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1.28.2008

Pots of gold

I come to you today to redeem myself.

You really were terribly kind last week about the whole budino debacle. When I gave you canned beans instead, you didn’t even throw them at me. You really are angels. If I could, I would send every one of your mothers a note to thank them for raising you so well. But that would take forever, I fear. Heck, I haven’t even finished the thank-you notes from our wedding, and the blasted thing was six months ago. (I know, Mom. I know.) So how about we just keep it simple? How about we take a moment to acknowledge, right here and right now, how utterly lovely you are, and then we go share a couple butterscotch pots de crème?



I thought you might like that.

These little gems are my new favorite dessert, hands down. Especially after the disappointment of last week. They’re amazing. Like, really, REALLY amazing. Like, “what stinkin’ budino?” amazing. Like, tape-the-recipe-to-
your-fridge-and-fondle-it-each-time-you-pass amazing. I’ve never heard Brandon cuss so much while eating dessert before. He was swearing up and down, scraping the empty cup like a man possessed. They’re real pots of glory, they are, real pots of gold.

And to think - I’ve had the recipe sitting in my files for more than four years. The poor thing must have been lying there, losing all hope, wondering when, oh when, I would take it out and let it shine. Needless to say, now that I’ve brought it out, I don’t intend to ever put it back. Never, ever.



I clipped the recipe from the October 2003 issue of Gourmet magazine, and were it not for my iffy experience with the butterscotch budino, which set me obsessively on the trail of something better, I might have completely forgotten about it. The recipe comes from an article about a restaurant called The Corn Exchange in Rapid City, South Dakota. Its chef, M. J. Adams, sounds like someone I’d like to meet: born in Seattle, trained in New York (where she worked under Edna Lewis, among others), a supporter of farmers’ markets and local agriculture, and the mastermind behind one of the best little recipes to cross my countertop in a long time. You know you’ve stumbled upon something really good when you resent having to share it with anyone - even your husband, the person with whom you’re supposed to want to share these sorts of things. I don’t know who wrote the rules of marriage, but they obviously never tasted a butterscotch pot de crème.

Of course, the best part of the whole thing is that they’re easy. So easy, in fact, that I made them entirely while talking on the phone - and talking, no less, about the yet-to-be-determined title of my book, which is incredibly distracting, to say the least. Thank goodness the method is hard to mess up, as quick and straightforward as can be. You warm some cream in a saucepan with muscovado sugar and salt; then, in a second saucepan, you cook a sugar syrup to brown and bubbly. Then you combine the two, whisk the mixture into a bowl of egg yolks, pour it through a sieve to get rid of any lumps and bumps, and pour it into ramekins. Then you bake them, cool them, and eat them. Ta da!

Cold and and rich and almost hyperbolically creamy, the custard yields under the spoon the way a good down pillow does under your head: with a welcoming, slippery whoosh. The gates to heaven have never opened so easily. Thank you, you’re welcome, I’ll see you inside.


***

Two quick bits of housekeeping:

- Orangette is a finalist in the 2008 Bloggies! It’s my first time, so I’m seriously tickled. I’m also up against some steep competition. There are so many great blogs out there, people. Wow. It’s positively humbling. If you would like to vote, please click here. My category, Best Food Weblog, is about halfway down the page. Voting closes on Thursday, January 31.

- Lori of the charming - and very inspiring - blog Inspiration Boards interviewed me recently, and she posted the interview yesterday. Her questions are so thoughtful and charming and smart; I absolutely loved where they took me. To read my interview, click here. Thank you, Lori!


***


Butterscotch Pots de Crème
Adapted from M.J. Adams and Gourmet, October 2003

This custard gets its deep, warm flavor from the presence of two special sugars: muscovado and demerara. It may sound fiddly to call for fancy sugars for a simple little custard like this, but trust me: they really seal the deal. They’re the axis on which the whole thin spins. And if you live in a moderate- to good-sized town, they should be fairly easy to find. Here in Seattle, I’ve bought them at gourmet stores like Whole Foods, but this weekend I even saw them at Ballard Market, my neighborhood grocery. I like the brand India Tree.

