December 15, 2011

the wind beneath a book's wings

"Used to be when a bird flew into a window, Milly and Twiss got a visit. Milly would put a kettle on and set out whatever culinary adventure she'd gone on that day. For morning arrivals, she offered her famous vanilla drop biscuits and raspberry jam."
--The Bird Sisters, Rebecca Rasmussen
It seems to me that birds have succeeded in squawking their way into authors' and publishers' minds, for they populate a good number of standout book titles. I loved Birds of America, Delicate Edible Birds, The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, and To Kill a Mockingbird. I did not, however, love Anne Lamott's Imperfect Birds (disappointing, because I so enjoyed her non-fiction Bird by Bird); I couldn't even make it past the first 20 pages. This observation, just now, has led me to propose a literary hypothesis of sorts: Any book with "bird" in its title will evoke a love or hate reaction from me — nothing in between. Any scientist (or student who pays attention in biology class) will tell you that a hypothesis is meant to be tested. The Bird Sisters may just be the first book to succeed in disproving my (short-lived) hypothesis. I'm about halfway through, and neither loving nor hating it.

The first few pages held so much promise; already in the first page or two, it proposed to be a story about two sisters, and one of them even liked to bake. It also hinted at some sort of suspenseful coming-of-age story, but the suspense hasn't really come through yet. Instead, it has been mildly entertaining — lively enough to keep me reading, but not good enough to recommend it to anyone yet. I'll keep reading in hopes that my hypothesis will remain intact, in the event that I either fall in love with or develop an intense hatred of this book over the next day or two. It could happen.

In the meantime, on to more pressing (i.e. gastronomical) concerns...boy, would I love a recipe for those vanilla drop biscuits. I imagine they're somewhat like scones.

December 5, 2011

Baking things slow, like molasses

I tend to enjoy coming-of-age stories, and Laura Morirarty's The Center of Everything is no different. Told from the female perspective, it runs in the same vein as Mona Simpson's Anywhere but Here. Both books suck you in and hold you there for a time, reminding you of how it can be all too possible for a teenage girl to intermittently adore and hate her mother; it is a bond unlike any other she will form in her life.
I watch Deena draw on her pumpkin with a ballpoint pen. The swirling lines she's making don't look like anything yet, but I know they will. She never messes up.
"You're so good at things like this," I tell her.
She looks up quickly, like I have surprised her. "No," she says. "Not really."
--The Center of Everything, Laura Moriarty
The pumpkin carving scene above reminded me that I will always prefer to eat a pumpkin rather than carve one. Maybe it's just because I'm more of a fatty than an artist. Tonight, I did something I've been meaning to do since Thanksgiving: I baked a pumpkin gingerbread loaf. I must say I'm quite pleased with the results; it came out splendidly moist with good spiced flavor.

At my sister's suggestion, I also made a glaze to go along with it. The glaze is optional, however; reserved for those who can get behind the phrase "the sweeter the better." It's also very fun to drizzle on top of the cake. I love drizzling! (...referring to glazes and sauces, not the weather, though that can be nice at times, too, I suppose.)

Glazed Pumpkin Gingerbread Loaf
For the loaf
1 1/2 cups flour
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
2 tsp ground ginger
2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
1/2 cup melted butter (unsalted)
1/2 cup dark brown sugar
1/2 cup molasses
1 cup pumpkin puree (1/2 of a 15-oz. can)
2 extra-large eggs
3 tbsp water
1 tsp vanilla extract

For the cinnamon glaze
1/2 cup confectioner's sugar
2 1/2 tsp water
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 sprinkling of cinnamon

Preheat oven to 350 deg F. Grease a loaf pan and set aside. combine dry ingredients in a medium bowl. Combine wet ingredients in a large bowl. Fold the dry ingredients into the wet until they are well mixed. Pour the batter into the prepared loaf pan and bake for 55-60 min.

Prepare the glaze while the loaf is baking. Whisk all glaze ingredients together and drizzle over the finished cake.

December 1, 2011

sugar and spice / and books that are nice

After an unusually warm November, New York delivered cold and crisp temperatures this morning, just in time for the first day of December.

For a long time, December was, hands down, my favorite month; it meant, among other joys, winter break, birthdays, and decorating the Christmas tree with a hodgepodge of assorted ornaments. But over the years, it has lost some of its luster; the artificial Christmas tree was increasingly neglected and eventually thrown away, and when college ended, so too did winter break.

Even so, December will always be a time when I actually feel happy about being nostalgic — nostalgic for all sorts of things, including but not limited to tried and true treats of the edible variety (ginger cookies and pumpkin-spiced everything) and classic stories (told by the likes of Dickens, Eliot, and Louisa May Alcott).
There are many Beths in the world, shy and quiet, sitting in corners till needed, and living for others so cheerfully that no one sees the sacrifices till the little cricket on the hearth stops chirping, and the sweet, sunshiny presence vanishes, leaving silence and shadow behind.
Little Women, Louisa May Alcott
How nice it is to remember that one can always count on being able to sink back into the welcoming, cozy tale of the March sisters, just as one can bite into a ginger cookie and expect to taste molasses, every time.

Chewy Ginger Cookies or Dunkable "Snaps"
Makes 2 dozen

2/3 cup canola oil
1 cup sugar + more for dipping, later
1 large egg
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/4 cup molasses
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp ginger
pinch of salt

Preheat oven to 350° F. Whisk together the oil, sugar, egg, and vanilla extract. Stir in the molasses.

Mix the flour, baking soda, and spices together in a separate bowl, then add to the wet ingredients. Combine into a uniform dough. Pour about 1/3 cup of sugar and a pinch of salt into a shallow bowl or plate. Shape the dough into approximately two dozen tablespoon-size balls, and roll each into the sugar/salt mixture. Place the balls a few inches apart on an ungreased cookie sheet. No need to flatten the balls -- they should flatten into discs while baking.

Bake for 10 minutes for chewy gingersnaps, or 12-14 minutes for "snaps" that are crunchy enough to dip. Remove them from the cookie sheet and cool on a plate or rack.

Best enjoyed with a good book and hot mug of your favorite winter beverage. Incidentally, National Cookie Day is this Sunday, Dec. 4th!

