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Posts Tagged ‘cinnamon’

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Baking is not the terrifying thing people make it out to be. Truly, this week you dealt with health insurance, nursed a cold, got rear-ended on a major highway, and had your umbrella blow inside out twice.* After that, putting one’s hands in flour and chopping chocolate is a proven way to set everything to rights, to regain control and start over. And it soothes like nothing else right now, during what can be the coldest month of the year.**

I actually made two soda breads this month. Every March I dream of what soda bread riff I want to do. This year I added blood orange juice and zest, cloves, cinnamon, 65% cacao chocolate chunks, a dose of Grand Marnier, and instead of cow’s milk yogurt I think I used goat’s. The juice added to the yogurt made the dough faintly pink, which I thought was hilarious, and was sorry to see the color kind of fade in the oven. But it was a winner. That’s it above. I pulled pieces off and munched on them warm.

Then for my sister’s birthday I made another soda bread and added unsweetened coconut flakes, 72% cacao chocolate, and a few glugs of Malibu. It was basically a boozy Mounds bar tucked inside some bread. An unorthodox birthday cake. She was a fan.

Today I made a pizza I’ve been wanting to recreate since 2008, when I visited Mo’orea, an island off Tahiti. The shack on the side of the road is called Allo Pizza. Mo’orean locals are generally French speakers and French food eaters with a healthy hunger for fish and their lovely tropical produce. It’s not a combination that calls to mind pizza, but there it was. I wasn’t a food writer then, not officially, but I kept a journal that documented what we did and what we ate; and praise Jesus, or I wouldn’t remember the toppings on this pie: fresh tuna (they call it ‘lagoon fish,’ caught across the street), capers, anchovies, Parmesan, garlic, and herbes de Provence. It’s an unlikely combination, but so was being halfway around the world and eating on the street while dodging guys doing wheelies on mopeds. We did notice that no one wore gloves while handling the toppings, and that there was no refrigeration for the fish. So only we ate there for lunch, as soon as it opened. And just the same, we waited to get sick, but it never happened.

The tuna below was not caught across the street but caught from behind the counter at Whole Foods, a reasonable substitute. It was great fun to make, warming and delicious, wheelies or no wheelies.

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*Yep , right here.
**Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Pa used to say, ‘When the days begin to lengthen, the cold begins to strengthen.’ I can never remember when I parked at Target, but this I remember.

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The above is what happens when you’re hungry, you’re about to crew an enormously demanding show (The Who’s ‘Tommy’), and you need energy to make it through to 6pm (or later if we’re striking, or breaking down, the show. We were).

I have been wanting to try this newish place nearby, called Broad Street Dough Co., but held off until I had an excuse to consume such calories. This was one. That, and I tend to cast a skeptical eye on this treat-everything-like-a-sundae food trend that’s been going on for some time. Cupcakes, muffins, doughnuts, even coffee drinks have become bases for piling on heaps of candy and icing. It seems mildly hysterical, and is often a cheap way to disguise a poorly-made product beneath.

But I am always elated to support the exceptions, and yesterday’s doughnut was one. It’s essentially a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich (with black raspberry jelly), on a doughnut that’s been sliced in half standing in for bread. The doughnut was hot, tender, and right out of the fryer; it softened the creamy peanut butter and jelly and made them gooshy. A bit heavy on the fillings, but delicious. I ate it in maybe four bites.

A place with integrity will be proud to offer their product in the simplest manner, as an ice-cream shop that makes their own ice cream will be as proud of their vanilla as of their Rocky Road. The shortest distance between you and determining the quality of a place that cooks from scratch is to try that vanilla (or the simplest version of whatever they make) first. It’s a rule I made that has never failed me. I’m going back to Broad Street for a maple-walnut doughnut, which looked lovely, and I’m going to try out what they call old-school doughnuts—plain, sugar, and cinnamon—per my rule.

Crewing shows and doughnuts. I can live with this.

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My past week could be accurately weighed in butter grams.

