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Dear Bakers,

First, mad props to you. Honest. Life is hard; you make us treats. Without you*, how could we forget about the workaday world of Cadillac SUV drivers who don’t signal, about 16-page apartment leases, about presidential candidates who strut and fret their hour upon the stage? A cinnamon croissant roll takes five minutes to eat, but what a blissful five minutes. How unburdened an experience. You are gods and archangels.

Thank you for the variety on your menu, thank you for offering both plain and fancified, thank you for blueberries in high summer and spiced pumpkin in the fall. Thank you for little saucers of broken-up scones to try while we wait for service. (Full disclosure: Sometimes I pop one to soothe a hungry stomach and then go. But you know I spend liberally the rest of the week. We’re cool.)

Thank you, so many of you, for making pie crusts with lard, or butter, or a combo of the two. Thank you, others of you, for eschewing shortening entirely for the glory of butter. You know your cookies will be flatter, but firmly avow that flavor must never fall to the ax of showboating.

But I must take exception to those of you who bake with excessive amounts of sugar. Of course America has a sweet tooth. We just don’t need as much sugar as you’re adding. Many of your cakes and cupcakes are too darn sweet, and lots of bakers don’t stop there: even a corn muffin these days can make a girl’s mouth pucker. My argument:

  1. If the first and last ingredient we taste is sugar, the product is dull.
  2. If the first and last ingredient we taste is sugar, the rest of the ingredients don’t get their say.
  3. Ibid., the structure will be gritty.

I love chocolate brownies, for example. But when did we make sugar more important than the quality of the chocolate, the richness of the butter, and the fudginess or cakiness of the square itself? I ate a brownie on Sunday that was gorgeous to look at. But it was so packed with sugar that I crunched my way through it.** The chocolate, fat, and texture were very much an afterthought.

Last point:

4. If one ingredient isn’t allowed to be a diva, we can appreciate the subtlety and balance of the other ingredients.

Like seals being tossed fish time and again, pushing sugar into the spotlight of baked goods narrows our thinking, dulls our senses, and deprives us of a fuller experience. Let us taste the almond extract in your cherry scones; we’ll be excited to learn they’re such a winning pair (cousins, almonds and cherries, you know). Let us search for a hint of orange peel, or come to adore exotic cardamom on first taste. We love to learn. Let us get excited by the nuances of your work.

The brownie above, now. Good example. Much less sugar, in the European tradition. More excellent-quality chocolate, cream, and butter. It was dense, sticky—a deep and powerful experience. I’ll drive a half an hour north for this thing, and I cannot imagine I’m alone.

Being active observers of flavors and textures is a positive; looking for them with eagerness and learning from them is a blessing. Conscious, discerning eating can’t help but inform conscious, discerning thinking outside the bakery, and goodness knows we can all use a little more of that.

Two thumbs up, and best regards,

~M (and my dentist)

*And maybe Lin-Manuel Miranda.
**Of course I ate the whole thing. It wasn’t a good brownie, but it was a brownie.

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Burying my face in lilacs dripping with raindrops, getting my nose all wet and not even caring, was and is a favorite Springly pastime. Lilacs in bloom also meant school was almost over for the year. When I smell them today, decades later, they still smell like almost-summer: delicious anticipation.

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Lilacs are so insistently fragrant that I used to pick a bunch and put them in a vase on the front porch so I could enjoy them without getting overpowered.

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I once propped My Fair Lady with a teenage actor who carried silk lilacs and did not know their name. It always spooks me a little when young people don’t know the names of common flowers, but getting a chance to tell them cheers me up.

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Florence Nightingale wasn’t just a famous nurse—she was also a really talented statistician. She figured out a wild—but accurate—phenology fact: After a very specific amount of days after the last frost, lilacs bloom. I can’t find the amount of days, and it’s bugging me. But it’s been proven.

