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A Milestone and Roasted Figs with Basil Whipped Cream

September 6, 2013

Roasted Figs Basil Cream and Balsamic Glaze Bob Vivant

This month my new business Conscious Crumbs turned a year old. Arguably it’s time to stop using the preface “my new business”, yet it still feels new to me. Each client, every party and event is different from the next. There are food allergies, intolerances, and sometimes mysterious aversions to work around: “I don’t eat wheat. We can’t eat dairy. Shiny foods scare me.” There are attitudes to adjust: “I can’t cook unless I have a recipe to follow. I don’t have time to cook. My kids will never eat vegetables.”

Logistics provide additional challenges. Have you ever taught a buzzing group of teenage girls the art of French pastries in a small galley kitchen dominated by a worm composter? (That was actually one of my favorite lessons, watching their eyes widen when they got their first taste of homespun lemon curd.)

I catered a grand opening celebration for a local business and assembled the dishes in an adjacent unfinished warehouse populated with old mattresses and dusty, long-since forgotten furniture. I set up my folding table in the middle of the vast room and lit it with a forty watt bulb in a shade-less eighties floor lamp that my husband Greg found sandwiched between two worn mattresses. The bare bulb cast a dim glow over my portable oven, both of which were powered by a daisy chain of extension cords reminiscent of Clark Griswold’s holiday lights in Christmas Vacation.

Planning for each lesson or event is nearly as satisfying as the execution. Discovering what foods people gravitate towards and why is endlessly fascinating. I’m not fond of recycling menus. Crafting a unique menu rife with the foods and flavors my clients enjoy most is more gratifying. I nudge them ever so slightly from their comfort zones (Okay, so you hate tomatoes, but have you ever tried them roasted?) yet keep the foods familiar and accessible. Grandma’s 80th birthday celebration is no time to break out the quail egg ravioli.

In turn my clients nudge me as well. And last month I got my biggest nudge yet: a 15-course gourmet dinner for eight people–five passed hors d’oeuvres on the patio and ten courses served in the formal dining room. Once the menu (pictured below) was finalized I spent two weeks testing and refining my recipes. Greg relished the experiments and almost got used to having multi-course dinners every night. My friends were equally happy to sit through my iterations of cauliflower puree (cream or no cream?), roasted figs (whipped cream on top or bottom?) and duck confit salad (crispy potatoes, yes, capers, no).

Scaling down the portions for the dining room courses proved to be the biggest challenge. My goal was three-five satisfying bites per course. Each dish was comprised of four-ten elements assembled on a six-inch plate. Too little or too much of any single element can drastically alter the flavor of any dish, but the effect is magnified for small servings.

When I entertain at home I seldom plate food for my guests even though I admire and appreciate an artfully constructed plate. I prefer the feeling of community when food is served family style–the passing of bowls, the warm, light touch of another’s hand grazing yours. It’s fun to watch what dishes guests are drawn to. Besides, I don’t want them to feel pressured to eat what’s on their plate. I prefer instead that they select what appeals to them. So no steaming pan of mushroom lasagna at center stage on the table flanked with a salad and crusty loaf of bread would do here.

And then there was the daunting matter of the wow factor. For me pretty usually takes a back seat to flavor when it comes to food, but these plates needed to look as good as they tasted. It was time to break out the tweezers. I wrestled with the colors, shapes, and textures arranged on the plates first making sketches, then bringing them to life for Greg’s dinner, all in the name of a perfect first bite. By the time the actual event arrived I’d sunk more hours than I could count into all the above, my hourly wage dropping into the single digits. But when the night was over, the last tiny plate washed, and eight sated and elated guests waved us goodbye, the check in my back pocket felt like a bonus. One year in and I can’t believe that I get paid to do what I love.

Summer Dinner Menu from Conscious Crumbs

Roasted Figs with Basil Whipped Cream and Balsamic Glaze

Ingredients

    3/4 cup balsamic vinegar
    12 large basil leaves
    6-8 fresh figs
    1/2 cup heavy (whipping) cream
    flaky sea salt, preferably Maldon
    1 tablespoon pine nuts, lightly toasted

Preparation

  1. Bring balsamic vinegar to a boil in a small saucepan. Lower heat to medium-low and simmer until it’s the consistency of very thin maple syrup, about 15 minutes. Remove from heat and let cool.
  2. Preheat oven to 400°F.
  3. Blanch the basil leaves for 20 seconds in boiling water and drain. (This step is optional, but it keeps the whipped cream from turning a dull green color.) When cool gently squeeze the leaves to remove excess water. Combine the basil leaves with the heavy cream and a pinch of salt in a blender or food processor. Puree until the mixture thickens to the consistency of whipped cream.
  4. Trim the stems off the figs and slice each in half lengthwise. Place them cut side up in a baking dish. Roast for about 15 minutes, until the figs are tender and glossy with their own juice, but not too soft–you need to be able to pick them up with your fingers.
  5. Place a dollop of basil whipped cream on each plate. Top with three or four roasted figs. Drizzle the balsamic glaze over the plate and finish with a light sprinkle of sea salt and a few toasted pine nuts, if using. Serve immediately.

