Sunday, September 30, 2012

Pillows of Poppy Seeds

If I had to pick my favorite muffin flavor, it would undoubtedly be something fruity, or maybe even with a cream cheese filling. In my carefree college days when I would find myself at Nussbaum and Wu for an afternoon snack, I would choose either blueberry or pumpkin/chocolate cheese, always turning my nose up at the lemon poppy seed option behind the counter. Given my love of lemons, I can't really explain why this muffin never appealed to me, but knowing my goody goody self, I strongly suspect that the Seinfeld episode in which Elaine fails a drug test because of a poppy seed muffin turned me against them. So it was with a great deal of surprise that I found myself longing to make the Poppy Seed Whirliwig Buns that the Wednesday Chef writes about with such nostalgia in My Berlin Kitchen.


Where this urge came from, I'll never know. I've started to wonder if something is perhaps happening to me, if the world--my world--is shifting in irreversible ways. It just seems that no matter what I do, evidence that my tastes and proclivities are changing stares me in the face, from my churning mint chocolate chip ice cream to my desire to break away from the Slavic path that I so eagerly embarked on over a decade ago. Whereas once upon a time, I also would have gone on a long rambling walk so as to clear my head, I now knead dough as if it's going out of style.


 Strangest of all, these newfound pleasures make me really happy. When I'm folding the dough upon itself over and over again, things seems simple; my body and mind buzz with energy and I feel as if I've found my place. When I whisk semolina into steamy and fragrant milk, I'm intently focused on making certain that there are no lumps, living in the moment and nowhere in between. And in the great rolling pin vs. chalk debate (that exists only in my weird little mind, but let's go with it), I'd take the rolling pin any day.


 Maybe I feel this way because I'm more than a little tired; as much as I love the uphill battle of teaching and the excitement of those "aha!" moments you can experience in the classroom, it becomes, semester after semester, a question of how much you can afford to give of yourself. What are your boundaries (even better, do you have boundaries?), how many drafts will you read and how do you get students to care about the process, instead of about that elusive, yet all too common, A?

 Even as I say this, however, I'm still fighting the proverbial "good fight." I believe that there's value in teaching and, most days, I love doing it. The thing is, I just can't do it without my weekly escape into the kitchen. I need to know, when the hours spent in my office rapidly accumulate and I feel so hunted that I don't even want to check my email (this, from an email addict!), that there's something else out there for me--something that doesn't involve thesis statements and questionable word choice.


This past week, this "something" was wrapped in aluminum foil in my freezer, just waiting to be popped into the oven to provide a quick pick-me-up. Even though I would never have called myself a fan of German food (not that I even knew what German cuisine entailed until recently), this is something else that's changing. I now can't stop fantasizing about these buns. They're so soft and pillowy, and filled to the brim with a simultaneously crunchy and creamy poppy seed studded semolina. They sing of spice when they're baking in the oven and, upon their removal, dark swirls of color dance across their now golden brown exterior. Paired with a cup of coffee or tea, they make for a filling breakfast, one that is pleasantly, but not overpoweringly sweet. Forget cinnamon rolls and even muffins, I never want to have a freezer that doesn't contain these buns.

If this is a sign of change, let's hope the changes keep coming.

Poppy Seed Whirligig Buns

Yields 14-15 buns
Adapted from Luisa Weiss' My Berlin Kitchen

For the most part, I followed this recipe to the letter, although I made a few essential changes. The first stemmed from my lack of fresh yeast; I decided to use the rapid-rise yeast I keep on hand for bread baking instead, changing the 1/4 ounce fresh yeast that Luisa called to 2 teaspoons of rapid-rise. The dough still rose and the buns turned out beautifully.
       The other change I made stemmed from a mixture of impatience and a lack of time. While I'm usually quite careful about giving dough time to rise properly, I didn't quite understand why, after letting the dough rise for an hour and then adding the poppy seed semolina, the dough needed to go in the freezer for an hour--and all before rising for another 45 minutes. I assumed the freezer was important for firming up the dough before cutting it into slices, but I reduced the freezer time from 1 hour to 20 minutes and had no problems slicing the dough. Next time, I think I might skip this step entirely. After the freezer, I then let the dough rise for only 30 minutes; the extra 15 may have helped, but again, the final product was more than satisfactory.

For the yeast dough: 

3/4 cup 2% milk
2 teaspoon instant yeast
1/4 cup sugar
4 cups all-purpose flour
2 large eggs, at room temperature
1/2 teaspoon salt
canola oil

For the filling: 

2 cups 2% milk
Peel of half a lemon, zested
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/3 cup sugar
pinch of salt
1/3 cup + 2 tablespoons semolina
1 scant cup of poppy seeds

For the egg wash: 

