I have talked before about how this whole writing business is generally solitary.

The independent work is often freeing; the singularity clears distraction. It can allow that cerebral space to isolate your message, your voice. Your perspective.

(As I write this, a six-year-old is telling me nuances of various Lego themes. So I'm not companionless, and maybe that limited distraction thing isn't always possible — but there's at least the chance of it.)

That said, I don't think we should always work on our own. I was at a conference recently, and one of the speakers, Robin Esrock, talked about living a life away from the computer. He believes that rich, diverse experiences are not only of value in their own right, but also bolster your efforts upon your return to your work. I'll co-sign that argument.

I think we also have to remember to do different work now and again. Away from the desk and at it. And for me, that means collaborating. I'm lucky to have a friend who's often up for the task in Nikole Herriott. (Hi, N!) 

And, on our most recent effort was this, a Chai Masala Pumpkin Pie with Black Tea Caramel. 

  Chai Masala Pumpkin Pie + Black Tea Caramel  | PHOTO: Nikole Herriott  RECIPES: Tara O'Brady

Chai Masala Pumpkin Pie + Black Tea Caramel | PHOTO: Nikole Herriott  RECIPES: Tara O'Brady

Nikole and I look for any excuse to work together, and try to whenever we can. So, when asked to be part of Food52's pie week for Thanksgiving, it was a no-brainer. Also easy, coming up with our pie, as Nikole and I share a love of pumpkined varieties — so I set to tacking down the particulars of one of the best I know how to make. 

You'll find the pie on Food52; but let's get into the details here. The pastry is a simple one, but specifically the one that you'll find in my book next spring. It is my family go-to, and it has flake, but still enough strength to hold up in a braid as perfect as the one that Nikole wove. (Come on now, look at it. A thing of beauty.) The filling has a couple of secrets. A gentle heat on the stovetop before it bakes helps with the filling's set, so it is firm yet supple. The spicing comes from chai masala, the spice used to sometimes flavour tea. It is a collection of cinnamon, ginger, cardamom, clove, and black pepper not dissimilar to what's standard for pumpkin pies, but with a touch of almost gingersnap-cookie feeling in there. It also isn't overly sweet and thus allows for the introduction of caramel.

The caramel completes the masala chai theme, with cream steeped with black tea and whole cardamom pods as the base. The tea, and go with a nice one here, provides a musky, herbal character as well as a tannic edge. I feel like it's that verging-on-winey quality of Darjeeling that saves the caramel from coming across as cloying. Instead it's got a subtlety that doesn't overpower the pie.

Once again, it's a collaboration that just works. I can't say enough good things about it.

 

BLACK TEA CARAMEL

This caramel comes together quickly, which is a good thing considering how many uses you'll find for it. It is quite a triumph with this pie, but also on pound cake, or ice cream with some roasted nuts, or stirred into warm milk. And, if you're already thinking in such a direction, I would think folks might like jars when the time for festive gifting aries. 

MAKES just about 2 cups (475 ml)

INGREDIENTS

  • 1 1/4 cups (295 ml) heavy cream
  • 1 tablespoon loose leaf black tea, Darjeeling is best
  • 4 green cardamom pods, cracked
  • 2 cups (400 g) granulated sugar
  • 1/2 cup (120 ml) water
  • 2 tablespoons pure maple syrup
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1 tablespoon whisky
  • Seeds scraped from a vanilla bean
  • 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon flaky sea salt such as Maldon

 

METHOD

In a heavy bottomed saucepan over medium heat, bring the cream to a simmer. Stir in the tea and cardamom pods and let bubble for 30 seconds. Turn off the heat, cover, and leave to steep while you get on with the caramel.

Pour the water into a large, wide heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium-high heat. Pour the sugar into the centre of the pan. Do not stir. Once the sugar is mostly wet and starting to dissolve, gently swirl the pan once or twice. Let the mixture come to a boil then cook, carefully swirling only occasionally, until the syrup is a light amber colour, 13 to 15 minutes. Lower the heat to medium and wait for the caramel to turn deep amber (it may begin to send up whiffs of smoke), 3 to 5 minutes more.

Off the heat, with a fine-meshed sieve, strain a quarter of the hot cream into the caramel, standing back as the caramel will expand rather impressively and release a cloud of steam. Whisk in that cream, then add the rest. Stir in the maple syrup, butter, vanilla, and salt, then return the pan to the heat. Knock the heat back to low and simmer, stirring, for 2 to 3 minutes, just to cook off some of the edge of the whisky and make sure everything is blended. Pour the caramel into a heatsafe jar or bowl. Use hot (but not scalding) or let cool completely before storing in a covered container in the fridge. Rewarm before serving.

 

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All apologies for the limited photo evidence of this cherry and blueberry buckle. Considering it was deemed sufficiently cooled at the precise start of overtime play of the World Cup semifinal between Argentina and the Netherlands, it is an achievement that one was taken at all. Lesson learned yesterday — during stressful plays, cake is appreciated. 

This is an easy cake to appreciate.

Cherry + Blueberry Buckle | Tara O'Brady on seven spoons

Since we're friends, I feel I can be honest. I wasn't sure about this buckle. All cards on the table, I had doubts. The batter seemed meagre. And then it felt dense; too solid to accept the fruit I attempted to press into its buttery thickness. It had to be scraped into the pan, and then its resistant clumps pushed into place. 

That said, the topping was really nice. It felt like wet sand between my fingers, the kind perfect for castle building. 

Baking, the cake smelled really nice, as well. I'd swapped out nutmeg for ginger and cardamom to go with the cinnamon, and the combination was intoxicatingly fragrant, weighty but without the nose-tickling warmth of wintry sweets. 

I usually know I'm on to something good when one of the boys stops what he is doing to ask what's in the oven. In this case, both did. 

I kept a suspicious eye on the cake's progress, and felt a nervous relief when it looked to rise exceptionally well. The top was browned and rubbled, shot through by valleys filled with deep purple juice. 

When the cake was cut, it lived up to its name and folded under the knife as the blade slid through. Inside, those rivulets of juice led to puddled, cooked fruit, mottling the cake's crumb. It was damp and soft, and I worried if it is was overly much so, that the heat had done little to dispel the stickiness.