One more thing: for the water-and-demerara step, be sure to use a light-colored saucepan. If your pan is made of something dark, like this, it will be darn near impossible to see the color of the mixture as it caramelizes.

1 ½ cups heavy cream
6 Tbsp. dark muscovado sugar
¼ tsp. salt
6 Tbsp. water
2 Tbsp. demerara sugar
4 large egg yolks
½ tsp. vanilla extract

Set an oven rack in the middle position, and preheat the oven to 300°F.

In a small heavy saucepan, combine cream, muscovado sugar, and salt. Place over medium heat and bring just to a simmer, stirring until the sugar is dissolved. Remove from the heat.

Meanwhile, combine water and demerara sugar in a medium (2-quart) heavy saucepan over medium heat. Cook, stirring until sugar is dissolved. Continue to cook, stirring occasionally, until browned and bubbly, about 5 minutes. (To gauge the color of the mixture, it may help to tilt the pan a little, so that the liquid pools on one side.) Remove from the heat and carefully add the cream mixture, whisking until combined.

In a large bowl, whisk together egg yolks and vanilla. Add hot cream mixture in a thin stream, whisking constantly. Set a fine-mesh sieve over a 1-quart glass measuring cup, and pour the custard through the sieve. Skim off any foam with a spoon.

Divide the custard among four (4-ounce) ramekins or other oven-safe vessels. (I used teacups, just because they’re pretty. Stoneware and porcelain are safe in the oven at this temperature.) Select a baking dish, one large enough to hold the ramekins without any of them touching. (I used a 9” x 13.”) Fold a dish towel to line the bottom of the baking dish; this will protect the delicate custards from touching the hot bottom of the pan. Arrange the ramekins in the pan. Seal the top of each ramekin with a piece of aluminum foil to prevent a skin from forming as they bake.

Slide the pan into the oven, and immediately pour hot tap water into the pan to reach halfway up the side of the ramekins. Bake until the custards are set around the edges but still jiggle lightly in the centers when shaken, like firm gelatin, about 40 minutes. (You’ll have to move the foil to see this.) Using tongs, transfer the ramekins to a rack. Discard foil tops and cool to room temperature. The custards will continue to set as they cool. Refrigerate for a couple of hours, or until you’re ready to serve them.

Serve plain or topped with a dollop of unsweetened whipped cream.

Note: These are best on the first day, but they’ll keep, covered with plastic wrap and refrigerated, for up to two days. The texture slowly declines and they develop a thin skin on top, but it certainly didn’t stop us from eating them.

Yield: 4 servings

1.21.2008

Tomorrow, tomorrow

I had big plans. I was going to serve you a real whopper of a dessert today. It was going to be the butterscotch budino from Pizzeria Mozza, if you really want to know, the dessert that Frank Bruni calls “a pudding to shame all other puddings.” (Isn’t that that the single best line of praise ever? I want someone to call me “a pudding to shame all other puddings.”) It was going to be great.

Have you heard about it, this butterscotch budino? I first learned of it when Luisa wrote about Mozza last March, and then I went chasing the recipe, which, happily, was printed in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and Bon Appétit, each with a drool-inducing description. It sounded heart-stoppingly good: a ramekin of rich butterscotch pudding topped with a warm caramel sauce and a hearty smattering of salt and, on top of that, a dollop of crème fraîche whipped cream. Needless to say, I printed the recipe and planned to make it immediately.

Of course,
“immediately” turned out to be this past weekend, which wasn’t so immediate, but anyway. I made it, and despite its three separate components, it was really quite simple and painless. (I even made the crème fraîche from scratch! So much cheaper that way.) But oh, I don’t know. I didn’t love it. Maybe I did something wrong? Or maybe it requires a pinch of pastry chef pixie dust that the recipe forgot to mention? The pudding was very nice, but it didn’t leave me clawing for more. The caramel sauce was likewise tasty, but it didn’t make me feel like ripping off my clothes and bathing in it, which, let’s be honest, a really good caramel usually makes me want to do. It wasn’t bad; I just wasn’t as excited as I wanted to be.

