Friday, November 11, 2011

quite unexpected

Sometimes the best things are the simple things, the hidden ones, the unexpected goodness found when you least expect it.

Like Nantucket Pie, for example.

Perhaps this will not surprise you, well-informed reader, but Nantucket Pie--it's a thing! I had no idea. But it's out there. Baking in people's ovens, residing on their food blogs, perched upon dining room tables and kitchen counters. Particularly in Nantucket, I assume.

I'm told that the late Laurie Colwin has a classic version of this recipe in her book More Home Cooking. The recipe featured here today, however, came to me a few Saturdays ago in a slightly more haphazard way than, you know, a book. (As is appropriate, I imagine. My life feels much more haphazard than your typical glossy cookbook photograph.)

I purchase my cranberries faithfully from the cranberry lady at my local farmers market, who also sells blueberries in the summertime, offers a plethora of surely-scrumptious-yet-extremely-expensive jams (due to the latter part of that description, I have purchased approximately one) and is the only certified organic berry vendor at the market.

Yet I must say that Cranberry Lady is not particularly...friendly. She's not unpleasant, just distracted. Or extremely disinterested? I'm not entirely sure. On the Saturday morning in question, after she handed me my box of cranberries, I was responding with an overenthusiastic smile (in hopes of lifting her spirits) and turning to go when she reached toward me again, a brochure in her hand. No eye contact. Then one word, in complete monotone: "Here."

Now as it happens, what Cranberry Lady lacks in enthusiasm, her pamphlet provides in abundance. It is all about the humble cranberry! The pamphlet comes by way of the Michigan Cranberry Marketing Committee--which I didn't even know we had! I'm learning so many new things. "Say yes to Michigan cranberries!" the pamphlet instructs me with evident enthusiasm.

And indeed, I do. Yes, Michigan cranberries, yes.

And so it came to pass that a few days later, whilst making dinner with Ben and craving dessert (as is typical) to accompany it, I remembered the notably brief recipe I'd spotted in the brochure. Nantucket Pie, or Henrietta's Easy Cranberry Pie, it was called, though as I scanned the ingredients and extremely concise instructions, it seemed unlikely to me that this eight-line recipe was going to produce anything much like a pie. It was mysterious. I wanted dessert. We gave it a go.

Before we knew it, my apartment was filled with the scent of comfort and warmth and the holidays. Dessert was completed before dinner, but we showed tremendous restraint and ate our vegetables first.

And oh, but what a worthwhile wait! The pie was scrumptious. As I will not be the first to note, this recipe produces a "pie" that is not very pie-like. It's more reminiscent of a cake, a simple one, the kind I most enjoy. Most of the cranberries linger near the bottom, and the moist cake rises between them, culminating with a crisp top. The flavor is simple and delicious.

I made it again last night, and after I had slowly eaten my slice, pausing between each bite, I was very, very sad that it was over.

Part of the goodness of the Nantucket Pie is that its deliciousness and my sense of culinary success were so utterly unexpected. Hardly any ingredients, obscenely simple instructions, an incredibly quick preparation, the mysterious label of "pie" for something quite decidedly not pie--I had very low expectations.

If you think something is going to be good and it is good, that's wonderful. But if you have no idea what is coming and it turns out to be this good...well. That is another thing entirely.

And I probably don't even need to tell you outright, but all of this is much like my life.

Yours, too, I imagine.

Nantucket Cranberry Pie
Adapted from the Michigan Cranberry Marketing Committee brochure

2 1/2 cups cranberries, fresh or frozen (if frozen, no need to defrost)
1/2 cup walnuts or pecans, chopped, optional
1/3 - 1/2 cup sugar
3/4 cup (3 ounces) butter, melted
3/4 - 1 cup sugar (if you like, swap out 1/4 cup for brown sugar)
1 cup all-purpose flour (or, 1/2 cup white + 1/2 cup whole wheat)
2 eggs, beaten
1 tsp vanilla

Preheat over to 375 F.

Butter a 9-or-so-inch pie pan. Pour in the cranberries and then the walnuts, if using. Sprinkle the first 1/3 - 1/2 cup sugar on top.

Combine the remaining ingredients and beat until incorporated. Pour the mixture over the cranberry layer.

Bake for 30-40 minutes, until the top of the pie/cake is a lovely shade of light brown.