Since we're friends, I feel I can also admit when I was wrong. Because, was I ever. 

The cake is damp. It is soft. It is held together by its crust, and once it's broken, all bets are off. It is not one to cut neatly. Yet, it is staggeringly sublime as is, eaten out of hand in unstable chunks, or with a spoon and a mound of crème fraîche or a lick of cream or custard. It is a buttery muffin-meets-cobbler-meets-coffeecake kind of thing. It is custardy where cake meets fruit, and crunchy where there is streusel, which is to say, a buckle for cheering. And I can't wait to try it with raspberries. Or nectarines. Or both.

Happy Friday's eve.

 

CHERRY + BLUEBERRY BUCKLE

From Salt Water Farm via Bon Appétit, with changes. Rewritten in my words and with weight measures.  

FOR THE TOPPING

  • 1/2 cup (100 g) granulated sugar
  • 1/4 cup (32 g) all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground cardamom
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1/4 cup (57 g) unsalted butter, cold and diced

FOR THE CAKE

  • 1/4 cup (57 g) unsalted butter, plus more for the pan
  • 1 1/2 cups (191 g) all-purpose flour, plus more for the pan
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 3/4 teaspoon kosher salt 
  • 3/4 cup (150 g) granulated sugar
  • 1 egg, room temperature
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract or seeds scraped from a vanilla bean
  • 1/4 teaspoon almond extract
  • 1/2 cup (120 ml) heavy cream
  • 10 ounces (283 g) pitted cherries, I used a mix of tart and sweet
  • 6 ounces (170 g)  blueberries, fresh or defrosted

METHOD
Start with the topping. Whisk sugar, flour, and spices in a medium bowl. Tumble in the butter cubes and rub between your fingers until the mixture is evenly damp and coming together in clumps. Set aside.

For the cake, preheat an oven to 350°F / 175°C. Grease an 8-inch springform or removable bottom pan. Line the base of the pan with parchment, then grease the parchment. Dust the pan with flour, and tap out the excess.

Whisk the 1 1/2 cups flour, baking powder, and salt in a medium bowl. 

In another medium bowl, beat the butter and sugar together with an electric mixer on high speed until light and fluffy, around 5 minutes. Add the egg, vanilla, and almond extract and beat to combine, 2 minutes. Turn the speed down to low and gradually add the dry ingredients, stirring until mostly incorporated. Pour in the cream and stir until smooth. With a spatula, fold in the cherries and blueberries.The batter will be quite thick, and may not fold easily; as long as the fruit is somewhat stuck into the batter, all will be fine. Scrape the batter into the prepared pan, and smooth the top. Place tin on a rimmed baking sheet, then sprinkle the topping over the batter in an even layer. 

Bake in the hot oven until the buckle is golden brown and a cake tester poked into the centre comes out clean, 75-90 minutes. Transfer pan to a wire rack and let the cool completely. Unmold and serve, as is, or dusted with icing sugar, and maybe a spoon or two of custard. 

Note: I think this buckle would be ideal baked in individual portions, thus dispensing of any fuss of slicing. I've not tried that route, but wanted to have the notion on record.

 

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When I sat down to give one last read to this post on Molly Wizenberg's new book, Delancey: A Man, a Woman, a Restaurant, a Marriage, I did what one does when it's time to really focus. I checked Twitter.

At the top of the feed I found a friend's tweet announcing that Molly was on the radio, at that very moment, talking about Delancey, in an interview recorded at the wood-fired pizza restaurant of the same name (hers with her husband, Brandon Petit). So, I had Molly's voice as company for my edits, and current rewrite, while I snacked on a piece of shortbread made from a recipe found in the book.

It was an Escher drawing, come to life, with cookies. 

molly's rosemary candied ginger shortbread | tara o'brady

I've known Molly long enough that our emails go back to when I had a completely different job, and there's one in which she introduces one Mr. Brandon, still a student and waiter in NYC at the time. With that history, what follows here isn't meant to be an unbiased review. It is difficult to remove bias when speaking about a friend, and honestly, I don't want to. 

Molly's site introduced me to food blogs. Orangette was mentioned somewhere else, and I clicked the link; it took me to a warm chickpea salad. I didn't really know what a food blog was, or that they would become a thing, but I still knew what I was reading was good. 

(In searching for that particular piece just now, I fell back into step with Keaton, Jimmy's buttered brunches, and Rebecca's all-red straw collection. I lost an hour in the process, and ate a handful of salted pistachios, an apple, and two small squares of chocolate. That is the pull of Molly's writing. It makes you want to read more. It also makes you very hungry.) 

But really, you don't need me to tell you how good Molly's stories are. First at Orangette, then in her column in Bon Appetit, then elsewhere (including the Washington Post and her Spilled Milk podcast), then with her first book, A Handmade Life, Molly established herself not only as a talent, but as an exceptional one. Though superlatives are often ascribed willy-nilly, she is a benchmark of contemporary food writing, in the truest, realest sense of the word.

molly's rosemary + candied ginger shortbread | seven spoons

Sixteen Candles turned 30 two days ago. One anniversary tribute argued it as John Hughes's best work, not just for Jake Ryan and that dining table, but for how it showed difficulty to be more inclusive than exclusive; nobody is really spared from personal doubt, not even the popular kids.

(And there goes half an hour watching Sixteen Candles clips.)

In a culture that often manufactures glossed perfection, or uses hard times as a praise-courting kind of martyrdom, the story of Delancey is told in a frank plainness that saves it from being overly sentimental, while still keeping an acute sense of the all-too-real turmoil it accounts.

Some of the stories are familiar, having been hinted at on Orangette, but here there's the full look at how things went. Delancey picks up where A Homemade Life left off, with Brandon and Molly still settling into their new marriage, the decision to open a restaurant in Seattle, then chronicles its subsequent construction and early days.

The book isn't about the restaurant. Not really. The restaurant is of course what pushes the story along, but at the heart of it is what it takes to actively build the life you want; the commitment, the swallowing fear, the joy, and the toll. It is about building that life with someone, the support and faith that takes, and the uncomfortable realization that there can be distance and discord within the strongest of partnerships. It is about growing up, about claiming responsibility for our choices, and ownership of the people we become.

