Saturday, December 31, 2011

the obligatory new year's eve cocktail post, sans cocktail

I had the idea that my taste in alcohol would mature after college.

I thought it would be part and parcel of that mysterious metamorphosis from which I'd emerge a full-fledged Grown-Up. At some point in my twenties, my dress sense would evolve, I'd lose my taste for hot wings, and somewhere along the way, I'd also acquire a taste for gin-and-tonics and develop the ability to drink wine and have something intelligent to say about it.

So far, I've decided that hot wings lose a lot of their appeal when there are no late nights in dorm common rooms involved, but my taste in clothing is stuck at dark jeans and t-shirts with funny slogans, I find that gin still tastes medicinal, and the only comment I can make about wine is what it smells like when I stick my nose in the glass. I still drink dry whites, fruity reds, dark beers, Frangelico-spiked coffee, and not much else. I might learn to mix a proper martini at some point (it seems like a useful skill), but it's doubtful that I'd actually drink the finished result.

Suffice to say, no-one would put me in charge of drinks at a New Year's Eve gathering. (Well, not unless they planned to serve nothing but large quantities of bone-dry prosecco.) That's fine with me, because I'm perfectly happy to handle canapes and cocktail nibbles instead.

I think of canapes and cocktail nibbles as two distinct categories of appetizers. Canapes, in sufficient quantities, will make a meal. Cocktail nibbles, however, are closer to bar snacks - something to graze on before the mini quiches and prosciutto-wrapped asparagus spears make their appearance - and therefore shouldn't be too elaborate, or too numerous. Toasted nuts, mixed olives, maybe a few thin curls of salty ham. Items that can be found at a good deli or import store, and don't require any cooking.

Of course, there's always an exception to the rule. Cheese twists (or cheese straws) are long spirals of cheese-flavored pastry, pleasant to nibble on with a glass in hand, and quite festive as part of a cocktail spread. While you can find some perfectly serviceable varieties at a good import store, they're even better when baked from scratch.

The recipe below is essentially a basic pastry recipe, modified to incorporate cheese, and given the "rough puff" treatment to produce flaky, crispy twists. Classic flavorings for cheese twists include paprika and rosemary, but I've chosen to flavor mine with toasted cumin seeds and black pepper. They're quite moreish, and they have the added bonus of making my underdeveloped taste in alcohol irrelevant. Never mind the martinis - I find that they pair best with bone-dry prosecco anyway.

Parmesan Cheddar Cheese Twists with Toasted Cumin and Black Pepper

For rosemary and black pepper twists, replace the cumin with one teaspoon of finely chopped fresh rosemary.

(Makes about three dozen six-inch twists. Will keep in an airtight container for up to a week, but they're best consumed fresh.)

In a dry pan over low heat, toast one tablespoon of whole cumin seeds until aromatic, about five minutes or so. Transfer the cumin to a small bowl, and set aside to cool.

In a mixing bowl, combine two hundred grams of plain flour (about a cup and a half) with a quarter-teaspoon of salt. Cut in a hundred grams of chilled butter (about seven tablespoons) and rub it in with your fingertips until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs. Stir in fifty grams of finely grated - preferably Microplaned - parmesan (one point eight ounces, about a cup), a sprinkling of freshly ground black pepper, and the toasted cumin seeds.

Add four tablespoons of ice water, and turn the mixture gently until it just starts to hold together. Add sixty grams (two ounces) of finely chopped sharp cheddar and work it into the dough.

Turn the dough out on a clean countertop. Flatten it out roughly with the palm of your hand, and fold it over into thirds, like a letter. Flatten it out again lengthways, and fold it over into thirds again. Flatten and fold one more time, to make three times in all. Wrap the dough in plastic and chill in the fridge until firm.

When the dough has been fully chilled, pull it from the fridge and cut it in half. Wrap up one half and stick it back in the fridge.

Preheat the oven to 180F. Line two baking trays with parchment paper.

Take the dough half and roll it out between sheets of greaseproof paper until it's three milimetres (about an eighth of an inch) thick. Trim the dough so that it's fifteen centimetres (about six inches) long (keep the scraps) and then cut it into centimetre-wide strips.

Take a strip of dough and set it on the countertop. Take the ends between your fingers, and turn them in opposite directions so that the dough twists upon itself. (Give the strip plenty of turns, because the dough will untwist a little after it's been placed on the baking tray.) Lay the twist on a baking tray, and repeat the process with the remaining strips. Transfer the twists to the oven.

Bake the twists for twenty-five to twenty-eight minutes, switching the trays halfway, until twists are golden brown. As they bake, roll and cut the remaining dough. (Any scraps can be re-rolled, too.)

Transfer the finished twists to a cooling rack, and finish shaping and baking the remaining dough.

When all the twists are cool, transfer them to an airtight container. To serve, arrange in wide-mouthed jars or glasses. If you like, they may be warmed slightly before serving.

Note: I suspect the twists may be shaped, frozen, and later baked from frozen, but I have yet to test the theory, so don't take my word for it.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

the hostess gift

Of all the voices I joke about hearing in my head, there's one I sometimes forget. It's a quiet little voice, easily overlooked, and it gets lost when all the other voices - the ones that talk about food and cooking - start clamoring for attention.

That little voice only pipes up when I'm invited to dinner, or lunch, or tea, or any other sort of social occasion at someone's home. And then I wonder how I ever could forget about its existence. You see, the voice sounds suspiciously like that of my mother, and it likes to announce, in the sternest tones possible, that should I forget a hostess gift, I do so on pain of death and dishonor.

My parents were not etiquette mavens. I cannot remember receiving any instruction in, say, table manners. (I suspect I may have been taught by my grandparents, with a little polish added by my stint at a private, all-girls school in Sydney, which was occasionally old-fashioned to the point of anachronism.) Like all Asian children, however, I was instructed in the various complex and arcane forms of address for courtesy aunts and uncles. I was on strict orders to answer questions about school and study without any of my customary snark. And I learned that it was unthinkable to show up at someone's house for a social occasion empty-handed.

Flowers, I learned, were an acceptable hostess gift, and the easiest if one was pressed for time and happened to be close to a supermarket with a florist's stand. Occasionally, if my parents knew the hosts very well, and were certain of their drinking habits, we would make a detour en route at a liquor store for a bottle of wine. Their preferred gift, however, was food, and preferably fruit. Netted bags of mandarins. Thick-skinned clusters of grapes. Golden pears, the bigger the better. During Chinese New Year, every home we visited looked like its inhabitants were thinking about making a foray into the greengrocer's business.

When I received an invitation to Christmas lunch with people I'd only just met here in Melbourne, the little voice didn't falter. My taste in hostess gifts runs to baked goods, however, and so I decided Christmas cookies were in order. Give my fondness for traditional Christmas sweets in the European tradition - panettone, stollen, springerle, even old-fashioned, brandied fruitcake - spices and dried fruit were an obvious starting point.

I began with a simple shortbread base, and seasoned it with vanilla, brandy, orange zest and various spices before adding dried currants and crystallized ginger. I let the dough chill before rolling and cutting simple rounds. Baked at low heat, the resulting cookies were richly fragrant, with a delicate, sandy crumb. Packaged in cellophane and tied with bright ribbon, I think they make quite a pretty hostess gift.

Even the little voice in my head is in grudging agreement.

Christmas Spice Cookies

I've baked these as a rolled cookie, but the dough can also be shaped into a log before chilling, and then sliced and baked. These taste best a day or two after baking, when the flavors have had time to develop.

(Makes somewhere between one-and-a-half and two dozen. Dough will freeze. Cookies will keep in an airtight container for a week or so.)

In a mixing bowl, cream together one hundred and twenty-five grams of softened butter (about four ounces) and fifty-five grams of sugar (about a quarter-cup.) Stir in a quarter-teaspoon of salt, followed by a quarter-teaspoon of cinnamon, a quarter-teaspoon of allspice, an eighth-teaspoon of allspice, and an eighth-teaspoon of cloves.

Add the zest from one small orange, a half-teaspoon of vanilla, and a half-teaspoon of brandy. Stir again to combine. Beat in one egg yolk.

