All I really want to do

I've been thinking all week about how to bring this whole NaBloPoMo thing to a close, whether I should bang out one last reader request post, or reflect on just how lovely it was for me to be here every day this month. (It was very lovely.) But in the end, all I really want to do today is thank you.  And feed you cake.  

This is Alice Medrich's sherry and olive oil pound cake. I've never baked a boozy cake before, and for some reason I thought that most of the alcohol would burn right off, the way it does in cooking. I was mistaken about that. I discovered my error at approximately 1:25pm today when, after consuming two slices in rapid succession, my head felt suddenly swimmy. This cake is festive, shall we say, soaked and squidgy with a FULL CUP of sherry. (Though I am a terrible lightweight, so it's possible that you won't find it nearly as strong.) The dimpled crust has a crunch to it; the crumb is tight and rosy. It's scented with orange zest and as the cake baked, I could smell winter coming.

Thank you for a great November, everyone. I've loved spending this month with you.


Sherry and Olive Oil Pound Cake
Adapted from Pure Desserts by Alice Medrich

You have your choice of pans for this cake. The recipe makes enough for one 10- to 12-inch tube or Bundt pan, or for two 5- to 6-cup loaf pans. In her recipe notes, Alice Medrich says something about toasted slices for breakfast, so I went with the loaves, naturally. She also says that the cake improves over a day or two. It's very good today just a few hours out of the oven, so I'm looking forward to that.

The recommended sherry for this recipe is a medium sherry called Amontillado. I had only Pedro Ximénex on hand (thanks to this recipe), which is sweeter, but I went ahead and used it and reduced the sugar by ¼ cup. No problem.

3 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
¼ teaspoon salt
1¾ cups sugar
1 cup extra-virgin olive oil
Zest from 1 medium orange
5 cold eggs
1 cup sweet sherry (Amontillado or Pedro Ximénex; see headnote)

Position a rack in the lower third of the oven and heat to 350 degrees. Oil and flour the pan(s), or line the loaf pans with parchment.

Sift the flour, baking powder, and salt into a medium bowl.

Put the sugar and the zest into the bowl of a stand mixer and mix with your fingertips, breaking up any clumps of zest as you go. Fit the mixer with the whisk attachment, add the oil, and beat on medium-high speed until well-blended. Beat in the eggs one at a time, waiting until each one is fully incorporated before adding the next. Continue to beat for 3-5 minutes, until the mixture is thick and pale.

Add a third of the flour, beat on low until just blended, half of the sherry, beat again on low until just blended, then repeat until all of the flour and sherry are incorporated. (Flour, sherry, flour, sherry, flour.)

Scrape the batter into the pan(s). Bake until a tester comes out clean, about 60 minutes, and the top is nicely browned. Cool the cake in the pan(s) on a rack for 15 minutes. Then, slide a knife around the sides of the pan(s) to release the cake(s), and turn out on the rack to cool completely.


November 29

A few more photos from that early November walk. I made these with a chubby little camera that I borrowed from my friend Steph.

:: :: ::

:: This week's food issue of The New Yorker is a treat. I was hoping that Calvin Trillin would have a piece in there and I was not disappointed. I love the way that man writes about, well, everything, but especially food and the people he loves. Also in this issue is a profile of Yotam Ottolenghi (chef, author, all-around smartypants) by Jane Kramer. It looks like you need a subscription for the link to that story to work; if you don't have one, I think these two pieces alone are worth the price of the issue.

:: I've got my eye on these.

:: And these.

See you tomorrow.


They hunt me down

Come now. You didn't really think we'd make it all the way through November without a single corn bread recipe, did you? You did? That's okay. To be perfectly honest, I did, too. Enough is enough is enough is enough. I thought. But it's no use. These corn breads, they hunt me down. They sneak up out of nowhere and tap me on the shoulder like Eli sometimes does when I'm hunched over my computer writing, only instead of screaming and banging my knee on the desk, I pull out a skillet.

I hope you know that I wouldn't dare crowd our plates with another cornbread if it weren't something special. I may say that about all my corn breads, but that doesn't make it any less true. This one sprang from the pages of Melissa Clark's most recent book, Cook This Nowan endorsement in itself when you consider that Clark is also the source of a certain very special snacking cake that makes me want to applaud every time I bake it. I gave the book to my mother sometime last year, and when I went home to Ohio for the holiday I found it, appropriately stuffed with page markers, on a shelf right by the kitchen. This recipe is one she hadn't gotten to, not yet, but I had a good feeling about it - something having to do with the words "corn" and "bread" and "Melissa" and "Clark" - so I copied it down before I left. Then, at my father's house on our last morning in Ohio, I got down to business.

