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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