Monday, 21 December 2009

comfort me with pate feuillete

When it stops raining, it's beautiful out here.

But when it resumes, in this temperate rainforest, the best option is to hunker down and build up a barrier: by blanket, scarf, or butterfat. I thought I wouldn't torture you with more teasers about what you can't have....but I can't get over this puff pastry. I finished the block from the freezer last week, rolling out what was left into a thin sheet and then carefully slicing it into even squares.

I opened a jar of tart cherries that Laila had canned over the summer when working at a farm in New Mexico. I drained the sweetened and subtly spiced juice the cherries had been soaking in, saving it with the idea that I would cook it down into a thick syrup to pour over ice cream or yogurt (a good idea, except when a lively conversation with a visitor about iris bulbs distracts you, and suddenly the syrup is bubbling madly and condensing into something hard and beautiful that resembles a sort of misshapen jolly rancher candy).

Gently, I spooned the fruit in a small mound in a corner of the square piece of dough; next was a light brushing of beaten egg along the seams, and finally, a pressing to acheive a fruit pocket slightly resembling a large, raw, wonton. Turnovers.

The other day I was listening to the radio - something about needle sharing programs - and a man was describing the first moment he shot up. Although his descriptions did not turn me on to intravenous drugs, they did make me think about those happy, sublime moments. Moments that keep you from thinking, sucking you in with pure focus towards either heroin or perfect, flaky pastry baked into a beautifully risen pocket around tangy, brutally delicious cherries.

Biting into these puppies was blindingly addictive - even after three (!) my mouth was watering at the thought of more (although the rest of my body was not quite as eager).

For some reason, the photos do not capture the perfect crispy, flaky, just-out-of-the-oven-and-so-hot-the-cherries-will-burn-your-lips-ness of it all. Here's a nice photo I took in a coffee shop to make up for it.

Again, I apologize. I will do my best to branch out in my eatings from these labor intensive activities. Perhaps I should share more often the dinners in our house that consist solely of eggs (it's wondrous what you can do with them, really). Or the meal I had yesterday of a chunk of raw purple cabbage, some rice candies, and a chunk of yellowing brie. Balance, as they say.

But really, part of the satisfaction does come from knowing that my sister picked, spiced, and canned the cherries; that I had a (small) hand in preparing the pastry; and in the end, that it all came together as a product of personal labor, rather than something bought off the shelf. The turnovers had personality, practically. A roundedness of character, a supple sweetness, and flirty tartness. Warming to the core, as quickly as they came together, they were gone.

Saturday, 12 December 2009

So much of my life is built around dealing with uncertainty.

I try not to overthink things, but generally I do. And then I often overcompensate by leaping blindly into something that could be either stupid or pleasant depending on chance and circumstance.

The trick is always turning around and having a pie or a salad or a lamb stew that is solid and there and unquestionably worth my time and focus. I can chew and relax and here I equate myself to a goat or perhaps even a voracious child in our mutual attention towards filling our stomachs.

Perhaps it's unhealthy, imagining food, and its preparation, as a kind of meditation. Perhaps it's merely a mechanism to find some kind of control when other parts of our (my) lives (life) seem to be looping into the netherlands of insanity.

Regardless, I often ground myself with food. Last week, I needed something to bring thoughts of stress of uncertainty and perhaps you could even call it general malaise to the back of my brain, and so I disconnected by way of molasses, ginger and apples.

There are few things that I can imagine to be as comforting as a spiced apple cake in fall. Warm, dripping with molasses infused caramel syrup, and full of the bold flavors of ginger and cinnamon, this cake was cockle-warming (as they say), and was hefty enough to spill over the edges of even our largest plate.

It took time to chop the apples, although they still were haphazardly shaped and by no means of equal thickness. It took a moment of concentration to level the flour in the measuring cup, to scrape the molasses out of it's cozy jar, to level the spices against one another.

When out of the oven, the cake was a dark as my mood had been earlier in the day. But the aroma quickly won me over: thick with that sharp ginger and baked apple, tempered by the heady molasses, I could almost see tendrils of scent creeping towards my nostrils in a cartoon seduction dance.

It oozed with cakey-confidence, knowing it could take up as much space as it wanted in this world. Because after all, cakes are lovable from all angles, and very much certain about where they stand relative to goats, children, and me: perpetually irresistible.

