Saturday, October 27, 2012

poetry, prose, and the common oyster

In 1942, the French essayist Francis Ponge published a collection of writings - short pieces in a nebulous space between essay and prose poem - called Le Parti-Pris des Choses. He wrote of everyday objects: a loaf of bread, a candle, a bar of soap. He wrote, too, of the humble oyster.

The oyster, though the size of an average pebble, is of a rougher appearance, a less uniform color, brilliantly off-white. It is a world stubbornly closed. However it can be opened: it must be held in the folds of a dishtowel, and with a blunted and chipped knife, prised at again and again. Probing fingers cut themselves, nails tear: it is rough work. The blows inflicted envelop it with white circles, a halo of sorts.
Inside lies an entire world, both food and drink: underneath a firmament (strictly speaking) of nacre, the heavens above cling to the heavens below, forming nothing less than an ocean, a sac viscous and green-hued that ebbs and flows in scent and sight, fringed at the edges with blackish lace. 

Sometimes, though very rarely, a pearl forms in its nacreous throat, which is quickly used as ornament.

 Ponge's language is exquisite and precise, and it captures an oyster with beautiful clarity. However, to paraphrase Mark Twain, sometimes the difference between food preparation and food writing is like the difference between "lightning" and "lightning bug." Clearly, the sorry bastard never worked a day in food service in his life.

If he had, the poem might look something more like this:

Sunday lunch. We've already crossed the hundred pax mark, and it's not yet two pm. I have just sent the last of five pizzas up to the pass, and I am hoping for a few spare minutes in which I might tidy up my bench and perhaps run back to the coolroom for another container of tomato paste.

"New order, one dozen oysters!" calls the chef. I grit my teeth. The new order is my problem; due to a quirk in kitchen layout, the pizza station is also responsible for cold seafood.

"Oui, chef!" is my response, a shout projected over the exhaust fan and the whirr of the pastry section's Pacojet. Inside, I am thinking "Fuck." And probably whispering it under my breath, too. Take this for an absolute truth: there are no clean mouths in a commercial kitchen.

I go for the tray of oysters in my reach-in fridge. They arrived earlier this week from a tiny little coastal town in New South Wales, twenty dozen in a coffin of Styrofoam, sent by express air mail. I spent an afternoon scrubbing their purple-tinged shells of mud and sand and algae, stacking them with foil interleaved. Now I reach in and grab thirteen - just in case one is bad, or cracks, or proves truly impossible to open.

Over to the sink with my baker's dozen of oysters, teatowel in one hand, oyster blade in the other. The trick, I know, is to seek out the hinge, the weak point between the shells.

Ponge had one thing right: the oyster is a stubborn little bugger. The moment the hinge gives way is always one of triumph, followed by a moment of held breath as I confirm that I've neither stabbed the oyster nor left any traces of shell. Then a fresh wave of irritation, as I remember that there are another eleven to go - assuming there aren't any oysters that are bad or any brittle shells that splinter - and I can't help but wish a pox on the idiot who ordered a whole dozen.

Four, six, eight, nine... ten... eleven... twelve. Recheck to make sure I haven't miscounted.

When the full dozen are opened and ready, they are arranged on a platter in a bed of rock salt. Then it's a scramble to assemble all the accompaniments. Carefully spoon red wine vinegar mignonette into a dish. Add a lemon wedge carefully cleansed of all pips, long slivers of saucission, and dainty squares of grain bread generously spread with pale French butter. Confirm that plate is complete and clean. Over to the pass.  

"One dozen oysters. Service, please!"

I am always immensely, intensely relieved when the platter is whisked away.

Know this for a fact: if I opened an oyster in lunch service and found a pearl, I'd just be relieved to catch it before it could become a choking hazard.

Sauce Mignonette: An Exercise in Brunoise of Shallot

You'll see mignonette with all kinds of vinegars, but I like white wine vinegar because it shows off the purple-and-white of the shallots. (Believe me, if you're going to make yourself cross-eyed cutting brunoise of shallot, you'll want to show off your knifework, too.)

Begin by setting up your cutting board and readying a nice, sharp knife. Grab your shallots; allow one large shallot per dozen oysters. 

 Take your shallot, trim off the papery tip, and cut it in half lengthways.

Peel off the papery skin.

Remove the green germ from the center of each half.

Place one half cut side down, and cut it across horizontally, into thirds.

Like so:

Then make cuts along the length of the shallot, from root to tip.

Then cut across, to form dice.

