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 Indian. 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, provide 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 subtly 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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Authortara
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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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