Monday, January 31, 2011

Fresh Start

Quite a lot has changed since I last posted. 

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Mother's Day

Today is Mother's Day and I made brunch.  The last time I made a Mother's Day brunch was freshman year of college, four years ago, right when my interest in cooking and entertaining was in its nascence.  It all started with baking---cookies, cakes, scones, but certainly not pies yet---and so my brunch was more like a tea party, with scones and a variety of little sweet and savory bites that in retrospect were so semi-homemade that it embarrasses me now to think of it.  I guess like many young girls, I had always thought of myself as the kind of woman who was too independent and modern to bother with cooking, and especially baking.  The image of the '50s housewife in poodle skirt and twin set waiting patiently, meatloaf in hand, for her husband to get home everyday, serving him, throwing dinner parties for his work colleagues, turned my stomach.  But something strange happened over the course of college.  Somehow, I came to realize, much to my own shock and dismay, that I actually enjoyed cooking, baking, and making dinner for others.  It started slowly---making desserts for my dad when home from school, throwing together some simple pasta dishes and soups---but by the end of college it had become my favorite hobby.  I cooked for myself every day senior year, and I found that it calmed me and gave me an outlet for all of my creative, non-academic energy.  In the midst of research and thesis writing, I relished those couple of hours every night that I spent cooking, eating, and cleaning up.  Even at my busiest, that seemingly large portion of down time was always, always worth it.  And I've come to realize that knowing how to cook, bake, and put a dinner together are not skills to be ashamed of, a mark of a backwards, premodern society, but rather fundamental skills that every woman and man should know.  For what is more fundamental that being able to feed oneself?  And being able to so enjoy oneself in the process and in sharing one's creations with others only makes it that much greater.  In fact, there's much we could and should learn from premodern cooking and eating habits, and the beauty of doing so as a modern woman is that we need not be defined by our domestic capabilities.  I could be the perfect housewife, but I'm allowed to be so much more.

So this year, my first Mother's Day home in four years, I returned again to brunch.  I wanted something rich and decadent and befitting a special occasion, and this time I had the skills to make it happen.  My mother requested a crabmeat quiche, so I adapted the classic Quiche Lorraine, subbing crab meat for the bacon.  I also wanted a dessert to finish it off.  I ended up finding the exact thing I was looking for, a chocolate and hazelnut torte, in a Nigella Lawson recipe found on Bake or Break.  Each seemed straightforward enough, and I imagined that I would start cooking at 10 and we'd eat right around noon.  Well, what I thought was a generous estimate turned out not nearly generous enough.  Three hours of constant labor later, and we finally sat down at 1 pm.  But it was all worth it.  I was worried it would all end up a complete disaster---I don't have the best record when it comes to pie crusts, and a similar chocolate sponge cake that I attempted for my birthday last year was a catastrophic failure---but luckily all turned out perfectly and my mother loved them both.

Crabmeat Quiche
Adapted from Smitten Kitchen

1 1/4 cup flour
1 tbsp corn starch
6 tbsp cold butter, diced
1 egg
1-2 tbsp water, if necessary

Mix together flour and corn starch.  Add the diced butter and mix with a pastry blender until the butter is the size of small peas.  Add the egg and stir until the dough begins to come together.  Depending on the size of your egg, you may need to add a tablespoon or two of water to make the dough come together (I did).  Roll the dough out on a floured surface to a 12 inch round and place in a 9" deep dish pie pan.  Crimp the edges and chill while you prepare the filling.

1 3/4 cups leeks, thinly sliced
1 cup onion, thinly sliced
3 eggs
1/2 cup heavy cream
1 cup sour cream
3/4 cup shredded Gruyere cheese
1 1/2 cup lump crabmeat
salt and pepper, to taste

Cook the leeks and onions in a little bit of olive oil or butter over medium heat until caramelized, about 30 to 40 minutes.  In the meantime, whisk together the heavy cream and sour cream, then the eggs.  Add the cheese to the custard and season well with salt and pepper.  Pick through the crabmeat to make sure there are no shell fragments.  When the leeks and onions are ready, spread them into the bottom of the prepared crust, add the crabmeat, and then pour the custard over top of that.  Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and cook for 30 minutes until golden brown.

