Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Food Montage

Last night I dreamed that a great monster was riding on me and bawling: "Giddup! I am called the Pneumatic Inhaler, did you know? And I adore riding on writers!" I asked him: "You, Sir, are not a publisher or a censor?" I am one of those extinct monsters in Hutchinson's book but--although I am not literate I can be a censor!" Well, all night he rode me through some strange glades--he said he was a patriot--he and I collected hats to throw at the Japanese. -Maxim Gorky to Leonid Andreev, 1904

I can't even begin to tell you how gleeful I was when I read this passage last night. Not only is it a rich and crazy dream, but it's also quite the find for somebody who's tracing responses to the Russo-Japanese War in literary circles...and this wasn't even the best thing I found! That, my friends, was a few pages later--a newspaper clipping I will perhaps do my best to find when I'm in Helsinki in March. To be honest, I don't know what will come of all these random moments that I've been discovering in unexpected sources, but I think that I'm cobbling together a document that will, at the very least, be fun to read, as well as informative. And if such discoveries do not a career make, well, I just learned how to roll sushi. I am, however, still a novice (the rolls featured in the above photo were rolled by my lovely office mate, who, because of her "exotic" appearance to German diners in Leipzig--she's from Chechnya--got a job as a waitress at a sushi restaurant. She can now not only prepare numerous types of sushi, but also roll it in less than 2 minutes.).  But first things first; we must progress chronologically.

Last weekend, before I ever even attempted to make sushi, I was hanging out with a friend of mine in my soon to be old neighborhood. We went for tea (I had my usual Coconut Bubble Tea), then stopped by my favorite store, The Bee's Knees, where two whole racks of clothing were on sale for $12 each. I bought one thing, she bought one thing and then we went back to my apartment to bake something. Since we're both fans of coconut (do you see a theme here?) and coconut and chocolate go so well together, we decided on Coconut Bars from the Gourmet Cookie Book. Because I didn't take many pictures and, more importantly, because as soon as the last of the natural light fades from my kitchen, my camera, much likes Cinderella's carriage, turns into a pumpkin, I'm providing a link to mouthwatering pictures of (and recipe for) the bars at the lovely honey & jam. The only thing we did differently was to add about 1/4 cup of chocolate chips. And the bars were better for it, even if, yes, because of its melted gooeyness, the chocolate compromised their structural integrity.

Then, this past weekend was practically bursting with food. And really good food at that.

The Greek and I found ourselves in San Francisco early on Saturday before we were heading off to respective dinners with college friends. He had a coupon from livingsocial for The Urban Tavern, which I had had no idea was associated with the Downtown SF Hilton and would therefore be quite fancy. Never one for too much pomp--I like good food, but, as I've said before, the mannerisms that sometimes accompany it border on the ridiculous--I ordered a cocktail and cheeseburger. Both were quite good and off of the restaurant's "Lounge Menu"; the cocktail, a Midnight Lavender, was inventive--a combination of lavender syrup, limoncello, champagne and blackberries--and the cheeseburger hit the spot.

We followed that with some "window" shopping in Crate & Barrel. So many amazing things crammed into one store--wall decorations, rugs, bedspreads, lamps, home bars, etc.! If money were no option, many things would now be sitting on the floor (along with the free wooden rocking chair and countertop dishwasher we managed to snag) of my quickly becoming overly cluttered (which drives me crazy) apartment. Now that we're moving in together, we need to find a way to merge our two very different decorating styles. I like frilly things--antiques, interesting patterns and bright colors--while the Greek prefers something a little more austere--clean lines and dark colors, i.e. the anti-frill. Perhaps another trip to Crate & Barrel will be in order, especially on Black Friday. If nothing else, we at least need a new bedspread, one that doesn't have flowers on it.

