The holidays are over. The boys are back to school. It's the first morning that I've been alone since mid-December. I forgot that I had wanted to wash their snow pants before today, until late last night. And packing lunches took more concentration than usual. Somehow the winter re-entry to the regular routine is always rough one, jarring and rocky, and with that deep-inside-felt frenzy of scrambling to keep pace.

Even in September, after that long, lazy stupor of summer, the return to routine is smoother. You ease into it. Maybe it's because with the sunshine and warmth in the evenings, that summer feeling hangs on.

Now, instead of another tour around the neighbourhood before dinner, and twilight lounging on the back deck after, the night comes sudden and shivering — before Sean gets home, and before the table is even laid. The Christmas tree has an appointment with the curb for pickup, and the strings of lights are packed away with all the sparkles.

A friend said yesterday that it is in our nature to hibernate, an instinct we spend these months fighting against, and I think she's right. 

But, we've rounded a corner. Now we can check off the start of winter term to the list with the winter solstice and a new calendar year. We marked that last one with particular fanfare, with sleeping in, followed by kougin-amann. 

Started the night before, the year before actually, the cakes rose overnight in the fridge. There's a magic in recipes that take care of themselves, as if the shoemaker's elves were sent to ease the arrival of this fresh set of days. One batch satisfied our needs, with enough to spare to pack up for pals who were passing through town on New Year's Day.

kouign-amann | Tara O'Brady

I don't think I'm unique in the mixed reaction to the new year. If I'm honest, when I consider the year that passed, I'm not sure where I stand on the subject. It was a lot of things, the year that one of my sons fell in love with swimming and roller coasters, and the other discovered an affinity for building things (his fingers went from chubby-little-guy-glorious to nimble, kid fingers overnight). It is the year my husband and I found out movies that don't make our kids cry might make us cry instead (ahem).  It will always be the year I finished my first book. Then one when we ripped out the carpets and we travelled more. It was a year of good news, and beginning, and discoveries. Of dance parties, Qwirkle, and a really excellent summer for tomatoes. Of friends getting engaged, others married, and others having children. Of them opening shows, publishing work, and starting businesses. But was also a year of waiting rooms. And stitches. There were long talks, then longer nights. Goodbyes. And some months when the losses outweighed any gains. 

It was a year of choosing and doing; of at times retreating, and others making it through.

Another friend remarked, last spring maybe, as he was experiencing his own stress-filled run, that maybe more and more days are like this because we are getting to be of a certain age. I think he might be right. 

And so, I know there's a melancholy for what has passed, along with a nervousness for what is ahead. I imagine the feeling as music box with the key wound too tight, bundled beneath my ribs somewhere.

There's an inherent energy in the coil of the mechanism. That vital potential momentum. That which has us moving forward towards those brighter days.

We're getting almost a full minute more sunlight in with each evening, and starting January 7th, we'll start making some gains in the morning on top of that. (By the way, all that solstice and equinox and sunrise and sunset time stuff is rather fascinating. Never have I thought so much about the angle of the Earth on its axis.)

kouign amann | Tara O'Brady

Fascinating in its own way, and a beacon on the 1st, was the kouign-amann. It is a Breton pastry whose name translates to "butter cake", and the only way I think to give a sense of it is as a croissant crossed with brioche, under the influence of a sugar bun. The dough is laminated, which is to say, stacked upon itself with a cushion of butter in between each layer. On the last fold a generous amount of sugar is incorporated into the pattern, then a final coat is added to each side. A kougin-amann can be baked as a single round, or cut into squares and tucked into ring moulds or muffin tin (tucking the points of the squares to the centre of the round creates that fluted edge and crenelated pattern on top). From the oven, a kougin-amann will emerge bubbling and burnished, and while the impulse is to feast immediately, they require a rest.

After a few minutes, what had been molten butterscotch where the pastry meets the pan cools to encrust the cake, and the fluffy, steaming interior sets into delineated strata. So, upon eating, that sugar outside fractures crunchily, giving way to a tender, delicate centre. 

