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8.28.2011

Ohio

I am writing to you today from my friend Ben’s dining room. If you’ve been around for a while, you might remember that he used to live in Seattle, where he was like a Kramer to us, but he moved away for a job. Now he’s in Ohio, and for a week, so am I.




I needed to get some work done on Book 2, and I missed my friend, so I rolled the two into one and called it a writing retreat. I wasn’t sure how it would go, but turns out, it’s like summer camp - only there are no counselors to keep us down, and instead of doing archery and riding horses and gathering around the campfire to sing “Down by the Old Mill Stream,” we sweat painfully over our computers eight hours a day, and then Ben puts The Twist Goes to College on the turntable.




Here’s the schedule. Late each night, we set a time to have coffee the next morning. Then I go to my room, and Ben goes to his. We yell goodnight. We sleep. When the correct hour comes, we meet in the kitchen, where Ben makes Americanos and English muffins. Then he walks the two blocks to his office, and I go to mine, the aforementioned dining room. I untangle the cord to my headphones, put something on repeat (mostly, it’s been Temple of the Dog’s “Hunger Strike”), and smash a mosquito with my copy of Bird by Bird. That book is even more useful than I had given it credit for. A couple of hours later, Ben comes back for lunch. Because it’s very loud here on Planet Hunger Strike, I don’t notice his arrival until he walks into the dining room and I scream. We make lunch. After that, we go back to our desks and work until early evening, when he goes for a run and I go for a walk. At 8:30 pm, no earlier and no later, I make a round of Negronis. Then we cook dinner, and then we do it all over again.




The current tally of mosquito bites is 13, and I’ve added about 3,000 7,000 words to the manuscript. If everything goes the way I want it to, the former should hold steady, while the latter hits 6,000 9,000 (Updated at 6:55 pm, Monday, 8/29). I go home on Wednesday.




In any case, no matter where I am, I keep a running list of things to tell you, and today, August 28, this is what’s on it:

- More sage advice from Anne Lamott, found via someone on Facebook. Wish I could remember who. Thanks, Emily!

- Inaki Aizpitarte is a fine-looking man, a very fine chef, and he’s got style. (Don’t miss the handwritten Q&A at the bottom of the page.)

- Speaking of France, Bill Buford wrote a wonderful piece on Lyon for The Observer. A great read.

- The team at More & Co. are friends of mine, but I think I’m still allowed to say that I really like their blog.

- Why do I always forget about “Cover Me”? Man.

- I went to Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams yesterday, in Chagrin Falls! It was AMAZING. I’m a giant fan.

- When I was in the late stages of writing my first book, I listened to the Into the Wild soundtrack on repeat every day. Especially “No Ceiling.” But I was surprised to find that I can’t listen to it while I write my current book, because it takes me back to the way I felt when I was writing the first book, which is not the same as the way I feel when I am writing this book. I don’t know if that makes sense, but it made me sort of happy.

And to those of you who were visited by Irene: I hope you’re alright. I’ve been thinking about you.

Have a good week.

8.22.2011

A real thrill

I’m going to tell it to you straight. When I got to the last step of this recipe and looked at the tower of dirty bowls and saucepans in the sink, I thought, This had damn well better be the best frozen yogurt the universe has ever seen.




I’m not sure I would go quite that far. But it’s a very, very, very good frozen yogurt. And I can tell you that it feels especially right when eaten from a teacup, if that doesn’t make you feel too prissy. It was a happy discovery for me, because in this house, the teacups otherwise sit in the cabinet and grow cobwebs.

In other words: I’m glad I made it.




This recipe comes from the newly released book Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams at Home, by Jeni Britton Bauer, owner of Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams in Ohio. (Don’t miss the video currently on the website. Fun stuff.) I’ve made only one recipe from the book, admittedly, but I tasted a second one that Matthew made - we ate it for dessert after our most recent podcast taping - and I think it’s fair to say that Jeni’s flavors are exceptional. But what’s even more exceptional is that, after making only one recipe, I came away feeling that I had learned a lot. I like that in a cookbook. Jeni’s approach is very scientific, which feels fitting, because ice cream is, after all, a frozen emulsion. A good homemade ice cream can be tricky to make, and the results are often icy or crumbly, or leave a slick of greasy fat on the spoon. You know what I mean. Jeni’s ice creams are made without eggs, and she explains her choice of ingredients in admirable depth, a real thrill for us aging science majors. I LOVE SCIENCE!