This honey whole wheat corn bread is a smooth-faced beauty, as you can see. Nothing fancy. It looks like corn bread. But there are some noteworthy things that happen in and around its making and I shall now commence to note them. The name of this bread does some of my work for me, spelling out as it does some of what makes this cornbread this cornbread: the honey and the whole wheat flour. It's up to me, though, to tell you that the whole wheat flour is so sparingly used here that you can think of it almost as a seasoning, adding flavor more than texture to a light and tender crumb. It's the kind of bread that's very easy to chew and swallow, and I appreciate that. Still, I suspect that this recipe would stand up nicely to more whole wheat, and maybe even be the better for it. Melissa Clark herself suggests swapping in whole wheat flour for the white as a variation, and I’m going to do that next time. I'm excited now to tell you about the butter and the way it makes its way into this bread. It's unlike anything I've ever seen. First, you prepare the batter. The dry ingredients, the wet ingredients, everything but the butter. Next, you place your skillet over a high flame and let it get very hot. Here's where things get interesting. Instead of melting your butter the usual way which, for me, means starting it in a cold pan or zapping it in the microwave, you toss it into the already-hot skillet. So in addition to melting, it also browns. Faintly, but enough to taste it later on and feel glad that it's there. If your skillet is hot enough and you've cut your butter into pieces, the browning happens almost at once. Swirl it around, pour it into the batter, and you get a fully-greased skillet for your trouble, too. Not bad, I say. Welcome, newest corn bread. You can stay.

Honey Whole Wheat Corn Bread
Adapted from Cook This Now, by Melissa Clark

This recipe calls for a 9-inch skillet but all we had was a 10-inch, so I used that and really liked the thinner bread with more crust. In fact, the day before I made this cornbread, we made this one in the same 10-inch pan (yes, you read that correctly; two corn breads in two days) and from now on I’m going to choose the larger skillet for that one, too.

1 cup cornmeal
1/3 cup whole wheat flour
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup sour cream
½ cup whole milk
1/3 cup honey
2 eggs
¼ teaspoon baking soda
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, sliced into ½ inch pieces

Heat the oven to 375 degrees. Whisk together the cornmeal, flours, baking powder, and salt in a large bowl. In a separate bowl whisk together the sour cream, milk, honey, eggs, and baking soda. Pour the wet ingredients into the flour mixture and gently fold until just combined.

Heat a 9- or 10-inch cast iron skillet over a high flame until very hot. Toss in the butter and swirl to coat the bottom and sides of the skillet. Once the butter is well on its way to fully melted – it will be a matter of seconds, not minutes – remove the skillet from the heat and continue swirling until the butter is completely liquid. Fold the melted butter into the batter, then scrape the batter into the skillet.

Bake for 25-30 minutes, until the top is golden, the edges are crisp and pull away a bit from the sides of the skillet, and a toothpick inserted into the center of the bread comes out clean.

Serves 8-10.


A conversation with Jodi Kantor

Hi, all.

I have a little something different for us today. I've mentioned before that I see this space as a kind of workshop or studio, a place where I come to write stuff and make stuff, and also to think about how that writing and making gets done. I've always loved talking to writers and artists about their creative process. Since starting in on my manuscript I've found these conversations to be particularly helpful and inspiring. So, I thought it might be fun to invite someone to join us right here for a chat. (And some soup.)

Our guest today is New York Times reporter and best-selling author Jodi Kantor, whose book, The Obamas, came out in January of this year. As I read it, I wondered, as I often do, about the author's writing life. I was thrilled when Jodi graciously agreed to discuss just that with us, here.

I hope you'll enjoy this conversation as much as I did.

:: :: ::

JF: Can you tell me a little about your daily writing routine? Do you have one?

JK: Not in the slightest. You know, I think of myself as a reporter before I think of myself as a writer. My friends who are novelists, they’re the ones locking themselves in a room with a cup of tea, a blank screen, and the characters in their brains. But my job for the past six years has been to answer questions like, "Who are Barack and Michelle Obama? What’s happening to them in the White House? How are they changing?" So the part of my job I spend the most time on, the part I ruminate on and stress about and frankly enjoy the most, is reporting. Watching the president and first lady. Speaking with the people close to them. A lot of breakfast and drink dates, a lot of trips to D.C. and Chicago. I love writing, but writing is not where the drama is in my job, book-wise or newspaper-wise. Some stories are a struggle to write, some practically write themselves. Some are fast, some are slow. But I don’t worry a lot about writing because I just revise my way into it. I’ll write a terrible draft and then figure out how to improve it. Also, I have the best editor in the history of... Actually, she hates superlatives, so I will merely state that she is rather good at her job.