Thus you have the story of how our year started with butter and sugar. But also with cooking and sharing a meal with some of those I love most. While there is an uncertainty in how the year will end, I'm holding on to how we started. That, I'd like to keep going all the way through. 

I wish you all golden days ahead. xo

 

KOUIGN-AMANN

Recipe by Claire Saffitz, as published in Bon Appétit, April 2014. (Mostly written as published, with a few changes to suit this site's formatting.) Making a laminated dough isn't exactly difficult — it's all about rolling and folding —  but it does require attention and care. And time. Lots of time, most of which is spent waiting for the dough to chill. What I recommend is start making the dough in the late afternoon. By bedtime, you should be ready to form the kouign-amann. Pop them in the fridge, covered, and then come back in the morning for baking.

Makes 12

FOR THE DOUGH

  • 2 tablespoons (30 g) European-style butter (at least 82% fat), melted, slightly cooled, plus more for bowl
  • 1 tablespoon (10 g) active dry yeast
  • 3 tablespoons (40 g) sugar
  • 1 teaspoon (5 g) kosher salt
  • 3 cups (400 g) all-purpose flour, plus more for surface

FOR THE BUTTER BLOCK

  • 12 oz. (340 g) chilled unsalted European-style butter (at least 82% fat), cut into pieces
  • ½ cup (100 g) sugar
  • 1 teaspoon (5 g) kosher salt

TO ASSEMBLE

  • All-purpose flour, for dusting
  • ¾ cup (150 g) sugar, divided
  • Nonstick vegetable oil spray or some more melted butter for brushing the tin

 

METHOD

Make the dough. Brush a large bowl with butter. Whisk yeast and ¼ cup very warm water (110°–115°) in another large bowl to dissolve. Let stand until yeast starts to foam, about 5 minutes. Add sugar, salt, 3 cups flour, 2 Tbsp. butter, and ¾ cup cold water. Mix until a shaggy dough forms. Turn out onto a lightly floured surface and knead, adding flour as needed, until dough is supple, soft, and slightly tacky, about 5 minutes.

Place dough in prepared bowl and turn to coat with butter. Cover bowl with plastic wrap, place in a warm, draft-free spot, and let dough rise until doubled in size, 1–1½ hours. (This process of resting and rising is known as proofing.) Punch down dough and knead lightly a few times inside bowl. Cover again with plastic wrap and chill in refrigerator until dough is again doubled in size, 45–60 minutes.

Turn out dough onto a lightly floured surface and pat into a 6x6” square. Wrap in plastic and chill in freezer until dough is very firm but not frozen, 30–35 minutes. (Heads up: You’ll want it to be about as firm as the chilled butter block.)

Now make the butter block. Beat butter, sugar, and salt with an electric mixer on low speed just until homogeneous and waxy-looking, about 3 minutes. Scrape butter mixture onto a large sheet of parchment. Shape into a 12x6” rectangle ¼” thick.

Neatly wrap up butter, pressing out air. Roll packet gently with a rolling pin to push butter into corners and create an evenly thick rectangle. Chill in refrigerator until firm but pliable, 25–30 minutes.

To assemble the pastries, roll out dough on a lightly floured surface into a 19x7” rectangle (a bit wider and about 50 percent longer than the butter block). Place butter block on upper two-thirds of dough, leaving a thin border along top and sides. Fold dough like a letter: Bring lower third of dough up and over lower half of butter. Then fold exposed upper half of butter and dough over lower half (butter should bend, not break). Press edges of dough to seal, enclosing butter.

Rotate dough package 90° counterclockwise so flap opening is on your right. Roll out dough, dusting with flour as needed, to a 24x8” rectangle about ⅜” thick.

Fold rectangle into thirds like a letter (same as before), bringing lower third up, then upper third down (this completes the first turn).

Dust dough lightly with flour, wrap in plastic, and chill in freezer until firm but not frozen, about 30 minutes. Transfer to refrigerator; continue to chill until very firm, about 1 hour longer. (Freezing dough first cuts down on chilling time.)

