Friday, September 25, 2009

The gradual instant

I haven't been able to get a quote out of my head - I wish I could put it in context for you but I can't remember which interview it was from - it was in praise of a poem: " help believe that language can be made anew." This idea of being made anew - it's so universal, I love it, the basic hope that the ordinary is brought to life extraordinarily. Its at the heart of language certainly (the MO of poetry!), and of religions, and of course - food. Especially food. A hopeless pile of miscellaneous ingredients becomes something wonderful, it's a bit of a mystery, and I love it. It holds true for most foods, but I think bread is the best example (I'm terribly biased, as it's my favourite, favourite thing to eat - Marie Antoinette had it all wrong, who would be satisfied with cake over bread?). Taking a wee living organism and combining it with flour and water and salt, fiddling with the temperature, kneading it, letting it balloon up, punching it down, kneading it again, shaping it, scoring it - it makes no sense that all of this results in something so comforting, artisanal, and sustaining as Bread.

Sustaining really is the word for it. Wasn't Jean Valjean originally thrown in prison for stealing a loaf of bread? Bread is so ancient, every culture has a plethora of bread recipes integral to their customs, rituals and identity. Some cultures and religions use bread as they do language, laden with symbolism and representing histories or intensely personal experiences - the Eucharist in Christianity, the matzoh in Judaism. Others use it to simply feast or commemorate joy - in India puri's are eaten at weddings and festivals in heaps upon heaps.

I've been making things like banana bread for a while now, but in all honesty never really gave it a thought on a molecular level or anything along those lines. This is changing. Just a few hours ago I finally bought a copy of 'The Bread Bible' - and it's a complete revelation, gadzooks! Suddenly things make a bit more sense, and I'm amazed at how complicated and intricate the process is - yeast is apparently a tempestuous creature, the temperature needs to be just so, the salt can't be folded in until later or you actually Kill off the yeast (very counter productive), the kneading forms the gluten, the gluten forms the infrastructure, the carbon dioxide puffs the whole thing up and the alcohol gives it flavour (carbon dioxide and alcohol being given off by the yeast as it greedily feasts its way through the sugars in the flour), the combination of all of this coupled with the temperature and altitude can either blow up your dough explosively or make it completely deflate unto itself.

Who knew?

I'm only on chapter 2 of this book and am convinced that
a) I love it.
b) When I grow up I want to be Rose Levy Berenbaum.

I haven't broached her actual bread recipes yet, so here's a Rosemary Raisin Bread recipe from farmgirlfare that I had tried out a few weeks ago.

Rosemary Raisin Bread

3 and 3/4 cups bread flour
2 tsp instant yeast
1/2 cup warm milk
1 tablespoon rosemary (fresh)
1 and 1/2 cups raisins
5 tablespoons olive oil
4 beaten eggs
1 and 1/2 tsp salt

Mix the flour and yeast together well, and then add the milk, rosemary, raisins, olive oil, and eggs. Mix thoroughly forming a fairly sticky dough - add flour (an extra tablespoon at a time) if at the end the dough is too wet to work with. Turn onto a floured work surface and knead for 5 minutes. Cover and let it rests for 20 minutes. Knead in the salt - be militant with this bit as my bread ended up having a solid lump of salt smack in the middle of one of the slices (sorry mum). Continue to knead until the dough is springy and elastic, around 10 minutes. Put the dough in an oiled bowl and let it rise in a warm place for about 2 hours. Muster up any aggression in your being, and punch the dough down. It's tremendously therapeutic.


On a parchment lined baking sheet, divide the dough into two pieces, shape each into a round loaf and lightly dust the tops with flour. Cover with a damp tea towel. Heat the oven to 400F. By now the loaves should have doubled in size - mine were completely flat, but I hadn't read Berenbaums book yet, so I didn't worry about the size. Slash the tops with an X shape and bake in the oven for 45 minutes - they should be golden brown and sound hollow when tapped on the bottom. Cool completely.