After our shopping extravaganza, which was, despite the crowds, a very relaxed way to spend a rainy Saturday afternoon, I headed off to dinner with my college friend at the Zuni Cafe. I kid you not when I say that I've wanted to go to this restaurant for years; the restaurant's cookbook is gorgeous and a classic. I nearly died of happiness when I was house-sitting for a professor the summer before last and his wife had a copy on her bookshelves. I would eat dinner, thumbing through the possibilities for the next meal. And I'm happy to say that the restaurant lived up to the expectations that the cookbook had created. The service was friendly and fantastic and the appetizer (squid) and the salad (chicory with pomegranate seeds) were delicious. But that doesn't cover the entree, which my friend and I, in between grad school gossip and dissertation complaints, quickly decided on: The Roasted Chicken for Two. It comes with a bread salad with currants, pine nuts and mustard greens and you have to wait an hour for it, but it. is. worth. every. minute. I immediately came home and, while finding my page in my recent obsession (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo! I can't read the second one, however, until I've written 10 pages and moved into the new apartment..Yes, people, the system is entirely Pavlovian...and it works!), searched for the recipe online. Naturally, Smitten Kitchen, having made every recipe known to mankind and then some (I say that with admiration and just a dash of envy), was the top hit in my google search. Try this recipe. Quickly. Now. The Greek agreed with me since he got to try the leftovers; half the beauty of ordering chicken for two at a restaurant means there's actually chicken for 4 on the platter.

The rest of my weekend was similarly inspired in a culinary kind of way. The Greek and I had done a little pre-Thanksgiving grocery shopping on Friday and, on a whim, I picked up a bag of cranberries, not quite knowing what I would do with them: cranberry sauce? A farro salad with brussel sprouts? Given my impatience and need to experience the holiday spirit, I couldn't wait for Thanksgiving and opened the bag on Sunday. Oops. But I can tell you that the cranberries, sprinkled with sugar to help them overcome their natural acidity, make a lovely addition to the baked oatmeal I was raving about this past summer (courtesy of Heidi at 101 Cookbooks).  It definitely beats eating them raw--they're much too tangy, even for me, and I'm a person who loves all things sour.

And, finally, sushi night with my office mate! It was truly amazing to watch her make the rolls and to whip up the ingredients. She did it with such ease; it was yet another fine example of the age old wisdom: practice makes not perfect, as my high school history teacher liked to say, but permanence. 

Sushi isn't hard to make per se, but it's not exactly easy either. But she did show me a few tricks and we made a ridiculous amount of sushi--spicy tuna, smoked salmon, salmon, California rolls.  While hers were tightly wrapped, mine were a little loose. Whenever we would transfer them from the bamboo mat to the plate, I'd inevitably lose a piece of avocado. We'll see what happens if and when I ever get around to making my own rolls.

And, of course, we had some dessert since her birthday had been the previous day. I took her some Cranberry Walnut Tart from the lovely Cafe Nefeli near her house and she had bought some an-pan, a Japanese sweet bun filled with anko (red bean paste). It was a nice way to end the weekend and start the week.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Blog Love and Cornbread

“A certain man once lost a diamond cuff-link in the wide blue sea, and twenty years later, on the exact day, a Friday apparently, he was eating a large fish - but there was no diamond inside. That’s what I like about coincidence.”
-Vladimir Nabokov (Laughter in the Dark)

It's been one of those crazy semesters--in a lot of ways, I think, crazier than most. For one, I'm moving; I've got to be out of my apartment by December 10th. I won't lie to you either; something shrivels up inside my chest when I think of the behemoth task of putting all of my stuff into boxes and packing it up between now and then. But it's also really exciting. When the Greek and I went to look at the apartment last Tuesday evening, I think we were both 99% sold. Not only is it in a nice neighborhood with shops, a movie theater and lots of restaurants, it's also 15-20 minutes by foot to campus. And that doesn't even begin to explain how huge the apartment is; if my current apartment stole my heart thanks to its shiny wooden floors and large walk-in closet, well, this new place--with its decorative fireplace, dining room with built-in bookcases (my cookbooks need  a home!), view of the hills and 3 storage closets--nearly made me swoon. The Greek also had the "kid in a candy store" look that he gets when he's excited about something. There was no other option but to take it. And, despite my minor concerns about how so much life will happen in the next 30 days (and kind of in the midst of Thanksgiving!), I'm ready for a change and excited to begin my "new life." Although I strongly suspect that, when all is said and done, this new life will probably be quite similar to my "old" life. Just minus the 4+ mile commute to campus everyday...and that's enough of a reason to cheer.