Chocolate Hazelnut Torte
From Nigella Lawson via Bake or Break

1/2 cup butter, softened
1 jar Nutella
6 eggs, separated
1 tbsp rum or Frangelico
1/2 cup ground hazelnuts
4 oz. dark chocolate, melted and cooled (Trader Joe's 72% dark chocolate was perfect for this)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees and grease a 9" springform pan.  Cream together the butter and Nutella, then mix in the six egg yolks, the Frangelico, the hazelnuts, and the chocolate.  Beat the egg whites until stiff with a pinch of salt and then carefully fold them into the other ingredients.  Pour into prepared pan and bake for 40 minutes.

1/2 cup heavy cream
1 tbsp rum or Frangelico
4 oz. dark chocolate
4 oz. hazelnuts

In a heavy saucepan, heat the cream, Frangelico, and chocolate over low heat until the chocolate is melted. Whisk together (with a mixer preferably) until fluffed up a bit. (You could keep going until it's like a real whipped frosting, or you could be lazy like me and leave it mostly as is.) Toast the hazelnuts in a saute pan until lightly browned. If they haven't been skinned, remove the skins after toasting.

When the cake is cooled, spread the frosting just on the top and decorate with toasted hazelnuts.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Paradise Lost

Jeffrey and I often lament the unfortunate lack of a native food culture in the United States.  Not only has the idea of eating seasonally and locally been lost to most Americans, but they also have no cooking intuition whatsoever.  Even if you gave them a basket full of fresh produce and meats, they would have no idea what to do with it.  Generations are growing up without watching their mothers and grandmothers (and fathers and grandfathers, for that matter) cook and bake.  They don't learn to appreciate the taste of fresh, homemade food, so they settle for tasteless store-bought bread and pallid out-of-season tomatoes, and that becomes the norm.  Nor do they learn to appreciate the joy of communion that sitting down to a home-cooked meal can bring.  Convenience trumps quality and all else.  Fortunately, the ever-growing 'foodie' trend, as obnoxious as it can be, is introducing people to the standards of quality and knowledge of preparation that native food cultures around the world have always known, but which are news to most Americans.

Despite the barrage of processed foods that have possibly irreparably damaged Americans' attitude towards food, there are some regional cuisines that still defend their traditions.  The best, in my mind, is the Cajun food of Louisiana, now popular all throughout the bayou regions on the Gulf of Mexico.  Both of my parents graduated from high school in Ocean Springs, Mississippi, a small town on the coast not far from New Orleans, thus I've grown up eating and enjoying a variety of Cajun fare.  Like all rustic, traditionally peasant cuisines, Cajun food relies heavily on local, seasonal ingredients, and a meal is a real event that brings people together.  Every gathering of my dad's family involved a feast of fresh seafood---boiled shrimp, steamed crabs, oysters eaten raw straight out of the water.  Growing up like this, I took for granted that what I was eating came out of the inlet in which I had just been swimming, was caught by people I knew personally, and was prepared at home within hours of leaving the water.  Though sometimes my uncle who still lives on the bayou would throw it together in a jambalaya or an étouffée---Cajun staples which I hope to share with you sometime---most of the time we ate it just by itself, cooked simply.  With such ingredients, it's all you want and need.  The crawfish boil is an excellent example of this.  Like mini-lobsters, live crawfish are plunged into boiling water that has been heavily seasoned with a blend of Cajun spices, until they emerge with their shells gleaming bright red.  The tail meat is sweet like lobster, but more tender like a shrimp, and you must couple that with sucking the spicy juices out of the head (and eating the roe-like guts, too, if you're so inclined).  It's an experience I can recommend to anyone who can handle the heat.  

Lucky for us, my dad came home yesterday from a week in Mobile, Alabama, with a cooler full of boiled crawfish and raw Gulf shrimp.  Though nothing like the feasts of my childhood---which, as my generation has gotten older and moved on, are no more---these days I'll take what I can get.

