Category Archives: dessert

Tiny tragedies

Pumpkin-Ricotta Cheesecake slice/whole

It’s been a week of tiny tragedies, here in Seattle. I’ve been sighing a lot. They’re not the contented, self-congratulatory kind of sighs, but the deflating, disappointed sort. The kind you eek out, when there’s nothing left to do.

I’m not sure how it started. Maybe it was last Thursday. Yes, that was it. Curses on you, Thursday.

First I somehow sliced my finger open with my own wedding ring. Then I hit a parked car—a 6,000-year-old Suburban, thank goodness—and busted a headlight. Then a raccoon attacked my normally scrappy cat, and we spent part of a night in the kitty ER. (Jackson came out a little maimed, but alive. He’s mostly just insulted he’s so poorly shaven and trapped indoors.)

Then—then—I made a ricotta cheesecake, a gorgeous, pumpkin-tinged, ginger-crusted gem of a thing, inspired by my borderline-unhealthy obsession with kabocha squash and a bit of leftover cream cheese. But I nearly broke it in half, moving it too fast (and too soon) from pan to platter. (And it had been so beautiful!)

Pumpkin-Ricotta Cheesecake whole

Of course, it still tasted like a perfectly plated pumpkin cheesecake. (Say that ten times fast.) I took one slice out to verify. (Yes: delicious.) Then we took it to a Halloween party, and I never got a second slice.

Poor decision.

Now, a couple days later, in the middle of a grey afternoon, I have a finger that won’t type, a completely unnecessary $150 mechanic bill, a cat yowling to be let out, good coffee, and no last slice of pumpkin cheesecake. All I really feel capable of doing is pouting out loud.

I’ll just give you the recipe instead.

By the way, there’s a tiny lie in the recipe title – it’s actually a light, faintly spiced cheesecake made with pureed kabocha squash, but there’s something inherently unsexy about a squash cheesecake. Don’t you agree? Ditto for cream cheese pie, which is what my husband called the cheesecake when he couldn’t think of the correct word.  So pumpkin cheesecake it is.

Pumpkin-Ricotta Cheesecake slice

Pumpkin-Ricotta Cheesecake (PDF)

Loosely based on the recipe for Eve’s Lemon Cheesecake, from Kathy Gunst’s Relax, Company’s Coming! (one of my all-time go-to cookbooks), this fallish, ginger-crusted treat satisfies all manners of cheesecake cravings. Thanks to plenty of eggs and ricotta cheese (and a bit less sugar than usual), it’s lighter than your typical doorstop dessert. Use pureed kabocha squash if you have it, or simply substitute canned pumpkin.

TIME: 90 minutes, start to finish
MAKES: 12 servings

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted, plus more for greasing pan
1 (5-ounce) package ginger thins, pulverized in a food processor
1/2 cup sifted confectioners’ sugar
1 pound cream cheese, room temperature
1 cup sugar
1 pound whole milk ricotta
4 large eggs, room temperature
1 1/4 cups mashed kabocha squash
1/8 teaspoon each ground ginger, cardamom, nutmeg, and allspice
1 teaspoon vanilla
Pinch salt

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and set aside. Grease an 8” springform pan generously with butter, wrap the bottom with a piece of foil (to catch any butter that drips out while baking) and set aside.

Stir the melted butter, ginger thin crumbs, and confectioners’ sugar together in a bowl until well blended. Dump the mixture into the bottom of the springform pan, and use your hands to pat it into an even layer on the bottom of the pan and about 1/2” up the sides. Transfer the pan to the freezer to harden while you make the filling.

Next, in the work bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, whip the cream cheese and sugar on medium speed until light, about 3 minutes. Add the ricotta, and whip another minute or two. Add the eggs one at a time, whipping on low and scraping the sides of the work bowl between additions. Stir the squash, spices, vanilla, and salt together in a separate bowl, then add the squash mixture to the batter, and mix on medium speed until uniform in color, scraping any stray cream cheese off the very bottom of the bowl.

Place the chilled pan on the prepared baking sheet, and transfer the batter to the pan. Bake on the middle rack for about 1 hour 15 minutes, or until the cake is puffed and just beginning to crack. (It may still jiggle a bit, but the cake will move as one piece, rather than just jiggling in the center.) Let cool to room temperature (or chill overnight), then cut and serve.

Note: If you want a cheesecake with almost no color (besides the obvious pumpkin-orange tinge) on the top, place a baking sheet on the rack directly above it as it bakes.

Pumpkin-Ricotta Cheesecake (eating 2)

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Filed under dessert, recipe

A cake to crush on

Kabocha-Maple Sour Cream Coffee Cake 2

I saw you at the farmers’ market this weekend. You picked up a kabocha squash – that big, tough-looking green one, with the woody stump – and fairly considered it. You turned it around and around, right side-up and upside-down. It wasn’t without effort, of course – the weight of the thing made your market bag trip over your shoulder blade and careen down your upper arm, at which point you wondered how you’d get the beast home. Then your buddy said, “So, how do you think you get it open?” And I watched you put that poor squash down.

I hate to be Debbie Downer, but you made the wrong decision, sister. A kabocha squash can be a big thug of a thing, but it is not (despite those witchy warts and scars) actually scary or difficult to use.

And I don’t mean to be smug, but I should know. These days, with sore joints, a can opener is my nemesis; I do not cut hard things. The thought of hacking into anything tougher than a bagel (much less quartering a big ol’ squash) brings tears to my eyes. But I love kabocha. So my choices are threefold: 1) stop buying squash and be sad, 2) let my husband finally buy the Samurai sword he’s always wanted, and pray he doesn’t hurt the counters or himself, or 3) skip the farmers’ market and buy pre-cut squash at the grocery store.

tired tanned kabocha squash

But oh, wait. WAIT. There’s a fourth. See, you don’t actually have to cut into a kabocha before you cook it, if you want soft squash. You can just put it in the oven, stem and all, and roast away at 400 degrees. It comes out like I do after a too-long day at the beach—tanned and tired, a bit stinky and maybe a little slumpy. But it’s as easy to cut into as a stick of room-temperature butter. I almost snatched your sleeve to tell you, right there at the market booth, but that would have been so awkward and stalkerish.

Kabocha-Maple Sour Cream Coffee Cake close

See, if I’d grabbed you, I would have had to tell you about my kabocha-maple bundt cake, too. As if you needed someone yakking to you about a cake that went out of style five decades ago. As if you need more kitchen equipment. I mean really, who owns a bundt cake pan anymore? I certainly didn’t. But last week, after testing a donut recipe for my friend Lara’s upcoming book (it’s tentatively called The Doughnut Cookbook, now who could argue with that?), one with an addictive maple glaze, I had maple glaze on my mind. It tangoed around in my brain with all sorts of ingredients, until settling on—well, drizzling down, really—the sides of a bundt cake hued with the rich, sweet flesh of a kabocha squash.

Bundt pan

I broke into my neighbor’s house to borrow a bundt cake pan. (Okay, maybe there was a key involved, but rifling through her cupboards with no one in the house, it felt like a break-in.) I stirred and whipped and mashed, until I had a butternut-orange batter tinged with maple syrup and spunked with sour cream. Up it baked, in a meticulously buttered and floured pan – in 40 minutes, which was less time than I expected – then out it came, gorgeous and spongy and smooth in all the right places and, I daresay, almost sexy. Aside from the oft-abused line from My Big Fat Greek Wedding, I’ve never given the bundt cake a second thought, but goodness, yes, they’re sexy, with all those curves. Add a quick maple-vanilla glaze and a sprinkling of nuts, and you’ve got a head-turner.

Kabocha-Maple Sour Cream Coffee Cake TOP

But enough about the way she looks. I have to tell you this: She might be my best-tasting cake. Ever.

I’ve told you before that I’m not much of a cake person. I don’t like the way dry edges call out for frosting—in my opinion, a cake shouldn’t need frosting, and frosting shouldn’t need cake. Each should be delicious on its own, but they should complement each other when they’re put together. Like people, I guess. But like people, it’s not always as easy as it sounds. This cake is different. The glaze is diamonds on a woman too beautiful for jewelry: certainly not needed, but once they’re there, how could you take them off?

Kabocha-Maple Sour Cream Coffee Cake top

I love this cake because it’s equally appropriate for the plate at 8 a.m., 4 p.m., or 8 p.m. (and, I suspect, at 4 a.m., although I didn’t get the opportunity to try). I like it because I let it sit for two days before serving it to a crowd, and it was still perfectly moist. I like it because unlike a regular dessert cake, it’s hard for others to tell how big a piece you’re really cutting for yourself, so you can have ten little slivers, if that suits you, or one giant hunk, without looking like a princess or a pig. I like that it has a rich, dense crumb, all the way to the edges. I love that it’s easy to cut. And most of all, I love that nothing about making it hurts me right now.

The problem with kabocha, in my house, is that we never seem to have enough. Roasting up a soccer ball-sized specimen left me with about a quart of mashed squash, and I’m already panicking about how to use the last of it. Do I make another cake and freeze it for my mom’s visit next week? Or do I whirl it up in the blender with a bit of coconut milk and a dab of curry paste, for a quick lunch soup? Or do I sacrifice an ice cube tray, and freeze the rest into little cubes, for Graham to eat, once he gets past the initial shock of putting something besides milk in his mouth?

Oh, dear me. I might just have to roast another. I’ve actually just purchased my own bundt pan, so you can guess where the kabocha will most likely go. I want to try the cake with cardamom.

Kabocha-Maple Sour Cream Coffee Cake CUT

Kabocha-Maple Sour Cream Bundt Cake with Maple-Vanilla Glaze (PDF)

Kabocha squash has a rich, yellowy flesh that mashes up soft and smooth (like canned pumpkin) when it’s cooked. To roast it, slice a kabocha roughly in half and remove the seeds with an ice cream scoop. Roast cut side-down on a parchment- or silpat-lined baking sheet (no need to oil it) at 400 degrees until the skin is easy to poke with a fork, about an hour. (Timing will depend on the size and age of the squash.) Let the squash cool, peel away the skin and any other tough pieces, and mash the squash like you would potatoes, until smooth.

If you’re afraid of cutting the squash, you can also put the entire thing – stem and all – into the oven, and bake it a bit longer. Just be sure to scoop out the seeds and stringy stuff before you mash the flesh.

TIME: 30 minutes active time
MAKES: About 16 servings

For the cake:
2 sticks (1 cup) unsalted butter (at room temperature), plus more for pan
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for pan
1 cup whole wheat pastry flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup sugar
2 large eggs
1 cup sour cream (8 ounce container)
1/4 cup maple syrup
2 teaspoons vanilla
1 1/2 packed cups mashed kabocha squash

For the glaze:
3/4 cup confectioners’ sugar
1 tablespoon maple syrup
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 teaspoons water (plus more, if necessary)
2 tablespoons chopped toasted nuts, such as hazelnuts, pecans, or walnuts (optional)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Generously (and carefully) flour and butter a bundt cake pan, and set aside.

Whisk the flours, baking powder, baking soda, and salt together in a bowl, and set aside.

Using a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, whip the butter and sugar together on medium speed until light, 3 to 4 minutes. Add the eggs one at a time, scraping down the sides of the bowl and mixing between additions. Stir the sour cream, maple syrup, and vanilla together in a bowl. With the machine on low, alternate adding the dry and wet mixtures – first some of the flour, then some of the cream, then flour, cream again, and finally flour. When just mixed, add the squash, and mix on low until uniform in color.

Transfer the batter to the prepared bundt cake pan, smooth the top, and bake (I find it easier to transfer if it’s on a baking sheet) until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out with just a few crumbs, and the top springs back when touched lightly, about 40 to 45 minutes.

Kabocha-Maple Sour Cream Coffee Cake DRIPPING

Let the cake cool 10 minutes in the pan, then carefully invert onto a serving platter. When cool to the touch (after about an hour), make the glaze: Whisk the sugar, syrup, vanilla, and water together until smooth, adding additional water if necessary to make a thick, barely pourable glaze. Drizzle the glaze (or pour it right out of the bowl) along the crown of the cake, allowing it to ooze down the inside and outside of the cake. Sprinkle immediately with nuts, if using.

Once the glaze has dried, the cake keeps well, wrapped in plastic, at room temperature, up to 3 days.

MAKE AHEAD: Cake can also be made ahead, wrapped in foil and plastic, and frozen up to 1 month. Glaze after defrosting at room temperature.

Dirty bundt pan

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Filed under Breakfast, Cakes, dessert, farmer's market, lupus, recipe, vegetables

Rah! Rah! Winter!

Chicken Stock

It’s a hard sell, I know, when the sky is falling and you’ve eaten enough kale to turn your fingernails green. But really: some of winter is worth saving.

So you heard me? Talking about freezing stock, soups, cookies, and crisp topping for the perfect summer freezer, on KUOW?

Here are the recipes I discussed with Megan Sukys (all PDFs):
Chicken Stock
Carrot-Lemongrass Soup
Onion Fennel Jam
Cinnamon-Coconut Chocolate Chunk Cookies
Ultimate Crisp Topping (Big Batch)
Whole Grain Cranberry-Walnut Biscotti

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Filed under appetizers, Cookies, dessert, media, recipe, soup

Direction

Whole Wheat Vanilla Bean Pound Cake

I woke up directionless. It wasn’t that I didn’t have things to do—no, not that. I have deadlines and edits to make, errands to run, things to do, just like every other day. And goodness knows I could certainly stand to pull those furry tomato plants from last summer out of the ground.

I just couldn’t get anything started.

I walked to the bathroom, and back into the bedroom. “I’m having trouble envisioning my day,” I told Jim. “Tell me what to do.”