Stir in one hundred and forty grams (one cup) of plain white flour, little by little, until you have a nice sandy dough. Mix in fifty grams of finely chopped crystallized ginger (one-third of a cup) and fifty grams of dried currants (one-third of a cup.)

Wrap the dough in plastic and chill in the fridge for at least an hour.

Preheat the oven to 160C (325F.) Line two baking trays with parchment paper.

Roll the dough out between two sheets of parchment or wax paper (flour lightly to keep it easy to work with) to a quarter-inch thickness. Cut out two-inch rounds and place them on the baking trays. These cookies won't spread, so you can keep them quite close together.

Place the trays in the oven, and bake (switch the trays halfway through) for seventeen to twenty minutes, or until cookies are just barely colored. Transfer to cooling racks. When fully cool, place in decorative bags or cookie tins.

Serve with tea or coffee.

Friday, December 9, 2011

the breakfast battle

I am not a morning person.

Scratch that. I am Not A Morning Person. I do not react favorably to the sight of early morning sunshine. I build defensive trenches of comforters against the creeping threat of seven am. I sleep soundly and cannot be woken by anything other than an alarm clock, because only an alarm clock is implacable against my threats and invective. I do not merely abuse the snooze button - I am guilty of capital crimes against it.

If I had my way, I'd only ever sneak up on mornings from behind, catching them in passing after staying up all night.

Mornings are difficult. Breakfast, more so. My stomach doesn't wake up until at least half an hour after my eyes are open, and while I like many breakfast foods, I have no love for breakfast hour. Pancakes are delicious at four am and eleven am. At eight am, they are an abomination.

I didn't grow into my aversion to mornings. Even as a child, it took a lot to rouse me out of bed before nine. If there was ever an argument for giving children caffeine, I was a walking point in its favor. My mother, who took to heart the idea of breakfast as the most important meal of the day, would sigh and fret as I sat sullen and bleary-eyed at the kitchen table, refusing fruit and yogurt and Weet-Bix before finally choking down a few half-hearted bites of margarine toast, pointedly avoiding the crusts. When my sister reached an impressionable age and began imitating me in everything I did, my mother - my sugar-phobic mother - broke down and bought Pop-Tarts.

If the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation had created a snack machine to go with their Nutrimatic Drinks Dispenser, a Pop-Tart is the sort of thing it would produce. Rectangular, about the size of a small envelope, consisting of a sickly, jammy confection sandwiched between sheets of damp, crumbly pastry product, the Pop-Tart is almost, but not quite, entirely unlike a jam tartlet. Their tooth-aching sweetness was enough to give even me and my sister (hardened sugar junkies, the both of us) serious pause. Still, the joy of the forbidden was enough to get us eating them, and for a few weeks, the breakfast battle reached a ceasefire. Then the novelty wore off, and Pop-Tarts didn't last on their merits. We went back to margarine toast.

Later, I left for boarding school and discovered the magic of coffee. Mornings, while still not agreeable, became at least bearable, and I found that granola bars were a fairly effective mid-morning compromise. The last time I encountered Pop-Tarts - in the vending machine at law school - I noted with a certain bafflement that they'd introduced a double-frosted chocolate variety, complete with sprinkles. I had neither the nostalgia nor the morbid curiosity to try them.

Suffice to say, Pop-Tarts were the last thing on my mind when I was tinkering with a recipe for maple cookies. The results failed on their merits as cookies - the amount of maple syrup required to give the cookies a strong maple flavor also gave them an odd texture - but showed promise as pastry. Replacing the sugar and water in a standard sweet shortcrust with maple syrup and egg yolk, trading out regular butter for browned, and giving it a few quick turns produced a pastry that was flaky and fragrant. All I needed was the right recipe in which to use it.

A tart or pie didn't seem quite right. Then I learned through the blogosphere that people make homemade versions of Pop-Tarts, little pastries that keep the Pop-Tart's rectangular shape, but more like turnovers or hand pies in character. The pastry-to-filling ratio struck me as a good one, and it was easy to cook up a sweetly spiced mixture of apples and raisins to sandwich between sheets of pastry. A wash of egg and a spell in the oven, and the results were browned and delectable, perfect for eating at the kitchen table in one's pajamas.

Well, maybe not at breakfast hour. Could we skip that battle - and make it a late brunch?

Apple-Raisin "Pop-Tarts" with Flaky Maple Brown Butter Pastry

If you're not inclined to fuss with measuring and cutting rectangles, this recipe can also be used for turnovers: stamp out rounds of pastry with a large cookie-cutter, top with filling, and fold over into half-moons. Feel free to play with the filling, too - apple-cranberry and apple-cherry are possible variations, and I imagine these might be tasty with rhubarb compote or pumpkin butter too.

(Makes six, with leftover filling, which can be eaten with pancakes or toast.)

Start by cutting eight ounces of butter into small chunks and placing them in a light-colored pan over low heat. Cook until the butter melts and you can see the milk solids at the bottom (they'll be a whitish sediment); keep cooking until they turn a toasty, caramelly brown. Pour off the melted butter into a heatproof container; scrape the pan to get all the solids. Allow to cool, then refrigerate until solid. (You'll have roughly six ounces of brown butter.)

In a big mixing bowl, combine eight ounces of flour and three-quarters of a teaspoon of salt. Cut in the chilled brown butter, and rub it in with your fingertips until the largest bits are pea-sized. Add six tablespoons of maple syrup and half a beaten egg (set aside the other half) and stir until the mixture just starts to clump.

Turn the mixture - it will be a crumbly mess - out on a sheet of wax paper. Top with another sheet of wax paper and roll it out until it's about half an inch thick. Peel off the wax paper, and fold the dough - it will still be a crumbly mess - into thirds. Turn the pastry so that the folded seam is perpendicular, cover with wax paper and roll it out again. (It should be a little less crumbly by this point.) Fold it into thirds. Turn and repeat the folds again. (It should look like dough now.)

Fold the wax paper back over the pastry and wrap the whole package in plastic. Stick it in the fridge to chill.

Meanwhile, peel and core two tart apples (Granny Smiths or Macouns are good) and cut them into small dice. Place in a small saucepan with a quarter-cup of raisins, six tablespoons of sugar, two tablespoons of water, a big pinch of cinnamon and a big pinch of nutmeg. (Optional extra: a teaspoon of brandy.) Cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, until the apples have softened and the mixture is sticky. Remove from heat; set aside to cool.

Pull the dough from the fridge. Roll it out to an eighth of an inch, and cut the pastry into a dozen rectangles of three by four inches. Using a fork, prick half the rectangles lightly (make sure the fork doesn't go all the way through.) Take the remaining beaten egg from the pastry, and add a little water to thin it.

Set out a parchment-covered baking tray. Arrange six of the rectangles on the baking tray. Use a fork to prick the pastry lightly (make sure they don't go all the way through.) Spoon apple-raisin filling onto the rectangles, leaving space at the edges. Dip a finger in the egg mixture and use it to moisten the edges, then top with another pastry rectangle. Press the edges with the tines of a fork to seal. Repeat the process with all the remaining rectangles.

Brush the tops of each pastry with egg wash, then prick all over with a fork, making sure you do pierce all the way through. If you like, the pastries can be sprinkled lightly with fleur de sel or cinnamon sugar.

Bake at 350F until nicely browned, about fifteen minutes. Turn out on a rack to cool a little - you don't want to burn your tongue on the filling. Serve warm.

Note: I haven't tried baking these from frozen, but I see no reason why it couldn't work.

Monday, November 14, 2011

the secret world

“Do all the Disciplines have their own clubhouses?”

“It’s not a clubhouse,” Eliot said sharply. He dumped a huge clump of fresh pasta into a tall pot of boiling water and stirred it to break it up. “This’ll cook in about a minute flat.”

“Then what is it?”

“Well, all right, it is a clubhouse. But don’t call it that. We call it the Cottage. We have the seminars here, and the library isn’t bad.” He tasted the sauce, then glugged in a slug of heavy cream and stirred it in widening circles. The sauce paled and thickened. Eliot had a jaunty, offhanded confidence at the stove.

