an encounter with some beets (ew) and a case of overambition

you ever get one of those random food ideas in your head and suddenly, you aren’t in the mood for anything else? you’ve got half a dozen possibilities, and suddenly, only the most impractical one makes any sense. that was me at 9.13 on this very fine friday evening, frantically stirring pastry cream for no reason whatsoever except that i had gotten this idea in my head to use up some of the leftover shortbread pastry for a mini basque tart.

the reason it seemed like a good idea was that i have been on this sort of spanish kick tonight, making a gazpacho with beets and cherries (which smelled so much like beets and vegetables that i couldn’t even swallow it) and roasting a chicken. this marks my second time roasting a whole chicken, and i’d have to say it was far more successful than my first time. i made a little paste of garlic, olive oil, salt, pepper and rosemary and rubbed it all over the place including, for the first time, under the skin, and sprinkled a shower of paprika over the entire affair. while it was roasting, i sat watching the u.s. open and trying to decide what to have for dessert. i’ve got peaches, plums, raspberries and strawberries and some very sorry-looking cherries that have seen much, much better days. any other person would have thrown them away, but as i was paging through one of my journals i saw a note to my self: don’t forget about the leftover pastry dough!

and there it was, the obvious solution, a mini basque tart. at 9.13 in the evening, just as my dinner was roasting. i even tried to talk myself out of it but once i realized that i had all the ingredients i ran out of excuses.

it got even better when i pulled my pastry out of the refrigerator after the pastry cream had thickened and i realized that i left my rolling pin in sagaponack. fortunately i had a bottle of white rioja, left over from the chicken, handy.

oh, and did i mention that i’ve been making bread all afternoon? bread that was still rising? bread that needed the oven before the tart goes in?


mini chocolate basque tart

leftover chocolate shortbread pastry crust
1 1/2 cups whole milk (i used half and half)
3 egg yolks
1/3 cup sugar
2 tablespoons + 1 1/2 teaspoons flour

scald the cream.
mix the yolks, sugar and flour together.
temper the yolk mixture with some of the hot cream, then stir the cream over the stove until it thickens.
strain and cool.

line a mini tart pan with pastry crust.
(make sure to leave extra dough for the top piece)

preheat oven 350 degrees.
line bottom of pan with quartered bing cherries (you’re meant to use preserves, but i had very sorry-looking cherries that needed to be utilized)
pour pastry cream over top. add almond extract if desired.

seal the top layer of pastry to the tart.
bake for 35 minutes.
cool and eat.


the continuing adventures of the chief and the stick

this week marked a major milestone for me--two, actually. firstly, i closed on my new apartment. my very first home. the first place where i get to own furniture and pick out paint colors and bask in the overhead lighting of my choice and tell my mother that no, mom, i really don't care what you think because i like that color better.

but equally important was this: my first vacation day in my new job.

i've never had a summer like this one. in school, of course, you get the summers off. for two years in the congress, we had four hellish weeks in july followed by five weeks of pure, sloth-like bliss that we fondly referred to as the august recess. last year, in fact, i was able to take off every friday in august and 2 of the mondays.

this year, i started my new job at the dawn of summer, the third week in may. under the strict HR rules of my new employer, that meant no vacation days for three whole months. three SUMMER months, during which every day brought sunshine, warm weather, new absences and vacations--from colleagues and clients--while i sat at my desk and tried to prove myself worthy of that prized three-month tenure and the hope of future vacation days.

so for this, my third weekend in the now-officially-misnamed summer of gelato, with my uncle the chief coming to visit with his family, i designated friday as my first vacation day. we had begun planning the menu months ago, but ditched it all in favor of a new and unusual idea during the cold spell that hung over the early days of the week: braising.

i love to braise. it is easy, and delicious, and makes me feel productive on a cold winter's evening when i can use my classic line--"i can't go out, i'm cooking dinner"--instead of getting all dolled up and facing the weather for overpriced, watered-down drinks and bad pickup lines. but who ever heard of braising in the summer?

it started on monday, when the weather here in the big apple was in the low 50's. all day i dreamed of a warm, quick, light but filling dinner, and set about making my fantasy into reality: potato leek soup, pastina with parmesan and butter, a salad with greens and cherries. the next day, as is my habit, i was detailing this menu to my uncle who shared a similar tale of midwinter-in-midsummer. by wednesday, i had gotten an email with a wild idea--something hot, soupy and stewy for dinner on saturday. by thursday the details were clear: pork, fennel, tomatoes and polenta. fabulously, this gave me a chance to complete my month's mission on behalf of the daring bakers, the perfect dessert for this misplaced meal.

this month's challenge came out of the beautiful, inspiring and deceptively easy tome by eric kayser, pies and tarts. the challenge was his milk chocolate and caramel tart, which consists of a chocolate shortbread pastry crust, a layer of caramel, and a layer of milk chocolate mousse. i, unfortunately, had to deviate from the cardinal rule of the bakers (FOLLOW THE RECIPE EXACTLY) because reality intervened. i'll tell you, so long as you promise not to confiscate my apron:

firstly, i couldn't use hazelnuts in the crust. i went to three stores out in the hamptons and came up empty-handed. had i known in advance, i could have brought my own, but i had to settle for almonds instead. i confess that i preferred this situation, since i find hazelnuts more intrusive than almonds. almonds tend to blend into the main flavor while hazelnuts challenge it more directly.