Saturday, April 24, 2010


When I want to make something, this is what I do:  first, if it's not something I can reasonably throw together on my own, I search out recipes online, or in the few cookbooks I actually own; next, I come up with a few recipes that look decent, and I pick and choose elements from them that sound good or about right; finally, I'm left with a Frankenstein-ian recipe pieced together from multiple sources, and it either works out or it doesn't.  I just cannot follow a single recipe exactly as it is written all the way through.  I make substitutions.  I add more or less of certain ingredients.  I take it in another direction entirely.  Recipes are great for advice, but I like to do my own thing.  So I was always quite wary when it came to serious baking.  Sure, I can make a cake, or cookies, or an occasional pie---but bread?  It seemed to rely on a certain exact alchemy that I just wasn't made for.  I failed every high school chemistry lab because I was too blasé about exact amounts or times or whatever.  It's just not my style.  But bread is chemistry.  It requires a precise ratio of flour to yeast to water that must be met for the proper things to happen.  Or so I thought.

Enter Jim Lahey and his no-knead bread.  Or, rather, enter Jeff's sister Melissa, and her gifting me with Jim Lahey's book, My Bread, this Christmas, which started this whole thing.  The Lahey method is very forgiving---the long fermentation process, about 18 hours, means the the exact ratio of flour to yeast is not so important.  That leaves just flour and water.  Lahey recommends measuring the ingredients by weight, as to be more precise, but (because I don't own a scale) I've found that volume measures work fine as long as you reach the right consistency.  The dough shouldn't be too dry, as not to incorporate all of the flour, but it also shouldn't be too wet, as to be runny.  You should be left with a firm dough that holds its shape, but which is just wet enough that all of the flour is well-mixed.  Then you cover it and let the yeast do the rest of the work.

The only catch is, you need something suitable to bake it in.  I tried to get around his prescription for a 4-5 quart dutch oven by using my mom's old 3 1/2 quart Corningware casserole, but there were problems.  It wasn't really big enough, and it was square, which messes up the whole 'boule' thing he's going for.  But Jeffrey saved the day when he got me this lovely Emile Henry ceramic you see above.  It makes a much prettier loaf, a perfect boule, and it's great for soups, fruit preserves, etc. as well.  But you could just as well use a simple cast-iron pot, which you can find just about anywhere for less than $50.  It's a worthy investment if you make bread in it several times a week.  It really appalls me how much you have to pay for bread in supermarkets.  Anything they can label as 'artisanal', i.e. not processed white bread, they try to sell for $3-4 a loaf.  When, really, if you make enough bread, including the cost of the pot, this bread is still made for pennies.  And it requires less than an hour of active cooking time. 

So, without further ado, here is the most basic bread, a simple pane.  It has a moist, open crumb as you'd expect in many Italian-style breads.  I'll definitely post some adapted takes on this simple recipe, but first let's master the basics.

No-Knead Bread
Adapted from Jim Lahey's My Bread

3 cups bread flour (400 grams)
1 1/4 tsp salt (8 grams)
1/4 tsp active dry yeast  (1 gram)
1 1/3 cups cool water (300 grams)

 [dough after first rise]

Part I:  In a large bowl, mix together the dry ingredients.  Add the prescribed amount of water and first stir with a rubber spatula to incorporate.  Add a bit more water if necessary (I usually find it necessary), wet your hands with cold water, and use your hands to fully incorporate the dough.  As I said before, you're looking for a dough that is just moist enough to incorporate all of the flour.  It should be really sticky.  Then cover the bowl well (I use a piece of plastic wrap secured with a rubber band) and leave in a warm spot out of direct sunlight for about 12-18 hours, until the dough is doubled in size.

[dough after kneading]
[dough after second rise]

Part II:  When the dough has risen, dust a work surface with flour and scrape all of the dough out of the bowl.  With well-floured hands, fold the sides of the dough blob in to the center, lightly kneading it into a round shape.  Lahey then recommends wrapping the dough in a tea towel dusted with flour or wheat bran, but whenever I do this the dough always gets stuck to the towel.  So, instead, I'd recommend dusting the outside of the dough ball well with either flour or wheat bran and placing it in a clean bowl.  Cover the bowl with a towel and let sit in a warm, draft-free spot for another 1-2 hours, until it has almost doubled in size again.

