Thursday, February 28, 2008

Nathaniel the Vampire Slayer bakes bread

Remember Nathaniel, whom I promised to introduce properly months ago, but somehow never did? Nathaniel, as I have mentioned, is Matt's roommate. He's the Vampire Slayer not because he's a die-hard Buffy fan (though he does like the show) but because he really, really loves garlic. He also likes to bake.

Although I have baked bread on occasion, I'm more likely to whip up a quickbread than anything involving yeast as a leavening agent. (Scones, anyone?) So I'm extremely glad that someone else is around to do it instead.

(Nathaniel is a physicist. The slash mark in those loaves is a "Feynman diagram of a tree-level process.")

Nathaniel bakes many different types of bread. We've had braided challah, French baguettes, whole-wheat boules, and even some experimental sourdough. The only catch is that he never seems to bake enough of it... it's always gone by breakfast the next day.

Whole-Grain German Dark Rye

This is Nathaniel's recipe, in his own words. I take no credit for any successes, and no blame for any failures.

(Makes two boules)

Mix together in a large mixing bowl 3 cups whole-wheat flour, 1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder, and 1 tablespoon caraway seeds until well blended. In a small bowl dissolve a heaping tablespoon active dry yeast in half a cup of warm water, and stir in a pinch of sugar and a pinch of flour, to wake up the yeast and whet its appetite.

In a saucepan, heat on low 1.5 cups water, 1/3 cup brown sugar, 2 tablespoons butter or oil, 1 tablespoon sugar, and 1 tablespoon salt. Stir this until everything is dissolved into the liquid. The liquid should be slightly warm to the touch but not hot; when it is, and the yeast is bubbling happily, add the liquid to the flour mixture, stir it in, and then add the yeast mixture and stir that in. When everything is nicely combined, start adding rye flour, one cup at a time, until you've added 3 cups. Turn the dough out on a lightly-floured surface to knead. This is a very stiff dough, and it's a workout kneading it. Dough is kneaded when it passes the "windowpane test", which means that you can tease a piece of it out into a sheet thin enough to let light through before it breaks.

When dough is kneaded, put it in a bowl, cover with a tea towel, and let it rest for 20-30 minutes, then punch it down, divide into two equal pieces, and shape into boules. Grease a baking sheet, sprinkle with cornmeal, and place the boules on it. Brush a little oil on the surfaces, cover with the tea towel again, and let rise until double, which can take an hour or more.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Slash a pattern into the tops of the loaves with a very sharp knife (this may also be done right after shaping), and bake for 25-30 minutes. A finished loaf will sound hollow when thumped on the bottom. If you're not sure, an extra 5 minutes won't hurt.

Allow to cool at least a little before eating. This is a dense, flavorful bread and goes well with chili, hummus, and other strongly-flavored foods. It also makes delicious toast.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

ceci n'est pas un lamington

Despite all appearances to the contrary, this is not a giant version of one of those chocolate-dipped, shredded-coconut-covered squares of stale sponge cake that are sold at fundraisers in Australia.*

No, this is just what happens when I bake a somewhat improvised cake for another mad hippie engineer's birthday. The cake was somewhat improvised because Dan is a vegan.

If you've been following my dessert recipes, you'll notice that they favor large quantities of eggs, butter, and cream. Ask me for a vegan dessert, and I'll probably point you in the direction of baked apples, or sweetened silken tofu. Unfortunately, neither baked apples nor silken tofu are particularly well-suited to being stuck with birthday candles, so I headed Google-wards in search of a cake recipe.

I found a suitable recipe for a dark cocoa cake with raspberry-chocolate glaze. All went swimmingly until I went to make the glaze and discovered that a) we had no raspberry jam, and b) there were only milk chocolate chips in the pantry.

Cue the improvisation. I glazed the cake with plain strawberry jam, but the result looked unfinished. It needed something else, hence the shredded coconut. And thus the giant non-lamington was born.

Aesthetic concerns aside, the strawberry jam and the shredded coconut worked quite well. The fruitiness of the jam and the fragrance of the coconut contrasted nicely with the tangy, almost buttermilk-like flavor of the cake itself. I wouldn't choose it over murderous chocolate torte, but it beats a lamington, hands down.

Vegan Cocoa-Coconut Cake
(Giant Non-Lamington Cake)

Based on the "Deep Chocolate Vegan Cake" in Moosewood Restaurant New Classics. The original recipe gave quantities for a single-layer cake. The photo above shows two single-layer cakes sandwiched together with jam glaze.

(Serves a crowd of mad hippie engineers)

For a single cake layer:
1 1/2 cups white flour
1/3 cup bitter cocoa powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1 cup soymilk
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 tablespoons cider vinegar

For glaze:
1/3 cup strawberry jam
1 tablespoon water

To finish:
1 cup sweetened shredded coconut

Preheat oven to 350F. Should you wish to avoid the lamington resemblance, grease an 8-inch round cake pan. Should you want the resemblance (or not care, or not have any other cake pans on hand), grease an 8-inch square pan.

Mix all the dry ingredients together in a large mixing bowl. Mix all the wet ingredients except the cider vinegar together in a measuring jug, and add them to the dry ingredients. Stir until the batter is smooth and well-incorporated.

Add the vinegar, and stir it into the batter. Pour the batter into the cake pan and smooth it out. Bake for 30-35 minutes, or until a knife stuck in the center comes out clean. Remove from oven; allow to cool.

To glaze and finish the cake, combine the jam and water in a small saucepan and heat until it turns liquid. Brush the top and sides of the cake with the liquid jam, then take the shredded coconut and spread/scatter it on. Dust off the excess. Serve.

