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where they shine

I had my last piece of this cake for breakfast this morning.

apricot amaretti cake

It’s the apricot cake I made for shabbat last week and after I shared it with my guests, I made another one for myself. All for me!

It’s a variation on the cake I’ve started calling my “back pocket cake” – I wrote about it for the Forward this week and it’s a cake that’s so incredibly simple and versatile that I make it all the time with whatever fruit looks good. I’ve even developed a super cheesy mnemonic so that I no longer have to refer to the recipe. I quote (myself): “So far, my best attempt has been counting it out like a bandleader revving up his crew with a few snaps of his fingers: a 1, and a 2, and a 1-2-3-4. If you squint and cock your head to the side and use a little imagination, you’ll remember this stands for a one (cup flour), and a two (eggs), and a one-half (cup oil) three-fourths (cup sugar). It’s a bit of a stretch, but once you make it, you’ll never need the recipe again.”

I first made the cake with apples just a few months into this blog when I was hosting my first ever Rosh Hashanah dinner. It is, I believe, the most linked-to post on my blog and the recipe that my friends make year after year for their own families. Some actually refer to it at Gayle’s apple cake. I’m blushing.

Today’s version is apricots with amaretti. Amaretti are crunchy little meringue cookies that have an almond flavor but are actually made with ground up apricot kernels (which are sometimes known as the poor man’s almonds because they taste like the nut, only slightly more bitter). Clearly a perfect match for the apricots I found in the market.

Now, up until last week, I’d never tried a fresh apricot and I’m not really sure I was missing much. I twisted one open and it tasted like a lesser version of a peach, as if it was unwilling to share itself with anyone. But I had made up my mind to bake them into a cake, so I went ahead with my plan. Worst case, I had ice ream.

Now fresh apricots might not be much to talk about, but cooked? Whew, cooked is where they shine. The heat loosens up their greedy grip on flavor and they transform. In the cake, they slump into the batter and release syrup that pools in the wells left by the pits and leaks into the cake.

Out of the oven, the cake has a dense crumb – just the way I like it – with pockets of sticky apricot and the crunch of almond-flavored cookies. A little reminiscent of coffee cake, which, again makes me feel justified eating it for breakfast.

apricot amaretti cake

Apricot and amaretti cake

This is a variation on my any-fruit back-pocket cake (see below).

Serves 8-10

–  1/2 C canola oil
–  3/4 C sugar
–  2 eggs
–  ½ t vanilla extract
–  ½ t almond extract
–  1 C flour
–  1 t baking powder
– ½ t kosher salt
– 7-8 apricots, sliced into halves or quarters
– 3 T crushed amaretti cookies (6-8 cookies)

Prep. Preheat oven to 350˚F. Grease and flour a 9-inch round cake pan or springform.

Mix. Mix together the oil, sugar, eggs, and extracts until smooth. Add the flour, baking powder and salt and continue mix by hand until the ingredients just come together.

Arrange. Tip the batter into the prepared pan. The batter is thick, so you’ll need a spatula to scoop it all out and then spread it evenly in the pan. Arrange the fruit however you want. Halves skin-side down make a dramatic cake as the fruits sink quite a lot and you end up with a craggy cake moonscape. Quarters balanced on their sides allow the cake to rise more evenly, resulting in a more, well, traditional cake. Sprinkle with the crushed cookies.

Bake. Bake the cake for 40-45 minutes until a toothpick comes out clean. Watch the fruit to make sure its juices don’t burn.

Back pocket, any-fruit cake

This recipe was adapted from Marian Burros’ plum torte published in the New York Times. I replaced the butter with oil to make it parve and like to use different fruits depending on what’s in season. The batter is thick but still pourable; a few swipes of a spatula gets it right into the pan. The fruit juices ooze all over and dribble beautiful color throughout the cake. Any type of juicy fruit works.

A few suggested flavor combinations:

apple or pear, vanilla, cinnamon
– blueberries or raspberries, vanilla, lemon zest
plums, rose water, lime zest
– peaches or nectarines, vanilla
– apricots, almond extract, cardamom, amaretti cookies crumbled on top

Serves 8-10

–  1/2 C canola oil
–  3/4 C sugar
–  2 eggs
–  1 t extract (vanilla, almond, rose water, orange blossom water)
– 1 t citrus zest (lemon, lime, orange)
–  1 C flour
–  1 t baking powder
– ½ t kosher salt
– 2 cups fruit
– Optional: 2-3 T raw sugar

Prep. Preheat oven to 350˚F. Grease and flour a 9-inch round cake pan or springform.

Mix. Mix together the oil, sugar, eggs, extract, and zest until smooth. Add the flour, baking powder and salt and continue mix by hand until the ingredients just come together.

Arrange. Tip the batter into the prepared pan. The batter is thick, so you’ll need a spatula to scoop it all out and then spread it evenly in the pan. Arrange the fruit however you want and sprinkle with raw sugar.

Bake. Bake the cake for 40-60 minutes until a toothpick comes out clean. Apples and pears take close to the full hour; stone fruits burn more quickly, so I take them out around 45 minutes.

a chaotic tumble

Just a quick hello and recipe for you. I’m having friends over for shabbat dinner tonight and am keeping it easy. There will be watermelon salad with a touch of feta and a mint dressing, salmon with a quick Italian green sauce to spoon on top (more on that in a sec), carrots, and roasted potatoes. Also, an apricot amaretti cake that’s a variation on my Rosh Hashanah staple.

