Season to Taste

Hello, friends, and happy Monday to you!

Hey, what are you doing tomorrow night at 7pm? I’ll be at the Harvard Book Store listening to my friend, Molly Birnbaum, read from her first book, Season to Taste: How I Lost My Sense of Smell and Found My Way. If you live in the Boston area, I hope you’ll join me.

Some of you might know Molly from her blog, My Madeleine. If you do, then you already know that she’s a beautiful writer. Molly once compared writing to grasping at sentences that burrow into your brain like worms, which must mean that she, like the rest of us, occasionally struggles to get the words down on the page. To read her prose, you’d never know it. Sometimes, when I’m all jammed up and feeling the urge to hurl my stupid, stupid computer and its stupid, blinky cursor out the window, I click over to her site and read a couple of posts, instead. I always feel much better. Molly’s writing reminds me of what words can do when you just chill the heck out and let them do it. That may not sound like much in the way of epiphanies, but some days, it feels like everything.

I can’t remember exactly when or how I found Molly. I’m pretty sure that it was sometime during those first few months of my recovery back in 2008, when things were still touch and go. I’ve never mentioned it here before, but when the surgeons went in to scrape out the infection that had set in around my brain (memories!), my olfactory nerves were damaged. For a while, I could smell nothing. Someone must have mentioned an article that Molly had written in The New York Times about the loss of her own sense of smell following a terrible accident, and her gradual recovery. I don’t think I read it then, but months later, I somehow discovered her blog, remembered her story, and dug into her archives to learn more: how she had graduated from college planning to enroll at the Culinary Institute of America; how she sweated it out in one of the finest kitchens around, up to her elbows in pork fat, washing dishes, deveining shrimp; and how, just a few months before starting culinary school, she was hit by a car, lost her sense of smell, and with it, her ability to taste. Suddenly, she had to rethink everything.

Season to Taste is the story of all this and more. It came out just last week, and it’s been so much fun watching the world grab hold of it. Today, Molly can smell just about everything, and in her book she tells us how she got here. It’s a memoir, but it’s also a brilliant and moving piece of science writing about the sense of smell, the psychology of it, and what’s actually going on up there in that tangle of nerves that allows us to breathe in and register something about the world that would otherwise remain invisible. Best of all, whether she’s writing about love and loss, or the discovery of elephant sex pheromones, Molly sounds like Molly. I know, because last summer, Molly moved to Cambridge, and quickly became one of my truest friends. I get to hear her voice all the time, and I love the thought that all of you get to hear it now, too.

In honor of the release, I want to share a recipe for lemon curd squares with rosemary. Rosemary was the first thing that Molly smelled when her nerves began to recover, so it feels only natural to include it here, today. I found the recipe in Melissa Clark’s In the Kitchen with a Good Appetite, a book I can’t wait to tell you more about, and I didn’t change a thing. I noticed last night that, in a strange coincidence, Molly also just posted about lemon bars on her blog! Oh well. We’re celebrating, right? Bring on the dessert. Lemon bars for everyone!

Congratulations, M. I’m so thrilled for you.

Lemon Curd Squares with Rosemary
Adapted from In the Kitchen with a Good Appetite by Melissa Clark

For the shortbread:
3 c. all-purpose flour
1½ c. (3 sticks) unsalted butter
½ c. granulated sugar
1/3 c. confectioners’ sugar, plus additional for sprinkling
1 Tbsp. chopped fresh rosemary (just to be clear, measure after you’ve chopped)
1 tsp. finely grated lemon zest

For the lemon curd:
6 large eggs
1½ c. granulated sugar
2/3 c. freshly squeezed lemon juice (about 4 lemons)
¼ c. all-purpose flour
1 Tbsp. finely grated lemon zest
A pinch of salt

Preheat the oven to 325 and lightly grease a 9 x 13-inch baking pan.

Make the shortbread:
Combine the 3 c. flour, butter, ½ c. granulated sugar, confectioners’ sugar, rosemary, and 1 tsp. lemon zest in a food processor, and pulse until a crumbly dough forms. Don’t be alarmed if the dough is very, very crumbly, indeed. That’s just how it is. It will come together beautifully as it bakes.

Press the dough into the prepared pan and bake until the shortbread is golden around the edges, about 40 minutes.

While the shortbread is baking, make the lemon curd:
In a large bowl, lightly beat the eggs, then add the 1½ c. granulated sugar, lemon juice, flour, ¼ c. flour, 1 Tbsp. lemon zest, and salt, and whisk until smooth.

