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.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Candy Bar Pie


Several months ago, I introduced you to Christina Tosi, Milk Bar, and Crack Pie. I told you that I was disappointed in my first Milk Bar recipe, but that my faith in Tosi was not shaken. I would move on to the next recipe, and the next, bound to find a dessert that tasted just as mind-blowing as it looked. What I haven't yet told you is, I have since been disappointed not once, but twice more.

First it was the corn cookies. These beautiful, grainy golden cookies that look like they came fresh from a farmhouse kitchen. Everyone else devoured them, but for me, the salty corn taste was all too reminiscent of that aggressive Crack Pie. Then there were the confetti cookies. They probably would have kicked ass, but I was convinced the milk powder I used had gone a little sour - so I once again hung back and let the co-workers take care of them (and they did, gladly).

So what was going on? So far I'd had an aversion to every Milk Bar recipe I'd tried.

Then a few things happened:

1. I quit my full-time job with the plan to be - temporarily - a freelance writer and author.
2. Josh turned 25 while I was in San Francisco. I wasn't with him on his birthday, and I made no cake.
3. After battling his way through a seemingly endless language requirement, Josh finished his undergrad degree.

With the intersection of these life events, I found myself with 3) a major cause for celebration, 2) an obligation to make up for Josh's cakeless birthday, and 1) plenty of time to tackle the most finicky, madcap, steps-within-steps complex recipe I've ever encountered.


Candy Bar Pie is Tosi's riff on the Take 5 candy bar. And as it turns out, this isn't just a matter of layering chocolate, caramel, peanut butter, peanuts, and pretzels in a pie tin. It's not like that wouldn't work - that actually sounds amazing - but it would lack Tosi's flair for ingenious complication of that which is familiar. 

Case in point? The recipe for Candy Bar Pie takes up eight pages of the Milk Bar cookbook. That includes the chocolate crumb + chocolate crust; the salted caramel; the peanut brittle + peanut butter nougat; and the chocolate glaze over whole toasted pretzels. The first couple times I glanced through this recipe/short novel, I'd end up shutting the book in defeat. I figured I lacked the proper equipment, and more importantly, I doubted my ability to maintain the grit and composure required for the nougat stage.

But the above interplay of life events kept poking me between the shoulder blades, reminding me of this circumstantial rarity. Or maybe that was Josh, asking me when I was going to make his pie. 

And so, despite my misgivings, I resolved to follow this recipe born of Tosi's deranged whim. 

Making stuff to make more stuff: that's the theme of Tosi's recipes. Cocoa powder, sugar, and butter bake up into these little chocolate crumbs only to be processed back into a powder.
Add some more melted butter, and you've got a chocolate crust.
You're looking at nothing more than shelled peanuts and melted sugar. A dry caramel, as it's called,  cooks up faster but burns easier than a wet caramel (sugar + water). I did what Tosi said and let it reach a deep amber. The resulting brittle was a little bitter, IMHO.
Petrified peanuts!

Bitter brittle shards!
Again, we build up to break down.
I make caramel again, this time with some corn syrup. Then I add it to this decadent pool of cream, vanilla, butter, and SALT.
What do you get? Salted caramel!



I should note that, up to this point, it's been pretty smooth sailing. Plenty of steps and a good dose of tedium, yes, but thus far nothing that demands a fight or flight response. Then came the nougat - that sweet, fluffy mystery junk that you love in candy bars but have likely not thought much about outside of that context. And let me say this: there's no reason to! I encourage you to disregard everything I say about making the stuff and continue on with the vague notion that nougat is an elemental substance harvested for use in our Snickers bars. Great.

Those of you who want the dirty truth, read on.

Tosi prefaced the nougat recipe with a slightly arrogant assurance that if there were an easier way to do this, she would have discovered it by now. But within the constraints of modern science, nougat can only be made by heating two different sugar + water solutions to two different temperatures. While that's happening, she tells me, I am to whip an egg white in my KitchenAid stand mixer. But I don't have a stand mixer. I could have borrowed one and saved myself a lot of sweat, but I often get defensive and stubborn when cookbooks imply that I need a more expensive version of what I already have.

So there I am, electric mixer in my right hand, candy thermometer in my left. If the first solution is nearing its target temperature, I am to turn up the speed of my hand mixer until the white reaches medium soft peaks (honestly...I'm familiar with standard egg beating terminology, but "medium soft peaks"? what does that MEAN?!). Conversely, if my egg white is nearing medium soft peaks, I am to turn DOWN the speed of the mixer and turn UP the heat under my first solution. When everything is where it ought to be, syrup #1 is whipped into the egg white. Then syrup #2 is brought up to target temperature and also added to the egg white.

How'd that go in real time? I'll try to be brief.

Attempt One: Syrup #1 hardens upon contact with the egg white. I trash it and start over, fully expecting at least one setback.

Attempt Two: Syrup #1 burns up and desiccates before it even reaches the target temperature. I am not expecting this affront to what I thought was reliable science. While Josh runs to the store for some fresh eggs, I clean all the pots and bowls and wonder if I am obligated to finish what I started.