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I love seeing lilacs when travelling. Been lucky a couple of times to see them twice in a year—at home and then, in chillier climes, again abroad. Canada has a spectacular lilac arboretum which was in bloom when we visited one late spring. Deep purple, lavender, white, and even the less common pink hedges were lush and lovely for acres. In Scotland winding village roads are dotted here and there with tall hedges. They look exactly right by century-old cottages.

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One of my favorite writers, Jungian analyst Clarissa Pinkola Estes, tells of a great story of hope that she learned when digging up a leggy and spent lilac hedge. She said despite the fact that it was what she called ‘boots up,’ surrounding it were smaller hedges. They all led to the original plant; it was its parent. The children were all in full and healthy bloom.

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A neighbor long ago had a house decked out with lilacs—knickknacks, toiletries, even the upholstery on her couch. It’s fascinating how people can take to a flower. Was it all about the color or fragrance? Or did it remind her of someone or something, and she needed to surround herself with a tangible version of the memory?

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I used to frequent an ancient red clapboard building in a nearby farm town. There I bought jars of wonderful blackberry honey from a similarly ancient beekeeper. In the back, near the hives, were lilac bushes that towered over me. They had the biggest blossoms, the sweetest smell, and were the plummiest purple I’d ever seen. I asked the beekeeper about them and he said they had been cut from prize plants grown long ago and far away. The honey shop is gone, and likely the beekeeper as well. But every May I go back, remember the taste of his honey, and smell the lilacs.

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Last week I learned lilacs are edible and went a little lightheaded at the thought. First I made an olive oil-almond cake, and then I collected some lilacs. I found a lone lavender bush near an old gazebo at the lake; another old bush in a Methodist beach community near several century-old religious buildings; and visited the plummy purple bushes behind my honey store. Why do lilac bushes so often sit beside old buildings? It’s probably as simple as this: People long ago loved them as much as we do now. Tastes don’t really change.

I went home and made lilac syrup, stirring one cup of sugar into one cup of hot water until the sugar dissolved, then steeped the rinsed blossoms in it until the syrup cooled. The next day I poured some over a slice of my cake.

It’s overwhelming, isn’t it, that we can take in some kinds of beauty through sight and smell, while others we can truly…consume? Beauty doesn’t have to be separate from us, admired and then left behind. As long as we can make lilac syrup, we can actually, deliciously, be part lilac.

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With the sole exception of peanut butter, I hated nuts growing up. All of my Halloween Snickers bars and Almond Joys went directly to my sister (and she hated peanut butter, so I got her Reese’s). Peanut butter was my glory. It had to be smooth, though; crunching through nuts appalled me.

Then I outgrew it—all of it and then some. Now there is no nut I won’t eat, although I draw the line at adding them to cookies and brownies. I work in marzipan, grinding my own almonds. And I want my peanut butter as crunchy as they’ll make it.

But recently I read that peanut butter is carcinogenic in high quantities, which is essentially how I was eating it. Peanut butter and homemade jam on hearty bread makes a filling breakfast, no matter how old you are. Same deal on apples and bananas. What could ever replace it? I like almond butter, and I like my homemade walnut butter, but neither touch my heart quite like peanut.

Enter cashews—and it occurs to me now that there was one nut I ate growing up: this one, salted. To me it’s the most assertive, richest, heartiest nut there is. It’s the Bradley Cooper of nuts, if he put on 35 pounds or so.

But I couldn’t find it anywhere in chunky, and why I still haven’t figured out. So I bought a jar of smooth with salt from Trader Joe’s, took a spoonful in the parking lot and tested it. Win for flavor, but very runny. So I went back inside and bought a bag of raw cashews, brought them home and toasted them, ground them up a bit. Then little by little, added them to the jar.

People often tell me how resourceful I am, which is very nice. A lot of my food ideas flop, or take forever to get right, so when an idea nails it from minute one….well, this is the kind of resourceful I am proudest of.

