Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Pretty Side of Going Back to the Grind

I have no recipe for you today, nor do I have a quote. It's just me ("my naked words") and pictures of food. You see, I've long been thinking that, with the return of school, teaching yet another class (my sixth!), the study of Greek and my old friend, The Dissertation, my fall blog posting style would have to change. I've been thinking about ways to combine the blogosphere and my "real" life-- and without neglecting any one thing. It's not easy, but it's not impossible either. I figure it's best to learn this balancing act now because, should I become a professor in 2-3 (!) years, I'm going to have many, many bureaucratic obligations...and then some.

One positive to my current schedule--the early to rise on Tuesdays and Thursdays--is that the Greek has taken it upon himself to do the Monday and Wednesday night cooking. He does this while I prepare for class, or, even better, sit there reading my Greek dialogues (yes, we're already onto dialogues!) aloud. Admittedly, this leads to a lot of interruptions since he will often go to the white board hanging in his kitchen to explain certain phonetic rules to me, but, ultimately, it's fun. While he made the delicious stuffed peppers and tomatoes above (he and Martha Rose Shulman must have been on the same wavelength since she just featured Mediterranean-style stuffed vegetables in her column this week; what's not to love about a flavorful dish that caramelizes in the oven and then basically melts in your mouth?), I learned an all-important Greek phrase, one that I'm sure will serve me well in the years to come: Είναι έτοιμος ο καφές; (semi-colons denote a question in Greek.) Is the coffee ready?

School is also the time when I make and eat a lot of salads. It's easy, it's healthy, it's good. The one above was inspired by a recent trip to Pizzaiolo, when we were sent (on the house no less) a delicious prosciutto and melon salad. The Greek and I wanted to recreate the recipe at home, but couldn't figure out (or remember) what the dressing had been like. So, we threw some honeydew on top of mixed greens, added prosciutto and went with a basic crowd pleaser: olive oil and basil flakes. Do you really need anything more when you've already got the juices of the melon to work with? This really satisfied my love of all things salty-sweet.

I also then stepped things up a notch
when I decided to make not just salad, but panzanella. This recipe was from Heidi Swanson's Super Natural Every Day, a book that has saved me many nights (and mornings) in the kitchen. While salad is supposed to be easy, this one was fairly involved: you had to grill both the bread and tofu with olive oil until crispy and golden; you had to roast cherry tomatoes until they, like the stuffed peppers and tomatoes above, had caramelized; finally, you had to whip up a scrumptious dressing of peanut butter, minced garlic, toasted sesame oil, rice vinegar, red pepper flakes and hot water (for thinning the dressing out). I loved everything about this salad--the flavors may seem strange, but they really go quite well together--but the dressing was definitely my favorite thing.

Another thing I love about the beginning of the semester is that it means that there are lots of parties and gatherings where you get to see people you haven't seen in ages. Essentially, it's one big excuse to eat and, usually, ridiculously well. For example, the Greek and I were invited to a Puerto Rican dinner this past weekend. I can't say I'm overly familiar with Puerto Rican cuisine (besides things like flan and plantains), but this experience has convinced me that there are lessons to learn. I should mention, however, that, despite the theme of the evening, our meal started with something not at all Puerto Rican--pureed strawberries mixed with a few teaspoons of brown sugar and stirred into a glass of Riesling. Fantastically simple and oh so good.

And then there was this gem: trifongo. If you (like me before this evening) have no idea what trifongo is, it's sweet plantains and yucca that are mashed with garlic, olive oil, pork rinds and broth (mofongo is the same, but with fried green plantains instead). I can't even tell you how much I enjoyed this; it was all-around remarkable. The chef, a dear friend in Engineering, made everything and, as you can see, he took pains to create something that was beautiful. The trifongo was accompanied by skirt steak in a guava sauce and by a not so Puerto Rican asparagus salad. As S's lovely sous chef and hostess explained, Puerto Rico isn't so big on vegetables, so she had to get creative to give us a well-balanced meal.

Even though work is upon me (my current task is to create a list of primary sources for my dissertation since my adviser is wondering if I have enough material!! I shall remain calm, compile the list and trust in my belief that this will turn out just fine) and things are rapidly becoming busy, busy and busier, there are things to look forward to. One of them is cooking from the gem below, sent to me from my friend and fellow blogger; first up, maybe delicious chocolate chip cookies? After all, my freezer cookie supply is running low and something tells me this might just be a long semester.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Peaches and Cream with a Honeyed Kick

As a man without a care in the world, seeking somehow to justify his constant idleness, I have always found such festive mornings in a country house universally attractive. When the green garden, still moist with dew, shines in the sun and seems happy, and when the terrace smells of mignonette and oleander, and the young people have just returned from church and drink tea in the garden, and when they are all so gaily dressed and so merry, and when you know that all these healthy, satisfied, beautiful people will do nothing all day long, then you long for all of life to be like that. So I thought then as I walked through the garden, quite prepared to drift like that without occupation or purpose, all through the day, all through the summer.
-Anton Chekhov ("The House with the Mezzanine")

Until but a few short days ago, such was my life. Days of drifting. Merriment. Healthy, satisfied and beautiful people...Yes, I am exaggerating, but can you blame me? In the past week I've experienced two earthquakes (mini ones, but still!), risen at the crack of dawn to talk about literature, had a yoga class with a woman who walked into the gym in three-inch heels and compared the human body's need for protein to a Maserati's need for the most expensive gasoline available....and then, on Saturday, as the Greek and I were biking back from the farmer's market, he hit into a bush, the bike's handlebar went into his side and he cracked his rib (don't worry, he's ok; the Tang Center has given him the all-clear. I would just like to add that I've been finding lots of grey hairs, more than I've ever seen before.).

