1.31.2009

i've been bad

I've been bad, dear ones. On Thursday night, a slapdash dinner turned suddenly promising. Then, just as suddenly, serious eating ensued. Sighs, groans, the works. It all happened so fast. And I failed you. Not one peep about it did I utter in these pages. Not one pic did I snap. I denied you the tastiest moment of my week, and for that, I am sorry. But wait. Don't go. Please allow me to explain. I am mostly to blame, but not entirely. The dish, you see, involved eggs. With runny yolks, no less. Cold, slimy eggs are just too icky for consumption, and so there was no time at all to dally around with a camera. Plus, we had a very important after dinner date with a Johnnycake down the hall. Our fabulous little neighbor had just whipped up a pan for a school assignment. Cornmeal had been borrowed, molasses had been poured, and it was up to Eli and I to witness the finished product and taste the inaugural slice.

We piled the dishes in the sink and shot out the door. Eli, who has the loveliest little feet (and I do mean little; they're smaller than mine), went barefoot. Oh, and I forgot to mention that just about the time that the ingredients I'd haphazardly thrown together started to sing, Varina showed up with half a bottle of wine. Having already dined, she sat with us as we ate and drank. Then all three of us together headed to the home of the Johnnycake, the little baker, the baker's two adoring sisters, her good cookin', good lookin' parents, one aging, scraggly cat, two rapidly growing kittens, and an even more rapidly diminishing tank of fish. (They're eating each other, we think.) The rest of the evening was a blur of Johnnycakes, jokes about ducks, murderers, and back talking school boys, and a song about a Middle Eastern desert. By the time we padded back down the hallway and through our front door, all we could do was flop down on the sofa. We of course instantly regretted that we had chosen the sofa, and not the bed, as our flopping ground. Why does the late night transfer from sofa to bed always demand so much energy?

But this isn't really much in the way of an apology, is it? How about this. I'll give you the recipe for my most delicious dinner of the week, and you can cook up a taste for yourselves. Will that do the trick? Next time I'll bring pictures, I promise. Go on, now. Into the kitchen. And don't forget to eat it while it's hot.

Shakshuka, Served with Brown Rice and Spinach

Shakshuka is a Middle Eastern dish typically made of eggs poached on a bed of saucy tomatoes. I changed up the flavors a little and added some black beans. What started out as an experiment ended up a smashing success.

1 large yellow onion, sliced
4 garlic cloves, chopped
1 28 oz. can of whole tomatoes
1 T. tomato paste (I didn't have any, so I didn't use it. But I think it would deliciously rev up the tomato-y flavor.)
1 can of black beans, rinsed and drained
4 large eggs
1/4 tsp. cayenne pepper (or more, if you can handle it)
Salt and pepper to taste
Chopped fresh cilantro

1 bunch fresh spinach

1 cup brown rice

Bring the 1 cup of brown rice to a boil in 2 cups water. Turn the flame to low, and allow the rice to simmer gently until all of the water is absorbed (approximately 40 minutes).

Slice the onion into thin rounds and sauté in about a tablespoon of olive oil. Once the onions are translucent, add the chopped garlic. When the aroma of the garlic rises, stir in the tomato paste. Then, pour the can of tomatoes, juices and all, into the pan. Break up the whole tomatoes with a wooden spoon. Season with the cayenne pepper and salt. Stir. Allow the tomatoes and onions to simmer insistently; the goal is to reduce some of the liquid in the pan. Give it a stir every now and then. When the sauce thickens (approximately 20 minutes), stir in the drained black beans. Once the beans are heated through, use the back of a wooden spoon to make four round indentations in the bed of simmering vegetables. Crack one egg into each little hole. Cover the pan, and allow the eggs to poach for 3-4 minutes. Don't let the yolks firm up all the way. (Unless, for some reason, you have something against gorgeous yellow yolks seeping deliciously into your rice and tomatoes.)

Meanwhile, heat a few dribbles of olive oil in a second pan and sauté the spinach until it is just a little wilted. It should only take a couple of minutes.

Spoon a little mound of brown rice onto each plate. When the eggs are finished, scoop out each one, together with its tomato-y bed, and place over the rice. Sprinkle with a pinch of cilantro, and drop a few forkfuls of spinach on the side.

Serves 2-4 people, depending on whether you and your guests prefer one egg or two. (What with the beans and rice, one egg happens to be plenty filling.)

1.28.2009

dough beneath the nails

I love my stand mixer mightily.

I knew she was meant for me the moment I laid eyes on her: the Accolade 400. She was the last of her kind in the store. And I mean the last one ever, because the model had just been discontinued. Only the floor model remained. A little heftier than the surviving mixers, a slightly drearier shade of white, but proud, strong, and sure-footed. I wondered aloud why such a lovely creature would be intentionally terminated. "Some people feel that the motor on this model is too loud," the saleswoman announced, right in front of the poor thing. The nerve. I was offered a discount. And from that day forward, my loudmouth mixer and I have lived a noisy, doughy, happily ever after. Sure, she makes a ruckus. But if only such toothsome treats sprang from my hands every time I made such a racket in the kitchen! Hers is a delicious ruckus indeed.


That said, I can now safely confess: some mornings I prefer to silence her spinning paddle and take matters into my own hands. I bring you the rubbed-dough method. As the Culinary Institute of America textbook The Professional Chef explains, "Biscuits, scones, and soda breads have a distinctly flaky texture -- the result of rubbing together, but not blending, the fat and flour." I hardly need an excuse to rub butter and flour together into a shaggy heap. But if I did, the buttery, golden biscuits that result from this recipe would undoubtedly do the trick. Especially when served warm and accompanied by dribbles of room temperature raspberry jam.