“I hope you don’t mind pasta,” he added, to Quentin. “It’s all I made. There’s bruschetta out there, or there was. At least there’s lots of wine.” He drained the pasta in the sink, sending up a huge gout of steam, and dumped it into the pan to finish in the sauce.

“God, I love cooking. I think if I weren’t a magician, I’d be a chef. It’s just such a relief after all that invisible, intangible bullshit, don’t you think?”

Quentin Coldwater is seventeen, an overachieving, Type-A student with an unusual aptitude for advanced math, a hopeless crush on his best friend Julia, and a long-standing interest in magic tricks. On the day of his interview for entrance to Princeton, his life quite literally takes an odd turn. In pursuit of a letter blown away by an errant gust of wind, he runs into a back garden and suddenly finds himself in a place where it is not winter, but summer - and he is invited to sit a very strange entrance exam for a genuine magical college.

My selection for the Fall 2011 edition of Novel Food, Lev Grossman’s The Magicians is a story about college and growing up that shows how even being able to do magic does not make coming of age any less awkward. Despite Quentin's initial excitement, he discovers that life at Brakebills School of Magical Pedagogy still has much in common with life in the ordinary world, and just because he's in a new place doesn't mean that he's become a new person. It's a sharp, clever urban fantasy tale, and Grossman writes with an eye for detail that produces unexpectedly delightful food scenes.

Quentin, after sitting a written entrance exam that includes exercises in making up a foreign language and drawing a rabbit that doesn't stay put on the page, receives a lunch tray from a "silent, comically correct butler in white gloves." It consists of "a sandwich – roasted red peppers and very fresh mozzarella on sourdough bread – a lumpy pear, and a thick square of dark, bitter chocolate" plus "a glass of something cloudy and fizzy" poured from an unlabelled bottle. (Nothing strange - it turns out to be grapefruit soda.)

During his semester at Brakebills South - an unlikely campus in an even unlikelier location - he is served "a cup of hot tea, a tumbler of water, a plate with a pat of yeasty European butter and a thick slab of sourdough bread on it, and a glass containing what would turn out to be two fingers of peppery vodka" as lunch after hours and hours of casting a spell to drive nails straight into wood. He then spends his afternoon with another spell - one for removing nails from wood.

Later, after graduation, Quentin and his friends throw a ridiculous, tipsy dinner party in Manhattan whose menu includes Lillet cocktails (Lillet, vodka, and champagne), miniature sweet-and-sour lobster rolls, pork chops dusted with bitter chocolate, and individual baked Alaskas. They overdo the carefully planned wine pairings, and don't make it to the cheese course.

The scene I like best, however, begins on the very first day of Quentin's Third Year. The students have been placed into their Disciplines - the magical equivalent of majors - and Quentin and his friend Alice are the would-be new members of the Physical Magic group. Their first challenge, however, is getting through the front door of the small Victorian bungalow where the seminars are held. Several hours after they arrive at the building, they finally succeed by burning the door in half. Once inside, Quentin and Alice make the acquaintance of the Janet, Josh, and Eliot - "Physical Kids" - and drink quite a lot of red wine as they wait for Eliot to finish making dinner.

They were in a shabby but comfortable library lined with threadbare rugs and lit by candles and firelight. Quentin realized that the little house must be larger on the inside than it was on the outside; it was also a lot cooler – the atmosphere was that of a nice, chilly fall evening. Books overflowed the bookcases and stood in wobbly stacks in the corners and even on the mantelpiece. The furniture was distinguished but mismatched, and in places it was severely battered.

When the pasta is ready, they sit down to eat:

With a white tablecloth and two heavy silver candelabras and a wildly eclectic assortment of silverware, some of which bordered on light hand-to-hand weaponry, the table in the library almost looked like somewhere you could eat. The food was simple but not at all bad.

Quentin let the chatter wash over him. Eating a sophisticated meal, alone in their own private dining room, felt very adult. This was it, he thought. He had been an outsider before, but now he had really entered into the inner life of the school. This was the real Brakebills. He was in the warm secret heart of the secret world.

Quentin's first dinner in the Cottage makes me think of the meals we had in the vegetarian co-op I lived in during senior year of college. Though it was a bigger (and somewhat rowdier) crowd, the house had a similar shabby charm. We had a shelf of battered cookbooks in the common room, and it wasn't unusual to wander into the kitchen and discover all the countertops covered in flour or laid out with phyllo because someone had decided to make bisteeya or puff pastry on a whim. Dinner took place at a long dining table in a room with creaky floorboards and odd angles, and in winter we'd hang out in the common room, curled up on the ancient couches or lying on the floor by the fireplace.

I decided I wanted a dish that reminded me of cooking by trial and error without being too fussed about the results, of wandering into the kitchen late on a Saturday afternoon and watching a meal evolve, unplanned and unrehearsed, as more people trickled in with thoughts of food on their minds. I wanted the kind of casual meal I might prepare with a group of people who didn't mind spending the afternoon in the kitchen.

The ravioli dish below uses a little trick I figured out just this year. As much as I love using ravioli stamps to turn out neat little squares and rounds that are perfect to freeze, I'll be the first to admit that it's a time-consuming process and not quite the sort of thing for a casual group dinner. You can speed up the process, however, if you're not too fussed about the presentation: instead of making perfectly regular ravioli with stamps, cut rolled-out sheets of pasta dough into wide strips using kitchen shears, fill them, fold them and use the shears again to trim them. A quick dip in boiling water, a slick of butter and garlic, and all that's left is to set the table and open the wine.

Not quite magic, but I think the Physical Kids would approve.

Swiss Chard Ravioli - The Quick(ish) Version

The filling is just Swiss chard pureed with a little ricotta and garlic, but ground walnuts or finely chopped mushrooms are also a nice addition.

(Makes three or four servings. Ravioli may be frozen, but it's not really the point of this exercise.)

Start with the pasta dough: Dump two cups of all-purpose flour on a clean countertop. Make a well in the middle. Crack in two eggs. Pour in a tablespoon of olive oil and a tablespoon of water. 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.

For the filling, begin with a pound of washed and trimmed Swiss chard. Put the leaves in a large pot or heatproof bowl, and cover with boiling water. Let it sit for a few minutes, until the leaves wilt. Transfer to a colander. When it has cooled enough to handle, pick it up in handfuls and squeeze out all the excess liquid.

Chop the chard roughly, paying attention to the stems. Gather it in handfuls once again and squeeze out any remaining liquid.

Heat a little olive oil in a large pan, add three cloves of finely chopped garlic. Add the chard, and saute until soft. Allow to cool.

Transfer the cooked chard to a food processor. Add a generous scoop of whole milk ricotta and a handful of walnuts, if you're using them. Add a fat pinch of salt and a dusting of freshly cracked black pepper, and puree until smooth. The mixture should be predominantly green in color, and taste more of chard than ricotta.

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 a sheet of dough to the second-thinnest setting. (Probably about 5 or 6 on the dial, depending on your model.)

Using kitchen shears, cut the dough into wide strips crosswise. Pick up a strip of dough, place a spoonful of filling on it, and fold it over. Pinch to seal. Trim the edges of excess dough. Place the finished ravioli on flour-dusted trays. (If you're cooking with friends, this process works quite well assembly-line style.)

To cook the ravioli, put a big pot of salted water on to boil, and drop in the ravioli a dozen at a time. When they float to the surface, they're cooked through. Lift them out with a slotted spoon.

Sauce them with butter and more garlic. A bit of bacon wouldn't go astray, either.

(Alas, I experienced critical camera failure, so I'm lacking a photo of the finished dish.)

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

a bit of earth

Everything I know about gardening, I learned from British children's literature.

My parents are not gardening enthusiasts. In the years when we lived in a house with a front lawn, they paid an enterprising neighborhood teenager to cut the grass, and espoused a policy of benign neglect for the gardenia bushes by the door. The backyard contained a lemon tree that produced no lemons (I only knew it was a lemon tree by dint of the faded label hanging from its trunk) and an oak tree that produced prolific showers of lawnmower-threatening acorns. A relocation to Hong Kong, with its apartment-dwelling lifestyle, proved a convenient excuse to abandon all efforts at horticulture. My mother chose artificial orchids for the sitting room, and set a cheery green plastic facsimile of a ficus on the kitchen windowsill. To say that my parents keep plants is accurate only if you expand the definition to include the contents of the refrigerator's crisper drawer.