And, speaking of reasons to cheer, I have been given a blogging award from my dear friend, Krug (or, as she is sometimes referred to on here, Girl C)--Krug the Thinker to be exact! This award is for bloggers who have less than 200 official followers (yes, it still blows my mind that some blogs get 2-3 million hits a month, but, that, I suppose is the task of professional bloggers); its goal is to potentially attract more readers to the blog and, also, just to show appreciation for one's fellow and favorite bloggers. I'm honored that Krug sent this award my way, especially because I haven't felt like a very dedicated blogger lately (teaching is what tips the balance), whereas she is truly amazing. She's a fashion inspiration (although I couldn't pull off many of her looks; short vs. tall really does make a difference), as well as full of creative and fun ideas about food and home projects. Looking at her blog, I'm excited to see what I will be able to do--what crafty projects I might undertake- in the Greek's and my new apartment. But, in the meantime, I'll put my decorating fantasies aside and will pass along my own share of blog love--to the five folks whose new blog posts fill me with joy.

I love Just West of the Sun and not only because I know Kana-chan personally. She's a great cook, an inspiring friend and, often, she features lovely photos of Maine, which, long ago when she and her then fiance were waiting for news of where he would do his residency, I nicknamed "The Dream State." Also, she's a thoughtful writer and cook; what other blogger do you know who writes about slaying chickens and fabulous cocktails?

I don't know this next blogger personally, but I found out about her through Just West of the Sun: Megan from Interchange25. Her blog is beautiful and her photos make you want to step inside them and become a part of the scene. I was seriously jealous when I saw the photos from her apple picking excursion, which is something I've been wanting to do all fall, but have not yet had time to do (and my chances are looking slim).

I'm also a huge fan of A Plum By Any Other Name. Maybe it's my recent prune fetish, maybe it's the fact that she always has interesting and inspiring recipes that scream New England to me. There have been Lavender Blueberry Scones, Goat Cheese Stuffed Squash Blossoms and Pasta Fazool. The recipes veer from the classic to the creative. And, best of all, the writing is smart and introspective.

And, for my final two, I will return to friends--to the bloggers I know personally, which, yes, is half the reason I so enjoy reading them. The first is Evening Prose at Ongoing Composition for Cello and Pen. Sadly, now that she's become a real professor, Evening Prose doesn't update as often as she used to. However, if you, like me, are coming around to the idea that patience leads to good things, you'll understand what I mean when I say that her posts are worth the wait. The writing is lovely and the stories--particularly her most recent update about the Bach Suites!--are like something out of a novel. Plus, you can't help but admire somebody who suddenly, in her late 20s, decides she's going to learn to play the cello.

And, finally, I turn to Josefina at Nothing But Perfection. Josefina is prolific and, even better, as she has said herself at times: a citizen of the world Through her blog's archives and her reminiscences, you can experience that strange and sometimes wonderful place that people like me and my fellow graduate students have dedicated our young lives (and maybe even our future lives) to. Her writing is both raw and passionate; in one post she will tell you about literary theory and perhaps dissect Swedish pop music; then, in the next, she will teach you how to make Swedish Mushroom Quiche.