JF: But still, your book is, what, about 400 pages long? And you've constructed a narrative that carries us all the way through it. At some point, at many points, you have to be sitting alone with your notes and a blank page and figuring out how you’re going to say what you want to say, no?

JK: Yes. My book takes place chronologically, as the presidency unfolds. But the presidency is a flood, a torrent of issues and problems and events and characters and incidents, and I wanted to follow one particular story in that flood: the Obamas’ arrival in this strange new world and their reaction to it. Some of the trick was figuring out which scenes were going to stand for which ideas.

JF: So, when you’re doing that figuring out, when and how do you do it? Do you set aside time after a period of reporting where you sit down with everything you've got and start mapping things out? Or is it more like you do all your reporting, then you’re in the shower one morning and suddenly it hits you exactly how to get a chapter down, so you run in a towel to your desk and drip all over your notebook trying to write out your idea before it leaves you? (Or, uh, is that just me?)

JK: More like the second. Then I sit down and I write the bad, sloppy, fast version, just to get it down on paper. I might polish it a little. But I’ll always discover the same thing next: I need more reporting. So it’s back to sources. More breakfasts, more phone calls, or sometimes even texts.

JF: Are you always right about that? That you need more reporting? Do you ever find that you think you need more reporting, but maybe it’s actually just that you haven’t figured out how to write it the way you want to? I guess what I’m asking is if you ever find yourself procrastinating on the writing by doing more reporting. I know I do that all the time when writing papers for graduate school. "If I just look at one more source..."

JK: Reporting is always the answer.

JF: Of course, "procrastinating" is putting too sharp a point on it. The trouble is, I find, that sometimes that instinct is exactly right, that more information is necessary. And sometimes it’s just some weird subconscious coping mechanism. And I find it really hard to distinguish the two.

JK: Yes, you have to cut the reporting short at some point. As my old editor David Plotz used to say, "the deadline is the muse." And you can get too deep into the weeds, for sure. One reportorial disease is a deep fascination with information no one else cares about.

JF: I think that’s a disease shared by academics. And lots of writers, too. I want to ask you now about your relationship with deadlines. I have always said that while I love writing, I could never ever be a reporter because I am such a painfully, painfully slow writer. But I’m doing this thing on my blog right now for National Blog Posting Month where I've committed to posting every day by midnight. The other day I found myself cutting it extremely close. Midnight was approaching and I was nowhere near done with the post I was writing. But then this adrenaline kicked in, and the piece just took on a life of its own, and instead of it being what I thought it was going to be, it became something else, and suddenly, bam, there was the last sentence. I posted at 11:58pm. I have to say, it was quite a rush! And I thought – just for a second – hey, maybe it would be fun to write in that state more often. Because of that (self-imposed) deadline, words showed up, and what those words turned out to be surprised me. Do you get that rush all the time when you’re writing shorter pieces for the New York Times? I imagine that you have to love it, or you wouldn't be able to do what you do.

JK: Yes, I love that rush. I recently wrote this story in a couple of hours, and it was so satisfying. Pitched the idea at 6:00am, boom. Reported and wrote in a few hours, boom. On the front page the following day, huge reaction, boom.

JF: I am in awe of the "boom." I experience it so infrequently.

JK: Even that story required revision, though. The first lede was, in the words of one editor, "actually going to repel New York Times readers away from this story."

JF: So, after writing in that tight-deadline mode for years, what was it like to switch gears for the book?

JK: The deadline for the book was far more intimidating than any newspaper deadline, because the action was unfolding in real time as I was writing about it. I wanted to answer questions I thought would be on many readers’ minds around now. How has the Barack Obama of 2008 changed? What does Michelle Obama really make of this whole thing? What happens to you – really happens to you – when you become president or first lady?

JF: Did you find the day-to-day energy of sitting down to write was different without the close deadlines looming? Did you detect a change in your voice, the way the words came together on the page? To get the writing out, did you set yourself mini-deadlines along the way?

JK: Yes to all. The biggest change for me was temporarily leaving the nest of the New York Times. The Times is a place of rules, of forms. Writing a story here means following a recipe, one refined over the years by the best writers and editors in the business. Ideally you’re not just following the recipe. You’re adding new thoughts, flourishes, and so on. But a New York Times story is a New York Times story. There are certain things you have to do with it, and certain things you can never do with it. A book is different. A book can be anything, which means limitless possibility and terrifying freedom.

JF: At the beginning of our conversation, you mentioned "not really worrying" about the writing, and "revising your way" into your work. I imagine that these two things are related, that the fact that you’re "not really worrying" allows you to let yourself go, write your heart out in a messy, messy way, and then deal with it later. Do you think that’s right?

