2.27.2009

blended, sweetly

toffee square, on flowered plate

Even under the best of circumstances, divorce isn't very appetizing. In fact, it can be downright tasteless. I'm not referring to the heartache and tears, but to the actual food involved when, say, your dad moves into a gloomy apartment with green shag carpeting and serves up foil-wrapped
Pop-Tarts® for breakfast.

But life wasn't all bad. Dad had tuna fish and egg salad nailed, and could fry up a flawless birdie in the nest. Then there were -and still are - Dad's grilled cheese sandwiches: whole wheat bread, sharp cheddar, sliced tomato, and Dijon mustard. It is this perfect, just-so combination that prevents me from ordering grilled cheese when I'm out. I know it wouldn't be the same, and I don't take well to disappointment.

Dad also made pancakes. He used a mix, but so what? Taste didn't much matter since the eating was merely an afterthought. The main event was the pancake sculpture that Dad would fry up and flip onto our plates. Wielding a spatula and a ladleful of batter, Dad would build one masterpiece after another. First came a few typical-looking pancakes as a warm-up. Next, Dad would set out to pour and cook the largest, and then the smallest, pancakes possible. Dad liked to get creative. Once, he ladled out a pancake face with batter-y bean-shaped ears. I gave it blueberry eyes, a strawberry nose, a maple-syrup smile, and raspberry earrings. Ooo la la. My favorite piece was The Graduated Tower, a stack that began on the plate with an enormous, floppy round, and reached to the sky, one Bisquick®-y circle after another, each pancake slightly smaller than the one beneath it. At the tippy-top lay a tiny speck of a pancake that I would delicately chomp with my front teeth in a single crunch. Our pancake breakfasts were not served, but curated on our plates.

When Dad brought Amy into our lives, the kitchen brightened, to say the least. Amy had just left a first-marriage of her own, but she dared not leave behind the tastiest morsel of her not-so-tasty union: the recipes from her ex-mother-in-law, Vella. One night last week during my visit home, we sat around the kitchen table paging through Amy's tattered recipe file. A sheet of Vella's yellowed stationery caught my eye. It was the recipe for her toffee squares.

toffee squares, boxed

We baked up a pan the next day. Though Amy's first husband may not have been a keeper, this recipe sure is. In the short time that I've been home in Cambridge, dear ones, I have churned out not one but two batches of these addictive little squares to share with friends and neighbors.

With its press-in crust and confetti of chocolate that is kind enough to melt itself over the just-baked bottom, this recipe is simple as can be. No muss, no fuss. And aren't they pretty? Theirs is the kind of no-nonsense, natural beauty to which I aspire: a little sweet, a little salty, elegant enough, yet pony-tail approachable. It's an honest beauty I'm after, and I could do much worse than to follow the example of these comely squares. Each one of the ingredients shines through. A sheet of fine chocolate stretches over the buttered, brown-sugar bed, and a sprinkling of toasted pecans tops it all off. I think you'll find these toffee squares straightforwardly delicious.

As you know, I have a special place in my heart for recipes that come to me by way of meandering genealogies. I delight in announcing, "This recipe is from my step-mom's ex-mother-in-law." Ha! That is one fun statement. Sounds a little transgressive, even, doesn't it? I can't help but smile at the twisted, forbidden path that brought Vella's toffee squares to me, her son's ex-wife's second husband's oldest daughter. These rich, tasty treats are a far cry from the cardboard-like Pop-Tarts® and tacky shag carpet of Dad's first solo apartment. I like to think of each bite as further proof that, when it comes right down to it, my family is blended in the sweetest sense of the word.

two toffee bars on a plate

[Special thanks to guest photographer, Dad.}

Toffee Squares
from Vella, adapted by me

Don't be misled by the name of these squares. The toffee in this title is not the crunchy candy stuff. It's that same toffee flavor transposed onto buttery bars. I like to splurge on 70% Scharffen-Berger chocolate for this recipe. You'll notice that the amount of chocolate listed is approximate. From a 9.7 oz. baking bar of Scharffen-Berger, I use two of the five rectangles, which is just under 4 ounces. A standard bar of chocolate is typically between 3 and 3.5 ounces. You can take your pick. I've added a bit of salt to Vella's recipe to accent the sweetness of the squares. I have a hunch that an additional light sprinkling of coarse salt over the nuts while the chocolate is hardening would be divine. If you give the added salt a shot, do let me know how it turns out!

1/2 lb (2 sticks) butter
1 c. brown sugar
1 egg yolk
1 t. vanilla
2 c. flour
1/4 t. salt
3 -4 oz. bittersweet chocolate, chopped
1.5 c. pecans, toasted and chopped

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Cream together the butter and brown sugar. Mix in the egg yolk, vanilla, and salt, and then the flour. Press the dough evenly into an ungreased 9x13 inch pan. Bake for 20-25 minutes until lightly golden.

Remove the baked crust from the oven, and immediately sprinkle with the chopped chocolate. Using a rubber spatula, spread the melting chocolate in a thin layer over the entire crust. Sprinkle the chopped pecans over the top, and allow to cool slightly.

Cut into squares while still warm. (A pizza cutter helps me slice evenly. Oh, and be sure to grab a taste of one of the crusty corners while they're warm.) Remove squares to a rack to cool. Allow to cool completely, until the chocolate is set.

Makes 30-40 squares, depending on how small you slice them.

Amy assures me that the squares freeze and thaw out beautifully, and that they're actually quite yummy directly from the freezer.

2.26.2009

ever-the-more

sheraton commander hotel

I've landed. Welcome home to Cambridge, folks.

Eli and I are no strangers to time apart. We first realized that we were in Big Fat Love only weeks before he trotted out to Seattle to start a new job, and I popped across the ocean for graduate school. For two years we crisscrossed the globe every few months for a heady fix of what we knew would one day be the rest of our lives. Well, the rest of our lives is blessedly upon us, and what a happily ever after we've got going on.

For the most part, the days of navigating gaping oceans and multiple time zones are behind us, but every now and then, there's a summer of graduate work to attend to overseas, a week-long business trip out in Seattle, or a solo visit home to the family. While the amount of time we spend apart these days pales in comparison to the once ever-streaming months of international phone cards and air mail, our reunions nevertheless [or, perhaps, ever-the-more?] leave me breathless.

And, strangely, shy.

It begins with a pancake-flip of the stomach when the wheels of the airplane touch ground. Like maple syrup, it runs down my arms and legs. My fingers tingle. My typically brisk gait slows. Sometimes, I'll actually stop in my tracks for a moment on the way to baggage claim. A physiological response, perhaps, to suppress that other, simultaneous urge to sprint helter-skelter through the terminal and charge into the arms of my Big Love.