Delancey shows how one of the best can get even better. Molly's sharp-witted, playful voice still rings with authenticity, yet has matured. It reads as honest, at points painfully so, with a deep-set vulnerability. Parts are awkward, complicated, and messy.  Molly isn't always the hero. She shows her own bad-guy moments, and admits when she wished she could have acted differently than she did. She is self-aware, and hopeful. 

Delancey is like how we talk to friends about life, after opening a second bottle of wine.

molly's rosemary candied ginger shortbread | tara o'brady

Molly, you introduced us to French toast fried in oil, bouchons de thon, and Corentine's way with carrots. You showed us the potential of this medium, proved to an industry the value of new voices, and you are an essential part of this community. You have shared these years, shared Delancey, Essex, your friends, the dogs, your family, your mother, Burg, Brandon, and now sweet June.

Thank you for writing, M. Thanks for all of it. 

 

MOLLY'S SHORTBREAD WITH ROSEMARY + CANDIED GINGER 

Just like in A Homemade Life, Delancey has recipes to end chapters; while linked to the restaurant in many ways, they are not restaurant recipes per se. Instead they are those which represent a certain point in time (Vietnamese rice noodle salad, sautéed dates with sea salt, one heck of a cocktail called The Benjamin Wayne Smith) or, in the case of this shortbread, a roasted pork shoulder, and a trick with red wine vinaigrette, they're ones that came into their life because of the restaurant.

I won't excerpt the Molly's headnote, as the story behind this recipe is another reason to grab the book. But the cookies are inspired by ones served by the late Christina Choi at her restaurant, Nettletown.

The shortbread comes together in a flash, straightforward as shortbreads go, with the expected triumvirate of butter, sugar, and flour, then rosemary and candied ginger are invited to hang out. The combination is fiercely aromatic on the cutting board, but when baked, it unwinds. So, the lolling richness of the shortbread gets broadened by the thrumming warmth the ginger, and made slightly-more-savoury with the herb's resiny sharpness. I want to try them with a few, stingy drops of almond extract, and made slightly larger to serve as base for macerated strawberries. 

I did add a gilding roll of the dough in sugar before baking; the step added just enough texture to emphasize the edge of each cookie. I liked that.

Barely tweaked from Delancey: A Man, a Woman, a Restaurant, a Marriage (Simon & Schuster, 2014), by Molly Wizenberg. The recipe is mostly in Molly's words.

INGREDIENTS

  • 1/2 cup (100 g) granulated sugar
  • 2 sticks (226 g) unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 2 cups (280 g) unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon fine-grained sea salt
  • 1 tablespoon (about 4 g) finely chopped fresh rosemary leaves
  • 1/3 cup (60 g) chopped candied ginger
  • Sugar, for rolling, see note

METHOD

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine the sugar and butter. Beat until light and fluffy, scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed with a rubber spatula. 

In a small bowl, whisk together the flour, salt, and rosemary. Add to the mixer bowl, and beat on low speed until the flour is absorbed and the dough begins to form large clumps that pull away from the sides of the bowl. Add the candied ginger, and mix briefly to incorporate. Divide the dough between two pieces of plastic wrap or parchment paper, and shape it into roughly 1 1/2-inch-diameter logs. Wrap, and refrigerate the dough logs for a few hours or overnight, until good and firm.  

When your'e ready to bake the cookies, preheat the oven to 300°F/150°C. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper. 

Sprinkle sugar over work surface or in a wide, shallow dish large enough to accommodate the dough logs. Remove the logs from the refrigerator and while they're still very cold, roll them in the sugar to coat. Slice into 1/4-inch-thick rounds. Arrange the cookies 1 inch apart on the prepared baking sheets. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, until the edges are pale golden, rotating and switching the pans midway through. Transfer the cookies to a wire rack to cool completely. 

These cookies will keep in an airtight container at room temperature for a week, if not longer. They can also be frozen.

Yield: about 60 cookies 

Note from Tara: This recipe used up the last of my candied ginger, but there was a lot of sugar left in the container. So, I sifted it for any larger clumps, then used that spiced sugar when rolling the cookies, making for an extra ginger kick. Lacking that, sanding sugar would be pretty, and granulated would work just fine.

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You may have noticed the snazzy button on the left. I'm honoured to be nominated for a Best Food Blog Award from Saveur Magazine, in the category of Best Cooking Blog. If you'd like to vote, please click the links, or that award badge on the sidebar. The polls closed April 9th., and congratulations to the winners! Thank you for any and all support. xo

 

The world may not need another banana bread recipe, but banana bread is what I'd offer if you were to come over for coffee today. It has roasted bananas, oats, a whole bunch of seeds and nuts, and then a streusel-ish top. And chocolate. There's chocolate in there. Hopefully you'd be up for a slice.

choco-oat-nut roasted banana bread | tara o'brady

I took Home Economics in grade seven. We sewed stuffed animals, learned to iron, and baked a coffee cake that was my first introduction to a New York-style crumb. At the end of each day, we’d do the dishes. The teacher taught us to fill a sink with hot, soapy water at the start of class in anticipation; as we dirtied dishes, in they’d go, so when it was time for clean up, they were already soaking. Knives were the exception. Knives went on the counter, set to one side. "The last thing you want," she'd say, "is to plunge your hand in a sink full of water and find a blade."

For a long time, I was afraid of the knife in the dishwater. The biggest risks in my life were those that happened too fast to for me to consider them first. I didn't jump in, or leap, or leave things to fate. 

In light of all that, it may seem uncharacteristic of me to encourage you to take this recipe and run with it. Seriously. Take note of the basics and go, go, go from there. I've talked about (almost) this one before, in UPPERCASE a few years ago, and it's close to an old standby. As with most breads of its size and ilk there is a basic ratio of (around) 2 cups flour to 3 or 4 bananas to 2 eggs. Fats, from butter to coconut oil to olive oil, will vary, but not by much. 1/3 cup is fairly average. Stay in those parameters, and the possibilities open from there; swap the nuts, add candied ginger or dried fruit. It will be different each time, and almost assuredly very good. 

choco-oat-nut roasted banana bread | tara o'brady

This specific combination came about because of William. He wanted us to make banana bread, and I agreed. As any child in his position would do, Will then proceeded to take best advantage, suggesting we incorporate his favourite things into the loaf. Walnuts, sure. Maple syrup, you betcha. (His grandfather is in the thick of sugaring season.) Cinnamon, alrighty. And because he is five-almost-six years old, chocolate chips. That loaf was gone in a flash. 

