November 6, 2012 § 1 Comment
As if overnight, it’s winter. In the mornings, the lawn outside my entryway is frozen, and crackles with every step. Rumor has it there’s a Nor’easter on the way. Wool socks, my down jacket and the knit hat Granny sent just last week have suddenly become mainstays in my wardrobe. Every morning, I tumble out of bed, across the mess of clothes on the floor, and hop around on the tiled bathroom floor, waiting the ten minutes for the water to warm up to an acceptably hot temperature. Running is no longer a determination to stay in shape, but a battle to emerge from the comforter every morning. I slept for eleven hours last night, and was surprised when my lab partners wanted to talk about our lab report at midnight, don’t they know that’s the middle of the night?
That said, there’s two things I enjoy about the early days of winter and that’s the clothes and the food. I want to crawl onto thick cashmere sweaters with blowsy sleeves. I want butternut squash galettes with buttery crust for dinner and warm open-faced apple tarts for dessert. I want the first snowfall, and then all the miserable days of dirty slush afterwards to disappear into a cloud of gingerbread cookies by the fireplace. Even with Thanksgiving just around the corner, I’m already dreaming in reds and greens, fir trees and ski hills. The pistachios in this poundcake are perfectly festive for my current mindset. Granted the two sticks of butter in it are also perfectly excessive and demonstrative of winter baking, but hey we’re only concerned about the aesthetics of winter here — the picture perfect image of poundcake for breakfast looking out at the pure white flurries of snow falling outside.
September 23, 2012 § Leave a Comment
The days are alternating between warm summer breeze, muggy, rainy, and crisp and chill. I have this song on repeat. If you love me hardcore then don’t walk away. It’s a game, I don’t want to play. The party nights are getting fewer, replaced by nights of curling up in bed with endless reading and my thesis. Yoga has become habit again, as a way to disappear for a couple of hours, pensively sink into myself and my thoughts. I’m craving a visit to the nearby apple orchard. A cider doughnut. Leaf stomping. Vanilla ice cream melted on top of warm apple crisp. It never feels like fall without a kitchen, so I guess we’re stuck in a summer-spring mix for a bit longer.
You could say that strawberries are well out of season. But muffins and maple syrup aren’t. I brought back the cutest little muffin liners from France and wanted to put them to good use — unfortunately, these muffins were so moist and buttery that you can barely distinguish the patterns at all. But I loved the pretty bursts of pink, though I think they’d be equally good with some fall flavors mixed in — a tart apple, a crisper pear.
I loosely followed this 101 Cookbooks recipe for Maple Huckleberry Coffee Cake. I left out the fresh thyme, because I imagined it wouldn’t be something that the family would enjoy, though the adventurous and experimental part of me urges you to try it.
July 18, 2012 § 1 Comment
I’ve started this post over and over again, and each time, I end up stopping because I decide, no, that’s not what I want to talk about here. By all means, it was a very good day. I woke up early and went for a run through the national gardens in the city center, running past the Parliament building, ruins, the first modern Olympic stadium. Later on, I wandered into what was suggested to me as the best bakery in the world, and sampled a variety of goods — homely chocolate chip cookies (with pistachios!), eggy challah dusted with almond slivers, dense balls of coconut flakes, scented with orange and cardamom. I then meandered down to the Acropolis museum, where, in addition to seeing never-ending tributes to the goddess Athena, I enjoyed a Greek café and a tower of cream topped with heavily-sweetened figs on the rooftop terrace, with full view of the Acropolis. I shopped — prices, low to begin with due to the crisis, are now slashed in half for summer sales. I drank iced espresso, perhaps my favorite part of Greece so far. I arranged my yoga schedule for tomorrow. And then I came home and sat down to write.
And that’s when the problem started. I got lonely. I tried putting on soothing, jazzy French music. I tried writing, and stopped, and started again. I tried eating a cookie, and then thought about baking. But, to be honest, all my grand baking plans sort of fell through with the realization that it’s actually 40°C here and the thought of turning on the oven makes me miserable inside. Plus, I don’t exactly fancy buying huge bags of flour and sugar (and that not even counting the baking power that I would have to track down in Greek), only to leave them behind, mostly unused, in less than two weeks. So now I’m back to just sitting, and trying to write.
Normally, traveling alone is my prime writing time. But I think I’m well beyond the point when being alone inspires thoughtful reflections on life and key observations about the new culture, which I am experiencing full-on as I lack the homey distractions of traveling with family or the ruckus of active friends eager to do everything at once. I’m well into I have so much time to think about everything that I’ve thought about everything once or twice or a hundred times and I am so tired of my own thoughts.
