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.
July 3, 2011 § Leave a comment
The other day I was sitting on our rooftop balcony, overlooking the grassy area between the houses on our block, wearing Ray-Bans, book in hand, wanting for a friend to arrive. This cake was sitting on a heavy wood cutting board on the table and places were set for two people. The plates may have been a bit chipped, but this cake came out of the pan perfectly intact; so perfectly in fact, that I still like looking at the pictures of it in awe at how pretty it was.
Upside-down cakes make me really nervous. Actually, cakes made me nervous in general. I always, always manage to skip a step in the recipe and never wait long enough for them to cool and end up with a cake that needs significant patching up. Add to that the stress of having to flip something upside down, and I’m left with that brief but sickening moment wondering if I’m going to end up with a picture perfect slab of cake or a gooey, broken lump of cake and cooked fruit. But that queasiness was gone in a flash when this cake overturned beautifully.
We ate some for lunch that day, some for breakfast the next day, some with a glass of Slivovitz the next night. Basically everyone I know if this city ate some of this cake, which is a very good thing because there was quite a bit of it. The other point of triumph is that I finally found some produce that was more than just edible here. In the states, I would never pick up a basket of cherries at a corner store, from a table right next to the liquor shelves. But I will say that the apricots I purchased here were the first fresh apricots I have ever enjoyed eating in my entire life.
How’s that for eating in the Czech Republic?
Apricot-Cherry Upside Down Cake
Adapted from David Lebovitz
Makes one 13 x 10 inch slab cake
For the fruit layer:
6 tablespoons butter (90g)
1 1/2 cups packed (270g) brown sugar
About 20 apricots, quartered
2 cups of cherries, halved and pitted
For the cake layer:
8 tablespoons (115g) unsalted butter
3/4 cup (150g) sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 large eggs
1 1/2 cups (210g) flour
1 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup (125ml) plain yogurt
In a saucepan, melt the 6 tablespoons of butter. Add the brown sugar and stir constantly until the sugar is melted and begins to bubble. Remove from heat and pour into the baking dish. When the caramel mixture is cooled, top with rows of cut fruit. Set aside.
Preheat the oven to 350F (190C).
Cream the 8 tablespoons of butter and sugar until fluffly. Add the vanilla, then the eggs, and beat until smooth.
Stir together the flour, baking powder, and salt. Fold in half of the flour mixture, then the yogurt, then the remaining dry ingredients. Mix until the flour is just incorporated.
Spread the batter over the fruit layer and bake for about 40 minutes. The center of the cake will be set and the fruit may bubble around the edges when it is done. Remove the cake from the oven, let cool for about 20 minutes and flip the cake out onto the plate.
November 19, 2010 § Leave a comment
I didn’t realize how much I had settled into a routine in this strange foreign country until I left it for an even stranger foreign country and returned, very early one Sunday morning to a light rain, misty skies and wet streets. Quite soon after I returned, I was forced to bundle myself up and run a couple blocks to the closest convenience store because my shelves were empty and it being Sunday, every grocery store in the area was closed. As I walked out of the door, in a sleep-deprived educed haze, I stumbled into stands and stands of furniture vendors, French women selling vintage hats and men trying on classic suit jackets in the middle of the street. I thought for a moment I had turned down the wrong street, and wondered if I had forgotten my neighborhood that easily, until I spotted the couples dancing at the fountain at the base of rue Mouffetard, clustered together tighter than normal under a white awning, and I knew I was home.
Since my return, I have been trying to force myself outdoors but find it increasingly harder to leave the warmth of my bed and my apartment’s heater, which may or may not work consistently. Walks home from work are enjoyed only with the first gingerbread cookies of the season, but even then with the longing for the gingerbread men I used to make in my kitchen in San Francisco — the French boulangeries it seems, are not champions of the baked goods not requiring pounds of quality butter. But the spice, even if the cookie is a bit too hard, is much appreciated, as is the simple sugar glaze that never ceases to make me quite content.