Repeat the process with the other half, plus any remaining shallots. Place the brunoise in a small bowl. Pour over white wine vinegar, enough to cover:

Allow to rest for an hour or two, so that the vinegar can infuse. Transfer to a serving container.

Serve with freshly shucked oysters.

Also, for anyone who might be curious, Ponge's work in the original French:


L'huître, de la grosseur d'un galet moyen, est d'une apparence plus rugueuse, d'une couleur moins unie, brillamment blanchâtre. C'est un monde opiniâtrement clos. Pourtant on peut l'ouvrir : il faut alors la tenir au creux d'un torchon, se servir d'un couteau ébréché et peu franc, s'y reprendre à plusieurs fois. Les doigts curieux s'y coupent, s'y cassent les ongles : c'est un travail grossier. Les coups qu'on lui porte marquent son enveloppe de ronds blancs, d'une sorte de halos.

A l'intérieur l'on trouve tout un monde, à boire et à manger : sous un firmament (à proprement parler) de nacre, les cieux d'en dessus s'affaissent sur les cieux d'en dessous, pour ne plus former qu'une mare, un sachet visqueux et verdâtre, qui flue et reflue à l'odeur et à la vue, frangé d'une dentelle noirâtre sur les bords.

Parfois très rare une formule perle à leur gosier de nacre, d'où l'on trouve aussitôt à s'orner.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

a stubborn dream

A confession: I've been hiding from the internet, and ignoring my writing. (The latter is probably self-evident.) I didn't write much when I was working in an office because I didn't do enough cooking. And now I haven't been writing because I've been doing little else.

In the past three months, I have discovered that I am not a line cook by nature; though I might master it, I may never come to love it. I am more certain of my vocation, but less sure of my place in my current kitchen. I may want to work in a different sort of restaurant. I may want to move out of restaurant work and into catering. I may even want to go back to the labyrinthine kitchens of a big hotel.

There is a dream, however, that is proving to be remarkably stubborn.

We'll call it the Gingerbread House, because that was its name when I first mentioned it as nothing more than the idlest of idle fancies, a castle in the sky. I was still a recent law graduate, or perhaps an unhappy office minion, and I spent my free time plotting out recipes for baked goods.

The Gingerbread House would be a bakery-cafe, or a patisserie cafe - or something in between. There would be scones and muffins in mornings, and baguettes and ciabatte and focaccia in the afternoons. A quiche of the day for lunch. There would be brioche on weekends, and an espresso machine - one of those vintage Italian models - with a barista to make bone-dry cappuccino and ristretto strong enough to chase away even the worst case of morning sleepiness. There would be no table service, just a side counter with cutlery and napkins and water pitchers and water glasses. Customers would pay, collect their food, and sit at whichever table they liked.

On the last Saturday of each month, the cafe would close early. We'd pull all the tables together to form one long table, and serve up a communal high tea. A proper spread: egg salad sandwiches with the edges rolled in chopped parsley, avocado, tomato and ricotta bruschetta, chicken and leek pie with a golden crust, a fancifully tall chocolate torte garnished with crystallized violets, currant scones with jam and clotted cream, and all a manner of little tarts and buns and other sweet, sticky, delectable treats. The dainty and the hearty, in one fantastic jumble, with guests passing plates up and down the table and eating until they couldn't manage another bite. An afternoon tea of the best kind.

It's still too early to tell if the Gingerbread House is nothing more than an idle fancy. I don't know what the next three months (six months, twelve months) are going to bring, or how my next kitchen will shape me.

In the meantime, though, may I tempt you with some currant scones?

Currant Scones

(Makes a dozen or so.)

Preheat the oven to 200C (400F.) Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.

Get out a mixing bowl and dump in two cups of self-raising flour (two-hundred and eighty grams). Stir in a heaped quarter-teaspoon of salt, and three tablespoons of white sugar (thirty grams).

Take one hundred and ten grams (three point eight ounces) of chilled butter, cut it into small cubes, and add them to the flour. Use your fingertips to rub the butter in until the largest pieces are no bigger than peas. Stir in half a cup (seventy grams) of dried currants.

Pour in half a cup of milk, and one well-beaten egg. Stick a hand in the mixture and stir until the mixture just comes together. Turn it out on a clean countertop.

Press the mixture out into a rough rectangle, and fold it over in thirds, like a letter. (Don't worry if it's shaggy and messy and falling apart.) Press it out again, and fold it over in thirds. Repeat again one final time.

Flour the dough lightly on both sides. Grab a rolling pin, and roll it out until it's a little less than an inch thick. Dip a scone cutter or a small drinking glass in flour and use it to cut out rounds. (You can gather up the scraps, squish them together, and roll them out a second time, but don't do it more than twice - overworked dough makes for tough scones.)