My ability to have a conversation at the farmer's market without embarrassing myself owes a good deal to the works of Enid Blyton and other British writers. Their stories are full of plucky children who plant their own gardens and cantankerous gardeners who are secretly good-natured beneath their gruff exteriors, and in the course of exposition the characters dispense a surprising amount of gardening advice. Without Jack and Dinah and the other Adventurers, I might not have learned that strawberries propagate from runners rather than seeds, and that lettuce has to be picked regularly, or else it will bolt. Without Peter Rabbit, I would have been slower to recognize that string beans and radishes share a growing season. Without the Milly-Molly-Mandy stories, I might have lived well into adulthood before discovering that marrow and pumpkins do not grow on trees.

My personal experience with gardening has been minimal, legacy of years of dorm and apartment living. The closest I've been to Mary Lennox's "bit of earth" were the sage and rosemary I grew in pots on the kitchen balcony of my student housing in Rome. The plants weren't much to look at, but they were surprisingly tolerant of both steady harvesting and the occasional overwatering. They spared me the frustration of buying bunches of herbs when I only needed a few leaves, serving as a quick way to add extra flavor to buttered pasta or plain omelettes.

The following herbed frittata is a more substantial take on an omelette, filled with zucchini and onion and enriched with cheese. While it's not the sort of dish that shows up in the canon of British children's literature (there would be courgettes and not zucchini, for starters), it's one of my favorite quick summer meals, and also a handy way to use up zucchini if you're growing your own.

Still, if you are growing your own zucchini plants, and their output is driving you to your wits' end, you could try another approach. I've read that the fruit of a courgette vine can be kept under control by regularly culling the blossoms - a bit of wisdom from one of those cantankerous British gardeners, if my memory serves me right.

Herbed Zucchini Frittata

You can use any mixture of fresh herbs that strikes your fancy. Leafy herbs like basil, mint, chives or even dill are best, but thyme and rosemary will also work if you chop them finely and keep the quantities small. You can also put this in a pastry crust to make quiche, or prepare the sauteed vegetables and egg separately to make an omelette.

(Makes three or four servings. Leftovers are good for breakfast.)

Finely chop two cloves of garlic and one small white onion. Cut two medium zucchini into small dice. Finely chop a small handful of fresh herbs.

Heat a little olive oil in a nine-inch ovenproof saute pan or skillet over low heat. Add the garlic and onion. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the garlic and onion start to smell fragrant. Add the zucchini and the herbs. Cook until the onion takes on color and the zucchini has softened.

In a small bowl, beat five eggs with half a cup of milk until smooth and pale. Grate two ounces of sharp cheddar.

Pour the beaten egg into the pan, and sprinkle with cheese. Use a spatula to lift up the edges as they cook, letting the uncooked mixture flow underneath. Cook until the frittata is mostly set, but still wobbly in the middle.

Transfer the pan to a broiler on low heat. Cook until the top is set and lightly browned. Remove from heat. Serve warm or cool, with a green salad on the side.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

stories echoing our own

Zubin couldn't believe that any American father would let his teenage daughter go out at night in Bombay. "Go out where?"
"My friends have parties. Or sometimes clubs - there's that new place, Fire and Ice."
"You should be careful," Zubin told her.
Julia smiled. "That's so Indian."
"Anyone would tell you to be careful - it's not like the States."
"No," Julia said.
He was surprised by the bitterness in her voice. "You miss it."
"I am missing it."
"You mean now in particular?"
Julia was putting her things back into the knapsack hapazardly - phone, cigarettes, date book, lip gloss. She squinted at the window, as if the light was too bright. "I mean, I don't even know what I'm missing."

Sometimes the stories we love best are not those that teach us something about other lives, but those that echo our own. These are stories in which we meet characters we know, and see our own thoughts laid out on the printed page. Stories in which we find that a stranger has described us better than we could describe ourselves. "The Tutor," from the collection Lucky Girls by Nell Freudenberger, is a story in which I see my own history, and it's the work I've chosen for the Summer 2011 edition of Novel Food.

"The Tutor" is the story of Zubin, who left India to study literature at Harvard and Oxford and returned after dropping out of his PhD program, and Julia, who has lived all over the world with her family, and chose to move to Mumbai with her father when her parents divorced. Zubin is Julia's SAT tutor, hired to help her improve her weak verbal scores. Julia wants to go to Berkeley more than any other college, because San Francisco is where her family lived before they moved anywhere else. It's a quiet, layered story, and it captures the mood of being adrift, of wanting something that lacks a name. The sense of displacement is reflected in the food and drink: cuisines never match locations, no matter where the characters might be.

"In Paris, after her mother left, her father became a cook. He would go all the way to Les Freres Tang to buy rare vegetables for Thai soup. None of the roots and leaves and grasses in the Thai soup were edible, but the broth was fantastic. You poured it, garlicky and golden, over rice. It was so spicy that her eyes teared and her nose ran and her mouth burned so no drink could cool it... Her father wore an apron with the Durer rabbit on the front, and he fogged the black windows with his soups and curries. In the morning you could taste the lemongrass and cumin in the bread that had been left out on the table."

Thai soup in Paris is followed by coquilles St. Jacques in Mumbai. Julia won't eat Indian cuisine, and buys coffee from a trendy expat coffeeshop "five times a day." Zubin drinks sambuca and other foreign liquors alone in his room. Food and eating evoke nothing of home, but become one more reminder of how Julia and Zubin are always out of place, seeking an escape.

Like most expats, I had my own stint as an English tutor. I don't object to the local cuisine here in Hong Kong, but it's not something I enjoy eating on a daily basis. If anything, my childhood monotony of steamed rice and stir-fry is an experience I've tried not to repeat. Rather than drawing inspiration from any particular food scene in the story, I decided to focus on the idea of food as an escape.

Cacio e pepe is a classic Roman dish, spaghetti tossed with grated Pecorino-Romano and plenty of freshly cracked black pepper. It's a dish I didn't eat that often while I was actually in Rome (I was more enamored of its close cousin, spaghetti alla carbonara) but it's quick and simple to prepare - a classier, smarter version of pasta with melted cheese, one of my longtime comfort foods. Digging into a bowl of this is a welcome escape on days when I'd rather be someplace other than Hong Kong. For all I know, it could work for Zubin and Julia too.

Cacio e Pepe

This dish uses nothing but Pecorino-Romano, pasta and black pepper, so don't skimp on quality. Make sure the black pepper is fresh, and if you can't get decent Pecorino-Romano, you're better off substituting Parmigiano-Reggiano.

(Adapted from a recipe that appeared in the March 2003 edition of Gourmet magazine. Serves one, generously, if cheese and pasta are one's comfort food.) 

Set a large pot of salted water on to boil. Set a large mixing bowl in the sink, and rest a colander on top of it.

Using a grater with teardrop-shaped holes (not a microplane grater; the cheese will clump), grate two ounces of Pecorino Romano into a small bowl. Set aside.

When the water hits a rolling boil, add a third of a pound of spaghetti and cook until al dente.

Drain the pasta into the colander. Carefully pick up the colander, and set it aside.

Carefully (very carefully) pour off all but two tablespoons of the pasta cooking water from the mixing bowl. Add the pasta back in. Sprinkle over the cheese, and toss to coat. Grind a generous quantity of fresh black pepper over the pasta, and toss again. Transfer to a plate or bowl, and serve immediately.

Monday, June 20, 2011

serve with strawberries and cream

The summer I worked in the pastry kitchen, I began each morning by preparing the day's strawberries.

 The pastry kitchen went through a lot of strawberries. Our routine requirements - tarts for the hotel's cake shop, garnishes on all the single-serving Earl Grey chocolate cakes and tiramisu for the set lunch menus, and a small mountain of fruit to accompany the chocolate fountain at the afternoon tea buffet - added up to a case each day. Additional requirements - strawberry desserts for catered functions, special requests from room service, unexpected ingredient borrowing by one of the restaurant kitchens - could easily mean a second round of strawberry prep in the afternoon, and day's tally somewhere in the range of forty pounds of strawberries, cleaned and hulled and cut.