Normally, this is not a problem. Normally, I have three days’ worth of Post-It notes fluttering around inside my brain. But we moved my office downstairs this weekend, and the little deer paths I’ve tread between rooms upstairs no longer lead me to the expected destinations. The Post-It notes are hidden under layers of thoughts about paint colors and blue sky days and all the little pieces of paper one finds behind a desk when one finally moves it.

“Go north,” said Jim. Smartass. I looked around—north was right back to bed. But I wasn’t really tired.

I headed to the kitchen, and took two sticks of butter out to soften. There, I thought. Now something will get done.

Butter has authority that way, in my kitchen. Put an apple on the counter, and it might just sit there for days, but when butter comes out to soften, it doesn’t stay long. Butter gets me moving.

Again, it worked. I puttered, and found a groove at the keyboard, and went for a walk, and when I came back, I needed pound cake.

I’m not talking about anything related to Sara Lee. I didn’t want it to be too heavy, and I wanted something that was as comfortable under a cloak of plain yogurt as it might be with a splash of heavy cream and a spoonful of lemon curd.

I know, I hear you: It’s pound cake. It has to weigh something.

Of course. But I knew there was a pound cake that sat more lightly in the stomach, one that was a smidge healthier. It wasn’t so long ago that we finished those cookies, after all.

I turned to a favorite pound cake recipe, one on the lighter side, from Maria Helm Sinskey’s book, The Vineyard Kitchen. Hers is soaked with a sugary lemon glaze that’s delicious, but not so healthybreakfasty. I brought in the whole wheat pastry flour, and scrapped the glaze, and by golly, didn’t it smell just like pound cake in about 30 minutes.

I was disappointed, though, by how it looked. All that whole wheat meant there was no sunny yellow top (I skipped the food dye, too), and no obviously spongy texture. It was not a cake I could physically wring the butter out of, and when it came out of the oven, I sort of missed that. I don’t think I’ve ever had—or even heard of—a whole wheat version, and I was afraid, at first, that I’d messed with something that should simply be enjoyed in its original state, or not at all.

vanilla bean pound cake with kathy's syrup

So I left it, for a few hours. Until I needed a snack. I sliced into it, and its texture—like a hybrid of pound cake and cornbread textures—crawled around in my mouth, exploring, breaking apart. It wasn’t heavy, but it was still sweet. Onto the plate it went, with that dollop of yogurt, and a good drizzle of Kathy’s maple syrup.

I sat. I ate. Then I had another piece, this time plain. And now, midway through the day, I’m grateful there’s no buttery sheen hanging around the corners of my mouth. It’s about time I found a pound cake that doesn’t ruin my dinner. Or my lunch, for that matter.

So it ain’t no Sara Lee. But I still love it—especially how without being soaked with a singular flavor, like lemon or almond, it has more flexibility to go from dessert to breakfast to snack, changing flavors every time. So no matter how much direction you have (or don’t), it works.

Pound cake with syrup and greek yogurt

Whole Wheat Vanilla Bean Pound Cake (PDF)

Adapted from Maria Helm Sinskey’s glazed lemon pound cake recipe in The Vineyard Kitchen: Menus Inspired by the Seasons (Cookbooks), this whole wheat pound cake makes those who can’t skip dessert feel a little less guilty—and makes those who can simply look forward to breakfast. Serve it drizzled with maple syrup and dolloped with Greek yogurt; for a treat, toast the bread with a little butter in a nonstick pan and serve with chopped fresh fruit.

You can also substitute 2 teaspoons vanilla extract for the vanilla bean.

TIME: 20 minutes active time
MAKES: 1 9”x5” loaf

Butter and flour for greasing the pan
2 1/4 cups whole wheat pastry flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 sticks (12 tablespoons) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 1/2 cups sugar
Seeds from 1 (6”) vanilla bean
3 large eggs
1 cup buttermilk

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter and flour a 9”x5” loaf pan and set aside.

Whisk the flour, baking powder, and salt together in a small bowl and set aside.

In the work bowl of a standing mixer, whip the butter, sugar, and vanilla bean seeds on medium speed until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add the eggs, one at a time, scraping down the sides of the bowl between additions, if necessary. Add the dry mixture and the buttermilk in three additions, alternating between the two, and mix until all the dry ingredients have been incorporated.

Transfer the batter to the prepared pan. Smooth the top down, and bake for 1 hour, or until the cake is lightly browned at the edges and a knife inserted into the very middle comes out clean.

Let the cake cool in the pan for 15 minutes, then transfer to a wire rack and let cool completely. Store cooled cake at room temperature in a sealed container, or wrapped in plastic.

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Filed under bread, Cakes, dessert, recipe

Baking without the baked taste

Bittersweet Walnut Buttercrunch 1

I woke up with my high school’s fight song in my head. Fight for Boise, we are with you, with you all the way… Is that how it went? Or was the other verse first? And what was the other verse? Pondering such important things, I walked into the kitchen and poured the coffee beans directly into the filter without grinding them first. Oh, I see what kind of day it’s going to be.

I’d hoped to wake up and bake cookies. We’re heading to San Francisco for a long weekend, to see my brother, and I wanted to make something without what he’s termed “the baked taste.” I don’t understand it, to be honest. It’s apparently a cross between burnt flour and old cinnamon; it crawls onto the bottoms of unsuspecting muffins and cakes and just loiters there, tasting dusty. The way he tells it, baked taste can kill a person.

But the coffee beans, they were a sign. Cookies were not to be. Besides, I’ve been cranky about cookies for days.

Have you seen the cover of Gourmet’s December cookie issue? They’re all different, so you may not have seen the same cover got, the one with lemon sandwich cookies, dressed up like little pink pompoms.

I love that we all got different covers, for sure. That’s exciting. But the cookies? I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but food coloring is so out. There should be a clear dividing line between something one gives to one’s neighbors, to eat, and something one hangs on a Christmas tree. Just my opinion.

But speaking of Christmas trees, did I tell you? Someone stole my neighbor’s California cyprus. Stole it. Just wandered over in the middle of the night, about a week ago, and dug it out of the ground. My neighbor knocked on my door in a tizzy the next day, after tromping all around the perimeter of my house to make sure I hadn’t fallen prey to the digger, too. We were lucky, I guess. But the neighbor was furious. I told him to write a eulogy, and post it on a sign where the tree had been. He did a good job, I think:

A natural beauty stood here
A tenacious tree known for withstanding the wild winds off the Pacific
Regrettably, it could not withstand someone’s stupidity
On the night of Dec. 2nd, someone dug this tree out of the ground, and took it

I nurtured you, shaped you, and watched you grow. You brought me great joy.
I fear you were taken for use as a Christmas tree.
I hope that instead, you may have a successful transplant and live on to show your beauty to others.
I know you will bring joy to those undeserving folks who now possess you.

Seriously.

Anyway. Back to that cover, with the cookies that look like they belong on trees.

Some covers say cook me. Or doesn’t this look interesting. But the one my mailman delivered just says Yes, Christmas cookies are a direct reflection of how perfectly you live your life. And, If your cookies don’t look like this, you’re a failure. And, worse still, If you don’t attempt to make cookies like this, you’re a sucking the life out of people you love. Who wants to make cookies after all that?

Course, all this internal turmoil over a magazine cover must be the result of hormones. I normally love Gourmet. But this month, I hate it. Hate. It morphs cookies from a symbol of holiday cheer into a contest. And instead of making perfectly round samples of the obsessive compulsive behavior I try my very best to avoid this time of year, I decided, after the coffee thing, that I will be boycotting cute cookies this year altogether. In fact, I will make an attempt at the very ugliest, least photogenic cookies bake-able, because darnit, it’s the thought that counts. I just want a lump of a thing, the kind of cookie you’re not afraid to put your whole hand on. Who wants a cookie you can only touch on the sides? Or worse, one you’re afraid to eat?

The lumps, though, they’ll have baked taste, which I happen to love. Which means today, for my brother, I’ll be bringing a classic version of the Altoids buttercrunch I made last year. (Even the ugly pieces.)

Bittersweet Walnut Buttercrunch 3

Bittersweet Walnut Buttercrunch (PDF)

This crunchy candy, based on a top-secret family recipe from someone else’s family, is my answer for the cookie-averse recipients on my holiday baking list.

TIME: 30 minutes active time
MAKES: about 3 dozen pieces

2 sticks (1 cup) unsalted butter
1 cup sugar
1 tablespoon Karo syrup
2 tablespoons water
1 pound high-quality bittersweet chocolate (I prefer 70%), finely chopped
2 cups toasted walnuts, very finely chopped

Line a baking sheet with a silicon baking mat (or greased foil) and set aside.

Combine the butter, sugar, Karo syrup, and water in a medium non-reactive (not aluminum) saucepan and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the temperature reaches 290 degrees on an instant-read thermometer. (It will take 10 to 15 minutes, but this is not the time to wander around the kitchen, as overcooking the caramel will cause it to separate. Be patient.)

At 290 degrees, carefully pour the toffee mixture onto the lined baking sheet, tipping the sheet and/or spreading the mixture with a small offset spatula until the mixture makes a roughly 12” by 15” rectangle. Let cool completely, about 30 minutes.

When cool, melt the chocolate: Place it in a saucepan over very low heat, and stir constantly until almost all the chunks are melted. Remove from heat and stir until smooth. Set aside.

Spread half the chocolate mixture in an even layer over the cooled toffee, and sprinkle evenly with half the walnuts. Cool until the chocolate is dry and completely firm (this may take a few hours), then carefully flip the toffee. Rewarm the chocolate over low heat, if necessary, then repeat the spreading process with the remaining chocolate and sprinkle the remaining walnuts on top. Let cool completely, then break into bite-sized chunks. Store in a tightly sealed container up to 3 weeks.

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Filed under Cookies, dessert, recipe

Bread not for Thanksgiving

Kabocha Cranberry bread 1

Thanksgiving, in my family, is like musical chairs. Every year part of the clan seems to migrate across the country, so choosing the most convenient place to gather is sort of a moot point. Sometime in the middle of each summer, someone announces they’ll be hosting in November. We all scramble to find seats on airplanes before things get too pricey. Invariably, someone can’t make it, but the excitement of bringing the same traditions to a new place each year makes up for the disappointment of one or two people not showing up every now and then.

In the last four years, we’ve been in San Francisco, New Orleans, Cape Cod, and Park City. This year, we’ll be in Boise, at my parents’ home. My mom has shifted into high cooking gear, baking the challah that will go into our stuffing, freezing pie crusts, shopping for the best cheese prices. . . and in Seattle, I’ve started in on accessories.

This year, my job is easy. I’m making a big lasagna for the night before, and bringing a couple quickbreads for the morning, plus the turkey stock left from. . . well, when, I’m not exactly sure. (But it’s homemade, and there’s no freezer burn involved, so it should work.)

A few weeks ago, I invested in another kabocha squash. It was one of those market moments I’d prefer to forget. I plunked a big orange orb down on the farmer’s scale. Seven dollars, please, he said. I sort of squeaked in protest, a high-pitched hee-haw that would have made any donkey mama proud. But I paid, because my sister was standing next to me and I wanted to set an example of spending good money on good food, grown by good people, and it was worth it.

The first half went into Pranee’s gaeng leang. I meant to make Matthew’s chicken-ified version of my stir-fried kabocha for dinner, but instead the squash just sat there for another week. Finally, when the insides threatened to dim their shade from a bright, fiery tangerine (dare I call it Firefox orange?) to something more like burnt sienna, I shoved it into the oven with bread on the brain.

kabocha for roasting

This kabocha, it thought outside the box. For some reason I couldn’t get it to sit upright; it was so top-heavy that it kept cartwheeling over onto its stem. Sure, I could have roasted it cut side-down (or up, for that matter), but it seemed happy hanging upside-down.

The point is, it doesn’t matter how you roast it. In fact, I roasted mine for the prescribed hour, heard the timer, and plum forgot to take it out of the oven. Fifteen minutes later, the smell of burning squash skin sent me screaming back into the kitchen. The squash was torched – skin and flesh, black as night. But I let it cool, and instead of throwing it away, decided to try to pick the burned part off. The entire exterior peeled off in two or three pieces, leaving me with just a bit over two cups of soft, sweet, squash, absent of any smokey or off flavor, for my quickbread. Perfect.

I mashed and stirred and melted and plopped, and half an hour later, slid two loaves of whole wheat kabocha-cranberry bread into the oven. Out came the ultimate Thanksgiving season bread: it was moist and tender but still robust enough for the toaster, bursting with tart cranberry flavor, buttery without being heavy, and not nearly as sweet (believe it or not) as your average pie-in-loaf-form pumpkin bread.

Only, my timing was off. See, we had people over for dinner that night, and though I’d finished making the bread well before they arrived, it sat on the counter cooling when they walked in. No human deserves to walk into a house that smells like pumpkin pie, eat salad and Thai food, and leave without anything pumpkiny – especially not one who’s just given birth. So off went half a loaf.

Then Jim left to stay with a colleague in Victoria, and it really didn’t make sense for him to arrive empty-handed, so another loaf accompanied him to SeaTac.

Which left me with half a loaf, which is now, obviously, gone. Which means that on Saturday, I need to buy another $7 squash. Dammit.

Kabocha Cranberry bread 3

Kabocha-Cranberry Bread (PDF)

Kabocha squash has a rich, yellowy flesh that mashes up soft and smooth (like canned pumpkin) when it’s cooked. To roast it, slice a kabocha roughly in half and remove the seeds. Roast on a parchment- or foil-lined baking sheet (no need to oil it) at 400 degrees until the flesh is good and soft, about an hour. (Timing will depend on the size and age of the squash.) Let the squash cool, peel away the skin and any other tough pieces, and mash the squash like you would potatoes, until smooth.

If you can’t find kabocha squash, substitute a 15-ounce can of pumpkin. But if you’re using the real thing, don’t hesitate to roast the whole squash – you can always reheat the extra for dinner, served with a pat of butter and a drizzle of real maple syrup.

