Friday, February 6, 2015

Vanilla Bean Scones

After 15 months away, I’m finally back in Minneapolis. In fact, I’ve settled not even two blocks from where I used to live. It’s familiar territory, to be sure. But there’s a lot going on in my life that wasn’t there before—enough, in fact, that I almost feel I’m starting fresh in a new city. I’m living with three women my age who all lead interesting lives and cook really good food. I’m getting on the bus every morning with a thermos of hot chocolate (I’m like a French child, I know) and a book in hand. I’m taking ballet when I can, writing when I can.

I like this life.

I wouldn’t be me, though, if I weren’t grappling with some degree of inner conflict. It’s nothing new, really. Part of me wants stability, comfort, a reliable paycheck and income that will allow me to live alone, or buy myself a grownup-size mattress, or, I don't know, go for some boozey brunch every now and then. I'd like to be able to say, “Hey, should we open another bottle of wine?” to an empty room on a Tuesday night. I'd like that to be an option.

And I think I could’ve had all that by now, and the reason I don’t is because of that opposing force in me that’s always wondering what’s going on over there, what would that be like. A meandering life driven by daydreams and whims doesn’t much allow for Sunday brunch and bottles of red wine that came from somewhere other than my mom’s house, but what it lacks in passing luxuries it makes up for with the feeling that I’m really squeezing the juice out of life, pulp and all.

That dissonance won’t be going away anytime soon. But right now I’m thankful that I have some freedom to explore options. I’m thankful that the first thing I see when I wake up is the winter sunrise over uptown rooftops. And I’m thankful that I can drive north for a weekend at home, split open a few vanilla beans, and mix up these incredibly light and flaky vanilla bean scones.

The recipe makes enough for a crowd, but I freeze the leftovers and take them to the office over the next several weeks. I grab a coffee on the way, settle in at my desk, and eventually unwrap the first scone as a reward for putting in a solid 15 minutes of work.

Treats like this are, for me, a way to assert ownership of my life. Those small moments when I turn away from the screen to sip the coffee, munch the scone–they belong to me completely. If you think this sounds a little too abstract and sentimental, I suggest you try it. Take a few scone moments. Take enough of them, and the day starts to feel like your own, no matter where you are.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Lemon Pistachio Biscotti

For the last month, I've been working at a bakery a few days a week as a temporary helper during the holiday season. The existence of this very blog would attest: this is the realization of a small but very persistent dream of mine. And even with the heavy pans and sore feet and pounds and pounds of bread dough to cut and knead, bake and bag, I have yet to become disenchanted.

When there's five of us standing around the long kneading table, pushing dough and watching snow fall out the front windows, I don't think of what I'm doing as work. The world beyond the arched wood rafters of the bakery fades, and I lose sense of passing time. But I do wonder: would I feel the same if I did this every day?

Last week my mom and sister and I had our annual Christmas bake. I took charge of the biscotti, those dry, crunchy Italian cookies that are made for dipping in coffee. The process for these is rather drawn out compared to other cookies, as one batch hits the oven three separate times before it's done. I may have considered this a rather tiresome to-do had I not helped bake, slice, and package hundreds of biscotti just a few days prior. Woah, perspective.

At the bakery, each of these biscotti slabs is about the size of an eight-month-old. We cut into them with long bread knives on extra large cutting boards before laying the oblong cookies on their sides and sliding them back into the rotating rack oven. Halfway through the second bake, we stand at its hot open mouth and burn our fingers flipping each cookie.

And I'm hardly complaining. I think I could be happy in a bakery, making my living -- day after day, year after year -- among chocolate chips and the smell of warm bread. But if I had to choose between baking by trade or baking by hobby, I feel quite certain of which I'd pick.

I want to bake in small batches. I want to cut my small biscotti on a small cutting board with a small serrated knife, and I want to pull them from the oven as Johnny Mathis sings to us through the record player. I want to look out the window and see pine trees. And I want to finish the cookies by lamplight because the sky is swimming with gray clouds -- or in this case, fog.

