Monday, May 10, 2010

On the Muffin Question

I'll just say it: Cook's Illustrated's is not my favorite. A tasty muffin surely, and no doubt the "best," but to my degraded tastes, the crown still goes to Sarah Leah Chase's sugar-in-last formula, which in turn was reprinted in Barefoot Contessa At Home.

Blueberry Muffins

c. flour
1 Tbsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. kosher salt
1 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1 1/4 c. milk
2 extra large eggs, lightly beaten
2 sticks unsalted butter, melted
2 c. blueberries
1 1/2 c. sugar

Preheat oven to 375. Line muffin tins with paper liners.
Sift the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt and cinnamon together in a large bowl.
In another bowl, mix the milk, eggs and melted butter. Make a well in the middle of the dry mixture, then pour the wet mixture into the well and stir until just combined. Don't overmix the batter! Add the blueberries and the sugar and stir gently to combine.
Using a scoop, spoon the batter into the muffin cups to fill the liners. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, until a cake tester comes out clean and the tops are nicely browned.

*I usually halve the recipe, by the way

Monday, April 26, 2010

Sunday Supper

I recently wrote a post on Jezebel about all the heartbreakingly beautiful lifestyle blogs and how demoralizing they can be. Someone made a comment, though, that really made me think: "featuring just those parts of my life that are really nice inspires me," she wrote. And I think there's a lot to that. It's something to aspire to, something to work towards, and in the spirit of "whistle a happy tune," taking special care with one thing - faking a beautiful life - can make it more true.

Anyway, I'm trying to take more pictures and keep more of a record - especially nice when I'm on my own, in the Judith Jonesy spirit of treating oneself. Last night's meal was nothing fancy, but here goes: salad, and then halibut baked with minced shallots, melted butter and a little smoked paprika. Fingerlings and marinated asparagus on the side.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Rainy-Day Women

Or, as the case may be, banana bread!

I was inspired to bake by three things: the bananas I had in the freezer; the delicious descriptions in Molly Wizenberg's A Homemade Life; and the rainy NY weather.

I used Wizenberg's basic recipe for Banana Bread with Chocolate and Crystallized Ginger- a bit cakier than I like, but very tasty - but omitted the ginger and added coconut. I used the leftover chocolate from yesterday's cake, cutting the bar into irregular hunks and shards. In fact, I don't love chocolate - or coconut! - but felt like something a little "dessert-y." I also added a shower of raw sugar for a crackly top, and on a whim baked it in three little pans instead of one.

Banana Bread with Chocolate and Coconut
Makes 1 loaf or 1 8-inch round cake or 3 mini loaves

6 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cup sugar
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup semisweet chocolate chips
1/2 cup coconut
2 large eggs
3 large ripe bananas, mashed
1/4 cup well-stirred whole-milk plain yogurt (not low or nonfat*)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
A handful of raw sugar (optional)

1. Set a rack in the center of the oven, and preheat to 350F. Grease a 9- by 5-inch loaf pan or an 8-inch round cake pan with cooking spray or butter.

2. Melt the butter on the stove or in a microwave and set aside to cool slightly.

3. In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, baking soda, and salt. Add the chocolate chips and coconut and whisk well to combine. Set aside.

4. In a medium bowl, lightly beat the eggs with a fork. Add the mashed banana, yogurt, melted butter, and vanilla and stir to mix well. Pour the banana mixture into the dry ingredients, and stir gently with a rubber spatula, scraping down the sides as needed, until just combined. Do not overmix. The batter with be thick and somewhat lumpy, just make sure all the flour has been incorporated. Scrape the batter into the loaf pan and smooth the top. Sprinkle with sugar, if you like.

5. Bake into the loaf is a deep shade of golden brown and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean, 50 mins to an hour. If the loaf seems to be browning too quickly, tent with foil. (The minis took roughly 40 minutes, give or take.)

6. Cool the loaf in the pan on a wire rack for 5 minutes. Then tip out onto the rack, and let it cool completely before slicing**. The loaf freezes well wrapped in plastic wrap and again in foil to protect from freezer burn.

*I used low-fat, most uncharacteristically. It was fine.
** I didn't do this.

Since these pix were taken, I've delivered a still-warm loaf to the downstairs neighbors/landlords. They, in turn, returned the plate on which I brought them meringues last week.