TIME: 30 minutes active time
MAKES: Two 8 1/2” x 4 1/2” loaves

2 sticks (1 cup) unsalted butter, plus more for pans
2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for pans
1 cup whole wheat flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons ground flaxseed meal (optional)
3 large eggs
2 cups sugar
1 cup buttermilk
2 packed cups mashed kabocha squash (or one 15-ounce can pumpkin)
1 pint (2 heaping cups, or half a bag) fresh cranberries

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter and flour two 8 1/2” x 4 1/2” loaf pans, and set aside.

Melt the 2 sticks of butter in a small saucepan over low heat, stirring occasionally. Set aside to cool for a few minutes. Meanwhile, combine the flours, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and flaxseed meal in a mixing bowl, whisk to blend, and set aside.

In the work bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the eggs and sugar on medium speed until quite light, about 2 minutes. Stir the buttermilk into the melted butter, then alternate adding the dry and wet ingredients to the sugar/egg mixture, mixing on low speed between each addition until the ingredients are incorporated. Add the squash, and mix until uniform in color. Stir in the cranberries.

Divide the batter evenly between the two loaf pans, and bake on the middle rack for one hour, or until the tops just begin to crack and a skewer inserted into the center of one loaf comes out clean. Let the bread cool for 10 minutes in pans, then transfer to racks to cool. Enjoy warm, or let cool to room temperature and wrap in foil to keep moist.

Kabocha Cranberry bread 4

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Filed under bread, Breakfast, dessert, recipe

My New Noodle Soup

soba noodles

New Noodle Soup. Say it.

(Out loud, I mean.)

New Noodle Soup. Fun, isn’t it?

I know why. It’s because somewhere in there, you get to say “noo-noos,” like a two-year-old. Who can resist the sound of a food whose pronunciation requires the same mouth shape as its eating?

But clearly, noo-noos are not what one orders in mixed public adult company. Even I couldn’t do that. How unfortunate, especially this time of year, when traveling sniffles have most of us fighting hard to pretend we don’t have fall colds, and noonoos are just what we need.

But I do. I have a cold. And I’m going to be on the radio today, so last night I started hitting the liquids hard, trying anything to bring my bedraggled voice back. For dinner, it had to be my own version of the terrific chicken noonoo soup I had last weekend.

When I sat down at ART, the restaurant at Seattle’s new Four Seasons Hotel, I was a little shocked to find chicken noodle soup on the menu. It reads like such a pedestrian choice for an appetizer. Not exactly the sort of thing I’d expect to order in a room where the bar counter is backlit by ever-changing shades of fluorescence. But the soup – fine filaments of spiced vegetables, twisted up with soba noodles and black silkie chicken in a deeply flavorful broth, and topped with a poached egg – was anything but plain.

I didn’t have any desire to recreate the exact same soup. The carrots, cabbage, and squash were sliced micro-thin, for starters, and the presentation was far fancier than anything that happens in my house—the gorgeous ceramic bowl, the fanfare of a waiter pouring the broth over the noodles, yadda yadda. And I didn’t have time to hunt down a chicken that looks like it belongs in a Dr. Seuss book. But I couldn’t ignore the way the egg yolk glided into the broth, infusing it with a richness that makes chicken soup feel even more healing than usual.

I thought I tasted a hint of miso in the broth at ART – but when I asked, I was assured that I was just tasting the richness of a stock made with silkie black chicken, whose meat is known for its deep, almost gamey flavor. Once I got the miso in my head, though, I couldn’t get it out – so I spiked our soup with a dollop of miso paste.

Course, the plan was to eat half of it, then take it out of the fridge this morning, pop a newly poached egg on top, and take a few slightly more attractive photographs for you, in the daylight. But when I went to take it out of the fridge, I discovered my husband had taken the entire container for lunch.

Guess I’ll have to make more noo-noos.

new noodle soup

Chicken Soba Noodle Soup with Miso and Poached Egg (PDF)

At ART, Chef Kerry Sear poaches the eggs for 8 to 10 minutes wrapped up in a layer of plastic wrap. He lines a ramekin with the wrap, cracks an egg in, twists the ends to seal, and puts it right into a pot of boiling water. His method worked perfectly for me, but poach using whatever method you like best.

I found the timing worked well if I put the chicken stock, water for the pasta, and water for the eggs on the stove at the same time.

TIME: 25 minutes
MAKES: 4 servings

8 cups rich homemade chicken stock
1 large boneless, skinless chicken breast (about 3/4 pound)
2 large celery stalks, thinly sliced on a diagonal
2 carrots, peeled and thinly sliced on a diagonal
1 bundle soba noodles (about 1/3 pound, or the diameter of a quarter)
1 tablespoon yellow miso paste
Salt and freshly ground pepper
4 large eggs, poached
Shichimi togarashi (Japanese seven spice mix, optional)

Bring the stock to a bare simmer in a large saucepan. Add the chicken breast, celery, and carrots, and cook for about 10 minutes, or until the chicken is cooked through. Shred the chicken and return it to the pot with the vegetables.

Meanwhile, bring a pot of salted water to boil for the noodles. Cook until al dente, according to package instructions. Drain, rinse with cool water, and set aside.

Add the miso to the soup, and stir the noodles into the soup to warm. Season the broth to taste with salt and pepper, if necessary. Using tongs, divide the noodles between four soup bowls, then add vegetables, chicken, and broth to each. Top each bowl with a poached egg, and serve with a few sprinkles of shichimi, for a bit of spice, if desired.

Close to Wolf's Chickpea Salad

For those who have come from KUOW, here’s a PDF of the chickpea salad recipe I mentioned, from How to Cook a Wolf (pictured above), and here’s the vanilla-olive oil cake.

Art Restaurant and Lounge on Urbanspoon

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Filed under appetizers, Cakes, chicken, dessert, gluten-free, kitchen adventure, lupus, Pasta, recipe, salad, Seattle, side dish, snack, soup, vegetables

A challenge, unanswered

Apple-Cranberry Pie cooling

A few weeks ago, I got a challenge, from a reader named Rachel:

How about the perfect tarte Tatin? I challenge you to make it perfect – the caramel has to be thick enough to coat the apples when flipped, but not so runny it falls out of the crust. The apples have to be cooked and saturated with the butter/sugar mixture but yet, at the same time, it has to retain some firmness – who wants a soggy apple? Well, I suppose a soggy apple soaked in a butter/sugar mixture is not the worst thing one can eat, but still, the challenge is to keep the apples firm and the caramel viscous (but not too viscous). If you want to know how NOT to make a tarte Tatin, just watch Julia Childs’ episode on it – hers is a total disaster – then go online and look at all the pictures. Pale apples = no good. Dark coated apples = nice. Which one to use, Granny smith or Golden Delicious, or maybe figure out which one the Tatin sisters used in 1889? Somehow theirs came out perfectly. The crust: Puff pastry? With butter? With shortening? Made from scratch? Maybe not even puff, maybe a regular pastry dough is better – who knows. All I know is I have made it like 14 times and have even gone down the food science path, trying to utilize gums and starches, which only made things worse. I am hoping you will have better luck and post the results here.

Oh, Rachel, honey, you’re not alone. Who hasn’t been disappointed by an underbrowned tarte Tatin? When you wrote, I promised I’d wait until apple season – until I could get crisp, sharp, puckery varieties like Cox Orange Pippin and Bramley’s Seedling, good, firm apples I was sure would give me more flavor than the varieties you mentioned – and start experimenting. Good riddance to sogginess.

Just a few days after you wrote, I had the crust epiphany. It came in the form of an assignment for work. I’m the recipe editor for a magazine called Edible Seattle, and when the editor, Jill, sent me her favorite pie crust recipe, I all-out balked. Blended with a fork? Rolled and crimped before chilling out in the fridge? Then frozen?

The first time I tried it, I’ll admit, I could have used an attitude adjustment. How could a crust bake up flaky if I mashed the butter cubes into the dough with a rolling pin when they might have already had a chance to warm up a bit? I worked quickly, and to my surprise, the crust rolled out like a sort of edible magic carpet – easy as pizza dough, only not springy. I transferred it to my pie pan in one fell swoop, forgetting my usual silent prayer to the pie crust gods. (Hail pie crust, full of butter, gravity is with you. Blessed art thou glutinous bonds, and blessed is the fruit thy will cover. Please don’t fall apart; you looked so good on the counter.)

Edible all-butter crust

I followed the rest of Jill’s instructions – first freezing the bottom crust in the pan, then refrigerating the top crust on a cookie sheet, then, when her “trustworthy apple pie” filling was ready, securing the top crust onto the bottom crust and baking away.

Her crust method was, hands down, both the least stressful and most delicious I’ve ever made. Is, I should say, because I’ve made it now five times since then. (My neighbor’s made it twice, too, and seven pies can’t be wrong.)

Apple-Cranberry Pie side

People, look at those layers. Have you ever seen a pie crust that looks so much like those sheets of mica we used to find in the sandbox in elementary school? Every layer was made up of a seemingly infinitesimal number of smaller layers – layers that shattered and melted in my mouth. Even the edges were tender, and by the time I finished, oh, about the third piece of the third or fourth pie, I knew I’d found my perfect Tatin crust. Because no matter how perfectly the apples are caramelized, you can’t just serve them on air. The perfect Tatin requires the perfect crust, and my days of making homemade puff pastry are over.

Crust question solved, I marched off to the farmers’ market last weekend, in search of my apples. I found them – huge, brawny half-pound specimens, those Bramley’s. (If you’re a mean person, and want to have a little fun, stand next to Booth Canyon Orchard’s apple stand and watch small children taste the ubertart varieties.)

But dammit, on the way out, I saw the cranberries. They’re only available two weeks a year. How could I not buy them?

So home they came, the apples and the cranberries, and a $7 kabocha squash that’s now sitting where the last one sat, waiting for a miracle that justifies its price.

Not to be boastful, but it has been a week of miracles around here. A week of superlatives, according to Jim. There was that chicken, convection roasted (I’m working on my fear of my oven’s convection setting) to a puffy, brassy brown, served with a pan gravy made just from just a cup and half of Honeycrisp apple cider and a swig of cream, simmered down, and a dollop of Dijon mustard. There were the pork chops, pan-seared, nestled into mashed Yukon Gold potatoes and smothered with the leftover gravy, which was, as always, even better the second time. The broccoli gratin, crispy with Jarlsberg. The tiny root vegetable gratins. Even my powdered hot cocoa has been coming out deliciously.

I’ve been lucky, this week. So I figured it was as good a time as any to chance the perfect Tatin. (Luck means a whole bed of deeply browned apples, falling out of the pan together at just the right time.)

But dammit, those cranberries. I went to start cutting the apples, and couldn’t leave well enough alone. The first pie crust ended up in a pan, and went straight into the freezer, and after a trip to my neighbor’s house for flour, there was a second crust, balanced across the tops of the sour cream, cottage cheese, and yogurt containers, as always, in the fridge.

Apple-Cranberry Pie filling

Rachel, I meant to make tarte Tatin. I’d even gotten the pan out.

But the truth is, I’m not so great at challenges. (Just ask the folks who asked for spaghetti squash and chestnut flour recipes ages ago.) Flog me with the rolling pin – whatever you need to do.

More than savory cooking, baking appeals to me because it requires creativity within relatively strict constructs – take the impulsiveness out, and I’d probably never turn the oven on again.

The Tatin will come. Someday. (If Rachel has made it 14 times, it could certainly take me a few tries, right?)

Apple-Cranberry Pie top

But yesterday wasn’t the day. Yesterday was the day for what Jim says was the best pie I’ve ever made. (And he’s learned to be choosy.)

This is not a pie you can shrug off. It’s one you must make, and soon, before the flavor of apples and cranberries no longer matches exactly what’s happening in the air outside. I feel comfortable planning your baking future because this is not my recipe, but an adaptation of Jill’s.

Must, people.

And try the convection setting, if you have one. My neighbor and I have agreed the crust is more crisp and shattery that way.

By the way, Bon Appetit’s October 2008 issue has some great info on tarte Tatins.

Apple-Cranberry Pie slice with whole

Heirloom Apple-Cranberry Pie (PDF)

Based on editor Jill Lightner’s recipe in the Fall 2008 issue of Edible Seattle, for Trustworthy Apple Pie (tweaked only slightly), this is the centerpiece you want on your Thanksgiving dessert table. (At least, it’s what we’ll have on ours.) More specifically, it’s the crust you want to not fight with – rolled out just after mixing, Edible’s all-butter crust takes a less traditional approach, but it’s worked perfectly for me every time. And with all that turkey juggling, who needs pie crust anxiety?

The amount of filling prescribed here makes one piled-high pie, so when you’re making the crusts (do that first!), be sure to roll the top crust out into an 11” circle.

TIME: 35 minutes active time, including crust
MAKES: One 9” pie

Two prepared pie crusts, made from two separate batches Edible’s All Butter Crust (recipe follows)
2 large Bramley’s Seedling apples (about 1 1/4 pounds), peeled, cored, and sliced very thin
2 Cox Orange Pippin apples (about 1 pound), peeled, cored, and sliced very thin
1 1/2 cups cranberries
1/2 cup white sugar
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
1/4 teaspoon (rounded) ground cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons whole milk, for brushing crust

To prepare the pie crusts, freeze one as directed below and roll the second crust out into an 11” circle. Brush off excess flour, transfer to a parchment-lined baking sheet, cover with plastic, and refrigerate until firm, about 20 minutes.

Preheat the oven on its convection setting to 350 degrees. (Use 375 degrees if you’re using the regular “bake” setting.) Place the apples and cranberries in a large mixing bowl. Combine the remaining ingredients (except milk) in a small bowl, mix to blend, and add to the fruit, mixing with your hands until all the apples are well coated.