secondly, i omitted the cinnamon, simply because i cannot stand cinnamon.

finally, and most egregiously, i didn't use milk chocolate. i had several reasons for this omission, all of them good, i swear. my sister, who was visitng for the weekend, doesn't eat milk chocolate. we're not sure if she is allergic or what, but she won't eat it. more importantly, my uncle the chief scoffed at milk chocolate and caramel as a combo. he said dark chocolate or none at all. what could i do but acquiesce?

this tart began with an odyssey. although i had remembered to pack my fluted removable bottom tart pan, the fridge was depressingly devoid of the unsalted butter i needed for the shortbread crust. i ran out to the king kullen on montauk highway (where i failed to find hazelnuts) for 2 pounds. i made the shortbread before lunch and left it to enjoy the cooler climate of the fridge for several hours. i actually did ok with the crust, since i have a fair amount of practice by now, and i took this as a good omen for my completion of the challenge.

next came the caramel element. i'd been reading all month about caramel strategies, dry method versus wet method, and techniques complete with photographs. it was my intention to tackle the wet method, because it seemed like it had a higher success rate, but during my early morning sprint to the kullen i had forgotten to get corn syrup. dry method it was. i used a deep, 2-quart saucepan, and to my chagrin the sugar did not melt evenly--but it also didn't burn. i exhaled and left it to cool for a few minutes while i prepared the butter and cream. except that nobody told me what happens to melted sugar when it cools, so i turned around to find my wooden spoon standing straight up in a 2-inch thick hard candy caramel. i blushed and scoffed and fluttered around anxiously for a good five minutes before i remembered that i could melt the sugar again. unfortunately for me, this got me overexcited and i added the next two ingredients in the wrong order. i was left with a twisted, hideous siezed piece of hard caramel candy, which i threw away and then vowed to master the sugar. (after i spent 20 minutes cleaning the pot)

i began anew. using a wider, shallower pot, i melted another cup of sugar. on this larger surface it melted both more quickly and more evenly and turned a delightful amber color. i added the cream and the butter--in the correct order--and was rewarded with a golden cream caramel mixture which would form the base of the tart's caramel layer. while the crust baked blind, this mixture cooled and i began prepping the chocolate mousse.

for my next trick, i baked the caramel until it had a slightly springy top. i was surprised by how much the caramel had risen within the tart shell and worried that i made too much mousse. but, really, when does chocolate mousse ever go to waste? i couldn't wait for the caramel to cool completely, since dinner was nearly ready, but i stuck everything directly in the fridge after smoothing the mousse on top. i melted a few ounces of unsweetened chocolate into the leftover caramel cream with the hope of making brittle. this, unfortunately, did not set up before dinner, but they made lovely free-form truffles when topped with the leftover almonds.

and so i present this month's challenge: the milk (dark) chocolae and caramel tart, my fifth DB challenge and the first one i have managed to both complete and complete successfully. dare i take this as a sign that things are changing for the better?

(the other members who participated in this challenge can be found here)

Milk Chocolate and Caramel Tart
Daring Bakers Challenge #9: August 2007

Hosts: Veron (Veronica's Test Kitchen) and Patricia (Technicolor Kitchen)

Allowed Modifications:
1. Caramel fragment toppings are optional but make sure that the caramel-cream and chocolate layers are true to the recipe

2. If you have no luck with the dry method of making the caramel, you may use the alternate method shown at the end of the recipe.

3. You may eliminate the cinnamon if you don't like cinnamon.

4. Recipe ingredient exception allowed only if allergy or an ingredient not available or cost prohibitive in your region

Recipe Quantity: One (1) 9" Square or one (1) 10" Round tart

Chocolate Shortbread Pastry
Note: The Chocolate Shortbread pastry can make 3 tart shells. So, if you want to cut that recipe into thirds then do so but Veron and Patricia are not promising it will scale down properly.

Preparation time: 10 minutes
Refrigeration: overnight
To make 3 tart shells: 9 ½ inches (24 cm) square
or 10 inches (26 cm round)

  • 1 cup (250g ) unsalted butter, softened
  • 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons (150 g) confectioners’ sugar
  • ½ cup (50 g) ground hazelnuts
  • 2 level teaspoons (5 g) ground cinnamon
  • 2 eggs
  • 4 ½ cups (400 g) cake flour
  • 2 ½ teaspoons (10 g) baking powder
  • 1 ½ tablespoons (10 g) cocoa powder
A day ahead
1. In a mixing bowl of a food processor, cream the butter.

