Thursday, October 28, 2010

gingerbread, or, the witch speaks on all hallows eve

The Brothers Grimm would have you believe that I was a bloodthirsty crone. That I built a cottage of gingerbread in the woods to lure small children, that I emprisoned Hansel and enslaved Gretel and died a terrible death in the flames of my own oven. That the children were cruelly mistreated and escaped only by their own cleverness. That I deserved my fate.

I don't begrudge the storytellers their livelihood; let them tell their tales as they will. For all I know, there lived such a witch, and such children, and all received such a fate as they deserved. But that is their story, not mine.

There was no gingerbread cottage in the woods, nor famine in the land. It was a time of plenty, and I lived in a fine, prosperous town. Mine was a dwelling of timber, with rooms upstairs and a shop below.

No potions, no charms. I dealt in sweets, in candied pleasures. Sugar mice for the children. Turkish delight and cocoa-dusted truffles for the lovers. Jordan almonds for the brides. The closest I ever came to a cauldron was a copper panning kettle. The only herb I kept was a pot of horehound, used in comfits to soothe a sore throat.

Perhaps it wasn't seemly for a woman with an unlined face and no grey in her hair to keep a shop alone. Even if I wore a band of gold threaded on a silver chain about my neck, and told those who asked that I had lost my husband to the war. The ring was my father's, the chain my mother's, and both of them long in the ground.

So I lied about being a widow. What of it? There are worse sins.

They weren't children. Gretel may not yet have been of marrying age, and Hansel still seeking a bride, but their days of short trousers and pigtails were long gone by the time they came to town.

Their father, a wealthy merchant, had been a widower. For his second wife, he chose a woman young and fair and vain. A fall from his horse made her a widow a bare month after the wedding feast. She had left her hometown to marry him. Upon his death, she chose to return, and her dead husband's children had no choice but to follow.  

She had a weakness for crystallised violets. Her lady's maid had a wagging tongue. I knew of Hansel and Gretel well before either set foot in my shop.

Hansel came to me for a lover's tokens, the same as any young man of courting age in town. Boxes of marrons glacés tied in bright ribbons. Silvery coffrets of blackcurrant pastilles. Curls of chocolate-dipped orange peel, nestled in golden paper. His manner was gentle, his coin generous. I was glad for his custom, and so I took the time to listen when he spoke.

He told me of his sister Gretel, trapped in a household with a stepmother young enough to be her sister and too vain to treat her with anything but scorn. Sometimes, his gilded boxes of calissons and mendiants would be joined by a paper sack of sugar mice, though he ruefully admitted that Gretel preferred to steal crystallised violets from her stepmother out of spite.

In midwinter he brought me roses. Not a bouquet of blushing long-stemmed blooms sheathed in fine paper, but an untidy bunch of full-blown crimson blossoms wrapped in canvas. I asked them as a favor of him, for he had spoken of his family's hothouse, and my supply of rosewater had waned. I would have paid him, but he wouldn't accept my coin. Instead, I gave him a parcel of candied gingerroot, for he mentioned that Gretel had fallen ill with a cold.

Gretel came to me some weeks later. I knew her for who she was without asking her name. I read it in her clever, curious eyes. She told me she liked candied gingerroot better than sugar mice. She insisted that her brother had no sweetheart, that his boxes of buttered caramels and sugared figs became the servants' spoils. She had come to see what secrets I might be hiding.

At first I only spoke to her of my craft, describing the tricks of cutting toffee, explaining the art of whipping marshmallow sap. Later, I taught her to form rabbits and pigs from marzipan, fingers quick and light. She helped me crystalise violets in the spring, carefully turning the fragile clusters on their drying racks. She stole out early on summer mornings and I showed her how to choose the brightest, plumpest berries for pâtes de fruits.

She didn't speak of her father or her stepmother. I never asked.

With autumn came pressed cider and bonfires of crackling leaves. The streets were bright with lanterns, and spirits high. The townsfolk had coin in their pockets, and were eager to spend it. My days were busy, and I dreamed of sugar at night.

I had promised to teach Gretel to make candied apples once they were plentiful at the market, but she remained absent, even when the stalls were piled high. Hansel, too, had vanished, and I wondered if perhaps his courting had borne fruit, if a match had not been made. I could have asked the lady's maid when she came for her mistress' crystallised violets, but I chose to hold my tongue. I would hear soon enough, should there be call for Jordan almonds.

