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Dorie Greenspan shared a recipe for Ispahan sablés in her New York Times column earlier this month, and it reminded me of the first time I tasted anything Ispahan almost exactly a decade ago. It was in Paris where I was spending several weeks taking dance classes and trying to figure out what to do after losing my job. While the flavor combination of rose, raspberry, and lychee is a signature of pastry chef Pierre Hermé (Dorie talks about him here), I first experienced it in the Ladurée salon on the grand Champs Elysée.

I was on a date with this guy, Reuben was his name. It wasn’t our first date, but our second.

For our first, we walked around the Latin Quarter, the Left Bank neighborhood where I had swapped apartments, checking out the Vélib’ bikes that sat dormant, ready for their grand opening the following week. We perched on the still stationary bikes and pretended to ride around town. We sat next to statues, emulating their poses. We got crêpes and I was schooled on the best way to order them: citron sucrée – a squeeze of lemon and a sprinkling of confectioners’ sugar.

For our second date, Reuben wanted to share a classic Right Bank experience. We sat in a dim corner on a robin’s egg blue tapestry-covered banquette, voyeurs to the choreography of waiters, the bustling of the tourist-filled dining room in the Ladurée salon I mentioned earlier. Some food and a few glasses of wine in, it was time for dessert. I had never tried a macaron, so Reuben ordered what he said was the best one in the city. (Parisians are opinionated about their food, non?) It arrived: two bright pink meringues sandwiching rose cream, lychee bits, and the most perfect specimens of raspberries. This was a knife and fork kind of macaron, more cake than cookie and almost too pretty to dive into. Almost. The contrast of textures, the complement of flavors was quite possibly magical.

Reuben and I went out one more time, but then I moved on to Nice for the rest of the summer. His parting words: “I’ll always remember you as the girl who was lost in Paris.”

When I visited Paris this past June, one of my first stops was for an Ispahan macaron. It was a mini-one in a random patisserie with mere hints of rose and raspberry, mediocre at best, but the cookie is how I orient myself back to the city and it’s always on my day-one list.

My prior visit two years ago was a brief one, but I still managed to grab an Ispahan or two. I spent most of the time with Laurence and Gerald, sticking close to my Airbnb and their 17e arrondissement apartment. I was there to see them and to remind myself that I could visit the city of romance alone and do just fine.

And then this time, this summer, I made Paris my own again and could almost imagine myself living there. I stayed in Laurence and Gerald’s second bedroom in their picture-perfect Parisian apartment with floor to ceiling windows that let in dramatic shadows and sunlight, rooftop views, a strong cross breeze to cool everything down without air conditioning, shallow balconies, stairs spiraling an elevator whose door you have to push open, wrought iron everywhere, one (and only one) friendly neighbor, and one very cranky lobby attendant.

After snacking on that first mac of the trip, I made myself right at home in the city, hopping on the métro like a champ (indeed, google maps does help quite a bit), exploring parts of Paris that I know (le Marais) and those that I don’t (Montmartre, les Halles, the 11e). I joined a few food tours to get the lay of the land because the last time I really spent much time there, I wasn’t as into la cuisine as I am now.

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And yet, we didn’t eat out in many of the newer hot spots. I made it to Miznon and Fish La Boissonnerie and a neighborhood gem for couscous, but otherwise we ate at home. Gerald likes to cook – he owned a Lebanese restaurant in Strasbourg back in the day – so he treated Lau and me to dinner most nights. He even cleaned up – she’s got herself a winner, folks. Over the weekend, I popped to the outdoor market and overfilled my bag with peak fruits, croissants, and an obscene number of pastries, and we had a serious brunch before heading out to Clignancourt flea market – one of les puces – where I picked up some art and silverware and we mostly wandered through a maze of antique furniture.

It felt good. It felt comfortable. It felt normal. I felt like I could return without fanfare, without worry, without expectations. It was no longer a big deal.

Pierre Hermé’s Ispahan Sablés

This recipe comes straight from Dorie Greenspan’s in the New York Times, and I added a few small instructions based on my experience. The dough is really easy to work with. I’ve made roll and slice cookies in the past (another Dorie recipe) and ended up with holes in the middle from trapped air, but these cookies roll between your hands and the counter into perfectly solid cylinders. I wrapped the logs well and have frozen two of them when the need for a little sweetness strikes. 

There are a few ingredients that may require a special trip to the store (or Amazon). Sanding sugar is coarser than what you normally use, with crystals slightly smaller than sugar in the raw; it’s white and a little bit shimmery and often comes dyed. I dyed mine red with McCormick. Rose extract is much more intense than rose water and you need it here because sablés can’t take much moisture or they’ll lose their texture. I used Star Kay White brand – it’s pricey but you can use it in baking where you might normally use rose water, but a much, much smaller quantity. I used Whole Foods 365 freeze-dried raspberries, Dorie uses Trader Joe’s.

Makes about 5 dozen cookies

For the sugar:

– ¼ C (60 grams) sanding sugar

– ¼ t pure rose extract 

– Red liquid food coloring 

For the sablés:

– ½ C (10 grams) freeze-dried raspberries

– 1½ C (204 grams) all-purpose flour

– 11 T (155 grams) unsalted butter, at room temperature

– ⅓ C (67 grams) sugar

– ½ t pure rose extract

– ¼ t fleur de sel

Color. Put the sanding sugar, extract, and 2 drops of coloring in a small zipper-lock plastic bag, seal the bag and shake until the color is even. Add more color if necessary to get to bright pink.

Crush. Put the raspberries between sheets of wax paper or in a zip-top bag, and crush them with a rolling pin or the bottom of a skillet. Don’t expect perfection — it’s fine to have mostly powder and a few small nuggets. Whisk the raspberries into the flour.

Beat. Working with a mixer, beat the butter at medium speed until it’s soft and creamy, but not airy, about 2 minutes. Add the sugar, extract, and fleur de sel, and beat 3 minutes more. Turn the mixer off, scrape down the bowl, add the flour mixture all at once and pulse the mixer on and off to begin incorporating the dry ingredients. Mix on low speed until the dough forms soft curds and then starts to clean the sides of the bowl (i.e., it wraps around the paddle and no longer sticks to the bowl). Give it a few last turns with a spatula, then scrape it out onto the counter.