I am not a shy person by nature, and until these bashful reunions, I dare say I never really understood just what this "shy" thing was all about. I experienced a disturbingly thorough range of emotions growing up, but the notion of shyness utterly baffled me. In my book, to be shy was to be fearful, uncertain, and hesitant. Sad, even. Why would anyone want to be that? The expression "painfully shy" was, to my young mind, spot on. In my infinite grade-school wisdom, it never occurred to me that our emotions at any given moment are only in part a matter of choice. And what really never occurred to me is that shyness may have nothing to do with a deficit, and everything to do with an abundance. That's how I experience my shyness, anyway. When it comes to emotion, I'm an echoingly deep vessel; I can hold a lot. But sometimes even I am filled to the brim. Especially in the face of Big Love. Shyness, for me, is that overflow, the sweeping up and over that leaves me unsteady and bobbing in the waves. I glance back at shore, but the tide pulls me outward, into the deep.

I look at the ground, then up at him, then back down at the ground again. I fight the urge to turn away, and for a moment I lose. My stomach serves up a towering stack of pancakes. Syrup flows. Eli knows the drill by now. He giggles, and his sweet voice welcomes me: "Hello, shy girl." And then he pulls me into a squeeze.

With all the thinking I've been doing about home lately, I somehow left you out, my love. Home. It's you. It's what you do to me.

window swirl

I drop Eli at the office and tumble into our apartment. He has spiffed up the place beautifully for my return. Our home is straining a little against its neatness. The bed is made just the way I like it. (Because, yes, there are many ways to make a bed, and I like it done my way.) My plant is half-droopy, yet the soil is wet. (No doubt, he gave it a splash just this morning so I cannot accuse him of attempted plantricide. I'm onto you, mister. I'm onto you.) In the kitchen I find a big cardboard crate filled with sunny oranges. "I was in the mood for oranges," he later explains. Can't argue with that.

oranges on chair

Our reunion would be brief; the next morning Eli was leaving for Seattle, so we needed to make the most of this twenty-four hours together. More specifically, we needed cookies. If you recall, sweet feet that he is, Eli is sorely lacking in the sweet tooth department. Yet by some miracle, the guy loves oatmeal cookies. Lucky for me, Deb over at Smitten Kitchen had just posted a delectable recipe for the things, so I decided to keep my old standby tucked away in the recipe drawer. I would try something new. These cookies were thicker and chewier than the lacy rounds I'm accustomed to baking. A welcome and delicious change of pace.

As it turns out, orange wedges and oatmeal cookies are a perfect match. The buttered, brown-sugary oats crumble cozily against splashes of bright citrus. Tastes like home.

We stayed up too late. We got up too early.

"I just wish we had more time," I said from my side of the bed.

"We do," Eli replied.

Why yes, we do. We have more time. Ever-the-more, even.

radiator and tea lights

Safe travels, sweet one. I'll be the shy girl hiding behind a big plate of cookies and oranges when you return. Come home soon.

oranges on the floor

[Thanks and love to my dear friend, David, for the name of this post, and for coining the word that more and more, ever-the-more, dances me through each day.]

2.24.2009

a good hover

Tomato Risotto cropped
I try not to hover in the kitchen. Really I do.

If you ask me how I would like that onion cut, I'll muster everything I've got to force out a breezy, "However you see fit. It doesn't matter." I want so badly to mean it. But truth be told, it does matter. A lot. And after a beat or two, it all comes rushing out: "But how about you slice it like this?" I cloak my command in the garb of an innocent suggestion, question mark and all, but who am I kidding? My voice burbles and brims with that special brand of panic that plagues anal retentive hoverers everywhere. To make matters worse, I - as casually as possible, mind you - then slip the knife out of your hand and into my own, and demonstrate. (A wince-worthy moment, every time.) No doubt, you are perfectly capable of following a simple verbal instruction. Something tossed off and to the point, like, "Thinly sliced, please," would probably do the trick. But your definition of "thinly sliced" may not be precisely my definition, so why risk it? Oh dear. Nonchalance just isn't my strong suit. In the kitchen (and, I fear, in other rooms as well), I'm a bossy little thing. So let's face facts: Ladies and gentlemen, I am a hoverer. I am not proud of it. Hovering is just plain rude. I should know better.

Yet, every now and then, our worst qualities step up and save the day. Imagine my delight when I found myself in the kitchen last week, face to face with a dish that actually appreciates, in fact demands, a good hover! My step-mom, Amy, was stirring up a pot of risotto, and she needed someone to man the stovetop while she tended to some other to-dos. Now, when it comes to risotto, the lackadaisical need not apply. Amy needed a true-blue hoverer. I was her girl.

I feel a comfy kinship with risotto. This dish just gets me. It wants me to hover. It begs me to hover. It understands that timing is everything. You see, for risotto to do its just tender, creamy-but-not-mushy thing, the stirring must be constant and the broth must be ladled, one half cup at a time, at measured intervals. And once said broth has been absorbed, it's time to eat. As in, now, lest the silky grains of rice sulk off into sticky clumps.

Hoverers of the world, hold your heads up high. This recipe is for you.

[This post is dedicated to those shining individuals who, despite my shenanigans, join me in the kitchen and cook by my side. I love making food with you.]

Cream of Tomato Risotto
Adapted from The New Basics Cookbook by Julee Rosso and Sheila Lukins

The title of this recipe is misleading: Not a drop of cream (or butter, even) meets the pot. It's the cooked Arborio rice and the handful of cheese that lends the "cream" to this dish. The recipe calls for canned plum tomatoes. It's perfect for one of those wintry nights when you're longing for something tomato-y and simply cannot hold out until summer. In my family, we enjoy this risotto with a side of roasted Brussels sprouts.

1 1/2 T. olive oil
1 medium yellow onion
1 cup Arborio rice
3 cups vegetable stock
1 cup dry white wine
3/4 cup canned plum tomatoes, slightly crushed, with their juice
1 T. chopped fresh rosemary leaves
1/2 c. freshly grated Parmesan cheese
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste.

Heat the oil in a heavy saucepan. Add the onion and cook over low heat until soft, about three minutes. Then add the rice and cook, stirring, for another three minutes.

Meanwhile, bring the stock and wine to a boil in another saucepan. Reduce the heat and keep it at a simmer.

Stirring constantly, slowly add one cup of the hot stock to the rice. Continue to stir. Allow the rice to simmer gently. When the stock has been absorbed, add another 1/2 cup and stir well until it too has been absorbed. Continue adding the stock 1/2 cup at a time until almost all of the stock has been added. Have I mentioned that you need to stir constantly?

Add the tomatoes and rosemary. Continue cooking and stirring, adding the remaining stock in 1/4 cup amounts, until the rice is slightly creamy and just tender. Altogether the rice should cook for 25 to 30 minutes.When all the stock has been absorbed, stir in the Parmesan and black pepper. Top each serving with another little sprinkle of cheese. Serve immediately.

2.22.2009

well-churned

We've already established that Central Ohio is home to a dog named Zelda, recipes for hot dog soup and ham loaf, a sesame noodle fiend, and darn good neighbors. It is also home to some of the friendliest vendors in all the land, and exceedingly fine ice cream.