Happy All the Time

I am kicking myself for not taking any pictures at last night's "all-Laurie-Colwin-recipes (plus salt!) dinner party." This was E.'s inspired idea (the dinner, not the failure to take pictures) and as such, took place at her lovely second-floor apartment, with its old, wide floorboards and warm light. The event, which was conceived as a partial-potluck (but with more coherence) sent the emails flying.

'I will happily bring dessert...the "nantucket cranberry pie" is actually delish, and I've always wanted to try "Elizabeth David's Chocolate Cake!"' I wrote.

L. replied that he would "be happy to bring biscuits or maybe the bread. (Also, head's up to Sadie, the "Happy Winter Fudge Cake" that appears in the chocolate cake chapter is not that great.)"

Sadie: Have always been curious about that fudge cake...

Requests: please don't make Inez Fontenez' succotash, a batch of which languished in my fridge for a month. Or a "palate-teaser of spicy brussels sprouts." I always secretly pity her guests, eating that endless procession of ever-odder baked chickens and broccoli rabe concoctions...

I can tell you I've had good luck with the "mustard chicken" (also in NY Cookbook), and, oddly, the tomato pie - which everyone else finds bizarre.

It occurs to me maybe I should make something really odd, like Suffolk Pond Pudding!

E: Is that the one where a lemon is coated in suet?

L: Or that Steamed Chocolate Pudding, which I have the hardest time picturing! And ditto on her poor dinner guests. It seems so weird that she should fixate on baked chicken.

E: It also seems like she literally did not put salt in ANYTHING after a certain point which also seems inhumane.

Sans the marinated brussels sprouts, the New Years meal in More Home Cooking seems about right (broiled salmon with italicized salsa, etc. And I have been wanting to try that jalapeno creamed spinach though I will use fresh, not frozen spinach).

S: Sounds good! And I'm sure the sprouts are actually fine, I added some odd things which she suggested, like Pickapeppa sauce. (Although that rice pudding, which I made recently, was pretty spartan.) I can probably be talked out of the suet-wrapped lemon. Easily.

(End convo.)

In the end, I was happily stymied not by a lack of suet, but by the out-of-season shortage of pudding steamers. And I did, indeed, make the chocolate cake, which proved - especially for an 80s affair - quite mild, containing a mere 4 oz. of chocolate along with ground almonds and eggs and sugar and was, to my mind, the more digestible for being less decadent. (But then, I'm not a chocolate-lover.) L. did indeed bring biscuits - scrumptious biscuits, sided with a notable mulberry preserve - and gingerbread - for which he obtained the "last can of cane syrup" (a pet product of LC's) in Brooklyn. I had my wedge for breakfast and then again with tea. The hostess, for her part, provided a roast chicken made tawny with paprika, and roasted fingerlings, and then a lovely soft lettuce salad. And, yes, the creamed spinach with jalapeno peppers, which truly is so good that one wants to "sit up and beg like a dog." (Although no one did.) And while the meal may have been rather less eccentric than its namesake might have preferred, it was certainly scrumptious, and fueled with laughter and good company and, yes, some of her prose, so I daresay she would have approved. Also, given her early commitment to the local and sustainable, I think she would have found the pedigree of just about everything, from chicken to eggs to cheeses to jam, to her liking.

I love themed dinners, when the theme is relatively organic. We're going to have another LC potluck - this one very likely based on her "Friday Night Supper" menu - but I hope we won't stop with that. There's a whole world of food writing out there, and many good meals waiting to be cooked and eaten with friends.

Elizabeth David's Flourless Chocolate Cake

* 4 oz bittersweet (not unsweetened) chocolate
* 1 t vanilla
* 1 t brewed espresso (or any other *strong* bre
* 1 t brandy
* 6 t butter
* 1⁄2 c Sugar
* 1⁄2 c ground almonds
* 3 large Eggs, divided

1. Preheat the oven to 300 degrees F. and butter and 8-inch springform pan. 2. In a heavy saucepan over low heat, melt chocolate with vanilla and brewed espresso and brandy.
2. Add butter, sugar, and almonds and heat the mixture until the butter has melted.
3. Remove the pan from the heat and cool slightly.
4. Beat the 3 egg yolks until they are lemon colored and stir them into the chocolate mixture.
5. Whip the 3 egg whites until they are just stiff and fold them into the chocolate mixture.
6. Turn the batter into the pan and bake the cake in the middle of the over for 45 minutes.
7. The cake will have some cracks on top, and a tester inserted into the cake will not come out clean.
8. Let the cake cool completely on a rack and remove the sides of the pan. The cake will rise and then fall.
9. Serving suggestions: brush with raspberry jelly; sprinkle with powdered sugar; cover or serve with whipped cream.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Another Recommendation: Wine!

