Thursday, July 15, 2010

like juggling anvils

Two weeks until the bar exam, and I think I'm in meltdown mode.

There are too many books with too many pages with too much information that still needs to make the leap to my memory. I keep identifying invalid warrantless searches as valid warrantless searches. I'm still getting race-notice recording statutes and pure notice recording statutes mixed up. And I don't even know where to begin with the accursed Statute of Frauds.

Trying to get a handle on all the subjects is like juggling anvils: they're heavy and unwieldy, and it hurts like hell if you drop one.

As you might imagine, it's unhappy chaos inside my head, and the stress is manifesting itself in all sorts of unpleasant ways. On top of absentmindedness, irritability, and emotional instability, I've also been experiencing random food cravings.

I'm not given to food cravings, your typical human cravings for fat, salt, and sugar aside, so I tend to pay attention when they arise. This week, I wanted cinnamon. I really wanted cinnamon. After two days of cinnamon on yogurt and cinnamon on bananas, and extra cinnamon on cinnamon-raisin bread, I decided it was time to pull out the heavy artillery: cinnamon rolls.

I used a recipe given to me by Bobbie Sue as my starting point, tweaking the proportions to produce rolls that were very soft, more rich than sweet, and definitely cinnamon-y. Just sliding the baking pan into the oven made me feel a little less twitchy.

An hour later, I felt much better. A cinnamon roll and a cup of coffee turned out to be just the fix I needed.

The jury's still out, though, on whether cinnamon does anything for one's anvil-juggling abilities.

Soft Cinnamon Rolls with Cream Cheese Glaze

Adapted from Bobbie Sue's recipe for overnight cinnamon rolls. Glaze inspired by the monkey bread recipe over at Smitten Kitchen.

(Makes one dozen. Recipe not for one, unless you're really prone to stress eating.)

In a large measuring jug, combine one-and-a-half cups of warm milk with a quarter-cup of warm water. Stir in one-and-a-half teaspoons of active dry yeast. Set aside in a warm place to let the yeast develop.

Take five tablespoons of butter, put them in a dish or bowl, and leave out to soften.

In a large mixing bowl, stir together three-and-a-half cups of flour, three tablespoons of white sugar, one teaspoon of salt, and one-and-a-half teaspoons of baking powder.

Check on your yeast mixture. Once it starts to foam a little, it's good to go. Pour the yeast mixture into the flour mixture. Stick a hand into the bowl and mix until the two are incorporated. The mixture will be quite sticky.

Crack in one egg. Continue kneading. Resist the urge to add more flour.

Turn the dough out on a clean countertop. Knead for ten minutes, or until the dough is smooth. It will still be sticky.

Transfer the dough back to the mixing bowl. Knead in three tablespoons of softened butter, one tablespoon at a time. Don't worry if the dough looks like a greasy mess for the first few minutes - it will absorb the butter as you knead.

Once the butter is fully incorporated, shape the dough into a round. Cover with plastic wrap, and leave in a warm place until doubled in volume - an hour and a half to two hours.

Once the dough has doubled in volume, remove the plastic wrap from the bowl and punch down the dough. It will still be quite sticky.

Lay out a sheet of parchment paper and place the dough on top. Pull the dough until it is roughly rectangular in shape. Lay another sheet of parchment paper on top of the dough.

Roll the dough out into a rectangle roughly twelve-by-ten inches in size. Peel away the top sheet of parchment paper, and spread the dough with the remaining two tablespoons of softened butter. Mix together a quarter-cup of brown sugar with two teaspoons of cinnamon (or more, if you really need a cinnamon fix), and sprinkle the mixture over the buttered dough.

Starting at the twelve-inch side, roll the dough up into a log (use the parchment paper to help.) Pinch the edge and sides to seal.

Lightly grease a nine-by-thirteen inch pan. Cut the dough log into twelve pieces, and arrange them in a single layer in the pan. (Don't worry if there's space between them.)

If you'd like to bake the rolls on the same day, cover the pan in plastic wrap and leave in a warm place for approximately two hours, or until doubled in size. If you'd prefer to bake them the next day, cover the pan in foil and put in the fridge for at least twelve hours (but not longer than twenty-four.)

When you're ready to bake the rolls, preheat the oven to 350F. Bake the rolls for thirty to thirty-five minutes, or until golden on top.

To make the cream cheese glaze, take three ounces of cream cheese and beat with two tablespoons of powdered sugar in a small bowl. Blend in one-quarter cup of milk, a little at a time, until it reaches a spreadable consistency. (Add extra milk if needed.)

