Monday, November 30, 2009

eaten by papers

This is my paper-writing semester, and my various assignments are hell-bent on devouring my life. Blog on hiatus until mid-December, so that I don't have to cringe every time I see how long it's been since I last posted a new entry.

Friday, November 20, 2009

not telling our mother

My mother does not approve of sweets.

In her eyes, sugar is dangerous. Cake is suspicious; candy is a menace. Special occasions aside, dessert is unthinkable.

As you might imagine, it had rather predictable effects on me and my sister. We each developed a sweet tooth (sweet teeth?) with a vengeance.

We grew up delighting in classmates' birthdays; we were masters of the art of smuggling candy from bowls and dishes at banks and doctors' offices when our mother's back was turned.* Despite, or perhaps because of our mother's policies, sweets were the one thing my sister and I never squabbled about. Our unexpected windfalls were always shared.

When I went off to boarding school, I returned on holidays with American confections: maple sugar candy and Jelly Belly jelly beans. (She hid them in her jewelry box.) She went to Europe on a school-sponsored trip, and brought me a tin of Baci truffles. (I kept them in my sock drawer.)

The summer I spent as an apprentice in the hotel kitchens was also the summer Lucille was stressing about college applications. I took the bus to work each day, and the quickest way to get from the stop to the hotel was to walk through a shopping mall. The most direct route took me past Mrs Field's Cookies. Because Lucille was stressed and unhappy, whenever they had them, I'd buy toffee walnut cookies, her favorite. I'd smuggle them home, and we'd bond over not telling our mother.

It wasn't until after I'd brought home toffee walnut cookies several times that Lucille told me I was only half right: her favorites are plain toffee. She doesn't like walnuts at all. (She had been picking them out.) Unfortunately, Mrs. Fields never seemed to have plain toffee cookies, and so I switched to picking up boxes of Maltesers from the newsagency next door instead.

Now that we're both living away from home, Lucille and I can each indulge our sugar cravings to our hearts' content. She keeps a stash of gummi bears in her room; I sometimes eat chocolate cake for dinner. But when I was sketching out my baking list for my latest trip to New York, I thought of those toffee walnut cookies, and picked up a few Skor bars to test out the idea.

These are decidedly American cookies - very sweet, rather chewy, and possibly more appealing when they're baking than they are when baked.** They're richly buttery, and the toffee adds a satisfying crunch. I'd say that you can't eat more than one in a single sitting, but Lucille has proved me quite wrong.

The last time our parents called, they were delighted to hear that we'd had an nice visit. But as far as the cookies are concerned, we're still not telling our mother.

English Toffee Cookies (With or Without Walnuts)

I maintain that these are better with walnuts, but if you're of the same mind as Lucille, they'll work fine without. Cookie base is loosely modeled on this recipe from the New York Times.

(Makes two dozen. Dough will freeze.)

Get out a big mixing bowl. Cream together one-and-a-quarter sticks of softened butter, one cup of white sugar and two-thirds of a cup of brown sugar until evenly blended.

Beat in one egg, one teaspoon vanilla extract, and half a teaspoon of coarse salt.

Stir in half a teaspoon of baking powder and half a teaspoon of baking soda.

Fold in one-and-three-quarters of a cup plus one tablespoon of flour until just combined.

Fold in five ounces (roughly three-quarters of a cup) of Skor bits, or four bashed-up regular-size Skor bars. If you've opted for cookies with nuts, fold in three-quarters of a cup of chopped walnuts.

Cover the bowl with cling wrap and chill in the fridge for several hours.

When you're ready to bake, preheat the oven to 350F. Line several baking trays with parchment paper. (Avoid wax paper - the toffee will stick.)

Scoop the dough into lumps a little smaller than golf balls; arrange them on the baking tray at least two inches apart. (Dough may be shaped into lumps and frozen.)

Bake for fifteen to eighteen minutes, or until cookies are golden at the edges but still a little pale in the middle. Allow to cool on baking trays for five minutes or so, then transfer to a wire rack to finish cooling. Cookies will keep for up to a week in an airtight container.

*I still do this as an automatic habit, which is why I'll inevitably find stray mints or Jolly Ranchers whenever I clean out my purse.