I was reminded of these last two winning traits on Tuesday, when my mother and great-aunt Eileen drove in from up north. Cleveland, that is. We spent the day moseying around the Short North, a funky Columbus neighborhood of galleries, eateries, and boutiques. Our visit began with a breakfast-all-day lunch at Tasi, and then we hit the streets. My weakness for all things paper and my avowed spending freeze were put to the test at On Paper, a gorgeous little paperie on North High Street. I escaped without spending a dime by embracing the boutique as I would a museum. It wasn't hard. At least at On Paper touching is permitted. I admired the whimsical stationary, antique inkwells, and silk-screened papers on display, and in my mind I folded together invitations for intimate, celebratory dinners to come. I even dreamed up a menu or two. The evening would begin, say, with an orange on orange invitation, and drift to a close with an orange polenta cake, soaked in orange-flower water and glazed with orange marmalade. From the tasteful to the tasty, On Paper inspires. Tucked in the corner of this shop, I met my greatest temptation: a stunning computer messenger bag by Jane Marvel. Wait for me, you darling thing. You may be just what I need to brighten - if not lighten - my load once dissertation writing time rolls around.

From there we meandered over to The Cookware Sorcerer. Oh baby. Hold me back. All those knives poised like magic wands along the back wall. So lovely. The gleaming copper pots, the marbles slabs, the wooden boards. Lovelier still. But above all, the tart pans. I have been on the lookout for a certain perfect combination: miniature, non-stick, fluted tart pans with removable bottoms. A set of six. Very often I find minis that are non-stick, but that lack removable bottoms. Or, piles of removable bottomed pans line the shelves, but only in grown-up, nine or ten inch sizes. But suddenly, in Central Ohio, there they were, the coveted treasures. I protested, I swear, but my very sweet mommy insisted on buying me a set. I repeat, this time with emphasis: Oh, baby. And thank you, thank you, mommy mine.

stack of tart pans
We'll have fun with these lovelies, we will.

single tart pan
Next on our list was the North Market, where we delivered regards from the cookware sorcerer himself to Mike, the cheese guy. Then, at long last, we sampled that exceedingly fine ice cream I mentioned a few moments ago: Jeni's. When it comes to local ice cream, I've always been a Graeter's girl. I'm such a diehard fan that when I first brought my college boyfriend home and he hadn't yet tasted the stuff by the morning of our departure, I made him eat a bowlful for breakfast! With Graeter's signature French pot process, not to mention their poured and paddled chocolate "chips," I never imagined that I had room to spare in my heart for another ice cream favorite. Then, in waltzed Jeni's on this well-churned visit home. I fear that from now on, I'll be taking a one-for-each-hand approach. Graeter's for my left, and Jeni's for my right, please. From the milks and creams to the coffees and honeys folded into her many flavors, Jeni features local, Ohio ingredients. I favor smooth and chunk-free over candy-studded ice creams and, lucky for me, so does Jeni. Her flavor profiles may seem outrageous at first glance, but after one bite of, say, olive oil with sea salt pepitas, you find yourself wondering why this exquisite, perfectly matched combination has never before found its way to your palate.

Our scooper, Jacob, was decidedly the most exuberant ice cream vendor I have ever encountered. I'm frequently made uncomfortable by the seriousness with which we ice cream consumers taste, and taste again, and - have we no shame?- taste again before making our final scoop selections. We hem and haw and furrow our brows, and cross one ankle over the other, and cock our heads contemplatively to one side. It's really too much. It embarrasses me, I think. For the most part, I've instituted a no tasting policy in recent years. When I break my own rule, I've been known to tack on a mumbled "sorry" to the end of my request, as in "May I please taste the hazelnut, (sorry)…?" I imagine that the mini-spoon deluge of tastes upon tastes maddens those poor, beleaguered scoopers. Jacob, however, was not only unfazed, but practically begged us to sample one flavor after another. He was just so darn excited about the flurry of taste bud-popping flavors at his fingertips that he couldn't wait to share. "Do you like spicy? Salty?" he asked, trying to tailor the tastings to our individual palates. Jacob's favorite part of the job, he confided, is witnessing the delight on the face of a wary customer who surprises himself by enjoying an unorthodox flavor. I decided on a trio of half-scoops: salty caramel, Ohio honey-vanilla bean, and goat cheese with cognac and fig-almond sauce, made with goat cheese from the local Blue Jacket Dairy. Among my mom's trio was a flavor called Queen City Cayenne, a rich chocolate ice cream that finishes with a spicy kick.

What a day, Columbus. You sure do know how to treat a girl, her mom, and her aunt right. Thanks for a splendid romp around town.

2.21.2009

choosing your battles

Some things just aren't worth fighting over. And some things just are.

Take, for example, that 80% off, last-in-stock, just-my-size dress. I'll arm wrestle you for it. And if I'm feeling particularly scrappy, I'll settle for nothing less than an all out tug of war over that last buttery sliver of almond tart.

My youngest sister, Anna, also chooses her battles wisely. What sets her on the warpath is sesame noodles.

sesame noodles from above

Just a quiet mention of this unassuming dish sparks a wild gleam in her eyes. Though typically genteel, Anna will fight you to the death for the last slippery, noodly slurp. The woman is steadfast and true: Even when a newly topped-off serving bowl cradles silky tangles galore, she stands guard, an unflappable sentinel. Anna is one of the more even-tempered adolescents you will meet, but woe to the one who gets between this girl and her noodles.

A few days back, Anna was in the mood for "comfort food," but not just any old thing. She wanted something starchy, salty, and smooth. "Sesame noodles!" she proclaimed. I knew just what to do: call my friend Julia who, with one twirly forkful, single handedly squelched my loathing for sesame noodles. For years, I turned up my nose at the gloppy, peanut buttery mess that turns up at many a sorry potluck. Julia's noodles sing a different tune. Light and smooth, these sesame noodles slide lithely down the throat. They are blessedly free of peanut butter, and thus anything but pasty. Eat them plain, hot out of the pot or chilled, tossed with tofu, or topped with grilled chicken. If you are a sesame noodle skeptic, this is the recipe for you. I would offer you a taste of ours, but then we would both have to contend with Anna. It's probably safer for everyone involved if you just whip up your own batch.

sesame noodles_ a portion

Sesame Noodles
from Julia Hoffman

6 garlic cloves, minced
3 T. sugar
6 T. rice vinegar
6 T. soy sauce
2 T. sesame oil

16 oz. of pasta; I use angel hair, Julia prefers linguine.

3 T. toasted sesame seeds (you can toast the seeds in a 350 degree oven while putting together the sauce)
1/2 c. chopped scallions

Place the first five ingredients in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Stir constantly until the sugar dissolves.

Cook the pasta according to package instructions. Pour the sauce over the boiled and drained pasta, add the sesame seeds and chopped scallions, and mix thoroughly.

2.19.2009

good neighbors

I never mean to end up there, but when I'm drifting through the local paper and the obituary page flutters open, I cannot resist a quick read. It's not a morbid fascination with death that draws me in, but all that life shingled up and down the page. I wind my way through those neatly packed and packaged tributes, windows into the lives that one day were, and the next were not. Lives squared off, it's a tidy patchwork, save for the stray golden threads that occasionally catch my eye.