2. Add the confectioners’ sugar, the ground hazelnuts, and the cinnamon, and mix together

3. Add the eggs, one by one, mixing constantly

4. Sift in the flour, the baking powder, and the cocoa powder, and mix well.

5. Form a ball with the dough, cover in plastic wrap, and chill overnight.

Milk Chocolate and Caramel Tart

Preparation time: 40 minutes
Baking Time: 30 minutes
Refrigeration time: 1 hour

  • ½ lb (250 g) chocolate shortbread pastry (see recipe above)
  • 1 ½ cups (300 g) granulated sugar
  • 1 cup (250 g) heavy cream (30-40 percent butterfat) or crème fraiche
  • ¼ cup (50 g) butter
  • 2 whole eggs
  • 1 egg yolk
  • 2 ½ tablespoons (15 g) flour
  • 1 ¼ cups (300 g) whipping cream
  • ½ lb (250 g) milk chocolate
1. Preheat oven to 325 °F (160 °C).

2. Line the baking pan with the chocolate shortbread pastry and bake blind for 15 minutes.

3. In a saucepan, caramelize 1 cup (200 g) granulated sugar using the dry method until it turns a golden caramel color. Incorporate the heavy cream or crème fraiche and then add butter. Mix thoroughly. Set aside to cool.

4. In a mixing bowl, beat the whole eggs with the extra egg yolk, then incorporate the flour.

5. Pour this into the cream-caramel mixture and mix thoroughly.

6. Spread it out in the tart shell and bake for 15 minutes. Remove from oven and allow to cool.

7. Prepare the milk chocolate mousse: beat the whipping cream until stiff. Melt the milk chocolate in the microwave or in a bain-marie, and fold it gently into the whipped cream.

8. Pour the chocolate mousse over the cooled caramel mixture, smoothing it with a spatula. Chill for one hour in the refrigerator.

Alternate Caramel Method:

If you have problems with the dry method, you may use this method.

1 cup sugar
1/2 cup water
1 tablespoon corn syrup

Set mixture in a pot over medium-high heat and stir slowly. When the mixture comes to a boil, stop stirring and leave it alone. Wait till desired color is attained .

Proceed with the rest of the recipe.

Caramel Fragments:

Melt ½ cup (100g) granulated sugar in a saucepan until it reaches an amber color. Pour it onto waxed paper laid out on a flat surface. Leave to cool. Break it into small fragments and stick them lightly into the top of the tart.


a repetitive meal for a manic monday

when you’re in school, it’s easy to feel like mondays are the worst thing invented, period. worse than tests and homework; worse than rainy days, bad cartoons, long car rides, furniture shopping, or waiting in the car while mom runs her errands. and yet nothing quite dwarfs that nascent sense of hatred like the dawning of a monday when it means getting up and going to work.

ugh, work.
give me a 7.26 first period bell any day.

it is at this point that a small voice inside my head thinks that life shouldn’t be this way; one should never, it insists, actually dread having to get out of bed in the morning. unfortunately, that little voice isn’t responsible for paying the rent, buying groceries or saving up for that really awesome jacket i saw in an east hampton shop last weekend. and so, every monday, we wake up, we shower, we get dressed, we close the door behind us, we realize we forgot our keys and open the door again--slowly, but slowly, we begin the trek for our daily bread.

about the only thing that gets me through these toils is thinking, in fact, about my daily bread. i eagerly anticipate lunch. i spend my long walk home contemplating dinner and, with a burst of workaday-repressed energy, gleefully list all of the tasks i will accomplish when i finally cross my own threshold. tonight was one of those nights, the list long. two stops on the way home. bags to unload. process film. clean out fridge. drool over the new nigel slater cookbook i special-ordered from england. salvage the leftover croissants and use up the extra heavy cream in a pain au chocolat pudding. use the blueberries before they ferment--blueberry-thyme cakes. and then dinner.

it’s one of those nights where i push the greasy french fries and sinfully, deceptively “healty” wrap i consumed at lunch, the polenta i had over the weekend, and the polenta i baked last wednesday to heat up a nearly identical meal: baked polenta, spinach, fresh mozzarella, proscuitto. it’s nearly identical to the concoction i pulled out of my oven last wednesday, only last wednesday i ate a salad and this monday i drizzle fresh pasta sauce and two fried eggs on top of the polenta before pushing the tines of my fork through the parmesan-sprinkled crust. there are days when you need to have a meal that can sit on its own in the oven for a few minutes while you rinse the fixer out of your bathtub, a meal that you know will deliver satisfaction, not epiphany. usually, we call these days “mondays.”

pain-au-chocolat pudding

4 stale chocolate croissants
3 eggs
2 cups milk
2 cups cream
3 tablespoons sugar
slug of vanilla
drizzle of leftover raspberry extract

tear the croissants and lay them in a baking pan (i used a 9x9x2 square). whisk the eggs and sugar in a bowl while the milk/cream mixture heats up on the stove. temper the egg mixture with some of the hot cream and mix it all together. add the extracts. bake 45 minutes at 350. faint from the unbelievable aromas wafting out of the oven as you pull out the pudding.


croissants, was re: the summer of gelato, #3

it was a weekend ideal for a long, lonely cooking project: two days at a nearly-empty beach house with a spacious kitchen and a mile-long countertop, with only a few guests, lousy weather, and no specific plans. i had made it my mission to finally tackle the infamous tartine takes-three-days-to-make-them croissant recipe. i packed my yeast and my scharffen-berger 70%, my printed-out copy of the recipe, with kitchen notes, and my rolling pin. i was determined.