I'm head over heels for my mixer, it's true. But nothing beats a little dough beneath the finger nails every now and then.

buttermilk biscuits, packed up

Buttermilk Biscuits
Adapted from Bon Appetit, October 2000

3 cups all purpose flour
2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon salt
4 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 cup (1 and 1/2 sticks) chilled unsalted butter, diced
1 cup (plus a few extra dribbles of) buttermilk

(It is important that both the butter and the buttermilk are quite cold to keep the fat from blending too thoroughly with the dry ingredients.)

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.

Line one baking sheet with parchment paper.

In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, salt, baking powder, and baking soda. Drop the squares of diced butter into the dry ingredients and start rubbing. Continue rubbing with your fingertips until the mixture resembles a coarse meal. Make a well in the center of the mixture and fill it with the cup of buttermilk. Stir until evenly moistened. (There will most likely be some loose, dry remnants of the dry mixture at the very bottom of the bowl. That's okay.) Scoop out the moist dough, 1/4 cup at a time, and drop the dough onto the baking sheet. If you find yourself with enough extra dry material at the bottom of the bowl, dribble in a bit more buttermilk and drop yourself an extra biscuit or two. The recipe makes about 12 biscuits.

Bake for about 15 minutes, until the biscuits are just golden on top.

Cool slightly. Serve warm -- preferably with room temperature raspberry jam.

1.26.2009

risky business

Starting a batch of ice cream one hour before bedtime is risky business: The custard that you just whisked and boiled and infused and boiled again and mixed and boiled again and strained and chilled may very well infiltrate your dreams. If it is your first time EVER making ice cream, and, as you lie in bed forcing your eyelids shut, you cannot pry your mind from the cream that swirled dizzyingly in your pot, you may be particularly susceptible to creamy nighttime reveries. (And, it seems, to thinking and writing in rambly, never ending sentences.) This is all assuming that you can even fall asleep in the first place, what with the knowledge that the custard is at this very moment cooling in the fridge.

And when I say, "you," I mean me. Well, actually, hopefully you too if you try out this recipe and get as much of a kick out of it as I did.

Yes, over the weekend, I made ice cream for the very first time. (While I can't figure out what, precisely, is the difference between making something for the "first time" and making it for the "very first time," I'm convinced that the distinction exists, and that it is an important one.) The exhilaration so close to bedtime was a shock to the system, but there really was no way around it. Only beginning the batch at bedtime would ensure that the custard would be chilled and ready to churn by first thing the next morning. So, that night, I predictably dreamed my ice cream dream: I was in Seattle, on the playground at the elementary school where I used to teach. Right by the jungle gym I sat, cross-legged, in front of an ice cream maker. I poured in the custard, and watched it churn. The best part was that, the next morning, I got to live the dream! (Minus the jungle gym and the mild Seattle weather.)

Thanks to the apple tart already baking in the oven, the kitchen was steadily heating up. I feared that the heat might harm the churning process, so I grabbed the custard and the ice cream maker and marched across the apartment to my tiny office. This wee space, wedged into a corner (but boasting its very own door), is the coldest spot in our home. I like to think of it as my "corner office." Never mind that it's basically just a corner, and not much else. The two outside-facing walls are mostly windows, plenty talented at letting in the winter chill. The floor is made of, well, I'm not really sure what it's made of... Some combination of tiles and concrete, it seems. Whatever it is, it's COLD on things like bare feet and, I figured, ice cream makers.

(By the way, this morning was not the first time that a wee corner office in this building has been used as an extension of the kitchen. Our upstairs neighbors hosted a small herd of people for Thanksgiving, and had no room in their bulging fridge for their brining turkey. They opened up all of the office windows and left the turkey in there in an enormous pot to brine the night away!)
Before long, the custard was a churnin', surrounded by dictionaries in several languages, an over-stuffed bulletin board, and shelf upon shelf of library books. It was a sight to behold. And the bowl of the ice cream maker had no trouble staying good and frozen throughout.

About half an hour later...

cinnamon ice cream

Creamy, dreamy, cinnamon ice cream!

Then, clean up sweet clean up: Licking brownie batter or cookie dough off of a mixing paddle is nice, but when it's an ICE CREAM coated paddle you're licking, it's divine.

Cinnamon Ice Cream
Adapted from Suzanne Goin's Sunday Suppers at Lucques

I make this ice cream with something called Vietnamese Cinnamon. The truth is, I meant to purchase regular cinnamon, but accidentally grabbed the Vietnamese kind. The label on the bottle claims that it's "the highest quality cinnamon available," so I figured that it couldn't hurt to give it a try. I performed a little taste test to compare the Vietnamese Cinnamon with the not-Vietnamese stuff. There is a distinct difference in flavor. The Vietnamese Cinnamon has a slight bitterness to it. In a good way. Like the bitterness of really good dark chocolate. It has a deep flavor, and is a bit spicier than the cinnamons I've encountered in the past. It is perfect against the sweet creaminess of this ice cream. You can find Vietnamese Cinnamon at Whole Foods right next to the regular cinnamon. (Though, is any cinnamon really "regular?") Cinnamon of any kind will work just fine in this recipe.

2 c. whole milk
2 c. heavy cream
2 cinnamon sticks
1/2 (heaping) tsp. ground (Vietnamese) cinnamon
4 extra-large egg yolks
1/2 c. sugar

Place the milk, cream, cinnamon sticks, and ground cinnamon in a medium pot. Bring to a boil over medium heat. Turn off the heat, cover, and let the flavors infuse about 30 minutes.

Bring the mixture back to a boil over medium heat, stirring occasionally. Turn off the heat.

Whisk the egg yolks and sugar together in a bowl. (I do this step in the bowl of a stand mixer to facilitate the constant whisking necessary when gradually adding the cream.) Whisk a few tablespoons of the warm cream mixture into the yolks to temper them. Slowly, add another 1/4 cup or so of the warm cream, whisking to incorporate. At this point, you can add the rest of the cream mixture in a slow steady stream, whisking constantly (or allowing the mixer to whisk constantly for you). Pour the mixture back into the pot and return to the stove.

