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Rosier by the second

I swear, I just don’t know where the days go. I wake up one morning, and it’s Monday. Then, within what I know was only ten minutes, shazam!, it’s Sunday already. It makes me wish there were some sort of Bureau of Missing Days, or something like that. Wherever my time went, I’d like it back immediately. I had plans for it, and awfully good ones too, involving strawberries and waffles and soup and roasted pork, and the sweet, spindly carrots in the crisper drawer. Thank goodness for a new week. All ten minutes of it, anyway. I get to have another go.

Which explains why, this morning, before I had so much as shrugged in the direction of the shower, I fired up the oven and baked a cake. When opportunity peeks its head in the door, you don’t ask it to come back later, after you’ve had a chance to wash your hair. You grab it with an oven mitt and shove it in the oven. You don’t mess around. Especially when there’s a bowl of ripe apricots on the table, getting rosier by the second. A week is best begun, I would argue, with the whirr of the mixer, the gentle slap-slap-slap of butter and sugar becoming batter.

Apricot season has barely begun around here, but I saw a few lovely specimens at the Phinney farmers’ market on Friday, and they begged me to buy them. They didn’t yet have the grandeur of their later-season brethren, fat and filled to the brim with juice, but they were fragrant enough, with faintly rouged cheeks. I bought a half-dozen, planning to eat them on the spot, but then a bushel of Rainier cherries caught my eye, and everybody knows that’s the best thing to munch while strolling the market aisles, and in the end, it was just as well. Apricots, I find, are a fickle little fruit. They’re stupendously good every now and then - Frog Hollow Farm, I’m looking at you - but otherwise, they’re only so-so. Where they’re at their best, I find, is in the oven. There, even a mediocre apricot opens up and blooms, releasing all sorts of sweetness and syrupy juice. So unless I know for certain that I’ve got a real winner, the sort that drips all over when you take a bite, better to steer it into the oven. Preferably atop a dense, buttery cake scented with ground almonds. Which is exactly what I did this morning, in my bathrobe and unwashed hair.

The results were quite delicious, especially after a shower and a lunch of blanched snap peas, thick slices of fresh mozzarella with olive oil and salt, and a goodly hunk of olive fougasse. It didn’t hurt, too, that it made the house smell wholesome and sweet. My mother is coming to town tomorrow for a few days of wedding errands, and our little home - huddled lately under a siege of to-do lists, RSVP cards, and other wedding paperwork - needed some spiff and shine. A freshly baked cake made a fine air freshener, right up there with the bundle of fresh flowers on the kitchen table. Later, of course, there will also be some sweeping, some scrubbing, and some vacuuming, and some more cake. And then, shazam!, it will be Sunday.

Have a great week, friends.

Almond Torte with Sugared Apricots
Inspired by Marion Burros’ “Original Plum Torte

To prepare the ground almonds for this recipe, put about ¼ cup blanched almonds into the bowl of a food processor, and pulse until you have a fine, sandy powder with no large lumps or bits. Some people tell you to be careful with this – that the almonds could turn to almond butter before you know it – but I’ve never had any trouble, and I really process the heck out of mine.

Oh, and if you don’t have almonds lying around, just up the flour to 1 cup. It’s no problem.

For cake:
1/3 cup finely ground blanched almonds
2/3 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
1 tsp. baking powder
Pinch of salt
8 Tbsp. (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
¾ cup granulated sugar
2 large eggs

For topping:
6 ripe apricots, halved and pitted
1-2 Tbsp. granulated sugar

Set an oven rack in the middle position, and preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the ground almonds, flour, baking powder, and salt. Set aside.

In another medium bowl (or the bowl of stand mixer), beat the butter with the sugar until light and fluffy, stopping to scrape down the sides with a rubber spatula as needed. Add the dry ingredients and the eggs and beat to combine, scraping down the bowl as needed. Do not overmix. The batter will be pale yellow and very thick.

