Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Like They Do

If you live and cook the same way your grandmother did, you’ll probably never open a cookbook. Cookbooks, and everything they symbolize, are for people who don’t live the way their grandparents did...Once upon a time, food was about where you came from. Now, for many of us, it is about where we want to go—about who we want to be, how we choose to live. Food has always been expressive of identity, but today those identities are more flexible and fluid; they change over time, and respond to different pressures. -John Lanchester ("A Foodie Repents")

I never realized just how strongly my mother felt about cake--what she considered to be proper birthday cake--until this past July. It was a day or two after I had posted about the pflaumenkuchen I had made for a friend's birthday, and she and I were on the phone talking about the various things that mothers and daughters talk about: dogs, clothes, life, food. Then, there was a pause before she said in a voice that I had come to know throughout my life as half genuinely curious and half mildly critical ("No lipstick? Don't you think some color would be nice?" or "Why do you carry such small bags? Don't you want something roomier?"): "I saw your blog and that plum cake was beautiful; it really looked delicious. Don't you think it was a bit plain for a birthday cake, though? There wasn't even any icing!" I was about to become a little defensive and to explain to her that this friend, though I adore him, is one of those strange people who doesn't even like dessert. I was going to add that I was 100% certain that, had I shown up with a chocolate frosted cake made in his honor, he would have expired at the sight of it. I also wanted to explain that, icing aside, I had topped each slice of the pflaumenkuchen with a more than generous spoonful of creme fraiche. But before I could say any of this though, she asked me, "Why don't you cook the way that we do?"

To say I was caught off guard by her question would be a lie. It was a thought that I had had many times myself, the kind of thought that gnaws a little at your insides and makes you feel guilty, like you've pretended not to know somebody in the street who was once near and dear to you. Not out of any malevolence, but more out of a sense that there might not be anything to say and any attempts to overcome the distance might be too painfully awkward. I suppose you could say that I recognized the truth in my mother's words. I would never dream of making Sloppy Joes for dinner (I wasn't even much of a fan when I was a kid, although they eventually grew on me), it's been years since I've craved broccoli and cheese casserole and, personally, I would like to forget that chipped ham (it's a Pittsburgh thing; have any of you ever had it?) even exists. But for every dish that I've eclipsed, there are things that I still long to eat, foods that remain the hallmarks of my childhood: my grandma's sour cream chicken and mashed potatoes, crispy cauliflower fritters, homemade noodles and my mother's wedding soup with the perfect little meatballs that melt practically melt into the rich chicken broth.

After that conversation, I started thinking more about how and why I cook the way I do. While there are certain things you learn about cooking and eating during your formative years, from creaming butter and sugar to how to fry an egg, there are also experiences that you can't anticipate. 

I was always the person in my family who loved to read and cookbooks, though it would be years before I would both use and collect them avidly, were an early passion of mine. My grandma kept her slim collection in the squeaky third drawer of a cabinet in the dining room and I would always sneak in there (or so I thought; the squeaking gave me away) and pull them out, finding recipes that appealed to me and suggesting dishes that we could have for dinner.  I should mention that, at that point in time, I wasn't interested in the actual preparation of the food; I cared only about the the way it sounded and looked in books, the promise of the final product. When I look back now, I realize that all of this searching stemmed from a desire to be different from what I was. I sought the unknown, answers and foods that could be found either in far away places or in books.

This is why, if I look back at myself through the prism of Lanchester's recent article in The New Yorker, I would almost call myself a "foodie" before the word even existed. That is, if I didn't object to the inherent silliness of the term itself (nosh and nom nom are right up there in my list of hated "foodie" terms). But even as a lot of my food choices and cookbook purchases have been geared towards exploring the world from home and learning to appreciate new flavors through the words and palates of virtual strangers, there are ways in which all the places I've been and lived (Russia, Japan, Greece, France, Italy, New York, Berkeley) have left their indelible mark on me. In some cases, I cook from memory, hoping to recapture flavors from the past and, in others, I think of what I want to eat and where I want to be that night. By the next day, I may have changed my mind completely. Some nights I even think I'm happiest just eating toast. This is the privilege of living and eating in the twenty-first century; we, unlike our grandparents and, to some extent, our parents, travel widely and eat daringly and the world invites us to do both. 

In short, I don't know that I entirely agree with Lanchester's overarching conclusion about today's food-obsessed population. While, yes, I concur that everything has gone too far in that we all want to be cultured devotees of Ottolenghi, worshipping at the altar of fresh and local vegetables, as well as knowledgeable practitioners of the latest food fads (sous-vide, I'm sorry to say, is truly having a moment), we also all have our own personal food baggage that we will carry with us for all of our lives. Being a lover of food, at least to me, means that balance can be struck between the desire for novelty, an adherence to tradition and an appreciation for simplicity. Everything, as they say, in moderation.

I was again thinking about my mother's words this past weekend when I was baking the White Rice Chiffon Cake from Alice Medrich's wonderful new book, Flavor Flours. What I like about this book (and it's been causing quite the stir around the internet here, here, here and here, so it's not just me) is that in its focus on gluten-free baking, it's not attempting to approximate the texture or flavor of all-purpose flour; instead, it asks the hypothetical question, "What if wheat flour did not exist?", and  uses it to explore the various baking possibilities that would exist in a world without wheat. Medrich experiments with different flours, from buckwheat and coconut to sorghum and white rice, in order to maximize and showcase their individual flavors. When flipping through the book, I was immediately intrigued by both the sound and photo of the White Rice Chiffon Cake; it promised to be light and airy, perfectly golden and dramatically high--all things that one should seek in a cake. An added bonus was that Medrich described the flavor of white rice flour on its own as soft and "floral" and suggested that the cake be topped with a halo of thick, white frosting. This alone meant that my mother would have no choice but to approve. Of course, it wasn't quite the same kind of cake that my family would make (not suffering from any food allergies, gluten-free baking remains largely uncharted territory in our baking repertoire) for Sunday dinner or the like, but it combined my personal need to try new flavors and ingredients with my family's love of traditional American desserts topped by the all-important frosting.