If I had to choose, that's what I'd choose.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Punitions (French Shortbread Cookies)

When I first told people I was moving back to Minnesota, I was surprised at how many of them responded with, “Just in time for winter!” It confused me a little bit every time someone said it, because I moved back to Minnesota at the tail end of September.

“Just in time for fall, actually,” I would say.

It's sad to think the impending winter is so daunting to some folks that they gloss over what comes before it. I don't really dread the winter. I’m okay with being cold, and the snow has never driven me to seriously question why I live where I live. Mostly, though, I’m too busy loving the fall to think about what's next.

Right now we are entering the unique subseason that is late fall. The clouds hang low, the evenings are long, and the trees sit bare, except for the few odd leaves that cling to the very tips of their spindly branches. My mom says that this time, late fall, is like a sigh of relief. All through the peak of the season we’re almost frantic from the overwhelming pressure to take in all the gorgeous colors while we can. But now, things start to quiet down. We settle into lamplight by 5:30, and we watch the tall pines out our window turn to silhouettes, then disappear completely. And if we have a minute, we throw butter, sugar, egg, and flour into the mixer for punitions, the thin French shortbread cookies that taste like crunchy butter. 

Punitions, or "punishments," are shortbread cookies specific to the Parisian bakery Poilâne. The closest I've come to baking cookies like these is with Betty Crocker's deluxe sugar cookie recipe. We love our sugar cut-outs, but next to the four-ingredient punitions, they seem overwrought. There's powdered sugar and vanilla and almond extract and baking soda and, my goodness, cream of tartar. And yeah, they're really, really good. We make them once or twice a year on special occasions and roll them out super thin so they are delicate and savored. 

But for a chilly afternoon in late fall when it's just me, and I'm just baking to bake, there's deep comfort in needing only a couple measuring cups and the most basic baker's ingredients. The dough rolls out thick and ragged, and the cookies bake up pale and crunchy. We eat them by the dozen with coffee, and the evening stretches on for miles.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Apple Tarte Tatin

You might note a minor lapse between this post and the last. To see what I've been up to in the intervening year, check out my Chicago blog, Alive in the Second City.

About a month and a half ago, I flew home to Minnesota for Labor Day weekend. I’d been living in Chicago for just short of a year at that point, and I had the economy protocol of Spirit Airlines down pat: Check in for your flight online or at an airport kiosk so as not to incur a $10 fee for bothering the ticket agent; resign yourself to a random seat assignment, because choosing that magical spot in which, should the plane go down, you’ll have the best chance at survival is a special treat that comes at a price; and most importantly, pack only as much as will fit in a backpack. That backpack is called a personal item, and on Spirit Airlines, that’s very different from a carry-on item. A hundred dollars different, to be exact.

This is okay. I can live out of a backpack for a weekend. If allowed a carry-on-size bag, I’d fill it with clothes that I ultimately don’t need. The one free personal item stricture keeps me from indulging my inner George Costanza and packing enough to dress based on mood. I don’t mind the limitation. In fact, I’m all about paring down. And on this particular Labor Day trip, I got so caught up in minimizing that I refrained from packing a book.

“No book?!” my mom would later exclaim, as though everything she thought she knew about me had fallen into question.

But I didn’t think much of it at the time. I figured I’d read something off my iPhone while I waited at the gate, and then just sleep during the flight. Only I didn’t account for two things: 1) Spirit flights are reliably delayed, and 2) reading off a screen for extended periods kind of bums me out.

Right now I bet you’re thinking, So where does this alleged tarte tatin come in?

To that I say, Oh god, that’s right! Sorry.

So anyway, I survive the inbound flight, random seat assignment an’ all, and now I’m at my sister’s house in Minneapolis, bookless. It occurs to me that I also like to read outside the context of air travel, which makes my deliberate neglect to pack a book all the more baffling.