I made snickerdoodles (cinnamon sugar cookies common in the midwest U.S.) along with my extra-rich chocolate-chip cookies and handed them out to several audiences. They both contain a staggering amount of butter (the latter especially; it calls for 2.5 sticks of it, and its batter must be refrigerated for four hours so it stiffens enough to hold up in the oven), and consequently both were well received.

First on the docket: what I called Random Acts of Cookie. I’ve noticed there seems to be a general malaise in the world lately. Election year or some such nonsense. So on Wednesday I went on the offense and planned to fight back by handing out snickerdoodles to anyone I came upon.

I’d like to say I handed them all out. The truth is, only one person accepted one, though they were individually bagged and all. I’ll still say it was a success, though, because I drove some out to my friend Jim at work and he laughed and ate them right up. Then I gave another to my friend Mike, who’s from Ohio, and told him the cookie was his birthright. He conceded without an argument.

Next up I made chocolate-chip cookies for the cast of a show. My friend Tom plays a conniving, comedic pope in it (the script actually says, ‘with atrocious Italian accent’), which is reason enough to celebrate. That’s the box above. I also gave him a piece of chocolate cinnamon babka—my Easter bread—yesterday which, oddly, he ate on his way to dinner. I got a voice mail telling me to stop everything I’m doing and make only that, for the rest of my life. It is a good recipe. And the cast made appreciative little mmmm noises as they ate. It’s hard to disappoint actors.

Today was my last cookie visit, and it was half altruistic and half bribery: I returned some props to a rental company that can be as disorderly as a petting zoo inside Grand Central on Christmas Eve at 4:55pm. I bypass this by bringing them treats, and they got a dozen of those extra-buttery chocolate-chip cookies. As I told my friends on Facebook: It conveys moving past slights and misunderstandings, which I’m above, and also conveys a healthy dose of manipulation, which I’m not.

Also: Every time I bake, I try to hold back a few and set them aside for later. This way, when I know I’m going to meet a friend who loves chocolate, or has had a bad day, I can bring one along. It’s a very small gesture and very easy for me to do, but I have never met anyone who didn’t love it. Right now my freezer contains freezer-safe Hefty bags full of cookies, babka, two kinds of homemade Nutella truffles (those with a little added sugar and those without), and wedges of brownies. Treats in the freezer are my money in the bank. I’m armed. Make a lunch date with me and you’d find out.

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With all due respect to the believers out there, my hallelujah news this past week was only peripherally due to Easter Sunday. Most of it came from putting my overworked, overwhelmed hands into a bowl of bread dough, where I was able to dispel the stresses of the past month with a few turns.

2016 marks something like my 25th year of making Easter bread, a 100-year or so tradition my sister and I assumed, and I took it over entirely a dozen years ago. Chocolate-cinnamon babka is what I make. It is sticky and goopy, with spiced dark chocolate twirled throughout layers of buttery, eggy dough. No one argues with this recipe.

After a March of solid writing, phone calls, candy making and delivering, stage prop hunting and more delivering, I was beat from every angle. The crazy thing is, when the world spins too quickly and it feels like I can’t catch up, I crave the kitchen. I need to make something…and specifically, to put my hands in something.

When I flour my hands and first put them in the dough, an enormous calm washes over me that says this I can do. My heartbeat slows to match the motion of my hands. It’s probably akin to knitting, music-making, or any number of things that have a beat. But this has the added bonus of that raw yeasty smell and the cool feel of dough. Dough-working is instinct and skill: discerning when the dough needs more flour, how many turns it should take, when it’s springy enough to stop kneading. And I love dropping it into my parchment-lined, secondhand wooden bowl. I love covering it with more parchment and a dishtowel, and setting it to rise on the cooler end of my kitchen radiator.

I think back to our grandmothers and their aunts, sisters, cousins who bent over bread bowls in the middle of their chockablock lives, and wonder if their heartbeats slowed to a sane pace as well. I think about the unique stresses of their lives—illness, war, foreclosure, rationing—and wonder if they were able to breathe in yeast and and breathe out the cares of the day and the fear of the unknown. I don’t know. All I know is it puts heart back into me in a way nothing else quite does, letting me resume the world with a clear outlook.

