Friday, July 31, 2009

the biscuit jar test

I've been at my internship for two weeks now, and I've decided that the things I like best about my workplace are the coffee machine, the biscuit jar, and morning tea time. If you've been reading along, I expect that this bit of news will not be surprising in the least.

The coffee machine in the breakroom is big and fancy. It has a milk foamer and a little shaker of chocolate powder for dusting on cappuccinos. It makes espresso that is hot, dark and wonderfully bitter. The coffee machine is what makes me a functional human being in the mornings.

The biscuit jar in the breakroom is a plain glass jar with a wide mouth and a lift-off lid. Its contents are dictated by the whims of the person in charge of filling it, and each morning, right after I arrive, I peek into the breakroom to see where those whims have led. There have been lemon biscuits covered in hundreds and thousands, strawberry and vanilla creams, and - just twice so far - an assortment that includes my much-beloved Tim Tams.

Putting together the coffee machine and the biscuit jar gives you morning tea. There's no official time, but around ten-thirty or eleven, everyone seems to drift into the breakroom. Tea and coffee mugs are refilled, and we dip into the contents of the biscuit jar.

After two weeks of careful observation, I've decided that you could probably design a psychological test around morning tea, and the biscuit jar in particular. Do the subjects contemplate their selections before lifting the lid, or do they dive right in? Do they eat their selections immediately, or do they take them back to their offices to be slowly savored? Do they nibble? Do they dunk? The answers, I suspect, might tell you more than the traditional workplace personality assessments.

Of course, you can have morning tea without the workplace. And if you do it at home, you have the option of baking your own biscuits (or cookies.) I'm fond of checkerboard cookies, which are a butter dough variation closely related to jamprints. Creating the checkerboard pattern might seem like a fiddly process, but it's really quite simple, and they look quite impressive if you lay them out as part of an assortment. Or you could put them in a biscuit jar, and see what unfolds.

For the record, if any psychologists out there are curious: contemplate, savor, nibble, and if it's a Tim Tam, I dunk.

Checkerboard Cookies

(Makes enough for six dozen tiny cookies, but the dough freezes.)

Start by creaming together one stick of softened butter with a quarter-cup of sugar, a teaspoon of vanilla, and a half-teaspoon of salt. Using a fork, gradually work in one cup of flour until you have a soft, sandy mixture. Crack in one egg, and mix until everything comes together in a ball. Transfer the dough to wax paper. Set aside.

Get out another bowl and dump in four tablespoons of cocoa powder and one cup of flour. Stir or whisk well to combine. Set aside.

Using your original bowl, cream together another stick of softened butter with a quarter-cup of sugar, a teaspoon of vanilla, and a half-teaspoon of salt. Work in the cocoa-flour mixture, then add the egg. Transfer the dough to wax paper.

Clear a space on your counter, and lay out another sheet of wax paper.

Roll each ball of dough into a thick log, and cut each into four equal pieces, for a total of eight pieces.

Roll each piece into a log about a third of an inch in diameter. Make sure they're all roughly the same length.

Lay out another sheet of wax paper.

Take one of the vanilla-dough logs, and shape it until it's roughly squarish. Take one of the chocolate-dough logs, and do the same. Lay the two logs right next to each other on the wax paper, and apply a little pressure to make sure they stick together.

Take another of the vanilla-dough logs, shape it, and lay it atop the chocolate-dough log of the two that are already stuck together. Take another chocolate-dough log, shape it, and lay it atop the other vanilla-dough log. You should now have one log with a checkerboard pattern.

Fold the wax paper over the log and twist the ends to seal. Carefully transfer the log to the fridge. Repeat the process with the remaining dough. Chill for at least one hour before baking.

To bake the cookies, begin by preheating the oven to 350F. Ready two baking trays.

Take the dough out of the fridge. If it's looking less than squarish, use gentle pressure to get it into shape. Cut the dough into thin slices and arrange them on the baking trays.

Bake for fifteen to eighteen minutes, or until faintly browned at the very edges. Transfer to a cooling rack. Serve with morning tea.

Cookies will keep for up to one week in an airtight container.

Note: If you freeze the dough, cut slices while it's still frozen, and bake them without thawing.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

mash it up

It’s been a globe-trotting sort of summer. I left Boston in a hurry towards the end of May in order to rush back to Hong Kong for a job interview that didn’t actually pan out; alternate plans sent me to Beijing for a month instead. After Beijing, I returned briefly to Hong Kong, and now I am currently in Perth, the largest city on Australia’s west coast, for another experience that is intended to improve my resume.*

It is winter in Australia. The weather in Perth has been rather disagreeable: not particularly cold, but just drizzly enough to require an umbrella, and just windy enough for an untimely gust or two to turn said umbrella inside out. I can’t help but feel like I’m always smelling faintly of wet wool, and even when I’m in fresh clothes, they still feel slightly damp. (Granted, my fate might have been similar had I stayed put in Boston, but it doesn’t make me any happier about it.)