And so it was that I made the acquaintance of one Yvonee Isle Neal who, at the age of 91, passed away in Dublin, Ohio, on February 7, 2009. "She was a Good Neighbor, and she had very Good Neighbors," her obituary gently professed. I have come to expect nothing less from a lifelong resident of Central Ohio. Here on the mainland, it seems, a capitally Good Neighbor is the thing to be. Some say that the proof is in the pudding, but around here it's in the doughy sweets and yeasty treats that scoot from house to house. In the week and a half since I've been home, no fewer than two batches of cookies, a plateful of muffins, and a box of artisan chocolates have stumbled across our doorstep. Our scones and biscuits have, in turn, waltzed their way down the street, around the block, and into the kitchens of our good, nay, very Good Neighbors.

Today I bring you a neighborhood favorite that slowly but surely has been making its rounds.

sour cream cake close up

Beneath the crackly, golden crust lies a rich and tender crumb. This velvety cake holds its form, but with the slightest push of a spoon, it gives way. Soft, pillowy bites laced with toasty pecans and crumbly sugar pull away from downy slices.

This recipe's winsome genealogy tells its own meandering tale: It came to me from Janet, who first sampled the cake at her book club. She scored the recipe from friend and fellow-reader, Mary, who got it from Carol who, when her mother passed away, received the cake (and then the recipe) from Joyce, our neighbor two doors down. For her part, Joyce insists that the recipe is not her own, but her friend Cini's. And that's as far back as I traced this delightful ancestry. Take it from me, this cake is worth your time and appetite. Or take it from Cini, Joyce, Carol, Mary, and Janet. I guess it turns out, dear ones, that it's not fences but sour cream cakes that make good neighbors!

sour cream cake by window

Sour Cream Coffee Cake
Adapted from Joyce White's recipe, given to her by Cini

Topping:
1 c. brown sugar (the original recipe calls for dark, but light works as well)
2 c. toasted, choppped pecans
1 tsp. cinnamon

Batter:
1 stick butter
1 c. sugar
2 eggs
2 c. flour
1 t. baking soda
1 t. baking powder
1/2 t. salt
1 c. sour cream (Joyce uses fat free; I used the real stuff)
1 t. vanilla

Heat oven to 350. Grease bottom and sides of 8 or 9 inch springform pan. I only had a 10 inch pan at my disposal, and it also did the trick.

Cream the butter and white sugar, and beat until fluffy. Add eggs one at a time and beat well after each addition. Sift the dry ingredients together. Add a portion of the dry ingredients to the sugar mixture alternately with the sour cream, beginning and ending with the dry ingredients. Stir in vanilla.

In a separate bowl, mix together the topping.

Sprinkle 1/3 of the brown sugar mixture on the bottom of the pan. Pour in half of the batter, and top with another 1/3 of the brown sugar mixture. Add the rest of the batter, and finish with the remaining 1/3 of the sugar mixture.

Bake for 50 minutes. Test with cake tester for doneness.

2.17.2009

a quiet in between

brussels sprouts on towel
Winter tends to come in with a bang. Autumn's blustery winds give way to sharper gusts, the smell of first frost laces the air, and overnight a colossal dump of snow blankets everything in sight. Ta da! It's winter, all at once, and decidedly so. But by February, the final echo from that initial wintry wallop has faded. Winter no longer dazzles us with its frigid flamboyance but lingers, stubbornly, on and on.

Spring's entrance is nowhere near as grand. It pokes its way up through the last of winter slowly, intermittently, patiently. Temperatures tentatively creep above freezing for a day or two, then shoot back down. Winter is greedy.

And so here we are in February, that oppressive month that's neither here nor there. Down in the heartland, the snow and ice have melted to reveal a sleepy, hardened landscape. The newly exposed grass is matted and brown, and the trees, stripped of their snowy frosting, stand utterly naked. Everything is awash in grey, a fitting color, I suppose, for seasonal twilight. This in between-ness weighs on me, dear ones. These days I'm feeling a little matted down myself. I know that the ground will soften and that green will grow once more, but this February twilight can make it awfully difficult to feel, viscerally, that it is so.

I am, even on my best days, woefully inept at staying in the moment. I'm a fierce planner by nature with little patience for the here and now, especially when here and now is so stagnant and dreary. My thoughts spin hopefully into the coming weeks and months. Suddenly, in my mind's eye, it is August again, and I'm back where I was six months ago, only this August is new and so am I. But today it is February, that still, silent moment between breaths, that motionless beat between exhale and inhale. At times like these, I need a bite of something that grounds me, something that roots me to this quiet in between. With the lighter, brighter greens of spring still a ways off, I turn to the hearty ruffles and rounds of winter. Frilly kale and leafy Brussels sprouts make this forced downtime feel restorative and rich. A necessary, and even welcome time out. Winter greens taste like the earth. I love that.

kale

This week alone I've eaten kale twice and Brussels sprouts once, and come tomorrow I'm going back for more of one or the other. Because soon it will be spring, and then summer. With all those tangy berries and dribbly tomatoes coaxing me outdoors, perhaps I'll miss these inward, quiescent days of matted ground and winter greens.

Kale
1 bunch curly kale
1 T. olive oil
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
A squeeze of lemon or a dribble of vinegar

Rip the kale away from the tough parts of the rib and tear the ruffly leaves into three to four inch pieces. Wash, but do not dry. Heat the oil in a pan. Place the kale in the pan and sautee until slightly wilted and the edges are a bit brown and crispy. If you prefer, you can also cover the pan with a lid and allow the kale to steam for 2-3 minutes. Season with salt and pepper, and top with a squeeze of lemon or a splash of vinegar before serving.

Brussels sprouts
As for the Brussels sprouts, a quick pour of olive oil, a few grinds of salt and pepper, and a ten-minute roast in a very hot oven will do. If the sprouts are medium to large in side, I slice them in two before roasting.

brussels sprouts in colander

p.s. The tech gods have smiled upon me and at last I've figured out the trick to embedding enlarge-able photographs in my posts. Click on any of these wintry green beauties for an image that's more up close and personal.

2.14.2009

the mainland

Home. Where to put it? I've never been sure. It's the exclusivity of the thing that trips me up. Home. So conservative and tidy. So imposingly monogamous. But, see, when you're born and a little bit raised in one place, and the rest of the way raised in another, and when somewhere along the line home splits in two and you're always one foot here, one there, monogamy doesn't seem all that fair. What's more, it doesn't seem right.

So there's that.