Bread dough—now that’s a religion I can stand behind.

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Gosh, I hope you’re all braised meat fans, or I’m about to bore you. 🙂
Pulled pork for lunch was my buddy Casey’s* idea (and he’s actually prepared it umpteen times before, and has a fancy-schmancy Cuisinart slow cooker), so he took the reins on that. He rubbed the meat (pork butt, which is pork shoulder, but saying pork butt is far more appealing) with a mixture of brown sugar, chili powder, garlic powder, cumin, cinnamon, smoked paprika, and salt. Then he plopped it into the Cuisinart on a cozy bed, bath, and beyond of sliced yellow onions, fresh sliced garlic, and chicken broth. It dozed in there for a blissful five hours. I know they were blissful because when we sliced off the first piece of meat and tasted it, it was nearly liquid.
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Here it is, singing ‘Swanee River’, in a very happy puddle.

Wait…let’s back up to that morning. Case assigned rolls and barbecue sauce to me. Finding the sauce was easy, thanks to another buddy, Ray, who makes BBQ Buddha Memphis Mop sauce**. The rolls I wanted to make myself, so I used a recipe from my well-worn, duct-tape-spined Joy of Cooking, adding whole-wheat pastry flour in place of some of the all-purpose flour called for. I also tossed in a handful of yellow onions that I caramelized in olive oil.

Every time I make bread I forget how easy it is.

I packed up the sauce; all of the rolls in a half-opened Ziploc (because they were still cooling); my laptop (because Casey also offered to help me design a postcard); and a box of homemade Nutella truffles (to thank him for the aforementioned), and headed north.

We kibbutzed and worked on the postcard, during which it became more and more obvious that my computer skills took a decade-long sabbatical sometime in the ’90s. Then we ate.

I pulled out the fluffy underside of the top of the bun and popped it into my mouth, then I piled on the meat. This is what my sandwich looked like…for about four minutes.

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*Just as an aside: Case’s blog—part snarky, part poignant essays on modern relationships—is here.

**Local guy makes good! If you want to try this, and/or Ray’s other barbecue products, his site is here.

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It’s at the most impractical times that I feel compelled to get into the kitchen and cook something new. I’ve never made one of these but, burned out after a stressed-out week, there I was. And I very firmly told myself that first I needed to deal with the tax forms I’d spread out on the table or I’d have no room to put the recipe together. This did not stop me.

Anatomy of a Strudel

  1. Ignore two cookbooks and wealth of recipes online and wing everything, right down to setting on the oven. Set at 375 F.
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  2. Peel and chop six apples. Dismiss hunch that traditional strudel apples are minced because too tired to mince. (Actually think apple mincing, whether tired or wide awake, is refuge for the anal.)
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  3. For every three yawns, say ‘apfel strudel,’ as did Schwarzenegger when he put it on the Planet Hollywood menu like a good Austrian. (He’d visit guests with the dessert menu, saying ‘Try the apfel strudel,’ and the people would hmm and sigh and say the chocolate cake looked good, and he’d lean in menacingly and say TRY the APFEL STRUUUUDEL, faux glaring at them. They’d order it. I ordered it once myself; it was pretty great, to tell you the truth.)
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  4. Cook apples on stove top and shake in cinnamon and cardamom. Measure nothing. Grab jar of unlabeled, thickened honey that your sister got from a north Jersey farm last summer and said she’d never eat, and add in three spoonfuls.
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  5. Add about a half-cup of Trader Joe’s chopped pecans to saucepan to toast. Read label, see that this is 410 calories, blanch with panic, and pour half back into bag.
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  6. Push tax forms and last year’s receipts aside on table and set up cookie sheets, box of phyllo, olive oil, apples, and nuts. Fold phyllo sheets in half, brush with oil, sprinkle each sheet with seven miniscule pecan pieces, and envelop apples in center. Use hands instead of large serving spoon, leaving the odd appley drip to land on Industry Magazine 1099 form.
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  7. Roll up and bake strudels. Let cool, slice one, and chase down hundreds of tiny shattered pieces that fly off knife and onto tax forms like mosquitoes at a church picnic, if both mosquitoes and church picnic were same shade of slightly off-white. Start thinking was supposed to layer apples and nuts in all of the layers.
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  8. Probably.
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    Anyway. They’re pretty good, despite the heaping mouthfuls of phyllo necessary to penetrate first. I also like thinking my accountant, trying to organize the labyrinthine tax forms of a freelancer, will sniff and be blissfully transported to Austria, and not know why.