Yes, the blogging community can seem vast and overwhelming, but it's also remarkably inspiring. And, because I want to blog while I can--I sense that things will begin to fall apart as December 10th nears--I offer you a recipe that may well and truly be the best cornbread recipe you'll ever eat in your life: Custard-Cornbread or, as it's sometimes called in New England, Spider Cake. The idea is that the cream you pour into the center of the batter spreads out--perhaps like a spider's eight legs or, as I like to imagine it, more like a spiderweb that expands over the cake.  The Greek and I had this for breakfast on Saturday and, to make the long story of the almost caramelized, crisp edges and barely sweet flavor short, after his first bite, he told me I had "golden hands." I don't know if the cook is ever better than her recipe, but suffice it to say that this cornbread is everything and anything you could ever want on a crisp fall morning. And, with a little maple syrup, it's capable of rivaling pancakes. Yes, change is nigh!

Custard-Filled Cornbread, or Spider Cake

From Molly Wizenberg's A Homemade Life (her own recipe was inspired by a similar one in Marion Cunningham's The Breakfast Book)

Yields 6 to 8 filling pieces of cornbread that will make you want to put another batch in the oven before breakfast is even over (seriously)

3 Tbsp. unsalted butter, melted
1 cup all-purpose flour
3/4 cup yellow cornmeal, preferably medium ground for texture
1 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. baking soda
2 large eggs
3 Tbsp. sugar
1/2 tsp. salt
2 cups 2% milk (the original recipe called for whole milk, but this is what I had)
1 1/2 Tbsp. distilled vinegar
1 cup heavy cream
Maple syrup, for serving

-Preheat the oven to 350.
-Butter an 8-inch square or a 10 1/2-by-7-inch rectangular baking dish. Place the dish in the oven to warm while you make the batter.
-In a microwave-safe bowl, melt the butter in the microwave.
-In the meantime, whisk together the cornmeal, flour, baking soda and baking powder in a small bowl.
-After the butter has cooled a little, add the eggs and whisk to blend.
-Add the sugar, salt, milk and vinegar and, again, whisk well.
-Then, add the flour mixture while whisking constantly. The batter is quite runny and may foam slightly (because of the vinegar and baking powder/soda combination); also beware of lumps. Make sure that you whisk until no lumps are visible (scrape the bottom of the bowl to be sure).
-Take the heated pan from the oven and pour in the batter.
-Then, take the cup of heavy cream and pour it into the batter's center. Do not stir and be careful not to move the pan around too much on your trip to the oven (use a deep dish so as to avoid potential spills and/or baking overflow in the oven).
-Slide the pan into the oven and bake for about 50 minutes to an hour. N.B.: While it may not look as done as it could when you take it out of the oven, once it's brown around the edges and it's sizzling, remove it. You want the top to be crispy and for the bread at the bottom to be well baked and firm.
-Definitely serve this while it's still hot and, depending on your tastes, with a little maple syrup, maybe with honey and with some fresh fruit on the side.
-Breakfast glory awaits!

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Three Cheers for (Naked) Cheese

I thought famous people were proud, unapproachable, that they despised the crowd, and by their fame and the glory of their name, as it were, revenged themselves on the vulgar herd for putting rank and wealth above everything. But here they cry and fish, play cards, laugh and get cross like everyone else!
-Anton Chekhov (The Seagull)

No matter how busy things get around here, some things remain constants; they're so embedded in my daily routine that it's hard to imagine a day without them: coffee, my daily peek at the New York Times, checking in here to see if any of my favorite links have been updated...And, as ashamed as I am to admit it, I also always find time to skim the headlines at People. I take a look at Kate's latest stunning outfit(!), read about Prince Harry's antics in Southern California, and even sometimes (should there be a new one) click on the photo links that can either lead to the most up to date mugshot of poor Lindsay Lohan or to the history of Kim Kardashian's 72 day marriage. Trust me when I say that I'm not always proud of myself for doing this, but it's not Russian literature. It's easy on the brain and equally so on the eyes. A girl needs to cut herself some pop cultural slack every now and then.