Roll. Divide the dough into 4 pieces, and roll each into an 8-inch-long log. If you don’t have a ruler, use the short edge of a piece of paper (8.5 X 11 inches) as a guide.

Coat. Spread the sugar out on a piece of wax paper, and roll the logs in the sugar until they’re completely coated. Wrap each log in plastic wrap, and refrigerate for at least 1 hour, or up to 3 days.

Prep. When you’re ready to bake, position the racks to divide the oven into thirds, and preheat it to 325ºF. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper.

Slice. Unwrap the logs, trim the ends if they’re ragged and cut the logs into ½-inch-thick rounds. Place them on the baking sheets, leaving about 2 inches between each round.

Bake. Bake the cookies for 19 to 21 minutes, rotating the sheets top to bottom and front to back after 10 minutes, or until the cookies are firm around the edges and golden brown on the bottom; the tops will remain pale. Rest the sablés for 2 minutes, then transfer to cooling racks. Serve – or pack into a container – when the cookies come to room temperature.

 

Well, I’ve had a sourdough starter for about four months now and have used it for its intended purpose exactly once. The loaves were fine, nothing special, not particularly sour, way too dark, sorta spongy. Clearly I have lots of practicing to do but I haven’t felt up to the dedication and attention necessary to master a perfect sourdough loaf. Gosh, I haven’t even named my starter yet. (But I have named my robot vacuum the Noonoo. Any Teletubbies fans out there? Anyone? Naughty Noonoo!)

Despite my sourdough sloth, each week I diligently feed my starter. When I’ve filled a quart container with discard, I use it up. Luckily, because discard is typically a 1:1 ratio (by weight) of flour to water, recipes aren’t much different than others requiring flour and water, though with the addition of a little tang. I started with muffins and quickly moved on to crackers. And crackers are where I’ve gotten stuck. Stuck in the sense that I just can’t move on and see no reason to move on. Friends swear by pancakes and English muffins, so perhaps I’ll branch out one of these days, but for now, I’m happy right were I am. Every time I bake up a batch, I think to myself, “who am I? Have I become that annoying person who makes her own crackers?” Apparently I have. (Also, granola. Who seriously makes granola? I do, that’s who.)

While I’ve made some crazy shit — Sachertorte (one of only two multilayer, frosted cakes I’ve ever attempted), a Passover tart (who makes a coconut macaroon pressed crust on Passover), zwetschgendatschi (yeasted Bavarian plum tart), Cassatelle (ricotta turnovers , the dough rolled out in a pasta machine) — what amazes me the most is when I make in my own kitchen something I’d normally buy. Case in point: chocolate covered graham crackers like the ones my Bubbie used to bribe me to drink milk. Also, now, whole wheat crackers.

Before I get all in awe of myself, I have to come clean: these crackers are dead easy. The hardest part is rolling them out thinly and evenly. The dough itself is a dream to work with — the vegetable oil makes it smooth and pliable. So, when I’ve collected a quart of discard, I make a quadruple batch. When I’m in the mood for crackers, I measure out two chunks of dough, roll as thinly as I can over a piece of parchment, and decorate with whatever flavors and textures I’m in the mood for.

Slice the dough with a pizza wheel, prick each square with a fork, and they’re ready for the oven.

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Sourdough whole wheat crackers

Adapted from King Arthur Flour. I like to top with a flavor and a texture. In this recipe, I used garlic powder (I have Leah Koenig to thank for my recent embrace of the spice) and flax seeds. I’m also a huge fan of za’atar, sumac, and sesame seeds or just some oats. Next, perhaps nutritional yeast? Pepitas? Maybe brush with a different oil – how about a sesame-miso mix, maybe if I use rice flour instead of whole wheat. And I can’t help but wonder if I might make some faux cheez-its by mix sharp cheddar into the dough.

I make a triple or quadruple batch and either separately wrap single batches or write the weight required for a single batch on a ziptop bag so I can measure out the right amount for next time. Normally I wouldn’t be so picky about how much dough you’re rolling out, but I’ve found that if you try to roll out too much, it’s just that much harder to get the dough thin or even.

Makes about 100 crackers

– 1 C whole wheat flour

– 1/2 t fine sea salt, plus 1 t for sprinkling on top

– 1 C unfed (“discarded”) sourdough starter

– 3 T vegetable oil, plus more for for brushing

– 1/2 t garlic powder for sprinkling

– 1 T flax seeds

Mix. Mix together the flour, salt, sourdough starter, and oil to make a smooth cohesive dough. If the dough is to sticky, add a little flour. Too dry, add a tiny bit of oil. Still too dry, a tiny bit of water. 

Chill. Divide the dough in half, and shape each half into a small rectangular slab. Cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate for 30 minutes, or up to a couple of hours, until the dough is firm.

Preheat. Preheat the oven to 400°F.

Roll. Very lightly flour a piece of parchment, your rolling pin, and the top of the dough. Working with one piece at a time, roll the dough to about 1/16″ thick – essentially as thinly and evenly as you possible can. The dough will have ragged, uneven edges; that’s OK. 

Brush and top. Transfer the dough and parchment together onto a baking sheet. Lightly brush with oil and then sprinkle the salt, garlic powder, and flax seeds over the top of the crackers. Sprinkle from high above the dough to ensure it’s evenly distributed rather than clumping. Gently roll the pin over the dough to press the seeds into the dough (as you can see in my photos, I didn’t press down hard enough this time).

Slice and prick. Use a pizza wheel to cut the dough into into squares between 1 and 1 1/4 inches. Doesn’t have to be perfectly exact. Prick each square with the tines of a fork.

Bake. Bake the crackers for 15-20 minutes, until the squares start to brown around the edges and are lightly golden in the center. At the 7- to 8-minute mark, turn the baking sheet 180 degrees to ensure the crackers bake evenly if your oven has hot spots (mine clearly does).