The cake comes together quickly and its texture, when you cut into it, is smooth, fluffy, and delicate, with none of the graininess that sometimes plagues gluten-free baking. Upon seeing it come out of the oven all pale and soft gold, I started fantasizing about how pretty a pink frosting would look on top of it and decided to play around with mascarpone, whipping cream and pomegranate molasses. While the pomegranate molasses lent a welcome tangy and sweet note to the frosting, one tablespoon sadly didn't do much for the color. No matter, however; I had a pomegranate on hand and decided both to accentuate the pomegranate flavor of the whipped cream and to brighten up the cake with a handful of pomegranate seeds and, for contrast, a handful of chopped pistachios. The final product was vivid and seasonal, as well as utterly delicious. 

I had given my neighbors, a couple, some cake of this cake on Saturday evening since they had helped me fix my bike tires a few weekends ago; though always friendly, when the guy and I met in the hallway early this morning, he was positively effusive: "That cake, that cake was A-MA-ZING. The texture and the frosting..What was in that?" More than happy to share, I told him and walked out of the building smiling. I was remembering my mother's obsession with marbled cakes piled high with frosting from when I was a teenager. Everybody who would try them always wanted to know what was in the frosting. It suddenly seemed that I might cook just like my mother after all.

White Rice Chiffon Cake

from Alice Medrich's Flavor Flours
Yields 8-10 ample slices

Medrich's cake is fairly easy to make, although, just like with this cake, it's important to proceed carefully when separating the eggs and then whipping and folding the egg whites into the batter. I've found that many online videos and tips suggest that, when folding egg whites into a batter, you cut through the whites before you begin scooping and folding the batter over them, but my grandma taught me that you should work from the outside in, starting from the edge of the bowl and scooping batter over the whites instead of cutting through and potentially deflating them. No matter what way you fold your egg whites, the final product will look somewhat streaky--a mix of buttercup yellow and creamy marshmallowy white. 

In her book, Medrich suggests using a 10-inch tube pan with a removable bottom, but, not having one of these, I opted for my 9-inch springform pan, which worked well. Medrich also says that the cake pan should not be greased or lined with parchment paper and, while I had no trouble removing the sides of the springform pan, I did find that a thin layer of the cake's bottom stuck to the pan's base when I sliced the cake, which was then difficult to remove (rice flour in this sense acts like rice that sticks to the bottom of a rice cooker or pot; it's stubborn and sticky). Next time I might try parchment paper to avoid this.

For the cake:
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons (224 grams) granulated sugar
1 1/3 cups (200 grams) white rice flour 
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons baking powder
5 large egg yolks, at room temperature
1/2 cup flavorless vegetable (canola, safflower, corn) oil
3/4 cup cool water
8 egg whites, at room temperature
1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar

-Place a rack in the lower third of the oven and preheat to 325 F.
-In a small bowl, set aside 1/4 cup (50 grams) of the sugar to use when whipping the egg whites.
-In a large bowl, combine the rice flour, salt, baking powder, egg yolks, vegetable oil and water. -Whisk until thoroughly combined. The mixture should look yellow and somewhat grainy, with oil slightly pooling at the sides of the bowl. 
-In the bowl of a stand mixer (a hand mixer and large bowl will work just as well) beat the egg whites and the cream of tartar with the whisk attachment until they are creamy. When you can lift up the whisk attachment and the whipped whites stuck to the whisk plop down into the bowl and loosely hold their shape, you will know they are ready for the sugar to be added to them. 
-While beating the whites on a high speed, slowly add the sugar. The whites are ready when they remain firm and resemble whipped cream. When you remove the whisk, run it through the whites and, if the indentation remains and the whites hold their shape, they are ready to be folded into the batter.
-Scrape roughly one quarter of the egg whites into the batter and fold them in with a rubber spatula.
-Fold in the remaining egg whites, being careful not to deflate the whites. The batter, when ready, should look slightly streaky, both yellow and white, but with the egg whites having been almost entirely absorbed into the batter. 
-Gently scrape the batter into the cake pan and spread it evenly.
-Bake for 50-55 minutes. The top of the cake should be golden and a toothpick or cake tester inserted into the cake's center should come out clean.
-Set the pan on a rack to cool and, while the cake is still hot, carefully run a knife around the sides of the pan to avoid tearing the cake (remember that it's fragile).
-After about 20-30 minutes, remove the sides of the springform pan and let the cake cool completely. 
-Once cool, the cake can be removed very carefully from the base of the springform pan with a cake lifter and transferred to a cake stand. Once the cake is in its final position, it is ready to be frosted. 

For the whipped cream:

4.5 ounces (130 grams) mascarpone  
1/4 cup confectioners' sugar
1 tablespoon pomegranate molasses
6 ounces (3/4 cup) whipping cream
handful of pomegranate seeds, for decorating
handful of roughly chopped and unsalted pistachios, for decorating

 -While the cake is cooling, whip the mascarpone, confectioners' sugar and pomegranate molasses together in the bowl of a stand mixer until creamy.
-Scrape into a small bowl and, after cleaning the bowl of the mixer and the whisk attachment, add the whipped cream to the bowl and whip until soft peaks form. 
-Fold the whipped mascarpone and pomegranate molasses mixture into the whipped cream until well combined.
 -Top the cake with the frosting and sprinkle with a handful of pomegranate seeds. Repeat with pistachios. Serve and enjoy.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Food for Thought

China bowls and glass vases held small collections of flowers from the garden: hyacinths, lily of the valley and narcissi. The smell of them, miraculous, with wax furniture polish and blue wood-smoke, went all through the rooms and in the air of the halls and stairs, too. A person might walk from a cool corridor full of the scent of lit fires into a bedroom to find the smell of damp flowers from a pot of wild violets and hot starch from the fresh sheets and flat-creased pillow cases. -Sadie Jones (The Uninvited Guests)

Thanksgiving brought many flavors and tastes my way--leek bread pudding; carrots covered by a thick forest of dill; feuerzangenbowle!--but none was so sweet as the taste of freedom. It was the first time I had enjoyed a five-day weekend in what felt like forever and I savored every minute of it. With the rain pouring down outside (could this be the end of the drought?), I spent most of the weekend indoors; there were books to be read, sleep debt to be paid and even a foray into the sheep and rock-trading world of Catan. It was one of the most relaxing weekends I had enjoyed in a long time, so three cheers for the holidays! 

