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Archive for July, 2009

Summer's best

Berry delicious

I’m trying to enjoy as much as the city has to offer me at night before I officially sign my soul away to the restaurant, so one humid night this week, the bf and I walked to Tartine in the West Village for dinner al fresco. One block away at Magnolia Bakery, throngs of people were gathered inside going coo-coo for media-hyped cupcakes with cloying icing—it looked like a wedding dress sample sale in there. It smelled really good from across the street, but we ignored the waft of enticing vanilla cake batter, turned the corner, and in the end were rewarded with a dessert case full of treats like the berry tart above.

Don’t get me wrong. Surely, cupcakes have their place: they’re cute, they feel special, and when made well, they quell the sweet tooth properly. But there are so many better, even more special treats to be had. No cupcake will do the job of a mixed berry tart right now and pay homage to the season, and no cupcake will taste as refreshing, creamy and buttery. See, that’s the difference between pastry and baking. Pastry takes mastery of a skills-set, an eye for detail, artistry. (The pastry chef Francois Payard said it best in an article I once read in Edible Manhattan about his eponymous Payard Patisserie: “I am not a fucking bakery.”) Cupcakes? Unless you’re making awesome accompanying buttercreams or doing crazy decorations, meh. Please, I will not comment on icing shots.

Of course, there’s something to be said about simple pleasures and good marketing. I’m not a hater, I just love pastries more.

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Chic crackers

Chic crackers

Here’s a find from a trip to Murray’s Cheese in the West Village: crackers made with charcoal powder from The Fine Cheese Co., of Bath, England. It’s positioned as a “stylish” alternative to plain ole white crackers (on the other hand, you really can’t call someone a “crackah ass crackah” now, can you?). What would be the fashion equivalent, you ask? This is the Helmut Lang of crackerdom.

It doesn’t especially taste like charcoal, though I wouldn’t know—just buttery with a denser texture than your average water cracker.

Snacktime, tho the cheese monster arrived earlier

The cheese monster arrived early for snacktime

I know it was hard for you to stay on-trend cracker-wise the last time you threw a party (tsk tsk), but now you have no excuses.

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Sour cherry clafoutis, cooling

Sour cherry clafoutis, cooling

I’d been itching to make a tart of some sort with seasonal fruit, and a barbeque gave me a good excuse to actually make something. I bought some sour cherries, got out some pastry dough that had been sitting in the freezer, and set my heart upon clafoutis (cla-FOO-tee). As far as tarts go, clafoutis sounds fancier than it is: pastry dough, a custard, some fruit, and there you have a simple, tasty dessert that makes the most out of any cherries that are available. (Traditionally, unpitted black cherries were used, but you can use blueberries, too.)

Blind-baked sucree tart shell

Blind-baked sucree tart shell

The only real hurdle is rolling out the tart shell and blind-baking it, and that doesn’t take long. Then you just add the fruit, pour in the custard, and bake at a low temperature until the custard is set.

Scatter cherries

You will have cherries in every bite

A helpful tip I read in Jamie Oliver’s The Naked Chef cookbook is to place the tart or shell without the custard onto the oven rack first, then pour in the custard, so it minimizes any potential spillage. But then again, if you have a small oven like mine and the sheet pan lifts up at a slight tilt every time you close the oven door, you will have spilled custard nonetheless.

Pour in custard, place in oven

Looks sloshy but promising

It turned out as they usually turn out: creamy and subtly sweet with a sprinkling of powdered sugar, with a tart zing of the sour cherries. In hindsight, though, my seasonal fruit ambition got the best of me and I suffered from clafoutis-tunnel vision, when I should’ve brought something else. It was the wrong occasion—it’s perfect with tea, not so much with beer—for the wrong crowd, with four toddlers in the mix. It was an edible wallflower, forlorn and lost in the dessert spread. I should’ve brought something more punchy and American, like chocolate-cherry brownies if I really wanted to use those cherries, or key lime bars. Key lime bars! My next project. I will find a way to make it go with tea and beer.

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Brownie point

There’s little personal space in this town of eight million, and this space includes one’s olfactory senses. In many cases, the olfactory invasion is less than savory: dog doo-doo, a homeless person, cigarette smoke, construction dust plumes. . .I’ll stop here with the stank-y stuff, though I could go on. But here’s a welcome wake-up call, which I get maybe once or twice a week around 8:30, 9, from a Cuban restaurant down the block: the scent of freshly-made brownies, probably cooling in a sheet pan near the back door, wafting its delicious odor into our window. Depending on the day, it’s either brownies, or roast pork or chicken, and while the latter two aren’t entirely offensive smells in the morning, the chocolate-y scent trail reminds me that this city always offers something good with the bad, as trite as that may sound.