A few days later, with a craving for more bread and without any ripe bananas around, I baked barely-ripe fruit to replicate that deep, caramel sweetness of almost-past-their-prime specimens. Once allover black and smelling like butterscotch, I mashed them in the bowl with the sugars, oil (olive, as I was going for a peppery, green sharpness), brown sugar, maple syrup, and eggs. Though it is better form to whisk the dry ingredients before adding to the wet, I was trying to save on bowls for cleanup, so unceremoniously dumped the flours et al on top—it's worth doing the same. When looking for bananas in the freezer I had come across the last spoonfuls of various seeds stashed in there, thought to use them up. 

Sour cream followed for even more sharpness and extra moisture, then chocolate, and nuts. My choice of chocolate is regular bar-style, chopped. I like how chunks push and melt into the batter, so there are pockets of richness in the crumb, but you could stick with William and go for chips. They stay in their discreet kiss shapes, firm and vaguely resistant to the tooth. 

Since I still had seeds to use, streusel solved the problem. The laziest streusel, really. Simply some more oats, flour, seeds, and spice, dampened with olive oil. One last banana arranged on top, and we were off.

choco-oat-nut roasted banana bread | tara o'brady

The bread was not what was expected. I had envisioned it would be more like a dessert, but it was restrained. Cake-ish, but still bread. Moderately sweet, tender, stodgy in that way that we know and love about banana breads. While, yes, it is packed crust to crust with all manner of good things, there's not enough of one specific thing to pull attention. The streusel comes closest, baking up scraggly and cracked, but it adds more chew than crunch. The walnuts and oats contribute similarly, and the overall impression is a surprisingly wholesome, a bit woollen, and gentle.

It's a reliable loaf. I am convinced it would get you through Home Ec, and whatever were to follow.

 

 CHOCO-OAT-NUT ROASTED BANANA BREAD

 A note on pans. My original recipe upon which this Frankensteinian version is based fills a 9-by-5-inch loaf pan. I think this one would squeeze into that size, with an increase in baking time and you'd probably have to tent it with foil towards the end, too. The trouble is, with all the extras added, I'm not absolutely certain that it would emerge with an impressive crown rather than ooze all over the oven. If you give it a go, please report back with your findings.

To that end, and as the last thing I want to do is lead you astray, the directions below reflect the pan I used this time, a long, narrow one, or the alternate option of a tube pan. When using the latter, start checking for doneness at the 50-minute mark. 

FOR THE BREAD

  • Butter for greasing the pan
  • 4 bananas, ripe but firm
  • 1/2 cup (65 g) walnut pieces
  • 1/2 cup (105 g) dark brown sugar, packed
  • 1/4 cup (125 ml) pure maple syrup, grade B is my preference, but I'll take whatever dad has boiled
  • 1/3 cup (80 ml) extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 3/4 cup (95 g) all-purpose flour
  • 3/4 cup (105 g) whole-wheat flour
  • 1/2 cup (50 g) rolled oats
  • 3 to 4 tablespoons mixed seeds (I used sunflower, hemp hearts and sesame)
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon medium-grained kosher salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1/2 cup (120 ml) sour cream or thick, plain yogurt (not nonfat)
  • 4 ounces (115 g) bittersweet chocolate, chopped

FOR THE TOPPING

  • 1 tablespoon rolled oats
  • 2 tablespoons mixed seeds
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons flour (all-purpose or whole wheat)
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil (plus extra if needed)
  • 1 banana, ripe but firm

METHOD

Preheat an oven to 350°/175°C with a rack in the lower third. Grease a 14-by-4.5-inch loaf pan with butter. Line with parchment paper, with long sides overhanging. Butter the parchment. Alternatively, butter and flour a standard tube pan, knocking out excess.

Line a baking sheet with parchment paper, then place the 4 bananas, whole and unpeeled, on top. Bake until the skin is deeply roasted on both sides, but not split, 20 to 30 minutes. Flip once during baking, and add the walnuts to the tray for the last 10 minutes of roasting (if t here's a lot of liquid from the bananas, give the nuts their own tray). Remove the bananas to a bowl to collect their juices. Chop the walnuts and set aside.

Once the bananas have cooled a little, remove the peels and leave the fruit in the bowl. Mash to a pulp with the brown sugar. Beat in the maple syrup, olive oil, followed by the eggs, one at a time, mixing well after each. Stir in the vanilla. Sprinkle the flours, oats, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, and ginger on top of the wet ingredients. Fold to almost combine, then spoon in the sour cream. Give a few more turns, then gently incorporate the chocolate and walnuts. Scape the batter into the prepared pan. 

In a small bowl, stir together the oats, seeds, flour, cinnamon, and olive oil until it clumps. Honestly, I do this with my fingers, and scrunch it together. Peel and slice the banana into thirds lengthwise. Scatter the streusel over the batter, then arrange the banana on top. Bake in the preheated oven until the bread is golden and puffed, and a cake tester inserted in the centre comes out clean of batter (chocolate doesn't count), 60 to 70 minutes. Cool on a wire rack 10 minutes, then use the parchment to lift the loaf onto the rack to cool completely. 

Makes 1 loaf.

 

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Finally, another piece of news! I will be speaking at Food Bloggers of Canada's conference this fall. I will be partnered with Robert McCullough, Vice President, Random House of Canada and publisher at Appetite by Random House, and the Canadian publisher of my book. The event will be in Vancouver, BC on October 17-19th. Details are on their site, and I'll be sure to share more particulars as they're finalized. Hope to see you there!

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Good friends, recently back from a trip to Greece and Turkey, had us over for dinner last Saturday night. In Istanbul they took a cooking class, and the night's menu took largely from that. After a true feast of lentil soup, courgette fritters, dolmas, and Imam Bayildi, us lucky folks were treated to one platter of pale lokum, and another tray of baklava, cut into quilted diamonds. Not ones to overlook any detail, our hosts prepared Turkish coffee alongside. For the coffee, Michael used the pot they'd brought home, beautiful and small, hammered copper with a long handle, and he scented the brew with cinnamon.