1 egg yolk
2 tablespoons 2% milk

sugar, for sprinkling

-Pour the floor into a large bowl and whisk in the instant-rise yeast. Make a well in the middle and sprinkle the 1/4 cup sugar around the edges of the flour well.
-Then, pour the lukewarm milk into the well and begin to stir with a wooden spoon, incorporating a little flour from the sides of the well with each stir.
-Add the eggs, butter and salt and begin to knead with your hands. When the dough begins to come take shape, dump it onto a lightly floured workspace and knead until smooth and supple (about 3-5 minutes).
-Rinse out the bowl and then coat the bottom with a small amount of canola oil. Place the dough back in the bowl and cover with a cloth. Put the cloth-wrapped bowl in a warm place and then let rise for an hour, or until doubled.
-While the dough rises, make the semolina filling. Put the milk in a small saucepan and heat over medium heat. Add the lemon zest, cinnamon, vanilla, sugar and salt and bring to a boil.
-At this stage, slowly pour in the semolina, whisking continuously so that no lumps form. Allow the semolina to cook for a minute, stirring continuously, and then stir in the poppy seeds until they're thoroughly incorporated.
-Remove the pot from the heat and let sit for about 10 minutes.
-As the poppy seed mixture cools, punch down the yeast dough and knead on a lightly floured surface for another minute or two.
-Then roll the dough out into a large rectangle with a thickness of about 1/2 inch.
-Spread the still warm poppy seed mixture evenly over the dough, almost to the edges, and roll up the dough lengthwise.
-Then, wrap it tightly in aluminum foil and place the foil-wrapped log into the freezer (N.B. this step may be skipped; see recipe notes above).
-Butter either a large cake pan or several small (9-inch) cake pans. Remove the dough log from the freezer and discard the aluminum foil wrapping.
-Cut the roll into 1 and 1/2 inch slices and then place the slices in the greased baking dish(es).
-Cover with a cloth and let rise for 30-45 minutes (again, see recipe notes above) as the oven preheats to 375 F.
-In the meantime, mix the egg yolk with the milk. When the buns have finishing rising, brush them with the mixture and sprinkle on some additional sugar.
-Bake in the oven for 25-30 minutes, or until the buns are golden brown.
-Enjoy immediately with a hot drink. Since Luisa says the buns don't keep that well, I followed her advice and wrapped the extras into aluminum foil and placed them in a freezer bag. I can now enjoy one whenever a difficult moment arises by simply popping the foil-wrapped buns back into the oven.


Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Notes from the Underground: Week 2


 There were moments of such positive intoxication, of such happiness, that there was not the faintest trace of irony within me, on my honor. I had faith, hope, love. I believed blindly at such times that by some miracle, by some external circumstance, all this would suddenly open out, expand; that suddenly a vista of suitable activity--beneficent, good, and, above all, ready made (what sort of activity I had no idea, but the great thing was that it should be all ready for me)--would rise up before me--and I should come out into the light of day, almost riding a white horse and crowned with laurel. -Fyodor Dostoevsky (Notes from the Underground)

When you have pumpkin cocktails on a Monday night, things can go only downhill from there. Not entirely downhill, but it's kind of hard to top the bliss of sipping spicy orange drinks and watching the fog roll in over the hills, all while knowing that you don't have to wake up and teach a class at 8 a.m. the next morning.

Since Wednesday is often my heaviest day in terms of obligations and this one seemed especially grueling, I felt that an ice cream stop on the way home would be a nice treat. A double chocolate malt cone from my favorite shop, Ici, followed by a much-needed haircut (inspired by my favorite Olsen), convinced me that the world still has good things to offer.

 This week has been about getting things done. I finally had a breakthrough on the article I've been revising for publication and I think I almost have something that should please the editor. It's due by Monday, but I'm trying to beat the deadline for the sake of dissertation work. Part of the new work-hard-until-I-finish-the-blasted-thing-once-and-for-all plan is Sunday afternoon trips to campus. While it's not the happiest thought in the world, I'm operating according to the "no pain, no gain" philosophy of athletic training; just call this my marathon.
 This was the view that awaited me as I headed home--to the waiting puppy, the Greek and the roast chicken that he made for our Sunday dinner.

Yesterday I had to have a cavity filled (boo) and my mouth felt more than a little ravaged after the procedure. As kind as the dentist is, there's just no way to make this a pleasant experience. My face felt puffy and sore when I got home and my tooth is more than a little sensitive. The obvious choice for lunch was polenta and not just any polenta. My favorite is Ina Garten's Creamy Rosemary Polenta, which I wrote about back in the early stages of both my blogging and dissertating. This is a comfort food worth returning to again and again--and, believe me, I do.

Thanks to weekend campus runs and cavities, I've decided that, in my next life, I want to be a dog.  After one look at that sunbathing princess with her toy bone, food and water right next to her (I styled none of this; this was her own comfy creation), can you blame me? I can't help but think that she's got the life.


Earlier this week, I came across a recipe for Plum Pudding Cake from Nigel Slater's Ripe, courtesy of the gorgeous food blog, Lottie and Doof. I decided that I would bake it for the Tuesday morning arrival of my mother and aunt!! It's been a long time since I've seen them--last Christmas, in fact--and cake seems just right. To make it, however, I realized that I would need Lyle's Golden Syrup, but I figured that it was an ingredient (and occasion) worth splurging on. My tin of the syrup came today and, though it remains unopened, I'm already in love with the container. 

I'll be back this weekend with a German breakfast treat that, while a little time consuming to make, shows itself to be more than worth it. 

Monday, September 24, 2012

A Cocktail for Pumpkin Lovers



Tonight the Great Pumpkin will rise out of the pumpkin patch. He flies through the air and brings toys to all the children of the world. -Charles Schulz (It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown)

Every year when pumpkins begin appearing at the markets, I go a little crazy--a good kind of crazy. I can't really explain it, but it's as if with all those carefully arranged rows of orange orbs, something in my world shifts...Even as I start to accept the reality that fall is here, that the days are growing shorter and that the only way to be anything resembling warm in the mornings is to turn the oven on, I find myself getting excited. My step becomes a little lighter and my head is full of fall fantasies, from creamy butternut squash soups to pumpkin-scented bread. And don't even get me started on our traditional Thanksgiving bourbon pumpkin cheesecake.

When this season comes to an end, I can't help but feel a little bereft and I try to recapture the magic whenever possible. Back in college, I would express my pumpkin love throughout the year with Alice's Tea Cup's Pumpkin Scones. In Japan, I briefly abandoned the pumpkin ship, but with all of the mochi pastries stuffed with sweet beans, I didn't feel this was such a problem; I more than made up for this lack of pumpkin by having my cell phone email (yes, even back in the dark ages of 2006, Japanese phones made American ones look pathetic) be the Japanese word for pumpkin: kabocha. And, in these grad school years, I've found myself buying pumpkin ale maybe a tad before it's seasonally appropriate--and this from a girl who claims not even to like beer.