reality hits hard, though. this third weekend of the planned summer of gelato, much like its misnomer of a title might suggest, did not go according to the plan at all. wait, that is unfair. it did, in many respects, go according to the plan. i went out late on thursday night, conveniently missing dinner, avoiding the hellish dash from midtown manhattan to queens that had come to define my fridays. i came armed with my ingredients, although, did i mention that my mother told me not to pack my yeast? and then that she forgot to pick some up for me at the supermarket? so i didn't get to start on friday.

saturday dawned cool and cloudy and my first order of business was to head for the supermarket and my forgotten yeast. this accomplished, i left the starter of the croissants to proof for two hours under some warm lights in the kitchen. i came back to find a lovely, spongy dough-like creation which i dutifully scooped into my mother's no-brand mixer, and began incorporating butter and milk. by now i had an audience consisting of my mother, her parents, my dad's father, and my grandfather's lady-friend. the lady-friend in particular was entranced when i announced that the resulting dough now needed to proof again, for another 5 or 6 hours.

i could mention at this point the serious dysfunctionality of my family, but to explain it would get much too complicated and take away from my magnificent croissant project. i will just say that having four senior citizens loitering around the kitchen was not an experience i would describe as conducive to creativity and peace.

six hours passed, and i came running back to my dough, eager to start the plaque-making stages. this was the stage of which i was most afraid, this dreaded turning process. my dough fought me every inch of the way, although beating it occasionally with my rolling pin seemed to help. marginally. at length, i got the dough to the prescribed 28 inches in width, and began dotting it with butter. salted butter, a relic from last weekend's french-chef-inspired cooking. i worried about this, but not enough to defy the edit of my mother, who declared that having three pounds of butter in the house was more than enough for her, thank you, and that i had damn well better use what was there before getting more.

the method of making the butter plaque was fascinating and great fun. i pulled out the butter and my rolling pin, creamed it for a few quick minutes, and then pounded the crap out of it with my rolling pin. i took a perverse sort of glee in this, because no one was expecting it. but the butter needed to soften, so what could i do? i began spooning out bits of this softened butter and dotting it over two-thirds of the rolled-out dough. then i did the classic layered-pastry fold, like a business letter, and fought with the dough for another 15 minutes in an attempt to roll it out. again. ultimately i had to enlist the help of my taller, stronger male friend. please, sisterhood, forgive me. :-)

the dough went into the fridge to chill, prompting a "yet again?" round of comments from my audience as we sat down to dinner and i prepped my dessert (the buttermilk chocolate cake from the delectable chocolatechocolate by lisa yockelson, topped with strawberry compote and honey-cream from emily luchetti's passion for desserts). after about an hour, i pulled the plaque out for its final turn. this time i fought with it so hard that i nearly hurt myself, until i had an epiphany and realized that i already had it stretched to the proper dimensions so far as height went. so, sneakily, i turned it around another quarter-turn and rolled it from there. this proved much easier since i already had some leeway.

after leaving the dough in the fridge for the rest of the night, i awoke early, refreshed and ready to complete my task. i rolled out the dough. AGAIN. beating it a few times just for emphasis. my original plan had been to make an assortment--some plain ones, a few ham and cheese, and a few chocolate. but my sister argued, with surprisingly impeccable logic, that making an assortment would mean that there were fewer chocolate ones. so i made only chocolate ones. i cut the dough into more-or-less evenly-sized rectangles, put a few slices of scharffen-berger 70% in there, and rolled them back up to rise for about 2 hours while i played some tennis.

i came back to a marvel of baking science--beautifully-risen pastries, ready to pop in the oven. i felt emboldened by my success and the (relative) ease of the recipe. this is easy, i was thinking to myself. it's just something you have to plan for!

well, all of that was before these babies went into the oven. my major problem, as it turns out, was this: i didn't have proper baking pans. that is to say, jelly roll pans, with edges. all i had were cookie sheets. no problem, right? i wrapped them in a layer of aluminum foil and slid the pans into the ovens. that's right, ovens, because this beauty of a beach house has TWO.

then the oven caught on fire.

nothing major, just the butter dripping out of the laminated dough was so hot that it ignited, briefly, when it hit the bottom of the oven. my mother, seeing this and (understandably) panicking, opened the oven in question, fueling the fire and giving us a major scare. we pulled the croissants out and had an emergency strategy session. we lined the bottoms of the ovens with more foil to catch the butter and hopefully stop the intense smoking that was happening. this worked, to a point, except the foil started catching on fire. all in all, we had 3 serious scares.

but more importantly, the croissants were unharmed. i pulled them out in all of their glory:

now, back to that issue about the salted butter. it's true that i couldn't taste much of a difference within the layers, except that they were rich and savory (and, incidentally, would have been perfect for the ham and cheese croissants i had wanted to make). the problem was that the author of the recipe included a sprinkle of salt in the pre-baking egg wash. this threw the entire pastry out of balance (although, truly, i think i was the only one to notice). i was briefly upset about this until i considered the larger picture: i had made croissants. i had made croissants. me. by myself. in a regular kitchen. if i had done it once, i could do it again.

and this time, i would skip the salt in the egg wash.