Arrange the rounds on the baking trays. Bake the scones for fifteen minutes or so, or until lightly browned on top. Transfer to wire racks to cool. Serve warm with jam and cream.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

the first day of the rest of your life

In the morning, you wake up early. You eat fruit and yogurt and drink a cup of tea while reading your e-mail, keeping an eye on the clock. Shoes on, keys in hand, you do a quick check: knife kit, jacket, apron. You pull the door behind you with a solid bang, and run your hand over the lavender bush by the door, filling the air with its warm scent.

You can walk to work. It's a long road, but straight and wide, and on a sunny morning, it's a good commute. When you arrive at the restaurant, the open kitchen is already bustling, filled with the sizzle and clatter of meals being readied, echoing with cries of "Behind you!" and "Order up!"

You pull on your jacket and apron, roll up your sleeves. Hands are washed, knives set up. You grate potatoes to pack into ramekins, the first stage of hash browns. You cut tomatoes and sweet red onion for bruschetta. You pick over basil and scrub zucchini. There is butter and sugar to cream together, an easy, familiar routine, for cookies filled with raisins and chocolate chunks.

In the lunch rush, you griddle buckwheat pancakes to layer with lemon curd, decorating the plate with powdered sugar and orange zest. You toss greens and tomato dice with red capsicum and cucumber as a base for a warm haloumi salad. You learn to keep an eye on the temperamental toaster, pulling slices of fruit loaf and sourdough before they char. Old habits merge with new lessons. In time, the rhythm of this kitchen will become second nature.

The hours vanish. Soon the dining room is quiet, just one or two guests relaxing with an afternoon espresso and the paper. You sit down to staff meal, eating pasta in red sauce with feta and rocket and olives, suddenly aware of the ache in your feet. After you've eaten, you begin closing down the kitchen, restocking ingredients and returning parchment and plastic to their places on the shelf. Sinks are scrubbed, floors are swept. The fryer is emptied of oil in a steady, reassuring gurgle.

This is the first day of the rest of your life. No more computer. No more office, no more suit. No more crying at your desk and fabricating allergies to explain away your red eyes. You've finally exchanged your mouse for a chef's knife, and now you can wear jeans to work.

Your new employer stands at the cake case, clearing desserts that are no longer in their prime. When he reaches the cake stand holding croissants, he asks if you'd like to take the old ones home. He wraps them neatly in greaseproof paper and tucks them into a paper bag that goes in your backpack, nestled on top of your apron and jacket. A gift, a welcome. A homecoming.


A croissant is pretty much a yeasted puff pastry. Baking your own is not as complicated as many cookbooks make it out to be, but it is a multi-step process with long stretches of waiting time, so patience is essential. Begin the recipe three days before you plan to eat them.

Note: I've given measurements in metric and imperial, but I recommend the metric.

(Inspired by this recipe. Makes a half-dozen regular-sized croissants, or a dozen mini-croissants. Recipe not for one unless you're trying to make stale croissants for bread pudding, or you really do want to eat half a dozen croissants in a single sitting.)

First, the dough: In a bowl, combine two hundred and fifty grams of flour, three tablespoons of sugar, one-and-three-quarters of a teaspoon of yeast, and three quarters of teaspoon of salt. Rub in one tablespoon of butter. Stir in one hundred and seventy mililitres (half a cup, plus two tablespoons) of cold milk. Stick a hand in the bowl, and stir until the mixture comes together. Knead until a smooth dough forms. Pop it on a plate, cover with plastic, and chill in the fridge overnight.

The next day, begin by prepping the butter: Lay out a sheet of parchment paper, and sprinkle it lightly with flour. Take one hundred and fifty grams (five ounces) of chilled butter and cut it into slices. Arrange them in a square on the floured parchment. Sprinkle with flour, and top with another sheet of parchment. Using a rolling pin, thump and/or squish the butter until the pieces join together. You'll have a rough square; trim it to five-by-five inches (it will be about a quarter-inch thick), and place the trimmings on top. Use the rolling pin to press them in. The butter square should be on the pliable side; if it's very stiff, give it another thumping with the rolling pin.

Wrap the butter in the parchment paper, and place it back in the fridge.

Pull your dough from the fridge. Shape it into a rough square, and roll it, from the center out, so that it's large enough to fit the butter square diagonally (the corners of the butter square should touch the mid-points of the dough square.)

Fold the dough over the butter, and pinch the edges to seal.

