Sunday, 28 February 2010


Friends, I have been eating like a madwoman.

In fact, I have had no time to write, or cook for that matter, because I have been so busy eating.

This week, I returned from a week in New York City.

Two things I should say before I go on:

1) I love that city
2) watch out for me when I have a limited amount of time to experience the joys of a food mecca - the word "frantic" is an understatement.

Recently, I was familiarized with the marshmallow, or cookie, test. A sweet is placed in front of a four year old. The child is told that if she can wait to eat the sweet, she will receive a second at the end of the waiting period. Depending on whether the child can wait, how long she can wait, and what techniques the child uses to keep herself from eating the sweet, psychologists are able to use this data as an indicator for future success. High school grades, college completion, future job wages, etc etc, are all predicated with alarming accuracy. (Forgive me if I botch a few of these experiment details. Psychology is not my forté, but you get the gist).

Essentially, curbing impulses is thought to ensure a higher success rate in life. This worries me. Because, though I have lived many years past the age of four, I doubt whether I could control my impulses in this situation.

Case in point: babycakes. Babycakes is a bakery that has recently become quite well known for it's gluten-free, white sugar-free, organic baked goods. They have garnered attention because, despite the use of garbanzo bean flour and spelt and agave, their baked goods taste amazing. Now, my approach to this bakery was as follows: I probably won't be back to New York for a while, maybe a year, so I should eat as much of this banana cake, and as many of these key-lime and chocolate cupcakes, as possible. Kind of like a camel, I thought I could store up enough of these sweets to last a year. Somehow, this logic still makes sense to me as I write it.

My first evening, when I took my friend Gabriela out for birthday cake, of course we had to have a dessert each, with a few dessert wines to round it out, and then a little dish of chewy pignoli (pine nut) cookies. Of course we had to convince the waiter to bring us more of the olive oil cake, moist and delicate, the scent of the light olive mingling with fat golden raisins that had been soaked in honey, Italian dessert wine, and citrus. This was our only opportunity to eat this cake, maybe ever, right?

This principle does not just apply to desserts. In fact, presented with any menu, lunch, dinner, etc, I erred on the side of more. There was lunch at Prune, where we had to have their infamous Bloody Mary's, despite the noon hour - fresh tomato juice run through with clean tasting vodka and freshly shaved horseradish, garnished with small pickled green tomatoes. This was only the set up to shaved onion sandwiches paired with crispy fried chicken livers, and then later a sheet of fresh pasta, wrapped gently around a poached egg and salty french ham, doused with browned butter and thick shards of parmigiano.

And then there was dinner at Hearth (this is where I stop, catch my breath, I realize that if I ever need to steps into the shoes of Dictator, someone need merely to show me tempting menus and I will be diligent and forceful about including as many of them as possible).

Hearth is where things begin to dim in my memory. Perhaps it was too many wine pairings (or just the right amount), but after the house-made charcuterie platter, including wild-boar salami and a fabulous country pork terrine, the tasting menu we were served blurs into a flurry a small, rustic plates reminding me of something that might be served in a dark restaurant in the Italian countryside. Beans, kale, broth...chestnut pasta, duck, rosemary...something with pork...lovely lovely lovely. Time stood quietly for a while after we finished the meal. A Saturday in the East Village demanded more, but we were so sated and full and perhaps a little sloshed that we just walked up and down 1st Ave, then 2nd, then crossing back and forth up 6th, 7th, and 8th streets.

Bear with me - there was one more meal, a culmination of the magic, if you will. Ironically, this was the one unplanned meal of the trip. The meal where we were in the right place at the right time with the right people, and suddenly, dishes were arriving and wine was being poured and it just...impeccable.

Eleven Madison Park, where my mother and I sat back and did nothing but enjoy the tiny cups of wild mushroom soup, frothed like cappuccinos, coupled with porcini brioche. A dish of colored beets, shaved to look like flower petals, floored us with its simple refinement. Delicate noodles flaked with peeky toe crab, herbs and citrus followed. Finally, the meats cooked sous vide arrived.

Cooking sous vide (in a water bath), is something I have never tried before. It requires rather expensive equipment, and long term planning (the pork had been cooked for 72 hours). The idea is, the water maintains the meat at a temperature that corresponds exactly to the desired level of cooking. For medium rare, the water is held at x degrees. For medium, z degrees. The result is a cut impossibily tender, wonderfully moist, and thoroughly unattainable by normal means of skillet, oven, or grill.