And then I’ve been baking some things as necessity arises. For instance, I made my mother’s famous chocolate torte for a class party, which resulted from no one knowing what they were supposed to bring to accompany wine tasting and thus bringing whatever they could think of. My mother makes this quite a few times a year, for family birthdays, for dinner parties with close friends. This is the cake I would invariably wake up to sitting on the kitchen counter a couple times every year whenever the family had somewhere important to be or someone important to celebrate. It has never been perfectly smooth on top (and I confess my ganache-making that morning left much to be desired), but it never ceases to impress. As a child, I found it much too strong and chased it properly with an exorbitant amount of whipped cream and vanilla ice cream. But now I can enjoy it as is, with its simple chocolate ganache on top. I am convinced that French alcohol is much stronger than its American counterparts as this cake tasted decidedly of rum this time I made it. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as my (French) professor declared it the best chocolate dessert she had ever tasted.
6 tablespoons or 75 grams butter
6 oz. or 150 grams semi-sweet or dark chocolate
4 eggs, separated
1/2 cup or 120 ml sugar
1/4 cup or 60 ml flour
6 T or 90 ml ground almonds
1/4 cup or 60 ml rum
Preheat the oven to 190/375 degrees (C/F). Butter and flour (I use cocoa powder for the “flouring”) a 8-inch pan. Melt the chocolate over the stovetop. Cream together butter and sugar. Add the melted chocolate and run. Beat in egg yolks. Fold in flour.
Beat egg whites until they form stiff peaks.
Fold the egg whites into the batter, minimizing stirring. Some egg whites can remain unmixed.
Bake for 30 minutes.
September 17, 2010 § 1 Comment
My little apartment gets pretty cold in the morning. There is a little gap under the door and when I creep (or clamber) down the ladder in the morning and my feet hit the stone floor, I shiver a little. But I like waking up early, seeing the morning sun light up the little courtyard outside my window, through the lacey curtains, making myself a cup of tea and checking my email before heading out the door.
Lately, I have been getting some questions about my true happiness, whether life really is like I tell it in the blogs, whether I am really doing okay. What is life like, living alone, people ask. Well I am finding that I really do enjoy living all alone. I like coming home late at night to an empty room and puttering around in the morning without ever having to make conversation. For many people, Paris is a place where you come to find yourself. I don’t know how many people are actually successful in that endeavor, but that is their original reason for coming anyway. They end up staying a month, half a year, sometimes decades. People in my classes, ils disent qu’ils sont perdus. Some don’t like talking about the future for fear that their dreams won’t come true, some all they want to talk about is the future. Some say that they are currently sans-abri — indeed there are many, many homeless people in Paris, mostly old men curled up on stairways and in Metro stations. Most aren’t dangerous, indeed many will wish you a very pleasant day. One man sleeps on a stairway near my building, the same place every night, and he offers a smile every time I walk by.
But he wasn’t there this morning when I set out around 7 a.m. to walk to a metal bridge on the Seine, on which lovers have affixed locks engraved with their names. I chose not to run there, as I usually would, knowing there were some errands I needed to run later, and running errands (or being seen anywhere in public really) in workout clothes is franchement inadmissible in Paris. It was chilly this morning, the beginning of fall, and I had forgotten that Paris merchants get a slow start in the morning and most stores don’t open until 10 or later. I gave in and ordered the 4 euro café to sit instead of the 2 euro café you take at the bar, drifted through the pews at Notre Dame, which I have been meaning to do since my first days in Paris, and generally took my sweet time in order to arrive exactly as the doors opened at 10 a.m. As I walked, I munched on one of these little cakes.
I made two of these late last night, when I had been getting ready to go out and then decided against it. The pears are delicious fresh from the market, poached, served warm or chilled, or in these little chocolate cakes. I remain always surprised when my creations come out of the toaster oven looking just right.
Chocolate Pear Cake
Adapted from Confessions of a Tart
2 oz unsalted butter, softened
1/4 cup sugar
2 oz dark chocolate, melted
1/2 cup all purpose flour
2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder, or Dutch process cocoa powder
3/4 tsp baking powder
pinch of salt
2 pears, poached
Poach the pears: peel, cut in half and core the pears. Combine 1-2 cups of water and 1/4 cup of sugar in a sauce pan on medium-high heat and stir until sugar is dissolved. Add the pears (add more water if needed to cover the pears), bring to a low boil and cook for 15-20 min or until tender. Drain and set aside.
Make the cake: Preheat oven to 350⁰F. Butter 2 cake pans (4-inch diameter)
Cream together the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add the eggs, one at a time. Melt the chocolate in the microwave, being sure to check on it often. Add the melted chocolate to the sugar-butter-egg mixture and mixture thoroughly. In a separate bowl, combine the flour cocoa powder, baking powder, and salt. Combine the dry ingredients with the wet ingredients and mix until just barely combined.