Grab your rolling pin. Placing gentle pressure on the dough, roll until you have a rectangle that measures roughly seven by twelve inches.

7 x 12inch - 3x turns.

Gently fold the dough into thirds, like a letter. Wrap in plastic and chill for twenty minutes in the freezer.

When the twenty minutes are up, pull out the dough and place it so that the long side is perpendicular to your counter. Roll it out again into a rectangle that measures roughly seven by twelve inches, and fold it into thirds again. (Every fold is called a turn.) Rewrap the dough and return it to the freezer for another twenty minutes.

Roll and fold the dough one more time, so that you've given it three turns in total. Wrap well in plastic, and place in the fridge to chill overnight.

The next day, pull the dough from the fridge and place it on the countertop. Working slowly, roll it out so that it's eight inches wide by about thirty inches long (or for mini-croissants, about five inches wide by about forty-two inches long.) The dough will become resistant as you roll; pull it up from the counter gently to let it shrink back fully. When you reach the desired length, take a ruler or measuring tape and trim the excess dough so that you have a neat, long rectangle.

Mark the dough at five-inch intervals along one of the long sides (three-and-a-half inch for mini-croissants.) On the other long side, mark one interval at two-and-a-half inches (one-and-a-quarter inches) and then mark the rest at five (three-and-a-half.) With a small sharp knife, using these intervals as starting points, cut the dough into triangles.

Use your knife to cut a small notch, about half an inch long, in the wide end of each triangle. (This helps the croissants hold their shape once they're rolled.)

Take one of the triangles between two hands, and pulling very gently, stretch until it becomes about ten inches long (six and a half for mini-croissants.) Try not to compress the dough.

Place the triangle on the counter with the point facing upwards. Starting from the wide end, roll the dough away from you. Be firm, but gentle. You want enough pressure to get the dough to stay, but not so much that the layers become squished.

Roll until the very point of the dough is tucked under the body of the croissant. Turn it around, so that the point faces towards you.

Take hold of each end gently, and bend them inwards to form a crescent shape.

Shape the remaining dough in the same fashion, and arrange the shaped croissants on two parchment-lined baking sheets. The croissants will expand as they proof, so leave plenty of room in between.

Make up an egg wash by beating together one egg with a teaspoon of cold water until very smooth. Brush the croissants with egg wash (hang on to it, you'll need it again later) and place them in a warmish, draft-free place to proof. (Someplace not too chilly, but not so warm that the butter in the croissants melts out.) Leave them, and go do something else for about two hours.

The croissants are fully proofed when you can see the layers of dough if you look at the croissants from the side. Also, if you shake the tray, the croissants will jiggle.

They're almost ready for the oven! Get the oven preheated to 425F. Brush the croissants with egg wash again. Slide the trays into the oven. Bake for ten minutes, then rotate and swap the trays. Bake for another eight to ten minutes, or until the croissants are a deep, rich brown all over. (If they're browning very quickly, lower the temperature by ten degrees or so.) When the croissants are fully baked, pull them from the oven. Transfer to cooling racks.

Allow the croissants to cool until just warm. Serve with jam or Nutella.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

not just for the birds

Of all the many exciting things about relocating to Melbourne, one of the most exciting might be having a garden again.

It's a small backyard - more of a courtyard, really - but there's a little square of garden, just enough for herbs and a few plants. I've planted basil and mint, and we'll see if my minimal experience with gardening is enough to keep them alive.

There's also an apricot tree. Technically, it's the neighbors' tree, but several boughs protrude over the fence, and as far as I can see, only the birds have shown any interest in the fruit on their side.

Unfortunately for the birds on this side of the fence, I've been up early since the apricots began to ripen, and I've collected what fruit I can every morning. Even at a rate of just four or five apricots a day, the fruit bowl has been getting full, and there's only so much of a dent I can put in the pile by adding apricots to my morning yogurt. I decided it was time to do some baking.

Apricots are stone fruit, of the same family as peaches and plums, and like peaches and plums, are well-suited to desserts such as crumble and tart. I didn't have quite enough apricots for a crumble, however, and I baked a tart the last time I encountered fresh apricots, so I turned my thoughts to cake instead.

As I was considering flavorings, the sage bush in the garden caught my eye, and I decided that a pound cake flavored with brown butter and sage might make for an interesting contrast to the tart-sweet quality of the apricots. I hit a slight snag after gathering all my ingredients, however - I was a little short on butter, and reluctant to make a trip to the grocery store.

