Saturday, March 29, 2008

care and feeding of the starving college student

"Did you figure out where you wanted to go for dinner?"
"Dinner? You said lunch!"
"I said dinner."
"I can't do dinner! I'm busy!"
"How about afternoon tea?"
"Okay. But I'm choosing the place this time."

Lucille, as you may remember, is my younger sister. I'm in New York again for another visit, and she is being whiny again.

The care and feeding of the starving college student is usually a parental duty, a requisite part of college visits. It consists of two parts: one, having a meal someplace other than the college dining hall, and two, stocking the cube fridge with something other than caffeinated beverages. Sometimes, though, the duty cannot be carried out by the parents, and it falls to a substitute. In Lucille's case, that would be me. And this time, Lucille is determined that I will not use this duty as an excuse to carry out any of my personal culinary goals.

Lucille has decided that I'm going to fulfill part one of my duty by taking her to afternoon tea at a place called Alice's Teacup. The place is - surprise, surprise - decorated with Alice in Wonderland motifs. I'm a little alarmed by the profusion of glittery butterfly wings dangling from the ceiling, but the stencilled slogan "Off with your cellphone, or off with your head!" does make me smile. I'm almost sorry when we check with the hostess, and learn that there's an hour-long wait for a table. Too long for Lucille. We'll have to find someplace else.

"Almost sorry" becomes "very sorry" when we embark on a hunt for a replacement. We pass blocks and blocks of cafes and bars that don't appeal to Lucille. I am on the verge of proposing that we just go to the nearest Starbucks when a place with lace curtains in the windows catches Lucille's eye. The sign reads "Magnolia Bakery."

Something about the name sets off a distant bell in my head. It's famous for some sort of baked good.

We walk inside. There's a long queue, and everyone is buying... cupcakes?

Oh. That was it. The Magnolia Bakery is famous for its cupcakes.

This is unfortunate. You see, I don't like cupcakes. They're somewhere near the very bottom of my scale of desserts, right next to pumpkin pie and Rice Krispie treats. I'm fairly indifferent to classic white or yellow cake, and the appeal of sugar frosting completely escapes me. I wonder if I can persuade Lucille that we could find someplace better.

But Lucille is nodding enthusiastically, and it occurs to me that if she takes a box of cupcakes to go, I can kill two birds with one stone. We join the queue, Lucille picks up a box, and we embark on the task of selecting its contents.

(Photo is not mine. It's by luisvilla, and I picked it up from flickr.)

Well, they certainly look pretty. All those dainty little cakes, graced with swirls of frosting in pastel colors, and decorated with sugar flowers or festive sprinkles. Sadly, they don't provoke any reaction from my appetite. They register as "edible," but not "possibly tasty."

Lucille has no such issues. She makes her choices without hesitation, gesturing for my help only when she has difficulty wedging one last cupcake into the box. After the cupcake has been secured, I lick a smudge of frosting from my finger. Bleah. Pure, unmitigated sweetness. No, I don't want a cupcake, no matter how famous this place is.

They have coffee. Maybe I can get just coffee?

I'll see what other desserts they have. Brownies. Cookies. Banana pudding. Peppermint icebox cake. Hmm. Icebox cake is just whipped cream and chocolate wafers. They can't do anything too terrible with whipped cream and chocolate wafers, can they?

The lady at the counter cuts me a slice, and packs it neatly into a white box. Lucille selects a chocolate swirl cheesecake. We order coffee and hot chocolate, pay for everything, and then move into the little side room to sit down.

Once we've seated ourselves, I open the box. For such a simple dessert, it's really quite visually striking. Unlike the cupcakes, the sight of all those wafers sandwiched together with snowy white cream definitely pings my "potentially tasty" meter. I sink my fork into the multilayered cream-and-wafer concoction, and take the first bite.

Oh. This is good. This is very, very good. The cream is moderately sweet and fragrant with peppermint. The softened wafers are pleasantly bitter, almost cakelike, and the unexpected presence of tiny bits of shredded coconut adds textural interest. It also goes very well with coffee. I immediately start dreaming up ways to play with the recipe myself.

I try some of Lucille's chocolate swirl cheesecake, just for the sake of culinary curiosity. It has a dense, fudgelike texture... and a dense, fudgelike flavor. If there's any cheese in it, I can't taste it. It doesn't hold a candle to the icebox cake.

Still, Lucille is happy. I've done my duty, and I have a new dessert to tinker with. Maybe next time, I'll even let her drag me to Alice's Teacup without a fight.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

something to accompany a strong cup of tea

There's less than a month of second semester left, and my professors are piling on reading assignments with alarming speed. I'm up to my ears in notes on choice of forum and conflict of laws, and I'm in danger of drowning in treatises on easements and equitable servitudes. It probably doesn't come as a surprise that I need to fortify myself with multiple cups of strong tea in order to not fall asleep at (or on) my casebooks.

Sooner or later, those cups of strong tea require an accompaniment, something more substantial than teacakes. And this is when I wander into the realm of dim sum of dubious authenticity: say hello to the steamed sausage roll.

I'm a little unclear on the origins of steamed sausage rolls. I've never seen them at any dim sum place aside from Dim Sum Chef (where they may be found right next to the deep-fried bananas), and Google has proved unhelpful.

The most that I've been able to ascertain is that they're made with the same dough used for char siu bao (barbecued pork buns), and contain lop cheung, your standard sweet Chinese sausage.

The traditional dough used for making char siu bao is leavened with both yeast and baking powder, which gives results that are soft and ethereally fluffy. I never seem to have yeast on hand when I need it, so I cheat. In a move that has probably left Cantonese dim sum chefs rolling in their graves, I've been preparing what is essentially a modified biscuit dough. The results aren't quite as fluffy, but they are soft and pleasantly chewy, and they go very nicely with a strong cup of tea.

Now, where did I put that treatise on beachfront access?

Inauthentic Steamed Sausage Rolls

(Makes six rolls. Allow for two rolls per cup of tea.)