Wine Spectator says:"Vivid passion fruit, lime peel, guava and quince flavors are refreshingly juicy and light-bodied, with good focus and a distinctive mineral note. Drink now."

I say: cheap and absolutely delicious! Got it at that wine shop on Broadway in Williamsburg near the Williamsburg Bridge.

Pomelo 2008 Sauvignon Blanc

Buttermilk Ice Cream!

If you're near Marlow and Daughters in Williamsburg, pick up a pint of this: I don't know who makes it - I'll ask next time I go - but had some with rhubarb crumble the other night and it's fab!

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Best Key-Lime Pie

Sometimes, I disagree with Cook's Illustrated's definition of perfection. Sometimes I don't think all the steps are necessary. But other times, there's just no arguing! Their key lime pie was one such case: pretty basic, but a paradigm of its kind. And so, although I've not so far made a habit of recording recipes verbatim, I have to get it down! (By the way, extra thanks again to David B. for the Cook's Illustrated Baking Book!)

Key Lime Pie


Lime Filling
4 teaspoon grated lime zest
1/2 cup Key lime juice (3-4 key limes*)
4 egg yolks
14 ounce sweetened condensed milk
11 graham crackers, processed to fire crumbs
3 tablespoons granulated sugar
5 tablespoons melted butter

Whipped Cream Topping
3/4 cup heavy cream
1/4 cup confectioners sugar
1/2 lime, sliced thin and dipped in sugar**


1. Whisk zest and yolks in medium bowl until tinted light green (aprox. 2 minutes). Beat in milk, then juice. Set aside at room temperature to thicken.
2. Preheat oven to 325 degrees F. Mix crumbs and sugar. Add butter, stir with fork until blended. Press into pie pan. Bake 15 minutes, until lightly brown and fragrant. Cool to room temperature, aprox 20 minutes.
3. Pour filling into crust, bake 15-17 minutes, until center is set but wiggly. Cool to room temperature then refrigerate for 3 hours.
4. Whip cream, add sugar.

*Let's face it: I've used regular old Persian limes and it was just fine.

**I didn't make the sugared lime. Instead, I decked the top with a little heap of sugared zest. But that's as you wish; I know some people even consider whipped cream an abomination!

Furious Cooking!

Last night I made myself Roast Chicken with 4 Alliums. Nothing fancy: just half a good chicken roasted over split leeks, surrounded with ramps and garlic cloves and a few scallions just because I had them.

A friend brought me something I had never had before up from North Carolina - branch lettuce. She says it's the centerpiece of her family's annual spring supper: "branch lettuce (a wild green served with spring onions and wilted with hot bacon drippings and vinegar), cornbread, pinto beans and crispy smoked pork." Wow! I, rather boringly, just mixed mine with arugula, sliced Jerusalem artichokes and ramp greens for a spring salad. I loved it: tart and slightly fuzzy - it reminded me a little of the clover-shaped sweetgrass we used to pick and eat when I was little.

Anyway, had that salad tonight with my friend Ruby. We also had that simple pasta of shells, bacon, peas, ricotta and Parmesan. Dessert was a strawberry-rhubarb crumble and some of the delicious buttermilk ice cream I got at Marlowe and Daughters yesterday. I pushed some blueberry muffins on her as she was leaving, since I made a batch of Cook's Illustrated's (I shouldn't say so, when I didn't follow all their instructions and added the berries whole instead of cooking half of them into a jam!) and can't possibly eat them all while Matt's out of town...

Oh! Sunday, some friends and I tried the new pie shop, Four and Twenty Blackbirds. The space was adorable and one of the pies - Lemon Chess - outstanding, sort of like a wedge of lemon square. The pear-ginger was just not my kind of palate and as to the Shoo-Fly, why, she who orders shoo-fly pie should know what she's getting, especially if she's just had some in Philadelphia two days prior!

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

On Coffee

I am rapidly coming to the conclusion that I don't like good coffee.

Let me revise that: I don't like the new wave of good coffee. I am particular about the coffee I brew every day (I should be, I drink enough of it); we get our beans delivered every ten days from d'Amico in Carroll Gardens and I "decant them into glass" as Laurie Colwin would say and grind them as needed. But as to all the boutique coffees springing up all over town, I just don't...get it.