"If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel's heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence."
–Middlemarch, George Eliot

November 18, 2011

Ode to the simple sandwich

There are some types of food I only crave at certain times. Ginger ale on airplanes. Grilled cheese and tomato soup on rainy days. And tomato sandwiches whenever, for some reason or other, I am reminded of Harriet the Spy. Harriet the Spy may not be one of my favorite children's books, but something in me respects the fact that this book still has the power to make me crave a tomato sandwich every now and then.
The next morning Mrs. Welsch asked, "Wouldn't you like to try a ham sandwich, or egg salad, or peanut butter?" Her mother looked quizzically at Harriet while the cook stood next to the table looking enraged.
"Tomato," said Harriet, not even looking up from the book she was reading at breakfast.
Harriet the Spy, Louise Fitzhugh
I was most recently reminded of Harriet the Spy while reading Haruki Murakami's 1Q84. If you can't tell by now, I read with my stomach, and Murakami consistently provides some pretty tasty food for thought. I always look forward to reading about the simple meals his loner characters cook at home. Often it's spaghetti. Tengo of 1Q84 tends to make pretty healthy meals for himself, ranging from broiled mackerel to radish salad and miso soup. At one point,  he channels Harriet's old standby, the tomato sandwich, though he alters it a bit by adding cheese:
He knew he couldn't go back to sleep, so he boiled water and made coffee. That woke him up a bit. Feeling hungry, he threw together a sandwich of tomatoes and cheese that were in the fridge.
1Q84, Haruki Murakami
Sandwiches have gotten pretty complicated and fancy. Just look at this list. Sometimes I forget that a sandwich can be very good even if it is only two ingredients: two slices of your favorite bread and a perfect slice of ripe tomato. Maybe a little mustard, too, but that's it. Perfection in simplicity.

November 7, 2011

Cormac McCarthy and Char Power

The flames sawed in the wind and the embers paled and deepened and paled and deepened like the blood beat of some living thing eviscerate upon the ground before them and they watched the fire which does contain within it something of men themselves inasmuch as they are less without it and are divided from their origins and are exiles. For each fire is all fires, the first fire and the last ever to be.
--Blood Meridian, Cormac McCarthy
I've never cooked over an open fire; I imagine that it must be ideal for achieving a nice char on various foods. I happen to enjoy burnt and/or charred food more than the average person...I usually like to slightly burn my toast because of how delicious it tastes after the black bits have been scraped off.

Recently, I discovered that charring is a fantastic way to entice people to eat things they normally wouldn't, i.e. cauliflower and kale.

So crank up that oven and give thanks that you're not one of those poor souls stoking an open fire in one of McCarthy's gruesome tales.

Roasted Cauliflower
1 head cauliflower, chopped into 1/2 inch chunks
2-3 cloves of garlic, chopped
olive or canola oil
salt and pepper

Preheat oven to 450 deg F. Line a baking sheet with foil and spread the cauliflower chunks and garlic in an even layer. Drizzle oil over the cauliflower and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Roast for about 25 minutes or until the edges of the cauliflower are dark brown or slightly charred, no more and no less.

October 13, 2011

Crack an egg in it; it's done.

"It always seems like such a waste preparing a meal for one," Nakajima said. "A waste of food and a waste of time. But I don't feel that way at all when I'm cooking for two."
I stepped up from the apartment's entryway and peeked inside the kitchen.
"Thanks for cooking," I said. "Wow, look how neatly you cut the tofu!"
The tofu in the pot was divided so precisely it looked as if he had used a ruler.
--The Lake, Banana Yoshimoto
Banana Yoshimoto's characters really seem to value the importance of cooking for loved ones, and then sitting down to eat together. I couldn't agree more; this was always a really important ritual in my family as well. Growing up, my family didn't really eat at sit-down restaurants very often, maybe because the closest (good) Chinese restaurant was about an hourlong drive away. By the time we moved to an area that was positively teeming with Asian restaurants, my parents had become such excellent chefs that going out to eat only seemed appealing if we could order something we wouldn't be able to make at home. Until recently, one of the dishes I thought it would be best to leave to the pros was Korean tofu stew, or soondubu jjigae.

I've discovered that the dirty little secret (and shortcut) to successfully recreating Asian restaurant food at home is buying the right kind of sauce or "paste" (reminds me of those children's books in which some poor kid talks about eating library paste...). For certain Chinese dishes, fermented black bean paste is a key ingredient. And recently I realized what the Korean equivalent of this was: red pepper! For kimchi tofu stew, red pepper paste is a key player. Use it and you'll be surprised at how it transforms your homemade broth into something that could have come straight out of a Korean restaurant.

Everyone has their own style of cutting tofu -- some, like Nakajima's, are more precise and ruler-like, others, more free-form. One of my coworkers proofreads by using a ruler to cross out unwanted lines of text. My pages always look sloppy by comparison. Similarly, my tofu cutting style is rather imperfect, but it's consistent: I always cut tofu into triangles, except when making mapo tofu; that always calls for cubes. Sometimes I get 24 triangles out of one block; other days, I opt for 48. Any way you slice it, the tofu will be delicious in this broth.

Spicy Korean Tofu Stew
4 large leaves of Napa cabbage, chopped
3 large button mushrooms, quartered
1/2 cup sliced fish cake
1 tomato, chopped
1/2 large onion, chopped
1 clove of garlic, minced
3/4 cup cabbage kimchi
1 box of soft or medium tofu, cut into your signature tofu shape
2 medium cucumbers, chopped
1 tbsp soy sauce
dash of dashi powder
1 tbsp red pepper paste
1 pinch of red pepper flakes
1-3 white fish fillets, cut into large chunks*
3 hard-boiled eggs
salt and pepper, to taste

In a large pot, saute the napa, mushrooms, fish cake, tomato, onion, and garlic until the Napa is softened. Add in the kimchi, tofu, fish fillets along with the rest of the ingredients/seasonings and about a cup of water. Bring to a boil and turn down the heat to low and let simmer for about 20 minutes. If you want, skip the hard-boiled eggs and do it restaurant-style by dropping the eggs directly into the hot bubbling broth right before sitting down to eat.

*Any kind of meat or other type of seafood can be substituted for the fish fillets and fish cake.

October 5, 2011

Interpreter of Ma'lentils

From the kitchen my mother brought forth the succession of dishes: lentils with fried onions, green beans with coconut, fish cooked with raisins in a yogurt sauce. I followed with the water glasses, and the plate of lemon wedges, and the chili peppers, purchased on monthly trips to Chinatown and stored by the pound in the freezer, which they liked to snap open and crush into their food.
—"When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine," Jhumpa Lahiri
A select few things in life — good books, dear friends, and lentil stew among them — are undeniably wonderful upon first experience, but grow even better with age. I waited several years to reread Lahiri's lovely short story collection, Interpreter of Maladies, and even though I remember how enchanting it was the first time, it was even better the second time.