Transfer the fruit to the frozen crust. Peel plastic away from the refrigerated top crust, and brush it with the milk. Center crust milk side-up on the filling, and trim the edges to a 1/2” overhang. Tuck the top edges under and press into the bottom’s crimped edge, and cut a few slits in the top of the pie (or a hole in the center) for steam to escape.

Apple-Cranberry Pie hole

Place the pie on a parchment lined baking sheet (to catch any drips) and bake on the center rack for 50 to 60 minutes (or 60 to 80 minutes on regular “bake”), or until golden brown and bubbling.

Edible’s All-Butter Crust
From the Fall 2008 issue of Edible Seattle.

Really: Chill the butter again after cutting, as directed. Here in Seattle, I’ve found I’ve always used the full 5 tablespoons of water.

TIME: 20 minutes
MAKES: One 9-inch pie crust

1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 stick unsalted butter, chilled, cut into 1” dice, and chilled again
4 to 5 tablespoons water, chilled in fridge

Blend flour and salt in a medium mixing bowl. Sprinkle chilled butter cubes into the flour and press into the dry ingredients with your fingertips, blending together until the mixture looks like fresh breadcrumbs or damp sand. Ideally, no lumps of butter any bigger than a pea will remain, nor will you have any dry flour lurking in the bottom of the bowl.

Add cold water one tablespoon at a time, blending gently with a large fork, until the dough forms into a ball. Roll crust out to about 1/8” thick and gently pat down into a 9” pie pan, trimming the edge with a sharp knife or scissors so the dough hangs over the edge by 1/2”. Fold and crimp the dough’s edges. Line with plastic wrap and freeze for a minimum of 30 minutes, or overnight.

Remove from freezer when you’re filling’s ready and the oven is pre-heated—whatever sort of pie you’re baking, you want the crust fully frozen when it goes into the oven.

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Have your cake, and eat it too.

Whole Wheat Chocolate Rasp Cake 2

Here is my secret: I am having an affair with the United States Postal Service.

At least, that’s what it feels like. It’s very exciting. Every day around 2:30 p.m., I get a little jumpy, just waiting. Listening – for my dog, announcing the mail’s arrival – and pondering what might come through our front door that day. I feel a little guilty, knowing how much some people hate getting mail. I adore mail. Some days it’s just a box of contacts, or an oversized offer to Help China Become Christian, complete with one chopstick, to remind me that China is Different!. (Whose bright idea was it to just send one?)

But sometimes – the best times – there’s food in the mail. I delurk as soon as the door slams closed to snatch the box, and wonder if the way I wait counts as stalking.

Last week it was a bag of apples, picked from an orchard on Cape Cod, swaddled in mailing products, and storked to my door before the leaves had had a chance to dry out. There’s a tatin in their future. I can smell it.

whole grain cake flour

A couple days ago, something thrilling: whole grain cake flour, from a friend who knows I’m in the middle of a baking thing. She didn’t even know about Saturday’s failed muffins, or how much they disappointed me. (They puffed up, and up, and up, and into each other, and over the sides of the pan and onto the floor of the oven, then sunk into sad little mounds that refused to come out of the pans in one piece.) I’d just about written off my baking streak, until that flour came.

The thing is, I’m normally not all that excited about putting “whole wheat” and “cake” in the same sentence. Whole wheat cakes are tricky. They’re not like whole wheat cookies or muffins, which, in my opinion, do quite a decent job masquerading as their more traditional relatives. I mean, what all-purpose flour devotee would really turn down a whole wheat chocolate chip cookie, if it was oozing with still-melty Scharffen Berger? The disguise works. It’s quite possible to bake a really delicious cookie that has at least minor nutritional advantages.

Cakes, though. Cakes are different. Who jumps at a piece of healthy cake? I’ve had success enriching cakes – health-i-fying them, if you will – with whole wheat pastry flour, and to a certain extent, with white whole wheat flour, but I’d never had good luck using all whole wheat. Replace more than half of the flour in a featherweight lemon cake with basic whole wheat flour, and you’ve got one very lucky dog.

(By the by, cake flour is used for cakes because it is one of the “lightest” flours. It has less protein than all-purpose flour and bread flour, which means the final baked product isn’t as tough – but I bet you knew all that already.)

Anyway. I certainly hadn’t ever seen cake flour made with the wheat’s entire kernel – bran, germ, everything. (And did I mention it’s from Washington?)

Bluebird‘s cake flour didn’t look any different from others I’ve used – light and fluffy, just no swan on the package. I got to thinking about what sort of cake I wanted to dig into, and that big Trader Joe’s chocolate bar marched up onto the counter, blathering on about how I should make a cake I’d normally think of as heavy, since I had the advantage of a flour much lighter than the all-purpose stuff I normally use. So in went the chocolate, and the raspberries I froze last Friday. (So much for saving them for winter.)

Whole Wheat Chocolate Rasp Cake close 2

If I hadn’t made it myself, I wouldn’t have known this was anything but an easy stand-by, the kind of chocolate cake you whip up when company’s coming, and you want everyone to lick their plates, but you don’t have the energy for, say, tarte Tatin. I certainly wouldn’t have suspected all those B vitamins, either, but I guess sometimes you do get to have your cake and eat it, too.

And oh, yes, I’ve been eating it, even though there’s “whole wheat” in the name. Even my second piece of cake was worth sitting down for, so yesterday afternoon, I pulled up a chair.

(I can see the mailbox from here.)

Whole Wheat Chocolate Rasp Cake at table

Whole Wheat Chocolate Raspberry Cake (PDF)

Here’s a cake with a muffin’s serendipity – as in Oh, look! Another raspberry! – but the rich satisfaction of chocolate cake. Serve with whipped cream or deep chocolate ice cream.

In Seattle, you can find Bluebird Grain Farms’ products at PCC and Eat Local on Queen Anne. If you can’t find whole grain cake four, use regular cake flour.

TIME: 30 minutes active time
MAKES: One 9” square cake

Butter and flour, for the pan
1 stick (1/2 cup) unsalted butter
1 3” section vanilla bean, halved lengthwise
4 ounces bittersweet chocolate (70% cacao), finely chopped
1 1/2 cups whole grain cake flour, or regular cake flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup cocoa powder
1 cup sugar
1 cup lowfat buttermilk
2 large eggs
2 cups frozen raspberries

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter and flour a 9” square pan and set aside.

Place the butter in a small saucepan. Using a small, sharp knife, scrape the vanilla bean’s seeds into the butter. Add the bean itself, and melt the butter over low heat, stirring. Remove the vanilla beans, add the chocolate, remove from heat, and stir until smooth. Set aside.

Whisk the cake flour, baking powder, salt, and cocoa powder together in a small bowl and set side.

In a large mixing bowl, whisk the sugar, buttermilk, and eggs together until will blended. Add the butter/chocolate mixture, and stir until blended. Using a soft spatula, fold the flour/cocoa mixture in, mixing just until incorporated. Stir in about 3/4 of the raspberries, then spread the batter in an even layer into the prepared pan.

Whole Wheat Chocolate Rasp Cake batter

Scatter the remaining raspberries on top, and bake for 45 to 55 minutes, until the cake tests clean with a toothpick, or is puffed and only just beginning to crack. (Do not overbake.) Let cool for 10 minutes in the pan, then serve warm.

Whole Wheat Chocolate Rasp Cake close 1

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Biscotti, in an oven that works

orange gingerbread biscotti 1

Hallelujah to the powers that be, Miss Amana has been fixed. She’s been a real high-maintenance belle, this one.

The repair involved two weeks, some fast action on the part of the United Parcel Service, lots of swearing on the part of the repairmen, and lots of patience, on my part. The first guy told me that if he had to make a list, in order of preference, of the ovens he’d put in his own house, he’d put Amana at the very bottom. (He bought himself a Viking.)

oven door on the floor

While it was happening, I didn’t feel so confident. Seeing my oven door on the kitchen floor felt like watching a doc slap one of my kidneys on an operating table – I’m sure I can live without it if absolutely necessary, but why the fearmongering? Put that thing back on!, I kept wanting to shout. He did, eventually. Tighter than ever, so no air could escape, and with a brand new oven brain.

cinnamon almond butter cookies

In celebration, I’ve been making cookies like it’s Christmas – cinnamon almond butter cookies, cutely forked and frozen for my friend Hilary, for when she’s up in the middle of the night with New Baby in the months to come and desperately needs a cookie.

Five dozen lemon cookies, from that secret recipe I’ve been meaning to try since February of 2007. I scooped and frosted for a gaggle of girls at Hil’s baby shower, then snuck them into a movie theater in a bag disguised as Indian food. (The leftover cookies went to my sister’s dorm room, and to my neighbors, and to a friend, and to my stomach. Five dozen is a very big batch.)

There have been other celebrations inside that oven, too:

A nice boneless leg of lamb, butterflied and stuffed with dates, pine nuts, currants, herbs, and lemon zest, and roasted to a fragrant, juicy medium rare.

A baguette, reheated lovingly – wait, make that overlovingly – into an overgrown breadstick with textural and perhaps operational similarities to a baseball bat.

Spinach and black bean enchiladas, made with all the conveniences the world has to offer, because that’s what we felt like making.

A sister-made raspberry-nectarine crisp (her first, I believe), bubbled up in a regular pie pan, which was good enough to let me forgive myself for shattering my very first Le Creuset casserole dish – the one I used to always use to make crisp.

All this, in a weekend.

Then Julie, a writer friend and fellow blogger, wrote to ask if I knew Deborah Krasner. She’s a cookbook author and cooking instructor, among many, many other things (kitchen designer, potter, artist, mother, writer, the list goes on. . .).

I said yes, I’d written a story on her cooking school in Vermont a few years ago, and oh yes, I’d loved it. I started leafing through her olive oil book in my mind, and as always, I settled on the chocolate chip orange biscotti recipe. Perfectly oranged, perfectly crisped, and ohso angelic with the inclusion of olive oil instead of butter, they’re the epitome of alternative biscotti. They’re always happy on my floured counter, where I pat and squeeze them into logs for the first round in the oven – the dough is never overly sticky, like some recipes we know. And whenever I make them, I’m guaranteed to have forgotten a dinner party, or a birthday, or something for which biscotti turn out to be the most appropriate emergency response. It’s your birthday? I mean, Yes, your birthday! Happy birthday! I made you some. . .biscotti! Just let me wrap them up.

I couldn’t think of a birthday I was about to miss, but ages ago, my friend Steph requested a gingerbread biscotti recipe – requested a remake, actually, of a gingerbread-macadamia nut biscotti she’d had in the house of a certain Seattle coffee empire she knows I avoid, as a general rule. They’d been dipped in white chocolate, and served up right around the holidays. Steph wanted to be sure she had a recipe come December, and I told her I wasn’t too proud to attempt an imitation, despite the fact that I’ve never tasted them (and probably never will). And what better way to thank Miss Amana for working again than by making something that has to be baked twice?

I slid Deborah’s book off the shelf, and started tinkering. The path twisted, as it always does, because those macadamia nuts I’d been so sure I had were really hazelnuts, and despite my deep desire to satisfy Steph’s request, in the end, nothing could convince me to shelve my distaste for white chocolate. For once, I skipped the chocolate altogether.

They may not be just what the mermaid ordered – perhaps hers were softer, or longer, or more chewy. Mine have just a drizzle of molasses, for good gingerbread flavor and a color that’s darker than the usual biscotti, but they aren’t so soft that they’ll fall apart in your latte.

Yesterday, I ate the biscotti warm, right off the baking sheet. Today, I’m dipping them in ginger tea. Tomorrow, I’ll send some to Steph, so she can coat them with white chocolate herself.

orange gingerbread biscotti 3

Whole Wheat Orange Gingerbread Biscotti (PDF)

In The Flavors of Olive Oil: A Tasting Guide and Cookbook, Deborah Krasner puts our favorite kitchen elixir into the expected – chickpea soup, pasta with oven-dried tomatoes and gorgonzola, polenta – but also into a few things I first found surprising. Take the Orange Chocolate Chip Biscotti: Not something I’d associate immediately with olive oil. But with the flowery, herbal touch of the right oil, they quickly became my go-to recipe. It’s not just that they’re delicious – the batter just takes a few quick stirs to pull together, and I always find it easy to deal with on the counter, regardless of whether it’s a wet or dry day. Plus, the second round in the oven is at the same temperature as the first, which means it’s much harder to forget to turn the oven down (something I used to do all the time).

Here’s a gingered version of Deborah’s biscotti, made with whole wheat flour. A touch of molasses gives them a hint of gingerbread flavor, but don’t be fooled – these will stand up to a good dunking much better than a gingerbread man. Of course, if you’re feeling festive, a dip in chocolate – white, milk, or dark – couldn’t hurt.

TIME: 35 minutes active time
MAKES: About 3 dozen biscotti

1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
3/4 cup sugar
2 tablespoons molasses
2 large eggs
Zest of 2 oranges
1/3 cup fresh orange juice
2 cups whole wheat flour
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more, if needed
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
2 teaspoons ground ginger
1/2 cup finely chopped, lightly packed crystallized ginger

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper and set aside.

Whisk the first six ingredients until smooth in a large mixing bowl until smooth. In another bowl, whisk the remaining ingredients until blended. Add the dry stuff to the wet stuff, and stir with a wooden spoon until the dough cleans the sides of the bowl – if it’s still sticky like a batter, add all-purpose flour in 1/4 cup increments until the dough comes together (it should still be quite soft).

Gingerbread biscotti dough

Transfer the dough to a clean surface dusted with flour, and pat into a log. Divide the dough into 3 equal parts, and dust each part with flour on all sides. (I find it’s easiest to work with the dough if you flour your hands, too.) Using your hands, pat and squeeze each section into a smaller log about 10 inches long. Transfer the logs to the baking sheets (two on one sheet, one on the other), and flatten the logs a bit with your palms, so the dough is a little less than an inch tall and about 3 inches wide.

Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, or until the logs are lightly browned and just beginning to crack. Transfer to a cutting board (leave the oven on), and let cool for a few minutes. Using a serrated knife, slice the logs at an angle into roughly 1/2” slices.

Arrange the cookies one cut side-down on the baking sheets, and bake another 12 to 15 minutes, rotating sheets and flipping cookies halfway through, until lightly browned on both sides and firm. (You can leave the cookies on the softer side, if you’d like, but they won’t last as long.)

Cool cookies completely on wire racks, then store in airtight containers up to 2 weeks.

gingerbread biscotti cooling

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What’s in a cookie?

Ginger Shatters 5

What is in a cookie?

There’s flour, of course, and butter and sugar and eggs, all webbed together more or less permanently by a big plastic paddle, and some torque.

It can get more complicated, though. There’s air, if you look closely. The flour could be whole wheat, like mine, and there could be impossibly big chunks of melty, drippy chocolate, along with salt, and – wait, what’s that spice? Or ginger, pounded and dried and secreted in, along with a hint of saffron. Or maybe moisture, in the form of a swollen oat.

(And, truth be told, in this batch, somewhere, there’s probably a cat hair. Jack tried to stick his paw in the mixer while it was whirling around.)

But that’s not what I mean at all.

The real question is What’s in a cookie that makes it so good to give? It certainly can’t be its nutritional qualities – unless you’re Michael Phelps, you probably don’t need the calories. (Charmian’s right; That Globe and Mail piece on Phelps is hilarious.)

Watching a cookie leave home certainly isn’t the sort of thing that instills calm in an addicted baker. One more cookie out means one less cookie in, and goodness, it’s only cool enough to turn the oven on for so many days in August. One can’t be too strict with inventory.

But still, the giving’s the best part, in my book. In one cookie, you can say I’m thinking of you, and I know you, and If something bad happens, you better not fucking die, because I need you.

Craft Island station

Okay, so mostly, yesterday, I wanted to say the latter. My husband’s away for work, which for him means sleeping in an RV next to a beach, where he’s installed instrument upon instrument into the sand in the tidal zone. (Jim’s an oceanographer.)

I don’t really know what those shiny things all do – sure, I have a decent general idea, and I know they’re very expensive and prone to breakage. But when he waved good-bye on Tuesday morning, all I really knew for sure was that he’s going to be very wet for two weeks.

Jim likes getting wet. The way he tells it, there’s nothing dangerous about his fieldwork, and to some extent, in my brain, I believe him. (Here, it’s probably fair to mention that when it comes to safety, I can be slightly dramatic. I’m the type of person who starts concocting outrageous crash scenarios the second I sink into an airplane seat. He’s the kind of person who falls asleep before takeoff.)

But I am decidedly not an oceanographer, which means that what sounds completely sane to him doesn’t really work for me.

(Case in point: Saltwater. The fact is, I don’t even like the ocean all that much. Lake water? Totally fine. But saltwater gives me the heebie-jeebies. Always has. Water isn’t supposed to be sticky, if you ask me. My heart does a little rollercoastery thing when I stick my head all the way under, like I’m swimming in something that might cause an allergic reaction.)

Still, I decided to visit yesterday. First I was going to bring dinner, but weather and work interfered, and it was 6 p.m. before I even thought about driving north. I decided I’d bring cookies.

I started heading toward a big man of a cookie – a brawny specimen, the kind no one could eat in one bite. (The cookie David Leite printed in the New York Times a few weeks ago was the obvious best choice, especially given that I haven’t tried them yet, but please, who has 36 hours? I had one hour.)

So I planned: There would be chocolate, for certain, but given that my husband’s a fan of desserts that bite back, I veered way off the traditional path, straight for the Thai chilies leftover from the soup I’d made a few nights before. Then that chocolate chocolate espresso cookie from last summer popped up in my brain, and you know what I did? I went for a walk. Just took the dog, and let that KitchenAid’s gaping maw have a bit of a time out, slacked wide by itself for a few moments, because who wants a cookie with chocolate and espresso and Thai chilies (and ginger and lemongrass, if I’m really being honest about what I’d planned)? Seriously.

By the time I’d calmed down, I was heading toward big ginger chunk cookies, lumpy with pieces of crystallized ginger and coconut. But at T minus zero, when I was about to stir the chewy bits in, something stopped me: The batter was so lovely-looking, smooth and unfettered. I skipped the pieces and parts, and made – gasp! – what’s essentially a gingered sugar cookie. It’s thin and delicate, and straight from the oven, it shatters and dissolves in the mouth, like the kind of dream you can feel yourself losing as you wake up. Maybe think of it as a gingersnap that’s lost a lot of weight.

The truth is, it’s quite the opposite of the cookie I wanted to bring. Not even the least bit brawny. I piled the first batch into a plastic container – these cookies belong in fancy clear plastic bags, I tell you, with ribbons and stickers – and it seemed so wrong.

An hour later, our dinner plan had hit a bump, and we were eating Chinese food in a gas station in Conway, WA. (I’d hesitate to say it was good, but it wasn’t as bad as it could have been.) I handed Jim the container.

First, he was thrilled. Cookies. Then he opened it and sort of tipped it sideways, like he was looking for the real cookies, or the other halves of the ones I’d brought.

Ginger Shatters 2

Okay, I admitted. So I made the wrong ones.

These are not cookies for fieldwork. They’re cookies for shoe shopping, or afternoon tea. They’re the kind of bites you have to slip into a purse that has structure, so they don’t get smashed.

I had a flash of my beloved, stranded on the island with his instruments, wasting away because I’d failed to stir in the chocolate chunks.

But does it matter, that I got it wrong?

Maybe not.

Maybe even the girliest cookie has the je ne sais quoi to stand up in the stomach, when a person is in dire straits, and help do what needs to be done.

Or maybe any cookie, no matter its form or content, has the je ne sais quoi to make the giver feel a little bit better, simply in the giving.

Ginger Shatters 1

Ginger Shatters (PDF)

Here’s a delicate take on a gingersnap that’s the exact opposite of “manly.” Perched next to a cup of tea or an impossibly elegant scoop of sorbet, the cookie is more of a culinary accessory than actual sustenance – and like the perfect pair of earrings, it’s probably what your guests will notice first. For full shattering appeal, serve the cookies right when they’ve cooled – after a few hours, they become chewy (still good, but less fragile).

For a bit of adventure, try using a flavored salt – I used Ritrovo’s “Saffron and Salt,” which gave the cookies an earthy, fragrant aftertaste without actually making them taste like Indian food.

TIME: 35 minutes active time
MAKES: About 8 dozen small cookies

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cup whole wheat flour
1 1/2 tablespoons ground ginger
1 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 teaspoon salt (or flavored salt, such as saffron salt)
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 cup sugar
1/4 cup packed brown sugar
2 large eggs
1 tablespoon freshly grated ginger

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line two heavy baking sheets with parchment paper or silicon baking mats, and set aside.

Whisk flours, ground ginger, baking soda, and salt together in a medium bowl, and set aside.

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment (or using a hand-held electric mixer), cream the butter and both sugars on medium-high speed until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add the eggs one at a time on low speed, beating well after each addition and scraping down the inside of the bowl with a plastic spatula as needed. Add the fresh ginger. (The dough may look a little curdled – that’s okay.) Add the dry ingredients to the butter-sugar mixture in three additions, mixing on low speed until just combined, and scraping down the sides of the bowl when necessary. Beat again for a few seconds on high, until fluffy.

Using a 3/4” ice cream scoop or two small spoons, drop the dough (it will be soft) in 3/4” balls about 2” apart on the baking sheets. (I fit 15 per sheet.) Bake for 15 to 20 minutes, rotating sheets halfway through, or until the cookies are browned and crisp at the edges. Let the cookies cool for 5 minutes, then transfer to wire racks to cool completely.

P.S. 9/2/08 I just discovered that my oven is running extremely slow. This recipe may require less oven time. If you give them try, please let others know how long yours take!

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A Two-Dog Pie

Sour Cherry-Rhubarb Pie

I baked my little heart out today.

First it was blueberry muffins, to fuel a morning at Workimer, and the most absurdly easy macaroons. Then banana bread, for the freezer. (We have eight friends coming next week.) Then sour cherry pie, my first with real pie cherries.

pitting sour cherries

I’d never actually tried sour cherries, come to think of it. Smaller and softer, they’re so much more feminine than a Bing. At first, they taste like cherries in a bitchy mood, but after I got used to their punch, I decided I love them. And indeed, when I broke into them with my fingernails, pitting them all by hand without the use of a knife or a pitter, I felt a little more feminine myself. My fingernails are finally long enough to be good for something, I thought. I smugged inside, and thanked the steroids.

I’d made the nicest crust. I planned to have friends over for pie, and pretend it’s something we do all the time on a Sunday afternoon. On Friday, I stayed up late with my crust, with two whole sticks of butter, and the patience to add water until the dough clung together just enough. I even tied the two sections of dough together. (Who was it that told me once that it works, that a double-crusted pie bakes happier when its two halves sleep together in the fridge overnight?)

Nestling pie crusts

Oh yes, I did all the right things. I bought instant tapioca, because I’d never thickened with it before, and even folded my rhurbarb patch’s midseason surge in with the cherries.

Sour cherries and rhubarb

Then a friend called, just when I was about to roll the crust out. I turned my back, and in the time it took me to put a measuring cup in the sink, my dog stole about twenty percent of the dough. Right off the counter, in front of me, like I wasn’t even there. Just took a bite, and chewed thoughtfully, which is unusual – she’s a gulper, through and through. I’m sure that if she could speak, she’d have said Why yes, Jess, this is a fabulous crust. I can’t wait to taste it later.

We had a discussion, and she was exiled to the porch.

But really, it wasn’t that big of a deal – the skimpier crust forced me to roll the dough thinner than I’d have normally dared, and when I draped the last part of the lattice over the top, I almost shrieked with excitement. I brushed it with cream, sprinkled it with sugar, and tucked it into the oven with a twirl and a dance I’m glad no one got on film.

After it had cooled, I tapped my fingernails on the crust, and it made the hollow, almost tinny sound crust only makes when it’s impossibly flaky. I clapped, pushed the pie into the corner of the counter, where I knew my dog couldn’t get it, and texted my friends with a cherry pie invite. I ran out into the yard to clip flowers for the patio table.

A few minutes later, Scout, the Golden Retriever we’re watching this weekend, pranced down the deck stairs with my red oven mitt in his mouth. He was all wag.

Scout ate my pie

Scout ate my pie.

For the record, I didn’t cry. I didn’t get straight to work on another crust, either, which is surprising, because I wanted nothing more than to put him in one, all chopped up.

I screamed and shouted at him, and mourned for what seemed more like a masterpiece with every passing minute. Scout thought it was all a fantastic show, and wanted to know, Would perhaps a tennis ball help us enjoy my fit? My husband came home, and I wailed into his shoulder.

My first sour cherry pie. My perfect crust. How could he?

And was Bromley in on it? Did they plan the one-two punch, step by step pie ruination?

We salvaged two pieces out of the edge Scout didn’t touch. The crust was perfect. (Of course I can say that now that you can’t taste it, but really, it was. I promise.) The tapioca gelled the cherries together, and the filling sang with flavor.

Jim scraped what remained of the top half of the pie into the garbage, and saved the bottom crust, and its clingy bits, in a rosy heap in a Tupperware container.

“We’ll bake it again in the morning, and it’ll taste delicious,” he said. His optimism failed to cheer me.

I may find the ingredients again, because I may have been converted – sour cherries are worth their price, I know that much now. I may type the recipe out, so you can make it too.

But for now, I need a serious pout.

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Filed under dessert, failure, fruit, husband, kitchen adventure

Cherry Grump

Piece o' grump

I have a new favorite word: Grump. I like the verb best, as in to grump. It may look like a noun, but in my mouth it acts just like it sounds, like a bad mood coming to life. (Say it a few times. You’ll see.)

My friend Sarah said it first, when her dog was grumping around the house, pouting about being bullied by her cat. Then my dad’s knee started grumping, and before I knew what hit me, my pie crust started doing it, too.

Washington cherries will really start rolling into Seattle next week. (I can never wait. I bought two pounds from California. I consider it training for the cherry season.)

I wanted to make a big cherry galette, the kind whose folded, sugar-sprinkled edges are the high-end jeans of the dessert world. (You know the type: They’re supposed to be low-maintenance, but by the time you buy everything, trim the edges just right, and find the perfect thing to slip on top, you’ve spent just as much time as you might have spent on something “fancier.”) In the end, galettes look so perfectly unperfect, each pleat folded neatly over the one before, juice bubbling up and over one precisely unprecise undulation in the dough.

“Who, me?” says a galette. “I just threw on an old pair of jeans.”

Usually, though, like the jeans, galettes are worth it. More so than pie, if you ask me, which is why I’ve been making them recently.

(I just replaced those chocolaty jeans, by the way, because they also happened to have holes in unladylike places. It took me two whole months to find the ones, but they’ve been worth every penny.)

Bowl o' pits

This time, I started with a whole wheat crust, whipped about in the food processor with plenty of unsalted butter. I pitted a giant container of cherries, enough that by the end I wanted to toast and eat the actual pits, since I’d worked so hard for them. (Has anyone done this?)

fresh halved cherries

I mixed the little ruby halves up with lemon juice and a whisper of ginger, to satisfy my husband, who equates “ginger” with “dessert.” Just when I thought I was ready to pile the fruit into the crust, though, I noticed the cherries’ thin red liquid coating the cutting board and spilling out onto the counter, into the cracks between my granite tiles and down the facing on my kitchen cupboards (white, of course).