This month I’ve been able to get out of the city quite a bit – a day baking with Dorie Greenspan and her husband Michael (just like last year), a day at my friend‘s pool in Atlantic Beach, and another weekend at another friend‘s place in Huntington. I’ve been doing a fair amount of cooking and writing, but haven’t had a chance to sit down, here, to tell  you about it. Fear not, there will soon be sorbet and a smattering of recipes from tonight’s dinner.

For now, that green sauce. I’ve been reading through my friend Rachel’s book – it’s really a combination of recipes, photos, and musings that’s satisfying to read in bed. Yes, I read it before I fall asleep, but I’ve also found myself waking up and sneaking a few peeks before morning pages. Her writing is infectious and it helps that I can hear her clipped accent in my head. I was looking at her blog yesterday and randomly skipped to August of 2012 to see what she was making a few summers ago. Seasonal blog roulette, you might call it. The recipe that popped up was for green sauce – Rachel describes a version she had in a restaurant as “a chaotic tumble of parsley, capers, onion, anchovies, breadcrumbs, garlic and olive oil.” I love that. A chaotic tumble. It’s how I feel my entertaining comes about. It’s how I feel my life comes about sometimes as well.

This tumble must have been stuck in my head – an earworm of a recipe – because I found myself grabbing herbs by the fistful right after I bought the fish with no plan other than to wrap it in paper and cook it over a bed of lemons.

Italian salsa verde

There was a lot of chopping and scraping and a few glugs of oil and I ended up with a peppery sauce – saline from capers and anchovies, sharp from raw garlic, fresh from the herbs –  that will be great over the salmon. I’m also envisioning mixing it with tuna. Spreading it on bread and topping with roast beef. Drizzled on eggs. Oh, there’s so much I can do with this sauce. I may have to hide some of it before setting it out on the table at dinner tonight.

Shabbat shalom and happy weekend, all!

Salsa verde (Italian green sauce)

Adapted from Rachel Roddy here and here. Measurements are approximate.

Makes approximately 1 1/2 cups

– 1 fistful of flat-leaf parsley, approximately 1/2 C chopped

– 1 fistful bunch cilantro, approximately 1/2 C chopped

– 20 leaves mint, approximately 1/4 C chopped

– 2 T capers in salt (don’t rinse)

– 2 cloves garlic

– 4 anchovy fillets in oil, drained

– 3/4 C extra virgin olive oil

– 2 T lemon juice

Chop. Chop the herbs finely and put in a large bowl. Roughly chop the capers and add to the herbs.

Scrape. Rub garlic on a microplane into the bowl. Roughly chop the anchovies and then scrape them against the cutting board with the edge of your knife until it forms a smooth paste. Scoop into the bowl.

Mix. Add the oil and lemon juice and mix everything together. Let the flavors meld in the fridge for a few hours.

i’ve gone sweet

When I came home from Sicily, zucchini (and its family) season was in full swing. Tender, thin-skinned squash was everywhere. Yellow and green, solid and striped, eight-ball and pattypan.

There were squash blossoms too, and I picked a few myself when I spent the day out in Brooklyn with Edible Schoolyard NYC (check out this photo of my colleagues here), weeding a border along the fence separating the school garden from the street. There is an art to collecting these long yellow flowers, I learned. You only take the male ones (the females, with a bulb of an ovary along the stem, when fertilized form the fruit, er, squash) and you have to give each a good shake to scare any bees out. Otherwise you’ll end up with a bag of buzzing blossoms. Now you know.

This year, I’ve gone sweet with my squash, baking up a zucchini cake with two types of chocolate – cocoa and bittersweet shards. The recipe comes from Chocolate & Zucchini, one of the first blogs I ever read and a huge inspiration for my own. The cake itself is more rich than saccharine, with a deep dark chocolate flavor and a crumb moist with flecks of zucchini. I like to bake it in a loaf pan – which is how I like to bake most of my cakes – but you can fancy it up in a round or bundt if you’d like.

Before we get to the recipe, a little reading. First off, Luisa wrote about the language of food workshop that I attended at Case Vecchie in Sicily last month. And Rachel, our other teacher, has written so convincingly about the importance of a good tomato sauce that I’m considering buying a food mill to make my own smooth silky sugo to coat a bowl of (homemade, hopefully soon) pasta. Finally, women talk about balancing motherhood with the realities of restaurant life.

chocolate and zucchini bread

Chocolate and zucchini cake

Adapted from Chocolate & Zucchini. I use olive oil to make the cake non-dairy. The batter is very thick and you may need to use some strength to smooth out the top once you’ve wrestled it into the pan. 

If you do want to go savory with your zucchini, try it raw, roasted, or tucked into a frittata

– 1/2 C olive oil or room temperature butter, plus more for greasing the pan

– 2 C flour

– 1/2 C unsweetened Dutch cocoa powder

– 1 t baking soda

– 1/2 t baking powder

– 1 t fine sea salt

– 1 C granulated sugar

– 1 t pure vanilla extract

– 2 T strong cooled coffee or 1 t instant coffee granules

– 3 large eggs

– 2 C unpeeled grated zucchini, from about 1 1/2 medium zucchini

– 6 oz good-quality bittersweet chocolate, roughly chopped (about 1 C)

olive oil

Prep. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Grease a 9-inch by 3-inch loaf pan.