*Such fundraisers are called "lamington drives," and they are very (some would say inexplicably) popular. Ironically, Lord Lamington despised lamingtons, referring to them on at least one occasion as "those bloody poofy woolly biscuits."

Monday, February 25, 2008

a philosophical question of deep import

If a recipe fails to do what it set out to do, but the results are still delicious, does it count as a failure?

I spent the better part of the weekend laid low with a nasty head cold. Hot tea with lemon and honey started to lose its appeal sometime around the twelfth mug, so I decided to bake fresh ginger scones, inspired by this fresh ginger cake. I reasoned that if I loaded them with enough ginger and black pepper, they would be spicy enough to clear my sinuses.

Unfortunately, I buggered up the spicing, and the resultant scones didn't so much pack a punch as offer a hug and a pat on the head. Fragrant and mild, they didn't help my head cold in the slightest. Well, not my sinuses, at least. Topped with clotted cream and honey, they certainly improved my mood.

So I'm going to say that my answer to the question above is "yes." But if you happen to be personally acquainted with any philosophers, ask them if they'll ponder the problem. You can bribe them with ginger scones.

Ginger Scones

(Makes a dozen scones. Recipe not for one.)

Preheat oven to 400F, and grease a baking tray.

Dump three cups of flour, two teaspoons of baking powder, and a pinch of salt into a big mixing bowl. Add teaspoon each of ground ginger, ground black pepper, nutmeg, and allspice. Sift if you're fussy about such things. Give it a good stir if you're not. (I'm not.)

Cut in three-quarters of a stick of butter until the largest lumps are pea-sized. Add a tablespoon of fresh grated ginger and a quarter-cup of brown sugar, tightly packed. Turn the mixture with your fingers, then add one egg, and one cup of light cream. Mix until a soft dough forms.

Shape dough into rounds and place them on the baking tray. Brush with milk or more cream.

Bake for thirty to thirty-five minutes. Serve with honey and clotted cream or butter.

(Alex is really getting into the whole food photography thing. Aren't these photos nice?)

Saturday, February 23, 2008

study break at the mad hippie engineer house

This is a story that revolves around cream. Not just any sort of cream, but cream from Devonshire, England. You see, one of the residents of the mad hippie engineer house is Harry, a British exchange student. And his brother William came to visit last week, bearing a suitcase stuffed to the brim with British food.

He brought all the usual suspects: packages of McVitie's digestives, boxes of Jaffa cakes, and monster-size bars of Cadbury chocolate. But he also brought us two containers of clotted cream.

Clotted cream is a cream made from unpasturized milk, which is heated and left to stand in big shallow pans. It's so thick and so yellow, it looks almost like soft butter. And it just begs to be slathered on fresh, warm scones with strawberry jam.

So we embarked on preparing a study break that would take years off the life expectancy of everyone in the house.

A Mad Hippie Engineer House Production
Curb-Your-Life-Expectancy Scones
Starring Cream, and More Cream, and Even More Cream
Preheat oven to 400F.

Dump six cups of flour, two cups of currants or raisins, four teaspoons of baking powder, and a big pinch of salt in a big mixing bowl.

Cut in one-and-a-half sticks of butter until the biggest lumps are pea-sized. Stir in two eggs, lightly beaten.

If you've been reading this blog for a few months, you'll know that I've been on a quest for the perfect scone for a very long time. The latest incarnation of the recipe calls for Stonyfield Farm's whole-milk plain yogurt as the wet ingredient. But we didn't have yogurt. So we used light cream instead.

Pour in two-and-a-half cups of light cream. Mix very, very gently until a soft dough comes together. (Add more cream if the mixture looks dry.)

Grease a large baking tray.

You have two options at this point: you can either turn the dough out on a floured surface, roll it to a half-inch thickness, and stamp out rounds of dough with a cookie cutter or drinking glass, or, if your dough is on the sticky side, you can just break off lumps, drop them on your greased baking tray, and then shape them. I prefer the latter method. The less you handle the dough, the softer the scones will be.

Break off lumps of dough and drop them on the greased baking tray.

Wet your hands with milk (or more cream) and shape the scones into neat little rounds.

Bake the scones in the oven for 30-35 minutes, or until they start to brown a little at the edges. Remove from the oven, and allow to cool.

When the scones are comfortably warm, call a study break. Set out the clotted cream and jars of strawberry jam. Explain to the assembled mad hippie engineers exactly how one prepares a scone for consumption:

Take a scone and split it horizontally. Slather clotted cream on the exposed surfaces. No, no. More. More than that. It's clotted cream, not Marmite. There, that's better. Now spoon some strawberry jam on top.

Your finished result should look like this:

It's getting cold. You'd better hurry up and eat it.


Oh. We still have another container of clotted cream. Let's do this again tomorrow!

The End.

Credit goes to Harry for inspiring this study break, William for bringing the clotted cream, and Alex for the photography.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

what is that container lurking in the freezer?

The refrigerator in Matt and Nathaniel's kitchen is a dangerous place. With three or four people contributing to its contents, the refrigerator becomes a jungle in which items are routinely misplaced, lost, or forgotten. Produce vanishes, then reappears looking considerably worse for wear. Leftovers develop sentient life and stage hostile takeovers. (Thus far, none have succeeded.) Condiments breed, producing hordes of half-empty jars of pickles and mustard. Food may very well be safer outside the fridge than in it.

The freezer isn't much better. Everything keeps, so nothing gets thrown away. My latest effort at tidying up revealed half a pint of Cherry Garcia ice-cream, the heel of a loaf of bread, a bottle of vodka, a bottle of vanilla vodka, another bottle of vodka, several packages of frozen spinach, a yogurt container full of squash stew, a Ziploc bag of parsley stems, and a Tupperware container of what I initially thought was tomato sauce, but then realised was leftover crazy water.