Pour and scrape the batter into an ungreased - you want some traction; hence no butter or cooking spray - 9-inch springform pan, and use a rubber spatula to spread it evenly. Arrange the apricots cut-side-up on top of the batter, and sprinkle them with sugar. If they’re particularly sweet, you should only need about 1 tablespoon, but if they’re only so-so, you might want up to two.

Slide the pan into the oven, and bake for 40 to 50 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean. Do not overbake. Remove from the oven, and let cool on a wire rack. Run a thin knife around the perimeter of the cake; then release the sides of the pan. Serve at room temperature or slightly warm, preferably with vanilla ice cream or lightly sweetened whipped cream.

Note: Wrapped in plastic wrap and foil, this cake freezes very well. The only trouble is that it’s pretty firmly stuck to the bottom of the springform pan, so you have to freeze that along with it. I’ve yet to find another solution. I’ve tried putting parchment paper on the bottom of the pan before pouring in the batter, but I do not recommend it. Trust me here. The batter is very thick, so when you try to spread it over the bottom of the pan, it slips and slides and drags the parchment all over the place. Not good at all. I say, cross your fingers that you won’t need the pan for a while, and stick it in the freezer. UPDATE: See the comments, below, for handy suggestions. (Thanks, all you helpful readers!)

Yield: 8 servings


Handy to have around

I’ve got to tell you, this wedding business is making me feel kind of quiet these days. It’s a good kind of quiet, so don’t worry. I’m just a little preoccupied. I feel like I’m lining up a set of dominoes. I’m concentrating, strategizing. I’m maneuvering the pieces into their proper order. My domino set, you see, has an exceptionally large number of pieces. Some of them are human. Some of them are edible. Some of them are strapless and made of three layers of lace, with a sweet little train that swishes when I walk. Not that I’ve ever owned a set of dominoes, mind you, but you get the idea. I’m a little preoccupied.

I haven’t been doing a lot of cooking lately, to tell you the truth. When I feel busy, my interest in food – or cooking it, at least – sort of sneaks out the back door, like a burglar with a sack of loot. I’m still plenty hungry, of course. It’s just that I’d rather set the table, say, or slice lime for a gin and tonic, than stand at the stove. I feel kind of bad about it, but only a little. I know it’s temporary. And anyway, this is where Brandon comes in. Come dinnertime, he’s very handy to have around. On a whim, he’ll whip up some chickpea salad. Or he’ll snip some herbs from the pots on the patio, bring some pasta to a boil, and bang up a meal’s worth of warm, fragrant noodles. He also poaches a mean egg – be still my beating heart! – to perch atop roasted vegetables. He even grills steak, people, to a perfectly rosy shade of rare. (He’s my kind of vegetarian.)

All of which is to say that I owe him quite a debt of gratitude for keeping us flush with recipes around here. Like these vinegar-roasted shallots, for one. These days, I can’t be counted on for much more than dessert.

The idea for these shallots came last Thursday night, in Oklahoma, where we were spending a long weekend visiting my mother. These visits generally include lots of cooking and, for me, a ritual clean-out of Mom’s fridge – a sort of black hole, if you will, for foodstuffs. Mom is a wonderful cook, but she has a special talent for keeping food well past its prime. Luckily, as it should happen, I have a special talent for throwing such specimens away. Each time I visit, I do what is now called my “Fridge-Nazi Number,” wherein I hitch up the garbage bag and scour the shelves in search of shriveled asparagus, yellowed celery, and items formerly known as cheese. This time was especially fruitful. I even found a Tupperware of tomato bread pudding from our last visit, in early March. [Hi, Mom! Love you!]

