Sunday, February 21, 2010


During high school, my academic life revolved around index cards.

A nervous public speaker, I needed index cards (with my speech written out in full) to get through presentations. An appallingly disorganized research paper-writer, I used them in an effort to track ideas and organize thoughts. A student of multiple foreign languages, I had an entire collection of flashcards, neatly arranged in rubber-banded stacks. I stockpiled index cards (three by five, white, lined) as though Staples were about to go out of business.

Seven years later, I no longer have to do any public speaking. I've accepted that the best way for me to work on papers is to start writing and then organize. I have largely abandoned my efforts at foreign language acquisition. And yet, I still have a few leftover packages of index cards in my stationery drawer.

Or rather, I did. I moved them to the kitchen when I discovered that they were just the thing for writing down recipes.

You see, I lack the counter space to have my laptop in the kitchen, and it's exasperating to have to move back and forth between the kitchen and my desk. (It seems like a bad idea to be anywhere near my laptop with floury hands, anyway.) I have a recipe notebook, but something about the format never sat right with me. And notepad paper is just too thin - one oil blotch, one splash of milk, and it starts to disintegrate.

Index cards, however, are just right for scribbling down an ingredient list and proportions. The thick card stock holds up well to drips and splashes. And I can note my changes as I go along, so that I'll actually remember what my measurements were if I decide the recipe is worth writing down in a more permanent form.

Sometimes, the results are mediocre, and the index card gets tossed into recycling. Sometimes the idea is worth further experimentation, and I write up a fresh index card for the next attempt. But sometimes, the recipe comes out beautifully, and the index card gets moved to my desk, waiting for the recipe to be written up for the blog.

Last Wednesday, I noticed that my latest container of buttermilk had crept quite close to its use-by date, but remained three-quarters full. A pan of cornbread took care of most of the problem, but I still had a cup or so remaining. And so I cast about for a way to use up the rest.

I found a recipe for a raspberry buttermilk cake, scribbled down the ingredient list and oven temperature, and then, as usual, decided to tinker.

First up, the fruit. I have just one package of farmer's market raspberries left in my freezer, and this didn't feel like the right recipe in which to use them. Instead, I took dried apricots, and soaked them in milk to soften them up.

Then the cake: less sugar, more butter. Given the apricots, I thought it made sense to add flaked almonds to the cake's sugar topping, but a cake with a nut-and-sugar topping is a cake that shouldn't be turned out upside-down. Out came the parchment paper.

I had the right kind of pan for a change (my bakeware woes are a story for another day), but a nine-inch pan would produce thin slices, and I wanted a cake that would cut into fat, satisfying wedges. Out came the eight-inch pan instead, followed by adjustments to the oven temperature and cooking time.

The cake came out soft, mild and vanilla-scented, a contrast to the tangy apricots and the crisp flaked almonds. The parchment paper lining gave it a rustic, uneven appearance. It seemed like a good cake for breakfast, or afternoon tea.

Once I'd wrapped the cake and finished the washing up, I moved the index card from kitchen to desk. My life, it seems, will revolve around index cards once again.

Apricot-Almond Buttermilk Cake
(Inspired by this recipe from Smitten Kitchen.)

I'm sure this recipe will work fine with berries or any other kind of tart fruit, but I'm rather fond of the apricot-almond combination. California apricots are better than Turkish, because they're not quite so sweet.

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

Take a cup of dried apricots, cover with water or milk, and soak until softened (leave them for at least two hours.) When you're ready to bake, drain and set aside.

Preheat oven to 375F. Line an eight-inch round cake tin with a sheet of parchment paper. (Don't worry if it refuses to stay put. The cake batter will weigh it down.)

In a large mixing bowl, cream together three-quarters of a stick of softened butter with one-third of a cup of sugar. Stir in a half-teaspoon of vanilla extract and beat in one egg until the mixture is thick and creamy.

In a small bowl, stir together one cup of flour, a half-teaspoon of baking powder, and a half-teaspoon of baking soda. Measure out a half-cup of buttermilk.

Fold the flour mixture into the butter mixture in batches, pouring in a little buttermilk with each addition. The batter will be quite thick.

Glop the batter into the parchment-lined tin. Arrange the soaked apricots on top. Scatter over a generous handful of flaked almonds, and sprinkle with one tablespoon of white sugar.