Instead, I decided to bake muffins rather than pound cake, using a mixture of butter and olive oil and adding a generous amount of finely chopped fruit. The apricots turned soft and jammy and kept the muffins nicely moist, and the sage aroma came through well, just as I'd hoped.

I sat outside for afternoon tea. It only seemed fair to leave any stray crumbs for the birds.

Apricot Sage Brown Butter Muffins

These muffins are modified from classic pound cake proportions, so they're still quite sweet and rich, and best baked as small muffins, rather than large ones.

(Makes one dozen small muffins, which may be frozen.)

In a small saucepan over low heat, melt seventy grams of unsalted butter (about two ounces) and add eight to ten large sage leaves. Cook, stirring occasionally, until butter foams and turns golden in color, and the sage leaves darken and crisp up. Remove from heat, and transfer to a mixing bowl. Using a wooden spoon or spatula, break up the sage leaves into small pieces. Set aside to cool.

Take five or six small ripe apricots (about a hundred and fifty to two hundred grams; five to seven ounces) and cut an X in the bottom of each. Place in a colander and pour boiling water over, then rinse under cold water. Using a paring knife, peel away the skin of each apricot. Cut each apricot in half and discard the pits. Cut the apricots into small dice and transfer to a small bowl. Set aside.

Preheat the oven to 165C (325F.) Grease and flour a quarter-cup muffin tin.

Take the mixing bowl with the sage brown butter, and add thirty mililiters of olive oil (two tablespoons), followed by a hundred and ten grams (half a cup) of white sugar. Add a quarter-teaspoon of salt, and an eighth of a teaspoon (just a few drops) of vanilla extract. Stir well.

Crack in one egg, and using a fork or a whisk, beat the mixture until the egg is well-incorporated. Crack in a second egg, and beat the mixture again. It will be quite thick and smooth.

Fold in one hundred and forty grams (one cup) of self-raising flour, little by little, until you have a smooth batter.

Spoon a little batter into the bottom of each muffin cup, add a sprinkling of apricot dice, then spoon over more batter. The muffin cups should not be completely full - you'll have a little space at the top. Once the muffin cups have all been filled, sprinkle them with the remaining apricot dice. Transfer the muffin tin to the oven.

Bake for forty to forty-five minutes, or until muffins are golden and a skewer or fork stuck into the center comes out cleanly. Allow the muffins to cool in the tin for ten minutes, then turn out on a rack.

Serve warm for afternoon tea or breakfast.

Saturday, December 31, 2011

the obligatory new year's eve cocktail post, sans cocktail

I had the idea that my taste in alcohol would mature after college.

I thought it would be part and parcel of that mysterious metamorphosis from which I'd emerge a full-fledged Grown-Up. At some point in my twenties, my dress sense would evolve, I'd lose my taste for hot wings, and somewhere along the way, I'd also acquire a taste for gin-and-tonics and develop the ability to drink wine and have something intelligent to say about it.

So far, I've decided that hot wings lose a lot of their appeal when there are no late nights in dorm common rooms involved, but my taste in clothing is stuck at dark jeans and t-shirts with funny slogans, I find that gin still tastes medicinal, and the only comment I can make about wine is what it smells like when I stick my nose in the glass. I still drink dry whites, fruity reds, dark beers, Frangelico-spiked coffee, and not much else. I might learn to mix a proper martini at some point (it seems like a useful skill), but it's doubtful that I'd actually drink the finished result.

Suffice to say, no-one would put me in charge of drinks at a New Year's Eve gathering. (Well, not unless they planned to serve nothing but large quantities of bone-dry prosecco.) That's fine with me, because I'm perfectly happy to handle canapes and cocktail nibbles instead.

I think of canapes and cocktail nibbles as two distinct categories of appetizers. Canapes, in sufficient quantities, will make a meal. Cocktail nibbles, however, are closer to bar snacks - something to graze on before the mini quiches and prosciutto-wrapped asparagus spears make their appearance - and therefore shouldn't be too elaborate, or too numerous. Toasted nuts, mixed olives, maybe a few thin curls of salty ham. Items that can be found at a good deli or import store, and don't require any cooking.

Of course, there's always an exception to the rule. Cheese twists (or cheese straws) are long spirals of cheese-flavored pastry, pleasant to nibble on with a glass in hand, and quite festive as part of a cocktail spread. While you can find some perfectly serviceable varieties at a good import store, they're even better when baked from scratch.

