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.