While the rolls are still warm, spread with cream cheese glaze. Serve with coffee or tea.

Note: If you're not a fan of cream cheese glaze, you can mix up a powdered sugar frosting using a half-cup of powdered sugar, a quarter-teaspoon of vanilla, and enough milk to achieve a spreading consistency.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

this large oven impersonating night

The city is baking, and so am I.

It is stifling in my top-floor studio apartment. The nights have been airless, and a fan provides little relief. I turn restlessly in bed, unable to sleep.

When the ticking of the clock grows unbearable, the wait for slumber interminable, I get up and throw open the windows, hoping for an errant breeze. I turn on the light and pad over to the kitchen, pulling out mixing bowls and baking supplies.

In weather like this, I'll prepare the dough for a sweet yeasted cake. From kugelhopf to old-fashioned crumb cake, sweet yeasted cakes are commonly found in the German tradition. Many exist in modernized form as quickbreads with chemical leavening, but for midnight baking, the old ways are the best ways.

Mixing and kneading distracts me from the heat, soothing my mind enough to give sleep another chance, and the dough can be left in the fridge for a slow overnight rise, ready for baking in the cool hours of the early morning.

With cake for breakfast, the heat seems almost bearable.

Raspberry Almond Gooey Butter Cake

The original recipe for this cake was sent to me by Virgin, who has a deep and abiding love for sweet, buttery desserts. I couldn't resist the addition of raspberries and almonds, and I used golden syrup rather than corn syrup, because I don't keep the latter on hand.

(Makes one 9 x 13 pan, which is a lot of cake. Not for one unless you have a serious, serious sweet tooth.)

In a large measuring cup, combine three tablespoons of milk with two tablespoons of hot water to produce a mixture that is lukewarm. Add one-and-three-quarters of a teaspoon of active dry yeast. Set aside in a warm place to let the yeast develop (the mixture will foam a little.)

In a large mixing bowl, cream together three-quarters of a stick of softened butter with three tablespoons of white sugar and one teaspoon of salt. Beat in one large egg.

Add a quarter-cup of flour, and pour in a little of the milk mixture. Give everything a stir. Add another quarter-cup of flour, and pour in a little more of the milk mixture. Give everything a stir. Add one last quarter-cup of flour, for a total of three-quarters of a cup, and pour in the last of the milk mixture. Stir until you have a sticky dough.

Turn the dough out on a clean countertop. Knead for eight to ten minutes, or until the dough is smooth and elastic.

Press the dough into a 9 x 13 baking pan. Cover with plastic wrap and leave in a warm place until doubled in size, about two hours. (Or, if you're doing this in the middle of the night and have decided you're tired enough to give sleep a second try, leave it in the fridge for six hours or so.)

Once the dough has doubled in size and you're ready to bake, preheat the oven to 350F.

To make the topping, cream together one-and-a-half sticks of softened butter with one-and-a-half-cups of white sugar and one teaspoon of salt. Beat in one large egg, one-and-a-half teaspoons of vanilla, and one teaspoon of amaretto.

Stir in three overflowing tablespoons of golden syrup, followed by two tablespoons of warm water. Finally, work in one cup plus three tablespoons of flour, a quarter-cup at a time. The end result will be a thick, sticky batter.

To assemble the cake, start by scattering one cup of raspberries (fresh or frozen) over the dough in the pan. Dollop the filling over, and smooth it out. Sprinkle with a half-cup of toasted flaked almonds.

Bake for thirty-five to forty minutes, or until browned at the edges, but still liquid in the middle. Let the cake cool in the pan.

If your sweet tooth is truly insatiable, you can dust the cake with confectioner's sugar before serving.

Note: I suspect this cake might benefit from a minute or two under the broiler, just to caramelize the topping a little further. If you test this theory out, let me know how it goes.

Poetic Postscript

The title of this entry comes from the following poem by Denis Johnson, from the collection "The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations Millennium General Assembly: Poems Collected and New." This is the poem I think of when summer turns sticky and stifling.


Here in the electric dusk your naked lover
tips the glass high and the ice cubes fall against her teeth.
It's beautiful Susan, her hair sticky with gin,
Our Lady of the Wet Glass-Rings on the Album Cover,
streaming with hatred in the heat
as the record falls and the snake-band chords begin
to break like terrible news from the Rolling Stones,
and such a last light -- full of spheres and zones.
you're just an erotic hallucination,
just so much feverishly produced kazoo music,
are you serious? -- this large oven
impersonating night,
this exhaustion mutilated to resemble passion,
the bogus moon of tenderness and magic,
you hold out to each prisoner like a cup of light?