Since I'm still in the process of planning and executing posts for December--besides a few desserts that may require a little effort, I think the theme of the month is going to be elegant and effortless simplicity--I thought it would be a good idea to share some "food for thought." If nothing else, this helps me to organize and record the many interesting things that I read and come across online; I hope there's something inspiring for you too.

Before there was so much turkey that I thought we'd never stop eating turkey (I am happy to report that, thanks to tonight's delicious Turkey Curry Soup, a true leftovers game changer, the end is nigh!), there was a wish to eat nothing but vegetables to prep our stomachs for the cream and butter overload awaiting us. Given my Roman/Italian obsession, we went with a recipe from Emiko Davies' Regional Italian Food column on Food52 for Braised Endive with mint. There may be no better way to usher in the holiday season.

Lately, I've been obsessed with Rome and there's no better blog for peering into a Roman kitchen than Rachel Eats. Her latest post on how to make cacio e pepe, a classic Roman dish, is a pleasure to read and a tutorial that I can't wait to use come the weekend. That is, if I don't make her recipe for meatballs first.

A story about a Stone Woman that blurs the boundary between reality and myth.

I'm still waiting for the New York Times to tell us its list of favorite books for 2014, but for now the Washington Post's will have to do.

Buzzfeed is not always my favorite news site, but I concur wholeheartedly with its assertion that, "There is no need to be delicate here: If you’re not watching The Good Wife, you are missing out on the best show on television."
I'm intrigued by this beautiful kitchen art

I saw The Homesman this weekend and not only was the story haunting, but the cinematography was gorgeous and stark as well. Although it continues my Thanksgiving trend of choosing to see violent films about America, it nevertheless felt like the right kind of movie to see on a weekend that both celebrates and mythologizes our nation's past.
The protests that raged across the country in the days leading up Thanksgiving show us that America's criminal justice system is truly damaged. In The New York Review of Books, this problem is explored in depth in an essay that not only reviews a story of the triumphs and failings that occur in our justice system, but that also attempts to offer a tentative and hopeful solution.

Monday, November 17, 2014

A Whole Grain Casserole for Thanksgiving

Last year, on the night before Thanksgiving, I was suddenly struck by the mad desire to make something real for dinner. Never mind that I had a cheesecake to bake and egg whites to whip, all I could think about was removing some of the excess food from the fridge and cluttered counter tops--Delicata squash from the CSA box, kale from a trip to the market, the remaining cranberries from making the cranberry jam for the Cranberry Margaritas--to make way for the turkey and the onslaught of leftovers to come.

As I considered the ingredients before me, I began to see the makings of Thanksgiving casserole. The combination of sweet squash and tangy cranberries immediately appealed to me and I could see them working nicely with sautéed kale. I just needed something to hold it all together--something both chewy and creamy. Looking in my cupboard, I settled on Emmer Farro, which retains its bite while it cooks; for the creaminess, the answer was simple: only a Béchamel would do and one that, true to Thanksgiving, would contain shallots and sage. Although I knew what I was envisioning would take some effort to prepare, the healthy promise of a vegetable-laden dish seemed worth it, especially before a big feast.

Although I wanted to see my kitchen inspiration through to the very end and taste a dish that embodied what I consider to be the best of Thanksgiving, I also think that making this dish was my way of "easing" into the holiday. There's such chaos on the actual day itself--are the potatoes ready to be mashed? Did I forget anything on my shopping list? Will the turkey be ready in time?--and, on some level, such fatigue by its end (blame the turkey if you will, but apparently it is really dessert's fault!), that I just wanted to sit and celebrate quietly: Just me, Elektra and the Greek; no feeling of running a culinary marathon; no worries; only a few dishes in the sink; and, most importantly, good food and plenty of gratitude.

Don't get me wrong; I love hosting every year, planning a menu and cooking for my friends. I also know that, at the end of the day and despite all of the fuss, Thanksgiving really isn't even about the food. Cliché that it is, it's about the companionship, the meeting of different traditions and the creation of new ones. 

Although hardly old enough to warrant the term "tradition," this casserole has managed to earn its place on my short list of Thanksgiving musts and traditions. With its roasted cranberries and squash nestled against wilted kale and plump farro, the casserole is not only striking--maroon, emerald and a soft shade of pumpkin orange, or as I like to call it, fall on a plate--but it also layers competing flavors and textures in a way that can only help to elevate the meal. It's the ideal companion for the turkey; that is, if it doesn't manage to steal the show itself. 

Farro Casserole with Cranberries, Squash, Kale and a Sage Béchamel

yields about 6-8 servings

        This casserole is quite filling on its own and, because it's full of fruit and vegetables, makes an excellent Thanksgiving side dish for vegetarians. That said, it can also easily become vegan by holding the Béchamel sauce; in this case, I would suggest not sautéeing the kale and, instead, tossing it with the still-warm farro and roasted cranberries and squash so that it wilts a little. The whole dish can then be drizzled with a simple dressing of olive oil (1 tablespoon) and lemon juice (1/2 lemon) and will be more like a grain-filled salad.

        While I like having this dish be almost equal parts fruit, vegetables and grain, it would be simple to double the recipe. Rather than doubling all the ingredients though, I would recommend cooking two cups of farro and using the same amount of cranberries, kale and squash. There will still be balance, but the casserole, thanks to the additional grains, will have a little more substance.

        Although I haven't tried it myself, there's no reason to believe this couldn't be prepared a few days in advance and then popped into the oven shortly before your feast. For those who like to pace themselves, the cooking process could also be done slowly, so as to be less intimidating: on Monday, you could make a big pot of farro (some could even be frozen for later use); on Tuesday, the cranberries and squash could be roasted and the walnuts toasted in the still warm oven; on Wednesday, you could sauté the kale, make the Béchamel and assemble the dish.

For the casserole: 

-Preheat the oven to 400 F, butter a medium-sized casserole dish and set aside. Then, line two baking sheets with parchment paper.

