Thursday, April 17, 2014

Heretical Greek Cheese Pie (Tiropita)

We are always after some new thing. Which is fine in many ways, but in matters of food often disastrous. We are so busy running after the latest dish, that the good things we have known for centuries are forgotten as quickly as the boring things. -Jane Grigson (English Food)

The wise Jane Grigson wrote these words in 1974 and, forty years later, I--and I imagine many of you reading this--stand guilty as charged. Ours is an age that seems to shun tradition. I wonder sometimes if it's the desire to be new and innovative that drives us or if we've simply moved beyond doing things "the old-fashioned" way. Or it may be that, because we live in a multicultural and increasingly global society, both we and our palates have changed and are no longer satisfied by "traditional" flavors (I am not the only writer to explore this question, nor am I saying things that haven't already been said. For example, David Lebovitz recently wrote an interesting piece about the changes in French cuisine that is worth reading); we want miso in our turnips, fish sauce on our Brussels sprouts, daring desserts with parsley that include a frozen component, not to mention a different ethnic cuisine, sometimes "fused," sometimes not, each and every night. The extent of our options can be exhilarating, but it can also be downright exhausting. There are times when a bowl of pasta Carbonara is all I want to come home to and moments when just a bowl of fresh lettuce, simply dressed, is all I crave. 

 But then, after sating the part of me that longs for simplicity, I again find myself on the prowl for something new--a dish that will test the limits of my palate in some unexpected way. 

Despite my constant urge to fiddle with things, I find that, when I prepare Greek food, I usually stick with tradition. Yes, I have voiced my impulse to put sun-dried tomatoes in spanakopita many times (mainly because I find that spinach, at least to me, has a somewhat metallic aftertaste that needs to be offset by something more than tangy feta), but I have never acted on it. I have also fantasized about  Chocolate Baklava, which, according to the Greek food writer, Diane Kochilas, can be found in certain sweet shops in Athens. But when I suggest these things to the Greek, he usually looks at me like I've grown two heads; sometimes, the word "heresy" is even used. 

This was the case when, after one of my Tuesday evening Greek classes--those magical evenings when I go and sample the many offerings of SF's Chinatown (oddly enough, my Greek class is in the Chinatown branch of CCSF) and feel like a young Ruth Reichl eating my way through many holes in the wall in the city--I came home bursting with excitement about a recipe one of my new friends and classmates, Eirini, had told me about. After 3 hours of asking each other, "Theleis pagoto i tiropita? Poso kanoun dio tiropites?" [Do you want ice cream or cheese pie? How much do two cheese pies cost?], we became hungry and, on the BART ride back to the East Bay, we discovered a mutual love of cooking. I soon learned that Eirini, who has friends and family in Athens, had a very unique recipe for cheese pie (tiropita) that she had gotten from her friend Matoula. Unlike most Greek pies, you don't brush butter or oil on the individual "leaves" (or sheets) of phyllo, nor do you lay each leaf flat in a long baking dish and score the top for easy cutting after baking. This recipe, veering from tradition, called not only for pleating the phyllo (as you can see from the photo above, there is no need for perfection; folding phyllo isn't easy, but fortunately this is a very forgiving method of preparation and small tears are not the end of the world), but also for using a round springform pan. While these things alone more than challenged the Greek's definition of what Greek pie should be, he primarily used heresy to describe it because of the recipe's final step: after poking holes in the pie using chopsticks, you pour a mixture of eggs, flour and sweetened condensed milk over it. To the Greek palate, sweet and salty things are unacceptable; a dish should either be savory or (really) sweet. There is no middle ground (that being said, I've never seen him object to Salted Caramel Ice Cream, but that is most definitely not a Greek creation). 

I was too intrigued to let this one go, however, so I decided to make the pie while the Greek was in Texas for a conference. I invited some friends to join me and they were just as delighted with the pie as I was (even the half-Greek, whose grandmother had urged him to show me the correct way to use phyllo, seemed impressed, albeit reluctantly so). Because of the sweetened condensed milk and egg mixture, which acts as an egg wash, the pie bakes to a beautiful shade of gold; in particular, the sides of the pie, hugged by the springform pan, become especially dark. Despite the Greek's worries that the sweet and salty combination would prove too much, the pie is perfectly balanced, with an generous sprinkling of sesame seeds (this is an especially nice touch, since it calls to mind traditional Greek bread, which is topped with sesame seeds) and clearly falls into the savory camp. 

While it's true that the pie bucks tradition in a lot of ways, for me it's enough that it was invented in an Athenian kitchen; to my mind, it doesn't get any more Greek than that. I should also add that as soon as the Greek, the heretical cheese pie naysayer, heard that I had gone ahead and made the pie, he sent me a text message asking me to save him a piece. It turns out that, even for traditionalists, heresy can sometimes be too good to resist.

Matoula's Cheese Pie (Tiropita)

Yields about 6-8 rich servings

This pie, which uses a combination of cottage cheese, feta and Pecorino (in Greece, the cheese of choice would be kefalotiri, a hard, salty cheese that is similar in flavor and texture to Pecorino) is quite rich and should be paired with roasted vegetables and a salad (a plain green salad would do well here, although I opted for something a little more flavorful).
     I recommend baking this on a sheet lined with parchment or aluminum foil because, as I've discovered, even the best springform pans leak. Also, although you will open a whole package of frozen phyllo, you will not use all of it for just one pie; to preserve the remaining phyllo, I would recommend rolling it back up in its original plastic wrapper and wrapping a damp towel around it before placing it back in the fridge. If, however, you are serving a crowd, one package of phyllo should easily yield two pies.
       Finally, as my friend Eirini told me, when you serve and eat this pie, be sure to thank Matoula, who is more than deserving of our gratitude.