Leftover whatnow?

Crazy water. Acqua pazza. As in pesce all'acqua pazza, which is a Marcella Hazan dish I learned about from Matt. I'll probably write about it in greater detail when tomatoes are in season again, but the short of it is, you take fresh tomatoes, chop them up, and simmer them with water and garlic and chili flakes and flat-leaf parsley until you have a spicy, stewy broth in which you poach fillets of white fish. Then you serve the whole mess over rice, with lots of crusty bread to mop up the juices.

The last time we prepared it, we ended up with more crazy water than we needed, so I poured the leftovers into a Tupperware container, stuck it in the freezer, and proceeded to completely forget about it. Several months later... well, see above.

I decided the best way to get rid of it would be to make another dish in which you serve the whole mess over rice, with lots of crusty bread to mop up the juices. Shrimp étouffée fit the bill nicely. Score: Adele, 1. Freezer, 0.

Now, does anyone have a recipe that calls for frozen spinach and lots of vodka?

Shrimp Étouffée

This is loosely inspired by Jambalaya's recipe for crawfish étouffée, but it is not, and in no way pretends to be authentic New Orleans cooking. So Kathleen, if you're reading this, don't kill me.

(Serves one, with leftovers)

First, you'll need a pound of raw shrimp. Frozen shrimp are fine, though fresh shrimp are better. Defrost the shrimp, if necessary. Peel the shrimp. Set aside.

Cut a small yellow onion, a small green bell pepper, and a few ribs of celery into fine dice. Mince three cloves of garlic.

Heat a generous slice of butter in a large heavy-bottomed pan over low heat. Add two tablespoons of flour and stir until the mixture turns a light shade of brown. Add the onion, bell pepper, celery, and garlic. Season with generous dash of paprika, a generous dash of black pepper, and a sprinkle of cayenne. Add a pinch of salt. Throw in a bay leaf. Stir.

When you can smell the onions, pour in a splash of white wine. Let the fumes cook off, then pour in a cup of leftover crazy water, or a cup of fish or shrimp stock. (Don't have fish or shrimp stock? Use water and add a dash of Worcestershire sauce.)

Bring the mixture to a boil, then turn down the heat so that it's at a steady simmer. Add your shrimp and cook until they're pink and tender. Stir in the juice from half a lemon, and a handful of finely chopped parsley. Remove from heat. Serve over rice, seasoned to taste with Tabasco. Accompany with crusty bread.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

a perfectly normal birthday cake

Despite all evidence to the contrary, desserts prepared at the mad hippie engineer house don't usually involve high-voltage science experiments or heavy-duty power tools. Most of them are perfectly sane, and prepared for perfectly normal reasons.

Yesterday was Rachel's birthday. Alex and I decided we'd rather bake cake than do homework. Birthday cake is perfectly normal, isn't it?

Well... I never claimed the decorations were perfectly normal.*

The recipe for this cake comes from Rachel's mother. Originally a Passover cake, it's dairy-free and uses no leavening agents. It comes out almost like a soft meringue, golden brown at the edges and flecked with chocolate. It's a very light cake, so you can easily have seconds (if there are any) without ill effects.

Rachel's Mother's Hebrew Chocolate Almond Cake

If you're baking this cake for Passover, replace the flour with matzo meal.

(Recipe not for one. Doubled, this recipe serves sixteen mad hippie engineers.)

1 cup almonds, lightly toasted
4 ounces unsweetened chocolate
3 heaping tablespoons flour
5 eggs
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla

Preheat oven to 350F.

Grind almonds and chocolate with flour in food processor until fine and powdery.

Separate eggs. Reserve the egg yolks. Beat egg whites until stiff, gradually adding sugar and vanilla.

Gently fold the egg whites into the chocolate-almond mixture, then fold in the yolks.

Pour the mixture into a greased 8-inch cake tin. Bake for 20-25 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean. Allow to cool slightly. Serve warm.

*"10101" is Rachel's age in binary.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

something from nothing

Sunday evening, five pm. I am at Matt and Nathaniel's. Nathaniel is not home, and neither Matt nor I want to make a trek to the supermarket in the bitter cold. We will fashion dinner from whatever is in the fridge, supplemented by whatever is in the pantry.

The fridge is filled with various odds and ends, the result of having three, sometimes four people doing the grocery shopping. We're not in dire shape: there are eggs and milk, and a Tupperware container of lardons left over from baking tarte flambée. We could have omelettes, but perhaps we could do better.

The contents of the crisper drawer are past their prime. Wilted celery, softening carrots, one lonely bell pepper. A bag of mixed herbs, mostly dried out. A rummage through the cheese drawer turns up a wedge of stale cheddar, and a piece of Parmeggiano-Reggiano that is little more than rind.

The contents of the pantry are slightly more promising. We have canned tomatoes and plenty of pasta. There's a bag of onions and several heads of garlic hiding in one dark corner. There are cans galore: black beans, red beans, white beans... no, not beans. Chickpeas.

I know what I'll do.

I'll trim the worst of the wilt from the celery and carrots, and dice them up along with a large onion. The French call this mirepoix; the Italians call it soffrito.

I'll sauté the lardons with a few cloves of garlic in a big pot, and when they've rendered up their fat, I'll add the soffrito and some of the mixed herbs. I'll cook this mixture until it smells fragrant and the onions have turned translucent.

Then I'll add the two cans of chickpeas, and the piece of Parmiggiano-Reggiano rind. I'll cover everything with water, add a pinch of salt, and simmer until it becomes a hearty, flavorful stew.

