Saturday, November 24, 2007

New familiars

Today is full of new familiars, things that are familiar but have patiently waited as old memories so that they now feel new.

Familiarity Number One is Christmas music. Leigh Nash is back in my life! As a teen I listened to her with Sixpence and coyly sang along to "Kiss Me," but today my favorite song of hers is "Baby It's Cold Outside."

So in the transition from Thanksgiving to Christmas I am listening to new yet old tunes and savoring one of my favorite flavors of this season: cranberries. The mixed berry cranberry sauce I got from Deb at Smitten Kitchen made a delightfully large batch, and even split between Katie and me, is promising to last quite a few more days.

In summary of all things worth giving thanks for, my roomies and I sat down for breakfast together this morning. Pancakes were on the menu with plenty of creamy vanilla yogurt, tangy cranberry sauce, and spicy cinnamon. It was cold and rainy outside, but we were dry and cozy in our apartment with satisfied bellies.

Familiarity Number Two is homemade bread. Though it bears no familiar presence in my own adult kitchen, my childhood kitchen, the one that required a nearby stool to see the countertop, knows the smell and appearance of freshly baked bread well.

My most vivid memories of my mother's amazing bread-making skills are in the land where my brothers, sister, and I drew amused looks for widely opening our mouths to form a long O sound and call out "Mom!" In those years my own culinary curiousity was born. Most likely to distract us from destroying her recipes, my mom/mum occasionally gave my sister and I freedom to experiment on our own in the kitchen. I clearly remember one particular batch of muffins with toothpaste in it!

Maybe that toothpaste flop is the perfect segue into my first ever loaf of bread kneaded, left to rise, and baked all on my lonesome. Not that this was a complete flop, but I'm not declaring gastronomical genius either.

I have much to learn.

For example, barely cutting away at the surface of a doughy loaf before it goes in the oven (with an only semi-sharp knife) probably will not achieve beautiful, true baker-esque slits in the top of my bread. This was probably the greatest flaw in this nervous, exciting endeavor. Somehow, the rest came out deliciously chewy on the inside and with a truly rustic, crusty outside -- fine enough to be eaten with plenty of contented sighs and addicted nibbling.

Thankfully, I am not so discouraged as to push my bread flour and yeast packets to the back of the cupboard. In fact, for now they have a prominent place on the foremost edge of the shelf, where I can more easily and confidently grab them to knead away academic frustration as the last two weeks of classes slip away.

Now...I really can't stay/I've got to go away/this evening has been so very nice...

[To find my bread recipe, visit Smitten Kitchen here and scroll down to the Rustic White Bread.]

Friday, November 16, 2007

Late nights and little lacey things

I'm sure you know the feeling...

"Was that just last weekend?" / "Did we see each other a week ago or a month ago?" / "Today arrived so quickly!"

Time is always on the move. We can't get it back, and we can't control how quickly or slowly its passage is going to feel. It's good to remember that some things are simply beyond control so that I do not waste too much energy on trying to get everything right.

I tend to do this -- when I accomplish something, my next thought is "now, if I can just align that with this and this, then life will be perfect." Silly me.

Last night I didn't sleep. No, I wasn't fitfully twisting in my sheets, staring wide-eyed at the ceiling, or partying till dawn. My bed patiently waited as each hour after midnight came and went, and I sat on the living room couch with research paper materials sprawled across the coffee table and Sigur Rós keeping me company.
It's my fault. And I don't recommend all-nighters, but this morning, as I walked toward the English building with a fat manila envelope in one hand and hot cup of coffee in the other, my parcel looked quite beautiful in a faded, flattened, well-loved-childhood-teddy-bear sort of way.

So, as I look back on this busy week I'm struggling to remember the separate days. Monday seems like ages ago. Sunday even longer.

However, backing up to Sunday brings up a small bridal shower I went to for my dear, dear friend. I made some promises to blog about it and have been anxious to put my pictures up, but I had to get through this week before finding the spare time. So, it's 11:15pm and I'm running on a three hour nap since 5:00am yesterday, but I don't want to wait any longer!

The party was lovely. It was small and intimate and full of laughter, lace, little panties, and brunch-y food. I especially loved our mismatched collection of glasses for mimosas!

Once I got home I had a proper photoshoot with the remaining scones I had made. These scones were a last minute decision as I attempted to work with what I already had in my cupboards and to keep myself from being so adventurous that I was doomed for disaster. I almost always have the ingredients for scones on hand and am perfectly satisfied with a simple cream scone with jam and tea, but many people like theirs less traditional and more fully flavored. I wanted to shy away from anything too sweet, knowing there would be plenty of sugar on the table.