Whisk. In a medium mixing bowl, whisk together the flour, cocoa powder, baking soda, baking powder, and salt.

Mix. In the bowl of a mixer (or by hand in a large mixing bowl), beat the sugar and oil or butter until fluffy. Add the vanilla, coffee, and eggs, mixing well between each addition.

Combine. In a large mixing bowl, combine the zucchini, chocolate chips, and about a third of the flour mixture, making sure the zucchini strands are well coated and not clumping too much. This will help make sure that the zucchini and chocolate don’t just sink to the bottom of the cake.

Fold. Add the rest of the flour mixture into the egg batter. Mix until just combined; the batter will be thick. Fold the zucchini mixture into the batter, and blend with a spatula without overmixing. Pour into the prepared cake pan, and level the surface.

Bake. Bake for 40 to 50 minutes, until a knife inserted in the center comes out clean. Transfer onto a rack to cool for 10 minutes, run a knife around the pan to loosen, and turn on to a cooking rack.

 

shabbat table

Shabbat shalom from my apartment!

Well, this photo was actually last shabbat, but one week later, I get to say the same thing! If you look closely, you’ll notice that nothing really matches, but most of the stuff sort of “goes.” When I left Boston, a friend helped me pack and, more than anything else, she helped me purge. She convinced me to get rid of my service for twelve and only bring down six meat plates and four dairy plates. She said that I’d never have an apartment large enough to entertain more than six people.

Well shame on me for listening. Last Friday, I cooked for seven (and a baby). If you look closely, you’ll see there’s only enough for six on the table. One of my friends is typically late and I didn’t expect her until dessert. When she showed up pretty close to on time, I had to scramble. I managed to assemble a blue, white, and yellow mishmash of a table.

The menu took shape when I decided to make my favorite carrots. Then, still thinking of Paris and my favorite foods from the late great Les Ailes restaurant, I decided to make chreime – a spicy Tunisian fish stew – as the main event since I had a few non-meat eaters in the crowd. I rounded things out with haricots verts tossed in garlic scape dressing and roasted potatoes, straight from the farmers market.

chreime

We started out with bowls of cucumber gazpacho, a cross between this recipe and this one, essentially cucumbers, onion, avocado, sherry vinegar, yogurt and bread.

As usual, I was afraid that I wouldn’t have enough food, so I burnt a few eggplants and mixed the flesh with a dash of tahini and pomegranate molasses à la Ottolenghi.

burnt eggplant

It’s hard to make mushed eggplant look good, but a sprinkle of parsley helps.

Ottolenghi's burnt eggplant with tahina

After dinner, we retired to the couch and ate dessert clustered around my coffee table. I spread out a cloth and piled on the desserts. There was a magnificent almond cake, a chocolate zucchini loaf (I promise to share), and a massive plate of watermelon and berries.

Have a great weekend, all!

Burnt eggplant with tehina and pomegranate

Adapted from Yotam Ottolenghi’s Plenty. You can also add some chopped cucumber and/or halved cherry tomatoes. If you have pomegranate seeds, they would be lovely to sprinkle on top. Since this was a last minute addition to my dinner, I just used what I had. 

Makes about 2 cups

– 3 medium eggplant

– 1/2 C tehina

– 1/3 C water

– 2 T pomegranate molasses

– 2 T lemon juice

– 2 garlic cloves, crushed

– 1/4 C chopped parsley

– salt and pepper

Burn. Poke several holes in the eggplants with a fork or sharp knife. Put them on a foil- or parchment-lined tray and place directly under a hot broiler for about an hour, turning them a few times, The eggplants need to deflate completely and their skin should burn and break.

Drain. When the eggplant is cool enough to handle, scoop out the flesh into a colander, avoiding the blackened skin. Leave to train for at least 30 minutes.

Mix. Chop the eggplant flesh roughly and transfer to a medium mixing bowl. Add the tehina, water, pomegranate molasses, lemon juice, garlic, parsley, a pinch or two of salt, and a grind of pepper. Mix well. Taste and adjust the seasoning, adding more garlic, lemon juice, or molasses if needed. You want the salad to have a robust sour/slightly sweet flavor.

***

Chreime (Spicy Tunisian fish stew)

Just barely adapted from Lior Lev Sercarz‘s recipe in Saveur. I doubled the recipe and added some crushed tomatoes so make a soupier dish. I couldn’t find small red Thai chilis, so I substituted larger serranos and added the seeds to the mix – the result was only a little spicy, so I might add more next time. I made the sauce first in a large skillet, then divided it between two skillets so the fish would have enough room to cook.

Serves 8 – 10

– 3 lbs fish such as sea bass or grouper, cut into 4- to 5-ounce filets

– 1/4 C fresh lemon juice

– kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

– 1/2 C olive oil

– 20 cloves garlic, roughly chopped

– 5 serrano chilis, stemmed and finely chopped

– 1 6-oz can tomato paste

– 1 28-oz can crushed tomatoes

– 2 C water

– 3 C minced cilantro

Marinate. Combine fish, juice, salt, and paper in a bowl; set aside.