The recipe below is essentially a basic pastry recipe, modified to incorporate cheese, and given the "rough puff" treatment to produce flaky, crispy twists. Classic flavorings for cheese twists include paprika and rosemary, but I've chosen to flavor mine with toasted cumin seeds and black pepper. They're quite moreish, and they have the added bonus of making my underdeveloped taste in alcohol irrelevant. Never mind the martinis - I find that they pair best with bone-dry prosecco anyway.

Parmesan Cheddar Cheese Twists with Toasted Cumin and Black Pepper

For rosemary and black pepper twists, replace the cumin with one teaspoon of finely chopped fresh rosemary.

(Makes about three dozen six-inch twists. Will keep in an airtight container for up to a week, but they're best consumed fresh.)

In a dry pan over low heat, toast one tablespoon of whole cumin seeds until aromatic, about five minutes or so. Transfer the cumin to a small bowl, and set aside to cool.

In a mixing bowl, combine two hundred grams of plain flour (about a cup and a half) with a quarter-teaspoon of salt. Cut in a hundred grams of chilled butter (about seven tablespoons) and rub it in with your fingertips until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs. Stir in fifty grams of finely grated - preferably Microplaned - parmesan (one point eight ounces, about a cup), a sprinkling of freshly ground black pepper, and the toasted cumin seeds.

Add four tablespoons of ice water, and turn the mixture gently until it just starts to hold together. Add sixty grams (two ounces) of finely chopped sharp cheddar and work it into the dough.

Turn the dough out on a clean countertop. Flatten it out roughly with the palm of your hand, and fold it over into thirds, like a letter. Flatten it out again lengthways, and fold it over into thirds again. Flatten and fold one more time, to make three times in all. Wrap the dough in plastic and chill in the fridge until firm.

When the dough has been fully chilled, pull it from the fridge and cut it in half. Wrap up one half and stick it back in the fridge.

Preheat the oven to 180F. Line two baking trays with parchment paper.

Take the dough half and roll it out between sheets of greaseproof paper until it's three milimetres (about an eighth of an inch) thick. Trim the dough so that it's fifteen centimetres (about six inches) long (keep the scraps) and then cut it into centimetre-wide strips.

Take a strip of dough and set it on the countertop. Take the ends between your fingers, and turn them in opposite directions so that the dough twists upon itself. (Give the strip plenty of turns, because the dough will untwist a little after it's been placed on the baking tray.) Lay the twist on a baking tray, and repeat the process with the remaining strips. Transfer the twists to the oven.

Bake the twists for twenty-five to twenty-eight minutes, switching the trays halfway, until twists are golden brown. As they bake, roll and cut the remaining dough. (Any scraps can be re-rolled, too.)

Transfer the finished twists to a cooling rack, and finish shaping and baking the remaining dough.

When all the twists are cool, transfer them to an airtight container. To serve, arrange in wide-mouthed jars or glasses. If you like, they may be warmed slightly before serving.

Note: I suspect the twists may be shaped, frozen, and later baked from frozen, but I have yet to test the theory, so don't take my word for it.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

the hostess gift

Of all the voices I joke about hearing in my head, there's one I sometimes forget. It's a quiet little voice, easily overlooked, and it gets lost when all the other voices - the ones that talk about food and cooking - start clamoring for attention.

That little voice only pipes up when I'm invited to dinner, or lunch, or tea, or any other sort of social occasion at someone's home. And then I wonder how I ever could forget about its existence. You see, the voice sounds suspiciously like that of my mother, and it likes to announce, in the sternest tones possible, that should I forget a hostess gift, I do so on pain of death and dishonor.

My parents were not etiquette mavens. I cannot remember receiving any instruction in, say, table manners. (I suspect I may have been taught by my grandparents, with a little polish added by my stint at a private, all-girls school in Sydney, which was occasionally old-fashioned to the point of anachronism.) Like all Asian children, however, I was instructed in the various complex and arcane forms of address for courtesy aunts and uncles. I was on strict orders to answer questions about school and study without any of my customary snark. And I learned that it was unthinkable to show up at someone's house for a social occasion empty-handed.

Flowers, I learned, were an acceptable hostess gift, and the easiest if one was pressed for time and happened to be close to a supermarket with a florist's stand. Occasionally, if my parents knew the hosts very well, and were certain of their drinking habits, we would make a detour en route at a liquor store for a bottle of wine. Their preferred gift, however, was food, and preferably fruit. Netted bags of mandarins. Thick-skinned clusters of grapes. Golden pears, the bigger the better. During Chinese New Year, every home we visited looked like its inhabitants were thinking about making a foray into the greengrocer's business.

