Sunday, April 26, 2015

Ska vi fika?

I’ve fallen in love with Fika: The Art of the Swedish Coffee Break by Anna Brones and Johanna Kindvall, a review copy of which landed on my doorstep a few weeks ago. It isn’t just a great cookbook, it’s also an affordable and adorable object and a fun read. I like this little book so much I recommend you buy it not just for yourself, but in bulk to give as gifts. The audience for Fika is broad, but there’s a certain type of person whose life will be incomplete without it. If you have a friend who bakes, collects vintage china, wears a Marimekko apron, and/or covets an AGA, buy her Fika this instant! 

Does it sound like I’ve suddenly started promoting products on this blog? Never.

In case you don’t know, fika is the Swedish ritual of pausing at some point every day to regroup with a hot beverage and a baked good, of carving out a “magical moment.”  “You can do it alone, you can do it with friends,” write the authors, but fika is “something everyone does, at least once a day. It factors into travel planning, work schedules, and even a relaxed weekend at home. Life without fika is unthinkable.” 

I always wondered how Mrs. Olson knew so much about coffee. Fika.

I often “fika” (the word can be used as a verb) at American cafes that sell giant to-go lattes and giant brown muffins. Giant muffins and Starbucks increasingly happen in Sweden too, but there’s a countervailing tradition of daintiness, variety, fine china, creating a sense of coziness (mysig), and home baking. (At one point, proud Swedish housewives prided themselves on offering seven types of homemade cookies when they served coffee.) This is the legacy that Fika celebrates.

Clockwise from upper left: ginger meringue, hazelnut crisp, oatmeal sandwich cookie with a layer of ginger-spiked chocolate inside. The photograph makes them look big, but they are very small.
I’ve been on a bit of a Fika tear and I have nothing but praise for the recipes. All the cookies I’ve made from the book have been crispy and bursting with bright flavors of ginger, hazelnut, chocolate and/or butter. American cookies seem heavy and floury by contrast. These cookies are also quite small -- after all, if you’re serving seven kinds of cookies, you don’t want people to fill up on their first.

These are also, for the most part, easy cookies. To make hazelnut crisps, my favorite Fika recipe so far, whisk together 1 egg, 1/2 cup sugar, 1/4 cup melted butter, 3/4 cup very finely chopped unblanched hazelnuts, 1/2 teaspoon vanilla, and a pinch of salt. (I always appreciate a recipe that doesn’t make me blanch the hazelnuts.) Drop by teaspoonfuls onto parchment-lined baking sheets, bake at 350 degrees F until dark golden brown at edges, about 10 minutes. Leave on sheet until firm, remove to racks. SO GOOD.

Yesterday Mark and I were killing time in San Francisco while Owen finished his painting class and we ended up at a place I’d heard about called the 20th Century Cafe and I finally had a chance to try their famous honey cake. 
This will ruin you for oafish bundt cakes.
Just look at that magnificent slice. Look at that pretty china. Only as we were leaving did I realize we’d just had a perfect fika.

So: buy Fika and if you ever come to San Francisco, fika at the 20th Century Cafe.

Two healthy recipes to recommend:

I’ve made this refreshing and satisfying brussels sprouts salad from River Cottage Veg Every Day about a dozen time in the last couple of weeks, usually for lunch. Thinly-sliced sprouts, aged cheddar, apple, some thyme leaves, big squeeze of lemon, olive oil, toasted nuts. To the recipe as printed I would add: walnuts are better than hazelnuts or almonds and you should chill the apple. It’s not going to rock your world, this recipe, it’s just a nutritious, tasty salad, that you can make very quickly, day after day, without going to the grocery store to replenish your lettuce supply. Brussels sprouts take weeks to wilt, unlike wimpy lettuce.

It's really good, trust me.
Also: I love, love, love this smooth parsnip soup, also from River Cottage Veg Every Day. (This recipe might actually rock your world.) I highly recommend adding the yogurt when you serve it -- the cold yogurt in the hot, gingery soup is a wonderful contrast. I should say that Owen didn’t care for this soup at all -- and kids in general might not. He politely pushed his bowl away at dinner. Later that night, after I removed his computer keyboard because he hadn’t done his chores, he got furious and began insulting my cooking, one of his new “things.”  He said: “That soup? It’s like you vomited into a pot and tried to feed it to me.”

I laughed and didn’t give him his keyboard back.

The soup is great.

Finally, I came out of reviewing retirement to write about the chef Nora Pouillon’s memoir, My Organic Life, and you can read the piece here.   