Yield: 6 slices

Sunday, October 2, 2011

my arms are open.

It is official: fall has arrived.

This is evidenced now not only by the calendar. The trees are changing colors, I pulled my boots out from the back of my closet, my landlords have turned the heat on, I bought brussels sprouts and sweet potatoes at the market, I ate two cinnamon-coated donuts and drank hot cider at a nearby cider mill this afternoon and I am fighting a nasty cold (which would totally justify the two donuts, if I felt justification were necessary, which I do not). Also, I have baked three harvest cakes. More on that later.

Those who spend any amount of time with me know that I love fall, but I love it with hesitancy these days. I find this season enchanting and beautiful, but it comes before winter, which, though also enchanting and beautiful, is cold. I used to love winter, too, but now the best I can say is that winter and I get along alright. You see, while I adore snow and festivity and Christmastime, I also get very, very cold. Additionally, I do not appreciate the darkness that descends for the sum total of the hours I'm out of the office. And there is no one to drive me over the slick and icy roads, cover the rising cost of heating a home or shovel my car out from snowdrifts, like there was in my childhood (thanks for that, Mom and Dad). The fresh produce disappears, and I am relegated to the track at the Y, banished (or at least greatly discouraged) by the snow and cold from regular runs on my city's streets.

I know that all of this worry is premature. But sometimes, I cannot help but be irrational. As soon as I sensed summer fading, I began behaving as though mid-February was coming, you know, tomorrow. It's almost winter, I whimpered as children bought fresh notebooks and apples crept into the market stalls.

However! I come to you today with good news: I have embraced fall, even knowing that the darkness and cold of winter will follow.

The shifting of the seasons is a beautiful, magical thing, as is the passing of time, and as is the movement of our lives from one situation into the next...and we cannot have that beauty without all of the intricacies, both good and bad, of each moment along the way. I know this; I have known this for a very long time. I just tend to forget.

And after all, this is what we must do, is it not? When we've finished griping and complaining and worrying, either we embrace our circumstances and the corners of the world we inhabit, challenges and quirks included...or we don't, and life happens anyway.

So I have stopped myself mid-worry, and I am opening my arms, choosing to embrace this season of the calendar year--and, yes, this season of my life. I have resolved to invest in a few more layers of clothing and to drink as many warm beverages as it takes. I am choosing to be happy.

Now, let's get to that cake, shall we? I was prompted by my dear friend Sarah, who is currently far away from me on the isles of Hawaii, to bake a cake she spotted on the internet (wish I could have shared this with you, my dear!). It is a cake for harvest time, filled with zucchini and carrot and apple, along with an array of other wholesome and delicious ingredients. As noted, I have made it three times now, with numerous tweaks and variations along the way to bring me to the following version. It's a friendly cake, open to such things, so experiment yourself if you so desire.

This cake is filling and hearty, just right for the glorious early autumn now upon us, when the cold begins to brush against your skin though the sun still shines brightly, when you need a scarf around your neck but can still wear a sweater in lieu of a coat. It is a knobby cake, with a very nice crumb and a rustic sweetness. A slice of this pairs perfectly with a mug of hot cider or coffee, and it is healthful (and delicious) enough for breakfast or the most delightful of mid-morning snacks. It is also wonderful with frosting, for dessert.

And so. My arms are open, and I am embracing this season.

But as with any difficult task, cake certainly doesn't hurt.
Harvest Cake
Adapted from Roost

3 cups white whole wheat flour (or 1 1/2 cup white and 1 1/2 cup wheat flour)
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons cinnamon
pinch nutmeg
1/4 cup coconut or olive oil
1/4 cup honey (+1 tablespoon if you like, for a slightly sweeter, moister cake)
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
3 eggs, lightly beaten
1 cup carrot, grated
1 cup zucchini, grated
1 cup apple, grated
1/2 cup walnuts, chopped, optional (but very much recommended if you like nuts)

Preheat oven to 350 F.

Grease a 9 or 10-inch cake or springform pan. Combine the dry ingredients in a large bowl. Combine the wet ingredients in a separate, smaller bowl. Add the wet mixture to the dry, and stir gently to incorporate. Pour into the prepared pan.

Bake for 40-45 minutes, or until a tester inserted into the center emerges clean. Frost if you wish (one of my favorite frosting recipes follows) and enjoy!