Pistachio Baklava with Cardamom

Christa's baklava was a masterwork. Baked to bronze and then lacquered with glaze, it was a marvel of texture. The top pastry shattering and light, the middle thick with nuts, and the bottommost strata solid with crunch. (And the whole far more beautiful than the rustic take I'm presenting.) While not a recipe from the class, Christa said the recipe was closest to Turkish baklava, which was the preferred of those they'd tried. The thing here it seems, is that the Turkish way uses a sugar syrup instead of one with honey, so while sweet, this baklava's flavour is clearer, brighter, more about delicacy and fragrance than tawny warmth. She'd used only cardamom in the filling; the spice rang high and bright, with an emphasis on its floral citrusy-ness. In using clarified butter, even the pastry and nuts came across as cleaner than expected. It was revelatory.

It was a wake up call.

Pistachio Baklava with Cardamom

Three days later, I was going over my notes. As I do, most mornings lately. After Sean is off and the boys are away, I click the kettle on for tea. While it steeps, I slice an apple, ideally one with lively crunch and generous juice, and settle the pieces in my bowl, leaving a space into which is nudged a spoon's worth of almond butter for dipping. Mug and bowl accompany me up the stairs, to the front of the house, where the computer sits on a desk beside a window that looks out to trees. The light is stained turmeric in October. Often I'll see a particular elderly couple walking on the street below. They both wear red coats. He is partial to flat caps that remind me of my dad's. They're part of this habit. Then, in between bites of apple, I settle in with my writing notebook.

The first notebook of any importance in my life was when I was a kid and used to keep an account of my dreams, as they happened, when still in that wild and woollen place of half-asleep. It was rarely effective, though I vaguely recall one from early elementary school involving a class trip, a UFO, and Duran Duran.

Most times I'd lose track of the dream as I was writing, or if I managed to get anything down, it would be indecipherable when I read it back. I once got a letter from someone that shared my first and maiden name, the signature looked familiar and foreign. My dreaming notes were often like that, like correspondence from not quite me. 

Although the notebook failed me then, it's long been useful for writing. 

I'm learning to move from one territory of work to another and back again. I've been writing a lot, for the book and other things, and then there's the rest of life, of the needs of the family, the children, the house and me, of the season, even. It's a stuttering grind, switching between languages of grams, ounces and measures to e-mail and appointments to laundry, raking the yard and volunteering at school on Halloween (and will that mean I'll need a costume?). 

On their own, the words don't amount to much more than a disjointed list. That said, they represent an attempt to aid a future me, something to fill the gaps and lapses, and ease the transition when I return to it. Like setting out clothes the night before a big day, a move to prepare for what could be needed.  

A selection of notes from Tuesday:

 I sat close enough to the fire that its heat burrowed through the fabric of my shirt and was itchy the skin at the small of my back. I drank the soup in gulping mouthfuls prickly with ginger and garlic and black pepper. My lips felt lined with sparks. 

On Saturday night, I had the finest baklava of my life. Our friend made it. It was terrific, as was the densely aromatic Turkish coffee they served, too. 

 Kids at the bus stops with shirt sleeves pulled down across the back of their hands, the cuff tight in their fists. A dancing shuffle of moving weight from foot to foot.

It's the pâté sandwiches we'd pack for train rides, eating them on the upper bunk of one of those sleeper cars with light blue walls. It's how the soft, whipped texture of the pâté melded into the softness of the bread, and both stuck to the back of my front teeth. 

The realization then, heavy and thudding like a stack of books on a table.

Pistachio and Cardamom Baklava

Usually I'll hold these seeds In hibernating wait, until there's the thing, the sugar-instead-of-honey whatever wonderful thing that clicks to make them complete, and they spring to bountiful utility. For some endeavours, like the last 20 minutes spent watching Duran Duran videos on YouTube, fruition never comes. (Unless you count a renewed infatuation with John Taylor a gain.)

In this batch of notes, it's the baklava. The baklava is the takeaway.

 

PISTACHIO BAKLAVA WITH CARDAMOM  

Recipe adapted, only barely, from Cook's Illustrated. Written in my words.

I won't pretend that baklava doesn't take planning, time, and fiddly (though not specifically difficult) work. That said, as one batch makes 40 or so pieces, and as it keeps so well (up to 10 days, covered tightly with foil, at room temperature), I'll make the bold proposal of stating that baklava is is not only doable, but should be done. In fact, next festive dinner, it could easily slide in to take the place of dessert. It ticks many of the same boxes as pie.  

I've added a murmur of cinnamon to the filling , because while I don't have a pot for making Turkish coffee, I didn't want to miss out on the combination. 

Makes 1 (9x13-inch) tray. 

FOR THE FILLING

  • 12 ounces shelled, raw pistachios
  • 1 teaspoon ground cardamom
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
  • A generous 1/4 teaspoon Kosher salt

TO ASSEMBLE

  • 1 cup clarified butter, melted but not hot
  • 1 pound phyllo, defrosted according to manufacturer's instruction if frozen

FOR THE SUGAR SYRUP

  • 1 3/4 cups granulated sugar
  • 3/4 cup water
  • tablespoon fresh lemon juice
  • A small piece of lemon rind, maybe 1-inch long
  • 10 black peppercorns
  • 1/4 teaspoon Kosher salt

To make the filling, place the pistachios in the bowl of a food processor fitted with the metal blade. Pulse the motor in 1-second bursts until the nuts are finely chopped, maybe 10 to 15 times total. Pour the nuts into a bowl, then measure out 1 1/2 tablespoons for garnish and set aside. Stir the cardamom, cinnamon, sugar and salt into the rest. 

Preheat an oven to 300 °F / 150 °C, with a rack in the lower middle.

Unfold the phyllo on a cutting board, with a damp, lint-free kitchen towel and a large piece of cling film nearby. Using a 9x13-inch steel (not non-stick) straight-sided cake pan or a 9x13-inch glass baking dish as a guide, cut the phyllo into two roughly-even stacks; one may be larger than the other. Cover both stacks with the cling film, then the damp cloth, so that the pastry doesn't dry out. 