In my defense, you do sometimes find things that aren't complete and utter rubbish at People. Sometimes they have recipes for either "hip and delish" cocktails or "dishes that celebrities love!" And, back in early September, shortly after Kim Kardashian married a basketball player with an appropriately spelled Kris for a first name, I discovered this recipe. I was slightly reluctant to click on it due to the prenuptial media blitz that had me (and many others) running from all things KK-related, but I couldn't quite resist. Believe me when I say that it was all for the gnudi.

And rightly so. The recipe's ingredient list immediately appealed to me--a container of ricotta cheese, breadcrumbs, blanched spinach and minimal flour. It sounded like a gnocchi, but less doughy, or, as one food blogger called it: "little pasta-like dumplings that are "naked" of their pasta wrapper, raviolis without anything to enclose them." Gnudi, after all, does mean naked; what could be better than what essentially amounts to naked pillows of cheese? Right. I'm glad we're all on the same page. And who do we all have to thank for this moment of culinary inspiration but West Village's very own The Spotted Pig. I had breakfast there this past summer with my college roommate and the Greek and I can safely say that gnudi isn't the only dish they're doing right. I still occasionally have fantasies about their Dutch Baby pancake with Smoked Bacon....but I digress.
Returning to gnudi, however,  I must say that the recipes on the People website leave much to be desired. The instructions are overly pithy; it's as if some poor intern managed to get the chef's personal assistant on the phone for 20 seconds and they were hastily written down in shorthand. But, although I messed up the recipe because of this (I misread the line about 2 eggs, yolks to mean that I should use only the yolks. Obviously, without the whites, there was no true binding agent, which made an already delicate process even more difficult. Remember, people, you're dealing with 80% cheese here),  they were still delicious. I don't think there's any way to truly mess this recipe up. It's simply a matter of leaving things to sit and firm (as I recommend below, refrigerate the "shocked" gnudi for 30 minutes to an hour); also, a slotted spoon is truly your best friend when making this. It saves the integrity of the gnudi; you don't want to sit around rolling cheese dumplings only to have them fall apart by hastily dumping them into a colander. Especially if half the fun is that you get to feel like you've created the "celebrity experience" (minus the crazy) at home.

Spinach and Ricotta Gnudi

Serves 2-4, depending on whether it's a meal or a side dish (your choice)
Slightly adapted from Scott Conant of Scarpetta for People Magazine 

For the gnudi: 
1 lb ricotta, sheep's milk 
2 eggs, plus two yolks 
¼ cup spinach, blanched and chopped fine 
½ cup Pecorino Romano cheese
4 tbsp flour 
3 tbsp fresh breadcrumbs (I used panko)
To taste nutmeg, grated 
Salt and pepper to taste

For the brown butter sauce:  
1/4 cup unsalted butter (1/2 stick)
2-3 Tbsp. freshly chopped tarragon

- Mix all the ingredients together & let rest for 10 minutes. 
- Make two small balls and test cook. Place in boiling water until they float, then shock in ice water. 
- Taste; if they are too soft and don't hold together, add more flour and test again. 
- Portion all of the gnudi and roll into balls.                                                                               
- Cook and shock as before, then coat in olive oil and reserve.
- At this stage, I would suggest you refrigerate the gnudi for 30 minutes to an hour, so that they can become firm
- Then, bring a large pot of water to a simmer and add the gnudi.
- In a separate sauté pan or pot, add butter (I used a half a stick, i.e. 1/4 cup) and tarragon. Cook over medium heat until the butter browns. 
- Drain gnudi (the gnudi, at least when I cooked them, were quite delicate; I would suggest that you remove them with a slotted spoon and then set them on a plate covered with either parchment paper or a paper towel).
- Carefully pour over some of the browned butter and tarragon sauce and rotate the gnuid until they are coated in the mixture. 
- Finish with a sprinkling of Pecorino Romano and an additional dash of nutmeg. 
- Enjoy as they melt in your mouth!

Monday, November 7, 2011

When Dining Gets Serious...