Chris had pork belly. The layers of meat and fat melted together, highlighted by a quick sear that crisped the skin to a caramel-like, brittle texture.

I had beef tenderloin. Two thick rounds of meat, perfectly pink, soft enough to be cut with the gentle press of fork tines, and crusted with bone marrow and crumbled brioche. The taste was as ridiculous as this description. Eating that beef, I felt beyond decadent.

Three desserts finished the meal: tangerine meringue with the inexplicabley perfect addition of poprocks, perfectly caramelized tarte tatin, and a chocolate torte sprinkled with maldon sea salt that, when paired with a New York produced Madeira wine, sung with an elegance that made me continue eating well past the point of sated.

We stumbled out of the restaurant, drunk on flavors and hospitality and conversations with our wonderful host, and wandered around New York in the rain for a while. We felt pleasantly spoiled. It was the perfect ending to our trip.

Returning home, for the first time in a long time, I wasn't hungry.

Sunday, 7 February 2010

sweetly exposed: the coconut macaroon

Surface area is key. Do we risk exposing ourselves, increasing our showable surface of the world, for the sake of a thrill? A new experience? A challenge? Or do we sit back, curling into our own skin for the least amount of risk possible...

Exposure is something I've been thinking about recently. How large is our personal surface area that we show to the world, and what happens when we try to change it?

Generally, it seems as if it can go one of two ways: more surface area means more places to be touched, moved, and changed, for better or for worse. We try singing in public for the first time, despite lack of key and rhythm, and at the same time, we show our weak spots to someone who may exploit them, who may search them out and dig into them with manipulation and force. Though necessary for betterment and growth, surface area is risky, when it comes to people. Great changes, or great hurts.

Now, bear with me here. Because I've decided that these laws of surface area apply when we talk about macaroons. Coconut macaroons, to be precise.

You see, crispiness, enhanced by larger surface area, is extremely desirable. But at the same time, making a smaller macaroon for more exposure means if you don't watch carefully, they will dry out and turn into little brown rocks so hard they may break your teeth.

Truly, it's all about the amount of exposure. And coconut, like many people, is both hardy and delicate. When properly baked, a coconut macaroon holds itself together. Firm, chewy, brazenly delicious. Undercooked, the strands of coconut lose their grip on one another, unraveling at their egg white seams into something mushy and not appealing to anyone. Overcooked, and the coconut shuts down, overwhelmed by the intensity of heat and brought to its knees by exaggerated caramelization.

But, it is possible to make a perfectly baked, crispy macaroon that maintains a delicacy of chew and a subtlety of sweetness. And believe me, you want these macaroons in your life - they have been especially designed for those moments when surface area stretches thin, threatening to tear and shred. When we are worn down by the tired lines from "you've become redundant" to "we want different things" or even "you really should change that color of lipstick," we need a good macaroon with balanced exposure to sort us out.

Yes, it's these moments when coconut macaroons become your friend, and don't threaten to exploit vulnerability. The macaroon understands the dilemma of surface area, and hopefully, will show you that although sometimes painful, that risk of overexposure is exactly what makes it, and perhaps you, so great.

Coconut Macaroons
adapted from David Leibovitz's Room for Dessert

4 egg whites
1 1/4 cups sugar
1/4 tsp salt
1 tbsp honey
2 1/2 cups unsweetened shredded coconut
1/4 cup flour
3/4 tsp vanilla
4 ounces bittersweet chocolate (optional)

1) In a medium saucepan, warm the egg whites, sugar, salt, and honey over medium heat, stirring. When warm to the touch, add the coconut, flour and vanilla. Cook, stirring constantly, until the mixture begins to dry out. The bottom of the pan will begin to scorch, and the mixture will turn brown. This takes about 5 minutes.

2) Remove mixture from heat and let cool. Speed up the process by spreading the coconut mixture on a cookie sheet. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. When cool enough to handle, form 1 inch mounds with your fingers and place on a baking sheet. The macaroons won't spread, so they can be placed quite close on the sheet, but not so close that they are touching one another.

3) Bake 15 to 18 minutes. To check the macaroons are done, flip one over. When the bottoms are dark brown and caramelized, they are ready.

4) Optional: if you want your macaroons dipped in chocolate, melt the chocolate in a water bath, without scorching the chocolate. Take cool macaroons and dip in the chocolate. Refrigerate so the chocolate hardens. Alternatively, press one or two chocolate chips into the top of hot macaroons.