1 cup Emmer Farro, rinsed, soaked overnight and drained
5 cups water or broth (vegetable or chicken)

-In a medium saucepan, combine the drained farro and the water or broth.
-Bring to a boil and then lower the heat.
-Cover the pan and let cook for 50-60 minutes. The farro is ready when it has plumped up and softened, yet retains a somewhat chewy texture. The farro won't absorb all of the liquid, so be sure to drain off the excess.  

2 Delicata Squash
a sprinkling of salt and pepper
1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil 

2 cups (6.7 ounces) cranberries 
dash of salt and a sprinkling of pepper
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1 tablespoon olive oil

While the farro is cooking, halve and seed the squash, then cut it into half moons. Quarter the larger half moon slices into small cubes and cut the smaller ones into thirds. Spread the cubes on a parchment-lined baking sheet.
-Lightly sprinkle the squash with salt and pepper, then drizzle the olive oil over it.
-Toss to coat.
-Place the cranberries in a small bowl and add salt, pepper and brown sugar. Stir.
-Add the olive oil and toss to coat. Spread the prepared cranberries out on the other parchment-lined baking sheet.
-Put the two baking sheets in the oven (cranberries on top rack, squash on the bottom) and let the cranberries roast for 20 minutes. Remove the cranberries from the oven, then toss the squash and leave it roast for another 10 minutes.

10 ounces Tuscan (or Dino) kale, roughly torn from the stems
1-2 tablespoons distilled white vinegar
enough olive oil to coat a large frying pan
salt and pepper, to taste

-While the squash and cranberries are roasting, soak the kale for a few minutes in a large bowl filled with cold water and 1 tablespoon of distilled white vinegar.
-Massage the kale,  softening it and helping to remove any insects that have latched onto the leaves.
-Drain the kale and, if necessary, soak and drain again.
-Dry the kale by spinning it in a salad spinner.
-Heat a large frying pan (preferably cast iron) on medium heat, add enough oil to coat the bottom and add the kale.
-Saute for five minutes or until the kale has wilted and become tender.
-Sprinkle with salt and pepper.

1/2 cup (2 ounces) walnuts

-After roasting the cranberries and squash, toast the walnuts in the preheated oven for 5 minutes.
-Remove from the oven, let cool for a few minutes and then roughly chop and divide into two even piles.

-Place the cooked farro in the grated casserole dish and add the cranberries, squash, kale and walnuts. Stir to combine, then sprinkle in half of the chopped walnuts. Stir again. Now that the casserole is assembled, turn to the Béchamel.

For the Béchamel

1 shallot, finely chopped
6-8 sage leaves, roughly chopped
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 cup whole milk
a few dashes of ground nutmeg
sea salt and freshly ground pepper,  to taste
3 ounces grated Gruyere cheese

-Heat the butter in a small saucepan over medium-low heat until it melts.
-Once the butter is sizzling, add the shallot and chopped sage and cook until the shallot has softened and become translucent.
-Add the flour, stirring it in with a wooden spoon. It will become a smooth paste.
-On low heat, slowly whisk in the milk, adding a little at a time. The sauce will gradually become thicker.
-Once thickened, remove from heat and sprinkle in both the nutmeg and salt and pepper.
-Then, stir in the grated cheese until it fully melts into the sauce.
-Pour the Béchamel over the assembled casserole and top with the remaining chopped walnuts.
-Place in the oven for 25-30 minutes and cook until the sauce is bubbling.
-Remove and enjoy!

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

To Bohemia and Back

"Each of us narrates our life as it suits us." -Elena Ferrante (Those who Leave and Those who Stay)

A little more than two months ago, for Labor Day weekend, the Greek, Elektra and I took a weekend trip to Carmel and Big Sur. Although it will sound incredibly hyperbolic, the trip was ten shades of glorious: sunny, peaceful, simple. Up until the very end, when we stopped at a hazy beach in Monterey, it was one of those picture-perfect weekends with the bright blue of the California sky gracing our presence wherever we went and, when the sun would set, transforming itself into a soft, yet electric pink that recalls the finest sunsets in the Greek islands.

During that long weekend, I felt truly content. This break felt both hard-won and deserved, a rare combination. It was my first official day off work and it arrived at the exact moment when I needed it most. In hindsight, I realize that I had been approaching my breaking point; the breakneck pace of preparing all documents related to our motion was getting to me, the glare of the computer screen causing my eyes to ache and the need for a few days away from deadlines, train schedules and desk lunches was strong. Carmel--dog friendly and quaint--was just the place to be. I wanted to dip my teal-for real-colored toes in the chilly water and then walk down streets so eclectic that one minute you feel that you're in southern France with leaves climbing up the walls and, the next, that you stumbled into an Italian or Spanish garden.

Escapism was the name of the game and I wandered around the town with my camera, feasting on the sights. My eyes, tired from the sheer monotony of routine, were hungry for something different. This, in fact, was the exact impulse that drove me to write this post yesterday evening: work has been a little intense lately with a few late nights, tight deadlines and weekend assignments. Even if you find the material to be compelling (there was a lot of time spent last week both figuring out and memorizing bits of evidentiary code; I must say I enjoyed the challenge), there is still the potential for burn out. My recent experience with bronchitis has shown me that, in such scenarios, it's best to take a few steps back and, no pun intended (really!), just to take a breather. 

Because I couldn't take a trip anywhere this past weekend (I've discovered that in the "real world," Veteran's Day is not considered a holiday), I've opted to place myself back in Carmel and Big Sur through this post. Call this creative traveling or mere daydreaming; it's all the same to me. Who could blame me for wanting to go back to a beach where, somewhat surreally, when the sun finally set in all of its majestic pinkness, the people started to clap in awe? Or to return to La Bicyclette, one of the coziest restaurants I've been to in California?

Although quite stunning in its own right, I'm not sure that Carmel can really compare to Big Sur. Perhaps I ought to say that there's really no way to compare them; one is polished and chic--its beauty has been tamed--even shaped--by tourism, while the other is wild and sprawling. Looking at the landscape of Big Sur, it's no wonder it became a place associated with a bohemian and artistic lifestyle. You can't help but be amazed that the land was ever cultivated; all of it, from the steep cliffs to the Bixby Bridge, seems somehow impossible--the stuff of fairy tales, paintings, novels, rather than of real life.