Saturday, July 3, 2010

dessert before doom

The beginning of July marks the halfway point for summer bar exam candidates. Four more weeks of cramming and outlining and cleaning out the stock of index cards at the local Staples, and far too many pronouncements of doom. Heaven help us, should we do anything less than breathe, eat, and sleep bar exam law for the remaining weeks.

I'm not quite there yet. I've been distracted. You see, for me, the beginning of July is a marker of something else: the tail end of strawberry season.

When it comes to berry fruits, raspberries are my first love, but strawberries are a close second. I'll take a pass on supermarket strawberries, with their freakish size and waterlogged, cardboardy texture, but the strawberries at the farmer's market are a whole different game - small, sweet, and vibrantly flavorful.

I eat most of my strawberries plain. Sometimes they don't even make it out of their little cardboard containers, particularly when they've been sitting in the sun and have that lovely warm strawberry fragrance. If I plan ahead, they end up sliced in a salad with lettuce, goat's cheese, almonds and a drizzle of balsamic vinegar. Should there be any extras, they become breakfast, topped with Greek yogurt and a swirl of honey.

Come dessert time, there usually aren't any left. But sometimes, I'll buy two pints quarts, and dedicate one to dessert.

I know shortcake is the quintessential American strawberry dessert, but it came late into my life, long after I'd already fixed my allegiance to another.

My strawberry dessert is tarte aux fraises, the classic French strawberry tart: buttery pâte sucrée, thick pastry cream, and lots and lots of fresh, ripe strawberries.

A tarte aux fraises
is a pleasure to assemble, and it's an attractive sight when complete - a golden shell of pastry, filled with concentric rings of fat red berries nestled in pale yellow pastry cream. In a tarte aux fraises, I find a little sweetness to look forward to at the end of marathon cramming session.

Or something to ease into the beginning. After all, if I'm doomed, I may as well eat dessert first.

Tarte Aux Fraises (Strawberry Tart)

You'll often see this tart in bakeries with a glossy apricot glaze on the berries. It looks pretty, but I think it distracts from the flavor of really fresh, ripe strawberries, so I don't bother.

(Makes one eight-inch tart. It doesn't keep terribly well - the pastry softens as it sits - so it's better to round up company to help you eat it.)

For the tart shell: Cream together one stick of softened butter with a quarter-cup of sugar and a generous pinch of salt. Beat in one egg yolk. Work in one cup of flour, a quarter-cup at a time, until you have a soft dough. Wrap in plastic and chill in the fridge for an hour.

Preheat the oven to 325F.

Roll out the dough between floured sheets of wax paper to a one-eighth inch thickness, and press it into an eight-inch false-bottomed tart pan. Trim the excess. (You can re-roll it, and stamp out small cookies, which go well with berries and cream.)

Press a sheet of parchment paper into the pastry case, and line it with rice or dried beans. (Or pie weights, if you have them.) Bake for twenty to twenty-five minutes, or until just browned at the edges. Remove the weights. Allow to fully cool before removing from pan.

For the pastry cream: In a medium-sized bowl, whisk together two egg yolks, a scant quarter-cup of sugar, and one tablespoon of flour.

Bring half a cup of milk and a quarter-cup of heavy cream to a simmer in a small saucepan.

Whisk the cream mixture into the egg mixture, then pour the entire mixture back into the saucepan. Cook over low heat, whisking steadily, until the mixture comes to a low boil.

Let the mixture boil for one minute, then transfer to a small bowl and stir in a half-teaspoon of vanilla. Cover with plastic wrap - press it right up against the cream to prevent a skin from forming - and chill until cold.

To assemble the tart: Take a pint and a half of strawberries, wash them, dry them, and cut off their hulls so that they sit flat on their tops.

Beat the pastry cream with a tablespoon or two of cream - enough to get it to a spreadable consistency. (More cream will make it custardy, but it'll get messy when you slice it.)

Spoon the pastry cream into the tart shell, and smooth it out with a knife. Arrange the strawberries atop the pastry cream in concentric rings. Serve within an hour.

Note: If you'd like to store the finished tart for more than an hour or two, paint the shell with melted chocolate (put it in the freezer to set) before filling it with pastry cream. It keeps the tart from softening.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

with an ice-cream sandwich in hand

To borrow an expression from Mark Twain, the difference between law school and the bar exam is like the difference between lighting and a lightning bug.