1 package phyllo, defrosted and ready to use
1 cup cottage cheese
1/2 pound feta, crumbled
1 cup Pecorino cheese, grated
4 eggs, beaten
1 cup sweetened condensed milk
one heaping tablespoon all-purpose flour
sesame seeds, for sprinkling on top

-Butter a 9-inch springform pan.
-In small bowls or on a sheet of parchment, divide the cottage cheese, feta and the Pecorino into three even portions.
-Then, lay three sheets of phyllo, pleating and folding them to make them fit in the round springform pan. There is no need to be overly neat about this, nor is there any need to bring the sheets up the sides of the pan.
-Top this layer of phyllo with one portion of all three cheeses.
-Then, add two sheets of phyllo, again pleating and folding, and top with another portion of the cheeses.
-Repeat the previous step, but this time top the cheese with three sheets of phyllo. This is the final layer.
-Once the pie is assembled, use a chopstick to poke a series of holes in it; be aggressive. The goal is ensure that the holes go all the way to the bottom of the pan.
-Whisk the beaten eggs, the sweetened condensed milk and the heaping tablespoon flour together in a small bowl. Once mixed well, pour over the surface of the pie.
-Set on a plate or a baking sheet and let sit in the refrigerator for at least 3 hours (experience has shown that 2 1/2 will suffice if you're in a hurry).
-About 20 minutes before you will bake the pie, start preheating the oven to 350 F.
-Remove the pie from the refrigerator and generously sprinkle the top with sesame seeds.
-Bake for 40-45 minutes, or until the top is golden.
-If you can resist, let the pie sit for 10-15 minutes before cutting it.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Seasonal Confusion

Something tells me that writing a post about butternut squash isn't exactly seasonally appropriate (who, after all, wants to think about a winter squash when there are artichokes and asparagus and strawberries?), but, nevertheless, I will tell you about it anyway. Not only is it a unique way of preparing butternut squash, a real game changer if you will, but I also fear that if I don't write about it now, it will become one of those posts that will, despite my best intentions simply fall to the wayside--like the Rye Bread with Cocoa Powder, Strawberry Jam Popovers and Chocolate Avocado Tart that came before it; unfortunately, I've got more than a few of those in my blog archives, but that's often the problem--and the joy--of trying lots of new recipes...You find yourself smitten, you vow to share your feelings with the world and then, before you know it, you're already in love with the sound of another dish, cooking method or world cuisine. Let me just say that this is one of the few areas in my life where I allow myself to be hopelessly fickle; while I'm a loyal friend and a complete fan girl when it comes to quality books and TV, when dealing with recipes and cookbooks, I am easily swayed by the promise of something new.

In my defense of this untimely post, I will also add one thing: Although the calendar tells me it's spring, I find that living in the Bay Area makes things confusing. Just last week, we had lots of rain, it was quite chilly and I returned from the noble act of picking up the CSA box both drenched and disappointed to discover that yet another pair of supposedly sturdy boots had sprung a leak. On that same rainy evening we had Ottolenghi's Ultimate Winter Couscous (with more seasonally inappropriate butternut squash!) for supper, followed by steaming mugs of rich hot chocolate for dessert. Then, in a matter of days, the weather turned boiling and sunny and, during an outdoor excursion, I had the misfortune to forget to wear sunscreen and now resemble an overdone chicken. It's clear that I'll never understand the weather here; even after seven years, I still manage to get it all wrong. Given this, it's hardly surprising that I'm still cooking with squash. More importantly, I think that there's often more overlap between the seasons than we like to think. We, quite literally, want to "spring into spring," leaving winter and all that it symbolizes behind us.

This post will hopefully give you pause, however. Maybe it will even make you longingly glance at the hardy squash that continue to appear at the farmer's markets and grocery stores (somebody has to take pity and eat them!) and reconsider their place on the spring table. You see, what I'm offering you today is not just a vegetable side, although these too can be vibrant and flavorful, but a butternut squash dessert. I first discovered butternut squash's hidden potential when I was flipping through Paula Wolfert's The Slow Mediterranean Kitchen. A recipe for Turkish Candied Squash caught my eye, which called for the butternut squash to be macerated. I had never imagined that adding sugar to cubed squash would lead to the same result as sprinkling sugar on strawberries, but I trusted both Paula and the Turks not to lead me astray.

I finally got an opportunity to try it a few weeks ago when the Greek was in Texas and I invited some friends over to try a recipe for a Greek cheese pie and wanted to make something simple for dessert. This recipe really fits the bill; the most difficult thing about making it is peeling and cubing the squash (Wolfert also says that a Hubbard squash could be used, but that peeling process is much more labor intensive; butternut seems like the easiest way to go here); after that, the magic of maceration does all the work for you. It's amazing to see just how much juice the squash will release when mixed with sugar; truly, it practically glistens. Then, the squash is slowly roasted in the oven with a wet sheet of parchment loosely bunched over it; by the time it comes out, it's nothing but softened, syrupy sweetness. In fact, it reminded me of a Greek spoon sweet, but one that is roasted, rather than boiled (the Greeks actually have a pumpkin spoon sweet, but I've never tried it and can't really compare it to this; I imagine it's quite similar).

There was a brief moment when I wanted to transform this dish into a butternut squash crumble--a long-held fantasy of mine--but I resisted the impulse. I think it's a good thing I did, too; given the overwhelmingly syrupy texture of the dish, I think any oat topping that would have baked on top of it would have lost the crisp textural contrast I was seeking. Although Wolfert suggested a simple topping of walnuts toasted in butter and creme fraiche, I decided, after much consideration, to approach the dessert like a pastry chef, i.e. in components and layers (I was inspired by my trip to Chikalicious in New York, where I had a banana and pineapple fruit salad on top of a crunchy nest of kadaifi, thin "noodles" of phyllo dough), and made a small batch of savory granola made with olive oil, saffron and Aleppo pepper (Turkish crushed chili) to sprinkle on top. Not only did it add a bit of necessary crunch to the softened squash, but its flavors also contrasted its sweetness and amplified its Turkishness. That being said, I did follow Wolfert's advice and added the requisite dollop of creme fraiche for a final tangy zing, although I do think that a spoonful of thick labneh (strained yogurt, which can be easily made at home) would do the trick as well.

Syrupy Butternut Squash with Saffron and Aleppo Pepper Granola

serves 8-10
adapted from Paula Wolfert's The Slow Mediterranean Kitchen

    I ended up doubling Wolfert's recipe, but this can easily be halved. If you have a lot of squash on your hands that you want to use up, this dessert is a good way to go. 
I wanted to make the granola with pistachios, but, when I opened the bag of pistachios I had been storing in the back of the refrigerator, I realized that they had seen better days. This is why I ended up using pecans; while the flavor combination worked nicely, I still think I would prefer pistachios or walnuts. In a pinch, however, almost any nut would do.