Fortunately, Perth has an abundance of bakeries and takeaway places with all a manner of deliciously unhealthy hot foods to drive away the damp. There’s a shop on almost every street corner selling hot chips, sausage rolls, and meat pies, a fact that does lift my sodden spirits. Hot chips (with or without chicken gravy) were my undisputed favorite as a child, but when I left Australia, it was the meat pies that I missed.

A meat pie with plain pastry is a meat pie, pure and simple. Sometimes they’re a bit more specific, depending on the filling: “steak and onion,” or “steak and cheese." A meat pie with a potato topping is, sensibly enough, a "potato pie." They're a tuckshop staple, and as every Australian schoolchild knows, the correct way to eat them is to pick off the browned bits first, eat the top half-inch of potato, and then mix up the remaining potato with the meat filling before consumption.

A potato pie is, however, a commercial product. The homemade version is more commonly known as shepherd’s pie, or cottage pie. There’s a certain amount of debate over the exact definition of each – you’ll hear arguments that shepherd’s pie is made with lamb, and cottage pie is made with beef – but that’s just missing the key point. Whatever you call it, it’s all about the mashed potatoes. The meat is just a minor detail.**

A shepherd’s pie is the traditional way to use up the leftovers from Sunday roast. Of course, if you don’t do Sunday roast (or if you never have any leftover mashed potatoes), it’s just a matter of making a meat stew for a base, topping it with mash, and giving the whole some time in the oven. It’s not the same as a potato pie, but it drives away the damp equally well.

(Sorry, no photos. My camera's in Boston.)

Lamb and Leek Shepherd's Cottage Potato Pie

This recipe also works with stewing beef. Feel free to make the components separately a day or two before.

(Serves one, if one wants five meals’ worth of leftovers to freeze. Otherwise, serves one and several friends.)

Begin with a bunch of leeks. Cut away and discard the dark green parts, and slice the remaining white and pale green portion into thin strips. Rinse them thoroughly to get rid of any mud and grit. Set aside.

Preheat the oven to 350F.

Take a pound of boneless stewing lamb, rinse it if you feel compelled to do so, and pat it dry. Dredge the pieces in a few tablespoons of flour and shake off the excess.

Heat a little vegetable oil in a heavy-bottomed ovenproof pot. Brown the lamb in batches. Set aside.

Pour a little more oil into the pot. Add the leeks. Cook until the leeks have softened and started to color. Add the lamb.

Open a bottle of decent beer. It doesn’t have to be Guinness (I actually used Hoeegarten because it was all I had in the fridge), but make sure it has some flavor. You can cook with wine you wouldn’t drink, but that rule doesn’t work for beer. Pour the beer into the pot.

Turn up the heat and stir, scraping up any stuck bits on the bottom, until you can no longer smell alcohol when you stick your head over the pot. Turn off the heat.

Finely dice two or three carrots, and add them to the pot. Add a sprinkling of salt. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the carrots soften. Turn off the heat. Put the lid on and transfer the pot to the oven.

Let the mixture braise until the lamb is tender, about an hour and a half to two hours.

Meanwhile, prepare your potatoes. First, decide how much you like mashed potatoes. If you, like me, view shepherd’s pie as something of an excuse to eat mashed potatoes, you’ll want to peel and cut three pounds of potatoes into medium dice. Should you prefer a slightly more even potato-to-filling ratio, you’ll want to do the same with one and a half to two pounds of potatoes instead.

Put your potatoes in a pot, cover with cold water, and cook over low heat until they’re easily pierced with a fork. Drain. Mash with half a stick of butter and a splash of milk. Salt to taste.

Ready to put the whole thing together? Preheat the oven to 300F.

Mix a handful or two of frozen English peas into the lamb mixture. Spoon said lamb mixture into a shallow baking dish. Cover with mashed potato, making sure you get it all the way to the edges so that none of the lamb is visible.

To get those crusty browned bits, you’ll need to either get fancy with a piping bag, or drag a fork across the top of the potatoes to create little furrows, then lightly brush with melted butter.

Transfer the baking dish to the oven. If you’ve made the components separately and they’re cold, you’ll have to bake until everything’s heated through, about two hours. If you’re doing this all in one go, however, and the lamb and potatoes are still warm, you can bump up the heat to 400F and cook just until the potatoes brown, about half an hour or so.

Once the potatoes have browned on top, carefully remove the baking dish from the oven. Serve immediately.

*The less said about it, the better.

**Oh, and contrary to what American institutional dining facilities believe, it does not contain corn. Not ever.

Friday, July 17, 2009

a winter story for high summer

I've returned from Beijing, and it appears that my blog hasn't vanished in my absence. It's looking a bit cobwebby though, isn't it? I've got links to update and a month's worth of everyone else's updates to read, but first, I have to get my entry for the Summer 2009 edition of Novel Food together so that I can just sneak in under the wire.

Getting together my entry has been an adventure. I think I may have set a new record for the longest time between preparing a dish and actually getting it written up. And to be perfectly honest, I also did this Novel Food challenge backwards. I had limited ingredients, limited kitchen supplies, and perhaps worst of all, a limited library, so I started with the ingredients, and worked my way out.