Cook the custard over medium heat 6 to 8 minutes, stirring with a rubber spatula, scraping the bottom and sides of the pan. The custard will thicken, and when it's done will coat the back of the spatula. Strain it and chill at least 2 hours in the refrigerator. The base should be very cold before you churn it. Process in an ice cream maker according to the manufacturer's instructions.

1.25.2009

mornings like these

At 7am on a Sunday morning, there is a certain kind of quiet in the air that sounds different from other kinds of quiet. It begins as a lying in bed, awake but not asleep quiet. There's the sound of your own breath, the occasional passing car, the smell of your pillowcase, the still, sleeping body beside you. You can hear this quiet, but you can also feel its hush deep inside. It's a total body experience.

On these early Sunday mornings, I disentangle myself from Eli's warm body, slip out from under our quilt and down comforter, and step out into the main room of our apartment. I know to look for it, the distinctive morning glow that washes over the wood floor and antique table by the windows. Yet our home bathed in that cinnamony, 7am light never fails to stop me in my tracks. We live across the street from an old hotel, built in 1927. It may be more than a few degrees below freezing, but the building's bricks appear rosy and warm in the early morning light. Mornings like these call for a cup of Earl Grey tea and the New York Times. I help myself to both and curl up on the sofa. Mornings like these also call for a savory breakfast.


sunday morning breakfast, potatoes and beets

By the time Eli makes his way out of the bedroom, breakfast is served. Roasted potatoes and beets and a sprinkling of rosemary. Eggs with caramelized onions, spinach, and wild mushrooms. (Mushrooms, sizzled in butter until brown and crispy around the edges are, we decide at the table, veritable super heroes.)


sunday morning breakfast, eggs and taters

It feels like an occasion, and in some small, pajama clad, bed headed, pre-crossword puzzled way, it is. It's Sunday breakfast.

1.24.2009

i had my doubts

"I've always wanted to learn how to truss a chicken."

Honestly, now: Even after biting into the most succulent bird, have you ever uttered this statement at the table? Has it ever even crossed your mind? Probably not. (Though I suppose I shouldn't underestimate the desires and aspirations of passionate food makers and eaters.)

But what about that warm bread that your host just whisked from the oven and tucked into a linen-lined basket? I think it's fair to say that, time and again, fresh crusty loaves on tables everywhere elicit the same response from admiring guests: "Oh... I would love to learn how to bake bread."














What is it about the prospect of bread baking that entices dinner guests the world over? This is not a question that is difficult to answer: There's the thrill of the first rise. The whispery sigh that the dough releases as it is punched down into the bowl. Pffffffff. And then, there's the aroma that escapes from the oven and drapes itself around every room. Oh, that aroma. But if I had to guess, I would say that it is the tactile act of kneading that captures most of our imaginations: A wooden counter top dusted with flour, a round of soft, elastic dough, and your own two hands. It's intimate. Sensual.

It was, in fact, the promise of kneading that got me regularly baking my own bread a few years ago. Before long, I had the hang of it. And I was hooked. For a long time, the only recipes I attempted were ones that required a thorough massage on my floury counter. I tried using a bread maker a few times when I was in high school. It wasn't for me. Forgo kneading? But that's the best part! Thus, when I came upon a recipe for a bread that entailed no kneading whatsoever, I had my doubts. What kind of a dough refuses kneading? How standoffish.

Lucky for me, I got over it, and decided to give the recipe a shot. My vegan, white-flour-avoiding brother-in-law was grateful. Over the years, the recipe has evolved from its original form. I've added oat flour, walnuts, and the occasional spoonful of ground flax seeds. A loaf with raisins is particularly delicious sliced, toasted, and topped with cream cheese. But since so many of you out there frown on fruited bread, I've left out the raisins today.

Let me be clear about one thing: For a lot of people, this bread will not be a wow. It's not springy or tall - in fact, it's quite dense and low to the ground - which means that it rarely induces moans or sighs as other breads are wont to do. But it is good. Very good. Often, it's exactly what I want, toasted and slathered with peanut butter, or glistening under a thin layer of butter and apricot preserves. The cinnamon in the bread pairs nicely with most Mediterranean style dishes. (As in, anything from this cookbook. Or this one.)

I've been enjoying my latest loaf sandwich style: Two slices, toasted, and layered with sharp cheddar and frisée.

walnut bread sandwich

Here's the recipe, in case you'd like to give it a try. While it may not satisfy your craving for the ultimate bread baking experience, it will hopefully do the trick when it comes to the eating experience.

Cinnamon Walnut Bread
Adapted from VegWeb

2 c. whole wheat flour
1 c. oat flour
1/3 c. sugar (You can go as low as 1 heaping tablespoon.)
1 tsp. salt
3 tsp. rapid rise yeast
1 tsp. cinnamon
1 2/3 c. water
1 heaping cup walnuts, toasted and barely chopped (Two passes with a chef's knife is sufficient.)
1 T. oats, for garnish

Optional:
1 T. ground flax seeds
3/4 c. raisins

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

Spread the walnuts on a baking sheet and toast. (It should take about 7 minutes.)

Meanwhile, grease a 9x5 inch loaf pan. Mix the flours, sugar, salt, yeast, and cinnamon in a large mixing bowl. You can use a stand mixer, but a bowl and a spoon work just as well. While stirring (or allowing the mixer's paddle to do its thing), gradually add the water. Stir in the toasted walnuts and, if you choose, the ground flax seeds and raisins.

Pour the dough (or, shall I say, batter?) into the loaf pan. Cover with a clean dish towel, and allow the dough to rise until it has doubled in size. This should take about an hour, give or take, depending on the temperature of your kitchen.

Using a pastry brush or the back of a spoon, cover the top of the loaf with a bit of water. (The water will serve as an adhesive.) Sprinkle on the oats, and pop the pan into the oven. Bake for approximately 40 minutes. When the bread is done, a toothpick inserted into the center will come out clean.