for more information on this recipe, i would urge you to visit veronica's test kitchen. her replication of this recipe (for an original daring bakers challenge), complete with her cooking notes, where what saved me from myself as i made my way through each step.


how much do i love cherries?

enough to buy four extra quarts of sour ones for freezing.
enough to spend an entire friday night pitting them.
enough to eat an undercooked, too-thick caflouti.

and, best of all, enough to try a new caflouti recipe from tartine. i was so happy to find this recipe, and i’ll tell you why: it confirmed what i had always had lurking in the back of my head: that a caflouti was really like a far breton, the cake that absolutely seduced me on martha stewart last winter and won over the hearts of a group of hungry photographers last february. the tartine recipe is lovely in its simplicity and elegance. my first attempt came out of the king arthur flour cookbook, and i think it was a bit too complicated. that’s even before i cooked it in a pan that was too small, and it had to stay in the oven an extra hour, and still came out undercooked.

this one was perfect. egg, some heated milk--almost custard-like--and just enough flour to hold it all together. i whisked it nice and smooth, and i pitted the cherries.

i know, i know, you’re not meant to pit the cherries. it robs the caflouti of its authenticity and, some say, it steals away some of the flavor. legend has it that the pits add some almond flavor to the custard. but me, i don’t like biting into a cherry and finding a pit.

i got a little creative, maybe too creative for my own good. my CSA this week included 5 perfect apricots, and i sliced and pitted those and threw them into the caflouti as well. count me in the camp of people who don’t really like apricots and never know what to do with them, even if they are looking all gorgeous and perfect at the farmers market (or, in my case, a corn-based plastic deli cup).

my creation is cooling even as i type. i am not sure what a properly finish caflouti is meant to look like, so i am still nervous.


my weekend with a four-star chef - the summer of gelato, week 2

this was a weekend i’ve been looking forward to for at least a month. even still, i found myself getting nervous as friday approached. seems ridiculous to be nervous for a weekend, right? i mean, the weekend i went to visit an old pseudo-boyfriend after not speaking to him for almost three years, that was nerve-wracking. the weekend before my new job started? i barely slept. but this weekend, this was just a simple weekend out of the city with my parents and a few friends.

except that it wasn’t. one of dad’s friends happens to be a bona-fide four-star chef at a french restaurant in new jersey. and, to compound the issue, dad told him that i like to cook. so of course chef is all polite and tells dad that we should cook together. saturday morning, i was speechless all through breakfast because i wasn’t sure what to say. would i be expected to, like, know stuff? to be useful? to be a student? or to stay out of the way?

my answer came slowly as we sat by the pool. mom asked chef what he wanted to make for dinner, and my dad asked about dessert. my dad he who won’t eat cooked fruit, actually requested that chef make use of some of the fresh peaches, even if it meant pie or a tart. here was my moment of glory: “oh, i made a really excellent peach tart tatin this week.” chef looks at me and asks me what i used for a base--puff pastry? “no,” says i. “i made a pate brisee.” chef gives me this huge smile and says, “if we make a tart tonight, you’ll make the pate brisee?” “of course,” i answer. and suddenly i am not feeling so awkward. we spend several happy moments following this one settling on an actual dessert (white cheese citrus ice cream with a peach and blueberry compote) and determining our dinner menu (corn valoute with a fresh pepper relish, marinated skirt steak with red wine, garlic, ginger and thai basil, couscous with almonds and golden raisins).

our afternoon we gave over to the farm stand on route 27, getting corn, peppers, garlic, clinatro, and other staples. i found--oh joy--another yellow watermelon to cap my summer. we went home and began a very happily chaotic mise en place.

we started with the ice cream, since that would have to chill. chef made it up as we went along, starting with a simple syrup and ending with sour cream and candied orange peel. the ice cream base was born from the cross-breeding of a sorbet and a philly-style ice cream. the tang from the sour cream was shockingly pleasant as it was mixed with a lemon-sugar syrup. we decided to break as the ice cream cooled, but i couldn’t help myself. i made a ginger shortbread cookie (inspired by emily luchetti’s passion for desserts) and began dicing the peppers. after all, i needed the knife practice. i had only just finished when chef came back in from the pool and we began all over again. we had a list, but neither of us could keep track, and it’s nearly a miracle--except, of course, with a four-star chef at the helm, it’s not--that we got dinner on the table in time. i learned a lot about food plating. i was put in charge of the marinade. i got an extra smile out of chef when i asked him to describe what the corn valoute should look like as it thickened. “should it coat the back of my spoon?” i asked. the flanksteak was cooked to medium-rare perfection, and we soaked the golden raisins in some of the leftover simple syrup to bloom them for the couscous.

we macerated the fruit with some sugar and some cointreau. each plate got a scoop of the cream, a spoonful each of blueberries and peaches, and a sliver of ginger shortbread for a crunch.

for sunday, i desperately wanted chef to teach me how to make crepes. unfortunately, i had to settle--oh, the humanity!--for the secret to his life-changingly good french toast.

i found a yellow watermelon

last summer, while i was still living in DC, i became an avid reader of the washington post--and with that affinity came exposure to the delightful kim o’donnell and her blog on washintonpost.com. it was through this medium that i first learned about the existence of the elusive yellow watermelon.