Since I don't smoke (clearly, that would ruin my Maserati's engine) and my moments of worry are generally accompanied by the creation of creamy, buttery and/or sugary treats, I made ice cream instead. In times of trouble, I like to keep my hands and mind busy. I also then have something to feed to those who are in need of tender loving care.

You see, our plan--the reason for the trip to the farmer's market--was to buy peaches, lots and lots of peaches. We were but simple people on a simple quest: quality California peaches (despite a recent article in the NYTimes about the "Peach Wars" in the South, experience has shown me that California peaches can be tasty and juicy) for Peach Ice Cream. I don't know why I was craving this particular ice cream when you think of all the ice cream flavors that one can make--Chocolate, Peanut Butter, Coffee, Avocado (I could go on forever)--, in addition to the fact that I usually avoid fruity ice cream flavors for more "daring" combinations, but, in recent weeks, something about summer fruits, peaches in particular, had captured my fancy. And, in response, it made me want to capture them--to mix them with cream and shove the mixture into the back of freezer so that I can enjoy their taste for a few more weeks. Now that school has started, I'm wondering if all the things I love about summer are on the brink of disappearing. Seeing my cherry-, strawberry- and peach-less existence stretching out before me, my hoarding instinct has kicked into high gear.

But, really, what better way is there to capture summer? Ice cream is clearly the answer! And instead of following David Lebovitz's instructions to add a few drops of lemon juice to flavor the sweet, yet slightly tart (thanks to the addition of sour cream) peaches and cream mixture, I decided to fortify it with a few tablespoons of the Tennessee Honey Liqueur that the Greek had proudly pulled out of his bag last week on one of our last school-free evenings. I figured that we had earned it. Not only is alcohol an excellent pain-killer, but peach ice cream with a kick of a sweet and spicy whiskey will also most definitely help the medicine go down.

Peach Ice Cream

Slightly adapted from David Lebovitz's The Perfect Scoop
Yields about one quart of creamy deliciousness

1 1/3 pound peaches (about 4 large peaches)
1/2 cup water
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 cup sour cream
1 cup heavy cream
1/4 tsp. vanilla extract
2 Tbsp. Tennessee Honey Liqueur

-Peel the peaches, slice them in half and remove the pits.
-Cut the peaches into chunks and cook them with the water in a medium saucepan, over medium heat and covered.
-Stir the mixture once or twice and remove when soft and cooked through; this should take about 10 minutes.
-Remove from the heat, stir in the sugar, then cool to room temperature.
-Puree the cooked peaches and any liquid (I had about 3/4 of a cup) in a food processor with the sour cream, heavy cream and vanilla until almost smooth, but slightly chunky.
-Stir in two tablespoons of Tennessee Honey Liqueur by hand.
-Chill the mixture in the refrigerator (overnight is best), then freeze it in your ice cream maker according to the manufacturer's instructions.
-Enjoy and cherish the taste of the peaches!

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Food as Behavioral Pattern: Three-Tomato Risotto with Mint and Toasted Almonds

“Behavior is a mirror in which every one displays his own image.”
-Johann Wolfgang Goethe

Recently, I was thinking about therapy and how it's designed to teach you about yourself--to give you the "tools" for introspection and growth. If you go to therapy, you could talk about many things that bother you, from people to situations, but the important thing to keep in mind is that, ultimately, the common denominator in each situation is you (I know; that's both a liberating and a frightening thought. It's a whole new level of accountability). At certain moments, our lives can seem random and coincidental, but it's really just full of patterns and choices and lessons that repeat themselves until we learn them...and, at long last, understand ourselves.

You're maybe wondering what that has to do with food...A lot. Everything, actually. Just trust me; I promise I have a point!

You see, in the context of the above thoughts, I was thinking about what this blog says about me: what kinds of things I regularly make, what I'd like to try to cook (souffle!) what I probably eat too much of (pancakes but of course!) and which recipes have seemingly fallen out of my repertoire and for no apparent reason. What are my food patterns (even if a random and incomplete representation of my cooking habits?)? And it's actually kind of fascinating. Based on my most recent posts, any individual who might stumble upon this blog would probably think that sugar shock, or even diabetes, was in my future. Or that I never ate dinner, just dessert. He or she might also notice that I've been on a blueberry kick (at this point, I should look like Violet Beauregarde), I've eaten a fair amount of chocolate and also that I have a thing for tomatoes. But I also couldn't help but notice that a lot of my old staples--recipes I first started making when I finally decided it was time to learn to cook--were missing. And while certainly some patterns are worth leaving behind--to name only a few, perfectionism, a constant feeling of stress, procrastinating--these recipes were gems. In short, patterns worth repeating until my dying day (also, I won't lie: it was high time we had something savory instead of sweet. Logistical concerns are always present, even in the midst of philosophizing).