Makes 4 starter courses.

Good Underwear and Chilled White Grape and Almond Soup

August 9, 2013

White Gazpacho White Grape and Almond Soup

“And put on good underwear!” Mom hollered from the kitchen. Her screeching voice was muffled by the distance that separated her from my bedroom sanctuary where I was dressing myself for a trip to the pediatrician. I hardly needed a reminder. At eight I knew that doctor appointments, weddings, wakes, and church, which we visited less often than the pediatrician’s office, were all occasions for “good underwear.” Jeans with holes and their antidotes, the Tough Skins jeans handed down to me from one of mom’s friends when her son outgrew them, were also off the table. Exactly what constituted good underwear was, however, not always clear. My favorites were the colorful, cotton days-of-the-week undies my sister Patti bought for me. Mom bought me frilly ones in pale, girly colors. The elastic at the leg openings was too tight for my chubby thighs and was covered in stiff, itchy lace. They were hardly the sort of thing a tomboy wore under her Tough Skins, so they were relegated to the back of the drawer until the occasion for good underwear arose. I often wondered if it was just another way mom enjoyed torturing me. Sitting still and being quiet in church was hard enough without having your thighs burn and itch all at once. Even as a young girl it seemed ironic that a woman who seldom, if ever, wore underwear herself, good, bad, itchy or otherwise, or a bra to contain her 44-DDDs, was an expert on undergarments. But I didn’t argue. The only thing worse than wearing itchy underwear on a hot summer day is wearing itchy underwear over a sore backside that has been on the receiving end of mom’s worn wooden spoon.

As a teenager, the great divide between good and bad underwear faded along with my obsession with days-of-the-week undies. Mom had long since given up on buying me frilly underpinnings. Battles over “good” or itchy underwear yielded to heated arguments about the outfits I wore over them and the importance of getting straight As. By college I was grateful to be buying my own underwear, many of which to mom’s horror were thongs. “When most people are looking to keep there panties out of their crack, I don’t know why you young girls would try and put them there in the first place.”

Of course our brains are clever aren’t they. Little nuggets like “good underwear” got stashed away in a dark corner under memories of talent shows gone horribly wrong and dead gerbils left in my care where they gathered dust until one day….

Decades later, I’m making every attempt to gracefully disembark Uncle Dan’s Sea Taxi. The weight of my travel bags–one in each hand–causes me to teeter back and forth a bit. Behind me twenty or so Bahamians on “island time” and a sprinkle of impatient tourists are waiting their turn. I feel no pressure to hurry. I’m mindful of negotiating the bags, my gauzy summer dress that channels a little Marilyn Monroe in the island breeze, and the strappy heels that, while cute and perfect with said dress, weren’t rated for the long day of travel ahead of me. My tanned, sandal-clad foot is over the edge of the boat and about to be the first part of me to reach the dry dock when the back of the boat floats toward the sea on the wake of a boat docking at the adjacent slip. Island time speeds up here as my foot plunges into the sea. My arms–one unfortunately attached to a bum shoulder with bursitis, tendonitis, arthritis, and a cyst–flail wildly as my bags swing over my head. My body, specifically my face, is tipping closer to the dock as the water reaches my knee. My dry leg is awkwardly, painfully tethering me to the boat.

“No, no miss, not like that,” a man’s Bahamian-accented voice shouts from the land.

Of course, not like that.

More voices. Panic. Their voices, not mine. Well-fed arms, lots of arms, are on me. Ouch! My shoulder, the good one. Three roly-poly men hoist me from the water and boat.

A cool island breeze blows across the back of my thighs.

Good underwear?!!

Time slows again, slower than island time. I can’t remember what panties I have on. Thankfully I seldom wear thongs anymore. The jolly Bahamians set me on the dock and gently pry my bags from my hands.

An endless stream of quivering “thank you”s bubble out of my mouth.

Hipsters. Bright pink hipsters. That’s what I’d put on under my pink and blue dress that morning. I was relieved though only slightly less embarrassed. At 41, on a dock in the Bahamas with a soaked leg, “good underwear” meant any pair that covered my backside and not the cheeky ones I favored under my skinny jeans.

The rest of the passengers managed to get off the boat without incident, most of whom stopped to ask, “Are you okay mees?” As the warm seawater streamed down my leg, it was my pride that stung the most. My rescuers were still huddled around me. One found me a taxi. Uncle Dan lingered nearby, patiently waiting for his fare. I gathered my bags, wincing with pain now in both shoulders, and trudged up the hill to the taxi that would take me to the airport. My cute sandal squished with each step, leaving an odd set of right-side only footprints in my unsteady wake.