To make the dough, dump one cup of all-purpose flour, two tablespoons sugar, half a teaspoon of salt, one teaspoon baking powder, and one tablespoon vegetable oil into a mixing bowl. Add enough water to form a soft dough - somewhat less than half a cup.

Knead the dough until it pulls away from the sides of the bowl. You want some gluten development, but not too much, so don't knead it longer than five minutes. Shape it into a ball, cover, and set aside for ten to fifteen minutes.

Cut a square of parchment paper to fit your steamer basket. (You can also cut individual pieces of parchment, but one large square is easier.)

Take two Chinese sausages and cut each into thirds.

Divide your ball of dough into six pieces. Roll each ball into a long, thin coil, and wrap each coil around a sausage piece. The sausage should be fully covered, like this:

Place the wrapped sausage rolls into the steamer basket, and steam for twelve to fifteen minutes, or until the rolls are soft and fluffy.

Serve immediately. Optional extra: soy sauce for dipping.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

sympathetic magic

I have a fresh bone to pick with the weather gods.

It's starting to look a little more like spring. There's more sunshine, and it's light out until early evening. But there's still a nasty chill to the wind, and I'm still not ready to put away my scarf and gloves. We're almost at the end of March. Can we turn up the heat a little, please?

Although I could fashion weather god voodoo dolls, I have no idea what the weather gods actually look like... and I probably shouldn't mess with them. So I'll just attempt a more subtle form of sympathetic magic: if I cook warm weather food, then logically, warm weather will follow, right?

Bean Salad with Sardines

If I haven't succeeded in convincing you of the merits of sardines, you can also serve this salad alongside canned tuna, or grilled chicken. (Though in my biased opinion, it won't be quite as good.)

(Serves one for lunch, with leftovers.)

Put a small pot of water on to boil. Top and tail a pound of green beans. When the water reaches a rolling boil, drop the beans in. Blanch for four to five minutes, until the beans are fully cooked but retain their bite. Drain; place under cold running water until the beans are warm to the touch.

Dump one can of drained and rinsed cannellini beans into a mixing bowl. Add the green beans and four or five sundried tomatoes, cut into small pieces. Season with kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper. Drizzle with olive oil and the juice from one lemon, and mix well.

Spoon some of the bean mixture onto a plate, and top with the contents of one can of sardines in olive oil. Serve with slices of lightly toasted rosemary bread and extra lemon, if you like.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

the sweet tooth I gained in paris

Like many students at liberal arts colleges, I spent a semester in Paris during my junior year. And like many college students studying abroad in Paris, I spent a lot of time exploring the wonders of French food. My program had its offices right around the corner from a truly excellent boulangerie, and I routinely put their viennoises, palmiers, and pain au brioche to the test. I tasted time-honored gastronomic treasures: tripes à la caen and boudin noir and a lot of fantastically stinky cheese.

And also I ate other things that were... less culinarily edifying.

Like chocolate. You'd guess, for example, that I would have gloried in the offerings at the various Parisian chocolatiers. Or, barring such extravagance, I would at least have indulged regularly in blocks of Lindt or Cote d'Or.

Well, er, no. Not exactly. I did stop by Christian Constant once. And I bought a few bars of Lindt 99% because it was such a novelty to be able to find it at the supermarket. But my major discovery on the sweet front? Ours en guimauve from Monoprix.

Translation: supermarket-chain chocolate-covered marshmallow bears.

I have no idea why. I have no love for smores. I don't particularly like toasted marshmallows. I don't like marshmallows in hot chocolate. In fact, I don't really like marshmallows at all. Something about their aggressively chewy texture and cornstarch-dusted exteriors puts me in mind of powdered latex gloves.

Those chocolate-covered marshmallow bears, though... those were different. The marshmallow was softer. More pliable. Not quite so tooth-achingly sweet. And the chocolate cracked in the most satisfying manner when you bit into it. It was enough for me to overlook my usual aversion to animal-shaped confectionery.*

Those marshmallow bears completely slipped my mind until the Easter candy display started taking over my local supermarket last week. The sight of boxes upon boxes of Peeps brought back the memory with a vengeance. And so I went off to attempt chocolate-covered marshmallows of my own.

A pound of sugar, four envelopes of gelatin, and one failure later, I had soft, squishy, mildly chewy marshmallows. Sadly, my efforts to coat them in chocolate had mixed results. I haven't learned how to temper chocolate, so my attempts did not crack in a satisfying manner when I bit into them.

Never mind. I'll just have to see if anyone I know is going to Paris soon.

Sugar Marshmallows

If you're going to coat these in chocolate, be sure to use dark chocolate chips. The results that come of using semisweet will only be palatable if you have the sweet tooth to end all sweet teeth.

(Makes a lot. Recipe not for one, unless you want to end up more hyper than the Energizer Bunny.)

Grease a small Pyrex dish or loaf pan.

Dump two cups of sugar and half a cup of water in a small saucepan. Place over low heat until sugar dissolves, then raise the heat to medium. The mixture will start bubbling.

Sprinkle two envelopes of unflavored gelatin over a quarter-cup of cold water. When the gelatin has formed a solid mass, scoop it into the bowl of a stand mixer.

When the sugar mixture has turned into a thick syrup and the bubbles are forming and breaking very slowly, remove from heat, pour into the mixer bowl, and turn the mixer on. Whip until the mixture is thick and fluffy. Add half a teaspoon of vanilla extract (plus a few drops of red food coloring, if you'd like your marshmallows pink) and whip further, until the mixture is only warm to the touch.

Use a rubber spatula to glop the marshmallow mixture into the greased pan. When the marshmallow has cooled, use a knife or oiled scissors to cut it into squares. Roll the squares in powdered sugar or shredded coconut, or coat in chocolate. Enjoy.

*I am perfectly fine with the knowledge that meat is dead animals. I prefer it when my fish comes with the head, and my chicken comes with bones. But cartoon-animal-shaped things make me wibbly. I'll eat leg of rabbit and saddle of hare, but chocolate bunnies are a definite no-no. And classmates who tortured their Teddy Grahams before eating them were the bane of my childhood.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

murder with a culinary twist

What's the best way to get rid of a murder weapon?