Bake for forty to fifty minutes, or until cake is browned at the edges and a knife or skewer pressed into the center comes out clean. Lift the cake out of the tin by grasping the excess parchment paper, and transfer to a cooling rack.

Cake may be served warm or cool, preferably with tea or coffee.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

eating my words

The problem with keeping a food blog is that the internet doesn't forget.

In speech, an offhand comment concerning my low opinion of a given dish, or a wry remark about how I'm never going to be so stupid as to prepare such-and-such a meal again is subject to the fallibility of the listener's memory, and otherwise disappears into the ether.

Not so on the blog. I've discovered that if I say "never" in a blog entry, it will come back to haunt me.

Last year, at the urging of a reader, I made dumplings for Chinese New Year. It was a good blog post (if I do say so myself), but it wasn't a cooking experience I wanted to repeat.

Not again, I said. Never again, I swore. (Quoth the Basil Queen, "Nevermore.")

Which is, of course, why I ended up helping JJ figure out a vegetarian dumpling recipe for O.N.C.E. in the New Year a year later, and - despite all my protestations that I order takeout when I want Chinese food - leading the resulting dumpling-folding marathon. The dumplings were well-received, but worrying about whether or not they'd actually work was the kind of stress I didn't want to put myself through again.

Enough, I said. I'm done, I swore. (Quoth the Basil Queen, "Nevermore.")

And yet, after concluding that I'd run out of interesting alternative holidays to observe on February 14th, and learning that Chinese New Year happened to fall on that date this year, well, I made vegetable dumplings. Again. It might be time to stop making absolute declarations.

(Quoth the Basil Queen "Nevermore, nevermore.")

Cheerfully Inauthentic Vegetable Dumplings

I can't say this is really my recipe. I rattled off a list of ingredients during our brainstorming session; JJ turned them into a workable whole.

(Makes four servings. Uncooked dumplings will freeze.)

First up: tackle the dumpling wrappers. Traditionally, the wrappers are rolled individually by hand with a stick rolling pin. Traditionally, the wrappers are a pain in the arse to make.

The easier method is to make a soft dough (two cups of flour to a cup or so of water), let it rest for an hour, run it through a pasta maker on the second-thinnest setting, and cut out three-inch rounds with a cookie cutter or drinking class. Be warned, though. It's softer than your usual pasta dough, and it sticks like crazy unless it's very, very well-floured. (Keep the wrappers under a damp tea-towel, but don't stack them. They'll weld themselves together.)

The recommended (easiest, no-fuss) method is to buy the premade ones from the nearest Asian supermarket. You'll find them right next to the fresh noodles.

For the filling, use a food processor fitted with a shredding blade to slice up two carrots and half a head of cabbage. Finely mince two onions, three cloves of garlic, and a couple of shiitake mushrooms. Grate a two-inch chunk of fresh ginger.

Heat vegetable oil in a wok or a large saute pan. Add the onions, garlic and ginger, and cook until the onions look translucent. Add the carrot and mushrooms; cook until softened. Add the cabbage. Cook until the cabbage is slightly softened, but still retains most of its crunch.

Remove from heat. Season the vegetable mixture with white pepper and sesame oil. Salt to taste. Spread the mixture on a big baking tray and leave to cool.

When you're ready to assemble the dumplings, ready a few floured trays to put the dumplings on. Set out a small bowl of water. Set out your wrappers and the tray of filling.

Pick up one wrapper and put a generous tablespoon of filling on it. Dip a finger into the water and wet the edges of the wrapper. Fold over the wrapper and press the edges to seal. Set the dumpling on one of your floured trays. Repeat until you run out of filling or wrappers, whichever comes first. The completed dumplings may be frozen at this point.

(Leftover filling can be turned into vegetable pancakes, a la scallion pancakes. Leftover wrappers can be cooked like pasta and eaten with soy sauce and sesame oil.)

To cook the dumplings, set a pot of unsalted water on to boil. Once it reaches a rolling boil, cook the dumplings in batches of ten or twelve. Frozen dumplings will take six or seven minutes; fresh dumplings will take three or four.

Transfer cooked dumplings to serving platters (don't layer; they'll stick.) Serve immediately.