So there you go, no profound reflections, just a plea for you to start making your own granola, because it is so much better than the sugary catastrophes that you buy at the grocery store. Just a couple of spoonfuls of honey, a drizzle of olive oil, three handfuls of walnuts, some chopped dried figs, and half a bag of rolled oats.
July 5, 2012 § 1 Comment
I’m in the process of booking a whirl-wind of complicated flight-train combo trips, overnight stops in random hostels, and 12+ hour-long days of travel. As much, my last day in Barcelona is being spent in the hotel lobby, having already walked to a food market this morning (which was, of course, closed), walked to a donut shop (which was, of course, closing in ten minutes, but I just managed to squeeze in), and locked myself out of my hotel room. So while I pull together a real post on Barcelona, I thought I’d leave you with a couple of snippets of travels that have previously gone unmentioned.
After my research in Maroilles went sort of awry, ending in a rather fruitless trip, we switched from the dingy, grimy motel room in the equally gray Maubeuge, to a small agritourisme in the area. While the rooms were huge, including both bath and shower, and refreshingly decorated, the highlight for me was the cute breakfast setup — all white napkins, crusty bread, flakey croissants, and several types of jam, served in little white ceramic pots. The tiny butter-dish even had a top, with equally tiny handle!
Later on, at a more upscale agritourismo outside of Modena, where the pool dropped off into the vineyards and hours could be spent dining on the patio overlooking the hills and valleys of the northern Italian countryside, we enjoyed tortelloni stuffed with spinach and local ricotta, an interesting pasta made with breadcrumbs and drenched with parmesan fondu before being topped with assertive black truffled shavings, stuffed omelettes and eggy, baked flan, and to finish, multiple rifts on vanilla-cream gelato, eaten with spoons of the house basalmico and tiny cups of espresso.
So there you go, some of the more beautiful moments of a trip that has often involved trudging through cow stalls, taking pictures of baby black pigs, and waking up at 6 a.m. in order to observe the entire cheese-making process (and that’s still hours later than the cheesemaker wakes up!). Ciao until next time!
May 22, 2012 § Leave a Comment
The fluffy tops of the white clouds outside my window are gently dusted in pale, yellow light. Soon, the light will fade and the sky will transform into a dusty blue, underneath a strip of hazy orange — the sunset — and dots of human lights will begin to emerge underneath us. Crammed into an airplane seat, next to a guy who continuously asks to have his plastic cup — with straw — refilled and flinches every time I move, I’m suffering from a raging sunburn, pouring through summer magazines packed with riffs on tacos with mango-avocado salsa, and struggling to hold back to tears watching Channing Tatum recover his marriage with a girl who’s permanently lost her memory. The Newark airport was swimming with activity and aggressively impatient people today, likely due to the 100-person long lines at every point of the check-in-security-boarding process. Luckily I have a Priority Access card to flash around the minute a line forms, and have made great use of UPS’ shipping abilities for all my extra clothes (please don’t inquire after the number of boxes). Then, once we were finally boarded, we sat for two hours because our pilot was missing in action.
We spent my last day at Princeton on the Jersey Shore, at Pleasant Point. We didn’t make much use of the roller coasters, but we played an aggressive game of beach soccer and got rough-hosed by the chilly waves, which suck you under the surface for a couple of terrifying, brain-freezing seconds. As the day got windy, we sat in the sand playing cards and eating a pizza the size of a large beach ball. Fleeing the wind, we piled back into the cars and joined Jersey traffic on the way home.
The next day, I woke up on the other coast, to my brother getting ready for school, to the birds chirping in the backyard, to the sun shining through the skylights in the kitchen. Breakfast was scrambled eggs, with fresh tomatoes and guacamole on a tortilla, true California breakfast. With a side of milky black tea and my mom’s snickerdoodle cookies.
March 9, 2012 § 1 Comment
The day after writing that what I really missed in life was lemon curd, I got a package from my mother with — you guessed it — a jar of bright lemon curd. It’s a little sweeter than the one I usually make, but it’s been getting me through the week before midterms, the little secret jar that comes out while I’m sitting in bed stressing at 11 p.m. It’s crazy that, even thousands of miles away, she read my mind. Lately, I’ve been feeling like jumping on a plane and heading home, someplace where a simple text message doesn’t have a dozen possible interpretations, a novel can actually be read in a quiet place with a cup of tea instead of being rushed through in a couple of hours, fish doesn’t have to be fried in breadcrumbs in order to be decent, and where I could actually sleep without lying awake for two hours trying to stop my mind from spinning.
