November 6, 2012 § 1 Comment
As if overnight, it’s winter. In the mornings, the lawn outside my entryway is frozen, and crackles with every step. Rumor has it there’s a Nor’easter on the way. Wool socks, my down jacket and the knit hat Granny sent just last week have suddenly become mainstays in my wardrobe. Every morning, I tumble out of bed, across the mess of clothes on the floor, and hop around on the tiled bathroom floor, waiting the ten minutes for the water to warm up to an acceptably hot temperature. Running is no longer a determination to stay in shape, but a battle to emerge from the comforter every morning. I slept for eleven hours last night, and was surprised when my lab partners wanted to talk about our lab report at midnight, don’t they know that’s the middle of the night?
That said, there’s two things I enjoy about the early days of winter and that’s the clothes and the food. I want to crawl onto thick cashmere sweaters with blowsy sleeves. I want butternut squash galettes with buttery crust for dinner and warm open-faced apple tarts for dessert. I want the first snowfall, and then all the miserable days of dirty slush afterwards to disappear into a cloud of gingerbread cookies by the fireplace. Even with Thanksgiving just around the corner, I’m already dreaming in reds and greens, fir trees and ski hills. The pistachios in this poundcake are perfectly festive for my current mindset. Granted the two sticks of butter in it are also perfectly excessive and demonstrative of winter baking, but hey we’re only concerned about the aesthetics of winter here — the picture perfect image of poundcake for breakfast looking out at the pure white flurries of snow falling outside.
October 10, 2012 § 1 Comment
I’d say from the crunch of leaves underfoot, softened by the cold wetness of the air, that summer has officially come and gone. And with summer, a lot of the illusions I had about people, the next year or so, and the ones who would be in it. But there’s a bright side of every change and today, it’s becoming more and more clear.
Snuggled into wool winter socks, fleece blankets and chunky sweaters, all I’ve wanted to do for the past week has been to curl up in bed and watch TV, waiting for the world to pass by. Which for me, isn’t an ordinary desire as watching TV is usually towards the very bottom on my list of activities. Instead, every night ends with a struggle to finish the readings for tomorrow, an impromptu trip to the gym, where I do my 20-minute weight circuit surrounded by an eclectic group of boys — the body builders, the slightly-pudgy, the geeky ones you never thought you’d see doing bicep curls —, and then a stop at the campus late-night cooking-baking hut. A freezing day finished with a caramely chocolate chip cookie. There are worse things in the world.
I had my first pumpkin scone of the season the other day. Sugar-crusted, fluffy, accompanied by my everyday morning latte. I was sitting in a corner of the café, (discreetly) watching some poor boy struggle over a very thick looking textbook, when he got up, looked me directly in the eye, and hesitantly walked over to my table. To my disappointment, the idle chitchat turned into a simple request to watch his stuff while he went to the restroom, but hey….you never know what a smile and a pumpkin scone can do to turn a downcast day around.
When I was paging through what to post today, I got stuck on these blackberry scones I made at the very end of August, when blackberries were unbelievably sweet and fit to burst (and stain everything) with juices. Though they were light, buttery and gushing with fruit, and proof that I have finally overcome my tendency to overwork scone dough — a reflection I think, of my disposition to over think and overwork most parts of my life —, the moment to talk about them seems to have gone and passed me by. Instead I was drawn to the brightness and simplicity of these white chocolate mint pot de crèmes. They can be made anytime you get your hands on fresh mint, and are just as perfect as a winter dessert, accompanied by the recipe’s candy cane brittle, as they are photographed here in my backyard, in the early summer. The brulée on top was a bit gilding the lily, but I never can resist a chance to use my blowtorch.
February 7, 2012 § Leave a comment
I’m sitting in the light of a stained glass window of the library in East Pyne, whiling away a few hours between classes. It’s only the second day of term, and the third day back on campus after break. A week spent up north, in Montreal and Dartmouth, has had the added effect of making Princeton cold feel like a summer breeze. Despite having caught a cold, it’s been easy enough to forgo a jacket this week. Otherwise, this week, being the first and before the monotony of mid-semester, has the benefit of every course and subject appearing fascinating and compelling. Visions of Paris, Eastern Europe and Morocco dance at the forefront, haunted by the cultural problems — immigration, terrorism and the destruction of neighborhoods — that I know will follow the thin veneer of the first two classes. I’ve just ordered over $150 of out-of-print and going out-of-print accounts, fictional and autobiographical, of Moroccan immigration as a testament to the theme of the semester. The question: what is hospitality and what does it mean in relation to our pasts?
When we walked into Artigiani off rue Saint-Denis, we were chilled and feeling vaguely triumphant, having just conquered the eccentricities of street parking in Montreal — check posted sign, check contradictory sign posted below, realize spot is permitted, drive to another side street, recommence parking sign-scouting. We were seated at a table in the middle of the dining room, which was largely empty it being a Monday evening, and handed large menus, written in French but punctured with various Italian words that required numerous explanations. Begin translations, retranslations and finally, successful ordering of food. The waiter, who diligently explained almost every item on the menu including how the fresh gnocchi are made, turned out to be the owner and an endearing example of Italian hospitality. We joined him at the bar for a couple of shots of his family’s homemade limoncello, discussing his hometown outside of Naples, the conviction of the Afghani family that murdered its three “Westernized” daughters in Quebec, the state of the surrounding ski areas and various future vacation plans. It seems like if there’s one thing people can bond over (besides food), it’s having a list of places we’d like to go but have never been. Call it a list of desires — everyone has one but many have no means to accomplish the majority on it.