I’ll be honest: It’s hard to be in a bad mood when there are cherries in the kitchen, but I wasn’t having a very good day yesterday. My hands ached from typing (and then, stupidly, pitting), and this goshdarn notsummer weather Seattle’s been hanging onto wasn’t doing me any favors. (I’m wearing ski socks today.)

You could say I was grumping a bit myself.

I took one look at the juice, and self-doubt flooded in. I wondered whether I’d put enough cornstarch into the cherries to convince them to gel up together. I thought about the time I put too much fruit in my galette, and the edges simply unfolded like a flower. The dough relaxed under the weight of the berries and they all rolled right out in a blueberry stampede, so I ended up with a round of uncrusty dough, topped with a pool of blue goo.

I grumped that day, too.

Yesterday, my pie crust looked perfect, but I worried the edges weren’t up to their task. I didn’t want a cherry galette that would be, in Eloise’s words, ruined ruined ruined. Plus, I’ve been a little down on my luck recently. There were the cashew noodles that seized up into a delicious, but entirely too sticky mass five minutes after they hit the serving bowl. And those giant calzones, made with a sausage I somehow didn’t realize was chicken-based (and smoked, which I hate) until entirely too late. My ego wasn’t up for another failure.

I decided to hedge. I made my galette bloom-proof by cornering it in a cake pan.

Pie making seldom offers one a sigh of relief, at least not before it goes into the oven. But as I rolled the crust out and flopped it into the pan, I was more relaxed than ever, knowing that instead of patting and gently squishing and cutting and folding, I would only have to slop the edges over the cherries, easy as dropping a wet towel on the floor. It wouldn’t matter if there were a few microscopic holes in the crust, because the pan would hold any errant juices in.

That pie crust, I think she was a little relieved, too. I mean really, each and every time, she has to mind her manners. Not too hot, not too cold, not too hard, not too soft. This time, she could really let her guard down, and grump if she wanted to. I felt like I might have been doing her a favor, flipping her on top of the cherries like that, without a speck of pretention.

The galette turned into a deep-dish cherry galette, with straight, sturdy sides that stand up royally on a plate.

I’ll call it a grump, because from now on, it’s what I’ll make when I’m grumping. When I know I don’t have the attention span for pie, or the self-confidence for a pretty galette. When I need something that puts me in a good mood the instant it pops out of the oven. (I think its success is impervious to bad moods.)

Whoever started naming fruit desserts after one’s constitution was a genius. Take the grunt, for example. It’s a fruit dessert, topped with big plops of biscuit dough. On its way into the oven, it’s sloppy enough that you almost always emit some sort of unsatisfied grunt. It’s perfect for the days when nothing can impress you.

In my opinion, though, even with betties and slumps and cobblers, that person didn’t go far enough.

Think of those days you dawdle in the kitchen – when you really mean to make dessert, but one thing leads to another, and suddenly dinner’s on the table and the chosen fruit is still languishing on the counter, unattended – why not go for a Raspberry Dither?

I’d love to know what comes out of the oven on the crankiest days. Maybe a Blueberry Bitch?

Guess I’ll find out. The season’s just beginning.

cherry grump

Cherry Grump (PDF)
Made with a robust whole wheat flour (I buy Stone-Buhr , if you must know), the crust for this faintly gingered grump – just another variation on fruit pie, made in a cake pan without pinching, folding, latticing, or worrying – has a sweet, almost graham crackery flavor. Serve it warm, with vanilla, ginger, or coconut ice cream.

TIME: 45 minutes active time
MAKES: 6 to 8 servings

For the crust:

1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup whole wheat flour
2 tablespoons sugar
Pinch salt
1 1/2 sticks cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/2” pieces
1/4 to 1/3 cup ice water

For the filling:

1 tablespoon unsalted butter, plus more for greasing the pan
2 pounds Bing cherries, stemmed, halved, and pitted
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1/3 cup sugar, plus more for sprinkling on crust
2 tablespoons cornstarch
1 1/2 teaspoons ground ginger
Milk, for brushing crust

First, make the crust: Whirl the flours, sugar, and salt together in the work bowl of a food processor. Add the butter, and pulse until the butter is the size of small peas. Add the water a little at a time, pulsing as you go, until the crust holds together when you press a handful into your palm. (You’ll need more water on a dry day, less on a humid one.) Transfer the dough to wax paper, form into a flat disc, wrap well, and refrigerate at least 1 hour, or overnight.

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees, and grease an 8” cake pan with butter. Cut the tablespoon of butter into small cubes, and set side.

Make the filling: Combine the cherries with the lemon juice in a mixing bowl. In a small bowl, stir the sugar, cornstarch, and ginger together with a fork until no lumps remain. Add this dry mixture to the cherries, and stir until moist. Set aside.

mixing cherry grump

Remove the crust from the refrigerator, and let sit on a floured surface at room temperature for a few minutes, until soft enough to roll. Using a floured pin, roll the dough into a roughly 14” circle (no need to be too precise about the shape). Fold the dough into quarters, transfer it to the cake pan, and unfold it, centered on the pan. Gently fit the dough down into the sides of the cake pan, allowing the edges to flop over outward.

grump crust

Fill the dough with the cherry mixture, and dot the cherries with the reserved butter. Fold the dough’s edges inward, over the cherries, allowing them to land wherever they may. Brush the crust with milk and sprinkle the crust with sugar.

grump headed ovenward

Bake the grump for 10 minutes. Decrease heat to 350 degrees, and bake for 60 minutes more, or until the crust is browned and the filling bubbles excitedly. Let the grump cool about an hour before slicing (the fruit will firm up as it sits). Serve warm.

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Filed under dessert, fruit, kitchen adventure, recipes

Graduation

Whole wheat crepes with cinnamon sugar and walnuts

It’s been an eventful ten days, in the most literal sense: My best friend moved to Seattle. My husband turned 30. My little sister graduated from high school.

Yes, I have a 17-year-old sister. I have a picture of us on a ridge near our parents’ house in Boise, Idaho, taken the week I left for college, the summer a forest fire engulfed the hills around our home. She was six. I like it because the way I’m carrying her, her dark hair blends into the charred earth behind us, and it sort of looks like she’s on fire, too.

It’s appropriate, for such a driven person. When I was in high school, Allison was the kind of kid who would hold her breath until she turned blue, just to beat me.

She’s still tenacious. She has an amazing intellectual wingspan. She’s funny, and remarkably beautiful. And she’s turning into the sort of friend I look up to unconditionally. (But whatever you say, I’m still taller.)

Last weekend, we all gathered around her and clucked. It must have driven her crazy, the way we talked about her like she wasn’t even in the room, all weekend long. (If you think being an only child sounds hard, try fending off two parents and two (much) older siblings, and their significant others.) We chirped about her summer job, what her friends are doing, what she should adjust on her road bike, where she’s going to college. . .

That last bit is a delicate topic. See, she’s not quite sure. She still might go to Middlebury, where my brother and I went, or to UW, in Seattle.

I loved Middlebury, and I’m sure she would, too. (She’ll succeed anywhere.) But when I was back east, I missed Allison’s childhood. I sent twigs for her nest, but I was not always there to help build it. My heart does a little dance when I think of her coming to UW. I’ve been fantasizing about her showing up at our house on Sundays, to have dinner and do her laundry in our basement.

All weekend, the family balanced there, together, in a strange, exciting void between celebration and uncertainty. When Allison wasn’t home, we volleyed the advantages of Vermont and Washington back and forth with equal weight. I can’t imagine the conflict inside her head, but I do think I know, with the advantage of hindsight, that she’ll be happy at either place. And we’ll be happy, too, wherever she is.

On Monday morning, the day before graduation, I volunteered my brother Josh to make crepes. We’ve never been a pancake or waffle sort of family, but crepes – doled one at a time out of a hot, buttery pan – are commonplace.

A crepe is a pancake’s overachieving sibling. The batter pools onto a hot pan and runs across it, instead of plopping down and sitting there, like a pancake would. On a relaxing morning, pancakes watch television. Crepes play Wii.

I don’t make them often in my own home. I have a good blue steel pan, and know how to make the thin, demanding batter skitter across a film of bubbling butter and lace up all pretty. I love how they taste, but I just don’t do it. Crepes are the cornerstone to Howe holiday mornings, and to me, they seem most at home on an oak dining table in the Boise foothills.

Josh left home with a different impression. In San Francisco, he makes crepes weekly, almost, folded up with goat cheese, bacon, and chives, or rolled around chicken and mushrooms for dinner. Though I have every confidence in my own crepe-making ability, it somehow felt funny to step up to the stove with him in the room. He’s a damn good cook, and he’s inherited my father’s status as crepe-maker.

opening milk

He blended up a batch of all whole-wheat crepe batter, using the local milk my mom has started buying. We inherited the same willingness to tinker in the kitchen; he added pinches of this or that until something inside him determined the batter was perfect.

Crepe batter needs a good rest. Normally, my mother makes it the night before, and it sleeps in the fridge, where the flour’s proteins relax, so it pours smoothly the next day, and the crepes yield easily between the teeth. On Monday, we made another pot of coffee, and put the blender aside for a quick nap.

drinking coffee

No one in my family sits still very well. (If you think I’m energetic for someone with lupus, you should meet my mother. You’ll understand how much I have slowed down.) Yet there we were, drinking coffee and sitting, remembering J.R. Simplot on Memorial Day, listening as his giant flag snapped this way and that in the wind, at half mast. (Yes, the king of potatoes has passed.)

simplot's flag at half-mast

May is the best that way, in Boise. The weather’s never good enough to encourage early action, nor hot enough to insist on it. The month just stimulates coffee consumption.

cutting strawberries

Josh showed me how he knows the batter is thin enough in the blender. After it rested, we had to add a bit more milk, because the whole wheat seemed to swell up a bit. I chopped strawberries, and he started pouring and flipping, topping and serving:

If you’ve made crepes, you know it wasn’t Josh’s fault; the first crepe is dependably ugly. The pan is always too hot, or not hot enough, or not centered over the flame, or perhaps just needs a good therapy session. The longer it’s been since its last use, the more cantankerous the pan is likely to be. (That’s all part of it.)

dad in line

As soon as Josh unwrapped the butter for the pan, my dad hit his chair, effectively claiming the first one, no matter what it looked like. The rest of the family sat down at the table, waiting for Josh to pick the next recipient, while he tucked strawberries, or bananas and walnuts, inside, and topped each one with a dollop of whipped cream. I held the plates.

making a whole wheat crepe

When the fruit was gone, I took a turn, filling the last one with walnuts and cinnamon and sugar, and watched as the cream slid down the hot crepe. (If the cream stays on top, there’s a problem. Either the cream is not real, or the crepe is not hot.)

Instead of eating by turn and leaving the table, like we usually do, coming back for the next round when the crepe-maker calls, we all stayed in the kitchen, enjoying each others’ company. And wondering, no doubt, when we’ll be making crepes together next, and where.

eating crepes

Josh’s Whole Wheat Crepes (PDF)
My brother Josh’s more nutritious version of the family’s crepe recipe reminds us of true buckwheat crepes from Brittany, but they’re a lot less fussy. Made with all whole-wheat flour, the batter may thicken a little upon standing; feel free to adjust it as you go. (Josh says the key element to making crepes is using your judgment, instead of staying glued to a recipe. If the batter seems to thick, add milk. Too thin? Add flour. Pan too hot? Cool it down. Crepes not browning? Turn the heat up. Too greasy? Less butter. Et cetera.) You want a batter that’s thin enough to run across a hot pan when you swivel it around in your hand, but beyond that, crepes are much more flexible than you might think. Traditional French crepes are paper-thin, but we tend to pour them a little thicker, so more actually make it to the breakfast table.

Fill crepes with chopped fresh fruit and top with whipped cream, or sprinkle with sugar and lemon before folding. For savory crepes, omit the sugar, and add a bit more salt, plus a handful of finely chopped herbs, if you’re feeling adventuresome.

And for goodness’ sake, don’t make them all at once and keep them in the oven. Serve them hot, the instant they come out of the pan.

MAKES: 6 servings

2 cups milk (plus more, if needed)
2 large eggs
1 stick unsalted butter, melted, plus more for the pan
1 1/2 tablespoons sugar
3/4 teaspoon Kosher salt
1 2/3 cups whole wheat flour

Combine the milk, eggs, melted butter, sugar, salt and 1 cup flour in a blender, and whirl until smooth, scraping down the sides of the glass, if necessary. Add all or most of the remaining flour, a bit at a time, until the batter has roughly the consistency of drinkable yogurt (very thin for pancake batter, but not runny). Let the batter sit at least 30 minutes at room temperature, or overnight in the refrigerator. (Bring the batter back to room temperature before continuing.)

Before cooking, thin the batter with a bit more milk, if it seems substantially thicker.

Preheat a crepe pan or large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. When hot, grease with a dollop of butter (using a stick of butter to smear some directly on the skillet works nicely), and add enough batter to coat the skillet in a thin, even layer when you swivel the skillet around in your hand. (The actual amount of batter will depend on the size of your pan and the thickness of the batter; we used about 1/4 cup.) Cook for a couple minutes, until you see bubbles in the center of the crepe and the bottom side is nicely browned. Flip carefully and cook another couple minutes on the other side. Fill as desired and serve immediately. Repeat with the remaining batter.

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Filed under Breakfast, dessert, recipe, video

Brownies, for a mission

Bittersweet espresso brownies

It was a ridiculous mission.

My husband, brother, and a few friends decided to climb Mt. Shasta in a day. It’s a big mountain, to put it mildly, and it was only when Jim dropped me off in Portland, where I was to spend the weekend with my grandmother, that I realized how scared I was about having two of the men I love most in the world being up on that mountain together. Individually, they’re both smart, fit, and snow-savvy; together, they’re . . .well, you know how boys can be.