Sure looks healthy, eh?
Lahiri often mentions dal and/or lentils in her writing. I don't know how to make dal, but a friend and I made a terrific pot of lentil stew during Hurricane Irene that — like Lahiri's stories — was even more enjoyable the second time around (the next morning).

Unlike beans, lentils are pretty low-maintenance legumes; you don't have to soak them overnight before cooking them. Just rinse and drain beforehand. They also have about twice as much iron as other legumes. Woohoo!

Aside from the lentils, you can use whatever vegetables you want. I've had success with Napa cabbage, regular cabbage, celery, name it. However, I think the carrots, onions, and garlic are non-negotiable ingredients. If you're not a fan of shiitake mushrooms (they can be a bit aggressive in flavor), just omit them. I adore them in this soup, though; their texture allows them to perfectly soak up the delicious broth. When eaten with rice, this stew is a complete protein dish.

Shiitake Lentil Stew*
Part 1: Non-legume plants
2 onions, minced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tomato, chopped
2 carrots, cut into small chunks
6 button mushrooms, quartered
6 dried shiitake mushrooms, rehydrated in warm water and chopped into bite-sized pieces (stems removed)
Part 2: The other stuff
1 1/2 cups lentils
4 1/2 cups water or vegetable/chicken stock
1/2 can tomato paste
2 tbsp ketchup
1 tsp ground cumin
salt and white pepper

Saute the vegetables from part 1 in a pan over medium-high heat until fragrant, about 10-15 minutes. Then add the ingredients for part 2 and stir and cover. Bring to a boil and stir again, then lower the heat to low and let simmer for about an hour (or less, depending on how soft or firm you like your lentils).

Serve with a drizzle of Sriracha sauce.

September 25, 2011

Toad and oats, he wrote.

Spotting a typo online is like spotting a zebra in the zoo; it's not particularly unexpected, nor is it challenging. Part of the reason, I think, is that the typos are so easily fixed, after which a page refresh makes everything appear as good as new. On the other hand, I get really, really excited whenever I spot a potential typo in a good old-fashioned book. For example:
The horse could not do without Manhattan. It drew him like a magnet, like a vacuum, like oats, or a mare, or an open, never-ending, tree-lined toad.
--Winter's Tale, Mark Helprin
The beautiful and risky thing about anything published in print is that any and all typos are permanent, at least for that particular edition of the book or magazine. My favorite typo of all time? Last year, a cookbook published in Australia mistakenly listed "freshly ground black people" instead of "freshly ground black pepper" as an ingredient in a recipe. Still makes me chuckle to this day. Spell check never stood a chance.

The good news is that a typo usually doesn't have the power to make or break good writing. I actually still really like that quotation, even if it was distracting to wonder, for a bit, what a tree-lined toad would look like. Must be some very tiny trees, or a very large toad. I liked the mystical quality of this particular horse being drawn to Manhattan in the same unquestionable way a horse is drawn to oats.

As a fellow oat lover, I can really identify. I make oatmeal as a nighttime snack about once a week. The following recipe is the version I make the most often, since it combines my love for oats and Asian pastries. Best bedtime snack ever.

Oatmeal for One, Asian-Style
1/2 cup quick-cook oats
3/4 to 1 cup boiling water
1 tbsp sweetened red bean paste
1 tsp black sesame powder
a sprinkle of salt

Combine all ingredients in a bowl and enjoy.

September 23, 2011

I love prairie food.

Fuchs brought up a sack of potatoes and a piece of cured pork from the cellar, and grandmother packed some loaves of Saturday's bread, a jar of butter, and several pumpkin pies in the straw of the wagon-box. We clambered up to the front seat and jolted off past the little pond and along the road that climbed to the big cornfield.
--My Antonia, Willa Cather

September 6, 2011

Chocolate Cake of the Sea

She looked drowsily round her. A nice vase of flowers stood on the dressing-table; there was the polished wardrobe and a china box by her bedside. She lifted the lid. Yes; four biscuits and a pale piece of chocolate — in case she should be hungry in the night. Celia had provided books too, The Diary of a Nobody, Ruff's Tour in Northumberland and an odd volume of Dante, in case she should wish to read in the night.
--The Years, Virginia Woolf 
A good host, in my book (as in Virginia's), is someone who provides guests with easy access to two very important things: ample reading material and bedtime snacks. Celia's biscuits and chocolate sound quite lovely indeed.

And yet, the best kind of bedtime snack, I think, is not chocolate, nor is it biscuits. It's not even chocolate biscuits, however delicious those may be. No, I think it is something closer to a nice square of chocolate cake, preferably warm from the oven or chilled in the refrigerator.

I will probably never stop searching for the perfect chocolate cake. It's a recurring obsession of mine, born of reading Roald Dahl's Matilda as a young child and wondering incessantly what kind of chocolate cake could be good enough to finish in one sitting. Yes, the kid was admittedly a fatty, but even a fatty couldn't have finished a cake of such grand proportions if it weren't extremely tasty.

Every time I bake a chocolate cake I tweak the recipe, hoping I'll get it up to Matilda caliber someday. I think I'm getting very close. In fact, I think I recently reached a new level of chocolate cake excellence. The last chocolate cake I made ended up being so addicting that I decided to put half of it in the fridge, because I was afraid I'd finish the whole cake that very night (I wanted some for the next day). Turns out the cake tasted even better when it was chilled. Something about the cold temperature made the contrasting sea salt and chocolate flavors stand out even more.

You know how sometimes, when you're faced with a massive, delicious dessert, you want to keep eating, but you're afraid it may be too sweet to handle all at once? If you're lucky, a magical thing will happen. You will take a sip of water and you'll feel refreshed and ready to eat more of that delicious treat. Well, the sea salt in this chocolate cake kind of acts like that sip of water. The extra boost of savory flavor from those rare chunks of sea salt help make it possible to eat more of this cake than you might have otherwise. If you are predisposed to love chocolate, and Miss Turnbull forced you to eat the whole thing, you probably wouldn't have any trouble completing the task. It might even make you a glutton for punishment. Be afraid. Be very afraid.

Sea Salt Chocolate Cake
1/2 cup cocoa powder
3/4 cup hot water
1 cup flour
1/2 cup almond flour
1/4 cup brown sugar
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp sea salt
1/2 tsp instant coffee
1 extra-large egg
1/4 cup canola oil
1 tsp vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 350°F. Spray an 8x8 square baking pan with cooking spray and set aside.