Jamie Oliver's risotto is one such pattern. When it comes to the world of cooking arborio right, I swear by his method. As he describes it: "the perfect risotto should slowly ooze across the plate, not be made into a tower or a mold." And believe me when I say that this is exactly what this risotto does. Its movement across the plate is basically comparable to the way female starlets used to sashay across the screen in old Hollywood movies--slowly and seductively, i.e. the culinary embodiment of Sophia Loren. But elaborate metaphors aside, even as I was paying homage to my old friend Jamie (I got his cookbook, The Naked Chef, way back in my first year of graduate school), I was playing with some new flavors--red wine instead of his recommended vermouth, salty Pecorino-Romano rather than Parmesan. I wanted something rich and tomato-y--with almost the taste of classic spaghetti--but still somewhat light and not overwhelmed by the tomatoes. This is why I added arugula (for bitterness) and mint (for a barely there cool sweetness); in general, my goal was to soften the flavor, give it a summery feel and just a little crunch (thank you, toasted almonds!). Best of all was the fact that, in revisiting my old "pattern" (I used to make risotto at least once every three weeks), I got to combine the best of the basic risotto recipe with my own cravings and newly discovered culinary inclinations. In the terms of cognitive behavioral therapy, that might be what they call a breakthrough.

Three-Tomato Risotto with Mint and Toasted Almonds

Serves 6
Basic risotto recipe slightly adapted from Jamie Oliver's The Naked Chef

Basic Risotto
1 quart stock (chicken or vegetable)
1 Tbsp. olive oil
3 finely chopped shallots
3 cloves garlic
sea salt and black pepper
14 oz. arborio rice
1/2 cup red wine (I used an already opened bottle of Merlot)
4 Tbsp. butter
4 oz. Pecorino-Romano cheese, plus 2 oz. for sprinkling

The Flavor:
1/3 cup toasted almonds
1-2 canned tomatoes, diced
1/2 cup chopped sun-dried tomatoes
1/2 cup cherry tomatoes, whole or cut into halves (depending on the size)
2 tsp. freshly chopped mint leaves and about a teaspoon more for garnishing
1/2 cup loosely packed arugula, roughly chopped

-Toast the almonds and set aside.
-Heat the stock.
-In the meantime, heat the olive oil in a separate pan and add the shallots and a pinch of salt and cook for 2-3 minutes.
-Add the garlic and, after another couple of minutes, when the vegetables have softened, add the arborio rice.
-Turn up the heat now and don't leave the pan; you must keep stirring.
-While stirring continuously, fry the rice. You don't want any color, so make sure the temperature isn't too high. Keep the rice moving and, after 2-3 minutes, it will begin to look translucent.
-At this stage, add the red wine, stirring as it hits the pan.
-Once the wine has cooked into the rice, add your first ladle of stock and a pinch of salt.
-Turn down the heat to a medium-high simmer.
-Keep adding more stock, one ladle at a time, and let it absorb into the rice before adding the next. This process should take anywhere from 15-20 minutes.
-At this stage, mix in the tomatoes and the 2 teaspoons of mint leaves.
-Once you've finished adding the stock and the rice is tender, but still chewy, remove the pot from the heat.
-Add the butter, Pecorino Romano, arugula and toasted almonds. Stir gently.
-Serve and watch as it oozes across your plate! Garnish with extra mint leaves and/or cheese.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Cherry (and Blueberry) Flavored Nostalgia

Nostalgia is an unhealthy trap that's very seductive. The problem is, life is a very cruel, tragic and unsatisfying experience and you always think that another time in the past would have been ideal for you. For example, if I think back to bell-epoque Paris, it's like Gigi, with beautiful costumes and great wine. The reality is there was no novocaine when you went to the dentist.
-Woody Allen (on Midnight in Paris)

Even though I'm a "the glass is half-full" kind of girl, I can't help but love Woody Allen and his cynical, neurotic and overwhelmingly pessimistic outlook (this same love could explain how I ended up a Russian literature scholar). But he does have a point; nostalgia holds a false promise and we're often so wrapped up in its illusory nature that we forget that there are perks to the here and now. For example, maybe I've been lamenting the end of summer, my free time, lazy and relaxed days at home, but the reality is that I'm 8 days away from a (full!) paycheck. I'm also feeling myself start to settle into the groove of being on campus, crossing things off the list, feeling excited about the texts that I'll teach and how I'll go about teaching them. And did I mention how much I love fall?

Ok, yes, I'll slow down...There's no need to rush things. After all, summer isn't over yet, even if classes are starting. Proof number 1: It was positively sweltering today. But, as there was also an earthquake on the east coast (and we just had one, too!), perhaps this is just a sign that the end is near (according to the post-doc I now share an office with, a man has been standing near the campus gates with a poster advertising this very fate). Proof number 2: Life is still raining cherries, blueberries and other summer fruits, which is exactly how I came to call upon the culinary goddess, Ms. Julia Child, to direct me in the way of clafoutis.

Like a lot of recipes that appear on this blog, clafoutis had long been on my list of things to make. But only when the Greek sprained his ankle and I took a bunch of groceries to his place to cook did it finally seem the right time to make it. It's rustic, French and basically a large custardy pancake with chunks of fresh fruit. In short, it's an invalid's dream food. And for the maker of the invalid's fantasy, it's really amazingly, beautifully simple. There's little grunt work and it's the kind of thing you can throw together in a pinch if you had initially been planning for a dessert-less night. And if your fruit is on the edge of going bad, why not throw it into a clafoutis?