For the squash:
 roughly 2 1/2 pounds of butternut squash
1 cup caster sugar

-Peel and trim the squash. You should be left with about 2 pounds. Cut the squash into 1-inch pieces (cubes would be preferable, but I am not a consistent cutter and my shapes varied).
-Then, mix the cubed squash with the sugar in a baking dish and let stand, covered, for at least 30 minutes or until the sugar has melted and a liquid has been formed.
-Preheat the oven to 300 F and, using a wooden spoon, mix the squash and sugar.
-Wet a sheet of parchment paper (I put one under the tap) and then crumple it; place the crumbled and wet parchment loosely over the parchment and put the baking dish in the oven. Bake for 1 1/2 hours or until the juices have come to a boil and the squash is tender.
-Then, turn off the oven and leave the baking dish inside until completely cool (Wolfert says that the squash will continue to re-absorb its syrupy juices).
-Remove from oven and store in a cool place.

For the granola: 

1 teaspoon natural cane or granulated sugar
1 pinch saffron
1 cup rolled (not quick-cooking) oats
1/3 cup nuts (pecans, pistachios, walnuts, hazelnuts), roughly chopped
1/8 teaspoon Aleppo pepper, plus an additional pinch
1/4 teaspoon Kosher salt, plus an additional pinch
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 1/2 tablespoons honey (I used wildflower)

-Preheat the oven to 325 F and line a baking sheet with parchment or a silicon baking mat.
-Using a mortar and pestle, grind the pinch of saffron (about 8-10 threads) and the sugar together.
-Then, add the saffron sugar mixture, the rolled oats, chopped nuts, Aleppo pepper and Kosher salt to a small bowl and whisk to combine them.
-Add the olive oil and honey and stir to combine with a wooden spoon.
-Spread the oats on the prepared baking sheet and, before placing in the oven, sprinkle an additional pinch of Aleppo pepper and Kosher salt over the mixture.
-Stirring once or twice, bake the oats for 15-20 minutes, or until lightly golden and fragrant (depending on your oven, it make take an additional 5 minutes; just make sure that you stir regularly, so that the nuts don't burn).

To serve: 

-Spoon some of the squash and its syrup onto a small dessert plate or into a small bowl. Top with two tablespoons of the granola, making sure to sprinkle the squash liberally. Place a dollop of creme fraiche or labneh on top of the oats and serve.

Monday, March 31, 2014

To Russia with Love

"Shiroka strana moya rodina" ("O vast is my country"), the people are singing. "There's no other country where a man breathes more freely." Swept up in the collective elation, Mom inhales as deep as she can, filling her lungs with what she will always describe as "that smell"--the Soviet institutional odor of dusty folders, karbolka cleaner, woolen coats, and feet stewing in rubber galoshes, which will haunt her all her adult life in the USSR, at offices, schools, political meetings, at work. --Anya von Bremzen (Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food and Longing)

For years my friends have asked me why I never feature Russian dishes on my blog. Sadly, I never manage to give them a real answer, which I think is because it often seems too complicated to explain. Unlike a lot of people who study (or have studied) the Russian language and culture, I don't dislike Russian food. In fact, as strange as it may sound, I love the heaviness of it all: its reliance on big dollops of sour cream and mayonnaise, the heavy sprinkling of dill that goes on soups, the simple heartiness of  pel'meni (meat dumplings) and the endless possibilities of bliny (the Russian crepe). What complicates my enjoyment of these dishes and ingredients is my relationship with Russia--and not even Russia itself, but my own experiences and impressions of this vast and often perplexing place.

One reason Russian food never quite made it onto the blog was that, while I was in graduate school, my life seemed to revolve around Russia. Or rather, my life was dominated by Russia (this verb exemplifies the true Russian experience; for proof, see current events). From morning to night (and sometimes in my nightmares, too; imagine preparing for your qualifying exams and having a character in Russian literature attempt to suffocate you on a nightly basis), at colloquia and in papers to be written and lessons to be planned, this place and its many cultural offerings were often the metaphorical main course. After so much Russia during my working hours, how could I even fathom making something Russian for dinner or for fun? Since I'm one of those people who believes that food has to capture and appeal to the imagination, Russia never quite made the cut; instead, I embraced culinary escapism, dreaming of France through steaming bowls of puy lentils and rich, eggy quiche, of Italy through delicate angel hair tossed with garlic, oil and parsley, of Greece through thick slabs of feta and ripe red tomatoes. Food was the one area that Russia couldn't touch and I liked it that way.

More importantly, when I'm in the kitchen, I sometimes like to try to recreate experiences--dishes that I ate at a nice restaurant, drinks that haunt my memory, desserts that tempted me to order seconds. In short, all moments that I would happily relive. The funny thing is, I've never had this with Russia; whenever I leave, all I want to do is forget. There's no looking back and little to no sentimentality. When I think back on the months I've spent in Russia, I often wonder if these experiences have irrevocably hardened me. I recall the doctor who, rather than treat my bronchitis, decided to play the dermatologist: "Zaichik, u tebia plokhaia kozha" [Little rabbit, you have bad skin]. Or the nurse who, when taking my blood--a thing that I fear--brutally stabbed my finger down on a needle. Or the time when my host mother's beloved parrot flew at my face and, running away in horror, I slammed the door on him only to be berated and called an "almost murderer." Or the time that the woman in the cafeteria at MGU (Moscow State University) threw my change so that it landed in my morning bowl of kasha and told me it was good luck. It's true that when I look back now, I can laugh at most of these things, but back then I would walk through the streets of Petersburg and Moscow feeling the righteous indignation (and, it must be noted, hopelessness) of all of Dostoevsky's heroes. I was also probably muttering to myself, but believe me when I say that I simply blended in with the locals.