Combine the cocoa powder with the hot water and stir. Set aside to cool. In a large bowl, combine the dry ingredients and then add in the egg, oil and vanilla. Fold slightly and then add in the cocoa/hot water mixture. Stir until smooth.

Pour batter into the prepared pan and bake for 35 minutes. This cake tastes particularly irresistible the next day, after it's been chilled in the fridge. The problem is, it's hard not to want to eat the whole thing right away. Keep in mind, however, that delayed gratification has never been my strong suit, so maybe you'll fare better.

August 21, 2011

yolk folk and white knights

Reading exposes you to many kinds of people — more than you might ever expect to meet in this lifetime. And sometimes it exposes you to the kinds of people you have met, but won't ever understand.
"I suppose Miss Bartlett must come, since she boils eggs so well," said Cecil, who was in rather a happier frame of mind, thanks to the admirable cooking.

"I didn't mean the egg was WELL boiled," corrected Freddy, "because in point of fact she forgot to take it off, and as a matter of fact I don't care for eggs. I only meant how jolly kind she seemed."
A Room With a View, E.M. Forster
What kind of person doesn't care for eggs? E.M. Forster, what a wild imagination you have. Just kidding. I actually have come across several individuals who are either repelled by or indifferent to eggs. I don't know which is worse — both are just plum awful.

As an egg afficionado, I'm not too picky about the way my eggs are cooked — but that doesn't mean I don't have favorites. One of my favorite ways to consume eggs is scrambled with tomatoes and scallions.

Spray a saucepan with cooking spray and throw in a chopped, juicy tomato. Cook until it's bubbling in the pan, and swirl in an egg or two along with a sliced scallion. Season with salt and pepper and scramble until just barely runny. Serve on a bed of sliced romaine lettuce, for an atypical "egg salad."

Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted,
And human love will be seen at its height. —E.M. Forster

July 17, 2011

The End (of the Fish) of the Story

As I work my way through The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis — a collection that makes clear just how literal the "short" in "short story" can be — I'm still wrestling with the idea that a paragraph, let alone an incomplete sentence, can constitute a short story.

In interviews, people have approached Davis with similar concerns. She invariably responds that she wouldn't know what else these works of fiction might be: they're stories. It's like those paintings that people who don't "get" modern art (myself included) think a kindergartner could create by accident. Like those paintings, Lydia Davis's stories seem deceptively simple; some of them read like fleeting thoughts that Davis might have jotted down on the bus. Still, they're the thoughts of a deeply intelligent woman, which makes them harder to replicate than one might think.

I suspect most writers have at least one food that serves as their muse. It seems like Davis has a thing for fish. The following is not an excerpt — it's the whole story:
She stands over a fish, thinking about certain irrevocable mistakes she has made today. Now the fish has been cooked, and she is alone with it. The fish is for her — there is no one else in the house. But she has had a troubling day. How can she eat this fish, cooling on a slab of marble? And yet the fish, too, motionless as it is, and dismantled from its bones, and fleeced of its silver skin, has never been so completely alone as it is now: violated in a final manner and regarded with a weary eye by this woman who has made the latest mistake of her day and done this to it.
--"The Fish", Lydia Davis
After reading this, I really wanted to eat some fish. I don't know why; the fish in the story doesn't sound very appetizing. But perhaps this woman's first "irrevocable mistake" was choosing to cook a whole fish. This can be somewhat daunting and I personally prefer fillets because there is nothing staring back at you from the plate — just delicious, eyeless flesh. Mmmm.

Speaking of irrevocable mistakes, do not botch a perfectly nice salmon fillet by overcooking it. You might as well spend your money on canned tuna. Guard against this sad fate by selecting a fattier fillet from the belly area. If you see lots of white marbling, that's a good indication that it's less likely to dry out.

Asian Oven-Poached Salmon
3-5 large leaves of Napa cabbage, chopped into large chunks
1 lb. salmon fillet
1 tbsp rice vinegar
3 tbsp low-sodium soy sauce
1 tsp sesame oil
1 tsp sugar
2 tsp dijon mustard

Preheat oven to 375 °F. Spray an 8x8 square baking pan with cooking spray. Lay the leaves of cabbage along the bottom of the pan. Set the salmon fillet on top. Whisk the other ingredients together and pour over the salmon. Cover the pan loosely with foil and bake for 20 min. Check if the fish is done - it may need a few more minutes, but make sure you don't overbake it.

July 10, 2011

sisterly epistles

"Almost nobody it seems ever thinks — thinks deeply and intensely and in complete forgetfulness of himself — of any other person. We are all, or nearly all, of us, so centered in ourselves; we see nothing except as it touches ourselves, what its effect upon us might be. I know almost nobody who is really capable of complete forgetfulness of himself, even for a minute, in the troubles of another. — Which is why your letter, so full of thinking yourself into two other people's lives so empty of yourself, is such a lovely thing."
--Edna St. Vincent Millay's letter to her sister, Norma
Letters is a funny word. So is 'news'. News is new; a letter is letters...actually, letters, arranged into words, arranged into sentences — all of which are arranged in such a way that they are capable of bringing comfort, despair, joy. Sometimes boredom, too.

The other night when I had trouble sleeping, I dug up some old e-mails from my sister, who wrote wonderful letters to me in college. Now that we live together, we don't write to each other anymore, but sometimes I miss it. E-mails have become a bore in my life. There's nothing quite like receiving a nice, fat, juicy letter (or e-mail) from someone you care about.

A.S. Byatt wrote in Possession, "I love to see the hop and skip and sudden starts of your ink...." Maybe she and her sister (Margaret Drabble) wrote letters to each other, too. Edit: Looks like they're estranged.

June 21, 2011

string beans and jagermeister

I began each night by ordering Hunan string beans and washing them down with Jagermeister. It was amazing how many string beans I could eat: four orders, five orders, more sometimes. I could tell by the number of plastic packets of soy sauce and chopsticks included with my delivery that Fong Yu believed I was serving string beans to a party of eight or nine vegetarians. Does the chemical composition of Jagermeister cause a craving for string beans?
--A Visit From the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan ("X's and O's")
String beans and Jagermeister...gotta try that sometime. At The Strand there is a whole table of filled with Jennifer Egan's favorite books. I wish there would also be a table of her favorite foods (complete with samples!).* The passage above makes me wonder if string beans would earn a place at that table.

My parents are good at cooking a lot of things. String beans are not one of them. I didn't really start liking them until I had Nicoise salad for the first time. I had no idea that string beans could be so crisp, so fresh! I marveled at their vivid green color as I nibbled on their flesh (they were always overcooked to the point of brownness at my house).