Exactly. There's no excuse. That's how the blueberries ended up in mine. I also decided to fulfill the promise of clafoutis (according to food lore, "clafir" can mean either "to fill" or "to garnish") by putting walnuts on top. Another perk is that the clafoutis can be dessert, it can be breakfast, it can be a snack you sneak into the library wrapped in saran (or is it surround?) wrap while you work on your dissertation. Perhaps I speak too soon, but who needs cake when there is clafoutis? Then again, a world without one or the other would just be yet another reason to feel nostalgia. No need for that; the grass is gloriously green on both sides of the fence.

Cherry and Blueberry Walnut Clafoutis

Yields 6-8 pieces of fruit and custard at its bet
Adapted from Julia Child, c/o

1 1/4 cups 2% milk
2/3 cup sugar, divided
3 eggs
1 Tbsp. vanilla
1/8 tsp. salt
1/2 cup flour
1 1/2 cups cherries, pitted
1/2 cup blueberries
1/2 cup walnut pieces

-Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
-Using a blender (or, if you're in a household without one, relive the past by valiantly combining the ingredients with only a whisk and the brute force of your soon-to-be-sore arm), combine the milk, 1/3 cup sugar, eggs, vanilla, salt and flour, and blend.
-Lightly butter an 8-cup baking dish (or a 9x13 cake pan/casserole dish), and pour a 1/4-inch layer of the blended mixture over the bottom. Set remaining batter aside.
-Place dish into the oven for about 7-10 minutes, until a film of batter sets in the pan but the mixture is not baked through.
-Remove from oven (but don’t turn the oven off, yet).
-Distribute the pitted cherries, blueberries and walnuts over the set batter in the pan, then sprinkle with the remaining sugar.
-Pour the remaining batter over the cherries, blueberries, walnuts and sugar.
-Bake for 45 to 60 minutes, or until the clafoutis is puffed and brown and a knife inserted into the center comes out clean.
-Serve warm and bon appetit!

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Summer Notes on Summer Impressions

This being human is a guest house. Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture, still,
treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing
and invite them in.
-Rumi ("The Guest House")

You know you're a young and hip 20-something when, at 10:30 on a Saturday night, you fall asleep. While it's true that things have been busy and your fatigue may be warranted, you still can't help but marvel at how the times have changed. Staying up is no longer as easy as it once was.

Then again, I've got an excuse. Many excuses, in fact. The main one is summer, that magical time when you do all the things that you don't normally get to do--sleep in, eat out, have lazy Sundays, read long books like Middlesex (truly, one of my major summer accomplishments), go to movies, cook feasts with friends, do fun things on weeknights, like go to Picasso exhibitions at the de Young (see what summer is really like in San Francisco? McDonald's said it best with their ad campaign for the Mango-Pineapple Smoothie: "Mango-Pineapple smoothie, colder than a summer in SF!") ....

As this fantasy season is rapidly drawing to a close, I figured I'd give you a recap of some of my highlights, particularly those from the last month. It's amazing how much can happen in a mere 3 weeks...

I love going out for any kind of Asian food--Thai, Chinese, Japanese, Lao, Vietnamese--but I sometimes worry that I get stuck in a rut by constantly ordering the same thing. Or, at the very least, variations on a theme (pumpkin curry, I'm talking to you! Peanut sauce, too.). This is why when the Greek and I randomly decided to get lunch one day and ended up at the Thai Lao restaurant in North Berkeley, I went for a catfish noodle soup with basil and mint. It tasted as good as it looks!

Also, can you really ever have too many pancakes for breakfast on the weekend? I bought a bag of cherries in late July--shockingly, my first of the season--and went to town with this recipe. And they really hit the spot. I will eat cherry anything, especially when they're fresh. Try these with coconut oil (it's the best butter substitute ever, especially if you like the taste of coconut) and there will be no regret.

I had a few people over for dinner a couple of weeks ago and we had a small Indian feast, under the careful guidance of Madhur Jaffrey. What you see below is Chicken Saag, Cauliflower with Ginger and Spices and Saffron Rice. My apartment--much to my great pleasure--smelled like spices for days.

And though not at all Indian, we went with Almond Cake (the almond cake that I rave about on this blog every two weeks because it's really the best thing since sunshine) for dessert. It looks and tastes extra good with raspberries on top.

Then, as a friend and her husband were leaving for Pasadena, we went out to dinner at Pizzaiolo, which is an Oakland favorite of mine. The pizza is not only delicious, but interesting (I prefer the one with nettles and pecorino, although I inevitably end up drinking a gallon of water due to the salt content) and the servers are both warm and friendly. Best of all, at least on this particular occasion, is that a friend of the newlyweds--a bona fide chef whose delicious creations I have tried before--had just started working there and was working that night. This meant that in addition to the things we ordered, we were given two extra salads and dessert on the house. It helps to know people in delicious places. Because it was dark, I didn't take many pictures, but I did snap a shot of the simple and elegant Lillet Blanc that I ordered.

Besides social gatherings (come to think of it, it's really not at all shocking that I slept for about 12 hours last night), I also recently did something that I've been wanting to do for a really long time. Last Sunday, I went to a photography class! While I can't say that my "craft" (in reality, my hobby-craft that is very much in development) has been perfected, it was a useful experience and quite interesting. I have a better idea of the basics now and, more importantly, it's also driven home the point that my current camera and I have reached a crossroads...I'm pretty sure we're going to have to break up. It's not like we haven't had good times together (the camera, with the help of my newfound knowledge, delivered lovely landscapes of the city on the night of the class--the first picture on this post and the one below), but I simply need the option of manual mode.