Although I decided to take a break from Russia after filing my dissertation, I couldn't help but be extremely excited about Anya von Bremzen's "foodoir," Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking, when it came out this past fall. Despite my excitement, it took a while for me to work up my courage to read it. I was enjoying the Russia-free life and wasn't sure I was ready to thrust myself back into that world. Once I read it, however, I was so glad that I did.

Not only is the book a compelling read in and of itself, but it also, for anybody who has spent time in Russia or studied it in some way, is easy to identify with. There were many pages when I would scribble "yes!" in the margins--yes to her description of the way Russia smells (the quote that opens this post), yes to her descriptions of the rampant alcoholism in Russia, yes to the kindness of Russians once you get to know them and you become svoi (one's own). While most foodoirs seem to be about one's life through food with the requisite recipe at the end of each chapter, von Bremzen bucks what seems to be the trends of the genre (if there even is such a genre) by writing a family chronicle; it is as much her story as it is her mother's, grandmother's and Soviet intelligence officer grandfather's (his story, in particular, lends a dramatic edge). These stories combine to create a layered and rich narrative, one that is reminiscent of the narrative scope and style of some of the Russian masters (her book is itself highly intertextual and literary; Pushkin, Gogol, Chekhov and Tolstoy are all here).  She doesn't linger over heartbreak, nor is she overly personal. And while food is obviously at the heart of the memoir, von Bremzen almost seems more interested in "metaphorical" food--the food of longing, memory and history--than she is in the"real" food that can be prepared through the recipes provided at the end of the book.

This book also made me hungry. I suddenly hungered for Russia in a way that I hadn't in a really long time (perhaps since before I ever even went there). While I wanted to try all of the recipes and even ordered a fairly expensive copy of von Bremzen's first cookbook, the award-winning Please to the Table, so as to be able to make many of the dishes she mentions in Mastering the Art, the thing that I settled on making was the simplest and most classic of them all: bliny (crepes) made with yeast. You might think that the difference between crepes made with baking powder or soda and crepes made with yeast might be slight, but I assure you that it's not. These yeasted bliny were pillowy and flavorful, with  a welcome tangy edge. When I bit into the first one, I suddenly saw myself, younger and plumper, sitting at a tiny corner table with a red and white checked tablecloth in a drafty Petersburg apartment and eating a plateful of bliny, while my host mother bustled around the tiny kitchen, singing to her parrot. I didn't think it was possible, but these bliny actually made me feel a twinge of nostalgia.

Yeasted Bliny

Yields 6-8 servings
Adapted, ever so slightly, from Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking

The changes I made were slight: rather than use granulated sugar, which I was out of, I used natural cane sugar and reduced the amounts. I used 2 tablespoons and 1 1/2 teaspoons, rather than 3 tablespoons and 2 teaspoons sugar. I also didn't do the potato trick, which says to "skewer a potato half on a fork and dip it into the oil. Rub the bottom of a heavy 8-inch skillet with a long handle liberally with the oil." To me, this seems like a bit of Russian superstition and I'm happy to report that my bliny were perfect without this additional step. Similarly, I'm one of those impatient people who can't always wait for things to come back to room temperature before frying them; although my batter was cold, the bliny fried up nicely all the same--that is, except for the first one, which will always be a bit of a dud.
Also, I should add that this recipe gives you a lot of bliny. We ended up having them for breakfast for two days and, while I was in New York, the Greek finished them off for dinner. Since bliny don't reheat well--they're definitely best when fresh--I suggest either halving the recipe or keeping the batter in the fridge until you manage to use it all up; the flavor, at least in my opinion, only improves with time.
While this recipe worked for me, I knew what I was looking for in terms of taste and texture. If you're new to making bliny, here is a tip from von Bremzen: "The texture of the blin should be light, spongy and a touch chewy; it should be very thin, but a little puffy. If a blin tears too easily, whisk in 1/4 cup more flour into the batter. If the blin is too doughy and thick, whisk in 1/4 cup to 1/2 cup water."

NB: Bliny is plural and blin is singular.

1 package active dry yeast (2 1/4 teaspoons)
1 cup warm water
2 tablespoons, plus 1 1/2 teaspoons natural cane sugar (or 3 tablespoons, plus 2 teaspoons granulated sugar)
2 3/4 cups all-purpose flour, plus more as needed
2 1/2 cups milk (whole or 2%)
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
2 teaspoons salt
2 large eggs, separated, yolks beaten
canola oil, for frying
For serving: sour cream, jam, Nutella, smoked fish, melted butter, etc.

-In a large mixing bowl, stir together yeast, water and 1 1/2 teaspoons sugar and let stand until foamy (about 10 minutes). Whisk in 1/2 cup flour until smooth. Cover the sponge with plastic wrap and place in a warm place (I put mine either on top of the stove or in the oven) until bubbly and almost doubled (about 1 hour)
-Beat the milk, melted butter, 2 1/4 cups flour, egg yolks, remaining 2 tablespoons natural cane sugar and salt. Whisk until completely smooth and set to rise, covered loosely with plastic wrap, either until bubbly (about 2 hours) or overnight in the refrigerator. In either case, the batter should be stirred at least once. 
-Before frying, beat the egg whites until they form soft peaks and fold them into the batter. Let stand for 10 minutes. 
-Heat an 8-inch skillet with a long handle over medium heat, then add some oil to coat the pan. Using a potholder, pick up the skillet and swirl the oil around. 
-Once the pan is well coated, pour about 1/4 cup batter into the skillet and tilt and rotate the pan so that the batter spreads out in a thin layer, covering the entire surface. 
-Place the skillet back on the burner and cook until the top of the blin is bubbly and the bottom is golden brown. Gently flip the blin over and cook for another 30 seconds or until the bottom is golden. Remember that the first blin will most likely not be a success. 
-Adding more oil when necessary, continue making bliny until all the batter is gone or until you have enough for the meal. The remaining batter can be refrigerated. 
-Slide the prepared bliny onto a plate and cover with a lid or with foil; you can also stack them with wax paper in between them so that they don't stick. 
-Serve hot and with jam, sour cream or any spread that you consider blin appropriate. 