I came up with coffee hazelnut scones based on a cream scone recipe I've been using for a couple years, and I threw in coarsely chopped toasted hazelnuts and added instant espresso to the wet ingredients. They turned out quite delicious!

Coffee Hazelnut Scones

Makes 8 scones.

2 cups all-purpose flour
1/3 cup granulated white sugar
2 t. baking powder
1/8 t. salt
1/3 cup chilled, unsalted butter
3/4 cup chopped hazelnuts, skin removed, toasted
1 large egg, lightly beaten
1 t. vanilla extract
1/2 cup heavy whipping cream (or half & half or whole milk)
1 T. instant espresso granules

1. Preheat oven to 375°. Place rack in the middle of the oven.
2. In a large bowl mix together flour, sugar, bakig powder, and salt. Cut the butter into small pieces (or use a large grater) and cut it into dough until it resembles coarse crumbs. Mix in hazelnuts. In a small separate bowl combine egg, vanilla, cream, and espresso granules. Now stir together wet and dry ingredients until just combined.

3. Empty onto a lightly floured surface and gently knead. Pat the dough into a circle 7 inches round and about 1-1/2 inches thick. Cut into 8 triangular sections. Transfer triangles to cookie sheet and bake 12-15 minutes or until lightly brown.

4. Cool slightly but serve while still warm!

Friday, November 9, 2007

Willing to bargain curry for stain remover

Another week is over. Let's all breathe a sigh of relief, reward ourselves with a sliver of Lindt goodness, turn Feist on softly, and curl up on top of our duvet for a lazy nap.

This was the vision playing through my head a little bit ago, but as I headed for that rumpled, cozy duvet I stopped short and had to laugh/groan. A relatively big spot shone back at me in a hue suspiciously identical to my highlighter pen. The humor was found in envisioning, from a third-person perspective, the early hours of this morning, in which I dragged myself out of bed at 6:22 (after hitting snooze four times) to study for a quiz. My desk chair looked especially uncomfortable at that hour, so I splashed water on my face and propped my pillows up in bed with my book...and highlighter.

I recall being quite alert for a good half hour; then my eyelids started to shut. After fighting half-dreams and random thoughts like I wonder what time it is in New Zealand? I reset my alarm for eight o'clock.

It took until three in the afternoon for me to realized I had left the cap off my highlighter during my morning nap!

Oh dear. The repercussions of college life.

I love the whole college life thing, but I hate it. I hate the exhaustion, but I love the learning. I never want to stop learning. I know that's not a legitimate fear in the broader concept of "learning," but it's wonderful to have hundreds of classes at my fingertips. I don't want to be a full-time student for too much longer, but I want to be able to take French, Islamic history, poetry, gender studies, current issues of Timbuktu, and all subjects in between whenever I can.

I also want to continue living in community. Not in a bleak hall, dependent upon a cafeteria for "nourishment," as a freshman again, but with at least one housemate, a kitchen to share, and enough togetherness that the faulty smoke alarm and homely coffee table don't matter so much.

Currently our apartment possesses one such temperamental smoke alarm that insists upon chirping every five minutes (only new visitors notice it now), but that noise never stops May, June, and me from enjoying a good meal together. And last night it was a sweet, spicy, creamy coconut milk curry (those are six of my favorite words!).

Have I crooned about India yet on this blog? Well, if you know me, there's no need to say more, but if you are not familiar with my sentiments for this exotic, crowded, colorful, poor, joyful, caste-burdened country then you're in for a little explanation...

The funny thing is there is not really an explanation. Sure, my aunt and uncle have lived in Chennai for as long as I can remember. Sure, my mom has brought food into our home from all over the world, including India. But I've never been there. I've received sterling silver jewelry from Chennai since I was little. My brothers and dad traveled to India when I was in high school and brought back stories and pictures. But I've never been there. Visits from my aunt's family meant pirated Bollywood movies and authentic feasts with chapatis for silverware. (And that should turn an American off to Indian food right there! But it didn't.) And I still haven't actually been there.

Oh, do I ever want to go!

I thumb through every Indian cookbook I come across and have begun my own Bollywood collection and try very hard not to stereotype or put a glossy cover on all things Indian as I await my flight across the Pacific.

Last night I pulled out a new cookbook in honor of India and was so excited to try it. I didn't even realize how simple the recipe I had chosen was until I was through with the last step and asking myself, "That's it?"

Yes, that is it. Simple goodness. Don't question, just get a spoon, blow away the steam, and slurp.