Monday, April 06, 2015

Time got away from me

Rather than try to catch up on all the stuff I’ve cooked for the last 10 days, I'm going to pretend none of it ever happened and start fresh. But there are a few recipes and thoughts I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least mention:

-Although I stand by my contention that Sean Brock’s Heritage is impractical for home cooks, I read enough about his recipe for hoppin john to decide I had to try it for myself. So I ordered Carolina gold rice and heirloom Sea Island red peas from the revered Anson Mills and made the dish. It was spectacular, damn it. Very aggravating because if I want to eat this hoppin john again and again and again, which I do, I will have to keep ordering expensive rice and peas from Anson Mills.  

I recommend the recipe anyway.

-A new cookie in my life: Dorie Greenspan’s croquets from Baking Chez Moi. Nutty, super-crunchy, delicious, easy. If you need to use up egg whites, look no further. 
Hot Pot Island, 5512 Geary. It may not be the best hot pot place in San Francisco, but it's our hot pot place. 
-This review made me want to check out Steven Satterfield’s Root to Leaf, but it’s not yet available at the library. Has anyone seen a copy?

-Inspired by this story (and using the accompanying recipe) I made a gorgeous Montenegrin sampita for family dinner last night. Author Francis Lam describes sampita as “a plank of yolk-rich cake piled with glossy meringue, a kind of open faced marshmallow sandwich.”  I can't do any better than that. Another layer of cake would make this dessert more delicious, but then it wouldn’t look quite so magnificently absurd. How magnificently absurd? Some pictures. Really fun, tasty, sticky, ridiculous, beautiful dessert.

-Yesterday I took Mark outside and asked if he thinks we should replace our front walk. I’ve been asking him about this at intervals for the last six years, ever since the roots of the oak started to push up the concrete blocks in earnest.
I worry someone is going to trip and sue us. 
He said, “It’s good enough. We don’t have that many visitors. I think we should wait and fix the path just before we sell the house so it will look as new as possible.” 
I worry someone will slip on the slimy piece of plywood covering the mud hole and sue us.
We came inside and he said, “But if you want to fix it sooner, go ahead. Don’t worry about me. You know what I’m like.”
I worry that the condition of the front walk is liberating out our inner slobs. 
I said, “Thanks. I hired someone last week. He's starting on the 21st. I was just asking for your thoughts so I could quote you on the blog.”

I’m not sure if you think that’s funny, but he did. I’m not sure if you think our front walk needs a little facelift, but I do. 
Mostly, I just really, really hate how it looks. 

Monday, March 23, 2015

Sometimes the stars just align

I cooked from Smashing Plates by Maria Elia last night and produced one of those perfect meals I manage to get on the table once every few years, if I’m lucky. It was an extended family dinner and something about the menu just worked in a big way. This meal was more than the sum of its parts. 

Its parts:

-slow-roasted leg of lamb. You cut little slits all over a leg of lamb (I did semi-boneless) and insert many, many slivers of garlic. Slather in a mixture of cinnamon, cumin, oregano, lemon juice, olive oil, fresh dill, and salt. Wrap in parchment and marinate overnight. Still in its parchment pouch, roast for 4 hours (or more -- I’d do more next time) until it’s soft and shreddable and every morsel imbued with flavor. Serve with a starchy foil like

-gigante beans plaki. Huge, velvety beans, oniony tomato sauce.  This dish lacked zip on its own, but was delicious in partnership with the flavorful lamb and the 

-fried feta with honey and toasted almonds, which has zip in abundance.  You slice feta into little bricks, dip in egg and flour, fry in olive oil. Place on a platter, drizzle with honey, top with toasted almonds. Everyone gets a piece of soft, warm, tangy cheese, a little honey and few crispy nuts. 

A bit of feta, a bit of lamb, a big, soft bean? 

My niece, Stella, said, “I want more of EVERYTHING.”

So far, very pleased with Smashing Plates

It gets pretty black on top. That's the one thing I'd like to fix about this cake. Foil towards the end of baking?
Dessert was Gabrielle Hamilton’s Breton butter cake which I’ve now made twice, both times with staggeringly good results. I have so much to say about this cake and Prune in general that I’m saving it all for a dedicated post at some future date. 

Meanwhile, if you have the book, make this cake. It’s not anywhere near as hard as she says it is and it is so, so, so delicious. You can read her account of trying to put the cake on her menu here, though be aware the recipe is not the same as the one in the book. As I’ve said before, the woman can write. 

The boys and I took a walk after dinner, discussed implements suitable for killing zombies.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

I keep wanting to type "Tyler Perry"

I detached the keyboard from the computer the other day because Owen hadn’t done his chores and seemed incapable of separating himself from Team Fortress 2. Based on his reaction, Owen would have preferred I detach a few of his toes, maybe even a foot.

Direct quotes:

“You’re the worst mother in the world.”

“This is my day off! I have so few days off and I just wanted to be happy.”