People ask me what I’d want for my last meal with a regularity I find stunning. I rarely think of my own morbidity, and, frankly, I think the concept of picking just one meal to cherish is a little ridiculous. Yet, when Jim was packing for the trip, I found myself flipping through recipes in my head, trying to think of the perfect thing for either he or my brother to have, should one of them find himself stuck on the side of a 14,000-foot peak, awaiting care.

I’ve been awfully heavy on the sweets here recently, but of course, I had to make brownies – a whole wheat, espresso-laden version of the ones in the back of June’s Gourmet. Jim is hopelessly addicted to the (coffee) bean, and over the last few years, my brother has been steadily working his way through one fudgy, dark chocolate brownie recipe after the next, hoping to find The One.

If you don’t count the hours I spent lying awake in bed, worrying, I had a lovely weekend. (Really, I was only there for 36 hours.)

pulled pork sandwich on our knees

I took my grandmother to the Portland farmers’ market for the first time, and we sat on a bench together, our knees touching, with a barbecued pork sandwich balanced nicely between our four kneecaps. We browsed at Powell’s, and took our purchases into the Anthropologie across the street, because really, what’s a book without a good couch? (No one seemed to mind.)

I read The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, which was excellent, except it made me think of people having freak accidents and dying. Poor timing, I guess.

Shasta_route

While we wandered and ate, the climbers slept for 3 hours, hiked and skied for 14 hours (up the red, down the blue), and summited with enough altitude sickness to prevent them from planning the next trip before they said their goodbyes. (In my opinion, this constitutes a perfect outcome.)

By the time they hit Portland, they were exhausted. I drove them home in the early, early morning to the sound of a full snore-chestra. There was a drummer behind me, playing a slow, low beat on a set of Timpani drums, and a much more delicate sleeper, whispering a soft rhythm, in and out, like those little brushes drummers use on their symbols. Behind me, I honestly couldn’t say who made which noise, but in the front seat, my husband honked out a most unmusical bleat. He was sitting upright, in the position one uses when one needs sleep in the most desperate way but would like to appear awake: shoulders hunched, chin pushed forward, spine bent awkwardly forward, like a flower toward the sun. Every once in a while, he would have a limb spasm and fall against the dashboard or the window, and I would giggle, there in the drivers’ seat, happy to have laughter replace chewing on my fingertips as the best means of keeping myself awake.

The best way to stay awake at 2 a.m., of course, is food. I ate Swedish Fish, which I hate, as a rule, but when I asked Jim for candy at the gas station, they were the only thing he came back with.

I’m so glad he’s home, but I haven’t quite forgiven him for not telling me there were brownies left in the backseat.

Leftover brownies

Whole Wheat Bittersweet Espresso Brownies (PDF)
This recipe is adapted from Ruth Cousineau’s recipe for Deep Chocolate Brownies, in the back of the June 2008 issue of Gourmet magazine. She called for chocolate no stronger than 60% cacao, but I used Trader Joe’s 72%. I used white whole wheat flour exclusively for this recipe – even for preparing the baking pan – and the results were sensational (especially if you’re looking for brownies with two sources of caffeine). For the prettiest results, do allow the brownies to cool completely in the pan before cutting and transporting.

TIME: 20 minutes active time
MAKES: 30 good-sized brownies

2 sticks (1/2 pound) unsalted butter, plus more for the pan
8 ounces bittersweet chocolate
1/4 cup espresso beans, very finely ground
2 cups sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
5 large eggs, room temperature
2/3 cup white whole wheat flour, plus more for the pan
1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1/2 teaspoon salt

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees, and center a rack in the middle of the oven. Butter and flour a 13” by 9” baking pan, and set aside.

Melt the butter and chocolate in a 3-quart heavy saucepan over low heat, stirring until smooth. When the chocolate has melted, add the ground coffee, and let sit until lukewarm.

Whisk in the sugar and vanilla, then add the eggs, one at a time, whisking between additions until the mixture is thick and glossy.

Whisk together the flour, cocoa power, and salt, and stir into the chocolate mixture, just until the flour is combined.

Spread the batter in an even layer in the pan and bake until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out with a few crumbs attached, 30 to 35 minutes. Cool completely, then cut into squares.

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Filed under dessert, grandma, husband, recipe

Christmas, in May(ne)

I felt like a bit of a fugitive, slipping through Boston without telling a soul. I wrote a friend afterward: I hope you understand. I’d committed to the trip months before, and when I started flaring again, I just couldn’t bear the thought of traveling for more than one reason. I didn’t want to cancel the whole thing, but I wanted to be healthy.

It was the right decision. I’d planned to spend the week in Maine, with Kathy, testing and developing recipes for her next cookbook.

cakes cooling

Just as the plane left Seattle, it seems, the new drug regimen blossomed into a bit of energy, and we spent four delicious days pretending to cook for the holidays. (If you don’t feel like you’re appreciating May, try cooking 35 recipes without peas, asparagus, or rhubarb.)

I met Kathy about six years ago. Technically, she’s my husband’s aunt’s first cousin. The aunt introduced us when I was in culinary school (thanks, Kim!), thinking I might learn a thing or two from a seasoned cookbook author. I marched right into Kathy’s kitchen and demanded and internship, and since then, our lives have tumbled together. (Oh, how I’ve learned.) She’s become a mentor, and a dear friend. Since we moved to Seattle, I’ve missed the creative energy that simmers up and out of my brain when we cook together.

welcome to Kathy's

I’ve also missed her coffee. (She makes the best coffee.) This week, it helped us blaze through the better part of a book. (I can’t tell you much, but I can tell you there’s a holiday book I’ll be recommending next year.) We alternated cooking with eating, eating with baking, baking with typing, typing with snacking.

IMG_1021

There were naps involved, great flops onto Kathy’s red couch that recharged our appetites as much as our energy.

We had people over for dinner, there in her big farmhouse, and it really was a little like Christmas, sitting at the table long after we’d finished our last bites.

kathy's dining room

There are few houses in this world where a typical night involves a mom quizzing her daughter on her anatomy homework, while the daughter cracks lobsters open for her for lobster stew.

Chopped lobster

Where lunch means leftover rolled, stuffed leg of lamb and a slice of pork roast:

IMG_1076

Where cooking with another person means standing over a fried egg together in the morning before the caffeine has kicked in, one person salting and one person peppering, arms moving in concert like they belong to the same body.

I had a lovely time. We worked hard, but it almost felt like vacation.

The problem now is that I’m awfully tired of eating.

At least, I thought I was, until I fell in love with a berry display.

At first, it seemed like a good idea to just buy them, despite the price, and go on a fresh fruit binge for a few days, to clear away that post-Thanksgiving blah feeling. (And oh. My. How the steroids bump up the appetite.)

But looking at the strawberries and blueberries en masse like that, all cozied together like they were gearing up for a nap in the oven, my mind cartwheeled toward a bubbling berry crisp.

Then, standing there in the produce section with the little clamshells stacked up in my cart, I did some quick math, and almost fainted. I do not have $28 for a berry crisp, I thought. I heard George Bush, the devil on my shoulder, blathering on about a tax refund. Dan Barber popped up on the other side, and I remembered how I’d stocked up on frozen blueberries and raspberries at a farmers’ market recently (for less than what I’d pay in the freezer section at Whole Foods, mind you). I bought frozen strawberries, and headed home, where my hazelnut cache was waiting.

Three-Berry Crisp

Three Berry Crisp (PDF)
Before summer really comes, it’s hard to find berries plump enough to simmer into a juicy, full-flavored crisp. Using frozen berries (especially if you have the good fortune to buy them locally) is a good alternative if you can’t wait for July, and it can also be more economical. Here, I’ve spent the savings on hazelnuts for a deliciously nutty, gingery topping, but you could substitute chopped walnuts, pecans, or sliced almonds.

TIME: 30 minutes active time
MAKES: 6 to 8 servings

For the fruit:
1 pound frozen blueberries
1 pound frozen strawberries
1 pound frozen raspberries
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/3 cup sugar
1 teaspoon ground ginger

For the topping:
3/4 cup old-fashioned oats
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
3/4 cup (packed) dark brown sugar
1 cup chopped hazelnuts
1 1/2 teaspoons ground ginger
3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
7 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

In a large bowl, stir all the fruit ingredients together until the flour coats all pieces. Transfer to a 9” x 13” baking dish (or similar), and bake for 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, in the same bowl, stir all the topping ingredients except the butter together to blend. Drizzle the melted butter over the top, and stir until all ingredients are moistened.

After 20 minutes, remove the berries, stir to combine, and sprinkle the topping in an even layer over the berries, pushing it all the way to the edges of the pan. Bake another 30 to 40 minutes, or until the topping is browned and the filling is bubbling.

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Filed under Breakfast, dessert, farmer's market, food politics, fruit, kitchen adventure, recipe, vegetables

Butter and coconut

cheryl's double-chocolate coconut cookies

When a pound of butter stands up in the fridge and yells – really hollers – about not being used enough around here these days, it’s dangerous not to listen.

That’s what happened yesterday. I got to thinking about macaroons, and my butter’s blocky limbs started waving around every time I went for the juice. My friend Cheryl, who’s my instant go-to when it comes to anything coconut, told me to hold off on the macaroons, if my mouth wasn’t up for the chewing.

“Patience, sister, patience,” she wrote. “The only thing worse than not having macaroons is having to eat them gingerly. Macaroons are meant to be chewed and gnawed over. Wait until you’re good and ready.”

She was right, of course. But the butter.

I turned to one of her recipes, a real homage to coconut with enough chocolate to make my heart start pounding in one quick glance. (It’s funny. I’d made them before, for a personal chef client, but I’d never actually tried them myself, because I didn’t think I’d like the coconut. How times change.)

I made a few minor adjustments, adding whole wheat flour – nothing you’ll really notice – and substituting dark chocolate chips for Cheryl’s milk chocolate chunks. (I also skipped the 1/4 teaspoon almond extract, simply because I didn’t have it, but I’m sure it would be delicious.) The cookies had just the coconut flavor I craved, and a consistency soft enough for my tender palate.

Last night, a friend of ours got a sweet new job offer, so we took the batch to their house, to share, and celebrate. Then today, my friend Sarah and I spent the morning gardening in the rain, and Cheryl’s cookies were really just the thing, when we got tired of pulling weeds.

I’m a little embarrassed to say the cookies gone already. (It’s been 25 hours.)

Thank goodness I have more butter.

Cheryl’s Double-Chocolate Coconut Cookies (PDF)
This recipe, by Cheryl Sternman Rule, has been changed only slightly from its original incarnation, which appeared in Lora Brody’s tasty chronicle of Yankee flavor, The New England Table. Cheryl’s note in the original says the cookies will freeze beautifully, but I doubt you’ll have any left.

TIME: 30 minutes active time
MAKES: three dozen

1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup white whole wheat flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
2/3 cup regular cocoa powder
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
2/3 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
2/3 cup sugar
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups sweetened flaked coconut
1 1/2 cups semisweet chocolate chips

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line two baking sheets (or three, if you have three oven racks) with parchment paper or silicon baking mats, and set aside.

Sift the first five ingredients into a medium bowl, and set aside. In the work bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the butter and both sugars on medium speed until light and fluffy, about 5 minutes, scraping down the sides of the bowl a few times along the way. Add the eggs, one at a time, mixing well between additions. Add the vanilla, and mix well. With the mixer on low speed, add the dry ingredients and blend just until incorporated. Fold in the coconut and chocolate chips.

Drop the batter by heaping tablespoonfuls onto the baking sheets, about 12 cookies per sheet. (Bake in the center of the oven for 12 to 14 minutes, rotating sheets top to bottom and front to back halfway through. The cookies are done when the edges are firm and the centers lose their shine. (You will never see them brown, obviously.) Cool cookies on sheets for 5 minutes, then transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.

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Filed under Cookies, dessert, recipe

A most embarrassing mess

Tapioca from top

It is delicious, the way all the little words we have can be stirred and cooked into something special, then seasoned and spiked until they taste better than just good. I think most writers open a fat bag of them, peer in, and start choosing.

Not me. I write the same way I bowl. I tend to rip open the package and huck hundreds of little pieces down whichever lane seems closest, as hard as I can, hoping their collective force has the power to override the tipsiest pins.

Honestly? I really like it that way, gutter balls and all. It’s the thrill of the thing. But if my stockbroker said buying strictly on impulse made him happy, I would probably fire him.

I spent the week at a foodwriters’ conference at The Greenbrier, the iconic West Virginian resort (slash Museum of Offensive Wallpaper), thinking about different ways to go about this whole writing business.

Talking about writing with a hundred other people seemed sort of outrageous to me, given the silence and solitude of the usual process. I had to pull back and figure out how all the little pearls of wisdom the coaches touched on – about word choice, organization, picking assignments, etc. – applied to me. Sometimes we actually wrote together, ready-set-go style in eight-minute segments, about whatever the previous seminar had inspired in us. Folks stood up afterward to share what they’d written, and invariably, I’d stare down at my scrawl and wonder how I’d wandered so far away from the original subject.

On Wednesday, we talked about how blogs and vlogs are changing the way all food-related content reaches its viewers, and I wrote for eight minutes about (I thought) a nose job:

I’ve always wanted a nose job. It might be considered wrong, altering the face nature gave me, but when I launch Messy Jessy, the vlog that chronicles what happens when an accident-prone cook brings new clothing into the kitchen, I’ll certainly have to think more about my appearance. It’ll be a pert little thing, one the camera can look straight down on, when it examines the tomato sauce smeared into my new sparkly white scarf, the flour wedged into that useless square pocket on the righthand side of my jeans, or the coffee grounds stuck in my stockings. Thank you, video technology, for my new nose. It will be perfect. And I can write it off.