A. Throw it into a very large, very deep body of water.
(Recommended for firearms.)
B. Clean it well and hide it in plain sight.
(Not recommended for firearms.)
C. Use a giant icicle to commit the murder.
(It'll melt away with no trace.)
D. Roast at 325F for twenty minutes per pound.
(Serve medium rare.)

Although options A through C have probably all cropped up on the trashy crime procedural television shows I won't confess to watching, it is option D that is embraced by the main character in my inspiration for the Spring 2008 edition of Novel Food.

Roald Dahl's short story "Lamb to the Slaughter" is a devilishly dark, clever tale of how a police detective's wife gets away with murder. I won't give you all the details (you can find the story here), but let's say that you'll never look at a leg of lamb quite the same way again.

The menu presented in "Lamb" consists of roast leg of lamb, tinned peas, Idaho potatoes, and a storebought slice of cheesecake. Using this basic menu as a guide, I prepared roast leg of lamb seasoned with garlic and rosemary, frozen peas with mint and olive oil, classic mashed potatoes, and a simple lemon cheesecake. I had vegetarians in attendance, so I also added leek tart to the menu.

I have dim recollections of my mother trying to prepare roast lamb when I was a child, but this was the first time I ever tried it myself. I used a fairly small bone-in roast, weighing around two and a half pounds. I seasoned the lamb with salt and black pepper, rubbed it with olive oil, and stuck it all over with slivers of garlic before tucking sprigs of rosemary into the string around the roast.

Google and conventional cookbooks all offered similar advice for cooking: fifteen minutes at 400F, then twenty minutes per pound at 325F, for a total cooking time of one hour and five minutes. The meat came out more medium well than medium, but it was moist and tender, so I'm not complaining. This is the roast in the oven, along with the leek tarts:

I'm afraid we were all very hungry by the time the food was ready, so no-one remembered to take more pictures until we'd already started eating. Clockwise from the fork: mashed potatoes, peas, lamb, leek tart, fresh crusty bread.

Fortunately, we were better about remembering to take photos of the cheesecake. I think there's something almost retro about this one:

But I won't make any jokes about fifties housewives. We've seen what happens when you piss them off.

Lemon Cheesecake

I like my cheesecake dense and not too sweet. This one is perfumed with lemon zest, and the almond extract makes for an interesting change from the standard vanilla.

(Serves one, for a week.)

Preheat oven to 350F.

First, the crust. Take one package of Lorna Doones or some similar shortbread-like cookie, put them in a Ziploc bag, and whale on them with a rolling pin until they've been properly pulverized. This is excellent stress relief if you've had a long, frustrating day.

Mix the crumbs with half a stick of melted butter. Press into an eight-inch pie pan and bake for ten to fifteen minutes, or until lightly browned. Remove from oven. Set aside to cool.

For the filling, take twelve ounces (a block and a half) of cream cheese at room temperature and pull the blocks into small pieces. It sounds odd, but it'll almost tear into neat chunks. Drop them into a food processor and add two-thirds of a cup of sugar and the zest from one lemon. Pulse for a few minutes, until the cheese and the sugar have made a grainy mess. Then add one egg and a few drops of almond extract, and leave the machine on until the mixture is smooth and creamy.

Spoon into crust. Bake for twenty-five minutes, or until filling puffs up slightly. Remove from oven and allow to cool. Chill in fridge for at least one hour before serving. Fruit compote makes a good accompaniment, but if you'd rather emphasize the lemony quality of the cheesecake, you can mix up a thin glaze with fresh lemon juice and a little icing sugar.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

a cure for congestion

"So, the menu for Sidney's birthday dinner. I have the appetizer figured out, and Mandy's doing dessert, so for the entrée, I was thinking fish, maybe poached in court-bouillon with a simple hollandaise sauce, or we could do something pan-fried... what do you say?"

I'm not saying anything. Bill's words aren't quite penetrating the fog in my head. "Query: court-bouillon" is getting me "error: access denied" from my memory banks, and I am feeling pretty fried myself.

No, I'm not hungover. I just have the sinus infection from hell.

Perhaps the wisest course of action would be to stay right where I am, curled up on Matt and Nathaniel's futon, drinking tea by the gallon and wallowing in my achy, sniffly misery. But I'd be giving up both the chance to cook with Bill, and Sidney's birthday celebration.

Sidney is Matt and Bill's sister. She is brash and vivacious and tremendously fun. (I kind of want to be like Sidney when I grow up.) Like the rest of Matt's family clan, she loves good food, and Bill has brought me on to help pull out all the stops.

"Poached fish sounds fantastic," I finally mumble. "Let's keep this simple."

Several hours later, Bill swings by en route from grocery shopping, and picks us up. After another gallon of tea, I am in slightly better shape, and the conversation picks up where it left off.

It turns out that the freshest fish Bill could find was whole red snapper. The tea must have put my memory banks back online, because "query: whole red snapper" immediately spits out the response "bake in salt crust."

Bill likes the idea. Matt is intrigued. We're scheduled for a stop at the liquor store, and while Bill and Matt lay in a stock of wine for the evening's festivities, I swing by the supermarket next door for several pounds of coarse salt.

Once we have our supplies, we proceed to Mandy and Eric's (more relatives of Matt and Bill), where the celebration is being held. Bill and I get ourselves set up in the kitchen, and someone breaks out the champagne. The mood in the kitchen is busy but cheerful, as Bill bustles about preparing scallop mousse and vegetables, and I pretend to know what I'm doing with the whole red snapper in salt crust.

No, I haven't done this before. I've just read about it.

Well, here we go. Rinse off the three fish. Dry off the fish. Stuff the fish with tarragon and a few lemon wedges. Mix the salt with a little water. Spread shallow layers of salt on three baking trays, which aren't quite big enough for the fish, but it's okay, because it's just the tails that are sticking out. Put the fish on the baking trays. Cover them with more salt. It's like being at the beach and burying your siblings in the sand.