At least my good underwear were dry.

White Gazpacho White Grape and Almond Soup

Chilled White Grape and Almond Soup

I have distant, delicious memories of eating a soup similar to this at a sunny sidewalk cafe in Madrid. Why it took me five years to replicate in my own kitchen remains a mystery, but better late than never has never been more apropos. It’s also nice with melon in place of the grapes and/or mint instead of the chives. If the cream sounds a little too decadent for a summer soup, simply use more almond milk.

Ingredients

    1/4 cup homemade bread crumbs
    1 1/2 cups white seedless grapes, plus a few extra to finish
    2/3 cup blanched, whole almonds
    1 large clove garlic
    3 tablespoons heavy cream
    2/3 cup almond milk
    2 tablespoons almond oil
    1 tablespoon rice wine vinegar
    sea salt to taste
    1 tablespoon almond slivers, lightly toasted (optional)
    a few chives roughly chopped (optional)

Preparation

  1. Combine bread crumbs, grapes, blanched almonds, garlic, cream, almond milk, almond oil, and vinegar in a blender or food processor and puree until smooth. Season to taste with salt.
  2. Chill until ready to serve.
  3. Spoon into bowls and garnish with sliced grapes, almond slivers, and chives if using.

Makes 2 generous servings.

Putting Pen to Paper and Cinnamon Oatcakes

June 12, 2013
tags: ,

Cinnamon Oatcakes with Raspberry Compote

My notebook with its soft, worn, black cover has been quietly watching me for weeks now, like a friend that asks little of you, but wants to reassure you that she’s there when you’re ready at last to talk it out. I put the notebook in a drawer. I don’t want to be reminded of who I am at the precise moment when I’m longing to forget as much, wanting if only for a day to be someone else. I lose time staring at the drawer. The thought of my written words trapped in the airless darkness is unsettling. I pull the drawer open just enough to peek inside. My notebook is still there, waiting. I open the drawer fully and pull it out. Still, I’m not ready. I put it on the kitchen counter and walk away.

It’s time to get to the matter of making breakfast. Our weekly vacation from smoothies or peanut butter toast is always a welcome production on weekends. No matter how long the to-do list, we take it slow. Tea. Coffee. National Geographic. Saveur. A little bird watching. Pancakes. Or waffles. Maybe veggie-packed skillets with eggs. Today it’s oatcakes. I’m drawn to their rustic simplicity and the way the batter sits and waits for me until I’m ready, like my notebook. I sprinkle Greg’s with flaxseed, a necessary step to keep him off cholesterol meds. Extra raspberries for me so fresh and delicate they break apart in my hand when I sprinkle them over the little cakes. We start our Sunday Times crossword. The living room paint can wait and so can the tray of coleus I bought for our shady window boxes.

“What’s a four-letter word for tiny building block?”

“Atom.”

We take turns reading the clues out loud even though we’re both staring at the same puzzle.

“Bird that perches with its tail straight up?”

“Wren.”

“You should know this one. What’s a stroke of the pen?” I don’t know the answer; I seldom do when he precedes the clue with “you should know”.

I return the volley, “What’s the fifth book of The New Testament?” We both laugh, knowing we’ll have to move on to the next one. The bible clues always stump us, our penance for abandoning our Catholic roots.

We work doggedly to piece together a five line George Carlin quote for how long I can’t say, because I always sit with my back to the clock on Sunday mornings. Greg shifts his weight in his chair, a sign that the day’s list is starting to tug at him. In my bird watching seat, I can see my notebook from the corner of my eye. We’ll finish the puzzle another day. I carry the raspberry smeared plates to the sink. As if it were nothing at all, I grab my notebook and pull my favorite pen from the drawer, a fine point Uniball with blue black ink. It’s time.

Pen to paper. Pen to paper.

One foot in front of the other. One word to follow the last. This word follows what came before, leading to what’s next. I don’t know what’s next only that I must keep writing now that I’ve started. Ink flowing, the side of my hand inching across the blank page below these words. Keep on keepin’ on they say, and today I do just that. I’ve given myself permission to write about nothing, the small stuff, the empty, meaningless bits, anything to keep the pen moving across this paper leaving its smeary, indigo trail.

There, I’ve done it now, opened the notebook, marred the pristine, college-ruled page. Look ma, I’m writing. Yah, I know it’s nothing, but it might be something. I never know when the good stuff is coming. It’s just as well. I can’t see when the crap is coming either, here on this page or in life. Oh, there are times when I think I’ve bumbled into genius with this pen and paper. Ironically most of those pieces are garbage. I’m at my best when I don’t know it, when I least suspect it, when I’m not even trying. Not like now, I’m trying, trying real hard here to connect with my writer. She will guide me through this in time like she always does. With her help I’ll eventually turn this pain into a story I can share and a story others can learn and heal from. Until then I’m staying small here, writing about nothing just to write, because in the end it’s all I know how to do and it’s how I heal myself.

raspberry compote for cinnamon oatcakes

Cinnamon Oatcakes with Raspberry Compote

Adapted from a recipe in EatingWell Magazine, March/April 2012.