And then there's the fact that I fall hard and fast for cities. Give me a city anywhere on this earth, and I'll happily slap down some roots and make a fine home of it. Born in New York City, I lived there until I was five. Then along came Ohio, which I called home until the city drew me back for college. I've spent my adult life (with the exception of a couple of years abroad) ping ponging back and forth between coasts: Seattle. Boston. San Francisco. New York. I may be flitty, but fickle, never. I love them all, these cities. Home is Alice in Wonderland in Central Park, and the smell of a thick, Ohio August night pushing its way through the screen door. It's a yellow plastic mixing bowl, a rumbling, untamed storm, and a wide open sky. It's a baguette from Le Panier, Beecher's Cheese, and tayberry jam in hand, Eli beside me, and the wind in my hair. There's the Mission District and my rusty magenta bike chained outside, and sweaty ten mile runs up and down the West Side Highway. Home is the Charles River footpath and Cambridge morning light. And, and, and... I claim it all.

All of this is to say that I've taken this show on the road. For the next two weeks I'll be broadcasting from Central Ohio, home to a large chunk of my immediate family, including Zelda the dog.

Zelda

It's also home - a home, anyway - to me.

Home is complicated for most of us in some way or another, isn't it? My dad and step-mom, Amy, are both transplants to Ohio from the Northeast and the South, respectively. Their home is here, and yet they are not entirely at home here. The pile of magazines on the coffee table betrays their dueling loyalties: Southern Living. Berkshire Living. The New Yorker. No wonder I have a roaming eye myself when it comes to where I call home.

When I would come home to Ohio over college winter breaks, my friends on the east coast would call me and ask, "So, what time is it there?" Uh, same time as it is where you are, my friends. Yet for some reason, Ohio seemed to them an exotic and distant land, teeming with cows and blurring lazily into other Midwestern states that served them mainly as terrain for flying over en route to L.A. from New York. If you're born and raised in Ohio, and are content to stay put your whole life, you're provincial. But if you never set foot outside the Northeast, you're somehow worldly. Maybe someone can explain that to me one day. I'm a big city girl, through and through, but there's nothing like returning to the mainland every now and again.

Allow me to show you around.

I thought I'd begin with a taste from the food section of our local paper. The humble headlines make me smile: Nuts give turkey burgers distinctive crunch. Recipe uses leftover rice. And, my personal favorite, Oysters could stir up feelings. Then there's the "Cook's Corner," a local recipe exchange column. This week, in response to readers' requests, a recipe for hot dog soup (containing "1 cup shredded American cheese") and ham loaf were listed. I thought that one of the Valentine's Day recipes might be more your speed, and so I attempted a batch of the Cinnamon Scones from E3.

cinnamon scone on plate

I'm sorry to say, dear Valentines, that they were mediocre. Pleasantly mediocre, perhaps, but mediocre nonetheless. Made with cream instead of buttermilk, these scones were kind of heavy and dry. They did look pretty, at least, served on my grandmother's flowered plates.

Since I'm sure you would much rather eat a scone than merely admire its deceptive good looks from afar, something had to be done. So I reached back east and pulled out a tried and true recipe for scones that I think you will enjoy. This recipe is a snap, and is just the thing when you're in the mood for something biscuit-y but would rather not get dough beneath the nails.

Single oat scone

Maybe home is best defined as anywhere you feel comfortable wearing your pajamas to the breakfast table.

Welcome to the mainland. I hope you'll make yourself at home.

[Special thanks to Janet On the Planet for lunch at Dosa Corner, for e-mails that make me smile even when I'm dead set on feeling miserable, and for the title of this post.]

Maple-Oatmeal Scones
Adapted from Ina Garten's The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook

For biscuits:

3 1/2 c. flour
1 c. whole wheat flour
1 c. quick cooking oats (plus extra for sprinkling)
2 T. baking powder
2 T. granulated sugar
2 t. salt
1 pound (4 sticks) cold butter, diced
1/2 c. buttermilk
1/2 c. pure maple syrup
4 extra-large eggs, lightly beaten

For egg wash:
1 egg beaten with 1 T.

For glaze:
1 1/4 c. powdered sugar
1/2 c. pure maple syrup
1 tsp. vanilla

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Line two baking pans with parchment paper.

Mix the flours, oats, baking powder, sugar, and salt in the bowl of a stand mixer. At the lowest speed, blend in the butter until the pieces of butter are pea-sized. In a liquid measuring cup, combine the buttermilk, 1/2 c. maple syrup, and the four lightly beaten eggs. Add the liquid ingredients to the dry ingredients and mix until just blended.

Turn out the dough onto a lightly floured surface. With a floured rolling pin, roll out the dough to 1 inch thickness. (There will be little chunks of butter visible in the dough.) Cut out biscuits with a biscuit cutter and place on baking sheets. Brush the tops of the biscuits with egg wash and bake for 20-25 minutes.

While the biscuits are baking, whisk together the glaze ingredients. Allow the finished biscuits to cool slightly (if they're too hot, the glaze will slide right off), and then top each one with a spoonful of glaze and a sprinkling of quick cooking oats.

Makes 16-20 biscuits, depending on the size of your biscuit cutter.

plate of oat scones

2.12.2009

'tis the season

molasses cookie towers

It recently occurred to me that, this winter season, I neither baked nor consumed a single holiday cookie.

November, December, and January all came and went, and not one festive macaroon, not a glassy grain of red sugar, not even a severed little gingerbread appendage passed my lips. But then came February, and with it, one last chance for season's eatings. I speak of that holy day that transcends all faiths and religions, and unifies Americans everywhere under the banner of chili dogs and over the top commercials: Super Bowl Sunday. (Football is another centerpiece of the festivities, or so I hear.)

Our friends Stephanie and Yehuda host a yearly Super Bowl party where food gets top billing. These fine folks have their priorities straight, and their amazing eats attract a hungry crowd of celebrants for whom football is merely the sideshow. In addition to the traditional wings and hot dogs, this year's spread featured a selection of chilies, including a super-spicy version to honor ten glorious years of Super Bowl parties past. And then there was The Condiment Table, an entire table devoted to sauces, relishes, and krauts. Ketchup and mustard sat proudly on display, ready and willing to dress the waiting hot dogs and buns. No hot dog went unclothed. Mine was so well-attired, in fact, that the hot dog and bun disappeared beneath a mountain of sauerkraut and chili. Only the nubby tail end poked out from underneath. A quick word about sauerkraut, if I may: Having been placed on The Condiment Table, the sauerkraut was squarely situated in the category of "Just a few spoonfuls, please, so that there's enough to go around." Otherwise, I surely would have helped myself to a big heaping bowl of the stuff. I love it. In my book, sauerkraut is no more a mere condiment than whipped cream is simply a dessert topping. Both, I feel, should be eaten on their own, and in copious quantities. (Separate bowls though, please.)

You have been patient indeed, dear ones, to stay with me through all this talk of sauerkraut and hot dogs when what I promised you was cookies. Onward.

Sometime later in the evening, The Condiment Table underwent a stunning transformation into something even more alluring. It became - I think you can see where this is going - The Dessert Table. Two big plates of golden cookies stared up at me from the center of the table. This was my chance. At long last, it was cookie time. Never mind that these spicy molasses numbers were about a month overdue. They could have held their own on a platter of Christmas cookies any day, including a snowy, Super Bowl Sunday in early February. With their ginger-y bite and sprinkling of sugar, these chewy rounds brought my cookie famine to a delicious, welcome close.