1.23.2009

ear to ear

Three things that made me grin inwardly, smile toothily, or guffaw, um, goofily this week:

(I'll leave it to you to figure out which item provoked which response. Keep in mind the subtle humor of baked goods...)

1. Laura Shapiro's article, "The Lord is My Chef."
2. Persian baklava from Tabrizi bakery.
3. A trip to Russo's with Varina and the two bright little persimmons I brought home with me.

1.20.2009

upstaged

On Saturday, the unthinkable happened: I was upstaged by a lemon tart.


I should have seen it coming.

Every now and then I have a hankering for a dessert that's not afraid to make you pucker. One day last week, I decided to fiddle with a couple of lemon tart recipes that, historically, have almost -- but not quite -- satisfied this hankering. I wasn't after one of those lemon cream filling numbers, so hold the crème fraîche. I wanted a tart with tang. Something clean, light, and lemony, with "Pucker up, buttercup," written all over it. A lemon tart, people.

I got close.

I slid a couple of slices onto a paper plate for our downstairs neighbors, Sam and Elisha. They must have liked what they tasted, because a few days later, we received an invitation for Saturday lunch. And when I say, "we," I refer not to myself and Eli, but to the two of us and the tart. Perfect. I had scored the opportunity to have another go at it.

I traded in the buttery shell for a press-in crust that is almost cookie-like. For the filling, I reduced the sugar and upped the amount of both lemon juice and zest. After a light dusting of powdered sugar, the pretty little thing posed innocently enough for her headshot. Though she did seem to wrap that sunlight around her fluted self like a solo spotlight... In retrospect, it was so All About Eve. Forgive me, Bette Davis. I should have known better.

Lunch at Sam and Elisha's was lovely, as usual. Elisha's parents were visiting from New York, and their good company only added to our enjoyment. It's an honor to be invited over for a meal when The Parents are in town and, as we were heading into the dessert course, I said so. "Or was it really just the lemon tart you wanted your parents to meet?" Eli joked. And then it happened: A beat of silence. Nervous laughter. An awkward exchange of glances between our dear hosts. Wait a second... was it TRUE? Was I really just the tag along girl? My dessert's insignificant other?

I didn't have more than a minute or two to contemplate the matter because all of a sudden the tart was sliced and served and sitting there all sunny and yellow before me. I took a bite. We all took bites. This was not almost. This was not close. This was it. So never you mind, Ms. Lemon. I'll happily stand in your shadow. I'll hold the sugar sifter. And the camera. Oh, and a fork. Another guest at the table offered to do the dishes in exchange for leftover tart. Our hosts turned him down. I guess they just couldn't bear the thought of a guest dirtying his hands in their kitchen. Yes, that must be it.

Lemon tart of mine, I'll follow you to the table anywhere, anytime.

Ms. Lemon Tart
Adapted from Epicurious's Verlet's Apricot Tart and Eating Well's Classic Lemon Tart

For the pastry:
8 T. butter, melted [For a non-dairy version of this dessert, try Earth Balance Buttery Sticks.]
1/2 c. sugar
1/2 t. almond extract
1/2 t. vanilla extract
1/2 t. salt
1 1/4 c. + 1 T. flour

For the filling:
2 large eggs
3 large egg whites
3/4 cup to 1 cup sugar (depending on how much sour power you crave)
2-3 medium lemons for the following:
1/2 cup (and then some, should you so desire) fresh lemon juice
2-3 t. freshly grated lemon zest
Powdered sugar for dusting.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and grease a 9-inch cake pan. (As usual, I favor the fluted, removable bottom kind.)

Make the pastry:
Combine the melted butter and sugar and stir with a wooden spoon. Add the extracts, salt, and flour, and mix well. The consistency will resemble cookie dough. (Incidentally, rolled out and stamped with mini-biscuit cutters, this pastry also produces delicious little tea cookies.) Squeeze the dough together into a lump, and transfer it to the prepared pan. Using your fingertips, press the dough along the bottom and up the sides of the pan. Bake the pastry in the preheated oven for 12-15 minutes until slightly puffy.

Meanwhile, Make the filling:
In a mixing bowl, whisk the eggs, egg whites, and sugar until smooth. Slowly whisk in the lemon juice and the lemon zest.

Pour the filling into the partially baked crust, and carefully slide the tart into the oven. Increase the oven temperature to 375 degrees. Bake for 20-25 minutes, until the crust is golden and the filling is set. Do not over bake; the delicate crust burns easily. Let cool, and dust with powdered sugar. Serve at room temperature.

public radio kitchen

Here's something fun:

Boston's NPR station, WBUR, has put together a new media project called Public Radio Kitchen. My post on toast ("the main event") is currently being featured on the site. Take a look, if you are so inclined...

1.19.2009

white on white

The whiteness of Cambridge after a heavy dump of snow can be breathtaking. Whiteness blankets everything. Buried cars squish together along the curb like colossal marshmallows. Rooftops disappear under layers of creamy white frosting. Beneath a colorless sky in this white on white world, it can be difficult to remember the more vivid hues of warmer weather. And yet, in just a few short months, we'll trade our frozen fingers and toes for frozen tongues that lick, lick, lick, their way to the bottom of ice cream cones and popsicles.

I love the seasons. And I love living in a place where each season is positively flamboyant.

Recently, I received word that even as I knock the salt from my boots and peel off my soggy socks, it's time to start thinking about summer: the Siena Farms 2009 CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) program is now selling pre-season memberships. Here's how it works. You pay a fee that goes toward the costs of farming, and when harvest time rolls around (June through November) you get a weekly share of the crops. My previous farm share experiences have been scrumptious. The first glorious summer that I tasted the greens from our CSA, I wondered what the heck had been posing as "lettuce" in my salads for all those years. I can't wait to see what Farmer Chris and the folks at Siena Farms will dig up for us this year.