The subjects I liked best (read: loathed the least) in law school don't exist in the universe delineated by ten half-hour essays. Subjects that were maddeningly mutable in law school are remarkably fixed in the space of six hours with two hundred multiple choice questions. The law of the bar exam is not the law of law school, but a law skewed and off-kilter, a strange world unto itself.

Still, some things remain unchanged. Civil Procedure endures as a bane of my existence.

Civil Procedure is all about the rules that courts follow in civil lawsuits. It is, theoretically, all about standards and deadlines. In practice, it's a godawful mess of shifting burdens, tests and balancing. It didn't make sense in law school. It doesn't make any more sense now.

I still don't know what Erie was about. Just the phrase "choice of laws" is enough to make me break out in a cold sweat. And every time I try to read the handy-dandy summary prepared by my bar review course, my eyes start to glaze over.

Unfortunately, the numbers indicate that I probably will have to write about personal jurisdiction and diversity on at least one of the ten aforementioned essays. I need a better study plan.

Said new and improved study plan is this: I will make ice-cream without an ice-cream maker.

I don't mean ice-cream churned in a bowl set in another bowl filled with crushed ice and rock salt. (While fun, that wouldn't get me any closer to understanding the minimum contacts test.) I'm referring to the process in which you make up a custard, pour it into a shallow pan, put it in the freezer, and stir it every half-hour or so as it freezes. The ice crystals that form are larger, so the end result isn't quite as smooth, but it's still cold, sweet and creamy - decidedly ice-cream.

If I make ice-cream without an ice-cream maker, I'll study as it freezes, and take a break every half-hour when it needs to be stirred. It has to be stirred every half-hour, so I'll have to stay at home. And if I make homemade ice-cream, I can bake cookies and make ice-cream sandwiches. Choice of laws analysis will go much more smoothly with an ice-cream sandwich in hand.

As study plans go, it's foolproof. Or at least it will be, once I figure out how to read the Civil Procedure summary without falling asleep.

Lime Buttermilk Ice-Cream Sandwiches

(Makes about ten two-and-a-half inch sandwiches. Will keep for a week or two, wrapped in squares of wax paper in a covered container.)

First things first. Grab a large, shallow, freezer-safe container and put it in the freezer. Something metal and circular - like a big cake tin - would be ideal, but a square or rectangular container will also do, just as long as it's large and shallow.

Put four egg yolks in a large bowl. (Reserve one egg white for the cookies. The rest can go to make meringues or macarons.) In another large bowl, combine one cup of buttermilk with the zest from one lime.

In a large, heavy-bottomed pan, bring one cup of cream, a third of a cup of sugar, half a teaspoon of vanilla and a pinch of salt to a low simmer.

Gradually beat the cream mixture into the egg yolks, then pour the mixture back in the pan. Cook over low heat, stirring constantly, until the mixture thickens and coats the back of a spoon (when it reaches a yogurt-like consistency.)

Set a fine-meshed sieve over the bowl with the buttermilk. Pour the custard through the sieve, and stir the mixture until it is fully incorporated. Place in an ice bath or cool in the fridge until completely cold.

Pull out the freezer-safe container, pour in the custard, and put the container in the freezer.

Wait half an hour. Pull out the container and stir the custard, scraping down the sides where it's begun to set with a spatula.

Wait another half-hour. Stir, scraping down the sides.

Repeat this process every every half-hour. As the ice-cream really starts to set, you may want to switch to a fork or whisk to keep big icy lumps from forming. Stir until the mixture reaches the consistency of soft serve, and then spoon into a covered container.

To make the cookies, cream together one stick of softened butter with a quarter-cup of sugar and a heaped quarter-teaspoon of salt. Beat in the zest from one lime, followed by one egg white. Stir in one teaspoon of baking powder. Work in one-and-a-quarter cups of flour, a quarter-cup at a time, until you have a soft dough.

Chill the dough for at least an hour in the fridge.

Roll the dough out between floured sheets of wax paper, and use a two-and-a-half inch cookie cutter to stamp out cookies. Bake at 350F for ten to twelve minutes, or until browned at the edges.

Transfer to a rack.

Mix up a glaze using the juice from your two limes, a tablespoon of sugar, and a generous pinch of salt. Turn the cookies over and brush the undersides with the glaze.

To assemble, hold one cookie glaze-side up, top with a few spoonfuls of ice-cream, and sandwich with another cookie, glaze-side down. Use a butter knife to smooth out the edges. Repeat until you run out of cookies (you'll probably have some ice-cream left over.) Chill for an hour or so before eating.