I am making a Roman peasant dish called ceci in umido, a chickpea stew that dates back to the time when tomatoes were still unknown in Europe. It's the humblest of humble dishes, turning odds and ends into a meal to keep the winter cold at bay.

The original preparation would have involved a few handfuls of soaked dried chickpeas, a carrot or an onion, some dried herbs, a bit of cheese rind, and perhaps, if one was lucky, a tiny piece of pork fat. My collection of ingredients is luxurious by comparison. Still, I'd like to think I'm preparing it in the spirit of the original, practicing the fine art of creating something from nothing.

Ceci in Umido

To make this vegetarian, leave out the bacon and sauté the vegetables in olive oil. This also works with white beans, and if you cook it with pasta, it becomes a whole meal in itself.

(Serves one, with leftovers)

Take a small onion, a carrot, and a few ribs of celery, and cut them up into small dice. Peel a few garlic cloves; you can leave them whole, or mince them, depending on your taste.

Cut a rasher of thick-cut bacon into dice (or use lardons, if you can find them), and sauté in a big pot over low heat until they render up their fat. Add the onion, carrot, celery, and garlic. Toss in some herbs - thyme, sage, rosemary - either fresh or dried. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the mixture is fragrant and the onions have turned translucent.

Add a can of chickpeas, rinsed and drained, and a piece of Parmigiano-Reggiano rind. Cover with water. Bring to a boil, then simmer until the chickpeas are tender and starting to pop out of their skins. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve over pasta, or couscous, or fried wedges of polenta. Also, if a sweep of your fridge yields a bunch of fresh parsley, chop up a little and sprinkle it on top.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

introducing lucille to pastrami

"I don't want to go to a deli."
"You've never been to a deli."
"But 34th street is really far away!"
"They have pastrami. You've never eaten pastrami."
"We could go to the Thai place down the road."
"I did not come all the way to New York City to go to the Thai place down the road."
"You're being bossy."
"You're being fussy."

If the above exchange sounds like two siblings bickering, that's because it is two siblings bickering. The whiny one is Lucille, my younger sister. I am visiting her in New York City. And we are trying to figure out where to go for lunch.

Lucille spent most of her childhood eating very little, in terms of both quantity and variety. She subsisted primarily on milk and Vegemite sandwiches, supplemented by the occasional apple or Caramello Koala. It wasn't until her preteen years that she developed a semblance of a normal appetite, and began to exhibit the carnivorous tendencies that are something of a family trait. Funnily enough, that was just about the time when I decided that she might have potential as something more than just a nuisance.

Lucille is now in college, has matured into an interesting being, and is still a nuisance. Her fussiness no longer involves food itself. Instead, it involves the location of food: she doesn't want to leave her particular corner of the city for lunch. She does not want to eat noodles and pork buns at Momofuku. She does not want to visit the Down Under Bakery for Australian meat pies. And she does not want to go to the newly-reopened Second Avenue Deli for pastrami sandwiches.

So I do what any self-respecting older sibling would do. I badger her relentlessly until she gives in.

I didn't have the chance to eat at the original Second Avenue Deli, but I have read plenty about it since it reopened last December. I love Jewish deli food, so I definitely want to stop by while I'm in New York. The chance to introduce Lucille to the delights of pastrami is just an added bonus.

The Second Avenue Deli is a tiny, crowded place where the tables are elbow-to-elbow, and the servers just barely manage to squeeze past. It feels cozy rather than claustrophobic, though, and the close quarters give you a chance to see what everyone is eating. (Mostly pastrami.)

I love places that bring you things to nibble on before your order arrives. At the Second Avenue Deli, they bring you enough food to constitute a small meal within itself. Within minutes of being seated, our server arrives with a bowl of coleslaw, a big dish of mixed pickles, and a plate of gribenes (chicken-skin cracklings).

Lucille, who has been grumpy for the entire journey to midtown, brightens up at the sight of pre-meal snacks. "I love pickles," she remarks, selecting a half-sour pickle from the dish and biting into it. I take this as a good sign, and fork up some of the coleslaw for myself. It is mildly sweet, with an agreeable crunch. It goes nicely with the gribenes, which are wonderfully crispy and oily, like fried chicken without the unnecessary meat. All signs suggest that lunch will be excellent.

Our server returns to take our order: we'll each have soup and half a sandwich, and split an appetizer of chopped liver and a side of French fries. Lucille opts for mushroom barley; I stick with the classic matzo ball. We both order pastrami.

The chopped liver arrives, and it takes some shuffling of bowls and plates to clear enough space on the table to fit it in. It comes mounded atop slices of onion, cucumber, and green pepper, and we attack it with our knives, spreading it thickly on slices of bread. It is rich and creamy in texture, with a lovely deep, sweet flavor.

"It tastes like pâté," says Lucille.
I nod. "It's pretty similar."

She doesn't react to my assessment, but asks for more bread. Between the two of us, we reduce the chopped liver to a few smears on the plate. Our server clears away some of the excess dishes, and then our soup arrives.

The matzo ball soup is as classic as classic can be: an enormous dumpling surrounded by carrots and rice in clear chicken broth, sprinkled generously with chopped dill. The dumpling is fluffy and pleasantly eggy, and the broth deep and savory. I offer Lucille a spoonful, but she shakes her head. I remember that she doesn't like matzo balls. I shrug. More for me.

The mushroom barley soup must meet Lucille's approval, because she stays remarkably quiet until she's scraped the bowl clean. I smile to myself. Lunch is going very well.