kim innocently posted a photo of a sliced yellow watermelon, fresh from one of her farmers’ market expeditions. i was capitvated at first site. something about the shock value of seeing the yellow flesh with the black seeds and the familiar green rind stuck in my mind and never left. i spent the rest of the summer fruitlessly seeking out the yellow watermelon. the closest i came to tracking it down was a king kullen store in long island, but the fruit was short on flavor and not what i had hoped for. i reluctantly put my hope for yellow watermelon aside for another year.

happily, that year was this one. a few weeks ago, kim o’donnell again blogged about the joys of yellow watermelon. working out of the divine david leibovitz’s perfect scoop, she experimented with making sorbet syrups and freezing them as popsicles. my obsession returned with a vengeance. best of all, i was once again headed for fresh fruit haven on long island, where farm stands dot route 27 all the way out to montauk. that first weekend, the kickoff weekend for my summer of gelato, i found a basket full of yellow watermelons right next to the sugar babies. i cradled it all the way home and immediately set to making kim’s (and david’s) sorbetto.

unfrotunately, the freezer had other plans and declined to properly freeze my ice cream bowl. undaunted, i took the mixture home and spent half a week looking for popsicle molds. i finally found them on thursday, and froze my pops straight away.

still, even with this pseudo-success, i was unsatisfied. what i really wanted was to make a proper sorbetto and serve it as part of our sunday lunch. on sundays in sagaponack, dad grills up “lamburgers” instead of hamburgers and i was convinced that a light watermelon sorbetto would be the perfect compliment to this relatively heavy midday meal.

this weekend, the pressure was on, because i was in the presence of relative strangers including--gulp--my dad’s friend scott who happens to be a four-star chef. the ice cream maker was still broken, but i had learned my lesson and started early enough to let a granita freeze instead of depending on churning for a timely sorbet. i boiled the syrup, threw in a squeeze of lime juice and a schlug from a bottle of grey goose. the ice crystals in my first granita were perhaps too large, but i shredded everything adequately and felt no shame as i appropriated david’s suggestion of replacing the seeds with mini chocolate chips.

i had saved the rinds from my watermelons and used the round bit as a bowl, and a few side slices as mini plates. i stirred in the chips and capped it off with another round end, and served it at the table. i got ooohs and aahhhhs, even from the chef.

and the granita? it was light and cool, with a perfect smoothness. maybe--just maybe--it had a splash too much lime, but it was, as i had hoped, a perfect compliment to a heavy lunch on a hot summer day.

Watermelon Sorbetto Granita
From "The Perfect Scoop," by David Lebovitz

3 cups watermelon juice -- from about a 3-pound chunk of melon, rind and seeds removed and pureed in a blender or food processor
1/2 cup granulated sugar
pinch salt
1 tablespoon juice of a lime
1-2 tablespoons vodka (optional)
1-2 tablespoons mini semisweet chocolate chips

In a small nonreactive saucepan, heat about 1/2 cup of the watermelon juice with the sugar and salt, stirring until sugar is dissolved. Remove from heat and stir sugared syrup into remaining 2 1/2 cups of watermelon juice in a medium bowl. Mix in lime juice and vodka (if using).

Pour the mixture into a 9x13 glass baking dish, and stir it with a fork every half an hour or so in the freezer until there is a consistency you like. stir in chocolate chips and serve.


creme fraiche is the new green

i’ve been so excited ever since meeta announced this month’s mingle that i’ve actually been almost afraid to sit down and write it. the theme, you see, is “earth food,” something i think about a lot. i’ve been accused of being a vegetarian, a vegan, a “crunchy granola hippie,” and a treehugger, and while none of that is true (especially the bit about the vegetables), it IS true that i think a lot about reducing my impact on the environment.

it actually began as a hobby of mine when i was quite young--12 or 13, probably--and started learning about global warming and holes in the ozone layer and how aqua net and styrofoam were really, really bad. like most things, environmentalism passed through my life as a phase, but a part of me never quite let it go.

and so now, being a grown up, or nearly so, contemplating my new, unfurnished apartment, favoring a 40-mpg-mini over the SUV that was the pride of my adolescence (i had, by far, the best car of all my friends, and we spent many happy days cruising back and forth from our tiny little suburban town to the shore, the catskills, and brian’s pool), and, worst of all, watching the energy policy debate as part of my old job in the U.S. Senate, i’ve drifted back toward my old tree-hugging ways. i use CFL bulbs. i recycle everything, even aluminum foil. i’ve sworn off water from plastic bottles. i’ve switched to organic shampoo. my house is filled with method cleaning products. i’m researching sustainably harvested wood furniture--i even got quoted on apartmenttherapy.com--and i keep my air conditioning above 70, with the blinds closed, at all times. all of my appliances are plugged into surge protectors, so that i don’t have energy “vampires.” (just call me buffy) i walk almost everywhere, always carrying an extra cloth bag in my purse in case i go shopping. i keep a bowl, spoon and mug at work so i don’t have to use plastic or styrofoam. i buy used books and used movies instead of new ones, and i read newspapers online.