When I received an invitation to Christmas lunch with people I'd only just met here in Melbourne, the little voice didn't falter. My taste in hostess gifts runs to baked goods, however, and so I decided Christmas cookies were in order. Give my fondness for traditional Christmas sweets in the European tradition - panettone, stollen, springerle, even old-fashioned, brandied fruitcake - spices and dried fruit were an obvious starting point.

I began with a simple shortbread base, and seasoned it with vanilla, brandy, orange zest and various spices before adding dried currants and crystallized ginger. I let the dough chill before rolling and cutting simple rounds. Baked at low heat, the resulting cookies were richly fragrant, with a delicate, sandy crumb. Packaged in cellophane and tied with bright ribbon, I think they make quite a pretty hostess gift.

Even the little voice in my head is in grudging agreement.

Christmas Spice Cookies

I've baked these as a rolled cookie, but the dough can also be shaped into a log before chilling, and then sliced and baked. These taste best a day or two after baking, when the flavors have had time to develop.

(Makes somewhere between one-and-a-half and two dozen. Dough will freeze. Cookies will keep in an airtight container for a week or so.)

In a mixing bowl, cream together one hundred and twenty-five grams of softened butter (about four ounces) and fifty-five grams of sugar (about a quarter-cup.) Stir in a quarter-teaspoon of salt, followed by a quarter-teaspoon of cinnamon, a quarter-teaspoon of allspice, an eighth-teaspoon of allspice, and an eighth-teaspoon of cloves.

Add the zest from one small orange, a half-teaspoon of vanilla, and a half-teaspoon of brandy. Stir again to combine. Beat in one egg yolk.

Stir in one hundred and forty grams (one cup) of plain white flour, little by little, until you have a nice sandy dough. Mix in fifty grams of finely chopped crystallized ginger (one-third of a cup) and fifty grams of dried currants (one-third of a cup.)

Wrap the dough in plastic and chill in the fridge for at least an hour.

Preheat the oven to 160C (325F.) Line two baking trays with parchment paper.

Roll the dough out between two sheets of parchment or wax paper (flour lightly to keep it easy to work with) to a quarter-inch thickness. Cut out two-inch rounds and place them on the baking trays. These cookies won't spread, so you can keep them quite close together.

Place the trays in the oven, and bake (switch the trays halfway through) for seventeen to twenty minutes, or until cookies are just barely colored. Transfer to cooling racks. When fully cool, place in decorative bags or cookie tins.

Serve with tea or coffee.

Friday, December 9, 2011

the breakfast battle

I am not a morning person.

Scratch that. I am Not A Morning Person. I do not react favorably to the sight of early morning sunshine. I build defensive trenches of comforters against the creeping threat of seven am. I sleep soundly and cannot be woken by anything other than an alarm clock, because only an alarm clock is implacable against my threats and invective. I do not merely abuse the snooze button - I am guilty of capital crimes against it.

If I had my way, I'd only ever sneak up on mornings from behind, catching them in passing after staying up all night.

Mornings are difficult. Breakfast, more so. My stomach doesn't wake up until at least half an hour after my eyes are open, and while I like many breakfast foods, I have no love for breakfast hour. Pancakes are delicious at four am and eleven am. At eight am, they are an abomination.

I didn't grow into my aversion to mornings. Even as a child, it took a lot to rouse me out of bed before nine. If there was ever an argument for giving children caffeine, I was a walking point in its favor. My mother, who took to heart the idea of breakfast as the most important meal of the day, would sigh and fret as I sat sullen and bleary-eyed at the kitchen table, refusing fruit and yogurt and Weet-Bix before finally choking down a few half-hearted bites of margarine toast, pointedly avoiding the crusts. When my sister reached an impressionable age and began imitating me in everything I did, my mother - my sugar-phobic mother - broke down and bought Pop-Tarts.

If the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation had created a snack machine to go with their Nutrimatic Drinks Dispenser, a Pop-Tart is the sort of thing it would produce. Rectangular, about the size of a small envelope, consisting of a sickly, jammy confection sandwiched between sheets of damp, crumbly pastry product, the Pop-Tart is almost, but not quite, entirely unlike a jam tartlet. Their tooth-aching sweetness was enough to give even me and my sister (hardened sugar junkies, the both of us) serious pause. Still, the joy of the forbidden was enough to get us eating them, and for a few weeks, the breakfast battle reached a ceasefire. Then the novelty wore off, and Pop-Tarts didn't last on their merits. We went back to margarine toast.