In principle, I was gung-ho! I am all for fair trade/small batch/artisanal stuff and most yuppie food movements have pretty delicious results. But from the first time I tasted the coffee at my local spot in Greenpoint, regarded as a vanguard of the boutique coffee movement - so serious are they that they host regular "coffee-tastings" to educate the palate - I knew doubt. I didn't like the bright, acid flavor or the amber color or, frankly, what it did to my admittedly weak stomach. And this conviction has only strengthened as I've gamely worked my way through roasting plants and caffeine meccas around the city. Whereas I used to see "Stumptown" or "Counter-Culture" or and have a moment of happiness, now my heart sinks. I alternate between calling myself a Philistine and bitterly muttering about naked emperors. I guess it's really, at the end of the day, just a question of taste: I like old-school, oily, dark-roasted beans. I like d'Amico and Porto Rico Importing Co's "Danish Blend" and am eager to try the venerable "Texis Coffee" in Queens. Heck, I'd as soon have a good Bustela with hot milk, frankly. There, I said it.

On Baked Beans, Simplicity, Eccentric Entertaining

As far as entertaining goes, sometimes I think people have lost the courage of their convictions. Take this passage from the Tasha Tudor Cookbook, introducing the (rather iconoclastic) recipe for Baked Beans:
These I learned to make from Nell Dorr, the well-known children's photographer. No one, to my mind, has exceeded the art of Nell and her Rolleiflex camera. No posing, no flashes, just pure magic. Nell Dorr gave memorable supper parties in her home, the West Branch, in Westport, Connecticut. I recall the many artists who attended these agreeable gatherings; Robert Lawson was one. It was all delightfully informal, with small tables set about the four small rooms. Nell looked lovely, as she always did, in her long frocks, with Queen Anne's lace in her dark hair. Her famous baked beans and homemade bread were always served, and no other baked beans can compare.

(If you're thinking that you need to buy this cookbook RIGHT NOW you're not wrong.) Dorothy Draper's estimable Entertaining is Fun (which you also need if you don't have it) often advocates a similar approach, suggesting menus of lots of one thing, and no apologies. I remember reading somewhere about some famous hosts who were known for serving only sugared bacon at their cocktail parties and someone else who always offered whiskey and peanuts. As soon as I develop my gimmick, I intend to do likewise. (Although it must be said that the party at which I only served different kinds of deviled eggs was regarded as peculiar.)

I was inspired by this to make baked beans today; I didn't follow Tudor's instructions to "parboil the beans until their skin pops when you blow on them" then simmer until squashable (I soaked and pre-cooked them instead, although I'll admit to a little futile huffing-and-puffing at a bean's skin, just by way of experiment.) They are baking away now, and very savory they smell too on this rather chilly, San Francisco-ish day. No homemade bread, alas, but I do have a key lime pie and (to use up the resulting whites) some chocolate-chip meringues.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Spring Fling

Making a real spring meal for a change: salmon, roasted asparagus, new potato salad! (I like the potato salad from Simon Hopkinson, just potatoes and scallion in a thick, mustardy vinaigrette. For "picnic" potato salad, I like the one Elaine and I had on Tangier Island - as detailed in the Hilda Crockett Inn Cookbook, which I own - which involves mayo, grated onion, chopped egg and, most important, chopped sweet pickles and their juice.) I also made some rhubarb compote, which I sweetened with maple because, ever since a maple farmer told me that as a kid his favorite snack was new rhubarb stalks dipped in maple sugar, I've fancied the flavor combination. Happy Spring!

Monday, March 29, 2010

New Bun on the Block!

Have found another good Hot Cross Bun! Surprisingly enough, at the ancient Lafayette Pastry, notable chiefly for its charming, elderly proprietess and the fact that they carry "charlotte russe," a cardboard cup of sponge and whipped cream with a movable bottom that, apparently, used to be the delight of every mid-century Brooklyn child but is now almost extinct! [Oh, I forgot they were the ones who made the "drunken negro cookie" a few months back. Just did an image search and, yes. Hm. Problematic. This effects the rest of the entry but will run it anyway.] Anyway, I bought the HCB more because I wanted to buy something and it goes against the grain to pass one up (except at Amy's Bread, where they're like iced ciabatta.) But it was good! In the Galloway's style, which is to say more of a Parker House roll dough, studded with currants and a little citron. Would buy this bun again. Indeed, I will: this Friday I intend a very wide-scale tasting. And I need to buy some cheese for a dinner that evening, so I believe I must needs be in the area. (I like Lucy's Whey in the Chelsea Market. Smallish, but impeccable, selection, and terrific staff. Or there's always Murray's.)