Pour the batter into the prepared cake pans. Arrange the sliced pears in a circle on each cake. Bake for about 20 minutes, until a knife inserted in the center comes out with a few moist crumbs.
August 31, 2010 § Leave a comment
When I made the decision to start eating healthy again, I never imagined what would be the first cake recipe to fall in my lap. It is almost as if fate meant for me to make a diet change right at that very instant, meant for me to sort through our bins of whole grain flours, meant for me to skip right over the white sugar—and even the brown sugar, and land on a jar of unsulfured molasses. It meant for me to be browsing 101 Cookbooks at that very minute and open I recipe I had never thought to open before, despite the many times I have scoured the site for wholesome baked goods and sorted though dinner recipes, even knowing that I would never cook them because, let’s face it, I don’t cook. But at that very moment, I opened up this recipe for Old-Fashioned Blueberry Cake and I knew the palate had changed.
If you do not love molasses, I suggest you stop here. This cake is not for you. It is entirely sweetened with molasses, which lends it a deep, dark color, so dark in fact you would swear it’s chocolate on looking at it. But that first bite, through the crunch of the walnut topping, reveals that that darkness is not chocolate at all. And you are not disappointed at the discovery. Because just when you thought someone so healthy could not be so deeply satisfying, you take another bite of cake and the flavors that were so unexpected in the first bite become wonderfully addicting in the second. It’s rustic, it’s hearty, it’s not for the faint-hearted (in the flavor sense of the idea, not in the butter content) and it’s, dare I say it, pretty quaint. And it’s one of those cakes that you have to cut off three tablespoons of butter from the stick, instead of just throwing the entire stick (or two) in the bowl. Have you ever noticed that most recipes call for either ½ cup or 1 cup of butter, conveniently the size of a stick of butter or two? I wonder who came up with that. Was it the recipe writers or the butter packagers?
But back on subject, you should make this cake. With more blueberries than I used, because blueberries have a habit of disappearing (read: I have a habit of eating them by the handful) when I am baking with them. And with the chopped walnuts on top, though I think many other nuts would do, sprinkled with (okay, I admit it) maybe a teaspoon of brown sugar. And bake it in one of your prettiest pans, because this cake deserves it.
This cake accompanied me to my old high school’s English office, alongside my travel journal, which I have been jamming full of sights, restaurants and many, many bakeries, to visit during the coming year. I have a Paris section (of course) and a Provence section (of course). And then there is Venice and Wales and Barcelona. And so many others that I am afraid I am trying to go everywhere, but I just can’t pick up a travel magazine and not want to go everywhere it writes about. I wonder if the French like molasses. I packed a jar of peanut butter and another of maple syrup, but now I am on the plane wondering if I needed to bring molasses too. I hope not.
Old-Fashioned Blueberry Cake
Adapted from 101 Cookbooks
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons unbleached all-purpose flour
1/2 cup buckwheat flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 teaspoon fine grain sea salt
1/2 teaspoon cider vinegar
5 tablespoons milk (divided)
1/2 cup unsulphered molasses
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, barely melted
1 1/2 cups blueberries, frozen (I freeze fresh berries)
1 teaspoon flour
For the topping:
1/2 cup chopped walnuts
2 teaspoons dark brown sugar
Preheat your oven to 350F degrees. Butter and flour a 9-inch round cake pan or a small rectangular pan.
In a large bowl, combine the flours, baking powder, baking soda, and salt.
In a small bowl combine the cider vinegar with 3 tablespoons of the milk. In another bowl combine the molasses with the remaining 2 tablespoons of milk. Add the cider vinegar mixture into the molasses mixture, then whisk in the eggs.
Add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients and stir until just barely combined. Stir in the butter. Fold the blueberries, tossed with the small amount of flour, into the batter. Top the batter with the chopped walnuts and sprinkle with the brown sugar.
Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake for about thirty minutes or until a toothpick poked into the center comes out clean.
August 24, 2010 § 1 Comment
I have been having a very difficult time with this post. Like much of my writing — essays, newspaper articles etc. — my blog entries usually just flow out. I don’t often mess around with how to phrase sentences. If a metaphor doesn’t form itself, I don’t push it. If a word doesn’t come naturally, I use another and figure I will return to it when the time is right. So when I do hit a block that has me staring at the screen and reforming a single sentence over and over again, changing single words and punctuation marks here and there, I know something is off about my subject matter.