The fish are all covered, and ready for the oven. I am going to get another glass of champagne, and wait for the scallop mousse to finish cooking.

Once the mousse comes out of the oven, we crank up the temperature, and in goes in the snapper. One hour until the moment of truth.

We sit down at the table and tuck in to scallop mousse, Scottish smoked salmon, salmon roe, and Boucheron goat's cheese, plus a lot of fresh crusty bread. And more champagne.

(Sorry, no photos of the mousse. We ate it all before anyone remembered to take photos.)

The scallop mousse is lovely, creamy and delicate with a cayenne pepper kick. I make a mental note to get the recipe from Bill later. It contrasts interestingly with the Boucheron, which is creamy and mellow and plays nicely against the smooth oiliness of the salmon.

We move from champagne to white wine, and I head back in to the kitchen. The hour is up. Time to see if the fish was a success. If not, we'll be eating omelettes for a second course.

When I open the oven door, I am greeted by a blast of tarragon-perfumed air. Okay, good smell is a good sign. We remove the three trays of fish, and set about trying to break the salt crust. Bill rapidly figures out the most efficient method, and we fillet the fish, set it on a platter, and send it out with hollandaise sauce, blanched asparagus, and fingerling potatoes.

The verdict? The fish is a success, tender and moist. I can breathe easily.

And thanks to all the champagne, I am breathing more easily, too.

Whole Red Snapper Baked in Salt Crust

The salt crust seals in all the juices, producing moist, succulent fish.

(A two-pound snapper will serve three or four people.)

Preheat oven to 450F.

Dump two pounds of kosher or rock salt (cooking grade - do not get the stuff you sprinkle on the sidewalk) in a bowl, and add about a cup of water, enough for it to become slightly damp. Mix it up with your hands. Lay half the salt in a baking tray.

Give your snapper a quick rinse inside and out, and pat dry with paper towels. Stuff the cavity with a few sprigs of fresh tarragon and a lemon wedge or two.

Put the snapper on the bed of salt, and cover it gently with the other half. It's a little like building sandcastles. Pat, don't pack.

When you're done satisfying your inner child, put the snapper in the oven and leave it there for forty to forty-five minutes. You can use the time to boil some new potatoes, blanch some asparagus or green beans, and whip up a nice hollandaise or beurre blanc.

When your forty minutes are up, remove the snapper from the oven. Take a paring knife and break through the salt crust along one edge. Wedge it in, then push up. If all goes well, the crust will come off in one large piece, taking most of the skin with it. Discard the crust.

As for filleting the fish... well, my explanation amounts to "Take off the top half. Pull out the backbone. Take out the bottom half. Serve." So for everyone's sake, I'm going to point you to the excellent step-by-step guide at Beyond Salmon instead.

Once the fish has been filleted, lay it on a platter. Serve with sauce, potatoes, and asparagus or green beans. Bon appétit.

Friday, March 14, 2008

this is a π

On a pie.

In a π pie dish.

Recursive raspberry π(e).

Happy π Day!

(Clarification: I had no hand in the recursive raspberry π(e), which is the work of Jack and Ellie. I just showed up to eat.)

Thursday, March 13, 2008

when things go wrong

It has been an excellent week for cooking so far. And then everything went wrong today.

I attempted to make marshmallows. This probably would have been a straightforward process if I'd been willing to follow one of the recipes that calls for (high-fructose) corn syrup. But I am stubborn, and trying to stick to my principles, and so I gave it a shot using sugar alone. Ironically, I don't think that was the problem. I think I used too much water to soften the gelatin. At any rate, the marshmallows turned out like marshmallow-flavored Jello.

And then I botched an upside-down pear tart that I should be able to make with my eyes closed. Too many pears. Too much sugar. And I turned my back on the stove for a fraction of a second too long. The finished result? Too sweet and too burnt.

So what do you do when everything goes wrong in the kitchen? You can run out for more gelatin and more pears and try again. Or you could take a deep breath, clean the mixer, and put the tart pan in the sink to soak. Take out your knife, your cutting board, and your favorite saucepan, and make a simple, forgiving pasta sauce. You can tackle the disasters again tomorrow.

Pasta Amatriciana

Not authentic, but straightforward and tasty.

(Serves one, with leftovers)

Take one slice of thick-cut bacon and cut it into small pieces. Saute in a large, heavy-bottomed pan over medium heat until the fat is rendered and the bacon turns crispy. Dice a small yellow onion and add it to the pan. Stir. Add a dash of red chili flakes and a splash of red wine or vodka. Cook until the onions are translucent, then add a sixteen-ounce can of peeled whole tomatoes, roughly cut up. Let the mixture reduce at a simmer until it becomes a thick sauce.

Put a big pot of salted water on to boil. When the water has reached a rolling boil, add half a pound of short pasta - penne, rigatoni, whatever you have on hand. Cook until al dente, then toss with the sauce. Serve with grated Parmigiano-Reggiano and finely chopped fresh parsley.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

education of a young glutton: dinner with the business associates

It is high summer, and I am eleven years old. I have been dragged away from the backyard swimming pool because we are going out to dinner, and my mother has insisted that I wear a dress. I know that this means dinner with one of my father's business associates. I am not entirely happy.

Chinese culture dictates that while most business dinners may involve just the men, there are always a handful where the entire family comes along. The food tends to be good, but my mother frowns when I bring books to pass the time. I resign myself to a very long meal.

Most of my father's business associates favor Chinese cuisine, and we usually end up in Chinatown, eating stir-fried spicy lobster or green-lipped abalone poached in clear broth. But this business associate has a taste for Western cuisine, and what is presumably an enormous expense account, because we're going to the Ritz-Carlton in Double Bay, one of Sydney's swankiest hotels.

We meet the business associate and his wife in the lobby, and make our way to the restaurant. The dining room is dimly lit, with candles on the tables and sconces on the walls. We are seated. Menus arrive, orders are placed, and the meal begins.