This year, however, pumpkiny things kept falling into my lap, and well beyond their typical expiration date. A prime example of this was when the Greek took me to Aziza for my birthday. I saw a pumpkin cocktail on their menu and, even though it was the middle of May, I just had to have it (to be fair, in foggy Richmond, it felt like fall anyway). It was, as cocktails sometimes can be, nothing short of phenomenal; it had tang, sweetness and that ideal note of spice that you just can't help but associate with all things pumpkin. I tried to get the recipe from the waiter, who was very vague in his response (my sense was that, in addition to the restaurant cookbook, there is now a cocktail book in the works). I briefly considered playing the birthday girl card and seeing what would happen, but then decided that I could just recreate my own version at home. I wrote down my impressions, consulted the Greek's palate (when it comes to drinks, it's infinitely better than mine) and now, four months later, I finally got around to making it.

While I can't say that I've perfectly replicated what may have been one of the best cocktails I've ever had in my life (since I went to college in New York City, this is saying a lot), I think my version has a lot to recommend itself. It's got plenty of pumpkin, just the right note of cinnamon and a combination of freshly squeezed lemon and orange juice--and some zest. I also couldn't resist making a simple syrup out of demerara sugar; not only is it a beautiful golden brown color, but I also wanted a hint of molasses to complement the rum. The interesting thing about this drink is that, due to the pumpkin puree, it's thicker than you might expect and slightly grainy. But there's nothing wrong with a cocktail that has some substance; in a way, I see this cocktail as the pumpkin equivalent of a Bloody Mary (perhaps this is a post-Thanksgiving brunch tradition waiting to happen; it really is just the way to use up that little bit of leftover pumpkin). As an inspiring friend showed me recently, good things can happen when you substitute tomatoes for pumpkins; I'm inclined to believe that this exchange can work in the other direction, too. 

Happy pumpkin season to you all! 

Pumpkin Spice Cocktail

Inspired by both a trip to Aziza and the course I took on mixology many moons ago
Yields two cocktails

Both the Greek and I really liked this drink, but we debated some possibilities for playing with it. He suggested a little more rum, while I felt the cocktail was already strong enough. I then suggested an ounce of Triple Sec instead, which would give it some extra oomph and help to cement the orangey undertones. We also considered straining the cocktail with some fine mesh cheesecloth. I would say that, no matter what you do, this cocktail will be a winner. If you make it and try any of the above suggestions, please let me know what you think! This was definitely an experiment and experiments require retesting and feedback!

For the simple syrup: 
 3/4 cup demerara sugar
1 cup water

For the cocktail: 
 4 heaping tablespoons pumpkin puree
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 lemon, juiced
1 orange, juiced
about 6 inches of orange peel, zested
2.5 ounces dark rum
4 tablespoons demerara simple syrup
about half a tray of ice cubes, for both shaking and serving
orange pieces, to decorate

-Combine the demerara sugar and water in a small saucepan and heat, stirring occasionally, until the sugar has melted and the mixture is smooth. Remove from heat and let cool as you assemble the cocktail.
-Add the pumpkin puree, cinnamon, lemon and orange juice, orange zest, rum and simple syrup to a cocktail shaker.
-Then, add 3-4 ice cubes to the shaker and shake gently.
-Remove the top of the shaker and pour into highball glasses. 
-Sit back and imbibe the taste of fall.


Friday, September 21, 2012

Notes from the Underground: Week 1




Writing things down really seems like work. They say work makes a man good and honest. Well, here's a chance, at least. -Fyodor Dostoevsky (Notes from the Underground)

Time management has never been my strong suit. While I'm a person who gets things done, I often find myself completing tasks in the margins of time--when I should be sleeping or eating, or perhaps at the last possible moment. There are never enough hours in the day and, like most people,  I have a very full plate. This, however, is not the way a dissertation is written; it's the kind of endeavor that defies margins and bubbles over into everything else. So, I recently began thinking that I would have to create some new category on the blog so as to be able to give it the attention it deserves, while also doing all the necessary things to complete my degree. What I've come up with is a nod to Dostoevsky and the text that set me on the path of Russian literature: Notes from the Underground. Of course, I'm not actively renouncing society like the Underground Man, but I suppose I must occasionally turn my back on the world so as to write (in fact, this is what most dissertation manuals advise you to do; unreasonable advice or not, they suggest that you limit contact with all distractions--friends, family, TV, literature--so as to finish graduate school in a timely fashion; they say you'll get it all back when it's over...However, I have my doubts about the rightness of this method, which is why I'm still blogging, talking to the people I love, etc.). In these moments, I will offer you some photos and inspiring links and, before you know it, I'll be back with a recipe.

Inspiration 1: Pizza for dinner. Jim Lahey's No-Knead Pizza Dough made with whole-wheat and bread flour (courtesy of Joy the Baker). See what you have in the fridge and be creative; pizza is nothing but forgiving. Beets, feta, rainbow chard and spring onions. Or the last of the tomatoes, ricotta, chard and zhough.


Inspiration 2: Cute puppies, instagrammed. With Elektra in the house, there's never a dull moment. You might just find her hiding on the coffee table.

 Inspiration 3: Start the morning off right and have veggies for breakfast; Joy the Baker's (must be a Joy the Baker kind of day) carrot cake pancakes, courtesy of Smitten Kitchen, are nothing but gloriously good.


Inspiration 4: Trips to the farmer's market. Take them, enjoy them. Sample something you've never tried before, like jujubes (red dates). Buy yourself flowers.

Inspiration 5: Keep a good book on your nightstand. Currently, I'm devouring, albeit at the snail's pace of 30 pages a night, the lovely food memoir by The Wednesday Chef: My Berlin Kitchen. Next up, Zadie Smith, or maybe Michael Chabon. How can one concentrate when there are so many good books to read? 