Place dough on surface so flap opening is on your right. Roll out dough, dusting with flour as needed, to a 24x8” rectangle, about ⅜” thick. Fold into thirds (same way as before), rotate 90° counterclockwise so flap opening is on your right, and roll out again to a 24x8” rectangle.

Sprinkle surface of dough with 2 Tbsp. sugar; fold into thirds. Dust lightly with flour, wrap in plastic, and chill in freezer until firm but not frozen, about 30 minutes. Transfer to refrigerator; continue to chill until very firm, about 1 hour longer.

Place dough on surface so flap opening is on your right. Roll out dough, dusting with flour as needed, to a rectangle slightly larger than 16x12”. Trim to 16x12”. Cut into 12 squares (you’ll want a 4x3 grid). Brush excess flour from dough and surface.

Lightly coat muffin cups with nonstick spray. Sprinkle squares with a total of ¼ cup sugar, dividing evenly, and press gently to adhere. Turn over and repeat with another ¼ cup sugar, pressing gently to adhere. Shake off excess. Lift corners of each square and press into the center. Place each in a muffin cup. Wrap pans with plastic and chill in refrigerator at least 8 hours and up to 12 hours (dough will be puffed with slightly separated layers).

Preheat oven to 375°. Unwrap pans and sprinkle kouign-amann with remaining 2 Tbsp. sugar, dividing evenly. Bake until pastry is golden brown all over and sugar is deeply caramelized, 25–30 minutes (make sure to bake pastries while dough is still cold). Immediately remove from pan and transfer to a wire rack; let cool. 

NOTE (FROM TARA): 

  • As seen in the pictures, I chose to make slightly smaller pastries and used a standard muffin tin. I rolled the dough larger than suggested and then cut it into roughly 3-inch squares, yielding 18. Since my measurement and timing hasn't been tested more than once, I'd advise following the recipe as written rather than my example. 
  • Placing the pans on parchment-lined baking sheets will catch any butter overflow while baking.
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There are many reasons why I could never be a photojournalist. Chief among them being that when I travel, I regularly forget to take many photos.

Case in point, when I went to Seattle at the end of October, most of the pictures I have of my time there were taken over two days, even though I was there for eight. 

Pizzeria Gabbiano, Seattle

Pizzeria Gabbiano, Seattle

Instead, of documenting things as I intend, I get distracted by them. Lost the view on a drive down the coast; the road that winds and climbs beside the shore, and mountains that look like a theatre backdrop. Or caught up in people watching and the rose petal dukkah at The London Plane, or the roast chicken and the staggeringly-piled meringues at The Whale Wins, or the pizzas sold by the kilo at Pizzeria Gabbiano — two fingers' width worth of four types makes a fine lunch. (By the way, those pizzas are Roman-style, and brilliant with toppings like pistachio with mortadella, squash with mushrooms and blue cheese, and I hear they currently offer one with persimmon and 'nduja. If you go, please try it for me.)

Then it is the brioche at Le Picheta breakfast sandwich to write home about, too many coffees to count, and a walk through the art museum, and a few through the market, and return trip to a trio of food shops (here, here, and here). The guava ginger beer at Rachel's reminded me of India, my grandfather's house, and sitting on the dark green hood of his car eating guavas from the tree in the yard. 

Signs at Pizzeria Gabbiano

Signs at Pizzeria Gabbiano

Pike Place Market clams

Pike Place Market clams

Or its the multiple feasts between Delancey and Essex; skinny-and-wood-fired pizza (a crust with bubbles and char and chew), lamb barbacoa on toast, oysters, and succulent-as-all-get-out burgers the size of my fist. And The Man About Town, Ashley's Sazerac, and the scent of flamed cinnamon stick for that one cocktail (it stings the nostrils. In a good way.) Those spaces are immediately welcoming, with tables close enough to feel like everyone's at the same party. And where everyone seems to be a regular. want to be a regular.

(I need to get back for Taco and Tiki Tuesday.)

Flowers at the end of the day, Seattle

Flowers at the end of the day, Seattle

And then people.