Later I discovered the secret to making string beans is blanching them first. This one-minute step not only saves you a lot of cooking time; it also ensures that they won't end up overcooked.

One of the simplest side dishes you could ever make is string beans, onions, and mushrooms sauteed with a dash of balsamic vinegar. This is like the second holy trinity: mirepoix part deux. This is as French as I'm ever going to get.
*Don't you think Costco should consider pairing samples of authors' favorite Costco foods alongside the books they have on sale?

Onions and mushrooms - a match made in heaven for string beans.
Mirepoix de Haricot Vert
1 cup string beans
1 onion, sliced
1 cup sliced or quartered baby bella mushrooms
1 clove garlic, minced
1 tbsp balsamic vinegar
salt and pepper to taste

Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Turn the heat down to medium and drop the string beans into the pot. Let simmer for one minute. Take one out to taste test - when they taste like they're no longer raw, but still crisp, fish them out of the hot water and rinse with cold water. Set aside.

Spray a large saucepan with cooking spray and set over high heat. Add the onion, mushrooms, and garlic, and sautee until the onions are fragrant and the mushrooms look soft. Add in the drained, blanched green beans and stir in the balsamic vinegar. Season with salt and pepper, tasting along the way. Turn off the heat immediately and serve.

June 12, 2011

Nuts for Almond Blondies

Such a clear day, it's like the winter's over. Music on the radio now, waiting for the new talkers to come and take over from the old talkers who've gone away for a rest. And I'm head over heels in love already. No longer any need even to look at her. She's there in my heart. Drinking coffee. A crazy life. Like it's not me. And she's watching me and watching me like she's never seen a man eating before.
--The Lover, A.B. Yehoshua
The Lover is really good...even if you don't care about Zionism or politics. Multiple narrators, as in As I Lay Dying, but not as confusing or complex. As Yehoshua notes, even something as basic as eating can become a new experience in the presence of someone you're nuts about.

I'm pretty nuts about blondies. Unlike more temperamental desserts, it's hard to mess them up. I had made them plain, with m&ms, oats, and Nutella, but never almond-flavored. It was only a matter of time.

The following almond variation came to me as pleasantly and effortlessly as a head-over-heels sensation. What emerged from the oven is everything I imagined it would be. In fact, I'd have to say that it's my new favorite. But I've always been pretty nuts about almonds. Ha.

Nuts for Almond Blondies
1 scant cup all-purpose flour (scant = a little under)
3/4 cup almond flour
3/4 cup light brown sugar
1/4 cup sugar
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1 stick unsalted butter, melted
1 extra-large egg
1 tsp vanilla
1/4 tsp almond extract
1/4 tsp sea salt

Preheat oven to 350°F. Mix the ingredients together with a rubber spatula until smooth. Pour into a greased 8 in. square pan. Bake for 30 minutes. Chewiness factor is maximized when consumed at room temp or not too hot.

May 30, 2011

Breakfast-for-dinner salad

"Ah," Dr. Pym said, "dinner."
Except it wasn't. The dwarves were laying out stacks of butter-smeared pancakes, piles of fatty bacon, thick, cheesy meat-stuffed pies, jars of jam, marmalade, and honey, brackets of golden toast, steaming bowls of porridge, hunks of soft cheese, pyramids of plump jelly-filled donuts, and finally, a jug of what had to be hot apple cider.
"Dwarves," Dr. Pym said, "are strong proponents of breakfast for dinner, and I Must say I have grown to like the custom."
—John Stephens, The Emerald Atlas
I, too, am a strong proponent of breakfast for dinner. Eggs and/or salad are often what I eat for dinner, but I never have salad for breakfast. One night, it occurred to me that runny yolk would make a fantastic salad dressing. Thus was born the breakfast-for-dinner salad, which, I have since discovered, is also delicious for lunch.

Over Easy BLT Breakfast Salad
5 slices of turkey bacon
3 jumbo eggs
1/2 cup grated yellow or white onion
1/4 cup corn
2.5 cups shredded iceberg lettuce
1 tomato, chopped
1 tbsp spicy mustard
1 tbsp grated cheese (optional)
salt and pepper, to taste

Pan fry the bacon until crispy. Remove from pan and set aside.

Fry the eggs in the same pan in order to utilize that tasty bacon residue. Make sure you cook them over easy — the egg yolks need to be runny. Set aside.

Use the same pan to cook the grated onion and corn, until the onion is slightly caramelized. Transfer to a large salad bowl. Slice up the eggs in the bowl, letting the yolk escape. Chop the egg whites into bite-sized pieces. Tear up the bacon into small bits and toss with the eggs, shredded lettuce and tomato. Add mustard, salt and pepper, and cheese (if desired). Serve immediately, night or day.

April 18, 2011

A good pie is hard to find.

"What kind of pie?"
"Apple." Kote straightened and cut three careful slits into the crust covering the pie. "Do you know how difficult it is to make a good pie?"
"Not really," Chronicler admitted, then looked around nervously. "Where's your assistant?"
"God himself can only guess at such things," the innkeeper said. "It's quite hard. Making pies, I mean. You wouldn't think it, but there's quite a lot to the process. Bread is easy. Soup is easy. Pudding is easy. But pie is complicated. It's something you never realize until you try it for yourself."
--The Wise Man's Fear, Patrick Rothfuss

Patrick Rothfuss is an extraordinary writer. And he's right about pie: It's complicated. So many components can go awry: crust too pasty, filling too gloppy, topping too crunchy.

Enough with the zombie Jane Austen novels. What I really need to see at Barnes & Noble is the pie companion to Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man is Hard to Find," in which an escaped convict holds a grandmother at gunpoint but instead of killing her, forces her to eat a disgusting pie from Denny's. Who wouldn't want to read that, I ask.

April 5, 2011

slam dunk cookies

My office has Tasty Tuesdays — basically, The Day of the Week on Which We Gorge on Pastries. For this loveliest and tastiest of Tuesdays, I baked gingersnaps. Usually I prefer these guys to be chewy, but I've recently grown fond of dipping the crispy ones into hot beverages: coffee, tea, yerba mate, or even plain ol' hot water (sounds odd, but it's good). Like biscotti, these gingersnaps are good on their own, but get even better after a dip in the hot beverage tub. Besides, dunking is fun, and it's not just reserved for sweets. Apparently, people even soak buttered rolls into coffee! I'd like to try that sometime.
"It was empty save for an old gentleman who picked his teeth with great facial contortions and another gentleman who soaked his buttered rolls in his coffee, to Henry's fascinated pleasure, and then disposed of them in the little interval between his nose and chin. Henry did not wish to leave, but his father wanted his daily walk on the beach and thus he had to abandon his delight in observing the eating habits of the French."
The Master, Colm Toibin

Dunkable Gingersnaps
Makes 24; adapted from allrecipes

2/3 cup oil
1 cup sugar + more for dipping, later
1 large egg
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/4 cup molasses
2 cups flour
2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp ginger
pinch of salt

Preheat oven to 350° F. Whisk together the oil, sugar, egg, and vanilla extract. Stir in the molasses.