I came home the other day and I decided it was about time I buckled down, started eating healthy again and got back into better shape. I tend to function better under rigid guidelines and tight schedules, and my diet works no different. I’ll get into funks where I eat only oatmeal and insist on just ordering coffee when I meet up with friends. And it may sound strange, but oftentimes I’m just happier that way.
Once I’ve decided to eat healthy again, it’s fairly easy to turn down that piece of sheet cake with the fake, fluffy, brilliantly white frosting and a greasy slice of pizza late at night. I’ve finally made that decision again and I’m sticking with it, and I relish that feeling of control. I relish knowing exactly what goes into every little bite I eat — I like adding the spoonful of sugar myself, measuring out exactly a half cup of milk and simmering a pot of whole grains, knowing that the only other ingredient is water. I like that getting back in shape means falling into a routine of running every day. Sometimes that tight schedule may mean arriving somewhere else a bit late or starting the morning errands two hours later, but it doesn’t mean I’m missing out on anything. It just means that I’m living my life, exactly how I want to live it. So that when I make this cake, with a full cup of extra virgin olive oil, I can cherish a bite or two and then give the rest away.
I understand that this can be a strange approach to food, especially for someone with a food blog. When I started reevaluating what I was eating, I spent some time thinking about this blog and what I was going to do with it. Should I pull a total 180 and start posting recipes from my parents’ 1970s vegetarian cookbooks? Should I instead focus on baked goods with lower butter and sugar content? Or should I start posting food I’ve never even tasted? The thought of abandoning this blog altogether scares me, I have come to rely on it so much that it would feel as though the ground had been yanked out from underneath me. It has been a source of satisfaction and accomplishment when other parts of my life feel like they are falling apart and it has restored my love of writing, which I had once thought was all I wanted in a career. It has given me a lot more faith in myself than two years of college ever did.
Moreover, I never realized starting this blog how quickly one forms a connection with one’s readers. I never realized how many times I would hear “I saw that on your blog,” or that people would ask about my new haircut or my scrapped knee without me ever mentioning it, or that friends of friends would actually read the words I’m writing and make the very same cakes I am pulling out of the oven. I would never want to abandon that feeling of companionship right as I am about to embark to another continent. I would never want to abandon this right before I start learning how to bake with just a stove top and a toaster oven.
But I realize some part of this blog needs to change as I start living on my own. In order for me to continue, and not feel guilty pulling a cake out of the oven for the hundredth time, I need to start feeling closer to the food I am producing.
I realized this as I toyed with the idea of making S’Mores cookies, chock full of graham crackers, marshmallows and Hershey chocolate bars. We bought all the ingredients at the local Safeway, all the while I ignored the quiet voice in the back of my mind, which was saying you could make these all on your own. What I really should have been doing was buying graham flour. That voice in the back of my head finally stopped prodding my thoughts when my hands landed on the matte cover of Good to the Grain, by Kim Boyce. I opened the book — one of the few cookbooks I own that does not sit on the shelf, abandoned — and flipped to the section on spelt flour, where the binding easily fell open on its own to this olive oil cake.
The fruitiness of good olive oil — I used De Cecco Extra Virgin — is paired with deep, dark chocolate and fresh rosemary in this cake, which is at once homey and ground-breaking. The flavor is wholly unexpected and yet, one even begins to think of the olive oil as the sweet note in this cake. I only had a couple bites of a slice and the rest of the cake went to mother’s Italian class. But when a cake is truly worth eating, a couple bites is all you need to feel indulged.
Olive Oil Cake
From Good to the Grain, by Kim Boyce
3/4 cup spelt flour
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cup sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup olive oil
3/4 cup whole milk
1 1/2 tablespoons rosemary, finely chopped
5 ounces bittersweet chocolate chopped into roughly 1/2 inch pieces
Preheat the oven to 350 F.
Sift the dry ingredients into a large bowl, pouring back into the bowl any bits you sift out. Set this bowl aside.
In another large bowl, whisk the eggs until light. Add the olive oil, milk and rosemary and whisk again. Using a spatula, fold the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients until just combined. Stir in the chocolate. Pour the batter into a fluted tart pan or cake pan (about 8-9 1/2 inches in diameter) and bake for about 40 minutes, or until the top is golden brown and skewer inserted in the center comes out clean.