When the shortbread is ready, take it out of the oven and increase the temperature to 350. Pour the lemon curd onto the shortbread and return the pan to the oven. Bake for about 20 minutes more, until the topping is just set. Allow to cool to room temperature before cutting into squares. Sprinkle with confectioners’ sugar right before serving.

The bars will keep, covered and refrigerated, for up to 3 days.

Yield: 24 squares.


A little bit of news

I am no fortune teller, no reader of palms. This blog is no crystal ball. But a funny thing happened back in January when I mentioned some changes afoot around here. I was referring to our move, as far as I knew, but perhaps this site knew better. Because a few days later, I learned there was a tiny something stirring, a something else, that is, that spelled a different kind of change:

Eli and I are expecting. I still can’t believe that I get to say that. I’m due at the end of September, and we’re over the moon. If my profile of late is any indication, it is also quite possible that I’ve swallowed the moon. It’s wild. I’m loving every minute.

At our big ultrasound in April, we asked the technician to write the baby’s sex on a card and seal it up. We thought it might be nice to find out a thing like that somewhere other than a doctor’s office, preferably in the presence of dessert. When my dad came to visit a couple of weeks later, we decided to let him tell us the news.

With ice cream.

We went to Toscanini’s and chose two flavors, one for a boy, and one for a girl. Then, we handed over the envelope to my dad. He opened it and, once he pulled himself together, ordered a scoop of the designated flavor. Eli and I sat and waited with our backs turned away from the counter. It went down a little something like this:

Then, up came the napkin, and we knew. It’s a…

STRAWBERRY ICE CREAM CONE! Meaningless information, I realize, until I explain that the other designated flavor was bananas Foster. (Banana - get it?) (And yes, Toscanini’s makes bananas Foster ice cream.)

Oh baby.

We can’t wait to meet her.

Strawberry-Sour Cream Ice Cream
Adapted from The Perfect Scoop, by David Lebovitz

Today I’d like to share a recipe for a very special strawberry ice cream. It’s a Philadelphia-style ice cream which, unlike the French-style that’s made from an egg-rich custard, involves only cream. Without the egg yolks, Philadelphia-style ice cream is lighter and brighter than its French counterpart. That’s great news for the strawberries in this recipe. While a French-style ice cream can weigh down the flavor of the berries, here they get to shine. We had a couple of friends over for dessert when I made my first batch, and it was that berry flavor, they said, that blew them away. Eli was disappointed at first by the texture – it’s not as smooth as the French-style ice creams he’s used to – but I caught him with a bowl of two scoops today. I think he’s getting over it.

1 pound (450 grams) fresh strawberries, rinsed, dried, and hulled
¾ c. (150 grams) sugar
1 Tbsp. vodka or kirsch (I use vodka.)
1 c. (240 grams) full fat sour cream
1 c. (250 ml) heavy cream
½ tsp. freshly squeezed lemon juice

Slice the strawberries and toss them in a bowl with the sugar and the vodka. Stir until the sugar begins to dissolve. Cover the bowl and let stand at room temperature for about an hour. Every now and then, give the berries a stir.

In a blender or food processor, pulse the macerated strawberries and their liquid with the remaining ingredients. You’re not aiming for a completely smooth purée, so go easy. You want a slightly chunky consistency.

Refrigerate for 1 hour (or longer), then freeze in your ice cream maker according to the manufacturer’s instructions. The ice cream will be quite soft when you first scrape it from the ice cream maker, but will firm up significantly in the freezer.

Makes about 1¼ quarts (1¼ liters).


All about the bits

Notice anything special about this rhubarb?

Wait, let me give you a closer look.

Too close? Sorry. How about this:


What we have here, friends, is an unusual specimen, indeed: a rhubarb sauce that manages to hold onto its bits. Rhubarb sauce, the one that I make, anyway, is typically a stovetop affair. The chopped rhubarb bits soften over a medium flame and, little by little, give themselves over to a dense, rosy sauce. Rhubarb sauce – the making of it, the eating of it – is lovely, through and through. But things get tricky if you’re after a sauce with a little chunk and heft to it. Those bits slipping away into nothing is how rhubarb sauce comes to be. Stop them from doing their thing, and all you have is a pot of mushy rhubarb. I’ve heard stories of rhubarb sauce yanked from the heat in time to preserve some semblance of bits, but by the time my sauce looks like the sauce I want it to be, all I ever have left are a few stubborn strands, at best.

