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Posts Tagged ‘cinnamon’

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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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Today I told my Facebook tribe that when my friend Rachel made me the gift of a tart pan, my very first, I flipped out. It’s because for as long as I can remember an Alsatian apple tart has danced in my head where sugarplums ought to. Now I could finally make one. Last night I did.

Only one venerable restaurant in my area made this dessert, a place I visited a few times growing up. It was so lovely that I think I ordered it every time. And now I’m glad I did, because the restaurant—I’m still in shock—recently closed.* I might be the only one in my area now who makes this tart.

Letting that thought wash over me.

I confess I don’t remember where I got the recipe. But Google can help you if you’re tempted to be a part of the Alsatian Apple Tart workforce. Join me, and let us rise above the frozen $11 apple hucksters of the land!

Here’s what I did.

1) Zipped up the pâte brisée (that’s the pie dough) in my Cuisinart. Chilled the dough in the fridge for 30 minutes, then pressed it into the pan. You can do the same if you’re as lazy as I was last night**, or you can roll it out. Those stalwart cooks who roll it out can probably boast a more consistent thickness, as opposed to me, who had to coax the finished product from the removable base this morning with all ten fingers, like a surgeon who’d lost his subway fare inside an appendicitis patient.

This is the dough in my happy new pan, after docking (when you prick it all over with a fork so it doesn’t bubble up in the oven).

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2) I covered the dough with tin foil and poured dried beans into it. This also keeps the bubbles down while the crust bakes. Pie weights, widely available at cooking specialty stores***, are an expensive frill. Set the tart on a rimmed cookie sheet. This is always a good idea, because pies like to leak. This went into the oven for 12 minutes.

The last time I was at my favorite organic farm I bought up their last bushel of apples, which they procured from an Amish farm in Pennsylvania. I think they’re Honey Crisps. The recipe called for Golden Delicious, but you can use whatever you want (except don’t use McIntoshes. They’re too soft, and are best for eating out of hand or for applesauce. You want an apple that will keep its structure even after a hit with a 375-degree oven).

3) I cut up, cored, and peeled three apples per the recipe, but I needed another small one. Tossed the slices in a bit of granulated sugar, and made a pretty flower that ended up oddly off center. 15 more minutes in the oven.

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4) I made a custard of sugar, milk (you can use milk and cream), and eggs and whisked it up. Using a measuring jug is the ticket here because you need to pour the custard on top of the tart. For some reason there was only room for half of the custard before it started overflowing, which is another solid reason why the crust was as irretrievably stuck to the base as it was (see ‘subway fare’ above). I poured the rest into two 1-cup ramekins, plunked them into a Pyrex pan, and filled the pan with water halfway up the sides of the ramekins. (This is a bain-marie, which gently cooks custard desserts. If I was to put the custard ramekins in the oven straight up, they would have scorched.)

When the tart came out, it looked like this. Well, in the morning it did. I shot the earlier shots last night by my unfortunate overhead kitchen light. Note the change in light from lurid to pleasantly natural!

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And when I cut it, it looked like this…

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And this was my breakfast. I put in on a dish with an apple on it. You can kind of see it peeking out the right side. IMG_7517

Here’s what I liked about this tart: The crust was wonderfully tender and the custard delicate. And I had a surprise: I really enjoyed the experience of eating an apple dish that didn’t call for cinnamon. Until I made this, it hadn’t occurred to me how cinnamon always seemed to show up whenever there was an apple around. It’s great, of course. But it’s become predictable. Eating just apples with no other spices was clean and pure.

Here’s what I didn’t like: Nothing.

And I have one more custard to eat.

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*The Fromagerie, in Rumson, NJ. It had changed owners and all and wasn’t the same. But I’m still reeling.

**Like I don’t do this every single time I make pie.

***I love you, Williams-Sonoma, and my condolences on the loss of Chuck. But I doubt his mother or grandmother used fabricated pie weights for their crusts, either. They used beans.