“I’m NEVER going to unload the dishwasher again unless you give me the keyboard back.”

“But I wanted to write a movie review on the computer! Don’t you want me to write movie reviews?”

“I’m going to step on your phone.” 

“That cauliflower soup you made last night was uneatable, the worst dinner ever. You should burn the cookbook that it came from. It left a really awful taste in my mouth and later when I tried to eat cereal to get rid of the taste, even the cereal tasted like vomit. I wasted a lot of cereal, Mom. You should know that.”

Guys, the soup (recipe here) was not that bad. It’s a very eatable, even tasty, cream of cauliflower from Tyler’s Ultimate. You make it by simmering cauliflower in milk with thyme, bay leaf, and butter, then blitzing in a blender. Toss some bread crumbs and pine nuts with more butter, toast in the oven, and strew this rich, salty, crunchy topping on the soup. Yum.

Tyler's Ultimate does not deserve to be burned. Good cauliflower soup notwithstanding, I did give it to Goodwill. 

I guess I need to back up.

A year or so ago someone left two cookbooks on the free table at the gym: Tyler’s Ultimate and The Macrina Bakery and Cafe Cookbook. Both of them were signed. The Tyler Florence book was warmly inscribed to someone who shall remain nameless.

I took the books, of course. But did I really want them?

My shelves are getting tight again, so recently I decided to cull a few titles. It seemed logical to start by evaluating books I never actually chose.

I decided I had to try one recipe (the soup) but other than that I didn’t see much I liked in Tylers Ultimate. If you love Tyler Florence, speak now and I will listen respectfully. I didn’t delve deeply and could well be wrong. But the recipes appeared standard, the pictures almost grotesquely huge, the overall feel, flashy, showy, not my thing.
Tyler's Really Good -- now there's a title!
You know, because I’m really subtle and modest and elegant.

Tyler went.

Macrina, by Leslie Mackie of the Macrina Bakery in Seattleis as drab as Tyler's Ultimate is gaudy. Which is not to say that I adore the look of this book, which is full of illustrations like this:

I think that is supposed to be a slice of toast.
No color whatsoever. You flip through this book and feel like you’re in a shabby apartment, late afternoon, with the blinds drawn. You can’t find a light switch.

Still, lots of intriguing recipes. And I do love to bake.

First, I tried the rustic potato loaf ("Macrina's most sought-after loaf") and it was perfect.

You boil potatoes in their jackets, mash, work them into a dough and bake into a lovely dense bread. I ate a piece of this every day last week for breakfast. I’d make it again in a heartbeat. Recipe here.

A few days later, I baked the Guatemalan hot chocolate bread. Really unusual. The flavor is that of chocolate cake, the texture that of yeasty bread. Big chunks of chocolate throughout. We ate roughly half the loaf before the novelty wore off. I wouldn’t make it again, but it was an interesting experiment.
chocolate bread, obviously
Friday, I made the Macrina chocolate chip cookies with dried apricots. 

Conversation transcribed almost verbatim:

Jennifer: Did you try those cookies?
Mark, frowning: Yeah, I did. What kind were they?
Jennifer: Chocolate chip.
Mark, still frowning: Really?
Jennifer: Chocolate chip with dried apricots.
Mark: AHA!!!! I knew it!! I tasted one and spit it out. It was like there was a worm in there. 
Jennifer: You did not spit it out.
Mark: When you’re expecting a regular chocolate chip cookie, you don’t want to bite into something gross.
Jennifer: Dried apricots aren’t gross. 
Mark: I will not be having another one of those cookies.
Jennifer: Are you kidding? 
Mark: Don’t tease me like that. It’s like me expecting you to go to the basketball game with me. 

I live with crazy people. The cookies (recipe here) are delicious.

Macrina stays. 

Other things cooked since my last post:

-condensed milk ice cream from Smashing Plates with 1 teaspoon of orange flower water added. Needs a new name, this ice cream. Otherwise delicious. If you have the book, you will not be disappointed by the ice cream.

-This Bon Appetit lamb and lentil dish which I liked, Mark deemed “flavorless,” and Owen said was “too spicy.” Can a dish be both flavorless and too spicy?

-The delectable little peanut butter chocolate sandwich cookies from the Smitten Kitchen cookbook. Recommend.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

It's called logrolling

page 83 of Fancy Desserts
The Piglet is over and I’m so ready to move on, but I’d committed myself to actually reading Brooks Headley’s Fancy Desserts cover to cover just to see what the fuss was about. As some of you know Bill Buford chose Fancy Desserts as the Piglet winner over David Lebovitz’s My Paris Kitchen the other day, a highly controversial choice.

