May 8, 2013 § Leave a Comment
I’m sitting in the backyard of my house in San Francisco, trying unsuccessfully to find a patch of sunlight streaming through the branches of the fir tree overhead, in which to dry my lemon-juice soaked hair. I’m commencing my summer rituals — which yes, include naturally lightening my hair — a bit early this year, and they could not be more welcome. If you’ve noticed the blog becoming a bit of a recluse compared to what it once was, it’s not that I haven’t been doing things, it’s just that every time I sit down to write about them, my mind is predictably elsewhere in the pits of fragile worries. But right now, there’s a loaf of coconut bread, studded with unsweetened coconut curls, a healthy swig of vanilla, stirred with browned butter, in the oven, the sun is out, and I’m wrapping up a weekend spent at home with barbequed scallops, pumpkin tofu curry over brown rice, and a walk on the beach in the late afternoon. But the best part of the weekend has been sleeping in my own bed, sitting at my desk by the window eating leftovers and planning summer travels — Portugal! Morocco! — with my parents’ seventies music drifting up from the basement and my little brother studying for the SAT subject tests at the dining room table.
Not surprisingly, as the end comes to what my mother calls my R&R weekend, I’m finally being able to sit down and write about something that isn’t required. To say it’s been a difficult month would be an understatement; I initially thought the stress would begin to fade when I finally handed my thesis over to the printers, but it just kept coming. Some days, it felt as if I was drowning in my own head, then my body took over and with it came a week of sickness and infections. But somehow, it all seemed to melt away this weekend — it’s a pretty magical feeling when peace finally comes, when you can just sit down, look out the window, with a couple of slices of warm bread — er, cake — and finally feel a bit more complete again.
And write. Even though I don’t know what to talk about really. Only that it felt good to be back in the kitchen, felt good to open the oven and feel successful, and that I’ll be very sorry to leave tonight. But while just sitting in peace is pretty great, that peace can follow you anywhere, it just sometimes doesn’t come as easily.
Word is I’m in the market for a place in Boston with a window-full kitchen.
October 10, 2012 § 1 Comment
I’d say from the crunch of leaves underfoot, softened by the cold wetness of the air, that summer has officially come and gone. And with summer, a lot of the illusions I had about people, the next year or so, and the ones who would be in it. But there’s a bright side of every change and today, it’s becoming more and more clear.
Snuggled into wool winter socks, fleece blankets and chunky sweaters, all I’ve wanted to do for the past week has been to curl up in bed and watch TV, waiting for the world to pass by. Which for me, isn’t an ordinary desire as watching TV is usually towards the very bottom on my list of activities. Instead, every night ends with a struggle to finish the readings for tomorrow, an impromptu trip to the gym, where I do my 20-minute weight circuit surrounded by an eclectic group of boys — the body builders, the slightly-pudgy, the geeky ones you never thought you’d see doing bicep curls —, and then a stop at the campus late-night cooking-baking hut. A freezing day finished with a caramely chocolate chip cookie. There are worse things in the world.
I had my first pumpkin scone of the season the other day. Sugar-crusted, fluffy, accompanied by my everyday morning latte. I was sitting in a corner of the café, (discreetly) watching some poor boy struggle over a very thick looking textbook, when he got up, looked me directly in the eye, and hesitantly walked over to my table. To my disappointment, the idle chitchat turned into a simple request to watch his stuff while he went to the restroom, but hey….you never know what a smile and a pumpkin scone can do to turn a downcast day around.
When I was paging through what to post today, I got stuck on these blackberry scones I made at the very end of August, when blackberries were unbelievably sweet and fit to burst (and stain everything) with juices. Though they were light, buttery and gushing with fruit, and proof that I have finally overcome my tendency to overwork scone dough — a reflection I think, of my disposition to over think and overwork most parts of my life —, the moment to talk about them seems to have gone and passed me by. Instead I was drawn to the brightness and simplicity of these white chocolate mint pot de crèmes. They can be made anytime you get your hands on fresh mint, and are just as perfect as a winter dessert, accompanied by the recipe’s candy cane brittle, as they are photographed here in my backyard, in the early summer. The brulée on top was a bit gilding the lily, but I never can resist a chance to use my blowtorch.
August 29, 2012 § Leave a Comment
I’ve been listening to this song by Paul Kalkbrenner on repeat for a bit now. Walking down Valencia Street, under the first sun San Francisco has seen all summer, sitting in my room post-yoga wondering how to tackle the day, then late at night when sadness, nervousness, excitement and anticipation all hit me at once, this song seems to capture all the emotions flooding in. We built up castles in the sky and the sand. As I’m packing boxes for my final year at university, sending emails that document, and formalize, my thesis project, and finally facing the full force of not quite knowing what I want to do with my future, which is now becoming not so distant, the castle on which my life is built suddenly seems as stable as sand. I can just picture a huge wave coming in and washing it all away, leaving just the foundations behind. And then, when I’m talking to people close to me — and some strangers too, people I meet at coffee shops and new friends from down the street — I’m reminded that there’s a castle in the sky too, that I can design my world the way I’d like it.