Does this make me a bad person? A picky little twit? Or perhaps I’m just so-so when it comes to making puddings and caramels? Maybe I’ll make it again this week, just to give it the good old college try. Or maybe I’ll dig out another recipe I clipped a couple of years ago, a recipe for butterscotch pot de crème, and try that instead. Would you like that? I certainly would. Tomorrow, tomorrow, I love ya tomorrow.

Anyway, this is just to say that I had Exciting! Fun! Plans for today, but instead, I bring you an old standby. Not that it’s anything to sneeze at. It’s just less flashy, that’s all. It’s the recipe for Brandon’s quick black beans with cumin and oregano.



Much like his chickpea salad, these beans are something we eat often for lunch, especially on Saturdays and Sundays, when we want to sit down and share a meal but don’t feel much like fussing. We ate them yesterday, in fact, and in mid-chew, I thought, Gosh, I really should tell them about this. Which is more than I can say for some things.

I’m going to go out on a limb here, but I really do believe it: that there is great value, people, in knowing how to doctor a can of beans. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. It’s one of those important life skills, like knowing how to make a bed, tie your shoes, or operate a corkscrew. In this case, you just cook an onion in olive oil, add some cumin and oregano and a good splash of hot sauce, and then chuck in a can of beans, juices and all. (I know the can juices can seem kind of yucky, but as Brandon likes to say, think of it as a broth of sorts. Doesn’t that feel better?) It all burbles together for a few minutes, just long enough to warm through, and then it’s ready to go, earthy and spicy and faintly sweet. With a green salad on the side, or some sliced avocado, or some bread and a hunk of cheddar, or, heck, whatever’s in the fridge, these beans make a terrific, easy lunch. Which, if you ask me, is much more important than pudding anyway.

Have a happy week, friends. I’ll see you on the canned beans aisle.


***

Oh, but wait! One more thing: our cooking class on “misunderstood” winter vegetables - Brussels sprouts, fennel, and cauliflower - is coming up fast! And there are still a few spots available! The class will take place next Tuesday, January 29, in Bellingham, and is hosted and organized by In the Kitchen, a new production of Ciao Thyme, the lovely and talented people who catered our wedding. To learn more about our vegetable class - and our eggs class on March 18 - please click here. You can sign up by e-mailing classes (at) inthekitchenbellingham (dot) com, or by calling 360.733.1267. We’re tickled, just tickled, to have this chance to teach, and we really do hope to see you there.



Quick Black Beans with Cumin and Oregano

Canned black beans differ dramatically from brand to brand. Brandon usually uses Trader Joe’s brand, or Bush’s, or Goya, and all are very good. Yesterday we made these beans with Western Family organic brand, and they weren’t nearly as tasty. So be choosy about your beans.

Oh, and about hot sauces: you can use most any brand of Mexican-style hot sauce, but if you happen to make this kind, save the strained solids and use a spoonful in this dish. They toast a little in the heat of the pan, and the resulting flavor is really terrific. We’ve also used Tapatió, and it was very good too.

Olive oil
1 medium yellow onion, diced
1 tsp. ground cumin
½ tsp. dried oregano
½ tsp. Mexican-style hot sauce, or more to taste (this amount makes mild beans)
1 small (or ½ medium) clove garlic, pressed
1 (15-ounce) can black beans
¼ tsp. salt, or to taste

Pour a glug of olive oil into a medium saucepan, and warm it over medium heat. Add the onion, increase the heat to medium-high, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onion is translucent and pale golden. It should be just starting to caramelize; it might scorch a bit in areas too, and that’s just fine. Add the ground cumin and oregano, and stir well. Add the hot sauce, and stir well again. Add the garlic, followed by the beans and their can juices. Reduce the heat to medium-low, and cook until the beans are soft and warmed through. (Some brands of beans are softer than others; some will be ready as soon as they’re warm, but some need more time.) Taste, and salt as needed.