JK: Exactly. The reason I don’t worry about writing is that I have a reliable process, a set of steps I follow. I outline, which is slow and hard. I write the first draft, which is slow and hard. But then it takes off from there. I get a lot of pleasure from making each draft better. That’s one reason I knew I wanted to be a journalist. I was always editing and polishing. Relatives’ toasts, friends’ grad school applications…

JF: When the writing is coming more slowly than you’d like, what do you do?

JK: One thing I find is that taking the right breaks helps. I recently wrote a big story about Obama’s personal approach to the role of first black president. The lede came to me after a yoga class. When I just can’t seem to write well, I stop and read the work of someone whose prose style I love, a non-fiction writer who is really expressive, who knows how to break the rules. Stacy Schiff, Marjorie Williams, and Frank Bruni all work well.

JF: Finally, let’s talk about food. I find that the things I like to cook and eat move in periods, so, for example, I associate the summer of 2009 with a certain lentil salad. Is there a certain food or meal that you ate a lot when you were working on The Obamas?

JK: Food memories from The Obamas… Good restaurants in Chicago and D.C. Glasses of red wine. You learn which sources like what. Warm bowls of CSA vegetables in Brooklyn, mixed with grains or cheese or whatever was in the house. Vegetarian stuff. My daughter, who is six, became a vegetarian while I was writing the book so that is our obsession. Do you have any vegetarian entrees a six-year-old kid might like?

JF: I do. [Coming right up!] Thank you so much for this, Jodi.

JK: My pleasure.

Tomato and Chickpea Soup
Adapted from Plenty by Yotam Ottolenghi

When I asked Jodi about her daughter's food preferences and aversions, she said, "A six-year-old's aversions? Do you have a year? And by the time I list them all, she'll have changed them." Jodi was, however, able to tell me that her daughter is reliably interested in soups - at least for now - and loves chickpeas and tomatoes. As it happens, our go-to soup from last winter, one that I made over, and over, and over again, but somehow never got down here, perfectly fits the bill. It's Yotam Ottolenghi's take on a Tuscan ribollita. His version is thickened with toasted sourdough bread, which is wonderful, but somewhere along the way I started substituting pearl barley, just enough to add some chew. (I got the idea here.) There's still plenty of bread involved when we eat this soup; it's just alongside rather than inside the bowl.

This recipe is forgiving. If you're down one or two of the herbs, you can still confidently make do with what you have. It freezes well, so I usually make a double batch and store the leftovers. Speaking of the freezer, if you happen to have some basil pesto stashed in there, this soup is an excellent occasion to trot it out. Plop a spoonful in the center of each bowl before serving.

1 large yellow onion, sliced
1 medium fennel bulb, sliced
1 large carrot, peeled, cut lengthways in half, and sliced
3 celery stalks, cut and sliced the same way
Olive oil for sautéing and finishing
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 cup white wine
1 14-oz. can Italian plum tomatoes
1 tablespoon chopped oregano
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
1 tablespoon thyme
2 bay leaves
2 teaspoons sugar
4½ cups vegetable stock (In a pinch, I once used water and adjusted the seasoning accordingly. I think I also added a small onion. Still good.)
1/3 cup pearl barley
2½ cups cooked chickpeas (Canned are fine here.)
Salt and black pepper

Put the onion and fennel into a large saucepan (I use a 3½ quart enameled cast-iron pot), add 3 tablespoons of olive oil, and sauté on medium heat for about 4 minutes. Add the carrot and celery and cook, stirring occasionally, for another 4 minutes, just until the vegetables have slightly softened. Stir in the tomato paste, and keep on stirring for one minute while it cooks. Add the wine and let it bubble away for a couple of minutes, then add the canned tomatoes with their juices, the herbs, sugar, and vegetable stock. Taste, and add some salt and pepper. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer and cook, partially covered, for about 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, put the chickpeas in a bowl and lightly mash them with a fork. You want a varied texture, a little mush, some whole chickpeas, and a lot that are in between. When the soup has simmered for 10 minutes, add the chickpeas and the pearl barley, return to a simmer, and cook for another 20-25 minutes. Taste again and adjust the seasoning. Drizzle each bowlful with olive oil and serve with plenty of warm, crusty bread. I've served it a handful of times, at least, with this.

Serves 4-6.


Earlier this month

Welcome to to the fourth and final week of NaBloPoMo! To kick things off, here are some photographs from a walk with my sister from earlier this month. My spoils of the day included an air plant and a large canister of maple cream from Hollis Hills Farm. The plant lives on a window sill in our living room now, and the maple cream is halfway gone. (Toast!) I haven't tried making maple cream on my own, but this is the recipe I'll start with if I ever do.

Happy Monday.