Now, technically speaking, this sauce we’re discussing is no sauce at all. It’s actually roasted rhubarb. Unlike rhubarb sauce, roasted rhubarb is all about the bits. They remain more or less intact even as they stew in a shallow bath of water or wine and release their juices. I love roasted rhubarb, don’t get me wrong, but it can look awfully swimmy there in its puddle of thin cooking liquid. You can probably see where I’m going with this. What rhubarb sauce lacks in bits it makes up for in, well, sauce; roasted rhubarb, vice versa.

That’s where today’s recipe comes in. It’s a hybrid creature bred from rhubarb sauce and roasted rhubarb, a rare species that inherits the best from the both of them. It’s like a sturdy rhubarb sauce. Or maybe a saucy roasted rhubarb. Call it what you will. I call it roasted rhubarb compote.

Roasted rhubarb compote begins like many a roasted rhubarb, with sugared, thickly sliced stalks and a vanilla bean, splashed with citrus and tucked into an oven bound baking dish. You leave it alone to roast for a while, as you might expect. But about thirty minutes later, things get interesting. You pull the rhubarb from the oven mid-roast, and lift half of it into a sieve that you’ve placed over a small pot. Then, you return the untouched rhubarb to the oven and let it roast some more. When it has flushed a shade or two deeper and broken down considerably into a pulpy, almost-but-not-quite sauce, you strain it into your pot, too, and reduce the juices you’ve gathered into a brilliant pink syrup. Finally, you reassemble all of the pieces – the bits, the pulp, the syrup – in the baking dish. It’s funny business, to be sure, but it pays off.

A few Sundays ago, when I told you about that custard-filled corn bread, I threatened to bake it again the following weekend for some visiting friends, and to serve it with this rhubarb. That happened. We were so busy eating (custard-filled corn bread with roasted rhubarb compote is very, very good) and talking about hunter-gatherers’ gazelle hunting techniques (you know, typical breakfast conversation) that I forgot to take a photograph. I guess you’re going to have to trust me. Between the rhubarb photos here, and the corn bread photos there, you should be able to assemble the thing in your mind easily enough. And if your mind doesn’t feel like playing, I suppose you’ll just have to make up one batch each of corn bread and compote, and assemble the dish with your spoon, instead. Poor you.

Roasted Rhubarb Compote

In place of the orange zest and juice in this recipe, you might try ¼ to ½ a cup of fruity white wine. Brandi, whose rhubarb shortcake with mascarpone cream at Delancey last month made me gasp so loudly, I think I freaked out our server, makes a similar compote. She uses Grand Marnier instead of the citrus.

3 pounds rhubarb
Zest and juice from 1 orange (about ¼ c. of juice)
1 vanilla bean (when I’m without a bean, I substitute 1½ tsps. pure vanilla extract)
¾ c. sugar
3 Tbsps. butter

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Cut the rhubarb into ½ inch – 1 inch thick pieces. If the stalks are particularly thick, I sometimes slice them in half vertically first. Slide the rhubarb into a deep baking dish, and toss with the sugar, orange juice, and zest. Slice open the vanilla bean, scrape out the seeds, add them and the split pod to the dish, and stir. Let sit for 30 minutes, until the sugar has more or less dissolved, then give it a gentle stir.

Thinly slice the butter and scatter the pats over the top of the dish. Roast the rhubarb for 25-30 minutes, until the bits go soft, but still retain their shape. How soft is up to you. I like my rhubarb bits pretty firm, just a notch or two down from an actual crunch. If you prefer softer bits, leave them to roast for an additional 5 minutes.

Meanwhile, set up a fine-mesh strainer over a small saucepan. (A colander will also work, in a pinch.) When your bits have reached the desired consistency, remove the dish from the oven, and lift half of the rhubarb into the strainer. Press lightly on the rhubarb with the back of a spoon to encourage the juices to drain in the pot. (Be gentle. You don’t want to mash the rhubarb.)

Return the baking dish to the oven, and continue roasting the other half of the rhubarb for 15 minutes. The rhubarb will begin to break down and get saucy. Strain the second half of the rhubarb into the saucepan, fish out the vanilla bean, and return all of the strained rhubarb to the baking dish.

Bring the rhubarb juice to a boil and, stirring frequently, reduce it to a light syrup. Pour the syrup back over the waiting rhubarb, and stir.

Serve warm, room temperature, or cold. Anything goes.
Serves 6.