 (Not my photo. This is Alex's work.)

Every morning, I'd collect a case of two-pound boxes from the walk-in. I'd fill the sink full of very cold water, and tip in the berries, swishing the water to rinse off the dried strawberry flower petals and their fine, fuzzy stamens. I'd scoop the berries out into a big prep bowl, and then I'd set out our big, boxy plastic storage containers. I'd hull the strawberries with a paring knife, and when the last berry had been trimmed, I'd clear away the heap of green calyxes and the stack of plastic clamshells, and stack the storage containers in the walk-in.

We'd cut the hulled strawberries into halves and quarters and slices for tarts and garnishes as we needed them, and in the afternoon, after we'd piled warm cream scones into napkin-lined baskets and arranged tea cakes and tiny tarts on tiered salvers, I'd take two big white china serving bowls and heap them high. At the afternoon tea buffet, the strawberries would be the prime attraction of the chocolate fountain, speared on cocktail skewers and placed underneath the rippling flow of chocolate.

The chocolate fountain didn't inspire any fond memories (the "chocolate" was a ready-to-pour commercial mix, stabilized with vegetable oil and soy lecthin so that would stay smooth and unctuous without gumming up the fountain's moving parts), but hulling all those strawberries left its mark. When it comes to pleasing a crowd, my thoughts easily turn to desserts that can be served alongside small mountains of berries and whipped cream.

Chocolate may be the most popular pairing when it comes to a match for strawberries, but it's a relatively recent arrival. Desserts with fruit and honey date back to the Roman era, and summer is both bee and berry season. Whip cream with a touch of orange blossom honey, and it's a lovely accompaniment for strawberries. For something a little more unusual, however, there's medovnik.  

Medovnik is a honey cake, often referred to as Russian, but found throughout the former Soviet Union. Like borscht or golubtsi, there is no single fixed recipe for medovnik, but it all comes down to one basic concept: the cake is flavored with honey, made up of many thin layers, and sandwiched with a creamy filling. It works on the same principle as a chocolate icebox cake: the layers are fashioned from dough rather than batter, and baked until crisp. After being spread with filling and left to sit overnight, the layers soften and take on a moist, delicate texture. When cut into slices, the golden color and individual layers are reminiscent of puff pastry, which accounts for the cake's other name, napoleon cake. 

There is no set number of layers (five or eight are popular), but the more layers, the more impressive the finished results. I've gone for fifteen, which is a lot of rolling and baking, but the extra effort produces a tall, dramatic cake. Serve with a mountain of strawberries and a big bowl of cream, and listen to the oohs and aahs. It'll be gone before you can say "chocolate fountain."

Medovnik (Napoleon Cake)

Traditionally, this cake calls for buckwheat honey (a very strong monofloral honey), but if you can't obtain any, use the darkest honey you can find. While I'm fond of pairing it with strawberries and honey cream, I suspect you could also serve it with poached apples for a nice Rosh Hashanah dessert.

The quantities given in this recipe will make a lot of cake, but the recipe is easily halved. You can also use biscuit cutters to produce rounds for individually-sized cakes - just keep a close eye on the layers when they're in the oven.
(Adapted from this recipe and this recipe. Makes one tall nine-inch cake, which will serve at least sixteen people. Cake will keep for up to a week, wrapped tightly and refrigerated.)

This cake needs to sit for at least twelve hours (preferably fifteen) after assembly, so you'll need to start the recipe the day before serving.

First, the cake layers. In a mixing bowl, beat together four eggs, one cup of sugar, four tablespoons buckwheat honey and two teaspoons baking soda. Set aside.

Place two sticks of butter in a large, heavy-bottomed pot, and place over low heat. Once the butter has melted, pour in the egg mixture; beat well to combine. Stir in four cups of flour, one cup at a time, to form a sticky dough.

Remove the dough from heat. Coat the inside of a mixing bowl well with flour, and scrape the dough into the bowl.

Preheat oven to 350F. Ready two baking sheets and several pieces of parchment paper.

Lay a sheet of parchment paper on a flat surface. Place a small handful of dough on the parchment paper, about one-third of a cup.

Top with another sheet of parchment paper. Roll the dough out as thinly as possible, then peel away the top sheet of parchment. Using a nine-inch dinner plate or springform tin base as a guide, cut a circle into the dough.

Gather up the trimmings and place them back in the bowl.

Transfer the dough and parchment to a baking sheet. Bake for four to five minutes, or until the round has risen and is golden brown in color. Use a small, sharp knife to trim any ragged edges, and save the crumbs in a bowl. Transfer the round to a wire rack to cool. (When cooled, the rounds will be hard.)

Lay out another sheet of parchment, set another lump of dough on it, and repeat the process as above until you have fifteen rounds. If you still have dough left over, roll it out thinly, and bake it like the rest. Once it cools, break it up into small pieces, and add it to the bowl with the crumbs.

Next, prepare the cream filling. Using a stand mixer or electric hand mixer, beat together two sticks of softened butter, one can (fourteen ounces) sweetened condensed milk, and eight ounces sour cream until smooth. The mixture might be a little on the runny side, which is fine.

Now prepare the topping: Take the crumbs and other broken bits (you can run them through a food processor to get them very fine, if you like) and combine with a half-cup of finely chopped walnuts.

(Note: If nut allergies are a problem, turn one of the fifteen rounds into extra crumbs instead.)

To assemble the cake, ready a cake platter or serving dish. Place a smear of cream on the platter and set the first layer down. Spread the layer with cream, making sure to go to the very edges. Top with another layer. Alternate layers and cream until all the layers are stacked.

Coat the cake with the remaining cream, then grab handfuls of the topping and sprinkle all over the top and sides.

Cover the cake with foil, and leave in the fridge to chill for at least twelve hours.

Remove the cake from the fridge an hour before serving. Immediately before serving, whip heavy cream with honey to sweeten.

Cut the cake into slices, and accompany with honey cream and fresh strawberries, and an extra drizzle of honey, if you like. A glass of mead might not go amiss, either.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

an education in bread and chocolate

For a month during my time in Paris, I didn't attend class.

I promise this wasn’t poor attitude on my part. I didn’t go out clubbing and sleep through morning lectures. I didn’t meet any charming locals who urged me to cut class and go on madcap adventures. I didn’t even get sick with something lingering and unpleasant, like mono, and spend my days in bed.

I didn't attend class because my classes weren’t in session. The semester I spent in Paris was during the year that the French government tried to push forward the contrat de premiere embauche, a sort of provisional contract intended to make it easier for employers to give younger workers a trial period before hiring them on permanently. Backlash was immediate and furious. The students rioted, the Metro workers went on strike, and the universities shut down. It was all very French.

I suppose I acclimatized easily, because not having class suited me quite well. Higher learning, French-style, is more about self-directed learning than formal instruction. Lecture attendance isn't strictly required, and indeed, the content of the lectures often has little or no bearing on the content of reading lists or - more importantly - the content of the final exams. And so, for the better part of a month, I made my own schedule.

Some days I spent in the Bibliothèque Nationale, paging through brittle copies of 1920s food industry periodicals in search of useful sources for my independent research paper. Some days I camped out in my program office and typed up notes on the history and evolution of the French language.

And some days, days when the weather was unusually nice, I took advantage of not being stuck in a classroom, found a nice park, and did my nineteenth-century French literature reading on a quiet bench. By mid-afternoon, having had enough of Hugo - Notre-Dame de Paris is a hefty volume - I'd make my way to the nearest patisserie for a snack. 

I enjoyed all the usual suspects: brioche and pain au chocolate and croissants aux amandes. I ate palmiers and religeuses and eclairs and tartes aux fraises. And I developed a taste for viennoises au chocolat.

A viennoise au chocolat isn't quite as eye-catching as some of the other delights you'll see in the window of a patisserie. Shaped much like the humble baguette, it can't really compete with the graceful whorls of a palmier, or the pleasing roundness of a brioche à tête. It doesn't look any fancier beneath its unassuming crust, either: just a fine white bread studded with chocolate chips.