That’s it. All I wanted to tell you. Just how GOOD this is. Better than peanut butter, much as I love it. I can’t wait to dunk some good quality dark chocolate in there. Happy Mond…oh crap. Tuesday.

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Sour cream coffee cake that looks like pie because I cut back the sugar by half. I’ve since gotten smart: kept the sugar halved, but doubled the overall recipe to give it the height I remember. I can MacGyver quite a bit when it comes to food. Cinnamony and tender. Christmas 2011.

The holiday season is winding down—just three more days until Twelfth Night. This time of year is famously nostalgic for the sights and sounds, but especially smells and tastes, of times gone by.

All of the photos here evoke a place that feels peaceful, safe, and magical—however briefly. Think about it: we willingly do this to ourselves every year, and it’s not always fun getting to the finish line. Shopping, wrapping, gift hiding, card writing, cooking, cleaning, decorating, tree hunting, driving, spending, fretting, sweating. There’s something we’re getting out of it, or we’d never bother. And I don’t think we do it just for the kids’ sake, or just for religion’s sake. This agnostic doesn’t have kids, but she bakes and decorates every year. I have a friend, also child-free, who’s atheist, and currently has a live 10-foot tree in his foyer.

I believe we do it for the feeling, for that fleeting sense of calm and magic we remember. We grab it every year with both hands, despite the hassle, despite the cost, because it feeds something inside us that’s hungry. The smells of pine and cinnamon and peppermint make everything okay again. The magic soothes us like a hot chocolate bath.

Christmastime has the unique ability to take us back to a place we need to go…and nourish us when we get there.

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My first-ever candy snowmen, sitting on a sugared landscape. Whenever I make them now I remember seeing one of the kids at this party smooshing a snowman with his fist. I wasn’t mad; I thought it was hilarious. Almonds all the way. Something like Christmas 2006.

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Shepherd’s pie, made with lamb, naturally. I made this just after New Year’s Day, 2013. Nothing comes close to the real thing. Rich, nutmeggy, and creamy.

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Half-eaten traditional English Christmas cake, made from a recipe gifted to me by my elderly English neighbor. I had so much fun making this and enjoying it in ‘fingers,’ little slivers, as they do across the pond. Intensely flavored with cloves, cinnamon, and lots of dried fruit. Christmas 2013.

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Another first-ever: stollen. I shot this right out of the oven, just before I pulled its fluffy insides apart with my fingers. Full of fragrant, juicy dried fruit and orange peel. Christmas 2010.

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My room, with guest appearances by Douglas fir, white pine, juniper, and weeping willow. It smells woodsy and wintergreeny. The shot might be a current one, but the smells remind me of Christmases past.

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My Raggedy Ann, about 40 years old, in her worn calico dress. She sits under my tree every year.

 

 

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I made an awful lot of honeysuckle syrup last June. Drank up a bunch with vodka over ice, drizzled more in mini ladyfinger trifles, and am now baking up the rest.

One of the tenderest, loveliest pound cake recipes I know comes from Martha (http://www.marthastewart.com/315016/cardamom-pound-cake-with-roasted-late-su). I thought I’d guild the lily one step further and soak it in honeysuckle syrup. So I did.

Do everything she tells you to do, but hold the cardamom and cut way back on the sugar (your syrup wants to be the diva here). I put my batter in an 11″ springform as well, and put it on a rimmed cookie sheet. When it comes out of the oven, dock the top of the cake with a fork.

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Like this. Martha’s would have been more even.

Then pour a cup or two of the syrup over the whole cake. The hot cake will slurp it up, and the little holes will help to facilitate that. (Since the cake contains almond flour, I added a splash of Disaronno to the syrup as well. Almonds and honeysuckle are such a good combo platter.)

Every morning I take out a half cup or so of extra syrup and pour it over my slice of breakfast cake because I love it all soaky.

Right now tax accountants across the country are busy closing out America’s 2014 fiscal year. I’m doing the same…but with honeysuckle. The 2015 season starts this June. I’m standing by with my collecting bucket.