I look toward the wall of bookshelves beside the staircase, and I find my answer. Looking back on it, the whole thing seems almost serendipitous.
On Rue Tatin has been left lying atop a row of vertical spines, a stand-out among the sardine-packed paperbacks. I pick it up. The cover has all the trappings of a memoir about an American expat living the good life in France, a niche theme that I once favored but have forgone in the last year while I focused on comedy writing.

It’s hard to know the extent to which that book influenced my decision to move back to Minnesota. All I know is when I got back to Chicago it became an escape, and when I wasn’t reading it, I was looking forward to reentering and vicariously living the life that the author had made for herself in a small French town, filling the days with family, writing, bucolic countryside, and plenty of good food. Suddenly Chicago seemed a little too big, a little too noisy, a little too far from all those things that made this author’s life seem so appealing.

I may decide to live outside Minnesota again someday. But right now I’m happy around family and lakes and so many birch trees. So I cook apples in caramel and drape them with pastry in honor of fall, friends, and the book that helped remind me where the good life’s at.

100% unedited MN sunset

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Coconut Cake

If I am ever looking for inspiration to write about food, I need only read a few pages of Blood, Bones & Butter by Gabrielle Hamilton. Her stories are peppered so subtly with bits of backstory and setting that the reader isn't forced to digest a hunk of exposition before getting to the good stuff. And in setting a scene, Hamilton picks out details that you wouldn't think to care about, but that come together in the kind of simply crafted sentences that you dance through with little effort.

You can imagine my delight, then, upon reaching the back feature of my May 2013 issue of Bon Appetit and seeing her byline at the head of a seven-page story on home cooks of the South. Food is the engine that powers her weeklong road trip through kitchens across five southern states, but her details paint the people who cook and where they cook as much as what they're cooking.

On Day Two of the trip, Hamilton met Laurie Osteen's coconut cake in Savannah, Georgia. She introduces it to us as "glistening white" and "practically levitating under its glass dome on the counter." Later she relays the anecdote that the cake may or may not have killed the diabetic local priest. I had already set my sights on this cake; having Gabrielle Hamilton conclude that it is "worth the peril" merely cemented my decision.

I was a little surprised (and, I'll admit, pleased) to find that Mrs. Osteen's coconut cake starts with a box of yellow cake mix. When I think of home cooks, I think of from-scratch recipes on wrinkled, smudged, and splattered index cards. Shortcuts carry a stigma; they seem aesthetically incorrect and compromising in quality. But Hamilton's story sings a different tune. She praises all the incomplete scribblings, last-minute substitutions, and time-saving expedients of the unpolished home cook. These people base their creations on what tastes delicious, or what they've been eating since childhood, or what they have on hand that day, and they don't take themselves so seriously that they can't rip open a bag of Duncan Hines along the way - because time is limited, perhaps, or because you actually can't beat the taste of boxed cake.
With the yellow cake, Osteen used the back of the box only as a guide. She upped the egg count, threw in some extra vegetable oil, and replaced the water with whole milk for a richer, moister, softer cake.

I was, however, disappointed when I first learned there was no coconut in the cake itself. Can you really call it a coconut cake? I wondered. Instead, the shredded flakes joined sugar, sour cream, and some milk to form a snowy icing that was to be spread over the warm cake and allowed to seep in for at least four hours. It seemed in keeping with the laid back Southern way, leaving a cake out for hours, the sour cream-based frosting weeping into its soft, warm pores.

I suppressed my uptight instinct to refrigerate the cake and let it sit at room temperature under its glass dome for more than seven hours before I took it to a friend's birthday party. I had a piece that night, and it was delicious. But I ate more of it the next day, and the day after that, too, and nowhere along the way did the cake go in the fridge. And I swear to you, good people, that cake got better with time. 

So now we must revisit the question posed by my doubting and critical past self: Can you really call it a coconut cake?

Yes, responds my present self, enlightened by a broader understanding that gives credence to all home cooks (even the ones who use boxed cake). 

Yes you can. Now lighten up.