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There comes a time in every woman’s life when she feels utterly compelled to make a pie. Okay, sweeping generalization, but it is the case for me.

Whenever life gets overwhelming—as it recently has been for me—I don’t say things to myself like, ‘I need a drink’ or ‘I need an escape to the Maldives.’* No, in the midst of the whirling chaos on the outside and on the inside, I say to myself, ‘I really need to make a pie.’ Sometimes I say it to myself a few times. Who can explain these things? Hopefully me.

This past week, I winged an apple custard pie.

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Making a pie is soothing. Presetting all of the components, chopping the apples, stirring the custard—it’s a personal choreography that I can fall into without a thought. I can let the pattern and rhythm carry me for a while. I could do it in my sleep…and when I can’t sleep, it’s the next best thing.

Making a pie is a concrete accomplishment. How many times in our lives do we feel as though we’re just pushing paper, spending the day (or weeks, or months, or, God help us, years) feeling like a hamster on a wheel? If you sat down and really assessed what you did today, from soup to nuts, would it be a head scratcher?

Pie-making has a clear beginning, middle, and end. And when you get to the end, and take it out of the oven smelling like all of the layers of heaven plus whatever corner of Eden stayed intact after the Fall, you can say to yourself (probably quite as God is reputed to have said), ‘This is done. This is good. I can be proud of this.’

Eating a pie you made….well, this goes without saying.

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Vanilla custard topped with local, organic apples, sauteed in cardamom and Saigon cinnamon. Breakfast, lunch, whenever.

*Not that a Baileys on the rocks doesn’t go down mighty smooth. And if someone offered me plane tickets to those islands, I wouldn’t fight him off with a big stick.

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Fall is such an evocative season. Since it happens to be fall, and you caught me mid-evoke, let’s expound on that.

Last week I was walking by the realtors’ office downtown, housed in a 100+ year-old building, and their door was open. The scent coming out of the office was one I haven’t smelled in 30 years: it brought me back to my aunts’ and uncle’s immaculately-kept house. Quite inexplicably. And awesomely.

Then there was the time I heard Mario Batali on TV rhapsodizing about marjoram, an herb not used in my house growing up, nor in my own as an adult. I bought a jar of it, opened it, and time-travelled again: I was a toddler, it was 1973, and I was looking at a storybook that featured a bunny and scratch and sniff panels, one of which must have featured marjoram.

I never saw that coming. I hadn’t even remembered that book until I smelled that herb. Curious as to why the author included it; what an unusual choice. Again, though, not complaining. It was incredibly cool.

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The smell of

…Grand Marnier will always and forever remind me of the copiously-spiked whipped cream my dad used to make.

…hot French fries and salt air means home.

…yeast means Easter bread. (I talk about this adventure a lot. Like a whole lot.)

…balsam brings me back to the living room of one of my childhood best friends.

…cinnamon means many things, but topping that list is my mom’s sour cream coffee cake. It won an honorable mention at the county fair one year; the judges’ only real quibble was that they wanted more of the gooey filling inside. (I have since, and wisely, doubled the filling. I know you’re all relieved to hear.) The picture above totally doesn’t do it justice because I don’t have a Bundt pan, which I’ll admit is egregious.

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Where do smells take you?

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I picked quinces from a lone tree on Route 35 yesterday, because this is what crazy people do in their downtime, and I have the oven heating up right now so I can bake my little tart crusts for them.

Let’s back up.

Last year around this time I took a jughandle* and ended up heading east on this same stretch of highway. Between two parking lots, one belonging to a repair shop and one belonging to a defunct Asian restaurant, I spied with my little eye a very weathered fruit-bearing tree. This is something that makes my heart race, and I have given up trying to figure out why. I didn’t know what the fruit was—it had a yellowish-green cast, so it was either pears, Golden Delicious apples, or quinces (all botanical cousins)—but by the time I had the opportunity to get back out there again, they’d all dropped and were gone.