Brandon also got into the spirit, which is where the shallots come in. On our second day there, he stumbled upon a plastic bag of them, waiting quietly on the second shelf. Some were a little spongy, but most were fine. He schemed silently for a minute, scratching his head, and then he set to work. First, he trimmed and peeled them and put them in a baking dish. Then he added a slip of olive oil and a good glug of vinegar. Then he covered the pan and slid it into the oven, where the heat began its work. An hour or so later – during which time he grilled some zucchini and two steaks while standing under an umbrella in a torrential downpour; I told you he was good – the shallots had softened to translucent jewels, now-pink, now-browned, and melty-soft. Sticky with cooked-down vinegar, they were almost gooey, heady with fragrance. To taste them, I would never have known that there was vinegar involved, had I not seen them in the making. It left only a faint trace, a sweetly sour wisp, making the shallots taste fuller and more like themselves. Mom and I scooped them atop our steaks, while Brandon made himself an open-face sandwich of sharp cheddar, shallot, and baguette.

Now, they’d also be delicious, I’ll bet, atop a cracker spread with fresh goat cheese, or on a hamburger, tucked under the bun. You could eat them alongside a piece of toast with sautéed mushrooms, as we did last night, or straight-up, with your fingers, while standing in the kitchen. If we ever get around to throwing a barbeque this summer, I plan to park a big pan of them on the buffet, for eating out of hand or piling onto plates. In the meantime, though, what I’d really like to do is stand them up like dominoes - the soft, purply, edible kind - and eat my way down the line.

Vinegar-Roasted Shallots

Like most roasted roots and vegetables, these are about as easy as it gets. Stick ‘em in the oven; turn once or twice with a spatula; and ta daa! They’re ready. The only thing to be finicky about is the size of the shallots. They should all be of similar size – or, if not, cut any large ones in half.

2 lbs. shallots, trimmed and peeled
2 Tbsp. olive oil
2 Tbsp. sherry vinegar
Sea salt, for serving

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

Put the shallots in a baking dish large enough to hold them in a single layer. [I like to use a ceramic 9" x 13" from Williams-Sonoma, but Pyrex would work nicely too.] Add the oil and vinegar, and toss well with your hands to coat. Cover the pan tightly with a sheet of aluminum foil. Bake for 45 minutes; then remove the pan from the oven and gently flip the shallots with a spatula. They should be beginning to soften nicely and starting to brown. Cover the pan again, and return it to the oven for another 15 to 45 minutes, checking occasionally, until the shallots are very soft and well caramelized. Don’t be afraid to let them brown in spots. They should bake for 1 to 1 ½ hours in total.

Serve warm or at room temperature, with salt, if you like – though I find that these don’t even need it.

Note: You could use any number of vinegars here; sherry isn’t essential. Brandon also suggests, in particular, balsamic or vinaigre de Banyuls.


My kind of bridal

Goodness. It’s finally happening. The wedding is upon us, friends. Or rather, it will be, in just under seven weeks. Things are slowly picking up speed. Plans are taking shape. We’ve been engaged for over a year now, and this show is ready to hit the road. I can’t wait.

When Brandon and I got engaged, we knew that we wanted a summer wedding, but that was about it. I’ve never felt like a real “bridal” type, to tell you the truth. I’m not the sort of girl who knows from the get-go what her wedding will look like and what she will wear. I’m not very girly, as these things go. I love dresses and fashion and little details, but I don’t like much fuss. For as much as I love throwing a party, a wedding is a whole other animal. A big animal, for one. Like, 200-people-big. It’s not my usual dinner party for four. It’s fourteen months of planning so far, and we’re still counting.

Slowly but surely, week by week, we’ve schemed and daydreamed, crafting a celebration that feels like us. It hasn’t always been pretty - the biggest fight in our collective history has been over flowers, of all things, and I mean FLOWERS, people - but we’ve done it together. We wanted this wedding to be about both of us, and it is. We set a date. We scouted sites. We asked a lot of questions. We found a park by the water with a gorgeous view, and we spent a night last summer sleeping in our car, in a parking lot by some railroad tracks, in order to be the first to reserve it. [It’s a long story, trust me, involving another bride who gave us quite a scare and had a kiddie pool filled with rose petals.] This spring, I made a test run of our wedding cake. Brandon started brainstorming our wedding pickles. And last week, when our invitations arrived from the printer, he cooked dinner and poured wine while I folded and stuffed and addressed and stamped. Then we sat on the couch, sealed envelopes with the kitchen sponge, and ate cinnamon-sugar banana bread until we thought we would bust. I should mention, too, that the bread was still warm, and that there were chocolate chips involved. I’ve tried to do bridal my way, and so far, I really like it.