Attempt Three: The egg white whips up properly. The first syrup does not dry up. I add it to the white in a slow stream to avoid hardened chunks. Meanwhile, Josh helps to bring the second solution to temperature. He drops the thermometer into the scalding syrup. I try to fish it out. We both raise our voices and burn our fingers. We sweat, and our patience runs thin. Finally the syrup reaches target temperature, and I add it to the egg white. Somewhere along the way, this mixture whips up into a toffee-hued cloud that I don't quite understand. But it's there! I MADE it! I resent it. I love it!

There it is - the product of sugar, water, egg white, some tricky heating, and lots of air. Work it into that pebbly bed of peanut butter + powdered peanut brittle and you can finally get on with your life.


The chocolate shell is a combination of dark and white chocolate, plus a little bit of oil. This is Tosi's clever way of avoiding tempering - a "fussy" method that sets the chocolate up for a shiny coat and clean break.

When Josh got home from his last day of Italian class, I warmed up some coffee and sliced into the pie with a dough scraper. The layers gave way to the blade with a satisfying resistance that reflected all the work that had gone into this 10-inch tin. Salted caramel oozed out on cue. This pie was showing off.

If you've managed to stick with me through this entire production, then the verdict on Milk Bar recipe #4 should come as no surprise to you. Candy Bar Pie has got to be the most complex tasting dessert I've ever made. Take a single bite with every layer intact, and you're in for a long, labyrinthine taste trip. Like, all expenses paid, airfare, lodging, rental car, and 3-course meals included. Like every other Milk Bar recipe I've made, it's salty. But it's also sweet, and crumbly, and smooth, and bitter, and crunchy. Our tastebuds were deeply moved.

We gave a couple pieces away and kept the majority of the pie for ourselves. In all, I think I only polished off about 1.5 pieces - but for a different reason than before. This pie had left a good taste in my mouth, and I wanted to keep it that way. Also, Josh kept asking if I was going to eat my pie. I probably would have eventually, but, admiring his stamina, I gave them up.

As philosophy mandates, the person who stands to gain the most happiness from the last piece deserves the last piece.


Monday, June 10, 2013

Apricot Cakes


When I started writing about food, I had this assumption. It's nothing I ever really thought about; it was more of a subconscious understanding of how it all went. I assumed that the more complex the recipe, the more I'll have to say about it. It makes sense, right?

Then I read this article by Amanda Hesser. She went on for pages about madeleines, those spongy little lemon cakes, elegant but so simple. There was no big epiphany on my end, but a new understanding had begun to seep in. I was slowly learning that the catalyst behind good food writing goes beyond an evaluation of the food alone. It comes from the whole experience that surrounds it, too.


I found these little cakes in the pages of my latest issue of Bon Appetit, tucked into a feature titled "Picnic in Province." All sorts of transportable delicacies posed for the shoot - olives, bean salad, goat cheese, a French baguette - and they all lay out on hardy kitchen towels and thick wood cutting boards that were weathered and stained by regular use. The cakes had their very own page. They had been piled casually in a metal tin and plunked down on long grass, all beautiful and low-maintenance. Right away I wanted to make them, and I knew I wanted to enjoy them in some re-creation of the alfresco scene presented to me. 

Ah, the power of suggestion.



I didn't have to wait long. An annual Memorial Day picnic brings a group of us to an open field of grass by Lake Calhoun, always an arm's length from hot dogs, sangria, and plenty of guac. This year, there'd be little apricot cakes, too.



There are all kinds of baking experiences. There's the adventure, where everything is new, the motions feel unnatural, and you have no idea if things are going to work out - but you're not too worried about it, either. There's the obligation, where you've made a commitment to bake a certain amount of something for a certain amount of money. It's work, and it's stress from start to finish, no matter how well you know the recipe.

Mid-morning on Memorial Day, I embarked on my favorite baking experience of them all. It's the kind you sink into; the kind where, although the recipe is new to you, the process is so familiar and the movements so second nature that your mind can let go a little. I've never baked with apricots. But how many times have I creamed butter and sugar til they're pale and fluffy, beat in eggs and flavoring before adding flour and salt at intervals? This is the kind of baking that slows my heart rate and brings me into balance. It's spiritual baking.



Bon Appetit was right: the little apricot cakes really were perfect for a picnic. I tied them up in a flour sack towel and carried them out to the lake where we munched our summertime food under an overcast sky, waiting for the rain.

But what I remember most about the cakes happened long before we had our feet in the grass. It was back at home when I stood over the cooling rack and grabbed a cake, still a little warm, to try for the first time. I met the light, tender crumb with a breath of lemon; the darker, chewier base; and the tart, slippery apricot embedded in the cake. It all came together with a force that literally drew my hand to my chest and swept my eyelids shut. This wasn't for effect; there was no one around to play for. And I don't think it was just the bite I was reacting to. It was the culmination of such a simple recipe, such easy baking, and the very moment when you discover how much can come of it.