Sunday, March 28, 2010

The Brink Of Despair!

Hunger sent me into despair and indecision at the Chelsea Market today...

But a sandwich cured all that!

Most Revolting Thing I've Ever Seen:

A scone studded with Oreos! Quel horreur!

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Luck Of The Irish

Last night, it being a balmy St. Pat's, I made colcannon and Cook's Illustrated's salmon fish cakes. These were, obviously, an enormous pain in the ass. The three-part breading alone was a major ordeal, and anyone who suggests placing a cookie sheet in the freezer (to firm the cakes up pre-frying, of course) has a much bigger fridge than I, or else has a lot less crap in hers. (You know theirs are empty, save for a few neatly-labeled bags of homemade stock and maybe some made-in-advance meals frozen in individual portions for the nights they work late.) With the pileup of dishes, the batch-frying and draining-on-paper-on-yet-another-plate became a chaotic space issue. And, of course, the smoke alarm went off and I'm too short to reach it. Also, the house now smells like frying fish, never a happy morning-after. I have placed dishes of white vinegar around, which some old housewives recommend for this sort of thing.

That said: they were delicious.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Emergency Lunch

The larder was a bit bare today, so I had eggs. I sauteed a couple of crushed garlic cloves, added a small can of chopped tomatoes, and cooked it down a bit. Then I cracked in two eggs, covered it, and let them set. Afterwards, I grated on a little parmesan and ran it under the broiler. With a little spinach on the side: good!

Planning an ambitious St. Patrick's Day dinner - stay tuned!

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

New Dish

Last night, I tried something new, a recipe I glanced at in Wine Bar Food at (for some reason) the Chicago Art Institute.

Here's what you do:

Brown about 4 lbs pork spareribs in olive oil.

Add some smashed garlic cloves and brown.

Submerge in 2 large cans crushed tomatoes with salt and pepper. (Water as needed to cover.)

Braise at 325 for 2 and a half hours, covered.

Add about 1/2 a cup of jarred peppers and cook half an hour longer.

Remarks: the only peppers available were red "tabasco" peppers, which made it all but inedible to everyone but certain chain-smokers, who pronounced it delicious. But because of the ease of preparation (said chain-smoker made most of it with minimal supervision), overall tastiness and delectable house-filling savory smell, will definitely make again, this time with cherry peppers. I also think it would be good with something bland to cut it, like pasta or, even better, polenta, especially as there's plenty of sauce. Lest you think the combo reads a tad "barbecue," rest assured, the total lack of sweetness renders it completely Mediterranean in flavor, and it's much more like an Italianate braise or stew. Try it, you like it.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Annual Hot Cross Bun Roundup

It is time. Hot Cross Buns are one of my favorite things in the whole, wide world. And this year brings some new ones - new to me, anyway!

Bouchon Bakery: They only start making this iconoclastic, cardamom-scented bun closer to Easter Sunday, so I have yet to have one this year. However, I'm confident that it will be as outstanding as ever. It's big and full of fruit, but doesn't hold up: my mother always insists on saving it overnight and it's never as good day-old.

Galloway's Bakery: I can't believe I'd never tried this! Galloway's, not too far from my parents' house in Westchester, is an old-school family bakery that makes the world's best cinnamon rolls and glazed donut holes. Until this weekend, I'd never tried their HCB, but when my mom and I went on Sunday and we saw the hand-written sign advertising them, well, the die was cast. While it wasn't quite up to the standard of the ultimate old-fashioned bun (that of the late, lamented College Bakery of Carroll Gardens) it was still very tasty: a fluffy base that tasted like a good Parker House roll, a good amount of fruit, and of course plenty of gooey icing.

The Breslin: This split, toasted British-style bun is on the menu year-round. It really is like what one (or, I guess, April Bloomfield) gets in the UK: not too sweet, flour-paste cross, just currants. It's wonderful.

Entemann's: I have a soft spot for these, unabashedly commercial and sweet and suspiciously long-lived though they might be. My heart leaps in my chest the first time I see their purple box at the store - or, as it did this year, the bodega in Fort Greene!