Now, I know, I know. I can hear you. The last thing this website needs, you say, is another banana baked-good recipe. But I have to ask you to humor me. If I could, I would bake banana bread at least twice a week. I would probably sleep with a loaf under my pillow. As it is, I have to practically sit on my hands to keep from doing so. The banana bread recipe for my book is long since tested and ready, so I have no excuse for baking this stuff. I’m a disaster. I know it. You can roll your eyes at me all you want. But I have to say, you won’t bat an eyelash once you’ve tasted this recipe. Ahem.

I stumbled upon this particular banana specimen a while ago, when Kickpleat, keeper of the blog Everybody Likes Sandwiches, first posted it. It’s a bit curious, seeing as it has no butter or oil or obvious fat of any kind, but I didn’t let that stop me, and I heartily suggest that you don’t either. It comes together in a snap - and in only one bowl, which means blessedly little clean-up - and it pays back, flavor-wise, in spades. Moistened with mashed banana, freckled with chocolate, and topped with a sandy, crackled crust of cinnamon and sugar, it has an open, chewy crumb that sits closer to a true bread than it does to cake. Unlike conventional banana breads, which are rich, dense, and tight-crumbed, this one has a lovely, light chew. It feels almost healthy in comparison, so long as you agree that chocolate and sugar can be described as such. In this house, we certainly think they can.

I’ve adapted the recipe a bit since I first started making it, reducing the sugar and cinnamon a touch, but otherwise, I’ve left it as Kickpleat intended. I owe her quite a debt of gratitude. Like a cinnamon-scented magic carpet of sorts, this bread sailed us easily through a long evening of envelope-sealing. Then, the next day, it fueled me through a second afternoon of folding and stuffing and addressing and stamping. Then, on Friday, a square of it accompanied me on a flight to San Francisco, where I was joined by four of my favorite ladies for a bachelorette weekend, a whirling 48 hours of frites, steak on the grill, Cowgirl Creamery cheese, Bi-Rite ice cream, picnics in Dolores Park, “Pin the Macho on the Man,” and a command lip-synch performance by yours truly, wearing hot pink lipstick and powder bronzer in some shade of terra cotta, in my aunt Tina’s dining room. I’m already planning another batch.

Something tells me that July 29 will be here in no time, so long as the banana supply holds up.

Banana Bread with Chocolate and Cinnamon Sugar

This lovely stuff comes together in less than an hour, including baking time. And unlike more conventional quick breads, which are best when allowed to cool fully before slicing, this one doesn’t suffer when it’s eaten warm. That makes it, in my book, a perfect last-minute dessert or afternoon treat. It’s a good one to have in the old repertoire.

Oh, and while we’re here, let’s talk about frozen bananas. I always keep a stash of them in the freezer, and I highly recommend it. I chuck them in there, peel and all, and when I want to use a few, I just pull them out, sit them in a bowl, and let them defrost at room temperature for a few hours. It doesn’t take long. You can then use them in place of fresh ripe bananas in any baked good, and they’re easier to mash, to boot. The only bad thing is that they look pretty nasty. Think wet, slippery, and slug-like, and don’t say I didn’t warn you.

3 very ripe bananas (the size doesn’t much matter; medium to large works)
2 large eggs
1 ½ cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 cup granulated sugar
1 tsp. baking soda
2 tsp. ground cinnamon
1 tsp. pure vanilla extract
1 cup semisweet chocolate chips

For topping:
2 Tbsp. granulated sugar
1/8 tsp. ground cinnamon

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. Butter or spray an 8-inch square pan.

