PearTarteTatin

Last Friday was my fifth wedding anniversary, a fact my husband and I both forgot until the morning of. We’re in a place in our lives in which we’re constantly looking forward—what’s next, what’s next—so we often forget to slow down and appreciate things we’ve done. The traditional gift for five years of marriage is wood. Champagne—one aged in old oak barrels—seemed fitting. Great. Anniversary celebration handled. Check!

But then I got to thinking about how I promised myself that, after we got married, I’d make more pie. Phil loves pie and I love the idea of pie, but in five years, I think I’ve made exactly four pies; three of them were recipes I was developing for work.

The New Sugar and Spice

Because I’ve decided to focus on baking this month, I flipped through one of the new books I recently received: Samantha Seneviratne’s gorgeous The New Sugar and Spice: A Recipe for Bolder Baking. A paragraph in the introduction resonated with me:

“Homemade desserts have a big job: they carry messages to important people. We bake them with the people we love. We share them with the people we love. We eat them with the people we love. But these days, we are told over and over again that one of the principal ingredients of dessert is deadly.”

I think this has become my problem with baking: If you offer someone a kale chip or something “healthy,” it feels overly virtuous, maybe even judgmental. A homemade cookie, however, seems nuturing, even if, as she writes, “Some doctors claim that sugar should be grouped with cigarettes and alcohol as a harmful, addictive substance.”

Sam’s solution is to keep desserts as a celebratory, indulgent part of life and to make them more memorable with the generous and intriguing use of spice. Sounds good to me!

Toward the back of the book, I spotted the Pear Tarte Tatin with Anise Seed Caramel. Tarte tatin is kind of like an upside down cake in pie form. Best of all, the tarte is made in a skillet, which somehow feels less stressful to this reluctant baker because I’m not really baking when I’m using a frying pan, right? It was a perfect non-pie pie to celebrate.

Following the recipe was a cinch: Sam writes clearly with lots of great coaching along the way. For example, when you’re first making the caramel, she writes, “Don’t worry if the caramel separates. Once you add the pears, it will smooth out again.” Phew!

I will admit that—through no fault of the recipe—I chickened out when finishing up the caramel. She says to wait until the caramel turns a deep amber, and I pulled it when it was closer to the color of honey, or somewhere between light and medium amber, if you want to be technical. I learned a lesson: Don’t be afraid to take the caramel to the brink, especially when sweet pears are involved!

The resulting tart was delicious, but that little bit of complex caramelly bitterness would have made it even better. No matter: With Champagne, it was perfect. (Because everything with Champagne is, isn’t it?) continue reading

Easy brown sugar buckwheat pancakes with hazelnut milk and coconut oil.

I like to fantasize about baking more than I actually like to do it. I envision the therapeutic feel of the dough, the soothing smells that waft through the house and the delight on people’s faces when you present your results. In reality, however, baking feels messy and cumbersome to me, with all of the sticky bowls and flour-dusted surfaces and the necessary process of measuring. Plus, believe it or not, I don’t have much of a sweet tooth, so if I take the time to bake something sugary, I rarely eat much of it.

But here’s the thing: Now is an incredible time bake. In this particular health-obsessed, artisan-made, heritage-everything era, flour is no longer just flour and sugar is no longer just sugar. We now have things like stone-ground spelt flour from local mills and honey from the community garden across the street. Also, thanks to brands like Bob’s Red Mill, there are so many new varieties of whole grain flours and other alternative flours widely available that add incredible flavors to baked goods.

I’ve been working on an editorial project that explores some of these ingredients, and it’s put me in the mood to bake more at home. For all of October, I’m going to be playing around with some of these ingredients and trying out some new (and newish) baking books that explore this new world. To kickstart the month, I’m sharing a riff on the easiest ever pancake recipe by Mark Bittman. I swapped out some of the all-purpose flour for earthy buckwheat flour, which works so nicely with melted coconut oil. Instead of regular milk, I used store-bought hazelnut milk (someday, I’ll get around to making my own). Usually when I eat pancakes, I’m hungry an hour later. These actually felt sustaining and kept me satisfied until lunch.  continue reading

RainyDayIt’s a dreary day here on the East Coast and the news out of Oregon is deeply depressing. I hope this week’s reads (and watches and listens) bring you a little bit of comfort.