After sadly being turned away from both the Big Sur Bakery and Nepenthe due to Elektra's presence (note to dog owners: Big Sur is not the most dog-friendly place in California), we ended up having lunch at a dog-friendly cafe and art gallery in one. The food was tasty, the views spectacular and the garden, with its prominent erotic sculptures, gave the place a Henry Miller-esque feel.

Since there's only so much marveling one can do, even in the face of abundant beauty, we finally got down to business and went for a short hike. While we had wanted a trail that would have taken us to a cliff with a view, Elektra's presence again limited our options since there is only one dog-friendly trail in Big Sur. That said, I wouldn't have had it any other way. The "pack" was together and our trail, while not as scenic as it could have been, was nevertheless lovely and quiet.

Since my favorite post-hike activity is to eat a pastry (otherwise, what is the point of hiking?), we stopped at the Big Sur Bakery afterwards. It was already late afternoon and a lot of the day's offerings had been picked over, but there were still Berry Brown Butter Bars and Peach and Apple Turnovers.  I also don't mind the thought of going back next summer for the Peach Brioche and maybe even for lunch in the bakery's idyllic garden.

There was a tiny part of me that was sad to leave. Not only had so much had been left unexplored, but there was also something so appealing about being tucked away in those cliffs. Although probably a trite observation, Big Sur struck me as a place a bit cut off from the external world, a natural haven where one could get lost and push against the boundaries of tradition. I'm hardly what one would call a bohemian, but even I felt the pull of its heady promises: solitude, nature and endless inspiration.

Once home, I continued to find myself thinking about our trip, Big Sur and its colorful history. Wanting to know more, I pulled my copy of Romney Steele's My Nepenthe from my bookshelves and sat down to read. Sixteen pages in and my curiosity hardly sated, I decided that the only way forward was to bake a cake. And not just any cake, but a cake that had first caught my eye as early as 2010, when I first got this book. This cake is the Torta Caprese, otherwise known as "uno dei pasticci piu fortunati della storia" (one of the greatest blunders in history). Stories say that, sometime between 1930 and 1950, the Torta Caprese was created by mistake when either somebody forgot to add flour to an almond chocolate cake, or an exhausted baker managed to mistake cocoa powder for flour when baking an almond cake. Whatever its origins, it's a simple cake with a big reputation and a lot of flavor.

Comparing the recipe in Romney Steele's book (this recipe was given to a friend of her grandmother by a Russian cook) to one featured on Epicurious shows a few differences: namely, the addition of orange zest (when I think of Capri, lemons come to mind more readily than oranges, so I used lemon zest instead) and vanilla, but also more eggs. It is in the separation of and beating of the egg whites that that the recipe becomes tricky. While the egg yolks are beaten with the sugar until pale yellow and fluffy, the egg whites must be whipped separately until they form stiff peaks. This step is essential and must be done properly; otherwise, the cake won't rise (this is its only rising agent ). No matter which method you choose for beating your egg whites, I would also recommend using whites that are at room temperature.

Interestingly, when preparing to write this post, I came across a recipe for a traditional Calabrian Walnut torte on Emiko Davies' blog (minus the addition of chocolate and melted butter, Emiko's cake is not all that different from this one; both are flourless and rely largely on nuts and eggs. She also recently wrote about the same recipe for Food52) and she advises that, when whipping egg whites by hand, you use a glass or metal mixing bowl since fats tend to stick more to plastic surfaces. In a rare move from my preferred way of doing everything by hand, in this case I would go so far as to err on the side of modern conveniences and allow the standing or hand mixer to do the work for you.

Even though this cake relies on a careful whipping of the egg whites, the truth is that it's also highly forgiving. Unlike a lot of cakes, it manages to strike the balance of being high on the crunch factor thanks to the texture from both nuts and its crackly meringue-like surface, while also retaining a dampness reminiscent of the best kind of brownies--not quite gooey and sticky, but soft, toothsome and with just the right amount of crumb. Topped with creme fraiche and served with a cup of tea, it's rich and lightly citrusy, an ideal afternoon snack.

The Torta Caprese is not at all a traditional choice for Thanksgiving, but it's worthy of being a contender. Should you want to play with the flavors, it has the potential to move away from its Italian roots and become something else entirely: pistachios and rose water could easily replace the almonds and vanilla and become something verging on Middle Eastern,  hazelnuts and a mashed banana (in place of one of the eggs) could give it a French edge and perhaps even the presence of peanuts in the midst of so much chocolate could create a cake fit for an American sweet tooth. While I like the sound of all of these variations, there's something about the classic simplicity of this cake that I like even more. And that, in and of itself, is saying quite a lot. 

Torta Caprese (Chocolate Almond Torte from Capri)

yields 1 9-inch cake 
adapted, largely in method, from Romney Steele's My Nepenthe

6 ounces fine-quality (60-70%) dark chocolate
1 1/2 cups whole almonds with skins
1 cup granulated sugar
5 eggs, separated
zest of one lemon
Pinch sea salt
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
14 tablespoons (1 3/4 sticks) butter, melted and cooled
Creme fraiche or whipped cream for serving

-Preheat oven to 350 F. Butter a 9-inch round pringform pan, then line the butter with parchment paper. Butter the parchment. 
-In a food processor or with a large knife, chop the chocolate coarsely, transfer to a bowl and set aside. 
-Grind the almonds finely with 2 tablespoons of the sugar, but be sure to leave some texture (the almonds and sugar should not resemble almond meal). Add the ground nuts and sugar to the chocolate.
-Using a mixer, beat the yolks with the remaining sugar until pale yellow and fluffy (this should take roughly five minutes). Then, on the lowest speed of the mixer, beat in the vanilla, lemon zest and pinch sea salt.
-Add the melted butter slowly and beat until combined. Add the chocolate and almonds and mix until incorporated. 
-In another bowl, preferably glass or metal, beat the egg whites until they hold firm, but not overly stiff, peaks (they should have some texture and not be at all watery; make sure to check the bottom of the bowl for traces of liquid before attempting to fold them into the cake batter).
-Gently fold a third of the egg whites into the batter to lighten it and then gently fold in the remaining 2/3. 
-Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake for 45 to 50 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out fairly clean (it's a damp cake, so there will most likely be a few crumbs stuck to the toothpick). When ready, the top of the cake will resemble the crackly surface of a meringue and the sides will have started to pull away from the sides of the pan.
-Cool on a rack for 10 minutes and then release the sides of the springform pan and gently remove the top. 
-Let cool completely, then slice and serve with whipped cream or creme fraiche.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Food for Thought