 [preheated pot with uncooked dough]
[finished bread]

Part III:  About half an hour before you want to bake the bread, preheat your oven to 475 degrees with the rack placed in the lower third of the oven, and place a covered 4-5 quart dutch oven (cast iron or ceramic) in the oven to preheat.  When it's time to bake, carefully remove the pot from the oven, place the risen dough into the pot, cover, and place back into the oven.  Bake for 30 minutes.  Then remove the lid and bake until the bread is a deep brown.  Lahey suggests 15-30 minutes here, but I find that about 10 minutes is about as long as I can let it go.  You'll think it's burning, but you want it to be dark.  Remove the pot and carefully lift the bread out and onto a rack to cool.  Do not slice the bread until it is fully cooled, about 1 hour---this may seem trivial, but it's very important.  You'll also hear the crust of the bread cracking as it cools.  This is normal and all part of the fun.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Mercimek Çorbası

On Tuesday, I started learning Turkish.  Through my day job, I've begun learning three new languages over the past eight months---Spanish, Italian, and now Turkish.  But Turkish has been a long time coming.  I first fell in love four years ago, while taking a class on Early Christian and Byzantine Art.  Really, how could anyone see something like this and not be compelled towards something:

At the time, my interest in Constantinople was purely academic.  I could go on about the genius of the octagonal planned church, evidenced here and in countless other breathtaking structures, some of which no longer exist, or the spectacular apse mosaics.  Seeing slides that my professor had taken herself in Turkey and other Eastern Mediterranean countries made me want to become a professor, so that I could do just that sort of thing.  Ever since, my dream has been to study the religious and social history of the Byzantine empire in Late Antiquity, a dream which, for many reasons, was not to be when I applied to grad school.  But I still maintain hope that one day I'll be able to work in this area, and learning Turkish is part of that plan. 

One of the great fringe benefits of being with Jeff is being introduced to several cuisines I might never have otherwise gotten to know, by someone who knows them quite well.  Having an insider when exploring new cuisines and cultures makes the process so much easier and more comfortable.  It just so happens that he's spent a considerable about of time in Turkey, as his ex-girlfriend is from Istanbul, and there happen to be several Turkish places in Delran, NJ, near where he lives.  So from my very first visit we've been eating Turkish food regularly, and I've fallen in love with their simple, fresh way of eating, their tea sipped from tiny tulip-shaped glasses, and especially their coffee which, in my opinion, is the hands down best way to enjoy the bean.

One of the staples of Turkish cuisine is Mercimek Çorbası, red lentil soup, which has as many different preparations as there are cooks.  The soup at Star Mantı, the place in Delran where we always go, is good, but it's usually a little bland for my tastes.  I find the same problem with the countless recipes for it that I've looked at---each is different, but all lack the intensity of flavor that I look for.  So what else could I do but create my own.

Because the Turks seem to prefer a milder soup, this one can't really be called authentic.  But it's good.  Jeff, who has had a lot of red lentil soups over the years, tells me that it's the best he's ever had, and I'm fairly sure he's not just flattering me.  The flavors of this soup layer beautifully---the cumin, coriander, and red pepper create a spicy, earthy base which is then lightened by the delicate taste of mint and the fresh, sour bite of lemon juice.  It's finished with a tiny dab of butter that brings it all together into a thin cream that tastes much richer than it actually is.  It's a soup to be enjoyed year round, just as good cold as it is hot, and it tastes even better the next day.

Mercimek Çorbası
Serves 4

1 tbsp olive oil
1 medium onion, diced
1 carrot, diced
1 stalk celery, diced
1 clove garlic, minced
1/4 tsp red pepper flakes
1/2 tsp coriander
1 tsp cumin
4 cups water
1 tbsp tomato paste
1 cup red lentils, rinsed
salt to taste
1 tbsp butter
lemon juice to taste
dried mint to taste

Heat the oil in a large saucepan over medium heat.  Add the onion, carrot, and celery, and cook until softened, about 5 minutes.  Add the garlic and red pepper and cook 1 minute more.  Then add the cumin and coriander just to heat it up.  Add the water, tomato paste (whisking well to dissolve it), and the lentils, bring to a boil, then lower the heat and cover.  Simmer for at least 20 minutes, until the lentils begin to break up and vegetables are fully softened.  During cooking, add salt to taste, but make sure to salt it well so that the flavors really stand out.  After simmering, add the butter and stir to incorporate.  When serving, add lemon juice and dried mint to taste---you're looking for enough lemon and mint to cut through the heaviness of the spices.  Serve with extra lemon wedges on the side.