For instance, she uses corn syrup (not to be confused with high fructose corn syrup) because it is composed primarily of glucose, and glucose helps to prevent ice crystals and give a subtle elasticity to the ice cream. She uses cornstarch to bind up water molecules and, likewise, prevent ice crystals. And she uses a small amount of cream cheese because the proteins it contains help to bind the ingredients and give body. It sounds fiddly, and yes, it uses a lot of bowls, but it yields an ice cream that’s creamy, a little chewy, and dense but not heavy, with true, insistent flavor.

In this case of this frozen yogurt recipe, what you get is big, round lemon flavor, sweet and tart at the same time, underlined by the tang of plain yogurt. I like the idea of smashing it between two chewy ginger cookies and eating it that way, but like I said, all you really need is a teacup. The stripe of blueberry sauce is a very nice addition, although you could skip it, if you wanted one less dirty dish. But I wouldn’t.


Lemon Frozen Yogurt with a Blueberry Stripe
Adapted slightly from Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams at Home

Be sure to let the frozen yogurt sit and thaw slightly - for 5 or 10 minutes, say - before you scoop and serve it. The texture is best that way. Also, I use Brown Cow brand yogurt.

Blueberry sauce:
1 ½ cups blueberries
¾ cup sugar (or a bit less, if your berries are especially sweet)

Frozen yogurt base:
1 quart plain low-fat yogurt
1 ½ cups whole milk
2 Tbsp. cornstarch
2 ounces (4 Tbsp.) cream cheese, softened
½ cup heavy cream
2/3 cup sugar
¼ cup light corn syrup
Zest from 1 lemon (reserved from below)

Lemon syrup:
2 to 4 lemons
3 Tbsp. sugar

ONE DAY AHEAD:
To make the blueberry sauce, put the blueberries and sugar in a small saucepan, stir to mix, and bring to a boil over medium heat. Reduce the heat and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the berries are very tender and the sauce is slightly thickened, about 8 minutes. Remove from the heat, and let cool. Refrigerate until cold before using.

To begin the frozen yogurt base, place a sieve over a bowl, and line it with two layers of cheesecloth. Pour the yogurt into the sieve, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate for 6 to 8 hours to drain. Discard the liquid, and measure out 1 ¼ cups drained yogurt. Set aside. [You will have some drained yogurt left over, and it’s delicious for breakfast.]

THE DAY OF:
First, make the lemon syrup. Using a vegetable peeler, remove the zest from 1 lemon in large strips; reserve for the frozen yogurt base. Then juice enough of the lemons to yield ½ cup. Combine the lemon juice and sugar in a small saucepan, and bring to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Remove from the heat and let cool.

Put 2 tablespoons of the milk in a small bowl, add the cornstarch, and whisk until you have a smooth slurry.

In a medium bowl, whisk the cream cheese until smooth.

Fill a large bowl with ice and a little bit of cold water.

Combine the remaining milk, the cream, sugar, corn syrup, and strips of lemon zest in a 4-quart saucepan. Bring to a rolling boil over medium-high heat, and boil for exactly 4 minutes. Remove from the heat, and slowly whisk in the cornstarch slurry. Return the pan to the heat, and continue to cook, stirring with a heatproof spatula, until slightly thickened, about 1 minute more. Remove from the heat, and then gradually whisk the hot milk mixture into the cream cheese until smooth. Add the reserved 1 ¼ cups drained yogurt and the lemon syrup. Whisk until smooth.

Pour the mixture into a 1-gallon Ziploc freezer bag, and submerge the sealed bag in the ice bath. Let stand, adding more ice as necessary, until cold, about 30 minutes.

Remove the strips of lemon zest from the frozen yogurt base. (I did this by pouring it through a mesh strainer directly into the ice cream machine.) Pour the mixture into the canister of an ice cream machine, and spin until thick and creamy.

Pack the frozen yogurt into a storage container, alternating spoonfuls of yogurt with spoonfuls of the blueberry sauce, and do not mix them. (You’re basically creating pockets and splotches of sauce within the frozen yogurt.) Press a sheet of parchment directly against the surface, and seal with an airtight lid. Freeze until firm, at least 4 hours.

Yield: 1 generous quart

8.14.2011

It still surprises me

So. I think it would be fair to say that your comments on my last post made me very, very happy. It feels much less lonely in here, and I have you to thank for that. More than anything, I just love that we can talk about this kind of stuff. When I first started writing here, more than seven(!) years ago now, I had no idea where this weird blog thing of mine would go. It still surprises me. I’m glad you’re here, and I’m glad I am, too.

It also surprises me how many totally so-so recipes I tried last week. Absolutely nothing worth telling you about. So-so chicken, so-so apricots, so-so beans. And then, while I was trying to decide what to do about that, I tumbled down a rabbit hole of Stevie Nicks videos, which has nothing to do with so-so recipes, aside from the fact that it too gave me nothing worth telling you about. (Though my hair does look remarkably like hers when I wake up in the morning!) And then I noticed that the blackberries I picked up at last Friday’s market were still hanging out in the fridge, so I pulled out an old recipe for oat scones, and here we are.