The original recipe called for 4 tablespoons of olive oil, but my loaves were a bit too dry so I'd add 5 next time. It's not exactly ideal sandwich bread as it's hopelessly flat (mea culpa though, I left it for entirely too long sitting around the kitchen), but it turned out rather lovely smeared in butter alongside an omelette, and a glass of tea.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

I had plans to write about bread today, and was getting stuck with all sorts of writers block, until I started baking. The kitchen smells...ridiculous. Sort of sweet and heady. Good grief. Saffron! Sultanas! Gibran! I'm getting ahead of myself.

People showered us with generosity at our wedding. Honestly. It's absurd how kind everyone was, even people that couldn't attend. If I could, I think I'd do away with thank-you cards altogether and send everyone freshly baked goods in the mail. If anyone has figured out the logistics behind something like that - let me know. Until then - local guests get thank-you's, plus freshly baked goods.

I really wanted each baked gift to sort of reflect the person somehow, but wasn't quite sure how to go about it. A lovely friend of the family's on the thank-you list is of Lebanese descent, and mentioned a few days ago that Khalil Gibran was actually born in the same village he was. Amazing! I think I read 'The Prophet' when I was in grade 11 and fell in love with the lush writing and illustrations. The Wee Book Inn in Edmonton had a few beautiful, wrecky old copies of 'Tears and Laughter', which was lovely as well. I'm not sure how he did it, but to be able to write poetically without coming off as pretentious or aloof is definitely a gift. It's really... graceful writing, if that makes sense. Everything is strongly paced but at the same time quiet. Our copy of Tears and Laughter has a fantastic preface by the editor - he focuses on how Gibran could write 'from the delicate to the strong...the delightful to the frightening, from the lacy sweetness to the bitter condemnation'.

We used a piece of Gibran's writing as a reading at our wedding, it's simply called 'On Marriage'

'You were born together, and together you shall be forevermore.
You shall be together when the white wings of death scatter your days.
Ay, you shall be together even in the silent memory of God.
But let there be spaces in your togetherness,
And let the winds of the heavens dance between you.'

Just an excerpt, but my favourite verse. I have a fairly strong aversion to overly mushy writing, or things that resemble anything by Nicholas Sparks (pet peeve), but this really stood apart. He writes like a humanist, a romantic, and a mystic, without being cliché or preachy. I don't know much about Gibran's personal life or experiences, but his writing always reminds me of things like raw silk, gold-leaf encrusted treats, the scent of saffron, women with kohl-rimmed eyes. The main photo on this page (up top) has a french vintage copy of The Prophet in it, it's my favourite photo so far.

I came across a bread recipe a few days ago with saffron in it, and thought I'd try it out as a gift. The result? A kitchen that smells like a faraway place, and plans to make 3 more of these loaves tomorrow.

Saffron Bread - adapted from 'notquitenigella'

pinch of *saffron threads (soaked in a teaspoon of boiling water)
1.5 cups white flour
1T instant dried yeast
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 tsp salt
1/8 cup unsalted butter, softened, in pieces
2/3 cup warm milk
1/4 cup sultanas
extra flour for dusting
1 egg, beaten with 2 T milk (for the glaze)

Let the saffron infuse in the boiling water for about 10 minutes - it should smell fantastic. Mix together the flour, sugar, yeast, and salt in a large bowl. Add the butter and rub it in with your fingers until everything looks and feels like damp sand. Measure out the milk, and add it to the saffron-water.

Add this mixture to the dry ingredients and mix well with a wooden spoon until it's well combined. Add the sultanas and mix in gently. Flour a flat surface and knead the dough for about 5 minutes until smooth. Shape into a ball and place in an oiled bowl. Cover with a clean teatowel, and leave it to rise in a warm place for an hour.

Place the dough on a clean surface and shape it into a baguette - don't worry if it's not 'doughy', mine was stretchy and quite soft - I just kept pulling on either end and shaping it with my hands. Shape it into an 'S' by turning each end and tucking them underneath the main body. Cover this with a clean cloth and let it double for an hour.

Preheat the oven to 410F / 210C. Uncover the puffy loaf, and brush it with the eggwash. Put in the oven (center rack) for about 25 minutes. After this time, reduce the heat to 375F/190C and let it bake for about 5-10 minutes. Watch it fairly carefully as it darkens tremendously in the last few minutes. It 'should' be golden-brown (mine was Quite dark), and sound hollow when you rap the bottom. Slice, smear in something buttery, and serve.