In the days before All Hallows Eve, I fashioned a house from gingerbread. A house with a steep gabled roof and wide eaves, embellished with scrolls of royal icing and silvered dragées. A house with windows of poured sugar, a chimney of mixed glacé fruits, and a harvest wreath of marzipan on the chocolate-painted front door. I made the house for my shop window: a beacon to draw young lovers on evening walks, a wonder to entice children to marvel and press their noses against the pane. A proof of my craft, to bring them inside.

The night before All Hallows Eve, Gretel knocked upon my door.

In a voice like stone, she told me Hansel had joined a merchant ship sailing for foreign lands. Her stepmother sought to betroth Gretel to a man both rich and cruel, and without her brother to stay her hand, the match would be made. She swore that this was my doing, that I had driven him away and doomed her to a hopeless fate. Did I not see that the boxes upon boxes of sweets were his excuse to speak with me, the winter roses a lover's offering? What good did it serve for me to pine for my lost husband as he rotted in the ground?

She left without waiting for an answer. As she passed through the door, she turned back briefly - to warn me that I would be sorry.

Gretel's words were mad fancies, bred of fear and sorrow. Hansel had made his escape, and had Gretel asked, I would have offered her a way to do the same. I would have told her that I was no widow, that the falsehood kept me free to practice the craft I loved. She had learned my lessons well. She could find her own way.

Let it be known that I did not spurn Hansel, for if he thought well upon me, he never said a word. I admit I would have turned him away had he asked. Though he spoke kindly, I had no love to spare for a husband.

I candied apples that night, dipping each fruit in molten sugar crimson with cochineal. Rows like a regiment of soldiers lined up along my workbench, awaiting an onslaught of teeth and tongue. When I set the last apple on the bench, shining in its sweet shell, I thought a full night of sleep well-earned.

Late in the night, a crash startled me awake.

In my workroom, I found candied apples tumbled all over the floor. Gretel stood at the bench with a mallet in hand, the house a wreck of crumbled icing and broken gingerbread. I came up behind her too quietly. Surprised, she turned and swung the mallet at my head. When I came to, the room was ablaze, the air filling with smoke and the scent of scorching sugar.

I don't believe Gretel lit the fire. More likely that she knocked the panning kettle into the fireplace and scattered the burning embers in her haste to flee. Whether she found her betrothal to a cruel and wealthy landowner punishment or penance, I couldn't say. I know nothing further of Hansel, either.

As for my fate, I will let you decide if it was deserved. I escaped the fire with my life, but lost my craft. Burns left my hands scarred and trembling, too ruined for delicate work.

There is still no cottage in the woods. I started afresh in another town. No sweets, no candied pleasures. I deal in bread, a plain trade of yeast and flour. No iced buns for the children, nor brioche for the lovers, but boules and baguettes for ordinary folk. Now that my hair is completely grey and my face fully lined, I no longer lie about being a widow, for no-one cares to ask.

And if on All Hallows Eve I should make biscuits studded with chocolate and candied gingerroot, in memory of the craft I lost, that is no-one's business but my own.

Ginger Chocolate Chip Cookies

Mars and Hershey's might do for the trick-or-treaters, but these make for far more pleasant nibbling if you're waiting to hand out candy at the door.

(Makes one dozen. Dough will freeze.)

In a mixing bowl, cream together one-and-a-quarter sticks of unsalted softened butter and half a cup of brown sugar.

Beat in one egg, one teaspoon of ground ginger, half a teaspoon of vanilla, and a quarter-teaspoon of salt.

Stir in one teaspoon of baking powder, followed by one cup of flour.

Stir in one cup of dark chocolate chips, and one-third of a cup of finely chopped crystallized ginger.

Allow the dough chill in the fridge until firm, then divide into a dozen balls (dough may be frozen at this point.)

To bake, preheat the oven to 350F. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.

Place the cookie dough balls on the baking sheets, and flatten them slightly with the palm of your hand. Bake the cookies for twelve to fifteen minutes, or until golden brown.

Allow cookies to cool for five minutes on baking sheets before transferring to a cooling rack.

Serve cool.