I first tasted these scones at the Standard Baking Company in Portland, Maine. I was traveling with my mother, and though I ate the scone about midway through the trip, I thought about it the whole way home. This was back when I was writing a column for Bon Appétit, and I called up my editor and told her about it. She seemed interested, so I called the bakery and asked if they might share the recipe. (This was the best part of writing that column: having a legitimate, very official-sounding reason to call up strangers and ask for recipes.) The story ran in the summer of 2009. The bakery’s original version uses blueberries - wild Maine blueberries, if you happen to have any of those lying around - and the combination of oats and blueberries is hard to beat. But this past week, I discovered that I might like these scones even better with blackberries. Who knows I’ll discover next. Raspberries? Raisins?! GOLDEN raisins?! Are you still with me?




I’ve posted a number of scone recipes over the years, and yes, I am a sick, sick person, because I have another one for you. But these are in a different category. Ordinarily, I like scones in their traditional Scottish form: sturdy, dense, pleasantly dry. That is not what these scones are like. They’re more cakey than that, more tender, almost crossing into biscuit territory. In fact, if the bakery didn’t call them a scone, I might be inclined to call them drop biscuits. As breakfast pastries go, they’re not at all sweet, and I like that. The flavor of the oats sits right out front, followed closely by butter, and then, every other bite or so, you hit a pocket of soft blackberry. It’s the scone’s own built-in supply of jam.

Like a classic biscuit dough, this scone dough needs a light touch. It’s important to work quickly, and to not overwork it. There will be small bits and flakes of cold butter in the dough, and they’re essential to its structure: if they get too warm or overworked, you can wind up with a scone that spreads like a cookie or a pancake. Also, Brandon wants me to be sure to tell you that these scones are particularly good toasted. If you have a toaster oven, that’s ideal. Put the scone in there whole, and let it go until it’s crisp on the outside and the smudge of blackberry across the top starts to caramelize. We’ve eaten ours that way for the past five mornings, and I think the flavor actually improves with some age. In any case, boom! Instant breakfast. You and your Stevie hair are set.


Oat Scones
Adapted from Standard Baking Company (Portland, ME)

If you use frozen berries, do not thaw them before using.

3 cups all-purpose flour
1/3 cup packed golden brown sugar
1 Tbsp. plus 1 tsp. baking powder
1 ½ tsp. baking soda
¾ tsp. kosher salt
11 Tbsp. (5 ½ ounces) cold unsalted butter, cut into ½-inch cubes
1 ¾ cups cold half-and-half
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1 cup rolled oats
1 cup fresh or frozen blueberries or blackberries

For garnish:
3 Tbsp. old-fashioned rolled oats
5 tsp. Turbinado sugar

Set racks in the upper and lower thirds of the oven, and preheat the oven to 350°F. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.

In the bowl of a food processor fitted with the steel blade attachment, combine the flour, brown sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Pulse to mix well. Add the butter and pulse again briefly, until the mixture looks coarse and the largest lumps of butter are no bigger than a pea.

In a large bowl, stir together the half-and-half and vanilla. Add the flour mixture and the rolled oats, and stir until just combined. The dough will be thick and sticky. Add the berries, and stir briefly to mix. [When I use blackberries in particular, I find that it’s difficult to stir them into the dough without crushing them, overworking the dough, and turning the whole mixture purple. My solution is to only stir a little, and then move on to the next step. As you scoop the dough onto the baking sheets, you can use your fingers to press any errant berries into the mounds of dough.]

Using a 1/3-cup measuring cup, scoop the dough into mounds, arranging them 3 inches apart on the prepared baking sheets. Garnish the tops with rolled oats and Turbinado sugar.

Bake for 24 to 27 minutes, or until the center of the scones feels firm to the touch.

Note: Wrapped in plastic wrap or stored in an airtight container, these keep beautifully at room temperature for 4 or 5 days. Warm in a toaster oven before eating.

Yield: 12 scones

8.03.2011

How we do what we do

I’ve been out of town for the past week, helping with preparations for my cousin’s wedding in Oakland, and the whole time I was gone, I had the strangest feeling. It took me a long time to figure out what it was, because I’d never felt it before. Turns out, I missed writing.




No offense to my cousin and her new husband. Those people know how to throw a party, the kind that blows out an amp and a subwoofer. But I missed writing. I missed writing! I know that probably seems like a perfectly normal thing to feel, given that writing is what I do. But the truth is, most of the time, I will do anything to avoid it.