If you are interested in learning more about Siena Farms or joining the CSA program, take a look at their website. Worried about your ability to consume large quantities of achingly delicious produce? You can split a single share with neighbors or friends. (That's what we're doing.) Signing up early not only guarantees you a share, but also helps the farm cover all of the pre-season expenses.

Oh, and by the way, there's an entire menu of other reasons to join this particular CSA program. Literally. Pick-up, you see, is at Sofra Bakery and Café, the newest venture of Chefs Ana Sortun and Maura Kilpatrick. (Chef Ana Sortun is married to Farmer Chris Kurth. The farm is named for their daughter.) I'll resist the urge to write another paragraph or two about Oleana, the Sortun-Kilpatrick collaboration in Cambridge that just happens to be my favorite restaurant in town. Three little words, for now: Vegetarian. Tasting. Menu.

How pleasing it is to sit, wrapped in an afghan by the fire, and dream of what might appear in my pots -- and on these pages -- come June.

1.16.2009

not too sweet

About five years ago, I shared an apartment in Jerusalem with a Swiss woman named Simone. She was, I believe, the first person on the planet ever to validate my preference for not-too-sweet cakes. Our kitchen was so compact that you could, from the center of the floor, reach the refrigerator door, the faucet, and the oven without taking a single step. Fortunately, lack of space did not stop Simone from baking up a storm just about every week.

My favorite of Simone's specialties was her plum tart. She would roll the dough out into a rectangle, slide it onto a baking sheet, and cover it with slices of deep purple fruit. Then, without a measuring cup in sight, she would whisk together some quantity of cream with an egg or two, perhaps some sugar and, frankly, I'm not really sure what else. Finally, she would pour the stuff over the fruit, bake it until the custard was set, and then leave the beautiful thing on the counter for us to graze on all week.

Sometimes Simone would forget about the cake in the oven. The dough would get a little burnt around the edges and the custard would blush one shade too deep. Poor Simone would curse in German and sulk around a bit, until I would take a bite and proclaim that the cake was perfect just as it was. The mild sweetness of the cake came not from large amounts of sugar, but from the plums, and the smooth, buttery crust.

I have tried to recreate Simone's cake numerous times on this side of the sea. My results have never matched hers in quality, though I have had some modest success. Over the last few years, I've played with any recipe for tarte aux quetsches (or, "Prune Plum Tart") that has come my way. Recently, I came across this one, posted by the Ulterior Epicure, and decided to give it a try. There was just one problem. It's the dead of winter and there are no plums to be found. At least not any that I would actually want to eat. So what do you do when you're in the mood for tarte aux quetsches in January? Grab a couple of apples and make a tarte aux pommes instead!


tarte aux pommes

Tarte aux pommes
Adapted from the Ulterior Epicure's "Tarte aux quetsches"

1/2 recipe pâte brisée [I've cycled through a few different recipes. Right now I'm into Martha Stewart's. You can freeze the other half of the dough to use at a later date. Or go ahead and make two tarts in one fell swoop!]
2 Golden Delicious apples, cored and sliced. I like to leave the skins on.
2 eggs
1/2 c. heavy cream
1/4 c. sugar (+ 3 T. if you like your not-so-sweet closer to sweet)
1/4 t. salt
1/2 t. vanilla
2 dashes of cinnamon
3 T. flour
2 T. turbadino sugar

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

Roll out the pâte brisée and fit into a 9-inch tart pan. Prick all over with a fork, and lay the apples over the dough in concentric circles. If you cover the pan completely with apples and you have extra slices to spare, form another layer on top.

Whisk together the eggs, cream, sugar, salt, vanilla, cinnamon, and flour. Pour the mixture over the apples. Bake for approximately 50 minutes. When the tart is finished, the custard will be puffed and golden, the apples slightly browned.

Allow the tart to cool to room temperature. Sprinkle the turbadino sugar over the top. Using either your oven broiler or a small torch, melt the sugar slightly so that it forms a thin, sweet, crunchy layer over the apples. (If you use a torch, be careful -- the tips of the apples singe very easily, as you can see in my pictures! The taste, you'll be happy to hear, was not affected.)

Serve at room temperature.

tarte aux pommes

last night's soup

There are certain dishes that I have made without ever consulting a recipe. Fried eggs, for example. Tuna fish salad. Popcorn. And, until recently, polenta. Boil up some water, pour in the grits, and get stirring. Add a little bit of milk, a hunk of butter, a few twists of salt and pepper. Stir and wait, wait and stir, and that's all there is to it. So, when I came upon David Tanis's polenta recipe -- several paragraphs of text, no less -- in his cookbook, A Platter of Figs and Other Recipes, I was intrigued. About half way through the recipe, I encountered the following lines: "Continue to stir while the polenta gets its bearings. After a few minutes, it will be bubbling very gently, with the occasional ploop."

Ploop.

Say it aloud and try not to smile. I dare you.

Leave it to Chef Tanis to remind us that we turn to recipes for so much more than a mere list of ingredients and a set of instructions. What I love about his polenta recipe is not that it provided me with new insights into how to cook polenta, but that it offered me a new way to think about the polenta that I was already cooking. Heck, it gave me a whole new word to describe one of the most pleasurable parts of polenta preparation: the plooping!

Due to the freeze-your-face-off winter winds whipping around these parts, I've thrown together a big pot of recipe-less soup not once, but twice over the last two weeks. My sister, Kasey, and my friend, Varina, have both asked for the recipe, and neither of them seem satisfied with my response of, "Just pile whatever veggies you have around into a big pot and cook it for a long time." And so, in honor of never-written-down recipes everywhere, here you go, Kasey and Varina. The ingredients change, of course, depending on what I have on hand, but I've included the recipe for last night's version at the end of this post.