and in the kitchen, bringing us back into the realm of culinary relevancy, i do my absolute best to find responsible groceries. for me, this year, that meant joining a CSA, shopping at farmers markets, and eating seasonally.

do i cheat? of course i do. i still love a big, disgusting fast-food hamburger for lunch, and let’s face it, my CSA delivery still needs to be driven in from long island. horizon milk might be organic, but it’s a factory farm, and my much-touted organic shampoo still comes in a big old plastic bottle. i think the key to finding one’s inner treehugger is realizing that there is no perfect solution, but making the effort to find your own way nonetheless. you’d be amazed at the viral effect of practical environmental evangelism. my mother started buying method cleaning products and biodegradable paper plates, just from listening to me talk about it. my dad, after making fun of me for spending the summer driving my old, now-reviled SUV, has since turned around and began working with the contractors at his real estate development company to investigate gray-water plumbing systems for their newest project. he’s learning about LEED certification while my mother is trying to find a brand of recycled napkin that doesn’t feel like cardboard.

and i continue to cook locally and seasonally. which brings me back to “earth food.” for the kick-off weekend of “the summer of gelato” (thus named because i promised my dad that i would make him fresh gelato every week with whatever looked tastiest at the farmers market), i decided to pair a raspberry gelato with a recipe out of emily luchetti’s a passion for desserts, which makes seasonal cooking easy by dividing each awe-inspiring recipe into an appropriate season. smack in the middle of “summer,” then, is this berry creme fraiche cake, which pairs buttermilk cake layers studded with poppy seeds and a plethora of summer berries, utilizing creme fraiche in the place of icing. in the spirit of meeta’s “earth food” theme, i used buttermilk, butter, cream and eggs from my CSA, and berries from the farm stand on sagg main road.

the best part about this cake, aside from, you know, the cake, and the berries, is that creme fraiche is a milder, tangier flavor than your basic buttercream icing, which makes it more palatable to folks like my family, who don’t eat a lot of sweet or desesrt-y things. i made the creme fraiche from scratch, letting it sit for two days to thicken and then beating it with some cream and just a tablespoon or two of sugar.


summer in sagaponack (AKA the summer of gelato); or, how i got my family to eat fajitas

the classic question “what’s for dinner?” takes on an entirely new dimension when dealing with my family. my father won’t eat cooked fruit, spicy things, or things he can’t pronounce. my sister won’t eat things that are too sweet. my mother is in this phase where she won’t eat bread. i won’t eat things that swim, slither, have scales, or include anything my father might refer to as “pond life.” and that is just my immediate family. my grandfather can’t have salt. my cousin won’t eat fish, red meat, duck or vegetables. my parents’ closest friend won’t eat lamb, and my aunt, well, she doesn’t really eat at all.

talk about putting the “fun” back in dysfunctional.

this weekend marks the second annual kick-off of five weeks in the hamptons. it sounds impossibly swanky, and of course it is, but the real highlight is that all of us--family and friends--head out there every weekend (my mom moves out for the entire month) and on saturday nights, without fail, we cook. last year, this generally involved my mother letting me plan the menu and then regretting it later (as in the week we did paella and didn’t eat until midnight), while everyone else was so pleasantly drunk that they failed to notice; or me and my uncle horsing around in the kitchen (what he called imprisonment, since we barely saw any daylight) and being fed the leftover scraps of pasta and pizza we spent hours laboring over.

last year i was all about the breakfast foods. lots of muffins. some life-changing pancakes. several new additions to the ice cream repertoire. a few dinner successes, and i learned a lot about pasta.

this year, i decided i needed to relax and let things happen. not so many plans. not as many cookbooks. extra trips to the farmers markets for supplies and even, on occasion, doing some prep work ahead of time to avoid the pain of not being able to find a mixer or a spatula or a liquid measuring cup in someone else’s kitchen.

and so, the task of planning the first week’s menu fell to me. i pondered. i brainstormed. i made menus and discarded them. and finally, sitting by the pool on a sunny summer saturday, i found inspiration. what i really wanted, i mused aloud, was a fajita. i expected to be shot down immediately and was shocked when i saw some head-nodding happening. “we could do chicken fajitas,” i said, continuing my train of thought. “on the grill, with some veggies, and a big old pot of rice with some lime juice and cilantro.”

“we could make margaritas,” said our guest of the weekend. “or sangria.”
“daddy likes white sangria,” my mother offered, as i nearly died of shock.

“i could get some fresh corn,” i ventured even farther, “and some extra peppers, and onions, and potatoes. we could do a tortilla.”