I need to get my hands on some einkorn flour, stat.

The Season 4 premiere of Mind of a Chef with Gabrielle Hamilton is utterly beautiful and left me wanting Prune’s sweetbreads (even more than usual).

Family dinner has a saccharine 1950s sound to it, but I do believe in its power. And while I’m a big fan of home cooking, I actually think the real power of the table is the conversation more than the food. Here, an interview with the author of Reclaiming Conversation about dinnertime.

France’s Jura wine region has become so revered, it’s not almost mythicized. Jon Bonne sets the record straight: “But when we talk about their charming pastoralism, in a Modern Farmer way, we reveal our urbanite tendency to fetishize the rural life. These are farmers, mostly concerned with making ends meet and harvesting a crop in a rainy place with cold continental winters.” A terrific read. 

Apparently, the kids these days love Friends. Who would have thought?

Seth Godin’s words about the difference between failing and feeling like a failure really hit home today. Hope they inspire you, too.

Romesco Toast with Mustard Greens from Toast By Raquel Pelzel

If you follow food trends at all, you’ll know that toast is so popular, it now has entire sections of menus devoted to it.

Instead of #putaneggonit,” it’s put it on toast.

Following any big restaurant food trend usually comes at least one cookbook, which often act as the backlash to the backlash in the trend cycle. I happened to have two friends write books about toast this year, including the aptly named Toast: The Cookbook, by Raquel Pelzel.

Toast: The Cookbook

As an unabashed carb lover, I’m on board with this trend. Let me re-phrase: I resent paying $12 at a restaurant for toast (unless it’s truly exceptional), but I’m delighted that it’s now considered an acceptable dinner.

Of course, when I have toast as a meal, I usually set out, say, a container of ricotta, some roasted chiles and maybe some greens. Then I just tell whoever is at the table to have at it.

Raquel, who has has been a sort of fairy godsister to me since I started my freelance career two years ago, proves that the toast dinner is worthy of an upgrade. I was thrilled to test a few recipes for her book and am even more excited that the book is here.

A former Cooks Illustrated recipe tester and collaborator on seventeen cookbooks and counting, Raquel creates foolproof recipes with exacting instructions. They almost might seem fussy until you try the results.

For example, when I tested the lovely, luscious, Sweet Shrimp and Fava Smash Toast in her book, she has you halve the shrimp lengthwise. The few minutes of extra work, however, gives you the impression that you’ve doubled the amount of (expensive) shrimp you have. Plus, they cook lightning fast and the pieces are delicate, rather than clunky, so they stay on your toast.

For making toast itself, she stresses her strong preference for using a broiler so you can brush them with olive oil or butter first. It’s slightly more cumbersome than popping bread in the toaster, but you end up with bread that’s especially crisp, with a custardy center, and an almost smoky flavor.

While flipping through the book recently, the toast recipe in the photo called out to me. I love a good romesco—the Spanish roasted pepper and almond sauce that’s sometimes thickened with bread. This one appealed to me more than usual because it doesn’t call for red bell peppers (my least favorite vegetable). Instead, the base is more tomatoey, with a bit of complex fruity chile flavor and slight heat from a dried guajillo.

Like most romescos, the instructions involve a few steps: First you broil a tomato; then you cook the garlic and a chile in a pool of hot oil, before soaking the chile in boiling water. Finally, you toast bread cubes and almonds in the oil and finally blend everything together with vinegar and salt. During the process, it’s satisfying to watch and smell all of these raw ingredients undergo the effects of, ahem, toasting, taking on more delicious dimensions.

Because of the little bit of work involved, I made a double batch of the romesco. It’s never a bad sauce to have around. For example, after I ate these garlicky greens-topped toasts  for lunch (so, so delicious), I spooned the sauce alongside my salmon for dinner. As I write this, I’ve got some roasted winter squash cooling on the counter that’s looking to get in on the action. Maybe with some pork chops? Or, perhaps, I’ll just put it on toast (again) and call it dinner, along with a glass of wine, of course.

Speaking of wine, let’s just say that mustard greens are a challenging pairing. I ended up focusing more on the romesco and serving these with a light, fruity Cabernet Franc from the Bourgueil region of France. Any similar red, like Beaujolais or simple styles of Spanish Tempranillo, will do. And, of course, don’t forget to share a toast. (Sorry, I had to!) continue reading