Brush the insides of the pan with butter. Fold back the damp towel and clingfilm covering the wider stack of phyllo. Take a sheet of phyllo and place it in the bottom of the pan. Gently brush the pastry with butter, then top with another sheet of phyllo, coating that one with butter, too. Repeat the process of layering and buttering with 6 more sheets, making 8 total. Replace the towel to cover the stack.

Scatter one-third of the chopped pistachios, about a scant 1 cup, over th phyllo. Pull the towel and film back over the thinner stack of pastry. Lay one piece of phyllo over the nuts, and carefully dab with butter until covered (brushing at this point would disturb the nuts). Cover with another piece of pastry, staggering if necessary to cover the filling, and butter again. Continue with 4 more pieces, making 6 total. Repeat process with half the remaining nuts, 6 more sheets phyllo, then the last of the nuts. For the top crust, use 8 to 10 of the neatest and most pristine sheets from the wider stack of phyllo. Layer and butter each, except for the last piece. Using clean and dry hands, gently compress the layers, working from the centre of the pan outwards. Spoon the rest of the clarified butter, approximately 1/4 cup, over the pastry, brushing to cover and coax the butter down the sides of the pan. Use a sharp-tipped serrated knife to portion the baklava into diamonds, making 8 slices each way on the diagonal. (Alternatively, cut the baklava into a grid pattern as seen here.)

Bake the baklava in the hot oven until deeply golden, around 90 minutes, making sure to rotate the pan halfway through the baking time.  

While the baklava is baking, make the sugar syrup. Combine all the syrup ingredients in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring often. Once at a full boil and the sugar has dissolved, pour syrup into a 2-cup measuring cup and set aside to cool. When room temperature, discard the lemon peel and peppercorns.  

Immediately after pulling the baklava from the oven, pour all but 2 tablespoons of the syrup over the cut lines. Drizzle the remaining syrup over the surface of the baklava, then decorate with the reserved pistachios as desired. (The classic decoration is a pinch of nuts in the centre of each piece.) Set the baklava on a wire rack to cool completely, about 3 hours. The baklava can be eaten once cooled, but improves with age. If possible, wrap the tray in tin foil and let stand at room temperature for 8 hours before serving.  

Any remaining baklava can be kept, wrapped, on the counter for 10 days.  

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I went back and forth on whether or not I should write about these rhubarb Danishes. The trouble is, they're fussy. The dough requires a start the night before you want to bake, and so does macerating the rhubarb, and that's still only two of the three components done. And that dough, one that usually accepts a boost of whole wheat, demands all-white flour for truly gratifying puff and flake in this free-standing rendition. What's more, the quantities are awkward; in regards to the volume of rhubarb, there is the need for a certain surface area, not really weight, making it difficult to pin down a specific amount. A batch of the almond cream  (the last piece to this puzzle) yields more than needed; in light of which, there's the option of making only a half recipe with clumsy math, or doubling the pastry and rhubarb, or accepting that there will be leftover and making almond croissants with what remains.

After the details and wait, these Danishes are frustratingly good. The pastry is crisp at the edge but tender still. The almond cream is fragrant and ever-so-slightly-gritty, providing delineation between the smooth layers of the pastry below and the yielding rhubarb above; rhubarb which, only lightly sweetened, retains a glinting sharpness, cutting back the richness of the overall bite. 

WIthout naming names, there's a few folks who have made habit of putting away two (two!) per sitting, with no crumb neglected on the plate. By all accounts these Danishes are worth the trouble. 

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Scratch that. It's not trouble to make these, it's work. Not even difficult work, only an involved process. 

There was a reason behind the endeavour, besides really liking the idea of rhubarb Danishes, and that was the rhubarb itself. Sean brought bunches from a farm stand, two big bundles of stalks a few feet in length with leaves attached. He laid them in my arms in much the way a bouquet is handed to a crowned beauty queen, cradled in the crook of the elbow. These hot pink lookers, firmly pliant and none wider than my index finger, they called for similar pageantry. 

They needed a proper stage, not hidden under a crust or crumble, but left as they were for the most part and shown off. Danish dough as backdrop to neatly rowed rhubarb would do exactly that.

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I also know myself well enough to admit that I made these Danishes because I was avoiding another job I should have been doing. As I have a tendency to do when I'm daunted. I look for a different challenge to skirt around the one that really scares me.

I finally got around to listening to the audio copy of "The War of Art" (Warner Books, 2002) by Steven Pressfield that Sean put on my phone. When I've been playing it for a while and stop, I feel as though I've broken the surface after being underwater. It's an immersive listen, as Pressfield accounts the process and pitfalls of a creative life. I've been thinking of getting a hard copy, wanting to have the words laid out before me instead of rewinding and replaying the recording as often as I do. 

The first chapters of the book are about resistance, about what it means to commit yourself to work. In talking about the difficulties in getting started and the dangerous fear of coming to the end of a project, I thought about aiming for the middle. That comfortable place when momentum is behind you and you're not thinking yet about the sprint to the finish. It's when we fall into stride. Infuriatingly, despite anxiety of beginning, the only way to get there is by putting your head down, setting your shoulders, and simply do the work. 

There's no way around it; the following recipe reads long and boring and far too much effort to be worth it. It's doable. Promise. I've made them once a week for the last three.  As Pressfield says: 

"Set one foot in front of the other and keep climbing."

(I keep repeating that part.) 

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RHUBARB DANISHES WITH ALMOND CREAM

A collection of recipes. The ingredients for the almond cream (with added vanilla bean) come from Bouchon Bakery (Artisan, 2012) by Thomas Keller and Sebastien Rouxel. It is a book you want on your shelf when it comes to anything baked, full of insights and tricks, and essential recipes. With great respect to the authors, I've rewritten their instructions — with larger capacity stand mixers, I find the small batch of almond cream (as this amount is called in the book) easier to make by hand, especially if you chose to halve the recipe. What's below reflects that.