“ron makes great margaritas,” said our guest.
“ron could make a great corn salad, i bet,” said my mom.

and there it was, in the space of a few moments, my shopping list. 3 farm stands, a specialty deli, a liquor store and a king kullen later, i had gotten my entire list and even found--oh joy--a yellow watermelon for sunday’s lunch. i came home and had just enough time to change and unpack the goods when the family began pouring back in the front door from their various saturday outings. the blender came out immediately, as did a bottle of petron. (in my family, when we drink tequila, we drink GOOD tequila) i started cooking a custard for some raspberry gelato. i set my mother to making some guacamole, and while the margaritas where whizzing away in the blender, ron began devising a corn salad. we cut up the chicken into bits and seasoned it with a taco seasoning mix. the grill was fired up, the custard cooled, we strained the raspberries in a french press when we couldn’t find a strainer.

by 8.30, we were sitting at the table, chowing down on fajita bliss. the corn was sweet, the chicken was moist, the rice had a hint of lime, the tortillas had been pan-warmed (along with my hand, which got in the way of the frying pan in question). even my sangria got high marks after i decided to omit the extra sugar and just soak some fresh fruit in the rioja, topping off the pitcher with a bottle of sparkling water.

the only downside--turns out, the freezer wasn’t cold enough to freeze the ice cream bowl. so what was for dessert? more on that later.


i could so be a browniebabe

this picture is unfair, because this picture isn't going to win me any browniebabe accolades.

but it should.

these were life-changing brownies, startling in their perfection, wonderous in their flavor, lick-up-the-crumbs-with-your-fingers delicious, reforming a man who hasn't eaten cherries since his colonoscopy.

ok, maybe i went too far with the bodily functions on that one.

for the third browniebabe challenge, after missing the first TWO in spite of my love for brownies, i am determined to submit a contender for august.

one of my goals for the summer has been to cook extensively using the most local, fresh, responsible and seasonal ingredients i can find. a side effect of this has been that my cooking has gotten simpler--nigel slater is, after all, my hero--but it's also given me a chance to systematically work my way through the brilliance that is emily luchetti's a passion for desserts.

i should mention also that i am obsessed with cherries. sweet ones, sour ones, queen annes or rainers. doesn't really matter. i've been hoarding them like a fruitarian squirrel (i feel like i have used that simile before, but it still applies). last friday, i came home from work after walking from 86th and the central park great lawn all the way down to columbus circle and then across town to 39th and 12th. i was exhausted. but i opened up the fridge when i made my way home and found myself staring down 3 quarts of cherries. no lie. i knew what i had to do, of course--i had to bake!

i'd been looking forward to saturday for the entire week because i had planned my most favorite activity: sailing. friends of my parents, who are practically my other parents, invited me and my sister up to their boat on the hudson for a sail and a picnic, so i promised to bring brownies. quick, easy, delicious. done. when i saw the cherries in the fridge, i had a flash of brilliance: black forest brownies a la ms. luchetti, using the cherries, giving me a snack worthy of the sail, and giving me a contender of an entry for the browniebabe event.

and thus i present my black forest brownies, inspired by ms. luchetti but executed in hybrid format. i used my staple brownie recipe, king arthur flour's on-the-fence brownies, and combined it with ms. luchetti's directions for adding cherries and flavors. i threw in a quick pour of kirsch and a quick pour of almond extract, because one of the new discoveries of my summer has been the magical mix that is cherries and almonds. they baked up so quick, i didn't even need to dirty any dishes because i could prep everything in the microwave. they smelled unbelievable. and they overnighted even better, because the kirsch soaked into the brownie batter and infused its flavor into every crumb.

i am telling you, this picture doesn't do it justice. but these are browniebabe-worthy brownies.

black forest brownies
(adapted from emily luchetti's a passion for desserts)

8 ounces bittersweet chocolate, coarsely chopped
I ounce unsweetened chocolate, coarsely chopped
4 ounces (8 tablespoons) unsalted butter
8 ounces (about 24) sweet red cherries, preferably Bing,
plus 16 whole cherries with stems, for garnish
i 1/4 cups sugar
3 large eggs
i teaspoon kirsch
¾ cup all-purpose flour
'/4 teaspoon salt
'/2 teaspoon baking powder

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Line the bottom of an 8-inch square pan with
parchment paper.

TO MAKE THE BROWNIES: Melt the chocolates together with the butter in a double
boiler (see page 23). While the chocolate is melting, stem, pit, and cut the 8 ounces
of cherries into eighths.

In a large bowl, whisk together the sugar and eggs. Whisk in the chocolate
mixture and the kirsch. Mix in the flour, salt, and baking powder. Gently mix in the
cut cherries. Spread the batter into the prepared pan.

Bake until a skewer inserted in the middle comes out almost clean but still
with a little batter on it, 30 to 35 minutes. Let the brownies cool in the pan.

mirror cake tasting update

last night, i gathered my courage and stared down the monster in the fridge, the strawberry mirror cake. it had already been a rough day--very long and intense at work, very hot, two hours of time sheet entry for the last day of the month, and chicken tikka masala with zucchini meatballs that proved yes, indeed, i still hate zucchini so much that i can barely force myself to swallow it.

i decided to salvage some of the day with a slice of cake. so now, at last, you have my verdict on the july DB challenge:


i was reading ivonne's post, and she described feeling like she did at the end of the crepe cake challenge: underwhelmed. i have to say that i shared her sentiments. i expected the cake to have more flavor, somehow. i understand now why the soaking syrup needed to be spiked with kirsch--because without it, there was almost no flavor, even with the mountains of strawberry bavarian creme. and all other things being equal, i think i would have preferred grand marnier instead of kirsch. i found the kirsch to be intrusive, and not close enough to strawberry to blend in. grand marnier's orange tinge would at least have complimented the strawberries!