Yesterday I went back, and they were so gnarled that even after I pulled them down I still wasn’t completely sure what they were. Either pears or quinces. Here’s 5-foot-3 me, jumping to grab equally gnarled branches to get a hold of the fruit as cars tear past me, their owners likely wondering what I’m smoking. I got six of them.

It wasn’t until they were in the warm car for a while that they gave me their name: quinces. (There they are above.) Swanky women in days past used to put quinces inside their dresser drawers; it was their version of potpourri. The quince and its cousins the apple and pear are in the Rose family. But unlike their cousins, the quince cannot be eaten raw.** You cook it in a sugar syrup with cinnamon, or in red wine. The flavor and aroma are exquisite, like an apple or pear that’s just returned from holiday on the Italian Riviera and is full of delicious secrets that it finally pens in its later years, then pokes into the fire. This is a fruit that most people haven’t heard of or seen, and it tends to be expensive. Oh, but not this time.

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Just ate one. Good stuff. I forgot to prick the dough (as you can see) before I blind baked them, so they came out more like flaky cookies than tart shells, but I can handle a flaky cookie.

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Next we have the fruits, literal and figurative, of a walk I took to the beach a couple of days ago. I have a modest apartment in the kind of town that manicures everything, even the lion statues that stand post at their driveways.*** Enormous 100-year-old seaside Colonials maintained within an inch of their lives. It’s nice, but I’m more comfortable with the rustic and unprettified. I found it without even looking, between two properties owned by summer visitors, just steps to the street. And that translates to The Apples Are Mine.**** They, along with the quinces above, are examples of unsprayed, unwaxed fruit—something else the average person doesn’t usually see. This is how fruit looked to our great-grandmothers.

And I was startled to find a bonus: a crabapple tree that had been grafted to this old apple tree.

Haven’t decided what to make with them yet, but they’re so fresh that I can take my time deciding.

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So there you have it: a blithe admission that I am not above foraging from abandoned or forgotten trees. Why should I be?

‘Wait, Maris—that’s it?’ says the observant reader. ‘You said three trees, and we know you’re crap at math, but…’

I didn’t forget. There’s one more: a persimmon tree, the only one I know of in my area. Today I went by to check its progress. Coming along nicely, don’t you think? 😉

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*It’s a way to turn around on NJ highways. Along with pork roll, makes out-of-staters scratch their heads at us.

**Maybe not ‘cannot,’ but if you did, you’d be sorry. It’s tough and astringent. Let’s say ‘you’re better off not.’ There.

***Maybe hyperbole, maybe not.

****And the deer’s. I was surprised to find scat under the tree, just a 1/2 block to the ocean. Amazing. Until about 3 years ago, I’d never ever seen a deer in my area, and certainly not so close to the beach. Times be changin’.

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Well, this was one of the stranger years making Easter bread (which explains, I hope at least to an extent, my woefully late post). This is chocolate cinnamon babka, my take on a family tradition to bake and deliver Easter bread on Holy Saturday. I’ve written about it in 2011, 2012, and again last year. Always seem to have something new to tell, which is good, because I have no plans to stop making it.

The good news is it all went off without a hitch*, tasted great, was well received, etc. But I made it in the days leading up to a production of Shrek, for which I’m designing props. This means lack of sleep that generated mild but entertaining and sometimes useful hallucinations; stepping gingerly to the kitchen over googly eyes, glue, grey wool felt, remote control cars and Lowe’s receipts; and tucking the finished loaves under six sheets of foam board in the back seat of my Honda. I’m thinking of creating business cards that say, “Making Easter Sweeter For Three Generations, Though The Most Recent Years Are Closer To What We’d Call Loony.” Obviously I still need sleep.

Here, then, a photo essay of my baking night, which started at around 9pm last Friday.