Later, I left for boarding school and discovered the magic of coffee. Mornings, while still not agreeable, became at least bearable, and I found that granola bars were a fairly effective mid-morning compromise. The last time I encountered Pop-Tarts - in the vending machine at law school - I noted with a certain bafflement that they'd introduced a double-frosted chocolate variety, complete with sprinkles. I had neither the nostalgia nor the morbid curiosity to try them.

Suffice to say, Pop-Tarts were the last thing on my mind when I was tinkering with a recipe for maple cookies. The results failed on their merits as cookies - the amount of maple syrup required to give the cookies a strong maple flavor also gave them an odd texture - but showed promise as pastry. Replacing the sugar and water in a standard sweet shortcrust with maple syrup and egg yolk, trading out regular butter for browned, and giving it a few quick turns produced a pastry that was flaky and fragrant. All I needed was the right recipe in which to use it.

A tart or pie didn't seem quite right. Then I learned through the blogosphere that people make homemade versions of Pop-Tarts, little pastries that keep the Pop-Tart's rectangular shape, but more like turnovers or hand pies in character. The pastry-to-filling ratio struck me as a good one, and it was easy to cook up a sweetly spiced mixture of apples and raisins to sandwich between sheets of pastry. A wash of egg and a spell in the oven, and the results were browned and delectable, perfect for eating at the kitchen table in one's pajamas.

Well, maybe not at breakfast hour. Could we skip that battle - and make it a late brunch?

Apple-Raisin "Pop-Tarts" with Flaky Maple Brown Butter Pastry

If you're not inclined to fuss with measuring and cutting rectangles, this recipe can also be used for turnovers: stamp out rounds of pastry with a large cookie-cutter, top with filling, and fold over into half-moons. Feel free to play with the filling, too - apple-cranberry and apple-cherry are possible variations, and I imagine these might be tasty with rhubarb compote or pumpkin butter too.

(Makes six, with leftover filling, which can be eaten with pancakes or toast.)

Start by cutting eight ounces of butter into small chunks and placing them in a light-colored pan over low heat. Cook until the butter melts and you can see the milk solids at the bottom (they'll be a whitish sediment); keep cooking until they turn a toasty, caramelly brown. Pour off the melted butter into a heatproof container; scrape the pan to get all the solids. Allow to cool, then refrigerate until solid. (You'll have roughly six ounces of brown butter.)

In a big mixing bowl, combine eight ounces of flour and three-quarters of a teaspoon of salt. Cut in the chilled brown butter, and rub it in with your fingertips until the largest bits are pea-sized. Add six tablespoons of maple syrup and half a beaten egg (set aside the other half) and stir until the mixture just starts to clump.

Turn the mixture - it will be a crumbly mess - out on a sheet of wax paper. Top with another sheet of wax paper and roll it out until it's about half an inch thick. Peel off the wax paper, and fold the dough - it will still be a crumbly mess - into thirds. Turn the pastry so that the folded seam is perpendicular, cover with wax paper and roll it out again. (It should be a little less crumbly by this point.) Fold it into thirds. Turn and repeat the folds again. (It should look like dough now.)

Fold the wax paper back over the pastry and wrap the whole package in plastic. Stick it in the fridge to chill.

Meanwhile, peel and core two tart apples (Granny Smiths or Macouns are good) and cut them into small dice. Place in a small saucepan with a quarter-cup of raisins, six tablespoons of sugar, two tablespoons of water, a big pinch of cinnamon and a big pinch of nutmeg. (Optional extra: a teaspoon of brandy.) Cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, until the apples have softened and the mixture is sticky. Remove from heat; set aside to cool.

Pull the dough from the fridge. Roll it out to an eighth of an inch, and cut the pastry into a dozen rectangles of three by four inches. Using a fork, prick half the rectangles lightly (make sure the fork doesn't go all the way through.) Take the remaining beaten egg from the pastry, and add a little water to thin it.

Set out a parchment-covered baking tray. Arrange six of the rectangles on the baking tray. Use a fork to prick the pastry lightly (make sure they don't go all the way through.) Spoon apple-raisin filling onto the rectangles, leaving space at the edges. Dip a finger in the egg mixture and use it to moisten the edges, then top with another pastry rectangle. Press the edges with the tines of a fork to seal. Repeat the process with all the remaining rectangles.

Brush the tops of each pastry with egg wash, then prick all over with a fork, making sure you do pierce all the way through. If you like, the pastries can be sprinkled lightly with fleur de sel or cinnamon sugar.

Bake at 350F until nicely browned, about fifteen minutes. Turn out on a rack to cool a little - you don't want to burn your tongue on the filling. Serve warm.

Note: I haven't tried baking these from frozen, but I see no reason why it couldn't work.