Aran is the one that brought me to the Seattle, to lead a workshop on the mechanics of telling stories across multiple disciplines — basically, how photography and words, and even food, can be teamed up, and how we can make the best use of each to serve an overall whole. We covered the elements and principles of design, the fundamentals of writing, and copy and developmental edits. We took photos and made notes, and swapped inspirations. Aran and Bee made recipes from my manuscript for lunch (one of which is below — if you hover your mouse over the photo, details will swoosh up like magic). I talked a lot about working with intention, which made me think a lot about what my own aims and goals are with what it is I do. 

It was a grand group in the studio that weekend.

Baked Eggs, North Indian Style 

Baked Eggs, North Indian Style 

While Aran's invite gave me the excuse to (almost) cross the continent, the trip had long been on my wish list. Beyond the class, I was able to see Lecia, Ashley, ElissaMegan and SamBrandi, Jenny, Brandon and Molly, and Tara. It took me too long to get there. 

Aran's gluten-free apple tart

Aran's gluten-free apple tart

I was in the midst of a community of creative people, each driven in their different ways; some writers, others artists, designers, business owners — all actively pursuing their own goals. And again, with such company the topic of conversation meandered to work, ours and others, comparing approaches and the challenges of experiences. (It wasn't always so serious. Subjects also included Bollywood films, high school dating, bleaching one's hair with lemon juice, numbered streets, scarves, and the O'Hooligan boys).  

One night, Tara and I stood on the near a bonfire with high flames that deserved photography, and talked about our cities, about purpose and plans, and family. There was a chill in the air, but we didn't need coats. You could see downtown from where we were, multicoloured and evenly glowing, and between there and where we were was the silken rippling expanse of the inlet, reflecting that light here and there like sparks.

Boats out the market windows

Boats out the market windows

My book went to the printer on December 1st.

In a printshop somewhere, its starting to exist as something real. Physical. With a weight that can be held in hand rather than felt in the abstract. Once I am able to share a more about its contents in this space, I have every intention of then sharing that much more about what I was trying to get across with its writing. Seattle gave me a chance to practice what I want to say.

I'm looking forward to it.

Amy Chaplin's Spicy Carrot Soup with Lime Leaves and Coconut

Amy Chaplin's Spicy Carrot Soup with Lime Leaves and Coconut

Since I've been home, I've started a habit of soup. I think it's Aran's influence, as she has this witchy ability to make simple soups with remarkable depth.

One that has been a large part of this current trend, is from Amy Chaplin's book At Home in the Whole Food Kitchen, which was released just over a month ago. It is a curry-bright carrot bowlful scented with lime leaves and lemongrass, spiked by chilies and smoothed out with coconut milk. It starts with aromatics in the pan to sauté, then in goes everything else. It's a breeze to get together in less less than 10 minutes, then it is left to blip contentedly on the stove for 20 minutes more. It is voluptuous and comforting, with enough heat to restrain the vegetal sweetness and an aromatic freshness. While it is vegan, I wouldn't call that it is its selling point. It is an excellent, stomach-and-soul satisfying meal, simple as that, which is to say, everything Amy's food is about.

Amy has 20 years experience in the food industry, as a former executive chef, teacher, recipe developer, and private chef. She is a vegetarian, and her recipes are often vegan, yet once more, that status doesn't come across as first impression. Amy cooks seasonally, with a globe-covering collection of influences, never encumbered by unnecessary fuss, or sacrificing flavour for dietary restriction. There is never a feeling of absence with the recipes, they have everything they need. The dishes are sometimes soothing, others vibrant and rousing. It is truly good food, first and foremost, which just so happens to be accompanied by a sensible, and adaptable approach to feeding ourselves in a conscientious way. 

It is an impressive collection of over 150 recipes, from pantry staples to full meals, beginning with an in-depth discussion of ingredients and Amy's practices when it comes to how she cooks. It is an invaluable resource, a true reference as well as a cookbook. It gives the reader the tools to change the way they eat, and by extension, their health, and our environment. The book itself is almost intimidating in its beauty, verging on an object to behold rather than use — but then Amy's enthusiasm and quiet, approachable expertise shines off the pages and you're charmed.