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

A Sun-Dappled Grove of Oranges

The morning that has passed seems far away as the afternoon advances, as the afternoon connects with the afternoon of yesterday of yesterday and of the day before, a repetition that must have a beginning somewhere but now is lost. -William Trevor ("A Day")

I've been feeling surprisingly happy these last few weeks. I say surprisingly not because I expect to be glum or miserable, but because it's not like anything has dramatically changed in my routine. For the most part, things are as they've always been: days spent speedily walking around Berkeley, dreaming of future projects and meals and, in the evenings, cooking, eating and reading until my eyes are too heavy to stay awake. But there has been a small shift in the universe; the glorious weather, the longer days and sight of blossoming flowers everywhere have all been helping both my mood and energy levels.

Although life continues to be busy--almost too busy at times--there have been a lot of small pleasures recently. I find the enthusiasm of the eight-year old ESL student I work with to be nothing short of infectious; we've been watching the fabulous Ratatouille for the past month and every time he laughs and shout "Coo(uuuu)ool" in his charming German accent, I'm reminded of how good it is to spend time with children, to view the world through their eyes. I also had a good discussion with one of my older students last week when we read one of my favorite William Trevor stories; it always amazes me how students miss the final twist, but it makes for that magical "aha!" moment that makes any form of teaching worthwhile. Teachable moments aside, perhaps the real joy of the past few weeks stems from the fact that the Greek and I, no longer under winter's spell of lethargy, have been going out more-- to new places and to the movies, as well as to various dinners with friends. These are always the nicest occasions because they allow me not only to feed people, an act that I relish, but also to try many of the recipes that I either compulsively bookmark or email to myself. While most of these recipes will most likely never be made (in some things, realism is essential), there are many that stick with me and come out of the "files" only on special occasions.

A recent special occasion was a paella dinner at a friend's house. I offered to make dessert and, given the theme of the evening--sumptuous Mediterranean fare--I decided that only one cake would do: the olive oil cake from New York's Maialino that Kristen Miglore featured in her "Genius Recipes" column on Food52 in early February. As she described the cake, it "has a crackling crust and an oil-rich middle" that is almost like pudding in terms of texture. Who can resist the promise of such a cake?

For a long time, the answer to that question would have been me. Before 2010, I'm ashamed to say (at least on behalf of the Italian blood that runs through my veins) that I didn't even know olive oil cake--olive oil dessert anything--existed. The cakes that I ate growing up were more often than not the frosted kind, chocolate-y and marbled, and always made of butter. But on a trip back to New York in the summer of 2010, my understanding of olive oil's potential was forever changed when my friends and I were at Otto and, stuffed from pizza, decided to share gelato for dessert. We were curious about the olive oil gelato, so we made it one of our three flavor choices; I think our thought was that if it turned out to be a disappointment, there would be two other flavors to balance it out. As these stories tend to go, the olive oil gelato, creamy, slightly salty and infused with the richness that only olive oil can impart, was the first to be devoured.

Ever since, I've been a convert to the olive oil cause. Using it in cakes cuts back on the dishes and the labor; all you have to do is whisk the wet ingredients together, then the dry and then mix them all together. This is the kind of cake that makes life easy. For a long time now, my go-to olive oil cake recipe has been Kim Boyce's Rosemary and Chocolate Olive Oil Cake, which might sound strange, but believe me when I say that it's nothing short of superb (the fact that it's been around the blogging block also attests to its quality. See here and here). Also, as far as olive oil cakes go, it's quite pretty to look at since it's studded with chocolate and flecks of chopped rosemary. 

I've decided, however, that as far as cakes go, it may just be that the uglier the cake, the better it tastes. Amanda Hesser's Almond Cake is no stunner, but it's worth its weight in gold. The same can be said of Maialino's Olive Oil Cake. When it comes out of the oven, you may wonder what's gone wrong; it's so brown on the top and on the sides that it looks a little burnt. But don't worry! If you get a little closer and inhale, you'll suddenly feel like you've been transported to a sun-dappled grove of oranges. In fact, the cake is so fragrant that you won't want to step away. And once you cut into it (for me, this happened sooner rather than later since the Food52 instructions led me astray and the batter didn't fit into a 9-inch cake pan. This is why you see two cakes above--one a lightly golden and dimpled fluffy pancake and the other the real thing) and take a bite, you'll realize that appearances really can be deceiving. The cake is positively dewy and moist crumbed from the olive oil and, with the addition of some grapefruit supremes (my own addition since I had some leftover from this risotto; a supremed orange or blood orange could also do the trick), it's also got hidden bursts of color and flavor.

Maialino's Citrus Olive Oil Cake

Adapted slightly from Food52
Yields 8-10 slices

While I liked the texture and taste of this cake and so did my dining companions, in the comments on Food52, a number of people wrote to say that they thought it called for too much sugar and olive oil and that both should be reduced (often by 1/4 cup and 1/3 cup, respectively). I would play with the proportions and see what works best for you. 
    A quick note about olive oil: I usually bake with a California olive oil, Corto, but for this I splurged and bought a bottle of olive oil from Crete, Divina, which supposedly has hints of arugula and artichoke. Although those flavors might sound wrong for a cake, I can't say that either was strong enough to have a negative impact on the final product. 

2 cups all-purpose flour
1 3/4 cup sugar
1 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 1/3 cups extra-virgin olive oil
1 1/4 cups whole milk
3 large eggs, beaten
zest of two medium-sized oranges
1/4 cup freshly squeezed orange juice
1/4 cup Grand Marnier
2 tablespoons of grapefruit (or other citrus) supremes

-Preheat the oven to 350 F and, with a small amount of olive oil, grease a 9-inch springform pan and line the bottom with parchment paper.
-In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, salt, baking powder and soda. In a large bowl, whisk together the olive oil, milk, beaten eggs, orange zest, juice, Grand Marnier and grapefruit supremes.
-Then, add the dry ingredients to the wet, whisking until combined and no traces of flour remain.The batter will be slightly lumpy.
-Pour the batter into the prepared pan and place in the oven. Bake for 50-60 minutes (mine was done in 50) or until the cake is golden and a cake tester or toothpick comes out clean.
-Transfer to a rack and let cool in the pan for 30 minutes. 
-Then, run a knife around the edges of the springform pan and, once certain that no part is stuck to the side, release the clasp on the side of the pan. 
-Set the cake directly on the rack and let cool completely.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Food for Thought

I've been trying to come back to this space more frequently--to get back into a blogging and writing rhythm (they say a writer writes and so it must go that a blogger blogs; here I am!). While I had always imagined that after the dissertation time would suddenly open up in magical ways, I now realize that there's always going to be a shortage of time. If I want to do the things that I hold dear, then I simply have to remember to carve out that time for myself. In high school, overwhelmed by homework, college applications and club commitments, I used to call this "Katy Time"--a period when I would read, go for a walk or just be by myself, thinking. Looking back, I realize that my teenage self was pretty in tune with her essentials. Of course, this self didn't have to contend with the constant siren song--maybe a blessing and a curse--of the internet.