For all of us


Thanksgiving's completely swallowed me up this year and if it's okay with you, I think I'll stay down here for a while. There's lots of pie, and a vat of mashed potatoes, and gravy so smooth and rich with pan drippings, I'd like to wade right in. All of my people are here, too, first my mother and aunt in Cleveland, and now the rest of the clan about 150 miles south of there. Oh, and we've got leaves! Piles of them and a baby who knows what they're for.

Last night, around 8:30pm, Eli lifted a sleeping Mia off a sleeping Jess and climbed into bed himself. We all stayed that way until 5:30am, when Mia woke up for some milk. She normally flops around in our bed for a while after that, pulling my ears and patting Eli's cheeks, but this morning, she wedged herself into my armpit and conked right out again, and snoozed unmoving until eight o' clock. It was a Thanksgiving miracle. I can't remember the last time I slept that long or that late. When we all did finally peel ourselves from the bed, the grandparents and aunties whisked Mia away and I got a long hot shower. I swear, someone must have popped out my eyeballs during the night and given them a good scrubbing. Things look different today, brighter and crisper and mellower somehow than they did before so much food, and family, and consecutive hours of unconsciousness.

So, yes, if you don't mind, I think I'll stay right here. For a couple more days, at least. Then I promise, up and at 'em. There's work to be done. On our dining room table right now are five pies in various shades of almost-gone. I assume that you may also be facing a similar scene today, so I'll just go ahead and say it for all of us:  We'd better start in on some cookies.

It's never too soon, I tell you, to consider the cookie tin, not with Christmas tunes already spilling from my car radio and trees already aglow. Best to start with something simple, something with a hint of virtue, even, though you'd never know it. Best to start with a recipe I've had on deck since Sara and Hugh's cookbook arrived on my doorstep months ago for shortbread spiked with oats. With oats!  Not nuts, or zests, or spices, or cheese, or anything else I've ever tried to give shortbread a kick in the pants (not that it needs it; I'll take a plain, pure-butter shortbread any day) but OATS. I love a recipe like this, one that gets me excited about an ingredient I eat practically every day and cook and bake with all the time, but never in exactly this way. They're spiced with nutmeg, rich with butter, sweetened only with turbinado sugar, which adds an unexpected warmth. I like that they have the faintest chew to them within their crisp edges, unlike a more traditional shortbread that's all snap. The oats are a perfect fit. I baked a batch right before I left for Ohio and packed a couple with me for the road. I managed to eat only one of them on the plane while Mia napped on my lap, and I found the other one a few days later, still in tip-top shape. Sara says that these will last in an airtight container for up to one week, and I believe her. That means these cookies are shippable, and I'm thrilled about that. I bet some other people I know will be, too.

Oaty Shortbread with Chocolate Drizzle
Adapted from The Sprouted Kitchen by Sara Forte

1½ cups rolled oats, plus more for garnish
½ cup unsalted butter, room temperature
½ cup turbinado sugar, plus more for garnish
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 egg
¼ cup all-purpose flour
¼ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon nutmeg
2½ ounces dark chocolate (60-72% cacao), chopped
Flaked sea salt (I use Maldon)

Pulse the oats in a food processor to make a coarse flour. You’re looking for a varied texture, some finer meal, some flecks of oat. Pour the oats into a bowl and set aside, and cream the butter and sugar together in the food processor. Add the vanilla and egg and mix well, scraping down the sides of the bowl as necessary. Add the oat flour, all-purpose flour, salt, and nutmeg, and pulse a few times until just combined, scrape the sides, and give it a few more quick pulses.

Line a surface with a sheet of parchment or wax paper and sprinkle with rolled oats and turbinado sugar. Dump the dough onto the lined surface and roll into a log 2 inches in diameter.  The dough will be sticky, so you’ll have to work quickly. (If you have any trouble making a uniform log, do the best you can, and once the dough has chilled for 20-30 minutes, you can remove it from the fridge and give it a quick roll to correct any lumps or bumps.) Wrap the log in plastic and chill for 1-2 hours, or overnight. (Save the parchment paper for lining your baking sheet.)

Heat the oven to 350 degrees and line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

Remove the log from the fridge and slice the log it into coins 3/8 of an inch thick. Place them on the baking sheets 1½  inches apart and bake until the edges and bottoms are golden, 16-18 minutes. Cool completely on a wire rack.

When the cookies have fully cooled, melt the chocolate in a double boiler or glass bowl over a pot of simmering water. Drizzle the chocolate over the cookies using a fork; dip the fork into the chocolate and give the fork a few good hard taps over each cookie. For more control, you can do as Sara suggests: Scoop the slightly cooled chocolate into a plastic bag, snip off a corner, and pipe it onto the cookies. Sprinkle a few flakes of salt on top of each cookie. At a cool room temperature the chocolate will set in 30-45 minutes. Store in an airtight container between layers of waxed paper. The cookies will keep for a week.