Cool. Remove the crackers from the oven, and transfer them to a cooling rack. Store airtight at room temperature for up to a week, if they last that long; freeze for longer storage.

skyrversary

I called Natasha last month to wish her a happy one-year skyrversary. On our trip to Reykjavik, we ate the thick creamy yogurt-like deliciousness at least once a day, often twice, once even thrice. Yes, it was lovely for breakfast but it really shines in dessert. Each of the restaurants we went to had a sweet skyr course, typically layered with something frozen and something crunchy. One night, blueberry sorbet and oats. Another, strawberries and green strawberry granita. And also, sorrel granita, hazelnut gelato, merengue, and blondies. I mean, seriously people, the desserts were insane.

Just a few days after returning home, I took a first step at reproducing our desserts: I pulled out Cheryl Sternman Rule‘s Yogurt Culture to start from scratch. I inoculated a heavy pot of warmed milk with a dollop of skyr starter (Icelandic Provisions because they use “heritage cultures” and I was aiming for authenticity) and let the whole mix incubate overnight in an oven warmed only by its light. (Am I sounding overly scientific with all this inoculation and Incubation? Yeah, a little. And I’m OK with that.)

In the morning, I pulled the heavy pot from its oven incubator and was pleased to see that the curds had sunk to the bottom and the liquid whey had risen to the top. My plan was to strain the curds as if I were making Greek yogurt (not that I’ve made that), and then strain them a little bit longer.

I lifted the pot and tipped it over a bowl to pour off the whey, but the curds slid out and I lost hold of the pot and the floor was soon a slick puddle of yogurt. Warm yogurt. Turns out, the scent of warm fermenting yogurt is not only unappealing but it permeates everything. After I mopped up the floor, I had to change outfits. And after a day outside, I thought I was coming home to a dairy farm.

I’d like to say I got back on the horse, but I didn’t. I just moved on. One by one, I pulled together the components for an approximation of the simplest of our skyr desserts. There were blueberries to roast. Sorbet to churn. Cookie crumbles to bake. I then layered and layered and layered to compose a ridiculously complicated dessert.

Fancypants blueberry and skyr dessert

– Skyr

– Roasted blueberry compote

– Blueberry lime sorbet

– Oatmeal cookie crumble

Layer. Fill a glass two-thirds with skyr. Cover with blueberry compote. Top with a scoop of sorbet. Sprinkle with cookie crumble. Drizzle with a few more roasted blueberries.

***

Roasted blueberry compote

Just barely adapted from Cheryl Sterman Rule‘s Yogurt Culture. This is actually the first time I’ve roasted fruit – strawberries, you’re up next! – and I like how the flavors concentrate differently than stove-top compote, making a more soup-like (as opposed to stew-like) compote. The berries wrinkle up as the oven dries them out and because they’re not crowded together in a pot, they don’t reabsorb their released juice. 

If your blueberries are tart (for example, the tiny ones from Maine), add up to a tablespoon more of sugar.

Makes 1 1/2 cups

– 2 1/2 C fresh blueberries

– 2 T white sugar

– 1 T lime juice

Roast. Heat oven to 350°F. Toss 2 cups of blueberries with the sugar and spread on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Roast for 15-20 minutes until the skins burst, the berries shrivel up a bit, and the released juices thicken and slightly caramelize.

Mix. Using a bench scraper, pull the berries and juices into the center. Carefully lift the long edges of the parchment towards the center and tip the berries and their juices into a bowl. Don’t wait too long or the juices will harden. Stir in the lime juice and let cool.

Serve. Mix with yogurt (or skyr), drizzle over ice cream, or put a jar on a cheese plate.

***

Blueberry lime sorbet

This recipe follows the guidelines for Any-Fruit Sorbet from The Kitchn. While making simple syrup is a bit fussy and not necessary for a berry sorbet, I added this step so I could infuse mint into the sugar water concentrate. Just a tiny bit of vodka helps lower the freezing point so that the sorbet doesn’t get too hard. Depending on what type of ice cream maker you have, you might need to put the canister in the freezer the night before. 

– 1/4 C sugar, plus extra if needed

– 1/2 C water

– 4 sprigs fresh mint

– 2 lbs (about 5 C) blueberries

– 1 t lime zest

– 1 T vodka

– 2 T fresh lime juice, plus extra if needed

Simmer. Make simple syrup by combining sugar, water, and mint in a pot over medium-high heat. Simmer, stirring periodically, until the sugar dissolves. This is a very concentrated 2:1 sugar syrup as I didn’t want to add too much water. Remove from heat and cool to room temperature.

Puree. Use a blender, immersion blender, or food processor to puree the simple syrup, berries, lime zest, and vodka until smooth.

Strain. Strain mixture through a fine mesh strainer to get rid of any pesky blueberry skins and larger pieces of lemon zest.

Taste. Add the lime juice and taste the mixture for sweetness. It should be a bit sweeter than you want because the sweetness dissipates during the freezing process .(How? I have no idea.) Way too sweet? Add lime juice, teaspoon by teaspoon. Too sour? Add sugar, tablespoon by tablespoon.

Chill. Chill the base in the fridge until very cold, at least an hour.

Churn. Pour the cold base into your ice cream machine and churn until the consistency of a thick smoothie. This takes about 25 minutes in my Cuisinart.

Freeze. Transfer to a container or two, cover well, and freeze for at least four hours before serving.

***

Oatmeal cookie crumble

Makes 1 1/2 cups

– 1/2 C flour

– 1 C oats

– 1/4 C brown sugar

– 1/4 C cold butter

– 1/2 t salt

– 1 egg

Pulse. In a small food processor, pulse together all ingredients until the mix resembles cornmeal.

Bake. Spread evenly on a parchment covered baking sheet and bake in a 350ºF oven until it starts to brown, about 10 mins. Use 2 forks to break up chunks and return to oven. Bake for about 10 more minutes until golden brown, checking every 2-3 minutes to break up chunks and make sure that the pieces aren’t burnt. Once cool enough to handle, break up chunks until the size of grape nuts.

Store. Store in an airtight container.