**I like the aroma of baking chocolate chip cookies, though I don't particularly care for the cookies themselves.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

vegetable makeovers

Winter vegetables, on the whole, are not a glamorous bunch. It takes work to dandy up a cabbage or turnip. Heaven knows parsnips aren't going to win any awards for being pretty. And don't even get me started on Jerusalem artichokes.

But some winter vegetables are seriously in need of a makeover and a better publicist. A prime example: celery root.

(Not my photo. It's from Wikimedia Commons.)

Poor celery root. It's one of those vegetables that garners puzzled looks at the farmer's market, and produces utter bafflement when it shows up unidentified in CSA boxes.

Its name is potentially misleading ("I didn't know celery had edible roots!"), but its other names are worse: celeriac, which sounds like a sneeze, celery knob, which sounds like a disease, and turnip-rooted celery, which is just plain awkward.

Frankly, the only winter vegetables that might be faring worse are kohlrabi and mangle-wurzel.

Celery root is undeserving of such an ignominious fate. Though it can be grated for slaw (as in the French salad celeri remoulade), or diced for soup, it truly comes into its own when cooked and pureed with a little butter or cream. As a side dish, celery root puree makes an interesting change from mashed potatoes (it goes particularly well with fish), but for something a little different, I like it as a filling for ravioli.

The original inspiration for the following dish was the ricotta cavatelli with celery root puree and sauteed spinach that I ate at Eastern Standard several months ago. The ingredients have been tweaked and rearranged: now it's the pasta that contains celery root puree, and the ricotta serves as the sauce. Swiss chard is more seasonally appropriate than spinach, and the walnuts add texture and a little extra richness. It's a dramatic transformation for the poor celery root, and quite a satisfying dinner on a cold night.

Celery root makeover: check. Next up: does anyone have any ideas for dandying up a mangle-wurzel?

Celery Root Ravioli with Swiss Chard, Ricotta, and Walnut Sauce

This recipe, like all ravioli recipes, is fairly straightforward, but time-consuming. You can spread the preparation out over two days if you like.

(Makes a lot of ravioli to freeze. Finished dish serves one, with leftovers for lunch.)

Take one celery root, about a pound in weight, and cut off each end so that the root sits flat. Use a knife to pare off the rough outer skin, then chop it into cubes or slices.

Place the celery root in a small pan and add enough vegetable stock to cover. Simmer, uncovered, for forty to fifty minutes, or until the celery root is tender. Stir in a tablespoon of butter. Once the celery root has cooled, puree with a stick blender or a food processor. Salt to taste. Transfer to a bowl; cover and refrigerate.

To make the pasta dough, dump two cups of all-purpose flour on a clean countertop. Make a well in the middle. Crack in four egg yolks. Pour in a tablespoon of olive oil and two tablespoons of water. Add a dash of salt. Use your fingers to break up the eggs and swirl them around to pull the flour in, little by little. (More detailed instructions can be found here.)

Once you have a rather shaggy mass of dough, start kneading. Wet your hands if it seems very dry; continue kneading. Knead until you have a stiff dough that is very smooth to the touch. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and stick it in the fridge for at least an hour.

Once you're ready to assemble the ravioli, pull the dough out of the fridge and let it come to room temperature. Set up your pasta maker, and roll out batches of the dough to the second-thinnest setting. (Probably about 5 or 6 on the dial, depending on your model.) Cover the sheets with a damp tea-towel.

Cut the dough into rough squares, about one-and-a-half inches wide. Take one square of dough, put a heaped teaspoon of filling on it, and lay a second square on top. Push down firmly with your thumbs around the filling to create a tight seal between the two layers of dough. Use a ravioli stamp or trim the edges as necessary. Set your finished ravioli on baking trays, and either cook immediately, or freeze for later use.

To prepare the sauce, begin with a bunch of Swiss chard, well-rinsed to get rid of any grit, and cut it into wide ribbons. Pour a little olive oil into a large, heavy-bottomed pan, and throw in several cloves of garlic, cut into halves. Once the garlic starts to smell fragrant, add the Swiss chard and cook until lightly wilted. Turn the heat down low, and add half a cup of ricotta, blended with enough water to make it pourable. Add a generous handful of chopped toasted walnuts. Give everything a good stir; salt to taste. Turn off the heat.