What’s called for now is a country retreat. You know, one of those weekends spent in the woods or on the beach, in a little airy shack, where you cook simple meals and go to bed early. Maybe read a magazine, or the first chapter of a book. Run in the morning and take a walk in the evening. Given that a country retreat is not part of my reality right now (or anytime in the near future), I thought back to a time when it was. And it looked like this:
Raspberry jam crumb bars. Oats and brown sugar. Waffles in the morning drenched in Vermont maple syrup. Sunny orange juice. A brisk, blue sky light up by the sun. And lots of friends sitting around the table.
April 19, 2011 § 2 Comments
I sat down to do a race recap of my first marathon this weekend, and I can already barely remember parts. There was never a point in time where I didn’t think that I would finish it but there were many points when it just needed to be over damn it, and why did that last mile feel so, so long. Miles one through five were faster, faster than they should have been, and I was alive and peppy and trying to get away from the people that were chit-chatting behind me. And then we hit the long, straightaway along the marshes of the bay and the pace relaxed enough to take in the cow pastures. I ran past horses, along a muddled creek, a dirt gravel path framed by dried out weeds. The runners had separated out and I was on my own now, very on my own for miles at a time without a soul in sight. The out portion seemed to go on forever, one never-ending trail without an end in sight. Eight miles down, hit the 12-mile marker, turned around soon after. Did the whole trail back again. Boredom set in as I passed mile 15. I picked up the little brother on his bike around there. My whole family had been biking around the course, handing me energy gummies and water. They stayed pretty nearby for the rest of the race. Mile 19, the pain really sets in. Suddenly the slight uphill as you duck under the overpass feels like a real hill. I don’t really feel like I need to say that my legs hurt, but nothing really hurt, so I guess that’s a good thing. Another out-and-back for miles 21-24. I never really noticed a wall. I noticed I was tired yes, my legs felt tight and heavy; I knew if I stopped running, I wouldn’t be able to start again. Before mile 25, the out-and-back was over and we turned in to run the lake on the way home. Mile 25, the home stretch, you could see the finish line balloons, the tents, it all looked so far away. But you could see it. I’m not sure if that was better or worse. The last mile seemed to continue for longer than a final mile should — every time I thought I was nearly done, the path wound again to the side and then there emerged a whole other portion of the pond I hadn’t been able to see a few seconds before. And then one more turn. And then it was over. And I was sitting on the grass, eating a lackluster It’s It ice cream sandwich (why are these famous again?) and then a handful of peanut M&Ms and a Safeway white chocolate chunk cookie.
I had originally been planning on making a post-race snack the night before. But between making a 3.5-hour playlist (which I didn’t even get to finish in the race!) and cutting bite sized Power Bars, I never got around to it. So instead, the next morning, I hobbled around the house and made these hearty oatcakes. I pre-ordered Heidi Swanson’s new book Super Natural Every Day and it was like Christmas when it finally arrived. Every page is gorgeous and I want to stand in the middle of the kitchen hugging it and cooking from it all day. She calls these oatcakes an improved version of the oatcakes — little oat patties, often with dried apricots or nuts — that you find (and are consequently disappointed by) in many San Francisco coffee shops. These are the ideal version, dense, slightly moist, packed with nuts and whole grains. I used all spelt flour and half rolled oats, half steel cut oats. And I’ve been eating them ever since.
August 19, 2010 § 3 Comments
Yesterday, I ventured out into the old town of Alexandria. I had a real reason for going; I had an appointment for a haircut at DeZen Spa purchased with a deal earlier in the summer. Making it to the appointment on time was a mad dash from the office, frantically pushing through the rush-hour people traffic at the Chinatown Metro station and finally hopping onto the Yellow line for a long ride into Virginia. But I did arrive on time, just in time to chop off all my hair…well most of it. My hair now falls just past my chin. I feel a little like Kate Hudson in Le Divorce when she cuts off her California blonde hair for a short, sophisticated French do. Only I’m not quite in Paris yet.