Mix the flour, baking soda, and spices together in a separate bowl, then add to the wet ingredients. Combine into a uniform dough. Pour about 1/3 cup of sugar and a pinch of salt into a shallow bowl or plate. Shape the dough into approximately two dozen tablespoon-size balls, and roll each into the sugar/salt mixture. Place the balls a few inches apart on an ungreased cookie sheet. No need to flatten the balls -- they should flatten into discs while baking.

Bake for 12 to 14 minutes, until the tops crack. Remove them from the cookie sheet and cool on a plate or rack. The cookies will appear deceivingly soft when they first come out of the oven, but in mere minutes they will harden into "snaps" that are perfect for dipping.

March 29, 2011

over well done stories

"Going into the diner, Lee and Carlos were a phalanx in themselves with their jackets and jeans and boots and belts, and I was proud to have been hungry. I ordered warrior food, and soon the waitress rendered up to me a plate of lacy-edged eggs with a hummock of potatoes and butter-stained toast, and to Lee and Carlos huge, aromatic burgers."
--"A Lesson in Traveling Light," Deborah Eisenberg
Every now and then, I like my eggs cooked over well, borderline burnt. Maybe it's because they make me think of my dad, who usually fries them in plenty of oil until the edges get crispy and lacy-edged.

Lacy-edged is a nice description for eggs, but I never thought I'd see the word "hummock" in the same sentence as "potatoes." Is it really crucial to the story? Maybe not, but it's fun. If you've never read any of Deborah Eisenberg's work, please do! I liked some of her stories so much that I forgive her for the few that I didn't like. She's also married to Wallace Shawn, playwright, voice of T-Rex in Toy Story, and — most importantly of all — the actor who portrays Blair's stepfather on Gossip Girl. Amazing.

March 23, 2011

cake therapy

Donald loved these hours himself, mostly because they seemed to dispel the oppression that stood unlifted over those years of his mother's life--and was there any reason why a lonely boy should rebel against the feeling of security that he found in the kitchen on a stormy night? She taught him how to make cookies and muffins and banana bread and, finally, a Lady Baltimore cake. It was sometimes after eleven o'clock when their work was done.
--"The Wrysons," John Cheever
Oh yes, it's true — baking is therapeutic. It makes you feel productive — and it can be extremely comforting to follow a formula that is more than likely to lead to a satisfying result, when life is either unpredictably spinning out of control or falling short of your expectations.

Lady Baltimore cake sounds delicious — it's made with lots of egg whites. It also has an interesting history, and perhaps literary origins! I also read somewhere that "Lord Baltimore" is a yellow version of this cake, made with egg yolks.

P.S. If you're plum out of eggs but in dire need of a little baking therapy, please click here to find a recipe for moist, eggless carrot cake, which I dedicate to Carson McCullers. :)

March 14, 2011

Express Noodles

"There was the smell of warm grass that day, all these years later she could still smell the warm grass." --The South, Colm Toibin
Ah, could I lay me down in this long grass
And close my eyes, and let the quiet wind
Blow over me--I am so tired, so tired
Of Passing pleasant places! All my life...
--"Journey," Edna St. Vincent Millay
Ever since I was small, I've had a recurring dream in which I'm lazing about in a field of sunny, warm grass. Between the rain and the cold, the closest I've gotten to a grass-like object of late is, sadly, a scallion.

To me, noodles and scallions go together like bread and butter. My first "real" job was at Panda Express, and the only item I still crave from time to time is their chow mein, which always had plenty of crunchy cabbage sprinkled throughout its perfectly cooked noodles. In the past, whenever I made it at home, the noodles never turned out right — they morphed into horrifically gloppy, unappetizing segments. Quite the travesty. I thought it was because I couldn't get my stove hot enough, but now I know why: I was using the wrong sort of noodles.

But then I discovered fresh lo mein noodles in the refrigerated section of the Asian supermarket. It was an epiphany, akin to realizing that the love of your life has been right under your nose all along. (OK, not quite that dramatic, but still.) It turns out that fresh noodles are much bouncier and more "Q" (a prized texture in Chinese cuisine. I really don't know how to translate it, texturally delicious). Another great thing about them: they cook in only 30–40 seconds! Truly express noodles. Recipe follows.

Chow Mein Express
*serves 3 hungry people
1 package fresh lo mein noodles
3 eggs
1 tomato, cut into wedges
1 clove garlic, minced
1/2 a head of cabbage, chopped
1/2 onion, chopped
2 scallions, sliced or segmented
10-12 shrimp, cooked until just pink
1/2 bunch spinach, rinsed
2 handfuls of bean sprouts, rinsed and dried
Soy sauce, to taste
Sriracha sauce, to taste

Set a large pot of water on high heat. While you're waiting for that to come to a boil, beat the eggs in a bowl and scramble in a large skillet. Add in the tomato, garlic, cabbage, onion, and scallions and stir.

The water should be boiling by now. Plop in your fresh noodles and break them up a little with a pair of chopsticks. Keeping the stove on high heat, taste test a noodle after about 30 seconds. The noodle should taste done or nearly done. You want it to retain a little bounce, kind of like al dente but bouncy rather than firm. Al bounce? Ha.

Fish out the noodles and drain them. Run cold water over them if you're extra paranoid that you overcooked them. Add a drizzle of sesame oil if desired before transfering them into the skillet with the vegetables. Add the shrimp, spinach, and bean sprouts, and season with soy sauce and sriracha, if you like things spicy. Stir fry the spinach just wilts, and serve immediately.