There is more clearing of bowls, and then our server returns with our sandwiches and French fries. The pastrami is cut in thick slices, deep rose in color, with a heavy blackened edge, and it is piled majestically atop light rye bread. The smell is mouthwatering. I am suddenly ravenous, despite the coleslaw and chopped liver and soup.

Lucille stares at her sandwich in consternation.
"How am I supposed to eat this? I can't fit it in my mouth!"
"Eat the pastrami with your fork until you get it down to a manageable level," I advise, suiting action to words. I leave Lucille to figure out her sandwich, and focus on my own plate.

The pastrami is tender and mildly spicy, marbled with fine seams of fat. The French fries are nothing to write home about, but they're not bad when dipped in spicy mustard. I eat enough of the pastrami to bring the sandwich to reasonable proportions, and pick it up with my hands. The bread of the sandwich could stand to be a little more strongly flavored - the light rye is largely overwhelmed by the pastrami's spicing - but the texture is good, and it holds the meat without slippage.

I look over at Lucille, who is slowly but steadily demolishing her sandwich.
"You like the pastrami?" I ask.
She nods enthusiastically, mouth full. I refrain from telling her "I told you so."

When the last bites of pastrami have been polished off, we lean back in our chairs, thoroughly stuffed. We both agree that dessert is unnecessary.

"Oof," sighs Lucille. "That was really good."

I couldn't agree more.

When I visit New York City in March, we might visit Momofuku. We might make it to the Down Under Bakery. Or we might just go to the Second Avenue Deli again. I may not even have to badger her next time.

Friday, February 15, 2008

more than just an afterthought

This is my entry for Waiter, There's Something In My... Salad.

I am a firm believer in good salad.

A good salad is a salad worth eating in its own right. A good salad is not an afterthought. It is not something you serve just for the sake of having vegetables on the table. And it is definitely not what you (don't) eat to make up for what you ate. If you're seeking absolution for sins of butter and cream, you're better off confessing to your cardiologist and doing penance by running for an hour on the treadmill. Trying to atone for your shortcomings with iceberg lettuce and low-fat dressing is a sorry way to treat both your tastebuds and your arteries.*

That said, a good salad is just the thing to refresh a tired appetite after too much rich food. After all the buttercream and crème fraîche of Thursday, I decided that Friday dinner with Meg and Deby called for something light and simple. The following salad makes use of two of my favorite items of winter produce: fennel and blood oranges. It might sound like an odd pairing, but the sweet, licorice-y crunch of fennel serves as a lovely counterpoint for juicy orange segments and salty curls of Parmigiano-Reggiano. It also looks deliciously striking.

Fennel and Blood Orange Salad

Inspired by a fennel salad from Orangette.

(Serves one as a light lunch.)

Take a small fennel bulb and slice it as thinly as you can manage. This is probably easiest done with a mandoline or a food processor, though doing it by hand will give your knife skills a workout. Peel a blood orange, and remove the membrane from each segment.

Put the fennel in a bowl with the blood orange segments. Dress with olive oil and a squeeze of lemon juice. Shave thin curls of Parmigiano-Reggiano over the top. Dust with freshly ground black pepper. Grab a fork. Mix everything together. Dig in.

Note: This looks more elegant as a layered salad on a plate, but tastes better when you mix everything up in a bowl. I'll let you decide which approach you prefer.

*Iceberg lettuce serves two minor culinary purposes: one, as a conveyance for the filling of sang choi bao, and two, as a fixing for tacos. Its primary purpose is to act as feed for rabbits.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

happy birthday to the french language

Food blogging, it seems, is always feast or famine, pun fully intended. I'll go several days without cooking or eating anything worth writing about, and then I'll suddenly have a multiple-post pileup to work through.

Bear with me as I play catch-up. The calendar says it's February 17th, but this blog is still busy with the events of the 14th.

As much as I like anti-Valentine's Day celebrations, another way to approach February 14th is to recognize some of the other events that happened on that day. Having been a French major, one of my favorites is the anniversary of the Oaths of Strasbourg.

The Oaths of Strasbourg were sworn on February 14th, 842, by Louis the German and Charles the Bald. The oaths were mutual pledges of allegiance, and they were sworn in the language that would later become French.

The rest is of little interest to anyone who isn't studying historical linguistics, but it gives the rest of us an excellent excuse to bake tarte flambée, an Alsacian specialty of crispy flatbread topped with crème fraîche, onions, and bacon.

Tarte Flambée

(Recipe not for one. If you're going to celebrate alternative holidays, it's more fun with company.)

First, the dough. Any recipe for pizza dough or flatbread will probably work fine, though you could even cheat and use bread dough, if you have an obliging friend who just happens to be baking bread the night before. (Half a pound of dough will make enough tarte to feed three to four as a snack or appetizer.)

Next, the oven. Tarte flambée is traditionally baked in a woodfire oven, but unless you have one in the backyard, you'll have to settle for cranking up the kitchen oven as far up as it'll go - around 500 or 550F.

Roll out the dough to the thickness of a crêpe. Spread with a thin layer of crème fraîche; top with thinly sliced onions and small pieces of thick-cut bacon. Bake for eight to ten minutes, until the crust is golden, the onions translucent, and the bacon sizzling. Remove from oven. Allow to cool slightly before cutting into slices. Serve with dark beer.

Should you have any particularly theatrical (or impressionable) guests, a dramatic reading of the Oaths would be a fitting accompaniment.

my bloody valentine

There is nothing quite so satisfying as achieving a long-held culinary goal. For years, I've longed to bake a Bleeding Heart Cake for an anti-Valentine's Day party. This year, I finally did.

The Bleeding Heart Cake looks sweet and innocent, the perfect Valentine's Day dessert. Appearances, however, are deceiving. Cut into it... and watch the blood run.