In the meantime, however, it can continue to be my partner in crime. It served me well at Nook, where I read about icons and had a coffee and a lemon biscotti....

And it did also did a lovely job at Campanula in North Beach, where the Greek and I went for dinner since I had bought a coupon (through Daily Candy San Francisco) back in early July. Below is the Lamb Carpaccio (in the past year, I've eaten a lot of lamb), but the meal was both beautifully styled and delicious all around. I was most impressed by the fact that this restaurant offers reasonably priced desserts. We had the (amazing!) melt-in-your-mouth pot de creme with Peanut Brittle and it was $3.50, which, between you and me, is the appropriate price for such a dessert. Mind you, I love chocolate cake, but $6 has always seemed a bit steep, especially considering I could bake you a chocolate cake for under $10 and you could eat the whole thing yourself. But even as I complain, I understand why it's done. Ambiance. short, excuses.

And, of course, there was yesterday. I got up and, after a quick breakfast, decided to bike (I complain, but it is awfully convenient!) to the Farmer's Market at Lake Merritt. This was one of the best decisions I've made in a long time. I sampled all kinds of sugary melons, honey, sorbet and also went around buying things that I could use all week: apples, zucchini, white nectarines...I bought so much stuff that it was slightly difficult to bike uphill (4 zucchini weigh more than you think), but I finally made it home, sweaty, but satisfied.

I responded to a few emails that were pressing, did some work and then needed a late afternoon snack before making dinner. The best thing about baking is freezing what you make for those moments when you want something sweet, but without the baking. And back in June before I left for the east coast, I had baked cookies to take to a few of my friends--our lovely hostess and another who had just celebrated her birthday. I again reaped the fruit of this labor by digging out the Curry Coriander Shorties (I wrote about these around Christmas) and the Nutella Chocolate Chip Cookies I love from Pink of Perfection.

These cookies were a lifesaver because, while making pizza, you really can't help but want to munch on the grated cheese...unless, of course, you have superhuman strength and willpower, which I don't. In any case, this sauce-less pizza incorporated most of the things I bought at the farmer's market--zucchini and tarragon--and was first introduced to me by the friend who recently left for Pasadena. I'm not sure mine is as good as hers, but thank you, Karina, for the culinary inspiration!

The Greek had also brought over a bag of 8 peaches and I was vaguely worried about how we were going to use all of this fresh food in a timely fashion. But then he surprised me by telling me he had a confession to make: Tired of Facebook, he had instead been procrastinating by reading Joy the Baker (between you and me, this is the best kind of confession. Maybe the best confession ever, in fact.). He was thinking we could make these with all of the peaches. Will I ever say no to an excuse to stuff fruit with butter, nuts, coconut and oats? On top of yogurt, it makes a good breakfast.

Finally (yes, we've finally reached the end!), I have a confession of my own to make: I bought ice-pop molds. I think it was because after I had used My Sweet Mexico to make the marzipan, I found myself reading the section on ice pops, or paletas, and was intrigued by the idea of the Mango-Chile. Then, David Lebovitz was talking about his recent trip to New York and his trip to La Newyorkina and, naturally, I wanted to go there, too (the power of suggestion is at the heart of capitalism). My memory was triggered and, suddenly, I was remembering the hot summers in Pennsylvania when I was little and how my brother, our friends and I, after running ourselves ragged in my grandparents' yard, would go to the freezer in the back cellar and pull out boxes of popsicles to cool ourselves off. Popsicles had always been a quintessential part of my summer and I hadn't had one for years (the Bay Area turns humans into popsicles, so the thought of eating one isn't always appealing). But as I couldn't just pick up and go to New York, nor did I want to just go to the store and buy popsicles, I decided to bring the taste of La Newyorkina and my childhood to my own kitchen. After getting the molds, things fell into place; the Greek had recently made a yogurt dessert out of Greek yogurt, lime zest and juice, and sweetened condensed milk and I decided we'd start with that. The mixture froze beautifully and I've already been reunited with the tangy taste of summers past. And, needless to say, if ice-pops scream summer, thanks to these star-shaped molds, I might never have to say goodbye to this magical season (even if classes start on Thursday!).

Greek Yogurt and Lime Ice-Pops
Yields 6 pops
Inspired by life itself

20 oz. Greek yogurt
1 can sweetened condensed milk
2 limes, zested and juiced

-Mix all three ingredients together in a large bowl.
-Pour into ice pop molds.
-Freeze for 4-5 hours.
-Taste the joy of summer past!