March 3, 2011

xoxo, graham greene

Sinking deeply into a GG addiction. Not Gossip Girl...Graham Greene. This week, he not only taught me what a damson was, but also provided a much-needed reminder that any life we imagine outside of our own consciousness is purely that: imagined.
Ordinary life — the two hours in court on a perjury case — had the unreality of a country one is leaving for ever. One thinks, At this hour, in that village, these people I once knew are sitting down at table just as they did a year ago when I was there, but one is not convinced that any life goes on the same as ever outside the consciousness.
--The Heart of the Matter

"If indeed she had only been a stepmother to me, did I still want to place her ashes among my dahlias? While I washed up my lunch I was sorely tempted to wash out the urn as well into the sink. It would serve very well for the homemade jam which I was promising myself to make next year — a man in retirement must have his hobbies if he is not to age too fast — and the urn would have looked quite handsome on the tea table. It was a little sombre, but a sombre jar was well suited for damson jelly or for blackberry-and-apple jam."
--Travels With My Aunt
Travels With My Aunt is quite humorous. I wonder which takes more writing chops: comedy or tragedy? (I think comedy.) Shakespeare was a master of both. It's becoming clear to me that Greene was, too.

February 23, 2011

let's read s'more graham

Is it possible to fall in love over a dish of onions? It seems improbable and yet I could swear it was just then that I fell in love. It wasn't, of course, simply the onions — it was that sudden sense of an individual woman, of a frankness that was so often later to make me happy and miserable. I put my hand under the cloth and laid it on her knee, and her hand came down and held mine in place. I said, "It's a good steak," and heard like poetry her reply, "It's the best I've ever eaten."
--The End of the Affair, Graham Greene
A writer worthy of his name (it rolls off the tongue so very nicely!). The Heart of the Matter is up next; I've always loved that title.

February 16, 2011

gluttonous, glutinous rice balls

"Yes, the only people in the world whom it seems to me the Jews are not afraid of are the Chinese. Because, one, the way they speak English makes my father sound like Lord Chesterfield; two, the insides of their heads are just so much fried rice anyway; and three, to them we are not Jews but white--and maybe even Anglo-Saxon. Imagine!"
--Portnoy's Complaint, Philip Roth
Well, Jewish and Chinese people have at least one thing in common: mahjong. My first Philip Roth experience has been semisweet (a good quality in fine chocolate, but not, unfortunately, in books). More specifically, I find him semi-entertaining, semi-annoying. This book reminds me of a cross between Harold Brodkey and Chaim Potok, but a watered-down version of each.

I have no idea if Jewish people enjoy eating glutinous rice balls, but I certainly do. If you've never had them before, the Lantern Festival (Feb. 17 this year) gives you an excuse to try them...and if you're like me, soon you'll be clamoring after them year-round.

I recently discovered the secret to improving the texture: use equal parts of sweet rice flour and regular rice flour. Rice flour is used in pan-fried turnip cakes (yum!) but it really helps make a difference in these glutinous rice balls. In the past I'd only used sweet/glutinous rice flour to make these, and the dough was either too sticky or too dry. The combination of sweet rice flour and rice flour really results in a dough that has a wonderful consistency. I also picked up a technique from a street vendor in Taiwan last year: rolling the dough into logs and then divvying up the logs into equal-sized bits. They look a little like pillow mints, don't they?

Glutinous Rice Balls/Tangyuan (湯圓)
1/2 cup sweet rice flour + 1/2 cup regular rice flour
Hot water
1 tbsp granulated sugar (optional)

Bring a pot of water to a boil. Combine the sweet rice flour, rice flour, and sugar in a bowl. Add hot water a tablespoon at a time, mixing with chopsticks, until the dough is not sticky but also not dry. It should be moist to the touch, without being sticky. If you accidentally add too much water, just add more of the rice flour and sweet rice flour, in equal parts.

Roll the dough into thin logs and cut into evenly sized, pillow-mint-like shapes. You can roll the shapes into balls, if you want, or leave them in their pillow-mint shapes, which lends a rustic quality that I personally quite like. Alternatively, you can also roll the dough into larger discs and stuff them with black sesame powder, red bean paste, or peanuts, and then wrap them up like dumplings.

Drop the balls into the pot of boiling water. When they float, they're done. Fish them out and consume immediately, with plain sugar water or red bean soup. They're also especially tasty with shaved ice and fruit.

February 13, 2011

the best love letter

"There is very little evidence that [Rilke] was interested in breakfasts (except for one occasion when he first discovered in 1901 a California health food — Quaker Oats — and enthusiastically sent a packet to his future wife, with the recipe: Boil water, add oats)."
--from Robert Hass's intro to The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke
Hahaha. It amuses me to picture Rilke sending this to his future wife. Who needs poetry when you have oats?

In all seriousness, though, if someone mailed me a packet of oats (complete with flawless instructions), I'd probably consider marrying him, too.

February 5, 2011

Window watchers

"...If this hadn't happened, who could understand why in the end you refused to go away from the window, obstinate as you always were? You wanted to see the people passing by; for the thought had occurred to you that someday you might make something out of them, if you decided to begin."
--The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, Rainer Maria Rilke
One thing I've always loved about Manhattan is that there is always something or someone to observe; better yet, everything is so squished together that you don't have to travel very far to see lots of different things.

I took this photo during my first visit to the city. It's been almost 4 years since then, but the image of this woman sticks with me to this day, and I don't even know her. Imagine what you or I could make out of her, if only, as Rilke said, we decided to begin.

February 3, 2011

Honk if you like roast goose!

He's got it right now for sure — and, sitting there at one of the white Formica tables, Cantonese pop songs oozing and occasionally distorting from an undersized speaker, you know it, too. In fact, you're pretty goddamn sure this is the best roast goose on the whole planet. Nobody is eating goose better than you at this precise moment. Maybe in the whole history of the world there has never been a better goose. Ordinarily, you don't know if you'd go that far describing a dish — but now, with that ethereal goose fat dribbling down your chin, the sound of perfectly crackling skin playing inside your head to an audience of one, hyperbole seems entirely appropriate.
--Medium Raw, Anthony Bourdain
Anthony Bourdain is a much better writer than I thought he would be. I highly recommend his book — even if you hate watching him on TV, he's not so bad in print. And his stellar description of roast goose makes me want to try it again.

I had a roast goose once. My dad heard about a place that supposedly served Hong-Kong-style roast goose, and since he's obsessed with goose meat, I knew what was coming...

We started combing the streets without many details to go on. Things got so dire that at one point I mused that we were literally on a wild goose chase.

At last, we found the place (pictured at left - the red sign). The goose roasters were a couple from Macau — and highly bemused as to why a family would come all the way from America to try their roast goose. I personally didn't find it preferable to roast duck (which is much easier to find), but maybe I just need to find another goose-roasting establishment. Either way, cheers to A. Bourdain and other goose lovers everywhere. And Happy New Year.