I’ve got a lot to tell you about – some amazing travel and a skyr dessert from last year’s Iceland adventure – but this recipe has been sitting in my draft pile since May and despite these long sticky days of summer when all you want to do is crawl into your freezer, I’m here to encourage you to turn on your oven and sweat it out.

There’s no backstory to this recipe, no seasonal ingredients, no science, but I’ve made it more than a handful of times and it’s a keeper. I call it tofu candy because the brown sugar in the teriyaki marinade caramelizes during a long bake in the oven, and I can’t help but paw little cube after little cube into my not-so-little mouth and end up eating an entire block of tofu (nearly a pound of the stuff) before I realize. I mean, seriously, these are the Jelly Bellies of the hippie dippie crunchy granola world.

Roast some broccoli at the same time if you want to call it dinner.

Teryaki tofu (aka, tofu candy)

Adapted from Cooking Light. If you want to add some vegetables, slide a baking sheet of broccoli (tossed in olive oil, salt, and pepper) in the oven ten minutes into the baking process – it should be ready around the same time as the tofu. Double or triple the marinade so you can toss in some pressed tofu and have candy on a whim (plus about 40 minutes of oven time).

Serves 1 or 2 as dinner

– 1 (14-oz) package extra-firm tofu, drained

– 1 T brown sugar

– 1 t grated fresh ginger

– 1 garlic clove, minced

– 1 T low sodium soy sauce

– 1 t rice wine vinegar

– 1 t toasted sesame oil

– dash hot sesame oil

– cooking spray

– 1 T toasted sesame seeds

Drain. Cut the tofu crosswise into 5 (1-inch-thick) slices. Place slices on several layers of paper towels and cover with additional paper towels. Place a cutting board on top and weigh down with several cans. Let stand 20 minutes, pressing down occasionally.

Whisk. While the tofu is pressing, whisk together the sugar, ginger, garlic, soy sauce, vinegar, oils, and sesame seeds.

Cube. Cut each tofu slice into 1/2-inch cubes.

Soak. Add tofu to marinade and toss to combine. Let stand for 10 minutes. Heat oven on to 375ºF.

Bake. Arrange tofu in a single layer on a parchment-lined baking sheet coated with cooking spray. Bake at 375°, stirring periodically, for 30 – 40 minutes or until tofu is browned on all sides. Toss with sesame seeds.

I was gifted a sourdough starter right before Passover. My family was visiting Pirch to look at kitchen designs —  we’re renovating the Lower East Side apartment where my mom grew up — and I struck up a conversation with Chef Tracy Justynski over a fig-studded loaf of bread and gluten free chocolate chip cookies fresh from the oven. I’m not sure what prompted my chutzpah, but I asked her if she had any sourdough starter to share.

She did.

Tracy told me that her starter is over two years old, and she drove it cross-country from San Diego, leaving a trail of blobs with friends along the way. She disappeared into the prep kitchen, and came out with a plastic quart container filled with a cup or so of a flour water mix inoculated with Southern California yeast. Inscribed on the top, in Sharpie: “Starter – feed me flour + water every 2 weeks.”

I slipped it in my bag and would have skipped home if I weren’t a decade of blocks away. I kept the starter in the fridge, keeping it alive with a one-to-one (by weight) ratio of flour to water (approximately 1 cup flour to 1/2 cup water) every other weekend.

Finally I attempted to bake bread using an adaptation of Chad Robertson’s (of Tartine) recipe. It was a five-day process: three days to wake up the starter; one day to mess up the first attempt; two days to get it right. Well, sort of right. The bottoms were burnt. The crumb was spongey. The taste lacked oomph. But at least it sang.

I fed the starter and returned it to the fridge for another weekend project. In the interim, I had amassed a quart worth of starter discard. See, before your feed your starter, you pour out about half (if you don’t, the starter will take over your kitchen). I can’t bear to throw out the discard — especially since I suspect I’ll eventually name mine. So I collected it and searched for recipes. I mostly found English muffins and pancakes, but I tracked down one for blueberry muffins that seemed simple. Also, it used up a lot of excess starter.

My first attempt yielded blueberry-less muffins that were tough. Yesterday I made a second batch, this time with cut up strawberries, a bit more liquid, a lower oven temperature, and a longer bake. Success.

In light of the disaster of a healthcare bill that recently passed the House, I can’t help but find meaning in valuing what some may discard, in cherishing what gets left behind.

Sourdough discard muffins – strawberry version

Adapted from King Arthur. This is a very simple recipe to use up discarded sourdough starter that you just can’t bear to throw away. The sourdough flavor isn’t particularly pronounced. This is essentially a quick bread, and you need to mix the wet ingredients into the dry very quickly (like pancake batter) and then immediately spoon it into the muffin pans. This allows you to capture the rising action of the baking soda. You can substitute 1½ cups of any other berry or fruit (the original version has blueberries and cinnamon). You can make these in mini muffin tins – bake for 20 minutes – which will yield about 3 dozen.

Makes 1 dozen muffins

– 1 C all-purpose flour, plus more to toss with the berries

– 1 C yellow cornmeal, fine

– ¾ t salt

– 1 t baking soda

– 1 C sourdough starter, fed or unfed

–  1/3 C milk

– 1 large egg

– ¼ C melted butter of vegetable oil, plus more to grease the pans

– 1/2 C maple syrup (or honey)

– 1 t vanilla extract

– ½ t rose water (optional)

– ½ lb strawberries, cut into small pieces (about 1½ cups)

– Demerara or coarse sugar, for sprinkling tops

Prep. Preheat oven to 375° F. Grease the wells of a muffin pan (or use cupcake liners).

Stir. Combine the flour, cornmeal, salt, and baking soda in a large bowl and set aside.

Whisk. In a second bowl, beat together the starter, milk, egg, oil, maple syrup, vanilla, and rose water (if using).

Toss. Coat the cut strawberries in a few tablespoons of flour.

Blend. Pour the wet ingredients into the dry and blend together quickly, about 30 seconds or so, until just combined. There may be a few lumps – that’s OK. Gently stir in the berries.

Fill. Fill the greased muffin cups to the top, and sprinkle the tops with Demerara sugar. Try not to get too much sugar on the pan itself or it will caramelize and make it difficult to remove the muffins.