In a medium mixing bowl, mash the bananas well with a fork or potato masher. Add the eggs, and stir well to combine. Add the flour, sugar, baking soda, cinnamon, and vanilla, and stir to mix. Add ¾ cup of the chocolate chips, and stir briefly. Pour the batter into the prepared pan, and set aside.

In a small bowl, stir together the topping ingredients. Sprinkle the mixture evenly over the batter in the pan, and top with the remaining ¼ cup chocolate chips.

Bake for 35-40 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Let cool in the pan on a wire rack for at least 15 minutes before serving.

Note: This bread, like many banana sweets, freezes beautifully. Sometimes I even like to eat frozen, cut into thick, cold, chewy slices. It’s the perfect snack for a hot summer afternoon.


How it works

I must have pleased the weather gods, or whoever controls rain and shine. Ever since my last post, it’s been lovely around here. There’s been sun, sun, and more sun, a whole week of hot days and cold beers and windows wide open. We had a picnic; we went rowing; we stuck our feet in the Sound; and on Saturday, we even cleaned the basement. (This last might not sound like fun, but I’ll let you in on a secret: when it’s hot outside, our basement is like heaven. It’s always a season cooler down there.) It’s been summer. It’s been the bee’s knees. I didn’t even mind the thunderstorm that rolled through last night. It was an especially hot day, and as dusk came on, I raised the windows as far as they would go. Brandon was out at a catering job, and I busied myself with a batch of soup and Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison, and I’m telling you, nothing has ever sounded so sweet as those raindrops on the sill, singing backup for Johnny and June. I swooned a little just writing that sentence.

At any rate, all this to say that I think the season is finally upon us. All the signs are there, including the most crucial one. This weekend, Brandon made salsa.

Now, before this goes any further, you should know a little something. In one of our first conversations, before we’d even met, Brandon talked to me about salsa. We were in the business back then of comparing our favorite foods – a fitting variation, you could say, on “What’s your sign?” – and one day, he brought it up. Actually, I believe his exact words were, “I love anything with the consistency of salsa.” I didn’t think much of it at the time. I giggled a little, for sure, and thrilled silently for a second at the thought of a man who could care so deeply about sauces and condiments. But I figured he was just being cute and clever, and trying to say the right things. Needless to say, I was wrong. Not about the cuteness or the cleverness, mind you, but about the salsa.

The truth is, Brandon eats salsa by the quart. He eats salsa like I eat dessert, in great, lusty gulps. Whenever I lose sight of him in the grocery store, all I have to do is head for the tomato display. He’s bound to be there, sniffing and prodding, sizing up the prospects. The man is a salsa machine. He makes it; he eats it; and then he starts again.

Salsa may not sound like anything particularly exciting to make, and it certainly is simple. But a great salsa is special, an alchemy of sweetness and acid with just enough salt. Brandon’s repertoire of salsas includes three varieties: a pico de gallo; a fiery green sauce of cilantro, jalapeños, and garlic; and a grilled or roasted salsa, made from tomatoes and chiles that have been charred over a fire. I mentioned the latter two in a post almost two years ago, as accompaniments to a dinner of fresh tortillas and beans. In response to requests, Brandon wrote rough sketches of the recipes in the comments section. But in the time since, he has tweaked and altered his methods, and seeing as he made a particularly spectacular go at the grilled version on Saturday night, I thought it was time to revisit the notion. Plus, it’s summer, people. You’re supposed to be making salsa. That’s just how it works.

Brandon first came upon the idea for his grilled salsa in New York, at Burritoville, of all places. He used to stop there for cheap plates of beans and rice and a pass through their salsa bar. One of his favorites was the roasted tomato variety, which the menu on the wall billed as a blend of fire-roasted tomatoes, onions, garlic, and jalapeños, with cilantro and lemon. One day, he made a mental note of the ingredients list and decided to try making it at home. So it began. Back in his apartment, he roasted the vegetables under the broiler until they were charred and blistered, and then he zizzed them in his housemate’s Cuisinart. Then he sat down with a bag of tortilla chips and ate it - breakfast, lunch, and dinner - for a few days. And then he did it again. He was still doing the same thing, more or less, when he met me. And some days, especially in the summer, he still does.