Frankly, I wasn't meant for the Underground Life, but this is maybe just the way it has to be. For now. But I will be back soon with a cocktail recipe that is the epitome of fall!

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Turning Over a Minty Leaf

The house is silent when Marietta has left and Mrs. Lethwes feels free again. The day is hers now, until the evening. She can go from room to room in stockinged feet and let the telephone ring unanswered. She can watch, if the mood takes her, some old black-and-white film on the television, an English one, for she likes those best, pretty girls' voices from the nineteen-forties, Michael Wilding young again, Ann Todd. -William Trevor ("A Day")

For me, Wednesday afternoon is a time of liberation. Not only do I have two out of my three weekly classes under my belt, but I also know that the most difficult part of my work week is over. Come Thursday, there are no more meetings to attend, no conversation classes to prepare for and just one more library shift to sit through. It's a glorious feeling and one that I relish.
I usually leave campus on Wednesday afternoons feeling nothing but exhausted; once I get home, however, I'm suddenly full of energy and of ideas about how I should spend the rest of the day. Granted, despite my best efforts, I've discovered that this simply isn't a time for writing my dissertation. My brain is sadly too tired for that and the words just don't come, which is why, in the hopes of refueling my work ethic for the remainder of the week, I instead allow myself to get creative in the kitchen.


Last week, my creativity took a surprising turn. You've all heard me say on this blog--many times, in fact--that I absolutely, positively despise mint. And while I'd hardly call myself a liar, there are simply moments in life when you find a way of preparing an ingredient that you formerly believed you hated. It doesn't have to mean that you're now the ingredient's biggest fan, or even that in, 9 out 10 cases, you'd suddenly want to eat it; all it means is that you have found a small way to make peace. It should come as no surprise that ice cream (frozen yogurt, really, but this is a minor point) served as the mediator in my complicated relationship with mint.


It all started when I began hearing the buzz about The Sprouted Kitchen cookbook (the product of the eponymous blog); this wasn't a blog that I had actively followed, or even one that was on my distant radar, but, reading about Sara's recipes and cooking philosophy, I found myself more than a little curious about what the cookbook had to offer. Given my constant (and probably compulsive) need to "reward" myself for work done and projects completed, I decided to order it. And ever since it arrived early last week, I've been cooking from it and marveling not only at the results, but at its simple and creative recipes. Even the Greek, who, upon seeing yet another cookbook on our kitchen table, voiced the thought that this just might have been an unnecessary purchase, has come around to the fact that this book has a lot to offer. I can't tell what convinced him, either: the mango lassi we had with a batch of lentils, the grapefruit margaritas we made to celebrate the weekend, or the flourless chocolate-banana pudding cakes with cinnamon (and, because I'm a woman obsessed, peanut butter) cream?

I strongly suspect, however, that it was the mint chip frozen yogurt that I decided to make on a whim. This is a flavor combination that I've always been sorry I really didn't care for--mint chocolate chip is one of the 10 most popular ice cream flavors; who, after all, doesn't love chocolate mixed with anything?--and I really liked the sound of Sara's recipe. It combines Greek yogurt, heavy cream, a natural sweetener (she uses brown rice syrup, but I used honey) and two types of mint--peppermint extract and fresh mint leaves. Given the fact that I can more than tolerate mojitos with their muddled mint leaves and what's often disturbed me about all things mint is the bright green color that seems nothing but artificial, Sara's recipe seemed to take the best of the mint world and turn it into a sweetened herbal treat. 


Still, I felt I couldn't take any unnecessary chances. I wanted the mint flavor to be soft--present, but muted--so I cut back on both the fresh mint leaves and on the peppermint extract. I also decided to use milk chocolate instead of dark since I wanted the ice cream to be noticeably sweet. And, after churning this early on Thursday morning (clearly, I have the right priorities) and sampling a spoonful, I knew I had hit the right balance: I had finally found a mint chip ice cream (mint chip for mint haters) that I could see myself eating again and again.

How's that for a productive Wednesday afternoon?

Mint Chip Frozen Yogurt (or Mint Chip for Mint Haters)

Adapted from Sara Forte's The Sprouted Kitchen: a tastier take on whole foods
Yields 4-6 servings

.6 oz (about 1/2 cup loosely packed) fresh mint leaves
1 cup heavy cream
1/3 cup honey
1/4 teaspoon peppermint extract
2 cups Greek yogurt (I used 2%, although whole milk yogurt will lead to a smoother frozen yogurt)
2 ounces milk chocolate, finely chopped

-Coarsely chop the mint leaves and put them in a small saucepan with the heavy cream.
-Bring to a simmer over medium heat, stirring occasionally.
-As soon as the mixture comes to a simmer, stir in the honey and then turn off the heat; let steep for half an hour.
-Pour the cream mixture into a medium-sized bowl, using a fine-mesh sieve to catch the mint leaves (I used a tea strainer, which, given the amount of fresh mint that I used, worked nicely).
-Add the peppermint extract and yogurt to the cream, whisking to combine; be sure to whisk until smooth.
-Cover and let chill in the refrigerator for as little as 1 hour or as long as overnight.
-Churn the yogurt mixture in an ice cream maker according to the manufacturer's instructions.
-Once the yogurt has thickened, stir in the chopped chocolate.
-Scoop the churned yogurt into a container and store in the freezer. Let freeze for at least 1 hour before attempting to serve. Before serving, you may want to let the mixture sit on the counter for a quarter of an hour; otherwise, it's hard to scoop.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Seeking the Perfect Loaf: Pane Integrale (Whole Wheat Bread)


Peace goes into the making of a poem as flour goes into the making of bread. 
-Pablo Neruda