Ingredients

OATCAKES

    2 cups almond milk or skim milk
    1 large egg
    1 teaspoon vanilla extract
    1 1/2 cups old-fashioned rolled oats
    1/2 cup whole-wheat flour
    1 tablespoon sugar
    1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
    1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
    1/2 teaspoon salt
    1 teaspoon butter

RASPBERRY COMPOTE

    2 cups raspberries, fresh or frozen (thawed)
    3 tablespoons maple syrup
    pinch of salt

Preparation

  1. To prepare oatcakes: Whisk milk, egg, and vanilla extract in a medium bowl. Combine oats, flour, sugar, baking powder, cinnamon, and salt in another medium bowl. Stir the dry mixture into the wet mixture and let stand for at least 20 minutes. The mixture will thicken as it sits.
  2. To prepare compote: Meanwhile, place raspberries, maple syrup, and salt in a small, heavy saucepan. Bring to a simmer over medium heat and cook, stirring occasionally, until the berries are mostly broken down, 3 to 5 minutes. Remove from heat and cover to keep warm.
  3. Coat a griddle or large nonstick skillet with butter; heat over medium heat. Using 1/4 cup of batter for each, cook oatcakes until bubbles dot the surface, 3 to 5 minutes. Flip and continue cooking until browned, 2 to 3 minutes more.
  4. Serve the oatcakes with the warm compote.


Polenta PancakesTry my other favorite breakfast cakes, Lemon Scented Polenta Pancakes.

This Old Mare and Strawberry Mint Springria

April 25, 2013

Strawberry Mint Springria

I turned forty in 2011. It was a milestone, but as a firm believer in the notion that wisdom comes with age, it wasn’t one that I dreaded. The worst part of turning forty was the qualifier that people started adding to compliments:

“She’s in good shape for being forty.”

“She looks good for forty.”

The majority of these tainted comments were easy to ignore, because I felt good for forty, maybe even for twenty. I’m diligent and at times a bit obsessive about my health. My dad was a two-pack a day smoker and alcoholic. My Type II diabetic mom resembled Jabba the Hut from the thighs up thanks to an affinity for fast food, Hostess snack pies, and mindless eating. Both of my parents died when they were sixty-three.

This, I vowed, would not happen to me.

With a nod to Julia Child’s edict of “everything in moderation, including moderation,” I eat anything and everything as long as the ingredients on the label are recognizable, real foods, and I work out six days a week. Before you let your eyes roll back into your head, consider this as well: I drink two cups of black coffee every morning; I drink wine every night while I make dinner; and I have no shutoff valve when it comes to pizza or homemade ice cream.

My diligence has paid off. I’ve never broken any bones or suffered a serious injury. My experience with surgery and anesthesia is limited to having my wisdom teeth removed and a decade later a tiny, but painful bone spur in my hand.

Then, in my mid 30s, I was diagnosed with degenerative disc disease (DDD) in my lower back. DDD isn’t really a disease; it’s a condition that occurs when fluid escapes from the discs that separate the vertebrae in your spine. The discs act like shock absorbers for the vertebrae. As the discs lose fluid, there is less padding between the vertebrae, and they come closer together creating instability and sometimes pain in the spine. My x-rays indicated that this had happened to four discs in my lower back. And as my doctor put it, “You can’t get the jelly back in the jelly doughnut.” She recommended a traction machine, so I could hang upside down and relieve the pressure in my back. At her urging I limited my runs to four times a week and started practicing more yoga. She also gave me exercises to strengthen my core, a word that I once thought only referred to the part of an apple that’s not worth eating. Traction, yoga, core strengthening, they did the job.

And then I turned forty-one.

Late last fall, my back pain returned. Once or twice a week sharp pains in my lower back would wake me in the middle of the night. Sitting down for breakfast was often enough to make me wince with pain. I was certain my jelly-less doughnuts and obsession with running were to blame. Morning stretches to loosen the muscles in my lower back were added to my regimen and running was limited to three days a week. This helped, but by Christmas I was waking up with back pain four to five times a week. No matter how good I felt before bed, the pain returned while I slept. Simple yoga poses, especially balancing poses were getting noticeably harder and at times even painful. Worse still, my running pace was getting slower. Depression settled over me like dense fog. This is what it means to get old, I thought.

Greg frequently suggested I return to the doctor, but I didn’t see the point, not yet. On my last visit to the doctor she said that eventually my back pain would become intolerable and impossible to manage with yoga and traction. At that point surgery would be my only remaining option. Having watched helplessly from the sidelines as a close friend went through the same surgery over the holidays, I didn’t have the courage to make the call. Besides, the pain wasn’t unbearable, until it was.