The rest of the week was filled with touring human creations meant to take you away from the present to a different setting and existence: a snow village of igloos filled out with bedrooms made of ice complete with an ice bar and restaurant, and the biodome which recreates natural animal habitats, a tropical rainforest and northern maple forest among them. Coming back from an action-packed vacation to a class discussing the shadow of the Soviet Union, it’s striking to remember that movement and travel is not yet a universal right and how very lucky we are to be able to learn by seeing different parts of the world first hand.
December 1, 2011 § Leave a comment
Chocolate always seems like such a relief after the decadence of Thanksgiving, ironically. It packs a dark punch, with hints of bitterness, which offsets the soothing heaviness of the butter-laden cakes and pies of the proceding days. It awakens one from the food-induced slumber, a sort of jolting enlivening that reminds you that, yes there is a whole host of things to do following the big day.
Last weekend, San Francisco brought a blanket of white fog that wanted to keep me in bed. This weekend threatens to be the real beginning of the long winter in Princeton. I know people further north might scoff at that, but to this California girl it is depressingly long when you finally hit March and still can’t go outside without a jacket. But for now, the shivers have the charm of it being the holiday month, complete with Advent calendars, peppermint bark and strands of colorful lights. And chestnuts roasting on the open fire, you can add those to the mix too. Except I might have cheated and roasted these in the oven.
That’s not to say that I’m done with the pumpkin and the pecans — no, I’m not anywhere near done — but I’m ready to bring on the slow, dripping dark molasses, the grated, spicy ginger, the icing dribbles, and the glitzy holiday baking that somehow manages to feel homey despite sophisticated appearances.
No one prepared me for the disappointment of cracking open piping-hot chestnuts with my bare fingers only to find that over half of them had gone bad, which is completely normal apparently. With that kind of success rate, I only had enough to use thin slices in a decorative manner. I spread a sweet pate brisée crust with roasted chestnut spread (available at your local specialty store), over which I poured David Lebovitz’ chocolate tart filling. The initial taste is the undertone of burnt caramel, then soothed by the sombre, molten chocolate. If you want lessons on roasting chestnuts, it suffices to cut an X at the top of the nut (through the skin) and to throw them on a tray in the oven at 400 degrees F for about 30 minutes. If you just want to eat chestnuts, I suggest skipping the home-maker’s lesson and hitting up the guy peddling chestnuts (did you know they are actually boiled and then just “roasted” for show?) on the nearest street corner.
December 8, 2010 § 1 Comment
There are few things that make me happier than a group of rail-thin French women cooing with delight and diving into slices of a warm American pecan pie for their petit gouter alongside steaming cups of thé vert. Or when they profess to adore carrot cake, cream cheese frosting and all, and suggest I open up an American style bakery in Paris, because they just know it would be a huge success. Indeed there are several American-style places here, if you want to search out bagels and brownies — which seem to be the main focus — but few places to buy ingredients with which to make your favorite American treats. It’s surprising what Americans seem to feel they need imported — the likes of Betty Crocker icings in all flavors, yellow cake mixes, and colored marshmallows, although I think it was the French girls that were cooing over those in the Etats-Unis aisle of La Grande Epicerie at the Bon Marché.
But it was on that aisle that I finally found Grandma’s molasses and ordinary corn syrup, which are both still practically unheard of here. Actually I take that back. The minute you say corn syrup here, you get a quick intake of breath and a mumbled “c’est pas bon pour la santé” as if the pound of butter dumped in every French dish is bon pour la santé. So needless to say, you don’t see any French women dumping the container of corn syrup into their tarte fillings — because tart is the closest approximation I can find to pie — but they won’t hesitate to eat it when it’s placed in front of them in the form of this gooey-still-warm-from-the-oven tart that the little American girl brought in this morning. Because, eating is, afterall, about indulgence.
This pecan pie — or pecan squares as they go in my house — is a classic on my family’s Thanksgiving table. It has a strong molasses flavor and is packed full of pecans, avoiding that gooey, far-too-sweet layer of sugar and corn syrup that many pecan pies pack in the middle. Nothing horrifies me more than a badly made pecan pie, with a thick layer of cooked sugar and a sprinkling of nuts on top. I may have Frenchified the classic a bit by making a tart crust with a generous amount of sugar and egg, instead of the simple butter-and-flour combo my dad uses, and baking it in a fluted, rectangular tart pan instead of a brownie pan.
But either way, this is the way to go come Thanksgiving (or for me, come breakfast) no matter where you live. A couple of weeks late to the Thanksgiving post, but there you go. Now excuse me while I eat the last piece with my cup of tea for breakfast. Can’t be worse for you than a café crème with a half a baguette, split down the middle and spread liberally with butter right?
Adapted from Jeremiah Tower’s New American Classics
3/4 cup dark brown sugar (or half unsulphered molasses, half corn syrup)
1 cup dark corn syrup
1/2 tsp salt
2 tablespoons bourbon
2 tablespoons butter
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 cups pecan pieces
One recipe of Pasta Frolla pastry dough or simply use your fingers to combine cold butter and flour until you achieve a shortbread-like consistency.
If using a crust made of just butter and flour (combine until crumbly and the dough stips together when you press it with your fingertips), bake pastry shell until golden (about 10-20 minutes) at 350 degrees Farenheit.
If using the Pastra Frolla, there is no need to pre-bake the pastry shell, just follow the directions here and press the rolled-out dough into the tart pan and fill.
Make sure your tart shell has no little holes as the filling with leak and burn in your oven.
Melt butter over the stovetop and set aside. Combine eggs and sugar. Add corn syrup, salt, bourbon, butter, and vanilla. Stir in pecans. Pour the filling into the pastry shell. Bake until mostly set at 350 degrees Farenheit, about 20 to 25 minutes.
Let cool before cutting.