Directions for the Bleeding Heart Cake come from Do it myself!, a website run by two sisters who bake incredibly creative, unique cakes. If you'd like to bake a Bleeding Heart Cake yourself, you should check out their tutorial.

Bleeding Heart Cake

(Recipe not for one. This cake is no fun without an audience.)

Use whatever kind of cake you'd like for the base: it should go with buttercream, but that's the only requirement. It doesn't need to be fancy - as far as I'm concerned, the cake just serves as a base to hang the buttercream upon. I pulled a recipe for basic white cake from Google and followed that.

This can be a single-layer or multi-layer cake, though you'll probably want at least two layers if you want lots of blood. It can be baked in heart-shaped pans, but if you're like me and would only ever use heart-shaped pans for Bleeding Heart Cake, it's much cheaper to just use round pans and cut the cake into hearts.

Next, you'll need buttercream. I used Rose Levy Berenbaum's recipe, which worked very well. I flavored it with pomegranate liqueur, and tinted it a lurid shade of pink. (The photos don't really capture the awfulness of the color.)

For the blood, which is a berry sauce, you'll need red berries, either fresh or frozen. Puree them in a food processor, and strain the seeds if you object to seeds. Add sugar to taste.

Assembly is the fun part: take your layers, and sandwich them together with buttercream. Put the cake on a cutting board or a platter, something that can be easily moved. Flip the cake over so that you're looking at its underside.

Cut out a hollow for the berry sauce, and slather both the hollow and the underside of the cake in buttercream. Be generous. You don't want any of the sauce to seep into the cake.

Fill the hollow with berry sauce. Take whatever you're planning to serve the cake on - cake platter, cutting board - and press it gently atop the hollow. Carefully flip the cake over, so that it's right-side up. Cover all remaining exposed surfaces in buttercream.

Doesn't it look sweet and innocent?

To cut the cake, use the biggest knife you have. A butcher's knife or cleaver is good. A sword may also be effective, if messy.

Mmm... blood. Delicious berry blood.

When you've finished making jokes and taking photos, carve up the cake and serve with all the berry blood that didn't fit into the hollow. Enjoy.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

all for me

There is nothing quite so deliciously selfish as an egg.

Think of a classic soft-boiled egg, awaiting its regiment of toast soldiers. A poached egg, delicately wobbling atop an English muffin. Or a whole-egg raviolo, a pool of liquid gold concealed within its snug pasta skin. An individual egg is a dish for one, too perfectly contained to share.

Nothing says "Mine, all mine" quite like an individual egg. It's the perfect anti-Valentine's Day meal. After all, you can't get any more anti-Valentine's Day than cooking something delicious and settling in to indulge in it all by yourself, can you?

Oeuf en Cocotte

(Serves just me you.)

Preheat oven to 430F. Butter a small ramekin and drop in a spoonful of creme fraiche.

Crack in one egg, the freshest you can find. Sprinkle with sea salt. Place the ramekin in a baking dish and surround with very hot water. Bake in the oven for ten to fifteen minutes, until the white is set but still quivery.

Top with shavings of Parmigiano-Reggiano, the best you can lay your hands on (if you can't find the good fresh stuff, substitute some other hard cheese). If you have black truffle oil, drizzle a little on top. Finish with a dusting of freshly ground black pepper.

Eat with lots of crusty bread. Lick the last traces of yolk from the corners of your mouth. Do your best not to gloat. (Okay, go ahead and gloat. I certainly did.)

Saturday, February 9, 2008

fishy business

Law school is taking its toll on my health, and it seems hellbent on taking a different toll every semester. Last semester my iron levels were wonky; I ate a lot of spinach and dreamed of rare steak. This semester appears to be all about omega-3's: I crave eggs and nuts and, above all, fish. There's a little voice in my head saying "fishfishfishfishfishfishfish," and it doesn't seem inclined to stop anytime soon. It's a fussy little voice, too. White fish makes it quieter, and salmon lulls it to sleep for a little while, but the only things that really shut it up are anchovies and sardines.

Fortunately, my friends are tolerant of my dietary eccentricities, and they've been remarkably willing to go along with the various fish pastas I've been making recently. This is the latest, inspired by some of the things I read when I did a Google search for anchovy pasta recipes.

Despite its pungent ingredients, this is really quite a polite, almost demure pasta. The garlic and anchovies are tempered by the vodka and lemon juice, and rounded out by the sweetness of the fennel. You can serve it to company if your company doesn't object to fish; it even has an appropriately elegant Italian name. If your friends are like mine, however, you'll refer to it as fishy pasta, and call it good.

Linguine con Alici, Finnochio, e Sarde
(Fishy Pasta)

For a heavier sauce, substitute a 16-ounce can of crushed tomatoes for the cherry tomatoes.

(Serves four as a main course, or one with lots of leftovers.)

Put a big pot of salted water on to boil. Meanwhile, heat a small quantity of olive oil in a large, heavy-bottomed pan over low heat. Add a can of anchovies in olive oil. Mince four cloves of garlic and add them to the pan. Use a wooden spoon to break up the anchovies. Slice up one medium fennel bulb, and add it to the pan when the garlic starts to smell fragrant.

Cook until the fennel softens, then add a splash of vodka and the juice from half a lemon. When the fumes have burned off, add a pint of halved cherry tomatoes.

Simmer until the tomatoes are softened. Add a drizzle of balsamic vinegar and three cans of sardines in olive oil. Break the sardines into small pieces and simmer further. Depending on how salty your anchovies are, you may or may not need to add salt.