Since I last updated, I have

 1) eaten my weight in soup,
 2) recovered from bronchitis,
 3) investigated the (unlikely) possibility of obtaining Italian citizenship, 
4) worked both on a Sunday and my first 10-hour legal day (exhaustion!),
 and 5) voted in a dismal midterm election. 

Clearly, it's been a bit of a mixed bag around here. But fortunately these things, although the highlights, aren't entirely representative of my life. There have been crisp fall mornings--the kind that I love--spent wearing thick wooly socks to keep the chill away, several nice meals with the Greek and his parents, who are here visiting from Greece, and even an afternoon trip to the movies. In addition to all of the hustle and bustle of the season (which always seems so misplaced), there has been a lot of online reading and link compiling for what has become one of my favorite blogging traditions: the monthly "food for thought." 

Without further ado, here are November's offerings: 

The photo of the leeks at the beginning of this post demonstrates my love of braising vegetables in cream; it's truly one of the most foolproof methods I know.  If people were iffy about the eggplant I posted about a few months ago, there can be no question that leeks were made to be braised in cream (with or without tarragon; fresh thyme is just as nice and, should you not have the fresh stuff, dried herbs will work nicely, too). Molly at Remedial Eating calls them "Divine Revelation Leeks" and they are exactly that.

To go along with my recent Italian obsession (I blame Artusi, Elizabeth David, Elena Ferrante and Emiko Davies), I decided to follow Rachel's advice and "Eat Like the Romans Do" (you won't regret it; it's both surprisingly easy and delicious).

Thoughts on Modern Society, Fomo (the Fear of Missing Out) and Jomo (the Joy of Missing Out). I'm pretty sure I suffer only from the latter; consider this a perk of the Facebook-less life.

I suppose you could also say I've been on an Elizabeth David kick; there's something endlessly inviting about both her blunt opinions and meticulous research, which this collection in The Guardian illustrates nicely.

It's not easy being a pet owner in this day and age.

I'm currently reading Tana French's wonderful The Likeness, which tells the story of a female cop who infiltrates a community of English Ph.D. students to track down a murderer. It appeals to me for the obvious reasons (it's always been more interesting to read about grad school than to be in grad school).

Speaking of PhDs, here's the Halloween Costume that Never Should have Been: the Sexy Ph.D.

I'm ashamed to say that I read several articles on the "What happened to Renee Zellweger's face?" question that has been sweeping various news sites during the last few weeks, but only in The Guardian did I find something substantive about the unfair beauty standards that females in the public eye are held to.

And, last but not least, the million-dollar question: would you sell your privacy for a cookie?

Thursday, October 23, 2014

An Elixir for a Sick Day

Greetings from the land of the sick. Although I'm not the kind to go to the doctor--a fear of being poked and prodded makes me more than a little reluctant--this time I started to sense that something wasn't quite right: no decongestants were working, too many tissues had been used and, although I had done nothing but rest this past weekend, my breathing had started to resemble a fine wheezing followed by spasms of coughing. Not even the occasional bottle of fancy vegetable and fruit juice or a steady diet of soups, from old favorites like Melissa Clark's Red Lentil with lemon to Ottolenghi's Spicy Chickpea with Bulgur and Herbed Feta, were helping. Instead, things seemed only to be getting worse. What had initially felt manageable, possibly the combination of a bad cold or a bad reaction to the flu shot that I had gotten a few weeks ago, had not only overstayed its welcome, but also appeared to be settling in for the long haul. And as my mother ordered me over the phone, "You're getting checked, Kathryn. GO," I figured it was time to give into modern medicine (one also does not argue once Kathryn has been used). 

So I wisely took the day off and went to the doctor. Within 10 minutes of being questioned and examined, I was asked if I had ever used an inhaler before. While my first thought was asthma (years of congestion explained!), the doctor instead informed me that I had viral bronchitis. She also told me no work, minimal movement and lots of rest--in short, all things that are antithetical to my very mode of existence. I'm also now taking steroids, using an inhaler and consuming a disgusting cough syrup, but one becomes surprisingly amenable to trying anything when the very act of breathing--what we often take for granted--becomes complicated. 

But there's always a silver lining in these situations. Although I suspect that I caught this bug on BART (I can't help but wonder: did I rub my eyes after touching a sneezed-/coughed-upon pole? Was it the day that a lady sneezed behind me, perhaps even on my hair, that my fate was sealed? Was it in the aftermath of the Giants game, when the train was so packed that we were all breathing in each other's faces? Yes, I do sincerely believe that 75% of the evil in my life stems from BART), I also can't help but philosophically suppose that, to some extent, this is also my body's way of telling me to take a rest. My first three months working in the law were busy--busier than I had been in a while and it takes time, mentally and physically, to adjust to so much change. 

There is an additional, culinary, silver lining in this situation, too. This past weekend, trapped (i.e. "resting") at home and feeling restless (how much TV can one girl watch?), I began looking through a few of my older cookbooks. While I put Elizabeth David's French Country Cooking aside for the moment, I gave my full attention to the late Evie Voutsina's The Cookery of Lefkada: tastes, narratives and customs in the cycle of the seasons. In her books, Voutsina, one of the grand dames of Greek cooking (sadly, she is simply not as well known here as she is in Greece) approaches people and places through a distinct culinary and cultural lens; her writing is both scholarly and folkloric. Sometimes, instead of providing precise recipes, she'll quote her sources directly since she believes that "the object of [her] research is the cookery of the agrarian sector, where cooking with local produce, according to the seasons, was created and preserved. Traditional cookery is folk art, or better, a mix of folk art and techniques. It is consequently handed down orally from mother to daughter and executed by women principally." While this can lead to some of her recipes being a little beyond your exact grasp, so much of cooking is about trying to recapture experiences and flavors and coming to terms with the fact that you may never be eating the very same meatballs that your grandma makes or vegetables that taste just like they did in the south of France. Some things simply can't be approximated and who can trust the slipperiness of memory, anyway? 