It was just a crazy idea, born in the moment, out of frustration at having to spend $21.30 in the Greenbrier’s shoe shop for a pair of plain Jane black nylons I know I’ll ruin. (Really. I don’t own a television, and I’d prefer to avoid being on it. Ever, if possible.)

But I cursed myself. My father called me Messy Jessy growing up (oh, how I do loathe that name), and it appears I’ve brought the mess back.

On the way home yesterday, I sat next to a new friend on a flimsy little mosquito of a plane from Roanoke to Washington, DC. I’m a nervous, reluctant flyer, so I was grateful when she did her best to distract me. She’d shoved a few chocolate truffles into her carry-on at the hotel, and was in the process of digging the melting ones out of the depths of her computer case. She gave me one to hold. I obliged, and started excavating my own bag for the napkin she needed to wipe up. She asked me if she’d taken it the truffle back, and I said yes, because my hands were empty. Satisfied, she jumped subjects, chatting me up and out of my nervousness. (Thank you, Jill. It’s so embarrassing when I actually start yelping out loud during turbulence.)

Twenty minutes after an uneventful landing, a trip to the restroom, a dash into a store for water, and a 15-minute walk from one Dulles terminal to another, I discovered said truffle smeared across the back of my jeans.

messy jeans

This is not a stain. This is an embarrassment.

But it got better. I got bumped up to first class on my flight to Seattle, and found myself seated next to my district’s congressman.

From my window seat, I could see three other airplanes cruising along ahead, their jetstreams throwing pillows of white into the air so innocently, as if they were stirring up clouds, rather than poisoning the atmosphere. When I wasn’t hiding behind my computer screen, I stared out at them, thinking that if I was just still enough, my jeans and I might become invisible.

The flight attendant detailed the dinner menu to Mr. McDermott through her fanciest smile. “I’ll have the short ribs,” he said. She leveled me with her best Soup Lady stare. I waited for her to address me by name, or perhaps give me the same menu options, but apparently her breath was only useful for passengers holding public office, or perhaps those who hadn’t messed their pants. “Short ribs, please,” I mumbled.

I didn’t think once about the turbulence.

spilled tapioca

This morning, I stared into my neglected refrigerator for inspiration for a dessert to share with a neighbor, but the condiments just stared back, and suggested I try the pantry.

I decided to alter a coconut milk tapioca pudding I made last week, and reached for a bag of tapioca pearls. (The first go was fabulously fluffy, almost marshmallowy, but lime zest gave the whole thing an eery green shade that was less than appetizing.) I started cleaning up after the gingered version, and knocked the whole bag of tapioca pearls right over. Zillions of little white balls tumbled out, skittering over a placemat and onto the counter, pouring into the crack between the counter and the trash can, jumping into the spaces between our rattan-covered stools, and, yes, hiding in my sweatshirt pocket.

I think I’ll avoid food altogether for the next few days.

Ginger-Scented Tapioca in green 1

Ginger-Scented Tapioca Pudding (PDF)
When it comes to tapioca pudding, I don’t like adding anything that gets in the way of how the little pearls feel tumbling around in my mouth. Infused with just enough ginger and lemongrass, this coconut milk-based version, based loosely on Bob’s Red Mill’s recipe for the fluffy, old-fashioned kind, perks up the taste buds without sacrificing its hallmark texture. Soaking tapioca pearls in water before cooking encourages their natural starches to come out, making the pudding creamier, so be sure to let them sit for the full 30 minutes.

Note: If your stove’s lowest setting isn’t really, really low, you should probably be by the stove to mother your pudding as it simmers.

TIME: 30 minutes, plus soaking time
MAKES: 4 to 6 servings

1/3 cup small tapioca pearls
1 cup water
2 eggs, separated
1 (14-ounce) can light coconut milk
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 4-inch segment lemongrass, cut into 1” pieces
5 (1/4” thick) slices ginger (about the diameter of a quarter)
1/2 cup sugar

Combine the tapioca and the water in a small bowl, and set aside to soak for 30 minutes.

Whisk the egg yolks, coconut milk, and salt together in a medium saucepan. Add the tapioca (with its water), stir in the lemongrass and ginger, and bring to a simmer over medium heat, stirring constantly. Reduce heat to low and cook for 10 to 15 minutes, stirring frequently, until thick.

Meanwhile, place the egg whites in the work bowl of a stand mixer. With the mixer on medium speed, add the sugar in a slow, steady stream, then increase speed to high and whip until soft peaks form, about 4 to 5 minutes. (The mixture will be smooth and shiny like meringue, but not nearly as stiff.)

Remove the lemongrass and ginger from the pudding, and stir a heaping 1/2 cup of the hot pudding into the egg white mixture. Fold the egg white mixture back into the saucepan, and cook another few minutes on low, stirring until the mixture is evenly blended. Scoop pudding into small bowls and serve warm or at room temperature.
tapioca mess

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Filed under dessert, gluten-free, recipe

Fat Mint Brownies

Fat Mint Brownies 2

I suppose there’s a reason they’re called Thin Mints. They’re about as thin as mint gets. Unless, of course, you count Andes, or those fancy Eight O’Clock dinner mints, or Listerine Breath Strips. Or Tic-Tacs. Or the promiscuous mint leaf itself, but perhaps she gets disqualified, because there’s surely no real mint in a Girl Scout cookie.

They’re devils, those cookies, in any event: Utterly unhealthy. Impossible to save, even in the freezer. Perhaps clinically addictive. Worse, I’m not entirely sure I support the organization that benefits. (I might. But I’m not sure.)

But thin? Besides the obvious caloric ramifications, they’re fat in every way: They’re fat in your pocket, when you’re skiing, when pulling one out on the chairlift makes you a hero. They’re fat in your mouth, when you stuff one in all at once, and they even leave a nice layer of fat on your tongue after you eat them. (Does anyone know what that silky, waxy aftertaste is?)

They also make me a big fat liar. I won’t buy any this year, I said, until the girl outside my local supermarket announced it was her last day selling. I caved. (What does this teach her?) I ate four standing outside my front door, straight from the box. I won’t eat any more today, I promised. But yikes, that was Friday afternoon, and I’ve gone through three sleeves.

It wouldn’t be much of a stretch to call them Big Fat Liar Mints.

They make Jim lie, too. Last night he ate these brownies up, one after another, and I scolded him for having two. (Really, it was more like three, but he knew I was saving them for the friend who came into town today. She’s the one who introduced me to Thin Mints in the first place, all those years ago.) He said No, it wasn’t two, it was just one very big brownie, if you think creatively about it.

Right. Liar.

For the record, Thin Mints are no less attractive crushed and stirred into a rich, dense brownie batter that’s been tinted with peppermint (and made with whole wheat flour, but who’s the wiser?). They might make you fatter in this form, though.

I hope you saved a sleeve.

Fat Mint Brownies 1

Fat Mint Brownies (PDF)
I made the original version of this recipe, from the October 2003 issue of Gourmet magazine, six times one summer for a chocoholic client, according to my notes on the tattered recipe. Somehow, though, I’d never tasted them myself. Now I understand why she loved them: Baked just until the top forms a thin, shattery crust over the moistest possible crumb, they’re deeply chocolaty and also happen to keep quite well. (I doubt that will be an issue for you.) This version, crunchy with crushed Thin Mint Girl Scout cookies, relies on whole wheat flour for its bulk – the chocolate’s so dark, no one will notice.

TIME: 30 minutes active time
MAKES: About 12 servings

2 sticks (1 cup) unsalted butter, plus more for greasing pan
8 ounces bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
1/8 teaspoon peppermint extract
1 1/4 cups whole wheat flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 cups sugar
4 large eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla
1 sleeve (5 ounces) Girl Scouts’ Thin Mint cookies, crushed into roughly 1/2” pieces

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 9” square baking pan, line with wax paper, and butter paper.

Melt the butter in a small saucepan. When bubbles have subsided completely, remove from heat, add chocolate, and stir until smooth. Stir in peppermint extract, and set aside.

Whisk the flour, baking powder, and salt together in a medium bowl, and set aside.

Whisk the sugar, eggs, and vanilla together in a large bowl, then add chocolate mixture, whisking until uniform. Whisk in flour mixture until just combined, then fold in the crushed cookies. Transfer the batter to the prepared pan, and smooth batter into the edges of the pan.

Bake until top just begins to crack at the edges of the pan, about 35 minutes. Cool brownies completely, then invert, remove paper, and cut into squares.

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Filed under dessert, recipe

Spring’s in my step

allium starting

It was a singing-out-loud kind of weekend. You know the type: You wake up, and because the sun is doing its darnedest to peek through, or because you know there’s a really sensational pastry in your near future, or maybe because it’s finally – finally – time to plant the garden you’ve been dreaming about all winter, those words just come blasting out.

Saturday morning, it was all three, and as I drove to meet a friend for a walk, Counting Crows flew right out my sunroof. (House rules: In the spring, the sunroof gets opened above 45 degrees.) I skipped through the day, planting early vegetables in my very first ever non-potted garden and moving dirt from here to there, cooing at the way the tulips were bursting out to greet the sun. I’m sure I saw them growing.

tulips starting

We’re not the only ones who feel spring, me and the flowers. My cat’s informed me that baby bird season is upon us. I’m only reading in feathers, but I believe there have been three catches this week: First it was that poor bird that got trapped inside the bedroom with us. I’d been fairly certain Jackson brought a playmate home, but didn’t expect the bird to be sitting on the windowsill inside my bedroom when I returned from the shower. It was quite the commotion, all of us flapping and squawking, me and the dog and the cat and the bird, until the one of us with opposable thumbs remembered that the windows open. (Here’s the video of the rest.) Then there was a teensy hummingbird, left on my office chair as an offering on Valentine’s Day. The evidence of Saturday’s kill, number three, is still fluttering around my feet when I walk through he house. I haven’t found the victim yet.

pan-seared tilapia

It’s great to have spring in my step, but honestly, there’s nothing of the sort going on in my kitchen. Jim is still gone, which means simple meals, like quick pan-seared fish with a squeeze of lemon, and mesclun salads with random cheese and fruit and nuts, whichever ones shout loudest.

random spring salad

Satisfying? Sure. But not inspiring. Almost boring, in fact. I’ve been combing through the freezer, past months-old clam chowder and homemade pasta sauce, only to find myself sitting down to a bowl of salt-flecked edamame for dinner. There’s just not as much fun in cooking up one of something, no matter how good it is. And every time I look outside, I can’t help but turn around to pout at my wintry produce drawer. I’m in a holding pattern: Kale. Potatoes. Grains. Soups. Stir-fries. Meat. Start over. I’m actually starting to fantasize about local asparagus.

All week, I’ve been paging through lists of ideas I’ve jotted down over the last few weeks, and nothing has sounded good. Nothing matches the spring I see outside. Macaroni and cheese? Too heavy for a sunny day. Ginger cream pie? I shouldn’t eat that whole thing myself. Maple walnut cake? Ditto. Eggs provencale? Too . . .something. It’s like my palate has PMS.

I’m sure you recognize the symptoms of a dinner rut. The books you open may as well not have text, for all you’re absorbing. You hit the markets, and wonder whether you dreamed your ability to cook. Your best knife feels foreign in your hands. And every time you journey through your refrigerator, you wonder when, and why, and how could you have possibly purchased all those condiments?

I was on that trip this afternoon, paddling through my jams and mustards and wondering how long does tamarind paste last?, when I stumbled upon an old friend:

jarred poached pear

Wait, did I forget to tell you about The Pears?

It’s dessert, from last weekend.

It was a last-minute thing. We had a guest for dinner, and the notion of dessert tiptoed quietly across my mind, just a few minutes before said guest was due to arrive. Suddenly there were four peeled pears simmering gently away in champagne, saffron, and cinnamon. They cooled while we ate dinner, then stood up tall and sultry in our bowls, demanding affirmation that they looked just fabulous in yellow.

“Yes, you look fabulous in yellow,” I said, and made a mental note to thank them later for looking so darn fancy after only ten minutes in the dressing room. Oh, and for wearing the perfect perfume.

We piled them with Greek yogurt, sprinkled them with freshly grated cinnamon, added a drizzle of honey, and dove in, happy for the sweet bites but relieved they wouldn’t moor us to our chairs for the evening.

This afternoon, with warmth beating into the kitchen, I opened the remaining pear, and walked out onto the porch, balancing its glistening, sunny body on a plate next to the primroses I planted yesterday. I knew it had been a whole week, but figured I’d give it a try – and the first incarnation had been so. . . darn . . . good.

Honestly: It was like eating a poached pear rolled in yeast. The champagne had turned. Totally inedible. (Shoot! I never thanked them.)

I know not why I might have expected something different, after a whole week, but I did. And now I’m pissed. At 4 p.m., they seemed like the harbinger of a happier kitchen, a way to make winter taste like sunshine, but in my mouth, they offended. The rut remains.

But you – you can forgive them. Make them, when you need a dessert that’s light and quick and healthy but still quite the looker. And oh – of course – don’t wait too long to eat them.

Saffron poached pear

Champagne-Poached Pears with Saffron and Cinnamon

Bring a cup of water, a cup of sugar, and three cups of champagne, along with a good pinch of saffron and two cinnamon sticks, to a strong simmer over high heat. When all the sugar has dissolved, snuggle four almost-ripe Bosc pears into the liquid on their sides (with the stems still attached). Cover the pears with a round of parchment, then a small plate, to keep the pears from bobbing out of the liquid. Simmer on low heat for 30 to 45 minutes (depending on the pears), or until soft all the way through when poked with a skewer. Cool the pears in the liquid, overnight if necessary, and serve at room temperature, with Greek yogurt or ice cream, fresh cinnamon, and honey.

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Filed under dessert, fruit, recipe