 Even though I sometimes feel the need to turn the computer off and to look at something that isn't a machine, I also find that the internet has a lot to offer (essentially, it is equal parts wisdom and foolishness; you just have to know where to look!). Because it's been a while since I've done one of these posts and there are some articles and podcasts that I've found really inspiring, I thought I would share them with you. Here's some food for thought for the weekend: 

An article about the current work philosophy that is dominating our culture (what is says about academics really struck a chord with me, not to mention the obsession with finding that elusive "ideal" job that will pay.).

A British podcast that is intelligent, devoted to food and that is delivered in the most measured and relaxing British accent ever: Food Programme. The episode from August 18, 2013, "Feeding the Detectives," is particularly fascinating since it's about mystery novels that use a good appetite to their advantage.

Asparagus may be appearing at California markets, but I've still got citrus (courtesy of Diana Henry) and all of its possibilities on my mind.

For those of you in the Bay Area, the Greek and I recently found a lounge worthy of its name: Azucar, which has fabulous guacamole, flavorful ceviche, tasty cocktails and perfectly crisped churros. 

This article may be written in a deliberately annoying format, but it exemplifies why I've always despised the use of Power Point in academia.

I had started reading The Lowland before leaving for New York, but then set it aside in favor of a lighter plane book, Herman Koch's The Dinner. The former is beautifully written and I'm looking forward to returning to it; about the latter, I can't really say the same. Although I love to read and will read most things, I found this book to be too gimmicky for my tastes. I think Janet Maslin, in her review, captures my feelings quite nicely.

Since the weekend is basically upon us, I'm dreaming of a relaxing weekend with quality time in the kitchen: Bay Leaf Pound Cake (kaffir lime can be substituted!) and Pimenton Roast Chicken with Potatoes.

Also, in other cooking news, I recently made Melissa Clark's wine-braised oxtail, which is everything she promised and more. I'll admit that it's more of a winter recipe, but that shouldn't stop you from bookmarking it or saving it for a cool spring (or in the case of the Bay Area, summer) day. Oxtail, at least oxtail braised for three hours, is the epitome of succulent.

One of my good friends recently started a design blog and, since she's got a good eye and a blog full of pretty photos and design trends, I thought I would send some of you her way. I particularly enjoyed this "design style quiz; it turns out I'm an eternal exchange student.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Thai Delight

It's suddenly that time of year again, the season when life starts to vibrate with various possibilities. Everything seems to be in flux: the days suddenly stretch before you, inviting a certain leisure, and, at the market and in CSA boxes, you get a strange, but not unwelcome mixture of things like cabbage, asparagus and citrus. Somehow, it all feels very celebratory, like there's room and time for everything.

Of course, the extra hour of daylight comes with a price--the oddly destabilizing loss of an hour of sleep. Although such a smidgen of time should barely register, I always find that it takes me a solid week before I again feel that I'm back on schedule. This past Sunday, it was particularly hard to pull myself out of bed to go and tutor. As I collected my things and put my shoes on, I felt a stab of envy for the Greek and the pup, who were still fast asleep under the warm blankets and who didn't have to brave the misty morning to go and discuss the evil doings of one murderous Lady Macbeth.

When I returned home from two hours of fairly intense discussion, I decided that the only way my tired brain and I were going to get through the day without a nap was to do something a little out of the ordinary. I contemplated a trip to the gym for a yoga class, but somehow that didn't seem quite right; it quickly became apparent that only a good, old-fashioned ice cream sundae would fit the bill here. Fortunately, I had a homemade pint of Jeni's Splendid Ice Cream in the freezer for just such an occasion; from a young age I've known that a girl should always be prepared for a craving for quality ice cream.

This ice cream, in fact, is pretty special. Not only was it the first ice cream flavor that caught my eye in Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams at Home, but it also invited me to put the skills I learned in the Thai cooking class I took in the fall to work. You see, when the Greek first gave me Jeni's book for our anniversary back in July, I was determined to make myself some ice cream for the final throes of the dissertation; naturally, as a lifelong peanut butter addict, I gravitated towards the two recipes featuring my daily fix of choice. Because I had just tried The Buckeye State when we were in Nashville for a wedding, I decided that I should go with the more adventurous flavor of the two: Bangkok Peanut, which Jeni had created as her tribute to Pad Thai. However, as was so often the case this past summer, my plan never came to fruition and my dream of making any (and all) flavor(s) of Jeni's ice cream had to be put on hold.

Only recently did I return to and complete this plan. The funny thing is that, when I looked at the recipe again in mid-February (apparently, this is the month when I did all of my cooking for March blog posts), I realized that I could no longer make it as it was written. The Thai class I had taken back in September had ruined the original list of ingredients for me. After a month of coconut milk and fish sauce tastings, dozens of chopped shallots and lectures and demonstrations about what real Thai food tastes like--fiery and flavorful--I had to make this recipe in a way that Kasma might have approved of (never mind the fact that she would most likely never approve. But that being said, the saving grace about the iffy act of turning Pad Thai into an ice cream flavor is that this savory noodle dish has its own interesting history of adaptation and fusion. Although now considered to be the quintessential Thai dish (at least abroad), in Thailand noodle dishes were always considered to be more Chinese than Thai).