The business associate's wife has placed an order of two dozen oysters Kilpatrick for the table. The oysters arrive in the half shell on a bed of rock salt, rich with butter and sizzling bits of bacon. They are creamy and briny, and the bacon adds a deliciously smoky crunch. This meal isn't winning any points for the conversation, but the food is definitely good.

The dining room is quiet, and the service is leisurely. The adults talk on, and I am half-asleep in my enormous high-backed chair when our main courses arrive.

The waitress sets my plate before me, and I am immediately wide awake. I chose steak au poivre with French fries because I read about it in a book on French cookery. The contents of my plate look remarkably similar to the photo that accompanied the recipe: a small, thick steak in peppercorn-flecked sauce, with a generous heap of golden French fries.

I pick up my knife and fork and tuck in. I followed the advice of the waitress and asked for the steak medium-rare; the meat is pink and tender, and tastes almost buttery. It goes beautifully with the spicy green peppercorn sauce. The French fries are worlds better than the ones at McDonald's. And my mother is too preoccupied with the conversation to stop me from eating too many.

In fact, my mother enjoys herself enough to let me order dessert, which makes this dinner a rare and monumental occasion. I read each entry on the dessert menu carefully. I am immediately drawn to the one at the very end, the one that mentions fresh raspberries and vanilla ice-cream. Raspberries are rare and expensive. I can count on one hand the number of times we've had them at home.

The waitress returns with our desserts, and sets a plate with an elaborate tower before me. I sink my spoon into gently warmed fresh raspberries mashed with thick cream, topped with vanilla ice-cream and an elaborately curled tuile. The berries are fruity and tart-sweet, and their warmth is an interesting contrast to the chill of the ice-cream. The tuile provides extra sweetness and crunch. My mother is still caught up the conversation, and doesn't notice when I scrape my plate clean.

I fall asleep during the car ride home. I think I dream about dinner. And I am still dreaming about that dinner, even now.

(Adapted from Chocolate and Zucchini's recipe for langues de chat.)

True tuiles are shaped using templates that make them uniform in size, and draped over a rolling pin while still warm and pliant to give them a curved shape. As these are formed freehand and left flat, they're really more not-quite-tuiles.

(Makes one dozen.)

Cream together just over half a stick of butter with one slightly heaped quarter-cup of sugar. Add two egg whites, half a cup of flour, half a teaspoon of vanilla, and a pinch of salt. Blend until smooth. Chill the batter in the fridge for an hour.

Preheat oven to 400F.

Line a baking sheet with parchment and spread the batter in a dozen rough circles with plenty of space in between. Bake for fifteen to twenty minutes, or until the tuiles are golden in color and have crispy brown edges. Remove from baking tray and allow to cool.

Warm Raspberries with Cream and Tuiles

You can make this into an elegant dessert by whipping the cream with a touch of liqueur, folding it into the mashed raspberries and spooning the mixture into a wineglass, but I like this better as a simple, indulgent afternoon snack.

(Serves one. You're not going to share, are you?)

Get a nice, large bowl and dump one punnet of fresh raspberries into it. Mash them gently with a fork, and briefly warm them in the microwave, about thirty seconds or so. Drizzle with heavy cream. I prefer my raspberries without sugar, but you might want a little if you prefer your desserts on the sweet side.

Stick a tuile or two into the bowl. Grab a spoon and go sit in a sunny place. Dig in.

Monday, March 10, 2008

belgian fries at 4500 feet

Yesterday I flew to Portland, Maine, for the express purpose of eating potatoes deep-fried in duck fat. Harry, the British mad hippie engineer, was mostly to blame.

You see, I tried to get a group of friends together for a road trip to Duckfat. The road trip didn't happen because no-one had a car. I mentioned this unfortunate turn of events to Harry, who is apparently hell-bent on having triple bypass surgery before the age of thirty. (Remember those life-expectancy-curbing scones? Those were his fault, too.)

Harry agreed that it was a terrible shame.

And then he mentioned that he had a pilot's license.

And that Mike, another of the mad hippie engineers, also had a pilot's license.

And that the two of them were planning on logging some time in the air this weekend.

You can guess where this is headed.

Sunday morning, the three of us set off in a Piper Warrior, a single-engine four-seater. The skies were clear but windy, and one rather turbulent flight later, we arrived in Portland, Maine. The Portland airport helpfully provided us with a courtesy car, and armed with directions from Google, we headed out on our quest for heartstopping deliciousness.

Duckfat is located on a quiet, unassuming street in downtown Portland. The restaurant itself is similarly unassuming. Located underneath an unmarked red-and-blue striped awning, the restaurant's only signage is the lettering on the window.

Inside, the restaurant feels a little like a Parisian bistro, with wooden floors, small round tables, and a long, curving bar at one end of the room.

The menu is short, but leaves plenty of room to be indecisive: Soup or sandwich? Churros or beignets? And would it be excessive to order all eight dipping sauces to go with the fries?

I finally settled on a duck confit panini, a large cone of Belgian fries with truffle ketchup and roasted garlic mayonnaise, and an order of beignets with spiced sugar. Harry, true to form, chose the Duckfat poutine and a "five dollar" milkshake. And Mike went for simplicity, with a tuna melt and fries.

The photos that follow are blurry. (For better photos, you should visit the Duckfat website.) This is partly due to Harry's camera, and partly due to my impatience. But given how amazing the food smelled, you're lucky there were any photos at all.

Potatoes fried in canola oil or palm oil smell like oil. Potatoes fried in beef tallow (like McDonald's fries, before they switched to palm oil with "beef essence") smell faintly, though pleasantly, of beef. Duckfat's Belgian fries smell like... well, if they hadn't been served piping hot, I might have stuck my face in the cone and not come up for air until I'd reached the crumbs at the bottom.

Fried to a glorious golden brown, they had thick, crispy exteriors, and soft, mash-like interiors. They were a little on the salty side, but the dipping sauces compensated for that.