FOR THE RHUBARB

  • Approximately 1 1/2 pounds (700g) fresh rhubarb, trimmed of leaves but left whole
  • 1/3 cup granulated sugar
  • 2 tablespoons water
  • seeds scraped from half a vanilla bean, plus the pod

FOR THE PASTRY

  • One recipe quick Danish dough, with white bread flour used to replace the same quantity of whole wheat

FOR THE ALMOND CREAM (makes approximately 1 1/2 cups, more than needed)

  • 1/2 cup + 2 1/2 tablespoons (73 grams) almond meal
  • 2 1/4 teaspoons (7 grams) all-purpose flour
  • 2.5 ounces (73 grams) unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 1/2 cup + 2 tablespoons (73 grams) powdered sugar
  • Seeds scraped from half a vanilla bean
  • 2 tablespoons + 2 teaspoons (44 grams) lightly-beaten eggs, see note

TO ASSEMBLE

  • 1 egg, beaten for egg wash, see note
  • Granulated or sanding sugar for sprinkling


METHOD

Up to 24 hours before you want to bake, trim the rhubarb stalks to fit in a 9x13-inch dish. Combine the sugar, water, vanilla bean and pod in a saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium heat, then reduce the heat to low and simmer for 2-3 minutes, stirring, until the sugar is fully dissolved. Pour the hot syrup over the prepared rhubarb, turning the stalks to coat. Leave at room temperature to cool, then cover and place in the fridge at least overnight and as much as a full day, shuffling the rhubarb around in the syrup now and again.

The night before you want to bake, start the Danish dough. (You will complete the folds and finishing in the morning.)

The next day, about 2 hours before you want to bake, make the almond cream. Sift the almond flour into a medium bowl; break up any lumps in the sieve, and add to the bowl. Sift in the all-purpose flour and whisk together. 

Place the butter in a medium bowl and beat with a silicone spatula or a hand mixer until the butter lightens to about the consistency of mayonnaise and holds a peak when the spatula is lifted. Sift in the powdered sugar, stir to incorporate. Once blended, beat the sugar and butter together until fluffy, around 3 minutes. Scrape down the bottom and sides of the bowl. Add the almond mixture in 2 additions, stirring to combine, then stir in the vanilla. Pour in the eggs and mix until smooth. Transfer to an airtight container, pressing a piece of plastic wrap against the surface to prevent a skin from forming. Refrigerate until cold, about 2 hours. (The cream can be made up to 4 days ahead of time.)

30 or so minutes before you want to bake, finish the Danish dough by completing 5 turns (folds). Chill for 20 minutes. (Dough can be made ahead and frozen, then defrosted in the fridge before using.)

To assemble, preheat an oven to 375°F / 190°C. Line a baking sheet or half sheet pan with parchment paper and set aside.

On a lightly-floured work surface, roll the Danish dough to a 11x22-inch rectangle. Cut the dough into eight 5 1/2-inch squares. Refer to this diagram, and decide which shape you want to make. If making the vol-au-vent or envelope as I did, working one at a time, fold each square diagonally onto itself (forming a triangle, with corners lined up neatly). Leaving a thin border, cut a thin line starting from the bottom right corner of the triangle, parallel to the edge, almost up to the top. Repeat on the other side, leaving the tip attached. Unfold the package, brush with egg wash, then pull one of the cut edges over the other, lining it up with the interior edge of the square. Do the same with the other side, pressing lightly to seal, then place on prepared baking sheet. Repeat with remaining squares.

Spread the well of each shaped Danish with about 1 tablespoon of almond cream. Remove rhubarb from the sugar syrup, draining any excess liquid back into the dish. Trim the rhubarb to fit the pastries and line them up to cover the almond cream. (There may be rhubarb left over, do not discard.) Sprinkle entire Danish with sugar. Set aside to rise in a warm, draft-free area for 20 minutes. 

Meanwhile, pour the rhubarb sugar macerating liquid into a saucepan along with any remaining rhubarb, cut to into chunks. Bring to a boil over medium heat, then reduce the heat to a simmer. Cook, stirring, but not breaking up the rhubarb, until the liquid has thickened to a light syrup. With a slotted spoon, remove the rhubarb from the syrup. Turn off the heat but leave the syrup on the stove to keep warm.

Bake pastries in the preheated oven until puffed and golden, around 20 minutes. With a pastry brush, glaze the rhubarb and almond filling with the syrup. Remove the pastries to a baking rack to set for a few minutes, then serve warm. 

The Danishes are best eaten the day they are made. 

 

Notes: 

  • You may have egg left over from making the almond paste.  This can be kept aside and used for the egg wash. (If amount looks scant, you can bulk it up with a bit of heavy cream.)
  • The rhubarb removed from the syrup can be recombined with any extra glaze and served over ice cream or yogurt.  
  • If process shots will be of some aid, here is one, and another
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Yesterday marked eight years of this site. One year ago, there was cake, and I was thinking a lot about writing.

When I brought up the same subject recently, it wasn't intentional. In fact, I didn't make the connection. Maybe it is that the time around anniversaries encourage the taking of stock. I'm thankful for the tendency, as I am thankful for the generous comments and letters from many of you that followed that mention, sharing personal experiences of trying to put thoughts into words, or your own processes from a variety of creative disciplines.

I feel lucky to have been part of the dialogue. If you don't mind, it's a thread I'd like to continue.

It begins with a reoccurring analogy: on the road.

(In next the twelve months, I'll work on some new analogies.) 

Right around this time two years ago, a windstorm hit where we live. 

That morning I had a meeting out of town. I planned to leave early, and because I would be away for the day, my boys were going to spend it with my parents at their house. I remember standing in the driveway, waiting to kiss Sean goodbye while he buckled in the lads to take them there, when I heard the wind blowing high in the trees. It was a sustained howl. I looked up and saw clouds moving with such speed that I said something to Sean about it; for whatever reason, neither of us were concerned, and neither of us checked the weather report. At the time, nobody seemed to grasp how bad the day would become. Even when I did turn on the radio, there was a warning to take things slow, but no real sense of urgency.  

Traffic was heavy. Street signs and billboards bowed and rattled. My hand cramped from keeping a firm grip on the wheel. I made it to my meeting on time. I turned off my phone.