Put a big pot of salted water on to boil, and drop in half the ravioli. When they float to the surface, they're cooked through. Lift them out with a slotted spoon, and toss them gently with the sauce.

Spoon onto a plate and top with plenty of freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano. Serve immediately.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

when you assume...

Of all the pleasures involved in procuring food, I find that one of the greatest is going to a bakery. (I dearly love bread in all its forms, and am fully capable of polishing off, say, an entire full-size baguette by myself in a single sitting.)

By some quirk of geography, I live within walking distance of four or five bakeries, all with very different specialties, and thus I am rather spoiled for choice. I admit that I sometimes go for a walk and stop by one of these bakeries, not because I am in any particular need of bread, but just because I enjoy breathing in the warm, fragrant air and contemplating the selection of baked goods on offer.

So it should come as no surprise that I've chosen a short story about a bakery for the Fall 2009 edition of Novel Food. "Witches' Loaves," by O. Henry, a turn-of-the-century American writer known for his clever writing and twist endings, is a wonderful cautionary tale of the danger of making assumptions.

Miss Martha Meacham is the owner of a small bakery. She is forty, has two thousand dollars in the bank, and possesses "two false teeth and a sympathetic heart." Adds the narrator: "Many people have married whose chances to do so were much inferior to Miss Martha's."

One of Miss Martha's regular customers is a middle-aged man with spectacles, a brown beard, and a strong German accent. His clothes are worn and darned, but he looks neat, and his manners are good. He comes in two or three times a week, and his purchase is always the same: two loaves of stale bread. "Never a cake, never a pie, never one of her delicious Sally Lunns." Just stale bread, every time.

After a few exchanges with her customer, Miss Martha decides that he must be a struggling artist. She longs to add something else to his purchase, but lacks the courage. But then:

One day the customer came in as usual, laid his nickel on the showcase, and called for his stale loaves. While Miss Martha was reaching for them there was a great tooting and clanging, and a fire-engine came lumbering past.

The customer hurried to the door to look, as any one will. Suddenly inspired, Miss Martha seized the opportunity.

On the bottom shelf behind the counter was a pound of fresh butter that the dairyman had left ten minutes before. With a bread knife Miss Martha made a deep slash in each of the stale loaves, inserted a generous quantity of butter, and pressed the loaves tight again.

When the customer turned once more she was tying the paper around them.

I won't spoil the rest (you can read the whole story at the link above), but suffice to say, there's more than one use for stale bread, and as Miss Martha discovers, not all of them mix well with butter.

Stale bread and butter are a better combination in a Brown Betty, an old American colonial dessert. It consists of spiced fruit (typically apples), butter and sugar, layered with cubes of stale bread to produce a sort of pared-down bread pudding that combines the pleasure of baked apples with that of cinnamon toast. It's a quick weeknight dessert, and good comfort food - even if it may only be cold comfort to poor Miss Martha.

Apple-Maple Brown Betty

White sandwich bread is the usual choice for this dessert, though bread with dried fruit or nuts also works well.

(Recipe for one, or several, depending. I'm sure Miss Martha would like it best if it served two.)

Preheat oven to 350F.

Decide how many servings you'd like, and generously butter a glass or ceramic baking dish of the appropriate size. Sprinkle the bottom lightly with brown sugar.

Take two slices of good-quality stale bread per person, and cut them into very small cubes. Set aside.

Peel, core and slice one small apple per person. Take half the apple slices and arrange them in the baking dish. Season with a sprinkling of cinnamon and nutmeg. Drizzle lightly with dark (Grade B) maple syrup. Cover with half the stale bread cubes. Sprinkle with more brown sugar.

Take the remaining apple slices, and arrange them over the bread cubes. Sprinkle with cinnamon and nutmeg. Drizzle with more maple syrup. Cover with the remaining bread cubes.

Dot the bread cubes with slices of butter, roughly a tablespoon per person. Sprinkle with more brown sugar, and a little more cinnamon.

Bake for forty to forty-five minutes, or until the top is slightly browned. Serve warm, preferably with whipped cream.