No-one (at least no-one in their right mind) ever bought a treat from a display case just to look at it, however. Taste-wise, the viennoise au chocolat can easily hold its own. Frankly, I think that if a chocolate chip muffin grew out of its sweetness and moved to France, it would be a viennoise au chocolat. The bread is soft, a little chewy, and only faintly sweet, and the slight resistance of the chocolate chips provides a textural contrast quite unlike that of the melting heart of a pain au chocolat or the voluptuous stickiness of a tartine au Nutella.

Maybe it's just me, but the viennoise au chocolat also seems conducive to learning: I found sitting on a park bench while tearing bite-size pieces off a viennoise au chocolat and pondering Hugo's thoughts on architecture a very effective study method. I think that Notre-Dame de Paris may even bear few chocolately smudges as proof. 

Viennoises Au Chocolate

(Makes two half-baguette-sized breads.)

In a mixing bowl, combine two hundred and fifty grams all-purpose flour, one teaspoon instant active yeast, a half-teaspoon of salt, and two tablespoons sugar. Add a hundred and fifty mililitres of warm milk. Stick your hand in the mixture, and stir until you have a soft, lumpy dough.

Turn the dough out on a clean countertop. Knead until the dough is smooth and elastic, then work in four tablespoons of unsalted butter, one tablespoon at a time. Continue to knead until the dough is soft and very smooth in texture.

Knead in three ounces of chocolate chips. Place back in bowl. Cover and leave in a warm place to proof. (One to two hours.)

Deflate the dough. Shape it into a tidy ball, pulling and tucking any stray bits underneath. Gently squeeze this ball until you have a long sausage of dough. Cut this into two equal pieces, and gently squeeze each piece into a long, skinny length.

Arrange the two lengths on a parchment-lined baking tray. Cover lightly with plastic wrap; allow to proof in a warm place for an hour.

Preheat oven to 400F.

To make the glaze, beat together one egg yolk with a tablespoon of milk and a tablespoon of powdered sugar. Brush the glaze on the baguettes.

Right before baking, take a straight razorblade or very sharp knife, and cut angled slashes along the top of each baguette.

Bake until golden brown in color, about twenty to twenty-five minutes. Transfer to a rack to cool. Enjoy plain or with coffee for an afternoon snack.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

when come back, bring pie

My absence for the past month has been largely inadvertent.

I didn't intend to wait until June to write again, but somewhere between leaving Beijing, watching Lucille graduate, and picking up fresh employment in Hong Kong, May disappeared like a conjuror's trick, roses to doves in one quick turn. There have been many, many items on the lists of things cooked and things eaten - croissants, cauliflower cheese, and a lovely lunch at Prune, to name just a few - but little time to sit and sort out my thoughts in writing.

I'm back, though. And I come bearing pie.

As much as I love playing with pastry, I don't bake many fruit pies. I like galettes and freeform crostata as quick, improvised desserts, but I can practically count the times I've made anything involving a pie dish and a top and bottom crust on one hand. The last pie I recall baking (about a year ago) had a fairly unremarkable mixed berry filling, and I did it largely for the fun of weaving a lattice top.

When I sighted rhubarb at the supermarket, right next to strawberries, my first thoughts were of crumble, not pie. A crumble is a very quick dessert, however, and I wanted the pleasure of making something more involved. The answer? Add pastry, and turn crumble into a pie with streusel topping.

Of course, there was some tinkering along the way: when making the pastry, I switched out half the water for brandy, and gave it folds and turns in puff-pastry fashion to produce rough, or blitz, puff pastry. Baked unweighted, "rough puff" rises like puff-pastry (though not to the same heights), but baked blind (weighted) in a pie dish, it produces a particularly crisp and flaky crust.

Rhubarb and strawberries went into a pan with sugar, vanilla, and more brandy. After the fruit softened, I strained the mixture, and reduced the extra liquid to a thick syrup. Finally, I mixed up a very buttery streusel with walnuts for extra crunch. After assembling the components, I slid the pie into the oven and awaited the finished product. Would I regret not following my original idea for a simple crumble?

The pie came out golden brown and bubbling, and filled the kitchen with the scent of butter and bright fruit. We cut slices while was still a little warm, the sweet-tangy filling soft and almost jammy. The crust turned out satisfyingly flaky, and the nutty, shortbready streusel gave it a certain Linzertorte-like quality. I didn't miss the crumble at all.

Note to self: when come back, bake more pie.

Strawberry Rhubarb Pie with Walnut Streusel

(Inspired by Bobbie Sue's delectably tart, gingery rhubarb streusel pie. Makes one nine-inch pie.)

Start by making the pastry. In a mixing bowl, combine a cup of flour with a pinch of salt, and cut in one stick (four ounces) of chilled unsalted butter. Rub the butter into the flour until the largest pieces are pea-sized. Add two tablespoons cold water and two tablespoons brandy. Stir lightly until you have a dough that just barely holds together.

Turn the dough out on a sheet of parchment paper. Shape it into a rough rectangle, and top it with another sheet of parchment paper. Roll the dough out to a quarter-inch thick, and fold in thirds, like a letter. Turn the dough so that the seam side is down, and roll it out again. Repeat the folding process. Repeat the rolling and folding one more time, then wrap tightly in plastic film. Leave in the fridge for at least two hours to rest.

Meanwhile, prepare the filling. In a small saucepan, combine one pound of rhubarb (cut into one-inch pieces), one-and-a-half pounds of strawberries (halved if large), a half-cup of brown sugar, a teaspoon of vanilla, and two teaspoons of brandy. Cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, until the rhubarb turns soft. There will be plenty of liquid in the pan.

Set a sieve over a bowl and strain the fruit. Return the liquid to the pan; transfer the fruit from the sieve to the bowl and set aside. Reduce the liquid in the pan over medium heat until it foams and turns thick and syrupy. Pour it over the fruit; set aside to cool.

While you wait, prepare the streusel. In a mixing bowl, combine half a cup of flour with two tablespoons of white sugar (double the sugar for a sweeter topping) a fat pinch of salt, and a few drops of vanilla. Cut in half a stick (two ounces) of chilled butter. Rub the butter in until the mixture forms sandy clumps. Stir in a quarter-cup of chopped walnuts. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and leave in the fridge to chill.

Preheat oven to 350F.

Remove the pastry dough from the fridge. Roll it out to fit a nine-inch glass or ceramic pie dish, and trim the excess. Prick the pastry lightly all over with a fork (don't pierce it, or the filling will leak), and weight with pie weights or dried beans. Bake the pastry until it's lightly colored, about twenty minutes.

Remove the pie weights. Spoon the fruit mixture into the pastry shell, and sprinkle the streusel on top. Bake until the pastry is a rich golden brown and the filling is bubbling, about forty minutes. Cool on a rack. Serve warm. A scoop of vanilla ice-cream wouldn't go amiss.

Monday, May 2, 2011

a chocolate cheat

I have mixed feelings about my microwave.

Oh, it has its uses. It's faster than an oven for reheating leftovers (and doesn't destroy risotto.) It's convenient for softening butter, which is nice if you're baking on short notice. And it's good for steamed vegetables on days when dinner could use the extra nutrients. Quite handy, really.

A microwave is an appliance with many applications. You can do fish en papillote in a microwave. You can roast garlic in a microwave. You can even make candy in a microwave. All the same, the spectre of frozen TV dinners lingers, and I can't help but feel that it's a bit like cheating. I've lived quite comfortably without a microwave in the past. It's not an essential kitchen appliance, is it?

Well, as it turns out, it does affect the picture when there's chocolate involved. You see, it's much, much easier to temper chocolate with a microwave than it is to do it with a chilled surface and a pan of simmering water on the stove.

Tempering is the process of melting chocolate in a way that allows it to harden and keep its shape when it cools.  You can't melt chocolate and expect it to harden to its original state on its own because chocolate is a curiosity: the fat crystals in cocoa butter form differently depending on the rate of cooling. Left to its own devices, the chocolate will cool with big crystals in a loose structure, and the end result will be dull in appearance and soft to the touch. (Consider the chocolate in chocolate chip cookies, and how they remain sticky even when the cookies have cooled.) If the cooling is controlled, however, the crystals formed are small and tightly arranged, and the chocolate becomes glossy and hard.