When my grandmother went for one of her routine check-ups on my uncle's house (he doesn't spend much time in Beijing; it's used mostly as a sort of showroom for the antique furniture he sells), she came back with two big sacks of fruit from the nectarine tree and the apricot tree in the courtyard. Most of the apricots were tending towards overripe. Some of them were bruised. My grandmother deemed them unsuitable for the fruit bowl, and I knew the opportunity was too good to pass up: I could use them in my dish for Novel Food.

In an effort to keep my ingredients to a minimum, I made a freeform apricot tart. Lacking both vanilla and almond extract, and finding only sealed bottles of brandy in my grandfather's liquor cabinet, I macerated the apricots in whiskey.

Once I had the dish, I needed a literary work. I knew I'd read some novel or story in which apricots or apricot tarts (or fruit tarts, at least) had played a role, and so I turned to Google to see if anything jogged my memory. Wonderfully, it did. I rediscovered a book I read more than fifteen years ago, one that I had almost, but not quite, forgotten. Unfortunately, I couldn't get hold of a copy in Beijing. After putting out a distress call to friends, I found someone who was willing to read the relevant bits and write me a refresher. (Thanks, Charlene!)

So my choice, if not quite inspiration, for the Summer 2009 edition of Novel Food is Adele Geras' Apricots at Midnight. The book is a collection of short stories told to the narrator, a young girl, by her Aunt Pinny. The common theme is their connection to a wonderful patchwork quilt made by Aunt Pinny: the daughter of a dressmaker, Aunt Pinny pieced it together from her mother's scraps.

"Apricots at Midnight," the title story, is tied to a patch of red velvet cut from the lining of a highwayman's cloak. Well, not quite a real highwayman: he's actually a shy, unassuming man by the name of Mr. Triptree, who happens to be married to a rich society dame who loves to host lavish affairs. Mrs. Triptree's costume ball is the social event of the year, and Pinny's mother is asked to make Mr. Triptree's costume.

Pinny hears tantalizing details about the refreshments from the butcher and the baker in the days leading up to it: whole roast suckling pigs, with oranges stuck in their mouths, roast peacock presented with its tail feathers spread, and a fairy castle in royal icing, "set in a snowdrift of sugar... complete with turrets, and pennants flying and a thousand windows at least."

When Mrs. Triptree's maid falls ill, Pinny's mother is asked to stand in and mend costumes as necessary during the event, and so Pinny comes along. She meets Mr. Triptree before the party begins; he confesses that he'd much rather escape the entire affair and have dinner at his club. Later, she watches the party from the top of the stairs; Mr. Triptree sees her, waves, and shortly after, comes up with two big trays of food, explaining that he thinks Pinny will enjoy the feast much more than the grown-ups. It appears that he's quite right:

"Oh, my dear, if only I could list for you all the delightful things piled up on those two trays! Little china baskets where marzipan strawberries and cherries lay in green leaves, slices of pink salmon, with crescent moons of lemon lying beside them, roast pork, roast peacock, cakes decorated with icing sugar violets, pale asparagus fingers, and brave scarlet circles of tomatoes. Right in the centre of one tray, there was a bowl of fruit: grapes, and tangerines and apricots with plush skins the colour of sunset."

I've written before about my fascination with midnight feasts, so you can imagine how much I loved the idea of this one as a child. Even now, I think Mr. Triptree has the right idea: I wouldn't go so far as to disappear from the party entirely, but I'd certainly find a quiet corner in which to feast in peace. In fact, that strategy works quite well with this tart.

Apricot Tart

The pastry used for this tart is "blitz" or "rough" puff, a quick-and-dirty version of true puff pastry. Be sure to roll out the pastry as thinly as possible. Too thick, and it'll turn out like rather buttery flatbread.

(Serves one, with leftovers)

Dump one cup of flour and a half-teaspoon of salt into a big bowl. Cut in one stick of chilled butter, and work the pieces in with your fingertips until the largest lumps are no bigger than peas. Add chilled water a few tablespoons at a time, until the mixture is crumbly, but holds its shape when pressed together.

Turn the mixture out on a clean countertop. Press it into a rough rectangle, and roll it out with a rolling pin to a half-inch thickness. Fold it into thirds, as though you were folding a letter. (It'll be crumbly and messy; just press it together if it falls apart.) Roll out the dough again; fold it again. Repeat the process one more time, then wrap the dough and stick it in the fridge to chill.

Take six or seven ripe apricots, cut them into halves, and put them in another bowl. Add a quarter-cup to a third-cup of sugar (depending on the ripeness of your apricots), and a splash of brandy or whiskey. Toss to combine. Cover and leave in the fridge to macerate.

Once an hour has passed, preheat the oven to 350F.

Remove the dough from the fridge. Roll it out in a rough circle, and transfer it to a baking tray. Arrange the apricots on the dough, and fold the edges over to create a rough border. Pour over any syrup that has gathered in the bowl.

Bake for forty to forty-five minutes, or until the pastry is golden and the filling is bubbling. Serve warm with cream.