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Yeast has a big, big sweet tooth. It rises best when it has a little sugar to munch on, so initially the recipe has you add a pinch to the warm milk and yeast. Then it gets a ton more. Got a bang out of watching the mixture change as the yeast chomped their way into a frenzied lather.

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Been making Easter bread for some 20 years now, but due to my aforementioned lack of sleep this was the first year I came up with the idea to change the orientation of my measuring cups to show how many cups I had added to the dough. Here I’m at 6 cups—at 6 o’clock, more or less.

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When the wooden spoon can stand up in the dough, you have a choice. Choice 1: turn it out and start using your hands; choice 2: get a new wooden spoon, because it’s about 11 seconds away from cracking in half. It will, I’m serious.

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My kitchen counter space is about as big as a Ritz cracker. My kitchen table is much bigger, but is drop-leaf—not spectacular for kneading bread dough, since flour falls through the cracks. I decided to use the cookie sheet we were supposed to use in Shrek, a full sheet pan, to knead. It was too heavy for the actress who plays Gingy to carry and dance with at the same time, so I bought it. Yeah.

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Kneading. I love the feel of dough as it’s getting more and more elastic, and the pattern is both grooved and groovy.

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Dough set to rise. It looks a lot like the way cauliflower grows. Picture the parchment as the leaves. Right? Lack of sleep again? Not in this case.

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The next morning. Couldn’t smell better, I’m telling you.

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Gratuitous three-bites-gone shot.

*I’m not counting when some of the chocolate, butter, sugar, and cinnamon filling fell on the floor, which is not a hitch; it’s a crime. That I’ll give you.

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I do love me a hot cross bun. The kind from the store are okay, but homemade ones are a totally different animal. A very cozy, awesome, affectionate animal. My recipe is from The Joy of Cooking*. It’s a milk bread spiced up with cinnamon and nutmeg and sweetened with a handful of raisins**.

Hot cross buns are very easy to make. I baked them one morning this past week—a wildly hectic week, quite frankly—and didn’t sweat it. Simple, fun, great payoff, kids (especially the little ‘uns) adore cooking…it got me to wondering why more people don’t bake them at home. I think part of it is yeast anxiety. True? Maybe we perceive ordinary things like sugar and eggs and flour as controllable. But we think of yeast as something with a mind of its own. It’s not the case. To an extent, every ingredient on Earth as well as several on Jupiter has a mind of its own. The way to work well with ingredients is to understand them. Don’t frazzle; just know that if you add a little sugar and warm water to yeast, it will grow and make a bread. That’s really it.

Here’s butter melting in a heavy pan. Lovely way to begin anything.

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Added dry ingredients and stirred with a fork until it becomes, below, what some recipes call ‘shaggy’. Post gratuitous Scooby-Doo references in the comments below.

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Once it came together, I added the raisins and kneaded it for a while until it became smooth and stretchy. Then I covered it with a dishtowel (with a piece of parchment underneath to keep it from sticking) and set it on my radiator (which was warm, but not hot, that day). Here’s how it looked after it rose.

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I punched it down (the English call it ‘knocking it down’) and let it rise again. Dumped it out onto a parchment-lined cookie sheet and pondered for an inordinate amount of time whether I wanted to make just one BIG bun. It’s tempting, right?

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Enjoys walks on the beach, candlelit dinners, and fantasies of world domination.

But nah.

Cut the dough into buns and brushed them with just milk. I was out of eggs, so I couldn’t make an egg wash (which is one egg mixed with milk or cream, to make the tops Saint-Tropez tan).

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Plain milk worked fine.

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I icing’ed one with powdered sugar that had a little milk stirred in and made a cross to salute tradition.

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And then I decorated the rest differently since I’m agnostic. Either way, they taste the same: fantastic.

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*The book’s 15 years old and the binding’s split and duct taped. Good thing we don’t all go to seed so early in life.

** I think it needs two handfuls, but that’s me.

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