About a month ago, on a frigid night in North Beach, a friend asked me if I cook everyday. While there was a part of her that looked appalled at the possibility that I did, it seemed there was another part of her that really wanted me to say yes. As much as I would have liked for the answer to have been affirmative, it was, of course, no, or at least I initially thought it was. But the more I considered it, I began to think that it all depends on your definition of cooking. For example, do sandwiches count? There are, after all, some pretty elaborate sandwiches out there and I happen to be a huge fan of the sandwich. And what about painstakingly chopping vegetables for a salad and making a vinaigrette? Or roasting vegetables, one of the simplest ways you can prepare them? Are these examples of cooking or are they too basic to qualify? I also then started to think about what would actually be so wrong with cooking--really cooking--everyday.  If we can make time to go the gym, to to respond to emails and to spend countless hours at the office, why is making a meal for ourselves on a daily basis viewed as an impossible task, or a luxury? An even better question is, why is it (or sleep) the first thing we sacrifice when confronted with a time crunch?  There may be only 24 hours in a day, but why can't an hour or two be unequivocally devoted to our well-being?

Driven by these thoughts, I've tried to continue to be good about cooking now that the semester is in full swing. There are definitely moments when I take shortcuts (open-faced grilled cheese gets a lot of love in this house), but, more often than not, I still strive to make interesting and creative things that can hopefully turn into (or, as in the case of sweets, be a part of) a good brown-bag lunch. This is partly why bread has been on my radar lately, and I've been conducting numerous bread baking experiments.  
While I'm convinced that I may just be one of the last people on earth to make Jim Lahey's famous no-knead bread, I would like to make it clear that I'm not at all bothered by this. I'm one of those people who tends to believe that a) although a bit of a cliche, most things really are better late than never and b) there's always room for latecomers on any bandwagon. Truth be told, the reason for my belatedness may be somewhat silly. There was a time at the beginning of my grad school career when I wouldn't allow myself to get up from my books to make dinner. Seminars, the thought of exams and paper writing trumped everything and dinner would be carried home in a plastic bag and eaten at all hours of the night. This is not to say, however, that I didn't read about food; I allowed myself that luxury, dreaming of the day when I would finally have time to cook for myself. And even though I couldn't have fathomed making it at the time, I can still recall reading the Mark Bittman article that appeared in the New York Times and put Lahey on the map.


Needless to say, that stage of my life is (thankfully) over. Although I probably still take myself and my work too seriously, I came to the grand realization several years ago that the world would not end if I didn't read each and every assigned page of reading, not to mention all the articles available on any given topic.  So, instead of being obsessed with pages/texts read (or unread), I'm now obsessed with the various ways to bake bread. While most baking involves a fair amount of work--measuring precisely, whisking, spooning the batter into tins or a cake pan, there's something so refreshingly simple about the act of bread baking bread--particularly when using the no-knead method; with as few as four ingredients (flour, yeast, water, salt) and little effort, you can create something hearty and substantial.  All you have to do is put the dry ingredients in a bowl,  pour the water and oil in and then let the mixture sit for 12-18 hours. You can mix everything together before going to bed and, by the time you come home from work the next day, the bread will almost be ready to go in the oven. If only I had realized all those years ago what I was missing. Ahh, the beauty of hindsight.

But there is a catch here: something I discovered while using The Italian Baker is that I actually like kneading bread. I think it's important to work with the dough (I now find myself touching all the dough and batter that I make; I'm convinced I know by touch--as if by magic-- how it will turn out), to feel its texture and elasticity. The few times I've made the Italian Rosemary Bread, there's been a moment when I've know that the dough was just right; it felt like it had come alive in my hands. I suppose I simply like feeling like an integral part of the process, rather than like a superfluous agent who can only speculate based on the appearance of the dough.


And there's another catch, too. As much as I liked the loaf that emerged from the oven--when I cut into it in that impatient way of mine, I discovered a crispy exterior that covered a soft and chewy center--and reveled in the hollow sound that it made when I knocked on its bottom, I found the process of using a Dutch oven to be a little tricky. This may be because I had a curious puppy sniffing around my legs as I tried to roll the loaf from the tea towel into the preheated Dutch oven (sadly, I think it lost its perfect round shape at just this moment). Then, removing the bread from the pan, even without a puppy jumping around, was equally difficult. Dutch ovens get hot and, despite using pot holders, I could feel the heat; to ease my burden, I hastily set the Dutch oven down on the first available surface--a chair, which is now nicely decorated with scorch marks. This was, however, my fault and not the recipe's (it warns you to be careful). Good bread for the price of scorch mark is certainly a novel idea. It's not a price I'll always be willing to pay, but for my first no-knead attempt, I think things could have gone a lot worse. I do, after all, love my feet more than good bread, but I'm still willing to risk them for another round. 

Pane Integrale (Whole Wheat Bread)

Yields one loaf (about 1 1/4 pounds bread)
Adapted, with only the slightest modification, from Jim Lahey's "My Bread"

When making bread, I tend to rely on weight measurements as compared to volume; it's both easier and more precise. In the past several months, my kitchen scale has truly become my favorite kitchen tool, only slightly behind my standing mixer. 