Note: This recipe doubles easily. There’s no need to double the onion, though; one is plenty for two cans of beans.

Yield: 2 servings

1.14.2008

Like a charm

I don’t know how it is where you are, but around here, winter has been a little weird. Kind of wishy-washy, I guess you could say. Not that I’m complaining or anything. No sir. I’m just saying. We’ve had the usual load of rain and even a scant dusting of snow, but everywhere, all around, the shrubs are sending out little green buds. Yesterday it was sunny and 50 degrees, and we went to Discovery Park in nothing but jeans and t-shirts - long-sleeved, but still - and collected shells on the beach. We even saw a plum tree with a few open blossoms(!). I grinned so hard that I thought my face might crack open. Then, when we came home, I made lemonade. Lemonade! And spiked it with vodka! And then, while Brandon was out running his favorite thrift-shop circuit, I lip-synced to “Hungry Like the Wolf” about 85 times. It was such a good day. Like spring, really.



Global warming, is that you? Because sometimes - and I know I’m not supposed to say this, but - I think I love you. Come on in and have a seat. I’ve got a big glass of boozyade for you.



Of course, today it’s raining proverbial cats and dogs. As I type this, a man is cowering his way down the street outside my window, dodging raindrops. Best not to get my hopes up, I guess. We’ve got a while to go before spring.

At least we have parsley. That’s all I can say. Our little herb-and-arugula garden beside the house has pretty much gone kaput, but the Italian parsley, it lives on. It’s going gangbusters, actually. It’s nearly three feet tall and almost as bushy as my father’s beard in an old photo I have in the basement, taken in the mid-‘60s, during what I like to call his “Cuban revolutionary” facial hair phase. It may be the middle of winter, but by god, we still have parsley. Which means we can make pesto. Or a variation on pesto, at least.



In fact, that’s what I did last night with our friend Olaiya. We wanted something to dollop on top of a bowl of parsnip soup, and parsley sounded like just the thing, whirred to a slurry in the food processor with a little oil and salt. For added interest, we threw in a small palmful of almonds - Olaiya’s inspired suggestion; I really can’t take credit - and a squeeze of lemon, and before we knew it, the slurry had morphed into a pesto of sorts, earthy and salty and herbal and addictive. (Isn’t that the definition of a good pesto: addictive? I certainly think so.) It was unexpectedly lovely, more delicate than I could have imagined. I liked it atop the soup - which, to tell you the truth, didn’t turn out all that well - but I loved it today, when I made a second batch to stir into a pot of hot fettucine. It went down like a charm.



Now, I’m not going to go telling you that Italian parsley is the new basil, or whatever, because heaven knows they’re entirely different animals. But this wintry “pesto” is a lovely thing in its own right - grassy, fragrant, nubbly with sweet almonds. I’d be happy to eat it any number of ways, even straight off my fingertip. And until spring rolls around, I intend to.



Winter “Pesto” with Parsley and Almonds


You should think of this recipe as a mere starting point. For instance, you can use raw almonds or toasted ones. (I use raw.) You can add garlic, or you can leave it out. (I like it without, but Brandon is pretty pro-garlic.) You could try adding other herbs, or take it in another direction with capers or even anchovies. Just be sure that, when it comes to the parsley, you use the Italian (flat-leaf) kind. Curly parsley doesn’t have as much flavor.

Oh, and this recipe doubles nicely.

2 Tbsp. whole almonds
1 packed cup Italian parsley leaves
4 - 6 Tbsp. olive oil
1 tsp. fresh lemon juice
¼ tsp. salt
1 small garlic clove, pressed (optional)

In a small food processor, pulse the almonds until finely ground. They don’t need to be quite as fine as, say, sand, but close. Add the parsley, 4 tablespoons of the olive oil, lemon juice, salt, and garlic (if using), and process to a paste. Taste and, if needed, adjust salt, lemon juice, and/or olive oil. I like to add an additional tablespoon or two of olive oil, just to boost the flavor.