Afterward, I went off to explore Alexandria, as the last time I was there with my whole summer household there wasn’t much chance to see the area. I stopped in at Le Pain Quotidien, looking at the pastries and tarts behind the glass windows before moving in. I walked into La Madeleine and ordered a mango iced tea and a mini lemon tart, which was disappointingly not at all tart. On the way back to the Metro station, in search of an Old Town deli, I stopped in at a small clothing shop, An American in Paris. The front door was locked but the slight woman who owns the shop came hurrying to the door to let me in. The store was lined with clothes in rows on every wall and the woman instructed me on how to view each piece — take from the rack by the hanger, not the clothing, and gently feel the texture of the fabric between your hands. The key to good clothing is the fabric, she noted in a slight accent. She is originally from Avignon, though her father’s family is Italian and her daughter lives in England. She cooed with delight when I said I was moving to Paris, then proceeded to give me a lecture on being careful and not getting entrapped in the partying Americans that frequent Europe. We Europeans, we grew up being cautious, you American girls are so sheltered and naïve, she said. I just laughed and headed to the dressing room with a gorgeous pink dress with a huge appliqué flower front-and-center and crepe-like skirt that is longer than anything I have ever worn but made of such beautiful fabric I couldn’t resist. Glamorous, she said, was in.
I wanted so badly to make this woman happy that I actually considered buying one of the pieces, which were each priced at $295. But knowing what a shock that would give my bank account — and reason reinforced when she commented that she loved my skirt, which I think is the only clothing I have ever purchased at Wal-Mart — I resisted and said I “would have to check with my mom,” which means “no.” I think I can be an American in Paris without that price tag.
I have spent a lot of time in the past week researching Europeans cities and countryside, their hole-in-the-wall restaurants, stores and hotels. I’ve been mapping out travel routes and Eurorail tickets, trying to narrow down which weekend trips are feasible and which are going to remain dreams. I’m determined to make it to Barcelona and Dublin. But I also want to see the country, the farms; I want to go to Southern France and relive childhood vacations and explore the grandeur of Irish hills, as I’ve never before been. More than I want to taste the food everywhere, I can’t wait to recreate the food in my little apartment kitchen. I just hope I find people to eat it!
I brought this cake into the office, partly to get it off my hands and party to distract from the disappointing apricots in my previous post. It’s a cake you make in the middle of winter and likewise in summer, as I did. It seemed overly sweet when I first tried it, still piping hot, but the flavors melded together over the next few days and the sweetness lessened. I would say, best on the second or third day.
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup sugar
1 3/4 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
3/4 stick unsalted butter, melted
1/2 cup milk
1 large egg
1/2 cup jam or preserves
For crumb topping:
3/4 stick unsalted butter, melted
1/4 cup packed brown sugar
1/4 cup granulated sugar
3/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
Preheat oven to 400°F with rack in middle. Generously butter a 9-inch square or round cake pan.
For the cake:
Whisk together flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt. Whisk together butter, milk, and egg in a large bowl, then whisk in flour mixture until just combined. Pour batter into cake pan. Dollop jam all over surface, then swirl into batter with spoon.
For the crumb topping:
Whisk together butter, sugars, cinnamon, and salt until smooth. Stir in flour, then blend with your fingertips until incorporated. Sprinkle crumbs in large clumps over top of cake. Bake cake until a wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean and sides begin to pull away from pan, about 25 minutes. Cool in pan on a rack 5 minutes.
August 16, 2010 § Leave a Comment
June 15, 2010 § 1 Comment
There are few things that feel more comfortable than afternoon picnics in your hometown, especially when surrounded by old friends. In fact, picnics are possibility one of my favorite activities and I don’t know why we don’t have them more often. A couple weeks ago, a friend and I snatched up a reunion brunch and decided to skip out on the popular brunch restaurants in San Francisco and hold our own little picnic in Dolores Park. It has been quite awhile since then, as it was the day before I left for New York City, but it was the perfect ending to an extended stay at home. We ate our homemade bagels, muffins, salad and fruit, and this wonderful lemon-scented pull-apart coffee cake on the grass before going to Philz Coffee, which makes every cup of coffee individually, for a full cream, no sugar Mocha Tesora.
You did read correctly that we made our own bagels for the picnic. But more on that later. The black horse of the spread was the lemon bread, which really stole the limelight. It is a yeasted loaf, made by stacking layers of sweet dough with lemon zest, butter and sugar. It billowed up in the oven, creating really pretty layers of sweet bread with a bright, sunny yellow punch. One bite of this and you will never look at ordinary cinnamon coffeecake again.