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Dinner at a Professor's and a Blueberry Buttermilk Tart

The lowest of the low are the womens' page recipes in newspapers and magazines, which appeal only to the showoff--'Startle your guests' or the seducer--'Surprise your husband', which give neither value or pleasure and whose premise, coyly stated, is that cooking is easy and is such fun.
-Nicolas Freeling (The Kitchen Book)

Much to Mr. Freeling's chagrin, I'm a cook who isn't all that picky about where my recipes come from. With equal glee and a lack of discrimination, I will peruse the Food Network, Epicurious, NPR, Bon Appetit, etc. If it's a food website, the odds are that I've most likely been there or will find my way there sometime soon. I randomly rip tasty-looking things out of magazines at doctor's offices (don't worry; I always ask first!). While a lot of people have negative feelings towards Rachael Ray, I kind of like her. I own one of her cookbooks and I've enjoyed her magazine, too. In fact, the only thing I can say against her is that her meals never take the promised 30 minutes. Don't get me wrong; on the one hand, I can appreciate certain aspects of food "snobbery" (the Greek and I have affectionately squabbled over generic vs. brand name chickpeas. As I informed him, if you like eating flavorless and tough beans, go for the former. We compromised by buying a can of each and, needless to say, it was agreed that the generic brand will never be bought again), but, on the other hand, it all seems kind of silly. I like good food as much as (and maybe more than) the next girl, but some things, particularly the fluffy manners and mode of presentation at nice restaurants, can seem a little precious (not to mention pretentious) to me. Which is why, when I read the above-quoted passage from The Kitchen Book a few days after having baked a Blueberry Buttermilk Tart from Woman's World, I had to laugh.

"Dazzle your crowd with blueberry bliss" was emblazoned above the recipe. Mr. Freeling would have shaken his head in disappointment. And, you know, you can't blame him for his snobbery; not only did he come from a different era, but he also learned to cook in a French restaurant. But he's such a pleasure to read; his book is like a relic of a lost age, although clearly, with the passage of this age, women's magazines stood still.

Certainly, the recipe's promise was not at all subtle, but it did live up to it. And, as the professor who invited us (several of my colleagues and me) for dinner--her homemade borshcht--loves tarts (this I did not know until I presented her with the option of chocolate cake or a blueberry tart and she said she'd prefer the tart any day), I was glad that it did. Lemon and blueberries are always a winning combination and any crust that has little bits of chopped and toasted nuts in it is bound to please the palate. Best of all, the crispness of the crust goes well with the tart creaminess of the buttermilk and blueberry mixture.

You know, it's a funny thing to cook or bake for people. It takes time and effort. Maybe you do it because you love it--it's your hobby. But you also do it because you genuinely like to feed people; this is one way of demonstrating your affection and care. People connect over food; it allows them to connect. They unwind, chat, exchange news and pleasantries. Best of all, they relax. And, essentially, this is what this evening was all about. She (the professor, that is) invited us to her place to spend time with us in a non-academic and therefore relaxed setting; she seems to enjoy our company and will often reach out to us, involving us in interesting projects and meeting with us about our work. She doesn't even hold it against us that we all smile mischievously when she says the word palimpsest (we didn't even know that she knew we did this, but professors are like parents. They don't miss a thing). She also gave us all a little commemorative trinket to remember the evening by; the Russian spoon that I got is below. But even without it, it's not the kind of evening I'd be likely to forget anytime soon.

Blueberry Buttermilk Tart

The original recipe called for the blueberries to be placed on top of the buttermilk mixture, but I decided that they would be better baked than fresh, so I poured the buttermilk over them instead. This may seem like a small adjustment, but it changes both the flavor and texture of the tart. I also felt that a little powdered sugar would add a decorative touch and would balance out the few chopped mint leaves (I generally hate mint, but the fake kind, rather than fresh mint leaves) that I sprinkled on top.

Yields 8-10 heavenly slices
Adapted from Woman's World (9/6/10)

1 cup, plus 3 Tbsp. all-purpose flour, divided
1/4 cup sliced almonds, toasted
3/4 cup, plus 2 Tbsp. granulated sugar, divided
1/4 tsp. salt
1 stick cold unsalted butter, diced
1/4 tsp. almond extract
1 extra-large egg
2 Tbsp. sour cream
1 lemon, zested and juiced
1/2 tsp. vanilla
1/4 cup unsalted butter, melted
1 cup buttermilk
3/4-1 pint fresh blueberries
For a garnish, powdered sugar and freshly chopped mint leaves

-In a food processor, combine 1 cup flour, toasted almonds, 2 Tbsp. sugar and salt.
-Pulse 3-5 times.
-Add diced unsalted butter and pulse until coarse crumbs form.
-Add almond extract and 3 Tbsp. ice water; pulse until dough forms, adding additional ice water (1 Tbsp. at a time) as needed.
-Shape dough, wrap in plastic wrap and chill for an hour.
-Heat oven to 350 F.
-On lightly floured surface, roll out dough to a 10" round.
-Arrange in a tart pan (you may have to press the dough in with your fingers).
-Line piecrust w/foil and pastry weights or dry beans (I used dry beans and it worked beautifully).
-Bake for 15 minutes, then remove the foil and weights/beans and bake 10 minutes more, or until golden brown.
-In a large bowl, whisk together egg, sour cream, the juice and zest from one lemon, vanilla and remaining flour and sugar until smooth.
-Stir in melted butter and buttermilk.
-Place blueberries on arranged crust and pour the buttermilk mixture on top.
-Bake for 30 minutes or until filling is set (I started checking the tart after 20 minutes and then in 2-3 minute intervals until the filling seemed slightly wobbly, but generally firm).
-Let cool and then chill until ready to serve.
-Garnish with powdered sugar and mint.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Creamy Cashew Marzipan

It strikes! one, two,
Three, four, five, six. Enough, enough, dear watch, Thy pulse hath beat enough. Now sleep and rest;
Would thou could'st make the time to do so too; I'll wind thee up no more.
-Ben Jonson

I don't know where the time has gone.
How (really, how) is it already August 13? Tonight there was a Slavic department gathering--a kind of "let's celebrate the beginning of the academic year" party. I must confess that, while, yes, it was lovely to see everybody (the new and the old faces), there's still a part of me that doesn't quite want to believe that summer is over and that, before I know it, I'll be on campus Mon-Fri. Don't get me wrong; I do love what I do, but there's just something sacred about summer. There's a feeling of liberation that just doesn't exist during the school year (keep in mind that I feel this way and I've worked this past summer, perhaps more than any other summer since I've been in graduate school).