The hardest part is not quite knowing what I want. I know what is comforting and what is thrilling, but not what is feasible. Every time I sit down at a computer now, I’m reminded of the need to be serious, to finally start living a grown-up life, or something that resembles one. And then I get out on the streets and into the onslaught of bright flavors, summer colors, new vintage clothing shops and cafés filled with chatter, and the real world seems so much less scary than when it’s written in a word document, though perhaps a bit less orderly. The song seems to float in the background of the bustle, the subdued but steady beat and the comforting, slightly raspy voice reassuring that there’s someone by your side, ensuring that you shine.
And then, on a more lighthearted note, there’s my summer tart spree, bright colors, bright flavors. Plump, juicy blackberries that stain the fingers and mouth deep purple, cloyingly sweet. Mouth-puckering lemon curd eaten on a spoon, or spread over a simple tart shell. Thick custard, speckled with vanilla bean. Flowers on the street corners, in every color of the rainbow. It’s summer here. Let’s not let it end too soon.
Lemon Curd, Tarts and Berries
Adapted from Bon Appétit, May 1998
1 3/4 cups whole milk
4 large egg yolks
2/3 cup sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
6 tablespoons all purpose flour
2 tablespoons butter, chopped
Heat milk to a simmer on the stovetop. In a medium bowl, beat together the sugar and egg yolks. Add vanilla, then gradually beat in the flour. Gradually stir in the warm milk. Transfer the mixture back to the stovetop and heat until the pastry cream comes to a boil and is very thick. Immediately transfer the pastry cream to a large, clean bowl. Whisk in the butter, until it is entirely melted. Continue to whisk occasionally under the pastry cream is cooled. Spread over a pre-baked tart shell, serve with berries, or eat it chilled, by the spoonful.
August 27, 2012 § Leave a Comment
The majority of my childhood summer memories were made in the swimming pool or on the campsite. Camping was the form family vacation took, more often than not, and one of the few activities that could be counted on to regularly bring us all together. It generally involved flying up to Victoria, British Columbia, a brief stopover at my grandparents’ house, and then us all piling in the mini-van to drive north on the island. I remember the small opening in the bushes, where we stumbled down into the cold, clear lake on Saltspring Island. The sandy stretch by the Strathcona Park Lodge where I roasted — and ate — marshmallow after marshmallow, back when the concept on healthy eating scarcely even crossed my mind, if at all. That one ill-fated weeklong trip, when it poured every day. My cousin’s dogs that accompanied us everywhere, and the journals that I filled every day with sketches of animals I had seen at the nearby wildlife center.
Despite this, the hardest affront to my camping nostalgia came out of a box — a box of Honey Maid graham crackers to be specific. They were dry, dusty, nothing like the graham crackers I remember, from even just a year ago. Honey Maid, what happened? Awhile back, I made a batch of homemade graham crackers, that were a bit more butter cookie than I would have liked. We took the batch camping last summer and while the graham crackers were a solid base for s’mores, we found that they were better enjoyed as a breakfast biscuit the next morning, with coffee out of a plastic mug. I hadn’t thought about making graham crackers since. But now, I’d say it’s back to square one. Calling all graham cracker recipes.
July 27, 2012 § Leave a Comment
I know it’s barely acceptable — read not at all — to be complaining about being in a warm country with beaches, fresh seafood, juicy peaches and iced espresso and gyros on every street corner. But this San Francisco girl — read girl who grew up in the fog and the cold sea air — has been sitting in bed for the past few hours, next to the fan, waiting for the opportune moment to go on a run. Only to discover that, come 8 p.m., half an hour before sunset, it is still 90 degrees outside, a whole ten degrees lower than it was this afternoon. After several rounds of being that annoying person who complains all the time, which met notably with “f*** working out, relax,” I’ve effectively decided that it’s a putter-around-the-apartment night for me. Highlights include eating the best parts — read, the cashews, sweet dates and the sesame peanuts I picked up from a street vendor — out of my latest batch of granola, plowing through the dark cherries I picked up from the Pagrati neighborhood farmers’ market, and applying a yogurt mask, in the hopes that it will pull out the redness of my sunburn.