I am not, as a general rule, a junk-food snacker. My snack choices are more idiosyncratic: canned tomatoes, jarred spaghetti sauce with an incongruous glug of good olive oil, or, in a pinch, tomato paste straight from the tube. But this is not to say I am a junk food-frowner: on occasion I crave a Double-Stuf Oreo, and nothing is more comforting than Kraft, supplemented with chunk-light tuna and half a can of sweet, gray-green peas.

But the one thing I dream of is Marie Callender's spaghetti with meat sauce. This is very hard to find on the East Coast, despite my best efforts. I did first sample it while staying with my grandparents in California, and it was readily available in Chicago where I went to college, but according to the website, I should be able to track it down around here. Still, I haven't been able to. Despite being a "TV" dinner, this spaghetti takes a long time to prepare, whether boiled in water or microwaved, in its two separate plastic pouches. It is sweet with corn syrup and heady with salt and garlic powder and comes with a spongy, chemical-buttery piece of garlic bread, which at some point was switched to a "Texas toast." I love this meal. I drench it in olive oil and shower it with fresh parmesan (high-low, I guess) and scatter it with parsley and it is, hands down, one of my favorite comfort foods. If you have any leads, please let me know.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Rice Pudding Update

As I mentioned, I made a mediocre rice pudding last night, flavored with Meyer lemon and cardamom. Well, it wasn't bad so much as extremely minimal and spartan and practically puritanical (yes, I do realize that's mixing my cultures) the sort of thing I imagine a British boarding school might have dished up unsmilingly (sans seasonings, of course.)

But! A twist! Last weekend I made a heart-shaped Pavlova and, to use up the yolks, made a batch of lemon curd. Well, I stirred some of the lemon curd into that rice pudding, and it made a world of difference: the egg yolks (a common addition to more luxurious pudding recipes, after all) added a welcome richness and, of course, the flavors worked. So, salvaged - for the moment. Tagine still bad.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Plane Food

I realized at some point that my mental map is plotted wholly with good things to eat. When I scan in my mind over a neighborhood - say, Williamsburg - I get an impression of vague unease and feel an instinctive aversion. This is not due to the hipsters nor the posturing nor even the inconvenient trains, but rather the lack of treats. There are good restaurants, of course, but until recently a paucity of small rewards with which to fortify oneself in the course of an expedition. I have that initial impression - a sort of color-feeling - and then when I actually turn my mind to it, it begins to turn and process like one of those "loading" circles on a computer. And then the general impression begins to crystallize, and I zero in on the snacks: the lemon bombolini that can sometimes be found at Marlow and Sons; the lavender cake at Saltie; the barren stretch of Bedford; a sudden flicker as I realize that Cheeks bakery has closed. All this inventorying happens in a moment. But it's also why I so often find myself getting off the train at West 4th without knowing just why (Ronnybrook yogurt drinks and date-walnut brownies at Murray's; the squares of thin pizza at Amy's) or why I inexplicably continue to think of Chelsea as a friendly neighborhood (the Market, of course.) Lately, with the advent of the bacon rolls and sugar cake at the Stumptown in the Ace, I've begun to think very warmly of Murray Hill, even though in fact I know I hate it. The treats truck, itinerant as it is, drives my radar crazy.

This is why, for a long time, I have had very ungenerous feelings about Chicago - or at least, Hyde Park, where I went to college. The food is awful. The lone exceptions are the excellent applesauce cake very occasionally available at the coffee shop on the second floor of the Reynolds Club (now called "Hallowed Grounds") and, a good walk away, the Fanny Mae in the 55th Street shopping center. My heart would sink whenever I got off the El or the bus and the same thing happened when I arrived on Friday; I knew I was without allies. Nevertheless, this warred with the general feeling I have for the city, which is Ribs-Deep-Dish-Chicago-Hot-Dog-Breakfast-Skillets and, in any case, I was very eager to see Laura, one of my dearest friends, currently studying medicine.

I had a few hours to kill while Laura finished class, so I took the opportunity to seek out three bakeries and plot a number of possible restaurants. I felt better knowing they were there, and absolutely thrilled when, in a North Side coffee shop that just escaped preciousness, I had as scrumptious and moist a piece of banana bread as I've ever eaten. Sometimes I wonder if this need for food around me has to do with self-medicating; it's certainly true that blood sugar plays havoc with already ungoverned serotonin levels. And I feel a sense of panic when I'm stranded in the house without snacks and know the inevitable despair is coming. And the stupid thing is, I can't be placated with just a Snickers or some other practical remedy; it has to please me mentally, too. As a result, I'll refuse to settle and then go into utter despair, or faint, or get a migraine, and then it's too late. I faint a lot.