Alas, time will stand still for no (wo)man.

One good thing about time and its eternal progress is that there will always be time for the things that you just don't get around to. For example: I have a pile of books I've been collecting since I was 15 that I've been wanting to read--and, every now and then, I get to experience the glorious feeling of accomplishment when I officially add one of them to the "read" section of the bookcase. Similarly, I have a pile of cookbooks and recipes that could last me until I'm 90 (provided I get that far and, frankly, I think 90 is a bit too old, so let's hope that I don't), without ever having to venture from what I've already collected. To a certain extent, that's kind of scary. I'm pretty sure I fall into the pack rat/hoarder category. I guess I just like having a lot of options, which you might be unsurprised to discover doesn't make the questions "what's for dinner?" or "what should I take to this party?" any easier to answer.

And, despite having lots of options, today was one of those days; I didn't know what to make. In the past week I had already made a chocolate cake, as well as a blueberry tart (the next post; stay tuned!) and a few savory things, too. The thought of turning the oven on was highly unappealing; plus, as much as I love cooking and baking, I have other responsibilities. Simplicity--simplicity was what I wanted. I also wanted something new, or as close to "new" as I could get in this sometimes extremely redundant world. Suddenly, I had just the thing: the lovely cookbook I had bought back in January on Mexican sweets. It was one of those whim purchases when you see something, are intrigued by it and, with a gift certificate in hand, you buy the item almost blindly (no, I lie; it was actually the section on sweet breads and a muffin top breakfast bread with apricot jam that made me buy the book). Besides the apricot jam bread (which I have yet to make), one other recipe in the book has long tempted me, something not too sweet, but right up my peanut-butter loving self's alley: Peanut Marzipan. The recipe was said to be a crowd pleaser, as well as easy to make. In short, score!

But, considering the title of this blog post, you might be wondering up how we went from peanuts to cashews...? Well, dear reader, the local grocery store, for some reason or another, sells a variety of nuts, but the only unsalted nut they had in stock was the cashew. So, cashews (a favorite nut of my pap's, which has endeared it to me) it was! While I can't say that the taste was for everybody (if you're not a cashew person, then this is not for you), I really liked it. It was almost like fudge, but not as rich and toothache-inducingly sweet; the best way to describe it is as a sweet and firm cashew butter that comes in pretty shapes, i.e. an experience for both the taste buds and the eyes. As you can see from the above picture, I enjoyed myself immensely while making these, using all the cookie cutters I had on hand. My favorite shape was naturally the dachshund, although getting the delicate nut-sugar mixture to come out of this cookie cutter without crumbling was quite the feat. The dachshund's tail, I must admit, was the result of some plastic surgery. The others, however, especially the round scalloped shape and the heart, worked beautifully. It may seem initially difficult, but, after about 4-5 of these, I fell into a rhythm, pushing down the paste and working them through the cookie cutter.

Cashew Marzipan

Yields about 24 pieces, depending on the size of your cookie cutters
Adapted from Fany Gerson's My Sweet Mexico

The original recipe, as I mentioned above, calls for peanuts. Almonds, pistachios and pecans, however, are also listed as acceptable substitutes (cashews didn't quite make the least in the official version). You're supposed to toast the nuts, but, though I'm sure it would have helped with the flavor, I also didn't do this (I was very anti-heat today, perhaps because it was 75 in the Bay Area). One other thing I'll offer is this: my food processor is a three-cup instead of the larger five-cup version; if yours is the same, grind the nuts and sugar in two batches. You want to make sure that the oil from the nuts spreads evenly. Otherwise, you'll just be dealing with a crumbly mess that won't take shape.

2 cups unsalted cashews (peanuts, almonds, pecans or pistachios could also work)
1 1/2 cup powdered sugar, plus more for sprinkling

-Grind the cashews in a food processor.
-Add the sugar and continue mixing, scraping down the sides.
-The nuts should release their oil and a paste should form (for me, this probably took about 5 minutes of grinding, but make sure that you can see and feel the oiliness of the paste (press the mixture between your fingers and see if it's malleable).
-Put some of the paste into a cookie cutter, filling it about 3/4 inch high.
-Press down with your hands until compacted.
-Remove the cutter carefully (the dough will crumble easily, so do this with care).
-Repeat the former step until all the paste is used.
-Lightly sprinkle powdered sugar on the marzipan.
-To store, you can either wrap the marzipan in cellophane or tissue paper, or, as I did, store it in an airtight container or place it on a cookie sheet covered in tin foil.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Chocolate Cake and The Two Wolves