Amy, mission accomplished. 

And Seattle, I can't wait see you again. 

 

SPICY CARROT SOUP WITH LIME LEAVES AND COCONUT

Making a pot of this invigorating soup in the middle of winer is the perfect antidote to cold, gray days. The lively flavours of ginger and chill are tempered by a good splash of coconut milk, creating a gorgeous texture and bright orange colour. The lime leaves and lemongrass give the soup a nice lift, but if you don't have them on hand, don't worry. I have made this dish many times without them with delicious results.

Note: in cold weather, coconut milk is solid at room temperature. To melt it, place the can in a bowl of a hot water for a few minutes, then shake well before using.

— From At Home in the Whole Food Kitchen: Celebrating the Art of Eating Well by Amy Chaplin (Roost Books, an imprint of Shambhala Publications Inc., 2014)

SERVES 6

FOR THE SOUP

  • 2 stalks lemongrass, halved lengthwise and chopped in 2-inch pieces
  • 6 lime leaves
  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin coconut oil
  • 2 medium onions, diced
  • 6 garlic cloves, chopped
  • 2 tablespoons peeled and minced fresh ginger
  • 1 serrano chili, seeded and minced
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons sea salt, plus more to taste
  • 2 teaspoons curry powder (see note below)
  • 1 teaspoon turmeric
  • 3 tablespoons minced cilantro stems, leaves reserved for garnish
  • 10 medium-large carrots (2 1/2 pounds) cut into 3/4-inch dice (about 8 cups)
  • 6 cups filtered water
  • 1 (13.5-ounce) can unsweetened full-fat coconut milk, stirred and divided
  • 1/8 to 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper, optional

TO SERVE

  • Cilantro leaves
  • Sliced red chilies

 

METHOD

Wrap lemongrass and lime leaves in a piece of cheesecloth and tie it tightly. Set aside.

Warm coconut oil in a large pot over medium heat. Add onions, and sauté for 5 minutes, or until golden. Add garlic, ginger, serrano chili, and salt; cook for 2 to 3  minutes more, lowering heat if mixture begins to stick. Stir in curry powder, turmeric, and cilantro stems. Add carrots, water, 1 1/4 cups coconut milk, and lemongrass-lime leaf bundle. Raise heat to high and bring to a boil. Cover pot, reduce heat to low, and simmer for 20 minutes or until carrots are tender. Remove from heat and remove lemongrass-lime leaf bundle and compost. 

Blend soup in batches in an upright blender on highest speed for 1 to 2 minutes, until completely smooth and velvety; return to pot and season to taste. Stir in cayenne pepper, if using. Ladle the soup into bowls and garnish each bowl with a drizzle of reserved coconut milk, cilantro leaves, and chilies. 

NOTES (from Tara)

  • Lime leaves are often sold frozen at Asian groceries and will keep for ages in the freezer. They might also be called murkat lime leaves. 
  • I used Amy's curry powder from the book, but any one you like will be fine here. The water can also be replaced with vegetable stock. 
  • To serve, I added browned cubes of paneer, along with cashews I'd bashed around in a mortar and pestle. 
The last of a workshop lunch at Aran's studio

The last of a workshop lunch at Aran's studio

Now! Finally! Since you made it this far! To in addition to sharing this recipe, Amy and Roost Books generously sent a copy of At Home in the Whole Food kitchen for me to pass on to one of you! If you'd like to be in the running, please comment below to that effect, and be sure to include an email address when you sign in (i.e. on the form, not in the comment field). A winner will be randomly selected after 8 PM EST Friday, December 12, 2014. UPDATE! Congratulations to CASEY on winning the book! I'll be in touch via email. Thanks to all who entered.

One more thing! On the topic of coming home, my friend Tiffany Mayer's book on Niagara and its food was released this fall. It chronicles the region's farming history, its present food culture, and the hopes for its future in an ever-changing environment and economy. The book, called Niagara Food, reads like a chat with a particularly smart friend, and celebrates not only this area's bounty, but also the people who make it their life's work to feed others. She did such a great job with it. 