Butternut Squash and Green Beans in a Coconut-Milk Curry
Adapted from 5 spices, 50 recipes, by Ruta Kahate

8 oz. butternut squash, peeled and chopped into 1-inch cubes
1/2 c. water
8 oz. green beans, trimmed and chopped into 1-inch pieces
1 c. canned coconut milk
2 T. canola oil
1/4 t. mustard seeds (preferably black or brown variety)
2 medium green serrano chiles, minced
3 tablespoons coarsly chopped cashews (I had almonds on hand and they worked wonderfully)

1. Cook the butternut squash in a saucepan with the 1/2 cup of water and pinch of salt. Once done, remove with a slotted spoon and place green beans in, adding water as necessary.

2. Return squash to the pan with beans and pour in coconut milk, adding more salt if desired. Allow curry to come to a boil and then immediately reduce to low. It will thicken slightly over the next 8-10 minutes.
*Ruta advises not to stir the pot during this time since squash may crumble, but you may shake the pan if you can't resist the urge or need to mix the ingredients.

3. Transfer curry to serving bowl(s) and make tadka: heat oil in a skillet on high until it just begins to smoke and then toss in mustard seeds and quickly place lid on top to avoid flying seeds and hot oil. (Confession: I burned my first batch because I let the oil get too hot.) Once the mustard seeds stop sputtering, add chiles and nuts and shake pan over medium heat until nuts are toasted and golden brown.

Pour tadka over curry and serve.

Makes 4 (modest) servings.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Procrastinator? Who, me?

I seem to have become a pro at being unproductive. Seriously, people, I'm starting to scare myself.

I can no longer point my finger at the mid-semester slump (in fact, did I make that whole idea up?). School is coming to a close very swiftly, and I'm anxious about the downward slide. Will I be able to keep up? The pace only seems to be picking up as I'm slowing down.

Where did this weekend go? I started doing homework Friday afternoon but was rescued by some friends who called in search of a pan for cheesecake. I answered their plea, and the three of us set out on a grand cheesecake-making/apple-eating endeavor.

My Saturday simply disappeared. A fifteen mile run in preparation for my marathon cut out four hours in the middle of the day, followed by an essential grocery store trip, granola-making for the week, dinner with June, and an early night in kind consideration of my exhausted, aching body.

Now it is Sunday night, and I have less than half of what I wish I had done this weekend accomplished. I wish I could just slow down time, but I know I'm not being the most efficient with what I do have either. I could take fewer study breaks; I could not be writing on this blog right now; I could have skipped making the pancakes I did this morning (though I certainly wouldn't have been doing schoolwork that early in the morning!) or any other time-consuming meals. "Time-consuming" is very relative, though, and putting in half an hour maximum for a good meal is very worth the minutes to me.

In my defense, I need study breaks to keep my vision from going fuzzy or my artwork from getting sloppy but should be more disciplined about them. I need to allow myself time to crazily type away at the keyboard and get my frustrations out. And I need yummy, nourishing food that stops me in my busy day and demands that I slow down and take in that which is around me and going into me.

Yesterday Highway 351 and cold soba noodles did that for me. Two friends and I jogged out nine miles, across two county lines, encountering nothing but simple homes, mostly-brown fields, and the occasional horse. The plan was to do eighteen miles, but as I hit about fourteen my nagging injury from high school cross country flared up and after another mile I made the decision to stop and walk the rest of the way. Being forced to slow down also compelled me to more fully take in the scenery around me. Those houses had character. Some of those fields stood out from the rest in the most brilliant of greens. And those small mesquite trees were indeed a precious few, often only one to a pasture. I love being surprised by beauty.

Some other beauties from this weekend are, suitably, food related. The soba noodles I mentioned above were June's, and to sit across from each other with chopsticks in hand, a bowl of broth to ourselves, and a larger bowl piled with noodles in between and feast across cultures and languages and lives was entirely rewarding.

This morning my family recipe for whole wheat pancakes brought May, June, and me together again. Lunch was eaten on my own, but as I gazed out the window and slowly bit down on each soft piece of gnocchi flavored with a basic cream and blue cheese sauce I was able to sigh in gratitude for a sun-filled day and bountiful fridge.

My point in writing this post was not simply to procrastinate further but to express my frustrations and ultimately remember all the good that I'm still being given in my life, even if I'll pay the consequences for being less productive this weekend with fewer sleeping hours in the coming days.

So it goes...I'm still learning and relearning and will continue to do so for the rest of my life.

Monday is almost here - I've got nineteen more minutes - and before I call it a night, I plan to get some poetry reading done I should have completed hours ago.

I hope you find peace in this coming week.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

The dinner I shall not be writing about OR The cocoa I shall not be baking with

Before I get to display part of my growing collection of food photos, I have to share an inward laugh/sigh over my dinner tonight. Its components are not the focus of this blog and therefore this is "the dinner I shall not be writing about." So let me make this brief...