Bake. Bake the muffins for 30 – 35 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.

Cool. Allow the muffins to cool in the pan for 5 minute and then remove to continue cooling on a rack.

Spring fruits and vegetables, in the Northeast at least, arrive with exclamation points.

Asparagus!

Morels!

Peas!

Fiddleheads!

Favas!

The exclamation pointiest of the exclamation points is ramps. I mean, ramps! Better yet, RAMPS!

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Because they’re typically foraged and their season is short, these alliums could start a cult with worshipers preparing all year for the few weeks these pungent (and, whew, they are pungent!) guys emerge, praying to the gods of rain and sun and dirt, stalking farmers market for the first hint of these wild leeks that look a bit like scallions but with purplish stems and broad leaves. Mario Batali even made a video about them that’s worth a watch.

When I spied a few bundles on friends’ Instagram feeds, I beelined to my neighborhood farmers’ market. It was the first Friday after Passover and while I was very happy to see She Wolf Bakery and grab the last maple and oat loaf, there was little in the soil-plucked, tree-picked category. The following week, same thing. I brought home a bundle of branches covered in buds and the promise of my own personal cherry blossom festival. To date they’ve only sprouted leaves. Not a single flower yet, but I have faith.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI finally trekked down to the Union Square Greenmarket hoping for something, anything, of the green variety. My schlep was rewarded with an entire table of ramps. I loaded up and then went a little bit crazy. Scallions. Upland cress (which is like watercress, but more peppery: I’ve been chopping it up like parsley and adding it to Israeli salad). A few mint plants for good measure. By the time I got home, my bag reeked but I didn’t care.

The most common ramp recipe I found was for pesto, but I wanted to make something slightly different. In the past I’ve sautéed ramps, and this time I went for a chimichurri-like sauce with a dash of vinegar and some red pepper flakes. While the herbs for chimichurri are usually hand chopped and mixed with oil, I sliced my finger earlier in the week (it’s still healing and not very pretty looking) and decided to just throw everything in the food processor for a smoother puree.

I’ve been slathering this on everything from bread to an omelette to fish. And mixed it with yogurt, a bit of mayo, and a squeeze of lemon to dress cabbage slaw. I’m even thinking about trying to make skirt steak to showcase the sauce (you might have noticed that the only been I ever make is braised – I’m sort of scared of ruining a steak).

Ramp chimichurri

Adapted from Vegetarian Ventures and A Couple Cooks. Make sure to clean the ramps really well – they’re not as gritty as leeks, but they are related. The extra step of blanching the leaves will help the sauce retain a bright green color. 

Makes 1 cup

–  approximately 25 ramps (2 -3 bunches)

– 2 T sherry vinegar

– 1/4 C olive oil, plus extra for storage

– 1 t aleppo pepper

– 1/2 t salt

Wash. Separate the leaves from the bulbs. Swish the leaves in a big bowl of water to dislodge any dirt, draining and replacing the water until it runs clear (this may take quite a few repeats). Cut the roots off the bulbs and then remove the outer slimy layer.

Blanche and shock. Make an ice bath. Bring a large pot of water to boil. Drop the leaves in until they wilt, about 10 seconds, and then transfer to the ice bath. Once cool, squeeze as much water as possible from the leaves.

Puree. In a food processor, pulse the ramp leaves and bulbs, vinegar, oil, pepper, and salt until smooth, but not too smooth.

Store. Cover with a thin layer of oil to prevent browning and refrigerate.

a potschke

My Passover cooking philosophy – with the exception of matzah brei and matzah ball soup – is to avoid matzah in all of its permutations (farfel, matzah meal, cake meal). Rather than attempt to construct a facsimile of a leavened sweetie (or even worse, use a boxed cake mix), I like to find ways to use naturally Passover-friendly ingredients in ways that I’d gladly eat the rest of the year.

Which is why I found myself nodding as I read “Don’t Make Passover Too Easy,” the New York Times op-ed that my friend Jeff Yoskowitz wrote last week. In it he makes a compelling argument that  “embracing the holiday’s tedious dietary restrictions, not working around them, is critical to appreciating this holiday on a deeper level. And to eating well.” He encourages readers to go back to basics, to cook the way they did generations ago before there was a Passover aisle with its ersatz cookies, its pizza and s’mores kits. To turn to seasonal produce and cook from scratch and have fun with the challenge.

Yes!

Or, if I were cooler, I’d probably say yaaaaaaasssss!

The article reminded me of how when I met Jeff with his beard and skinny jeans and artisanal gefilte fish company where his title is “chief pickler,” I knee-jerk dismissed him as a hipster and joked that he probably lived in Brooklyn. He does. He then guessed that I lived in the conspicuously Jewish enclave known as the Upper West Side. I do. Touché, Jeff, touché. (I have no idea whether Jeff remembers this conversation, but we’ve moved past any early awkwardness.)

In the article, Jeff doesn’t use the word nostalgia, perhaps because it’s gotten a bad rap in its association with hipster-ism* or its tendency to devolve into excessive sentimentality. But in my book, Passover is the nostalgia-ist of all holidays because it requires a week of stringent food restrictions, and a reliance on recipes passed down through the generations is often the only way to make it through. Even more, the preamble to the seder dinner involves a retelling and symbolic reliving of our communal history. What better way to relive an experience than by immersing ourselves in the foods that our parents and grandparents and great-grandparents ate**, and if you go back far enough (or, in many cases, not that far at all) what our ancestors ate in the country they came from that’s not our current country, because weren’t we all – Jews, Americans – immigrants at some point?***

It’s not surprising, then, the holiday prompted my friend Gabi to coin the term “granny chic” in another recent Passover food-related article in the Boston Globe. Gabi writes about her first time making her mother’s version of her grandmother’s favorite spongecake (10 eggs!) and dried fruit compote. In the article, she addresses the nostalgia issue head on, sharing Jewish cookbook author (most recent: King Solomon’s Table, more on this as soon as I can get it down on paper) and food storyteller Joan Nathan‘s perspective that strict adherence to authenticity can be overrated and improving upon the nostalgic recipes of our past is the way to go.