As I learned back in the fall, there are certain ingredients in the Thai kitchen--fish sauce, soy sauce, palm sugar, coconut milk, tamarind pulp, the bird's eye chili that can make the most hardened individual weep--that one simply cannot go without. But for this project, I decided that the best way to go about this was to pick and choose; when you're turning a savory dish into a sweet one, something will inevitably be lost in the adaptation. In fact, I like to think that you're evoking more of a flavor profile than an actual dish. This is why, although Pad Thai doesn't require coconut milk or any kind of coconut, I decided that if Jeni wanted me to use these ingredients, I would; I didn't want to ruin what I knew was sure to be one of Jeni's signature creamy ice creams. On the other hand, however, one of the things I've always loved most about ordering Pad Thai in restaurants is the copious amount of chopped peanuts that are sprinkled on top of the dish; while I appreciate that Jeni's recipe uses peanut butter instead of peanuts, I couldn't help but add toasted and chopped peanuts to the ice cream base. Similarly, since I've always felt that Pad Thai is as much about the texture--the crunch of the peanuts and the silky bits of scrambled egg--as it is about a balance of salty, sweet and tangy flavors, I decided to add lime, both its zest and juice, as well as tamarind pulp (this is what gives color to Pad Thai; sadly, in most American Thai restaurants, this is achieved with ketchup) to balance things out.

I'm happy to report that the final product, like Pad Thai itself, was nothing short of a Thai delight--vibrant, flavorful and rich. It contains a hint of spice and the sweetness of the molasses-like palm sugar complements the soft tang of the lime and tamarind nicely. And let me assure you that, when combined with whipped cream and toasted coconut, it's as good as a meal and a wonderful pick-me-up.

Thai Peanut Ice Cream 

heavily adapted from Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams and inspired by the beginner Thai cooking class with Kasma Loha-unchit

Yields 1 quart

1 1/4 cups whole milk
1 tablespoon plus 2 teaspoons cornstarch
1 1/2 ounces (3 tablespoons) cream cheese, softened
1/4 cup natural peanut butter
1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
1 1/4 cups heavy cream
3/4 cup unsweetened coconut milk
1/2 cup packed palm or coconut sugar (about 1 and 1/2 blocks), grated or chopped in the food processor (you can also warm it up in the microwave to make it easier to work with)
3 tablespoons honey
zest of 1 lime
2-3 tablespoons tamarind juice (made from a small block of tamarind pulp)
3 half-inch slices of peeled fresh ginger
1/2 teaspoon unsweetened shredded coconut, toasted
1/3 cup peanuts, toasted and roughly chopped
2 teaspoons freshly squeezed lime juice
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper

Prep work: 
- Mix 2 tablespoons of the milk with the cornstarch in a small bowl to make smooth slurry.
-Whisk the cream cheese, peanut butter and salt in a medium bowl until smooth.
-Prepare (grate or break up a block in the food processor) and measure out the palm sugar.
-Take a small chunk from a block of tamarind pulp (about 2 ounces) and place it in a small bowl.
Then, add 1/4 warm water to it. Let it soak for 10-15 minutes. Then, once the pulp has softened, grab a handful and squeeze it really hard. The thick juice (really, the pulp that has separated from the seeds and tough membranes) will seep through your fingers. Keep doing this until you end up with a thick and smooth tamarind paste in the bowl. Discard the membranes and seeds. (If this explanation isn't up to snuff, here's a website with visuals.)
-Once the tamarind is ready, fill a large bowl with ice and water.

To make the ice cream: 
-Combine the remaining milk, cream, coconut milk, palm sugar, honey, lime zest, tamarind juice and ginger slices in a four-quart saucepan, then bring to a roiling boil over medium-high heat. Boil for 4 minutes.
-Remove from heat and remove the ginger slices with a small sieve. Then, whisk in the cornstarch slurry.
-Bring the mixture back to a boil over medium-high heat and cook, stirring with a heatproof spatula, until slightly thickened (1-2 minutes).
-Remove from the heat.
-Slowly whisk the hot milk mixture into the peanut butter, cream cheese and salt mixture. Then, whisk in the toasted coconut, peanuts, lime juice and cayenne pepper.
-Place the bowl in the ice bath. Let stand for about 30 minutes, or until cold.
-Pour the ice cream base into the frozen canister of your ice cream maker and spin until thick and creamy (20-25 minutes).
-Using a sturdy spatula, scrape the ice cream into a storage container and press a sheet of parchment against its surface. Seal with an airtight light and place in the freezer.
-The ice cream should sit in the freezer for at least 4 hours before it will be ready for consumption.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Decidedly Californian

It seems that February somehow managed to slip away from me. One minute I was in the kitchen, making ice cream, broiling grapefruit and blanching endless amounts of greens from our CSA box (aphid season is upon us) for gratins, all while fantasizing about the many blog posts I would and should write about these delightful things. Then, the next thing I knew, the end of February was upon us and I was running through through the Phoenix airport with my luggage, dramatically yelling "waiiiiiiiiiiiiit" as I heard the last announcement for the 10:30 flight to JFK. The good news is that I made the flight, but just barely and, when I disembarked the next morning, exhausted and still wheezing from my unexpected 1+ mile dash from the night before, I encountered the kind of cold that I had known only in a previous lifetime--namely during my winter in St. Petersburg. Fortunately, my business there, the final academic conference of my career (unless, that is, I bite the bullet and attend one more just so the Greek and I can vacation in Japan; as appealing as that sounds, I sincerely doubt I will), kept me largely indoors, although I did brave the cold and walk 15 blocks for an Absolute Bagel. If I learned one thing during college, it was that an everything bagel with lox is the epitome of happiness.

 The whole trip felt like a whirlwind tour down memory lane, especially since I spent the bulk of my time at Columbia (my alma mater). So many things were recognizably the same--the scent of candied nuts that hits you when you exit the 116th and Broadway station, the hidden Italian restaurant where I celebrated my 22nd birthday with my family, the urban elegance of the campus--that I couldn't help but experience waves of nostalgia. Never mind that the conference experience, save for the dinner the first night, felt like a dud; the thing that really mattered was that I had, in a sense, come full circle academically. Columbia was where I had embarked on my crazy Russian literature love affair and it also fittingly became the place where it all ended. I never planned it that way (how can such a thing be planned?) but, regardless, it speaks to my love of clean endings.