Did you know that your hips move up and down as you walk or run? I did, but I didn’t know that only one of mine was doing this. According to my doctor my right hip had completely locked up and from the exaggerated asymmetry of my back muscles, which was the direct cause of my back pain, she was certain it had happened several months ago. She was surprised that I could walk let alone run.

So the excruciating pain I’d been experiencing for months had nothing to do with the lack of jelly in my doughnuts. And unlike my degenerating discs, the condition was treatable. My miracle worker had my hip unlocked after forty-five minutes of electric stimulation, acupressure, and joint manipulation. The knots and over-developed muscles that were compensating for my locked hip would take longer to goad back into their normal states. I was so relieved both physically and mentally that Greg’s litany of “I told you so”s didn’t even annoy me. But as they say, if something seems too good to be true, it probably is. The locked hip was likely the result of running on unyielding concrete sidewalks.

“Is there something you can do other that run outside?” my doctor asked without recognizing the gravity of her question. I’ve been a runner for twenty-five years, an outdoor, in any temperature or condition, treadmill-hating runner. I stared at her in disbelief as she naively continued, “How about the elliptical? Or even running on a treadmill would be better for your joints than running on the sidewalk.”

“But running is my thing,” I finally managed in spite of the giant lump that had formed in my throat.

“Well, I think you might need to find another thing.”

She didn’t get it. There was no other thing. Running is more than exercise for me. I don’t love it because of the cardiovascular benefits. It soothes me. It’s meditative, contemplative. My best ideas come when I’m running. Problems are solved when I run, big ones, small ones. I pray when I run. I practice gratitude when I run. I’m most alive when I’m running.

I’ll skip the part where this forty-something started to cry like a four-year old.

I agreed to give up running for two weeks while my doctor continued working on my back and the damage that had occurred from the locked hip. And my doctor agreed to let me try running again once my joints and muscles were in working order. It wasn’t my best case scenario, but it beat “YOU MUST STOP RUNNING, FOREVER.”

I got the long-awaited green light to run last Friday. Maybe it was because both hips were properly functioning or maybe it was my state of mind, but it was the best run I’d had in months. I ran again on Sunday. Two days later, I triumphantly returned to the doctor only to learn that my hip was partially locked again, even though I wasn’t experiencing any pain. Lying prone on the table with my face buried in a tissue-covered cradle, I waited for my doctor to deliver the bad news. At least this time she wouldn’t have to see me cry. My self-pity gave way to deep shame as I thought about the people who’d recently lost their legs in the Boston Marathon massacre; I could still walk even if I couldn’t run.

And then something surprising happened. “It’s not as bad as I expected it to be,” my doctor said. “In fact, your hip was pretty easy to unlock. Next week I can show you some exercises that you can do, so you can unlock it on your own.” I cried anyway as the tension gushed out of my rigid body. This old mare wasn’t ready for the bullet in the pasture after all. I would run another day. And I already knew my next run would be all about gratitude.

Strawberry Mint Springria

Ingredients

    3/4 cup mint leaves
    1/3 cup granulated sugar
    1/3 cup water
    2 bottles of dry white wine
    1 1/4 cups brandy or orange liqueur
    2 pints of fresh strawberries, stemmed and sliced, plus more for garnishing
    ginger ale

Preparation

  1. Make mint simple syrup: Chop mint. In a small saucepan bring sugar, water and mint to a boil, stirring until sugar is dissolved. Simmer syrup, undisturbed, 2 minutes. Let cool. When ready to use, pour syrup through a fine sieve, pressing hard on solids. Syrup keeps, covered and chilled, for 2 weeks.
  2. Combine the simple syrup, white wine, brandy, and sliced strawberries in a large pitcher or divide evenly between two smaller ones. Refrigerate until ready to serve.
  3. Pour over ice. Top with ginger ale and garnish with a fresh strawberry.

Bourbon Brown Sugar Vanilla Bean Ice Cream

April 10, 2013

Bourbon Brown Sugar Ice Cream with Vanilla Bean

Instead of weaving some lyrical story for you that predictably ends with me in the kitchen whipping up a batch of this or that, I’m skipping right to the end. Let’s face it, once you see the words

brown sugar
ice cream
vanilla bean

strung together, does anything or anyone else matter?

No, I didn’t think so.

And then there’s the business about the bourbon. Uh, huh. You don’t have to be a whiskey lover to fall for this ice cream as my seven-year-old goddaughter can attest. (Lest you think that I’m in the habit of supplying minors with alcohol-laden desserts, it was a very small scoop.)

I like this ice cream with a few toasted pecans and a light sprinkle of flaky sea salt. If you dare, drizzle it with a salted caramel sauce; you’ll never be the same again. For maximum enjoyment, have a bowl, a very big bowl, alone. You can openly lick the empty dish, as you’ll be wont to do, without undue embarrassment. Besides, it’s too good to share unless it’s with someone you really, really love.