The Passover recipe that’s most nostalgic for me, that most reminds me of my own Bubbie, is her Passover “bagels.”  They are essentially dense heavy rolls with a thumb print in the middle, heavily sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon (so their belly button fills with the sweet mix), and baked for at least an hour until they finally dehydrate enough to hold their shape and develop of crust. I’m not sure why we didn’t just call them doughnuts, but tradition is tradition and my mom continued making them until just a few years ago when we opted for lighter fare. I can’t help but wonder if we should bring them back next year, keeping the cinnamon sugar but using some non-matzah meal flour alternatives to free them from their hockey-puck heft.

All this has been a really long-winded introduction to the recipe that I have for you today. And perhaps an explanation – to myself at least, since writing and reading often help me figure out what’s behind what I do – for why I opted for such a potchke (translation: fuss in Yiddish) of a recipe for this year’s seders. All the talk of nostalgia got me thinking about what Bubbie might have wanted after dinner and before the afikoman. She was a woman who orchestrated setting the cloth-covered table with dishes for every eventuality, a thematic centerpiece, and pitchers to hold seltzer. Never, ever were we to have a plastic bottle displayed.

So I decided to make a showstopper of a dessert: a lime curd tart on a coconut crust. Something that, after the dinner plates had been cleared and everyone had sat down again, could be presented to the table on a special platter. The Passover equivalent to my bubbie’s Thanksgiving Jell-o mold.

This was a major departure from my tendency to make petite sweets – chocolate cakelets, macaroons, mandelbread. And in my quest to develop a recipe that would work, I followed the advice of Anna Gershenson (she’s Gabi’s mother and has a lifetime of catering and teaching experience) and did something I’ve never done: I broke down and bought potato starch. Using an ingredient that I wouldn’t normally use during the rest of the year was hard for me to stomach, and I stubbornly researched recipes for over a week to avoid it. Eventually I realized that to make the dessert I wanted without laborious recipe testing would require borrowing a failsafe technique developed over many Passovers: potato starch to provide structure to both the crust and curd of the tart I had been dreaming of.

Sure, the crust takes an hour and a half to make, but most of that time is waiting. And, yes, the curd requires a lot of zesting and juicing and tedious stirring over the stove. But the result was exactly what I was looking for. The potschke is worth it and I think I can pat myself on the back and say that Bubbie would have been proud.

FOOTNOTES (seriously, who writes a blog post with footnotes?):

* My working definition of a hipster as someone who “manifests nostalgia for times he never lived himself” comes from an opinion piece in the New York Times that I read back in 2012. Here, Christy Wampole (a Princeton professor of French literature and thought) argues that living ironically (as exemplified by hipsters) is a form of frivolity (my words, not hers) that is worth reconsidering in favor of seriousness. I’ve fallen down the rabbit hole of reading a bunch of Wampole’s articles and interestingly, after last year’s election, she wrote a follow-up essay about the political destructiveness of this ironic living and the importance of “good” seriousness in the face of a current administration that demonstrates an unapologetic, un-self-reflective, taking-itself-too-seriously brand of seriousness.

** The Jewish Food Society, founded by Naama Shefi, has as its mission to honor and revitalize Jewish culinary traditions. I wrote about their first public event, “Schmaltzy,” which was a Moth-like evening during which five different people shared food stories and their favorite dishes. The organization and event were also covered in NPR and Food and Wine.

*** Here’s another article that seems particularly relevant these days: David Sax of Save the Deli argues for welcoming immigrants at the very least for the sake of dining diversity.

Coconut macaroon crust

Adapted from Tori Avey. This is essentially one big macaroon that dries out in the oven to get completely crispy. I initially tried to use my own macaroon recipe but I didn’t make enough to fill the tart pan, and while cooking the egg white coconut mix on the stovetop first is helpful for shaping the macaroons, it’s not necessary for this crust. I scooped it into macaroons.

My crust was very difficult to remove from pan. Next time I plan to line the removable bottom with heavy duty aluminum foil so the tart can be easily removed (like I do for brownies). I’ll report back once I do this to update the recipe.

– 3 C shredded unsweetened coconut

– 4 egg whites (reserve yolks for lime curd filling, below)

– 1/2 C sugar

– 1 T potato starch (or cornstarch)

– 1/4 t salt

– Coconut oil for greasing

Preheat. Preheat oven to 325° F.

Stir. In a bowl, stir together coconut, egg whites, sugar, potato starch, and salt until thoroughly combined.

Wait. Allow the mixture to sit for 20-30 minutes so that the coconut soaks up the liquid.

Press. Grease with coconut oil a 9- or 10-inch tart pan with a removable bottom. Press the coconut mixture into the pan. Use a measuring cup of the bottom of a glass to smooth out the coconut and to press it into the sides of the pan. Wet the bottom of the cup or glass if it’s sticking to the coconut.

Bake. Place the pan on a cookie sheet and bake for 30 minutes or until the edges turn a light golden brown, but the center is still white. Allow to cool for a few minutes until you can gingerly handle the pan, and cover the edge with aluminum foil to stop the browning.

Bake again. Return the pan to the oven and bake for another 30 minutes or until the center turns golden brown. The center might be a bit darker than the edge. Allow to cool. If you’re going to make the whole tart, keep the oven on.

Lime curd filling

Adapted from Gourmet. I amped up the lime zest and replaced the butter with a quarter the amount of coconut oil. This curd is on the puckering side which is how I prefer it, but you can add a bit more sugar if you’d like. 

Makes approximately 1½ cup

– 4 large egg yolks (leftover from the crust)

– 3/4 C fresh lime juice (my limes weren’t very juicy, so I needed 9)

– 2 T lime zest (if you have any left over, use it for the tart topping)

– 3/4 cup sugar

– 1 T potato starch (or cornstarch)

– 1/2 teaspoon salt

– 2 T coconut oil

Whisk. In a 2-quart heavy sauce pan, whisk together egg yolks, lime juice and zest, sugar, potato starch, and salt until the potato starch is dissolved.