Makes about 20 cookies.


To you and yours

Sunday supper, September 2012.

:: :: ::

Some Thanksgiving traditions from me and mine to you and yours:

::  Marcel the Shell with Shoes On (I and II)

::  Poultry Slam! (I like this one a lot.)

::  This cranberry relish

And some words from last year that are on my mind again today.

Thank you so much for being here.



Clear Flour

Hello, hello.

Anyone out there on this Thanksgiving eve?

With so much going on in your own kitchens, I thought we'd leave the baking to the pros tonight around here.

This is Abe Faber. He's standing just inside his bakery, Clear Flour Bread, which he owns with his wife, Christy Timon. 

There's a skylight in the middle of their kitchen.  The light and shadows are all over the place in there.

Clear Flour is across the river from where we live, but on Friday mornings, Mia and I go to a playgroup just a few blocks away. When it's time to walk home, I tuck Mia into her stroller for a nap and stop by the bakery for a morning bun with walnuts. I always plan to eat it at home with a cup of tea, and a few times I've made it.  

But it's a three mile walk, and that bun is very good.

Safe travels to all who are between places tonight, and happy landings.  See you tomorrow for a quick hello.


For no other reason

It’s November 20th! Thanksgiving’s on Thursday! Let’s talk about Valentine’s Day.

These photos are from this past one.  As you can see, we went out.  That was a first for us, which makes it sound as though we’re about as much fun as the Valentine’s Day equivalent of a lump of coal (whatever that is). I assure you, that is not the case. At least I hope it’s not. The thing is, I’ve always thought of Valentine’s Day as more of a kids’ holiday. With the hearts everywhere, and chalky candies bearing messages, and that chubby little naked fellow with the wings and bow and arrows, it’s easy to understand why.  It’s just not a day I've ever been able to take seriously, and that’s okay, because I don’t think you’re supposed to.  I think Valentine’s Day, much like Halloween, comes with an implied warning label:  for entertainment purposes only.  It’s not about grown-up, romantic love any more than Halloween is about true horrors.  It has nothing to do with popsicles on the sofa and the latest 30 Rock, or a custom built desk (with cubbies!), or awesome t-shirts, or a hand on my back while I chop onions, or a quick hello by phone in the middle of the day, all of which are more romantic in my book than any box of chocolates or bouquet of flowers could ever be.  (Though Eli, if you’re reading this, chocolates and flowers are also nice. Especially flowers.)  Valentine’s Day is about other stuff, the giant chocolate heart with my name in white icing that my grandmother mailed each year, cutting valentines from paper doilies with my mother, the sweet and silly cards my father always sends. Valentine’s Day is for fun. As for the two of us, we eat the heart-shaped cinnamon red hots (Eli) and chocolate-covered cherries (Me). Then we stay home and do what we normally do.

But this year, a restaurant across town called Tres Gatos was doing something for Valentine’s Day that it doesn't normally do, namely, taking reservations for parties of two.  We love Tres Gatos.  We hadn't been there since before Mia was born and, even with a babysitter, getting there anytime soon was going to be tricky, we figured, since we’d have to factor in unpredictable but generally lengthy (though totally worth it) wait times for a table.  Mia was five months old at the time, and now that I think about it, at that point, I’m not even sure we’d been out to dinner anywhere.  We booked our sitter. I had a Valentine’s Day date.

After the marinated anchovies and tortilla espanola with pimentón aioli, after mopping our plates with salty grilled bread, our server appeared with the small white mug and pitcher you see here. Inside the mug were two scoops of vanilla ice cream. Inside the pitcher was sherry. It was a sweet sherry, a Pedro Ximénex, and it poured down over the ice cream like a thin syrup. I went with a scrape and dunk approach at first, gliding my spoon along the ice cream then dipping it into the moat of sherry that surrounded it.  I ate slowly, and by the time I neared the end, the half-melted ice cream and sherry had pooled together into a creamy, boozy soup, part cocktail, part dessert. It was the most perfect, delightful combination, and when we went back to Tres Gatos last month for our (seventh!!) anniversary, I ordered it again. After that, I asked Eli, please, to pick up a bottle of Pedro Ximénex the next time he was at the store, and last weekend, for no other reason than the fact that that bottle was now in my apartment, I made a batch of vanilla ice cream, just to have around. I can’t remember the last time I was this excited about a dessert.  I can’t wait for you to try it. I know the timing’s somewhat off with Thanksgiving creeping up and so many pies on your plate. But soon enough, say, Sunday evening, with the leftovers all packed away and relative quiet restored, it might be just the thing.

p.s. - Tres Gatos takes reservations for two now year round. If you're ever in town, I highly recommend it.

p.p.s. - The Mia requests keep rolling in, so here you go:  a short film from Valentine's Day this year. (Hannah, this one's for you.)