While the soup was simmering last night, I cooked up some polenta (ploop, ploop) and plopped a big spoonful in the center of each bowl. After surrounding the polenta with moats of vegetable soup, I topped off the dishes with some grated parmesan cheese.

If you have not tried polenta in soup, you must. I don't know which is more delicious, the corny grains that dissolve into the broth or the creamy spoonfuls scooped from the center mound.

Stay warm out there, my Boston brethren. Eat soup. Ploopity ploop.


Last Night's Soup

1 yellow onion, coarsely chopped
3 garlic cloves, minced
3 carrots, chopped into thick rings
1 yam, chopped into chunks
1 28 oz. can of whole, roasted tomatoes
1 can navy beans
1 bunch kale, thick stems removed and coarsely chopped
3-4 T. of fresh herbs (last night, I used sage, thyme, and parsley), finely chopped
1-2 t. dried basil
2 T. Olive oil
Water or vegetable broth
Salt and pepper to taste

[More potential ingredients for other nights: turnip, zucchini, cabbage (instead of kale), potatoes, pinto beans, shallots...]

Heat the olive oil in a large soup pot and add the onions. Sauté the onions until they are translucent and slightly brown around the edges. Add the garlic, and sauté just until the aroma rises. Add the carrots and the yam. Stirring occasionally, let cook for about 10 minutes.

Add the can of roasted tomatoes, juices and all. Fill the empty can with water or vegetable broth and add to the pot. The veggies should be just submerged in liquid. If they are not, add more water or broth. Cover the pot, leaving the lid slightly ajar. Turn the flame down so that the soup gently simmers. Allow the vegetables to cook and soften for about 20 minutes.

Add the fresh and dried herbs and stir in the beans. Mound the chopped kale on top of the soup and cover. Let the kale steam for five minutes, and then stir it into the soup. With the flame on low, simmer for about an hour. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Serve over little mounds of polenta.

1.14.2009

first love

One short week ago, sweet, Sweet Amandine, you were born! Two slices of toast, a tin of anchovies, a couple of roasted chickens, some muhammara, a doomed blue bowl, and a very pretty dress later, here we are. Along the way, dear readers, you've learned some more about me, and I have discovered something quite thrilling about you...

You exist!

And I'm blushing. When your encouraging responses to my musings started rolling in I got all wibbly wobbly. You caught me off guard! Thank you, truly, not only for reading, but also for sharing your own thoughtful, funny, and smart ideas about what nourishes you.

Speaking of sharing, it's about time I unveil the tasty treat that inspired the title of this blog. Here she is, in all her luscious, almond-y glory:

almond tart

This tart is first love in edible form. I know, I know, that sounds terribly melodramatic. But I have witnessed enough wide eyes and meaningful silences following buttery first bites to know that this metaphor rings true. I speak not of first crushes or heady infatuations, but of first love: that heart-stopping moment when you are bowled over by the realization that your own capacity to love is infinitely greater than you imagined. It's the love that teaches you once and for all that "oh, this, THIS, is what love is!" and nothing else will suffice.

While some have a life-long affair with chocolate, my heart was captured at a young age by the allure of all things almond: almond extract, almond paste, marzipan, (and much later) almond liqueur... My mom traces this love back to my early encounter with Lazzaroni amaretti cookies (the cookies are actually made from apricot kernels, but the flavor is undeniably similar to almond).
Mom may be onto something. We moved from New York to the Midwest when I was five, and I brought the elegant, long-empty, Lazzaroni tin with me. I remember lying on the floor of my bedroom in the big Ohio farmhouse, lifting the top from the red tin, inhaling, and trying to reassemble the flavor of these little treats from the aroma that still clung to the metal.

Years later, home from college for a visit, I discovered the star of this post perched innocently on the kitchen counter. Life has never been the same. I honestly don't know which I enjoy more, eating or baking this tart. It was this recipe that first got me thinking about the kind of baker (and occasional cook) I wanted to be. This crumbly first love set the tone in my kitchen: The sweets and savories from my oven would be straightforward and true. They would be beautiful, yes, but humble, and unabashedly rough around the edges.

Like many of the sweet recipes that have become staples in my kitchen, this one was passed on to me from my step-mom, Amy. I have preserved its original title, "Marcella's Butter Almond Cake." Recently, I asked Amy, "Who is Marcella, anyway?" She had no idea. The recipe, clipped from the Columbus Dispatch, was given to her ten years ago by her friend, Patricia. Well, thanks to my one foot in academia, I thought a little research was in order. It seems that "Marcella" is one Marcella Sarne of Long Beach, California, who entered this recipe in a baking contest sponsored by C&H sugar. She won the grand prize, a $40,000 custom kitchen! A whopping prize, you may be thinking, for a recipe that demands so little time and so few ingredients. But I urge you to grab this recipe and head to your kitchen immediately. You'll see. She deserved it.

almond tart, from above

Marcella’s Butter Almond Cake

1 ½ c. sugar
¾ c. butter, melted
2 eggs
1 tsp almond extract [I've been known to up the quantity by an extra 1/2 tsp...]
1 ½ tsp vanilla extract
¼ tsp salt
1 ½ c. flour
3 T sliced almonds [that's sliced, not slivered, folks]
1 T sugar for garnish
[I've rewritten the following instructions to reflect the order of my own steps in the kitchen. I do believe I have streamlined this procedure for maximum efficiency!]

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
While the oven is heating up:
Melt the butter over the lowest possible flame and set aside to cool.
Grease and flour a 9-inch round pan. [I like to use a fluted pan with a removable bottom.]
Measure the 1 1/2 c. sugar into a mixing bowl.

Then:
Spread the sliced almonds on a baking pan and toast them in the oven while you mix the batter. Toasting should take about 7 minutes. Follow your nose: When you smell toasted almonds, you've got toasted almonds!

Back at the mixing bowl:
Pour the melted butter into the sugar and blend. Beat in the eggs. Stir in the almond extract and vanilla. Add the salt and flour, and mix well.