With a little sleuthing, I found out that my friend Carrie was the baker behind these molasses lovelies. Thank you, thank you, Carrie, for a much-needed cookie fix, and for passing along the recipe.

I consumed. I baked. I consumed again.

Better late than never.

molasses cookies
Molasses Cookies
from Gourmet, November 1995
adapted by my friend Carrie's friend, Dalia

4 c. all-purpose flour
1/2 t. salt
2 1/4 t. baking soda
2 t. ground ginger
1 1/4 t. ground cloves
1 1/4 t. cinnamon
1 stick (1/2 c.) unsalted butter, room temperature (or use Earth Balance Buttery Sticks for a darn good dairy-free version)
1/2 c. vegetable shortening (preferably trans-fat free; I use Spectrum)
1 c. plus 1/2 c. sugar, divided
1 c. brown sugar
1/2 c. unsulphured molasses
2 large eggs

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Lightly grease 2 large baking sheets.

In a large bowl, whisk together flour, salt, baking soda, ginger, cloves, and cinnamon.

In the bowl of a stand mixer, beat together butter, shortening, 1 c. sugar and 1 c. brown sugar, until light and fluffy. Beat in molasses, and then the eggs, one at a time. Gradually beat in the flour mixture and combine well.

Pour the remaining 1/2 c. sugar into a small shallow bowl. Form the dough into balls (I use 1 T. of dough per cookie) and roll in sugar. Arrange the dough balls on the baking sheets 3-4 inches apart - the cookies will spread as they bake - and flatten slightly with the bottom of a glass dipped in sugar. (I accidentally forgot this step when I prepared the first batch, but they still came out fine. They were just a little crinkly on top, like a newly spread bed sheet before a smoothing sweep of the hand.)

Bake for approximately 13 minutes, until the cookies are slightly puffed and golden. Transfer the cookies to a wire rack to cool. The cookies will be quite soft when you first take them out of the oven, but will firm to chewy perfection as they cool.

Makes 76 cookies.

2.09.2009

farewell oatmeal

When a dear childhood friend comes in for the weekend and, on the last night of his visit, you stay up until 2am gabbing, giggling, and crying your way through a box of tissues, and the next morning you wake up early because, despite the draw of your pillow, you hunger for just a few more minutes together before he has to leave for the airport, it's time for a pot of farewell oatmeal.

farewell oatmeal

Joel and I met in the eighth grade. He would sit behind me in French class and playfully poke my back with a pencil. I would respond with the requisite combination of feigned irritation, "I'm ignoring you" poker faces, and shy, backward glances that culminated in the occasional toothy grin.

Apparently, I wasn't the only one on the receiving end of some gentle prodding. Joel, it turns out, had a mother to contend with, a mother who thought it best that her son invite me to the upcoming school dance, and she wasn't afraid to say so. Bless Joel's sweet little pencil poking heart, invite me he did. And I, in a grand adolescent gesture of who the heck knows what turned the lovie down. I know, dear reader, I was pure evil. To this day I have no idea why. I do recall wailing to my poor mother about the earth shattering crisis of having been invited to a dance by a cute and seemingly lovely young man. The tears I shed. Though in retrospect all of this carrying on probably had less to do with our honey, Joel, and more to do with a fever-y bug that was coming on. I missed the next three days of school, and who do you think called to ask if he might bring me my books and missed assignments? I sheepishly accepted Joel's very kind offer, and our friendship officially began. Over the next few years, we played opposite each other in all the school plays, worked on our biology assignments together late into the night, and on more than one occasion attempted to contact the dead with the help of a frighteningly responsive OUIJA board.

It is at this point clear, I hope, that Joel's departure from Cambridge was not to be taken lightly. A slow pot of oats was just the thing to stretch out our remaining time together, and add a little leisure to a morning of quick showers and hurried packing. The milk took its time coming to a boil, and the oats rose and fell in long, frothy sighs. Soon I was no longer stirring, but pushing and scraping my way through the thickening oats with a big wooden spoon.

Joel marveled first at the whole rolled oats that came pouring out of a canister ("What? Where are the little paper packets?"), and then at the uniquely creamy consistency of stove-top simmered oats.

But even the snooziest bowls of steamy oats must ultimately make way for the rest of the day, even when that day includes a farewell you'd rather not face.

So long for now, Joel-ie. Come back soon.

Farewell Oatmeal
This recipe serves three, but you can adjust the quantity up or down by following this simple formula: 1/2 c. of rolled oats per person, and 1 c. of milk per 1/2 c. of oats. Adjust the other ingredients up or down according to taste.

1.5 c. of rolled oats
3 c. milk
A few grinds of sea salt
1 T. brown sugar
1 t. cinnamon
1/4 t. nutmeg
1 t. vanilla
1 c. toasted pecans or almonds (I prefer pecans in this recipe, but almonds will work in a pinch)
1 c. dried cherries

Bring the oats, milk, and a few turns of sea salt to a boil in a saucepan. Use a medium flame; a fire that's too hot may scorch the milk and make for an unpleasant pot cleaning situation later on. Stir occasionally to keep the oats and milk from sticking to the pot.

Once the oatmeal reaches a boil, turn the flame down as low as possible so that it just simmers. Stir, push, and scrape the bottom and sides of the pot every now and then. Carry on for about 10 minutes, until the oats and milk have merged into delicious creaminess. About half way through, stir in the brown sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, and vanilla.

Cover, and let sit for 3-5 minutes.

Scoop into bowls and top with toasted nuts and dried cherries. Serve with a pitcher of milk and a bowl of extra brown sugar.

2.08.2009

take that

Alright, Boston. I get it, it's winter. So you can stop trying to prove it. Enough with the plummeting temperatures, the thickening crust of ice on the sidewalks, and those merciless whips of wind across the face, okay? Really. You've outdone yourself.

On Friday, as Eli and I shivered our way into the weekend, we decided that it was time to fight back against the stinging cold. My best friend from high school was coming to visit, after all, and we had to do something to make this frozen land more hospitable. Boston, you left us no choice. We made the hottest, steamiest, most meltingly rich dish we could think of: lasagne.
swiss chard lasagna
We devoured it. And that was after we had already warmed our tummies with hot-from-the-oven bread smeared with muhammara, and a first course of wild mushroom soup. (Please forgive me, dear ones, for holding back on the soup recipe for now. Yes, it was satisfying, thanks to a handful of fresh thyme and a generous pour of spiced rum. Delicious even. But not quite as delicious as my friend Sarah's mushroom soup. Sarah has promised that the recipe - in German no less - is on its way. I, in turn, promise you that when I cook up a pot, you will be the first to know. The recipe will be yours. In English, of course.)

Alongside our bubbling main dish, we served roasted brussels sprouts and carrots, doused in olive oil and rolled in salt, pepper, and cumin. Joel, our weekend guest of honor, Eli and I could never have handled this feast with our three measly stomachs alone. Thank goodness for my sister, Kasey, and our friends, Sam and Elisha, who offered up their appetites and fine company to the cause. Though we soon found ourselves stuffed with creamy pasta and buttery mushrooms, we refused to admit defeat. We called a time out and sent for reinforcements. Varina from upstairs, Amy and David from down the hall, and their three little girls arrived just in time to help us tackle dessert. That warm apple tart and cinnamon ice cream were no match for the twelve of us.