Yield: 8-10 slices

Not-Too-Sweet Buttercream Frosting
From Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything Vegetarian

12 tablespoons (6 oz.) butter, softened
2 1/2 cups confectioners' sugar
pinch salt
1/4 cup + 2 tablespoons milk or cream, slightly more if needed
2 teaspoons vanilla extract

Using a fork or electric mixer, cream the butter. Add the sugar and salt, alternating with the milk and beating well after each addition. Stir in the vanilla. If the buttercream is too thin, refrigerate it until it hardens enough to spread easily.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

everything is alright.

This tart is for you. Because everyone needs love in the form of ripe, late-summer peaches topped with bubbling sugar and surrounded by a crisp, crumbly pie dough from time to time, right?

I do, at least. Tangible good things such as this remind me that everything really is alright, and sometimes, I desperately need that reminder.

I didn't have clear expectations for my twenty-something-lady life, or even clear desires, and perhaps that's why all of this (i.e. my life at present) feels like such a surprise. Furthermore, sometimes great-big-real-world-adult life is really not all that exciting. And you see, I like excitement. Routine and plans and patterns, yes, but also excitement. I always need something to look forward to, and I have a bad habit of desiring greatness and excitement, in everything and all the time.

And so, contentment has been fleeting lately. There have been conversations and emails and musings over cups of coffee that have informed my thoughts on all of this, but the wisdom and clarity and profundity of them escape me now. Yet those moments, and the moments when the aroma of a baking cake fills my apartment, or I sit down for dinner with that fellow I love, or I catch a glimpse of the sky erupting in a million colors as the sun slips down, or I see my parents arriving at my front door for a visit, or someone once again gives me grace I don't deserve...those moments remind me that it's okay.

Because this is life, whether or not we expected it. This. All of it, imperfect though it may be. Sheets draped all over my apartment when the dryer doesn't quite finish the job and chipped toenail polish and long to do lists and dirty dishes.

Life is full of imperfection and confusion. But beauty, too. Quiet moments in a cool room while the last wave of summer heat and humidity barrels through the streets of my city. An exuberant new intern at work. Almost-but-not-quite missing the fireworks last night. A really, really wonderful new friend. Harvest cake. The enormous zucchini I bought at the market today, discounted by a friend I've not seen since springtime. Good books. Dreams for the future.

But I am still coming to terms with the fact that this is the nature of life. That this is alright. I still want to apologize when the floors aren't clean or my hair is a mess...but at the same time, I don't. And I refuse to. The very act of it would be to embrace the idea that life should be otherwise, that I can't quite live up to how I ought to be. I'd much rather work on believing that I'm doing just fine.

And so I continue to settle into the understanding that sometimes the slightly burnt edges are the very best part. The soft plums in the dimpled and sugared folds of that lopsided cake I baked for my dear friend's visit taste just the same as they would if the darned thing were symmetrical. And you can, in fact, serve the first half of a delightful peach tart to your friends on a Friday night and the second half of that same tart to your visiting parents and your boyfriend the next evening.

This tart, to be specific. And not only is it lovely and delicious and summery, but also, it is simple.

So bake this tart, or don't. And make it perfectly, or totally screw up. It's okay. You're alright. And so am I.
Amanda Hesser's Peach Tart
Adapted from Amanda Hesser's excellent recipe, found both at food52 and in her book Cooking for Mr. Latte

1 1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose or white whole wheat flour, or a combination, divided
3/4 teaspoons salt, divided
3/4 cup plus 1 teaspoon sugar (or slightly less), divided
1/4 cup mild olive oil
1/4 cup vegetable or canola oil (or use olive oil for the full 1/2 cup)
2 tablespoons milk, 2% or whole
1/2 teaspoon almond extract
2 tablespoons cold, unsalted butter
3 to 5 small ripe peaches, pitted and sliced into crescents of about 1/2 inch width

Preheat the oven to 425 F. Stir together 1 1/2 cups flour, 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1 teaspoon sugar. In another, smaller bowl, whisk the oils, milk and almond extract together. Pour the wet mixture into the dry and mix gently with a fork, being careful not to overwork the dough.

Transfer the dough to a tart pan (anything between 9 and 11 inches or so). Pat and prod the dough until it covers the bottom of the pan, and then push it up the sides to meet the pan's edges. It should be approximately 1/8 inch thick all around. Trim and discard excess dough if necessary.