300 grams (2 1/4 cups) bread flour
100 grams (3/4 cup) whole wheat flour
8 grams (1 1/4 teaspoon) table salt
2 grams (1/2 teaspoon) instant dry yeast
300 grams (1 1/3 cups) cool water (I don't take its temperature, but if you do, aim for 55-65 F) + a tablespoon to several more if the dough isn't wet and sticky after you've initially mixed it
cornmeal for dusting

-In a medium-sized bowl, whisk together the two flours, salt and yeast.
-Add the water and, using your hand or a wooden spoon, mix until you have a wet, sticky dough. If the dough doesn't seem to have reached this consistency, add more water and mix until wet.
-Cover the bowl with a wet towel and and let sit at room temperature until the mixture is dotted with bubbles and the dough has doubled in size (12-18 hours; in the Bay Area, especially on a cold day, a little longer might not hurt).
-After the first rise, dust a work surface with flour (I used all-purpose). Use a rubber spatula to scrape the dough out of the bowl in one piece. 
-Using your hands, lift the edges of the dough in toward the center; you want to shape the dough into a ball, tucking in the edges so that it becomes round. 
-Place a tea towel on your work surface and dust it with cornmeal. Place the dough on the towel, seam side down. If the dough is overly sticky, lightly dust it with cornmeal. 
-Fold the ends of the tea towel over the dough and place it in a warm spot to rise for an addition hour or two. You will know the dough is ready when it has again almost doubled in size and when, if you gently poke it with your finger, it holds the impression. 
-As the bread is completing its second rise, position a rack in the lower third of the oven and place a 4-5 quart heavy pot (or Dutch oven) in its center. Then, preheat the oven to 475 F. 
-Once the bread is ready, carefully remove the preheated pot from the oven and remove the lid. -Unfold the tea towel and quickly (and, again, carefully) invert the dough into the pot with the seam side up. 
-Cover the pot and bake for 30 minutes. 
-Then, remove the lid and continue baking until the bread is, as Lahey describes it, a "deep chestnut color"; this should take an additional 15-30 minutes. 
-Use a heatproof spatula to carefully lift the bread out of the pot. Then, place on a rack to cool.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

A Chocolate Peanut Butter Coated Confession



 "We're just the same where love is concerned; we can never stop asking ourselves questions as to whether we are being honest or not, whether we are acting wisely or stupidly, whether the relationship is going anywhere and so forth. I don't know whether all this is a good or a bad thing, but I do know that it holds us back; it's not rewarding, it's just a source of irritation." -Anton Chekhov ("About Love")

 Thinking is exhausting. There's something troubling about this statement because the work of a scholar is to be engaged with the "life of the mind"---to think and think and think some more and, eventually, to write something up about these thoughts that have been preoccupying you for weeks, months and, in a lot of cases, years. Honestly, when I put it like this it's nothing short of terrifying because what I've come to believe in recent years is that, as much as I love thinking, doing is often better for one's health. We need to be occupied and engaged with a concrete task instead of here, there and everywhere in our minds. Of course, this isn't to say that we should live thoughtlessly; we do need to be thoughtful towards others and also about our own lives. But (yes, you knew there would be a but) when we're left to our own thoughts and devices for too long, this is often when we find ourselves getting into trouble. Personally, I know I'm at my best when I'm reading, teaching, cooking, baking, walking and getting fresh air. Things just feel more balanced that way.

But despite my best efforts, I found myself overthinking again this weekend. It may have been because it was a long weekend and, without the Sunday evening/Monday morning rush to contend with, time opened up for me; it may also be because I had a stack of seventeen student papers whose clean white margins were simply waiting to be filled with my corrections. Regardless of the reason, the simple truth is that I overthink because I know there's something rotten in the state of Denmark. And the devious force at work in my Denmark is the realization that I no longer love my job, nor do I really see it as a viable future. I am, of course, grateful for the opportunities and friends it has given me; I am also grateful for the knowledge and skills that I have learned. I realize that I'm lucky to have had it during the last several years--a difficult time for so many--because it's at least been a way to bring home the daily bread and pay the bills. It's just not, however, the kind of lifestyle I want for myself: I want to be able to leave my job and be done for the day. And when I admitted this to myself on Monday afternoon as I stared at the papers remaining to be graded, I felt somewhat liberated. There are still steps to be taken and tasks (dissertation!) to be completed (at this stage, not finishing is not an option), but just the thought that this is my last year of academia, of Slavic studies, may be enough to see me through with my sanity intact. Well, the thought of that and of cookies--lots and lots of cookies, or really, to be honest yet again, the Chocolate Peanut Butter Mud Bars that I made to make the typing up of the paper comments progress more smoothly (i.e. sugar high).

 The puppy and I seem to have reached a tacit understanding about my time in the kitchen; she comes and inspects, licking up anything that I may have sloppily dropped onto the floor and, after a few more minutes of looking at me with eyes that say "what is my weird puppy mama doing standing on a chair with that snapping device and all that good food on the table I can't reach?" (to be fair, I return the favor when she digs in the dirt like a madwoman when I take her outside), leaves to take a nap. I then proceed with my weird ways in peace.

This puppy interlude aside, let's return to the Chocolate Peanut Butter Mud Bars. All I can say is that, even before my Great Realization, I had been thinking of baking something. Looking at my blog archive from the past few months, I realized that I hadn't really put up any desserts since before leaving for Greece; how this happened, I'll never understand because it's not like there's been a shortage of sweets around here. I suppose I just became preoccupied with bread baking (another loaf is coming soon), summer fruits and vegetables and puppies. But no longer. Opening the lovely Buttercup Bake Shop Cookbook that I received for my birthday, I found myself gravitating towards all of the chocolate peanut butter recipes, which, as the friend who gave it to me said, is exactly why she thought the book would be perfect for me. Let me just add that life is good when you have good friends who know you well.


Although I was itching for a way to flex my baking muscles, I also wanted something simple. And what could be simpler than cookie bars? The good thing about bars--and the reason my grandmother has always preferred them to actual cookies--is that there's no rolling or spooning individual cookies, no baking one or two pans and then still having to finish off the last. In three quick steps you're done: mix the batter, spread the batter and bake. Did I mention fewer dirty dishes?