I was happily reading Fancy Desserts and transcribing lively quotes to share with you, because there are lots of lively quotes in this book, when I came across the passage at top. Perhaps this problematic passage has been noted elsewhere in which case, forgive me, but I almost fell off my treadmill desk.

In case you need help, I have typed it out to highlight the important parts:

“I met Dario Cecchini on my first trip to Italy. If you’ve read the outstanding Heat, by Bill Buford, you already know way to much about this maniac butcher from the tiny village of Panzano in Tuscany (If you haven’t get to your local independent bookseller and snag a copy immediately.)”

I don’t think Bill Buford should have been disqualified from judging Fancy Desserts, BUT HE SHOULD HAVE ACKNOWLEDGED THIS SENTENCE IN HIS REVIEW. I’m shocked he didn’t. I’m also shocked that one of the two recipes he made from Fancy Desserts was the red pepper sauce by Dario Cecchini, subject of his own “outstanding” book.

I disapprove.

But its not Brooks Headleys fault. He really is a good writer. His yeast ice cream was delicious. Beery. I ate it and so would you.

maybe ostrich egg whites

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

He will be reading it again and again!

Darling, would you like a little yeast gelato?
You could feel it coming, but that was still a really jarring Piglet win for Fancy Desserts and the Bill Buford review did nothing to persuade me that it was justified. I came away thinking it was even less justified than I had going in.  

I have a miserable list of errands and jobs today, but some half-baked thoughts before I go. I may change my mind about everything, so cut me slack:

*It’s possible Headley's victory reflected gender bias as laid out in the Helen Rosner essay, given that the book was advanced three times by men who seemed thoroughly dazzled by his prose style and rocker persona. Buford on Fancy Desserts: “It is humble. It is brave. It is extreme. It is wacky. It is by far the best anti-cookbook cookbook I have ever read. I will be reading it again and again. It is genius.”

Perhaps Headley should be considered for the Nobel? He sure can make those boys gush. 

Then again, Rosner, no dummy, also loves the book. I should refrain from commenting further on its literary merits until I have actually sat down and read it cover to cover.

*Does the win for an “anti-cookbook” that few people will actually use (a fact, trust me) reflect growing boredom with affable mainstream voices and cookbooks? Maybe a variant of the boredom described in the Lottie + Doof essay? Have we been so saturated with food everything that we’ve reached some kind of decadent, late-stage ennui where it’s not enough for a cookbook to be a nice, usable volume of good recipes, it has to be a crazy, rule-breaking, dysfunctional, super-stimulating anti-cookbook? 

*The recipes are sloppy. I’ve already talked about the failed chocolate chip cookies. I mixed Headley’s yeast ice cream yesterday morning because I had the ingredients and 10 minutes and what the hell. He calls for 1/8 cup plus 1 tablespoon yeast//36 grams. I measured 36 grams and looked at that mountain of yeast and thought, this is more than 1/8 cup plus 1 tablespoon. It was. It was a third again more. I know I gave Mimi Thorisson a pass on the little errors I spotted in her book, but it’s extra aggravating when you stumble on a mistake in the middle of cooking. This is the second time it’s happened with Headley.

Also: why would you say 1/8 cup plus 1 tablespoon when you could say “3 tablespoons?” 

Or am I being petty to care about something like that when considering a humble, brave, extreme, wacky work of genius?

It’s possible I am. But I don't think so!

A report on the yeast ice cream and maybe more fully-baked thoughts coming soon.

Monday, March 09, 2015

And with a few keystrokes, the day is shot

Pretty flowers I saw the other day. What are they?
I have a new rule about not going on the internet until noon so that I can focus on my non-blog projects without distraction. It’s been stunningly effective because once I take even a tiny peek at the internet, including email, all is lost. It’s as if my brain is hijacked, polluted, fill in your negative word of choice. I can’t stop going back, like an addict. If you have similar problems, try this some time. Very liberating. And then at the stroke of noon. . . .

Obviously, I just broke my rule so I might as well write off March 9, 2015. But I had to check the Piglet, where Kate Christensen chose David Lebovitz’s My Paris Kitchen over Maria Elia’s Smashing Plates.

Oh well! There went all my hopes for Smashing Plates.

I can’t but agree with Christensen’s superb review, though. She cooked the hell out of Lebovitz and persuaded me that his is the better book. It’s hard to argue with this:

"I choose the one that feels more substantial, more truly literary and classic, the one that welcomed me more thoroughly into its world, if only because the author has lived there for ten years rather than a summer with childhood memories. I choose the one that feels like a future long-treasured friend."

Good for Lebovitz. He’s a pro and I can’t begrudge him anything. The book is terrific.

Honestly, of all the cookbooks in the Piglet cohort, Prune interested me most going in, and still does. I like it best for a host of reasons, which is funny given how much I loathed it when I first got my hands on it.