The things that make me happy are: good pound cake; eggplant; roasted tomatoes; brown sugar-flavored bar cookies. There are others, but these are the core of the arsenal.

Anyway, having found the banana bread, and knowing Lovely (that coffee shop) was there on North Milwaukee if I needed it, made all the difference. I loved Chicago. It was beautiful, gritty, full of character and sporadic charm. The campus was prettier than I remembered. The sun, and the 40 degree weather, hurt not at all. And having purchased an additional slice of banana bread to carry in my purse, more as talisman than anything, I felt fine.

The visit was wonderful. Besides the conversation and the stories and the wonderful, spacious apartment and the adorable sweet dog, Phoebe, there was much good food: we dined at a place I'd found in Eat.Shop Chicago which, like many things in their thumbnail photographs, seemed to me slightly misrepresented (the book makes everything look sleek and Wallpaper-ish; in fact the restaurant was highly eccentric, a bit frowsy and full of dubious art)but proved absolutely wonderful. Laura had a homemade fettuccini with a rabbit ragu; I had eggplant involtini, in a scrumptious, fresh-tasting tomato sauce, and an arugula salad on the side. They were all appetizer portions but ample and, with a glass of nice wine, festive, too. (I also love small portions and am depressed by huge ones. A Carnegie sandwich can send me into the blackest despair.)

Laura and her boyfriend have a well-stocked, adult and wonderfully accessible kitchen. I felt completely comfortable grinding beans and fixing myself a small French press of coffee and heating a pan of milk; that's saying something, when you've never stayed in a house. We took the dog on a long and vigorous walk and then drove to the Cozy Corner Pancake House whichm far from being burnished by nostalgia, was even better than I remembered, albeit a lot more bustling than in the pre-Yelp era. Just as I used to, I had the "Gypsy skillet," which is a pan of good home fries mixed with onion, mushrooms, cheddar and cured ham and topped with two eggs. Laura had the "Greek" rendition, which involves Feta and a passel of vegetables. The skillet is a marvelous thing, everything one wants in a single dish, hearty but never grotesque, and I don't see why no one has done it back East. I'm sure the pancakes are good, too, given that they're in the name and everything is good, but I can't resist a savory breakfast and when I do I always regret it after the first few bites. I mean, bacon!

Laura went to Lovely to work (I had talked it up) and I went on a many-mile thrift-shopping walk. I'd plotted out a number of food stops, even though I was stuffed; it made me feel good to know they were there. I did seek out a gourmet market recommended in my book and got the fixings for dinner, which I'd offered to cook so as to allow Laura to accomoany me to Shutter Island later in the evening. At length I joined her and had a cup of orange peel tea and a good oatmeal raisin cookie: the dense, raisin-packed kind, which I like slightly less than the chewy sort, but was still very good.

Dinner was simple, things I often put together at home and which I figured I could manage in an unfamiliar kitchen. First, I peeled, cubed and roasted a small butternut squash with a drizzle of olive oil and a scattering of salt and pepper. When the little cubes were browned and soft and crisp at the edges, I tossed them with baby arugula and goat's cheese and oil and Balsamic vinegar. The main was a homely dish from Marion Cunningham's Lost Recipes that I figured would make good leftovers for my hostess. It involves: sauteeing onion and garlic, then adding drained Cannellini beans, cut-up sausage (calls for Kielbasa; I had sweet Italian, which made it less like franks and beans and which I'll use again) a glug of white wine, a little red wine vinegar, brown sugar, salt and pepper. You cook it all down and eat it with mustard and it's very nice on a cold night.

Laura made us some terrific Irish oatmeal the next morning, cooked in milk and served with sliced banana. All I'll say about the rest of the day - because I'm being called away now - is that I obtained a sausage/pepper/onion pie from Pizzeria Uno and brought it on the Blue Line, to O'Hare, onto the plane, then on the shuttle from Newark to the station, then to Penn Station, and then back to Bed-Stuy on the A local. (I'd planned to try to bring a fully-dressed Chicago-style Gold Coast hot dog, but in the end, despitre some valiant with-pizza sprinting, wasn't able to make it to the terminal a mile away from my own to procure it. I had a hunger spell midway through, collapsed on the moving walkway, and had to eat a slice of pizza. Next time.)