Now put down your smart phone or iPad. Step away from your computer. Cancel your afternoon appointments. Bribe your kids. Roll up your yoga mat. Lie to your boss. And hurry off to the store and fetch the fixings for a batch of your own Bourbon. Brown Sugar. Vanilla Bean. Ice Cream.

Bourbon Brown Sugar Ice Cream with Vanilla Bean

Bourbon Brown Sugar Vanilla Bean Ice Cream

I’m partial to the lighter mouthfeel of egg-less, Philadelphia style ice creams. If you prefer the richer, custard-based, French style ice creams, you might enjoy this recipe from Bon Appetit.

Ingredients

    2 cups heavy cream, preferably pasteurized rather than ultra-pasteurized
    3/4 cup brown sugar
    1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise
    1 3/4 cups whole milk
    1/4-1/3 cup bourbon

Preparation

  1. Add the cream and brown sugar to a medium saucepan. Scrape the seeds from the vanilla bean* into the pot. Warm over medium heat, whisking until the sugar has dissolved and any clumps of vanilla seeds are broken apart. Remove the mixture from the heat and add the milk and bourbon.
  2. Chill mixture thoroughly in the refrigerator, for at least four hours or overnight.
  3. An hour before you’re ready to churn, place the mixture in the freezer, then freeze in your ice-cream maker according to the manufacturer’s instructions.

Makes about 1.25 quarts.

*note: Save the vanilla bean for another use. Consider making your own vanilla sugar. Add a couple cups of granulated sugar and the vanilla bean to a jar. Give it a few shakes, and in a few weeks use the sugar in your favorite shortbread, cake, or scone recipe.

A Study in Contrasts and Sesame Sea Salt Shortbread

March 30, 2013

Savory Sesame Sea Salt Shortbread

The first seventeen years of my life were spent in a dilapidated, bar-on-every-corner, mill town in Western Pennsylvania. Insulated. That’s the best word to describe the childhood I spent in a single stop light town of fewer than five thousand people. We didn’t get out much. There was the almost annual birthday trip to the now defunct Sea World in Ohio that only took place if mom was in the right kind of mood to make the two hour journey. I remember exactly two vacations both of which were to Niagara Falls, Canada. The town’s smallness and the fact that everyone knew everyone else didn’t comfort me in the way that it did some. It was suffocating. There were no secrets. When officer Divens showed up at your house to investigate a “domestic disturbance” reported by the neighbor that complained every time your ball went in her yard, you could bet the news had spread from the corner store on the east side to the sub shop on the west side by breakfast the following day.

City living, the likes of which I only gleaned from watching too much TV, represented all the glamour and vibrancy I’d never known but craved. On long walks delivering newspapers I’d fantasize about riding alongside Ponch as a California Highway Patrol officer, hair blowing from underneath my helmet, mirrored glasses that screamed the kind of cool I was desperate to be, and the tall buildings whizzing by in my wake. Or maybe I’d join Cagney and Lacey on a gritty crime scene investigation in the heart of Manhattan. Their kind of who-done-its were a lot more interesting than investigating who threw the beer bottle at whom. Someday.

Eventually, I made my way to a big city—Chicago—where I’ve remained for over a decade and a half. My first years as an urban dweller were everything I’d longed for so long ago on my paper route, the towering buildings, the energetic pace, the diversity, and maybe best of all, the anonymity. There was something strangely comforting about losing myself in a bustling sea of nameless faces every morning on my way to work. Through the sharp lens of hindsight, I now understand that losing myself is exactly what I was hoping to do when I moved to the city.

Lots of growing up and a decade later I started craving a life in a different kind of big place. I wanted wide open spaces, a rolling landscape, and a meaningful connection to the earth. In 2010, I left Chicago and Greg behind for an opportunity to experience a rural existence. I spent six weeks working as a cheese making apprentice and awkward farmhand at Longview Farm in Washington County, New York. Greg was sure I couldn’t handle being away from the city, but there, living in the midst of strangers—strangers that would become dear friends—I’d never felt more at home. At Longview, then, and every time I’ve visited since, there is an immediate sense of belonging. Labels are irrelevant. I’m not defined or judged by my ability to have children, my relationships, or my career choices. There is an urgent rhythm to life on a dairy farm that cannot be controlled or denied. Animals must be cared for, and milk is impatiently waiting to become cheese. Everything else is secondary.

Tending to these incessant demands is hard work as our bleary eyed farmer friends Liza and Dave can attest, but there is an intrinsic simplicity that is intoxicating for me and Greg too. You don’t have to search for a quiet place to meditate there. You just put on your muddy boots and walk among the clucking hens. Or hike through the woods to the cadence of snow crunching under foot. Or slip on your running shoes instead and head west until the gravel road ends.