Her books make for pleasant reading and some of my favorite Greek recipes (leeks with prunes and cinnamon and herbed split pea fritters) come from them. In my reading on Saturday I discovered another fast favorite, which Voutsina simply calls "fig drink." Obviously, I was immediately drawn to this section because it was called, "Medications from the Kitchen," but when I read the short description of the fig drink: "A very soothing drink for a cold was made from dried figs, boiled with some cinnamon sticks and sometimes with a tisane of herb tea," I knew that it was made for my condition. Given the absence of instructions, I took a few liberties with Voutsina's "recipe"and added some lemon peel during the simmering stage and some lemon juice and honey just before drinking it. Although it didn't quite prove to be the magical potion I had hoped it would be, it was still incredibly soothing, fragrant and softly spiced (if only cough syrup tasted as good as this). Since it turns out that people with bronchitis are supposed to consume 8 ounces of fluid per hour (!), this drink is now my faithful companion.

The good news is that that you don't even have to be sick to enjoy it; even the still healthy Greek was more than happy to have a cup with me on Saturday afternoon and again last night. Despite being labeled "medication from the kitchen," the truth is that this drink is ideal for anybody looking for a little comfort and warmth on crisp fall nights.  

Fig Elixir with Lemon, Cinnamon and Honey

Adapted and inspired by Evie Voutsina's The Cookery of Lefkada
Yields 2-3 servings

Although I like the simplicity of this drink, I imagine that if you wanted to dress it up with a vanilla bean or even a splash of brandy, it would be just as good. That said, I don't recommend any strong herbal flavors. My guess is that fresh mint or mint tea would overpower the subtle flavor of the figs, whereas this drink calls for nothing more than an herbal tea--Greek mountain tea is preferable here, but chamomile would work nicely as well--that would happily play a supporting, rather than a dominant, role.
       Also, feel free to play with the proportions. This kind of recipe can easily be adapted to one's tastes.
        As a final note, the figs, once infused with the flavors of the tea and cinnamon, can either be turned into a thick paste in a food processor, eaten on top of a bowl of steaming oats or thinly sliced and placed on thick slabs of toast covered in cream cheese. The last way is currently my favorite.

105 grams dried figs (6-8 figs)
two cinnamon sticks
2-inch piece of lemon peel (about 1/4 of a lemon)
1 sachet mountain tea or other lightly fragranced herbal tea
3 cups water
honey and lemon juice, for serving

-Put the dried figs, cinnamon sticks, lemon peel and sachet of tea in a small saucepan. Cover with 3 cups water and bring to a boil.
-Once boiling, reduce to a gentle simmer and cover with a lid. Let simmer for 20-30 minutes.
-Pour into tea cups and add a softened fig and cinnamon stick to each glass. Flavor with honey and lemon juice to taste.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

The Act of Excavation

 "Why?" asked Strike heavily.
"Why what?" said Robin, looking up at him. 
"Why do people do this?" 
"Blog, you mean? I don't know...didn't someone once say that the unexamined life isn't worth living?"
"Yeah, Plato," said Strike, "but this isn't examining a life, it's exhibiting it." -The Silkworm (Robert Galbraith, aka J.K. Rowling)

When I read these lines in The Silkworm a few weeks ago, I felt a flash of recognition. Strike's question is one I've asked myself a thousand times, maybe even more.  Although I like blogging, I long ago realized that I'm the kind of person who is going to question the why of things--the driving impulse behind certain behaviors, the attachment to authors and hobbies, rather than be satisfied with the status quo and merrily prance along (you can take the girl out of the Russian major, but not the Russian major out of the girl, I suppose).

Truth be told, I haven't entirely felt all that inspired by this space lately, or maybe a better way of putting it is to say that I haven't felt compelled to be here in the same way that I often was in the past. I'm sure that this feeling partly stems from my more limited free time (it's true that a Ph.D., even during the dissertation years, affords a certain freedom that doesn't exist in the "Real World"), but if I go beyond the changes that have taken place in my life over the past several months, I know that there's more to it than that. For a long time now, I've been noticing that the internet has been undergoing a transformation and has increasingly started to resemble a virtual shopping mall. No matter where you turn, something is being sold; you're bombarded by advertisements, book promotions, pictures of products you can't possibly live without! While I recognize that a lot of people make their livings off of these books, products and advertising campaigns, it's still a lot to swallow, especially when you think that people first came online to escape these very things.

Maybe this is why the internet's atmosphere has begun to feel different, too--at least in the world of food blogging (technically, this is a food blog, but sometimes I'm not so sure). It now seems that  everything is about buying and branding, instead of about real people, real food and real conditions of daily life. Whereas once food blogs, at least to me, were about weekend baking projects and the eternal question of "what to have for dinner?", what currently appears to exist is a world of endless hashtagging, constant (self-)promotion and styled images. It can all become a little daunting, especially considering that in this world both the image and "curated" experience reign supreme. As somebody who puts more stock in words and stories than in images (substance over style, if you will), there's something truly off-putting about the rise of Pinterest and styling food until it almost looks too pretty to eat. While my grandma always told me that food should look appetizing and should appeal to the eyes, I think maybe the internet has taken it all a bit too far. Never forget that behind every beautiful shot of a platter of vegetables or a perfectly frosted cake lurks a stack of dirty dishes and a whole lot of effort.