"There is a fight going on inside me. It is a terrible fight and it is between 2 wolves. One wolf is evil --he is self-pity, envy, regret, resentment, anger, self-indulgence, ego. The other wolf is good -- he is love, compassion, hope, kindness, peace, humility, generosity." The old chief went on to say, "This same fight is going on inside you. And it is going on inside every other person as well." The grandson seemed deep in thought for several minutes, and then he asked: "Grandfather, which wolf will win?" The old Cherokee chief replied: "The one you feed."
-Native American Proverb (I first heard this at the yoga retreat)

Most days, I'd like to think that I exclusively feed the second (the good) wolf; I try to be optimistic, to do the best that I can, to be empathetic and generous--even with myself. But of course, there are many other days when I toss the first (the evil) wolf a big old chunk of meat and let it devour my offering. To feel a host of negative emotions is, after all, normal. It's impossible to be happy, even content, all the time. Monday was a rough day for my inner- and constantly dueling-wolves. I was tired, I had a headache that wouldn't seem to go away, my allergies were again--for the umpteenth time this year--making me sniffle; it wouldn't have been hard to fall into that web of self-pity that is just waiting to ensnare us should we give it the chance. In short, the bad wolf was ready to attack. But fortunately, I didn't have time for its trouble-making ways. There were things to do, from meeting with my writing group buddy to baking a cake for that night's dinner with the Greek's old roommates and their girlfriends.

Even though my mood was less buoyant than it could have been, I was still excited about trying the cake. I had long been wanting to make it; it had been on my list of things to bake ever since last summer when, in my post-qualifying exam bliss, I read Molly Wizenberg's A Homemade Life on the back porch of my mom's house. I don't know if it was the heat or the power of suggestion in the recipe's title (she called it the "Winning Hearts and Minds" Cake since she had baked it numerous times for the man who would become her husband--as they say, the way to a man's heart is through his stomach!), but I wanted this cake. Be honest, who in his or her right mind wouldn't want fondant au chocolat (melting chocolate cake)?

In the midst of my baking, however, I ran into a small snag--one that sent the good wolf into hiding and brought the bad wolf out in full force. Imagine you're painstakingly melting chocolate chunks and butter, 30 seconds at a time, while also stirring occasionally to make sure that things neither burn nor clump together. Once this arduous process is over, you add the sugar and stir, stir, stir until smooth and well-incorporated. You go to the refrigerator and pull out the eggs...only to discover that you have three, which is two short of the recipe's requirement. Dinner is in 45 minutes and the cake takes 25 minutes to bake, as well as 15 to cool ; the nearest grocery store is 20 minutes away (yes, this could be a cautionary tale about the dangers of procrastination). Your boyfriend is on crutches (soccer injury) and, more importantly, you can't leave the melted chocolate and butter sit out because it would no longer be in a melted condition by the time you would have returned. All you can think is D-I-S-A-S-T-E-R. But one good thing about the bad wolf is that it's both rash and more than willing to throw caution to the wind. Bad wolves don't follow recipes to the letter; if all you've got is three eggs, that's all you can use. And maybe, just in case something should go truly awry, sprinkling a little cinnamon on top of the cake couldn't hurt either. We can call that my (or the bad wolf's?) last act of defiance; if this cake was going to flop, it was at least going to flop with flavor.

But amazingly, somehow three eggs were enough to bind the buttery chocolate-y mixture together! I would even say that the cake probably tasted better because of the egg shortage; it was gooey, yet crisp around the edges and on top. It really was like biting into a truffle that, after the initial resistance of the chocolate's outer shell, fills your mouth with its melted and creamy center. Plus, despite the difficulties of the day and the near-baking disaster, dinner was lovely and provided a nice time to unwind; it was nice to see everybody (plus the Venezuelan/Italian parents of one of the roommates), to chat and to have a relaxing meal (pasta wheels with prosciutto and mozzarella!). It didn't hurt that the cake was a success, either. Needless to say, each wolf left the party satisfied--and more than well fed.

Almost Flourless Barely-There Cinnamon Chocolate Cake

Adapted from Molly Wizenberg's A Homemade Life

Serves 8-10

7 ounces bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
1 3/4 stick unsalted butter, cut into 1/2 inch cubes
1 cup plus 2 Tbsp. granulated sugar
3 large eggs
1 Tbsp. unbleached all-purpose flour
Cinnamon, for pre-baking sprinkling
vanilla ice cream, for serving

-Preheat oven to 375 and butter a 9" cake pan. Line the bottom of the pan with parchment paper. Butter the parchment paper, too.
-Put the chocolate and butter in a medium microwavable bowl. Microwave on high for 30 seconds at a time, until just smooth.
-When the mixture is smooth, add the sugar, stirring well to incorporate.
-Set batter aside to cool for 5 minutes, then add the eggs 1 by 1, stirring well after each addition. -Add the flour and stir to mix well.
-Batter should be dark and silky.
-At this stage, lightly sprinkle on some cinnamon.
-Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake for about 25 minutes, or until the top is lightly crackled, the edges puffed. The center of the cake should look set, jiggling only slightly, if at all.
-Cool in pan for 15 minutes (due to my need for speed, I cut this down to 10) and then flip onto another dish (Molly recommends that you flip the cake onto tin foil) . You want to serve the cake with the crackled side facing up, so be prepared to flip it back over.
-Remove the tin foil a
nd serve! The cake tastes delicious warm.


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