Lest you think I’m a lazy person, I should preface this all by saying that I spent the hours between 8 a.m. and 1 p.m. walking the entire city, because my apartment is located quite far from the metro and the taxi driver wanted 15 euro to drive me home (I could have gotten to the port for that price!). I reshot parts of the Agora Central Market, notably the spice and dried herb shops — you would not believe the crazy things they store in jars there, such as oak tree bark for making teas. I wandered off into the distance looking for the Ancient Market, the oldest “mall” in the world (and the long, rectangular building in the sunset picture below), only to discover that my sense of direction is useless without the vantage point of sitting at the base of the Acropolis. Then I topped this all off with a cup of frozen yogurt and a march back across town to the National Archeological Museum, which I bet I walked through entirely spaced out. I had to sit down several times in front of numerous ancient vases because I thought I was going to pass out. Then I refilled my water bottle and walked the hour home. And I’ve been here ever since.
Still there is one beautiful thing about the heat. It creates these hazy, pastel sunsets that I simply cannot get enough of. Whether I am standing in the Mediterranean water, perched on top of the highest hill in the middle of the city, or strolling — read shopping my way — through the small island town, the sunsets can maybe, maybe, only be topped by the vibrancy of the setting sun over the Pacific on Ocean Beach.
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.
August 14, 2011 § 1 Comment
When I stumbled into the kitchen this morning at 6:15, early enough for a long run before the sun started beating down hard at 8 a.m., I was surprised to find nonna already awake, with a couple of whole fish in her hands by the stove. She didn’t seem surprised at all to see me though, as she seems keenly aware of all movements in her apartment, just steps from the Mediterranean Sea. I made a gesture to indicate “running” and she replied “caffe?” without skipping a beat. Si grazie.
The caffe is dark and smooth, pressing a jolt of energy into just a small tip of the pot. She heats the water over the flame of gas stove and then pours me perhaps the equivalent of three espresso shots. Sugar is provided, just for me, though I even admit it is unneeded and often opt for just a small splash of milk. Ten minutes later, I am running up the hill to the Mausoleum, and back down around the Aragonese-Angevine Castle, through the old town and along the wharf side of the peninsula. Along the way, stray cats scamper down alleys that are just a flight of stairs, an older woman with a shaggy dog more than half her size gestures at me to stop and curiously asks a question, which I do not understand and for which I have no answer. Along the water, middle-aged men gather near the edges of the parking lots, tanned and pruned from the sun. One or two people take a caffe at the nearby bars, but for the most part the town of Gaeta is barely awake, lazily tossing and turning in the rising heat.
Back home now, nonna sets out the rest of the crostata, filled with strawberry jam, that she made a few days earlier, and a bowl of fresh fruit — green figs, stringy and sweet, small, ripe pears the size of a baby’s fist, and huge, fuzzy peaches. She teaches me how to cut off the top of a fig and peel back the skin, and starts peeling all the other fruits…the peaches, the plums, the pears all become skinless in seconds in her unwavering hands. On the stovetop, brilliant red tomatoes is already roasting with garlic and basil for the lunch she will set on the table at one.
Nonna refuses help with everything but setting the table, you have to fight her to be able to clear it. Her movements in the kitchen, if slow, are deliberate. As she speaks no English, she and I get along mostly with gestures, or her granddaughters translating, though the early morning provides the time to practice the few thoughts I can string together in Italian, pertaining to how long I expect to be gone running that morning. In the afternoons she stays at home when we walk the two minutes to the beach. Long lines of pre-paid umbrellas line the white sand, and the turquoise water is filled with jumping children and guys playing water volleyball, who stop and stare. The girls laugh because they know what the guys are saying, and it usually goes something like “look, she has blond hair!”
We come home, sticky and sandy, skin crusted with salt, in the early afternoon. Lunch is a long, drawn out affair: grilled strips of eggplant folded over melted fresh mozzarella and topped with slow roasted cherry tomatoes from the garden, spaghetti with calamari and tomato sauce. The cheese as a rule, is set out on clean plates only after the rest of the table has been cleared, and then comes huge (and mandatory) slices of watermelon, which are the size of a massive, egg-shaped pumpkin. When, at long last, the table is empty, we are sent back to the beach before dinner.
August 8, 2010 § 2 Comments
When I was younger, our family spent a summer at family camps in France. I was ten years old, shy, incredibly picky about what I ate and a little intimidated about spending a couple weeks solely in the company of French kids. We spent our first week at Les Lavandes, in the town of Rémuzat near Nyons. We had a small sunny room by the field, where teenagers and young men played soccer and smoked cigarettes, and we dined in a large room at communal tables. During the daytime, I went off with the other kids my age for organized hiking and swimming. My brother was too young to leave my parents in a strange new country, though there were camp activities for his age group. So instead, I was the one of the family shoved off to do all the traditional camp activities. I played name games, learned about different trees and animals native to the region, and on the last day, accompanied the family of a new friend on a daylong hike. We packed crusty bread and cheese and set off with several other families, though not my own. At the end of the hike, my mother drove out to pick me up, because my ten-year-old self refused to camp out without my parents.