Cook. Whisk the mixture over medium-low heat, using a silicone spatula to reach into the corners and scrape the sides and bottom of the pan until the mixture is thickened and beginning to bubble around the edges, about 5 minutes. Whisk for another minute and remove from heat. At this point, the curd should be thick and jiggly.

Strain. Place a strainer over a bowl. With the spatula, scrape the curd into the strainer, pressing gently on the solids – this will remove any egg that might have cooked as well as most of the zest. Scrape any curd clinging to the underside of the strainer into the bowl. This whole process may take a few minutes.

Store. If not using right away, store the curd in the fridge.

Coconut lime curd tart

While the crust is baking, you can make the lime curd, or use whatever curd you’d like – either homemade or store bought.

I played around with a lot of decorating ideas, particularly since lime curd is really yellow from the egg yolks and I wanted to make sure you could tell it was lime rather than lemon. I initially candied lime peel but I allowed the peel to boil for too long (boiling removes the bitterness) before shocking it, so it turned an ugly shade of khaki. I was going to sprinkle it over the curd after the tart baked, but I didn’t feel like making a second batch. Ugly or not, I managed to eat almost the entire batch. In the end, I toasted some coconut and mixed it with lime zest and a little sugar – next time I’d probably sprinkle it over the entire tart so it doesn’t look like a fried egg.

– 1/4 C shredded unsweetened coconut (optional)

– 1 T lime zest (optional)

– 1 T sugar (optional)

– 1 coconut macaroon crust, baked (see above)

– 1 ½ C lime curd (see above)

Preheat. Assuming you’ve just made the crust, the oven should already be at 325° F, but if it’s not, turn up the heat.

Toast. While the crust is baking, pop the coconut into the oven to toast, no more than 2 minutes until it just starts to brown. Watch closely because coconut burns very quickly.

Mix. In a small bowl, mix together the coconut, lime, and sugar.

Fill.  Spread the curd evenly across the crust. Sprinkle liberally with coconut-lime mixture.

Bake. Keeping the pan on the baking sheet, bake for 10-12 minutes until the curd is just set and no longer wobbles if you tap the pan.

Chill. Once the tart comes to room temperature, carefully wrap it in plastic and refrigerate for at least an hour before serving. I like it right out of the fridge.

 

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Way back in December – doesn’t that feel like an eternity ago? – I woke up early one Friday morning, dressed in darkness, and tiptoed out the front door. I needed two pounds of butter (for the cookies that kept on giving) and another of margarine, and my friend Nachama was in town, fast asleep on the sofa. It was Alyson’s birthday and she had invited both of us over for shabbat dinner. As usual, I offered to make dessert.

Just a few weeks shy of the winter solstice, sundown (the start of shabbat) was around half-past four and with at least a thirty minute drive up to Alyson’s new place in Riverdale, and a downtown physical therapy appointment, I wanted to get dessert into the oven early. This is all a long-winded way of saying that I was tired and in a rush.

Back home from the store, I ground fresh beans and made a pot of coffee. Either the sound or the smell dragged Nachama out from under the covers. She sat on a pouf that she dragged across the floor to my kitchen doorway – the kitchen’s barely big enough for one, let alone two bodies – and we caught up on each other’s travels, work, and lives.

The day before, I had found a few tart recipes to use up a bag of cranberries left over after Thanksgiving. While Nachama and I chatted, I compared three printouts and calculated how to mix and match the recipes in the right proportions. I was convinced that the area of a circle was 2πr which slowed down the process considerably. Once I remembered it was πr2, things went a bit more smoothly.

Math all figured out, I set to work, mixing together a dough and pressing it into little tart pans (how cute are they??).

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While the crusts baked, I started in on the curd. Melting down the cranberries into a compote. Pureeing. Cooling. Adding the eggs and yolks. While the cranberries cooled and I cracked and separated eggs, Nachama squeezed past me and sliced up some onions for an omelette to use up the four egg whites leftover from the curd.

I did double duty at the stove – stirring the cranberries with eggs, lemon, sugar, and a pinch of salt and slowly caramelizing the onions with the other. Once the curd set, I strained it. Once the onions caramelized, I added the eggs. I filled the tartlet crusts with curd and popped them in the oven, and Nachama and I sat down to breakfast.

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When the timer went off, I pulled the tartlets out of the oven and put them on the counter to cool. Right next to a stick of margarine. The stick of margarine that I forgot to add to the curd. Shit! 

Too late to do anything about it, I trotted off to PT and rushed back home. After an hour or so in the fridge, the tartlets firmed up and though the curd was a little looser and the texture a little less decadent than I’d have liked, Nachama and I decided that no one would know that an ingredient was missing.

And so I have for you some winter tartlets. Just in time for spring.

(If you want to be all seasonal about it, fill the crust with rhubarb curd instead.)

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Cranberry curd tartlets

The idea for these tartlets came from the New York Times, but eventually I used the crust from my lemon bars (originally from Alice Medrich) and a slightly less sweet (and lower fat if you forget the 1/2 cup of margarine/butter) cranberry curd from The Kitchn. If you do want to add margarine/ butter, stir it into the strained cranberries. Now that it’s Spring, you can make the curd with rhubarb instead (double this recipe from Not Derby Pie) for an slightly less pink dessert.

Make sure to line the bottom of your tart pans with rounds of parchment paper. If you don’t want to make tartlets, you can make two 8- or 9-inch tarts or a 9X13-inch pan. The recipe makes 2 cups of curd. 

Makes 10 4-inch tartlets.

For crust:

– 1 1/2 C sifted flour

– 1/2 C yellow cornmeal

–  large pinch salt

– 1/4 t baking soda

– 1/4 C unsalted butter or margarine (room temperature)

– 2/3 C sugar

– 2 egg yolks

– 2 T light mayonnaise or yogurt

– 1/3 t vanilla extract

For topping:

– 12 oz (about 3 C) fresh cranberries

– 1/2 C water

– 2/3 C granulated sugar

– 4 eggs

– 4 egg yolks

– 2 T lemon juice

– 1/4 t salt

Prepare. Preheat oven to 350ºF and put rack in lower 1/3 of the oven. Cut 10 circles of parchment paper the size of the removable pan bottoms, and then grease and line the pans. Pick out any squished or blemished cranberries and remove any stems and then rinse the berries.