Monday, October 25, 2010

dreadfully detailed disclaimers

I am always surprised when people tell me they cook from my blog.
I know it sounds ridiculous. It is, after all, the ostensible purpose of this whole enterprise. I should be delighted to know that I'm not sitting on the stage in an empty theatre, monologuing in the dark. Indeed, I am delighted to know that I'm not sitting on the stage in an empty theatre, monologuing in the dark. I'm glad to have an audience. But - to push the metaphor further - I'm a little unsure of my lines.
There's a difference between inviting people to partake of a meal and offering advice on how to prepare a meal. The idea that people trust my taste in food without having tasted it, that they're willing to believe that what I think is good is, well, good, is just a little scary. Knowing that there are people out there who trust my ability to give directions, to the point where they'll prepare food accordingly, is still a little unnerving. Two hundred entries and counting, and I still have the faint urge to write a dreadfully detailed disclaimer disavowing all responsibility for anything that could or might go wrong.

(The fact that I can write dreadfully detailed disclaimers disavowing all responsibility for anything that could or might go wrong is unnerving on a whole other level.)

Even more surprising, perhaps, is discovering that people not only cook from my blog, but learn to cook from my blog. There's nothing like being asked for a recipe for such-and-such (and discovering its marked absence) to cue the urge to write an entirely different dreadfully detailed disclaimer - one that explains that the collection of entries is by no means a complete or comprehensive overview of culinary how-tos.

Granted, I'm not setting out to write my own version of the Joy of Cooking. I have my particular areas of interest, and barely touch on many others. Still, this doesn't explain some of the gaps in my recipe index. For example, I don't know how I managed to go three years without ever posting a frittata recipe.

A frittata lies on the egg continuum, somewhere between omelette and quiche. A mixture of eggs and whatever's on hand, it's a way of making a respectable dinner out of odds and ends, particularly good if you have unexpected guests. In terms of difficulty, it's not all that different to making an omelette (no rolling or folding, even), and nearly as fast.

All of which is excellent news. Thinking about dreadfully detailed disclaimers has made me hungry, and I believe there are eggs in the fridge calling my name.

(No photos. It always gets eaten before I think to get out the camera.)

Chicken, Potato, and Onion Frittata

This particular version is my way of using up leftovers from a roast chicken dinner, but you can vary the fillings as you please.

(Serves one for two, perhaps three meals.)

Shred one leftover chicken breast into bite-size pieces. Cut one leftover roast potato (three or four baby potatoes) into rough dice.

Heat a decent splash of olive oil in an ovenproof pan (nonstick is useful, but not essential) over low heat. Slice up one white onion or a few shallots, and fry until sweet and caramelized. Sprinkle with coarse salt and a few teaspoons of chopped fresh thyme. Add the chicken and the potatoes, and give everything a stir.

Beat three or four eggs in a bowl with a splash of milk, enough to turn the mixture pale yellow. Pour the beaten egg into the pan.

Cook until the frittata starts to look set around the edges, but is still wobbly in the middle.

Transfer the pan to a broiler on low heat. Cook until the top is set and has those tasty-looking golden brown spots.

(For faster cooking, you can treat the mixture as you would an omelette, lifting up the edges as they cook to let the uncooked mixture flow underneath, in which case you'll only want it briefly under a broiler on high heat.)

Remove from heat. Serve with green salad, and a dollop of tapenade or other olive spread on the side.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

world enough and time

Someday, when I have the time, my blogging to-do list will be organized. I will no longer have fifteen to twenty unpublished posts in various states of completion. I will delete the half-formed thoughts that were never going to go anywhere. And I will reorganize the bits that might be a starting point for a post sometime in the future.

Someday, I won't leave restaurant reviews to languish for so long that they'll no longer be worth finishing when I get back around to them. I'll recognize passing fancies for what they are, so that I don't have random notes about syllabub and earl grey sachertorte staring at me every time I open my "idle thoughts" Word file. Someday, I'll be disciplined enough that I won't need an "idle thoughts" Word file.

Or so I've been telling myself for the past two years. It's all become rather moot in the past two months.

Lately, I haven't had to worry about finding the time to blog. I haven't been scrambling to get posts published so that they don't get lost before I start the next round. I haven't been trying to keep abreast of everything I've cooked. I haven't been doing much cooking at all.

I've been sidetracked from my plans to move to Sydney. My parents aren't quite willing to let go of their dream of having a lawyer in the family, and so everything's been up in the air. I'm not really in a place where I can cook new and interesting things, but I've got a lot of empty space in my schedule.

"Someday," it seems, is now. A tentative glance at the disaster that is my drafts folder reveals that I have no shortage of material. Even if I can't cook, I can certainly blog. So until I get back into a cooking space, I'll be going over some of the dishes from the past three years that I just didn't have time to write up the first time around.

Let me begin with a recipe from the I-really-meant-to-write-about-this-honestly-I-swear-it-just-got-away-from-me list.