I saw not one shiver, heard not one chatter of the teeth. I guess all it took was a hefty pan of lasagne and good folks all around to coax a little warmth out of this freezing February.

So take that, Boston winter. Now you know: We've got crockery for the cooking and cheese for the melting and we're not afraid to use 'em.

Swiss Chard Lasagne
Based on Urusula Ferrigno's Lasagne di Radicchio alla Trevisana, from her cookbook Truly Italian. Adapted by Rachel Milner Gillers. And again by me.

I received this recipe from my friend Rachel who suggested a couple of key substitutions. Following her advice, we swapped in Swiss chard for the radicchio, and feta cheese for the creamy blue.

3 bunches of Swiss chard (we used a combination of green, red, and rainbow)
3 T. of olive oil
2 medium fennel bulbs, peeled and quartered.
1 box dried lasagna
2 medium onions, peeled and finely chopped
6 T. butter
1/2 c. flour
3 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
2 c. plus 2 T. milk
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
8 oz. sheep's milk feta cheese cut into cubes, plus an extra 2 oz. to sprinkle on top

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

De-rib the chard, wash well, and pat dry. Place on a baking sheet and drizzle with the oil. Bake for five minutes, until the chard is a little droopy and a bit crispy around the edges. Set aside.

Meanwhile, steam the fennel pieces over boiling water, about twelve minutes (until slightly al dente). Remove and finely chop.

Cook the lasagne in plenty of boiling, salted water until al dente. Drain and set aside.

Now make the sauce: Melt the butter in a saucepan. Add the onion, and cook until golden. Next add the flour, garlic, and steamed fennel, and cook for 3-5 minutes. Add the milk, and a few grinds of salt and pepper. Remove from the heat and stir.

Place the saucepan back on the heat and bring to a boil, stirring continuously until thickened. Add the 8oz. cubed feta and stir well.

Finally, assemble the dish: Place a layer of sauce in an ovenproof dish followed by a layer of chard and a layer of pasta. Continue in this fashion until all of the sauce, chard, and lasagne have been used up. Finish with sauce on top. Sprinkle with the remaining 2 oz. of cheese.

Place in the heated oven and bake for 20-30 minutes, until bubbling and golden brown on top.

2.04.2009

pressed

When it comes to toasted sandwiches, the whole is truly greater than the sum of its parts.

I should know. I've been pressing panini like a mad woman this week. A spoonful of sautéed wild mushrooms? Yes, please. Swiss cheese? Uh huh. Arugula? Caramelized onions? Delicious all on their own. But slap these four humble items together on some crusty bread with a squirt of Dijon mustard, slide the whole package onto the press, and stand back, dear readers. The toasty sum of these parts is really, and I do mean REALLY something.

Loitering high on a shelf in its still unopened box, our panini press has been hiding out in our kitchen for three long years. It's a miracle that it has survived until now, in clear violation of a cardinal rule we hold dear: Thou shalt neither purchase unnecessary kitchen appliances, nor keep those that go unused. Eli and I came to this rule each on our own, thanks in part to our small square of a kitchen and lack of storage space, and in part to our sweet mommies.

I, it seems, inherited from my mother some kind of clutter-free kitchen gene. Mom has long had a passion for naked countertops. This woman can sponge down a surface like nobody's business. I swear, I've seen her wipe absolutely nothing from a perfectly clean countertop and beam with satisfaction. Mom renovated her kitchen a few years back, and lovingly selected granite for her new countertops. She even installed an appliance garage to hide unsightly mixers, sugar jars, and French coffee presses that might otherwise mar her dark, smooth expanse of pure counter.

My aversion to kitchen clutter is not quite as extreme. After all, my stand mixer sits permanently on my countertop. But that high I get from a thoroughly tidied kitchen, a blank canvas once more, is something visceral that - without a shred of science to back me up - I assume must be genetic.

If my mom's kitchen is spare, my mother-in-law Sarah's kitchen is brimming, and with good reason: The eating habits of her large family run the gamut, and Sarah, quite generously, caters to one and all. There's the vegan, white flour avoider, the voracious meat eater, the pickle devotee, the vegetarian, the fish hater, the oil averse, the liver lover, and on and on... Sarah makes it her business to feed us all, each according to his or her own picky palate. While there's often more shelf than food on display in my mother's refrigerator, Sarah's is so packed that you'd better be ready to catch the yogurt or leftover chicken that just might jump out at you when you open the door. This bubbling kitchen simply cannot contain its bounty. And that's where a basement underworld of pots, casserole dishes, appliances, and extra freezers comes in. It's wild. No wonder my poor Eli trembles at the thought of an unused waffle iron or rice cooker wedged high on a shelf, staring him down.

But back to the kitchen appliance at hand that, despite our cardinal rule, avoided a one-way ticket to Goodwill year after year. Over the last few days it has been making up for lost time. Could it really be that anything squeezed between the sizzling plates of a panini press emerges utterly irresistible? To find out, I've been pressing and eating everything in sight. (It's a hard life, I know.) Well, almost everything. From cheddar and apple to spinach and eggs, I foolishly stayed safely on the savory side, panino after panino. Until now. Praise be to my dear friend Sunny who, after hearing that I had at long last unleashed the panini press on my kitchen, uttered two delectable words: Banana. Chocolate.

banana chocolate panino
Good heavens.

banana chocolate panino pressed
I have a feeling that my panini days are just beginning. If you have a favorite combo, sweet or savory, please do let me know. I would love to try it. Don't be shy, now. I know that posting a comment in the wide open plain of the blogosphere can feel a little scary, but it seems we're a friendly bunch over here at Sweet Amandine, so there's nothing to fear. In case you'd prefer the more private space of e-mail, I've set up an inbox just for you: sweetamandine@gmail.com. Connecting with you, dear ones, is one of my favorites parts of this little endeavor, so if you have the urge to write, please do!

One more bit of housekeeping: I've put together a recipe index for your convenience. You'll find the link over there on the right.

And with that, I'm off to contend with the few items in the kitchen that I have not yet squished between two warm, crispy pieces of bread. Once I'm done with the pantry, who knows. That pair of old running shoes is beginning to look mighty tasty. Pressed with a bit of brie and apricot jam they might just hit the spot.

2.01.2009

the good fight

apricot torte
I know. She looks innocent enough. But this apricot torte fought me every step of the way. This torte is the dessert equivalent of a fussy toddler who, having thrown her final tantrum of the evening, appears suddenly sweet and angelic dozing off between the sheets. I suppose I'm the one who got us off on the wrong foot. That trusty truism, "There's a time and a place," carries a lot of weight in the kitchen. Yet I somehow forgot that when I'm fall-on-my face tired more than an hour past bedtime, it is decidedly not the time to get going on a brand new recipe. After our Thursday night shakshuka and Johnnycake feast and subsequent flop on the sofa, the only place I had any business being was in bed. But as I peeled myself from the cushions, another maxim must have crept into my brainspace, because suddenly I was headed to the kitchen, determined "never to put off 'till tomorrow what I could do today."