I return to Longview Farm with Greg in tow as often as our schedules allow, which is never enough. Reconnecting with Liza and Dave, their land, and their entourage of goats and fowl is like pushing a reset button on our lives. This year marked our first ever spring visit and our first visit during kidding season. Goats are curious animals and baby goats all the more so, probably because nearly everything is new to them and their data on the evil in the world is limited. That unconditional trust is refreshing and shockingly unfamiliar. My hot pink and yellow rain boots with their big buckles and my purple coat of many zippers made me the equivalent of a 5’-3” goat toy, and I couldn’t have been happier about it. The little goats, a black one here, an oatmeal one there, would jump on their hind legs and chew on the zipper pulls of my jacket, as their front legs left muddy hoof prints up and down my jeans. Later that night by the fire, my cheeks throbbed—from smiling.

curious baby goats at Longview Farm

curious baby goats at Longview Farm

Happiness at Longview is a baby goat nuzzling my calf; an unadorned, tender, juicy chicken raised just a few yards from where it was roasted; and evenings by the fire with our friends, Greg to my right with a warm cat nestled in his lap. We trade stories and even share viewpoints on controversial subjects without offense. And sometimes we just sit in a comfortable silence that’s punctuated with the occasional snap of a burning log.

Will this life be ours one day? With each visit, we return home recharged and eager for a farm to call our own. In the meantime, I vow to find that same peace in my life, the life I’m currently committed to for the other 360 days of the year, but it’s a struggle. The earthy smell of the fermenting hay and the undulating vistas that made those long country runs feel too short, are replaced with stoplights and impatient drivers. We find happiness in Chicago too; it just requires more effort. Peace and quiet is harder to come by here. Spending casual time with friends and family must be scheduled weeks, even months in advance. Sitters must be hired. And if we’re going out for dinner, a reservation is often required.

We returned from our most recent visit to Longview farm two weeks ago. Not a day has passed that I haven’t thought about the simple joy those little goats brought me. I considered the contrast of life at Longview and life in Chicago as I meticulously cut out these cookies. They’re an uncomplicated shortbread that on the farm I would have simply scored with a dull paring knife and sprinkled lightly and quickly with salt. While they baked I’d have had just enough time to gather eggs from the barn. But in Chicago, I’m called to explore what’s possible with these simple cookies, to dress them up a bit, and to make them the darling of the savory cocktail cookie assortment I was preparing for a client’s party.

I started with a dusting of sea salt. Then I added pale blonde sesame seeds, imagining their satisfying crunch in contrast to the tender, crumbly cookie. Maybe my life doesn’t have to be either or at this point, I thought. I can divide my time between wide open spaces while still finding joy in this pulsating city now perched on the edge of spring. And with that I added the black sesame seeds to my now decidedly fancy shortbread and put them in the oven.

Sesame Sea Salt Shortbread

Adapted from Mary Cech’s Savory Baking.

Ingredients

    1 3/4 cup all-purpose flour
    1/2 teaspoon salt
    1/2 cup unsalted butter, cold
    1 egg
    2 egg yolks
    2 teaspoons water
    1 tablespoon coarse sea salt
    2 tablespoons sesame seeds, black, white, or a mix

Preparation

  1. In a medium mixing bowl, whisk together the flour and salt. Using a pastry cutter or two knives, cut in the butter until coarse crumbs form.
  2. In a separate bowl, whisk together the egg, egg yolks, and water. Reserve one tablespoon of the egg mixture for brushing.
  3. Make a well in the center of the flour and add the egg yolk mixture. Bring the dough together with your hands. Press it into a 1-inch thick disc and wrap it in plastic wrap. Refrigerate until firm, about 45 minutes.
  4. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a Silpat.
  5. In a small bowl, combine the coarse sea salt and sesame seeds.
  6. Roll the dough out to 1/4-inch thickness. Cut into any shapes you desire. Place the cookies on the prepared baking sheet about 1/2-inch apart. Brush the tops with the reserved egg mixture. Sprinkle with the sea salt and sesame seeds.
  7. Bake until lightly golden on the bottoms, about 20 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack to cool. Serve immediately or store in an airtight container.

Winning the Lottery and Whole Wheat Soda Bread with Cherries

March 13, 2013

whole wheat tart cherry soda bread

Pay off the mortgage.
Buy a farm in Vermont.
Invest in finding a cure for Raynaud’s Syndrome.
Do more to end world hunger.
Buy a motorcycle and invent a riding suit made from the same material used to make “the little black box” on airplanes.
Pay Chip Foose of Overhaulin’ fame to turn our ’87 Ram Charger (a.k.a. Big Blue) into a living room on wheels.
Pay off my nieces’s mortgages.

That’s a smattering of the things Greg and I plan to do when we win the lottery. How we’ll spend our winnings is a topic of frequent debate on long runs, longer car rides, and romantic dinners for two when we pay someone else to do the cooking. The lists are never the same though paying off the mortgage and restoring Big Blue make it on every one. Sometimes we give a lot of our winnings to our families. Other times we give it to strangers. Sometimes the farm in Vermont is a ranch in Montana instead.

