Although it’s not commonly taught, I think that everyone is familiar with Newton’s law of bananas. That law is: no matter how large or small a bunch of bananas you buy or the size of your family, there will always be two leftover bananas that become too overripe to eat. They sit in their basket, accusatorily, shrinking and slowly becoming covered in black spots. You look at them every morning guiltily. No one wants to put soft bananas in their breakfast cereal. Eventually, they pass a point of no return. Then it’s bin them or turn them into banana bread. Continue reading
Bread-baking is the antidote to everything that people find frustrating about pastry. Measurements are imprecise and dependent on variables such as ambient humidity and elevation. You can be messy and aggressive; bread dough responds to abuse rather like a particularly eager masochist. Bread dough likes being slapped and pounded, and “rustic” is an aspirational term, rather than a euphemism.
I first started baking bread when I was about 11. A snarky, competitive, and somewhat fatalistic child, I decided to become a bread baker because it was the only type of kitchen craft that my mother did not execute impeccably; I didn’t want to cook things that she would always do better. Continue reading
Happy New Year everyone! Here’s a sweet treat to send you into 2013, a virtual hug from me to you. This is a very easy, very delicious cake. My oven’s finally been repaired (hurrah!) and I wanted to test it with something fairly forgiving. It’s the perfect “I want cake right now!” or “Crap! I’ve got company coming and nothing to feed them!” cake, since it’s ready in 75 minutes or less. Continue reading
I’m back in Seattle in the fall, which is one of my favorite times of the year here. Since I arrived last week, at least four separate people have told me that I just missed one of the most spectacular summers in Seattle, but I don’t mind; the skies are dramatic, the leaves are turning, and the Puget Sound and lakes reflect the changeable light so beautifully. I am also house-sitting for a co-worker who has a GORGEOUS home, with incredible views, and a newly remodelled kitchen. Sometimes I love my life.
A friend visited me from Portland this weekend, and on Friday night she tipsily said, “Let’s bake something tomorrow.” (When my friends drink they fantasize about cooking.) Saturday was properly chilly. We went to the farmers market in the morning in search of inspiration and found it in just-picked greengages, damsons, and cranberries. And – in the most beautiful fresh ginger, which was green, rose-pink, and bone-white, and looked like living coral. I’ve never seen anything like it. Continue reading
For as long as I can remember, I have been fascinated by the food people eat in books. Reading descriptions of food in fiction, I remember thoughts along the lines of “I want to eat that,” and, as I grew older, “I want to replicate that.” The food in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books was especially captivating. At my parents’ house in the Catskills, not content to eat potatoes baked in the oven, I would put mine in the fireplace. “It’s really good,” I would insist, as I chipped away the black carbonized exterior to get at what remained of my potato. When I was about 12, I was given the Little House Cookbook. I tried to make maple candy by pouring barely-caramelized maple syrup on snow (like chewy brown Rorschach blots; not an improvement), ice cream without a churn, in a bowl of salted ice (disastrous), and “Johnny Cakes.” (I don’t remember much, except that they were virtually inedible.) Someone later explained to me that the reason why Ingalls Wilder so vividly described food, and why it all sounded so delicious, was because she spent most of her childhood hungry.
As a youthful Anglophile, I found English food especially intriguing. (No, really.) Everything was exotic. The English drank sweet, milky tea in the afternoon. (In my household, tea was served black and unsweetened, with babka, after dinner.) They had toast with butter and jam for breakfast! They ate flamed Christmas pudding with suet (I’d been reading a lot of Dickens), and Yorkshire pudding, whatever the heck that was. But the ne plus ultra of English cookery was the mysterious crumpet. I WANTED CRUMPETS. I wanted to make crumpets. Somewhere I found a recipe for crumpets and I made them. Again, and again, and again. My poor parents. Continue reading
I’m one of those people who is chronically unable to accept compliments regarding my cooking. I can go further: I am a chronic apologist for my own food. This is such a consistent issue that I made a New Year’s resolution to apologize less and say thank you more.