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Ready for action: chocolates in background, toothpicks and drop cup in foreground.

I’m a lifelong sweet-maker/eater, which in my case means I grew up making Duncan Hines cakes and somewhere along the line had a bite of homemade (the cold-truth wallop I needed). Today, a local specialty bakery sells my homemade candy, and occasionally I cater desserts for parties—with everything scratch-made. I can tell if a cookie has butter in it or shortening. I can tell Hershey’s from Mama Ganache*.

But there’s a whole lot I didn’t know, like, just for starters, that Japan has a taste-bud-blowing way with chocolate. Where did that come from? They know from fish, yes; delectable noodles, yes; immaculate presentation and technique, for sure. Chocolate…?

Well, first things first: all quality products start with a mindset of caring. You have to care; and if you do, the product will follow.

When I tried Royce’ Chocolate’s candies in the Village recently and was asked to come back to their Madison Avenue location for a more comprehensive tasting—well, at first I dilly-dallied, right, like you just met me, no, I was stunned at the luxurious mouth feel of these candies, and I couldn’t wait to learn more. Asian chocolates. I’m in.

The story of Royce’ Chocolate starts on Hokkaido, Japan’s northern-most island. Do you need a daydream worthy of usurping your job for an hour? Here: the island looks like the landscape beneath the snow-capped Alps, but carpeted in flowers. Google image Hokkaido because I’m not doing it justice. There really are places on earth that look like this. I kind of want to go now.

Here live the cows that produce milk and cream that are the basis of this chocolate. They get to eat what grows on Hokkaido. And I’ve also been lucky enough to spend time with artisanal cheesemakers who will tell you that what cows eat factors immeasurably into the final product, and which sounds obvious because it is. Look at a Hokkaido photo. I figure anything that ate what grew out of that ground would produce something akin to rainbows.

A final and groovy note: Royce’ Chocolate is easily more stringent about cleanliness than the Mayo Clinic. Workers must wear special uniforms and then go through fans that blow extraneous dust off of them as they enter work areas. Not impressed yet? The factory was deliberately designed without right angles, where dirt and dust can collect. Thank you very much.

Okay. So.

What we ate (my sister came along. Oh, the belabored arm twisting. You can tell we’re related.)

Potato Chip Chocolate Fromage Blanc–I’m open-minded, and I love chocolate, and potato chips, and cheese, but this threw me. I thought it would taste okay, tops. No. Awesome. Addictive.¬† Each chip is coated in white chocolate and fromage blanc cheese. Salty, crunchy, sweet, creamy.

Potato Chip Chocolate Original–Coated on one side with milk chocolate. This keeps the chips from becoming flabby; they were good and thick, and had a great crunch.

Maccha Almond Chocolates–Roasted almonds coated in white chocolate and then with green tea chocolate. (An obligatory word about white chocolate. Many hate it; to me, it’s always been just okay. I tried theirs, and forgive me for sounding like a QVC commercial, but it’s nothing like I’ve ever tried. It tastes like homemade vanilla fudge.)

Baton Cookie Hazel Cacao–A fragile, crisp hazelnut cookie, coated on one side with dark chocolate and infused with cacao nibs.

Marshmallow Chocolate Milk Coffee–I love these cuties. Tater-tot-sized marshmallows coated with coffee chocolate. Soft and lovely.

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Pure Chocolates Venezuela Bitter & Ghana Sweet–Simple medallions that showcase several different chocolate varieties, from white all the way to 90% cacao (that’s 90% cacao to 10% sugar). I love dark chocolate, but don’t usually go above the upper 60s because it usually tastes like dirt, to put it plainly. I tried the 80% and then the 90%, and was genuinely surprised that no matter how high the percentage, it remained smooth and complex. Not bitter at all. How did they do that? I’ll always be a 60s girl, but this was delicious.