Enjoy with tea, and of course, some Gibran.

*I was initially a little wary about the recipe as saffron isn't exactly cheap, or easy to come by. Luckily we bought a few little cases of saffron from our last trip to India, where it's a bit more affordable. If you're having a hard time finding it, or justifying using it in a baking recipe, check out Asian markets or Indian grocery stores, it's usually a bit less pricey. Apparently you can also grow your own, but I lack any semblance of gardening ability, and the cousin of saffron-bearing crocus is poisonous, so I may hold off on that for a while...

Thursday, September 10, 2009

No Apparent Scaffolding

10 days since the last one! How? When? The past week has been a mixture of emotions, though all on the happy-spectrum. Almost. The impending proper move to Dublin is slightly unsettling and oddly making me nervous even though I've been there for three years. Somehow this time is different, it has a finality to it that's weighing on me. But so exciting! 10 days left, to pack and cook and read and regroup and mail out post-wedding-thank-you-cards and hug everyone possible.

I'm beyond impressed, and secretly a little envious, when people can put complex emotions into wee sentences, when you read something uttered by another and go 'aha! that's it!'. In an interview the poet Louis Jenkins was explaining his goal, really, the goal, of poets, writers, people.

"In my own writing I want, as much as possible, for the words to disappear, so that the poem becomes something like a movie in the reader's head...All poems are linguistic constructs of course, but I don't want the scaffolding to be apparent."


I want to move to Europe without the scaffolding being apparent, without the worry about different voltages, small apartments, rain, travel complications, currency converting, internet companies, being away from family.

I don't know if anyone really wants their scaffolding to show through, and I have a sneaking suspicion we spend a lot of time and effort trying to achieve this.

I wonder if everyone feels this way about the separate components of their lives? Wanting all things to be seamless, and for the bigger picture to sweep us off our feet.

This really isn't supposed to be pessimistic, because the rest of his interview reassures us all that these things really do have happy endings. But, in order to shamelessly insert a recipe and some glossy photos, I'll save the rest of the interview analysis for the end of the post!

In the spirit of attempting to bring strong flavours together without the scaffolding showing through - a mushroom galette, with giant portobellos and strong, strong stilton blue.

I've never been a huge blue cheese fan (growing up on loony tunes does that to a girl), but it works! Startling cheese against earthy rustic mushrooms, yes please. I found the recipe at smittenkitchen, a fabulous blog, and tinkered around with it a bit depending on what I had at home. Instead of making her crust, I recycled some leftover pâte brisée (without the sugar) and it worked, hurrah!

Mushroom Galette, adapted from Smittenkitchen

Savoury Pastry Dough - whichever recipe you're comfortable with (I'm not a purist, I imagine storebought would be fine)
2T unsalted butter
3/4 cup sliced green onions
1 minced clove of garlic
1/2 tsp chopped rosemary
1/2 tsp chopped thyme
1/2lb. assorted fresh mushrooms (I used portobellos and button), sliced
5 ounces blue cheese (I used Stilton)

Preheat the oven to 400F.
In a large pan over medium heat, add the butter and green onions, stirring for about a minute (they should get fairly soft). Add the garlic and herbs, stirring for another minute until aromatic. Add the mushrooms and increase the heat. Don't worry if the pan is completely crowded, the mushrooms shrink as they lose liquid - this should happen after about 10 minutes, with stirring. Take off the heat and let cool. Crumble the blue cheese into the mushrooms and stir in.
On a floured surface, roll out the dough into a 12-inch round - transfer to a baking sheet. Pile the mushroom mixture onto the center of the dough and spread out, leaving a solid 1-2 inch border. Fold and pleat the pastry border over the outer edge of the filling (see photo - the center filling is open). Bake for 30-40 minutes until the pastry is golden brown and everything smells lovely. Let it cool for just a few minutes, and devour happily.