Make crust:

Mix. Stir together the flour, cornmeal, salt, and baking soda. In a stand mixer, beat the mayonnaise/yogurt and margarine/butter until creamy. Add the sugar and beat for about a minute. Beat in egg yolk, mayonnaise/yogurt, and vanilla. Add in the dry ingredients and beat on low until just combined. It will be crumbly. Scrape bowl and knead briefly with hands.

Press. Press a generous 1/4 cup of dough into each tartlet pan, making sure to cover the sides. Use the bottom of a measuring cup to smooth everything out and nudge the dough into the fluted edges. Prick the dough all over with a fork.

Bake. Arrange the pans on a cookie sheet for easier transport. Bake for 20 minutes until the edges just start to brown.

Make curd:

Cook. While the crusts are baking, place the cranberries and water in a medium-sized pot over medium-high heat and stir. Continue cooking, stirring occasionally, until all the cranberries have popped and become mushy, about 5 minutes. Puree the cranberries with an immersion blender until as smooth as possible.

Cool. Remove the pot from the stovetop and allow the cranberry puree to come to room temperature. This is an important step because if it’s too hot, it will cook the eggs.

Mix. To the pot with the cranberry puree, add the sugar, eggs and yolks, lemon juice, and salt. Stir thoroughly.

Heat. Return the pot to the stove. Stir the curd continuously, making sure to scrape the bottom and corners of the pan. Cook until the curd starts to thicken, coats the back of a spoon, and registers about 150° on an instant-read thermometer if you have one, about 10-12 minutes.

Strain. Pour the curd through a strainer into a clean bowl – this will get rid of any tough cranberry bits or cooked egg. This is when you should stir in the 1/4 cup of butter or margarine until it melts.

Put it all together:

Bake. Pour the strained cranberry curd (it’s OK if it’s warm) onto the baked crust, a scant 1/4 cup per tartlet. Bake at 350° for 10-12 minutes, until the curd has set. It shouldn’t wobble when you tap the pan. Cool completely and refrigerate before serving.

Store. Keep refrigerated. The crust will soften after a day, so these are best eaten the day they are made.

The past week or so, I’ve been on the RAT diet (aka the BRAT diet, but I don’t like bananas). With most meals limited to applesauce, tea, electrolyte drinks, broth, and challah rolls, my dishwasher is full of mugs, bowls, and spoons.

When I felt ready to move to more solid foods, I went cautiously. I craved protein and needed something pure, with nothing that might offend my stomach – no fat, no spice, no acid, no dairy, no nothing. A search for “bland recipe” didn’t really turn up anything inspiring. But I had some chicken breasts in the freezer and, still not up to an excursion to the grocery store, decided to poach.

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Admittedly, this isn’t my prettiest dish. My vegetarian sister commented that she hoped it tasted better than it looked. Sure, the chicken looks anemic, but I like to think of it as a blank slate – a tabula rasa if you want to get all philosophical. First, I nibbled the chicken as is. The next day, I shredded some meat and heated it up in a bowl of broth and noodles. And then one night I dipped slices into a mix of mayonnaise and dijon. Hopefully soon, I’ll be able to slice it into a sandwich or cube it over a salad.

Looks aside, I stand by this chicken, as it stood by me. Even though it’s one of the most boring recipes in the world, I’m posting it here as a reminder of how good those first bites taste after being sick and with the hope that someone else on the mend will find it helpful.

Poached chicken

Adapted from The Kitchn. You can use whatever you have in our kitchen to gently flavor the chicken – here I used the basics, but on a more adventurous day, I might throw in some dried chili peppers and smashed garlic. The Kitchn also suggests adding a bay leaf, sliced ginger, other fresh herbs, or thinly sliced onions, and substituting a cup of white wine for some of the water.

– 3 boneless skinless chicken breasts

– handful fresh parsley

– 1/2 lemon, sliced

– 1 t kosher salt

– 1 t whole peppercorns

Arrange the chicken in a single layer on the bottom of a pot. The pieces can overlap a little bit, but they’ll cook more evenly in a single layer. Scatter the parsley, lemon, salt and pepper, over the chicken, and then add cold water to cover the chicken by an inch or so.

Bring the pot to a boil. Some white scum will rise to the top – feel free to skim it off.

Lower the heat to a simmer, cover, and cook for 10-15 minutes until the chicken is cooked all the way through (opaque in the center) and registers 165ºF with an instant-read thermometer. Start checking at 8 minutes.

Remove the chicken from the liquid and serve.

 

Not much of a story today, just a recipe that is almost ridiculous in its simplicity. It’s a soup that may look familiar to some of you based on its sparse ingredient list: tomatoes, onions, and butter. Yup, it’s a riff on Marcella Hazan’s tomato sauce with just slightly different ratios. More vegetables, less butter, and a bit of water to thin it out. You could use fresh tomatoes, but why?

This is the savory version of hot chocolate after a romp in the snow. And if you want to up the ante, make a grilled cheese sandwich and cut into cubes (if you’re like me, they’ll be oh so raggedy, but who cares, really?) for oozy croutons.

The soup is just creamy enough to feel decadent but not New Year’s resolution breaking. So poke around your pantry and fridge and cook up a batch tonight.

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Three-ingredient Tomato Soup

Inspired by Marcella Hazan‘s tomato sauceIf you’re using whole tomatoes, snip them with scissors or squish between your fingers to break them up.

Makes approximately 6 cups

– 2 28-oz cans whole peeled or crushed tomatoes (ideally San Marzano)

– 2 onions, roughly chopped

– 1/4 C butter

– 1 t salt

– 1/2 – 1 C water

Simmer. Mix in a saucepan the tomatoes, onion, butter, and salt and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Cook, covered and stirring occasionally, for 45 minutes to an hour until the onion is almost falling apart.

Puree. With an immersion blender, puree the soup until smooth. Add water and continue to puree until you get the texture that you like.

 

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