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Prafeuille Chocolat Maccha–Green tea sauce sandwiched between green tea-infused chocolate. Very delicate and aromatic.

Duo Praline–Soft, white Maccha chocolate with ground green tea, covered with fragrant green tea sauce, and further covered in a milk chocolate shell.

Chocolate Wafers Hazel Cream–A really good-quality version of the wafer-and-icing cookies we grew up devouring. These have hazelnut cream between the wafers and are coated with chocolate.

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And these tasted like chilled chocolate butter cream.

Many thanks to Athena Pappas, who did the gracious inviting, serving, and question-answering. She’s at the Madison Avenue store. (They have three locations—here as well as in Bryant Park and the Village.)

I’m happy to chirp about a company I like, so please take this as an emphatic chirp: this chocolate is exquisite for holiday gifts, unlike any your giftees have tasted. Royce’ Chocolates made with cream need refrigeration, and the stores provide a complimentary ice pack and insulating bag for them.

Have a creamy Christmas.

Royce’ Chocolate

New York, NY

royceconfectusa.com

 

*Then again, so can a lemur.

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I know it’s almost Valentine’s Day and I know that’s not a picture of heart-shaped Scharffen Berger chocolate and Bordeaux up there. I’m dispensing with tradition again and deliberately not talking about candy and wine in the interest of…well…I don’t want to be trite, especially not this week. I don’t even want to get into the gooey romantic language, if I can help it. Hope you’re good with that.

Instead we’ll salivate over other combinations I adore,* stuff that’s not typical, starting with sandwiches. The first one, above and at the very bottom, makes an incredible lunch.

-Sweet** onion (like a Vidalia), caramelized in olive oil or butter

-Chicken, roasted (or grilled, or whatever), shredded and added to the onion

-Apple (pick anything that’s not a McIntosh because those’ll just dissolve on you), sliced, don’t bother to peel it, thrown into the pan with the onions and chicken and cooked until golden brown

-Fontina (a European, kinda nutty, kinda pungent, eminently oozeable cheese that any supermarket has)

-Ground allspice, a few shakes into the onion/chicken/apple pan

-Black pepper, coarsely ground  (I like a lot in this) into the pan as well

Now. Butter and toast your bread under the broiler (I used a Cuban roll because it was all the bakery downtown had left but it was awesome), melt your cheese, then pile your stuff on top.

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When I shot this I accidentally had the camera set on video like a dope. So right now I have valuable footage of a sardine sandwich in its natural habitat, on a plate, on my dining room table. It’s fascinating. They’re very docile, much quieter than you’d imagine.

The next sandwich, above, makes an incredible breakfast if you’re my mom. I grew up in a house that relished the combination of sardines and raw onion on a sandwich. The above is normal to me and wildly addictive, too, actually. I hope I don’t lose subscribers over this.

-Sardines (skinless and boneless, packed in either water or olive oil)

-Mayo

-Red*** onion, thinly sliced

-Bread of some sort (I used a whole wheat roll from Trader Joe’s)

-Salt to taste

Add mayo to bread. Add the rest. Wipe exertion from brow.

Since many of you are already appalled, another delirious combination is tuna packed in oil into which you’ve mixed in a good amount of anchovy paste. Keep the sliced raw onion, hold the mayo, and sandwich-ify.

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Other yummy food combinations:

-Almond extract, just a teaspoon or so, baked into anything that features peaches, nectarines, cherries or apricots. Almonds and all of these fruits are botanical cousins. Ever notice that the pit of a peach looks a lot like an unshelled almond? Yep. And they are lovely together.****

-Mushrooms cooked with a few splashes of chicken broth. Not cousins, to be sure, but for some reason they bring out the best in each other, like Tim Burton and Danny Elfman. Okay, mellower than the two of them, but the point stands.

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*Sorry. Crap. That was quick.

*Totally not my fault. Vidalias are sweet!

***It’s a color, not a holiday.

****%&#%*!!!

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