Resolutions are great in theory but difficult to implement. Last Saturday I baked an apricot caramel upside-down cake for a party. Lovely friend Sophie helped herself to a slice and sat down beside me. “It’s a weird color because I used brown sugar,” I said. Sophie said nothing, and placed a small morsel in her mouth. “It looks dense, but that’s because the caramel soaked into the cake a little. I think I flipped it too early,” I said. With great concentration, Sophie continued to eat her cake. “I was hungover when I baked this cake, so I’m not sure if it’s my best effort,” I said. Sophie said nothing. She delicately took a bit of soft caramelized apricot on her fork and ate it. “Do you think it’s too sweet? I’m worried that it’s too sweet,” I said.
Sophie turned to me. “Let’s start this conversation again. This time, you will only praise your cake,” she said. I thought for a moment. “This is a beautiful cake,” I said. “The apricots are like a sunset over a South Pacific island, turning the water gold. The cake is like a perfumed Spring breeze, like happy memories of childhood,” I said. Sophie looked at me and laughed. She said, “Maybe you should say nothing at all. Then, when someone compliments your cake, you can say, ‘Thank you.’” Continue reading
My mother’s berry custard tarts are legendary, and always perfect. Whenever I make a berry custard tart, however, there is at least a 20% chance that my custard will spitefully and wilfully refuse to set. Most recently this happened last summer, when my great-uncle asked me to prepare dinner for him and some special guests. For dessert I served them strawberries which sat like little islands among haphazard pieces of crust in a pool of completely liquid custard. It tasted nice, but it was definitely not a custard tart. (I still do not understand why I can make a perfectly lovely custard most of the time but get stage fright when I’m making a tart.) This year, I spent the Fourth of July with my family in upstate New York. I cleverly decided to make berry custard tarts so I could take advantage of that inexhaustible fount of culinary knowledge, my mother. The secret? My mother CHEATS. Continue reading
I have never been a fan of austerity in baking. Give me egg yolks. Give me butter. Give me cream or, better yet, give me buttercream. I don’t want to eat dessert, I want Dessert with a capital D. Which is why, for many years, I did not understand the appeal of scones. My mother didn’t bake them, so the scones I ate were store-bought, dry, crumbly things, perhaps adorned with a few miserly flecks of dried currants, that stuck to the roof of my mouth like paste no matter how much jam I slathered on them.
Everything changed, however, when I made cream scones for the first time. Oh how deliciously the crumbs of butter and flour clung together, moistened by thick cold cream. Folded with fresh berries, baked until golden brown, and served warm with (yes!) more butter and jam, cream scones were (and still are) my idea of heaven. Continue reading
Olive oil cake is a baking miracle. Those of us (like me) who are used to classic French baking techniques reflexively think of olive oil as a savoury ingredient only. But when olive oil is substituted for butter in cakes, it produces a moist cake with a dense crumb and an incredibly light, fluffy texture, almost like an Asian sponge cake. It’s cake perfection. Since I started baking olive oil cakes, I’ve been playing with various combinations of flavours and ratios of olive oil and flour and eggs and sugar, and this cake is unquestionably my favourite: it’s the lightest and most delicate. Continue reading
I consider myself to be a fairly proficient baker, but I’ve always been intimidated by macarons. They are so dainty and beautiful, so difficult to get right, and so easy to get horribly wrong. I’ve had dreadful macarons at very posh restaurants. I don’t care what anybody says, but it IS surprisingly hard to find a good macaron in the United States. On one memorable occasion I even had inferior macarons from Ladurée. And as for achieving perfection at home and hitting every note – the flawless shiny smooth patina on the shell, the well-risen feet, the ever-so-slightly crisp shell and perfectly yielding, tender interior . . . there is just so much to bollocks up. (I’d use a ruder word, but this is a family friendly site.) Literally for months I stalked macaron recipes online. There are hundreds, if not thousands. And SO much advice, much of it conflicting. To Italian meringue, or not to Italian meringue? Should I age my egg whites? What about the almond flour? Should I grind my own and/or air-dry it? Continue reading