Apple Upside-Down Cake with Ginger and Molasses
from The New York Times

1/2 cup plus 1 tbsp butter
1 cup brown sugar
3-4 apples (weighing about 1 1/2 to 1 3/4 lbs) peeled, cored, and cut into 1/4 inch wedges
1/2 cup sugar
1 egg
3/4 cup dark molasses
1 cup buttermilk
2 1/4 cups flour
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp cinnamon
whipped cream (optional)

1) Preheat the oven to 325 degrees and grease the rim only of a 10 inch cake pan with 1 tbsp butter, then drop the rest of the butter in the pan and set it over a very low flame. Add the brown sugar and swirl to cover the bottom of the pan. Cover the bottom of the pan with the apple slices in any pattern you like, overlapping the edges of the apples (I didn't use all of mine). Chop extra apple pieces to fill in any holes.

2) Beat the remaining butter and the sugar until fluffy. In a separate bowl, whisk egg, molasses, and buttermilk. In a third bowl, whisk or sift together flour, baking soda, salt, and spices.

3) Alternate beating the dry and wet mixture into the butter until all is incorporated. Pour batter into pan and bake for 45-55 minutes. Let cool about 15 minutes, then turn it over onto a large platter, being careful not to burn yourself with hot syrup.

4) Serve warm or at room temperature, with whipped cream if you like.

Thursday, 10 December 2009


This week, it snowed in the vineyards. And today, this blog celebrates its first year of existence.

The changes in my life in the past year have been rather, well, profound; but I suppose the events of one year, taken from any person's life, would seem as such.

When I wrote the first post, I was unemployed, living in Scotland with my boyfriend of the time, and writing a "novel." Funnily enough, I believe it was, at the time, snowing.

And here I am today, thoroughly employed, thoroughly single, and thoroughly not glancing at that "novel" for another five years (at least).

But: the ovens work the same on both sides of the Atlantic ocean, even if marked with different numbers. Even with a paycheck in pocket, I have yet to master the art of poaching an egg. And single or not, I love me some tuscan kale.

Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Puff me with butter. Ply me with flour.

The profundity of butter is a difficult thing to express. Especially when combined with other elemental ingredients: flour, water, salt.

In the past, I've made pastry. Pie, tarte, quiche...they all work. But puff pastry - this is a different beast. This is more that a few turns of the fork in cold butter, more than a few dribbles of ice water, and more than a simple roll of the pin.

In fact, the process of making puff pastry is a veritable marthon of steps, all ensuring the integrity of the endless and growing numbers of layers. It's about building, re-rolling, and pushing forward. An unincorporated blob of butter, though not ideal, can't be faulted for not forming a perfect layer between its neighboring perfect layers of dough, but it can be coerced.

Another light sprinkling of flour, another fold, another roll across the table, hour after hour, can only produce something spectacular, especially in considering the short list of ingredients.

And though I don't claim to have learned the techniques through and through, I can say I was an excellent observer, and did my best with the camera on my cell phone to capture the following:

It began with a small amount of butter cut into a mountain of flour.

The flour was then shaped into a moat, and filled with salty water.

Gentle nudges, and a paste began to form.

Paste became a sticky dough, clinging to fingers and wrists and every half-touched object in the kitchen.

The dough base was finished, and then came the butter.

Unwrapping cube after cube, quickly so the temperature didn't rise, like eager children shedding wrappers of Christmas chocolates.

And then, the chopping.

A fine dice of cold butter, incorporated with a small amount of flour, and then reformed into a slab of butter that could rival any impressive cheese wheel in form and brawn.

The dough was pressed to a square, just large enough to wrap comfortably around the butter block.

Folded together with the precision of a crisp envelope, we patted away flour and pulled the stretchy dough for just the right fit.

Edges neatly sealed, the package was ready to be rolled.

Time lapse: several hours, in which four times the rolling to the length of the table took place, with a double fold over to achieve those 447 layers of perfect flakiness.

Cut into 1 pound blocks, the finished puff pastry was carefully wrapped and stored, with just enough left out to finish the evening with a few palmiers.

Cut from a thin slice of rolled out dough, the palmiers couldn't have been simpler.

A quick foldover, a bit of beaten egg for sealing, and a sprinkling of sugar was all it took before they slid into the oven.

With heat, they puffed and spread, cozying up to their neighbors as the melting butter carmelized with the small sprinkling of sugar.

Small, crisp, even dainty, I say with confidence that the palmiers were mind blowing. Warm from the oven, with a texture that melted from shards of flaky pastry to the sweet taste of caramel, the small plate only left me wanting more.