I was a bit miffed halfway through the process, as I hadn't quite thought things out and was assembling the galette on a wooden chopping board, in a hot, hot kitchen (without the pan or baking paper underneath). It was melting. Fast. Sticking to everything, deforming, going from something you would order in a cafe to something you would find in the woods. And so I did what I'm apparently good at - I panicked. Then I gave up and contemplated buying sushi from Safeway. Kirk swooped in and painstakingly transferred the whole sticky mess onto a baking sheet, inch by inch, while I tried not to hyperventilate. And of course, it worked.

Optimism and pessimism in the kitchen are curious concepts. I love to cook, but I'm a sheepish pessimist at most of my own abilities, especially in the culinary ring. As is often the case, the Writer's Almanac (and a patient husband) soothed things over. The interviewer asked Louis Jenkins if his poetry was essentially optimistic or pessimistic. His reply (if I may paraphrase) was that all poetry and creative acts are in essence optimistic, as we take the chaos present in the world and attempt to order it in some way. Even the most abstract poetry is an act of order, an act of taking thoughts and emotions and categorizing them in symbols and letters that are familiar to us.

Isn't that fabulous? And so comforting! Applicable to innumerable things, including culinary adventures, which can result in creative afternoons whether we planned for them or not.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Ode to Autumn

I love the word autumnal. It looks the way it sounds and it sounds the way it feels and it feels comfortable, and slightly hungry, and slightly chilly but happy. I woke up this morning and thought it was autumn, the sky was a pale grey and everything was so very still. And then the day rolled on and the sun covered everything in heavy heat, and (apologies, summer-lovers) I was a bit grumped. Obviously reverse psychology was the only thing left to do. I put on a cardigan, found 'autumnal music' (Jeff Buckley, Iron and Wine, Leonard Cohen, all things soft and lush), and made soup. Take that, September sun! Your move.

2 giant butternut squash were idly hanging around the kitchen, so I put them to use. By 'I', I mean my sous-chef, who can manoeuvre a giant santoku through a gourd like butter. We picked up the squash a few days ago and apparently autumn was already on my mind - I have a slight habit of bursting into song or prose in grocery stores. There were piles and piles of manicured fruit, pyramids of peaches and, off in the distance, a sturdy hill of squash and pumpkins. And so, eyes closed - 'SEASONS OF MISTS AND MELLOW FRUITFULNESS!' - I love Keats, and anyone that can make gourds and hazel shells sound sexy. My husband had meanwhile run off to hide in the egg/cheese/butter aisle (excellent taste) until I was done. Hmph.

Man cannot live on squash alone, so we found some gruyère and grainy mustard for a tomato-tart-thing. There was a recipe online that looked good, and another in one of Laura Calder's books (French Taste) that looked Good.

The soup was a tiny but too thick but a touch more broth fixed that up. The only other thing - fiddle with the bacon to your liking. I tried being a good girl and followed the recipe exactly but good grief it was too bacony (the husband assures me there's no such thing as too much).

Butternut Squash and Apple Soup! - adapted from Fine Cooking
8 slices of bacon, crisply cooked and sliced
2.5 lbs cubed squash
1 diced apple (I used granny smith with happy results)
1.5T chopped sage
1tsp salt
half a tsp pepper
1 quart (about 4.5 cups) broth

Over medium high heat in a large pot sauté the squash until browned, about ten minutes. Stir in the chopped apple, sage, salt and pepper, and cook for another 5 minutes until the apple softens. Add the broth and scrape up any browned bits stuck to the pot. Bring to a boil, and then lower the heat to a simmer. Cook barely simmering for 15 minutes. Remove from the heat and cool somewhat. Add the chopped bacon to the soup and puree in batches or with an immersion blender. Season, and serve right away, garnished with whatever you have on hand!

Now about this tomato thing. Laura Calder's recipe is more of a free-form tart, slightly more informal and quick to make. Thing is, I needed an excuse to make a proper formal pastry crust because...I've never made one. I've been carrying this around for most of my life with terrible shame. For some reason proper pastry crusts always had serious gravity in my mind, the kind of thing only professional chefs and ancient grandmothers can make properly. So, momentarily courageous after reading Keats, I did it. Not to sound like an culinary egomaniac but it was fantastic, and oddly therapeutic.