Cook. Heat oil in a large (at least 12-inch) skillet over medium-high heat. Add garlic and chiles (including seeds); cook, stirring until soft 1-2 minutes. Add paste; cook, stirring until slightly caramelized, about 5 minutes. Add crushed tomatoes, cilantro, and water; boil. Reduce heat to medium; cook until sauce is slightly reduced, 6-8 minutes.

Simmer. Split the sauce between two large skillets. Divide fish between the two skillets, skin side up, with its juice and cover; cook until fish is done, 18 – 20 minutes.

Last month, en route to Sicily, I stopped in Paris for a few days. I hung out with my good friend Laurence and we visited some of my old haunts from when I spent the summer of 2007 taking dance classes. I wrote about that summer and my brief return for The Forward, and published a recipe for the spicy Tunisian carrot salad that I discovered nearly a decade ago.

It’s funny – I had an abnormally difficult time writing this article. In general, I’m a harsh self-critic and I think that when I’m close to a topic, like writing about a time that holds special meaning to me, I have a hard time creating editorial distance. That’s how I’m feeling about my most recent trip to Sicily. I’ve committed to writing a few articles for the Forward about my travel, and I’m really excited about them (fig sorbet, anyone?) but I’m having trouble writing anything here. I’m hoping with enough distance, and perhaps in dribs and drabs, I’ll be able to really capture what was so amazing about my trip – why it came at the perfect time for me, what it meant, what it means to have given myself such a luxurious gift.

In the interim, I’ve copied below my article about Paris, the month that I spent there, and the carrots that I prepare to take me back.

spicy Tunisian carrot salad

Say Paris, and most people envision the Eiffel tower, a pyramid of colorful macarons , a bicycle ride with a baguette poking out of the front basket. But Paris for me is captured in a bowl of spicy shredded carrots. A cross between traditional French carottes râpées (a grated carrot salad mixed with little more than lemon juice, olive oil, parsley, and a pinch of sugar) and Middle Eastern harissa-spiced cooked carrots, this Tunisian raw carrot slaw screams summer in Paris to me.

Picture this: It’s Saturday afternoon, July 2007, and I’m sitting in Luxembourg Garden, nestled between the student-filled Latin Quarter where I’m subletting for the month and the trendy Saint-Germain-des-Près where the great intellectuals of France once congregated in cafes. I’ve made the Kiddush blessing over wine at the flat and brought the rest of my lunch for a picnic in the park.

The lawns are lush and manicured, people mostly sitting on chairs rather than sprawled out in the grass, obeying the signs saying “ interdit .” In awe of this politesse , I grab my own brightly-painted green seat and pull up a second as a table. A portable chreime, the fiery Sephardic fish stew, concentrated into boulettes de poisson (much more appealing to say than fish balls) and a thickened sauce, smushed onto a baguette. Merguez sausage. Plastic containers of cold salads: spicy shredded carrots, roasted eggplant and peppers, potatoes. A tart of concentric berries. A wedge of chocolate cake. All for me.

Just two days earlier, I had landed at Charles de Gaulle airport with a backpack stuffed with a computer, flip flops, a pair of tap shoes, and ballet slippers. My luggage stranded in London, my summer waiting in France. First thing Friday morning, I made a beeline to the grands magasins department stores on Boulevard Haussmann for a shopping spree courtesy of the airline.

A few basic outfits in hand, I set out to find some of the kosher restaurants I had marked on my map with big red Xs. Several were on Rue Richer and I found the street by following historic landmark signs directing me to the Folies-Bergère cabaret music hall. There was a line in front of the iconic building’s art deco marquee, but rather than looking for tickets, the crowd was queuing to pick up their Shabbat feasts from Les Ailes, the Tunisian-owned restaurant and traiteur take-out counter next door.

I took my place after the last person and quickly found myself face-to-face with a (luckily very patient) waiter. We were separated by my elementary vocabulary and several meters of glass-encased salads, vegetables, meats, fish and pastries. With a lot of pointing and stammering, I managed to amass two bags full of food. In an act of generous hospitality, my new friend threw in a few extra challah rolls and a big container of unassuming-looking shredded carrots.

My luggage eventually found its way to me, and for the remainder of the month I took classes in the mirrored studios of Centre de Danse du Marais with a view of the Centre Pompidou on one side and the old Jewish neighborhood on the other. Every week, I made my Friday trek to Les Ailes, eventually narrowing down my order to my favorite choices (which I could now request with confidence) and always asking for an extra serving of the spicy carottes râpées . The piquant salad would last all week in the teeny-tiny frigo in my apartment. Some mornings, I took a few nibbles before heading out. Many nights, I ate a bowl before a late-night crêpe with lemon and sugar. The carrots quenched any type of hunger I had.

Last month, I returned to Paris and visited good friends and old haunts. We had lunch in le Marais and walked past Notre Dame to lounge on chairs in the Luxembourg Gardens. One night, we went to see a cirque de soleil-like performance at the renovated and gilded Folies-Bergère. I knew that Les Ailes next door had closed, but it was still a shock to see its rainbow of salads replaced by a whole new storefront.