Squandering millions of dollars that we don’t have is a fun way for us to pass the time. Ironically, we talk about winning more frequently than we actually play the lottery. (Yes, I know, “you have to play to win.”) We’re not big gamblers, just big dreamers, and this dreaming out loud helps us align and calibrate our values and our goals, especially the big ones. When it comes right down to it, we’re pretty content with what we have, right here, right now, which is a good thing because Greg read that our chance of being killed (or killing someone else) on our drive to the store to purchase our Mega Millions ticket is nearly six times greater than the chance that we will win the jackpot.

What if instead of winning the lottery (or dying a horrible death on your way to buy your ticket), you woke up to find $10,000 and a note relieving you of all obligations for the next seven days? The kids will be taken care of. So will your mother-in-law. All your professional duties have been temporarily suspended without affecting your pay and vacation day allotment. What then?

To my surprise, when it comes to spending fictitious money, it’s easier to spend millions of dollars than it is to spend what amounts to our annual property taxes. Harder still is deciding what to do with the days. Time seldom, if ever, factors into our lottery talks though there is an unspoken assumption that the living will be easy. Of course tending to our thousand acre Montana ranch while we’re curing cancer is likely to present some time management challenges. This must be what is meant by “high class problems.” But we’re not talking about the rest of your life. It’s just next week.

Should I stay or go? If I make it a “staycation”, I could use the money to buy lottery tickets (I’d walk to the store to purchase them.), and pass the days with Under the Tuscan Sun and Master and Commander on repeat.

Or I could sign up for the Regional French Desserts course at the French Pastry Institute, and spend my evenings enjoying over the top dinners in Chicago: Moto, El Ideas, Goosefoot, Schwa, North Pond, Black Bird, Gibsons. Whatever money is left will go the blind Latin guitarist that frequently serenades me at a redline stop in the Loop.

Maybe instead of blowing it all at once, I should consider gifts that keep on giving. I can get an eighty-pound wheel of Parmesan delivered to my front door for $1,250. A wheel of my favorite Pleasant Ridge Reserve is $220. Then I’ll need some wine to drink with my cheese. A few cases of Pride Mountain cabernet and Elyse Le Corbeau should do the trick. This option also leaves plenty of time for working through my mountain of “must read” books.

It’s more likely that I’ll hit the road leaving little to show for the money when the seven days are over. Tooling and drooling around Old Madrid, breaking up the day with stops for sherry and creamy croquettes would be hard to beat. Replenishing my vitamin D and sipping mai tais on the shores of Maui would be almost as lovely.

I considered taking Greg on my adventures, but he’s got a different agenda in mind: he plans to spend the $10,000 to hire someone to finish the interior trim while he’s hiking the Wind River Range, alone. Well, at least we can agree on the big stuff.

How would you spend $10,000 dollars and seven unfettered days?

Whole Wheat Soda Bread with Tart Cherries

I go on a soda bread binge at least once a year. And why not? It’s fast. It’s versatile. It goes with butter. It goes with cheese. And it’s perfect for breakfast with a generous slathering of peanut butter. This isn’t the sweet variety soda bread found across the U.S. that is anything but Irish. (Traditional, “authentic” Irish Soda bread is made using just four ingredients: flour, baking soda, buttermilk, and salt.) If you prefer the sweet variety, you might enjoy this one at SmittenKitchen.com.

Ingredients

    4 cups white whole wheat flour, plus a few teaspoons for dusting
    2 tablespoons millet (optional)
    1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
    1 1/4 teaspoons salt
    1 cup dried tart cherries
    1 2/3 cups plain yogurt
    1/4 cup milk or water
    2 tablespoons honey
    1 egg

Preparation

  1. Preheat oven to 375°F. Coat a baking sheet or dish with olive oil and lightly dust it with flour, or line it with parchment paper.
  2. In a large mixing bowl whisk together the flour, millet if using, baking soda, and salt. Stir in the cherries.
  3. In a separate bowl whisk together the yogurt, milk or water, honey, and egg.
  4. Add the wet ingredients to the dry. Mix until the dough is too stiff to stir. Use your hands to bring it together in the bowl. Add additional milk or water one teaspoon at a time if it’s too dry. You want a stiff, slightly tacky ball.
  5. Turn dough onto a lightly floured board and shape into a round loaf. (Don’t over-knead the dough. Too much kneading will produce a tough bread.).
  6. Transfer the loaf to the prepared baking sheet. Use a sharp knife to make deep slashes across the top of the loaf, 4-6 cuts about half way through.
  7. Bake for 40-45 minutes, until a toothpick comes out clean. When you tap the loaf, it will sound hollow.


Rosemary_Rum_Raisin_Soda_BreadOr how about a boozy soda bread? Try this Rosemary Rum Raisin version.

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