I used Martha Stewart's Pâte Brisée recipe, found on her website. Assembling the tart took a bit of time, and so I cheated, and skipped skinning and seeding the tomatoes. Whoops. Don't skip this! Learn from the error of my ways! It made the whole thing a bit soggy and the skins turn slightly bitter after so long in the oven. Universal solution to such situations - smother in grated cheese. Mmmmmm. If only that applied to everyday life.

The tart seems perfect for a light lunch, and it followed the soup well. It's so...light somehow, and french, and comforting. So thank you Keats, for your Ode to Autumn, for a day of cooking, and overcoming fears. The only downside to the day? I have a primal urge to make crusts one after another, smother them all in warmed nutella, and see what happens. It would make for an interesting post, no?

Roasted Tomato Tart, from the illustrious Orangette
4lbs plum tomatoes, halved
Quarter cup olive oil
1T thyme (I used dried, fresh would be wonderful)
2 cloves garlic, sliced
half a batch of savory pastry (I used the aforementioned pâte brisée)
2T devon cream
1T grainy mustard
Half a cup grated gruyère

Ideally, seed the tomatoes right at the start. Toss them with the oil, thyme, and some salt. Bake them (skin down) at 350F for about half an hour. Remove from the oven, let them cool slightly, and remove the skins. Put them back on the rack, toss the garlic over them, and bake for another half an hour. Set aside and let cool.

While all this is happening - line a 9-inch tart pan (with a removable bottom) with the rolled out pastry, folding in the overhang and trimming any excess. After the tomatoes are out of the oven, blind bake the pastry for about 30 minutes with pie weights, and for another 5 minutes without, until slightly golden.

Mix the cream and mustard together, and spread over the bottom of the tart, sprinkling the cheese on top. Arrange the tomatoes (cut side up) in pleasingly concentric circles (or whatever pattern fits your obsessive-compulsive side) and bake for 30 minutes.


On learning not to brûlée Everything

Old habits die hard, apparently. I probably shouldn't have dipped back into brûléeing, but it was too delicious to resist. When I first made crème brûlée, I was so excited, nay, euphoric, about it all that I made it repeatedly, put on a few pounds, and vowed never to eat anything without a crystallized sugar top, ever again.

This posed a great deal of problems for everyday life. Breakfast was doable, as brûléed oatmeal is a thing of beauty. Lunch was harder to figure out, and dinner nigh impossible. I hit brûlée-rock-bottom when, after a proper workout, I tried brûléeing cottage cheese. I had healthy, protein-filled intentions! Honestly! Unsurprisingly, it was awful. And so began the weaning process - I gave my demerara sugar to a neighbour to abolish any and all temptation.

That being said, one of my first truly Happy memories in Dublin centered about crème brûlée. I know it's a pretty fantastic thing, to be able to live in Europe, really I do. But when I first started out in Dublin I was...overwhelmed. Everyday had a strange sense of inertia, if that makes sense. Kirk came to visit right around his birthday, and I wanted to show him my gratitude the only real way I knew how - through food. I was focused and militant in my prep work, but apparently slightly distracted by my company - I forgot about time, time to cool the custard, time for the water bath, how much time it takes start to finish. By the time I was ready to let it cool in the fridge, it was 2am, I was tired and a little weepy. And embarrassed. I may have bragged slightly about said brûlée to said man. So, dejected, I went to sleep with a wee sad space in my stomach (and ego).

But. Jet lag reared its head, and we were up around 6am, and famished. Opportunity is best appreciated when it presents itself as an edible thing. We fired up the broiler, threw in the chilled brûlées, and had an absurdly decadent post-birthday-breakfast.

There's a sentence in The Hours (Michael Cunningham) where Clarissa Vaughn, the modern Mrs. Dalloway, says to her daughter -

"I remember one morning getting up at dawn, there was such a sense of possibility. You know, that feeling? And I remember thinking to myself: So, this is the beginning of happiness. This is where it starts. And of course there will always be more. It never occurred to me it wasn't the beginning. It was happiness. It was the moment. Right then."

Our poor stomachs ached from the cream, egg yolks, sugar, coffee, more cream, more sugar. Jet lag struck again, and we slept till noon, impossibly full.

It was happiness. Right then.