Combine 3/4 cup sugar (or less if you feel so moved), 2 tablespoons flour, 1/4 teaspoon salt and the butter. For exceptionally juicy peaches, add an additional tablespoon of flour. Pinch the butter into the dry ingredients until you have a nice crumbly mixture, with both fine and pebble-sized pieces.

Starting on the outer edges of the tart, arrange the peaches, slightly overlapping them, in concentric circles. Fill the center as well, in whatever pattern you choose. (In fact, you may arrange your peaches just as haphazardly, or not, as you desire, fitting with the theme of the reflections above.) The peaches should be tucked in snugly. Sprinkle the crumbly mixture on top. (Amanda Hesser told me it would seem like a lot, and lo! she was correct. It will indeed seem like a lot.)

Bake for 35 to 45 minutes. Remove the tart from the oven when shiny, thick bubbles are beginning to cover the fruit and the crust is slightly brown. Place on a rack to cool.

Serve the tart warm or at room temperature, perhaps with large dollop of whipped cream. It will still taste delicious the following day--good enough even for company.

Yield: 8 slices

Thursday, August 25, 2011

summertime, thus far.

Well hello! I hope you're having a lovely summertime, dear reader. I am making this long-overdue stop to tell the story of my summer to date.

If, by chance, you are questioning my use of "thus far" and "to date," if you are by necessity purchasing fresh notebooks for a fall semester or writing lesson plans or already sitting in a classroom, or if--God forbid!--you are one of those hurrying the season away, let me just tell you right now that I firmly believe that things last as long as we choose, and my summer is not over. I know, I know, easy for me to say in my post-collegiate, (currently) non-academic world. But as long as I still want iced coffee and am not wearing scarves and tights, it is summer. I anticipate that summer will last well into September, maybe October.

Is that okay with everyone? Good. Onward.

This summer has consisted of many a lovely thing, as it tends to be with summer. There have been picnics by rivers
and on beaches.
Overheated in my windowless little orange kitchen, I have prepared an abundance of baked goods filled with market-fresh fruit, from rhubarb

I also made a chocolate cake, to ensure that chocolate didn't get completely slighted in my kitchen this summer.
I developed a slight obsession with ricotta, atop toasts and further adorned with...anything,

or inside of crepes, similarly adorned,
and I added this incredible savory tart to my repertoire. Thank you, David Lebovitz!
I fell, hard, for white wines
and deepened my affection for the iced americano.
And I traveled! First, to Minnesota in late May (uh, also summertime on my calendar). There, I visited my lovely sister and brother-in-law and also spoke on behalf my organization. I was rather excited about seeing the church Anthony pastors.
Sara and I baked up a storm
and ate copious amounts of rhubarb. (Anthony abstained.)
The three of us enjoyed good food, walked all over the little town and nearby woodlands, talked for hours and laughed. It was wonderful.
In early July, Ben and I hopped on a train with a bunch of amazing young people from Ben's church

and spent a number of very hot days in Austin, Texas, where we talked to homeless folks and threw carnivals for kids and boxed food and painted houses and learned and laughed and worshiped and didn't sleep enough.
I love these youth-folk.

And though for the most part, the culinary dimension of the experience left something to be desired, there were a few high points.

Ben and I also took a trip to Chicago, where we spent time with two sets of good friends

and adventured
and frequented a bakery I adore. (We enjoyed our glorious pastries at a nearby park.)
My whole (immediate) family recently congregated for one very happy day.
And I camped with friends. It was not nearly as cold as my first real camping experience last September, and although it rained, it was fabulous.
I wore red patent leather shoes to the wedding of two people I love very much,
where I also saw a dear friend after too long apart.
I have passed many Saturday morning hours at the market and have prepared and thoroughly enjoyed many wonderful meals

and, on the less-fancy-but-no-less-delightful end, a lot of toast with yogurt and jam.

Ben's sweet nieces and nephews increased my joy, and we welcomed another little one into his family's fold and into the world.

I wore sundresses and sandals and installed a window box air conditioner and read food memoirs.
And this fellow kept making my world ever-so-bright.
In sum, it's been a good set of days. Hopefully, I'll return soon with a recipe, and before long, some exciting (blog-related) news!

Until then, keep enjoying summer, my friends. And remember--it is not over yet!