The roasted garlic mayonnaise had a light, creamy texture, and the garlic was assertive without being overpowering. Mike's sweet and spicy mustard was flecked with little bits of cornichon and had a pleasant kick. But it was the truffle ketchup that stole the show: sweet and fragrant, it elevated the fries to another plane of delicious. If all ketchup tasted like Duckfat's truffle ketchup, I could honestly say I liked ketchup.

The Belgian fries are also delicious, if even more artery-clogging, when layered with cheese curds and drenched in duck gravy in Duckfat's version of poutine. (Harry generously let me have a taste.) The cheese curds didn't squeak, but the gravy was particularly dark and savory.

Duckfat also makes an excellent panini. Served on crispy, dense bread, the duck confit was moist and meaty, and raisin-mustard chutney added sweetness and bite.

After fries and poutine and panini, we had just enough room for a few beignets. I like my beignets closer to fried dough than doughnuts, so they weren't strictly to my taste, but they were nicely crisp on the outside, with a light, cakey interior, and fragrant with cinnamon and cloves.

Warm and satisfied, we made our way back to the airport, and had an uneventful flight home. Harry is already talking about going back. Next time, though, I think we'll drive.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

better than a face mask

What do you do with the six leftover egg whites when you're done making seven-yolk pasta?

Egg white omelettes are the obvious, if unsatisfying answer. White cake is better, but the thought of all those dirty bowls and measuring cups is probably exhausting if you've been scrubbing dried yolk from the countertop. If you're like my mother, you could use them to make a face mask... but if you're like my mother, you probably weren't making seven-yolk pasta to begin with.

There's a better solution: bake a pavlova.

Pavlova is a dessert of much-disputed origin: both Australia and New Zealand lay claim to it, though it's more frequently associated with Australia. It is named for the ballerina Anna Pavlova, and not the scientist Ivan Pavlov, though there are some who say the dessert is droolworthy enough that the latter would be more appropriate. Why Pavlova? Well, it supposedly has something to do with the resemblance between swirls of meringue and a floaty dancer's skirt.

Pavlova bears a certain resemblance to meringue, insofar as it consists of egg whites and sugar, baked in the oven. However, meringues are baked at a very low temperature for a very long time, which gives them their crisp, dry texture. A pavlova starts off in a hot oven. After a few minutes, the heat is turned down, and the pavlova bakes until it it has a crisp, browned outer shell, and a soft, marshmallowy interior. The pavlova is left to cool, and then topped with whipped cream and fruit (traditionally strawberries, kiwifruit, and passionfruit.)

Pavlova. It tastes better than egg white omelette, is more interesting than white cake, and... you weren't seriously thinking of making a face mask, were you?

(Adapted from the "Pavlova Pyatt" at

As far as toppings are concerned, I prefer Greek yogurt to whipped cream (it has a tangy flavor that balances out the sweetness of the base), and I vary the fruit depending on the season. Nothing caught my eye at the supermarket this time, so I used the strawberries that were lurking in the freezer, macerated with a little icing sugar and a splash of blackcurrant liqueur. Feel free to use whatever fruit you fancy.

(Recipe not for one. It doesn't keep.)

Preheat oven to 350F.

Beat together six large egg whites, one-and-a-half cups sugar, half a teaspoon vanilla extract, one-and-a-half teaspoons cornstarch, and one teaspoon balsamic vinegar in a large bowl until light and foamy. With the mixer on at high speed, pour in one-quarter cup of boiling water and beat until the mixture is glossy and forms stiff peaks.

Next, determine your optimal ratio of crunchy shell to marshmallowy interior. Putting the mixture in a cake tin, as in the picture above, will result in a lot of marshmallowy interior, and not so much crunchy shell. But should you prefer lots of crunch and not so much marshmallow, you'll want to get a baking tray, line it in foil, and spread the pavlova in the biggest circle the tray will allow.

Whichever ratio you choose, you'll want to bake the pavlova for ten minutes at 350F. After ten minutes, drop the temperature to 200F, and bake for another forty minutes. If you turn the oven off and leave the pavlova for another hour, it's supposed to prevent cracking, but I don't usually bother, because you won't see the cracks after it's been dressed.

Let the pavlova cool, then top with whipped cream or Greek yogurt (something like Fage), and whatever fruit(s) you choose. Serve.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

putting a(l) dent(e) in the to-do list

Spring break has sprung, and I'm taking it as an opportunity to prepare exam outlines put a dent in my ever-growing culinary to-do list.

Today I made fresh pasta, which is one of the items that has been on my to-do list for so long, I may have to chip it off with a chisel rather than cross it out.

Though I have eaten plenty of fresh pasta, I have been reluctant to try my hand at making my own because I have been sadly lacking in a pasta machine. I am still sadly lacking in a pasta machine of my own, but Alex lent me hers for this adventure. (She gets pasta in exchange.)

Today I learned that fresh pasta requires more patience than technique, and that it is definitely worth the effort. It looks as though Alex may receive a steady supply of fresh pasta... at least until I get my own machine.

Seven-Yolk Pasta
(Recipe adapted from Thomas Keller, via SmittenKitchen)

If you want to make this recipe yourself, you should really follow the link to SmittenKitchen. There are nice, clear instructions, and the photos are much better than mine.

(Serves one, with leftovers.)

1 3/4 cups (8 ounces) all-purpose flour
6 large egg yolks
1 large egg
1 1/2 teaspoons olive oil
1 tablespoon milk

Clean a section of your countertop. Get it really, really clean, and make sure it's perfectly dry.

Measure the flour carefully. If you screw up like I did, you'll have too much flour and the dough will be extremely stiff and exhausting to knead.

Dump the flour on your countertop, and make a big, shallow well in it, large enough to hold all the wet ingredients. Add the wet ingredients.

Stick your fingers into the well and break up the egg yolks. Working carefully, stir the eggs with your fingers so that the flour gets pulled in little by little. Keep stirring.

Keep stirring. Does it look like nothing's really happening? Yep, that's how it's going to go for the next fifteen minutes or so.

Keep stirring. Push the flour in closer to the eggs. It won't really make a difference, but some of it will spill into the eggs, and it'll make you feel like you're getting somewhere.