Spread the batter evenly into the prepared pan. Sprinkle with toasted almonds and 1T sugar for the garnish. Bake 30-40 minutes, until just golden on top. When the tart is baked through, a toothpick inserted into the center will come out clean.

My favorite ways to enjoy this tart:
- with a mug of Earl Grey tea
- alongside a little mound of sliced wild strawberries
- warm, beneath a scoop of vanilla ice cream

1.11.2009

swan song


So blue. When I snapped this shot, dear one, I had no idea that it would be your swan song. I shudder to think that last weekend in New Haven the events that would lead to your demise were already in motion.

Last Friday, Eli and I drove to New Haven to visit Deenie and Levi. These friends of ours are such sweet peas. In addition to being brilliant and hilarious, they are expert, and I do mean expert hosts. Their trick, it seems, is that they manage to host without making you feel like a guest. A cup of tea? An extra blanket? The book that I've been meaning to read (that happens to be on your bookshelf)? I swear, before I had even realized just what it was I fancied -- or was about to fancy -- there it was. We felt so cared for, yet never smothered, by our hosts' constant but gentle attention.

The food was no small part of our pleasure. Something you should know about Deenie: the woman can cook. Silver tip roast, vegetable tian, Israeli couscous... We ate well last weekend, we did. But what really stole the show was an unassuming little bowl of deep orange that appeared on the table Saturday afternoon. One bite, and "What. Is. THIS?"

This, my friends, was Muhammara, a sweet and spicy spread that originated (according to the Washington Post) in Syria.

A week later, while considering what I might bring to my friend's thirtieth birthday bash (Happy Birthday, Ms. Muffin!), I decided to try my hand at the dish. Deenie graciously sent me the recipe together with her alterations, I adapted it just a bit further (didn't want to mess too much with perfection), et voila -- Muhammara.

By 7:30 last night, we were on our way, dressed in our cocktail party finest. I must pause, momentarily, to show you the delectable little number that I wore for the very first time. It's not edible, but at seventy percent off the original price, it sure is sweet:

We were quite a crew, Eli in his fancy shoes, me in this steal of a dress, and the Muhammara cradled in my favorite blue bowl. Ever the gentleman, Eli brought the car around so that I wouldn't have to brave the icy sidewalk in my heels. But sadly, even Eli is not immune to the treacherous winter streets. As he made his way from the car to the sidewalk to help me into the passenger seat, poor Eli lost his footing. (Perhaps it was the fancy shoes, but I really hate to blame such lovely footwear...) Down he went, with the Muhammara in hand. So heroic is Eli that the blue bowl actually never left his hands. Still, the impact was too much, and the bowl broke into several neat pieces. The most important part of this story, of course, is that Eli was decidedly not broken, or even bruised, at all. And fortunately, I had wrapped the bowl so tightly with plastic that the Muhammara was salvageable.

What can I say, blue bowl of mine? Just a few years ago you emerged between my hands from a lump of spinning clay. You held many a spread, a dip, a tapenade in your too-short life. Bravo on your farewell performance. I dedicate this recipe to you.

Muhammara
Adapted from Bon Appetit

1 12-ounce jar roasted red bell peppers, drained
1.5 cups walnuts, toasted
3-4 slices of sourdough bread (for 1/2 cup breadcrumbs)
3 cloves garlic
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil (plus extra for drizzling)
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice (or pomegranate molasses, if you happen to have it around)
1 (heaping) teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon sweet paprika
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
Salt and pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. On one rack, toast walnuts on a baking sheet until fragrant (about 7 minutes). On another rack, toast the sourdough bread.

Grate the toasted bread to produce 1/2 cup of crumbs.

Place all ingredients into a food processor and blend to form a coarse puree. If you want it chunkier, add more crumbs and/or walnuts. If it's too dry, add a bit more olive oil.

Enjoy.

tucking in

I confess: When it comes to cooking chicken, I am, well, chicken. First, there's the fear of undercooking the bird and inflicting gastrointestinal pandemonium on the poor souls who dare to pull up a chair. Then, there's the danger of overcooking the chicken while trying to avoid this unsavory epilogue. No, I do not have the temperament for chicken. If my soufflé falls or a pie crust burns it's a shame, but hey, no one will be writhing in pain -- or dead -- because of it.

Eli, on the other hand, is unfazed by poultry. This weekend, he roasted up some birds that were absolutely stunning. Oh, and tasty too. He kept things simple: thyme, tarragon, salt and pepper, a lemon nestled in where the giblets used to be, rings of yellow onions, a neat loop of string around the legs, and an hour and a half in the oven. Look, LOOK, at what came out:

Is it just me, or do these babies deserve a runway?
So warm, so inviting, so... snuggle-y? A strange adjective to apply to a couple of cooked chickens, perhaps, but standing over the dish I felt the urge to tuck right in between them and snuggle in. Yes, dear friends, I had a mini-fantasy about spooning with two dead, roasted birds. Move over fruit cobbler, squash soup, and chocolate lava cake, you snuggle-y usual suspects, because Eli's roasted chicken has just joined your ranks.

Here's as close as I got...


before digging in, of course.

1.08.2009

food therapy

It all started one evening at the beginning of November. I was feeling down and out. My dad, in his eerie way, could tell that something was wrong though all I had uttered so far was, "Hello?." Or does it even take you that long to have me pegged, Dad? From your end of the line in Ohio, do you detect something even pre-"Hello" that lets you know I'm not quite myself? Whatever the case, we talked that evening and Dad cheered me up as only Dad can. Just one week later he would be arriving in Cambridge for a visit! I couldn't wait.

Apparently, neither could he. Unable to jump immediately on a Boston-bound plane, Dad sent some salty little harbingers to buoy me until his arrival. A few days after our conversation, a package arrived. Inside, atop a beautiful, tissue paper wrapped bundle, sat the following note:

Yes, Dad had sent me sardines. Imagine my surprise and delight! There is nothing like two red tins of sardines, delicately placed on a cushion of crumpled tissue paper to lift the spirits. I laughed my head off. This was food therapy at its best.