In the intervening years, I sought to recreate the carrot salad that carried me through that summer. I collected recipes and compared techniques. How best to prepare the vegetables: Cooked in chunks? Sliced thin on a mandolin? Shredded in a food processor? Should the salad be sinus-clearing spicy? What about using raw garlic? In the end, I believe I have perfected my own interpretation of Les Ailes’ spicy carottes râpées , so whenever I want to remember my summer in Paris, I pull out a few ingredients and I am transported.

Spicy Tunisian Carrot Salad (Carottes Râpées à la Tunisienne)

Adapted from the late Gil Marks’ Moroccan raw carrot salad (shlata chizo) published in Olive Trees and HoneyI’m not sure of the actual provenance of this salad — Moroccan? Tunisian? — but since it uses harissa and was inspired by the Tunisian restaurant Les Ailes in Paris, I’ve decided to call it Tunisian. You can use a food processor to grate the carrots, but I prefer to use a julienned peeler, which results in long, uniform carrot strands that soften just enough when absorbing the spicy liquid to become a little floppy; when I’ve used a food processor or box grater, the carrots quickly become a droopy soupy mess.

Wrapped well, the carrot salad keeps in the refrigerator for several days.

Makes about 2 cups

– 1 pound carrots, peeled and grated
– ¼ cup fresh lemon juice (about 2 lemons)
– ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
– 2 teaspoons cumin
– 1 teaspoon sweet paprika
– ½ teaspoon hot paprika
– ½ teaspoon sumac
– 1 teaspoon salt
– 2 teaspoons silan or honey
– 1-2 teaspoons harissa, to taste
– 2 tablespoons chopped parsley and/or cilantro

Mix. In a very large bowl, mix the carrots, lemon juice, oil, spices, salt, silan/honey and 1 teaspoon of harissa. Taste and adjust heat with more harissa if you’d like.

Sprinkle. Just before serving, sprinkle with herbs.

Just a super quick hello and a garlic scape dressing before these curlicue young stems and buds disappear from the market.garlic scapes

Last time these funny little guys showed up here was pesto, my first foray into scapedom. Since then, I’ve played around a bit, notably folding them into eggs, but these days I’ve been whirring them into a bright green dressing with a soft garlic flavor and a bright splash of lemon juice. I cannot stop eating it. I’ve added the dressing to a kale and radicchio salad – I know, kale is the old black, but I still love it, particularly the young leaves that one of the farmers at my local greenmarket sells – and a provençal-style salad of roasted potatoes, blanched green beans, radishes, and eggs (think salade niçoise, but warm and all mixed together). I made a similar version at Meira’s as a marinade for grilled vegetables and, just today, dipped some cherry tomatoes in it for a quick snack.

Now hurry up, scape season is almost gone.

kale and radicchio with garlic scape dressing

Garlic scape dressing

Makes about 1 1/2 cups

– 3 oz (about 4) garlic scapes, roughly chopped

– 1/4 C lemon juice (approximately 2 medium lemons)

– 1/2 t salt (or more, to taste)

– freshly ground black pepper

– 3/4 C extra-virgin olive oil

Puree. Using an immersion or regular blender, puree the garlic, juice, salt and a few grinds of pepper until relatively smooth. Slowly pour in the oil while continuing to puree until you have a bright, nearly fluorescent, green emulsified dressing.

***

If you are going the kale and radicchio route, I suggest making croutons. I typically have a few slices of unseeded rye in the freezer, so I pull out a pair and cut them into rough cubes. Heat some olive oil in a pan, shake the bread into an even layer, sprinkle a nice pinch of salt and let the cubes toast on one side – this takes a minute or two if the pan is really hot. Then, sauté: here I’m using the original French term – sauter, to jump – quite literally. Using a smooth forward and back motion and a little pop at the end, help the the bread cubes jump out of the pan for a sec and flip onto their backs. You might lose a few until you get really practiced, but I just pluck the runaways off the stove (or, more likely, the floor) and thrown them back into the pan.

rye croutons

Croutons

I like to use a nice big crusty rye boule, but any fairly sturdy loaf – think sourdough or pullman – should work well.

Makes 1 heaping cup

– 1 1/2 T extra-virgin olive oil

– 2 slices bread, cut into cubes

– pinch of kosher salt

Heat. Heat oil over medium high heat until shimmering in a pan with sloped sides.

Sauté. Spread the cubes in the hot pan, sprinkle with salt, and let toast on one side until lightly golden. Using a forward and back motion with your hand, toss the bread crumbs over the edge of the pan and catch them in the middle. Do this a few times until most surfaces of the croutons are golden brown.

quickie croutons – 1-2 slices rye boule, slice into cubes. heat olive oil, drop in the cubes, sprinkle on salt, salute – let the cubes jump!

on the nightstand

Looking for some summer reading recommendations? I’ve got a few for you.

First off, Stir. It’s the debut book – a memoir with recipes – of Jessica Fechtor whom some of you might know from her blog Sweet Amandine. It’s about life and illness, food and cooking, hosting and guesting, love and identity. I say debut because I think we’ll be reading a lot more from Jess: when we discussed the book for an article I was writing for the Forward, she told me that her PhD dissertation is about representations of food in Jewish literature and she is hoping to span academic and popular readership.

Jess Fechtor's butter almond cake

Next up, All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. David Leite is organizing a virtual book club and this is our first assignment. I’m about a third of the way through this book that takes place in France and Germany during WWII and I’m really loving it so far. Bonus: if you want to know what the author is reading, check out this New York Times interview with him.