(You can read more about the chemistry of chocolate and tempering in this excellent article over at Cooking For Engineers.)

Tempering chocolate the old-fashioned way involves melting chocolate over simmering water, cooling some of it (typically on a marble slab or other chilled surface), and then reheating it just enough to bring it back up to the magical temperature point of thirty-one degrees Celsius, or eighty-eight degrees Fahrenheit. It requires the use of a chocolate thermometer, and I have yet to manage it successfully. (There's another, slightly less involved method known as "seeding": melting a small quantity of chocolate, and adding small "seeds" of unmelted chocolate to bring the temperature back down - but I've had no luck with that method either.)

With a microwave, however, you can take advantage of the flip side of chocolate's curious nature: its melting properties. Melted chocolate, you see, has stages. There’s the soft stage – what happens when you leave a chocolate bar out in the sun. There’s the gooey stage – what happens when you leave a chocolate bar near a heat source. And then there’s the liquid stage – what happens if you expose a chocolate bar to direct heat.

If you use good-quality chocolate (which is already tempered), and melt it in the microwave to a middle ground between soft and gooey, what you'll get is melted chocolate that is still tempered. The melted chocolate can be used to dip strawberries, coat caramels, or decorate biscotti, and it will harden as it cools, no extra steps required.

For the time being, I'm calling a truce on mixed feelings about my microwave. There's something to be said for not having to fuss with chilled marble and a chocolate thermometer, even if it does still feel a bit like cheating.

Chocolate Hazelnut Biscotti with Chocolate Drizzle

Caramelized white chocolate makes for the most arresting visual contrast, but milk or dark chocolate are also fine, flavor-wise. For a deeper flavor, add two teaspoons of instant coffee powder to the dough along with the cocoa powder.

(Makes twelve to fifteen, depending on how wide you slice them. Will keep in an airtight container for two to three weeks.)

Preheat oven to 325F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

In a large mixing bowl, stir together a quarter-cup of olive oil, a quarter cup plus two tablespoons of sugar, a heaped quarter-teaspoon of salt, and a quarter-teaspoon of vanilla extract. Beat in two egg whites.

Stir in a quarter-cup of cocoa powder and one cup of all-purpose flour to form a stiff dough. Fold (or knead) in half a cup of chopped toasted hazelnuts.

Turn the dough out on the baking sheet. Shape into a log approximately twelve inches long; then flatten into a rectangle approximately four inches wide. Bake for twenty-five to thirty minutes, or until the surface has small cracks in it.

Remove from oven, and slide onto a cutting board. Use a serrated knife (or a sharp chef’s knife) to cut the biscotti on an angle into slices a little less than a half-inch thick. Arrange the slices, cut side up, on the baking sheet. Return to the oven, and bake for an additional twenty to twenty-five minutes, or until biscotti are mostly firm to the touch.

Cool the biscotti on a wire rack.

To decorate, begin by finely chopping or grating four ounces of the chocolate of your choice. Place in a small bowl, and microwave on low heat, twenty seconds at a time, until the chocolate starts to melt. Stir between each interval in the microwave. Stop heating once the mixture is mostly smooth, but still contains a few bits of solid chocolate. Stir until the last bits of solid chocolate melt. The mixture should be smooth but thick, and a little sticky.

Lay out a sheet of wax paper. Spread each piece of biscotti with chocolate on one side, then place it chocolate side down on the wax paper. If the chocolate starts to get difficult to spread, return it to the microwave (ten second intervals) until it softens.

Take a square of parchment paper and fashion it into a piping bag (or use a Ziploc bag.) Spoon the chocolate into the bag, and cut off the very tip. Drizzles or scribble designs all over the biscotti. Allow to set completely before peeling away from the wax paper.

Serve with tea or coffee.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

hot cross buns and a pirate named Pontius: religious (mis)education of a young glutton

When I am nine years old, after three unhappy years at an international Japanese school, my parents abandon their hopes of making me trilingual, and enroll me at one of Sydney's all-girls’ private schools instead. When I am nine years old, I have my first experience with culture shock.

My new classmates do not covet Sailor Moon and Hello Kitty stationery, but collect and trade brightly colored stickers. (“Oilies” – stickers filled with a shimmery, iridescent liquid – are the most prized.) They enjoy plaiting each other’s hair in complicated fashions, and handball is all the rage on the playground. I find the demands of handball to be beyond me, but I do acquire a sticker book, and I learn to French braid. At this new school, socializing with my classmates is no longer an ordeal.

There are new rules to absorb at this school. Stand up when any teacher enters the room. Greet the Headmistress in the hallways. There are four school houses, and they are named for the royal houses of England. (Mine is York, and the house symbol is a lamb on a field of blue.) The foreign language we study is French, and I learn to address the teacher as Madame, and to make polite conversation: Comment allez-vous? Très bien, merci, et vous?

Art class, music class, and P.E. class are all familiar, but Religious Education is entirely new. I learn that there is an entity named God, and he – ahem, He – created the world. He also created the first human beings, and they were named Adam and Eve. The teacher seems taken aback when I put up my hand and ask about the apes and dinosaurs I learned about at my previous school. A funny expression crosses her face when I ask who created God. I realize that perhaps Religious Education class is not like Maths class, and maybe it is best to not to raise my hand whenever I have questions. I have many questions, though. I find that Religious Education often does not make much sense.

In addition to Religious Education, we have Chapel on Tuesdays, and the Reverend tells us more about God. I learn the Lord’s Prayer, and then another version of the Lord's Prayer, from then on I am always confused as to whether I should be saying trespasses or sins. We sing hymns from a navy blue hymn book. Though the words are often very strange, I like the singing well enough.

Come autumn, we learn about Easter. As it turns out, Easter is not about the Easter Bunny, which I have never seen and do not believe in, because my mother does not believe in sweets. Not is it about the Easter Bazaar organized by the class mothers, at which I scoped out all the stalls before making any purchases with my carefully-hoarded dollar and ten cents, and netted enough chocolate eggs to give my mother a conniption.

Easter is about Jesus, who is the son of Mary and Joseph, but also the Son of God. (It is probably a good thing that I don't yet know anything about the mechanics of human reproduction, because my questions during that particular Religious Education class would probably give my teacher a conniption.) Easter also involves a man named Judas, and a pirate named Pontius with thirty pieces of silver. (I thought pirates had gold, but maybe I am mistaken.) Jesus was nailed to a cross, which is a very unpleasant way to die, and so the symbol of Christianity is a cross (though it was also a fish), and that is why there are hot cross buns, like the ones from the nursery rhyme.

We are given forms to place orders for hot cross buns, and after some badgering, my mother agrees to place an order. The buns turn out to be soft and mildly sweet, a little like finger buns, and studded with sultanas and orange peel. I am puzzled by the makeup of the white crosses on the buns (not icing, but not bread, either) until a good-intentioned class mother gives my mother a Xeroxed copy of a recipe for hot cross buns. In reading it, I learn about flour paste, and yeast, and the fact that yeast dough must rise, be knocked down, and rise again before baking.

The week of Easter itself, the hymn we sing in Chapel is called "Christ the Lord is Risen Today." The Reverend makes a point of announcing it, too: "He is risen! Truly, He is risen!" For once, I don't have any questions. It all makes sense. He is risen, of course. Like hot cross buns, I think.

Hot Cross Buns 

This is not your traditional hot cross bun. The dough has more of a brioche-like character, and the fruit is decidedly nonstandard - I love dried cherries, and I had leftover candied kumquat peel. I did keep the flour-paste crosses I grew up with, though you can also mix up a plain white frosting if that’s your preference.

(Makes eight buns. May be frozen.)

In a mixing bowl, combine three hundred grams of flour, one teaspoon instant active yeast, a half-teaspoon of salt plus an extra pinch, and a tablespoon of sugar. Stir in a quarter-teaspoon of nutmeg, and a quarter-teaspoon of cinnamon.

Add three tablespoons (ninety mililitres) warm milk, and stir until the mixture forms shaggy clumps. Crack in one egg, and work it into the mixture. Crack in a second egg, and work that in too. You’ll have a fairly sticky, lumpy dough.