May and I caught up on our days when we found ourselves in the kitchen together this evening. I spent about five minutes absentmindedly standing in front of the fridge, popping open the freezer, and gazing at the insides of my cupboards as conversation flowed. Upon the point we both agreed a trip to the grocery store was definitely in order, I pulled out a bag of frozen green beans - my only vegetable in the place except potatoes - and began to "snack" on the crunchy, slightly sweet long sticks.

Dinner did not turn out that bad when all was said and done (gnocchi with homemade parsley-walnut pesto, goat's cheese, and pine nuts), but the fact that my first round of pine nuts almost set off the smoke alarm and the second also acquired a rather dark bottom sent me back to nervously nibbling on cold beans.

Now that that exasperation is out of the way, I'll move on to the good stuff!

I baked a classic favorite of mine this week, and I wish I had a new exciting story to share with it, but for those of you who know me well - which, as much as I like to pretend, is basically all my readers right now - you'll have to be patient as I indulge myself by the retelling of an old one.

When I was nine years old I reached the crazy unusual decision that I would give up chocolate for two years. As your atypical nine year old this all seemed like a noble act of discipline (or a way to win the approval of my chocolate-less older cousin whom I admired so). The two year anniversary was supposed to fall on the next reunion of my mother's family, but as it goes with ten grown children spread across the country, two years came and went and an eleven-year-old girl found herself quite content without chocolate.

I was incredibly strict about this decision and only allowed myself white chocolate if the ingredients did not include cocoa (cocoa butter was acceptable, since my mother could attest to the fact that it tastes nothing like chocolate - a scarring lesson she learned by trial-and-error as a child). This did not mean that my best friend did not make her own attempts to trick me into eating a chocolate chip here or there; she used the classic "close your eyes and open your mouth..." routine, but I never fell for it.

My tenth year of non-chocolate-living flew by, and I was surprised when the annual anniversary of August 17th began approaching, and I found myself reasoning that the number ten was quite a pleasant sounding number, a perfectly round number, really, a completely accomplished number, in fact.

That summer I had determined to be an art major...I was about to fulfill my dream of studying abroad...And I was ready to taste chocolate again!

August 17th, 2005 at 10am the dear friend who had tried to sneak chocolate into my every bite as a child accompanied me to a local chocolatier. (Once again, we were two terribly giggly girls.)

I will add that I knew within my first two bites - one of dark and one of milk - that I was a die-hard dark chocolate lover. No questions there. The darker the better.

Are you ready to wrap up my segue into the coming recipe? Well, in one sentence my transition is this: The cake I am about to share has nothing to do with chocolate. Rather, it has everything to do with the absence of chocolate. It has to do with an ingredient called carob.

My mother's kitchen is known among my friends for its oddities, but carob was a perfectly normal ingredient for me to grow up around. Even before I swore off chocolate I knew the taste of carob well. However, when chocolate was forbidden and everyone seemed to be swooning over their chocolate cake, I would itch for my own special version.

This cake is a simple recipe out of Moosewood Restaurant Cooks at Home, which delivers wonderful results with the simple substitution of carob for cocoa. It is usually quite a moist cake, so on the night I made it, when I pulled the cake pan out of the oven and impatiently cut myself a slice, I was disappointed to find the inside crumbly. However, the next morning as I also ate a slice for breakfast I was delighted to cut into a cake I knew quite well. Yes, the night spent on the counter top had caused it to lose its crisp top layer, but it had morphed into a lusciously gooey confection.

I have tried to describe the taste of carob before and always have trouble with it. I am wary of calling it a chocolate substitute because then people expect it to taste like chocolate, and it really doesn't. This recipe seems to bring forth a complex, yet subtle, almost creamy taste. Perhaps you know better adjectives?

Six-Minute Chocolate Carob Cake

1½ cups unbleached white flour
1/3 cup carob powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
1 cup sugar
½ cup vegetable oil
1 cup cold water or brewed coffee (I always use instant espresso)
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
2 Tablespoons vinegar

To make the cake, preheat the oven to 375°.
Sift together the flour, carob, soda, salt and sugar.
In a 2-cup measuring cup, measure & mix together the oil (water or coffee) and vanilla.
Pour the liquid ingredients into dry ingredients and mix the batter with a fork or small whisk.
When batter is smooth, add the vinegar and stir quickly. Stir just until the vinegar is evenly distributed throughout the batter.
Bake for 25 to 30 minutes. Set the cake aside to cool.

½ pound bittersweet chocolate
¾ cup hot water, milk, or half-and-half
½ teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Melt the chocolate in small bowl. Stir the hot liquid and the vanilla into the chocolate until smooth.
Spoon the glaze over the cooled cake. Refrigerate the glazed cake for at least 30 minutes before serving.

*Since this is an all around yummy recipe I would also use it for a simple chocolate cake, in which case you may want to make the glaze included with the original recipe.