Serve over pasta (with grated Parmigiano Reggiano), alongside chicken or fish, or spooned atop roasted eggplant or mushrooms or boiled potatoes. Wherever, really.

Yield: about ½ cup

1.07.2008

From this day forth

I’ve never been a big one for hot beverages. Oh, I do like a cup of coffee every now and then, as well as the occasional mug of hot water with a slice of lemon on top, but aside from that, meh, I could take it or leave it. Part of the problem, I think, is that I’m forever burning my tongue. It’s a tender little bugger. Having burned it so many times, I hardly even want hot drinks anymore. If I’m going to burn the darned thing, I figure, it should be for something more substantial, more filling, than just a dinky cup of coffee or tea. (No offense, of course, to you coffee and tea aficionados. Anyway, this means more for you! Hooray!)

But then - because, you know, there’s always a but then - a couple of weeks ago, quite out of the blue, I had a craving for hot chocolate. (And mulled cider. But mainly hot chocolate.) You can imagine what a shock this was. I hardly even remember the last time I had hot chocolate. It was a few years ago, at least. I think it might have been when I was a student in Paris. My mother was visiting, and it was cold outside, and we went to Ladurée. We ordered a small pot of coffee and the same of hot chocolate, and when they came, on a whim, we poured them together, mixing them into our dainty cups. The result was exquisite. We felt like geniuses. The cherubs on the frescoed ceiling even smiled down kindly upon us. But despite all that, I don’t think I’ve had hot chocolate since. Or not more than a sip of someone else’s, anyway. I just never think of it.

Isn’t that sad? All that wasted time - that precious, precious time. Oh woe. I tear up just thinking about it. Sob.



Which is why I thank my lucky stars today for Dorie Greenspan, for her Paris Sweets, for the hot chocolate recipe it contains, and for craving that called me to it. Phew. From this day forth, I have lots of catching up to do.



There are loads of hot chocolate recipes out there, but this one, adapted from none other than Ladurée, is my tippy-top, honest-to-goodness ideal. The best part is that it has only four ingredients, and that they’re simple pantry types: milk, water, sugar, and chocolate. You warm them together in a saucepan, easy-peasy, and then, when the mixture is hot, whip it with an immersion blender until it’s smooth and frothy - like a proper cappuccino, you could say, only way better, because this is chocolate.

In a lineup of hot chocolates, this one would stand somewhere in the middle, which is just where I like it. It’s medium-bodied - thicker than Swiss Miss, but not so sludgy that you could stand up a spoon in it. Likewise, it’s richer than your average specimen, but not so rich that you feel compelled to pace your sips, break out in a sweat, sleep it off, and/or die afterwards. I know a lot of people who love the hot chocolate at City Bakery in New York, but to my way of thinking, this one is even better. It’s more moderate, richness-wise - a little more sustainable, for lack of a better word - but still, it pushes all the right buttons. In fact, after his second sip, Brandon proclaimed that he wanted to swim in it. That says it all, I think. I just hope there’s room in the pool for two. I plan to spend the rest of the winter there.


***

Oh, and speaking of winter, I wanted to tell you about a cooking class(!) that Brandon and I will be co-teaching later this month, on the topic of winter produce. The class will be held in Bellingham, at In the Kitchen, a new venture for Ciao Thyme, the caterers of our wedding. We are over-the-moon honored that they’ve invited us to teach in their stunning new kitchen. Our class is scheduled for Tuesday, January 29, at 6:30 pm. We’ll be sharing techniques and recipes for some of our favorite misunderstood vegetables - fennel, Brussels sprouts, and cauliflower - and we just can’t wait. You can find more information and sign up here.

(And if you can’t make it this time, we’ll also be teaching a class on eggs - poached, boiled, beaten into mayonnaise, whipped into soufflé, you name it - on March 18. You can learn more right here.)