One could do a lot worse, I think, than eating salsa all day. Especially this one. The tomatoes still wear the warm flavor of the grill, their fruitiness amplified a notch. Over the heat of the flame, the onion and garlic give up their sharpness in favor of a mellow, savory flavor. Even the jalapeños relax a little, ceding some of their heat for a low, earthy burn. Punched up with cilantro and lemon, it’s both sweet and acidic, bright and rich, and thick enough to sit tall atop a crisp, salty chip. Which is, come summer, where we all want to be.

Grilled Tomato Salsa

This salsa is delicious with tortilla chips, of course, but also with beans and rice, grilled beef, guacamole, slices of avocado, chile rellenos, or, frankly, almost anything with Mexican leanings. Brandon usually makes it by eye and by taste. It’s hard to mess it up, so play with it as you like. If you choose to cook the vegetables less than Brandon does, your salsa will have a fresher, more raw flavor. If you cook the vegetables longer, your salsa will taste more roasted. Lastly, if you don’t have a grill at the ready, you can achieve the same - or similar - ends with your broiler.

2 ½ - 3 lb. ripe Roma tomatoes
1 large onion
1 head garlic
1 - 4 jalapeños
2 - 4 lemons or limes, or a mixture of both
½ bunch cilantro

Preheat your grill. We use a gas grill, and Brandon sets it to high. If you’re using a charcoal grill, get it nice and hot.

While the grill heats, prepare the vegetables. Rinse the tomatoes, and set them aside. Peel and trim the onion; then cut it in half along its equator. Trim the top off the head of garlic, revealing the tips of the cloves inside; then wrap the entire head in aluminum foil. Rinse the jalapeños, and trim off their stems. If you want a very mild salsa, remove their seeds; otherwise, leave them intact.

Arrange the tomatoes, onion halves, jalapeños, and garlic on the grill. We like to close the lid to help keep it hot, but if you’re using a charcoal grill, this might create a smoky flavor, which you may or may not want. It’s up to you. Either way, let the vegetables cook, turning them once or twice, until they are nicely charred. The onions should be quite blackened on their cut sides, and the jalapeños should be charred. [A tidbit of interest: the more you cook the jalapeños, the less spicy they will be.] The tomato skins will begin to wrinkle a bit and blacken, and some of the tomatoes will split open. Carefully open the foil packet to check the garlic: does it feel soft? If not, return it to the grill until it does.

When the vegetables are ready, transfer them to a large sheet pan, and cool to room temperature. Dump the tomatoes, onion, and 1 jalapeño into the bowl of a large food processor. (Ours is an 11-cup.) Remove the softened cloves from the head of garlic, and add them to the bowl. And add the juice of 2 lemons (or limes), the cilantro, and a good dose of salt. Process to a salsa consistency. Taste, and add more jalapeño, lemon juice, and salt to taste. (Most of the time, Brandon likes to use about 3 jalapeños. And depending on the flavor of the tomatoes, you might need quite a bit of lemon juice. On his most recent go, he used 3 lemons’ worth in total. Likewise, this salsa requires quite a bit of salt. Don’t be shy.) Taste, and tweak until it is to your liking.

Refrigerate until thoroughly chilled before serving.

Note: If you have any leftover grilled jalapeños, know that they’re delicious with beans. For lunch today, for example, Brandon put a bit of olive oil in a saucepan, threw in one grilled jalapeño (whole; no need to chop it), and warmed them together over medium heat. Then he added a drained can of black beans and a pinch of cumin. When the whole mess is warm, it’s ready.

Yield: A lot