I understand that some people wake up itching to write. They feel as though they somehow aren’t complete unless they’re writing. I have never been one of those people. I have wondered what it’s like to be one of those people. Sometimes I have wondered what it would be like to punch those people. I had coffee with a writer friend a couple of weeks ago, a friend who is working on a cookbook, and she confided that she was feeling a little envious of the process that lies ahead of me with my next book. You get to do that whole immersion thing, she explained. You get to go headfirst into the cave, the cave where the story is, and there’s nothing else that feels like what that feels like: intense and exhausting, but also electric sometimes, as though you weren’t really alive until you got in there. I knew she was right, and I have occasionally felt that way, but the thing is, getting into the cave is very, very uncomfortable. It’s almost painful. I will do anything to avoid it. I’ve been sitting by the mouth of the cave for four months. I’ve been sweeping my flashlight around on the walls inside, checking for bats, worrying about bats, wondering if I’m going to die from whatever that virus is that’s transmitted in bat guano, wondering if maybe I already have that virus, wondering if that’s why my skin is acting up, and yes, obviously, why didn’t I see it before, that’s why I’ve been feeling bloated! I will do anything to avoid going inside. I will make myself miserable, just to avoid it.




I remember feeling this way when I wrote my first book, and I remember not wanting anyone to know, because I thought I was the only one who feels this way about her work. I have wondered many times if I’m maybe not supposed to be a writer, because I will go to such lengths to avoid writing. I thought it was a sign. When we opened Delancey, even though it was the hardest work I had ever done, physically and otherwise, I thought, AH HA! I KNEW IT! I wasn’t supposed to be a writer! I’m supposed to run this restaurant! Ding ding ding! But that feeling passed. And though I wasn’t ready to put it into words then, I knew that something wasn’t right, and it was that I wasn’t writing. So here I am, at the cave again.

Brandon and I have been talking a lot about my next book, trying to remember all the details from the earliest days of Delancey, almost two years ago now. Really, the book is as much his as it is mine. A couple of weekends ago, the day after my conversation with my writer friend, Brandon and I went to the farmers’ market to buy a bunch of stuff for the restaurant, and then we went out for a quick lunch before Brandon went to work. I was trying to jog my memory about a particular moment during the opening of the restaurant, a story that I planned to write down that afternoon, and we sat there over our plates of fried rice, hashing out the chronology. I was feeling weird. I felt itchy to get home and start writing, but I also felt like maybe I needed the afternoon off, and maybe tomorrow afternoon, and maybe, you know, maybe I would never write this book at all. And I wondered yet again if this procrastination is a sign that I am in the wrong profession. I suggested this to Brandon. And then he told me something that blew my brain out of my head. Remember how, when I met Brandon, he was studying to be a composer? Apparently, he is an even more accomplished procrastinator than I am: he opened Delancey, he now confesses, to avoid having to write music. World, we have a new Procrastination Champion! I have never felt more thoroughly understood in my entire life.




And that, that feeling, changed something for me. It made me feel less alone. It made me feel ready to write. And it made me feel ready to go into the cave. Even though it’s still very, very dark in there. Make no mistake.

So I wanted to write this down, this way-too-long post. I remember when Heidi was working on Super Natural Every Day, and she would put up a post every now and then to chronicle her process, and how it made me think about my own process and feel more brave about it. Most of us spend our days in some process or other, and I want to share what that process has looked like for me lately. Actually, what I really want is for us to sit around - you, me, all of us who write or draw or design or compose or do any kind of remotely creative work for a living - and talk about how we work, how we do what we do. Creative work means making something where there was nothing before, making something out of ourselves. I have a feeling that I’m not only one who spends a lot of time pacing at the mouth of the cave, wringing her hands, worrying about the bats.

I’ve been reading Bird by Bird again. It’s my third time. Brandon has taken to calling it Third by Third. He thinks he’s very clever. In any case, my writing for the next book is currently in what Anne Lamott might call the Shitty First Draft stage, and owwww, is it awkward. So far, the book is very... workmanlike. But I’m enjoying the process anyway, for the first time. I want to remember that. Anne Lamott says this thing on page xxxi that really resonates with me: ". . . [S]ometimes when my writer friends are working, they feel better and more alive than they do at any other time. And sometimes when they are writing well, they feel that they are living up to something. It is as if the right words, the true words, are already inside them, and they just want to help them get out."

I saw my friend Sam the other night, after a long afternoon of writing, and we were talking and laughing, and he said, "Wow! You’re really happy when you’ve been writing, aren’t you?" I didn’t know that about myself. I’m glad I’m learning now.


P.S. If you haven’t heard Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED talk on genius and creativity, do yourself a favor and listen. That’ll light a fire under you.