Keep stirring. Is it starting to thicken?

Okay, push the flour in closer. Keep stirring.

Push the flour in. Keep stirring.

Push the flour in. Keep stirring.

Is the dough starting to pull away from the board? This is the point at which I deviate from the recipe because I don't have a pastry scraper. Take the dough and knead it gently until all the flour is incorporated.

Form the dough into a ball. If you used too much flour, the dough will be stiff and dry. Don't worry too much about it, but ready yourself. You're going to be in for a workout.

Knead the dough by pushing downwards, so that the dough gets flattened out. Once that happens, form it back into a ball. Knead until you think your arms might fall off. Then knead some more. When you can take a small piece and stretch it very, very thin without it breaking, you can probably call it good.

Form the dough into a ball again.

Wrap the dough in two layers of plastic wrap, and leave it in the fridge for an hour. Clean off the countertop. Or maybe you should just go rest your aching arms.

When the hour is up, your dough is ready for the pasta machine. I cut mine into fettuccine:

(This batch was a bit too thick. I made sure to roll it out thinner in subsequent batches.)

And prepared it two ways. The first: olive oil, garlic, anchovies, and a squeeze of lemon.

And the second: butter, garlic, basil, and the rest of the lemon.

The pasta didn't really cook to what I think of as al dente, but it was richly eggy and had a good, firm chew. Mmm.

I think we'll call this adventure a success. Next up... croissants?

Thursday, March 6, 2008

adventures at the seafood counter

I managed to get through Moot Court without throwing up or passing out. And as the results of the poll suggested, my reward was to be sausage and red wine risotto. Unfortunately, I had my heart set on sausages from DePasquale's, and we finished too late for me to make the trip to Watertown before the shop closed. So I shelved the risotto for another day, and went for a wander through my local supermarket instead.

I like to browse supermarkets the way some women browse shoe stores. I can while away several hours just wandering through the aisles, looking at products and reading the occasional label. It pays off in unexpected ways: I've learned that tinned sardines in the aisle devoted to Goya products are tastier than those keeping company with the canned tuna, that my supermarket does carry the elusive Nabisco's Famous Chocolate Wafers, and - much to my delight - the international foods section has Violet Crumble bars.

Tonight I learned that the seafood counter, despite specializing in products that are ready-to-cook marinated or breaded affairs, does occasionally carry strange and wondrous things. I picked up a beautiful fillet of wild sockeye salmon at a price not much greater than that of farmed Atlantic salmon. Dressed in fig and mushroom sauce with fresh basil, it made for a solid, comforting meal.

It's a shame Matt's camera is out of batteries, because the salmon was a marvellous rosy orange, and it looked delicious next to mashed potatoes and mixed green salad with blood orange segments and raspberry vinaigrette. But if you'd like firsthand confirmation of its visual appeal, I encourage you to try it yourself.

Salmon with Basil, Fig, and Mushroom Sauce

(Serves one, with leftovers for lunch)

Preheat oven to 400F.

Heat a generous slice of butter in a heavy-bottomed pan over low heat. Dice up half a small white onion and add it to the pan. When the onions have softened somewhat, add two handfuls of sliced baby bella mushrooms. Stir. Season with salt and freshly ground black pepper. When the mushrooms have softened a little, add a splash of white wine and a handful of chopped dried figs. Let the mixture cook at a low simmer.

Take a half-pound salmon fillet, the freshest you can find. Season it with salt and pepper, and squeeze over the juice from half a lemon. Place on a baking tray and bake in the oven until the fish starts to ooze protein, about 10-12 minutes. Just before the salmon is ready, stir a few finely shredded basil leaves into the sauce.

Remove the salmon from the oven, transfer to a platter, and spoon the sauce over. Serve.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

late nights in the kitchen

There is something particularly alluring about late-night noshing. Perhaps it's the absolute quiet. Perhaps it's the perfect darkness outside. Perhaps it's just the thrill of the forbidden, but no meal holds a more powerful sway over the childhood imagination than the midnight snack. And some of us never grow out of our fascination with meals eaten well beyond bedtime.

I like to eat midnight snacks, nutritional advice be damned. I like to tiptoe into the kitchen several hours after dinner and eat leftover cold pasta out of the serving dish with my fingers.* I like to eat spoonfuls of ice-cream straight from the carton. And some of my best college memories involve late-night meals: ordering buffalo wings at one am, running to the pizza place right before closing, and making excursions to twenty-four hour diners for bacon cheeseburgers.

(Mum, should you ever stumble across this blog, the paragraph above is complete fiction.)

I also like to bake late at night. I lived in a vegetarian hippie co-op for a year, a co-op in which all members were assigned weekly duties. Two of the duties were bread-baking and cookie-baking. Like most college students, the vegetarian hippies kept erratic hours, so a lot of the baking happened late at night. I am fairly indifferent to American cookies, but I rapidly discovered that bread warm from the oven, slathered in butter, is an exceptional midnight snack. And so I kept the bakers company, and sometimes I baked things along with them.

The following teacakes are light and fragrant, and not too sweet. They go well with lemon curd, or butter and apricot jam, though you could also glaze them with lemon juice mixed with a little icing sugar. Just don't eat too many before bedtime. You don't want bad dreams, do you?

Lemon Teacakes

Adapted from Joy Hui Lin's Madeleine Non Madeleines.

(Makes one dozen. They'll keep for a day or two before turning stale.)

Preheat oven to 350F. Grease a dozen-cup muffin tin.

Combine three-quarters of a cup of white flour, a pinch of baking soda, and a pinch of salt in a big bowl. Using an electric mixer or stand mixer, beat two eggs with one-third of a cup of sugar until light and foamy. Gently fold the eggs into the flour mixture. Stir in the grated zest of one lemon, a few drops of vanilla extract, and five tablespoons of melted butter (half a stick, plus a little extra) until the batter is smooth.