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I spent most of the day yesterday in the basement underbelly of the flagship restaurant of a chain run by a well-known chef.  By hour seven in the pastry department, I had been covered in a persistent film of sweat since my arrival, my edemic, water-logged legs were pushing the limits of the compression socks that supposedly help prevent varicose veins, and my physical age had been pronouncing itself loud and clear (“Hey! You’re not twenty anymore!”) through my knees, which were starting to buckle, and my back, which began spasming. In those seven hours, I had made sheets out of graham cracker dough using a sheeter, which I’ve never used before; washed, stemmed, and pitted a bucket of cherries with a cherry pitter, which I had never used before either (there has got to be a better way!); helped bake zucchini bread; made three kilos of streusel; made pounds and pounds of brioche dough; lined a sheet pan full of tins no bigger than a silver dollar with the aforementioned graham dough and blind-baked them; sheeted the leftover dough again; and when the tickets came in, watched the cooks and chef bring together many components on single plates and tried to stay out of the way so as to not become a monkey wrench in the well-oiled machine.

If I do sign on, and I won’t know until later in August for sure, I told myself “No Kvetching.” I’m going to do it at least for a year and not complain. Ten hour days on my feet that end at 1am, those will be hard. Not having a normal life of free nights and weekends (sounds like a cellphone plan), this will also be hard. But it’s work—plain, physical, sometimes fun work—and I feel a need to just do it and seize this opportunity. If I don’t see you before then, I’ll see you on the other side.

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Crunchy but not as hippie

a nearly virtuous breakfast

A nearly virtuous breakfast

It’s ridiculously easy and satisfying to make granola. Even if it has two pounds of sugar and oil in it, it makes you feel like you’re doing something to outlive everyone. It’s an ideal summer breakfast, because if you have it with yogurt, it has more heft than cereal in milk, and it’s much more exciting than plain oatmeal, which is definitely too hot for the weather.

My interest was piqued last week when I came across the olive oil granola recipe in the Times from the woman who runs Early Bird Foods. There’s usually some kind of oil in it—I’ve used coconut oil, or a mix of canola and butter, which seems strange in such a seemingly healthy food—but olive oil would truly make it healthy. And there’s a good dose of salt, and I’m a sucker for the mix of salty and sweet.

I varied the ingredients a little bit, using coconut flakes instead of the coconut chips, and put in an unsalted roasted nut mix I had on hand instead of the pumpkin seeds and pistachios. Because these nuts were already roasted, I just chopped them and added them halfway into baking.

Oats and coconut

Oats and coconut flakes

Maple syrup and dried apricots

Maple syrup and dried apricots

The resulting granola was really juicy. I know that’s a strange adjective to employ for granola, but it’s not a bad thing, and it was crunchy, too. It might be that there was a little bit too much liquid mixture and not the right kinds of nuts to absorb them all. It was also a little on the sweet side—there’s 3/4 cup of maple syrup and half a cup of packed light brown sugar, so I might cut either of these down the next time depending on the quantity and types of nuts.

Boatload of granola

Boatload of granola

The sea salt went undetected initially, but I have been tasting more of it as I work to the bottom of the bag. The one teaspoon of it works hard to balance all the sweetness with a slightly salty undercurrent.

I see some good breakfasts and snacking in my future…and yours.

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Home-grown blueberries

Get in my fruit tart!

Between a quick trip to the beach and a little get-together Saturday night, we stopped by at my bf’s childhood home to feed the cats (his parents are away) and pick some fruit. I knew his mother is a big gardener, and I knew these fruit bushes existed, but it was the first time I helped pick any. For a city slicker, this was pretty exciting.

Blackberries

Not quite ripe blackberries

There were some good big, plump and sweet blueberries for the pickin’, but the figs and the blackberries, as you can see, could use more time to fatten.

Would you like some?

Would you like some?

* * *

Then, off to a friend’s home for some grub and Rock Band night. It was supposed to be a Raclette and Rock Band night (a “Rock-lette” night, har har), but their kiddies got sick, so they warned us that there wouldn’t be fondue and it would be a lo-fi night. Interestingly, this was the “lo-fi” spread we were greeted with.

Classy spread

It was classy all the way, starting from the cocktails to rosemary cashews to these below, made with care by the hostess:

Gluten-free chocolate cupcakes with edible flowers

Gluten-free chocolate cupcakes with edible flowers

Well, almost classy, except for a pitiful rendition of Beastie Boys’ “No sleep til Brooklyn,” when we got booted off the stage 10 seconds into the song. Have you ever tried to rap that? Sure, they can pass it off because they have a three-person posse, but with only one on vocal, you will be doomed to Rock Band ignominy.

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