Although I managed to squeeze all of my New York essentials (bagels, books, Broadway and brunch) into this trip, as well as to have a leisurely reunion with my college friends one blustery evening, it still felt too short. But my sense of loss aside, I suppose it's best not to be greedy. 

I always feel that there's a brief period of adjustment whenever I come back to California from New York--a moment when I realize that things have become both slow and quiet. The truth is that time simply moves differently here; Bay Area time is measured, perhaps even relaxed, whereas New York time hurtles forward, sweeping you along with it. While I still love that rush, I suppose there's a part of me that has also become decidedly Californian. I like having the luxury of marveling at the sky on an empty street corner as much as I do the ready supply of fresh produce at the market twelve months a year. In a nutshell, I guess I've become spoiled.

I had planned to write about this tart back in early February, which is when I made it, but a cold, a Greek class and a trip to Tahoe all got in the way. However, it now seems fitting that this post should follow my trip to New York since this Smoked Salmon Creme Fraiche Tart with a Cornmeal Millet Crust from Megan Gordon's Whole Grain Mornings is essentially the Californian version of the classic bagel with lox, cream cheese and capers. And I have to say that it's more than a fine replacement for a meal that I've never felt quite comfortable replicating in the Bay Area (it is said that we now have bagels that rival, maybe even trump, those in New York, but I've never had an occasion to find out if this is rumor or truth). The tart dough alone is wonderfully crunchy (I've fantasized about turning it into crackers, but the dough is a bit wobbly for that; the recipe, which doesn't call for any all-purpose flour, would have to be revamped) and the salmon, dill, creme fraiche make for a fresh and clean-tasting breakfast. It's wholesome enough to crave on a daily basis (it is, however, perhaps too much work for that), but fancy enough that, should you be hosting a breakfast or brunch, it should certainly grace your table. 

The recipe comes from the spring section of Gordon's slim, but inspiring book and I'll confess that, although the Bay Area has been having its fair share of gorgeous weather since early January, it still seems odd that most of the recipes I've made from this book are from the spring section. That being said, no matter what the season they've all been flavorful and filling--from the dark chocolate hazelnut spread to the California Barley Bowl--the kind of food that you want to eat for either breakfast or dinner. The Smoked Salmon Tart was one of the reasons I bought the book (that and the fact that I read Megan's blog fairly religiously; also, the chart that breaks down quick-cooking and slow-cooking whole grains is a godsend for any modern kitchen); the recipe incorporated several ingredients that I love and also seemed Scandinavian to me, which is why I felt compelled to add a teaspoon of Dijon mustard (the flavors reminded me of this pasta). You can hold the mustard or not, but do find a way to incorporate this into your breakfast repertoire; it really offers a refreshing spin on a classic.

Smoked Salmon Creme Fraiche Tart with a Cornmeal Millet Crust

adapted ever so slightly from Megan Gordon's Whole Grain Mornings
yields 6-8 servings

Megan calls for a 9-inch tart pan and, because mine is fluted, I opted to use a 9-inch springform pan instead. Since I always worry about things sticking to the pan, I also decided to flour it, using whole wheat flour. Another alternative is to line the bottom of the pan with parchment. I should say that I didn't have too much trouble removing the tart from the pan when it was still warm, but as it cooled it was harder to remove and started to break. 
      As I said earlier in the post, I was compelled to add a teaspoon of whole grain Dijon mustard to the filling and I liked the results, but this addition might not be for everybody. As far as ingredients go, I have the feeling this is a fairly forgiving recipe: you could substitute chives or parsley for the dill, you could hold the capers and you could substitute leeks or yellow or red onions for the shallots. Also, if you don't have creme fraiche, Megan suggests using sour cream, but I imagine that even softened or whipped cream cheese would do the trick as well. 

For the crust: 

1/2 cup / 65 grams fine-ground cornmeal (white or yellow)
3/4 cup / 90 grams whole wheat flour, plus more for flouring the pan
3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
6 tablespoons / 85 grams cold unsalted butter, cut into small cubes, plus more for greasing the pan
3 to 4 tablespoons ice water
1/4 cup / 45 grams millet

For the filling: 

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 cup / 50 grams minced shallots (roughly 2 large shallots)
2 cloves garlic, minced or put through the garlic press
1 cup / 240 ml whole or 2% milk
1/4 cup / 60 ml creme fraiche
3 large eggs, beaten
3 tablespoons capers, rinsed and drained
about 2 tablespoons freshly chopped dill
1 teaspoon whole grain Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon kosher salt
pinch of freshly ground black pepper
4 ounces / 115 grams smoked salmon, cut into small pieces

-Butter a 9-inch tart pan with a removable bottom or a 9-inch springform pan.
-Using a food processor fitted with a metal blade, pulse together the cornmeal, flour and salt. 
-Add the butter and pulse into the mixture resembles coarse meal. 
-Add ice water 1 tablespoon at a time and pulse until the dough starts to resemble wet sand. You will know it's ready when a small piece holds together when squeezed between your fingers. If it's still crumbly, add more water, one teaspoon at a time. 
-Scrape the dough into a large bowl and, using a fork, mix in the millet. 
-Press the dough into the tart or springform pan evenly, going one inch up the sides.  
-Cover and chill in the refrigerator for at least 1 hour. It can also be made a day in advance.
 -When ready to bake the dough, preheat the oven to 375 F. 
-Blind bake the crust for 15 minutes and then remove from the oven and set on a rack to cool.
-As the crust is cooling, prepare the filling. 
-Heat the oil in a small skillet and saute the shallots until translucent (2-3 minutes). Then, add the garlic and saute for another minute. Remove from heat. 
-In a bowl, whisk together the milk, creme fraiche, beaten eggs, capers, dill, mustard (if using), salt and pepper to make a custard. 
-Spoon the shallot mixture in an even layer on the bottom of the crust and evenly arrange the salmon across the top. Pour the custard mixture over the salmon, shallots and garlic. 
-Bake at 375 F until the top of the tart is golden and the filling is set, about 30-35 minutes. 
-Remove the tart from the oven and let cool for at least 15-20 minutes. 
-Unmold the tart or cut in the pan. Serve warm or at room temperature. The tart can be stored for 3-4 days. 
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