When the water has reached a rolling boil, add a pound of linguine. Cook until al dente, then toss with the sauce. Serve immediately.

Note: You can also add capers in vinegar or thin shreds of fresh basil to this pasta, depending on the contents of your fridge.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

baking on a wet, grey day

I would like to lodge a complaint with the weather gods about the weather we've been having lately.

Wet, grey weather has its place. Said place is on weekends when you don't have to go anywhere and can stay in and bake until the kitchen is filled with good smells and the windows have steamed up. Wet, grey weather is the perfect backdrop for a mug of tea and a wedge of cake, or a scone, or a slice of fresh baked bread with too much butter, and maybe a nap afterwards.

Wet, grey weather does not belong during the week, particularly not at rush hour. The T becomes packed and freakishly tall people drip water all over me and shove their wet-raincoat-clad elbows in my ribs and try to put my eyes out wrestling with recalcitrant umbrellas. On Wednesdays, when I have to drag myself out of bed at an ungodly hour for Contracts, wet, grey weather is an insult.

If the weather gods really wanted me to bake on Wednesday afternoons, couldn't they just have said so? All the clouds and rain and fog and drizzle are really rather heavy-handed.

Maybe they'll be better about it if I leave them an offering. Do weather gods like fresh ginger cake?

Fresh Ginger Cake

The recipe is mostly Joy of Cooking, with some spicing lifted from David Lebowitz. It is possibly the only cake I know of that is good for a head cold.

(Serves somewhere between six and eight mortals. I don't know how hungry weather gods are.)

1 1/2 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon black pepper

1/2 cup brown sugar, packed down
1/4 cup molasses
1/4 cup honey or golden syrup
1/2 cup grated fresh ginger
1 egg

1/4 cup water
1 stick butter, melted

Preheat oven to 350F. Grease a 9-inch cake tin. Combine all dry ingredients in a small bowl and set aside.

Mix all wet ingredients in a large bowl. Add the dry ingredients. Stir until well-combined. Pour the batter into the cake tin and bake for 30-40 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Serve with a nice cup of tea.

a caesar salad big enough to swim in

I tend to think of Caesar salad as the sort of dish you only encounter when dining out. It's such a show-off dish at fine restaurants, prepared tableside and presented to the diner with a dramatic flourish. Even when Caesar salad isn't turned into a minor production, it's still a popular house specialty.* So it's rather discombobulating to prepare it at home. I think I'm still reeling from the shock. And I have my local supermarket to blame thank.

You see, I had plans to make salade frisée aux lardons. Unfortunately, it is impossible to make salade frisée aux lardons when you can find neither frisée nor lardons, nor anything resembling an acceptable substitute for either. My local supermarket kind of, well... sucks.

Granted, I'm being a little unfair. After all, it's not Whole Foods, and it can't do anything about the fact that it's located in Boston and not Paris. But it is very frustrating to not be able to make salade frisée aux lardons, or any approximation thereof, when you've spent the better part of Torts class thinking about crisp, bitter curlicues of lettuce and smoky little cubes of cured pork.

Coming up with a new salad idea was problematic. I didn't want mixed baby greens with apples and blue cheese, or spinach with almonds and strawberries, and even a rabbit would probably have turned up its nose at the arugula languishing in the herb section, so I didn't want arugula with olive oil and balsamic vinegar, either. I wanted something crisp and savory that could be made in a bowl large enough to swim in. I wanted Caesar salad.

So I bought hearts of romaine, a wedge of Parmesan, and a tin of anchovies, and figured I'd sort out the dressing by looking it up on Google. It turned out to be remarkably simple.

Caesar dressing, it turns out, it is basically mayonnaise, flavored with garlic and Worcestershire sauce (or anchovies, if you're not concerned about authenticity.) Tableside performances notwithstanding, it can be made in the blender with perfectly decent results.

I should have tried this ages ago. Damn the frisée. I'm off to buy more romaine. I need to make up for lost time.

Caesar Salad Big Enough To Swim In

Not authentic, just tasty.

(Serves four hungry people.)

Take six hearts of romaine and cut or tear into bite-size pieces. Dump them into the biggest salad bowl you've got. If that's not big enough, use a wok or frying pan, or even a stock pot, if necessary.

For the dressing, begin by bringing a pan of water to boil, then remove it from heat. Coddle two eggs by immersing them in the water for one minute. Crack the eggs into a bowl. Whisk in the juice from one lemon, six minced garlic cloves, and six mashed-up anchovies. Continue whisking, and pour in a generous glug of olive oil a little at a time, until the mixture looks creamy. It shouldn't be too thick. (You can also do this in a blender.)

Dress the romaine. Add a dusting of black pepper and a huge heap of freshly grated Parmesan. Toss. Serve with crusty bread.

Note: This doesn't contain croutons, because I don't like the commercial stuff, and I never seem to have any stale bread on hand to make them myself. Don't let that stop you from adding them, though.

*A great Caesar salad is better than sex. Great Caesar salad may be found at Frankie and Johnny's in Cape Neddick, Maine.

Monday, February 4, 2008

I would rather bake tortes than study torts

And sometimes I do.

The mad hippie engineers have struck again. Last night I baked an eighteen-inch flourless chocolate torte in a cake pan liberated from a giant Tesla coil.

(They're mad hippie engineers. They built it in their basement.)

Said flourless chocolate torte is my favorite cake. As I've already explained, I'm not much of a baker, and the dessert recipes I love best are the ones that are easily memorized. This torte has just three ingredients: eggs, butter, and chocolate. It is relatively simple. And it is far more than the mere sum of its parts.