I ate the first set of sardines (item #1 in Dad's note, above) with a fork right out of the tin. A few days later, I tried Dad's sardine sandwich (item #2). It was everything the note had promised: pungent and delicious.

With these two humble tins of sardines, I was off, down the briny road to the tinned fish shelf at Whole Foods. I filled my basket with tidy packs of herring, mackerel, anchovies, and, of course, more sardines. Mostly I'm a directly from the tin kind of girl, but tonight I decided to take some anchovies to the next level by incorporating them into a dish.

I washed and dried some organic romaine. Using my mother-in-law's flawless technique (thank you, Sarah!), I peeled and segmented a grapefruit. Finally, I opened the little yellow tin of Roland anchovies and eyed the pleasing circles of fish wrapped around single capers.

Onto the salad they went, and a splash of oil and vinegar and a grind of pepper later, I was ready to dig in. Notes for next time: I'll try broiling the grapefruit and adding something a little sweet to the vinaigrette to cut the salt and tanginess.

I'll close with a pic:












Good night, lan' lubbers!

the main event


I ask you: What is it that is just so darn satisfying about toast?

Let's consider.

Toast is typically a back of the menu item, listed under Sides or Extras among offerings like "one egg, any style" and "half a grapefruit." Or, toast is relegated to the small, italicized subtitles tacked beneath loftier headings like Omelettes: "Served with hashbrowns and choice of toast." ("Substitute fruit cup - $1.00." ) Ah toast, even in your greasy spoon incarnation, perfectly square, cut diagonally across, served pre-buttered with a couple of plastic, foil-sealed packages of grape jelly, you are lovely, if under appreciated. Given your obvious charm, why is it so rare to find an eatery that features you as the main event?

Enter, Hi-Rise Bakery.

This place is my favorite local spot for all things baked, both sweet and savory. Right alongside heftier items like oatmeal with toasted pecans and dried cherries, pressed egg sandwiches, and yogurt with homemade granola, there it is on the breakfast menu: Toast. With a capital "T." Toast. Listed as its own boldfaced menu item on a hand-written page taped to the glass. I sometimes feel a little defiant marching up to the counter and declaring, "I'll have Toast, please." I hear my Grandmother Marion's disapproving voice in my head: "Toast is not a meal." Oh, but it is Grandma. And here at Hi-Rise, it is not only a meal, but an indulgent one. From the loaves of bread available that day, you choose two slices. I usually go for one slice of corn bread and one slice of something whole wheat-y. Then, you find a seat upstairs or outside and await the arrival of your capital Toast. The two hearty slices are served in a paper-lined basket with not-too-sweet preserves, and a whopping triangle of fresh, slightly softened butter. Thick, lightly browned and crispy on the outside, soft and springy on the inside, still warm from the toaster, this bread practically begs you to dig in with your hands, to tear off a little piece, slather with butter and preserves, chew, swallow, and repeat, as necessary.

And so, imagine my dismay to learn that Hi-Rise on Brattle St. -- the one just two blocks from my home -- will be closed until January 26. No explanations cited. Only a note stating the cold, hard truth. Fortunately, the always bustling Concord St. Hi-Rise -- the original bakery location -- is a mere twenty minute jaunt down the street, so I'm covered in case of emergency. Also fortunate is that a transcendent Toast experience is possible without leaving home. This morning, I popped a couple of slices of sourdough bread into the oven, despite the fact that I am not typically a sourdough fan. With apricot preserves, the sour twinge mellowed, and tasted, surprisingly, just right.

I don't know if it was the scrape-ity-scrape of butter dragging along the crisp, cratery surface, the glimmer of preserves in the bit of sunshine that managed to squeeze through the winter clouds, or the delightful crunch of the first bite that was so perfectly pleasing this morning. In the words of Heywood Banks, all I can say is, "Yeah, Toast!!"

I've included a toasty picture, above. You will surely notice that, as little as I know about blogging, I know even less about photography. Yes, Sweet Amandine will be a learning experience for me in more ways than one.

And with that, I raise my crumb-strewn empty plate to the end of this second post, to future posts, to trial and error and, of course, to you, sweet reader, if you're out there, that is.

[this post is dedicated to julia, fellow Toast lover and Toast eater extraordinaire]

1.07.2009

time and inclination

Well, hello.

It's strange introducing myself to a big white empty text box, but I suppose I have to start somewhere.

I assume that you will get to know me gradually, over time, like how it works in face-to-face, 3D relationships, so I am not overly concerned with grand introductions or first impressions. I will, however, explain in broad strokes what brings me here:

Recently, I have found myself with more time on my hands and greater inclination to indulge in the things I love. Two of these things are cooking (baking, in particular, as you will very quickly learn if you stick around) and writing. Here, in this blog, I'd like to combine the two.

Over the last few years I have written plenty. I'm a graduate student. My job is to learn languages, read literature in these languages, and write about it. I love my work. And yet, I fear that academia has had a noose-like effect on my writing. The act of producing it [gasp] can feel [gasp] like choking. Don't get me wrong -- I always appreciate a carefully placed semicolon, and I can "problematize" and "reframe" with the best of 'em. But when I'm writing for me (and for you now too, I suppose), the language flows from a different spigot.

So there you have it, a very little bit about me.

You will no doubt meet some of the most important people in my life in the coming posts. For now, I'll introduce just one of these folks: my husband, Eli. He designs software, takes photographs, cycles, climbs mountains, and makes a balsamic reduction sauce that smells downright scary while on the burner, but is divine over lamb chops and Swiss chard. He doesn't like sweets very much, but aside from that he's just about perfect.

Hmmm, I guess that feels like a completed first post.

'til soon.