Tarte Tatin was supposed to be the logical follow-up to my puff pastry tutorial. It's a French classic: an upside-down tart with a puff pastry base and a topping of caramelized apples. Of all the things you can do with homemade puff pastry, it's one of the simplest, and possibly the most delicious.

When I made this, I remembered to take photos and I wrote up the recipe, but the blog post got lost somewhere between my retelling of Peter Rabbit and my first O.N.C.E. dinner. I think this dates from winter of 2008, so it's a belated post by well over a year. I'm consoling myself with the fact that I rediscovered it in time for this year's apple season, at least.

Tarte Tatin

Instructions for homemade puff pastry may be found here.

(Makes one seven-inch tart.)

Set a seven-inch, oven-safe pan (cast iron is good) over very low heat. Place a quarter-stick of salted butter in the pan and let it melt, swirling to coat. Sprinkle over a quarter-cup of white sugar and a generous pinch of salt.

Take two large apples (I like Granny Smith, but any tart cooking variety will do), peel them, and core them. Cut the apples into eigths and arrange them in the pan in rings. Don’t worry if they don't fit quite properly – they're going to cook down. Bring the heat up to low.

Keep the contents of the pan at a steady simmer. The apples will soften, and the liquid in the pan will thicken and darken. (If you're using a dark-colored pan, like cast iron, dip a spoon in the liquid every so often to check on the color.) Once the liquid turns deep caramel, turn off the heat.

Preheat the oven to 400F.

Roll out a square of puff pastry to a size a little larger than the pan. Place it over the apples. Cut five slits in the pastry, radiating outwards. (This helps the pastry to rise.)

Place the pan in the oven with a baking tray beneath, just in case the apple mixture bubbles and drips. Bake for forty to fifty minutes, or until the pastry puffs and browns.

Remove the pan from the oven, and turn the tart out on a serving plate. If any of the apples get stuck, use a fork to rearrange them. Serve immediately with whipped cream or ice-cream on the side.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

saga of the delicious red

According to an old Italian expression, se non è vero, è ben trovato. "Even if it's not true, it's well-conceived."

With that in mind, let me tell you a story.

Once upon a time, there was a law student named Virgin. (Her name is neither accurate nor true, but that’s beside the point.) Virgin, like most law students, was stressed and rather unhappy. And like most students, she had developed various coping mechanisms.

Virgin’s coping mechanism was alcohol. Top-shelf bourbon. Imported beer. Red wine.

One day, Virgin, after a long day of reading, briefing, and reviewing, went to her fridge for
a drink. (Or several.) Unfortunately, she was out of beer, out of wine, and the top-shelf bourbon in her liquor cabinet was not something for a night of heavy drinking. Virgin grumbled, for it was cold outside, but she shrugged on her jacket, put on shoes, grabbed her keys and wallet, and trudged down to the liquor store.

No lights were on in the liquor store. “Closed For Inventory” read the sign. Virgin sighed, uttered a few words that are best not repeated, and turned to make her way back home.

But what was this? Across the road from the liquor store, sandwiched between the 7-11 and a laundromat, stood a dimly lit package store. Virgin crossed the road to investigate more closely. Perhaps there would be beer.

There was beer. The options were dismal. She found something else: a box wine by the name of Delicious Red. Virgin knew that box wine was a dicey proposition, but decided to take her chances. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

Sadly, the Delicious Red, though very red, was not delicious in any way, shape, or form. Even the European trick of mixing it with Coca-Cola didn’t help. And the hangover the next day was brutal. Virgin was left with four and a half liters of red wine she had no intention of drinking.

(Maybe Keystone Light would have been the wiser choice.)

What does one do with four and a half liters of dreadful red wine?

The same thing one does with any wine that isn't fit to drink: use it for cooking. And so Virgin went to class with the red wine hidden in juice bottles, and passed them on to a friend who had plans for braised pork.

Or had plans, at least. They only lasted until said friend tasted the wine.

Cloyingly sweet, unpleasantly sticky. Echoes of Welch’s Grape in the body. Overtones of Jolly Rancher candy in the nose. The Delicious Red had all the character of Manischewitz, albeit slightly less viscous. Not a wine for braising pork, unless one wanted candied stew.

Instead, Virgin's friend poured a bottle of the Delicious Red into a pot and added sugar and mulling spices. Reducing the liquid, she added quartered pears and hoped for the best.