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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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About two weeks ago I walked out on a pier that stretches into Lake Ontario. That pier runs parallel to another one, one that crops out from the edge of the neighbourhood where I grew up. It was a grey and windy day, with cotton batting clouds to almost the horizon, but you could still see Toronto from this shore. There was a queue of steamships, the kind my father used to sail, anchored in deeper water; they were waiting for their turn up the canal, or for a pilot to board, or something like that. The pier doesn't look that long until you've made it to its end — at which point you'll find a park bench, a collection of boulders, and a life preserver on a stand. 

Ships on Lake Ontario | Tara O'Brady

Over the last two months, I finished my book. Recipes, headnotes, and photos, sent off into the world (really to the offices of my publisher). We've worked through one round of edits, the design is well underway, and in just less than seven months from now, it will be in bookstores. Then it will really, no-turning-back-now out in the world. 

Very soon I'll be able to share more, including, fingers crossed, a peek at the cover (!!) and some of the nitty gritty about what you'll find inside.

It's funny. A friend told me recently that she thought I'd been quiet about the book, and I was speechless; flabbergasted even. (As an aside, flabbergasted is such a fine word.) From my perspective, I've lived and breathed this book for the last year or so. I've often heard it said that writing a book is like having a child, like the delivery part — the effort, the stress, the worry and then the relief and reward. For me, writing a book was like having a child. Not being in labor, but when the baby is home and you're tasked with the care of it. The Book was on my mind always, even when I was away from it. I went to it first thing in the morning, and put it to bed each night. Some nights, I went to bed with it, quite literally sleeping with a stack of pages on the nightstand. 

Pistachio-lemon Israeli Couscous | Tara O'Brady

Now it's a Sunday afternoon and I'm reconstructing our dining room. When I was in the depths of the book I found it more productive if I could write right beside the kitchen instead of working upstairs. Even if I wasn't cooking from the manuscript, cooking while writing kept me in the proper mindset . So this table, intended to seat eight, currently seats a monitor, keyboard, mouse, printer, external hard drive, a stack of notebooks, another of books, my camera, its battery, a bottle of Tylenol, a pile of receipts, and a tin of cookies a friend sent me from Paris. 

One of the books in said stack, fittingly enough, is David Lebovitz's My Paris Kitchen. Since that book came out, it's not made it to my bookshelf, but rather has spent its days on this table or in my kitchen, since I've been using it so much. In the first week, we made David's croque-monsieurs twice, with lots of mustard and cornichons on the plate, and a salad of bitter greens to join them. Then I made two of his tapenades —the artichoke with rosemary and the green olive with almonds — for summer afternoon snacking, then, when the basil and vegetables were plentiful in our weekly CSA box, his soupe au pistou made quick work of the bounty. Now that the weather is cooling I'm eyeing the scalloped potatoes with blue cheese and roasted garlic and the roast lamb with braised vegetables and salsa verde. 

I have such faith in his recipes that the first time I made the dish that follows, I went for a double batch. It's a bowl of fat couscous studded with nuts and fruit, including preserved lemons. We had it warm with a roasted chicken and some green beans, then the next day I had it at room temperature with bronzed slices of halloumi. It was filling without too much heft, fragrant and refreshing with fruit. The pinch of cinnamon provided an elusive, purring sort of backnote of spice that was especially effective.

This is such a useful book, full of the kind of recipes my family and I adore, including unexpected additions like caramel pork ribs, meatballs with sriracha, and naan stuffed with Laughing Cow cheese. And I've not even gotten started with the desserts (why hello, coffee cème brulée and carrot cake). 

My Paris Kitchen is beautiful. Ed Anderson's photography is stunning; he conveys the beauty of Paris as artfully as he does the food. Then there are David's essays; longer passages that give context to the recipes, and offer a glimpse into his past experiences and his present days. He is sharply funny, charming, and so damn knowledgeable. This is the kind of book you want to spend some time with.