And voila, you end up with a beauty like this. When I say these bars are ridiculously good, there is not one ounce of hyperbole in my description. The peanut butter cookie base is soft and crumbly, the chips and peanuts that you mix into the batter melt into what amounts to almost one layer of melted chocolate in the center and the top (the crown jewel of the whole concoction) adds texture, as well as a note of prettiness to the glory that awaits you beneath. Granted, I know that I've waxed poetic about peanut butter before--it is one of the things that I would want if stranded on a desert island--but this is different. The combination of chocolate and peanut butter and salt and brown sugar is, in my mind, a huge improvement on the average peanut butter cookie, which, even despite my peanut butter love, is never the cookie that I'm just dying to bake. If peanut butter and chocolate don't make your heart sing like they do mine, I understand; they're not everybody's thing. In such cases, I philosophically say that there's simply more for me.


 This definitely put a spring back in my step and also sent me to the fridge for a much needed glass of milk. Since I never drink milk, this was extraordinary, but I take it as a sign that things really are changing around here (I also ate one of the bars today to bolster my courage before deciding to drop the Modern Greek class I'm in, which just isn't providing me with the communicative skills I long for. Although interesting, I have no time to listen to lectures about the Ottoman Empire in English; I have a dissertation to write!)--and, hopefully, for the better.

Chocolate Peanut Butter Mud Bars

Heavily adapted from the Buttercup Bake Shop Cookbook
Yields about 12 bars (if cut into large, 3-inch squares), but could easily yield up to 24 bars if cut into small squares

The original recipe calls for peanut butter chips in addition to the chocolate and white chocolate ones--for both the cookie base and the topping--but, since I didn't have them, I decided they could easily be cut out of the recipe. Too many chips can lead to unnecessary sweetness in my opinion.
      I also decided that, for the love of all things peanut, I would substitute peanuts for pecans; they just didn't seem to have a place in this peanut buttery world. By accident (it was a glasses day), I added 1/2 teaspoon salt instead of the suggested 1/4 teaspoon, but, given the salty-sweet flavor of the final product, I felt this mistake was actually an act of a wise and fortuitous fate. 1/4 teaspoon, given the amount of sweetened chips that go into this recipe, would have been too little; for the sake of balance, more salt was the way to go.
        Finally, because my mother and I went to Peanut Butter and Co. for flutternutter milkshakes on our first trip to New York together back in 2001 (somehow, I knew about this place at the ripe age of 17; clearly, my desire for good food was present even then), she'll often send me jars of their peanut butter--with white chocolate or honey already mixed in. I don't like to bake with natural peanut butter, so I used the White Chocolate Wonderful in this recipe. The peanut butter is sweetened (7 grams sugar), which led me to cut the sugar in the recipe back by 1/4 cup. If using regular peanut butter (3 grams sugar), I would add that 1/4 cup back in.

For the bars:

1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened
3/4 cup firmly packed dark brown sugar
1/2 cup creamy peanut butter
1 large egg, at room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup chocolate chips (1/2 cup for the cookie base and 1/2 cup for after it comes out of the oven)
1/4 cup white chocolate chips
1/4 cup unsalted peanuts, roughly chopped

For the topping: 
2 tablespoons white chocolate chips
2 tablespoons chocolate chips
2 tablespoons unsalted peanuts, roughly chopped

-Preheat the oven to 325 F.
-Grease and lightly flour a 9 x 13 baking sheet.
-In a small bowl, whisk together the flour, baking soda and salt. Then, set aside.
-With a standing mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, cream the butter and sugar together on low speed until fluffy.
-Add the peanut butter and mix to combine thoroughly.
-Mix in the egg and vanilla.
-Add the dry ingredients and beat on low until thoroughly incorporated (no flour should be visible).
-With a wooden spoon, stir in 1/2 cup chocolate chips, the white chocolate chips and the peanuts.
-Spread the mixture evenly into the prepared pan.
-Bake for 25-30 minutes, or until the cookie has puffed up and looks golden brown.
-Remove from oven and sprinkle on the remaining 1/2 cup chocolate chips immediately. Let sit for a minute or two and then spread the softened chips across the cookie base with a rubber spatula.
-Cool for about 30 minutes and then sprinkle the topping over the surface.
-If you have the patience, you could continue to let the bars cool or you could, as I did, cut yourself a bar and pour yourself a glass of milk. Either way, you won't be disappointed!


Saturday, September 1, 2012

Zhough (Yemeni Chile Pesto), or Learning to Like it Hot

I learned this, at least, by my experiment; that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours. -Henry David Thoreau (On Walden Pond)

When people find out that my car of choice is a pickup truck, they're always a little surprised. "You drive a pickup truck? I just don't see it," they'll say, giving me a searching glance. I'll be the first to admit that somebody who loves pink, feels more comfortable in heels than sneakers and who turns her nose up at beer (at least, most beer) is not a person I would imagine as the pickup driving kind, but there you have it: life is full of such wonderful little surprises. The simple truth about my preference is that I learned to drive in a pickup truck and I learned to love the height; being in a car now seems wrong--lacking somehow. I don't really drive that often here in California, but, recently, I've found myself dreaming of a little pickup truck and either a cabin in the woods (preferably in Maine) or a small house in New Mexico (think Georgia O'Keefe, but without the artistic skills or, even better, Deborah Madison after Greens. If only!).


Beyond the fact that I long ago fell in love with the idea of both Maine and New Mexico (and I've since been to the former, but never to the latter), I can't really say why this is emerging as my fantasy life. I suspect that it's connected to what I envision as the epitome of simplicity, as well as a means of stepping back from the hectic pace of modern life: being surrounded by natural (relatively untouched) beauty with a small garden in the backyard and a peace and quiet that you just don't get in graduate school. Yes, naturally, this is connected to my dream of the Great Escape--from the almost frenetic need to publish (or perish) to the emails about grades (yes, they've already begun). I often imagine a world in which there were few distractions. I could read and cook to my heart's content, take long walks... Some of my friends say I would be both miserable and bored in this imaginary life, but I suppose the pickup truck part of the fantasy stems from my knowing that I'd need companionship and civilization sometimes. Even Thoreau, off at Walden Pond, would leave his bucolic existence behind sometimes and go to town.