Note: These can be served with diluted soy sauce for dipping, or you can mix up a sweet-sour dipping sauce using honey, apple cider vinegar, and fresh grated ginger.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

to bake, perchance to sleep

On winter nights when I cannot sleep, I like to bake scones.

Nights when the wind is brutal and rattles my windows, when midnight has passed and the world is quiet, I turn on the oven and ready my mixing bowl.

Though I have declared myself to be on a quest for the perfect scone, I am in no hurry to find it. The pleasure of baking scones lies in the process, in playing with the recipe, and the motions soothe a restless mind.

Baking soda, baking powder, a mixture of both. Wet, sticky dough for dense, moist scones. Dry, butter-rich dough for light, crumbly scones. Rolled scones, stamped out using a small-mouthed jam jar. Wedge scones, from rounds of dough cut into sixths.

Scones with milk, with buttermilk, with light cream. Scones with yogurt, with sour cream. Even scones with fresh apple cider, in the absence of dairy.

New variations pique my interest. The latest: a scone with cream, not butter, studded with dried cherries, scented with orange zest and vanilla. Folding the gently whipped cream into flour is like working with a pillowy cloud. The dough is soft and airy, carefully shaped into rounds, cut into wedges with a table knife.

The scones bake at moderate heat until pale gold in color, set on a wire rack to cool. They fill the room with their warm aroma. In the morning, breakfast holds the promise of a soft, tender crumb, a sweetness punctuated by bursts of tart, bright fruit.

Restless thoughts quieted, I turn to bed. The scent of baking lingers, easing my dreams.

Cream Scones with Dried Cherries and Orange Zest

If you can't find dried cherries, this recipe also works with cranberries.

(Inspired by this recipe from Orangette. Makes one dozen.)

Preheat oven to 350F. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.

In a mixing bowl, whisk together three cups of flour, two teaspoons baking powder, one-third of a cup of white sugar, and a half-teaspoon of salt. Grate in the zest from one orange, and set aside.

In a second bowl, whip two cups of heavy cream with a half-teaspoon of vanilla essence until it just holds soft peaks. Fold in one cup of tart dried cherries.

Pour the cream into the flour mixture and fold gently with your hands until a soft dough forms. Don’t worry about getting it perfectly smooth – some crumbly bits are fine.

Divide the dough into two halves. Shape each half into a round, and cut each round into sixths. Place the wedges on the baking trays and put the trays in the oven.

Bake for fifteen minutes, then switch the position of the trays, and bake for another fifteen to twenty minutes, or until the scones are just starting to brown on top.

Transfer to a cooling rack. Serve with tea or coffee.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

O.N.C.E. in the New Year, or an evening of being a worrywart

"What course are we on?"
"Do the fish need to go in the oven yet?"
"Can someone grab more garlic?"

I'm standing at the kitchen sink at O.N.C.E in the New Year. I have a soapy sponge in one hand, and a dirty platter in the other. I know I look like I'm focused entirely on cleaning the dishware that is starting to pile up, but my thoughts are very much elsewhere.

I am worrying about the fish. More precisely, I am worrying about the haddock en papillote with wheatberries and lemongrass-sake reduction. And I am worrying about the haddock en papillote with wheatberries and lemongrass-sake reduction not so much because the haddock needs to be worried about, but because worrying about it keeps me from worrying about the vegetable dumplings that immediately follow.

If I had any spare circuits left in my brain, I might wonder how I got here. I think JJ Gonson is at least partly to blame.

When JJ announced O.N.C.E in the New Year, I expressed interest in reprising my role as minion, thinking that I'd be signing myself up for another episode of prepping and plating, albeit with less cabinet-trolley wrangling.

Instead, I found myself at the planning meeting a week before the event, brainstorming ideas for a ten-course feast composed of dishes considered to bring good luck. The menu we settled on consisted of potato latkes with sour cream and applesauce, a lucky eight-bean soup, Oysters Rockefeller, a green salad with beets, "black-eyed peas" and sauteed greens, haddock en papillote, vegetable dumplings, fresh egg noodles with short rib ragu, ginger ice-cream with benne wafers, and galette des rois.

(If you'd like to see the food, try LimeyG's writeup. Try not to drool.)