January 30, 2011

Ampersands & Pancakes

"They ate the buckwheat cakes with butter and Log Cabin syrup out of a tin Log Cabin can. The top of the chimney unscrewed and the syrup poured from the chimney. They were both very hungry and the cakes were delicious with the butter melting on them and running down into the cut places with the syrup."
--"The Last Good Country," Ernest Hemingway
It's a shame that this story was left unfinished. But it also left me craving something besides an ending: pancakes. And so, it seemed, there was only one reasonable thing to do: get to making some, stat.

Considering that (1) the tastiness level of Hemingway's plain buckwheat pancakes appeared to be highly correlated with the amount of Log Cabin syrup poured on top, but (2) I had no such Log Cabin syrup on hand, I decided to recreate an old favorite that would be delicious on its own, no syrup required: M&M pancakes.

I'm mystified as to why M&M pancakes haven't swept the nation yet. Alarmingly, a search for M&M pancakes on allrecipes yields 0 results. Unacceptable! Even worse, when I ask people if they like M&M pancakes, I'm invariably surprised that they're surprised that such a thing exists. Why this simple and delicious concept hasn't caught on with more pancake lovers everywhere is beyond me. On the fun and taste scales, they're leaps and bounds beyond chocolate chip pancakes.

I was lucky enough to encounter my first M&M pancake as an undergraduate at UCLA. You could only find them at one of the four dining halls on Tuesday mornings before 11 a.m. The thing was, you might show up at the right time, and they wouldn't appear — but most weeks they would. Those pancakes, and my equally enthusiastic morning dining companion, made Tuesday breakfasts the highlight of many a week.

Since UCLA colors are blue and gold, all it took was a bit of sorting to create school-spirited pancakes. I'd like to dedicate tonight's pancakes (which I had for dinner, on a Sunday...) to the culinary genius at Rieber dining hall who first introduced me to their greatness.

Ampersand Pancakes (M&M or Cinnamon&Oat)
Dry Ingredients
-1 cup flour
-2 tsp baking powder
-1/2 tsp salt

Wet Ingredients
-1 cup vanilla soy milk (or cow's milk)
-2 tbsp melted unsalted butter
-1 egg

And lastly, either:
-Dark Chocolate or regular M&Ms (amount dependent upon intensity of chocolate craving)
or, for the Cinnamon & Oat variation:
-1/2 cup quick-cooking oats
-dash of ground cinnamon
-brown sugar, to taste

Mix dry ingredients in a medium bowl. Whisk the wet ingredients in a large bowl until combined, then whisk in the dry ingredients until most of the lumps are gone.

Lightly grease a nonstick skillet and set to medium-high heat. Test the heat by sprinkling a drop of water in the pan; if it sizzles right away, it's ready. Spoon the batter into the pan and then gently spread the batter in a circular motion with the back of a large spoon. Sprinkle M&Ms (as many or as few as you like) on the surface of the pancake. When bubbles rise to the surface of the pancake and begin popping, it's ready to flip. Cook for an additional 1-2 minutes on the other side until both sides are golden brown and the inside no longer seems doughy. Continue making more pancakes in the same fashion. This recipe yields about 6-7 large pancakes.

Cinnamon & Oat variation:
-Prepare the batter the same way as the M&M pancakes, but as the last step, add in 1/2 cup of quick-cook oats and a dash of cinnamon before spooning out the batter into the pan. Crumble some brown sugar on one side of the pancake as it cooks in the pan before flipping over.

January 20, 2011

Oat(e)s rule(s)

She was panting. The kitchen looked like a place she had never seen before, some room she had run inside but that wasn't good enough, wasn't going to help her. The kitchen window had never had a curtain, after three years, and there were dishes in the sink for her to do—probably—and if you ran your hand across the table you'd probably feel something sticky there.

I've long had a case of last-name envy when it came to J.C. Oates, but this was the first story of hers I ever read. Not only was it fantastically suspenseful, but it also reminded me (in a good way) of Flannery O'Connor. Not an easy feat! I'll definitely be checking out more of the Oates.

But moving on to the other (and for the time being, more beloved) kind of oats, I recently finished Stefan Merrill Block's The Story of Forgetting, and I think what propelled me to keep reading (at least at first) was the fact that he mentioned oatmeal a couple times in the first few chapters. Maybe I'm the only freak who notices these things, but's funny how certain types of food can repeatedly slip into one's writing. Unless oatmeal is some sort of literary device/symbol? Nah...that can't be it.

January 9, 2011

Californian Yogurt Cake

I was ten years old now, up into the double numbers, where I would likely remain till I died. I am awake now forever, I thought suddenly; I have converged with myself in the present. My hands were icy from holding Kidnapped up; I always read lying down. I felt time in full stream, and I felt consciousness in full stream joining it, like the rivers.
--An American Childhood, Annie Dillard
It was around the time I was approaching double digits that I found out we were moving to California — a frightening prospect, especially after my friends informed me that Californians only ate nonfat yogurt. Of course, this was a horrible distortion of the truth, but my impressionable young mind didn't know any better...and to this day, plain yogurt still makes me think of the stereotypical Californian health freak.

Maybe that's why I've never considered yogurt cake a true dessert — and it does tend to lie on the innocent end of the spectrum, as far as cakes go. To further play with this idea, I decided to make a "Californian" version of Dorie Greenspan's French Yogurt Cake by implementing a few healthy tweaks (less oil, more yogurt, and raisins, which are essentially grapes, which are incredibly antioxidant-rich, no?). In the end, I think this cake turned out to be the best yogurt cake I've ever made (and certainly superior to Ina Garten's lemon yogurt cake — a respectable pastry, but a tad too dense, dry, and citrusy for this Californian's taste buds).

"Californian" Yogurt Cake
Adapted from Dorie Greenspan's French Yogurt Cake recipe
1 cup flour
1/2 cup almond flour
2 tsp baking powder
pinch of salt
1 cup sugar
3/4 cup low-fat plain yogurt
3 eggs
1 tsp vanilla
1/4 tsp almond extract
1/4 cup canola oil
1/2 cup golden raisins

Grease a loaf pan and set aside. Preheat oven to 350 °F.

Whisk together the flour, almond flour, baking powder, and salt in a medium bowl and set aside. In a large bowl, whisk together the sugar, yogurt, eggs, and extracts. Combine until very smooth. Add the dry ingredients and mix; fold in the oil and raisins last and mix until thick and glossy.

Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake for 45-50 minutes.