After a long, slow simmer, the pears turned a lovely shade of deep red, the syrup, spicy with cherry notes. They paired remarkably well with chocolate souffle, and were good with ice-cream too.

Thus were mulled-wine pears born.

Mulled-Wine Pears

Don’t use a wine you’d drink for this. Instead, use the sweetest, most awful cheap red wine you can find.

(Serves one with leftovers, if one likes pears. They’ll keep in the fridge for a week.)

Set a large, heavy-bottomed saucepan on the stove. Pour in four cups of sweet red wine. Add a teaspoon of mulling spice (cinnamon, nutmeg, clove, allspice, orange peel). Bring to a boil, and allow to reduce by half.

Meanwhile, take four firm pears, peel them, core them, and cut them into quarters.

Stir two or three teaspoons of sugar into the poaching liquid. Gently slide the pears in.

Cook at a simmer until the liquid reduces to a light syrup (about an hour or so), then turn off the heat. Allow to cool.

Serve warm with something soft and chocolately. Leftovers are also good over ice-cream.

Monday, October 4, 2010

a cookie for Bobbie Sue

I'm not much of a specialty baker.

For all my meddling and reluctance to follow a recipe directly, I don't do much in the way of adaptations for dietary restrictions. Tinkering with seasonings and proportions is one thing, but making wholesale substitutions is quite another. I know where I am with whole eggs versus egg whites. When it comes to egg replacer, all bets are off.

I play it safe, seeking out recipes for given restrictions that don't use (or need) the problem ingredients in the first place. Gluten-free cookie? Try a delinquent macaron. Vegan tea treat? Have a slice of banana bread. Sugar-free baked good?

Er. Did you try Googling for "nearest specialty bakery?"

I carried out a few experiments in sugar-free baking during college. There was a lot of Splenda involved, and the results were terrible. (File under "youthful stupidity, in the name of." Blame the Atkins diet. Lesson learned: don't date anyone who doesn't eat pasta.)

Even after I gained more experience in the kitchen, I had no need for sugar-free baked goods in my repertoire, and so I never bothered revisiting that particular dark chapter of my culinary endeavors.

Then I met Bobbie Sue.

Bobbie Sue, Bella's mother, is a spectacular baker. From rich, moist blueberry buckle, to flaky snickerdoodles, to tangy rhubarb pie, her creations defy guests to not go back for seconds. Unfortunately, Bobbie Sue can't eat sugar for health reasons, and while she looks on with good grace during the dessert course at holiday gatherings (and urges guests to take seconds), it still seems unfair.

My chance to remedy that came at a Fourth of July potluck. Short on time, I decided to bake shortbread. Casting about for seasonings, I came across a package of Trader Joe's cranberry, pecan and rosemary snack mix. Lining up all my ingredients on the counter, it struck me: sugar isn't essential to the structure of shortbread.

The rest was easy: skip the sugar. Throw in an egg yolk for extra binding. Add vanilla to enhance the sweetness of the dried cranberries.

The result? Delicate, buttery cranberry-pecan rosemary sandies. Cookies that Bobbie Sue could eat. A decent sugar-free recipe for my repertoire.

And not a Splenda packet in sight.

Cranberry-Pecan Rosemary Sandies

If you live near a Trader Joe's, you can use one package of their rosemary cranberry pecans in this recipe, instead of buying the ingredients separately.

These work well as part of a cookie assortment, and also make an interesting addition to a cheese tray.

Appended note: These are technically sugar-free, in that the recipe doesn't call for sugar, but as one of my commenters points out, dried cranberries are sweetened. Double-check with your dietary restrictions as necessary.

(Makes two dozen. Dough may be frozen.)

In a mixing bowl, combine one stick of softened unsalted butter with one egg yolk, a half-teaspoon of salt, a half-teaspoon of vanilla, and a half-teaspoon of dried rosemary. Work in one cup of flour, a quarter-cup at a time, until you have a sandy dough. Mix in half a cup of toasted salted pecans and half a cup of dried cranberries.

Turn the dough (it will be quite crumbly) out on a sheet of wax paper. Form the dough into a one-and-a-half-inch log, roll it up in the wax paper, and chill in the fridge for an hour.

Preheat the oven to 325F. Line two baking trays with parchment paper.

Cut the log into two halves. Cut each half into a dozen slices, and arrange the slices on the baking trays. (Dough may be frozen at this point.)

Bake for fourteen to fifteen minutes, or until browned at the edges. Allow to cool for five minutes on baking trays before transferring to a cooling rack. Cool fully before serving.