Speaking of spending time, I've missed this. It's good to be back, and it's good to see you.

 

LEMON-PISTACHIO ISRAELI COUSCOUS

Recipe by David Lebovitz, from his book My Paris Kitchen. (Copyright 2014. Published by Ten Speed Press, a division of Random House. All rights reserved). The recipe and method as they are in the book, with my notes below. As David says in the headnote, orzo is a good substitute for the Israeli couscous. 

SERVES 4 to 6

INGREDIENTS

  • 1 preserved lemon
  • 1/2 cup (30 g) chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
  • 2 tablespoons salted or unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 1/2 cup (80 g) diced dried fruit (any combination of cherries, cranberries, apricots, prunes, or raisins)
  • 1/2 cup (65 g) unsalted (shelled) pistachios, very coarsely chopped (almost whole)
  • 3/4 teaspoon sea salt or kosher salt
  • 3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1 1/4 cups (225 g) Israeli couscous or another small round pasta
  • Freshly ground black pepper

METHOD

Trim the stem end from the lemon and cut it into quarters. Scoop out the pulp and press it through a strainer into a bowl to extract the juices; discard the pulp. Finely dice the preserved lemon rind and add it to the bowl along with the parsley, butter, dried fruit, pistachios, salt, and cinnamon.

Bring a pot of salted water to a boil over high heat. Add the couscous and cook according to the package instructions. Drain the couscous and add it to the bowl, stirring until the butter is melted and all the ingredients are well mixed. Season with pepper and serve.

 

NOTES (from Tara)

  • The same weekend I made this salad, my good friends Adam and Tamara catered an event with a salad of couscous with grapes and pine nuts. So inspired , I used diced red seedless grapes instead of the dried fruit, adding them once the couscous had cooled to warmish room temperature. 
  • I went a bit generous with the herbs, using a mix of (mostly) parsley and cilantro — probably using about 3/4 cup (45 g) chopped herbs in total. 
  • I bashed the few pistachios left in the jar  to a powder in a mortar and pestle as garnish.
  • To serve, I layered the couscous with about 9 oz ( 255 g) halloumi, which had been cut into 1/4-inch slices and fried in a medium-hot nonstick pan until they were golden on both sides. 
  • If you don't have preserved lemons, this quick version from Mark Bittman is quite good and only takes a few hours of sitting at room temperature. The ratio of lemons to salt and sugar is 1 : 1 teaspoon : 2 teaspoons, so you can do as many or as few lemons as you'd like. If using these lemons, simply mince the flesh and peel very finely and add them, along with accumulated juices, to the bowl in Step 1.
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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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Hello, hello! It's been a while, I know. Believe me, I know. I've been lost in book land, and the route back was a long road.

Roasted Peaches with Sesame Oats | Tara O'Brady
Ingredients O'Brady.jpg

I've not forgotten that we were to talk about storytelling, and this whole book business, and my own creative process. That is still happening, but in the meantime, David Lebovitz shared a brilliant post on the making of his latest book, My Paris Kitchen, and it is more than worth a read. (By the by, I've made the Croque Monsieur from that book more times than would be considered moderate. That recipe, and that book, is also more than worth a read. We'll be picking up on this later.)

Ontario Fruitstand | Tara O'Brady

And, still on that subject, my dear friend Aran of Cannelle et Vanille has asked me to teach a workshop at her gorgeous studio in Seattle this fall. I've been working on the course content as I finish up the book, so that I can offer the closest possible depiction of this time as I can. I don't now if I've mentioned it, but I am writing and photographing the book, in my home, mostly on my own. It has been a huge learning experience. And I look forward to sharing those lessons with you.

The workshop will examine and explore the nature of storytelling through multiple media. It will be from a writer's perspective, but everything from recipe development to styling and photography will be covered, with my creative process as the jump off to discovering your own. I am crazy excited about the subject and, what's more, the opportunity to dig deep and talk about the (sometimes messy) ins and outs of what I do.

If you'd like to be there, it would be an honour; registration is open at Aran's shop

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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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