The haddock en papillote and vegetable dumplings may or may not have been the result of my mouth moving too quickly for my brain during the brainstorming. Which probably explains why I end up in charge of the dumpling-making on Thursday, and spend the hour before the meal frantically pleating little parchment packets of haddock.

Which entirely explains why I'm now worrying about the haddock in an effort to not worry about the dumplings.

The worrying is probably unnecessary. The food, from what I've tasted, has been excellent. The Oysters Rockefeller (we had a few extra) were soft and briny beneath a golden layer of spinach, cheese, and breadcrumbs. The dressed beets in the salad were sweet and tangy. JJ sauteed an extra pan of greens for the kitchen crew because we were fighting for the scraps on the platters. Our guests seem happy. I shouldn't be worrying. Really, I shouldn't.

After the fish go into the oven, I wash more dishes, try not to worry about the dumplings, and briefly wonder if it's too early to break out the beer.

The fish leave the oven and are whisked away for serving. I hear one or two remarks of "Don't eat the paper! It's not edible!", leaving me to briefly worry about choking hazards. I finally stop worrying about the fish after I try some myself, and confirm that it's nicely moist and flaky.

Unfortunately, no longer worrying about the fish means I have nothing left to distract me from worrying about the dumplings. The grapefruit palate cleanser that follows the fish should, by all rights, give me some breathing room, but instead it just gives me more time to worry about the dumplings.

Cooking the dumplings is just a matter of dropping them in boiling water and waiting until they're done. Unfortunately, the timing's a little tricky. We froze the dumplings for ease of storage and transportation, and while the filling of cabbage, onion, carrots and mushrooms is fully cooked, it still needs to thaw and heat up, and I'm not sure how long that will take.

We have two pots of boiling water going. Jack is keeping an eye on one while I keep an eye on the other, waiting for me to give the signal that the dumplings are ready. I don't really have an idea of when that will be. We finally decide that the easiest way to tell is just to cut one open and find out.

At four minutes, they're still cold in the middle. At five, they're lukewarm. I start wondering about beer again. Finally, at seven, we're good to go. We send out platters of dumplings as they cook, figuring that hot dumplings and staggered service is better than cold dumplings served to everyone at the same time.

I finally relax a little when the empty dumpling platters come back to me at the sink. All the courses that follow are those that I had no part in preparing, so my duties are limited to making sure the servers have what they need, and I can focus my energies on snagging a taste of any leftovers.

There are extra noodles and plenty of ragu, so I scrounge up a teacup and a spoon and take bites between washing dishes. The noodles are eggy and chewy, and the ragu is rich and deeply flavored. The course gets rave reviews from our guests and the crew.

Once the serving bowls for the noodles and ragu are deposited in the sink, we move on to the dessert courses. I put down my sponge briefly to help carry dishes of ginger ice-cream and benne wafers (a traditional Southern cookie) to the tables.

I had a chance to taste the ice-cream after JJ churned it, but the benne wafers and galette des rois were baked in Jen's kitchen, and I haven't had a chance to get my greedy little hands on any until now. I snag a benne wafer from the box of extras - it's sweet, light and crisp, and the sesame seeds give it a pleasantly nutty flavor.

The ice-cream dishes are collected and stacked, and Jen sets out a fresh set of plates, setting on each a slice of galette des rois (a French cake consisting of layers of puff pastry sandwiching a filling of frangipane) - and a single candle.

The candle isn't a traditional part of the galette des rois, but JJ has decided to establish a New Year's tradition of her own. She asks everyone to light their candle, set it in their slice of cake, and make a wish for the New Year as they blow it out.

I admit, my thoughts aren't on wishes. I was one of those impatient children who viewed birthday candles as a roadblock to the consumption of birthday cake, and frankly, not much has changed. My sights are set on the extra slices of cake that Jen has left out for the kitchen crew. I know galette des rois to be absolutely delicious, and Jen's version doesn't disappoint: the puff pastry is buttery and flaky, and the filling is sweet and richly eggy.

When the cake plates come back to the kitchen, dinner service is officially over. The guests trickle out, looking well-fed and happy. We break out the beer, and begin cleanup in earnest.

Upon reflection, I do have a wish: I wish I won't be such a worrywart at the next O.N.C.E.