For those of you who keep a pile of cookbooks on the nightstand, one of my writing teachers in Italy, Rachel Roddy, recently published her first cookbook. I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it and ordered the British version, Five Quarters; it comes out in the US early next year under a different title. Rachel moved from England to Italy a while back and created a life for herself in Rome. She is a vivid story teller and I hear Rachel’s animated accent when I read her essays and musing on living in the Testaccio neighborhood of Rome and her instructions for the food that she turns out of her kitchen. Just the other day, I found myself chucking chickpeas and white beans into a grocery cart, making plans for paste e ceci soup (it might be a very soupy summer) and bruchetta con cannellini. No surprise that I have Italy on my mind, having just spent nearly two weeks in Sicily, but Five Quarters is filling my dreams with images of linguini con zucchine (which is where my bookmark currently resides and rhymes in a lovely way when you say it aloud) and riding around on a motorino. 

Speaking of Italy, I’m reliving my meals at Case Vecchie, drooling my way through Fabrizio Lanza’s Coming Home to Sicily. I think there’s a crema di limone pudding in the very near future.

During our workshop, we read various passages, articles, and book chapters to help us explore different ways of beginning a piece of writing. A couple on the food of Sicily have made their way to my library queue (You do have a library card, right?): Mary Taylor Simeti’s Pomp and Sustenance and Helena Attlee’s The Land Where Lemons Grow.

And one more book that has come highly recommended by many friends: Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life.

In case you want more immediate gratification, here are a few articles that are just a click away:

Tamar Adler’s A Philosophy of Herbs. Perhaps this is the article I had in mind when, after reading the whole pea-camole brouhaha, I ignored the published recipe and made my own pea mash with avocado, mint, lemon juice and salt.

How cookbook author Paula Wolfert is using food to keep Alzheimer’s dementia at bay.

The story of The Day Jacques Pépin Saved My Life.

Now that I’ve adjusted back to a quotidian life without wine at lunch, The Guardian on drinking in the middle of the day.

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And finally, to fuel all that reading, I give you cake.

Marcella’s butter almond cake

Reprinted with permission from Stir: My Broken Brain and the Meals That Brought Me Home by Jessica Fechtor.  

This cake was created by Marcella Sarne, who entered it in a baking contest sponsored by C&H Sugar and won, to the tune of a grand-prize custom kitchen. Sprinkling salt over the batter together with the toasted almonds and sugar is genius. Covered and stored at room temperature, this cake keeps well for several days.

Serves 8 to 10

Butter and flour for the pan
3 heaped tablespoons sliced almonds
¾ cup (1½ sticks; 170 grams) unsalted butter, melted and slightly cooled
1½ cups (300 grams) granulated sugar, plus 1 tablespoon for finishing
2 large eggs
1½ teaspoons pure almond extract
1½ teaspoons pure vanilla extract
¼ teaspoon fine sea salt
1½ cups (188 grams) all-purpose flour
A pinch of sea salt flakes, like Maldon, if using (see headnote)

Preheat the oven to 350˚ F, and butter and flour a 9-inch fluted tart pan with a removable bottom.

Spread the sliced almonds in a single layer on a baking sheet and toast them in a preheated oven for 5 to 7 minutes, until fragrant. They should color only lightly.

Whisk together the melted butter and 1½ cups sugar in a large bowl. Add one egg, whisk until fully incorporated, then add the other and whisk some more. Add the almond extract, vanilla and salt, and whisk well, until smooth. With a rubber spatula, fold in the flour until just combined.

Spread the batter evenly in the prepared pan and scatter the toasted almonds, sea salt flakes, if using, and 1 tablespoon sugar over top. Bake for 35 minutes, until the cake peeking through the almonds takes on a faintly rosy color (this cake blushes more than it browns), and a tester inserted into the center comes out clean. Cool on a rack until nearly room temperature, then ease the cake out of the pan and cool the rest of the way.

the burn of sun

I woke up this morning well before my alarm. I forgot to close my curtains last night and the sun, as it rises over the city, pokes around the neighboring building and eventually finds my face. I thought about burrowing under the covers to hide, but instead I just let the sun shine bright, my eyes squinting in protest.

I’ve been leaving a notebook by my bed for morning pages, so I shimmy to a sitting position, pulling an extra pillow behind my back, and reach for my pen. The window is open and the fan is on, my hair blowing before I tie it back into a knot. My phone is already pre-set with a twelve-minute timer. Ready? Start.

I write about how overcast it’s been and how nice it is to feel the burn of sun on my skin again. I shift on the mattress and angle myself so that my face hides in the shade of one of the narrow window panes. The shadow of my pen, tall like a skyscraper, drags across the paper, its point meets my script with the beginning of each word. I work out the exact angle to hold the notebook, the pen so that the shadow lifts and creeps back on to the page. I write really small and the shadow stays nearly still, a silent ventriloquist. Then, with a sweeping gesture, the shadow flies across the paper.

These are the shadows I avoid in photos, I write, but I think this morning that it might be fun to use them.

hot silane on feta toast, in the shadows

Breakfast was feta on rye toast with silan, also known as date honey. Less cloying than the bee-made stuff but with a similar viscosity, silan is a commonly-used sweetener in Israel and I’ve been playing around with it of late. A few weeks ago, a bunch of us from the restaurant did a pizza crawl that started at Rubirosa in Little Italy and ended in Brooklyn at Paulie Gee’s where I tried hot honey for the first time. A few days after I got back from Italy, I decided to try my hand at making my own version of this sticky spicy mess.