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Agatha Christie’s Detective Poirot famously said, ‘The English do not have a cuisine; they have food. Overcooked meat, boiled vegetables, inedible cheese. And the day they invent English wine, I am retreating to the Continent.’ *

I should emphasize I’ve only been to Scotland, sadly missing England, Ireland, and Wales, not that it’s forever. I’m going. But despite one meal in Scotland, strictly average fajitas eaten at the sole restaurant at the edge of Rannoch Moor, everything we ate was incredible.** The trick, always and forever, is to eat where the locals eat, and to eat what’s locally sourced. In the space of one week we put 800 miles on our little rental car, driving across the central part of the country. Coast to coast, from Oban to St. Andrews, we feasted.

From a remote farm we bought bags of wonderful homemade granola with bright orange marigold petals in it. At the Gateway to the Isles at the western coast we ate tiny succulent mussels, harvested at a nearby island, and no bigger than the tip of your finger. At the opposite coast in Anstruther (pronounced ‘Enster’), at the recommendation of a portly policeman, we had crisp, tender fish and chips with malt vinegar. All week we ate a proper English breakfast with eggs, rashers, and bangers prepared by the house manager, a small, wiry English expat (our host called him Wee Jim). And of course we tried haggis, although made unconventionally: tater tot-sized, fried, and served with a creamy garlic dipping sauce. Conventional or not, it was rich and satisfying. And everywhere there were local brews of beer and whisky.

But travel aside, I’ve loved the British dishes I’ve prepared at home, and there have been quite a few. This year I’m going to tackle more of them. The poor reputation is getting pushed aside. I want to try out classic dishes; I want to learn about this region’s great tradition of simple, comforting foods; and I want to talk about it.

My Cooking of the British Isles (Time-Life, 1969) will be my chief guide. I’ve already made Scotch Woodcock, Traditional English Christmas Cake, and Irish Christmas Cake. I tried Spiced Beef in Christmas 2014 and failed because the recipe didn’t emphasize that I needed to season every inch of the meat. But that’s on the editors of the book, not on the whole of the British Empire. I’ll try it again sometime.

For now, I started with Eve’s Pudding, a recipe from James Dunlinson, an Englishman who was the design director for Martha Stewart Living. Yesterday I was cooped up inside for most of the day while the outside was blizzarding. Today I put butter in a bowl to soften, shoveled out my car for an hour and a half, then came back inside and made this lovely thing.

It’s basically a cobbler, full of cinnamon and apples (would Eve have it any other way?). Warm out of the oven, with my extremities still red from cold, it was was a profoundly comforting experience. The British know from cold and raw; they built up a tradition of cooking to counter it. And it’s worked for a few years.

Poirot can stay a little smug; I always giggle at his statement. But not too smug.

*For best effect, say ‘food’ with a nasal French accent, the way he did. And it’s worth noting that Christie herself was an Englishwoman. Whether the statement was a sly personal editorial on the food of her homeland or her best guess of a Belgian’s opinion of it, we don’t know.

**Who in the name of all that is holy eats fajitas in the West Highlands? Well…I hadn’t had a vegetable in a week. It’s hard to find them in pubs in Scotland. When you see ‘salad’ on the menu chalkboard, they mean tuna salad or ham salad. Nothing green. As we were eating, an elderly Englishman approached our table gingerly about what he called ‘the fajitas,’ pronouncing the ‘j’. ‘Are they nice?’ he asked. If you need vegetables, and you probably do, then yeah.

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