On one Mother’s Day many years ago, my sister and I ordered our mother a beautiful bouquet of flowers. Although unoriginal and basically thoughtless, the idea might have been somewhat good had we not used mom’s credit card to pay for the transaction. Oops. Let’s just say once the details of the purchase surfaced, mother was less than pleased.
“Have I taught you nothing?!” she cried. “All I want is a card! All I EVER want is a card! It’s so simple. A handmade card!”
While I likely knew all of that back then, over the years I have learned that I can’t go wrong on gift-giving occasions when I keep in mind the things that truly make our mother happy, namely said handmade card, photos, phone calls, tins of sardines, cold beer, popcorn, Jack Black, tea (preferably PG Tips served in thin-thin porcelain cups), an extra pair of scissors… simple things, really.
During the week of Passover, I received an email from one of the many food websites I subscribe to featuring the most beautiful macaroons I had ever seen. I immediately clicked on the link to read the post, examine the recipe, and check out the comments. But as I scrolled through the oohs and aahs, I came across one comment that made me pause:
“I can’t fathom why you would want sweetened coconut for anything, it’s full of preservatives and has the consistency of wet shredded Styrofoam. There’s sugar in the recipe anyway – do yourself a favor and get unsweetened coconut, it’s already sweet and delicious.”
Upon reading this, my first thought was, “I don’t like your tone Young Lady.” I didn’t — I mean, is it so hard to use our nice voices? My second thought was, “Maybe this rascal is on to something?” I have always used sweetened shredded coconut in my granola recipe, which I love, and which I haven’t thought about changing in years. But I decided to do some sleuthing even so. I pulled a bag of sweetened shredded coconut from my pantry and read the ingredient list: desiccated coconut, sugar, water, propylene glycol, salt, sodium metabisulfite (to retain color).
I googled propylene glycol to discover it is a “synthetic liquid substance that absorbs water and is used by the chemical, food, and pharmaceutical industries as an antifreeze when leakage might lead to contact with food.” Furthermore, “the Food and Drug Administration has classified propylene glycol as an additive that is ‘generally recognized as safe’ for use in food.”
Hmmm. Generally recognized as safe for use in food. I hate to be an alarmist, and perhaps the amount of propylene glycol in sweetened shredded coconut is negligible, but this phrase got me thinking. For the odd macaroon or slice of quick bread, perhaps propylene glycol is not worth losing any sleep over. But for the bowl of granola consumed nearly every morning? A substitute was worth looking into. I mean, there wasn’t even that somewhat reassuring clause — “contains 2% or less of …” — printed before the ingredient in question. And even so, I don’t want to consume anything — ever — that is only “generally recognized as safe” no matter how small the amount.
In addition to mascarpone sorbet, my gnudi-making debacle, which left me with pounds of semolina flour in my pantry, has led to another pleasant discovery: relatively easy and completely delicious ciabatta-like sandwich rolls.
It turns out that when one cup of the all-purpose flour in the peasant bread dough is replaced with one cup of semolina flour, the loaves transform a bit, becoming at once chewier and lighter in texture and slightly more golden in color.
And when the dough, instead of being shaped into two loaves, is portioned into roll-sized pieces and sprinkled, just like those ever-so-promising gnudi, heavily with semolina flour, and gently stretched into squares or elongated “slippers,” it bakes off into light sandwich rolls, crispy on the exterior and soft on the interior.
But when the unbaked rolls are allowed to be pampered just a bit more by an overnight rest in the fridge, they bake off even more beautifully, becoming even crispier on the exterior, more porous on the interior, feather-light in weight, gorgeously golden in color, and resembling in taste the most delectable ciabatta, so well suited for housing any number of sliced meats and cheeses, fried eggs and bacon, or slices of mozzarella and tomato.
On Easter Sunday 2003, my sister made Nigella Lawson’s Easter Egg Nest cake, a cake that had been featured in The New York Timesthe Wednesday prior. Studded with flecked pastel eggs, this cake could only suit my sister better if a flock of Peeps and a colony of white chocolate bunnies were nestled among the eggs.
I’m not sure anyone in the family including my sister has made the cake since, but upon finding an old photo of Lindsey presenting her creation at the dinner table, I felt I had to make it. At the very least, I knew it would look festive on the table, the kids would find it enchanting, and my few guests would welcome a sliver of anything chocolaty.
Last summer, my sister and I escaped to NYC for 36 hours. We packed in a show, some good shopping, and a lot of good eating including breakfast at Eataly and dinner at Momofuku. I’m pretty sure I’ve mentioned this getaway before — sorry, I don’t get out much — but after discovering that Danish pastry dough can be made in the food processor and, as a result, that cheese danishes can be whipped up in just a few hours, I found myself dreaming about other danish-like pastries, croissants in particular, ones brimming with prosciutto à la Eataly specifically.
Now, the breakfast pastries we ate at Eataly were served at room temperature and filled with slices of meat sandwich-style. And while they were delicious, I was craving something more like the pain au jambon I had read about in the Tartine cookbook, in which smoked ham and cheese are rolled and baked with the dough. So, guided by Tartine, I layered thin slices of prosciutto and batons of gruyère over my faux croissant dough, and before too long, a half dozen crackly golden pastries emerged from my oven, cheese oozing from the ridges, salty meat entwined with each flaky layer.