Vanilla Ice Cream and Sherry
Inspired by dinner at Tres Gatos. Ice cream recipe adapted from Sunday Suppers at Lucques by Suzanne Goin.

I’m a sucker for a good homemade vanilla ice cream, and I like making it myself, but you don’t have to.  Just get the best vanilla ice cream you can get your hands on, add sherry, and there you go.

1 vanilla bean
2 cups whole milk
2 cups heavy cream
4 extra-large egg yolks
½ cup sugar

A shot (or so) of a Pedro Ximénex sherry, like Hidalgo or Barbadillo.

Split the vanilla bean in half lengthwise and scrape out the seeds with a paring knife. Put the seeds and the pod into a medium saucepan, cover with the milk and cream, and bring to a boil over medium heat.  Turn off the heat, cover, and let the flavors infuse for 30 minutes.

Return the mixture to the stove and bring it back to a boil over medium heat, stirring occasionally.  When it boils, turn off the heat.

Whisk the egg yolks and sugar together in a medium bowl. Whisk a few tablespoons of the warm cream mixture into the yolks to temper them. Whisking constantly, add another ¼ cup or so of the warm cream. Still whisking, slowly add the rest of the cream mixture into the bowl, then pour everything back into the pot and return it to the stove.

Cook the custard over medium heat for 6-8 minutes while constantly stirring and scraping the bottom and sides of the pan. Soon, it will start to thicken.  Do not let it boil.  (That’s important.) A great tip from David Lebovitz: Coat the spatula with custard and run your finger across it.  If your finger leaves a line that doesn’t run back together, the custard is done.

Strain the mixture through a fine-mesh sieve and chill at least 2 hours, or overnight.  Process in an ice cream maker according to the manufacturer’s instructions.

Scoop the ice cream into bowls and pour the sherry over top. For a tableful of guests, I’d probably serve the ice cream and pass a pitcher of sherry at the table.


We're settling in

The tally, since we last spoke:

One (1) pot of soup
Twenty-one (21) cookies
Twenty-six (26) meatballs
One (1) batch of ice cream
One (1) roll of film
One (1) recipe index, updated and improved
More (and more) of this salad

Also, I flew to Ohio. With Mia. That happened yesterday. The two of us are at my mother's house now outside of Cleveland, where traffic circles abound and, in more exciting news, so do Honey Maid cinnamon grahams and bowls of chicken soup. We're settling in. I'm typing this from under a fringed wooly blanket on a purple chaise opposite the kitchen. Mia is snoozing, and while she is, I'm going to pick an item from that tally up there and drum up some words.  And while I do that, some photos for you. It's another reader request day today, with a post on "fall in Boston" for Mel. Mel, I've taken some liberty here and I'm giving you fall in Cambridge, instead. I hope you won't mind.

These photos are from the archives, from a walk along the river in 2009 about this time of year.


Get out the map

Hi, friends.

A few things today before I sign off for the weekend:

:: I've shared some thoughts about yesterday's photo journaling project in the comments section here. Thank you, Gemma, for the prompting. Thanks also to Steph and Pia for their thoughtful comments here.

:: I've (finally!) been updating and overhauling my recipe index this week, and I'm almost done. The new design is much more user friendly, I think. There will be a section specially devoted to Thanksgiving, which I hope will be helpful. I'm aiming to get it up by tomorrow night or first thing Sunday morning, so stay tuned.

:: These party maps! I've shared my party maps a couple of times on this site, here and here, and a reader e-mailed to ask if I might share more. I'm sure I have a zillion of these things tucked into various cookbooks and buried in stacks somewhere, but these are the three I could get my hands on this morning.

There are a few ideas behind the maps. First, they allow me to visualize the meal or spread in a way that helps me better judge if all of the parts and pieces are working together and if the quantity of food makes sense. When I think not only about the menu, but about the mechanics of how I will serve the food - which platters and plates and bowls I'll use and, in the case of bigger parties, where in my home I'll put each dish - I start to get a feel for the energy of the meal I'm creating, and I like that. That sounds kind of new age-y and weird, but I'm not sure how else to put it. The maps' most functional purpose, the reason I started drawing them in the first place years ago, is that they make it very easy for people who know my kitchen to lend a hand. I'm sure you've experienced the feeling that it's just faster to do something yourself than to explain to even the most eager and competent helper how you'd like it done. What's nice here is that all I need to say to Eli or a friend is, "Please plate the eggplant." They can do it without asking which plate to use, and they even get a reminder from the map to sprinkle the za'ater over top before serving. I'm not hosting Thanksgiving this year, but if I were, there'd be a party map, for sure.