The impetus was laundry avoidance, an upcoming barbecue, and a large bag of tiny dried peppers. I had picked up the peperoncino piccante intero at a grocery story in an effort to use up my last few euro coins before heading to the Palermo airport. Given how small the peppers were, ranging in size from a half- to a full inch, I figured they’d be mighty spicy. But a tablespoon scooped into a pot of simmering silan barely registered as heat on my tongue. So I kept adding and tasting, adding and tasting, until I landed on a sweet mixture with a slow tingling burn that builds in the back of your mouth.

I’ve mostly been eating it as you can see in the photos, drizzled on salty cheese. I’ll be bringing some to Meira‘s this weekend and I imagine it’ll end up getting splashed into a drink or two, perhaps with some lime and gin.

Here are a few more photos, out of the shadows this time.

hot silan

hot silan

Spicy silan

I reviewed a few recipes (here, here, here, and here) and came up with some tips for making my own hot honey. Here’s what I’ve learned:

Temperature. You want to get the silan/honey hot enough that the peppers will infuse their heat without burning the sugars. Several recipes using actual honey recommend keeping the temperature under 150°F to maintain the health benefits of raw honey, so I pulled out my candy thermometer to see what was going on. Since i’m not concerned about honey as a healing food and I was using silan anyway, I ignored the 150-mark and focused more on making sure that it didn’t exceed the boiling point of water (212°F) at which point evaporation would begin (resulting in a change in the consistency – I didn’t want to make candy) and above which the sugars themselves would eventually burn (starting at about 230°F). Essentially, if the mix starts to bubble and froth, turn the heat down. If you’ve got a candy thermometer, try to keep the temperature around a safe180-200°F. 

Spiciness. The commercial hot honeys i’ve tried are really hot. Really hot. I believe they use fresh chili peppers and may add vinegar. Mine is more of a medium hot.  I’ve tried this recipe with both silan and honey, with small whole dried peppers and with pepper flakes. As I’m sure you know, the smaller the pepper, the spicier, so use your judgment. Start with 1 or 2 teaspoons pepper, especially if you’re using flakes and taste as you go. 

Tasting. After each addition, let the peppers simmer in the honey for 10 minutes before tasting. To taste, drip a little honey onto a plate and let it cool down for at least 30 seconds before tasting. You do not want to put nearly boiling sugar anywhere near your body.

Makes 1 1/2 cups

– 1 1/2 C silan (or honey)

– 3-4 T dried red chili peppers or 1-2 T crushed red pepper

Heat. Bring silan and 1 tablespoon peppers to a simmer (180 – 200°F) in a medium-sized pot. After 15 minutes, taste for spiciness (see note). Add more pepper and continue simmering until you reach the heat level you want.

Filter. Allow the silan to cool for at least 5 minutes. Pour the cooled silan through a fine-mesh strainer into a clean jar.

Store. Store at room temperature.

morning pages

I just got back from that big trip I mentioned a few weeks back. I started with two days in Paris. Then, Sicily where I spent a week at Anna Tasca Lanza cooking school for a food writing course taught by Luisa Weiss and Rachel Roddy and rounded out the rest of my trip with a few beach days in Cefalu on the northern coast of the island. There’s so much to process and write about the past two weeks – in short it was vacation far dreamier than I could have imagined – but for now, you can check out my Instagram for some photos. Here’s one of my favorites.

aprons

I came home yesterday to bagels and lox. My parents had been in town while I was gone and spent their last night at my place, so when I walked into my apartment with my suitcase on its last legs, er wheels, my mom was there with a true New York welcome. There were also some take-out leftovers, including a container of rice.

Fridays are greenmarket day in my neighborhood and I went a little overboard with all the goodies that hadn’t been in season when I left: zucchini, cherries, garlic scapes! There will probably be a raw summer squash something coming out of my kitchen in the next day or two; the Short Stack that arrived before I headed out should come in handy right about now.

Until then, there’s soup. Yes, it’s summer. But while we were in Sicily at Case Vecchie (the name of the courtyard where the school is located), we ate soup several times, including a smooth fava bean concoction called macco and a more rustic minestra di tennerumi made from the tender vines of long cucuzzo squashes. So, back in my kitchen, I got my cooking sea legs back with a simple soup of rice leftovers and canned tomatoes and not much more.

No food photo today, though. One of things we discussed during the course was morning pages, a discipline of writing every morning – before coffee, before checking any technology – on paper, and for 12 minutes. We did a lot of timed writing exercises and I found I enjoyed writing in concentrated spurts. So now, as I settle back into real life, I’m committed to doing morning pages. I’ve set a notebook and pen by my bed and started this morning. As an extension of that, I’d like to do some more spontaneous writing here. That will probably mean more posts and recipes with fewer photos, but I think that’s a fair trade.

PS – I’ll probably take some photos tomorrow and post them after the recipe. Some habits are hard to break, but this way I’ll at least get things on proverbial paper rather than waiting for the right light and perfect angle.