Lemon-Scented Pull-Apart Coffee Cake
Flo Braker, Baking for All Occasions, Chronicle Books, 2008
For the sweet yeast dough
About 2 3/4 cups (12 1/4 ounces) all-purpose flour
1/4 cup (1 3/4 ounces) granulated sugar
2 1/4 teaspoons (1 envelope) instant yeast
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup (2 1/2 fluid ounces) whole milk
2 ounces unsalted butter
1/4 cup (2 fluid ounces) water
1 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
2 large eggs, at room temperature
For the lemon paste filling
1/2 cup (3 1/2 ounces) granulated sugar
3 tablespoons finely grated lemon zest (3 lemons)
1 tablespoon finely grated orange zest
2 ounces unsalted butter, melted
For the tangy cream cheese icing
3 ounces cream cheese, softened
1/3 cup (1 1/4 ounces) powdered sugar
1 tablespoon whole milk
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
Make the sweet yeast dough
Stir together 2 cups (9 ounces) of the flour, the sugar, the yeast, and the salt in the bowl of a stand mixer; set aside. In a small saucepan, heat the milk and butter over low heat just until the butter is melted. Remove from the heat, add the water, and set aside until warm (120 to 130°F [49 to 54°C]), about 1 minute. Add the vanilla extract.
Pour the milk mixture over the flour-yeast mixture and, using a rubber spatula, mix until the dry ingredients are evenly moistened. Attach the bowl to the mixer, and fit the mixer with the paddle attachment. With the mixer on low speed, add the eggs, one at a time, mixing after each addition just until incorporated. Stop the mixer, add 1/2 cup (2 1/4 ounces) of the remaining flour, and resume mixing on low speed until the dough is smooth, 30 to 45 seconds. Add 2 more tablespoons flour and mix on medium speed until the dough is smooth, soft, and slightly sticky, about 45 seconds.
Sprinkle a work surface with 1 tablespoon flour and center the dough on the flour. Knead gently until smooth and no longer sticky, about 1 minute, adding an additional 1 to 2 tablespoons flour only if necessary to lessen the stickiness. Place the dough in a large bowl, cover the bowl securely with plastic wrap, and let the dough rise in a warm place (about 70°F [21°C]) until doubled in size, 45 to 60 minutes. Press the dough gently with a fingertip. If the indentation remains, the dough is ready for the next step. While the dough is rising, make the filling.
Make the lemon paste filling
In a small bowl, mix together the sugar and the lemon and orange zests. Set the sandy-wet mixture nearby (the sugar draws out moisture from the zests to create the consistency).
Make the coffee cake
Center a rack in the oven and preheat the oven to 350°F (175°C). Lightly butter a 9-by-5-by-3-inch loaf pan. Or, lightly coat the pan with nonstick spray.
Gently deflate the dough. On a lightly floured work surface, roll out the dough into a 20-by-12-inch rectangle. Using a pastry brush spread the melted butter generously over the dough. Cut the dough crosswise into 5 strips, each about 12 by 4 inches. (A pizza cutter is helpful here.) Sprinkle 1 1/2 tablespoons of the zest-sugar mixture over one of the buttered rectangles. Top with a second rectangle and sprinkle it with 1 1/2 tablespoons of the zest-sugar mixture. Repeat with the remaining dough rectangles and zest-sugar mixture, ending with a stack of 5 rectangles. Work carefully when adding the crumbly zest filling, or it will fall off when you have to lift the stacked pastry later.
Slice the stack crosswise through the 5 layers to create 6 equal strips, each about 4 by 2 inches. Fit these layered strips into the prepared loaf pan, cut edges up and side by side. (While there is plenty of space on either side of the 6 strips widthwise in the pan, fitting the strips lengthwise is tight. But that’s fine because the spaces between the dough and the sides of the pan fill in during baking.) Loosely cover the pan with plastic wrap and let the dough rise in a warm place (70 °F [21°C]) until puffy and almost doubled in size, 30 to 50 minutes. Press the dough gently with a fingertip. If the indentation remains, the dough is ready for baking.
Bake the coffee cake until the top is golden brown, 30 to 35 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack and let cool in the pan for 10 to 15 minutes.
Make the tangy cream cheese icing
In a medium bowl, using a rubber spatula, vigorously mix the cream cheese and sugar until smooth. Beat in the milk and lemon juice until the mixture is creamy and smooth.
To remove the coffee cake from the pan, tilt and rotate the pan while gently tapping it on a counter to release the cake sides. Invert a wire rack on top of the coffee cake, invert the cake onto the rack, and carefully lift off the pan. Invert another rack on top, invert the cake so it is right side up, and remove the original rack.
Slip a sheet of waxed paper under the rack to catch any drips from the icing. Using a pastry brush, coat the top of the warm cake with the icing to glaze it. (Cover and refrigerate the leftover icing for another use. It will keep for up to 2 days.)
Serve the coffee cake warm or at room temperature. To serve, you can pull apart the layers, or you can cut the cake into 1-inch-thick slices on a slight diagonal with a long, serrated knife. If you decide to cut the cake, don’t attempt to cut it until it is almost completely cool.