I wasn't aware of it then, but I'd driven out of the path of the storm. What seemed only gloomy, but not wholly memorable where I was, brought 100-kilometre-per-hour gusts at home. It knocked out power, knocked off siding, and blew roofs clean away. It could have been much worse that in was. We were fortunate. 

By the time I tried to head back, the storm was over. The winds had stopped and the once-troubled sky was now a clear, bright, and almost surreal blue. Nonetheless, the bridge that arches over the bay was still closed. There was a lineup of cars inching forward, jostling for position, as four lanes were reduced to three, then two, then one. Police cars with flashing lights directed us through the supports of that bridge, to cross the water on a much smaller one. Past that place, the highway itself was barricaded.

The service roads and side roads were packed. There were detours marked, but with all the scattered debris, it wasn't long before you were redirected by a downed power line, or a tree snapped like a twig or, in one case, an overturned, life-sized, ornamental elephant. 

There is a landmark near our house that's visible from quite far away. Three-and-a-half hours into a drive that usually takes 90 minutes, I caught sight of it for the first time. As I made my progress in lurching zigzags across the backroads in between me and that beacon, it would blink in and out of my view. I'd get a glimpse as I crested a hill, only to lose it again as I dipped into a valley or the road turned away. There was no specific logic or wisdom to the route I chose; with no insights into which course was clear, I simply did my best to keep myself aimed at where I knew I wanted to end up.

It took more than five hours to get there. 

For me, writing is often that drive. You see, I'm not a great planner. I can't lay out a itinerary of introduction, thesis, support and conclusion, and hit all the points, neat and tidy with time to spare. I will have an idea of where I need to finish, and there are occasions when I'll take the scenic route. Usually, however, the distance from the beginning and end is a winding one. There are false starts. And misdirection. And turning back. I stretch, wander, and push the boundaries of the map. I get another map because the old one was covered in scribbles and ripped in places, and I couldn't seem to fold it right. Then I'll fill that map with so many scribbles that I'll need a new pen. 

It's good to keep a stack of maps. 

I'm not above asking for directions; there's wisdom to be learned from who have travelled here before and from those who are still part of the caravan. They'll give you a lift when your tank runs dry. What's more, a travelling companion can calm the nerves caused by a motor that clatters and sputters with every jolting mile, or the stomach-churning feeling that you're in a neighbourhood you don't recognize. It's nauseous mix of terror tinged with exhilarating curiousity. You might want to sip some ginger ale.

Guides and company can only get you so far. Much of the mechanics of writing is hidden, isolating work. That's when the sun is gone and darkness sets in. Bring snacks.

Scour the landscape for sign posts — those points upon which the whole adventure pivots, the phrases that stick out of the scenery like an upside-down cement pachyderm. I'm telling you, keep an eye out for those markers. They get you through. With them, you might find a different approach. Follow their directions, even when the passage seems too narrow, when you're filled with paralyzing doubt and can't remember why you wanted to take this trip in the first place, and it's quite certain that the pavement will crumble under your wheels. Don't stop. Keep moving.

It's the only way you'll get anywhere.

 

In the end, you'll be hunched and achy from sitting too long and your mind will want to hurtle ever forward, not ready to relinquish its hard won inertia. Take a lap. It will take even more effort to realize when you arrive. You'll feel a mess, most likely.

Wear the miles like a trophy. 

 

 

BROWN BUTTER PISTACHIO FINANCIERS

Recipe from Kristin Kish, as published in Food and Wine magazine, June 2013.

These tea cakes were one of the recipes Kish came up with when challenged to create three simple desserts. The batter comes together in minutes, and is fairly straightforward; the only caveats are to make sure that the brown butter and toasted pistachios are cooled before proceeding. If the butter is too warm you might scramble the egg whites, and if the nuts are still hot when processed, they will turn to paste. 

The financiers are moist and toothsome, somehow suited better for being held between two fingers rather than eaten with a fork. They remind me of everything I like about a butter-rich coffee cake, and they are best used in very much the same manner. That is to say with tea or a glass of cold milk or a thermos of coffee. Good at home, they're happy travellers too, sturdy and packable. They don't require hullabaloo.

I baked most of the batter in mini muffin tins as directed, and some in 1/3-cup tins. The latter were meant for a homecoming, and if you're in need of some fanciness, they were quite pretty after a roll in granulated sugar. The muffin-tinned version could also be given a similar treatment, as well. The sugar crusts the outside, giving gritty crunch to the soft density of the interior. The brown butter and the almond extract suit the pistachios for all their waxy greenness, emphasizing the nut's richness and fragrance respectively. Almond extract always tickles my nose.

Kish suggests the financiers be served with whipped crème fraîche and fresh berries. I'll be trying that. We're not yet at berry season, but we're pointed in the right direction.   

Makes 36 small cakes. 

INGREDIENTS

  • 7 ounces unsalted butter, plus more for coating
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour, plus more for coating
  • 3/4 cup light brown sugar
  • 4 large egg whites
  • 3 tablespoons granulated sugar
  • 1/4 teaspoon pure almond extract
  • 1 cup toasted unsalted pistachios, finely ground
  • 1/2 cup cake flour
  • Pinch of salt
  • Sweetened whipped crème fraîche and fresh berries, for serving

 

METHOD

Preheat the oven to 400°F. Butter and flour 36 mini muffin cups. In a saucepan, cook the 7 ounces of butter over moderate heat, shaking the pan, until the milk solids begin to brown, about 5 minutes. Scrape the butter and browned solids into a bowl and let cool. Whisk in the brown sugar, egg whites, granulated sugar and almond extract.

In another bowl, whisk the pistachios with the 1 cup of all-purpose flour, the cake flour and the salt. Fold the dry ingredients into the brown butter mixture until combined.

Spoon the batter into the muffin cups and bake for about 15 minutes, until risen but still slightly soft in the center. Let cool slightly, then invert onto a rack to cool. Serve the financiers with crème fraîche and berries.

Notes: 

  • A heaped tablespoon is about what you need for each well of the mini muffin tin. I started checking my financiers at 12 minutes.
  • I've got it in my head that these would be tasty with some vanilla bean in the batter, or crushed up cocoa nibs, but neither is necessary.   
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