My escapist dreams were with me almost all this week. Despite my career choice, I can't say I've ever cared all that much for the genre of the academic talk and, during the one on Monday, I found myself a thousand miles away, mainly thinking about what I would make for dinner. Then, on Wednesday, I was feeling the burden of having to perform--i.e. convey knowledge enthusiastically and dynamically (the more I think about it, I did fulfill my childhood dream of becoming an actress; this field just lacks Academy Awards)--at 8 a.m. Although I like my new class a lot and often find teaching to be the best thing about my job, it can also be a really draining experience. So, by the time I packed up my bag and headed to the bus stop in the early afternoon, I was more than ready to leave the academic world behind for a few hours when I got home.


I wanted to make something different, really different--the kind of thing I might eat on a regular basis in my fantasy life in Maine or New Mexico.  I remembered an article I had found on Twitter earlier in the week about "great summer cookbooks" by Amy Scattergood, which was full of culinary things worth coveting and of recipes that sounded more than good enough to include on my ever-growing list of things to cook. But what really caught my eye was the link to what Scattergood called her "all-time favorite recipe," courtesy of Deborah Madison's Local Flavors: zhough (I believe it's pronounced j-eew-g, although I can't confess to be proficient in the Yemeni dialect of Arabic) , a Yemeni chile pesto with cumin, cardamom, caraway seeds and black peppercorns. Clearly, with chiles on the menu, it was going to be more a New Mexico kind of day than a Maine one.


And so, with the dog on her blanket happily chewing a rawhide, I gathered the peppers left over from our Mexican feast, the spices and the all-important pair of latex gloves (removing the seeds from spicy peppers can be a bit of a painful experience if you aren't careful to protect your skin) and set about bringing the wonder that is zhough into my life. By the time I was done, my nose was tingling and my lips, too; the air itself seemed to crackle with the intensity of the heat contained in one small bowl. Elektra was also oddly drawn to this heat, licking a few seeds from the peppers off of the floor before I could stop her; I honestly think she comported herself better than I would have if our positions had been reversed. While I expected a whimper of pain to emerge from her tiny mouth, followed by a dash for water, all she did was sit down calmly and lick her lips for a few minutes, as if trying to figure out what had happened to her. And I think that's what trying zhough does to you: it makes you wonder what just happened to your mouth. Your tongue really doesn't know how to unpack the layers of spice it's confronted with.


This is the time to confess that I usually steer clear of hot peppers, not liking my food to be so spicy that it's inedible or so overwhelmed by any one flavor profile. With zhough, however, it was different. It was spicy all right and in that way that makes you foolishly reach for your water glass even though you know it won't help (note: intuitive dog knowledge trumps human knowledge). But I liked it. Its blend of things spicy and peppery is nothing short of amazing; it packs a zing and then follows with a punch. In short, I would call it the sriracha of pesto, but earthier and more textured: it can be incorporated into almost any meal and will, like all good condiments, always improve upon the flavor. I was sorry I hadn't had it last weekend to spruce up the rather sad and bland tomato sauce that I had made. And for Wednesday's dinner, I was oh so glad that I did. Following Amy Scattergood's advice to pair it with quinoa, arugula and feta, I created a recipe that allowed zhough's heat to shine, while also tempering its more prickly tendencies with a basic vinaigrette of lime juice, minimal olive oil and a heaping tablespoon of plain yogurt. I'm including recipes for both.

By the end of the meal, it already felt like I had made my great escape. And I fully intend that, during other rough moments (the occasional bland dinner included) this semester, I'll be sure to escape with zhough again. Its heat is just plain distracting and sometimes all you need is a little distraction to improve your mood and take you one step closer to your fantasy life of cacti and desert blooms.

Zhough

Yields a small bowl of pesto, but keep in mind that a little goes a long way
Adapted, just barely, from Amy Scattergood/Deborah Madison

1 teaspoon black peppercorns
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 teaspoon caraway seeds
1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
4.25 ounces chiles (I used a combination of jalapeños and serranos)
1/2 cup Italian parsley (leaves only)
1/2 cup cilantro (leaves only)
3 large garlic cloves, peeled
a few shakes of sea salt
about 2 teaspoons olive oil (to moisten the chile paste)

-Toast the peppercorns, cumin seeds and caraway seed over high heat in a small skillet, removing them only when they start to pop. Then, grind in a spice grinder or with a mortar and pestle.
-Remove the seeds from the chiles by slicing them down the middle. Then you can either run a knife along the inside edge of the pepper to remove the seeds, or pull out the membrane with the seeds by hand (I find the latter method to be easier than the former, but gloves are essential for this step). 
-Place the peppers, ground spices, Italian parsley and cilantro leaves, peeled garlic in a food processor and blend until finely chopped and well combined. 
-Sprinkle lightly with sea salt and add the olive oil; then, pulse again until well blended. 
-Store tightly wrapped in the refrigerator and use whenever your food is in need of spicy inspiration.

Quinoa with Arugula, Feta, Lime Vinaigrette and Zhough

Makes about four servings
Inspired by Amy Scattergood

juice of one lime, plus bits of pulp for additional flavor
2 teaspoons olive oil
1 heaping tablespoon plain yogurt
1 cup quinoa, rinsed thoroughly and cooked according to package instructions
1 large handful arugula
3-4 ounces Feta
3 small spoonfuls of zhough

-Whisk together the lime juice, pulp, olive oil and yogurt in a small bowl. 
-Place the cooked quinoa in a large bowl and stir in a large handful of arugula until it has wilted.
-Mix in the lime vinaigrette and the feta.
-Top with three dollops of zhough, swirling them around the top of the quinoa to spread the spicy flavor. 

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