We were invited to my friend Sunny's for dinner on Friday night, and I had been entrusted with the holy task of dessert. The apricot almond linzertorte from this month's Gourmet magazine beckoned. Okay, what really beckoned were the closing lines of Ruth Reichl's "Letter from the Editor:"

"I guess it's time to go cook something. I think I'll make an apricot almond linzertorte. It's incredibly good. If you'd care to join me, you'll find the recipe on page 79."

Me? Join you in the kitchen, Ruth? I thought you'd never ask!

I flipped furiously to page 79, and somehow in my starstruck state I did something just plain stupid. I didn't read the recipe through. I recklessly started right in. I even failed to notice that the "start to finish" time was listed as 4 hours. Four. A chunk of this time is eaten up by the final cooling, so that's forgivable. It was the multiple coolings and chillings and transferrings from pot to processor to plate to pastry throughout the recipe that did me in. And then there was that temperamental dough. It rolled out nicely enough, but crumbled under the weight of itself when I tried to drape it into the springform pan. One would think that the parenthetical remark, "(pastry will break in spots)," would have consoled me. No. I just felt patronized. By a recipe. I told you I was tired.

Half way through, I decided to call it a night, get some sleep and, essentially, leave for tomorrow what I could have done today. Having failed to execute not one but two snappy aphorisms in one fell swoop, I headed off to bed.
The next morning, it was time to make the filling. The apricots in the pot seemed cheery enough. Simmering them in brandy, sugar, and water until they relaxed into a sleepy syrup was the best part of this recipe. Coaxing the finicky dough into a presentable enough lattice top was not as pleasant.

Finally, I pushed the torte into the oven. Relief.

She emerged golden and glistening. My heart began to soften. And then I suffered one final blow: I burned my chin. Yes, my chin. I guess that's what you get when, in an attempt to listen in on the gurgling fruit filling, you find the side of a springform pan in the way of your face.

Convinced that this dessert hated me, I dropped her unceremoniously on the cooling rack and gave her the silent treatment for the rest of the day.

That night, she tried to make it up to me by dazzling my friends and giving me all the credit. I'm a pushover for almond anything, as you already know, so I promptly forgave her. Don't any of you hold a grudge on my behalf, now. The whole rigmarole was not as bad as it sounds. The first bite alone was worth the trouble. Just be sure to read the recipe through before you begin.

Apricot Almond Linzertorte
Adapted from Gourmet, February 2009

I have streamlined this recipe for you a little so that you won't find yourself in the kitchen at 2am cursing apricots and longing for your pillow. In my version of the filling, I cut the recommended amount of sugar in half to allow the tartness of the apricots to shine through. The tartness works especially well with the sweet, homemade cinnamon ice cream I served alongside.

For the pastry:
2 cups whole toasted almonds with skins and cooled completely
3/4 cup sugar
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 tsp. ginger
1/4 tsp. ground cloves
2 large egg yolks
1 tsp. pure vanilla extract
1/4 tsp. (plus a few extra drops for good luck) almond extract
2 tsp. grated lemon zest
1 and 1/2 sticks cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch pieces

For filling:
1 cup water
1/3 cup sugar (or up to 2/3 cup, if you prefer a sweeter filling)
1/3 cup brandy (I used Cointreau, since we didn't have any brandy.)
8 oz. dried Pacific apricots

Powdered sugar for dusting

Equipment:
9 or 10-inch springform pan
Food processor

Preheat the oven to 350.

Spread the almonds in a single layer on a baking sheet and toast for approximately 7-10 minutes. (They're done when you can smell them.)

While the almonds are toasting, sift together the flour, salt, cinnamon, ginger, and cloves into a bowl. And get started on the filling: Dump the apricots into a small saucepan, cover with the water, sugar, and brandy, and turn on the flame. Simmer gently for 15-20 minutes. Check back in on the apricots every few minutes and give a stir. You're aiming for tender, deflated apricots. The liquid will thicken slightly into a syrup.

Remove the almonds from the oven and transfer them off of the baking sheet for more efficient cooling. An open window and below freezing temperatures outside also help.

While the almonds are cooling, lightly beat yolks, extracts, and zest in a small bowl with a fork. Then, cut the butter into 1/2 inch strips.

When almonds have cooled, pulse them together with the sugar in a food processor until the nuts are finely ground. Add the mixture of flour, salt, and spices and pulse to combine. Next, add the beaten yolks, extracts, and zest, and the cut up butter. Pulse until dough forms a ball.

(Don't forget to stir your simmering apricots.)

Form one third of the dough into a disk, then roll out between 2 sheets of plastic wrap into a 10-inch round. Transfer to a baking sheet and chill until firm, about 10 minutes. Roll out remaining dough between 2 sheets of plastic wrap into a 12-inch round, then transfer to another baking sheet and chill until firm, about 10 minutes.

By this time the apricots should be finished cooking. Transfer the fruit and syrup to a cleaned food processor and pulse until almost smooth. Spread the mixture onto a plate and chill for 15 minutes.

(At this point, with the pastry and the apricot filling in the refrigerator, you can go to bed or see a movie or do whatever it is that might keep you from finishing the torte until the following morning.)

Lock the ring of a springform pan onto its base. Remove the larger dough round from the refrigerator and peel off the top layer of plastic wrap. Then invert round into pan. Hopefully the following statement, liberated from its parentheses, will prove more consoling than patronizing: The pastry may break in spots. (Really, don't feel bad.) Press dough evenly onto the bottom, then discard the plastic. Fold in the edge of the dough and press 1/2 inch up the side of the pan. Press gently to close any cracks.

Bake pastry until lightly browned, about 20 minutes, then cool completely on a rack, about 30 minutes. The dough will puff up as it bakes but will settle as it cools. If you would like to serve this dessert with cinnamon ice cream, you can use this time to make the custard.

Spread the chilled filling into the cooled crust with a spatula or the back of a spoon.

Peel the top layer of plastic wrap from the smaller dough round, then cut round into 1 inch strips. Arrange half of the strips over the filling about 1 inch apart. Press the ends onto the edge of the torte. Arrange the remaining strips across the first strips to form a simple lattice.

Bake until top is browned. The original recipe claims a 40-50 minute bake time, but even 40 minutes was a tad too long in my own oven. Next time, I'll check it at 30.

Serve warm, dusted with powdered sugar and a scoop of cinnamon ice cream.

Note: This torte was even better on day two, so I recommend making it at least one day in advance. From the original recipe: "Torte can be made up to 2 days ahead and kept, covered, at room temperature."

slice of apricot torte
[Many thanks to Sunny for a fabulous vegetarian feast, and to Mary, for bringing her beloved camera to dinner and snapping this delectable shot of her slice.]