My favorite torte is officially named the "Chocolate Oblivion Truffle Torte," and is the work of Rose Levy Berenbaum, author of the much-lauded Cake Bible. I'm not a fan of the official name. I usually refer to it as either the "Killer Chocolate Cake" or the "Murderous Chocolate Torte."

Why murderous? Well, you'll understand perfectly five or ten minutes after eating too much of it. Just ask the mad hippie engineers.

Murderous Chocolate Torte

Rose Levy Berenbaum's recipe provides exquisitely detailed instructions. I am not so precise. Follow my directions at your own risk.

(Serves one, if one has a death wish. Better to round up eight or nine more people with which to share it.)

1/2 pound butter (preferably at room temperature)
1 pound dark chocolate chips
6 large eggs (preferably at room temperature)

Preheat oven to 425F.

Melt the butter in a big mixing bowl set over simmering water. Add the chocolate chips and stir until the mixture is smooth and glossy. Set aside.

Beat the eggs until foamy. Whisk over simmering water until the mixture is warm. Remove from heat and resume beating until they're enormously foamy and form soft peaks.

Pour half the eggs into the chocolate mixture and fold in very gently.

Fold in the rest of the eggs. Stir very gently until all the eggs are fully incorporated.

Pour the mixture into a nonstick eight-inch cake tin. Place the cake tin in a baking tray and pour in enough hot water to come halfway up the side of the tin. Transfer the baking tray to the oven.

Bake the cake for five minutes, uncovered. After five minutes, cover with a piece of tinfoil and bake for an additional ten minutes. Remove the cake from the oven. It will probably still look soft and wobbly - that's normal. Leave the cake on a rack to cool, then chill in the fridge.

To unmold the cake, set the cake tin in another hot water bath for two to three minutes. Turn it out on a platter. Allow the cake to come to room temperature before serving. For the final lethal touch, you can serve it with whipped cream, raspberry coulis, or candied orange peel.

Note: Should you wish to bake an eighteen-inch Murderous Chocolate Torte, you'll need to triple the quantities and give it an additional five minutes of baking time.

Friday, February 1, 2008

laying the memory of a bad meal to rest

A good meal can haunt you. Unfortunately, so can a bad one.

I don't mean meals that cost more than they were really worth. An overpriced meal will usually fade from memory within a few days. I refer to meals that are so bad, they're an injustice. Those meals can haunt as persistently as the memory of the best meals you've ever eaten. Sometimes, the only way to put them to rest is to make them yourself and do them well.

I went out to dinner with a group of friends during my last semester of college. We went to a very popular restaurant in town, and I made the mistake of ordering the French onion soup. Said soup was terrible: overly-sweet onions in insipid broth, covered in puff pastry topped with too much cheese. The results were heavy, oily, and so salty, I had the waitress running to repeatedly refill my water glass. It shouldn't have been possible, but that soup sat like a leaden ball in my stomach.

Now, the puff pastry might have been excusable, and the onions possibly forgivable, but the broth was an abomination. It might have been acceptable in a hearty stew, reduced to a faint note by the presence of other ingredients, but in the company of onions alone, its flaws were glaringly obvious.

French onion soup is simple. The preparation is difficult to screw up. The catch is that it demands good, rich beef broth, the kind that clings to your spoon. That kind of broth doesn't come from bouillon cubes or ready-made stock. There is only one way of getting that kind of broth: making it yourself.

The supermarket I usually shop at tends to be fairly hopeless when it comes to specialty items, but there is one case in the meat section that sometimes contains oddities - oxtail, marrowbones, even suet - and on my last shopping trip there, I found beef feet. Beef feet are full of connective tissue, which is rich in the gelatin that gives good beef broth its velvety texture. They were cheap, too. I ended up buying every package in the case.

I placed the beef feet in a roasting pan with mirepoix, fresh herbs, and a splash of red wine, and roasted them until the bones were browned and fragrant.

Then they went into a stockpot, to be simmered on low heat for several hours. The results were strained and reduced to produce a caramel-colored liquid with a dark, full flavor. I could have served the beef broth straight at that point, with nothing other than a little chopped fresh parsley for garnish. But I had set out to put French onion soup to rights, and so I saved that idea for another day.

Moving on to the soup itself. Onions, thinly sliced and sweated in butter until they turn sweet and golden. A splash of cognac, simmered until the fumes burn away. The beef broth, carefully poured in. Additional simmering. And then the ladling of the soup into big bowls, to be served with crusty bread.

The results were exactly what I had hoped for. Sweet onions floating in deep, beefy broth, fragrant with cognac and butter. Rich, but not heavy. A solid, nourishing soup. And as I ate, the dreadful soup that had haunted me became nothing more than a distant memory.

French Onion Soup

The classic preparation calls for rounds of toast with melted Gruyère to be floated atop the individual bowls, but I don't really see the appeal of eating rounds of soggy bread, particularly when they're too large to fit neatly on a soup spoon. I prefer to serve the soup with crusty bread on the side, and save the Gruyère for the cheese course.

(Serves one, with leftovers)

Take two large onions and cut them into thin slices. Melt a knob of butter in a heavy-bottomed pot over very low heat. Take the onions and spread them in layers on the bottom of the pot. Put the lid on, and leave the pot alone for fifteen minutes.

When the fifteen minutes are up, come back and give the onions a stir. They will have begun to soften. Leave them for another fifteen minutes with the lid off. Stir again. Repeat as necessary until the onions are completely softened and golden yellow in color.

Pour in a splash of cognac and let the fumes burn off. Add three cups of beef broth. Bring the mixture to a boil, then simmer for an additional fifteen minutes or so. Season with a dusting of freshly ground black pepper. Ladle soup into an enormous bowl. Serve with crusty bread and a green salad.