and put away. I thought of various things while I did this. I also thought of nothing—only the task that was before me. This is the greatest gift that cooking can bring—a total clearing out of mind. I felt myself begin to relax.

I didn’t use an electric mixer as the recipe suggests, but whipped up the ingredients by hand. I prefer to do things this way sometimes. I made other various divergences while following the recipe, but the largest, most significant one, was the substitution of a 10-inch skillet for my trusty old 9-inch, red Dutch oven. I thought to myself that I would simply use less of the batter—that there would not be any need, there could not be any need, to go out and buy a brand new skillet.

Then I thought that I was wrong.

I forgot to reduce the amount of the batter. I forgot to add the right amount of butter. In it went anyway and roughly 20 minutes later it had risen into the most frightening looking variation of a pancake I have ever seen—it was sticking to an oven rack high above it; it was puffed in unearthly, haphazard ways; it was glossy and not at all dimpled; and it was browning unevenly. The height of the thing was remarkable—it filled the entire depth of the Dutch oven (an apparatus meant to hold several cups of stew…).

It had risen to unnatural proportions. My blog entry would now be about my epic failure, brought about by my inability to follow simple directions, a trait that, really, has been hounding me more or less for my entire life…

But then the most amazing thing happened: I took it out of the oven, set it down, and began to photograph it. Ever-so-slightly, through the lens of the camera’s eye, it started to converge onto itself; it sank bit by bit, until it had become the height of a normal pancake—that is, save for the lovely, rustic, elegantly browned edge that surrounded it. This was monumental and this was epic, but not in the way of disappointment that I had originally feared.

It reminded me that cooking is forgiving—a lesson that I learned last week and then promptly forget.

I took it out of its pan and placed it on a large white plate. Then I followed the recipe exactly: I sprinkled it generously with sugar that had been soaking up the oils from the zest of two lemons.

In the end it was transformed indeed, and so, ever-so-slightly, was I.

*P.S. The title of this entry is taken from Flannery O’Connor’s short story “Everything that Rises Must Converge.”

Dutch Baby with Lemon Sugar (adapted from Gourmet, “Transformers,” April 2009)

1/3 cup sugar (I used organic sugar, which is not quite as white)
2 teaspoons lemon zest (from approximately 2 lemons)
3 eggs at room temperature for about 30 minutes
1/3 cup low-fat milk
1/3 cup half and half
2/3 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract (the real stuff)
1/8 teaspoon cinammon
1/8 teaspoon nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon salt
2–3 tablespoons of unsalted butter (I like Straus)
Lemon wedges (and the juice inside of them) for serving

Place a rack in the middle of the oven and remove any racks above this one (I learned the hard way, with my pancake pushing itself adamantly into my top oven rack.)

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.

In a small bowl or ramekin mix together the sugar and the lemon zest; set aside. Put a 9 to10­–inch Dutch oven or skillet in the warm oven to preheat.

Beat the eggs in a medium bowl with a whisk, until pale in color and frothy. Add the milk and half and half, flour, vanilla, cinnamon, nutmeg, and salt, and whisk this together until the batter is smooth. The original recipe suggests doing this with an electric mixer for about a minute. I beat it by hand, not very vigorously, for probably thirty seconds or so. The batter will be quite thin, and you will truly be unable to conceive of how on earth this will ever turn into the final product that you desire.

Place 2 to 3 tablespoons of unsalted butter in the hot skillet or Dutch oven and swirl it around until it is melted. Pour the batter into the pan and return it to the oven. Bake for approximately 25 minutes or until the pancake has puffed and the edges are browned.

Allow the Dutch baby to rest just until it has sunken inward. Turn out onto a plate (carefully) if desired, sprinkle generously with the lemon sugar and serve with lemon wedges for squeezing.

Notes: I used organic sugar; I liked the slightly beige color of the sugar mixed with the lemon zest on top of the pancake, but I’m sure pure white would also be nice in its own way, too. The recipe also calls for whole milk. I had only low-fat milk and half and half in my fridge, so I used 1/3 of each to reach the required 2/3 liquid total. (This was one of the many divergences or should I say, ahem, liberties, that I took with this recipe.) It worked out just fine. I would use whatever you have on hand, because a pancake for breakfast isn’t really that fun if it requires all sorts of special ingredients. This one won’t. It’ll take to your adjustments beautifully.