Thanks for another great week of NaBloPoMo. Enjoy the weekend, and meet you back here on Monday.

(p.s. If you click on the party maps, you can see them larger.)


November 15

Hi, friends. As promised, here is a selection of today's photos. You can view the full set here.

See you tomorrow.

Every bite

When I announced that I'd be blogging daily this month in honor of NaBloPoMo, a reader named Lena requested a post about what I eat on a given day. Lena, this one's for you. 

Today over on Instagram I'll be posting photos of what I eat. All of it, in real time. Then, tonight, I'll collect some (or all?) (the best of?) (we'll see.) the images and put them up here as a kind of photo journal of the day. I'm @sweetamandine on Instagram, and you can follow along there or, if you don't have an account, right here.

This exercise is out of my comfort zone because I don't typically make photos of food to "document" it. (Aside from some of the shots on this site that I make to illustrate recipes, of course.) We seem to have much more trouble understanding photography as a representational medium than we do, say,  painting or sculpture. But when we pick up our cameras and snap away, we don't capture life as it is. What we get is an approximation, a representation. What we make is art. As Gary Winogrand famously said, "I photograph to find out what something will look like photographed." We're not collecting moments when we go out into the world with our cameras. We're making something of them.

When I photograph my food, it's because something's grabbed me. Often, it's that I've seen something that somehow matches what I'm feeling, and thereby draws my attention to that feeling. Sometimes I just think something's pretty. There's so much visual appeal in the moments of everyday life. A lunch on the table amidst papers and notes, a pizza place at closing time, a messy countertop, the people I love. I am not so moved by every bite I eat, so today will be interesting for me and, I suspect, a challenge.

There have been all kinds of critical and funny things written about people snapping photos of their food, and with their cell phones, no less. There are some fairly terrifying food photographs to be found on Instagram, for sure - some of those filters, ouch! - but there's also a lot of beauty. All judgement aside, I think it's fascinating that so many of us feel compelled to photograph what we eat and share it with the world.

I'm curious:  If you photograph your food, why do you do it? What does it mean to you? I'd truly love to know.

See you over on Instagram today, I hope, and back here tonight.

:: :: ::

[With thanks to Tom Roma, for so much inspiration]


We do things with food

I put cottage cheese on baked potatoes. I put milk in tea. I put mustard on grilled cheese. I put honey and sesame paste on toast. (I put everything on toast.) I put eggs in potato salad and potatoes in egg salad and pickles in both. I put peanut butter on a spoon.  

We do things with food.

Eli comes from a family that puts ketchup on pasta. (Or used to, anyway.) I come from a family that does other things. My grandmother put cream in her ginger ale. My sister puts fries in her chocolate Frosty™. My other sister does, too. A recipe from my brother:  "Mustard. Bread. Mustard sandwich."

I know a guy who puts hot honey on pizza.  I hear others prefer Ranch dressing.  I had a high-school English teacher who put condiments on everything. I have a friend who puts them on nothing.  I sometimes put quinoa in granola. I often put granola in oatmeal.

Someone, I can't remember who, once told me that's like putting ketchup on tomatoes. I say, stranger things have happened. (Ketchup on pasta, anyone?)

There are people, I hear, who slice soft pretzels in half horizontally and put the mustard inside.  I call these people geniuses, and if you count yourself among them, and we happen to meet one day, I hope you'll let me shake your hand.

Lately, I've been putting avocado on kasha. Pomegranate seeds, too. Olive oil. Salt. Lunch.

p.s. Meet me back here first thing tomorrow. I'm up to something.

Kasha with Avocado and Pomegranate Seeds

½ cup cooked kasha (buckwheat groats)
A few slices of avocado
A handful of pomegranate seeds
A drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil
A generous pinch of salt flakes; I use Maldon

Here's how I cook the kasha:

Bring 2 cups of water to a boil. Add ½ cup of dried kasha and return to a gentle boil.  Cook for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.  If you get the heat under the pot just right, all of the water will have either absorbed into the kasha or evaporated by that time. If the kasha is fully cooked and you have extra water still in the pot, it's better to drain off the remaining water (use a fine-mesh sieve) than to keep cooking it, lest you end up with mush. You'll have enough for a few lunches here.  Store leftovers, covered, in the fridge. 


November 13

September, 2012.

:: :: ::

I have a short film for you today by Starlee Kine and Arthur Jones on writing, the creative process, and working in confined spaces.  See especially from 1:48 on.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to mop the ceiling.