Oh, and darn, I forgot to take a picture of the mediocre chicken tagine I made tonight. I am losing my faith in Tamasin Day-Lewis. Also, the lemon-rice pudding, from Laurie Colwin-via-Jane-Grigson (a spartan, milk-and-rice-only affair to which I added a little cardamom) which is pretty dreary. But I don't know what I expected. This is probably my hundreth Colwin failure. Fool me once, etc.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Books:Home Cooking

This is one of my favorite books of all time, full-stop: funny, entertaining, and extremely approachable. While I don't imagine you need to enjoy cooking to love essays like "Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant," or "Repulsive Dinners: A Memoir", Colwin makes cooking seem easier, more fun and more attainable than any food writer I've encountered. Part of this is because her recipes are notoriously sketchy - lots of "flinging" and "handfuls" and "whenever you get around to it"s - and in any event, are very much to her, ahem, idiosyncratic tastes. (I speak as the unhappy maker of a succotash that she described as "hands down, one of the best things I have ever cooked.") But that's also the appeal: Colwin loves food and, while her kitchen is more eccentric than most, this is indeed "home" cooking - and great writing. The follow-up, it must be said, I like a bit less: while still eminently necessary, it's somehow less humorful, more polemical, and, although it actually has more recipes I've made with success, I reach for it far less frequently as something to read while I eat. Home Cooking, on the other hand, is almost translucent with olive oil. That, I think, just goes to show.

Chicken Soup for the Freelance Soul

My first effort at food photography. The soup, by the way, was fine; I'll add noodles later, to shake things up. I daresay were I Laurie Colwin I would have jazzed it up with Thai chili paste or lime pickle or somesuch, but I'm dull that way. A hunk of cheese (something cheddar-like from the greenmarket) on the side did me just fine.

The State of the Larder
: So-so. I have the formentioned squash;one portion leftover jambalaya (made this for Mardi Gras, of course); about 2 T spinach I felt guilty tossing; leftover eggplant from the Saigon Grill which was kind of bland and greasy. Not sure about dinner; I think I'll walk the 3 miles to Williamsburg and see what catches my eye at Marlow and Daughters - perhaps an intriguing chicken sausage? With broccoli rabe? Oh, wait, there's sausage in that old jambalaya. Life is hard.

Starting Out in the Kitchen

The reason I've never done a food blog, although I've always kept an informal food journal in long-hand, is because I very much feared it could take over. That, and there are too many. And, of course, I'm not one for food photography. But I think it'll bring me too much pleasure not to carry on.

Now, the name. In the grand tradition of Blogspot '10, this wasn't my first choice. But when all was said and done, it was this or "Cold Shape," and while I liked the ambiguous possibilities of the latter, it was simply too unappetizing. Plus, I don't exactly revel in aspic, whereas I do love pudding. The title was, in fact, suggested by an exchange my fiance, M, had with a friend recently. The friend asked what the secret to my happiness was. "Easy," said M. "Sweet puddings when she's sad, and savory puddings when she's happy." And he did mean American-style spoon food, not just "dessert" as the Brits would have it.

That said, "Queen of Puddings" is a venerable British nursery sweet (pictured above) made with jam, sponge and meringue.

This is actually bad timing because yesterday, in an incensed-induced fit of intemperate enthusiasm, despite not being Christian, I decided while at Smoky Mary's of 46th street Solemn Mass to do Lent up right and forswear all indulgences and possibly just have broth for dinner although that part I'm not sure about. Anyway, they're always doing dramatic high-church fasts in Barbara Pym (who loved food) so I figured what's good enough for Pym etc. Besides, I plan on making myself a fantastic Easter basket with which to break the fast. Was already tempted by this huge slab of toffee (with hammer) they have at Carry on Tea and Sympathy. But I resisted, and feel very virtuous. I was undecided as to whether the banana-bran muffin I had for breakfast (with some orange, and coffee, and a soft-boiled egg) counted as a sweet, but I have to use up the batch (M doesn't like banana) and besides, it's pretty leaden and awful so eating it hardly qualifies as an indulgence.

Right Now: I am making some chicken soup. I have good broth left over from a chicken savoyarde I made for a Saturday night dinner (wouldn't do it again, less while ill) so I just sweated some onion and carrot in skimmed schmaltz, added broth and thyme and the remains of a roast chicken carcass, and that's all simmering merrily away. Will add shredded meat soon, and I'm convoinced the only secret is plenty of salt anyway. I'll probably have some for lunch, maybe a salad too involving a little cold roast squash.