Having said all of that, I think it's only fair to address why I keep blogging. The simple truth is that I like the challenge of turning the pristine whiteness that each post begins as into an organized mess of words. There's also something to be said for the discipline of writing--of having a space to think through your experiences and to keep track of your life through different flavors, cultures and scents. And, when we get down to the heart of the matter, this is also where I get the chance to keep my researching teeth sharp. I've always enjoyed the hunt for information, the "excavation" of facts or moments of cross-cultural exchange found in old books that could potentially be lost. It's both the search for and promise of new--really, old--recipes that keeps me coming back.

The recipe that I'm about to share, Persian Cream of Barley Soup (Soop-e Jo), is a fine example of this. When I first found it in Margaret Shaida's The Legendary Cuisine of Persia (1992), I was drawn not only to the short list of ingredients (which included a whole grain), but also to its back story. In her headnote, Shaida, a Brit who married an Iranian and lived in Iran for 25 years, wrote that she "...suspect[ed] that this soup entered Iran in the early part of the this century, along with the White Russians fleeing the Bolshevik Revolution. It's Persian name soop implies an alien background."

Considering the ingredients (pearl barley, leeks, onions, carrots and lemon juice), I couldn't quite figure out which Russian soup this could be, but I was determined to try it and see if its taste would trigger memories of my time in St. Petersburg. My host mother wasn't a person who enjoyed cooking, but even so, she took pride in her soups. She knew they were hearty, soothing and essential on cold winter days. While I found the steady diet of meat patties, hot dogs and fried pasta to be more than a little depressing, I always welcomed the first course, a soup, which I knew would be the best part of the meal.

When I finally made this soup one day last fall and took my first bite, I expected not to know what it was. But, thanks to its bright and tangy flavor from an ample amount of lemon juice, my recognition was instantaneous. I could have been sitting at my host mother's tiny red-checked table in Petersburg as I exclaimed to the Greek that this must be a Persian adaptation of Russia's national soup, shchi (as the saying goes, "Shchi da kasha, pishcha nasha" [Shchi and kasha are our food]). For those of you who have never had this soup, shchi is traditionally made with cabbage or sauerkraut (the kind made with sauerkraut is often called kislye, which means sour), although, according to Anya von Bremzen, an authority on Russian cuisine, shchi has historically been made with a range of ingredients, from fish to sorrel. I immediately imagined that this must have been the recipe that a beautiful White Russian lady in her one remaining fur coat came up with when she found herself far from home and in search of its familiar taste.

As a friend and fellow Slavist pointed out to me, how hard could it have been for this lady to have found some cabbage in Iran? It's a thought that I myself had had, but it turns out that the answer to our question could also be found in Shaida's book. Shaida explains that, "Cabbage does not have a long history in Iran" and that white cabbage ("Turkish cabbage") is more common in Iran than green cabbage (when you consider that, in Russian, white cabbage literally translates to cauliflower, the soup's adaptation to Iranian ingredients begins to make more sense). I suppose this shows that what is ubiquitous and taken for granted in one culture is completely alien in another. 

Although I love Russian shchi with its sour and rich cabbage flavor, I also find that the Persian take on this recipe, perhaps because it features the always subtle yet elegant leek, is just as good and equally comforting. Both soups are sharp and acidic, but in a way that is pleasant and not at all bracing. I would suggest that, if you've never tried either of these soups, you rectify this culinary mistake immediately. Believe me when I say that you're missing out on something unique. It's discoveries like these that still make me, despite all of my misgivings, want to blog.

Cream of Barley Soup (Persian Shchi or Soop-e Jo)

Adapted from Margaret Shaida's The Legendary Cuisine of Persia
 Yields about 6-8 servings

When you first look at the recipe as written by Shaida, you worry that you might never get to eat dinner. She first asks that you soak the barley for thirty minutes, which is easy enough since, while the barley is soaking, you can wash and chop all of the vegetables. But then things get a little more complicated: Shaida says that you should let the soup simmer gently for two hours; on a weeknight, this is next to impossible and, on a weekend, less so, but only with careful planning. If this seems as daunting to you as it initially did to me, let me assure you that the soup can be ready--the barley tender and the broth flavorful--in an hour and 15 minutes; I often let the barley soak for 45 minutes, sometimes even for an hour, which I find helps it to cook faster. 
         Also, while Shaida recommends using a good chicken stock for this soup, I've used vegetable stock (both homemade and Better than Bouillon) several times and haven't been at all disappointed with the final product. The same can be said for the ingredients; although the combination of leeks, onions and carrots make for a fine soup, all leek and carrot is just as good. That said, I wouldn't recommend sacrificing the leeks for an all onion soup; the leeks provide a nice textural balance to the mix. 
         The measurements I've provided below are rough estimates; a little more or a little less won't hurt. Such is the beauty and simplicity of soup.

189 grams/6 ounces pearl barley
3 tablespoons olive oil 
1 medium or large onion (7.5 ounces/213 grams)
2 medium leeks (260 grams/9.2 ounces)
salt and pepper, to taste 
6 cups (3 pints/1 1/2 liters) vegetable stock
2 small or 1 large carrot (123 grams/4.3 ounces
juice of two lemons (about 1/3 to 1/2 cup)
sour cream or Greek yogurt, for serving
chopped parsley or dill, for serving

-Rinse the barley and let soak soak in a small bowl for 30-45 minutes. 
-Cut the dark green parts from the leeks, remove their outer layer and wash well, submerging in a bowl of water if particularly dirty. Once clean, dry and chop finely. Then, set aside. 
-Roughly chop the onion, then heat the oil in a large, heavy-bottomed pot (I prefer a Dutch oven) and add the chopped onion, frying for about 10 minutes, or until soft and golden. 
-Add salt (at this stage, about 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt) and pepper (1/8 to 1/4 teaspoon) and stir.
-Drain the barley, then add it and the leeks to the pot. Stir until coated with oil, then add the stock and stir. 
-Cover, bring back to a boil and then simmer gently, stirring occasionally, for about 1 hour, or until the barley has softened.
-Grate the carrot and add to the soup with half of the lemon juice. Continue simmering until the carrot has softened, about 10-15 minutes more. .
-Stir in the remaining lemon juice, making sure to adjust the sourness to your palate.
-Ladle into bowls, stir in a tablespoon of sour cream or Greek yogurt and garnish with parsley or dill.
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