Turn the dough out on a clean countertop and knead for five to seven minutes, or until the dough loses its sticky, lumpy quality. Knead in two tablespoons of softened butter, a tablespoon at a time.

The dough will stick to the countertop in small pieces; knead until the mass of dough picks up those stray pieces and holds together in a smooth, silky whole.

Work in two tablespoons of chopped candied kumquat peel (or other candied citrus peel), and two ounces of dried cherries.

Place the dough back in its original mixing bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and leave in a warm place until doubled in volume, about an hour or so.

After an hour, gently deflate the dough and transfer it to the fridge. Chill for at least two hours (can be left overnight.)

Remove the dough from the fridge and press down upon on it gently to deflate. Butter a five-by-nine inch loaf tin. Divide the dough into eight equal pieces and shape them into squares to fit the tin.

Cover the tin with wax paper, and leave in a warm place to rise for fifty minutes, or until the dough is light and nearly doubled in volume.

Preheat the oven to 375F.

Crack one egg, beat until frothy, and brush it all over the tops of the buns.

Mix together two tablespoons of flour, a tablespoon of icing sugar, and enough water to make a thick paste. Spoon the paste into a piping bag (or a Ziploc bag – cut off the tip of one corner once it’s been filled) and pipe a cross atop each bun.

Bake for twenty to twenty-five minutes, or until the buns sound hollow when lightly tapped with a finger. Cool in the pan for five to ten minutes, then turn out on a wire rack.

Serve warm or at room temperature, with or without extra butter.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

playing well together

There are some dietary restrictions that play better together than others.

Cooking for vegans and vegetarians is straightforward: just make the meal vegan. Gluten-free and vegetarian? Serve an egg dish with potatoes or rice. Though I try not to cook for multiple dietary restrictions in one go, it's doable so long as there's a culinary lowest common denominator. The challenge lies in avoiding the dietary restrictions that are at odds with one another: the very idea of putting together a single meal for a vegan, a celiac, and an Atkins adherent is enough to make me reach for takeout menus.

Some dietary restrictions that seem challenging at first glance, however, can be surprisingly complementary. Though I’ve never needed to prepare a meal that was both gluten-free and kosher for Passover, I know it can be done with minimal frustration. Consumption of virtually all grains - including gluten-containing wheat, barley, spelt and rye -  is prohibited during Passover (in the Ashkenazi tradition), unless in the form of matzah or matzah-derived products. Therefore, a lot of Passover cooking is automatically gluten-free. In fact, when I first started experimenting with gluten-free recipes, I took many of my cues from Passover desserts.

My latest experiment, however, involved going the other way: taking a gluten-free recipe and adapting it for Passover use.

It started with leftovers. I had a lot of caramelized white chocolate left over from my complicated chocolate torte dessert, and I started casting about for other recipes in which I could put it to use. After browsing a little online, I hit upon blondies. A plain blondie is not much to write home about, but it’s a good blank canvas for mix-ins, and it seemed like a perfect starting point.

Adding caramelized white chocolate to a blondie would produce very sweet results, so I needed another flavor - something sour, or salty, or spicy - to balance it out. After rifling through my pantry, I pulled out a bag of tart dried cherries. Then a container of ground almonds caught my eye.

A blondie, like a brownie, is mostly fat and sugar, bound together with egg and a little flour. It occurred to me that I could probably make gluten-free blondies by switching out wheat flour for ground almonds. The trick would be adding some kind of extra binder so that they didn't become too crumbly. Thinking on it further, I decided to treat them as more of a candy than a bar cookie, a caramel with extra texture.

Caramel candy is produced from a mixture of sugar, invert sugar (some kind of syrup), and fat (butter, in this case), so my first move was to replace part of the sugar with golden syrup. Knowing that my dry ingredients would soak up less liquid than in a recipe with wheat flour, I opted to replace whole egg with egg yolk. Finally, I decided on a mixture of ground almonds and sweet rice (sticky rice) flour, reasoning that ground almonds alone might produce unpleasantly oily results. After some trial and error in baking pans (a larger surface area proved crucial), I had soft, chewy gluten-free blondies.

With the approach of Passover, I started wondering if I could tweak the recipe further. Kosher for Passover caramelized white chocolate might be too tall an order, but dried cherries pair equally well with dark chocolate. If I could do away with the sweet rice flour, I could produce a blondie that was both gluten-free and kosher for Passover. Unfortunately, the easiest modification - using just ground almonds - created the problem I'd originally predicted: the results were far too greasy. I needed a different approach.

I found a possible solution at Cake and Commerce (an excellent resource for allergen-free baking), after looking at a brownie recipe that used a gel made with tapioca flour, which is kosher for Passover. I reasoned that I could produce a sort of suspension by trapping the ground almonds in a mixture of tapioca gel, sugar, egg yolk, and butter, and that it should produce soft, chewy results. Unfortunately, the results were worse: I ended up with a gelatinous, greasy mess.

Back to the drawing board. Clearly, the recipe wasn't benefiting from the addition of butter. I had the feeling the egg yolk wasn't doing much good either. Why not see what would result from combining the ingredients that remained?

As it turns out, you can create a blondie from little more than ground almonds, sugar, and tapioca gel - and not only are they gluten-free and kosher for Passover, they're also vegan. I may still want takeout menus for dinner with a vegan, a celiac, and an Atkins adherent, but if I ever need to prepare a kosher for Passover meal that is both gluten-free and vegan, I'm all set for dessert.

(Kosher for Passover, Gluten-Free and Vegan) Cherry-Chocolate Almond Blondies

Tapioca starch is a kosher for Passover ingredient, but pay close attention to the labels – not all brands are certified kosher for Passover. The same goes for dried cherries, ground almonds, and vanilla extract.

If you can’t find certified ground almonds, run whole almonds through a food processor until powdery.

(Makes ten to twelve, depending on how small you cut them. Recipe may be doubled for a nine-by-nine inch pan.)

In a small saucepan, place a teaspoon of tapioca starch and add six tablespoons of cold water. Swirl the pan until the tapioca starch is fully dissolved. The liquid will turn cloudy and white.

Place the saucepan over low heat, and whisk steadily until the mixture thickens up and turns clearish in color. Remove from heat.

Allow the saucepan and contents to cool until just warm. Stir in a quarter-cup of white sugar and a quarter-cup of brown sugar. Add a half-teaspoon of salt, and a half-teaspoon of vanilla. Stir in a teaspoon of safflower or walnut oil.

Fold in one cup of almond meal, a little at a time. The mixture will be thick and sticky, more like dough than batter. Fold in three to four ounces of dried cherries, and three ounces of roughly chopped dark chocolate.

Preheat oven to 350F. Grease a nine-by-five inch baking tin.

Press the blondie mixture into the tin. Transfer the tin to the oven, and bake for twenty-five to thirty minutes, or until the mixture has puffed and is golden brown on top. Remove from the oven. Allow the blondies to cool completely in the tin before cutting them into squares.

(Gluten-Free) Caramelized White Chocolate and Dried Cherry Almond Blondies

 For a more pronounced almond flavor, bump up the amount of extract to a half-teaspoon.

(Makes ten to twelve, depending on how small you cut them. They'll keep for a few days in a sealed container.)

Melt half a stick (two ounces) of butter in a heatproof bowl, either in the microwave or over simmering water.

Stir in two tablespoons of white sugar, a quarter-teaspoon of almond extract, and a quarter-teaspoon of salt.

Add a quarter-cup of sweet rice flour, followed by two tablespoons of golden syrup. Stir in six tablespoons of ground almond meal. Beat in one egg yolk. Allow to rest for at least twenty minutes.

Preheat oven to 350F. Grease a nine-by-five inch loaf pan.

Stir at least two ounces of tart dried cherries into the batter. (I say “at least,” because I can never resist adding a few extra.) Spoon the batter into the prepared pan.

In another bowl, melt two ounces of caramelized white chocolate, and dollop spoonfuls of it all over the blondie batter. Use a skewer or a thin knife to incorporate it in swirling designs.

Bake for fifteen minutes, or until the blondies are golden in color. Transfer to a wire rack to cool. Cut into squares and serve alongside tea or coffee.