You know what I hate? When I stumble upon this line in a recipe: refrigerate overnight.
‘Stumble upon’ being the key here. As in, surprise! Gotcha! You thought you’d have me in your belly this morning? Ha! Nice try. Let’s reconvene tomorrow, K?
This past Sunday I was expecting my Auntie to arrive in the early afternoon. She was making a special trip to help me out with the kids, and I wanted to welcome her with something extra special. Nigella Lawson’s cheese Danishes, a recipe I had spotted in How to Be a Domestic Goddess the night before, sounded ideal for a number of reasons: the pasty is made in the food processor; the filling contains lemon zest and ricotta cheese, two of Auntie’s favorite ingredients; and at one point in the recipe Nigella notes that the cheese Danish is her all-time favorite.
It was the intro to the recipe that got me. Nigella describes the practice of making this sort of pastry dough in the food processor as revolutionary not only because the dough comes together in seconds but also because it produces an authentic Danish pastry. She even includes a word of encouragement from Beatrice Ojakangas, the Scandinavian chef who taught her the method via Dorie Greenspan: “Don’t think you’re cheating by taking the fast track — this is how it’s done these days all over Denmark.”
Fast track. I never suspected the phrase ‘refrigerate overnight’ to be in a ‘fast-track’ recipe. Lesson learned. And truthfully, I should have known better — these sorts of recipes almost always require a lengthy rest period.
I have a confession. By the time Valentine’s Day rolled around, we had eaten the steaks, devoured the torte and made soup out of the turnips. And then, as it turned out, Ben couldn’t even be home for Valentine’s Day dinner, so we postponed the romantic occasion till the weekend, when my mother would be in town, too, and we could all cozy around the table together and enjoy a meze-style dinner with what remained of the planned Valentine’s Day menu as well as one more addition: a braised radicchio and gorgonzola tartine, another Nancy Silverton creation.
Since discovering the hard-boiled egg toasts with bagna cauda in the Nancy Silverton Sandwich Book, I’ve had my eye on a tartine topped with gorgonzola, radicchio, honey and walnuts, a series of ingredients I have seen in combination before but never with quite so much flair. When made in its entirety, slices of grilled bread are topped with sweet gorgonzola dolce and a drizzling of honey, both of which serve to offset the bitterness of the radicchio braised with balsamic vinegar and rosemary. Spicy candied walnuts provide additional sweetness as well as crunch, a nice contrast to the creaminess of the other ingredients. A few of these components never in fact made it to our table, but even in a simpler incarnation — braised radicchio topped with gorgonzola — the sweetness of the cheese alone was enough to counter the bitterness of the radicchio, and the combination was just so lovely. It was this dish that the three of just couldn’t get enough of during our romantic evening together.
Over the weekend while looking to employ the half dozen loaves of walnut bread cluttering my countertops, I stumbled upon this little gem of a tartine in Nancy Silverton’s Sandwich Book. Silverton had apparently prepared this snack — grilled bread topped with hard-boiled eggs bathed in a warm anchovy sauce — for Mario Batali one summer evening when he stopped by the piazza in the Italian town where she had been vacationing. Smitten with the combination, Batali insisted that Silverton include this creation in her nearly completed book celebrating the Thursday-night sandwich tradition at her restaurant, Campanile. And, with the addition of arugula, she did.
It all sounded too idyllic — an Italian piazza, a summer evening, a vacation, a warm anchovy bath — not to try immediately. And so, my introduction to bagna cauda, a classic Italian sauce made with anchovies, garlic, olive oil, butter and lemon juice came by way of an untraditional recipient — hard-boiled eggs — at an unconventional time of day — breakfast — and I am sorry this meeting occurred only because I now have to accept that for 31 years I have been missing out on some serious goodness.
I have no excuse. I have been reading about bagna cauda, which translates to “hot bath,” for years in all of my favorite west coast cafe cookbooks — Zuni,Chez Panisse,Tartine — Read More
On Christmas Eve my mother served this torta caprese — a flourless, chocolate-almond torte originating from the Isle of Capri — for dessert. If this is any indication of how it was received, not a single person sitting at the table, nine in total, turned down seconds. Later that evening, Santa even helped himself to thirds.
I love this class of cakes, those that can stand on their own, that don’t beg for layers of buttercream, pools of crème pâtissière, glazes of chocolate ganache or even dollops of whipped cream. This one, like the orange-and-olive oil cake and the Chez Panisse almond torte, fits into this class.
Containing no flour and leavened only by whipped egg whites, this torte is at once light, rich and moist. Ground almonds give it a wonderful texture throughout, and a splash of Grand Marnier offers a hint of orange. Made with bittersweet chocolate, it is perfectly sweet, and when it bakes, that brownie-like, most-delicious, paper-thin crust forms on the top-most layer. It is every bit elegant the finale of a special occasion should be, Valentine’s Day or otherwise. I hope you find an occasion to celebrate it soon. Read More