We think we know the ones we love. Our husbands, our wives. We know them--we are them, sometimes; when separated at a party we find ourselves voicing their opinions, their taste in food or books, telling an anecdote that never happened to us but happened to them. We watch their tics of conversation, of driving and dressing, how they touch a sugar cube to their coffee and stare as it turns white to brown, then drop it, satisfied into the cup.                         -Andrew Sean Green (The Story of a Marriage)

Your blogger is tired. And, even worse, barely cooking these days. I'm currently living a kind of bare bones existence--eat, write, sleep, grade. Or some variation of the same theme. At moments like these, life takes on some kind of quasi-poetic cyclicality. I fell under the spell of such a moment when I was walking across a dark and foggy campus yesterday afternoon; the clock, the landmark to beat all landmarks on the UCB campus, was striking 4. I felt a bit like Mrs. Dalloway, feeling time all around me--cutting through the air, ruining the mid-afternoon peace and reminding me of all that had yet to be done. It really does create a sense of urgency; you can't help but find yourself inadvertently walking just a little bit faster. Even with the time change--that supposed "extra" hour we gained this past weekend by manipulating the clock--there's never enough time in the day. Such realizations keep you humble, if nothing else. 

While I haven't really had much time to cook on a nightly basis--November, my friends, is the point during the semester when things begin to spiral out of control: deadlines loom, work piles up and the days start to feel (and look) shorter--I did find time to make a fast, yet pleasant meal with my Tuesday dissertation buddy last week. Tired from an afternoon of contemplating Blok's treatment of the Russo-Japanese War and from reading about Soviet humor and post-modernism, we went the simple route: a cheesy and garlicky kale salad courtesy of Melissa Clark's lovely NYTimes column and the Roasted Lemon Chutney recently posted over at 101 Cookbooks (the idea was toasted, open-faced sandwiches with goat cheese and chutney, just as Heidi suggested). I can now safely say that not only will kale be eaten more frequently in my household (it seems versatile), but also that chutney--especially with roasted fruits-- is here to stay. Once the weekend (fortunately a long one this upcoming weekend!) rolls around, I'd like to try to make up a recipe for one with roasted apples....We'll see what I manage to come up with. 

Speaking of chutney, this past week also involved another trip to the symphony, but this time for some Richard Strauss. Before the concert, the Greek and I went to Dosa (a kind of South Indian crepe made from rice and lentils) for dinner, which was a nice mid-week treat. While the food was a little too spicy for my tastes (I like heat, but I don't like for my lips to tingle and for my mouth to burn while eating; food should be pleasurable, not painful!), it was still good and the flavor combinations were interesting: fennel and spinach, spicy calamari, tomato chutney and cocktails with hibiscus nectar, coconut milk and chili (I ordered the Peony; I also prefer a cocktail with a nice name).

The symphony was festive (see the skeletons?), but the Opera House was even more so; I was fascinated by the lights.

....but reality is always lurking just around the corner. Once the mid-week SF adventure was over, it was again time to return to the serious business of daily life--reading, studying, grading and, adding a most important thing to the list, apartment hunting. The Greek and I, who are planning on moving in together as soon as we a) find an acceptable place and b) have time to gather our belongings and set off into the great beyond (or something like it), attempted to see a place on Saturday afternoon. The whole enterprise was a huge fail--we couldn't find the place (Panoramic at Panoramic; don't you love labyrinthine locations?), it was raining, there were no signs...So, we drove to Walnut Creek, to a little "Bulgarian cafe", where we had crepes and coffee. We attempted to work there, but we were driven out by the cigarette smoke (yes, pockets of Eastern Europe--complete with nasty nicotine habits--exist even in suburban California).