Spoon the batter into the muffin tins - approximately two tablespoons per cup. Bake for 12-15 minutes, or until teacakes are golden brown around the edges and pull away slightly from the edges of each cup. Serve with tea. Any leftovers can be lightly toasted and eaten for breakfast.

*Particularly baked pasta with cheese. The crispy bits soften and turn deliciously chewy.

Monday, March 3, 2008

ceres descended into hell with no sense of time

Did Persephone dream of food while trapped in the realm of the dark king? As she grew paler and thinner, refusing the clusters of grapes with their ashen bloom, the suckling pig rich with burnt fat? Hunger sharpening the line of her cheekbone, deepening the hollows of her eyes. Her reflection in the mirror could almost be a shade, one more to join the multitudes roaming the cavernous halls of the underworld.

He dresses her in robes of faded splendor. He toasts her with dark wine from goblets etched with the lyre of Orpheus. Her throne awaits her, cast from the silver paid to the ferryman by all who cross his river. The scent of attar is pervasive, overwhelming. She learned to despise roses here.

Perhaps she dreams of coarse peasant bread with sweet yellow butter. Trout from mountain brooks, roasted with woody stems of rosemary. Even a simple ear of wheat from a sheaf left as an offering to her mother, crushing the kernels between her teeth. Perhaps she has other pleasures: the smile of a shy goatherd as he brings her hazelnuts gathered from the mountainside; his eager expression as she tastes the cheese he makes from goats’ milk, flecked with wild herbs; the desiring gleam in his eyes as she licks honey from a stolen comb.

He dines at a table of ebony, served from platters of bone. Oysters in the shell, gleaming wet with brine. Peacock stuffed with mushrooms, perfumed with thin slices of truffle. Roasted artichokes, drizzled with olive oil. He selects a dusky purple fig and cuts into it, one stroke across, one stroke down, an echo of its flower. The creamy flesh is tinged with pink, shading to red at the center. He consumes the fruit slowly, savoring each mouthful. When there is only the scent of the fig left in the air, she rises from her seat, abandoning her untouched plate.

Though the column of her spine stands out starkly, though her skin reveals the tracing of her veins, her hair continues to grow, long tresses of pale gold that spill beyond her waist. The perpetual dusk leaves her sleepless, steals away all sense of time. She wanders the shadows, passing through a succession of nameless and forgotten halls. She finds a bone knife upon an altar, wicked and delicate. If she cut herself, would she still bleed?

Was it a longing for color that brought her to the gardens? Led her beyond the grove of olives, beyond the vineyard? Into the orchard, past the white peach and the aromatic quince, and drew her to the pomegranate tree?

The fruit is heavy, the skin hard like leather. She breaks it open, and a bead of bright liquid spills down her wrist. Tongue to flesh, licking away the trail of crimson, tart sweetness headier than wine. She shakes the seeds into her palm – one, two, three, four, five. Six. She places them in her mouth one at a time, crushing each between her teeth and swallowing it whole. When the last seed has stained her lips crimson, she turns to leave. He is standing there, leaning carelessly against a fig tree. Watching her. And she is caught.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

a dish worth dyeing for

There's something particularly fun about preparing brightly colored food. Bland white rice becomes more appealing when you dye it with saffron. Pasta takes a dramatic turn with the addition of squid ink. And oeufs en meurette, or eggs poached in red wine, are... um... really interesting-looking.

Strictly speaking, oeufs en meurette consists of poached eggs served on bread with red wine sauce poured over. Order oeufs en meurette at a French bistro, and you'll get poached eggs tidily resting atop rounds of toasted bread, lapped in glossy purple-brown sauce. The eggs aren't poached in the wine itself.

But poaching the eggs in the wine before you use it to make the sauce adds extra flavor, and the whites cook at a faster rate while leaving the yolks beautifully liquid. The catch is that the eggs come out looking rather bruised, and when you cover them in purplish sauce... well, Nathaniel took one look at the eggs, and one look at the sauce, and promptly dubbed the dish "Barney eggs in primordial ooze."

The ensuing photo has been included against my better judgment. Consider yourself warned.

Don't let their appearance put you off, though. The red wine sauce is enriched with beef broth and lardons, and it provides a savory, smoky contrast to the mild softness of the eggs. Served with extra crusty bread to mop up the excess sauce, it makes for a very satisfying dinner on a cold night.

Oeufs en Meurette
(Barney Eggs in Primordial Ooze)

There are two ways of making this dish: the correct way and the other way. I'll let you decide which way you prefer.

(Serves one for dinner.)

Ingredient list: half a small onion, one small carrot, and one celery rib, finely chopped. One bay leaf, a sprig of thyme, freshly ground black pepper. Four cups of decent red wine, not too sweet. A lump of beurre manie, made by kneading half a tablespoon of butter with half a tablespoon of flour. One cup of beef stock, preferably homemade. One slice of thick-cut bacon or pancetta, cut into strips, or an equivalent amount of lardons. Two eggs, the freshest you can find. Two slices of fresh bread (or toasted not-so-fresh bread) plus extra for serving. Optional: finely chopped parsley for garnishing.

The correct way: Sauté the vegetables with the herbs in one pan, pour over the wine and let it reduce. Sauté the lardons in another pan, add the beef broth, and pour in the reduced wine after straining out all the solids and discarding them. Let it reduce further, and thicken it with the beurre manie. Poach the eggs in another pan, put them on the slices of bread, and pour the sauce over. Sprinkle with finely chopped parsley. Serve. Total pan count: three, plus a strainer.

The other way: Bring three cups of wine plus the herbs and one cup of water to boil in a small saucepan. Meanwhile, sauté the lardons until the fat is rendered, then add the root vegetables and sauté until soft. Add the beef broth and remaining one cup of red wine. Bring the mixture to a simmer. When the wine comes to a boil, turn it down to a bare simmer, poach the eggs, and pop them on the slices of bread. Pour the wine you used for poaching the eggs into the other pan, bring the mixture to a high simmer, add the beurre manie, and reduce until you have a thick sauce. Pour it over the eggs. Serve. Total pan count: two.