Hot Chocolate
Adapted from Dorie Greenspan’s Paris Sweets and Ladurée

The original version of this recipe uses twice as much of each ingredient listed below, serving four people. To make it more friendly for my household, I’ve halved it to serve two. But feel free, of course, to multiply the amounts to serve four or six or however many you want. Whatever you do, don’t be tempted to skip the blending step. It helps to incorporate the chocolate and makes the texture velvety-smooth.

My favorite chocolate for this is Scharffen Berger 70%. Use any bittersweet chocolate you like, but keep in mind that it should be one you love, since its flavor takes center stage.

1 ½ cups whole milk
2 ½ Tbsp. water
2 ½ Tbsp. granulated sugar
3 oz. bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped

In a medium saucepan, combine the milk, water, and sugar. Place over medium heat and whisk occasionally until the sugar is dissolved. Increase the heat to medium-high and bring the mixture just to a boil. Remove the pan from the heat and whisk in the chocolate. At this point, blend the mixture. If you have an immersion blender, you can do this directly in the saucepan; if not, you’ll need to transfer it to a traditional blender. Either way, blend for 1 minute (on high speed, if using a traditional blender - and take care(!), as hot liquids expand when blended). The finished mixture should be very smooth and frothy.

Serve immediately.

Note: Should you have any leftover hot chocolate - wishful thinking, I know - you can store in the refrigerator for 2 days. Reheat it gently over low heat, stirring occasionally, until hot. Blend for 1 minute; then serve immediately.

Yield: 2 servings

1.01.2008

Happy, news

Sometimes I can’t believe it’s only been five years, or five years and change, since I moved to Seattle. It feels like ages in all the right ways. Every time I come home from somewhere else, every time the plane bump-bumps to a stop at SeaTac, my heart pumps a little harder. I never knew this city could make me so happy. I didn’t mean to stay here. I came for graduate school, that’s all. But then the big gray clouds sort of nudged their way into my heart, and they must have let loose all kinds of rain in there, because now it’s full to bursting. Christmas on the East Coast was a treat, be-bopping around between Manhattan and Long Island and New Jersey, but coming home was even better.



I’m not going to write for long today. I’m still recovering from the five pizzas - FIVE! - we ate during our three days in Manhattan, not to mention the sour gummy stars I got in my Christmas stocking and have been eating obsessively for the past week until yesterday, when, in a last-ditch effort to regain my sanity, I threw the last of the bag away, rescuing my tongue mere moments before the “sour sanding,” or whatever it’s called, could scour away my last taste bud. Phew.

No, really, I’m not going to write for long today. I just wanted to stop in and tell you about some happy news that’s come my way. It’s only appropriate, I think, given that it’s the beginning of a new year, and who doesn’t like happy news on New Year’s? (Lord knows I do.)

What I want to share with you is this: that I am now [insert squeal] writing for Bon Appétit. As of the February 2008 issue, I am a monthly columnist for the magazine. My column is called “Cooking Life,” and in it, I’ll be sharing stories of discovery in my kitchen and beyond - with recipes, of course. (The first recipe is for lamb sausage patties with fresh mint, feta, and garlic.) The column has been in the works since last July - I had my first phone meeting about it only six days before my wedding; it was a teeensy bit of a stressful week - but I didn’t want to tell you about it until it was in print, until it felt really-and-truly real. And now, holy cow, it is, and it does. If you’re a subscriber, you may already have your February issue. If not, it’ll be on newsstands very soon. Either way, I do hope you’ll keep an eye out for it. I would never have had the opportunity to do this if it weren’t for you, you know - you and your cheers. Really. I mean it. You, you, you.



So today, I raise my glass in your direction. I wish you the happiest of New Years, friends. 2007 was an awfully big one around here, and awfully fast too. This year, I want to learn to slow down a little. Doesn’t that sound nice? I want to take more walks. I want to sit on the couch and read. I want to drink more beer and listen to more records. I want to know Seattle even better. I’ve never been one for New Year’s resolutions, but walking and sitting and reading and beer and records and Seattle, well, those, yes, I can do.

I hope your 2008 is slow and lovely and everything you want, with all the happiness your heart can hold.