Tomato rice soup

Adapted from Mark Bitman’s recipe in the New York Times. The wine is optional, but this soup was good enough reason to uncork a red; a big (but not huge) California cabernet worked well here. Feel free to play around with herbs (cilantro or parsley would be nice) and spices (I’m thinking cumin, or thyme). Or keep the soup as is and top with a sprinkling of parmesan. Or not. This soup is lovely in its utter simplicity. 

UPDATE 6/27: Last night, I ate the soup with shredded parmesan, but this morning I buzzed it with an immersion blender and sprinkled some fresh cilantro. Today’s version feels a bit fancier and could be served as a non-dairy cream of tomato soup. Yes, I ate it for breakfast with my coffee. The soup does thicken overnight as the rice absorbs more liquid, so I’ve modified the below recipe to increase the amount of water. 

Makes about 1o cups

– 2 T olive oil

– 1 onion, chopped

– 2 cloves garlic, minced

– 2 T tomato paste

– 1/3 C dry red wine

– 2 C cooked rice

– 4 C water

–  1 28-oz can (about 3 C) chopped tomatoes

– sea salt, to taste

Cook. Heat olive oil over medium heat until shimmering. Add onion and cook until softened and golden, about 8-10 minutes. Add garlic and cook for another 2 minutes – lower the heat if the garlic starts to brown too much. Add the tomato paste and cook for another 5 minutes. By this point, the bottom of your pot should be nice and brown.

Pour. Deglaze the pan with the wine, scraping up all those brown bits.

Stir. Add the cooked rice and a generous pinch of salt. Stir to break up the rice. Taste, adding a bit more salt if necessary.

Simmer. Add the water and chopped tomatoes. Bring to a boil and then lower the heat. Simmer for 10 minutes until the rice is heated through. Add more water to get the soup the consistency you’d like. Optional: buzz with an immersion blender.

UPDATE 6/27: a photo!

tomato rice soup

even as I was

The jar that I’ve just filled with dressing and covered with a twist of my wrist slips from my fingers and onto the floor. The glass splinters in half, the bottom still cradling a tablespoon or so of the golden liquid, the top still wound to the lid. It has splattered on my bare feet and up my legs.

I crouch to collect shards of glass, dropping them into a paper bag filled with the week’s recycling. I wipe up the dressing with a towel, leaving oily streaks on the floor, on the fridge, on the oven, on the cabinet, under the fridge, under the oven, under the cabinet.

***

It was three weeks ago yesterday that I learned the news. The news itself isn’t important and it wasn’t really new news, but old news just in a different way.

I found myself in the kitchen with a mortar on the counter and a pestle in my hand. I pounded anchovies – they smelled of the sea, and of briny tears – into cloves of raw garlic, pungent and stinging my eyes. A spoonful of Dijon, tempered with lemon, rounded out with a whisk of olive oil. In the oven toasted a pile of crumbs, rubbed from the heel of day-old baguette against the largest holes of my box grater.

Even as I was, I managed to iron a linen and flatten it on a large cutting board by the window. The mortar in the middle, the pestle just so, surrounded by empty lemon halves and a glass canister of fish filets. I crushed fleur de sel to complete the tableau.

Snap. A photo from the side.

I drizzled dressing over a pile of arugula littered with bread crumbs and Parmesan shavings.

Snap, snap. A few photos standing on a ladder.

I jarred the rest and labeled it with green painters’ tape and a sharpie: “anchovy dressing 5/28”.

You know what happened next.

***

At first, I tread carefully in the kitchen to avoid stepping on any last few glass splinters. I need to wear shoes when cooking. Then flip-flops. And now, I’m back to socks or nothing at all. Every once in a while, I find a speck of glass. I lift my foot to see a dot of blood. With the flick of a nail, I nudge out the chip and go about my day.

anchovy dressing

Anchovy dressing

 Adapted from Melissa Clark’s New York Times recipe for red and green salad with anchovy mustard vinaigrette. I’ve increased the amount of lemon juice to balance out the saltiness; depending on how juicy your lemons are, you may need up to two. Use a decent brand of anchovies packed in oil, but don’t go overboard on the fancy stuff.

I like to use a mortar and pestle – mostly because I have a few and a pestle has a nice heft to it. That said, you can do your smashing with a fork in a bowl. If you want a really smooth dressing, you can even use a small food processor or an immersion blender. 

I serve this with peppery arugula; other bitter greens such as radicchio or endive would be nice as well. Add crunch with toasted bread crumbs (use a box grater to make crumbs out of stale baguette, drizzle with olive oil, and toast in a 350°F oven until very brown). Shave some parmesan over the top. Eat immediately.

Makes about ¾ cup

– 6 anchovy fillets

– 2 garlic cloves, minced

– 1 T Dijon mustard

– ¼ C fresh lemon juice, more to taste

– ½ C extra-virgin olive oil

– Kosher salt and black pepper, as needed

Smash. Line the bottom of a mortar or bowl with anchovies. Add the minced garlic and using a pestle or fork, smash the fish and garlic into a paste. It’s OK if there are bits of anchovy still peeking out. Stir in the mustard.

Whisk. Drizzle in the olive oil slowly while whisking until combined. Season with salt and pepper to taste, adding a bit more lemon juice as necessary to balance everything out if it’s too salty for your liking.

arugula with anchovy dressing

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