Ultimately, however, it was okay; we returned to a warm and toasty apartment. We made beef stew (it was stew weather, as well as meat and potatoes weather) and looked at more apartment ads. We saw our first official apartment today, which was kind of cute, but reeked of garbage, had stained, chipped sinks (not to mention a rather petite oven! This is a concern!) and, when we ran into the woman who lived in the neighboring apartment, mentioned that she was moving out since the landlord refused to fix the heat. I can't live without heat. The Greek was also not all that impressed. Tomorrow we see a cute, but potentially slightly overpriced apartment in a cute neighborhood. *fingers crossed*

Now you see why there's little time to cook, right? Fortunately, I have something cheesy and delicious in my archives--something that would make my Italian ancestors really happy. This secret will be revealed after Wednesday's dissertation meeting. Yes, this feels like a momentous week. Thank goodness it ends on Thursday. 

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Feeling like a Francophile

 I sometimes wonder, given all the things I have to do on a daily basis, why I keep this blog up. I ask myself some questions, exploring the possibility that I'm perhaps not focusing my energy in the right direction...Should I be dissertating more? Spending more time exercising? Consuming less butter? But then I finally make something that's long been on my list--a Far Breton--and I remember why I continue to blog. Not only do I get to make and share something delicious with you all, but I also get to create something with my hands. I leave abstract conversations about triangular desire, mediation and narrative tone behind; I no longer have to worry about explaining comma placement and proper use of the dash to my students. Either surrounded by silence (lovely, lovely silence after a day of noise!) or listening, in the background, to some podcast (I'm currently loving The Splendid Table), I allow the chaos of the day to fade away. It's peaceful, happy and simple. Just like this dessert.

I first heard of the Far Breton, a dessert from the Brittany region of France, this past February on some cold morning when I woke up early to do some work on my dissertation. As often happens when this task is at the top of my list, opening the .doc file becomes a Herculean task, so I'll skim the newspaper, check to see if any of my favorite blogs have been updated and, if they have, I'll engage in fantasies of the various meals and treats to come. The Far Breton automatically grabbed me; I think due to my love of thick puddings and custards...and things that can be carefully dusted with powdered sugar so that it looks like there was the gentlest of snow storms on top of it. Plus, it has the density of a tart, although without the crust since it's essentially a flan--and one studded with prunes.

Yes, I'm on a prune kick. Maybe you think prunes are a little gross; in America at least, they have long been unjustly stigmatized. But, really, prunes are quintessentially French. You can eat them with sausage, or both in or as dessert. For me, that's a good enough reason to eat them at all. You get the best of both worlds. Not to mention something that's sweet, sticky and changes the whole flavor of a meal--and for the better at that.

Far Breton

Yields 8 slightly sweet and custard-cream slices

Adapted from Beatrice Peltre (La Tartine Gourmande) for The Boston Globe

I decided to make the dessert a little more "exotic", rather than traditional; since the recipe didn't call for any spice or flavor,  I worried a bit about it being too simple. I decided to take a risk and add both vanilla bean and a heaping teaspoon of ground cardamom. I loved the soft smokiness of its flavor and the way the cardamom gleamed in the custard.

Butter for the baking dish
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 cup flour
1 pinch of salt
1/4 inch piece of vanilla bean, cut open and scraped out
1 heaping tsp. ground cardamom
2 cups 1% milk (this is what I keep on hand; I'm sure that whole milk would have produced a richer custard)
2 Tbsp. + 1/2 tsp. rum
1 1/2 Tbsp. butter, melted
4 eggs
1 cup pitted prunes
Powdered sugar, for serving

-Preheat the oven to 350,  butter a baking dish or springform pan (this is what I used), arrange the prunes on its bottom and and set aside.
-In a large bowl, whisk the sugar, flour, salt, cardamom and vanilla together. Make a well in the center.
-Whisk in the eggs until the batter is smooth.
-Stir in the melted butter, rum and milk.
-Pour the batter over the prunes.
-Place in the oven and bake for about 40-45 minutes (if you use a springform pan, make sure to set a baking dish underneath or you, like me, will need to clean the oven), or until the custard is set and the top is golden brown.
-Remove from heat and set on a rack to cool.
-Cut yourself a slice and have a little taste of France.


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