At the end of the week, we drove to a second camp called Pont-Les-Bains. There, I feasted on M&M Ice Cream Pops and played boules (bocce in Italian, which is the name most Americans know it by) with the girls my age. There, we ate at smaller family tables, much like at a restaurant. I don’t remember liking much of the food, which would explain why the M&M ice cream stands out so clearly in my mind.
Though the premise of the camp — complete immersion with real French families — made me nervous at times and I was forever self-conscious of my slight English accent which the girls my age called “adorable,” this summer stands out from any other vacation I have taken. I had never seen France quite like this before, though I had been on a couple of occasions, and I made some friends with whom I kept in touch with for many years afterward. Indeed, as a child, I was big on snail mail, with penpals in France and Australia. We would send friendship bracelets enclosed in letters decorated with colorful stickers back and forth across the oceans and I collected the cutest notecards for such occasions.
Real memories of this summer are fuzzy for me, though blurry images of cobblestone roads and small bridges remain in my mind, alongside more vivid images of vibrant purple lavender. When I got home, I collected long stalks of lavender from the farmers’ market and colorful fabrics, fashioning small lavender pouches. They smelled lovely, though I think I made more pouches than anyone in the family ever needed or wanted. Now, I know there are other uses for lavender; it can be used in many baked goods, giving classic cakes and cookies a fragrant lift. Lemon loaf is a huge favorite in my house and this is probably the best one I have ever made. The loaf is wonderfully moist, with lavender and lemon zest in the batter, and glazed with thin lemon juice icing. A light garnish of lavender is a pretty touch on top of the loaf.
Meyer Lemon Lavender Cake
From the Former Chef
1 1/2 cups flour
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup milk
1/2 cup melted butter (the original recipe called for oil)
2.5 tsp lemon zest
2 tsp fresh lavender flowers
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Mix the flour, sugar, baking powder and salt in a large bowl.
In a medium sized bowl whisk together the eggs, milk, oil, lemon zest and lavender. Add the egg mixture into the dry ingredients and stir to combine.
Pour the batter into a greased and floured loaf pan. Bake at 350 for 50-55 minutes, or until a wooden skewer comes out clean.
Once the cake is done, remove it from the oven. Using a long wooden skewer, poke holes in the top of the cake, all the way to the bottom, about 1″ apart.
You can see the original recipe for the lemon glaze, which called for heating the sugar and lemon juice to make a syrup. I simply combined the lemon juice with confectioners sugar to make a very thin icing, which I used to coat the top of the loaf.
July 29, 2010 § 1 Comment
The thunder rolled in and out, the sky just cleared after a sudden downpour. I’m tucked into a hidden enclave in a Starbucks, idly passing the hour between the end of work and my dinner plans. This sounds a lot more comfortable than it actually is, like that image of yourself tucked under the covers in bed with a warm mug of hot chocolate on a rainy day. Except it’s summer, so I’m drinking iced tea and the Starbucks is air-conditioned to the highest degree I ever thought possible. Or should that be the lowest degree? Either way, it’s cold. Very cold. Kind of like my office building, which seems to fluctuate between being an oven and being a freezer. But never mind, it’s summer and the minute I step outside again, I’ll forget all the problems I have with air-conditioned buildings.
And apparently Starbucks closes at 6 p.m., so that will be sooner rather than later. I have never heard of Starbucks closing earlier than 11 p.m. before, but I am hardly surprised in this city, which seems to operate on the strangest schedule. It’s like one world of the city shuts down after 5 p.m. and a whole new world opens for the evening. Never get caught sitting in a coffee shop when it’s time for happy hour and dinner reservations and barhopping to begin.
These hazelnut cakes are perfect for summer, light enough for those 100 degree days and homey enough for when the storms roll in. They are spongy and delicate, due to two types of leavening — whipped, fluffy egg whites and baking powder. I made these because I wanted to finally use a new jar of raw honey, that I bought a long time ago at the Princeton Tuesday Farmers’ Market. That and I wanted to use my brand-new fluted tartlet pans.
Gâteau aux noisettes et au miel
Adapted from Chocolate & Zucchini and Les Gâteaux de Mamie
6 tablespoons sugar
1/3 cup flour
A pinch of salt
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/3 cup hazelnuts
5 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 level tablespoons honey
Pre-heat the oven to 360°F.
Blend together the sugar, flour, salt, and baking powder. Separate the eggs. Add the eggs yolks to the flour/sugar mixture. Melt together the butter and honey in a small saucepan, and pour this into the batter. Chop the hazelnuts, and fold them into the batter.
Beat the egg whites until they form soft peaks. Gently fold the egg whites into the batter.
Pour into a floured cake or tart pan. Bake for 25 to 35 minutes (25 for cupcakes, more for a single cake). Let it cool down a moment, then turn it out on a rack to cool completely, and serve at room temperature.